They Tell Me Savannah is Beautiful

No one is excited to hear you’re going to Kansas City. No one is jealous that you’ll be in Tallahassee. No one cares that you went to Lubbock. But people will tell you that Savannah is beautiful.

Park StatueI originally tried to find a couchsurfing host for my two nights in the city, but none of the hosts I talked to were available, so I opted for a nice campsite in a state park just south of the city. I set up my site and had a reasonably okay dinner followed by a mostly good night’s sleep, which is almost always the case when I camp. The next morning I got up early and drove into the city. Without a real human guide I was left to the recommendations Trip Advisor could give me, and Forsyth Park seemed to be a real crowd pleaser. I walked in the slightly cooler morning air among the walkers and joggers. Nothing makes you feel like less of a tourist than being up early in a city park. It was the end of July, which meant the perfect temperature of the day peaked at around 9:30AM. Anything after that was likely to feel a bit suffocating, as tends to be the case in humid climates.

Opening the ArkTwo blocks north of the park is Monterey Square, where I lucked into a tour of the Congregation Mickve Isreal, a fantastic and very old synagogue. My tour guide was a hunched, balding, old man who at first seemed mainly in charge of asking us where we were all from and turning on the audio recording that explained the building and its history. The tour seemed very concerned about dispelling myths. No, those seats up there were never used for women’s seating, that’s just the choir loft. No, this building didn’t used to be a Catholic church despite it’s shape, that was just the architectural style at the time. After the recording the guide took us up to the main altar space, where he opened the ark to reveal the beautiful silver pieces inside. He told us that upstairs in the museum they have terrific relics, including some very old copies of the Torah. I went upstairs with the others to the museum to look at the artifacts. I was hit by the extent to which the trappings of Judaism are wholly unfamiliar to me. Because the museum is designed for mostly Jewish patronage, many things are labeled with their age and original owner, but not what they are. I kept pointing to the cases and asking our guide what the objects were and how they were used. It’s a nice reminder that all traditions seem strange to an outsider. Consider the Christmas Stocking.

It was getting near lunchtime. One of the few things I had on my list for the state of Georgia was the phrase “Miss Wilkes in Savannah – all you can eat, they seat you with strangers.” I never keep track of who gives me recommendations, only what they recommend, so I have no idea who told me about Miss Wilkes. I do know that when I turned the corner towards the restaurant the line reached to the end of the block. One of the truisms I have developed on this trip is this: If there’s a line out the door, get in it. Unfortunately this was one of the few times when I had plans. One of the couchsurfing hosts I had contacted said he’d love to get together and show me some of the city, and I was supposed to meet him at a nearby coffee shop in just over an hour. I barely had time to eat, and I certainly didn’t have time for a long wait. I went instead to the expensive but adorable Olde Pink House. The restaurant is housed inside an 18th century mansion that is older than the country it resides in. My food was delicious and I found a certain relaxed enjoyment watching the fans spin above the bar. So long as there’s a fan going, the weather in Savannah is fine.

I finished up my lunch and lucked into a three hour parking spot just a block away from the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet CJ, the man from couchsurfing. As I opened the door I saw another man trying to leave the shop. He was dressed in bike clothes and was carrying an appetizing ice cold beverage. I held the door open as he passed and we nodded at each other. I walked inside looking for someone who resembled CJ’s profile picture. I took a look around the shop but couldn’t recognize the telltale expression of expectation I’m used to seeing on the faces of couchsurfers. From behind me I heard a voice.

“Katrina?” said the man in the bike clothes.

CJ and I shook hands and sat down at a table outside the shop. We were joined by Thor, a fellow traveler visiting from Denmark. We chatted for awhile. Thor told us about his plans on the east coast. I talked a bit about where I’d been thus far. CJ told us about the novel he’d recently had published, which had, “good characters, good mystery, and some good porn.” I took his card and he took mine.

CJ drives a pedicab, one of those bicycle-drawn two-seat rickshaws you often see near tourist-friendly downtown areas. He offered to give Thor and I a tour of the city and we hopped in the back. CJ told us about the genius of the Savannah city planners, and how they’d planned for a public square every few blocks. He drove us from one square to the next, pointing out how each one is just a bit different from the last. CJ is in love with the architecture in Savannah. He says there’s no where in the world where you can see so many different styles of architecture in one place, and certainly no where that they would all seem to fit together so well. No single house stands out as strange, even if it was built in a style 200 years older than the house next door. I think it’s the Spanish Moss that does it. It gives a common drape to the whole city, like putting coordinating curtains in every room of an otherwise mismatched house.

The Beat Goes OnCJ asked us if we had ever read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We had not. I told him I’d heard of it, and he pointed to a house just off of the square. “That’s the house the murder takes place in,” he told us. He circled around some more and pointed to a theater. The marquee read “The Beat Goes On,” indicating the 1960s-themed song and dance show currently playing. CJ gave a dispirited sigh. “Used to be a great place. Now this is all they do there.” He turned back to me as he had been doing for most of the ride.

“You did theater, right?”

I nodded.

“You probably can’t believe this, but we don’t have a theater company in the city of Savannah. Not one.” He shakes his head.

Gump ChurchWe turned another corner and he pointed to a church steeple. CJ asked us if we’d seen Forrest Gump. We had. “That’s the steeple in the first shot of the movie,” he said. “The feather started up there, floated around in the sky,” we followed his figure as it traced the feather’s path down towards the square, “and landed right there on the ground. There was no signature bench in the spot, and I asked CJ if there used to be. He shook his head. “Movie magic,” he said. “What’s more, if you remember in the movie the bus came from the right side of the shot, but this is a one way street in the other direction.” He pointed to the traffic signs. “But they had to have the bus entrance be right next to the bench, so they drove the bus down the wrong way.”

He showed us a duplex split down the middle with opposing paint colors and told the story of an old family feud. He pointed to an iron gate and told us to check out the fantastic map shop in the basement. He pointed to his own house and explained that he’s never had an air conditioner. “Ceiling fans and cold showers, that’s all I need.” He does, however, have a fireplace. Thor couldn’t believe you could ever want or need a fireplace in a place this hot. But CJ says he loves it. “In the winter it’s just enough to take the chill off.”

As we drove past a few homes in slight disrepair CJ explained that there are many people in Savannah that over the years have come into possession of old houses and “can’t be bothered” to do anything with them. So they sit vacant or end up with long-term house sitters. He says it’s nice that they don’t tear down the old places, but he thinks it’s a shame to have such beautiful properties sitting around, only getting the most basic level of care.

100_0009CJ dropped Thor and I off in what he described as the touristy section of town, the kind with t-shirts and fudge. We thanked him for the excellent ride and he parked his cab next to the other pedicabs to wait for paying customers. I walked around the block, checking out the shops, and trying to figure out my plans for the day. It would only be a fifteen minute walk back to my car, but my parking was paid until 5PM. I circled around again and found CJ still waiting. He asked how I liked the City Market area and I told him it’s exactly as he explained it – touristy. He laughed and told me that I was very different than he expected. I asked what he meant, and he said that from my profile on couchsurfing.org I seemed much more intense and focused, not so inclined to go with the flow or change my plans on a whim. I asked if there was anything specific that gave him that impression, and when pressed he realized it was mostly the photo. My profile photo on Couchsurfing is me proudly standing on top of Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, a huge hill in Edinburgh where the wind and the landscape make all your photos look like they belong in some middle-earth epic. I thought the misunderstanding was pretty funny, though I could tell that this was probably the reason he was “unavailable” to host me. He thought I would be too determined and exacting.

I told him I was in the mood for some ice cream and CJ said he knew just the place. He told me it didn’t look like much but it was the place to go. I walked into Ice Cream Ectetera and ordered my cone. I figured the whole thing would melt if I stepped outside, so I took a seat at the only open table. As I sat there I saw several firefighters come inside to order, as well as employees of the nearby restaurants. CJ was right, this was the place to be.

I took a leisurely stroll over to the map shop CJ had told me about, and lost an hour rifling through drawer after drawer of 100-year-old maps and pictures. The shop was the converted first floor of an old building. Huge wooden furniture pieces crowd in on you from all sides. It’s the kind of place you want to get lost in. I opened a few drawers to find drawings of exotic birds from the 1890s and maps of the city of Manchester from 1913. I looked at my watch and found that it was already after 5PM. I knew I had to put money in the meter, but I still hadn’t found the perfect map souvenir to take home.

“What time do you close?” I asked the large old man who sat near the front of the shop.

“We’re closed now,” he said. His smile and quiet apologetic tone explained why he hadn’t asked me to leave already.

I thanked him, and he led me out the side door where he began to unlock the iron front gate where he lets all patrons in and out of the shop. It seemed a bit inconvenient that he had to come open the gate for every customer.

“We have dogs,” he explained.

Jones StAs I begin the walk back to my car I feel a few fat drops of rain. The sky is starting to turn and I pick up the pace. By the time I get to the square where I parked, I am running because the rain is just about to turn from annoying to appalling. I slam the door of my car and wipe a few drops from my face. The downpour begins. CJ had mentioned that I should take a look at the gorgeous houses on Jones street, which he claimed were the inspiration for the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” This is patently false, but it’s a good story and the houses are gorgeous. I thought perhaps the rain would let up a bit and I might get to walk along Jones Street for a bit, but the reprieve never came. I looked up local coffee shops and found one just south of the park. I parked my car, ran inside, and settled in to some quality writing time with a large chai latte. Right around the time I had switched from writing to editing a man began to move the furniture around in front of me. “Are you staying for the movie?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know there was one, and a second man picked up the nearby ottoman and added, “It’s not really a movie.” The first man seemed a little taken aback by the sudden denial, but had to admit, “It’s just a few Ted Talks, really,” he said, “and then we’ll have a short discussion.”

I told the men it sounded great and asked if I should move. They told me not yet, and began puttering around with a projector. I watched them dart about the room, closing curtains and pushing tables, and eventually I picked up my things and moved to the back. I ordered some dinner and the presentation began. Apparently the theme of the evening was urban gardening. We watched two Ted presentations on ways that others have incorporated urban gardening into their cities, and afterwards everyone began speculating on how such ideas could or could not work in Savannah. I was in the heart of the South yet I felt like I had magically stepped into a scene from Portlandia. I had no idea how popular and widespread urban gardening really was.

I finished up my dinner and ducked out while they were arguing about how the city won’t let citizens collect rainwater. I saw that I had missed a call from CJ, and he’d left a voicemail. He told me he’d hate to have me camping in the rain, and offered his home for the night. I figured I’d have to go pick up my tent either way and drove back down to Skidaway Island State Park. The rain had finally stopped, and I nervously opened my tent. It was clear that the park had been drenched just like the city, and I feared my sleeping bag would be sitting in a puddle. I stuck my hand in – it was completely dry. My little two person tent had passed the test and survived the downpour. It was getting late. I could see that though it was dry on the inside, I would need to do some serious cleaning of the outside of my tent before putting it in my car. I called CJ to thank him for the offer, but that my tent was holding up fine and I’d already paid for the second night anyway. He said to let him know if anything changed, and I began to get ready for bed.

CemeteryThe next morning I washed my whole tent off in the camp utility sink and began heading down the road. In the car I listened to one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. It also happens to be a band my dad plays in. The song is called “Savannah,” and even though the song seems to be about a woman, the sentiment and mood is perfect for anyone leaving the city. I knew I wanted to recommend Savannah to my parents as they are starting their retirement travels. I figured I’d tell them to put on their walking shoes, park the car somewhere near Forsyth, and just waste the day away walking from square to square. Savannah seems like the perfect place to end up at some point in one’s life. Perhaps one day when my relationship falls apart and my job becomes a bore I can get rid of all my things and head back towards Savannah. I could get a longterm housesitting gig in some beautiful old mansion that no one seems to care enough about. I could walk through the park in the mornings before it gets hot. I could learn to draw by sketching the Spanish moss. And I could spend my lazy Sunday afternoons nestled in a basement shop corner, rifling through old maps of the state of Georgia.

Savannah really is beautiful. Even in the rain.

Adventures in the Old City with Kate and Katrina

I met Rob and Kate at their home after a particularly rainy drive from Tallahassee into Jacksonville. They had their laptop computers set up on their large dinning room table, and Rob was trying to finish up some work for the next day. Kate gave me the grand tour, which included a completely screened-in backyard with swimming pool. They have a pet bird they keep in a cage on the back porch, and the screened area allows them to set him free to roam around the yard every once in a while. She explained that while the screen does a great job of keeping bad bugs out, it also makes it hard to attract good bugs to help nurture their large garden and plant collection.

Kate’s adventures with butterflies constitute their own arthropodal soap opera.

At one point she managed to capture a monarch butterfly, which lived happily in their fully enclosed backyard for some time. After many months, the butterfly miraculously gave birth to several small caterpillar babies, mystifying Kate as it was the closest she’d ever come to a virgin conception. She knew the new flock wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves with the backyard plants alone, and took it upon herself to move the young-ins to the front yard where they could eat, grow, and eventually fly to nearby plants and feast as they pleased. The caterpillars were all dead within days, and Kate couldn’t figure out why. She had placed them on her newly purchased milkweed plants, which are normally the monarch caterpillar’s favorite snack. To her horror she found out that the nursery sprayed it’s plants with pesticides, and the milkweed she bought was in fact poisonous to the little creatures. She has since bought new, unsprayed milkweed and hopes to get another shot some day.

JacksonvilleRob was planning to attend an Innovator’s Roundtable the evening I arrived, and he asked if I would like to come along. The three of us went to a local brewery where we were met with drinks, a small selection of hors d’oeuvres, and the encouragement to go outside to the convenient food trucks if we needed something more substantial. “Food trucks are big here,” Kate explained. We all received color-coded name tags and instructions to find our matching table. Once you found your group you would listen to the presenter assigned to your table. After the first round the presenters would stay where they were and the table group would slowly move from one presenter to the next. I learned about Rethreaded, an organization that helps women recovering from human trafficking by way of up-cycled t-shirt products. I talked to the organizer of OneSpark, which crowdsources funding for new projects by way of a weekend festival. Not to mention the restaurant that picks a new location for every event and accepts payment without telling people where they’ll be eating, and the chef who is filtering all of his water, including toilet water, just to see what effect it will have on the internal plumbing of his building. Plus the chips and salsa were pretty good.

The next morning Rob had to leave early for a work event a few hours south. Kate and I had a leisurely breakfast and chatted about our lives and our travels. Rob is Kate’s second husband, with her kids belonging to the first. She told me about the time she got mugged in Edinburgh and her days hitchhiking in her 20s. She said she had the whole day free and offered to tour me around. “There’s not much to see in Jacksonville,” she told me, “but we can go down to St. Augustine and you can try some gator tail.”

Treaty OakKate drove me around Jacksonville first, taking time to get out of the car at the Friendship Fountain and at Treaty Oak. The Oak is a tree straight out of Tolkien, with branches so heavy they sink to the grass and start to grow up again from the floor. I took a lot of pictures but none of them seemed to capture it. It’s called the Treaty Oak because some years back there was a threat to tear it down. An industrious reporter fabricated a tale about the natives and the white settlers signing a treaty under its many branches. There is no reason to believe this actually happened, but the tree was saved and the name stuck.

CoquinaThe drive to St. Augustine took about an hour, and we parked the car at the visitor’s center. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, founded in 1565 by the Spanish. It served as the region’s capitol for centuries, but is now primarily seen by tourists. We walked down the main pedestrian drag and Kate pointed out the unique construction of the building walls. The oldest structures are built using coquina, a rock formed by compressed seashells. As a rock it is comparatively soft when being quarried, but hardens when it’s left to dry for a year or more. While many of the buildings in St. Augustine now hold jewelry stores and t-shirt shops, they are surrounded by walls dating back hundreds of years.

Kate took me to the Florida Cracker Cafe for some gator tail, which is best described as a plate of chewy chicken nuggets. We wandered into the local Catholic Church and tried to guess which of the statues were supposed to be St. Augustine. As we left the church a few rain drops fell on our skin. Kate looked at the sky and said we needed to duck in somewhere quick. We were at the entrance to the main hall of Flagler College, a building originally intended to be a high-class hotel for the very rich. Apparently they weren’t able to get the sulfur taste out of the water, and the very rich never came. It was turned into a college in 1968, but the Ponce de Leon Hall constructed for the old hotel is still as beautiful as ever. As we were admiring the ceiling work a tour of potential students came through. Kate asked one of the mothers if we could join, and the mother said that she didn’t see why not. We took her acceptance as permission, despite her lack of authority.

Dining HallIn the dining hall, which is normally off-limits to tourists, we learned about the meal plan. Upstairs past the “No Visitors Beyond This Point” sign we got to see a few of the female dorm rooms. Kate asked more questions than any other parent, “Are students allowed to hang things on the walls?” “Do you fire pottery in that art building stove or is it just leftover from the old hotel?” I was worried we’d be found out as frauds, and devised a brilliant story about dropping out of UW three years ago, visiting my Aunt Kate on vacation for a week, and being dragged along to the local college in hopes that I will decide to finish my degree in Florida. Of course, no one ever asked. Our guide took us through some classrooms and into the arts hall before Kate and I snuck away from the Flagler College tour. We saw a beautiful Presbyterian church around the corner and we thought we might be able to look inside.

Presbyterian ChurchAfter determining that the church was both the final resting place of Mr. Flagler himself, and closed after 3PM on weekdays, we headed back to the Visitor’s Center. Kate had us pick up the pace when she spotted some menacing clouds on the way. We had just made it to the gift shop when the downpour began, and it ended just in time for us to walk over to the parking garage. Kate drove us past the very unassuming old French fort, and over the river to the pier. We were speculating about the long term benefits of buying expensive yachts when her daughter Brianna called. Brianna had just gotten off work, and Kate invited her to eat with us at The Conch House down in St. Augustine.

The Conch HouseBrianna was about a half hour away, so Kate and I wandered around the restaurant for a while. The Conch House is something of a spectacle on it’s own. Outside are several tables up on pillars, covered with tiki-style thatched roofs. Inside a spiral staircase takes you to the second dinning level, followed by an observation room were you can look out onto the water. We spotted the Roseate Spoonbill, a bird straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was rapidly skimming the shoreline looking for it’s evening meal, and the kids in the observation area kept calling it a flamingo. In their defense, that’s what we called it at first, too.

I hadn’t met Brianna yet, but the descriptions and stories I’d heard made me think I’d like her. Mostly because she sounded exactly like me. She did drama in high school, started a large shot glass collection at a young age, and painted and decorated her bedroom in a theme (hers was theater, mine was space & sky). She traveled a lot, left her room as a tiny shrine while she was away in college, and came back at her mother’s request to clear it out. By the time Brianna arrived we had already ordered drinks. As she sat down she looked at the beverage in front of her and asked her mom, “What did you get me?”

“Root beer,” said Kate.

Brianna’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of root beer?” Kate shrugged. Brianna gave it a sip, then nodded her head in reserved approval.

I have found Florida Katrina.

The three of us ate dinner, and Kate told stories of her youth and Brianna’s father. Many years ago Kate and her friends were planning to hitchhike from Austin to California. A few days before they intended to leave they ran into the man who would be Brianna’s father. He was planning to drive to California in his car, and Kate asked if he could take the three of them as well. By the end of the trip the two were an item. This was a story Brianna had heard many times before, but she recently came into a bit of information that she couldn’t believe her mother had left out. This chance encounter with a man who happened to be driving to California took place in Hippie Hollow Park. A nude beach.

“So you were naked,”  Brianna said with a smirk.

“Look, my friend had been talking with him and said he was driving to California,” Kate began to explain.

“…and you were naked…” Brianna added, trying to embarrass her mother.

“…so I walked over to him…”

“…and you were naked…”

“…and I asked if we could tag along.”

“And you were naked.” Brianna concluded once again.

“Look,” Kate began with a sly smile,” All I can say is I met your father, he looked at me, and he knew what he was getting.”

Kate shot me a big smile and Brianna threw her napkin on the table in disgusted embarrassment. “I’m going to the bathroom,” Brianna declared. Once she was out of earshot Kate leaned toward me and said, “I would have said, ‘He looked at me and he knew what he was getting into‘ but I’m not sure she would have been able to handle it!” Kate and I let out a roar of laughter. We did our best to keep it together when Brianna returned from the bathroom.

As we were finishing up dinner, Rob called to let us know that he and his coworker were on their way home. Kate suggested that we could order something for him to-go and he could get dropped off at The Conch House. He agreed, and after a bit too long the waitress came out with his dinner and three travel sodas. We found a small gazebo outside overlooking the adjacent hotel pool and continued chatting in the warm night air. Brianna was tired and anxious to get home, and ended up leaving right after Rob arrived. Rob, Kate, and I stayed a while longer to allow him time to eat a bit of his dinner, but eventually we all opted to head home. The wind was picking up.

Couchsurfing has allowed me to meet many complete strangers. In everyday life when you meet a new person, you can use the reason for your meeting as a way to get to know them. “So how do you know Sandy and Trevor?” or “How long have you been working for the Park Service?” or “Excuse me, I think you dropped this.” All are acceptable ways into conversation with complete strangers. But in Couchsurfing, your interaction tends to speed right past small talk into deep discussion. I think it must be the inherent intimacy of being near someone else while they sleep. For the short time that I spent with Kate, I feel like I got to know a lot about her, her history, and how she lives her life. Even my dinner with Brianna was insightful. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that we all like to talk about ourselves, and lately I’ve been answering the same questions over and over again, so talking about myself has lost some of its appeal. I suppose that has had the unintended side effect of making me a more enthusiastic listener.

Sea Turtle NestIf I were to take one thing away from my time with Kate, it would be that fear does not have to be based in experience. Kate had all of her money, her I.D. and her train pass stolen as a young woman traveling in Scotland. In New Mexico her and her friends nearly found themselves abandoned in the desert with the threat of sexual assault (if not worse) hanging in the air from some truckers they’d encountered. Kate has certainly seen her fair share of danger. But hopping in a car with a stranger is also how she found her first husband, and how she ended up with her wonderful children. And now, at the beginning of her retirement years, she’s still taking in couch surfers and foreign exchange students on a regular basis. I grew up learning about Stranger Danger, but Kate has lived it. And she hasn’t let it change her life. Her home is still open for the young European scholar, the wayward traveler, and the occasional Monarch butterfly.

Posting Delay

There is no post this morning as I am sickens chickens and trying to sleep off a nasty virus. Hopefully I will regain consciousness soon and have something up by this time tomorrow.