Sunbury – Chapter 1
On this evening, Bongo was headed north on the ‘Coastal Highway’ on his way out of Georgia and back to New Jersey and other points north and maybe west. He had always lived on the east coast but now he was thinking of moving to a new crib. The past four years had been a blur as he leaped from unemployed poverty to multi-million dollar property owner and investor. He was reminiscing about all the crazy turns of events in his life and wondering what lies ahead. That was when the deer jumped out of the darkness into his headlights then into the front seat of his car.
Bongo felt the crash and saw immediately the bloody torso of the animal on the hood, through the windshield, shattering and splattering instantly leaving a trail of destruction and blood. The front of the car was smashed and the engine sputtered to a stop as he pulled off the shoulder into the darkness.
He had never hit a deer before, mostly because he hadn’t been driving long, more in the last four years then in the previous thirty-five years combined. He was a bit in shock at first but no other injuries were apparent. As he assessed the damage, he saw that the front of the car was not operable. He was glad he had disconnected the air bag. He concluded that he would have to walk for help and as he looked around, he expected to walk a few miles before finding any.
Bongo was traveling light with just his guitar and some clothes in the trunk. He decided to leave all of that and headed back south for help. He remembered passing some open stores and gas stations a few miles back. He wasn’t sure yet if it had been a good idea to stay off of I-95 and take the back roads but these issues did not bother him. “C’est la vie,” was a mantra to him. Here he was, in just another of the many conflagrations that made up his life. This one looked like it might just keep him from leaving Georgia quite so soon.
There’s a road that crosses the Altamaha River twelve times between Ludowici and Darien. And another that crosses Interstate-95 three times between Richmond Hill and Brunswick. In a place that has more dirt roads than paved ones, sits Sunbury at the very end of one of these roads where it meets the Medway River leading into St. Catherine’s Sound. The barrier islands protect the east coast from the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean and St. Catherine’s happens to be the largest un-inhabited boat-access-only barrier island on the east coast of the United States.
Bongo wasn’t sure if it was the roads or the rivers that were more twisted, until he looked on the map. Winding through this region of Georgia is truly ‘down in the low country.’ The coastline winds waterfront property in and out. Most of the rivers go east – west and most of the major roads go north – south. The lesser roads take you out to the points that view the green or golden marsh grasses. Some reveal deepwater rivers and creeks winding around the higher ground. Low country can mean sea level in many areas because the tide can come in and blanket the land with harsh salt waters. Sometimes on a full moon it rises as high as the centerline of the road and might even cover whole sections of certain roads for hours. Growing along the sides of the road are the pines, palmettos and more marsh grasses.
Of course that’s just since all the oaks and hardwoods have been cleared so that our keeper of the land trust, lumber companies, can plant new acres of fast growing Georgia pine. These are brought to the wood, pulp and paper mills, poorly placed in prime coastal properties, to cut up, break down and extract all they can, even the resin. It is quite astounding how much the corporations control the land down here in South Georgia. They do well at reproducing those pines and in record time but those aged oaks seem lost forever. The sections of this coast that have a grove of huge mossy oaks are some of the most beautiful areas but they are dwindling fast.
The bumper sticker reads, “Welcome to Georgia: Owned and Operated by the DNR” (Department of Natural Resources). This would be o.k. and probably worked well for many years but now, and most likely from the start, there is plenty of sleeping with the enemy. The DNR rules along the coast and in the woodlands, but the corporations oversee the management. Corporations get what they need. No, not what they need, what they want, for more profits and more power. With Union Carbide, Weyerhaeuser, International Paper, Southeast Paper and Georgia Pacific, the greed grew like kudzu and the environment that is supposed to belong to us all, got used up faster then resin in a pine stump at a Hercules mill. And now they say pines will be used for energy production in addition to the many other uses, from lumber to pine tar to fuel. These corporations, the ‘wood producers,’ are doing very well.
Occasionally they give up some of the land. Development then occurs reminding me of my brother at a buffet; too fast, too much, dysfunctional order, and later regretting how it was done. Now take a coastal region with thousands of miles of deep-water frontage along winding creeks, estuaries, rivers and inlets that make up the Georgia coast. Construction crews show up in a mad rush to claim a deed and profits as if gold had been found. Beautiful plantations are broken up and sold as subdivisions like every other city in the states.
This happens to be the western most point of the east coast being closer to the longitude of Tampa than Miami. This section of the east coast is the farthest from the Gulfstream current and has milder waters and fewer hurricanes coming ashore here. It is south of Savannah and north of Jacksonville, and east of a town (and I use the word delicately) called Midway. Supposedly it is mid-way between Florida’s line and South Carolina to the north. Interstate-95 finally was completed through Georgia in 1976, relieving route 17, the ‘Coastal Highway,’ from the burden of all the truckers and tourists. That little two-lane road winds and twists, too. In fact, Rt. 17 now crosses over or under I-95 at least six times between Jacksonville and Savannah.
To get to the road we’re talking about, you have to take the Midway exit off of I-95, go east on route 84 to the ‘Island Highway’ in Liberty County. You take the ‘Island Highway’ until you get to Ft. Morris Road on the left. Go down to the sixth dirt road past the last paved road on the right. When you turn off of Ft. Morris Road onto ‘Bongo Road,’ you are just near the village called Sunbury. A beautiful place with a beautiful name. Another one is just to the south off exit 53 of I-95 where the sign says ‘South Newport.’ It sounds like a place in Rhode Island but it looks like a place that’s been rode hard, or the town in the movie ‘Roadhouse.’ The actual South Newport turns out to be a marina on the river, not really a town. Both sites are a decade or two from destructive development. The large state protected barrier islands to their east, Sapelo and St. Catherine’s, shelter them. They seem protected from the sea as flimsily as the islands are from man; access is difficult and services non-existent, so far.
You may think it’s just a hunting trail but trust me, when you get through the thick stuff, you arrive at a magnificent spot. It opens up as you cross over the mounds and you face the miles of golden-green savannah grasses with slow tidal rivers winding through them. In the distance are other peninsulas with miles of frontage arranged in weaving forms like filigree determined more by the elevation of the land than the flow of the water, or the hoe of the squatter. The highest point of elevation in this part of the county is only sixteen feet and that’s on the bluffs. It seems all this other land will be sea bottom or at least washed with those harsh salts of the ocean water whenever the next hurricane finds this nook, this cranny of the east coast. Hell, at high tide you feel like you’re riding just three feet above the water. These are some serious salt marshes but the morning sunrises and the marine summers and mild winters are a bearable balance for year round residency. And the beauty is hypnotizing.
So naturally, our man, Mr. Bongo Bucky, wanted a piece of this action. He couldn’t believe his good fortune and excellent timing to stumble on and purchase many acres of sweet Georgia gold. And for such a reasonable price from Georgia Pacific (let’s just call them GP). He picked up over a thousand acres from individuals and the tree company, who all seemed eager to cash in on their land, and for a very fair price, just over two thousand dollars per acre. He only had a small number of marshfront and waterfront acres and even less deep-water frontage, but it was all still so beautiful. There were no paved roads or utilities yet but Bongo had plans.
Bongo grew up never getting a piece of much. Some would say he was a troubled child. From a young age, one of his mentors was his Great Uncle Jim Rape, a sort of vagabond from a bygone day. Uncle Jim Rape was in his late 70’s when Bongo was young and he took a liking to the little middle child of his nephew. Since Uncle Jim Rape was never married, had no known children and did not work, he had lots of time to walk around town so as Bongo grew, he was able to go with Uncle Jim Rape for walks.
Bongo’s mother allowed her little boy to go with her husband’s uncle because he had always been a generally nice man and was always kind. It was just a bit odd because Uncle Jim Rape was an old, long unemployed bachelor his whole life who lived almost like a recluse in a small dirty half duplex, that was dark, smelled like chewing tobacco and was once decorated when it was built in the 1930’s. He was a decorated WWI veteran whose claim to fame was that he was always found where the bullets were the thickest…under the ammunition wagon. His talent after the war was being able to live his whole life almost entirely unemployed until his army pension kicked in and he definitely never worked after that point.
Uncle Jim Rape lived a simple life that Bongo liked. He was known all over town mostly because he walked all over town from bar to bar, chewed cigars all day and drank almost hourly. He never owned a car or had a driver’s license. He seemed to never eat although bartenders would later confess that he did have bar food occasionally. And he lived a long life like his brother, Uncle Tom Rape, who worked in a glass factory until he was ninety-two then retired and quickly died at nine-three. Uncle Jim Rape lived another year and died at ninety-five.
Now who could have a better mentor than that? Bongo, unbeknownst to his parents, was convinced that was the way to go. He learned early that it wasn’t so bad being a bum if you had a roof, a pension and no responsibilities. Bongo would have to find a way to get the pension without working, the roof without a mortgage and no responsibilities by not working. It didn’t appear that Bongo would live a conventional life.