The Dyspeptic Atlas: Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As someone born and raised in Vermont, the quintessential Yankee state, I’ve always been intrigued by the South, the history of which has always seemed captivatingly foreign to me. As such, I was happy to learn that one of my business conferences this year was located in South Carolina.

Steeped in history and character, South Carolina, the first state to ratify the U.S. constitution, was the home of fiery politician John C. Calhoun, and was—perhaps therefore—the first state to secede from the Union to found the Confederate States of America. It’s also home to amazing cities like historic Columbia and beautiful Charleston, and rich cultural traditions like the Gullah beach culture of the Sea Islands. Sadly, I was not going to any of these places. I was going to Myrtle Beach.

As I left the airport and drove to my hotel, I looked for downtown. But as I passed Arby’s and Wal-Mart and Pottery Barn, I soon realized that there was no downtown. It had been entirely obliterated by big box stores and massive, hostile highways. I was in Phoenix.  

As a problem drinker, but also a proud alumnus of the SADD program, I am an ardent supporter of the walkable bar. No dice. Nothing is walkable in Myrtle Beach. It’s all just high-rise happiness palaces separated from one another by miles of highway. One might even be forgiven, while staying in Myrtle Beach, for forgetting that it’s a beach at all.

The beach is lined with huge multi-national hotels, so you can’t even see the beach unless you’re walking directly in front of your own hotel. (It’s difficult to walk along the beach if you’re not staying in the hotel that lines it.) Because of this, I spent several evenings there settling down to domestic light beer in the hotel bar. At least I could see the beach, even if it was often obscured by other conference attendees interested in discussing my PowerPoint with me.

By the mid 1990s, Myrtle Beach had become one of America’s fastest-growing cities. In order to drive additional growth, the city council turned the town and surrounding county into a low price tax haven for (comparatively) wealthy carpetbaggers. Myrtle Beach and surrounding areas became the retirement destination for many Northerners who first became familiar with the area while on vacation. The area has become known to both locals (pejoratively) and transplants (proudly) as Yankee Stadium.

Myrtle Beach currently has more than 120 golf courses, all of which feature faux antebellum mansions and include the word “plantation,” despite the fact that no one has ever used slave labor to grow crops or raise livestock for commercial transaction there.

While it would seem that the region’s swampy terrain would be inhospitable to golf, the balmy winter temperature makes the place ideal for Northern vacationers, who learn to ignore the puddles. Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a local marketing group, is trying to popularize the “Golf Capital of the World” nickname for Myrtle Beach. (For the last 13 years, for instance, a Myrtle Beach country club has hosted the Annual Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am Charity Golf Tournament. I swear this is a real event. Look it up.)

The way that the city is organized—via development zones and huge highways—means that the average vacation day in the “Golf Capital of the World” consists of driving to amusement, driving to greasy, faceless restaurants, and then driving back to the hotel. It’s not just that this sort of vacation is overly simplistic and banal; it’s that this is both mentally and physically unhealthy. Walking around on vacation is what one is supposed to do: breathing fresh air, getting some exercise, observing a city in action. Point A to Point B driving renders the whole vacation into a series of chores to be completed. You already have a job; you don’t need another checklist.

That said, there are times when Myrtle Beach urges visitors to get out of their cars and Have Some Fun. Each year’s summer season starts with the Sun Fun Festival at the beginning of June, an event which, with curiously circular reasoning, exists only to honor the beginning of the tourist season. SFF is dominated by parades and family oriented events. Events include a bocce tournament and a “law” requiring everyone to wear shorts or a bathing suit or face a fine. The SFF is the longest running event in Myrtle Beach area history. The first SFF was held in 1951.

As Southern cities go, Myrtle Beach boasts virtually no history. While the town has a museum showcasing trinkets from the plantation era and (of course) the Civil War, Myrtle Beach was actually deserted until 1908, when a railroad was built between it and the adjoining town of Conway. Locals, lured by cheap land, began to move into the area and develop the shit out of it. The first residents of the Redneck Riviera built hotels like the Pavilion and the Ocean Forest Hotel, and then rapidly tore them down to build bigger ones. Not better ones, just bigger ones.

There was never really anything worth preserving in Myrtle Beach, so developers were free to build without regard to location, history, or good taste. Today it might as well be Vacationland, Anywhere. The only way that one can tell the town is south of the Mason-Dixon line at all is the presence of palm trees and the way they still let you smoke in restaurants. It has become a vacation spot whose specialty is—as T.D. Allman described Orlando, Fla., in a recent issue of National Geographic—“Detaching experience from context, extracting form from substance, and then selling tickets to it.”

This isn’t specifically Myrtle Beach’s fault. It’s just that Myrtle Beach is just like everywhere people like me avoid when attempting to see new and different places in America. Real America is local. Real America has sidewalks. Myrtle Beach has the enthusiastic obliteration of whatever meager history it can claim.

A vacation should be adventurous and somewhat novel. As a general rule, therefore, the place where you go on vacation should have more personality than the place where you actually live, not less. There’s no city in America with less personality than Myrtle Beach, S.C.  -Daniel Luzer

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