A Journey Through Old Edgefield
Article by Ford Walpole
We were married on John’s Island in the church of my youth, the church where my own parents were married and whose cemetery’s soil has reclaimed both of my grandfathers. By boat on that rainy September evening, English and I left the Sea Island Yacht Club in Rockville, knowing the world awaited us. We are both teachers, so the honeymoon would have to wait until Christmas vacation.
Most people head south for their honeymoons, to exotic and romantic beaches. But we are both from creeks on the coast - a changing and fading coast we love and which defines us. And sometimes, like the warm weather of a Low Country autumn, one can have too much of a good thing.
We decided on a trip to the mountains - different and, for us, exotic and romantic in their own way. I love the mountains, but I shall always be merely a visitor there. The calves of my legs are not accustomed to the uneven ground, and I long for the smell of salt in the air. I am a sandlapper in the most derogatory sense of the word.
A visitor, yet no stranger, I feel a kinship to mountain people. They are much like island people. Many of us have large families, stick to ourselves, grow bitter at the change of a changing world, and do not like strangers. We share a once-real but now mythical and self-imposed isolation.
By necessity, teachers are frequently as creative with finances as they are with lesson plans. Planning the trip took me some thought. In northwestern North Carolina, my brother located an old cabin with modern conveniences - hot tub and all. I was trying to figure out how to keep myself in the mountains for as long as possible when it hit me: Oconee State Park. We could spend three nights at Oconee and two at the other cabin.
Perhaps I should begin by telling the ending first. The cost per night in the latter cabin equaled about four nights in one of Oconee’s cabins. The old cabin was unique, and the ax nicks in the hand-hewn logs were something to behold. But it was a little too close to a busy road, and the newly installed hot tub ran out of hot water. And while probably more fitting for a traditional honeymoon, the place was another two hours farther from home.
Back to the beginning. I turned in my final grades to the registrar and bought provisions while English gave her Wadmalaw Island first-graders their Christmas party. I loaded the pick-up with firewood, mostly water oak. We left Charleston before daybreak and late that afternoon, after stops for meals and Christmas shopping along the way, we made Oconee State Park in Mountain Rest. On the deep, long piazza, old Cat Woman purred and rubbed against our legs. In typical cat fashion, she employed her charm mainly so we would let her in the office.
Park superintendent Andy Davis greeted us in the manner of a fine southern gentleman. Receiving our key, I paid the additional fee for a johnboat rental. I asked him how fishing in the lake was, and what they were biting on. English told him of our previous experience in the lake. She had hooked a rainbow trout well over two feet long. But we’d had only the small stream net, and we’d lost the old fish.
I confessed that in haste, I had forgotten to bring a bigger landing net. I could not let history repeat itself, and planned to run down to Frasier’s General Store to buy one. Davis thought to himself for a minute and said, "I have a net at my house. Y’all just run over there and pick it up."
When we were pulling out of his yard, I told English that Davis has it made. Catching myself, I realized that despite the grand setting, by no means is his life easy. I suppose we tend to overlook the constant maintenance and management that make South Carolina’s state parks such treasures. When we reward ourselves with time away from work, it is easy to forget those who work to enhance our vacations. And while Davis in many respects does have it made, he has worked hard to get there. He has been at Oconee for 14 years, but his goal of arriving here was set into motion 25 years ago. A native of Lee County, Davis has covered our state, working at Lee State Park, Poinsett, Hunting Island, Lake Hartwell and finally Oconee, where he’ll retire. His stories transcend the landscape and location of the parks he has known, reflecting a proud and independent southern state.
For Davis, state parks have provided a healthy environment in which to raise his two sons. "I have always felt blessed at having kept my children from some [of the world’s] external influences," he says. His four grandchildren are equally enthusiastic about the park, especially during summertime.
Davis also appreciates his short drive to work. While he admits one will "never be rich" working in the park system, he emphasizes that the job is fun. He warns young people not to consider the career a job from 8 to 5, though.
English Walpole on her honeymoon at Oconee State Park.
We went down to the shore. I launched the boat and headed for the cabin; English went around the mountain with the pick-up. She unpacked our bags while I hunted dry branches. I had forgotten the pine knots, so it took me a while to get the fire going.
As the cabins are now equipped with central heating and air, a fire is a luxury. But before electricity came to Oconee, a winter fire was surely a necessity. Summer guests used to paddle their boats over to the ice house, located behind the bath house, load up blocks of ice and paddle back to their cabins, where they filled the iceboxes.
Thirteen rustic cabins - a few of them built of logs - rest at comfortable distances from one another along the lake’s shore. The park and buildings were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Another six cabins, as well as numerous campsites, are situated on the property, but there are degrees to how much honeymooners want to rough it. We were going to rough it in style.
Our cabin was built primarily of wormy chestnut. The exterior gets its dark color from the linseed oil with which it was coated. Davis pointed out that this construction was a practical matter of conservation. The chestnut trees suffered a blight during the early 1900s, and the cabins were a way by which the dying trees might survive.
The utilization of existing resources is quite common around a state park, Davis explained. For instance, the rock for the bath house came from Stumphouse Tunnel, right down the road.
English and I felt as if we had the place to ourselves, though most of the cabins were occupied. Except for pines and mountain laurel, the woods were bare. Even so, the cabins blend well into the natural beauty of the landscape.
Ours was the only boat on the lake the first two mornings. I drank two pots of coffee waiting on the sun to rise, and loaded the boat by flashlight. As we set out, I worked the paddle, my hands stiff from the cold mountain air. We fished in the fading darkness with our spinning rods. English caught a nice rainbow. The lake was relatively quiet. We ate the fish for breakfast, along with a pot of grits, another pot of coffee, eggs and toast.
Later that day, we fished a usually prolific hole in the Chattooga River. English, who apparently had placed some sort of a cunjah on me, landed a brown trout. I returned empty-handed but not disheartened. My head was clear; new ideas swam through my mind and soul.
It rained the second day - a good day for a fire and a guilt-free nap. We sat around the cabin that afternoon, drinking apple cider and enjoying the fire. The plain one-by-ten boards of the floor possess that unique quality of wear. The interior doors consist of three rough-cut one-by-tens fastened together by two horizontal boards. English was particularly fond of the "hooks" on the walls - forked tree branches.
That evening, I fought off the drizzle and cooked steaks over the outdoor grill (using the flashlight to make sure mine did not cook too much and English’s did). Being lately spoiled by propane, I had nearly forgotten how good a steak prepared over charcoal tastes.
I enjoyed the porches, grills and kitchens of the Oconee cabins. I go on vacation to get outdoors and away from people, not to go out to eat and get into the middle of people. Oconee’s 1,165 acres allow visitors to appreciate this broad resource in relative solitude.
Davis, who describes Oconee as "a good family park," has seen a lot during his tenure with the parks. He tells a memorable tale that occurred years ago at Poinsett State Park near Sumter. James Washington and Dave Thomas, two park rangers, were hauling a pile of dirt with wheelbarrows. Dave was moving painfully slowly, and the superintendent finally asked him, "Dave, don’t you have another speed?" Dave stood up straight, spit tobacco juice on the ground and replied, "Yes, sir. But I don’t think you’d like it as much as this one."
Even during busy summer months, life at Oconee State Park seems to remain as slow as Dave’s wheelbarrow and Andy’s drawl.
This was a mindset for which, upon arrival, I was long overdue. And I’ll tell you, when time came for us to check out, I was sad. I guess I felt a lot like Cat Woman. You see, the cat once belonged to a ranger at Oconee. The day the ranger left the park, the Himalayan was nowhere to be found. The next day, Cat Woman showed up on the porch. I asked Davis why, when the cat reappeared, the owner did not return for her. He explained that later, the ranger visited Oconee for a weekend and enjoyed the company of her former pet. But the next morning, when it was time to leave, guess who was gone again. . . .
"You don’t have to convince me that cat was telling her something," Davis said, laughing.
Since the park opened in 1937, many others have shared my desire to remain at Oconee, but perhaps none so adamantly as old Cat Woman.
Ford Walpole teaches English at the College of Charleston and studies the outdoors any chance he gets. He has contributed to South Carolina Wildlife and South Carolina Review.
Oconee State Park (624 State Park Road, Mountain Rest, SC 29664; (864) 638-5353, fax (864) 638-8776) is open during Standard Time from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday–Thursday, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; during Daylight Savings Time from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Office hours are 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–noon and 4–5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For information about South Carolina state parks, contact the SC PRT Division of Parks and Recreation in Columbia, (803) 734-1779, fax (803) 734-1017, www.south carolinaparks.com. or www.discoversouthcarolina .com on the Web.
THIS ARTICLE IS FUNDED BY:
* South Carolina State Park Service
* Blue Ridge Electric Co-op, Pickens
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