Getting Outside on Hilton Head Island

As Kate said in her last post Untying the Knot the first week of our trip was all about decompressing, and Hilton Head Island was a great place to do it. My Dad, Mark, has a place here and he was generous enough to let us stay here for the month of January. We’re using it as a home base to prepare for and plan the next leg of our adventure. But first we explored our new surroundings.

The beaches here are beautiful, and while it’s not exactly swimming weather it has been much warmer than New York. Reading a book on the beach in January is a nice change of pace. On big swaths of the island sandy beaches give way to salt marshes, which look like fields of grasses with lazy creeks snaking through them. When the sun hits them right you can see they are all water, and trying to run through those fields would find you sinking into brackish mud. But what defines this region for me are the trees that grow wherever the ground is more land than water.

A walk through the woods here makes me feel like I am truly in a different world. The thick green fronds of the iconic Palmetto trees, South Carolina’s state tree and the star of their flag, along with their junior partners the Saw Palmettos filling in the underbrush, let you know that you are in the subtropics. It feels strange to see these palm trees growing beside the loblolly pines (which should really be called lollipop pines, with their dome of needled branches on top of a long, skinny trunk, just a missed opportunity) but the ones that really make me feel like I’ve crossed through some veil into another mysterious place are the live oaks. With their gnarled branches twisting out in every direction, the live oaks can grow to really massive sizes, but their true character derives from the resurrection ferns that grow up off of them, and even more so the Spanish moss hanging down from them. It makes everything feel whimsical, sad, and a little creepy. The brown-grey tendrils of Spanish moss look like the decaying remains of some decadent cloth, as if ancient elves had once pitched ethereal white tent cities in the trees.

Maybe my waxing poetic about palm fronds and Spanish moss shows me to be the carpet-bagging yankee who’s read too much Faulkner that I am, but I am not the only one who finds the forests and swamps of the Lowcountry alluring. We saw so many different kinds of birds in our first days here that we considered changing the theme of our whole trip to try to have a bird watcher’s Big Year. We realized that we don’t know nearly enough however, and even with informative signs in the nature preserves, black belts in Google-fu, and using phone-a-friend to call Tina, we still can’t identify what we’re looking at or hearing half of the time. We do know that it was a big blue heron that glided just a few feet from us as it traced the little waterway in front of the house. And that the fierce but beautiful dappled raptor was a Cooper’s Hawk. The stately clusters of birds on long legs at the edge of the ponds are usually white ibis. And this little guy who trilled us a greeting at the entrance to the Audubon preserve and spent some quality time getting to us was an eastern bluebird.

There are also people on this island, and they’ve created some interesting history, culture, cuisine, and we’ll get into all that, but our first impulse is to get on a bike or lace up our hiking boots and to get moving, breath some fresh air, and get back to nature. So far it has served us well.

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