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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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/.
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!