Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Georgia...totally on my mind!

Oh, wow, so many miles on the car and so many sights seen and meals eaten!  Where to begin with the highlights of my Georgia tour thus far?

Athens, GA
I’m not even that much of a music person, but of course Athens is legendary for music, and, I was told, food.  Sign me up!  I met up with one of the fabulous Converse low-res MFA students who knows the town, and we had an amazing dinner at 5&10 (which, if you’re a Top Chef fan, you should know is the restaurant started by fill-in judge Hugh Acheson). The judges on that show are SO fussy—as they should be—but it makes me wonder just how good their own food is.  Well, Hugh’s food is TREMENDOUS!  And, thanks to an excellent prix fixe deal, also a good price for such thoughtful cuisine.  We started with a supplemental appetizer that I couldn’t pass up, cod poached in butter with lobster mushroom…so delicate and buttery, leading me to exclaim, “Everything should be poached in butter!”  The next course was Tybee Island shrimp in a delectable broth, accompanied by the tiniest lima beans I’ve ever seen and itty-bitty rings of okra, cut perfectly with the seeds intact.  After this I exclaimed, “It’s like eating a garden!”  Spaghetti carbonara was next, with smoky chunks of bacon and a rich, eggy sauce over homemade noodles.  I believe I exclaimed, “This bacon is amazing!”  And for dessert: pickled peaches over panna cotta dusted with black pepper.  I exclaimed, “My god, I want more of these peaches!”  So…the meal was a success, and as far as I’m concerned, Hugh can pick away at those Top Chef contestants.

I got an excellent tour of Athens:  the UGA campus, some recommendations for my next meal, and a stop at Jittery Joe’s, Athens’ famous coffee shop.  While the atmosphere was a bit tomblike—come on, students, it’s summer school! No one cares!—the coffee was great, and we talked writing and books for a good long while.

The next day started as every day should start:  with fried chicken, squash casserole, sweet potatoes, cornbread muffin, and a giant Styrofoam cup of sweet tea, at Weaver D’s, a soul food restaurant famous for its food, its owner of 27 years, and for providing the name of one of R.E.M.’s albums:  “Automatic for the People.”  I was in early, so the owner sat with me, indulging my millions of questions, and sharing the secret to the amazing mashed sweet potatoes:  lemon flavoring.  (At least that’s the secret he told me!)  When I told him that my lunch was fabulous, I got the famous response:  “Automatic.”

To burn off calories equal of about one bite of fried chicken, I walked around the charming downtown area.  I loved Wuxtry record store, which made me flash back to the good old days when one could stand around looking at music by flipping gorgeous record albums (yes, I’m that old!).  Since I—alas—no longer have my “vinyl collection” (which I used to simply call “records”) or a stereo, I bought some CDs, including some local music by Jacob Morris and his album “Moths,” which the owner passionately recommended.  The next stop was Jackson Street Books, an incredible used book store where I bought a stack of stuff, including a book of the published interviews with Flannery O’Connor and The Moviegoer…which I tried to read many years ago.  It’s such an iconic book that not having read it is a gaping hole in my southern literature experience, so I’ll give it another try.  The young woman working there saw it and said, “Ah, yes, young man finds himself in the south…that old story.”  I asked her for her “young woman finds herself in the south” and she recommended Florence King.  Athens: land of passionate recommendations!

So sad to tear myself away from the wonderful town…but onwards.  The beauty of traveling alone is that you can go where the whim beckons, and driving down 441, I saw a billboard advertising Madison, GA: The Town Too Pretty to Burn (referring to General Sherman, of course), and a flicker of a memory of a different fabulous Converse student emailing me that Madison was pretty.  Since she’s the one who recommended 5&10, I swung off the road for a self-guided walking tour of Madison. Yes, it was about 95 degrees at 1PM and I had one inch of water in my water bottle…so what?  The houses were gorgeous, beautiful examples of antebellum architecture, and there was even one for sale, with a wrap-around porch that went on for about a block.  I had a perfectly southern moment, looking at an old graveyard next to railroad tracks, and then another with the man I bought water from, who gave me his whole life history and told me the house I admired would probably be about $2 million.  I also learned from him about some town controversy surrounding another mansion, spitefully falling into disrepair over some zoning issues.

And on to Milledgeville!  A lovely bed & breakfast downtown, so I walked through the Georgia College campus on my way to dinner.  I stopped for a happy hour beer at a college-y bar—which I loved, because I was carded.  !!  I read my Flannery O’Connor book, and when the young bartender noticed that, she asked if I’d seen her grave yet.  Not yet…and then I went to the fast-food Mexican restaurant and had a nice conversation with the young man, a recently graduated history major who was already thinking about going back to school in computers.  Then he, too, asked me if I had seen Flannery’s grave yet.  When I found out the cemetery was only a few blocks away—and that dusk was settling—I knew I had to get there!  She’s buried with her parents in a family plot, nothing garish or extraordinary, and the cemetery is quite lovely and peaceful.  Back to the B&B, where I sat on the beautiful porch: two different people waved at me!

The next day I went to Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s house.  At first I was vaguely disappointed driving up as it basically looked like a ramshackle old farm.  But inside, the guy who greeted me was so knowledgeable and so patient with my nine zillion questions and as we spoke, I began to feel a stronger sense of the woman who wrote and lived here, and the d├ęcor was mostly items owned by the O’Connors, and, well, I guess it just all fit together, and nothing was disappointing in the least!  Along with the house, there are various outbuildings in various states of repair, including an evocative water tower, the old barn (see “Good Country People”!), the tenant house, and an aviary with three peacocks.  The male (Manley Pointer; the hens are named Mary Fortune and Hulga Joy) didn’t spread out his feathers, but he was out and about, preening, so I had a good look at him.  (Later, he was tucked in the back, sleeping, so I feel fortunate that I got a good view.)  There was a lovely nature walk that offered time for contemplation (and several moments of “stick or snake?”), and then—best of all—after I bought some books and postcards, I asked if they would mind if I sat on the porch for a while (which is where Flannery often entertained her visitors).  “Stay as long as you like,” I was told--!!  So I sat out there, reading from her collected letters and reading “A Circle in the Fire” which is one of the stories that most uses the landscape of the farm.  Talk about MAGICAL!!!  No other visitors while I was sitting there, so I truly felt part of another world.  And here’s something I learned that spoke to me:  Flannery always went to the 7AM mass with her mother, then came home and wrote from 9 to noon.  This would be back when the mass was in Latin, of course, and speaking as someone who was raised Catholic, you can’t tell me that starting a writing day with those rhythms and those rituals and those words in your head wouldn’t be profoundly impactful.

Lunch at Old Clinton Barbecue:  BBQ plate and a side of Brunswick stew, a dish I generally don’t care for that much…until now.  Now I see why this lima bean-tomato-vegetable (squirrel!) soup would be worthwhile…amazing!!  I went to the museum on campus to the Flannery O’Connor room:  among other things, Flannery’s original desk (which I touched), typewriter from her days at Iowa and Yaddo, her yearbook pictures, and an incredibly lurid, early paperback of A Good Man Is Hard to Find.  There were also a lot of peacock knickknacks given to her by other writers and friends, which goes to show that if you have a “thing,” you’ll get more presents!  To complete the Flannery-obsession, I walked over to the church she attended, which seemed demure for a Catholic church.  And everyone told me to go look at the (mostly) abandoned state mental hospital…which was appropriately spooky!  One of the women working at the B&B told me that when she was in high school, they broke in to the empty buildings all the time, and that the graveyard was especially spooky, with nothing but a field of unmarked stones, crammed together because people were buried vertically.  This is her story; I don’t know if it’s true.  But it was creepy enough to have in my head, and kept me in my car as I drove around the site, pondering a town where discussions of graveyards come up at random over and over and over.  Yes, it sounds like the town I would imagine for Flannery O’Connor!

On to Macon!

The inn I decided to splurge on, which was built in 1842, is—shock—stunningly beautiful.  In fact, while I’m sitting out on the verandah—17 columns!—a car screeches over to the side of the road and a man jumps out to snap a photo.  He hops back in the car and drives away, and I feel very lucky to be staying at such a lovely place.  Not knowing where to eat dinner, I decide to put my stomach in the hands of the innkeepers (metaphorically, of course) and end up at the Dovetail, a farm-to-table restaurant in the downtown area.  Oh, so fabulous!  I was trying to eat “light,” so I decided to sit at the bar:  I had a Proprietor, which is a whiskey-ginger beer cocktail that was lovely, and even though the man sitting next to me tries to persuade me into getting the duck salad, I decide on their version of a Cobb salad, attracted by the buttermilk dressing and the promise of chicken skins.  Here’s a salad I can get behind—the chicken skins are delightfully crunchy, like croutons, but with (duh) a meaty tinge.  The bartender who made the great drink persuades me to try the small plate of quail risotto, and she’s on target:  A-mazing!  And exactly the right size, as the risotto is incredibly rich.  I ate every grain and I would have licked the bowl if I were alone.  I have to pass on dessert, but the man next to me got the peach sundae, which featured whiskey-flavored ice cream, and right now I’m regretting having to pass that up.  So, an excellent meal.  When I step out of the restaurant to walk back to the inn (uphill—ugh), dozens of bats are whirling through the sky, looking very pleased to be released into the dusk.

I decided to stay in Macon, but my true destination is Andersonville, the Civil War prison camp site, now a national park and cemetery.  I cannot explain my fascination with dire tales of survival or my immense interest in Civil War sites…it is what it is, and, honestly, ever since I saw Ken Burns’ Civil War mini-series, I’ve longed to see Andersonville.

It’s about an hour away, much of it on a smaller highway that gives me a feel for the agricultural life of Georgia:  peach trees and groves of pecan trees.  As much as I love the way vast cornfields look in the midwest, I must admit that these pecan groves are something else.  If I ever have to be a farmer in a future life, I hope I’m growing pecans.  The job looks easy from my car, but a man I chat with later in the day notes that all the rain has been a problem for the trees, with broken branches.

Speaking of vegetation, the crape myrtle down here kicks the ass of Virginia’s crape myrtle.  In fact, on this road, there’s one town that has planted the trees (bushes?  They’re huge!) all along the road for a mile or so, so that driving through is like passing along a fiery, fuchsia tunnel.  Intoxicating!

Finally, I arrive at Andersonville, which feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere, which is generally the plan, since it was a prison.  There’s a museum about prisoners of war in general, which is sobering.  Honestly, how do people survive under such wretched physical conditions, with such psychological pressure?  I know it’s been said before, but the human spirit is beyond imagination.  So I imagine that I’m girded for the movie about Andersonville in specific, but I’m in tears by the time they show the emaciated prisoners at the end who look like they’re about the size of five-year-olds.  In general, the camp was in existence for about 14 months, with 33,000 Union prisoners passing through and about 13,000 dying.  (To be fair, I’ll note that it’s not as though the prison camps in the north were anything great, and many confederate soldiers died up there, too, particularly in Chicago and Elmira, New York.)  I was especially moved to learn about one of the paroled Union prisoners who kept his own, secret copy of the lists of deaths and burials so that the numbers couldn’t be fudged after the war ended and, more importantly, so that the soldiers buried in the mass trench graves could be properly indentified and their families notified.  As a result, only 460ish graves are of unknown soldiers.

After touring the museum, it’s POURING rain.  While the friendly ranger tries to tell me that this makes my experience more authentic as there was a huge rainstorm in the summer of 1864, I’m still a little bummed out.  But since I have come all this way to go to Andersonville, I’m not letting a HUGE rainstorm scare me away, and I take a free CD to listen to as I drive through the site and the cemetery.  Probably the rain was a good thing, as I would have obsessively been there looking at graves and pondering earthworks until they closed the grounds at five.  Even though every single other person out there (not many) stays in their car, I—of course—have to get out and run around in my rubber rain boots to read plaques and examine the stockade sample and so on.  There is one moment where I KNOW I’m crazy, running across a flat, grassy area as lightning flies around, because I want to see Provident Spring, the water source that emerged during the fateful storm the ranger referred to…supposedly as a result of a lightning strike.

The cemetery brings me to tears, too, at the sight of the tiny white headstones crammed together—an inch or so apart—because the bodies were that close, as they weren’t placed in coffins.  Many states with dead in the cemetery placed memorials at various points, and I’m proud to see that Iowa’s is the most beautiful, showing a weeping woman.  Yes; what more can be said?  I return my CD and have one last view of the rolling hills of the prison camp; mist is floating amidst the trees in the distance.

On the way back to the inn, I have to stop at the Oglethorpe barbecue for a BBQ plate.  When I ask the woman what sides I should get, she immediately says, “Cole slaw for sure,” and she’s right:  an excellent version of the mayonnaise kind, and by excellent, I mean not too much mayonnaise.  And then back to Macon, and since I’m in the car—and rattled from racing an apocalyptic rain cloud—I stop at the Nu-Way Wieners, since it would literally be impossible for me not to try a hot dog from a place that’s been selling them since 1916.  The hot dog—all the way—is bright red, kind of like the color of dyed pistachios!

And a quiet night—porch-sitting, reading, enjoying the inn—before heading onto the BIG CITY tomorrow, Atlanta!

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.