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(Note: While Sheridan Hill takes a week off, we present this column she submitted in February)

Along North King’s Highway, the age-old Myrtle Beach inland strip, I’m noticing the differences from when I was a kid in the back of my parents’ car. My dad would pack us in the Town Car and drive to Myrtle Beach for a weekend of sun-burning, swimming, sand castle building, fireworks-setting, and the general doing-of-nothing.

I remember the pickup trucks and produce shacks all along the way, selling what grew well here: peanuts, especially hot boiled peanuts, which never went out of style, and the freshest, juiciest, ripest peaches ever. We made sure to bring a bushel back home, and after a whole lot of peeling, my dad would make hand-churned peach ice cream. Mercy.

In the 1960s here, Ole Dixie Confederate flags were common in the dirt yards of shacks, and locals felt free to use the “n” word to other white people, assuming we all held the same prejudices as sacred. The God-given rights of white people, that kind of thing. I am glad to see that the obvious display of racial bigotry is no longer cool here.

I miss the prevalence of those farmers proudly selling what they’d grown with their own two hands. They were often cheerful. They were confident that what they offered was fresher and sweeter than anything the Piggly Wiggly could get. I miss the conversations to be had with them, for part of the shopping experience was standing by the two-lane road telling tales. Of how long they’d had the land, of their grandaddies and great-grandaddies buried in the family cemetery out back.

If you saw an African American person, he or she was probably bagging groceries or in some janitorial function. The first African American person I saw on this trip was strolling the beach in a trendy leisure outfit. Some changes have been a long time coming.

On this visit in February 2020, one glaring change from 60 years ago is a sign at the self-service gas pump at the Scotchman. It explains to Canadians how to enter their zip code at the pump when inserting a credit card. Canadians, whoa Nellie! At the Kroger, the young man who bags my groceries has a New York accent, as does the check-out lady. At the Publix, the check-out woman also had a New York accent, as did the customers I heard in the aisles. In the international food section, I could not count the varities: Asian, Eastern Indian, Thai, South American Latin, North Americn Latin, Kosher, and so forth.

Myrtle Beach has a few things in common with Black Mountain: an economy that leans heavily on tourists and retirees, a geographical aspect that limits growth (the Atlantic Ocean for them, the Swannanoa Valley and surrounding mountains for us), and land values and local taxes rising to the point that what were formerly known as “locals” are steadily priced out of living here.

But as I muse the disappearance from Myrtle Beach of those in my childhood whom I saw as locals, I have to think about the Native Americans who were here first. Before the Europeans arrived (and began enslaving and shipping off the natives), these lands were home to the ancient Waccamaw. Expert fishers and hunters, they also caught and domesticated deer and produced milk and cheese. Although the Waccamaw included many other branches and tribes, in all the villages everyone pitched in for the success and survival of all. The community garden was one place everyone labored together.

A recent USA Today article points out the 60 miles of wide beaches here, and another current website notes that thongs are not allowed on the Grand Strand beaches except during Bike Week. I guess some things haven’t changed much after all.

When I visited here in the 1960s, the tallest thing around was the Ferris wheel on the beach, and the population was under 8,000, similar to Black Mountain’s population today. As of 2018, Myrtle Beach sports a 29-story building, nearly 34,000 permanent residents and another 20 million visitors annually.

How much growth we want is an ongoing question of interest in the Swannanoa Valley and in Black Mountain in particular. As of 2018, Myrtle Beach was ranked the second fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. As Black Mountain seeks to grow, let us continue to focus on what kind of growth we want to see.

Sheridan Hill is a native Tar Heel whose company, Real Life Stories, LLC, produces Heirloom Biography for select clients.

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