Vacation Friends

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

On a laid-back island that has somehow shunned commercialization, some struggled with unplugging at the communal inn we stayed in called Greyfield.

After a kind gentleman provided an orientation at this retreat on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, everyone was welcoming, and everything felt comfortable. Even when our host insisted folks completely shut the front door off the grand porch, otherwise, it’ll get toasty inside, and nobody wants that.

Before we were left to explore the island, he showed us a sign-up book for the private excursions offered that day throughout the island. Naturalists and staff members managed these tours, which may include a trip on benches in the back of a pickup truck to the tiniest wedding chapel on the far side of the island, where JFK Jr. had his small and private wedding ceremony. He and his party stayed at the Greyfield Inn and had their rehearsal dinner on the sweeping front porch. The reception was held on the front lawn. Other excursions may be to see the eye-popping ruins of Dungeness, the sprawling Carnegie mansion at Plum Orchard, birding, kayaking, fossil-finding, chimneys, gardens, and more. A new sign-up book with the next day’s tour offerings was set out at 4pm daily.

On this first day, we grabbed our picnic basket from the kitchen and bicycles and headed for the beach, where the inn provides chairs and umbrellas in a storage container at the beachhead. It was like pedaling through a scene only described by Nineteenth Century recreational affluence. The fabled inn faded as we rounded the natural crushed shell paths into lush woodlands, all bathed in pure nature and marked private for Greyfield guests only. We left the bikes and walked where the forest opened to the sand dunes. Halfway to the beachhead was an elevated open-air picnic pavilion. We were the only ones around. It’s where we enjoyed our picnic basket lunch: delicious sandwich, freshly picked salad, and treat. When we hit the beach, it was ours alone. We wondered at the incredulousness of it all in today’s day and age of overrun destinations. It was like being on your very own private island.

As we exhaled the modern world’s impurities and breathed in Cumberland Island’s purity, we had no idea this respite would grow even more magical.

We hosed off our feet and shoes when we returned to the inn. My wife tried transporting a sand dollar back in her bicycle basket, but it had been reduced to dust when she opened its protective towel coating. From our perch in a guest room overtop the corner of the porch, we could see the canopy of massive trees and wild horses in their shade grazing on the front lawn.

That first night, we learned the dining room was at its capacity with about 30 guests (13 couples and a mom with three college-age girls. The guests were mostly from rooms inside the inn, but some were from the two cottages on the grounds. Before the dinner bell rang for all of us, we mingled in the great room on the main floor in our jackets and dresses with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. A guestbook had names and where people were from—mostly Georgians, but a few entries claimed places like Michigan, New York, and now, Ohio. Conversation at the dinner table was among guests and staff alike. Some staff had the best information about the island and some of the best stories!

The best (vacation) friends we ever met would arrive the next morning.

The guests mingled on the front porch that night. One of the naturalists who ferried in with us wore a sea turtle shirt. She encouraged us to bike to the beach in the dark to see the turtle nests but emphasized how to do it without disturbing them, using the inn’s redlight flashlights and keeping a good distance. Then, the night sky opened to let a long, steady rain pour down. It was a perfect night to stay on the grand porch.

The following morning, the breakfast table brought many familiar faces from the night before. But many of those faces wouldn’t be seen again as this ended their weekend stay. After morning goodbyes over coffee on the porch, we readied for our first excursion. After familiar guests left, new guests arrived. We walked past the new arrival’s luggage in the doorway with our prepared picnic basket with our name on it to join the newcomers and our guide in a pickup truck to whisk us away on an adventure.

It was a padded but bumpy ride. But each bump loosened us all up to conversation and laughs. Our guide stopped the vehicle to move a gopher tortoise in the middle of the unpaved road. She brought it to us in the truck bed so we could see it. That’s when she noticed it was loaded with ticks. Diane, one of the newcomers fresh off the ferry and straight into this excursion, asked if we could help it. The guide looked at Diane’s husband, Jim, and asked him to hold it. The tortoise clawed his hands while the guide fetched tweezers to remove ticks embedded across the tortoise’s underside. The sturdy older fellow, who we later learned runs a sawmill and loves everything about working at it, casually let the guide know the tortoise was digging claws into his wrists, and it didn’t exactly tickle. The guide took the tortoise and gave Jim the tweezers. Poor Jim had no idea his vacation would include de-ticking a tortoise in front of a bunch of strangers.

Welcome to Greyfield, we laughed. And vacation friendships that ran deep for the week.

At the long-awaited North End of the island, we exited the truck’s bed and headed for the restroom. A bat flew overhead in the men’s room. Of course, unfazed, Jim shooed it away.

At a picnic table, we ate from our private couples’ picnic baskets as our guide, Katie, showed us pics of an alligator climbing onto her porch to say hello. After we ate, she focused on the tour and walked us through a little rustic museum that told the story of the community formed here from the island’s freed slaves.

Next to these grounds, in clear sight, was a fenced area marking the property and rugged homestead of Carol, known to some as the wild woman of Cumberland. We would meet this fascinating woman later in the week. Another heavy rain came, so we took shelter in the tiny non-descript chapel where JFK Jr got married. It was a long rain, so our band of strangers had no choice but to go deeper into conversation after we exhausted our wonder if the famous wedding in such a modest place invited Carol next door.

Carol is a self-taught naturalist dubbed Jane Goodall of Cumberland Island’s Sea Turtles. She strongly advocates for the wild island’s preservation and has caused controversy with those who do not share her vision. She is viewed as eccentric as she lives primarily off the land and what the island provides her with. Multiple books have been written about her storied life.

The three couples hauled up in that tiny chapel with Katie continued to bond. Jim and his lovely wife Diane shared their miraculous courtship, beginning with the airline groundings on 9/11. The other couple included Paula, a schoolteacher like my wife, and her husband, Brian. He later shared such an incredulous story about a bee infestation at one of his Airbnbs; we had him tell it again for others to hear later.

That night, we were seated together for dinner and had a great time. As we finished dessert, my wife said we would grab flashlights and bikes to see the nesting sea turtles if anyone was interested. It was a bit of a surprise that these new friends, dressed in suits and cocktail dresses, looked at each other and said, sure, let’s go!

After a quick change of clothes, we met at the bicycle barn to pick up our rides. We positioned flashlights in the handlebar baskets. It took a moment for everyone to find their stride in the dark on the non-paved surface with roots, rocks, and other obstacles. Once we got stopped and started a few times, this empty nest gang pedaled in a row into the dark woods on a path we could barely see. None of us were spring chickens. But at heart, we were adventurous that night. Laughter and giggles echoed off the trees as we swerved and bumped our way along the path to where dirt turned to sand.

That’s when we ditched the bikes and carried on, chuckles and all, through the moonlit sand, switching flashlights from white light to red.

We spent a long time chatting quietly while looking for the turtle nests, but we were too low on the beach. Then, we decided to split up and signal if we found anything.

I was sure I was upon one. I didn’t want to disturb it, so I kept my light off it. I signaled the others and waited. When the six of us reunited, I readied for the big reveal – DRIFTWOOD!

As they say, it was about the journey, not the destination.

Our slap-happy crew returned the bikes and washed feet with the hose out back of the inn. Then we slinked in the backdoor into the pitch-dark kitchen, flashlights back on, giggling like teenagers sneaking into the house, trying not to wake Mom and Dad.

Someone knocked the table that, of course, had the pots and pans and things that maximized clatter we hoped didn’t wake the staff or guests. But if that didn’t, the snorting laughter and she-shushing one another surely did. We all froze in silence, turned off lights, and waited for a response from someone, anyone. None came. So, we continued, albeit more cautiously.

Well, we were thick as thieves after this rendezvous.

Each day brought a new adventure. We went kayaking and birding, touring the spectacular ruins of a sprawling castle-like mansion called Dungeness and the still-standing mansion of Plum Orchard. Each adventure led to afternoon naps or quiet time before the dinner bell chimed. A couple played chess in the lavish grand room of the inn. A college student was finishing up summer studies in the library. Others grabbed books and went to the beach or relaxed on the porch.

My wife and I grabbed glasses of lemonade from the kitchen and sat in a garden on the patio adjacent to the inn. A wild mustang reared up a little distance away to keep a filly in line. He raced after her. She let out a noise of terror and shot toward us. It happened so fast. The space between my wife’s chair and the thick, tall shrubs behind it was barely wide enough for this charging horse to squeeze by. We froze to assess the dangers on both sides of us, careful not to make any sudden moves. One of the horses stopped just across the round patio table from us and glared with blood-red and white eyes, grunting and showing its teeth. I secured my hands on the edge of the table in case I needed to create a shield in an instant. The wild horses’ standoff was uncomfortable and long. Then, as fast as they entered our lives, they left. And so did we!

Another unexpected encounter with the island’s wild side was when Carol flagged down our guide to Plum Orchard! Carol had stopped her quad, looking to chat. Our guide that day had been working on the island for many years, so Carol and she had become friendly with one another. The roadside conversation was lengthy, and Carol made it a group chat. Although a very private person, she was not a bashful person. She was bustling with energy and compassion for the island. And oh, she had a sense of humor! Long story short, we learned what she wanted to teach us about the island she is determined to protect.

Each evening, we shared stories of the present and past, growing tighter and tighter.

On the day before our departure, our friends from our group of six, and others like the professor and the festive southern belle sisters, gathered in front of the inn to walk to the docked ferry and depart Cumberland Island.

It was a hug fest. It felt like saying goodbye to dear old friends moving across the globe and knowing your paths may never cross again.

Later in the day, a sweet, young, gentle member of the staff gave my wife, a little bag left by Diane. Inside was a priceless gift and a simple gesture of thoughtful kindness – a sand dollar to replace the one that crumbled.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

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