Pat Conroy's Lowcountry

The water, sand, and salt air of Beaufort County captured this writer's heart and fueled his fiction.
Gary D. Ford
Pat Conroy's Lowcountry
Pat spends a moment at sunset on the docks of Gay Seafood Company.
Mark Sandlin

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."