Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Travelling Freak Show: Georgia's Antebellum Trail

Man in Outboard Canoe on Moon River, Tybee Island, Georgia Photographic Poster Print by John Elk III, 12x16

Tybee Island, a barrier island east of Savannah, Georgia.  A little place with narrow streets of weathered cottages and the tallest lighthouse in the United States, rebuilt three times due to storms.  Watching a beetle trying to climb out of a porcelain sink in a restroom at River’s End Campground while I brushed my teeth, I commiserated.  I, too, have strained under a seemingly impossible upward climb only to slide right back down to where I had begun.  Being the hard headed woman that I am, the backslide never stopped me from attempting another forward assault, nor from reaching the top, or what I had thought was the top before I saw that life was just a series of steps, plateaus reaching towards the sky.

I’m not sliding backwards anymore though.  Not even climbing, actually.  I have become a drifter, living liquid as I like to say, nonchalantly meandering through a midlife transition, wallowing BEing in the moment. 

Tybee Island: The Long Branch of the South (GA) (Making of America) traded my stilettos for Keens, my suits for shorts and t-shirts, meetings for hikes, and my extreme monster commute for hours swinging in a hammock. Abandoning, (or at least temporarily postponing), my upwardly mobile career track, I had leaped gracefully off the escalator of modern life. 

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "I want freedom for the full expression of my personality." After 23 years of single parenting and with children married, I could identify with that desire acutely. As I bumbled around in an empty house filled with a half a lifetime of stuff, I began to remember the woman I had wanted to be before motherhood consumed my consciousness and the itch to become free from it all and free to do what I wanted, when I wanted, with whom I wanted became more intense with each new day. So, in June of 2009, I leaped gracefully off the escalator of modern life, gave away most of my belongings, jammed the rest into a storage unit, and smashed the green “GO” button on my GSP launching me towards the first of many destinations. I didn't know when or if I'd be back, I just knew I had to GO. And, since I can seem to do nothing but follow my heart, that's just what I did--I went. I’ve been in motion ever since, mixing it up with the Universe.

Star Stuff

After traveling alone for almost a year, I became a willing passenger on a Vanagon cross-country trip in the spring of 2010 on what would be my sixth cross-country trip and, more specifically, my first around the country trip.  For almost four months last spring, I sauntered across state borders lackadaisically, although hardly aimlessly, in a camper van with a friend from high school.  Like Samurai we were living as each day were our last, savoring the moments, the tastes, and the ever changing weather to which campers are understandably keenly attuned. 

We had recently reconnected online due to our upcoming thirtieth class reunion and were pleased to learn that we each had taken time out from our respective professional careers for different reasons, packed away our belongings, and with a few books and miscellaneous electronics embarked to wander the country, to wallow in the sheer ecstasy of freedom.  Freedom from the hindrances and weight of modern life, as well as the freedom to follow our hearts’ content. Escaping winter, schedules and alarm clocks, we were enjoying the rare opportunity to just BE and were luxuriating in our aliveness.  When Spring came, we ended our respective house sits, tossed any previous plans (or rather ever changing notions of potential plans) that we might have had to the wind and decided to travel together for a season.

Our journey began in Dixie and would follow the coast to Texas, then from California to Washington. Turned out to be 120 days of wonderful.

Madison Historic District 2010 trip together began in early April just west of Atlanta, Georgia.  We had decided to aim for arrival in southern California in time for the Doheny Blues Festival at the end of May, allowing ourselves six weeks to camp at three national seashore parks along the way.  We set off towards the Antebellum Trail intent on following it south, making our way over the course of the following week to the Cumberland National Seashore located on the State’s largest and most southern barrier island. Meandering through seven small towns spared, (for the most part), by Sherman’s torch on his devastating march to Savannah, we had planned to tour historic houses along this State sponsored historic byway.  As is the prerogative of any wayward wander however, we instead decided to cut southeast below Atlanta to spend the entire afternoon exploring the Madison Historic District, one of the largest historic districts in Georgia, a quaint colonial town built around a center town “green”. Homes with names like Magnolia, LaFlora, Somerset, Holly, and Oak were sure to please the most discerning.

You know a town is old by the smell.  The boxwood hedges that adorn many colonial homes evoke, for me at least, images of things long past decaying.  They have a rich, musky, ever emanating odor, which in my opinion is hardly pleasing.  The well preserved homes of Madison set back on deep lots beneath century old trees were generally surrounded by well established hedges of the stinky stuff concealing gardens within, the Azalea in full bloom and Magnolia’s just budding.  Most homes were wrapped with the deep, shaded porches for which the southeast is known. 

Out on the Porch at the Cultural Center, (not, we learned, to be confused with the Visitor’s Center located off the town green), occupying the restored two story brick schoolhouse, we biked the short distance into town, passing a large Painted Lady Victorian, (the Queen Anne Hunter House), with impressive gingerbread spindle porch detailing, several Federal, Greek and Classic Revival style homes, and a two story dove cote tucked off to the left behind a white picket fence along with the aptly named Dove Cote Inn. stopped to lunch at Amici’s simply because we liked the music being played at the street side Italian café.  As we ate absolutely delicious mixed olive bruschetta and pesto cheese tortellini, we watched the people and traffic come and go in this town of just over 3,000 people that has hardly increased in size since Sherman’s troupes stormed through in 1864.  Although we did tour one historic house there, we afterwards decided that we’d rather pay the heftier entrance fees to see the larger, more grandiose plantation homes we would be passing on our way to the barrier islands. We had visited the Vizcaya Estate on Vizcaya Bay in Miami and thoroughly enjoyed touring this former Industrialist’s waterfront residence and gardens.  The smaller, less endowed Heritage Hall we toured in Madison just couldn’t compete with the ornate opulence of Vizcaya, although to its credit on display was the largest woman’s spittoon collection that either of us had ever seen, there had been numerous sightings of ghosts, and were in fact numerous interesting window etchings, (signatures mostly), made by the generations of brides-to-be with their engagement rings to ensure the diamonds offered were in fact authentic.  

Our time in Madison did provide two themes that would run the course of our cross country trek.  The first was to visit the grand homes of legendary upwardly mobile industrialists as well as those wrought out of the American wilderness by European second born aristocratic sons.  Another would be graveyards, first proposed while strolling through the town’s graveyard, final resting spot for hundreds of Civil War soldiers where we soberly discovered the rows of confederate flags posted on numerous root entombed gravestones.  We had found it tucked behind the James Madison Inn, a stately brick Georgian boutique hotel set back a block off the town green.  The gravestones were labeled “Unknown Soldiers” although some had names printed, (those from out of state battalions with no local family connections, thus, paid plots). 

We camped the night at the Oconee National Forest along Lake Sinclair.  Or we did once we found the place, rather.  A valuable lesson soon to be quickly learned: GPS data files do not seem to include the actual physical address of the parks themselves, but very often guide you instead to an office in a nearby town.  Using the zoom in and touch and drag features, we were able to pinpoint the location of the campground. 

After the sun set over the lake and the moon rose above the misty water, we watched the head of what we thought might be a beaver slink through the water following the moon trail.  We had first met in kindergarten when we were both five.  I had then been sent, very wisely I might add, to a Catholic school for the next eight years.  Notre Dame Perpetual Secure, of all places, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help”.  You’d have to have read the brief on my life thereafter to appreciate the irony in the name of my Alma Madre.  I didn’t meet up with him again until tenth grade only to part again three years later.  Thirty years later, we thought of the synchronicity of meeting each other again after all these years, of finding in our adult selves what we never would have imagined existed in our younger versions. 

Later, we built our first campfire with logs left over from previous campers and lots of kindling.  In the glow of the flames we drank bourbon and smoked cigars.  We sat side-by-side on a beach mat, smiling like the children we had once been together.  We knew that the trip was off to a grand start. 


While visiting Savannah, we found the tombstone of an unsuccessful duelist, who along with being a second born son, (and Scotsman fighting for the Crown), had also been an advancing soldier and budding romantic poet.  A bullet shot to, and consequently successfully lodged in, his heart abruptly nipped both aspiring careers. 

Sunset drinks in the rooftop lounge at the riverfront Bohemian promised to be the perfect respite from a long day exploring the City’s many ‘greens’.  Overlooking the Savannah River and cobblestoned historic district, this luxury hotel is part of the Kessler Collection, a portfolio of historic landmarks renovated exquisitely and adorned with eclectic array of site relevant art.  I had come across the Asheville, NC Bohemian the year before and had fallen in love with its quirky but classy interior decorating that creates a comfortable artsy ambiance.

Savannah Squares A Keepsake Tour of Gardens, Architecture, and Monuments for its avenues and moss drenched oak canopy, Savannah, the country’s largest historic district, is interesting from a planning perspective, having twenty-two squares, tiny green spaces crowded with historic statues and ancient oak trees.  These greens had been originally integrated into the town plan, providing colonial residents a convenient area in which to conduct military exercises.  Boxed by broad avenues, lined with these same oaks, Savannah has an aged tree canopy that I am sure proves invaluable in the hot summer months.  This colonial port town is worth visiting for sight of the trees alone.  There is nowhere quite like it.  It is the trees that you’ll notice first and it’s the trees you will remember most.

Not surprisingly, at all hours of the day and evening, Savannah’s downtown historic district is teeming with both birds and walkers clinging to maps.  There are also numerous bikers and moped-ites casing the neighborhoods, neither of which are very visible on the dark narrow streets particularly in the evening hours.  And as there are no protective bike lanes, riders mount at their own risk given the speed of the local traffic.

With an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass granting free entrance to any National Park or historic site, National Forest or Wildlife Area, and Bureau of Land Management tract newly acquired at Fort Pulaski earlier in the day, we were encamped at Crooked River State Park facing Cumberland Island.  It would be an early evening as we had been awake since 3AM and it had been a long day exploring the city.

Before we turned in the previous night, we had watched the first of the fireflies appear among the saw palmettos.  After only a few hours sleep though, we were awake again looking for a beach. Two blocks around the corner, we had found one tucked behind a waste sewage plant.  Since beggars can’t be choosers, we had kicked off our sandals and wiggled our feet into the cool sand.  

Avoiding beached Men of War with a tiny flashlight that he fortunately had handy, we had made our way over to some pilings that had washed ashore.  Sitting mostly silent under the cloud clad moon and stars, we had gazed out over the lapping waves at a blinking beacon across the sound from us.  It had been a long day; our delicate senses had been bombarded by the noise and stain of the City.  Neither of us had felt the need to keep the conversation going.  We had needed the wind over the water to blow through our hair and remind us, (as Carl Sagan had when we first reconnected), that we were but “star stuff”, two specs in the Universe that had collided.

Sitting across from me in his little traveling abode, his tinker’s wagon, we wrote before turning in.  He typed on his laptop journaling about our last few days together, about the intrinsic existentialism of it all.  I was doing the same in my own stream of conscience, rambling sort of way.  He looked at me occasionally with the glow of his screen on his tanned cheeks. I couldn’t think of anyone I would have rather been doing this trip with. I turned in a short while later exhausted and happy.

Cumberland Island

Although there were several tours we could have taken the day we visited the Cumberland National Seashore, we chose the Plum Orchard Mansion tour because it looked like rain.  While we waited for the departure time to arrive, we walked over to the Submarine Museum but it was closed.  The ferry ride out from St. Mary’s to the island was crowded, slow, damp and cold.  We had donned our “stupid” hats, as he calls bucket hats, and windbreakers for the occasion but I still spent most of the ride tucked against him for warmth. 

Story of Sea Island Cotton, TheThe original settlement on the island was built around the Dungeness Plantation, now in ruins, whose main crop was the very lucrative sea cotton.  Being much finer and softer than the standard version, sea cotton sold for twice the price.  Although nothing compared to Vizcaya, this 21,724 square foot Carnegie summer home included a hydroelectric Otis, indoor artesian well fed swimming pool and full size squash court.  And, quite frankly, none of the great homes that we had visited were equipped with gold plated bathroom fixtures as was Plum Orchard or a National Park tour guide that played the grand piano beneath one of four tiffany lamps.  She finished playing her piece and seeing our drop-jaw expressions, coyly remarked, “See? Practice does pay off!”

After the tour, we ate our packed lunch on the oversized swing adorning the side porch, walked the grounds and discussed whether to stay in the vicinity a few days in order to return to hike some of the 50 miles of trails that run along the beaches and the length of the island. We decided to venture further south to the warmth of sun and sands on account of the inclement weather and the groups of campers we noticed unloading their gear from the ferry that had just docked to retrieve the last passengers for the return trip to the mainland. I don’t “do” crowded beaches. 

Hoofprints In The Sand: Wild Horses of the Atlantic CoastAlthough we didn’t see any of the dolphins or manatees that are said to feed at the mouth of the Brickhill River, we were lucky enough to glimpse the wild horses eating grass near the picnic tables as we passed the Dungeness Dock just before turning away from the island towards the mainland.  Strategically located along the transatlantic migratory flyway, over 335 species of birds have been identified on or around the island.  The ferry ride provides excellent viewing of many stork, ibis and egret rookeries.  The island is also home to osprey, peregrine falcons, as well as eagles. That evening before heading back to the campground, we ate Greek food on the upstairs porch at the Riverside Café while listening to a kilted man play the bagpipes down by the pier. 

Battered Bird

The next day, he woke slow and easy from a late afternoon nap to a sparrow battering about inside the van.  It had flown into the side window and was perched on the steering wheel peering at me warily as I opened all the doors to let it out.  He stepped into the low lying sun and stretched, the pines and palmettos fanning out behind him. 

At this stage in my life, I have ever so much gratitude for the simple, little things: a clear blue sky; a florescent sunset; good food among good people; a long, drawn out story and a belly busting joke; a gentle touch, smile, thoughtful word or gesture…they all go such a long way with me.  The fact that this person from my past had reappeared and that he turned out to be such comfortable company continued to fill me with awe.  I just could not stop smiling or shaking my head. But, my life is like that now that I’m in motion. Miracles, magic and celestial mysteries abound.

Comfort Living: A Back-to-Basics Guide to a More Balanced Lifestyle instance, sitting next to us in the rain beneath umbrellas at a breakfast sidewalk café the day before we had met Celia Dunn, premier realtor from Savannah and Christine Eisner, who is ironically the author of Comfort Living: A Back-to-Basics Guide to a More Balanced Lifestyle.  Eisner quotes Maurice Sendak, father of Where the Wild Things Are, at the beginning of an article on the value of campfires: “There must be more to life than having everything.” I couldn’t agree more, especially if “everything” is defined as material possessions. We hadn’t much between us, but as I looked at him, arms up stretched, mouth twisted in a yawn, I felt I had all I wanted, right there, right then. Life was perfect, I thought. Everything for a reason and everything in its season, as the saying goes.

Midnight in Garden of Good & Evil we went, people asked us our story; we asked them theirs.  It’s what travelers do.  We met middle aged sisters who had grown up in upstate New York who had offered us one of their many maps so that we could better locate the Mercer House featured in the book and movie entitled Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  We met wide smiling Margo, the physical therapist from Jacksonville, and her friend Liz who had served as the volunteer guides on our tour of the 1898 Plum Orchard Mansion. They had landed a sweet week-long house sitting opportunity on Cumberland Island through a friend of a friend who happened to be a national park ranger.  On the ferry ride back to the mainland they showed us wonderfully playful pictures of their week on the island, pictures of the wild horses scratching their backs in the sand on the miles of pristine, unspoiled-by-development-beaches.  Of the age old trees dripping with Spanish moss all along Grand Avenue that led from Dungeness Dock to the Carnegie family “cottages”.  These women who showed us the pictures they had taken of their feet as a reminder to be “here now” also spoke, coincidentally, of the power of synchronicity.

From all the people I’d met in my travels, I’d seen a rainbow of colors and tasted an aromatic buffet of gourmet flavors. And still, I hadn’t a doubt in my mind that my path was the right one for me, that his was the right one for him. That a compatible, comfortable, easy companionship such as the one we were then sharing was worth traveling the world for. I looked up at the moon that night, I offered up thanks to the powers that be for the life I was living, for the freedom I was experiencing. I gave thanks for having had the good fortune to have met so many tender hearted people from all over the world with such rich stories of their own. I blessed those that had come before me and those that would follow. Blessed martyrs beheaded, burned and buried in unmarked heaps.  Blessed the circles walkers, all those who exist outside the box, walking to their own beat, carving out their own destinies.  Blessed Jung for exposing the Collective Consciousness and Freud for his Victorian corseted efforts at exposing sexual (and emotional) repression. Blessed Plato for his Allegory of the Cave and for the enchanted words of love and desire and spiritual at-one-ness of Shakespeare, Rumi and Nurudi.

Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild HorsesI begged blessings on those who had so blessed me and mine.  I knew all too well that my bliss was just a reflection of all the joy, goodness and wisdom that others had brought to this world.  I would remain grateful for every new day I woke free and every mile I traveled forth. I had my cake and I was eating it, too. He was just the frosting.

That night, in the company of a good man who was surprisingly becoming the best of friends, I slept my last night in the deep south, cradled by antebellum antiquity to the sound of tree frogs and wind blowing through pine trees.

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