Friday, September 4, 2009

The Land of the Free

We poke fun at Honolulu's Outdoor Circle when its needle strays off the charts and it tries to ban the Oscar Myer Weinermobile, for example, but arriving in Georgia's Chatahootchee National Forest at the southern end of the Blue Ridge, one appreciates what the Circle has accomplished in holding unbridled commerce at bay.

First, realize that Georgia's mountain scenery is as gorgeous as any along the Appalachians:

The mountains near the Georgia end of the Appalachian Trail

Bass fishing near Clayton, Ga.

But, Georgians as a rule don't believe in stuff like government interference, zoning or public interference in the rights of a citizen to choose a doctor or erect a sign, preferably one bigger, brighter and -- some would say -- more annoying than one's neighbor's:

Route 441 outside Commerce, Ga.

Combine the local preference for franchises over entrepreneurship, and touring Georgia is often like a dip into a sea of product placement as brand names shout for attention.

Southern commerce is in transition. Some towns have redeveloped main streets -- like the one in Ellijay, Ga. -- hung with flower baskets and packed with antique shops, brew pubs and gift shops to lure the tourist trade. Others have been virtually wiped out. The main drag is now a dusty row of empty storefronts punctuated by the gas station/pizza parlor/deli/convenience store/newsstand/restaurant that has sucked up all the commercial vitality leaving the empty husk of what was a bustling little Mayberry.

My friend Claudia Schmidt -- a University of Hawaii MBA and longtime Hawaii marketing expert, now living in Augusta, Ga. -- says this is all the result of the dominant Southern political philosophy: small government, big individual freedom. She's on the homeowners' association board of her lovely little subdivision -- one of the few in the area not named after Bobby Jones -- and said one family pulled up stakes and moved out when they found out the association had a few community rules.

Our friend Claudia has settled down in Evans, Ga., just outside Augusta.

Eat your hearts out, Hawaii friends -- Claudia tells me beautiful new homes like hers, with four bedrooms, three baths and 2,600 square feet, sell for about $260,000

I suppose Hawaii is at the other extreme with our fondness for paternalistic rules and regulations and tendency to legislate everything from hanging laundry outside to dry to leaving cars parked in one spot for more than 72 hours.

Crossing the Georgia state line via the back roads

I arrived in Georgia on Wednesday evening, having left Murfreesboro at the crack of noon. I'd avoided the main route and headed east first to the redundantly named Falls Creek Falls State Park -- which the owner of a UPS store, where I'd stopped to ship some excess baggage back to Maine to sort out at the end of this trip, recommended. He vacations on rented Harleys -- a strategy I might investigate for future trips.

The Falls Falls route delivered some lovely scenery and twisty, two-lane asphalt as promised and dropped me into northwestern Georgia where I started looking for a campsite and happened on the Woodring Branch Campground, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dam that created Carters Lake in Oakman, Ga.

Corps of Engineers campsites are posh

These are some of the finest campsites you can imagine, with asphalt driveways, concrete parking pads, a manicured tent pads, 30 amp electrical service, their own water spigots, barbecues, fire pits, double lantern stands and 10-foot picnic tables, overlooking a lovely lake. Corps of Engineers Recreation Areas are like National Parks, but they employ senior citizen couples to run them instead of Park Rangers.

The folks who checked me in were a hoot. She'd made sausage balls that morning and pressed a couple on me. They were not bad, but kind of mealy. I asked what was in them besides sausage: "Cheese and some Bisquick. You just mash it together, make your balls and pop them in the oven at 350 degrees until they're brown. They're great for breakfast on the go."

You don't get that kind of thing from your average Park Ranger.

Once the tent was up, I rode into Ellijay, had dinner at a pub and watched the Cowboys play the Forty Niners. Then it was back to Woodring Branch, where the weather overnight was perfect. I awoke in a dry tent, took a hot shower and caught up on email while my batteries recharged. By 11 a.m., I was packed and on the road to Athens, Ga., home of our good friend Professor Merrily Dunn of the University of Georgia.

Sanford Stadium, where the Georgia Bulldogs play "between the hedges" in front of 92,746 fans

As Merrily puts it, Athens is an island of Blue in the sea of Georgian Red -- a liberal enclave where Democrats are tolerated but losing football teams are not. We toured the campus and had a great dinner at The Last Resort, Merrily's favorite restaurant in downtown Athens before heading back to her beautiful home and lovable King Charles Spaniel, Libby.

Merrily and her girls, Hannah and Claire, at the University of Georgia's Arch where legend has it undergrads who presume to walk through the arch will never graduate

This bell on the campus was rung after Georgia beat Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and after every other Bulldog victory

Athens streets are decorated with large, fancifully painted bulldogs

Next morning, Merrily and her girls were all off to school and I hit the road to Augusta, stopping first at City Hall to photograph the Athens double-barrel cannon.

The double-barrel cannon -- a military Edsel

This unique experimental piece of artillery was designed by John Gilleland, a member of the "Mitchell Thunderbolts" who served as a home guard during the Civil War. It was supposed to fire two cannon balls connected by a chain and, when fired, was expected to mow down Union troops.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your allegiance -- it proved to be impossible to fire both barrels simultaneously, the chain snapped and the projectiles went off in unpredictable and erratic directions. The failure was donated to the City of Athens, which subsequently used it to fire blanks to celebrate political victories.

Every Southern house needs a front porch and rocking chairs

Merrily's house in Athens is one of the few without a front porch -- but she's originally from Nebraska

In Hawaii we have our lanai, and in the South they have their front porches -- preferably with at least four columns holding up the roof, rocking chairs, porch swings and gliders. You see them on double-wide mobile homes, antebellum mansions and everything in between. Claudia says you sit outside in the fall when the temperature is ideal, watch the neighbors walk their dogs, wave and say howdy.

It's a way of life.

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