Growing up in Florida, my childhood was deprived of one thing that I take for granted today; hills! Florida is, as southerners like to say, “Flat as a fritter”. According to Wikipedia the highest point in Florida is Britton Hill in Walton County. Walton County is “a far piece” from my home county, Duval, on Florida’ “First Coast”. I grew up thinking that climbing a sand dune in a nearby abandoned phosphate mine was the same as conquering Mount Everest, a whopping 15 feet above sea level.
Now wait a minute, I know you are thinking if Florida is so flat, how can it have a mine? Well, this wasn’t a mine like most people envision mines. It was a sand pit from which the miners dug up earth, extracted the phosphate from it and then left the remaining sand on a large inland beach. This particular mine was about a mile from my cousin’s home in the Arlington area of Jacksonville, so as kids we would often go exploring this man made desert and play “Laurence of Arabia” years before the movie came out. It was a lot of fun trekking across the wasteland that was the result of the rather un-ecological mining practice. These eyesores remained after phosphate was banned from cleaning products and would not support any kind of plant growth. They were barren and inhospitable but a perfect place to play desert games. Fortunately technology eventually was developed that allowed for these areas to be controlled and used commercially. One of Jacksonville’s biggest shopping centers now stands where our little desert was years ago.
But I digress; we are talking about hills, not deserts. Hills and mountains were pretty foreign to my experience until I came to Columbia, SC to go to college. That was a major geographic change for me. The dorms where I lived the first two years were near the top of the hill where downtown and the major part of campus was located. My room faced to the east but on the other side of the dorm, the windows overlooked a vast panorama where the land dropped off sharply to the river and the lowlands of Richland and Lexington counties. From that vantage point it seemed I could see all the way to the Georgia state line which is over 60 miles away.
I lived most of my college life on top of that broad hill, but from many places on campus it was clear that I was truly on the top of the world. Rarely, a group of us would descend the hill down to Blossom Street, a trip of about one block but almost 100 feet in altitude. After college, I lived in an apartment that was built on top of a garage in back of a beautiful old home that was midway down that block but still quite a bit higher than the land that surrounded Rocky Branch Creek that ran parallel to Blossom Street below. I really learned how to use the clutch in my car navigating the hill on which I lived. One of my fondest memories was of sitting at the breakfast table looking out the window over the trees down the hill and seeing the sunlight bounce off the green leaves of the canopy of trees below. This was really something to my “flatlander” sensibility. Something indeed!
Today, my home is on the top of another of these broad low hills that give the name of “Sandhills” to the region where I live. This back in Paleolithic times, was the coastline of North America. Everything to the south and east of here was part of what is now the Atlantic Ocean. I live a little over 200 feet above sea level, not quite as high as the tallest hill in Florida but way above anything that I remember growing up in the coastal plain of the Sunshine State. Driving from home to the campus, my patch crosses a couple of deep ravines, the aforementioned Rocky Branch Creek and Gills Creek. As I make the trip I often remember the excitement I felt when I saw the hills of my home town. If you ever find yourself on I-77 a few miles east of I-26 and just after you cross the Congaree River, look to the north and you will see the city sitting like a glittering jewel on top of those rolling hills. Oh MY!