Across The Great Empty – Part 1

“From the mountains to the sea,
Where her rivers roll.
There I ever long to be,
O my heart; my soul;”

These are the words of Robert Loveman from his poem, “Georgia,” which, along with the music of Lollie Belle Wylie, formed the official anthem of the State of Georgia before 1979. The words have always spoken to me, and resonated with my love of the mountains, which is almost, but not quite, equaled by the draw of the Georgia coast.

We took a trip to that coast recently, across the Great Empty center of our state. I do not mean “empty” in the sense that it is devoid of beauty or interest, or that there are not people to be found across every mile of it who love their place on this earth above all others. I mean empty in the sense that the cutting, digging, burning, paving and developing changes that we associate with prosperity are largely absent from this blessed realm. The Great Empty is decorated by small towns and little communities where heritage is more than a memory and vitality has not been squeezed out, along with every dollar that can be made at any cost.

There are hidden places across the Great Empty which have changed little in decades. They don’t need to change in the way that small towns become big ones and pasture becomes parking lot. The Great Empty is full of communities, unincorporated areas and crossroads. The family farms and timberlands, local hardware stores and theaters, small businesses and family owned restaurants supply the worldly needs for communities that look to their local churches for what is truly important.

The river corridors of the Great Empty have always fascinated me. The Ocmulgee, Oconee, Flint, Satilla and Altamaha wind their way to the ocean like they did 10,000 years ago (sans the occasional dam). The slow currents move along blackwater swamps hung with Spanish moss. The bright sand of ever changing sand bars contrasts with the darkness of the swamps, which are equal parts invitation and menace. You will never know this from the interstate, but if you take the back roads, the moment you stop, smell the air or be so bold as to stick your toes into the brackish water, everything around you says “Slow down. Pay attention.” Snakes and gators concur.

Along the way, we stopped at a favorite barbecue restaurant in a small town near the confluence of the…Sorry. That’s too much information. As much as I cherish you, dear readers, that information is classified “family.” This fine eatery has more than enough customers already, and they have been in business over 40 years.

Unlike so many businesses which have capitalized on their popularity by pushing prices to the extreme limit of what the public is willing to pay, our little restaurant has not, and the price of a pulled pork plate was the same last week as it was two years ago. The recipes have been in the family for generations. Every week someone stays up all night watching the wood-fired pit. They know their customers by name, and they keep their prices at a level that their friends and neighbors can afford.

This is an example of the kind of spirit that preserves small towns and communities. It’s not money that allows a community, or a culture, to survive changing times. It is values which preserve.

The closer you get to the coast, the more you can see a different set of values prevailing. The traffic through and around Savannah was as bad as any Atlanta traffic jam. The coast is busy, bustling. Construction supplies and earth moving equipment move non stop along the highways.

A good road is a fine thing, and without a doubt the bones of the nation need regrowing in many places. The coastal bustle is more than that, however. Wherever a million dollar home can be built on a scenic and secluded bit of land, one has already been built, or soon will be. Our favorite little seafood restaurant near Darien has raised their prices by 50%. The traffic on St. Simon’s is horrendous and non stop. Alas, and then there is Jekyll Island.

Jekyll was a jewel on Georgia’s coast for generations. Protected by a state charter, it was meant to be an affordable place for the “average Georgia citizen.” It belonged to the people of Georgia, a place where “regular folks” could take their family for a vacation. For many years it was exactly that.

No more. Apparently the island now belongs to the Jekyll Island Authority, or it might as well as far as you and I are concerned, and the “Authority” has has allowed (encouraged) major development on the island. Although their original plans were somewhat constrained a few years ago by an international effort to preserve the unique character and habitat of the island, where they were thwarted from elbowing out, they built up instead. Scores of new condos have popped up to house the fortunate. Now there is a Weston, and a Hilton on the island, and even the Holiday Inn costs over $300 per night.

Perhaps the island is under the influence of some slow moving cosmic plan of retribution for once hosting the group that hatched the Federal Reserve, the Central Bank and the Income Tax. From the famous Driftwood Beach you can have a front row seat of the ongoing effort to remove the environmental disaster of the Golden Ray. The massive cutting and lifting mechanism looms between Jekyll and St. Simon’s. On the day we were there, the beach was covered with people, and balls of tar.

The health department has issued warnings because of the fuel and tar impacting the beaches and marshes. In spite of all efforts at mitigation, there are many days when you can see that characteristic rainbow sheen on the surface of the water. Meanwhile, shrimp boats trawl in the distance, and recently the presence of PCB’s, the carcinogenic “forever” contaminant, was detected in area dolphins. Can’t blame that on the Golden Ray, however. The PCB’s are a legacy from decades past.

Our time on Jekyll was brief as we abandoned it to search for quieter places, but we snapped pictures as everyone does. One in particular caught my eye. In the background, the wreckage of the Golden Ray looks menacing. In the foreground a happy family is walking on the beach, stepping over tar balls. Through no fault of their own, they’re wearing modern beachwear consisting of some of the same compounds which help contaminate our estuaries and groundwater. I own some of that same clothing. There’s a good chance the family drove to the island in a vehicle similar to the ones that have been sliced to pieces in the removal of the unfortunate transport. We have one of those as well. As if to drive the point home, our photos of the beach also show the drastic climate induced changes. Many of the beautiful dunes are gone, and at the current rate of change, Driftwood Beach will be no more in a few years as the ocean advances inland.

Next week we’ll take you with us on our journey back home to the mountains.

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