Southern Exposure: On the Palmetto Trail

Black River Cemetery

As the writers head off to Charleston, for another literary adventure with the Southern Sampler Artists Colony, novelist and travel writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin reflects on Southern vistas.

Southern Exposure: On the Palmetto Trail

©2010 by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

The size of the snake had grown, in the telling, from the length and breadth of my friend Martha’s arm, to the far more dramatic dimensions of her muscular cousin, Dickie’s. I was at a gathering of the Dabbs clan at one of the old family properties by the Crossroads just east of Black River Swamp in the county of Sumter, South Carolina. Martha and I had been hiking along on the High Hills of Santee Passage of the Palmetto Trail when the large green-brown serpent slithered across our paths and disappeared into the waters of Old Levi Mill Lake. Martha was disturbed; I was ecstatic. I let out a gleeful shriek.

The South is intriguing territory. Home of the blues, gumbos, gators, haunts, hollers, swamps and all their quirky inhabitants, it’s also been the stomping grounds of some of my favorite writers—William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Erskine Caldwell, Alice Walker, even Edgar Allen Poe—sensual, steamy and sometimes scary as hell. As a girl I longed to explore it. As an adult I did, eventually capsizing my canoe and falling into the murky waters of the Okefenokee Swamp. So when southern friends Mary Brent and Martha suggested a visit and Martha mentioned the 425-plus-mile Palmetto Trail, I found the prospect exciting. It wasn’t long before I found myself just north of Charleston, South Carolina, heading up US Highway 17 towards Awendaw, the Francis Marion National Forest, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the point at which the Palmetto Trail hits the sea.

The Palmetto Trail is really not one trail at all. Cobbled together from only a few of the myriad footpaths that fret the state, it is a nearly continuous passageway that stretches from Oconee State Park in the mountainous upstate region to Buck Hall, its low country terminus. A federally designated Millennium Legacy Trail and one of only thirteen cross-state trails in the nation, it crawls down pinnacles, across gorges and swamps, along riverbanks and through forests, traversing some of the most spectacular terrain in the country.

The weather was hot when I emerged from my car at Buck Hall Plantation, the cicadas so loud they sounded like buzz saws blazing away in the blistering sunshine. At this watery end of the Palmetto Trail it’s an easy jaunt along salt marsh and through verdant maritime forest. Tides creep in here to surround and feed the swamp grass then gently recede. Egrets, cranes, herons and pelicans swoop to graceful landings. Thousands upon thousands of marble-sized fiddler crabs scuttle about in the sands. Young longleaf and loblolly pines sway in the occasional breeze. Fan-like palmettos (South Carolina’s state tree) and ancient live oaks, among the only remnants of a venerable generation that managed to weather Hurricane Hugo, offer much welcome shade.

Awendaw Passage connects to the rest of the Palmetto Trail not far from this point via the Swamp Fox Passage, officially the next leg of the journey. A 42-mile forest trek across pinelands and wetlands, over boardwalks and bridges and along the defunct railbeds of old logging trams, it ends at Lake Moultrie in Berkeley County at the western edge of the forest. With days rather than weeks to spend on the trail, I opted to take Highway 45 through the woodlands and I was glad I did. No sooner had I turned inland and into the forest than it started to rain, sprinkling at first as I experimented hastily with my rental car lights and windshield wipers. It was storm season in South Carolina and reminders of the hurricanes that ravage the coast were everywhere. The rain began to hammer away at the car, sluicing off the windows in sheets. Lightening flashed down in long, jagged forks that ended somewhere in the trees around me or on the road up ahead. Jamestown, St. Stephen, Manning—the journey to Martha’s was tumultuous and beautiful, and I was genuinely relieved when I finally met her at the far side of Black River Swamp and we turned up the long, narrow drive to her home, the dogs bounding alongside the cars in boisterous greeting.

The weather was clear and warm the next day when Martha and I set out for the High Hills of Santee Passage, the highway bordered by neat little churches and plantation-style homes astoundingly picturesque. We stopped at a roadside shop to pick up a light lunch and picnicked at the trailhead at Poinsett State Park right next to the small lake in which Martha swam as a child. The land is a bit hilly along this 14-mile stretch of the trail, but it is still easy walking. It’s also spectacular with wildlife. The sun worked like a powerful soporific, tiring us quickly.

The cicadas droned softly around us like hypnotic, non-stop, battery-powered maracas. Mosquitoes circled hopefully, looking for a break in our prophylactic curtains of repellant. I had been warned that I should be on the lookout for water moccasins on this part of the trail, that the ticks in Sumter County had been known to carry lyme disease. But I wasn’t thinking about any of this, so entranced was I with the green of the water and the ascent and descent of the trail. That’s when the elegant green-brown ophidian slithered across our path. A ranger told us later it was very likely a rat snake, and the nearby wood duck nest suggested that this might be the case as these snakes like eggs for breakfast, but it could just as easily have been a somewhat more poisonous reptile. No matter; it didn’t bite, which is more than I can say for the tick I brought back to the house.

“Look at this, Martha,” I said, pointing to a brand new freckle.

“My Lord, it’s a tick,” said Martha, deftly plucking it away.

That night Martha and I had dinner with Dickie again, and as we listened to his wild tales of motorcycle adventures in the American outback and stories of the ghosts that share his enormous southern mansion, I was reminded once more why I love the South and its residents.

I’m told the Palmetto Trail becomes much more rigorous as it heads up into the high country, a place of 60-foot waterfalls and 1000-foot ascents, a place to visit when my ankle is stronger and I have a lot more time. One Southern friend said, “Fine trail like that, you can’t do it all at once. You have to take it slow.” Wise words. I’ll be back. The hike isn’t over. In fact it’s only begun.


From “On the Palmetto Trail”, ©Linda Watanabe McFerrin. You can read the whole story, as it originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine here.