Gators, Jesus, and Rebel Flags

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Georgia
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One of my hobbies is traveling to the ends of the Earth to discover new cultures, new foods, and awesome scenery.  Planning these adventures is the easy part.  Actually arriving at the destination is the tricky part that requires a boatload of patience.  I've been to opposite ends of the globe to see some pretty spectacular things and I challenged myself to find the same awe inspiring beauty here in my own backyard. 

Who knew that an adventure rivaling those I have experienced in the third world could be had just hours south of Atlanta in the far southeast corner of the state?  I sure didn't.  The map says I am in Georgia but everything else tells me this is something else for sure.  Living in Atlanta, we are consumed by all things Atlanta and don't really give the bottom right hand corner of the state much thought.  This turned out to be a good thing since the lack of crowds from Atlanta made the area a pleasure to explore and the local culture really shines through.

My first tip off that I was far, far removed from home was pulling into the gas station in St. George, GA.  This tiny little town of about 3,200 people sits right on the edge of the swamp and this run down Exxon or whatever it is seems to be the nucleus of all things redneck.  Not only is this where those cars adorned with rebel flags tank up, but this is also the town grocery store and gossip center as well.  Should a patron be in the need of a handgun while picking up a gallon of milk and some toilet paper, a large handwritten sign in the door even advertises that guns and ammo are sold there as well.  Talk about one stop shopping.  And people don't seem to mind blocking a pump for what seems like hours while they fart around inside shopping and gossiping.

Being that this is St. George, filling up of course is not set up for payment right there at the pump, and for the first time in years I was forced to actually interact with a human being for my petrol purchase.  Silly me...why did I presume this backwater town only 30 miles from Jacksonville would have joined the rest of the world 20 years ago?   I realized then and there how much of a hurry we are always in back home and how little human interaction we have as I waited impatiently for Bubba to finish talking to Lula May behind the register as he slowly paid for his after work six pack and can of Skoal.  Some wizened old lady walked up to me and told me she could take my money.  No nametag, no uniform, and no idea who she was, I held onto my cash for sure and tried to figure out why Granny Clampet was trying to rip me off. 

She told me again she could take my money and I must have made some sort of face because she said, "Honey, I work here.  Let me step behind a register so you believe me."  Well the other townsfolk giggled and gave me that look like who the hell is this dude invading our way of life.  I handed over my twenty dollars and told her to put it on pump five.  She said, "I know sweetheart.  That's the only truck out there I don't recognize."  Talk about feeling like an outsider.  In Atlanta I am just a one in five million guy but down here I was the tiny, tiny fish being circled by the sharks.

Down here the prevailing attitude seems to be the South shall rise again.  God help us all if something actually does rise up out of this swampland.  Rebel flags, rebel stickers on cars, rebel this, rebel that.  Even the old Georgia flag with the stars and bars is proudly flown in front of people's homes.  Come to think of it, I don't think I saw the new Georgia flag anywhere except government buildings.  One dude even had a red Chevy Silverado jacked up about 6 feet off the ground with his rebel everything plastered on it.  Even the rear window was painted like the stars and bars and some bumper sticker indicated that he was proud of his heritage and the rebel flag doesn't bleed.

If the rebel flag is the proud symbol for these parts, Jesus and God seem to be what make the heart of this backwater beat.  Religious billboards abound and how can I not know that Jesus loves me after having read it all day here and there?  Well, at least I hope he loves me but the signs say it is only possible with repentance and church visits.  I am beginning to wonder if I lead some sort of impure lifestyle up there in Atlanta since my day doesn't revolve around church and the Confederacy.  Then again, if ever in doubt about my life, I can take a right turn at the first paved road and feel welcome at this one church outside Folkston as its billboard towering above a single wide trailer and rusted out cars beckoned for me to do. 

I've travelled up into the highlands of El Salvador, the floodplains of Vietnam and so forth and always felt like a sponge soaking up cultures so foreign and unknown to me.  All this time I just had to point my truck five hours south and hit the roads lesser traveled.  In all my travels abroad I have never felt like I was better than anyone and I try my hardest to savor the local culture and learn from it.  But here...My God.  There was nothing I wanted to savor or take in.  I just wanted to gawk, and as plain as my life sometimes seems, I am now so thankful it doesn't unfold inside some nasty South Georgia trailer park.  Come on...don't judge me for these thoughts.  You would be feeling the same way if you saw some fat ass woman with stringy yellow hair from a self inflicted dye job gone bad with her ample gut hanging down into her spandex pants or if you saw some toothless redneck dude spitting tobacco at a gas pump while he filled up his rusted out orange Chevy El Camino adorned with the latest in kitschy bumper stickers.

I've travelled to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, deep into the Amazon rainforest and so forth to take in scenery so beautiful that my breath is taken away.  All this time all I had to do is once again point my truck five hours south, ignore the shabby little cities filled with their McDonald's, Dollar Generals, Twice the Ice vending stations, and used car lots and hit the roads lesser traveled.  Having had my head sufficiently filled with the local "culture" of places like Folkston and St. George, I ventured just behind them right into the Okefenokee Swamp to let Mother Nature cleanse it all out of my soul.  For sure, driving through South Georgia can be boring and the landscape is a flat, nondescript pinetree filled expanse.  But journey into the actual swamp and this 402,000 acre area is definitely an other worldly beauty that rivals anything on the planet I have seen. 

The people at Okefenokee Adventures from whom I rented the kayak were very helpful and knowledgeable and off I went for several hours in a feeble attempt to just scratch the surface of this amazing habitat and gliding along the blackwater canals and waterways was as relaxing as it gets.  Ellie Sue and Bobby Joe along with all the Confederate kitsch of South Georgia were soon forgotten as I soaked in sunshine and 70 degree nonhumid air.  The wind was perfectly still today so the licorice scented water took on an amazing reflective quality. 

Winter is also a choice time to paddle here since the cooler weather brings some sweet relief from bugs.  After two weeks in the rainforest I can't tell you enough how nice it is not be drenched in some third world skin burning mosquito repellent.  The trees and sky were mirror images in the water and I hated to break the pretty picture with the ripples from my paddling.  In places where the waterways narrowed down to just wide enough for my paddles to fit and I began wondering about gators. Actually wondering is the wrong word.  Maybe worrying is a better choice.

Sure enough I spotted my first one sunning himself on a muddy bank and I glided on past him luckily without incident.  He was probably no further than 20 feet away, too but his 15 foot body sure did make him seem closer than he appeared.  Twenty minutes later where the channel narrowed, two more gators were sunning themselves and passage would have meant being 2 feet from them on either side of the kayak.  I quickly turned around and headed back.  I know my place in the food chain and I had no intention of fertilizing the ecosystem here by becoming some alligator poop after being eaten by one. 

If I stopped paddling and let the kayak glide the only sounds in the entire swamp were the occassional cry of a hawk or some birds chirping. Sometimes I would hear rustling in the bushes and I presume this to be alligators.  After safely paddling back without losing an arm or leg to a gator, I overheard a ranger telling an older couple, "The alligators are generally not aggressive towards canoes or kayaks."  Generally is the key word there and I am so glad I arrived back three hours later in one piece.  Talk about an adrenaline rush.  These alligators are about fifteen feet long and I know they can swim faster than I can paddle.  Wow.  I still get that creepy sensation up my spine thinking about them hours later. 

For the first time I think I realized that human beings are not the pinnacle of the food chain on planet Earth.  Paddling out there in that expansive swamp I felt so tiny and that at any moment some power greater than me like an alligator could have the upper hand.  Obviously I survived the challenge and definitely am looking forward to another paddle through "Trembling Earth" as Okefenokee means in indian language.  Maybe I should afterall heed that billboard's invitation and turn right at the first paved road to give thanks I survived an afternoon in this giant gator loaded paradise.

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