While few lives are truly simple, traveling these next few days through the hearts of Georgia and Florida gave the illusion of just that. I’m still not sure I can accurately express the importance or meaning behind this adventure of mine, but I fully embrace the concept of simply enjoying the journey.
These next steps and stops marked a shift on my expedition southward to the Keys. The mountains now far in the rear-view, endless repetitive and somehow familiar-feeling stretches of country roads and small towns propelled me towards my destination. The next two and a half days fell dreamily into step with summers in the deep south. Slow-pace to no-pace, blazing sun you can feel sizzling up the back of your shirt from the blacktop beneath, and often nothing more than a Baptist church and a Dollar Store to mark the next placeholder on the map.
While I had a few planned stops to make, much of my focus now was geared to making up ground and cover the last 1000 miles in approximately 72 hours, still avoiding every highway possible. I admit I felt challenged as I determined where to stop and what to see. Little seemed obvious, other than I knew I had no desire to enter anywhere near Mickey’s world or Atlanta.
One of the initial strong feelings I had about undertaking this trip involved searching for the very best of small towns. Clearly this means different things to different people, and before I left home I’m not sure I even knew exactly what it meant to me. My conclusion is that it’s more emotion than checklist. In the end, it’s not unlike touring colleges, looking for the perfect fit with my now senior-in-college daughter. We would drive around a bit, park the car, and within two minutes (or maybe before we got out of the car), she’d decided if it has possibility or not. That’s how towns are for me. (And funny enough, a “cute town” was one of her main desires for a college choice.)
The no-highways rule lent itself to a good glimpse of many a small town, far more than I had on my list. Trekking from northwest South Carolina to Southeast Florida provided lots of opportunities for exploration.
Of course I did get a late start to the day, thanks to the infinitely enchanting city of Greenville. I had a hard time tearing myself away. Once on the road, though, I made for Toccoa Falls, a small college town in North Georgia, not far from the Tennessee and South Carolina borders. It boasted of a grand waterfall, and I couldn’t wait to check it out. I found it on the Toccoa Falls college campus, just steps from the small bookstore. For a dollar (not that anyone was checking that I could tell!), you head out the back door and along a very short path to the base of the 186 foot drop, complete with a perfect pool at its base. It was a little like walking through the looking glass. Toccoa is Cherokee for “beautiful” and the waterfall is aptly named. Though twenty-six feet higher than Niagra Falls, the water doesn’t thunder over the edge, but seems to suspend in midair, finally falling dramatically and elegantly to its destination. Chatting with some other visitors, I learned of many other waterfalls and hikes in the nearby mountains. I made a note to return to the North Georgia mountains (where I conveniently have a brother-in-law!), and take my leave to head further south.
One of many unexpected discoveries these few days included drive-bys of SEC and ACC schools. On this day alone I inadvertently passed both Clemson and the University of Georgia, the latter of which surprised me with the sheer number of the most amazing southern mansions (i.e. fraternity and sorority houses) lining the boulevards of Athens. Quintessentially southern, it made me wish I could have seen them in their hey-day.
But I would get my antebellum fix in the town of Madison, Georgia, population 4,060. While it’s probably likely that most every state in America has a Madison, this one in particular caught my attention as I researched my trail weeks ago. If your blood pressure needs a break, this is a fine place to take it. Live oaks lined the quiet streets, where in the shadows beyond stood proud rows of well-kept and tasteful businesses, restaurants and homes. For a Saturday afternoon, the streets weren’t teeming with people, though there were enough wandering in and out of shops and restaurants to make it feel comfortable and cheery. A great first find in my short stay was amazing ice cream at Scoops, which was equally friendly and adorable.
But now to wander on foot – my favorite way to truly discover a new place. Raspberry sorbet in hand, I headed around the square, peering into shop windows as well as the imposing courthouse, which sits proudly overlooking the seat of of Morgan County. Once I had my bearings (and yes, thankful always for my GPS on my phone), I drifted away from the center of town to see where the people lived. I found both wide main streets and narrow alleyways, both lined with homes large and small, mostly old and unique. I expectantly kept an eye out for Atticus Finch or maybe Truman Capote, just in case. This was a place to live quietly but comfortably – regardless of square footage. Most every home boasted a wide front porch, deep enough for a great swing but not so deep that you couldn’t accurately assess the world as it went by. Funky gabled rooflines that I just know had reading nooks in every one were more the rule than the exception. Sweet. Big sigh.
I was jerked back to 2018 with the buzzing of my phone. It was the manager of the Hillside Family Campground, inquiring as to my arrival time. Wow. I’d better readjust my thinking and stop imagining genteel southern town life. Time to move on.
Madison was truly a port in a middle-of-nowhere southern storm. I quickly discovered the drive to the campground in Cochran was providing just the atmosphere I needed to mentally prepare myself for the $30 cabin of my future. I resumed counting Dollar Stores and Baptist churches.
There was never the letdown of not seeing both in every small village and town I swept through. I could count on finding either a First Baptist or one named for either the town (i.e. McIntire, Walnut Creek, or Henderson Grove, just to name a few) or those touting biblical names like Bethany, Calvary and Corinth. Occasionally they would attempt more of a welcoming attitude with monikers like Sunshine or Friendship. Regardless of name, they were unfailingly present. As I drove by them, I found myself praying they were more than clapboard and mortar memories and landmarks. In the end I’m fairly confident that the Spirit washes over their occupants each Sunday, and likely still on Wednesday evenings as well.
My arrival in Cochran was expected and I was met by the sweet couple who managed the place. After I paying them my $30, they hopped on their golf cart and proudly beckoned me to follow as they gave a quick tour. My cabin was one of just a few, and all others were occupied by baseball families, here for a tournament in nearby Dublin. I checked out the bathroom and and showers, (nothing Madison-like, but certainly campground appropriate), and unpacked my car, surrounded by grubby infield-stained boys, all racing for the pool.
Earlier in the drive, I had the pleasant notion of an evening campfire. I even stopped at the nearby Walmart – almost as prolific as Dollar Stores in these parts – and stocked up on firestarter just in case there was no kindling. However, the 90 degree temp chased me in to my tiny quarters, where the AC blared from an overworked window unit which was set at 72 but currently boasted 80. It was a welcome relief. I still had plenty of food and contentedly enjoyed more than a decent meal as well as a glass (okay – cup) of wine, toasting another fulfilling day on the road.
As I considered this fine Saturday, as well as the days that led up to it, I could honestly say, “So far. So good.” Yes, I thought, so, so good, and settled down to replay the day in my mind, content to drift off by the hard-working hum of the AC.