Road Trip X, Days 21-24, Tallahassee to (sorta-)Savannah: Swamped by Unexpected Beauty 

I thought of titling this post “Sea to Shining Sea,” after touching the Atlantic the other day. I even thought about posing the Traveling Avocados, Oranges and Grapefruit on the beach, to celebrate their epic journey. But only a few oranges are left; all the rest of our gifted produce is eaten. And anyway, having already waded in Gulf of Mexico, it’d be more like sea to shining sea to other shining sea, right?

Still: Hello, North Atlantic!

But today’s theme waved me down as soon as we holed up in Tallahassee. That town isn’t a long drive from our previous night in Alabama; we had no business there, knew no one, didn’t check out Florida State or even ride our bikes along the terrific trail we’ve ridden before. All we were doing was making sure we didn’t die in a tornado waiting out some nasty weather. Doing laundry. And (one of us) making some headway on the novel.

And even with such meager expectations, Tallahassee offered us a good reminder of northern Florida’s lovely topography (NOT flat!) and relatively undeveloped landscape (hardly any billboards, even on I-10). And a wonderful bakery, and a  gorgeous sunset (not pictured) and this giant live oak in the motel parking lot.

Ooh, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Next day, the storm having blown through without tornadoes (thank you!) we headed to a brand-new destination: Little Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville.

In the middle of a swamp. Yes.

There we discovered not only a long, pristine beach–for people who love long, pristine beaches…

Augh! must…count…all the different…varieties! Make it stop!

…but also a boneyard of silvery drift-stumps…

Just as satiny as it looks!

…and the COOLEST trail through the dunes…

With tortoise holes! (Not pictured–sadly: tortoises)

…into a mixed forest of gigantic pines, palms, and live oaks, the latter dripping with ferns and Spanish moss.

Ooooh…

Question: WHY are epiphytes so ridiculously compelling? Is it a) the way they humanize the trees, calling to mind beards and long tresses? b) the way they soften the harsher, sharper lines of the forest? Or c) the fact that I was clearly a swamp rat in a previous life?

Ahhh…

The campground was one of the nicest ever, in terms of space and light and vegetation. Its only downside: the road was too close, so traffic noise was very present until late at night.

Would just one nighttime armadillo be too much to ask?

And we didn’t get any armadillos. But hey.

“That’s too much Spanish Moss!” said no one ever.

One more glorious bike ride in the refreshingly cool morning, on a LONG bike trail.

Way to go, northern Florida!

Along the way we took a sideline to the beach, to visit with some crumbly-clay tidepools…

Different! No wee fishies, unfortunately.

…and one more gorgeous silver drift-log installation.

World’s coolest jungle gym.

Heading north, we passed this irresistible sign:

How can I have never run into this pun before?!

And then on to Savannah (sorta). Our friends live on the outskirts, which should really be called the outswamps. Question: Is that why they named the town after a sea-of-grass ecosystem? Anyone know?

Since our purpose was reuniting with old friends, we skipped the downtown Savannah tour. Instead, we were gifted with one over-the-top, unexpected cool thing after another. We got to watch the Carolina-Duke game with true fans, drowning our sorrows in bacon-wrapped scallops and homemade pizza (not pictured). We got to cuddle with the sweetest, silkiest Labrador.

Forrest loved the Mate.

We thought our friends’ backyard view was just fine–hey, nice swamp ya got here!–but then next the morning, THIS happened.

Okay then.

Finally, our friends served us a lil’ ol’ Georgia breakfast: eggs, cheese grits, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit salad, and fresh sweet rolls. Still full from the night before, I made a superwoman effort and ate everything.

Woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

So…feeling a little swamped right now. Thinking that when we find beauty and goodness in unexpected places, it means even more. And feeling a bit grateful that Spanish Moss doesn’t grow in mountainous areas. Because if it did? I think my head would explode.

More, more!

 

Road Trip IX, Days 23-26: The Appalachian Ocean

Consider this post a small gravel-chunk in the stretch of road that constitutes the travelogue of Road Trip IX. The Mate and I just spent four days and nights in Appalachian Trail country—northern Georgia, western North Carolina—and I want to capture my musings on these mountains before we arrive back in Tarheel Territory the Piedmont and give ourselves over to a week of screaming at the TV, eating BBQ and fried chicken, raising our arms for luck on free throws catching up with old friends over the ACC basketball tournament.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia…near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Fellow native east coasters, I must confess to you: since moving to Washington in 1990, I’ve become a horrible Western Chauvinist. One of those people who comments that the tallest mountain in the east—Mt. Mitchell, 6,683—comes up to less than halfway up our Mt. Rainier (14,110).

Shame on me.

Height doesn’t matter.

Four days of hiking and riding around the Appalachians has reminded me of this simple truth: you can’t compare them to western mountains.

Western mountains are formidable ranges, awesome volcanoes, places of raw wilderness and dazzling danger. But the Appalachians are a sea.

Sometimes a sea of fog.

There are two reasons for this contrast, two interconnected reasons. The great age of the Appalachians has subjected them to forces of erosion and plate-stretching that have created mountains in the shape of waves.

Waves at sunrise (taken through the window of Amicalola Lodge)

A wave is a crest and a trough. In the Appalachians, the myriad valleys and hollers are as much a part of the mountains as the peaks…because people can live there. They’ve been living there for millennia. Even European settlers have been there for over 250 years!

Waves at sunset

Of course people live high up in the Rockies and the Cascades, here and there. But the very steepness and height of those ranges rendered them inhospitable to permanent settlement back when Europeans first got there. That’s why they have no equivalent culture, identity, or musical heritage to Appalachia. (Sorry–John Denver doesn’t count.)

Here’s where I ought to have some pictures of good ol’ Appalachians doing good ol’ Appalachian things like playing bluegrass or drinking ‘shine. But since I wasn’t thinking about a blog post when we were hiking and biking and driving through, all I have is pictures of The Mate with some friends.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” anyone?

So thanks, Appalachians, for slapping me upside the head with this reminder. If they’re lucky, all those gorgeous western mountains will look like you in a few million (billion?) years. 

Till then–stay warm!

Thanks. You too.

Road Trip VI, Days 24-27, Cumberland Island, GA to Durham, NC: Bewitched By Spanish Moss

Cumberland Island is known for its wild (or feral) horses, and I’m a horsey gal.

Horse in your campground, ma'am? Why sure.

Horse in your campground, ma’am? Why sure.

But here’s what really couldn’t drag me away: its Spanish moss. Can anyone tell me WHY this stuff is so entrancing?

Soooo....pretty...

Soooo….pretty…

Seriously. Tell me. I’ve been trying to figure it out.

It’s gray. It’s parasitical–or at any rate it gets a free ride from the trees it drapes; we’re not talking any sweet symbiotic relationship here. And it’s EVERYWHERE in South Georgia, especially on the barrier islands. It should creep people like me out. Instead, I can’t get enough: fondling it, taking pictures, gazing at it from every angle.

image

In my quest to break down the components of natural beauty, one word kept coming to mind: grace. But what does it mean to call something graceful?

OK, the tree ain't bad either.

OK, the tree ain’t bad either.

It undulates. Something about the smoothness of wave action must be inherently awe-inspiring, or comforting, or both.

It hangs vertically in a forest of torturous sideways live-oak limbs (seriously, these things grown LITERALLY every which way but up) and herky-jerky pines and saw palmetto, providing a soft set of downward strokes, like Impressionist painting. Or like tinsel strands on a Christmas tree. Also comforting, though I have no idea why.

image

It’s soft, despite looking spiny. Well, OK, I get the appeal of soft.

Somebody stop me!

Somebody stop me!

As for connotation–if you read my last post, you know that Southern scenery, even at its finest, is haunted by ugly history. So I would never say Spanish moss’s beauty derives from its context. More the opposite.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten here in my quest to understand. What do you think accounts for its beauty? Help me figure this out, y’all.

All RIGHT. I'm done. Wing out.

All RIGHT. I’m done. Wing out.

Road Trip VI, Days 20-23, Monroe, Louisiana to Cumberland Island National Seashore: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Piney hills. Black-water cypress swamps. Real, deciduous oaks that understand they’re supposed to grow new leaves every year. Maples starting their spring blush. Redbuds already blushing hard. Spanish moss. Magnolias.

We headin’ HOME. Or I am, anyway. But this journey was the idea of my Californian Mate, so he can hardly complain.

But the scenery is already leading to some arguments interesting discussions. I’m a western chauvinist with a deep strain of southeastern nostalgia–an uncomfortable combination. Makes me tetchy. I can claim–and do–that northwestern forests are more dramatic, beautiful, and walkable than those in, say, my home state of North Carolina…but you can’t. The Mate walks into this trap constantly.

Him: “Those pines are a such a weird shade of green.”
Me: “Well, at least they have more individuality than our firs.”
Him: “These wintertime hardwoods make the forest look dead!”
Me: “But at least you can see through it this time of year! And look at the size of that hickory!”

I’ve come to think of these southeastern forests as the ultimate glass-half-full-vs.-empty scenario. I can choose to see a scrubby, scratchy, inhospitable tangle of poison ivy, smilax and honeysuckle…or I can see heritage: my daily walk to school; summer blackberrying; finding a safe spot to pee in the woods during a run. Or, in literary daydreams, Scout Finch and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.

 

I know my bipolar attitude is the result of too much history. I can’t see cotton fields without thinking about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; can’t see big magnolias without thinking of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” The South is soaked in more misery per acre than any other region in our country.

Usually, I’ll admit, I see those scruffy, history-laden woods and and think how lucky I am to live diagonally across the continent from here, in forests where nothing wants to bite me or make me itchy, or make me think of slavery, share cropping and the KKK.

These woods aren't dead--they're just getting their beauty sleep.

These woods aren’t dead–they’re just getting their beauty sleep.

But if anyone else says that to me? Nuh-uh, honey.

BTW: I’ll write about our discovery of Cumberland Island in my next post. Right now I just have to give a little shout-out to our friends Raven and Chickadee (a.k.a. Eric and Laurel) for steering us to Oak Mountain State Park via their travel blog, Ravenandchickadee.com. This largest of Alabama’s state parks offers miles of steep, winding trails in wild-feeling woods an astonishing ten miles south of its largest city, Birmingham. We didn’t get enough time there and look forward to staying longer some day. In Alabama!

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scary snob says, "Pretty pretty!"

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scenery snob says, “Pretty pretty!”