Thank God for Gamble Rogers. Not only is he the orator of the finest song introduction ever made (see the movie “Heartworn Highways, for his performance of “The Black Label Blues”), a very fine guitar picker, and a decent singer; he had the good sense to die while trying to save a drowning man at this spot just next to Flagler Beach so the state could create a peaceful park and nature preserve with his name on it. Without it right now, I would be pulling my hair out. But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start at the top.
I blinked the taillights out of the driveway this morning in the dark at around six a.m. and pointed the old grey Landcruiser south and east towards Savannah, which is where I last left the edge. After a predictably crazy escape through the traffic of Atlanta, the ride to the coast was uneventful. Not so the drive the south from Savannah to Kingsland, Georgia, which was very eventful — in a good way.
The collective ports of Georgia — Savannah and Brunswick — essentially bookend the east coast of the state, and they are powerful engines of the economy. They are responsible for 8 percent of the state’s GDP, 9 percent of its total employment and $106 billion of its sales (11 percent). Interstate 16, which I took to get to Savannah and Interstate 95 which connects not only Savannah and Brunswick, but also the entire east coast, are a big part of this — the stuff has to get to the boat and from the boat. It would be tempting, but ill-advised, to just ride 95 down the eastern edge. Doing so would rob you of the opportunity to use old US 17 from Savannah to the state line.
From Richmond Hill to Shellman Bluff, Harris Neck and Sapelo, from Eulonia to the Golden Isles, and on to Woodbine and Kingsland; US 17 paces you through the old South among the ancient live oaks and pine stands, in a way that no interstate can. Punctuated by markers noting this skirmish, or that Confederate Hospital, or some other Union encampment, there are notions here of what was. But rather than celebratory, they begin, after a few miles, to feel observant — of the terrible price we pay when we fail to get along. Of a victory by many over a few for the rights of all. Of a time that we have to remember in order to avoid it forevermore. And over it all spread the mighty live oaks, bearing the scars and the struggles, hung with moss and determined to be more than an alley to the plantation — to be instead, a living testament to survival even in the face of horror.
The people of this stretch mirror their herbaceous overlords. Determined to make a way when the big road left them behind. Determined to be a repentant culture, reminded every few miles of the need for kindness, they are doing well. From gas station to cafe, to roadside shrimp market, the people of southeastern Georgia are remarkable. A simple “good morning” gets you a warm response and a follow-up “how are you?” No transaction ends without a hope for you to “have blessed/great/fantastic day.” Plus, there is a great diner somewhere between Woodbine and Kingsland that’s been cooking honest food since 1948, remains packed with all sorts of folks at lunchtime, and has a waitress who referred to me exclusively as “Baby.” So there’s that. These are small things, but it is in these small things, repeated and absorbed and believed, that people heal. And in that healing, there is a peace and pace to this area that is enviable.
Also, there are cemeteries. What seems like a lot of cemeteries to me. All are named and well kept and, interestingly, denominational. As in not just a cemetery, a Baptist cemetery. Because, God forbid your mortal remains be subject to the same ground as some backsliding Methodist. I don’t have a real explanation for this, but it seems to me folks who take good care of their dead, even if they are segregated by method of baptism, are caring people.
Shortly after Kingsland, you cross an impossibly narrow bridge over the St. Mary’s River and into…well, Florida. It only takes about 10 miles for that whole peace and pace thing to go to Hell.
You can pick up the A1A at Yulee, FL, but despite the romance, it is not a nice drive. The hustle starts at Atlantic Beach and doesn’t stop until Flagler Beach, just south of St. Augustine. What once could have been described as “quaint beach towns” could now only be described, charitably, as “mixed up.” The shoulder is jammed with tradesmen parking every manner of cement mixer, gantry crane and work truck. The houses range from ground hugging bunker with peeling paint, to brand spanking new stucco tower with cobblestone drive — immediately next door. So precious is the space on the edge that no engineering feat is too difficult in order to get a view of the water we so joyfully got out of to start all of this experiment. Your only break comes in the few places along the way (Ponte Vedra) where zoning by mayhem is replaced by autocratic horticultural, gated perfection that only comes with seven figure entry fees. Otherwise you can get your nails done, check the latest lot prices and try the fried clams all within 10 feet of each other while enjoying a wonderful view of a construction site.
I really have neither positive nor negative feelings about this. It is the marketplace at work. Very little supply meets overwhelming demand. Ready, set, go! It is, however, not relaxing in the least. I do think it got away from them in a few places. Like St Augustine. There is no place in America that was established by Europeans and has enjoyed continuous habitation for longer than St. Augustine. Which basically means its the first place we kicked the locals out of and managed to never cede back. Its history is a mishmash of back and forth control by the Spanish and the British and eventually the Americans, but we or our progenitors have been there since 1565. This seems to me to be a place where the old world would be on stage. And it is, insofar as the Spanish fort remains in the “Old Town” center and the “Bridge of Lions” crosses a picturesque harbor. There’s just too much “Ye Olde Town Trolley Tour” and all you can eat shrimp mixed in to really get at it. The famous striped lighthouse is pretty and you can visit it if you can get to it behind the lot full of beautiful glazed pottery across the street from the Alligator Farm. Seriously.
Mercifully, if you keep at it, you will find Flagler Beach and the Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area. Flagler is old school. Surfer vibe. Where, as a community, no one seems to give a shit who has the biggest house. Or whether the house is painted. Or whether it’s too early for a cocktail. And while GRSRA is not the greatest state park ever, squeezing into a space right on the ocean between a teardrop camper and a pup tent feels like heaven after a day on the northern end of the A1A.
Here’s hoping Jimmy Buffett was right and, as my latitude continues to change, so too will my attitude.