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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Electric Icicles and Christmas Lights - Eating out at Shellman Bluff

This is a follow-up from my last post.

Our journey to Shellman Bluff last Sunday afternoon held its share of surprises. As we approached Ridgeville, my memory was refreshed. I was reminded by a marker on the side of the road that an entire portion of the community, The Ridge, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The three houses that compose The Ridge are Victorian (1837–1901), not Antebellum (1781–1860), and are closer to the road than I remembered. And the massive oaks I remembered on the lawns are actually on the sides of the road. There are plenty of magnolias and azaleas in the yards, though. Entering Ridgeville, it feels ten degrees cooler as the car passes under a canopy of giant oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

How is it that memory can be so faulty? I’ve driven through that place countless times during my 66 years, and I still had a little girl’s image of wide expanses of lawn in my head. When you’re small, everything seems enormous. The first time I saw “New” Casino - now long gone - on Saint Simons, when I was about five years old, it loomed over me like a white stucco giant, and the letters spelling out C-A-S-I-N-O soared 20 feet tall in my mind. The sidewalk leading to it was a wide as a paved road.

As we continued on Highway 99, we passed tiny houses, some made of cinderblocks, others of clapboard or aluminum siding with metal awnings. How could I have forgotten the periwinkle blues and mustard yellows and bright pinks of their paint? And what about the once-white ones, now faded to gray with rusted window screens hanging from single hinges? And the trailers? I purposely use the word trailer instead of mobile home, because there is nothing mobile about them. They have sat where they are for years, most secured by concrete block foundations. While some are still inhabited, others sit among weeds as tall as I am, oxidized to a dusty brown. Scattered about the sandy and barren yards of the houses that have people living in them are concrete chickens and other fake livestock - deer painted brown with white spots, ducks, a pink pig, some goats and the occasional forgotten reindeer crumbling in the humid air and harsh sunlight of the coastal plain. There are rusty old cars and pickup trucks with weeds growing up through their decayed bottoms and out the windows. One yard boasts a broken down shrimp boat, and there is no shortage of old mattresses and box springs. Sawhorses serve to support makeshift tables made of plywood sheets in front yards and on sagging porches - none of them screened and some sporting strings of Christmas lights made up to look like icicles. 

We arrived too early in the afternoon to bird-watch at the rookery, so we drove onto Tolomato Island and through another tunnel of oaks arching across the road. We have lots of those here on the coast of Georgia. We inched past the ruins of the sugar mill and rum distillery that operated there 200 years ago. It was thrilling. No kidding, I am that big a nerd. 

We followed Highway 99 back toward Old Coast Road, as I like to call US Highway 17. The roadside is littered with still more rundown houses and trailers with dirt yards sporting the occasional leggy rose bush or top heavy sego palm among the old bicycles and cars.  Then there are the intermittent manicured lawns strewn with camellias and fronting midcentury modern red brick ranch houses. Long abandoned service stations display rusty old signs advertising Coca Cola and Pure gas and Orange Crush. Night clubs in block buildings, some of them still in business and painted red or blue, pop up on a piney lot from time to time.

We didn’t move to Saint Simons until I was nine, and those sights were reminiscent of the roadways of my early childhood when we lived in Woodbine, about 30 miles south of Brunswick - except for the Christmas lights. I vividly remember the colors of those houses and the contents of those yards. Why were these suddenly so new to me? Had I not noticed them before? Surely, that can’t be true. Maybe I really did live in Macon too long.

In Eulonia, both of us needing to use a restroom, we pulled into a dollar store to buy something so we could use theirs. Right there in the middle of nowhere, is one of the best dollars stores I have ever seen, but they had sold their last wine opener the night before. I needed one to take to Speed's. If we hadn’t been so eager to get to Shellman Bluff, I could have shopped for a while, but we went next door to the liquor store only to find out that they also had sold their last wine opener the night before. I suppose there must have been a busy Saturday night in Eulonia. I finally settled on a bottle of wine with a screw top, as the selection was limited. 

The drive from Eulonia to Shellman Bluff was as I expected - only the roadsides are cleaner of debris and decaying vehicles. There are more plastic flowers in washtubs and real shrubs than the stuff of junkyards. One neat white cottage had window boxes filled with dark purple and bright yellow petunias, those hardy sun-loving flowers that will bloom through the summer. 

We turned onto Speed’s Kitchen Road and drove past where the pavement stops, and there wasn’t a single car in the dirt yard. I immediately noticed a “For Sale” sign stuck in the sandy yard next to one of the trailers, and there wasn’t a light on that we could see. P had heard from someone that Speed’s had closed, but since we checked their Facebook page before leaving home, we had dismissed the rumor. 

“They aren’t open!” exclaimed Parrish. “The rumor must have been true. Now what are we going to do?”

We sat for a moment and stared at the unlit windows of Speed’s. The blue and red neon “Open” sign hung dark on the side of the entrance. 

“Well, that’s the end of an era for our family,” I said, crestfallen at the loss of a family tradition that spanned 38 years. I wanted to cry, but I rallied.

“Well, there’s always Hunter’s Cafe,” I suggested.

Disheartened, we turned around slowly, bidding our old friend a sad farewell, and drove back past the Rehoboth Baptist Church and onto the road that leads down to the river. We passed an assemblage of little cottages and the ubiquitous trailers on our way to the one-lane dirt road that creeps along the river. The river is on the right, and Hunter’s sits across the road, facing it.

We parked on the side of the road facing the river, and walked across to a shack of a place strung with Christmas lights and some of those electric icicles. There are white lights spiraled around a palm tree beside the entrance to the screened porch as well as multicolored Christmas lights strung from the roof of the front porch. Without its adornments, it would look like just any old shanty sitting beside the road.  We walked across the yard through a blanket of leaves to the front door and were shown to a table on the screened porch. It was much too fine a day to sit inside.

If Speed’s is notable for its lack of decor, Hunter’s is its opposite. On the porch, where we joined two other tables of diners, the windows are draped in wide strings of shiny silver aluminum icicles that serve as curtains of a sort. They are knotted at the bottom, adding a certain je ne sait quoi to the ambiance. There are more Christmas lights hanging from the aluminum roof and around the edges of the ceiling. And there are dollar bills tacked on the walls and door, each signed and put there by a visitor. It is a sight to behold, as we say in The Deep South.

The food was outstanding, much better than I remember, but then we know how tricky my memory can be. Parrish feasted on a whole flounder stuffed with crabmeat, and I had fried shrimp. We learned that ordering a broiled flounder at Hunter’s means a minimum of a thirty minute wait, much like Speed’s, and we also learned that it is worth the time it takes. Parrish was in heaven. The shrimp were good, but not like Speed’s. 

We enjoyed the wait. The breeze was stiff but not cold, and since they have a bar at Hunter’s, I sipped a glass of wine as we chatted and reminisced about Speed’s and mourned its passing. We admired the Broro, a tidal arm of the Sapelo River, and it's view across the marsh to Sapelo Island.  

It finally dawned on me to ask our server the obvious question. 

“How long has Speed’s been closed?”

“I didn’t know it was closed,” she said with some surprise.

“We drove down there and it was dark and there was a for sale sign in the yard. My son heard a rumor that it was closed, but we didn’t believe it. What do you supposed happened?”

“I dont know. That sign’s been up for a long time, but last I knew, they were still open for business. Maybe somebody’s sick and they had to close for that.”

For those of you who’ve never frequented small towns in Georgia, the fact that somebody’s sick is a perfectly sound reason for closing a business. Remember in the movie, "My Cousin Vinnie," when the dry goods store was “closed for flu?” It happens, believe me. 

We shared a slice of homemade key lime pie for dessert, and when we left Hunter’s, full and happy, we drove back to Speed’s - just in case. 

And sure enough, there were cars in the yard and the sign was on. When we went inside to see Clint’s picture on the wall, we learned that they had forgotten to turn on the "Open" sign! Jubilant, we stood in front of the photo of Clint and Miss Virginia, admiring it and remembering the night it was taken and promising ourselves that we would soon be back. 

And we will.   

Copyright 2014 
cj Schlottman


Ujjvala Rahn said...

Hi Claudia,

I adored the beautiful photos with the text. But actually the text was like a movie, so vivid. I liked the adjective "hearty" describ ing the yellow and purple flowers, but did you mean "hardy"?

Ujjvala Rahn said...

Hi Claudia,

I adored the beautiful photos with the text. But actually the text was like a movie, so vivid. I liked the adjective "hearty" describ ing the yellow and purple flowers, but did you mean "hardy"?

Claudia Schlottman said...

Nice catch, Ujjvala! You are, of course, correct! Correcting now.....cj