Wasting Away in Margaritaville Hell

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Living and Retiring in ¾ Time

In the early 1970s, Jimmy Buffet and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina were each stymied by identical situations. Buffet, a Gulf Coast native, was mired in an identity crisis. He definitely wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, but with novelty songs like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” he wasn’t country enough. The Parrotheads, his legion of loyal followers, hadn’t been invited, and Hilton Head was run aground in a similar spot. Charles Fraser’s Hilton Head Company had developed a half-dozen private communities on the island, from Sea Pines to Shipyard Plantation, but the area’s population was still relatively small—less than 3,000 full-timers. When a barge damaged the only bridge to the island, residents traveled a temporary pontoon bridge to get off. Yet the singer-songwriter and the sleepy vacation destination were each on the launching pad, poised for a transformation that transcended their common origins. Over forty years later, the two global brands have linked themselves together, and their union plants a beguiling capstone on Generation Jones and Gordon Gekko’s 1980s Wall Street creed: “Greed is good.”

Like many Atlantic barrier islands, Hilton Head still has only one central access point. Today, it’s US-278, which runs from the humdrum Hardeeville exit off I-95 to the panoramic Harbour Town lighthouse. The thirty-five mile stretch of four-lane divided highway operates like a perpetually tangled extension cord, a constant gnarl of traffic. The area’s strict zoning and building codes also create an incessant monotony of sandy beige and hunter green, hypnotizing and annoying travelers with its mundanity. When everything appears the same, how can you tell what’s authentic? However, in the Lowcountry town of Bluffton, nearer the interstate than the island, two faux boulder formations mark the arrival of the free spirits to Beaufort County.

Nearly twelve miles from Fraser’s original Sea Pines resort, but only two miles from the I-95 Hardeeville exit, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Holdings, LLC and a Florida-based retirement community developer are partnering to construct another Latitude Margaritaville. Their third location plans to provide the same whimsical attitude as the mythical land of flip-flops and “booze in the blender,” offering 3,000-plus homeowners daily opportunities to blow their kids’ inheritance. Now randy retirees can get drunk at a variety of beverage concepts and pop a blue-diamond party-pill so they can screw before “Hannity,” which might rile-up aging Parrotheads enough to improve their refractory period.

Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker sired the rock ‘n’ roll cash-grab, and the world knows there’s no-limit to a real estate developer’s gumption. No one can blame Mike and Marcy from Moline, or Milwaukee, or Minneapolis for wanting to live anywhere with palm trees and without snow blowers. Golf sucks in a blizzard. As for Buffet, with his early 70s ballads like “He Went to Paris” and his haunting siren-song “Biloxi,” he’s earned a degree of absolution for his distinctive grade of gluttony. He sold out after “Cheeseburger in Paradise” saturated the airwaves in 1978, leaving behind fans of his early albums. Moreover, his rise to the heights of commercial proliferation was in our social dharma ever since The Monkees and The Partridge Family. The youngest of the Baby Boomers have been bombarded with mass merchandising for fifty or sixty years. Like every kid raised on Saturday morning cartoons, they can’t distinguish between a genuine presence and products masquerading as contrived characters. Chugging Landshark beers and piling aqua blue pineapple throw pillows on the sofa offers a validated identity. Mike and Marcy are only following the rules, bullshit cultural norms they believed were their only options.

The manicured golf courses, discount outlet malls, and beach lifestyle obscure Hilton Head Island’s rich history. According to F. Rutledge Hammes, a Lowcountry native and author of A Curious Matter of Men With Wings, the Gullah Geechee people are an integral part of the region’s legacy. Descended from Central and East Africans, the Gullah’s roots were embedded in the land after the Civil War. Inaccessible and nearly uninhabitable, much of the Lowcountry was left to the former slaves during Reconstruction, and from the swampy ruins they cultivated a powerful way of life free from the master’s sinister oversight. All along the coast, annual festivals celebrate the Gullah’s culture, but for years in Hilton Head, the only meager remnant of their impact on the island was the odd glimpse of a bottle tree. Earthmovers expunged them with each new development. Recently, Louise Cohen, a Hilton Head native, has worked to revitalize the Gullah’s legacy on the island. In 2003, she formed the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, and this summer the organization is holding its first annual Gullah Day Camp. Perhaps the newest Mikes and Marcys moving to Latitude Margaritaville can donate to support to her cause.

Savvy marketers have long known how to manipulate our minds, but place isn’t as simple to influence. It can be polluted and bulldozed in a variety of means, but it can’t be entirely defeated. The earth will exist with or without us. The choice is ours as to how we serve out our incarnation. It’s tempting to lethargically squander our post-career life as if it’s extra sick days awarded to us by human resources, until you realize that at seventy-one Jimmy Buffet still tours every year, packing out shows from Wrigley Field to Fenway Park. It’s a lot of work being the ruler of the “no worries” empire.


(Photo credit: Flickr.)

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