A few years ago, I was driving through a rural community in South Carolina named Denmark when I stopped at a nondescript red brick building called Jim Harrison Gallery. I knew of Jim Harrison, a well-known Southern artist and author, but had never met him. At the time, he was best known for painting rural landscapes and coastal scenes, often incorporating Coca-Cola imagery into them.
On that fall day, I went inside the gallery and found Harrison, author of "Jim Harrison Cookbook" and "The Coca-Cola Arts of Jim Harrison," chatting with a customer. The gallery is small, so I couldn't help but to eavesdrop as he told her how he started his career by painting roadside Coca-Cola signs. He went on to become one of the South's most beloved artists.
When he declared that he had about 20 cats, as a confirmed crazy cat lady myself, I listened more closely. The cadence of his words was slow and deliberate, as befitting of a Southern gentleman. As he spoke to the young woman, I looked around at paintings and postcards and prints before selecting one as a Christmas gift for a friend.
Later, when I stumbled upon Harrison's obituary, I remembered that day and thought of his slightly graveled but velvety voice and my visit to his gallery with its scruffy wooden floors and big windows that allowed plenty of light. In the years since his death in 2016, the gallery has remained open and is quite possibly the biggest draw of Denmark, population about 3,000.
I'm a road-tripper, always have been, and that's how I found Denmark in the first place. Denmark is but a fragment of a cluster of communities, small towns and counties that make up a South Carolina travel region called Thoroughbred Country, a name more befitting of Kentucky or Virginia or some other horse-centric state. Yet there I was, rambling the back roads in search of Americana, South Carolina-style.
Here's how Thoroughbred Country stacks up. The four counties of Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell and Bamberg, where Denmark lies, make up the 2,462 square miles of Thoroughbred Country in an area wedged between Augusta, the Georgia home of the Masters, and Columbia, South Carolina's capital city.
Just east of the state line at Augusta, Ga., and into South Carolina at North Augusta -- the Savannah River separates the two Augustas -- is where I left Interstate 20 behind to explore from county to county the melange of small towns and their galleries, antique shops, roadside produce stands with baskets of fresh peaches and strawberries, festivals, plantation homes and historical sites dating from Colonial America to the Civil War to Reconstruction and beyond.
My grand journey began in Aiken County -- the entire county is roughly the size of Rhode Island -- where I met two friends who would accompany me on the Thoroughbred Country girlfriends' getaway.
Our first stop was Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, a museum house completed in 1859. As we say in the South, it just ain't a home without a magnolia tree, and Redcliffe is graced by 150 of them. The antebellum home housed generations of the Hammond family, who dabbled in politics and cotton.
When I asked Theresa Hipps, assistant park ranger, how the house was so named, she answered simply, "Because it's on a red cliff."