Notes From A Holiday Trek

We opted for a change this holiday season, and decided to spend some time in a place where the low temperatures in December are consistently double digits rather than the “not-nearly-enough-degrees” predicted for the mountains.

When you travel during Christmas there is always a chance that Santa may not find you in your proper place, but still smarting from Janet Yellen’s rebuke for buying the barbecue grill that brought down the economy, we decided we were abundantly blessed with material things and could do without any extra stuff the jolly old elf might bring.

Traveling south across the great state of Georgia, one gets the sense that the “war on Christmas,” whatever that might have been, was decided in favor of those who decorate. I’ve always appreciated their efforts, and Towns County has some notable and even spectacular examples of dedication to the art.

I remain curious about whatever it is that causes the ebb and flow of the seasonal tradition. Is it economic? Is it cultural? Or is it some combination of both? Surely part of the ebb must be a result of time itself. There were certain neighborhoods in the town where I grew up that we would re-visit yearly to enjoy the lights, but as the neighborhoods aged, the lights started to go out. I think perhaps that over time one may acquire sufficient wisdom to realize that climbing the ladder like Clark Griswold is not essential.

There are surely many more reasons. Some of us celebrate other holidays, or none at all. Some may feel that they have spent enough on Christmas without also adding to their electric bills. We have trended toward less at our house in recent years as the number of things in the attic to sort has trended toward more. I am also developing an aversion bordering on allergic reaction to glitter encrusted Styrofoam from Asia.

Though my own Steady Glow Shimmer Chicken remained in the box this year, every little town south of Atlanta was decorated. I’m not sure that Christmas decorations are a reliable economic indicator, but some of the smallest towns with the greatest number of abandoned stores were also the most brightly decorated, as if in keeping with the ancient practice of lighting a candle to dispel the darkness, like Dylan Thomas they “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

From an entirely subjective and non-scientific perspective (because this is an opinion page after all), we noticed a slight decrease in the genial nature of random encounters on this journey. Civility and politeness seemed weighed down by weariness and frustration, especially for those who must serve or encounter the public on a daily basis. As a society I believe we’ve become less polite, less patient, more demanding and self absorbed – a theory supported by one retail worker we met who was brought to tears by a few simple words of kindness and support.

Aside from the constant goading and fear mongering of the infotainment and political classes, I believe we spend far too much time in virtual reality. We’re constantly “connected,” but never so alone, and we’re forgetting how to act in the company of real people in a real world where we can’t click “next” to something more to our liking.

And now I’m going to risk life and limb to make a bold statement which has laid on my chest like a lump of creosote: We could learn a thing or two about barbecue in the mountains from our neighbors to the south. There. I said it. Smoke, ketchup, black pepper and more smoke do not a barbecue sauce make. A proper sauce needs a bit of mustard and a dash of vinegar if you please, and a little smoke goes a long way. The meat needs to simmer in the sauce to be served warm, unless a lukewarm plate of dry meat squirted with cold sauce (so you can better taste the smoke) is your thing. Proper barbecue is available all across South Georgia and again in Virginia, but how these finer points of charcuterie skipped over such a wide swath of North Georgia and North Carolina, I just don’t know. “Those are fightin’ words” observed one acquaintance, unable to recognize satire in the billowing clouds of smoke.

We may never agree about barbecue, and that’s perfectly fine, but I believe there’s one thing we can all agree upon, and that is that we pay far too much for groceries in our beloved mountains. I was informed by a certain North Carolina based grocery chain that we pay more in Hiawassee because we’re considered a “resort area.” This explanation was given as if it should immediately explain why a chain would be forced to charge more, obviously, because people on vacation are willing to pay more for everything. It’s also, allegedly, far more expensive to truck our groceries across the vast expanses of the mountains that surround us.

Saint Simon’s Island is also considered a resort area. It is completely separated from the mainland by the Intercoastal Waterway. Groceries on the island, at least for our shopping list, run 20-30% cheaper than what we pay in Hiawassee. In Brunswick, we paid half what we pay at home for several items. That’s right. Half. Not hyperbole half, not exaggerated half, but 50% half. Adds a bit of red to the holiday lights, doesn’t it?

Returning now to the spirit of the holiday, I’ve always loved a white Christmas, but while Christmas on the Georgia Coast is never likely to see any snow, it does have its charms. Jekyll Island was decorated for the season from top to bottom this year with self-guided light tours as well as the yearly competitions between full time residents. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, the fog streams in at night, giving the decorations and colored lights a glow that would be the envy of any Shimmer Chicken. The groan of a foghorn might roll in over the sound and give the whole scene an almost Dickensian feeling. There is also something to be said for riding a bike along the dunes in the morning as opposed to scraping ice off of a windshield.

We love our state from top to bottom, but no part of it as much as the top. Whenever we travel, we’re always eager to get back home to the mountains. We wouldn’t trade the quality of life we have here, the fine neighbors, the fresh air flowing down the mountainside, and the clear running waters for any amount of barbecue.

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