I See Georgia-Special Report: Tropical Storm Irma

I knew it was going to be bad. As soon as the forecast path moved from the East coast of Florida to the West, I could tell we’d be getting hit hard. A hurricane’s most intense winds always reside in the Northeastern quadrant of the storm, and it was this area that would be brushing by Athens on Monday, September 11, 2017.

The day began as any other would. I woke up and got ready for work, as I always do. As I drove down U.S. 129, the rain was intermittent and light, but the wind had already began to pick up. I arrived at work to find that quite a few people had decided to stay home; not that I blamed them. Practically every school in the state was closed.

Three days prior we’d made our normal Friday trip to Kroger, procuring more non-perishable items (tuna, soup, granola bars) than usual “just in case.” As we navigated the aisles, it was apparent that we weren’t the only ones preparing for the storm. The place was ransacked, looking more like a rural general store a week after the zombie apocalypse than a city supermarket. Entire sections were empty, including, unsurprisingly, the bread and milk.

I’ve never understood the fixation on bread and milk. In Georgia, and undoubtedly the rest of the Southeastern U.S., every time a rumor of snow or ice circulates, everyone runs to the store and buys massive quantities of these two items. Why? What are you going to do, eat milk sandwiches three meals a day? And just how long do these people think they could be snowed in? After all, this isn’t Minnesota!

Personally, I go for more practical items. Like toilet paper, for instance. Which item would you rather be stuck at home without: milk or TP? Damn right!

Now that our supplies had been replenished, I spent the weekend following the storm’s progress, in between watching football and writing. In one of their biggest road wins in years, my beloved Georgia Bulldogs knocked off Notre Dame 20-19 on Saturday. It was a game many UGA fans had been looking forward to since it was announced a few years ago, and thousands of people made the trip to South Bend, Indiana. In fact, there were so many Georgia fans there that, watching on television, it looked more like a home game to me than a road game. If you doubt this assessment, watch this video. It will amaze you!

On Sunday, my Atlanta Falcons faced the Chicago Bears. I tuned in to watch the Falcons pull out a 23-17 thanks to a tremendous goal line stand late in the game. The game was exciting, though I found myself unable to find as much joy in it as I usually would. Irma had made landfall in Florida, pelting the Southern part of the state with high winds and torrential rains. As the afternoon progressed, the storm’s approach began to weigh on my mind.

Now Irma was right on top of us, and Athens was expected to experience 5-10 inches of rain, sustained winds of 35-45 mph, and gusts up to 65 mph. The rain didn’t really worry me much. It was the wind that gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Our house is surrounded by trees, many of which are extremely old and very tall. We’ve had issues with falling branches and toppling trees before, most notably in 2014, when a freak wind event turned our backyard into a saw mill. Though I hoped to avoid a repeat occurrence, in my heart I knew that we wouldn’t escape unscathed.

I left work early, looking to beat the worst of it home. Wind buffeted my car, and it took an effort to stay between the lines. The closer I got, the stronger the wind. The radio was reporting that hundreds of thousands of people in Florida and South Georgia were without electricity. I arrived home at around 1pm. So far everything looked okay, though it was still early. Trees were beginning to sway back and forth. I walked inside just as the power went out.

I got back in the car and headed to a nearby convenience store to buy ice. Inside the store had power, though the card reader was down. I had enough cash to buy three bags of ice, and I hurried home, leaning into the wind to close the front door. We cleaned out the refrigerator, putting everything we could into a cooler and topping it with ice. The rest we put in the washing machine.

You read that correctly. We’d heard that the washing machine was a good place to ice down food. We put the remaining items inside and poured the rest of the ice over them. Then we retreated to the living room and sat in the dark listening to the sound of the increasing wind.

Dena had noticed that the tree near our front porch was swaying earlier in the day. We’d watched it through the window, moving back in forth. Since quite a few trees in the vicinity were doing the same thing, I didn’t think much of it. We were in the kitchen when the watery ripping began.

I knew immediately what it was. The tree was uprooting! The rip was followed by what could only be splintering wood. Before we had time to do anything, the tree crashed through the front porch and smashed into the roof with a tremendous crash. The entire house shuddered with the impact.

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We ran to the living room and stared in disbelief. The porch roof no longer, technically, existed. There was a crack in the wall where it met the roof. Fortunately, no water was leaking in. We went outside to assess the damage. The siding below the edge of the roof was cracked, and we could see rafters through the shingles.

We went back inside and called our landlord, who promised to send someone out as soon as the storm had passed. Then we went looking for our cats, Pip and Squeaky. We found them cowering behind a chair, frightened by what had happened. Eventually we managed to coax them out. I almost wanted to crawl in and take their place.

Outside conditions continued to deteriorate. The wind, which had previously waxed and waned, was now a sustained roar. All over our yard and neighboring yards small branches rained down. Water rolled along the street in a black river. The worst of the storm was expected to last until sunset. It was now 3:00pm.

The rest of the afternoon and evening is a blur, as I lost all concept of time. The wind filled everything, was everything. Every time it gusted, I expected to hear that ripping sound again. At some point before it got too dark to see, I found myself standing at a window, staring at the back yard.

Our yard slopes down to a creek, which is lined on both sides by tall, thin trees. It was from this area that trees had previously toppled. I watched them sway, bending to alarming angles before swinging back the other way. I was still watching when one of them fell.

It happened quickly. One second the tree was standing and the next it wasn’t. It swayed way over to one side and then, instead of moving back, it just kept going. It fell along the other side of the creek, crashing into the brush. As it came to rest, a disembodied voice rang out from that side: “Holy shit!”

When things didn’t improve by nightfall, we briefly contemplated leaving for a motel or friend’s house, but didn’t want to risk driving. The danger involved due to falling trees and flooded streets was too high. So, we hunkered down and rode out the storm, holding strong against the grim night. Eventually, we slept.

My dreams were haunted by visions of even worse damage. In one nightmare, the entire back half of the roof was smashed in by a falling tree. I awoke at some unknown hour, staring into the blackness and listening. The wind had finally abated, and I could hear cicadas and crickets singing. I got up and went to the restroom, glancing outside to verify no further calamities had occurred before climbing back into bed.

I called out of work, as a night of fitful sleep had taken its toll. We got up at around 7am, reveling in the blissful silence of the still day. The power was still out, and would remain that way for the next two days. We took a walk through the neighborhood and saw that at least three trees had fallen across the street.

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Our landlord made good on her word, and an arborist arrived at around 10:30am to begin removing the tree. Eventually things would be back to normal. But the fact remains that Irma was the first time Atlanta and Northeast Georgia had been under a tropical storm warning, though we’d experienced the remains of a hurricane before.

I’ll leave the science of why such powerful storms form and follow the path they choose to the climatologists. Most of us have no in-depth understanding of hurricanes and their causes. But sometimes a monster rears its head. Before sweeping through the Caribbean, Irma registered winds as high as 185 mph, and was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s all for now. As always, thanks for reading. I certainly appreciate it. For more about Irma’s devastation, check  New York Times coverage at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/us/hurricane-irma-florida.html?mcubz=0.

Until later…

 

 

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I See Georgia: Broad River

 “We’ll be okay. We’re wearing shoes with closed toes.”

This nugget of wisdom came from the guy in front of me, next in line to go over the waterfall. I clung to a half-submerged rock, waiting for my turn to take the plunge as the water rushed by, tugging persistently at my kayak.

We’d been on the river for at least forever, though I suspected it had been much longer. Already we’d navigated rapids, jagged rocks, sandbars and, most dangerous of all, drunk young people. How drunk, you ask? Fraternity keg party drunk; July 4th hunch punch drunk; New Year’s Eve Jager bomb drunk. We’d managed to survive them, but now the time had come to risk what was left of our hides.

The Broad River is as much a part of Northeast Georgia as mountains, forests and moonshine. Beginning in Stephens County, the river flows through Franklin County, then serves as the border between Madison and Elbert Counties before joining the Savannah River. For most of my life I’d crossed the river on my way to visit family in Bowman, occasionally hiking along the bank, or going for a swim. Now here we were, navigating our way South on the rolling water.

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It all began on the Sunday before Labor Day. Looking for something to do that didn’t require too much travel, we decided to spend the afternoon kayaking down the river. Our odyssey began at Broad River Outpost, a near legendary outfit outside of Danielsville that specializes in river adventures.

The outpost is in the middle of nowhere, and would be impossible to find if not for the mini boat on a pole near the driveway. We parked in the gravel lot and entered a ramshackle building, where for $25 each, we received kayaks, life jackets, and transportation back to our car after the trip.

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Not long after selecting our life jackets, we stood at the top of what looked like a dry, worn slip and slide which trailed down a steep hill. Members of the staff brought our kayaks, and we pushed our way over the edge and slid to the bottom. We then made the short walk to the river, dragging our kayaks behind us. Minutes later we were on the water.

It was a beautiful day, warm but not hot, and we moved gently along. From time to time, we’d hit mild rapids, but nothing too extreme. As we bobbed on the water, we saw turtles sunning themselves on rocks, and a crane standing at attention on the bank. We alternated between paddling and floating at the river’s discretion; the serenity of the day broken only by cicadas, birds, and portable sound systems blasting music of an indeterminate genre.

I’ve already mentioned the drunken young people, so to avoid descending into “get off my lawn” territory, I’d just like to thank them, on behalf of ourselves, the other kayakers, people on highway 172, and astronauts aboard the international space station for the tunes.

As we made our way down the river, we tried to avoid the rocks which protruded from the water. Despite our best efforts, from time to time we found ourselves stuck. We’d rock back and forth, push with our paddles, and sometimes even get out of the kayaks in order to continue along. We passed through some rapids, but nothing quite prepared us for the previously mentioned waterfall.

I clung to my rock as the sooth-sayer in front of me headed for the edge. Upon reaching the falls, he gave one last push with his paddle, and his kayak tilted downward. Just before he disappeared from sight, he threw both hands in the air and screamed “Oh Shit!” Not very promising.

Dena was next in line, and she moved to the edge. Someone below gave a thumbs up and she nudged her way over. I approached the edge of the falls, getting close enough to see Dena at the bottom before sticking my paddle into the river bed to stop. She was upright in her kayak, and gave me a wave. Since everything appeared to be okay, I pulled my paddle out of the mud.

Later, as I was taking inventory to see which of my extremities were still intact, I began to piece together just what happened in the frantic seconds after I topped the falls. I remembered easing my way over the edge, then dropping straight down. I remembered the feel of the wind in my hair. Most of all, I remembered crashing into the giant boulder at the base of the falls.

I hit it squarely, at full speed. Luckily, I remembered the sage words of the guy in line in front of me and tucked my feet close to my body. My kayak struck the rock with a tremendous jolt, then spun sideways as I did everything in my power to remain inside. The rushing water shoved my kayak into the rock, and I found myself stuck, and in danger of flipping over. With a massive effort, I managed to wrench my kayak free and we continued down the river. There were a few more rapids to navigate during the remainder of the float, but nothing on the order of the falls.

I began to look for the take-out sign long before we could actually see it. Though I immensely enjoyed our adventure, my arms and shoulders were aching from navigating obstacles. Finally, the sign appeared. Paddling with renewed vigor, I was the first person to the bank, followed immediately by Dena. We dragged our kayaks up the bank and collapsed on the provided benches, exhausted from the trip.

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Soon we were on a bus, headed back to our car. As we bounced along dirt roads, I realized that moments like this one are what travel is all about. Rarely does everything go as planned. More often than not, circumstances will dictate that you do things you hadn’t planned on, and go places you never thought you would. There is no substitute for experience.

That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information about the Broad River, visit the official  Georgia River Network site at         http://www.garivers.org/broad-river-water-trail.html.

Until later…

Next time: It’s a Saturday in September, which can only mean one thing: Game day in Athens! Go Dawgs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I See Georgia: Georgia Guidestones

If you live in Northeast Georgia, you may have heard of the Guidestones. Then again, maybe not. Even though the massive granite monument in rural Elbert County is well known to historians around the country, and even the world, it isn’t something that is mentioned very often here. I grew up in neighboring Madison County, and frequently visited family in Elbert County, but never knew the Guidestones existed until adulthood. Even when someone does bring it up, the conversation often seems to make some people uncomfortable.

Why wouldn’t locals want to promote such a unique attraction? There are a number of reasons, primary among them the words that are engraved on the stones. There are various theories on the true meaning of the “guidelines” that are carved in eight languages. Given the monument’s location in the heart of the Bible Belt, some have taken them as pagan, or even satanic. I’ll let you make up your own mind about that once you’ve read the text. But first, a little background:

One day in 1979, a man walked into the offices of Elberton Granite Finishing with a plan for a large and complex stone monument. Using the name Robert C. Christian, the man claimed to represent “a small group of loyal Americans” who wished to remain anonymous. According to Christian, the group had chosen Elberton as the site of the monument due to the high quality of the stone quarried there.

The Guidestones were installed on a hilltop purchased from Wayne Mullinex, owner of Double 7 Farms for $5000 plus lifetime cattle grazing rights for the family. Over the years, the stones have been visited by people from all over the world. They’ve also been defaced by those who take offense to the guidelines, though the long-term effects of the vandalism have been negligible.

We visited the Guidestones on a warm August day, following a stop in nearby Bowman. My dad grew up in Bowman, and my aunts and uncles live there to this day. Most of my memories of Elbert County involve Sunday afternoons at my grandparents’ house, playing games and wreaking havoc with my cousin Pete. Spending time in the small town was like taking a step back in time.

We walked around the small downtown area, looking into the windows of some of the shops, which were mostly closed on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually we stumbled across Ann’s ‘tiques, which hadn’t yet shuttered the doors for the weekend. We ventured inside to find a glorious hodgepodge; everything from antique furniture to vintage Coca-Cola bottles. You could easily spend an entire day browsing through the shop, but the real reason for our visit awaited!

Twenty minutes later we were in the middle of nowhere, passing farmland and stands of trees but little else. It seemed like the last place you’d find a monument that has been called “America’s Stonehenge, but then we topped a rise and the Guidestones appeared.

We pulled into the small, gravel parking lot and got out of the car. There was one other couple walking around the area but otherwise, the place was deserted. We approached the monument, which seemed about as out of place in rural Georgia as anything I’ve ever seen.

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The Guidestones stand at the edge of a pasture. Four granite slabs surround a central column, with yet another slab serving as a capstone. The whole thing towers overhead, extending more than 19 feet above the ground. We stood and gazed for a while, marveling at this monolith tucked into an out of the way corner of the state. Then we began to move about the small, fenced hilltop.

The day was oddly quiet, almost as if nothing quite dared disturb the serenity of the place. The four main slabs are engraved front and back with a set of guidelines for an unknown and unrealized world. Each of the eight sets are written in a different language: English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. The guidelines read as follows:

 

Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.

Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.

Unite humanity with a living new language.

Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.

Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.

Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.

Avoid petty laws and useless officials.

Balance personal rights with social duties.

Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.

Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

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What do they mean? There are several theories, but to me, one rings more likely true than the others. The Guidestones were erected in 1980: the height of the cold war. Taken in this context, the ten lines read as instructions for survivors of an apocalyptic event as they attempt to rebuild society. Whether or not you agree with them is a matter of opinion. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind, though I’d recommend visiting for yourself before doing so.

At the top of the monument, etched into the capstone in four ancient languages: Sanskrit, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Babylonian Cuneiform, and Classical Greek, is the statement:

“Let these be Guidestones to an age of reason.”

A few feet to the West lies a granite ledger, which gives the dimensions. It also details several astronomical features, and we immediately set about checking them out.

A channel drilled through the stone allows a viewer to see the North star. A slot in the same pillar indicates the sun’s solstices and equinoxes. An aperture in the capstone allows a sun ray to shine through at noon each day. In addition to these features, the four outer stones are oriented to mark the lunar declination cycle. It seemed that the planners wanted to do more than raise the hackles of religious folk in the area.

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We circled the monument, wanting to take it in from every angle. The other couple who’d been there when we arrived was gone, leaving us alone. Eventually we found our way back to the ledger, where we noticed something we hadn’t seen before. At the very bottom, below the dimensions and a listing of the astronomical features, is a line that reads:

Time Capsule
Placed six feet below this spot on:

To be opened on:

There are no dates listed. Did the group that planned and paid for the Guidestones actually bury a time capsule? No one knows. Given the secretive nature of the whole operation, we’ll likely never know. Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

We spent more than an hour walking around, seeing all that there was to see. Finally, we headed back to the car. Minutes later we were in Elberton. We stopped for a few minutes at the Granite Bowl; a football field ringed by rock seating, and one of the more intimidating venues in the state. As I gazed down at the field, which my dad played on more than 40 years ago, I could almost see the ghosts which no doubt frequent the area, clinging to the glory that began and ended in the enclosure.

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Eventually, we headed home. As we passed a building bearing a sign which proclaimed Elberton the “granite capital of the world, we were left to wonder just what that “small group of loyal Americans” hoped to accomplish. Were they devotees of a New World Order? Did they mean for the area to be landing site for extraterrestrials? Or were they just planning for the worst?

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No one knows. For what it’s worth, I believe that they were merely like-minded people who believed that nuclear technology, overpopulation, and fanaticism were dangerous and needed to be scaled back. Again, I’ll leave you to form your own opinion of whether they were right or wrong. After all, there are two sides to every story.

Always two sides.

That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. For more information about the Guidestones, visit the Wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Guidestones.

Until later…

Next time: We’ll see Northeast Georgia from a different perspective. It’s an afternoon float down Broad River!

 

 

I See Georgia: Eclipse

I’ve been into astronomy and space exploration for as long as I can remember. Not the way people with huge telescopes and expensive equipment are into it; my interests have remained on an amateur level. Still, anytime anything space related happens, you can find me either outside staring at the sky, or watching video online. I get excited for these events; a fact of which those who know me are all too aware. An example:

In 2015, when NASA’s New Horizons probe approached Pluto, I gave daily updates to my co-workers; explaining the mission and why Pluto was designated a dwarf planet. In July, when the craft became the first to ever fly by Pluto, it was like Christmas, Easter and my birthday rolled into one. I posted photos, and showed them to anyone who would look.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed, or followed online, rocket launches, Mars rovers, meteor showers, lunar eclipses, probes, and all manner of other events. But until August of 2017, I’d never seen one of the rarest celestial events of them all: a solar eclipse.

For the two or three of you who don’t know, August 21, 2017 brought the first total eclipse of the sun over the United States in nearly 100 years. A 70-mile wide swath of the country would witness totality, while the rest of us would get a partial eclipse.

The total eclipse would happen 70 miles North of our Athens home. My first thought was to make the trip to witness the event in totality. This idea lasted until 11:00am on the 21st, when I left work early to find I-85 backed up all the way to Jefferson. Since Athens would get a 99% eclipse, I immediately decided that, at least in this case, 99 was greater than 100; at least when it came to gridlock.

I hurried home, where a last minute, mad scramble had left us with eclipse glasses. I can’t overstate how difficult it became to procure glasses in the days leading up to the eclipse. Websites were charging ridiculous prices for them in the last week or two. We ended up paying $60 for a ten pack of glasses, which turned out to be a bargain.

I arrived home at noon, and we immediately set about planning for the event. We considered going to an open field nearby to witness the eclipse. But once we realized that A. it was crazy hot and B. we could see the sun from our house, we decided the better part of valor was to watch from home.

We dragged a couple of folding chairs into the driveway and readied our glasses. The event was estimated to begin at 1pm, lasting for three hours. The heat was brutal, but as the time approached, we braved it and set up in the driveway. At 1:00pm, I put on my glasses and glared at the sun.

Nothing. The sun was a perfect, golden orb hanging in the sky.

I stared up until sweat poured down my face, then retreated inside to cool off. How long would it be until things got under way? I waited a few minutes, then headed back outside. I put on my glasses and looked up. The sun was obscured by clouds, and nothing was visible. I waited until sun rays once again beat down on me, then looked again.

The orb was no longer perfect. A dark spot covered one tiny area of the sun. As I watched, the spot slowly began to grow. I told Dena to come outside, and together we looked up as the dark area got bigger and bigger. We sat in our chairs, wiping sweat from our faces as we continued to watch.

The bright circle got smaller and smaller as the temperature began to drop. A ninety-degree day became 70 degrees as mid-afternoon became evening. Finally, at 2:38 pm, the moon fully obscured the sun and Athens was in 99% totality.

It was an incredible moment. Twilight came six hours early. A complete silence fell, as birds stopped singing and traffic ceased. The quiet lasted a few seconds, then crickets and cicadas filled the void, singing as if their lives depended on it. We sat together and looked up as day became night. It was a special moment, and one I’ll never forget.

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Then, the sun began to reappear. Crescent shadows appeared on the driveway and the street. Gradually, the night creatures fell silent as the sounds of daytime returned. The temperature rose as the sunlight grew more and more intense. Sweat began to pour down our faces once again.

By 4pm, it was over. We watched until the very end, gazing at the sun until the round orb was perfect once again. Finally, soaked with sweat but exhilarated by what we’d witnessed, we retreated inside. Soon it would be time to return to reality, deciding what to have for dinner and planning for tomorrow. But for the moment, it was all about the incredible event we’d just witnessed.

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That just about does it. But before I go, one final note. Any experienced is only enhanced by music, and we made sure to have some appropriate listening material for the eclipse. A few songs from our playlist:

 

Pink Floyd                            “Brain Damage”
Soundgarden                      “Black Hole Sun”
My Bloody Valentine         “Kiss the Eclipse”
Pink Floyd                            “Breathe”
Bonnie Tyler                        “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (because, well, we kind of had to)
Pink Floyd                            “Eclipse”

 

Okay, that’s all for now. I hope you all enjoyed the Great American Eclipse as much as I did. For more information on solar eclipses, check out the official NASA website at https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/nasa-knows/what-is-an-eclipse-58.

I’ll be back soon with more places, events and oddities from around our great state. Until later…

Next Time: We’ll visit one of the most unique attractions in Georgia. It’s Elbert County’s mysterious Guidestones.

 

 

I See Georgia: Covington

I See Georgia: Covington

 As a teen, I used to watch “In the Heat of the Night” during the summer. The television series, based on the 1960s novel and film of the same name, focuses on the police force in a small Southern town. I’d watch as murderers, thieves and criminals of all kinds met justice. While the show was set in Sparta, Mississippi, it was filmed in Covington, Georgia.

I’d never been to Covington, but had heard good things about the town of 13,000 in Newton County, about 35 miles East of Atlanta. On a sunny Saturday in early August, we set out to see just what it is about the place that continues to draw film and television crews back time and again.

We left Athens and headed Southeast, passing through Bostwick, home of the Annual Cotton Gin festival (more on this event in later posts!), and entering Hard Labor Creek State Park. We passed through the park, filming location for Friday the 13th Part VI, Jason Lives, and reputedly haunted (again, more on this to come in the future!), before merging onto I-20.  A few minutes later, we were pulling into a parking space in downtown Covington.

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Immediately, I could see why the place is a favorite filming location. Covington is small town America; the epitome of the idyllic Southern town, with a grassy, open square surrounded by historic buildings. We wandered around, eventually stepping into a memorabilia shop if for no other reason than to cool off.

The shop features merchandise from Covington’s movie and television history. The town’s screen credits include shows like The Vampire Diaries and The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as films such as Selma, Remember the Titans, and Rob Zombie’s reboot of Halloween 2.

While we were in the store, we noticed activity in the square, where a group of people were unrolling what looked like a giant canvas or tarp. Someone asked the clerk what was going on, and her answer sent us immediately scrambling across the street to get a good look.

In an effort to break a Guinness Record, a local church group was attempting to inflate, and then set off, the world’s largest whoopee cushion! Seriously. I couldn’t make something like this up if I tried. Why would someone do this? For the same reason humanity has climbed Mount Everest, walked on the Moon, and invented selfie sticks: because it can!

We stood in the shade of a huge tree and watched as several adults spread the giant novelty item on the grass, then connected a large air pump. As final preparations were made, the party was joined by the entire youth group of the First Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, Matt Funk, then took to a microphone to explain that the current whoopee record, held by a New Zealand television show, was 19.8 feet in diameter. The one laid out before us, he said, measured 25 feet.

With that, the pump whirred to life and the cushion began to inflate. As the massive contraption grew, pastor Matt laid out the plan: Members of the church’s youth group would stand in a circle, hold their arms up over their heads, then push down in unison. Soon, the cushion reached its maximum size, and we were ready to go.

A hush fell over the crowd as the kids took their places. It was one of those moments, frozen in time and full of anticipation. I expect that people all over the world felt this same excitement as Neil Armstrong descended the final few steps to immortality. Well, maybe not. But still, we were about to witness history! At last, the time came. At Pastor Matt’s cue, the kids linked hands, raised their arms, pushed down with all their might…

And…

It worked! The cushion let out a sound that I can only describe as a cross between a Harley Davidson at full throttle and a hot air balloon that had been struck by lightning. The kids pushed and pushed, putting all their collective weight into it, until the cushion was fully deflated! They’d done it, and Adventures of the Bear Team had been there to witness it!

When you see something so great, so unusual, so small town incredible, words often fail to capture the feeling of actually being there. Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. Check it out for yourself!

A post shared by Keith Maxwell (@bigbearjkm) on

After the festivities, we walked around downtown Covington, venturing into a few shops before passing through Southview Cemetery. Eventually we found ourselves standing before the majestic Newton County Courthouse. Built in 1884 in the second empire architectural style, it was added to the national register of historic places in 1980.

As we stood looking up at the picturesque structure, I flashed back to the afternoons I spent watching In the Heat of the Night. Gazing at the courthouse, I could almost see the ghosts of Chief Gillespie, Virgil Tibbs and Bubba Skinner going about the business of solving the murders, robberies and disappearances that continually haunted their small town.

Tired and hot after walking around town, we were in need of somewhere cool to rest for a bit. We found the perfect place at Bread and Butter Bakery. We ordered coffee and sipped it while lounging on a couch and taking in the interior, which was decorated with local art. When we left the coffee shop, it was too early for dinner, but there was one restaurant in Covington we didn’t want to miss: The Mystic Grill.

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We’d come across it online during a search for restaurants in the area, and every site claimed it was the best. We entered the mostly empty place and were seated in the dining room. Housed in a historic building on the square, the interior was warm and inviting, walled with brick and wood. Since it was still early, we elected to go with an appetizer and ordered the fried pickles.

When the food arrived, it was delicious. The pickles were hot and juicy, and the breading was crispy. They came with a spicy remoulade which only added to the taste, and we quickly polished them off. Though we didn’t eat a meal there, I enjoyed our visit and look forward to trying an entrée next time.

By the time we left The Mystic Grill, it was after 5:00pm. Since we were due at a friend’s house at 7:00, we decided to head home. As we drove East toward Athens, I reflected on our trip to the “Hollywood of the South.” We didn’t spend an entire day in Covington, but had seen enough to lead me to want to return.

That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information on Covington, visit the official website at                         .

Until later…

Next time: We’ll put on our glasses and stare at the heavens. It’s finally here: Solar Eclipse 2017!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I See Georgia: Helen

I See Georgia: Helen

The most recent excursion on our “I See Georgia” tour was different than any that preceded it. On every other trip, we had a destination in mind; well laid plans in place. But this time, unsure of where we wanted to go, we decided to just get in the car and drive. So it was that we found ourselves in North Georgia, cruising along Highway 441 with no idea where we might end up.

We’d decided to head North, hoping for cooler temperatures. After back-to-back visits to towns at or below the fall line, we needed a break from extreme heat. We left Athens just after noon, bypassing Commerce and Homer before crossing the Eastern Continental Divide at the small town of Baldwin. When we passed a sign stating: “Welcome to North Georgia,” we were officially in the mountains.

We cruised though Habersham County, hitting the outskirts of Cornelia (more on this town later!) before passing right through the heart of Demorest. The entire area lies on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, and soon we were in undeveloped land, climbing, descending, and climbing again; all the while watching the sun filter through the tall, ancient trees which lined both sides of the road.

Eventually we decided to go to Helen. Helen is unique, not only in Georgia, but in the United States. A former logging town, it changed its entire image in the late 1960s, when it was remade as a German style “Alpine Village.” Every structure in town, from City Hall to motels to chain restaurants, is built in classic, South German style. Who needs the Alps when you’ve got the oldest mountain chain in the U.S., the Appalachians?

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As a kid, my family went to Helen now and then. Back then, the big thing was to head into the mountains at the beginning of fall, when the leaves began to turn from green to red, orange and yellow. You had plenty of time to look at the leaves too, as you sat in traffic waiting to get into town.

That’s the things about Helen; there is only one main road which passes through the town. This often leads to massive traffic jams, given the thousands of tourists and bikers who visit. But this time would be different. There shouldn’t be too much traffic at this time of year. It was late July, and the only reasons leaves might be changing color was because they’d been scorched by the heat!

I firmly held on to this belief until we turned onto Highway 75 and immediately came to a dead standstill. Apparently leaves weren’t the only reason people flocked to Helen. We inched along, sometimes going several minutes without moving. At last, Helen came into view. Now we just had to find a place to park.

This was easier said than done. Every lot we passed had a posted warning informing us that it was for only for customers of the adjacent business. Finally, a sign appeared promising public parking. I turned off onto a side road and followed the signs to a lot. We pulled into a space and were about to walk away when we realized that there was a $2.00 fee.

I dug in my pockets and only came out with a few cents. Neither of us carries cash on a regular basis, and both of our wallets were empty. I dug in the car’s console and came out with a handful of change. When I counted everything, I came up with a grand total of 94 cents. Shit!

The only option left was finding an ATM. A quick online search brought up a bank nearby, so I set out in that direction while Dena checked out our options for food/drinks in the area. I walked along the highway until I came to the bank, where I paid a $5.00 service charge to make a withdrawal. Transactions were limited to multiples of $20.00, so I was forced to find a place to get change.

There was a Wendy’s right beside the bank, so I ducked inside, figuring I could buy a drink to break the 20. I figured wrong. The line at the counter was like a Ryan’s steakhouse on Mother’s Day. In no way, shape or form was I going to wait half an hour at a Wendy’s.

I stepped back outside and began a frantic search for somewhere to make change. Every restaurant was a sit-down place with a line; every shop a boutique with expensive merchandise. I walked back to the main drag and found Dena. Together we headed down the street, looking for a solution. Finally, we came upon an ice cream shop that claimed to offer fountain drinks. We waited in line and ordered a diet coke.

“Do you want ice?” the guy asked.

“A little,” I replied.

“Sure you don’t want a lot?”

“Why?”

“The drinks come in a can.”

I paid $2.00 for my “fountain drink” and was finally able to deposit the parking fee in the collection box at the lot. Hot and tired from running all over town, and in need of a little relaxation, we put our names on the list for a table at a place called The Troll Tavern. A few minutes later we were seated in the shade, under the bridge by the Chattahoochee River. A few minutes after that, we had beers in our hands.

Sticking with the German theme, I opted for a Paulaner Oktoberfest draft. It was cold and refreshing, with a rich malt flavor. We sat, watching hordes of people float by in tubes, munching on fries while sipping our beers. Not a bad way to while away an afternoon.

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After a couple of beers apiece, we decided to walk around town a bit. We went up one side of the street, then down the other before stopping at Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen. Fighting the crowd to get to the counter, we ordered white chocolate pretzel clusters, then sat outside to enjoy them. They were delicious, with the perfect balance of salty and sweet.

By the time we finished our treats, it was late afternoon and time for dinner. We retreated to the car and headed for a place we’d discovered online: Fender’s Diner.

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This retro, fifties-style diner is located in Cornelia, once a prominent stop on the Tallulah Falls Railway. It features two things: American style favorites on the menu, and classic rock and roll on the jukebox. We sat in a booth and ordered the daily special: hamburger steak with sides and bread.

When the food came, we dug in. The steaks were juicy and delicious, the sides hot and fresh. All around us were relics of America’s past: everything from an old sign advertising Black Kow soda to an antique gas pump. The checkered tile floors and mint green walls only added to the ambiance.

Full and happy, we left the diner. By now it was almost dark, and the time had nearly come to head home. But first, there was one more thing we had to do. We walked along Irvin Street to the old train depot, where we found Cornelia’s most famous landmark, The Big Red Apple.

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Dedicated in 1926 as a nod to the importance of the apple industry to Habersham county, the 5000-pound monument sits on an eight-foot pedestal in a plaza near downtown. Things like this make our visits to towns worthwhile. People like to make fun of attractions like the apple, but they are the essence of small town America.

That does it for now. Thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information about Helen, visit the official website at http://www.helenga.org/. To learn more about Cornelia and the Big Red Apple, visit http://www.corneliageorgia.org/.

Until later…

Next time: We’ll travel to central Georgia to visit the quintessential small town: It’s the “Hollywood of the South,” Covington!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I See Georgia: Augusta

I See Georgia: Augusta

 

I hadn’t been to Augusta in a long time; not since my father lived there in the 1990s and early 2000s. He moved to Augusta after he and my mother divorced, and lived there on and off for more than a decade. He spent time in other places: Myrtle Beach, SC; Hendersonville, TN; West Palm Beach, FL. But he always eventually returned to Augusta. It seemed that the city in Eastern Georgia became home for him.

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My brother Matt and I would visit him there; driving over for a weekend every month or two. Dad was constantly in motion, and from one visit to the next he often changed addresses, workplaces, and acquaintances. This made for a somewhat fragmented idea of what Augusta had to offer. Most of what we saw involved going out to dinner, or whatever bar he currently frequented.

Not that we didn’t have fun, at least some of the time. Now and then we’d do something different, like go to a sporting event. Augusta boasted both minor league baseball (the Green Jackets) and hockey (the Lynx), and we’d go to the games. Or we might drive to Athens for a UGA football game or Atlanta for the Braves or Falcons.

Then there was our New Year’s Eve tradition. Every year, in late December, we’d make the 100-mile drive to Augusta to spend the last (or first, depending on how you look at it) holiday of the year. Most years we’d end up at a bar, counting down the seconds. The big exception came in 1999, as we spent the evening at my Dad’s house, watching coverage of the wild celebrations on television due to the huge law enforcement presence all over town.

Those visits had long shaped my view of Augusta. I hadn’t visited in nearly fifteen years, and the time had come for a return engagement. Dena and I left Athens at 10:30am on an (extremely!) warm Saturday in mid-July and headed East. Traffic was light and we quickly passed through such towns as Lexington and Washington. Things went great until we merged onto I-20 near Thomson.

A mile or so after hitting the interstate, traffic came to a dead stop. Due to road construction, the highway narrowed to one lane in both directions. No problem, you might say. The big flashing signs that informed drivers of the situation should lead everyone to switch to the left lane in an orderly fashion. If you think that was the case, stop reading right now. Seriously. Get off my blog! Everyone knows that this is never the case.

What actually happened was what you experienced travelers would expect. Oblivious motorists, seeing a wide open right lane, roared past the line of cars to the left. Then, when they reached the point where the lane was blocked, attempted to merge back, causing one of the biggest clusterf**ks you’ve ever seen!

Eventually we made it through the jam, though not before much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We exited the interstate and entered Augusta just after 1:30pm. Tired and hungry, we were in need of some comfort food. Where better to get it than Rhinehart’s!

It was a place I remembered well from visits past. The quintessential hole-in-the-wall joint with graffiti all over the walls, Rhinehart’s is known for two things: seafood and alcohol. We took a seat and ordered both: po’ boy sandwiches (catfish for me, shrimp for Dena) and beer (Savannah River IPA).

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When the sandwiches came they were massive. The fish fillet on mine was big and crispy, served with cocktail and tartar sauce and mounds of fries. We ate all we could hold, chasing the food with sips of beer.

When we left Rhinehart’s, we were full. So full that lunch would be the only meal we ate in Augusta. In need of a walk after our gigantic lunch, we headed downtown. Cruising along Broad Street, we passed a host of restaurants, bars, churches, and shops. Eventually we crossed over to Greene Street, where we parked and headed for an Augusta landmark: The Riverwalk.

Augusta is an old city, beginning life as a fort built at the head of the navigable part of the Savannah river in the mid-1700s. Later serving as Georgia’s 2nd state capital for a time, it became a market town for the state’s growing cotton cultivation. This history is evident in the area, with markers all along the river detailing various events in the city’s near 300-year existence.

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The Riverwalk features both an upper and a lower option. We took the lower path, which winds along the bank of the river. Beginning at the 6th Street railroad bridge, we headed North, passing playground areas full of children and dog walkers; all the while marveling at the view of the rolling water.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a hot day. I’ve talked quite a bit about the difference between hot in North Georgia as opposed to South Georgia. Anywhere at or below what I’ve heard dubbed as the “gnat line,” an imaginary border between North and South Georgia that stretches from Augusta to Macon to Columbus, ninety-five degrees always seems hotter than above.

After 45 minutes of pouring sweat, we’d had all we could take of the sun. Needing a place to cool off, we made our way to the Augusta Museum of History. The inside of the museum was blissfully cool, and we gladly paid the $4 admission fee.

Beginning on the ground floor, we moved through time; checking out exhibits ranging from the days when Native Americans inhabited the area to the Antebellum South to modern times. A few of my favorites:

-An old locomotive, complete with passenger cars

-The sports exhibit, featuring items from both Augusta’s hometown teams to athletes who were either born in Augusta, or lived there. Of particular note, a baseball glove and bat which belonged to perhaps Georgia’s most famous sports icon: Ty Cobb.

-The music exhibit, covering musical icons from Augusta’s history.

-Military memorabilia from the Civil War and beyond.

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Once we’d seen all there was to see, we headed back downtown. We parked and walked along Broad Street, taking in the sights and sounds of this slumbering giant of a city. The consolidated Augusta-Richmond County population counts nearly 200,000 people, though you’d never have known it judging by the mostly empty sidewalks.

We continued down the street until we came upon the Godfather himself. In a small open area in the median of the street, stood a statue of Augusta’s favorite son, the legendary James Brown. Known for such hits as “I Got You,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Brown was known for his incendiary live shows and incessant touring.

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We spent a few minutes gazing at the statue and reading the accompanying plaque. There has never been an entertainer quite like Brown, for both good reasons and bad. We hung around the area until the first bolt of thunder rolled over the city. In need of a place to ride out the storm, we ducked inside Blue Sky Bar and Kitchen.

By now, it was late afternoon. With a long drive ahead of us, we ordered a couple of diet cokes in lieu of beer and waited for the rain to stop. We sipped our drinks, which were refilled by a man dressed in a black suit with shamrocks on it. I swear. I couldn’t make this man up if I tried. All I can really tell you about Blue Sky is that it was cool, it was dim, and the drinks were cold.

By the time the storm passed and the sun reappeared, its rays were slanting and faded. Soon it would be time to head home. But first, there was one last place we wanted to visit. Regular readers of this blog know that the Bear Team often visits cemeteries in the cities we visit. So it was that we found our way to the gates of Magnolia Cemetery.

Founded in 1817, Magnolia Cemetery covers more than 60 acres. During the Civil War, the East wall was fortified to help defend Augusta from Union attack. We drove through the empty streets, keeping an eye out for the Gray Lady, a ghostly figure that supposedly haunts the cemetery.

At the end of 3rd Street, we encountered a crape myrtle which, according to Augusta’s official website, is the oldest tree in the state. We got out of the car to take a closer look. The tree was obviously ancient, with undergrowth shooting up all around it. By now shadows had grown long, and the dim light, combined with the granite tombstones jutting up from the earth like crooked teeth, gave the area an eerie vibe. Time to get moving!

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We got back into the car and drove through the historic district, passing large old homes on both sides. Before we knew it, we’d crossed the Butt Memorial Bridge over the Augusta Canal and were headed West. Wanting to avoid the mess on I-20, we elected to take the back way home.

Passing into South Carolina, we cruised through small towns and open countryside. A light rain began to fall as the miles fell away behind us. Eventually we came once again upon the Savannah River, which snakes back and forth all around the area. As we crossed a bridge, we were treated to an array of sights unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Behind us, the sky was nearly black with storm clouds. To our right, an absolutely gorgeous sunset blazed across the horizon. To our left, a beautiful rainbow descended into the trees. And directly ahead, blue sky welcomed us back into Georgia. Not a bad way to begin our trip home.

Our trip to Augusta was fun, though a little bittersweet for me. I enjoyed the things we did, but everywhere I looked was a reminder of the time I spent there with my father, who passed away in 2011. He was everywhere on this trip: Watching fireworks over the Savannah River; eating boiled shrimp at Rhinehart’s on a Monday night;  enjoying himself at the Cotton Patch downtown. That’s the thing about losing someone close to you: You are forced to say goodbye to them over and over again.

That does it for now. As always, thanks for reading. We certainly appreciate it. For more information about Augusta, visit the official website at http://www.augustaga.gov/.

Until later…

Next time: We’ll take a trip into the Alps without ever leaving our state. It’s the Alpine village nestled in North Georgia: Helen!