Across the Great Empty – Part 2

We swam in the ocean and pulled crab from the brackish waters of a tidal creek; walked along the marshes and watched the flight of big, graceful birds. The draw of the sea is powerful, but perhaps because I was formed of dust and not of sand, no amount of salt and sun, nor even fried shrimp, can replace the need to return to the quiet cove in the mountains. On the day of our return we woke up early and shared one last cup of coffee in the cool stillness of the salt air. Then we put the sun on our right side and headed up the old Golden Isles Parkway.

We found Gardi, Odum, Surrency and Pine Grove almost exactly as we left them two years ago. I wanted to linger in Hazelhurst and Lumber City, remembering their hospitality and generosity, and I almost pulled the left turn blinker at the junction of 117 and the road toward Jacksonville and the Horse Creek WMA, remembering the nights camping at Scuffle Bluff on the Okmulgee River, and the canoe trips down to the mighty Altamaha and beyond. So much of youth is mis-spent, but that part of mine was invested.

All the way up to McRae, it’s easy to picture our coastal plain as it once rested on the bottom of an ocean. The terrain is flat and sandy, and the occasional undulations are more suggestive of dunes than hills. From McRae to Dublin you can feel the gentle climb of softly rolling hills that always puts my traveling companion to sleep. She usually denies it when we stop at that one McDonald’s with a grassy area for the dogs and its reminder that the coffee from your own thermos is always better than coffee purchased through a window.

I like the expression, “mountain time,” which contains enough rough edges for you to get a grip on being offended if you wish, but that is not my intent. I truly like it. It suggests an independence from the tyranny of the timepiece. It holds that the integrity of a commitment is in the deed and not on the schedule. It flies in the face of modern life, and like the governor on a school bus engine, it resists the runaway wreckage of “progress.” I think coastal time, island time and country time are all similar to mountain time, but as we left the Coastal Plain and traveled further into the Piedmont, time began to accelerate, along with the traffic.

The race was on coming into Milledgeville, and a facsimile of urban travel commenced between the drivers determined to get through and the ones wishing only to get to. Highway 441 on a Friday was little different than anywhere else in America where people compete to get ahead and hurry to separate a little personal time from all the obligations between the bills and the paycheck. If you manage to slip out of work a little early on a Friday and if you hurry, you might be able to get home and hook up the boat before the traffic gets bad. Hurry up and wait pivots every Friday to an all too brief period of hurry up and relax.

North from the lake country the land was empty of hurry for a while, until we reached the great terraforming project to blow open 441 below Athens. The extra lanes will make the highway somewhat less of an extended parking lot attached to Georgia home games, but I’ll miss the pecan trees that surrendered to eminent domain.

We got home just as the sun was dropping below the mountain, so very grateful to be back in our peaceful place that time forgot; grateful for the safe journey and the memories; grateful to be home in an area which has managed to preserve so much of what is important against the raging tides of change.

We’ve made this trip many times, across the Great Empty and through the scattered hives of bustle, and though you can’t travel the same road twice or step in the same river, there was something about this journey that was fundamentally different from all the others: People are anxious. Some are angry. Many are impatient, even in the small towns and remote places where the hive mind is able to reach with its breaking news.

It’s almost like a pandemic. Some of it is undoubtedly caused by the virus, but I think most of it is in our response to that ailment. We are exactly where a crisis of faith meets a devolving culture in an ailing economy, and the symptoms can even be found here at home.

But here, we can do something about it. So the contractor was late. Be patient. He can’t find enough people to work to fulfill his obligations, and he’s been working 7 days a week to try to get caught up. The clerk was cranky and didn’t genuflect when you asked for help. This is your opportunity to be kind. The store has been short staffed since March, and everyone who did show up has been working long hours. They’re tired, and the extra money doesn’t begin to catch up with the higher price of just about everything.

Add to the mix, throngs of cooped up Americans with their pent up frustrations unleashed on the vacation scene thinking they are owed something because they’ve been inconvenienced, and no one has ever suffered like they have. This is a time for understanding, so understand this: your anger doesn’t make you special; it just makes you part of the problem.

Finally, be grateful. We have it so much better here than what can be found “out there.” If you came here from “out there,” you should remember well. If you’ve been here so long you’ve forgotten, just travel two hours in any direction.

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