Author Terry McDonell reminisces about a winter retreat at Folly Beach

A writer and editor escapes New York for a month of milder temps, bird spotting, and long walks along the South Carolina coast
Folly Beach, South Carolina

Illustration by Harry Tennant

South Carolina is famous for its beaches, but I didn’t know them. Folly Beach, which I discovered looking for escape from a dark, grueling New York City winter, advertised exceptional surf breaks and beach town tradition. Yeah, I thought, Folly Beach! Brilliant water, four-generation family beach houses, surfer subculture, and only one bridge on and off the island; my Southern friends were surprised I’d found it.

I missed kicking off the new year with the “Bill Murray look-alike” polar bear plunge, for which one dresses like a favorite Murray character and runs into the ocean. Motto: Freeze your balls off! No matter, I was just happy to find it was 20 degrees warmer than New York, and empty except for year-round people and diehard surfers. End to end, Folly is only six miles of wide beaches broken and protected by a series of jetties, and I planned to walk them all.

My rented house faced “The Washout,” a long beach break that got rowdy during storm swells and on windy days when the blow whipped up classic, rolling surf. A 20-minute walk up the beach was the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve with nesting sites for threatened loggerhead turtles. A local said you could find shark’s teeth there, but I never really looked. Off the beach, was marshland and maritime forest with stopover and winter roosting sites for flyway birds including the endangered piping plovers that I saw.

If I walked west, I would end up at Folly Beach County Park, acres of bone-white sand and scrub dunes bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the wide (at that point) Folly River. A day-tripper magnet between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it was now almost deserted except for people walking with dogs (only allowed in winter).

I had been warned about the weather, but on some of my best days the rain would come and go several times, leaving a freshness on the magnolias that perfumed the salt air coming off the water. My backyard had magnolias, too, and two stands of 60-foot palmetto palms with large fronds, as well as hemlocks with dense green umbrella tops— excellent nesting cover for the robins, mockingbirds, and woodpeckers that fed on the palmetto cones and seeds. A swinging back gate opened onto wetlands that rose and fell with the tide.

By the time my month was up, the lessons of Folly would stay with me in the specifics. The birds and the trees and the long beach walks, learning the tides, the endlessly changing rhythms of the Atlantic. The way the sun would rise over the wetlands just outside my back gate, where early one morning I saw a family of raccoons, perhaps heading for the preserve.

Driving north over the Folly River Bridge at the end of my month, I knew that hordes would descend all summer and surfers would complain it was too crowded just to go left. But those high-season inconveniences weren’t my concern. For a month in the middle of winter, Folly was the perfect beach.

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Terry McDonell is a media executive, literary editor, and published author. He has won numerous awards for his editorial work at various magazines and websites and has written and produced for film and television. Known for his acclaimed book The Accidental Life, McDonell returned to memoir with his most recent book, Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son.

This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Southbound.