Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Evening in Lavonia

On my way back from Alpharetta, GA, already after 5:00, with a long drive ahead of me (I got home after midnight), I saw a billboard for an authentic Mexican restaurant. I was in the hilly rural area just south of the SC border, on I-85. The thought of Mexican was enticing, and it might be fun to see how authentic it really was. So I pulled off and saw the Mexican place, clean and neat, with a decent number of cars in front of it for the time of day and the place...

...but then I saw the sign for "Historic Downtown Lavonia." With a huge grin on my face I drove past the Mexican place, figuring I could always come back.

I love to find where the locals eat. I've eaten simple, wonderful food, in greasy, smoky places, where a solo diner can unobtrusively listen to neighborly chatter and enjoy interesting perspectives. Having lived in mostly urban or suburban settings for the last thirty years, and hobnobbing almost exclusively with college graduates, I am often enlightened by the political opinions, economic predictions, and thoughts about celebrities and other news of the day that spring from a less cluttered view of the world. I have had epiphanies handed to me in small rural towns. I'm not kidding.

And it's rural settings, here in my adopted Southern home, that still use the genteel conversational arts unique to this region. It is high compliment when friends, born and bred in the rural deep South, say I could almost have been raised here, my manners are so good. I learned much of that uniquely Southern etiquette in small towns and in the countryside.

So I drove into Lavonia with high hopes, and those hopes were not disappointed. It's a real Southern place, with a sense of itself. Banners on the lamp posts, bearing the message "Lavonia - Big Time Small Town," made me grin. The architecture is not remarkable, but most of it has been there a while and shows some history. The town's layout at the center is unusual, with jigs in the main streets and a railroad track and old station (now the Chamber of Commerce) at the heart of it. There is diagonal parking on the main streets, something that has vanished from most American towns. One building had murals painted on the side that gave a glimpse of the progression of the place, from livery stable to car dealership and beyond. The disappearing green of the wagon in the first painting is an accidental metaphor.

I walked around and took pictures. Nearly everything was closed. There was an old hard working diesel engine paused on the tracks at one end of the main plaza. While I ate at the Downtown Cafe, which had an Italian and Greek menu (I had the special - which was pretty good) I watched this old engine roll north alone, and ten minutes later roll south again with a dozen or so empty flat bed cars. I asked the waitress if the train worked only a local set of tracks, and she replied proudly that, "It goes all the way." Map research later shows the line that runs through Lavonia connecting two larger lines that run through Toccoa and Greenwood, so I wonder if the old engine doesn't mostly ferry cars between the two. Greenwood might be all the way if you live in Lavonia. Many rural Southerners only make infrequent trips to other towns or cities.

Later, getting gas again near the highway, I was filling up near an unusual three wheeler, covered with patriotic logos and with flags carefully furled behind. The man, in leathers, looked like a colorful character, and he struck up a conversation. I asked him where he had come from, since he commented he was sore from riding so long. He had started in Houston, driven to California, then north to Washington, then across the country to the east coast, down into the South, and was now returning to Texas, hoping to make home by sometime tomorrow. "I've been on the road 19 days!" I asked if I could photograph him and his unique rig, and he posed for me, tugging his side whiskers into greater order. He said, "God bless you!" as we parted.

A few more miles on the highway and I was in a typical SC welcome center. The unique Georgia town and unusual encounter could have been just a dream. Except for the photos... (Click any image to get a larger view.)

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