June 11, 2005

Hilton Head Trip Log

I was on an hour hike, a break on the way to Hilton Head S.C., in the North Carolina mountains when I realized it had been too long. There was the ache of my forgetfulness of the Great Smokies, the trails flooded with rhododendron and glistening with washed moss, the ferns, the conifers, the mountain streams with hue’d rocks. It triggered a contemplative episode years ago when on a five hour hike I’d sat on a rock in a creek stream with the Beatles song running through my mind:

Sit beside a mountain stream
Watch her waters rise!
Listen to the pretty sound of music
as she flies.

The air was drunk on moonshine and superoxygenated by a trillion photosynthesizing leaves. It led to a sense of awe but awww there’s the rub: "sense" of awe. Awe by senses. Awe for things you can’t see is of more value. But nature is in her glory here and the slow arching hawks seem to mock men who would deny the goodness of creation.

Hiking the hills not far from the Virginia border reminds me of the 19th century and of Virgina’s Civil War battlefields. I long to see the battlefields again. I remember how the pastor at my parent's church went to Gettysburg five or six consecutive years, each time spending a week there. People can be interesting. I would’ve thought that might be just a tad of overkill. And one might get the impression this pastor, with such reverence for history and patriotic impulse would be a traditionalist in matters religious. But instead he's happy to plant doubts about where Jesus was born (not big on Bethlehem) and he once called Mother Angelica "an eccentric old nun who’s trying to pretend Vatican II didn't happen." People can be hard to predict.

I came across a restored homestead originally built in the 1850s. The cabin and farm are complete with information posts with pictures of the settlers, the Hutchinson's, and they look so alien in their dress and manner. They squint with those hard 19th century faces, so blank and devoid of expression. On the drive there I passed a Baptist church with a sign that said "This church rated PG: pure gospel". Cute. Corny, down here where they "drink the corn from a jar" (although presumably not the good Baptists). I can’t help thinking how times have changed. These hardscrabble pioneers who drank the doctrine of that hard Calvinistic whiskey are the spiritual fathers of those who put up corny signs.

Driving to Stone Mountain State Park I get a vertiginous view of a green mountain with a house on the top and it looked like Heaven: distant but possible. And within these mountain walls I can see how residents might have a greater sense of place. Their land is marked not by an arbitrary boundary like the farmer's in Iowa, but by the personal green castle walls of their holler. So when the Civil War came, even while not having much slavery to protect, they might've felt the threat of Northern will more keenly? Stone Mountain is aptly named. It’s like one of the stones from a stream got misplaced while at the same time getting magnified a million times. A big billiard ball of gray stone, it was a wonderously large and yet...and yet like a grass blade to an ant, big only to us.

I-95 in South Carolina is the cruelest highway. The scenery is relentless and ever the same, the highway flanked by seemingly identical pines of identical heights. And so it goes for fifty, sixty, ninety miles. It’s like in cartoons or old Westerns where they show the same repeating background. The smaller “blue highways” that William Least Heat Moon wrote of are so much more interesting. In just the few miles we drove to escape a backup on I-95 we saw a house with a six-foot Marine Corp rug hanging upright and on the other side was the same-sized Confederate flag. Just stuck in the middle of their front yard as if it grew there.

“And suddenly you’re in a different place,
Where everything seems to happen in waves”

– Elizabeth Bishop, from poem “Letter to NY”

I’ve discovered it's not easy to be leisurely in advance. Even knowing that loads of time stretch out before me I seem unable to proactively tap into that future lack of hyper. In the pell-mell rush to the beach, I carry gargantuan quantities of stuff and smash my foot with the cooler. As the song goes, "we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow." I recommend getting there slow so that you’ll be ready to take it slow when you get there.

And pick your location carefully. Finding a good spot is akin to curing cancer – possible, but unlikely. I try to avoid those playing music since it’s inevitably bad music. Only in Heaven do you hear the Chieftains. I also try to avoid immodestly dressed women, which is like trying to avoid Italians at an Italian festival. There's more butt exposed here than at a plumber's convention. Observational prowess is no virtue here in the Island of the Nearly Unclothed Female, and I’m hoping that the propulsive nature of words will serve as a subliminative. I do my part for beach beautification and the prevention of salacious thoughts by eschewing Speedos and thongs. I give and I give.

Today we experienced that rarest of birds: the man who can’t stop talking to his wife. He’s in his late 50s and via the miracle of a walkman "I know nothing" (say like Klink.) But my wife unavoidedly hears his opinions on everything from anti-depressants (a waste, no one should take them) to the European Constitution (not really). Bloviators are uncommon on the beach (pot, kettle, I know), but when it turned out that it wasn't his wife he was talking to I felt oddly relieved, for no man talks to his wife that much. Which is fortunate for wives everywhere.

Like Mexican cliff divers
pelicans plummet,
reminding me of Tennyson’s line
“And like a thunderbolt he falls”.


There’s a map of Europe on my chest etched in scarlet from missed splotches of sunscreen. Sicily hurts. It already seems a long time since we arrived and I noted Applebaum’s "Gulag" in the time share; I was surprised someone left such an expensive and unlikely beach read there. I usually end up leaving the beach in far better physical shape than when I arrive. Beach bling (skin is bling to the male eye) makes me restless so instead of reading I run, bike and swim. Every day a triathlon. Philosopher/runner/writer George Sheehan once wrote that racing is the love-making of running, so while out for a jog I spied a bunch of folks lining up for a race and I found that irresistible so I lined up myself, about ten yards away. It’s a sprint to the surf, about a hundred meters, and the six and seven year olds all wear expressions of great seriousness. At the finish line is the day care worker or teacher and we’re off! Those kids really have a good first step and I find myself lagging early. Teach gives me a wide grin as I hit the water.

My two o’clock rule (before which I’ll drink no ale) feels arbitrary and wicked here under the blazing beachball sun. My IQ falls twenty points under this gladsome sun tide; I was reading “God in the Quad”, hardly “War & Peace”, but after going outside it feels near burdensome. I sift “Treasure Island” and “Sanibel Flats” to the top of my book bag.

My wife moves the cooler to use as a foot stool. I’m genuinely impressed. I say, “all the time I’ve been down here and I didn’t think of that!”

“Babe, I’m an expert relaxer,” she coolly replies.

But I should never mistake this for retirement. Three beers and a beach in front of me. Nay, retirement is probably shuffleboard and dyspepsia. I’m reading “Early Bird”, the account of a 28-year old joke-writer for David Letterman who burned out on his job and went to live in a Florida retirement community. The book vaguely depresses me, for reasons I can quite put my finger on. And yet it is extremely absorbing and witty and humorous. But the depiction of the community sounds so frivolous and superficial. Both too much seriousity and too much frivolity wear. Balance, where art thou?

The people who live there are depicted one-dimensionally. They gossip and talk about their health problems. There’s no mention of the spiritual. It reminds me of spring break for college kids – there seemed to be no there there. No family, no cooking (the film Babette’s Feast makes cooking seem sort of holy, but at the very least there is something indicative of “roots”), no religion.

Those who age best, it seems, are those professors who still love learning and still enthuse over Romantic poetry. Or retired symphony conductors who lead a small town band for free. Or St. Vincent de Paul members who give out bread and go to daily Mass. Or priests, whose power to consecrate remains undiminished.

Later, I’m sitting in a chair that the ocean is slowly reclaiming. The guy next to me is fishing and reels something in. It’s a small fish, small enough that I might’ve confused it for bait. He turns towards me and I give him a look of sympathy, as if to say, "aw that’s too bad." But he’s proud, nay, he’s exultant. He’d turned towards me not for sympathy but congratulations.

Buy mass market paperbacks
for the scent alone;
where memories of
Weekly Reader
mix with coffee and scone.

The island soil is black and crumbly, richly allusive of all that went into the making of it. The dank smell of decomposition is present in the moist green interior, all things fermenting, just as thousands of grapes make up a wine. One state to the north, up in the mountains, there are patches of soil the color of lamb’s blood, little splotches of farm-ploughed hillock. The only thing in nature that seems unnaturally straight is the ocean’s unblinking horizon.

I wonder: do artists have a completely different painting experience when painting nudes compared to flowers and landscapes? Is one a different aesthetic experience? Are they like the Scripture scholars who toil over minutiae without fever for the Lover it describes? Do they paint nudes and landscapes for similar or different reasons or does that depend on the painter?

The picture of the island I’d most like to take but have never gotten around tp it would be the newspaper stand where the stairs from the time-shares end and the parking lot begins. There the expectation of pleasure is intense, the unseen ocean just beyond, the sun streaming triumphantly from the gloom of the dark stairs:

son of an Englishmun
blind, gum’
here in the summer sun,
bliss this
plenteous shall miss.

Hie thee blood,
to the wave’s rud!
Rhythm thee,
to the break of the sea!
The sail, lo’
hail, so
hear the whale blow!



Went to Mass and saw Scott Hahn and family. They obviously go down the same week we do every year since this is probably the fourth time I’ve seen him there. I know I wouldn’t want to preach a homily with Scott in the audience if I were the priest! But the padre makes the point in the homily that St. Matthew would probably have not volunteered for martyrdom, as he eventually did, when he was first called by Christ. This was said to illustrate the need for ongoing conversion and how it’s a process, not an event. To “look ahead” and wonder if we are ready for some huge task like being tortured or killed for Christ is probably not a good idea; better to just take whatever challenge comes to us. Dickens, in “Bleak House”, has an ingĂ©nue say, “I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.”

Saw statue of Mary at Holy Family Church with exposed heart, red and large. It’s slightly distracting but then I consider: what more handy symbol of our Mother’s love? Her claim to fame is not the white with which she is robed or her veil, but her maternal heart, her love for God and us.

Grim is the last day
when clouds fall
a scatter of drops
“this is what it sounds
like when doves cry”.

The problem with Hilton Head is it becomes improbably beautiful in inverse proportion to how much time remains. Am I more given to reverie because I’m finally relaxed, or because it’s the last day? Meanwhile, the water appears the color of envy, washed white by foam clouds...

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