Some people who live in Camden go to church at 7 am on Wednesdays. Either that, or the local pastor has quite a sense of humor. These were the only possible explanations I could come up with for the din that awoke me, once I realized that the Rapture hadn’t come upon us during the night. The Baptist Church opposite the hotel was piping a particularly tinny rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers out of a loud speaker above its door. I took it as a sign that the Lord wanted me out of bed and on the road.
Apart from a quick coffee stop by Lake Marion, I made good time straight down to Savannah. I had planned to stop off longer at Santee but was put off by the “Buy dirt here” signs and the notice outside the Rest Inn informing me that it boasted “a pool and delightful clientele”. It just looked too weird.
I had similar reservations about Georgia, a state that I arrived in really knowing only three things about it. I knew that it was the home of the 20th Century revival of the Ku Klux Klan. I knew that it was renowned for tourist carjackings, to the extent that Hertz no longer dared to put their name on any of their vehicles. And I knew that Coca Cola, based in Atlanta GA, employed two executives who went by the names of Doug Daft and Chuck Fruit. All three of these things militated in favour of spending as little time as possible in the Peach State, and I would happily have driven straight through to my destination for the night if Savannah had not stopped me dead in my tracks.
Perhaps I was just in a particularly good mood. I had swung by the clearly-designated-as-international-on-the-map airport, where Ken from Hertz had sorted me out with an identical replacement Protégé (this time light brown and with South Carolina plates). I’d allowed most of the morning to sort the problem out but it had taken less than half an hour, which meant I had time for a good saunter around Savannah before lunchtime.
Wandering around the squares, which dripped with exotic foliage, was delicious, although the air did slop on you like a wet facecloth. Block after block of sumptuous old buildings were punctuated by these squares, each of which had its own distinctive character. Savannah has twenty-one squares in all. It is home to the first orphanage, the first black church, and the first golf course in the USA. It has the third largest St Patrick’s Day parade in the country and had been the parish of John Wesley for a couple of years in the 1730s before he got around to inventing Methodism. I learnt all of this from one visit to a single shop which, according to the sign outside, was dedicated solely to The Book.
The Book, it turned out, was not a reference to the Bible but was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. This was the story of life in Savannah in the period following its renovations in the thirties and in particular the goings on at Mercer House. Since its publication in the late eighties, Savannah had seen a 46% upswing in tourism. It shows what a broadly non-fiction story can do sometimes.
I was by now keen for food and water, but outside the heat and humidity was suffocating. Leaving the air-conditioned comfort of The Book shop was like walking into a sauna fully dressed. I had seen a place that I liked the look of on one of the squares but, by the time I got there, I was marked by acute underarm drench and my T-shirt was stuck to my chest. It was far too well-to-do a joint for me to go into like that so I opted to return to Churchill’s English Pub that I had passed a couple of blocks back. I thought that there might be someone there interested in meeting an English person.
No chance. The most that I ended up getting was “OK mate” when I ordered a lemonade and asked for the menu. At my end of the bar, a seriously mad-looking bloke was slugging bottled beer and whisky chasers and I really didn’t want to interrupt him. I noticed that the barman switched vocabulary when speaking to him, addressing him as “Man”. An old couple next to me had just ordered sausage rolls (billed as “English sausages” on the menu) and could not find the words for how appalling a dining experience they had found it. Most everyone else in there appeared to be locals who knew each other and went there for the beer and the company, not for any particular affinity to England. In a town as gorgeous as Savannah, I had to be able to do better than this.
I wandered down to the waterfront and stopped at one of the many seafood restaurants with tables out on River Street. I asked the waiter for whatever the local speciality was and he suggested the snow crab. I was just tucking in to the claws that were subsequently brought – it transpired that they actually came from Alaska and were each the size of a toddler’s forearm – when a non-too-shy couple planted themselves on the table next to mine. They both lit up cigarettes, ordered beers and waved the menu away. They introduced themselves as Bob and Jane from Waynesboro. I told them that I came from London, which elicited an interesting response from Bob: “Ah London” he mused while wagging a finger at me with a smile and a knowing wink, “City of Harry Potter.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
Bob worked in construction and Jane was a nurse. They said they liked travelling, but only to Jamaica and Barbados. They wanted to go to Cuba one day, but not until “they’d got rid of Fideo [sic]”. Jane wanted to go to New Mexico but Bob said he’d never be prepared to go that far. There was something fairly limited about the conversation but it was good to be able to light up after I’d eaten without feeling like a pariah. I made casual reference to this and Bob was off on one: “You know, so many of our rights are being taken away all the time, I reckon by the time I die we’ll damn well near have no rights left”.
I’m not sure it was the best example that he could have selected, but Bob chose to illustrate his point by complaining that his 16-year-old son was allowed to drive, but that for the first six months on the road he was only allowed to have family members with him in the vehicle. They both thought it was ridiculous that he couldn’t even use his car to “take a little girl on a date”. I couldn’t say my heart was exactly bleeding. I almost pointed out that, at the age of sixteen, all that I’d been able to offer prospective girlfriends was a ticket on the no. 3 bus or a saddler on the back of my five-gear racer. But then I remembered that neither of these had seen me enjoy exactly fantastic success in my early dating forays.
Instead I just nodded and looked askance. They must have interpreted this as some sort of reticence or self-censure because they then went off on how great the USA was because you could say what you liked whenever you felt like it and how I’d have to get used to that: “Yes sir, you can say what you will but it’s always best to keep clear of politics and religion”. Confounding his own principles somewhat, Bob then asked me if I realized that the Arabs would never get the Jews out of Israel because it had been pre-ordained in the Bible. Having established a precedent of evasiveness, I demurred from getting much involved before making both excuses and tracks.
Not much wealth was in evidence in the bits of Georgia I passed through, but what was more noticeable was an increased amount of aggression. There was more revving of engines and wheel-spinning off the mark at the lights than elsewhere and young men walking down the street were glancing around in that “what are you looking at” way. It wasn’t that I was actually threatened by anyone, just that I got the impression that if I had stopped to enquire then I most certainly would have been. I drove on quickly and quietly.
Georgia also seemed to have generally a more lax attitude to the letter of the law, certainly in terms of driving. It was the first state that I had visited where it appeared de rigueur to exceed the speed limit. There was little regard for seatbelts, and I saw a number of children being driven home from school not only unbelted, but swivelled around and playing about in the front seat. As if to reinforce this, after the news and weather on the radio, there was a segment on where the police were running speed traps that day so that people knew the spots to slow down.
The headline story on the news for the third day running was that Bill Clinton had bought three bikinis on his recent visit to Brazil, and nobody could figure out who they were for. A spokeswoman had now put everyone out of their misery and revealed that they were a gift for his daughter. I also learnt that the Savannah Police were now auctioning off evidence on the Internet. They had become inundated with a stockpile of “jewellery, tools and general equipment”, and so had taken the obvious decision just to flog it to the general public.
In Hinesville, I pulled in to a gas station to buy a paper from one of the machines. Rather spitefully, the parking bays reserved for disabled drivers were at the opposite end of the lot from the door. I’d forgotten to empty the draw with all my small change when I’d switched cars earlier on, and so went in to the shop to ask if they could break a dollar. No sooner had I opened my mouth than a big momma who was in the shop swung on her heel.
“Gee. Where’s that accent from?”
“Er, London… in England.”
“Get out of here!”
“Go on say some more. Just keep on speaking. I could listen all day. Say anything.”
I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but was saved by the cashier piping up: “You know, it’s a real shame you didn’t come by yesterday. Pierre works here on Tuesdays. He’s from Cameroon. You probably know him.” Africa is the very next continent to home I suppose.
The only reservation that I had made prior to leaving England was the accommodation I had lined up for this evening. It was still August and so out of season for swamp tours at Okefenokee, but I’d been surprised to find out on the Internet that the Visitors’ Center was prepared to open and take me out (provided I made a solid commitment to spend a night in one of the cabins on the swamp). I had booked myself into a “deluxe suite”, on the basis that I liked the idea of sheets and towels being provided. The responsibility had weighed heavily on me during this first week, as I dared not let anything hold me up. It wasn’t simply that I had to be here by this evening. I had to be here by six, or else I would be charged $5 for every hour (or part thereof) that I was late. It wasn’t the amount of money that bothered me. It had just been made very clear that being late was not an acceptable option.
Thankfully, I pulled up outside Okefenokee Pastimes eleven minutes ahead of schedule. I parked opposite the entrance and waited until the precise hour, just in case there were fines for arriving early too. It somehow looked less official than I’d been expecting. There was a chain across the entrance drive with a hand-painted no entry disc. The office building looked more like a house and the sign above the door read “Swamp Gas Gallery. It’s a gas, gas, gas.” The eleven minutes were easily taken up reading the other prohibitive notices that were posted around the immediate vicinity. Evidently, I wasn’t allowed to park, block the driveway, drop litter, use the call-box without permission, sing, reverse my vehicle without guidance, hang my laundry out to dry, bring my own firewood, trespass, swim, tease the alligators, defecate in the woods, or start a forest fire.
I couldn’t see how I could possibly check in without contravening at least two of these prohibitions. I gingerly eased my car up to the chain until I was about an inch in front of the no entry disc. Leaving the engine running, I got out of the car and scratched my head. A bearded guy with big shades peered out from behind the door. He looked like the gimp-keeping pawnbroker out of Pulp Fiction who gives Zed a call to say that he’s caught a couple of flies. Worryingly, he was carrying a rifle. I put my hands in the air and babbled a loose enquiry about my whereabouts. Very slowly, he turned, put the gun down and walked towards me. He unhooked the chain and beckoned me into the driveway: “Sorry about that. We put this up to stop all the traffic around here pulling into the place.” I had yet to see another vehicle of any description on GA 23, but I was sure he knew what he was talking about.
Inside the office, he shook my hand and introduced himself as Steve and his partner as Jo. She looked less spaced than Steve, and a little more flustered. There was something both pragmatic and panicked about her. She nervously checked me in, swiped my credit card, and then ran through a list of dos and don’ts with me. She sold me some home-made insect repellent, some special juice for the morning that “would keep me hydrated but not make me pee” and then told me to be ready to set out by 6 am. Throughout Steve looked on silently and motionless.
When she’d finished, Steve took me round to my deluxe cabin. It was a windowless shed, about eight by six feet with a small veranda protected by mosquito netting. It was 6.40 in the evening and still light. In all fairness, I had been forewarned that the cabins didn’t have TVs, but the extent of the prospective dullness of the evening ahead came as a surprise. I’d at least expected to be in the swamp. In fact, I was in a campground that was effectively the back garden of Steve and Jo’s house. It wasn’t wilderness but it was in the middle of nowhere. And I wasn’t even allowed to smoke.
I tried engaging Steve in conversation, which proved fairly hard work. I managed to get out of him that they “really hated” having to get so “heavy” with guests but that it was “really difficult” with it being just him and Jo and it wasn’t “like we’re the government”. It transpired that they had been in business for the best part of ten years, and were basically a couple of hippies who wanted to hang out in the swamp, make some jewellery, be ecologically sound and try to turn a coin by selling their trinkets, letting people stay in their grounds and taking some folk out on boat trips around the swamp. The problem was that their easy-going approach had been taken advantage of on a number of occasions, culminating in a huge forest fire recently started by some kids, and so they’d now had to clamp down and make some rules.
While I sympathized with their plight, I couldn’t help feeling a little narked. I had rushed to get there by six to conform with their rules because I’d been under the impression that someone had to come out especially to meet me. Given that my “cabin” was about ten yards from the house in which they lived all year round, I would happily have paid a few hours’ worth of five-dollar penalties to tarry longer in Savannah. As it was, here I was with an absolute guarantee that nothing more in terms of conversation or general interest would happen for the rest of the evening. I had been advised to bring food and had some sandwiches and beer, but enquired in any case about the nearest place I could go to eat. Steve said that my best option would be to go ten miles back up GA 23 to Folkston.
Sure enough, I soon located the one eatery in town, the Okefenokee Restaurant. It was located in somebody’s front-room and had been soothingly decked out with white polystyrene tiles on the walls and strip lighting that hummed warmly. That evening’s special was the mid-week buffet, all you could eat and drink for $12.95. I told the waitress that I’d go for that, which was probably just as well because I don’t think there was much other choice. She brought me a plastic tray molded with three portion indentations, asked me whether I wanted Sprite Coke or coffee, and told me to help myself. The buffet comprised various creatures that had had parts of their flesh deep-fried in batter, chips, and some salad that I had to assume had been left over from the weekend’s “special buffet”. I was glad that I had bought those sandwiches.
Not much life was to be seen in Folkston by the time I had finished. I drove around and found what looked like a small station next to the railway line. It was actually a Visitors’ Center for train enthusiasts. I signed the book and watched a freight train go by. After a while I started to count the carriages but got bored once I’d reached a hundred and twenty.
Back at camp it was dark and noisy. I sat on the veranda and drank a beer before venturing outside to prove beyond doubt that smoking cigarettes to ward off mosquitoes is a complete fallacy.