Georgia’s Coastal Highway 17 – The Road Less Traveled
Those of us who take regular trips to the same destination can relate to the inevitable monotony of the journey. On a recent visit to North Carolina, the trip home took a twisted turn of fate when we veered onto a road less travelled. For as we signaled off the expressway, little did we know that we had taken the exit ramp into…the twilight zone of travel.
Although a kinder, more gentler twilight zone, it was still a gathering of the historic, the natural and the just plain weird. These sites were collected mainly off Coastal Highway 17 in the south of Georgia and into Florida. Though the lines of our routing were a bit smeared from time to time, the images were crystal clear.
Deep in the region of southeast coastal Georgia, lays the 280,000-acre Fort Stewart. Begun with a purchase of 5,000 acres in 1940, the then-named Camp Stewart grew to become the largest military installation in the Eastern U.S. Fort Stewart, as it was designated in 1956, is located along the Canootchee River and has been activated and deactivated with each major conflict. It has been a POW camp with WWII, and a training ground for tank, field artillery and helicopter gunnery through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraqi freedom fight. Now part of the Stewart/Hunter complex, Fort Stewart is the US Coast Guard Station, Savannah, providing 24/7 search and rescue coverage for the eastern coastal areas in addition to its training responsibilities.
This historic fort was literally located on “the road less travelled”; a rough dirt road leading back into an area of beautiful homes backed by low country grasses and marshy backwaters. As we continued on our unofficial tour, we drove by and almost missed “the smallest church in America”. In South Newport, GA stands the solitary Memory Park Christ Chapel. Built in 1950 by Agnes Harper, a local grocer, the tiny symbol of Christianity is open 24/7 to all faiths. Amidst the hanging Spanish moss stands the 10′ by 15′ building containing a small pulpit, a few pews and a stained glass portrait of Jesus, straight from England. The bell tower atop the puny house of prayer was donated by a couple married there in 2002. Nowhere can you be more intimate with your faith than in the chapel “Where Folks Rub Elbows with God”.
As we made our way back into civilization from the ends of the eastern edge, we squinted at the mirage in the road ahead. What seemed like a moving, dark line on the road was actually a mother raccoon and five babies in a convoy like a band of schoolchildren following the local crossing guard. They disappeared into the woods, scurrying away like an imagined vision in the mid-afternoon sun. We watched as the last ringed tail vanished into the dense brush and then continued on to the highway.
Once we left the dirt in our dust and continued on Coastal 17, we saw even more interesting sights. In Darien Georgia, we witnessed a man climbing a telephone poll. Nothing unusual in this, only this man wasn’t real; he was a stuffed, imaginary cartoon-figure-of-a-being with a spike-long nose and tatty clothes. In Woodbine, Georgia, we slowly entered the town under the sight of the local law just in time to encounter the “Dead People’s Things 4 Sale” sign. As if this wasn’t odd enough, this sign ended up on the internet like a police mug-shot the following day featured in the top ten of a story on marketing ploys. Quelle surprise.
Also in Darien is the McIntosh Old Jail Art Center. This is the epitome of recycling as the city has designated the 122-year-old building for use as a center for the teaching, viewing and purchasing of art. Jail cells that held criminals till 2002 when Judge Dudley Bowen, Jr. called the facility “grim and grisly”, now hold art exhibits in a museum style arrangement. Special events and shows shine in the scrubbed, polished and revitalized lockup turned arts pad.
Further down the road, the stately entrance to Jekyll Island stands in the midst of salt marches and the remains of the original causeway draw bridge. Once over the bridge, a 200-acre historic district awaits. The Jekyll Island Club was the safe haven for millionaires to relax or conduct business in the late 1800s and 1900s. Names such as Morgan, Astor, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Goodyear and Pulitzer populated the register, and the island, for fishing, golfing, tennis, boating, biking and swimming during winter months. The island has significant historic value as well as lush landscapes and architectural beauty.
Once one has meandered far enough to cross the border, central route 301 yields interesting notables for Florida travelers. Route 301 is a spur of US Route 1 running 1,099 miles from Glasgow, DE to Sarasota, FL. Route 301 was established as a replacement piece for a portion of US-17 and all of US-217, one of the original US highways designated in 1926. Route 301 boasts the infamous speed traps of Waldo, Starke and Lawtey. Travelers speeding through here risk lights, sirens and tickets from the local constabulary. Speed limits jump back and forth so often your foot will get an arch-crunching cramp.
In addition to its speed-trap rep, Waldo also features the giant rocking chair outside the Waldo Flea Market. This swap shop has something for everyone on any given Saturday and Sunday with over 1,000 booths of new, used merchandise and produce. Their unofficial motto reads “from green beans to blue jeans”, all nestled in 50 acres off 301 and highlighted by the huge wooden chair towering over cars, people and even the NE 177 Pl road sign standing at the corner of the market.
Off the beaten path of 301, just south of Hawthorne, is Tony’s Artistic Taxidermy Museum. Housed in a former motel, these guests checked in but they didn’t check out. Former creatures of the day and the night are displayed for fun and for purchase. The likes of zebras, dik diks, elephants, deer, bear, fish and birds grace what would appear to be every inch of the surface area. Tony’s is truly a treasure trove of taxidermy.
For part of our journey, the sights, sounds and wonderment were accompanied by yet another seemingly rare sight these days…the train. The First Coast Railroad occupies just 32 miles of track from Yulee to Fernandina Beach, Fl. as well as Yulee to Seals, Ga. The train serves only 10 customers and uses the former Seaboard Air Line Railway tracks, but as we wove our way through the dotted towns and hanging Spanish moss, the hum of the tracks and the whistle from the cab was pleasant company indeed. A reminder that even in the twilight zone of travel, there is a familiar foothold.