Road Trip: Clayton, Georgia

It always feels good to get out of town, to move around a little bit.  Last week, it was high time to do just that, a month into summer break, so I packed up my little white Echo and headed for north Georgia to spend a week at the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts.

Two summers ago, I was awarded the Lillian E. Smith Foundation’s first Writer-in-Service Residency, which entailed being given two weeks of uninterrupted writing time at the foundation’s retreat – the Center for Creative Arts – in Clayton, Georgia. The residency is given annually to a writer who spends significant amounts of his or her time in community-service related roles (like teaching or arts administration) that typically take away from his or her own writing time. It is designed to offer those kinds of working writers two weeks of “me time” to get away from the responsibilities of helping others and do some writing.

Esther CottageThe Center for Creative Arts is located on the remnants on the late Lillian Smith’s Laurel Falls Camp for girls. Smith was most famous for her 1944 novel Strange Fruit, about an interracial love affair in 1920s Georgia, and for her controversial 1949 nonfiction work Killers of the Dream, which scathingly attacked Southern racism; she passed away in 1966. The two cottages at the Center are single-occupancy dwellings that were remodeled from what were originally bunkhouses for the campers, and the Common Room nearby was the old arts and crafts studio. Being up on a mountain in the shade and cool air, with all the windows open, is a refreshing change from the thick heat of June in central Alabama.

This time, I had arranged with Nancy and Robert Fichter, the proprietors, for a week’s stay to get a few things done. (Nancy is Lillian Smith’s niece.) Although two weeks of writing time was an exceptional gift, last time I missed my wife and kids about halfway through, and that latter portion of the residency was not nearly as productive. I learned my lesson: two weeks was very generous but a week is plenty, at least it is for me.

I got up on Saturday morning, and took off from Montgomery as the sun was getting up in the sky good.  Normally, when I’m traveling, I get moving really early if I have to pass through Atlanta, so I can get in and out before those two million people get out of bed and all get on the roadways at once . . . I have a confession to make here: I absolutely hate driving in Atlanta! I hate it! You can be rocking along, flying down I-85 or I-285 at 70 or 80 miles per hour, and all of sudden— dead stop! And you sit there, and you sit there . . . until you start moving again. And why were you stopped? Who knows? People in Atlanta just like to do that, apparently.

But I couldn’t get on the road too early this time, because I was meeting my friend Hank in Atlanta. He lives a little piece down I-20 and wanted to take me to a place called Homegrown to eat. Of course, as I got into Atlanta good, right in the middle of it, just before I got off I-85 onto I-20, what do you think happened? Dead stop! Road construction had shut down three of the six lanes, and all I could see ahead was brake lights. Thankfully, I was jumping off onto I-20, and I did so, thinking, “See ya later, suckers!”

Hank was right about Homegrown, it was worth stopping for. Though I normally don’t think much of this whole “hipster” thing, I have to admit this place was charming: an old-school restaurant made over a little bit, with loads of young people swirling around, girls in all-black wearing striped knee socks, effeminate young men in horn-rimmed glasses, and boys in their trucker-caps and tight t-shirts, wearing mustaches, and sporting tattoos.  (I don’t really know why a skinny little metrosexual would want to dress up like a truck driver who just got out of prison. But whatever . . . ) The food was really good, too! I had skipped breakfast to get on the road, so I kept it simple with eggs and grits, but Hank had this beautiful-looking hot dog that was covered in chili and coleslaw. Homegrown’s specialty is the Comfy Chicken, which is smothered fried chicken served on a biscuit. They’re so proud of it that they even have an old-school counter up by the register of how many people have ordered it so far that day. I’ll have to try that next time.

We got done eating, and after a jaunt down I-20 and out to I-285 to avoid that gridlock I had seen earlier, I finally got free of Atlanta in the early afternoon when I hit I-985, which carries Atlantans to Lake Lanier and everyone else to Gainesville and beyond. This is the same Lake Lanier that’s at the heart of the periodic water wars that flare up between Alabama, Georgia and Florida. All of our water systems are interconnected through various rivers, streams and lakes, and when one state gets a little greedy – we won’t name any names – the others run short. (I’ll give you a hint about the problem: some people feel they have the right to withhold water for their lawns and swimming pools, even when others may not have enough for cooking and toilets!)

After blasting through Atlanta, northeastern Georgia feels like the Deep South again. Winding four-lane highways thread through endless pine trees punctuated every couple of miles by a mega-gas-station, one of those with seventy-five gas pumps, eight convenience stores and five fast-food restaurants in them. If you ever run out of gas or beef jerky on a rural four-lane in the Deep South, it’s your own  fault.

dawsonvilleThe part of north Georgia I was passing through between Atlanta and Clayton is the home turf of NASCAR great Bill Elliott, AKA “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” and also of the late “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, who came from around Toccoa. Clayton is one of string of small towns along Georgia Highway 441, going toward South Carolina, where tourists stop or stay while visiting the mountains, one of several lakes in that area, or both. The roadside along 441 is littered with small quirky resorts, oddball art booths, mom-and-pop fruit-and-vegetable stands, mega-gas-stations, and a couple of huge superstore-like agritourism farms.Toccoa

I arrived in Clayton mid-afternoon, climbed the hill to the retreat, got settled in my little cottage, and went to the nearby Ingle’s grocery store right quick to stock up on food. Robert, Nancy and I went to dinner when I arrived, and then they had driven me through the quaint little hilltop downtown to show me a few things that had changed since my last visit.

On Sunday morning, I got up later than usual, milled around a little bit and drank my coffee, intending to go to 11:00 Mass at nearby St. Helena, their small Catholic church tucked at the base of mountain, its façade white and rough stone. I got there about five minutes before Mass started and hurried inside, thinking there wouldn’t be many seats left, but there was ample room in the some of the pews in the back. (I know better than to sit up front when visiting any church in the Deep South, because each church’s regulars have their own understood-by-all spot at the foot of the Cross! You don’t violate that.) I picked up what I thought was a missal, which turned out to be just a hymnal, trying to locate the day’s readings, when who do you think filed in with his wife and sat down next to me? Nick Saban! I don’t get star-struck really, not to speak of, but being from Alabama— this was huge!

I will admit that it was hard paying attention to the Mass – but I did my best– partially because of Hispanic priest’s thick accent, partially because St. Helena used different music than my church back home, and partially because the national champion head football coach from the University of Alabama was sitting right by me!  I also have to admit that, being an Auburn fan, I got a brief, mean-spirited notion to wait until the time came to do the “peace be with you” and replace it with “War Eagle!” when I shook Saban’s hand. But that was just a pipe dream— it also seemed like a bad idea in church . . . and would have been kind of rude, too.  Coach Saban was behaving himself, so I would, too.

windowBy Sunday afternoon, it was time to get down to work. In my cottage, I parked myself at a small desk that faced a wide window overlooking a hillside covered in huge blooming wild rhododendrons, opened my laptop, picked a project and started pecking away at the keys. I had gotten my groceries, I had stocked the fridge with Miller High Life (my beer of choice), I had my bottle of George Dickel Cascade Hollow (my whiskey of choice), and I had gone to church to thank God for getting me and my little white Echo through Atlanta traffic— it was time to settle down and write!

I went to the Lillian Smith Center to work mainly on two projects: a (fictional) full-length screenplay about a history teacher in Alabama who lets his freedom politics get the best of him and a (fictional) three-act stage play about a young librarian who returns unwittingly to his small Alabama hometown and gets involved unintentionally in local power struggles. I know that, from those descriptions, neither one seems very exciting, but they’re both better than they sound— at least I hope they are. I arrived in Clayton with only a synopsis and eight pages of the screenplay done, but in the first day of uninterrupted time, I had written 41 more pages by the time I was ready for bed that night. Granted, those were rough first-draft pages, but still . . . The next day, it was time to work on my stage play, which is titled “Deepest July,” and it was in better shape coming in: I was sitting down on Monday to write a fourth draft of it.

pathSometimes, when I got a little stowed up in the chair, I had go for short walks down the paths or in the woods. There’s plenty of space for walks, but up here, you do have to put your boots on and watch out for ticks. Frankly, I wish all of the bugs would just take a day off. They must work in shifts. Thriving in that cool summertime shade, the mosquitoes and gnats and flies can seem to dive bomb in teams like seagulls at the beach! But, it’s nothing a little Off! won’t fix. The cottages all have screens on the roll-out windows, so it’s really not that big a deal.

Bugs notwithstanding, I do get a little bit skittish though when I think about the bears that I’ve heard Nancy and Robert say can sometimes wander up to the cottages. Nancy told me that the cowbell next to the door is for the bears, since apparently they hate loud noises. I don’t know how I feel about my best weapon against a bear being a cowbell, but I hope I never have to find out how I would fare.

By the end of the week, I hadn’t seen any bears, I hadn’t picked up any ticks, and I was happy with what I had gotten done. I arrived with an eight-page beginning to a screenplay and left with a eighty-six-page finished first draft; and I got that fourth draft of my stage play written.  I also got some reading done and played a little guitar on the porch.

However, on Thursday evening, I had a little change of plans. I was taking it easy, minding my own business, eating a light supper of butter noodles and bagged salad with Goddess dressing— when one of my teeth broke! Dammit! Not knowing any dentists in this small town 300 miles from home, I made the quick decision to pack my things, load the car and take off for home. It was about 7 PM Eastern, and with gaining an hour going back to Central time, I could be home by about 10 PM, and go to the dentist in the morning. But it wasn’t that simple . . . Despite smooth sailing going down I-985 and all the way  into Atlanta – believe it or not –  all of sudden, when I hit downtown, a hellacious storm broke out! I mean, heavy rain and lightning and thunder to go with the thick city traffic. Double dammit! Even though that long band of storms kept me in that mess all the way home, I made it, safe and sound . . . only to find out that my dentist’s office is closed on Fridays. Triple dammit! 

The truth is that I wouldn’t  be home long. You can bet your bottom dollar, at the start of Fourth of July week, that the lake was calling us! It was saying, Please get up here and swim and get sunburned and drink some beer and eat some Boston butt! Who could deny that? Certainly not me— road-weary as I may be, I’ll be there.

Happy 4th, everybody!

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