Monday, February 18, 2008

Song of the South

Southern Hospitality

We've had some great weather here in the Swamp this past week, and I've been lucky enough to have a local resident (and new friend) take me to see everything I could possibly want to photograph. Travis and Dana Crews live in Nahunta, GA and are friends of my co-pilot and videographer, John Almering. John gave them a call once we figured out we'd be getting to the swamp too late to find an open RV park.

And... this is another one of those serendipitous mo
ments... Travis is descended from the Lee family who was one of several families who settled Billy's Island in the Okefenokee swamp over two hundred years ago. In Travis, we have found an authentic connection to the local history of the Okefenokee and the small towns that surround it.

Travis has been showing us around all week, taking us out into the woods and around the edges of the swamp in search of unspoiled backcountry. And both he and Dana have made us feel at home... taking photos of me driving in the mud, letting us park on their property and making sure we had plenty to eat -- with pancakes, eggs, bacon and homemade biscuits for breakfast and everything from fish and hushpuppies to chicken and dumplings for dinner. They've truly spoiled us. (And, we've loved every minute!)

It's been a long time since I've been shown such hospitality. That's yet another thing that's
vanishing in America. With everyone in a hurry to get to work, go to the gym, get the kids off to school, fight traffic, rush to the store, and zip through their lives at a hundred miles an hour, it's refreshing to see a family take in visitors and treat them like their own kin. We've even been invited back in the Spring for a more in-depth tour so Travis can show us the things we missed this time around.

Since we arrived last Wednesday, we've seen old homesteads, burned out plantations, and cemeteries and churches dating from the 1800s.
We've been introduced to other descendants of the Lee family, including Timmy Lee (who gave us the grand tour of the old farmhouses and pine forests on his property), and Uncle Clayton Lee, the last of the Lee family to be born on Billy's Island before the Federal government forced everyone out.

I'm simply amazed at our fortune. We've had a wonderful opportunity to see the Old South through the eyes of the people who lived it. No guide or book could give you the stories, the details, and the emotions we've experienced this past week. No map could take you to the incredible places we've seen. And, to these families, it's all just a part of their history.

The sad part is that they all know it can't last forever. With the suburban sprawl coming down from Atlanta, Macon, and nearby Brunswick, a lot of these places will be torn down to make room for
McMansions, new subdivisions and shopping centers. And as the folks who remember "how it used to be" grow older and die off, the history of this area will die off with them. Just like the old headstone I saw at Bethlehem cemetery. This beautiful, hand-lettered marker had fallen over a long time ago, and with no kin left in the area to prop it back up and take care of it, it has slowly sunken into the ground, allowing grass and weeds find a foothold, obscuring it from casual view. Another 20 years or so, and it will be just another patch of grass... no-one to remember it, and nobody to care. Just like the tangible history of the Deep South.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Headlines... as promised.

I promised you some headlines to keep things interesting while I'm in the Okefenokee, so here they are...

1. Photographer on mission gets cursed out and threatened by 80-year old man

The Legend of GrouchyOldMan

Two weeks ago, while traveling through Dahlonega, Georgia with my friend, Jim Evans, I was cursed out by an 80-year old man. True!

It all began innocently enough, as Jim and I were taking photos around an old, crumbling wooden house that was being set upon by an encroaching new neighborhood development. As we continued to explore, we discovered the remains of several vintage cars spanning several decades. The more we explored, the more we discovered. It turned out to be some sort of a service station that was abandoned years ago and just left for Nature to take over. And take over she did! Many of the cars were hard to even see, due to their being covered by vines, leaves, and assorted debris. And, this is in the middle of Winter. Think of how difficult they'd be to see when the trees filled out with their Spring leaves.

While we were shooting, Jim noticed a house nearby that looked occupied, and also looked like it could be part of this property.

I walked up to the street and over to the house, where an older gentleman (we'll call him a gentleman for now) was just opening his front door. I kept my distance on the street (so as not to alarm him) and asked him about the property next door. He seemed nice enough, but couldn't hear me, so I stepped onto his driveway and he walked closer to me. As we got within handshake distance, I told him about the Vanishing America project and how I'm aiming to show people some history before it's all gone.

Well, something about the way I said that, or the camera I was holding, or something else, triggered a reaction in this man that went off the charts. He immediately began yelling at me, cursing at me in the foulest language, called me an asshole photographer trying to ruin him, and berated me at length. I figured I'd let him vent, and then when he calmed down, I could tell him why I was there. He never calmed down. He continued for a full five minutes (I looked at my watch). Eventually, I told him I was sorry he misunderstood my intentions and I began walking away. He followed me for over 100 yards, yelling, screaming, and threatening me.

Well, enough was enough. I don't know what exactly set me off, but I began firing back at him for insulting me without provocation. By this time, Jim walked up (expecting a pleasant dialogue) and was shocked into another world by this war going on between generations.

After a few more insults were traded, Jim and I got in the car and drove away in disgust, dismay, and disappointment. So much for Southern Hospitality.

But all was not lost. The battle for good was won after all.
Before we left, I managed to get some very nice images of that discarded piece of Americana that was once a service station.

2. First sponsor comes on board Vanishing America

I think my last post announced the arrival of The Shop as Vanishing America's first sponsor. If you have a Land Rover or Range Rover, and live in North Georgia, call Luke at The Shop in Norcross. He is an expert on these British coaches and is a genuinely nice guy. Tell him you I sent you!

3. Best ab workout ever!

Step one: Hang out with people who have the flu. Preferably children -- their germs are easier to catch.
Step two: Catch the flu.
Step three: Cough until you feel like your head is going to explode.
Step four: Repeat ad infinitum... every hour, every day until you're so sore you can't sit up straight.
Step five: Show off that new six-pack!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sponsors, Swamps, and Serendipity

Yesteray I left Atlanta for Folkston to spend a week in the Okefenokee Swamp. But before I get into that, I'd like to introduce a new member to the Vanishing America family: Our first Sponsor, The Shop!

Last week, the Land Rover was taken to a specialty mechanic in Norcross, GA to have some rattles and vibrations tightened up. Luke Miles, owner of The Shop, rebuilt the driveshafts, did my brakes, and fixed a few of the other annoyances that come with a 13 year-old Rover. And he did it all for free! In exchange for all the hard work, I told Luke I would let people know if he did a good job. Well...

He did a GREAT job! The Defender rides like a dream. Even my mom enjoyed the ride, and that's saying a lot! I'm keeping Luke on my favorites list, and highly recommend him as your North Georgia Land Rover contact for everything from mods and suspensions to custom work and general maintenance. (And, he's a great guy. He's young, very experienced, loves Rovers, and off-roads in his juiced-up Discovery every chance he gets.)

On to the SWAMP!

John Almering (a friend of mine, who is a freelance videographer) and I hopped into BABS yesterday afternoon and drove down to the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia. We'd originally intended to go to the west side of the Swamp, to Fargo, and explore around Stephen C. Foster State Park. However, due to a late start and the possibility of arriving too late to find a campground, John called ahead to a little town near Waycross to see if we could stay at his friend's place. Well, here's where the serendipity that I keep talking about comes into play...

John's friend, Travis, is a direct descendant of the Lee family, one of the last families to live in the Okefenokee Swamp before the National Park Service moved everyone out in the 1930s. The Lee family actually lived on the infamous Billy's Island, and Travis' deceased relatives make up a significant portion of the population in the historic cemetery.

We're planning on heading out this morning (Thursday) to go talk with Travis' uncle, the last person born on Billy's Island.

I love it when a plan comes together!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Damn Flu!

How did I get the flu?

Since I travel alone and don't come into contact with people as much as I would if I were working in an office, it's been quite a long time since I've been sick. But, such luck couldn't last forever. Thursday, after shooting in North Georgia with my friend Jim, I came down with the flu. And, it's hit me hard with chills, aches, coughing, nausea, and a tremendous lack of energy.

I wonder how I got it. I don't remember coming into contact with anyone who was sick. Could it be possible that I got it from my computer? Could computer viruses finally have gotten so sophisticated that they can attack humans at will? Am I the first case of internet influenza? Or, am I just delirious?

Those of you who have fought it off know how it can knock you out. So, while I'm recovering, I'd like to throw out this little teaser of stories to come...


1. Photographer on mission gets cursed out and threatened by 80-year old man
2. First sponsor comes on board Vanishing America
3. Best ab workout ever!

Tune in for the Full Story...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rock 'n' Roll High School...

Our future leaders: were they listening?
Yes, they were!

Yesterday I took BABS over to Etowah High School
in Woodstock, GA to give a presentation to some of the classes. My appearance was set up by Kristy Szpindor through my brother, Drew, and is the first of many such presentations that will be given along my journey.

We began with a brief in-class PowerPoint presentation on my travels, talked about why things are vanishing, discussed alternative fuels, and then took everyone out to tour BABS (that was th
e part they really liked). Justin Bacile, the teacher who hosted the presentations, was tremendously helpful, and his talent as a teacher and mentor truly shows in his students. I've yet to meet a better group of kids. Everyone was well-spoken, intelligent, polite, and some even let their humorous sides show through. It was such a pleasure to talk with them that I even stayed for two extra classes.
Now, for those of you waiting for new images...
I still haven't been out to shoot yet, but that will all change on Thursday
when I go to Dahlonega, GA to visit my friend, and web developer, Jim Evans. He is an excellent photographer and we always have a blast when we go out shooting together. He was with me when I got the image of the Okefenokee and almost got carried away by mosquitoes; and he was with me when I got the image of the shrimpboat in the fog at Fernandina Beach, FL. We grew up together exploring the woods around our neighborhoods, losing fishing lures (which is what usually happened when we went fishing), and generally being country boys. He's a great inspiration to my work, and I'm excited about getting out to shoot with him again.

We're going to try to make our way up to the northernmost reaches of Georgia's Lake Lanier to see if the water level is low enough to show remnants of the towns and structures that were flooded when the lake was formed by the damming of the Chattahoochee River. Regardless of what we see, I know we'll bring back some fantastic images.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Pardon me boy... is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?

Oil, oil, Oil!

This past weekend took me to Chattanooga to visit my best friend, Marc, his wife Nancy, their three lovely rascals -- Hayden (my goddaughter), Kali, and Wil, and Marc's folks, George and Patti. Hayden is fast becoming a fabulous performer, Kali -- a budding sculptor, and Wil -- well, ladies, watch out for Wil!

In between playing with the kids on Saturday and watching the Superbowl on Sunday, Marc took time to introduce me to several folks who may be able to help move the Vanishing America project forward. We also met up with our friend Dan, and his wife Scottie, a local news anchor who wants to do a story on me when I come back through in the Spring.

On Sunday, before the game, Marc took me to the Chattanooga Golf &
Country Club to collect some oil. We had spoken to Alvin, the Club's Director of Services, two nights before about getting some of the used oil from the Club's restaurant. They currently have to pay for it to be removed, and he was more than happy to have me haul some away.

I didn't realize how fortunate I was to connect up with Alvin. Not only was I able to fill my tanks with over 50 gallons of oil, but the oil was incredibly clean and hardly needed filtering at all! It made oil collection an almost pleasant experience -- except for when the hose on the pump popped off and sprayed oil all over Marc!

On Monday, I headed back down to Atlanta to prepare for a meeting with the Atlanta Preservation Center, the Southeast Tourism Society, and to give a presentation to Etowah High School in Woodstock, GA.

It's been a very busy couple of weeks -- so busy, in fact, that I've gotten behind on my blog, and have yet to take a single photograph!

Looks like it's time to get an assistant.

Oh, and we're still looking for sponsors...