There were instant grits along with the instant oatmeal at the free breakfast buffet at the Best Western. We were definitely in the South. We were only stopping briefly in North Carolina on our way further in, to Savannah, Georgia. The kids were happy to hit the road, trying to best our 12 hours straight in the car on the way home from Chicago recently. But we were taking it easy, stopping after a mere 9 hours to rest overnight, to brace ourselves for hitting the historic city made famous in modern times by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Savannah did not disappoint. It is beautiful, its many grassy squares surrounded by awe-inspiring architecture and tall, magical trees dripping with Spanish moss. For Sale signs stood in many front yards in the Historic District, For Rent signs in the oversized windows in need of repair. In some desperate situations, there were both For Sale and For Rent signs, whichever came first I guess.
Back from my exploratory run, I hit the Hampton Inn Buffet, eschewing the grits for oatmeal. Bopping to my iPod tunes, I was caught by the woman replenishing the breakfast offerings, the biscuits and gravy and big slabs of ham. She laughed at my dancing and we started chatting. She spoke of her own efforts to work out, to lose weight, efforts stopped short for a time by a treadmill accident but then revived for the loss of two dress sizes...wow!! She still had a long way to go, but it was a process, she was trying. Good for her. She was studying botany, she said, trying to figure with a professor from Nairobi ways in which herbal remedies might offer savior. Her mother, who had cancer, could certainly benefit, she said. But we spoke of the difficulties of herbal or, really, any remedies. Physiologies differ, it's not easy. It all comes down to hard work, really, whether it be exercise, or saving yourself or those you love from disease. It all takes effort. I went up to my room and came back to give her a gold star. She loved it, giving me a big smile and placing it right on her nametag.
I hit a store later in the afternoon that featured the art of graduates of the Savannah College of Art & Design, a school that in the 30 years since its inception has taken over a slew of abandoned buildings and turned into a major draw for creative talent from all over the country. Talking to the manager/head buyer, himself a graduate of S.C.A.D., I told him I wanted to support these artists but that the prices were a little out of my range. "Maybe I can come back and buy something if I ever sell any of my writing..." I said.
"What are you writing?" he asked. I told him about my Gold Star Project, and I pulled out a star for him, just for trying. He was ecstatic.
"You made my day!" he said. "I AM trying...life is hard!" After a moment, placing his star proudly on his chest, he looked at me and said, "You're an American hero!"
It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me about my project. I stopped short of giving him a second star, but secretly I wanted to. When I walked out a bit later, having bought nothing, he thanked me again for the star. "It will have to do, in lieu of a promotion," he said.
People are really the same everywhere. North or South, they're pushing through their days, mostly feeling under-appreciated, unseen. But there is more salt in the South, more cream. My rings were tight around my swollen fingers after most meals. We did eat well a lot, though, despite the heavy hand of Southern chefs. We ate delicious crab legs, spice-rubbed shrimp and fat oysters on Tybee Island, just outside of Savannah, at the Crab Shack, where baby alligators lay like rocks for people to poke at and feed (if the heat was sufficient to make them snap, which it wasn't.)
At the suburban development that passed as a resort on the Isle of Palms outside Charleston, fine fixins were slim, but Charleston itself offered a delicious Shrimp and Crawfish Etouffe. Vicrey's in Mount Pleasant, right on beautiful Shem Creek (a recommendation made mercifully by the bad resort's bad-ass bartender, whose extra rum on my Pina Colada saved me and the resort management more than once)was the best meal we had,starting with Popcorn Crawfish and a dense black bean cake, then moving on to a Lowcountry Mix of shrimp, crab and crawfish over creamy grits. Yum. Grits are what us Northerners refer to as polenta, I determined, figuring it too late to gobble up more of them. We also ate Fried Chicken with sweet collard greens. Gold stars to the chef and the bartender.
Our trip's memories, captured in our minds rather than on film since our camera is busted, include many alligators in the wild and in captivity, the firing of a musket during a Civil War demonstration at Fort Pulaski, the strong swimming legs of a sea turtle at the Charleston Aquarium and a lot of billboard signs for a strange Mexican highway oasis just north of South Carolina called South of the Border. Other billboards too stand out, like the one asking if we'd rather go to Heaven or Hell? "Hell might be more fun," my husband reasoned.
We were happy to hit New Jersey. We loved slipping into the Southern pace for a time, but the crowded efficiencies of the North, sadly, seem to suit us better. Not to mention the lower sodium content. That's what vacations are for, though, right? To see how other people live and, hopefully, return happy that you've chosen your home for good reason.