Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hilton Head

I never wrote much about our recent vacation, because it didn't turn out to be much. We had planned to stay with my parents, who were spending the month in Hilton Head, but spend most of the time exploring and rambling in Savannah, a city we both love.

What my parents are doing in Hilton Head is anyone's guess. They don't golf. They don't play tennis or sail. They don't even go to the beach. All they do at home is sit inside and bicker or watch TV. My father goes out occasionally to let the dogs poop or to ride a bike.

They do the exact same thing on vacation. They just do it somewhere else. I can't imagine why Hilton Head, unless it's in hopes alligators will eat the dogs, but then I remember that's my hope, not theirs.

But a stomach bug tore through us on this vacation, so we only got to Savannah one day and spent the rest of it on Hilton Head. I had never been there before, and it was an eerie experience.

People who lament the American landscape for its crass commercialism, garish signs, and haphazard architecture ought to spend some time here. The entire island, home to tens of thousands of people, was built up in the past 35 years or so, and seemingly entirely in one design scheme.

The surface material of every building, sign, and fence in the place is a faux driftwood, painted beige. It is so oppressively monochrome in my mind I renamed it "Beiging." Even the stop signs are made of this material, though they're painted red (which makes them eye-popping in this environment), and if you look closely, the font of "STOP" is smaller than usual and lightly serifed. Like a Thomas Kinkade stop sign.

The pressed resin trim and roofing material is all either dull green or Rustoleum red, with a very occasional dull blue thrown in.

People who love suburban tract housing must think they're in Heaven here. Everything is built under the same law. It's a marvel: I spent a decade covering local townships in a rapidly developing corner of Pennsylvania, watching developers march in and order the yokel zoning boards around, making them break all their own rules to accommodate the standard sizes and signages of the chain stores and restaurants, on the assurance that these places can't be built any other way.

That turns out to be bullshit. If there's a high-income market like Hilton Head at stake, and the price of doing business is to knuckle under to the codes, McDonald's, Target, Publix -- you name it, we saw it (except Wal-Mart, but Hilton Head isn't a Wal-Mart town) obeyed. They muted it all to beige and green.

We learned there is a power in the land mighty enough to tame corporate America: Golf.

We learned it was impossible to find anything in a place where from the road the Exxon is indistinguishable from the Episcopal Church. By the end of the week, I had begun to notice it was not all monochrome beige. There were at least four very slightly different shades of medium beige in play, and I began to be able to navigate by remembering which was where. That, or I was losing my mind.

The one day we escaped into Savannah, we could have cried for the sight of the garish adult clubs on the road out of town or the classic old neon of the sign on the Thunderbird Inn:

Hilton Head has lovely beaches. And the place was most interesting in the very early morning, before most people were up. Then the cormorants and spoonbills owned the links. The alligators were out in the sun, the Carolina pines perfumed the air, and the condos and shops stood silent in the dew like a Fisher-Price playset left outdoors overnight.