Thursday, May 29, 2008

Daufuskie Island

Hilton Head - Daufuskie Island Ferry
One of many gorgeous live oaks on Daufuskie Island

First Union African Baptist Church - 1882

Mary Fields Elementary School (1930) , where Pat Conroy taught

I've spent the past three days in and around Hilton Head. The occasion was the annual meeting of representatives from the 11 universities in the Peach Belt Athletic Conference. It took place at the Crowne Plaza Resort. I was one of four reps from my fine institution. I had little expertise to bring to the discussions of athletic scheduling, conference expansion, annual budget, and so on. But I found the deliberations interesting and early next week will pass my notes along to our president (whom I was sitting in for). Plus, the food and accomodations weren't bad.
Because the fun didn't really commence until the Wednesday evening reception and dinner, I decided to leave home early that day and make time for an afternoon excursion to Daufuskie Island, just across Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head's Harbor Town. I've been interested in the island and its history since reading Pat Conroy's first book, The Water is Wide, shortly after it came out in 1972. It tells the story of the year he spent as a teacher in the two-room schoolhouse on the island (which for some reason he calls "Yamacraw"). It's a fine book that yielded a mediocre movie, Conrack, starring Jon Voight. For years it was nearly impossible to get to Daufuskie without a private boat. (There's no bridge to the island.) But now there's a regular boat service for $23 round trip aboard the Captain Eulice. It takes an hour, and the ride over and back alone is worth the fare.
Upon arrival at the marina, most visitors rent gas-powered golf carts to motor around to the 13 points of interest shown on the laminated map available at the general store. I chose to rent a thick-tired bicycle, which provided me with a superb three-hour workout as I pedaled over the partly paved, partly dirt (or sand) roads winding around the island. The dimensions are about 5 miles by two miles, although parts of the island are private and off-limits. Of greatest interest to me was the old schoolhouse where Conroy taught at about the same time I was teaching in even more primitive conditions as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. Also worth the pedaling were the various cemeteries, the beautiful old Baptist Church, the pristine, almost-empty beach, the miniscule Silver Dew Winery, and a massive eagle's nest (with no eagles in sight).
The island has far fewer year-round inhabitants than back in the 19th century when slaves worked the plantations to produce fine quality Sea Island Cotton. After the boll weevil did in the cotton, and indigo and lumber were no longer big crops, the population dwindled even more. Now, there are only a few hundred residents, some of them Gullah descendants of slaves. But upscale resorts, condominiums, and houses are now encroaching on the now-undeveloped expanses of palmetto/live oak/pine woodlands and the attractive island beaches. No doubt, it's just a matter of time before Daufuskie, like Hilton Head itself, will become essentially a densely populated gated community where only the well-heeled are welcome. It would be a shame and a disgrace to lose the wild acreage and the reminders of the rich history (sometimes violent and often oppressive) that give the island its character.

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