South Carolina’s Olde English District stirs in my imagination scenes of battle-ravaged Revolutionary War countryside, 18th Century plantations, colonial farms, and deep-rooted southern graces. On my first trip here, back when I was a high school student, I was introduced to a centuries-old America, a place to go antiquing in tumbledown homes, sip peach tea on the porches of colonial mansions, and indulge in five-course suppers.
When my friend and fellow travel writer, Austin Howard, told me to expect more from South Carolina, “This is a fantastic place for hiking, biking, driving, and riding,” I was skeptical. When he offered to show me endless eastern forests, some of the country’s best ATV courses, skydiving, soaring, and more, I had to reconcile the South Carolina in my mind with the one Austin was trying to place in my heart.
Becoming the adventure
Regardless of Austin’s plans to show me bold Carolina, I came out expecting something of a tame, canned experience—a theme park with a few raucous rides, more or less. But when Austin showed up on the front porch of my bed and breakfast dressed head-to-toe in biking gear, with a motorcycle helmet under his arm, I knew he had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Prepare to face the wild,” he said, tossing me a jacket of my own.
Soon after, I found myself deep in the backwoods of Carolina Adventure World, a sprawling natural playground that has transformed South Carolina from historical way-point to adventure destination; the morning was crisp and bright and I was atop a furious “mechanical bull,” beautiful cypress trees whipping past as I gunned the throttle and pushed my ATV to the limit in an effort to keep pace with Austin as he raced through the woods. We passed families riding in groups and solo riders ripping up the dirt track in the Motocross Area, and would have thrown our hats onto the Enduro Course had we enough time to test our stamina.
We packed into a single day more than 30 miles on our ATVs, another 10 miles hiking by foot, and what felt like a month’s worth of experiences. That night we sat out surrounded in antebellum grandeur on the veranda at the Honeysuckle Acres in nearby Winnsboro, sipping iced tea and taking stock of the adventures that were.
“Carolina Adventure World is a gateway to a part of South Carolina few people even know exists,” Austin said. “But it’s only the beginning. Tomorrow morning we could be hooking catfish on Lake Juniper in Cheraw State Park as the sun kicks sideways off the water, and by the afternoon we could be putting miles of trails under our feet out at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, spotting the always elusive red-cockaded woodpecker, surfing sand dunes, and making photographic magic under some of the best sunsets in the state.”
As Austin whipped through highlights of the day that was and narrated what was to come, I was struck by just how vibrant and bold South Carolina truly is.
Life of a human missile
I got so totally caught up in my paradigm shift of Olde English that I started saying yes to every new experience Austin offered without thinking for more than a split second. On our second morning each of us ended up strapped on a Skydive Carolina expedition. At 14,000 feet, I took a deep breath and the biggest leap of faith of my life, and we stepped out the door of the plane and rocketed toward earth—the terrain below a verdant carpet of forest and rolling hills. The leap was everything I expected it to be; a terrifying adrenaline rush that was also surprisingly serene. When I gave myself over to the plummet and steeled my nerves, I was better able to grasp the beauty of the few moments spent flying over Carolina. My instructor gave the cue and I pulled the chute. He showed me how to pull the cords to spin us around for a 360-view of the landscape.
The next morning, even before the wobble wore off, I was a burgeoning pilot—my “what’s next” attitude landed me in the cockpit of a glider, also known as a sailplane, at Bermuda High Soaring School, that provided a bird’s eye view of Sugarloaf Mountain, the glistening lakes of Goodale State Park, and endless untrammeled countryside. Austin took to the air like a flying squirrel, and suggested that we keep chasing thrills with a visit to Carowinds Amusement Park, home to the Fury 325—the tallest and fastest giga-coaster in the world.
“Three hundred and twenty-five feet high, more than 6,500 feet worth of track, and 95 miles an hour. If you can keep your eyes open the entire time,” Austin said with a smirk “dinner is on me.”
As you can probably guess, the barbecue bill came to my side of the table that night. Still, I fared far better on the park’s remaining 13 roller coasters, though while making the 100-foot climb on the Drop Tower, I felt as though I had left my stomach on the ground below. Austin, noticing my eyes widening as the park patrons below became tiny figures in an animated diorama, attempted to calm my nerves.
“What’s the most popular amusement park ride in Alaska?” he asked. Through clenched teeth I said I didn’t know.
“A beary-go-round,” he said, just as we reached the top of the tower. In that moment of terror when we paused at the top, I let out a huge laugh and cackled as we plummeted back to earth.
The adventure epiphany
During my first visit to South Carolina’s Olde English District I was immersed completely in the area’s incredible history. I remember fondly exploring Andrew Jackson State Park, touring Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site, and watching battle reenactments at Historic Brattonsville. I never imagined that I’d be back a quarter century later to skydive, race ATVs, fish beautiful lakes, pilot nimble gliders, and mountain bike beautiful forests–and I certainly never thought I’d come to consider South Carolina one of the most thrilling places in the country. That American history and outdoor adventure coexist in this southern space is very special–the fact that one of my best friends introduced me to these experiences made the adventure that much grander, and primed me for our next escapade.