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Published: October 22nd 2011
Some very nice time in the Great Smoky Mountains meant that we needed a decent drive to make Charleston that night. As a drive it doesn't really rate against many we have done previously but we did leave ourselves with a trip of a little over 350 miles late in the day. The rain that turned up after we came through the mountains into North Carolina developed into a substantial downpour as we moved south. We decided to stay on the inter-States. Less interesting but, with the weather as it was and darkness upon us for a lot of the trip, it really didn't matter. There may be more of these sorts of trips over the next month as the need to set priorities and keep more closely to a timetable hots up. Just a month to go. Very hard to believe that it is now 3 years since we drove out of the front gate.
The priorities for the South were always going to be led by the music but we also wanted to see some of the antebellum houses, at least one pre-Civil War type city and we were keen to understand something of the history of the
native Americans in this part of the world. The history of slavery and the civil rights movement would also have been interesting but that seemed to us to be more about people than places and you don't really get that driving through so we had decided not to concentrate on that aspect. Florida beckoned but, if we went that far south, it would be sensible to head straight across to Louisiana. That would give us the chance to see Savannah, but we would miss a lot up in the middle bit. So no Florida.
Charleston comes with a strong reputation up there with Savannah as a city of the 'old South'. We found a free bus that did a loop around the inner city districts and, handily, came past our hotel and delivered us to the centre of town. The rain from last night still threatened but we figured we would see most of what we wanted by walking around. A guided walking tour would have been good but all of them needed to be pre-booked and we hadn't. So we found a map, gathered some information on what we wanted to see and off we toddled.
because we didn't have access to all of the local knowledge, or perhaps because we don't have a lot of interest in the detail of the Civil War, I came away unconvinced that Charleston lived up to the hype. True, there were some spectacular houses and most of them were pre-Civil War vintage. Some of the streets were very attractive. It was very clear that a few of the residents had had substantial amounts of spare cash available to indulge themselves on the construction of the best houses they could imagine. Interestingly, most of the houses are apparently still privately owned and are single family dwellings. It is a little hard to see how they would afford the upkeep and the cost of the help they must surely have given that, these days, they would have to pay.
For us it was just as interesting to walk through some of the districts where the rich people didn't live, and don't live now. Houses there were not so plush and the incidence of ornate columns had dried up but many adopted a design similar, but scaled down, to that of many of those in the smarter part of town. Less
tourists about there too.
We almost made it to Savannah but stopped in at the excellent Georgia Visitors Centre on the border with South Carolina. We picked up some information, received advice from the very helpful staff and changed our mind. Not that they tried to convince us not to go to Savannah. It was just that they were able to provide us with advice about other options that became more attractive than more houses.
The run up route 16 towards Macon was through country that had us wondering about the stories of the beauty of Georgia. Flat, swampy interspersed with uninspiring forest and cotton fields. As we motored further inland it picked up a little, but not that much. We are probably spoilt I think. We had expected that the country would become more dry as we moved inland but I suspect we were remembering too many old movies, the type that depend on hardscrabble farms, dust and harsh conditions. None of that around here that we could see.
One of the reasons for our visit to Macon – and from what we saw you would need a reason – was to see the National Monument
of Ocmulgee. This is a memorial to the people who inhabited the North American continent from about 17,000 years ago. These weren't your 'Indians' of more recent times. They arrived across the land/ice bridge or in small boats around the shore from Asia. They may also have moved up from Central America. There are similarities in the way they lived with the Mayans. They built large mounds of earth. One that we visited in Ocmulgee had been hollowed out and an ornate council chamber had been established. It is now a reconstruction but an impressive indication of what the people could build.
The earlier people were replaced, between 1,200 and 900 years ago by a culture called the Mississippians. These people were skillful farmers, traders and potters. They called themselves the Muscogee but when the Europeans arrived, not that long after the Cherokee, this group became known as the Creeks. They also built mounds but seem not to have hollowed them out, content rather to build their key edifices – temples, funerary tombs, houses of the elites – on top of the mounds.
Ocmulgee is an impressive site, if you like this sort of thing and are happy
to imagine what went on Unfortunately, in the 1870s a railway was run through the site smack through the burial mound, notwitstanding skeletons etc. In 1960 the I-16 was run between the site and the nearby river so we aren't talking about anything pristine here. It is however a credit to some thinking people in the 1930s that stopped most of the, then, proposed destruction. In the 1990's a federal law was passed to protect such sites so it did take a little while.
Macon houses the Harriet Tubman Museum so we decided to have a look. Easy enough to find just off one of the main roads but not the most spectacular of locations in a run down industrial area. The upside was that it was easy to find a parking spot. I am pretty sure we were the only visitors on the day we were there. Some interesting material on Harriet Tubman and some other material on a family who escaped from Macon during the slave days along with an interesting exhibit on patents that African Americans had taken out for some surprising inventions. The place though, was more an art gallery. Some of the works were
good, some very good and others not to our taste.
The pick of the day, and what we are sure will be a highlight of our trip to the USA, was a visit to the Funk Heritage Center of Reinhardt University in Cartersville. We arrived late in the day and hadn't realised the time until we were walking in. Thinking that we might still have half an hour or so for a quick look we trotted in. They had just had 700 school students leave after having spent the day, and the event was continuing the next day. Nevertheless, they were very welcoming and took our $6 each. We watched an informative and interesting background film for 15 minutes or so and then a bloke gave us the best guided tour we have ever had. Excellent information and analysis with great humour. We left with a lot of our background questions about native Americans answered along with a lot of background on Georgia and Georgians. Our guide was at pains to dispel common misconceptions about Georgians and, at times, to distinguish them from others of the South. It turned out that our guide was the Executive Director of the
Center, who just happened to be moving tables after the student even. He gave us well over an hour of his time after a very hectic day. Lovely bloke and a mine of information.
They have a 'Chieftan's Trail' here that leads you through a number of sites of significance relevant particularly to the 'Trail of Tears'. This is the story of the expulsion of the Cherokee from their lands of Georgia and Tennessee in the time of President Andrew Jackson. Over 4,000 Cherokee are said to have died on the trail to the (now) Oklahoma after the President and Congress decided that no Indian lands should continue to be held by Indians east of the Mississippi. This was a very severe blow to the Cherokee in particular. They had taken the strategy of becoming as much like the invaders as they could be – farming, owning slaves, living in normal houses, setting up a constitutional government etc – but it did them no good whatsoever. We didn't do the whole trail but did pick up on a couple of the sites.
The Chieftan House is a museum near Cartersville dedicated to the life and death of Major
Ridge, one of the leaders of the Cherokee. Major Ridge is one of those who signed the treaty with President Andrew Jackson that allowed for the removal of all Cherokee lands. Some of the material in the museum – which was the house that Ridge and his family built and lived in – makes the case for Ridge having signed the treaty, without the authorisation of the Cherokee Parliament, to save the Cherokee. He and his son who was also a signatory were executed for their actions. It was clear from material held in the museum that he signed knowing full well that he would be killed for doing so. A sad story but not the only sad one about that period of history in this country.
Georgia is an interesting State. Our earlier impressions as we moved up the I–16 were sorted out by the area north of Atlanta where the country is lush and lovely. The people we met were friendly and helpful and the roads were surprisingly good – although not as good as Kentucky and Tennessee. We didn't find much in the way of red dirt that we thought we be around here. Just a
A venerable old organisation
very nice environment in which a lot of people live. Of course, we did just drive through Atlanta which we were told operates like a massive vacuum cleaner sucking in people from all of the surrounding areas.
I can't really comment much on Alabama and Mississippi. We moved through, largely on the inter-States, with some movement off so that we could see some of the country and the small towns. Busy was what they seemed to be to me and not the somnolent places full of crackers and overt racism that I had expected.
We did find our way on to the Natchez Trace, although a fair way along it near Brandon, Mississippi. The road is built along the same basic route as the ancient trail first cut by bison, followed by native Americans and later the European travellers to the west. No trucks and 50 mph limit but very clean and neat. In getting ourselves to the Trace we missed a couple of turns and had a nice drive through the back blocks of Mississippi. Small farms, country getting pretty dry in some places and some forest. Enjoyable drive. Not as rich as other places but it
felt a lot more real. A little like Humpty Doo when we moved out there but with bitumen roads and more good houses.
Natchez itself was a surprise. I suppose I was expecting a city or even a large town. Instead, we were able to drive along streets with very old houses with relative ease. We walked down to the 'under the Hill' area but there were, sadly, no bawdy houses, not too many recognisable criminals or thugs and only one drinking house. There were large balloons though so that was some compensation, even if we had to peek through the fence or pay the $15 each just to go in and look. We only had an hour and it didn't seem worth it.
We will leave Louisiana to the next post. It is worth one of its own. We have, of course, slipped behind again.
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