Back Roads in the Age of the Internet

One of the benefits of retirement is that “dicing time” becomes less thinly sliced, its passage vaguer, elapsing as it did before that infernal invention the clock transliterated the overhead sun into 12:00 P.M.  Because I no longer have workday pressures that dictate how I spend my hours – no essays to grade, no lessons to plan, no report cards to crank out – I can take my own sweet time. 

For example, on road trips, rather than enduring a regimented slab of interstate stretching forth with its green mile markers clicking past tick-tock like, you can opt for the back roads, which, if you’re driving from Athens, Georgia, to Folly Beach, South Carolina, means you motor through mostly farmland – cornfields, peach orchards, but also tiny towns in various stages of civic decay.

Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can run across something truly remarkable, as my wife Caroline and I did outside of the tiny town of Wrens, Georgia.

What caught Caroline’s eye

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We had dropped Brooks off at Camp Illahee[1] and spent a couple of nights outside of Athens with our friends Jim and Laura. Both they and our friend Ballard, whom we met tending bar at Five & Ten, suggested we take the backroads home. 

The route we chose took us through Thomson, Georgia, the birthplace of Blues legend Blind Willie McTell, whom I had discovered on a compilation LP called The Story of the Blues, a gift I received for my nineteenth birthday. So Blind Willie and I go way back.

I mentioned to Caroline that Blind Willie had been born in Thomson, so for a moment she abandoned her post as navigator and googled “Blind Willie.” She reported that there was a statue of Blind Willie in Statesboro but also that he was buried about eight or so miles outside of Thomson in Jones Grove Baptist Church Cemetery. So, as upright Protestants used to say – what the hay – we decided to take a side pilgrimage to pay our respects to Blind Willie. As Bob Dylan put it in one of his greatest compositions: “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

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I’ve visited Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves at The Père Lachaise in Paris, both graves bedecked with flowers, notes, and in Wilde’s case, lipstick-like kisses imprinted on the stone obelisk that marks his resting place.

Not surprisingly, McTell’s grave is not as rich in gifts bestowed. There were no flowers, only a sprinkling of pocket change that wouldn’t cover the cost of a Coca Cola, a mini bottle, and a guitar pick. 

Rather than backtracking to return to our original route, we improvised, GPS-ing out a more southerly passage. As I was tooling along, Caroline let out a “Whoa, what was that!” 

“We ought to turn around,” she suggested. “We need to check it out.” Which we did.

Now you can check it out. Southern Gothic Deluxe.

After ten or so minutes taking in this remarkable outdoor installation, we continued to Allendale, the county seat of the poorest county in South Carolina. Not to put too fine a point on it, Allendale is the po-dunk equivalent of a Blade Runner hellscape, a stalled freight train of shuttered businesses lining the highway in succession, not to mention human habitations in various stages of collapse.

abandoned motel, image courtesy of ABC news
image courtesy of ABC News

At any rate, we arrived at the kennel to pick up KitKat, who, was beyond ecstatic to see us, and headed back to Folly, which, of course, offers its own offbeat pleasures.

I’ll leave you with a snippet of Dylans'”Blind Willie McTell

Seen them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghost of the slavery ship
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear the undertakers bell
Nobody can sing the blues like blind Wille McTell


[1] What a gorgeous-sounding word, Cherokee for “heavenly world.”