We pulled into Savannah late. The day’s drive was long and the confidence we had that we could pull off the distance between Milledgeville and Savannah before nightfall dwindled. The countryside seemed to stretch forever as we waited and waited for signs of the coast, signs that we had reached some milestone, the eastern seaboard. The maps were deceiving. Savannah had looked like it was right on the water. I imagined our arrival, the bus pulling under a canopy of willow trees draped in Spanish moss, the squirrels lining up to greet us as the sun sets, fireflies dancing around our heads while Sigur Ros played in the branches, the waves crashing just out of sight. Instead, we pulled into a Subway just as they were closing, sticky with the day’s sweat dried on our skin. After dinner we drove a hundred yards to the other side of the parking lot to Wal-Mart and popped the tent. It didn’t even matter that we were 13 miles south of the actual city of Savannah. Bam, Savannah had been reached, skid-a-ma-rinky-dinky-do, let’s go to bed.
Everything’s better with a sunrise. The town was as beautiful as we had heard about. Spanish moss was everywhere and town squares lay every few blocks slowing traffic to the point where you even began to think in Georgian drawl. We came across a farmer’s market, saw a soccer coach helping a young girl, heard musicians playing to the trees, everything you’d see in any city park around the country. But it was Savannah. And we had gone through deserts and mountains, truck stops and Wal-marts to get there. It was our East Point.
But then again, it wasn’t.
We spent the day walking past the colonial era tombstones of a cemetery, hunting for Flannery O’Connor’s home, and trying to regain our composure from the heat in a coffee shop. We had yet to see an ocean, we had yet to dip our toes into the warm Atlantic water. As the sun dipped lower in the sky we decided we should venture on. Skidaway Island State Park sits southeast of Savannah and provides a nice respite from the tourist crowds and charming but still artificial stone streets and wrought iron balconies. 15 minutes outside the city and we were in the marshes. It was fantastic.
Our van rested beneath giant oak and pine trees, moss dripped lazily from the branches like tinsel. The air, thick with the tidal moisture, smelled organic and heavy. Eliot was happy we were done driving and started to romp around and we got out and stretched and breathed in the silence. That was another thing. The silence of that place was so rich with life. It was the cicada, the frogs, the dozens of birds darting around at any moment, the drip of water from the trees. But it was silent, devoid of the honking, hacking, hating of the city. We walked until we found a trail and kept walking. There were marshes, saturated from the high tide, fields of grass, and mounds of mud and silt where the fiddler crabs swarmed and raised their pincher claws like finger-snapping background dancers from Westside Story. We saw cranes and an egret, an osprey nest perched on a pole. In the visitor center we saw a fossil cast of a giant sloth that was found in the area. (The original we would later see in the Smithsonian.) We were overwhelmed by the diversity and abundance of life there, both past and present. It was all around, something primordial and harsh and beautiful about the damp ground, the alligator warnings, the insect clouds, and the smell of smoke in the trees.
We got back to camp, tired and grateful for the time we had had, the thought of the coast pushed aside for the time being. This would do.