A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE ENDS IN THE REAL SOUTH
Having worn out the old route from Hilton Head Island, where I grew up, to college in Charleston along S.C. 17, it was only a matter of time before I started taking detours. “Into the exit zone” I would call it — the deep, green South. In just a few years of taking this route, I saw the old South recede under the pressures of development. The highway expanded, displacing an old, painfully nostalgic Texaco station, and my search for the essence of what was left grew ever more urgent. Overgrown in kudzu, the barns would speak to me. Shrouded by oaks, the darker the road, the better. And it was on one of these countless forays that I chanced upon the bridge to nowhere.
Dreamlike but definitely real, this place held me in its thrall, so much so that on a recent visit home from New York City, I decided to rediscover the mystical bridge that practically dissolves into swamp. Before setting off to find it, I scoured the internet for clues, filling my search bar with countless combinations of “bridge, cut-off, swamp, Jasper County.” I read the one article that mentioned it, and learned the bridge lay along a route dating back to Colonial times. Apparently George Washington wore out his wagon’s wheels on this very roadbed only 226 years ago. It seemed a sliver of the South that time forgot. I remembered a girl had been murdered and her body tossed there; had I just made this up, a myth to go with the mystique?
The next morning I woke early, grabbed a borrowed camera and drove a borrowed SUV into the first assignment of my unrequited photo-journalism career. I struck out via familiar U.S. 278, or Fording Island Road as nobody calls it anymore, past Okatie, over the Interstate 95 overpass to Hardeeville. Then I pulled a hard right onto S.C. 321. I drove over railroad tracks, past dagger-steepled one-room churches. To the left and right lay pine plantations I used to mistake for natural forest. Southern expats like to refer to these rows of cultivated trees as “the woods” by default. The whole time I was thinking, “Someone lives here.” Easy to miss, like some secret platform between train platforms, because there is no exit sign for the Old Charleston Highway. Unmarked, it’s the sole domain of the logging truck driver, or a part-time writer with a strange obsession. Well, there was one sign, and it read: “POSTED. NO TRESPASSING. OKEETEE CLUB.”
Established in the late 1800s and comprising over 50,000 acres, Okeetee is a secretive hunting club for mostly Northern millionaires who can afford to protect these lands, harvest timber selectively, and support an older, more pure, form of quail hunting, details of which are lost on me. The place even has its own sub-species of snake called the Okatie corn snake, as alarmingly orange as it is harmless, and along with it, a cult-like following of snake hunters. No joke.
I rumbled deeper into the grounds, pines to the right and left in varying degrees of age and density, past a huge swath cut unnervingly straight from the Savannah River nuclear plant. Like as if a giant had a razor. For the first time, I stepped out of the car, its underbelly dusty already, and scanned the panorama of abandoned, rusty cranes and trucks — like a young boy’s life-sized play set left outside too long.
I kept driving through the sea of pines, which were much thicker now, but still in neatly planted rows now apparent to my trained eye. Here and there, a patch would approach where the wild pattern defied human will. And here and there, a rectangular patch was cut out as if by Ctrl-X. It was then I passed over a mysterious river.
Once again, I stepped out the car, observing that it was manmade, a canal manicured on both sides. Looking more closely, I discovered two rivers running alongside this one, seemingly overgrown, wilder. Were they kept alongside the manicured aqueduct for the fishes, reeds and dragonflies? Later study revealed this was the very same water we drink in Beaufort County, transported by channel all the way from the Savannah River. Who ever stops to observe it? Or even knows it’s there?
After driving some five miles, the pines grew unbearably thick until they were superseded by hardwoods. Towering cypress and tupelos began to crop up and choke the sunlight. The dirt road sloped onto a concrete bridge and then dissolved quite literally into swamp. I stepped out of the car. There was nowhere left to drive. The bridge had simply never been finished. Sounds here were muffled and unfamiliar birds sang. I heard a mournful “hoo” and several melodies flowing crisply off the black water. The BMW’s metal chassis paled against a thousand shades of green bespeckled by sunlight. How long would it have to sit here until it was swallowed by vegetation? How many years would it take the tires to deflate, the frame to rust, the vines to pierce each crevice? How many years until plants died over and over to form enough soil to reach the cockpit floor, letting small beetles rummage near the gas pedal?
I wandered over the bridge and watched the water hint at movement through the ripples on its skin. The silence was so thick that thoughts rebounded in my brain and I had to quiet them. The silence wasn’t silence after all, but merely a lack of the sound I had become accustomed to living in New York City, the constant hum of engines, even the white noise of the highway.
No, there were plenty of sounds here: the rustle of branches, the wind against the leaves, and almost imperceptibly, the gurgle of black water whose slow speed I could only discern by leaves floating on its surface. Camera in hand, I walked deftly across a thin wooden plank over the water to the other side.
Human articles were scattered here and there: crushed beer cans, a pack of cigarettes, a wilted plastic bag. They seemed so alien against this backdrop that I observed them with an almost archaeological curiosity. Standing on a broken leg, a sign read “ROAD ENDS” and over it, graffiti implored “SAVE THE SWAMP.” Bumblebees scuttled between flowers in the high spring, and I could be imagining this but I swear I remember a water snake swimming downstream. Deeper into the transitional pine grove neighboring the swamp, I sat upon a fallen log. Cypress trees bathed in the murk, their knees poking out like doorknobs whose true purpose is still unknown. Woodpeckers knocked in the distance. Thoughts wandered until words completely lost traction. There were no words for this.