Once I realized that Beaufort was indubitably the location of the story I had in me to tell, naturally I had a burning passion to see the place. However, due to family responsibilities and the sheer cost of travel, I had to postpone my first visit for many more months than I liked.
What to do? I read everything about the city I could get my hands on--from dry history books, to on-line newspapers, to old fiction set there. Since the San Francisco Public Library is curiously lacking in materials about Beaufort, South Carolina, I had to buy many more books than I liked, but now these volumes are old friends.
In my near frenzy to see the place, I took to walking the streets via Google Maps street view. I would make my way down Craven Street into the Old Point, glimpsing houses through the shrubbery, getting frustrated with dead ends, trying to get a sense of what this town was all about.
So when I actually got to Beaufort the first time, it was quite a surreal experience. To be surrounded by an entire town that was simultaneously foreign and familiar created a dichotomy more unnerving than I expected. In a dream-like way I knew the order of the streets, that if I turned left here I would see such and such building, that if I continued straight for three blocks I would find the river. I recognized house after house I'd never seen, stepping along roads where even the asphalt was strangely familiar.
Ah, but as you might guess, the real thing easily outstrips the virtual. Google maps couldn't capture the light through trees, the richness of the resurrection ferns, the allure of the Spanish moss. It couldn't reproduce the timeless serenity of the antebellum homes, the play of the tidal river, or even offer me up a dolphin. It could convey structure but not soul.
Maybe someday we humans will master virtual realities complete enough to truly fool our senses, like the holodecks on Star Trek. Until then, the best form of mental travel might very well be a good book.