Love Letters: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

I love the way you allowed me to grow and come into my own under your skies. In a strange way, you helped to raise and mold me. You gave me life lessons that would protect me even when I have lived away from your shores.
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Born and raised in the Myrtle Beach area, Veronica D. Gerald is a descendant of the African slaves who worked on the area's rice plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Staying close to her roots, she now operates The Ultimate Gullah Gift Shop in Conway. An English professor at Coastal Carolina University, Gerald also authored "The Ultimate Gullah Cookbook."

Dear Myrtle Beach,

I love the way you allowed me to grow and come into my own under your skies. In a strange way, you helped to raise and mold me. You gave me life lessons that would protect me even when I have lived away from your shores.

As a member of the Gullah Geechee community, my ancestors came onto your shores from the coastlines of West Africa in the 1700s as part of the booming rice industry that dominated the southeastern coasts until the mid 1800s. By the time baby boomers including myself came along, the Gullah Geechee people dominated the service industry, staffing the hotels, golf courses and other enterprises that evolved into Myrtle Beach's Grand Strand - 60 miles of stunning beaches and the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets, attracting a myriad of visitors from around the globe.

Myrtle Beach, you were there when I first ventured out of your cocoon and away from the state of South Carolina. I'll never forget when I boarded the Greyhound bus on my way to the Maryland coast for college. As the bus pulled away, I remember peering out of the window, afraid of what was ahead and already missing what was behind me. I cried and felt alone, but the sound of the ocean waves crept into that moment, becoming louder and louder, drowning out all else. It was then that I realized your greatest gift - a portable memory that I could use as needed.

I often think about a game that we played as children while sitting on my porch on Highway 378, a major gateway into Myrtle Beach. We would watch the vacationers driving from every corner of the country. The object was to claim the next car coming, sight unseen, by being the first to say "my car." Sometimes, the car would be a beautiful one, shiny and bright, but often it would be an old clunker -- in which case we would laugh and poke fun at the chooser. These thoughts reminded me of your shores after Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and all the other hurricanes that have visited you over the years. You endured their attacks and destruction and came through with the same unscathed spirit that you passed on to me.

Today, as I sit in my office at Coastal Carolina University, just inland from Myrtle Beach, I often think back on my childhood and my relationship with you. Now, as acquaintances come to visit, I point them in the direction of all the things and places that I loved and still love about the Grand Strand. I tell them to take early morning walks on the beach so that they can bear witness to your stunning sunrises. I tell them about your tremendous sunsets that splash orange, pink and yellow colors across the water or - if they're lucky -the huge, spectacular full moons that seem to sit motionless on top of the water, presenting breathtaking works of art.

I refer them to some of my favorite places to stay, like the Sandy Beach Resort with its beautiful oceanfront views and modest rates right in the heart of the Grand Strand, or the Tilghman Beach & Golf Resort in peaceful Cherry Grove. I brag about your more than 100 magnificent golf courses, and the abundance of restaurants like Sea Captain's House and Aspen Grille -- or I send them down to Murrells Inlet, the seafood capital of South Carolina. I let them know about the free souvenirs that appear every morning when your ocean leaves behind the most beautiful and unique sea shells imaginable. Most of all, I tell anyone who will listen that you sit within a National Heritage Area known today as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, recognized nationally in tribute to my people and their contributions.

Myrtle Beach, I love you, your gifts, strength and endurance.