Sometimes we Athenians get almost as bad as Atlanta folk, thinking we’re really all there is. We live in our little world of academics, funky shops, music halls and progressive politics and think everywhere is like this. Or maybe we just wish it. At any rate, I always get a good dose of alternate reality, of the beauty and mystery of the rural south when we head to our little place in Mountain Rest, S.C.
The trip itself is mostly charming, with the exception of about 13 miles on I-85 between Carnesville and Exit 1. Georgia 106, up through Madison and Franklin Counties, is one of the prettiest drives around. Rolling green hills, dark hardwood forests, everybody with their little garden. Sometimes a herd of goats, a roadside produce stand. Now that the drought is over, the lush green you’d almost forgotten softens even the chicken houses and rusted tractors and school bus bodies scattered here and there. The beauty of the land blinds you to the dilapidated trailers lived in side-by-side with nicer, newer houses, with rows of chicken houses out back.
If you’re traveling on a weekday, about the only places to eat (fast food on the interstate doesn’t count) are Bill’s BBQ at the intersection of U.S. 29 and Georgia 106 in Danielsville and the Ila Café, if you get there before 2 p.m. The weekends are better, food-wise, because all the barbecue places come to life. If you need to eat closer to the end of the trip, wait for the Spotted Pig on Highway 11 south of Walhalla. It’s brand-spanking-new-trying-to-look-old-and-rustic, but the Budweiser is cold and the brisket is to die for. The waitresses wear tight jeans, lots of makeup, and a couple of them give chewing gum a serious workout. But they’re real nice.
When you get into South Carolina, you have about 20 miles on the least scenic portion of the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, SC 11. In summer, you can marvel at the waves of wild day lilies on the banks. The rain has encouraged the kudzu, too, making it mystical and eerie, a beauty you can see only if it’s on someone else’s property. Nancy Basket, a Cherokee up in Walhalla who makes all sorts of things from kudzu, is on a personal crusade to make it the alternative energy and building material of choice. You catch the first sight of the mountains on that road, too, and understand why the Cherokees called them the “Great Blue Hills of God.”
On up to SC 28 (which becomes the Savannah River Scenic Highway down south of there) through Walhalla, founded by Germans in the 19th century, which would be even less of a small town were it not the county seat of Oconee County. For a long time, the cannon at the Confederate monument was pointed south, but they corrected that a couple of years ago. If you need fresh vegetables or have tomato plans, a quick stop at the Produce Patch is in order.
Just outside Walhalla, you start the trek up the mountain. It’s Stumphouse Mountain, but everybody just calls it “the mountain.” Past the Little Texas Tavern (members only, lots of raffles and turkey shoots) past Oconee Reptiles, advertising mouse popsicles and an assortment of reptilian wonders.
This is flagger country. You’ll see more than one house with one flagpole flying both Old Glory and the Stars and Bars. Sometimes the Confederate one is in better condition, but at least the U.S. one is on top. There’s a shop in Walhalla where you can get just about anything with a Confederate flag on it. My favorite display is the mobile home with two flagpoles, one flying the U.S. and South Carolina flags, the other sporting the old southern banner. There’s a little archway in front decorated year-round in red, white and blue plastic flowers. The Last Chance Saloon most summers is decorated in a mix of Confederate flags and those little Budweiser banners. There’s always a bunch of Harleys out front and a heap of beer cans waiting for recycling. If you’re looking for authentic adventure, walk in there and ask for a glass of sauvignon blanc. There’s another place that you never know what the yard art will be. Sometimes it’s a seasonal tableau, with the Easter bunny, a scarecrow or an overall-clad boy with a fishing pole and straw hat. Couple of truck bodies thrown in. Sometimes, it’s just the little vegetable garden.
Used to be once you got almost up the mountain, you could see Sir Bubba, a 15-foot tall medieval knight in full armor at Frank Spivey’s Trading Post. Whether sold, run over or shot down, he’s gone now. On a clear day in the winter, if you aren’t the one driving, you can turn and see almost to Greenville, or so it seems.
You’ll spot homemade signs pointing up dirt driveways, advertising honey or tomatoes or firewood. One October, there was a huge pile of cornstalks propped up against a gate, with a Mason jar and a cardboard, hand-painted sign that said “$1.50 each. Honor system.” Don’t know how that worked out, but I haven’t seen it in a few years.
There’s a bit of commerce at the junction, where SC 107 heads off toward Cashiers. Two stores there, one of which folks will probably always call the Junction, for its sign still says “Junction Supermarket,” though it now also sports a newer pizza sign, which nobody can remember. Under the previous owner, they sold crickets and wigglers, a few groceries and household supplies, homemade fried pies and dinner rolls made by a lady “up the mountain,” with the occasional basket of tomatoes grown out front to pick from. The cigarette smoke was so thick in there, you could hardly breathe, but it was worth it for the bread. Or if you needed to rent a video. And of course fireworks when seasonally appropriate. There was also a pick-up bluegrass session out front every Saturday night.
Several years back, that session moved next door, back to its original home, the re-opened Cuzzin’s, which had a room in the back for when the weather was too bad to play outdoors. The sign said, “To honor the memory of our founder, play only old-time music. No drinking allowed.” I think everyone was mortified the day a tour bus pulled up from Greenville and all those folks got out with their lawn chairs and picnic coolers and proceeded to talk so much you could hardly hear the music. Like the locals were monkeys in the zoo.
Cuzzin’s closed last year so Mama could devote full-time to caring for her sweet million-dollar grandbaby, who is, thankfully, thriving despite her stomach tube and umpteen surgeries before she was two-months old. You wouldn’t have believed the raffles, barbecues and other fund-raising attempts to help that little girl. Mama’s keeping the baby so Little Mama, who is very beautiful and very young, can get a nursing degree and support herself and her child. A very good reason, but a sad closing. Saw Mama at The Café the other night; she says baby girl is walking now. No more bluegrass either place now.
Getting to the actual town of Mountain Rest is almost a letdown. There’s the Post Office and The Café, which serves killer hamburgers and when Kim feels like it, amazing chicken livers. A bit down on the right are Mr. Jack’s house, lake and field of llamas. Two Baptist churches and a community center that includes the volunteer fire department.
A mile north is the sign, mounted in a couple of old canoes, to Camp Chatuga, a summer institution that even those not from here have known about since childhood. A pick-your-own strawberries sign points down the same road.
Tucked up against the Sumter National Forest (or what’s left of it since Bush let them log it down to mud) you’ll find several nice little communities, with private spring-fed lakes, at least one of which somebody’s great-granddaddy dredged out with mules back in the 20s. About half the folks live here fulltime, in everything from old mobile homes with screen porches tacked on the front to brand new houses with cathedral ceilings and guest houses. Don’t assume the new houses are just for the fulltime folks, nor vice versa. This is an eclectic neck of the woods. It’s pretty quiet most of the time, except for holidays and Clemson football weekends. And that’s just fine.