Pawleys Island, South Carolina: Riding to James Dickey’s Grave

Text: James O. Luken • Photography: James O. Luken

My favorite day trips usually involve food, not the deceased. But All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, SC, offers too much to ignore: the grave of poet and novelist James Dickey, a famous ghost, and other Southern historical gems. And to make this destination even more desirable, it is close to good food and excellent coastal views.

A Honda CTX1300 is my ride. See one and you’ll likely have questions. It shuns categories and begs for destinations off the grid, which brings me to Dickey. If you don’t know him, rent Deliverance, read the book of the same name, then listen to Dickey recite poems at Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration. Now you understand at least a part of it. Dickey died in 1997. His grave and that of his first wife lie just a short distance from my home in Myrtle Beach. 

The CTX looks like a hungry dragon ready to hunt. It seems to know that I briefly met James Dickey in 1980 when he spoke at Duke University. After his bourbon-infused words were delivered, I hurried to the front of the room and said, “I really enjoyed that.” He smiled and replied, “Why, thank you.” We shook hands and that was it. Another meeting is in order.

It is January and the day promises a high of 62 degrees, perfect for striking a balance between protective clothing and core temperature. Traffic on Highway 544 is light on South Carolina’s Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of coast extending from Little River to Georgetown. Here, the population balloons in summer but dwindles to a few snowbirds in winter. 

My home is 10 miles inland and so I ride “down” to the sea, but this is the Lowcountry and any change in elevation is at best measured in centimeters. Near Socastee I cross the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), a 3,000-mile canal built so cargo ships could safely travel up and down the Atlantic coast. In my neighborhood, the ICW is a favorite playground for jet skis and fishing boats; barges are rarely seen. 

I merge onto U.S. Route 17 and head south toward Murrells Inlet, the claimed “Seafood Capital of South Carolina.” Murrells Inlet is indeed a town, but it wouldn’t exist if not for a nearby ocean inlet of the same name that feeds a marsh that gives the town its scenic views. I veer onto U.S. 17 Business and cruise past dozens of seafood restaurants, all perched nicely along a marsh boardwalk. It’s early, so I forgo a meal at my favorite hangout, the Hot Fish Club. Behind the restaurant, kayaks are entering the tidal creek. 

Back on 17, I pass Brookgreen Gardens, the former rice plantation turned sculpture garden by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington of Connecticut. The Huntingtons bought the idle plantation in the 1930s and transformed the site into a showcase of art and architecture; not the first Yankees to bring High culture to the Lowcountry, and not likely the last. Brookgreen Gardens is well worth a stop, but my appointment today is a literary one.

Two lights after Brookgreen Gardens I turn right midway through the town of Litchfield Beach and cruise past a landscape of boutiques, golf courses, vacation rentals, and high-end subdivisions. Back in the day—and I mean way back—the owners of rice plantations along the nearby Waccamaw River moved their families in summer to Litchfield Beach and adjacent Pawleys Island in an effort to escape mosquitoes, Malaria, slave management, and the oppressive heat. Quite a bit has changed since then!

A left on Kings River Road (named for a former king of England) and I come to All Saints Church, founded in 1739. The church and its small adjacent graveyard are surrounded by stone and iron. I park and start my search, pacing systematically, scanning for a pair of upright stone tablets. 

I find a flush marble slab adorned with flowers, necklaces, shells, and plastic dolls. This is the grave of Alice Flagg. In the mid-1800s she lived near here with her brother Allard Flagg, a prominent and wealthy doctor. Dr. Flagg banished Alice to Charleston as punishment for her illicit relationship with a local country boy. She died of a broken heart and this apparently spawned a ghost, one of South Carolina’s most famous. If you walk backward around her grave nine times, Alice will appear … at least in the minds of some. The earth around her grave is trampled bare. I keep searching.

I spot a pair of likely stones in the front corner. As I prepare to pay homage, I see a low bench inscribed with the word “Dickey.” Someone has placed seashells on the tablets, but that is the only evidence of visitors. The live oaks, their burdens of Spanish moss, and the absence of direct light should conjure spirits. But there is no ghost of James Dickey to be found, only this simple statement etched across his grave: “I move at the heart of the world.”

As I ride home, the winter sun squats low and the temperature drops. I try to do what a healthy motorcycle ride requires: focus on the cars and their blind drivers. But the trip intrudes. I have no good explanation for why James Dickey and his wife are buried far from their home in Columbia, SC. The Dickey family spent some time at a local resort. Perhaps the graveyard near the ocean was simply a fond memory, one chosen for more permanent events.