We awoke at 9am and happily realized that neither of us felt sick to our stomachs anymore. On the way out of town, we stopped for coffee; all the Starbucks baristas were singing along with that Natalie Merchant song about getting older, and complaining about their pathetic barista lives. We took a detour to the town of Juliette, home of the Whistle Stop Cafe (of Fried Green Tomatoes fame). The residents are totally working it as far as the tourist trade goes, which is kind of amusing. All the shopkeepers are chatty and eccentric and cute. We considered maybe eating at the cafe, so went in to look at the menu. I looked down and saw a tableful of deep-fried food and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. So we continued on to Macon, Georgia, the location of our originally-planned lunch spot: Len Berg’s.
(And, yes, since you asked, we are the type of people who could consider Macon a destination.)
Len Berg’s is a bizarre little place. It’s in a small building in the alley behind the courthouse, and has been doing its thing for almost 50 years. It’s all about down-home cookin’, and it’s incredible.
We had discovered it in the AAA guide the last time we were in Georgia, and Heather has had recurring fantasies involving their biscuits and sweet tea ever since. They’re only open for ‘luncheon’ during the week. The kitchen is in the middle of the little building, with a lunch counter facing it. There’s a hallway on either side, and then dining rooms that branch out from there. The rooms are small and connect together like a maze. One of them has a large table with eight seats around it; another has two huge old creaking booths and nothing else. The seating is á la VFW post, cheap veneer tables and vinyl chairs. The waitress brought us the bread, which is amazing: buttermilk biscuits and little corn bread sticks. I asked her where the restrooms were located, and she gestured off towards the distance somewhere, saying, “through that door, you take a right and a right and a left and a left.”
The restaurant features classic southern cooking that you pick from a printed-daily menu. You can choose ‘lunch priced with two vegetables’; Heather ordered the baked stuffed pork chop (W) with fried fresh corn (Y) and country cole slaw (Z). I picked the vegetable plate, and selected my four vegetables: fried fresh corn (Y), country cole slaw (Z), tossed salad (S) with homemade bleu cheese dressing, and broccoli casserole (L). Worth noting: macaroni and cheese (M) is one of the vegetable options. I love the south.
The fried corn is sort of liked creamed corn, only with no cream. The bleu cheese dressing was the color of thousand island, but it was good anyway. My diet coke came in a tiny glass bottle. It was perfect.
Well, actually, the broccoli made me puke, but that was more my issue than theirs. Have I mentioned I’m fun to go out with? Yeah. Anyway, while I was in the bathroom, I could overhear the conversation in the eight-person room (which was a little disturbing, but still). There were a bunch of guys in there who obviously worked over at the courthouse, probably lawyers or judges. One of them was telling the others that for the last year, he had been exercising every day and trying to eat right and lose weight (what Len Berg’s had to do with eating right, I don’t know), because he had the new pacemaker. It occurred to me that everyone has their own personal struggle that nobody else knows about until they hear that person’s story. I mean, I know that should be obvious, but you don’t think about it. You go around thinking that your own life is this intense, gut-wrenching drama, and you envy other people’s simple, happy lives. And it’s not like that at all.
Back at the table, Heather was picking apart her peach cobbler and smiling about the people at the table behind her. It was a group in town for a conference, something about the needs of the blind. The women had the most stunning southern accents, stereotypically polite and genteel. One of the guys at the table was talking about how he helped set up a blind baseball league for kids in his county, and it was fascinating: he talked about the effect that success in sports had on the kids’ self-esteem and ability to function normally in school. Across the way, there was another old couple who had obviously been married since the beginning of time. They had ordered the exact same thing and were eating in silence. When the waitress visited their table, the woman would hold very lively conversations with her, then go back to dead silence when she left. Len Berg’s rules.
Leaving the restaurant, I again felt like crap, so Heather got to drive. I passed out for half an hour in the passenger seat, then felt like returning to the living. She informed me that I had missed the bamboo farm that I was intentionally looking out for, and then pointed out the hurricane evacuation crossovers that allow people to drive on both sides of the freeway while running for their lives. We figured those would probably be in use before long, since Hurricane Isabel was headed that way. At 2:50, I sighted my first seagull. We were getting near the ocean.
By 5pm, I was laying on the beach. I checked into the hotel and was instantly in love, once again, with Savannah. Or in this case, Tybee Island, but close enough. (Tybee island is on the Atlantic, 20 miles east of Savannah, across a series of bridges and causeways, and past miles of seagrass, turtle crossings, and palm trees.) The girl at the counter called me honey and sweetie and told me I was very striking. I swooned.
Our room was on the 4th floor overlooking the beach. We ran in, dumped all our stuff in the room, changed, smeared suntan lotion all over our pasty northern-european flesh, and went out to the beach. Heather went for a swim, which mostly meant standing about 10 feet into the water and getting knocked around by waves. I spread the blanket on the beach and laid down, meaning to read, as usual, but getting stuck just laying there instead. I pulled out the camera and took a picture of my viewpoint from the blanket. I called the parents to let them know we had arrived safely. They couldn’t believe how quickly we had gotten there, and I could hear my dad silently calculating driving times and speeds in his head, as usual. He highly disapproved of the fact that we had driven all night as well, of course. I told them about Atlanta and Macon and our early-morning visit to the Waffle House. Then my mom told me Johnny Cash had just died. That kind of dampened my enthusiasm for the beach.
I watched Heather’s head slowly bobbing south, and considered calling Alex in Miami to tell him to be on the lookout. I watched kids paragliding, and was a little jealous. Heather showed up after an hour or so, and we decided to go to dinner before we got sunburnt, then go back to the beach later.
We drove up to the other end of the beach, by the lighthouse, to a place we had eaten at on our last trips, the North Beach Grill. We had agreed it was one of those perfect moments: the ocean, the salt in the air, the wind, dinner on the beach. We sat out on the deck and ordered fried plantains with salsa. The Flying Sheephead Band was just warming up, a bluegrass trio with banjo, upright bass, and guitar. I ordered the veggie plate, which ended up being two black bean cakes, pineapple salsa, sweet potatoes (I can’t even describe how they were prepared, but they were the best thing I’d ever eaten in my life), and sugar snap peas. The band dedicated their set to the memory of Johnny Cash. The food was excellent and the weather was perfect. It was beautiful.
After dinner, we drove through the little neighborhood of bed & breakfasts and vacation rentals. Passing the pond in Jaycees Park, we saw a funny-looking duck standing there, so we got out to take a look. It turned out that she had a crowd of ducklings, and they all came dashing towards us as we approached. We resolved to come back the next day with something to feed them. I also noticed as we were leaving that the cicadas there near the ocean are unbelievably loud. When I’m walking at Lake Harriet, talking on the phone, and a plane passes overhead, I have to stop talking for a minute because of the noise; it’s kind of the same thing with the cicadas there. Crazy.
We drove back to the other end of the strip, and decided to go all the way to the south end to see what was there. Tybee Island is the typical beach resort town, although it’s still fairly unspoiled: there are a few tacky beach shops and convenience stores, and the obligatory motels and little cafes. But it’s no Virginia Beach; it’s uncrowded and friendly and nice.
We drove three blocks past our hotel and found the end of Highway 80, and a block and a half of little shops and restaurants. We went into a couple stores, which had everything on end-of-season clearance. Heather saw Ben & Jerry’s, so we stopped in, and discovered that their flavor of the month was sugar-free blueberry. Yay!
On the way back to the car, we saw an old guy come out of his shop, lean over and hock a huge gob of spit on the curb, then go back inside. Apart from that, the night was beautiful. We took our ice cream back to the hotel and sat out on our balcony, staring at the ocean. Then we went back downstairs and walked down to the pier. Apart from the wind, the weather was perfect, and we could see a million stars. There were probably 20 guys out there fishing in the dark. We went back down to the beach, took off our shoes, and walked all the way down to the south end, where it was pitch black and signs were warning us not to do something, but we couldn’t read them. There were kids scrambling around the beach catching crabs, and people strolling slowly, being in love. The tide was coming in, and we waded in the surf, my pants legs getting soaked for the second time that day. When we got back to our room, the moon had just come up. I watched Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash playing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ on VH1. We decided to sleep with the patio door open so we could hear the sound of the ocean.