Pat Conroy's Lowcountry

Mark Sandlin
The water, sand, and salt air of Beaufort County captured this writer's heart and fueled his fiction.

On this fine day, as warm as a good memory, I cross over to the last island in the Lowcountry to meet the man who wrote my favorite sentence in the Southern language. Pat Conroy, living in Europe and homesick for his beloved South Carolina Lowcountry, began The Prince of Tides with four words as elegantly succinct as a sea's horizon and as complex as the twist of a marsh creek: "My wound is geography." Then he added, "It is also my anchorage, my port of call."

I've come down from my home in the hills to gather words about his geography. It includes his alma mater in Charleston, The Citadel; Daufuskie Island, where he taught in a two-room school; Beaufort; and across the Beaufort River, the Sea Islands that step out into the Atlantic. The last one is Fripp, where he lives in a comfortable book- and art-filled home with his wife, novelist Cassandra King, whom he refers to as "the nicest woman on Earth."

While taking photographer Mark Sandlin and me on a tour of Beaufort, this gifted man seems at peace and as modest as the Buick LeSabre he drives. Since the 1960s, the author, now 58 years old, and his Lowcountry have loved, hurt, and healed each other. In his writing, an often-violent home life was villain, but the land was always hero. Pat's works defined his geography as a national treasure, and the power of his words lured thousands of readers to visit. Many returned with moving vans. In the past decade, Beaufort County has grown by 39% with newcomers and returning natives whose hearts beat with the pulse of tides through marsh and pluff mud.

"I love the marsh," Pat says, nodding towards a sweep of spartina grass. "I don't know of any place that smells like this. It's a magnificent smell. It's the smell of where all life comes from. I love that all shrimp, all crab, all oysters are born in the marsh."

Past and present times wash across these islands. Road signs advertise "condos," "spas," "golf," and other words in the new coastal lexicon of leisure. In the fields and skies, however, you can see and hear the Lowcountry of times gone by. Whites and blacks of old island families still fish, crab, search for shrimp, and farm fields of tomatoes and cantaloupes. Overhead, jets rumble from the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, one of the area's three military installations, including the Naval Hospital and Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot. They contribute $454 million to the annual economy.

To this Lowcountry Pat arrived in 1961 at age 15, the son of a marine fighter pilot and "a child from nowhere," as he calls himself. "When I got to Beaufort, I wanted a home so badly. I latched onto this town like a barnacle."

A Day With Pat
We cross the river to Bay Street, which once sold only what townspeople needed. Now boutiques offer what tourists want--art, antiques, designer fashions, fine dining, and books. Around a bend, magnificent antebellum homes face the water, their elegant verandas cooled by three centuries of river breezes.

Pat turns into The Point, a neighborhood thick with greenery and venerable houses along narrow lanes roofed with live oak limbs. As he drives, he describes each place as if it were a paragraph of his biography.

"My physics teacher lived here. She caught me egging her car at graduation.

"This little park is The Green. My father got drunk one night and beat up my mother. I went out looking for him and found him passed out here.

"I ran away from The Citadel my first night as a freshman and spent the night in this house. My English teacher, Gene Norris, made me go back to Charleston.

"My mother lived here during the Vietnam War. She gave me a party for my first book, The Boo. We sold 70 copies.

"During the filming of The Great Santini, Blythe Danner stayed here with her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, who was then 3."

He points out the cinder block apartment where he lived when he returned from The Citadel, and then pauses at the two-story, 19th-century house where he wrote The Water Is Wide, about his year as a schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island. In 1976, responding to "something deep set in military brats to keep moving," Pat left for his native Atlanta, then to Rome, Italy, and San Francisco. In his writing, however, he never left the Lowcountry. During that time, he penned The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. These novels, and the movies made from them, were adored or reviled by residents and Citadel alumni.

"Here's the big guy," he says in the Beaufort National Cemetery, as we pause at the graves of his father, Donald Patrick Conroy, and his mother, Frances M. Peek Conroy. Late in the afternoon, we stop at the home of Julia Randel, the mother of Randy, Pat's best friend in high school. Soon she pulls out a poem, "In Memoriam to a Dear and Cherished Friend," and claims it as "the first thing Pat ever wrote." The young Conroy composed it after Randy died suddenly while they were playing in a high school baseball game. Pat gives Mrs. Randel a birthday present, and we chat over iced tea before driving back to Fripp.

I had asked for an hour of his time, and he gave us a day in the Lowcountry he loves. "I take people on a tour now, and my whole life flashes before me," Pat says. "This is the first town that ever seemed like home to me."

Lowcountry Home
Beaufort makes it so easy to step into the swell and ebb of daily life that newcomers feel like natives. I awaken to stone-ground grits and local gossip at Blackstone's Café; comb the quiet beaches at Hunting Island State Park; visit Penn Center National Historic Landmark, where freedmen learned to read; and have a shrimp burger for lunch on the breezy porch at The Shrimp Shack.

I like to doze in the drifting afternoon, listening to the hoofbeats of carriage tours on the streets outside, striking the pavement like the ticktock of time long ago. Then, at day's end, I sit with coffee and at Firehouse Books & Espresso Bar and covet the classified offerings in "Homes for Sale." It's so tempting to ponder a life along these sea- and jasmine-scented streets. My neighbors would be marines, natives, and newcomers (mostly from the North and Midwest) who feel some lunar tug to these shores.

"Whenever I needed a really good cry, I would get down my Beaufort yearbook from the attic," remarks Stephanie Edwards. Feeling at home for the first time, she was also a military child who went to high school with Pat. Then, just before her senior year, her dad was ordered elsewhere. The wound of that lost Beaufort year never healed.

When she retired from a theater career in New York, she felt that yearn for these shores. "I had a far stronger connection than I remembered," she says. "Just the way of the people here invited me back. That was something I needed desperately--to be in a place where I was wanted."

Barbara Creed feels that too. The wife of Major Scott Creed, a marine aviator who grew up here, the Ohio native says many marine families prefer Beaufort over larger, more exciting duty stations such as San Diego. "Beaufort is small, it's family oriented, and it's safe," she says. "There's a lot more to do in California, but this is a home place."

On the Wide Water to Daufuskie
For many natives, this home place moves with the tides' own sweet time. In some areas, it still takes a boat ride to reach Pat Conroy's Lowcountry. Mark and I accompany Sallie Ann Robinson, a nurse on the mainland, in crossing over to her native Daufuskie Island. Thirty-five years after Pat taught Sallie in the island's two-room schoolhouse, he wrote the foreword to her book, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. "In my heart he goes so deep," Sallie says. "He made learning so much fun that it was fascinating."

As "comeyahs," the island term for visitors, we find on Daufuskie thick forests and sand lanes, but also paved roads, second homes, and two golf resorts. Daufuskie time has always tangled like vines in this island underbrush. In the 1960s, Sallie lived a 19th-century childhood in a loving family. She hoed corn, banked potatoes, and helped her mother and grandmother prepare traditional dishes such as a long pot, a stew that simmered all day on the woodstove.

"People used to say, 'You're too young to know all those things,' " she remarks, as we pause before her grandmother's deserted house. "And I would say, 'Not when you're from Daufuskie. Just across the river is another world over here, and it is paradise.' "

Henry Chisholm tried life in the other world of Miami but returned to his native St. Helena Island as a fisher of men and shrimp. A minister, he holds night services that often stretch until midnight. By 4 a.m. he is up again, pointing his boat Little Amber, named for his daughter, out to sea.

Despite high fuel costs and a flood of cheap, imported shrimp, Henry still sails into sunrise. With outriggers spread like wings, he lets down his nets and gives thanks for an island life. "On the water, it seems like you are so close to God," he says quietly. "It seems you can almost touch Him. That is one of the joys that the ocean brings."

Back to The Citadel
Later, Pat travels north to show us the boy he used to be in the long, gray line of The Citadel. Before one of the school's Friday afternoon parades, we follow him across campus, where cadets break out in big grins and say "sir" to the man who fought a long civil war with his alma mater. School officials, students, and alumni first exploded over his brutal depiction of cadet life in his novel The Lords of Discipline, and then again for his public support of admitting females. Finally, author and school made peace. In 2001, Pat gave the commencement address. Its title, "I Wear the Ring," is also the first sentence of his letter that goes out to all freshmen.

"Here's what The Citadel gave to me," he tells one group of cadets. "My whole life I would think: Would I rather have my father die or be back here as a plebe in Romeo Company? I would rather have my father die. Would I like to have my dog die? Sorry, I'll miss you, Chippie. It was so tough, so hard for me to get through personally, that it has given me great perspective my whole life. Nothing has been as bad, ever."

As a cadet and an "away" (what born-and-bred Charlestonians call non-natives), Pat walked these streets and dreamed of living in one of these venerable homes. Now he knows his work would suffer around the clink and chatter of Charleston society. "The people of Fripp Island are very nice to me. They leave me alone and let me write," Pat says later, back in his bedroom/office.

In 1992, after nearly 20 years away, he returned, alone, to his geography--for him, this place most tender to the hurt and healing touch of memory. Twice a day, he swam in the warm salt water to soothe a badly injured back. Seated at his large, elegant desk in a chair the size of a throne, he finished his novel Beach Music; wrote My Losing Season, a tribute to his college basketball teammates; and, most recently both at desk and in kitchen, created The Pat Conroy Cookbook.

Currently, he is working on a novel about Charleston. Each morning, he has coffee with friends at T.T. Bones, the island's version of a general store, and then writes until late afternoon, filling five legal sheets on a good day.

While he keeps a writer's solitude, his Lowcountry will gather for oyster roasts in the coming cool months. Farmers and soldiers, shrimpers and townspeople, black and white--all pry open shells and tip the contents onto their tongues, as if toasting this land of scented tides and stories.

"When people say, 'I came here because of your books,' I feel guilty. I had no idea it would come to this," Pat comments, smiling. "But I don't blame people for wanting to move here. When my daughter and her husband moved to Charleston, I told them, 'You are going to give my grandchildren the most fabulous gift you can give them--a Lowcountry upbringing.' "

Pat urges Mark and me to stay longer. Yes! It's so tempting to spend the full moon of life here--to awaken to the sough of surf; to part damask curtains for a glimpse of yesterday; to watch the script of marsh creek darken from sunset amber to ink.

No. I am a "comeyah." I am an "away." Daufuskie is too distant, and old fluted columns and new gated neighborhoods are too rich for my blood. Besides, the Lowcountry, simmering like a long pot, will taste even better the next time. So I turn from the marsh, face my home in the hard red hills, and leave the Lowcountry to the one who loves it best--this fine writer, this good man, this prince of tides.

Explore Pat Conroy's Lowcountry
Depending on how much time you take, you can fit Pat Conroy's Lowcountry into the short story of a weekend or the novel of a longer, more leisurely stay. First, however, check with the Marines.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island near Beaufort holds graduation ceremonies for new Marines about 43 times a year. Families arrive on Wednesdays and often stay until Friday afternoon, filling many rooms. Before you go, check the schedule. For more information call (843) 228-3650.

You may want to start your journey in Charleston for the Friday afternoon parade at The Citadel. Arrive early, tour the campus, and settle back for this traditional parade. The cadets still wear their white-and-gray summer uniforms this time of year, as they march to bagpipe and band music. For more information call 1-800-868-1842, or visit www.citadel.edu.

Where To Stay
Leaving Charleston, you'll arrive in Beaufort in early evening. For accommodations, you'll find several inns clustered in neighborhoods near downtown. Beaufort Inn ($145-$350), at 809 Port Republic Street, spreads through a Victorian house and spills into adjacent cottages with delightful front porches. Its restaurant offers a warm, quiet dining experience with upscale foods and Lowcountry specialties such as shrimp and grits. You'll need dining reservations. Visit www.beaufortinn.com, or call (843) 521-9000.

Rooms are large and ceilings soar in the Cuthbert House Inn ($145-$265), 1203 Bay Street, a circa-1790 landmark framed by palmettos and tall live oaks. Across the street spread the wide waters of the Beaufort Bay. A full breakfast for guests is served in the downstairs dining room. Call (843) 521-1315, or visit www.cuthberthouseinn.com.

The Rhett House Inn ($145-$325), housed in an 1820s landmark at 1009 Craven Street, also serves a full breakfast. Guests also love the wide, breezy verandas, which wrap two floors with white, fluted columns and wicker furniture, where afternoon tea and evening cocktails are served. Visit www.rhetthouseinn.com, or call (843) 524-9030.

Chain lodging is clustered north of downtown. Try Hampton Inn ($85-$129) at 2342 Boundary Street. Check out www.hamptoninn.com, or call (843) 986-0600.

Shrimp, Then Grits
For dinner, pick a restaurant on the river side of Bay Street. Saltus River Grill feels contemporary and elegant in both its seafood and furnishings. You can also dine outside and watch nightfall on the Beaufort River. Many diners love the restaurant's Carolina Rice and Shrimp Pilau ($23).

A smaller restaurant, Plums, also located on Bay Street, often fills with a young, convivial crowd. Try the lump blue crab cakes, homemade soups, and pastas.

The next morning, order stone-ground grits with breakfast at Blackstone's Café. Then get your bearings at one of two visitors centers at 1106 Carteret Street and at downtown's historic John Mark Verdier House at 801 Bay Street. You can tour the Verdier House, built around 1805, as well as the nearby Beaufort Museum, located in the 1795 Beaufort Arsenal at 713 Craven Street, and the home of the Historic Beaufort Foundation.

Let a Horse Be Your Tour Guide
Next, step aboard a carriage to wind through these venerable neighborhoods at a 19th-century pace. Tickets are available from Carolina Buggy Tours at 1002 Bay Street, and cost $16 for adults, $7 for ages 6-12. Call (843) 525-1300.

You can also just walk. Stroll by the magnificent homes along Bay Street, angled to catch the breezes. Small, quiet streets in The Point neighborhood, where Pat once lived, are lined with three centuries of homes and riotous greenery.

Galleries, boutiques, and three great bookstores fill downtown. One of them, Bay Street Trading Company, stocks Southern and South Carolina works as well as volumes by Pat and his wife, Cassandra King. If you're looking for first editions of his earlier works (some sell in the hundreds and thousands of dollars) as well as other rare and used volumes, stop by McIntosh Book Shoppe, also on Bay Street. Patrons of Firehouse Books & Espresso Bar, located at 706 Craven, read, sip coffees, and munch pastries on indoor and outdoor seating in this delightfully renovated fire station.

Across the River
Cross the Beaufort River for lunch and spend the afternoon along U.S. 21. Vistas of marsh spread along the roads, and bridges step from one island to another, all the way to Pat's home on Fripp. Just across the river from Beaufort you'll find L.T.'s, where you may savor specials of shrimp and brown gravy and other Lowcountry favorites. Farther east on 21, cars pack the sand parking lot of The Shrimp Shack, owned by Hilda Upton. Pat loves Hilda's shrimp burgers and often takes his guests for lunch on the breezy screened porch.

Later, spend a few hours along the surf at Hunting Island State Park, crowned by an old lighthouse. Then, on St. Helena Island, visit Penn Center National Landmark, founded to help former slaves step into freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often relaxed here and planned the next steps of the Civil Rights movement. There's delightful shopping nearby. Local art, much of it by African American artists, is on sale at Red Piano Gallery.

Back in Beaufort, end the day (or begin the next) with coffee and pastries at Firehouse. (It's also open for lunch.) For dinner, drive into Port Royal to the 11th Street Dockside Restaurant.

Down to Daufuskie
You'll need a day to visit this island, where both paved and sand roads cut through tall forests and pause at second homes and small golf resorts. Several companies offer tours, among them Daufuskie Island Adventures. Its boat, Vagabond, departs from Harbour Town Marina on Hilton Head Island at 9 a.m. for water and land tours of the island. It returns at noon. Cost is $45 adults, $25 ages 3-12. Call (843) 842-4155.

Where To See Pat Conroy
He keeps a writer's solitude on Fripp Island, but you may spot him in a few places. He and Cassandra occasionally appear downtown to sign books at Bay Street Trading Company and at Firehouse Books & Espresso Bar. On many mornings, he drops in for coffee and conversation at T.T. Bones, Fripp Island's all-purpose grocery store and small bookshop. To visit the island, you must be a resort guest or the guest of a homeowner. Visit www.frippislandresort.com, or call 1-800-845-4100 for reservations.

Good Times To Go
Beaufort tastes best in the cool months, when oyster roasts dot the calendar. Many churches and other organizations hold fund-raisers by serving the oysters heated over wood fires. Historic Beaufort Foundation, for example, holds its oyster roast fund-raiser each January.

Coming soon you can enjoy Beaufort Shrimp Festival, October 8-9, as well as the Fall Festival of Houses & Gardens, October 22-24. Penn Center holds its annual Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration on November 11, when many Veterans Day activities also color Beaufort in red, white, and blue. On November 26, the river dazzles with the Light Up the Night Holiday Boat Parade.

Spring garden walks and tours of homes highlight March and April. A Taste of Beaufort (early May), Memorial Day's Gullah Festival, and the 10-day Water Festival in July highlight spring and summer calendars.

For More Information
There is much more to see in this part of the Lowcountry. Contact the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, 1106 Carteret Street, Beaufort, SC 29901; (843) 986-5400, 1-800-638-3525.

This article is from the September 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.

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