Destination: Springtime in March

By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2005

March: the antsy time between seasons. Observed crocus nearby, but let's face it, crocus small. Detected daffodils swelling; however, swellage inconsistent.

So, resolved, I would seek out spring: Load subsistence gear in truck, secure credit card in wallet and proceed in only logical direction -- south. Because March in Washington is a plate of puny appetizers when you haven't eaten all day.

The confluence of roads leads, inevitably, to Interstate 95. Driving I-95 will provide the fastest transformation of seasons compared with other routes, which is, after all, the goal--to find springtime in a single day's drive, 10 hours or so. Indeed, just a couple hours south I spy a Bradford pear in full, explosive bloom near Richmond--a small tree, size of a Mini Cooper, a perfect oblong in the shape of a giant baked potato, with blossoms so blinding white I want to smear zinc on my nose.

An hour later, near Jarratt, Va., I see an isolated mass of yellow daffodils in true flowering profusion in the middle of a median that looks like a dog with mange--tufty onion grass, scraggly dirt-colored weeds. A little farther, approaching the town of Emporia, Va., along a median that resembles a bad hair transplant that's been grazed by nervous goats, I spy a patchier stretch of daffodils in yellow and cream, the blooms spread out like constellations, all nodding in the wake of the passing tractor trailers.

I am in the land of the Slip-In Restaurant and the Dixie Motel. The idea of the Washington suburbs has become just that, an idea. Tractor trailers and RVs have achieved vehicular dominance--not ordinary RVs either, but the big diesel pushers and the fifth-wheel trailers towed by giant pickup trucks. They roll along, conveyer-belt style, on this road so straight in places that the Romans could have built it, though the Romans would have felt disoriented here. (I imagine a small group of them, standing in the grass verge beyond the shoulder, looking as if they want to cross the road. They're in togas and sandals and I know it's time I took a little break, stretched my legs, had a look around.) At the exits, which roll past with soothing regularity, the towering signs of the Texacos and Citgos, the Wendys and Shoneys and Dennys, loom high and are gone.

When I finally stop, in south-central Virginia, I find myself examining rows of pecan products on a shelf, hearing southern voices all around and I realize: I am somewhere else.

Dense scrambles of brambles mass the banks beside the road, the only things greening up just yet in these parts. There are cedars and pines and the occasional holly and lots of hardwoods, too, none in leaf, though some are in bud--dark red buds I have to strain to see.

Near Skippers, Va., 200 miles from my starting point, I glimpse a tumble of forsythia blooming crazy against a bridge. The pines start to come more thickly, with a nice brown needle litter underneath them. Sometimes I see through the pines to open farm fields, and I notice that the land is truly flat. The highway is laid down over an ancient wedge of sand and gravel, laid down in turn over a base of really old rock. The gravelly stuff settled there in two ways--washed down from the Appalachians, and left behind by the repeated swelling and retreating of prehistoric seas.

These sediments are the reason for the flatness and mind-numbing dullness of this section of I-95. They pass beneath the blur of my wheels, unseen. They yield the soil that invites the farmer to turn the plow. Through the pines, I see fields disced for spring, the earth folded out in long rows beneath the sun.

The road looks level but feels as if it trends downhill--an illusion, caused by two things: the knowledge that I am running, like a river, to the sea; and the fact that every map I have ever seen shows north at the top and south at the bottom.

At the North Carolina Welcome Center, I spot, planted in the grass between the parking lot and the picnic tables, a single pink magnolia, four feet tall, flowering hard as if to make up for its size. And as I cross the state line, the speed limit increases for the first time to 70.

I start to notice billboards for Florida hotel discounts and I begin to understand where the RVs are headed. One billboard advises "Stay near Mickey for a Minnie price," and I smile because I'm not going that far.

Daylily foliage is bursting forth at regular intervals in North Carolina's median strips, the tufts lined up like heads of lettuce and just as round and green, each a foot high, while back home the daylilies' leaves are pushing three inches. And the medians themselves have turned lush--thick green grass, packed tight, mowed sharp. Gone is any passing resemblance to a goat tea party.

Redbuds are in full bloom 70 miles into North Carolina, a whole line of them down the edge of a patch of woods. Near Fayetteville, Japanese cherries appear among the daylily tufts and are just popping their first flowers. I start getting big trees all down the side of the road, and the farther south I go the more color they give me. It's a wild mix of shades, margarita greens and daiquiri yellows shot through with reds like burnt sienna and rust, lightened with ocher and peach--the entire spring and fall collections from your Crayola box of 64.

These are new leaves unfurling, so tender they are bleeding red, oozing yellow before they turn to green. They are as delicate and moist in their reds and yellows now as they will be leathery and dry in those same colors come fall. It's a curious effect--the autumnal look of early spring.

There's a kind of green that's creamy, like an after-dinner mint--pale green leaves mixed up with white blossoms. By the time I hit South Carolina, 400 miles from home, I've got trees solidly flanking the road in those two colors Crayola calls green-yellow and yellow-green.

But the colors are not the whole story. There's also the look of the leaves, emerging, unfolding in the light shade of the woods. When I look into the trees along the road they are all aflutter, like feathers caught on barbwire. They're so lacy and fine and pretty that I feel as if I've forgotten, through the long winter, what leaves on trees are like.

I see my first dogwood, in flower, white and floating, near Santee, S.C.

Six hundred miles and 10 hours in, I turn off at last on Highway 21 and head for the ocean.

Getting off the highway is tricky. For the purposes of this trip, it's a) when you're sick of driving and b) when you've found, at last, sweet Maytime in March.

I-95 does a lucky thing as it heads downward--it wends ever closer to the coast, southeasterly. At the top of the Carolinas the ocean is a hundred miles away, but at their bottom the Atlantic is only 20 miles east, across wild and marshy islands threaded with sleepy tidal creeks: the Low Country.

Hilton Head, S.C., is one option among these islands, and there are others. If your taste runs to vast untouched marsh and long unspoiled beach, you might choose Hunting Island, whose entire 5,000 acres is a state park, with rental cabins and camping, a historic lighthouse, a locally famous fishing pier and pleasant hiking/biking trails through mature forests of palm and live oak draped with Spanish moss--a Deep-South-meets-the-tropics forest. There are boardwalks through the marsh for watching wildlife and sunsets, and four miles of empty beach with world-class shelling at either end, where the tides at the inlets wash great numbers of perfect shells upon the sand.

The 40-mile trip to Hunting Island from I-95 takes an hour as you slow for little towns and wind through genteel Beaufort (pronounced "BYOO-firt"), a sort of miniature Charleston and nearly as old. Beaufort offers the March visitor azaleas and wisteria in full flower, as well as bookshops and art galleries and places for coffee and interesting dinners.

I find, however, that once I'm on Hunting Island I can never make the 20-minute drive back there for food--can't even get as far as the Shrimp Shack right down the road--instead, get stuck at the Johnson Creek Tavern and Restaurant, just across the little two-lane bridge from the island. The view out the windows of the marsh, with the faint line of surf in the distance, and the $1 happy hour beers and the broiled grouper sandwiches get me every time.

I don't have much call, frankly, to get too far from my island. Even other lovely islands, like Edisto, with its own state park and beach with, reputedly, the tallest palm trees in the Carolinas, fail to entice me--I have found mine. I'll stay a couple of days, and maybe a couple more.

Those palmettos and those big pom-pom cabbage palms make me realize I'm someplace else. Back home, I remind myself, I'd still be playing games with the thermostat (Nudge it! Nudge it! Blow your heating budget!). It's not bikini weather just yet down here, but it is T-shirt weather, and the mild southern evenings are sweater weather. And it was worth the drive--I wouldn't have gotten to watch the change of seasons out my window, nor felt in my bones how far I'd come.

It's supremely nice to be here, kicked back beneath my beach umbrella gazing at the sea, or drowsing in a hammock in the shady woods of my campsite, listening to birdsong I don't recognize and the squirrels scampering in the palmettos. March is too soon for the mosquitoes to cause trouble. In short, bliss.

And by the time I get back home, it will be spring.

Sally Shivnan last wrote for Travel about a ranch in Blue, Ariz.

After an 11-hour drive from D.C., the author finds a bit of springtime on South Carolina's Hunting Island.

While D.C. is stuck in winter, Beaufort, S.C., warms up with early blooms.

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