The Straight Story: Hilton Head Island

South Beach, Hilton HeadAfter the National Storytelling Festival, we headed over to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, tagging along with our friend who’s been going there since he was a youth. Not being a beach lover, I can still say it was awfully nice — the beach, the incredible huge trees, the alligators, the Nature Preserve, and the lovely bike trails everywhere.

Hilton Head is a popular place — how popular, I couldn’t say, not wanting to quote PR material. But it’s got massive beaches, a whole ton of golf courses (including at least one world-class one), great scenery, congenial weather, etc. By rights, taking a vacation down there should be beyond relaxing. It should be restorative.

And yet. I’ve got a problem with the place. Not the island. It’s what’s been done with the island. Or to it. I’m talking about private resorts and gated communities. Driving to the island we passed ten — ten! — private gated residential golf communities. Do you have any idea what kind of space a gated golf community takes up? How about ten of them? And that’s before you get to the island itself. We stayed at a residential resort at the far tip, which you can hardly call a “tip,” since the 50-year-old gated community takes up 5000 acres. It’s got at least two insanely gorgeous beaches with firm sand and warm water. It’s got three golf courses. It’s got a 600-acre Nature Preserve and extensive biking trails absolutely everywhere. It’s ideal.

Ideal except that it crashes straight up against my deeply rooted egalitarian tendencies. I’m no communist, but “residents only” signs splattered all over beautiful places just pisses me off. It feels wrong, a response which, combating as it does the rights of private property owners, is practically un-American. I think the English have the right idea with traditional rights-of-way. Some firm sense in me says that it is absolutely wrong to deny access to natural beauty to anyone. Sure, you could argue that the beaches on Hilton Head are technically open to the public. But unless you pay an access fee (okay, it’s only five bucks, but it could easily be fifty) to enter the resort, you’d have to walk a darn long way along the coast to get to the beaches legally. That’s hardly open to the public.

And then there’s the feel of it. A gated community is a surreal enough thing, with its Brave New World ideas of what a safe, perfect life would entail. But pile miles upon miles of them together and you get the sur-surreal. I had to keep asking our friend, “Are there schools here? Where are the towns? Does anyone actually live here?” It wasn’t until the last day that we drove through a town with houses and trailers and shacks and broken-down cars and tricycles in the yard — a far cry from the over-landscaped, meticulously meticulous “community” we’d just come from. And even there, new private resorts were swallowing up land and hanging gates between overbearing pillars and guardhouses.

But heck, it was a nice place. I admire the way the resort founders kept all those old, massive trees around, and even the McMansions were painted in muted woodsy colors that kept you from realizing how ghastly they were. My son adored hanging out naked on the beach with the waves washing around him. And, despite the annoyance of being woken up every morning at 6 by landscapers and maintenance people doing god-knows-what incredibly noisy things to bushes and tennis courts, there’s a lot to be said for a place that has bike trails up the wazoo, even if they are “residents only.”


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