I went to Parris Island, South Carolina in 2003 to pick up a complete stranger from boot camp. When Kyle enlisted in the Marine Corps, we were already married with our first daughter, so he was considerably older than the other recruits. That didn’t save him, though, from exactly what boot camp is designed to do: take an ordinary person and turn him into a Marine. We had one phone call during his three months away, and he was so foreign to me in that call, sounding nothing at all like the man I had been married to for three years, that I worried I wouldn’t recognize him at all during the graduation.
I was right to be concerned. LCpl Thomas was nothing at all like my husband, Kyle, and if having an Alternate Universe Husband wasn’t enough to make me dizzy, I had also never been to the Lowcountry. The architecture, the history, the trees, the Spanish moss–I had fallen down the rabbit hole and nothing at all was what I knew it to be.
And I fell in love, both with LCpl Thomas and with the Lowcountry. A few months later, Kyle completed his training in Pensacola, Florida, where Robin and I moved to join him, and where I began the long process of assembling Ginger. We had the opportunity to request the next duty station, and I didn’t hesitate when he asked where I wanted to go. “Get us back to the Lowcountry.”
A few months after meeting my “new” husband there, we moved to Wonderland. Though we had history together prior to living in Beaufort, South Carolina, both Kyle and I consider the five years we spent there to be the beginning of our lives, as adults. We learned who we were there, both as individuals and as a family and, despite being raised in Ohio, we considered ourselves South Carolinians at heart.
It’d been ten years since we left Beaufort to move back to Ohio. While we fully embraced our return to being Buckeyes, the special place in our hearts for Beaufort was still labeled “home.” Last month, during a stressful time for our family, we sat around the dinner table discussing ways we could set ourselves back on a happier path. I grabbed Kyle’s hand and said “Get us back to the Lowcountry.”
We started our visit by overshooting South Carolina entirely, opting instead to spend Friday morning in Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t until the Talmadge Bridge came into view that it really felt like we were back. We drove around, just taking in the beauty of the city, before visiting Forsyth Park on foot. Since the girls were so young when we lived here, it was fun to see them stretching out in the grass under the trees like a local, giving a glimpse of what life would have been like if we didn’t move. Of course, as a fan of “The Book,” no visit to Savannah would be complete without seeing Mercer House. We grabbed gelato on the riverfront, before piling back in the car for some beach time.
Next stop was Hilton Head Island. One of the perks of being a “local” was that we knew how to find the beaches that tourists didn’t frequent. The benefit was avoiding crowds; the downside was a lack of decent parking. After some quality sand-lounging, we were back in the car heading towards Beaufort to settle in for the night.
The first stop Saturday morning was the ruins of Old Sheldon Church, one of my favorite places on Earth, and somewhere I dream about frequently. If you’re a fan of early American history, this site has an interesting one worth researching. What always captures my imagination, though, is that the ruins are tucked away in a heavily wooded area, so, aside from some road noise now and again, it’s very quiet, but still very alive. I like to think about the people in these tombs come out to stretch their legs at night, but that’s the macabre writer side of me having fun.
Next stop was the Beaufort waterfront, which is where the nostalgia kicked in hardest for us. I remember pigtails bouncing as the girls ran around the playground along the river, and to see them so much older, long hair blowing in the breeze, was bittersweet. Like in Forsyth Park the day before, it gave me a glimpse into the life we could have had if we chose to stay. The best we could do was to walk the girls around the places we used to hang out, such as the former Firehouse Cafe and Books that we were such regulars at, the baristas gave us the nickname “Two Turtles,” and the library where we went to get reading material, since we could usually only afford to purchase those two turtle mochas at the cafe. As the Firehouse Cafe was turned into a wedding chapel, we opted to try somewhere new and a place called Hemingway’s seemed like the perfect fit. After a relaxed lunch on the patio, a siesta was in order, so we went back to the hotel to rest up for more beach time.
Rather than return to Hilton Head Island, we decided to take in the more rustic nature of Hunting Island. It helped that, on the way out, we drove through St. Helena Island, which is where you’d find my second favorite church ruin, the very haunted Chapel of Ease. I will attest that leaning into the mausoleum to get that picture was very difficult. All I needed was to stumble on some fella taking a snooze in the crypt, have a heart attack myself, and then die face-first into a mausoleum, becoming a very confused and clumsy ghost myself. That was as close as I was willing to go. We didn’t see any ghosts or strange happenings, but someone appeared to be steeping sun tea beside a headstone, and that was weird enough for me. (In all actuality, Beaufort has a very real voodoo culture, and that sun tea might have been all sorts of things. Best just to nod and move on in Beaufort.)
Swimming on Hunting Island didn’t happen as planned for one tiny reason: there are no more beaches. Turns out Hurricane Matthew took all of the sand and generally wrecked the entire island, so the whole thing is closed. One u-turn later and we were on our way back to Hilton Head Island. By the time we got there, the sun was low in the sky, so we picked a more touristy beach, just to make sure we had time to swim. Much sogginess and laughter later, we were on our way back to the hotel to pack.
We left before the sun came up on Easter Sunday, spending the car ride home in quiet contemplation about our return to Beaufort. In the decade we have been gone, so much has changed. The town itself has exploded with development, and, while we were happy to see our home doing so well for itself, it felt a bit claustrophobic to have so many new buildings in one place on a fairly small island. It begged the question, “Is Beaufort still home?”
While it will always hold a special place in our hearts, Kyle and I both agreed that, no, Beaufort isn’t home anymore. Like my very first trip to the Lowcountry, I arrived to greet a stranger who looked a lot like someplace I knew very well, but wasn’t. Time has changed Beaufort, and while it may be somewhere we will grow to love down the road, for now, it’s a place I don’t recognize. Alternate Universe Beaufort, but still Wonderland. If I have learned anything since my first visit to the Lowcountry, it’s that change is inevitable, but it’s also an exciting opportunity. There’s something beautiful about falling in love all over again, and learning something new about yourself in the process.