Monday, March 21, 2011
The Cumberland Island Armadillos
Jennifer's original photograph circa 1990. Clint, Mark, me, Jeffery, and Ted prepare for a Cumberland Island adventure. After seeing this pic Clint captioned it as "The Cumberland Island Armadillos sans Jennifer." The name stuck.
I’ve mentioned the Cumberland Island Armadillos throughout this blog. In a nutshell, they are collection of good friends, best friends in fact, that all met during a strange assortment of backpacking and camping trips through the years. Almost all of the ‘Dillos (as we affectionately refer to ourselves) have been to Cumberland Island at one time or another. A ‘Dillo that has never been to the island is known as “dillotaunt”, a designation that is not considered secondary but for missing the experience of the island itself which is, of course, uniquely profound. Everyone is included equally in our fellowship. Going there is not a requirement as long as you can appreciate the peace and sense of magic of those who have been to Cumberland Island in your own way through other, similar intimate experiences.
The group has now grown considerably in size but in the early days it was a much more exclusive club or, rather, we were all scattered and didn’t know one another yet. Jennifer had been to the island several times before we married in 1988. She and I honeymooned there, staying at Stafford Beach, a three-mile hike from the ferry dock. We read the southern novel Raney to one another and spent a lot of time upon a 13-mile span of white beach looking east into the Atlantic Ocean. We were alone on the beach. Gazing about three-miles southward you could see small collections of dotted people. A larger cluster was vaguely visible. That was the Sea Camp area which is the hot spot for ‘Dillo adventurers today, apparently. Looking to the left, northward, there are no dots at all. It was all sand curving gently into the surf until it vanished over the horizon.
Jennifer and I were the only two people on the beach within many miles. To feel that space. To Be in the surf, the foam, the saltiness, feet wet from a bit of wading, windy but warm, a few gulls about, the sun so bright, a dot to someone else, in such a vast openness. This feature of Cumberland Island allows you to get into the “12-mile stare” very quickly. I blogged about on the 12-mile stare after our trip to Destin in 2009. But, what allows the island to surpass a beautiful beach resort like Destin is that within a few steps you can take the stare state of Being into a live oak forest with birds and animal life, almost jungle-like. A few steps further might take you, depending on where you are on island, to an inter-coastal marshland teeming with larger shorebirds and alligators. A change of scenery whilst in the 12-mile stare shows you how to Be that way in other places, if still close to the island. Perhaps, beyond.
Those who can manage to Be like that I would call ‘Dillomeisters. The masters of the transference of the 12-mile stare. This year and last the ‘Dillos stayed on the island at Sea Camp. I did not make either trip but I have visited Sea Camp a couple of times while waiting on the ferry at the end of a trip. Cold showers are there, a tent camping luxury. Rickshaws help you lug in the mighty coolers and heavy camping supplies. The backpacking experience has been traded for more creature comforts and relaxation under the awning of live oaks adorned with great palmettos. For years after our honeymoon, Jennifer and I returned to the island annually, each time taking a slightly different assortment of friends. Generally speaking, however, in those early years the ‘Dillos consisted of Clint, Mark, Ted, Jeffery, Jennifer and myself, with Jennifer’s brother sometimes accompanying us. 1989. Left to right: Jeffery, Jeff (Jen's bro), Clint, and Jennifer. Hiking an open field section of the main road that runs more or less up the middle of the island.
The journey to Cumberland Island back then was (and still is today) the ‘Dillo version of Mecca. Life was not complete without a pilgrimage to visit the island. In those earlier years only 250 visitors were allowed on the island on any given day. The only way to get there was by catching the ferry out of St. Marys across the street from the classic Riverview Hotel, our resting place both the night before catching the ferry and the evening after our return from several days on the island. The hotel offered a nice restaurant, a cozy bar, and an old southern coastal charm that sets the right attitude for the trip.
Of course, before arriving at St. Marys there is the immense desolation known as “south Georgia” that one must go through. We’ve taken varying routes through the years. One can journey into the no-man’s land of I-16 toward Savannah and experience hour after hour of nothing but bland, featureless pine trees owned primarily by timber companies. The other route takes your down I-75 almost to the Florida line and then over a two-lane road by way of the Okefenokee Swamp.That route is not much more exciting than coming down from Savannah. Either way there is not much to do on the long journey down but to yack and joke with one another. Amazingly, some rather profound philosophical insights were attained during the long drives to and from St. Marys, as well as while camping in the wilderness of the island.
Only a small amount of ‘Dillo philosophy actually exists, within my experience anyway. One tenet is that “You can drag more than you can push.” This is not only a truth of physics it was decreed by the ‘Dillos as a metaphysical truth as well. Our ideas are more or less group collected, often during feeding frenzies in camp. But, Ted led the charge with that particular ‘Dillo certainty, as an inspiration for life burdens, if you can't carry to load sometimes then pull it.
The “Law of Pee” states that when traveling the importance of every other consideration varies with the degree to which one has to urinate. At some point, urination trumps all. The “Law of Pee” was proclaimed suddenly like the burning bush, in a way, somewhere on a trip down I-16 when I was a passenger in one car and Jennifer pulled up next to us in the other vehicle our group was venturing to the Island in that year. She held up a torn page from a spiral notebook that simply contained a very large, somewhat embellished with doodles of various kinds, capital letter “P”. She was laughing and grimacing at the same time. The proper translation of that was, of course, stop at the next exit (which could be 30-40 miles away yet in I-16) I have to urinate. The discussion that followed lead to the proclamation of the Law.
Our greatest insight, however, came upon the island itself. In our sometimes more than slightly inebriated group discussions about life and the tranquil beauty of the island itself, we came up with the concept of the “suck factor”. The theory goes roughly like this…Everything sucks, but it all sucks in degrees. A suck factor 10, for example, is really sucky – involving injury or illness or some inescapable calamity of life. On the other end of the spectrum is suck factor 1. At the level of 1, everything only sucks to a barely detectable degree. You are feeling fine, at peace, life is flowing along, and you are only troubled by the sucky fact that you have to get up and move occasionally or that you have to leave a place that you have just discovered so fulfilling. The suck factor remains an understanding among original ‘Dillos to this day. In phone conversations you will often hear “Oh, it’s about a suck factor 3 or 4” in response to an inquiry about how things are going. Jennifer sometimes posts the suck factor update on her Facebook page. 3 or 4 is considered in the “normal” suck range. And so forth.
Non-metaphysical ideas abound in ‘Dillo history as well. One of my contributions was the yellow-breasted whupeefu#ker. This is a fading piece of ‘Dillo lore as newer ‘Dillos bring in their own fine influences on the culture. At any rate, the yellow-breasted whupeefu#ker came as a spontaneous, Dionysian utterance under the effects of Wild Turkey 101 and other sorted spirits. Jennifer, her brother, and Ted were all discussing the plentiful birds around us. I knew very little about birds at the time. Even though I had grown up a farm boy my rational understanding of birds was quite naïve. Jennifer and her dad have taught me much about birds in our married life together. Anyway, all the seemingly endless technical talk of various bird calls, and appearances, and subtle differences drove me to burst forth from my ignorant silence to ask: “Well, what about the yellow-breasted whuppeefu#ker? What kind of sound does it make?” To which everyone laughed. The whupeefu#ker remains elusive. Each trip has its own distinctive chapter in the collective ‘Dillo Cumberland Island unconscious.
Once Jeffery accompanied Ted, Mark, Clint, Jennifer and myself (it is the pic featured at the top of this blog). Jeffery carried a PVC-built contraption he had invented with wide plastic tires to carry his pack and supplies for him as he guided it with two poles up the road. Mark and Clint joked about the simple nature of the somewhat outlandish and unruly design, doubting it would work. Indeed, it only lasted a couple of hours. But, the fault lied not in Jeffery’s design so much as his playfulness at making the contraption cut donuts in the sandy road. The poles broke at their critical junction and the mechanism was rendered steerless. Jeffery comically carried the apparatus on his backpack virtually the entire hike.
Jennifer resting on a tarp during a water break. You can see Jeffery in the background trying to repair his pack-hauling contraption.
Perhaps my favorite trip was the year Jennifer and I went with only Ted and Jeffery. We took a second ferry that then ran on weekends from Sea Camp Dock up to the old plantation style estate of Plum Orchard. We toured the elegance of the estate house, leaving our backpacks outside. Then we headed up to Brickhill Bluff, staying two nights and using Brickhill as a staging place for forays into the northern part of the island. We visited Lake Whitney, a fresh-water lake right on the dunes with the white beach literally spilling into its tannic waters. We also saw the little slave church where JFK, Jr. married, but this was years before his marriage.
My most recent trip to Cumberland Island was in 2001. (Click the Google Earth map of island at left taken from 5 miles altitude.) That was a larger group that included Jennifer, myself, Jeffery and his then-wife, Clint and his then-wife, and Mark. We spent one night at Yankee Paradise, hiked to Hickory Hill, and spent more time on the beach, ending up back at Stafford Beach where Jennifer and I had honeymooned with the place practically to ourselves 13 years earlier (now 23 today). There we reclined in hammocks, told jokes, partied, ate, slept, went for walks, read, got quiet, punctuated by rambunctious moments of high spirits. As always the beach at Stafford was an awesome touchstone.
I hiked back to the ferry dock quickly from Stafford. I usually am faster than other packers – or used to be anyway. I like getting back a bit early before the late-afternoon ferry back to St. Marys (and the hot shower and seafood feast waiting for you back at the Riverview). This gave me some time to explore the Dungeness part of the island, which is a thing unto itself, concentrated near the isle’s southern tip. Here lie the exquisite ruins of a former aristocracy that used the island as winter vacation home and hunting resort in another age. It is here that human history is most obvious and to be appreciated on the island.
Jennifer’s down there this week with a dozen other ‘Dillos, some of whom I’ve never even met. I’m being Mr. Mom. Last year was the first time any of the “core” ‘Dillos had returned to Cumberland Island since the 2001 trip. A few years before that Jennifer went with a professional photography friend of hers for a wife-only trip. So, this marks her third time back since I’ve been there. But, when she returns she will paint me vivid recollections of what it was like to be there, and I can feel it with a mental imagery, draw upon my store of experience, and Be there again.
Consider yourself alone on a beach, walking back west through a robust stretch of natural dunes, grasses, the sound of the waves rescinding, then you hear birds, and you walk down into a forest from the top of a dune that is pushing into the forest. Some of the live oaks are partially buried in a minutely wind-shifting dune. You walk out of the acutely leaning tree tops into the forest floor. You may see boar or Ferrell deer or wild horses or panted buntings or, of course, armadillos. Then, image that you cannot hear the sea any longer and you are walking through the forest, the canopy alive with birds. After a time, the trees gradually become shrubbier. The sky opens up a bit now and then and then suddenly all now. You are standing on the edge of a coastline, looking from this broken islet across several miles of marsh and inlet waterways at the solid landmass of Georgia. Herons fly. It will be a magnificent water-reflected sunset. Now realize you felt all that in the span of a 45-minute walk or so. An amazing thing to experience. I can’t tell you why, but in such moments you live as great as any king that ever graced this earth.
A pic of me catching the sunrise from an early trip to Cumberland Island.
Late Note: Click here to see an early website design by me (neglected since, a snap-shot in Time) featuring the 'Dillos Adventures as of August 2000.