Family essay. A turn in the road on Southern trek

THE scrapbook is open. There's the picture of a girl, just l5, with long, honey-blond hair. And beside her there's a tall man in his mid-40s. They're seated on a tandem bicycle loaded with camping gear, clearly ready to be on their way. Could this really have been us, and could eight years have passed since then? In one of those all-too-rare occasions when a parent and child enjoy an extended time together, we had wandered beneath blue skies, through wild storms, and beside magnificent sunsets, sleeping out under more stars than either of us knew existed. For three leisurely weeks of nearly unflawed enjoyment, we rode, talked, camped, and ate together as the best of friends.

On the pages of the scrapbook, maps, flyers, drawings, and picture post cards surround a text drawn from Margaret's diary and from scores of happy memories. We traveled along the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, across the piedmont of South Carolina, and south through pine forests and watermelon fields in the Georgia coastal plains toward our main objective -- Okefenokee Swamp Park, a few miles north of the Florida border. Toward the end of that trip, we became involved in a mystery: Even though we arrived at the Okefenokee as planned, in one sense we never passed through south Georgia at all -- at least not the one we were told about.

Slowing our progress, a temperature of nearly 100 in the shade had forced frequent stops at country stores to sample air conditioning and drink small bottles of orange juice -- both seeming essential to our continued existence. In Waynesboro, slightly over 30 miles into Georgia from the South Carolina border, we stopped at a cafeteria for a long-overdue midday meal and, afterward, struck up a conversation with a man looking over our rig. It was he who first brought south Georgia to our attention. People in south Georgia were a rough lot, he warned, and we were advised not to travel the highways there, unprotected as we would be on a bicycle.

Although our plan to bike to Florida had generated open skepticism in Maryland and northern Virginia, by the time we reached southern South Carolina, people took for granted that we would easily reach our goal. But now a fresh uncertainty lurked ahead, one reaching beyond lack of physical endurance and the hazards of road traffic. Soon we were toenter the territory of hostiles.Nevertheless, we pressed on, not to be deterred after having come sofar.

Beside the shimmering highway, a country store squatted in dusty red clay, besieged by the broiling sun of late afternoon. And surely that tiny store, run by a black woman, also had seen siege of another kind; for the wounds of social injustice and misunderstanding healed very slowly where they were deep. The arrangement of the room, empty floor in the center and small soda counter to one side, cried out for stools and tables, but there were none -- mute testimony that years after the great civil rights movement began, prudence still called for making it impossible that members of two races should eat together -- seated -- indoors.

The cashier, nervous as we brought our orange juice and a snack, relaxed visibly as we took them outside. But when we sat on the center of the long plank bench outside the store, two large young men with skin like polished ebony materialized to sit one on each side of us. Although the afternoon was hot and the stands of pine through which we passed seemed endless, we had come, after all, less than 25 miles since receiving that warning in Waynesboro. Was this already south Georgia? Were the sins of our white parents and grandparents now to be visited upon us?

Hardly. Working nearby, the young men had seen us pass, and curiosity brought them over when we stopped. Full of questions about our bike, where we had started, where we were going, and what we had seen and done on the way, they seemed especially intrigued with the idea of traveling so far without an automobile.

We in turn learned a little about life as they lived it. As we moved to leave at the end of that truly enjoyable conversation, I felt the light pressure of an open hand on top of my head. Pausing almost instinctively, I received the first and only individual benediction of my life. Clearly this was not yet the south Georgia about which we had been warned.

To avoid the discomfort of that late June heat wave, for the next two days we broke camp at 3 a.m., breakfasting in the dark on apples and cold cereal, in order to ride in the cool of early morning. Our headlight generator hummed softly against the tire to cast a pool of yellow light by which we found our way as we rode through the moonless nights, trees silhouetted to either side against the starlit sky and a trail of baying watchdogs strung out behind.

After sunup, we stopped at a restaurant for a second breakfast -- a hearty, Southern breakfast of eggs, grits, and sausage -- to fuel a few additional hours of riding. As the heat became intense, we made camp, and lounged through the lazy afternoons -- reading beneath the shade of a friendly tree or up to our necks in a local swimming hole -- before retiring early after supper. Thus, we made our way southward comfortably and uneventfully -- uneventfully, that is, until we reached a small town a few miles north of Waycross.

Seeking breakfast there, we stopped at a small drugstore. The group of men -- all were white this time -- gathered at the counter for morning beverage and obviously viewed with reserve these two travelers -- the tall fellow with a scraggly beard and the girl less than half his age, whom he claimed to be his daughter. But there was not enough reserve to overcome their curiosity.

While Margaret answered questions and told of some of our adventures, one, a huge man nearly as tall as I and weighing a solid pound and a quarter for each of mine, nudged me off out of sight behind a counter piled high with sundries. His skin was coarsely wrinkled and baked to a deep red from long hours spent working outdoors, and on his face was a scowl. Perhaps this surly giant represented the south Georgia we were to dread.

But when he spoke, it was evident that his stern appearance came not from ill will, but from shyness. ``I don't know just how to put this,'' he said, ``but I always keep some money on me to help strangers passing through. If $20 would be a help to you and the young lady, I would be pleased if you would take it.''

Far from being a threat, this gentle man had made a completely unsolicited offer to perfect strangers whom he thought might be in need. Thanking him for his offer and assuring him that his generous help would really be a blessing to future travelers in need, I explained that we had provided adequately for our journey.

At that point, little more than a few miles of sparsely inhabited swampland separated us from the Florida border. Where, then, was the south Georgia we had heard about?

I close the scrapbook, and lean back in my chair. I know now, as I knew then, that south Georgia is really there. After all, we had ridden through it. And we had found its people to be just like those we met everywhere.

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