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 moments... 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.