IN THE FOURTH century A.D. the Emperor Constantine's mother, a born-again Christian, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.She was aghast at what she didn't see. She ordered the city fathers to find more holy spots or bid adieu to their heads. Suddenly the recalled the complete itinerary of Jesus's last days. Tourism boomed in Jerusalem and the boom spread. Soon, by taking a short day trip to Araby, a shnook could see the dung heap where Job suffered his tribulations. In that shnook, I find my roots.
I'm a born-again President-lover. In the morning I drink my coffee out of a Calvin Coolidge mug. Since November 2, I've lusted after Plains, Georgia, the way the glittrati of old lusted after Sodom and Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plains of yore.
This spring a friend and I made the pilgrimage via auto, and to truly savor presidentiality we took the shnook's route. Shucks, once down in Carolina why not drop in on the kitchen where Andy Johnson was born?
For three days we gloried in presidents. At night I dreamed made-for-television historical dramas of our Leaders. And with the usual luck of th shnook we found the road south lush with lulus: a motel where you can only get a room for four hours; a police escort out of Edgefield, South Carolina; Adolf Hitler's signature; and I just about gave up hope when we ran into the WALL OF DEATH!
But we made it. And the end of the road I took a Schlitz beer can to a souvenir shop to be authenticated as coming from Billy Carter's gas station, only to be told that Billy drinks Pabst. Like I say, I'm a shnook. I don't care. I'm proud of the shnook creed: laugh at me all you want, just don't kill me or steal my license plates.
Since Virginia voted for Ford, we weren't lured off the interstates in that state, not even to see John Tyler's hometown. We rushed through on I-95 and I-85 and got our second tank of gas in North Carolina.
Our tour began at the Creedmore exit on I-85. We went east on Route 56, then turned right onto Route 50 heading due south for Raleigh and Andy Johnson's mother's home cooking. No One in the Kitchen, Not Even A Sink
Route 50 is a roller-coaster road, two lanes, straight and pleasant. Then it unloads you in front of a huge shopping center. Raleigh is big, so big you can sing Dixie five times waiting for the left lane turn signal to change.
Turn left on the eight-lane highway and look out for Wake Forest Boulevard. When you spy it, turn right and mind the speed limit. Three or four miles down the boulevard is a historical marker that claims that the reconstructed kitchen where Andy Johnson let out his first yell is some sixty-five yards to the west. Park the car and pace.
I did; through mud and over bramble, and to prove how humbly I strode to that hallowed kitchen, it took seventy-five of my meek steps to reach the reconstructed pantry that succoed presidential timber. Unfortunately the reconstruction isn't quite finished (Johnson always had trouble with Reconstruction). The authorities haven't even located the presidential sink yet.
Still, it looked real enough to me. Born in a kitchen without a sink! No wonder he fought impeachment while Nixon quit.
To get out of Raleigh, go downtown and turn on Hillsborough Street. You'll pass the State House that scarce bears a glance. You'll go right through the North Carolina State campus. Don't look. Bars are promiscuous on the right side of the road. Oh, how far has southern woman fallen!
When you hit Route 1, take it south. Ike's Sand Wedge
In an hour you'll see signs for the World Golf Hall of Fame in Pinehurst. Even if you're not a duffer, go. The admission is only two bucks (you'll realize you get to Plains how cheap that is) and since I said my friend and I were married we both got in for $3.50.
Once in, take a right at the monumental Bobby Jones statue and head for the blue golf cart a ways down past the cases withe sacred niblicks.
I touched Ike's golf cart; the very one that, like the armies of the Free World, felt Ike's firm but warm direction; the very one that plied the links at Gettysburg humming peacefully into the sunset with Ike at the wheel and Mamie at his side.
I also saw Ike's golf shoes, his sand wedge and golf unbrella, all authenticated by Mamie.t was a moment for big thoughts. What is history? Some women tell stories, but I touched his golf cart. Mrs. Polk's Naked Ankle.
Most people forever go north or south through North Carolina. But to get the real lay of the land you have to go west up into the rolling foothills. Follow Route 1 south until you hit the Andrew Jackson Highway, Route 74. Turn west towards James K. Polk's birthplace.
On the way, just outside of Monroe, I saw it! I swerved off the road and came to a screenching halt. There it was: the WALL OF DEATH, packed menacingly on a broken-down flat-bed trailer. Three well-worn daredevil motorcycles rusted on top of a dirt-stained cab. What thrills, Carolina!
Just before you get to Charlotte, turn left onto Route 51. In ten miles you'll hit Route 521; take another left. Scarce a mile down the road is the best free movie in Carolina.
You may have seen the same type authenticated log cabin that poses as Polk's birthplace. In the modern museum nearby there isn't actually anything that really belonged to Polk, not even his five iron. But don't miss the twenty-minute movie.
Accompanied by stirring music, the camera trudges through the lush summer forest. The camera trims the tree and burns the trimmings and a deep voice says "The Revolution flared up!" Of course, the camera wins and soon is back lurching through the lush forest spying on some wooden steps outside a log cabin. Then, in lush color, two bare naked feet, guided by succulent bare baked ankles and blooming naked calves walks up the wooden steps. Two seconds later the narrator tells you "James K. Polk was born!" Just Thirty-nine Miles Away!
Yes, just thirty-nine miles down Route 521 is the place where Andy Jackson was born. Alas, there is no movie.There is a reconstructed authentic Waxhaw-style log cabin with a table set for Sunday dinner, but when we were there it was locked up. I had to admire the "boy on a horse" statue and found the toilet facilities just as plain as I think the People's Hero would want them to be (but still several notches above the facilities at Plains).
Anyway, if there's one thing that beats a tourist site flush with shnooks, it's one empty of all, save yourself. I wanted to climb up with the boy on that huge horse, but we had left the camera in the car. Only Four Hours to . . . Sleep?
Follow 521 to Route 9. Go went until you hit Route 21 and then head south for Columbia, South Carolina.
About a mile north of Columbia a flashing sign beckoned us. "Elite!" It paused. "Motel!" it added.
I drove up into the lot of the Elite Motel, up a good-size gravel hill with plenty bumps. The inn looked crowded but not filled.
"Where is the office?" I asked my companion.
She espied a man coming out of a room carrying white sheets. She hopped out of the car, but didn't come back with a room key.
"He says you can only rent rooms for four hours."
Truly a place for the elite. Shnooks need more than four hours sleep. As we bounced out of the lot we noticed how fancy all the cars looked. I saw a couple come out of a room. They didn't look like they were from Schenectady.
So we stayed down the road at the Coronet. Grits and Senators
Sherman burned Columbia and it never recovered. It doesn't have to. It boasts the prettiest State House anywhere. And a half-block away is the place to have breakfast. The Capital Restaurant has been there since 1905 and if it had been there in 1861 that would have been the place where the South would have decided to secede.
We ate our grits quietly because we were surrounded by legislators:
"I'm glad I heard you side of that, Senator . . ."
"That's how we did it. The vote was 17 to 14 . . ."
"Bill, I want to see you this morning . . ."
"I've always listened to you, and always will . . ."
I looked over one shoulder and got a hint of what the representatives of people faced as they had breakfast. The Senator was having a cup of coffee and reading an article on the Bingo Bill!
The inside of the State House is delicious, like a parfait - pink, black, green, orange and gold. A guard said, "Go ahead and look around."
You can sit in Dante chairs, lounge under real palmetto and trees and gaze up at cornices that could be scenery for a tale from the Arabian Nights. Georgia!
We took I-20 out of Columbia and about two hours into Georgia we turned off on Route 44 and went south to Eatonton. There we found the Uncle Remus Museum. A nice old lady shared with us the treasures of the two-room shack and showed us ten panoramic views.
"Now, make believe Uncle Remus is sitting here by the fire telling stories, and if you look out at the little paintings you can see how the plantation looked back in the days when Joel Chandler Harris was a boy here . . ."
We looked and sighed and then got back on the road.
Central Georgia is a treasure. Even the swath Sherman cut looks fine. The little towns have quaint squares, and how the heart beats when you see a charred chimney in front of a stately pecan grove where moocows low under the trees!
Cleave to the small roads through the small towns between Atlanta and Macon. We took Route 16 from Eatonton through Monticello, Jackson and Griffin. Then went south on Route 19 through Zebulon, Concord and Molena. We took a snap of the squate in Zebulon and just about settled down in Concord. His Last Shopping List
Route 19 runs into 85 which winds through the pine hills to Warm Springs. Signs will urge you to visit the Little White House and you're a fool if you don't.
The Little White House is the cottage where FDR stayed during his many trips to the polio clinic in Warm Springs. For $2 you get to see FDR's specially built Ford, the bed he died in, the unfinished portrait of FDR, his collection of canes, and his specialy constructed bath-tub and commode (push a button and a voice tells you all about it so nobody gets embrassed by asking a guide "Well, how did he do it?").
In a little glass case there is the actual list of the food FDR personaly ordered on the day he died:
4 hog feet
5 turnip greens
1 lb. ground beef
12 lbs. beef stew
Sick man at Yalta or not, the Happy Warrior still had an appetite.
Finally there are film clips of FDR showing him playing water polo with kids, picnicking, and driving his car. There is even "rare footage" of him sitting under the pines with his braces outside his trousers.
Of course, Warm Springs is where Jimmy started his campaign. That's nice, but if the pines are whispering . . . well, try to walk by the bed FDR died in without feeling something. Popping Ears, A Wild Goose Chase and Hitler
Back on 85 you go over a mountain high enough to make your ears pop.
Outside of Columbus, Georgia (which is just across the Chattahoochee River from "Sin City," Alabama), is Fort Benning. Although motel signs were already hinting at Plains, I couldn't resist the U.S. Army Infantry Museum on the rare chance that they might have Ike's three wood.
The four-room museum did have Omar Bradley's shotgun, something I'd never seen before. But the glass case that really set my tourist's brain to thinking was the one with a document signed by Adolf Hitler. His signature looked like a Chinese ideogram for decline and fall. There it was and there was I, about five miles from the Chattahoochee River. Think of it. If Patton hadn't busted through at Bagstogne, FDR's last shopping list might be reposing in a little museum along the Elbe. Providence
General Patton once said that Washington, D.C., is "nearer to God than elsewhere and the place where all people with aspiration should attempt to dwell." But was old Blood and Guts ever around Plains? Surely Providence has left its mark there.
If you don't believe me, as you take Route 27 out of Fort Benning, instead of turning right on Route 280 toward Plains stay on 27. Just north of Lumpkin you'll see a sign pointing the way to Providence Canyon. It's a wonder seven miles off the beaten track. Some call it Georgia's Little Grand Canyon.
In the midst of the hilly pine country a spectacular canyon unfolds. Don't get too close to the edge. It's 140 feet more or less straight down. God, with the help of poor farming methods, has wrought a peacful and inspiring canyon.
But the Providence that giveth enough. Ask the folks in Lumpkin, Georgia. By rights, the town boasting of the Bedingfield Inn and Westville, the "functioning living history village of relocated authentically restored (original) buildings and environment depicting the handicrafts and culture of Georgia's most romantic era - 1850," should attract the shiniest tourist dollar.
Not so. A lady told me "most people that go to Plains just go off I-75 and then go right back onto the interstate. They don't come to Lumpkin."
Shame! Shnooks, go to Lumpkin and get your picture taken right on the corner of Cotton and Broad Streets in front of the Shining White Inn.
If you go east from Lumpkin on 27, at Richard you meet up with Route 280 which is the road to Plains. Ironically, if Jimmy Carter had lost the state, he would have had 280 electoral votes.
It's many miles to Plains via the shnook's route, and the last ten were the most moving I'd ever traveled. It was late afternoon. Altocumulus duplicatus clouds lent a cool shade to the rolling pine-clad hills. But ahead, ahead towards Plains, we could see shafts of sunlight darting down, bathing Plains in a warm glow. Perspiration began soaking the armpits of my Arnold Palmer golf shirt. When we rolled into Plains we burst into the sunlight! Hallelujah! Billy Carter's Wife's Mother's House
All aboard the minitrain! I paid my $2.50 in the nick of time and caught the last tour of the day. I shared my mini-car with a Hoosier couple and put my faith in Bob the Driver who also acted as tour guide. With little speakers in each of the half-dozen cars, nobody missed a thing.
I saw: a light in Miss Lillian's kitchen; a beat-up Coca-Coca sign in Jimmy's front yard; Jimmy's favorite teacher's house; the trailer Chip lived in ("I can see why he moved into the White House," said half the mini-train passengers to the other half); the Methodist Church where Rosalynn and Jimmy were married; the elementary school Amy went to, and much, much more.
An everywhere we saw happy people who waved to us as they sat on their front porches - except one rough-looking teenager who blew smoke at us.
As we putsied by the Plains Baptist Church, the red-ball setting sun made the beautiful stained-glass windows sparkle with orange. When we passed Billy's house, I looked up from the liter of RC Cola cans along the road to see Billy get out of his pickup and go into the kitchen. We saw the softball field, the peanut warehouse, a peanut almost as tall as Jefferson's statue in the Jefferson Memorial, the hospital where Jimmy was born and Miss Lillian learned her nursing trade, and, of course, along Main Street, the world's greatest concentration of prospering souvenir stores.
The center of town is Billy Carter's Gas Station. It's still real. It has gunk, junk and a Farrah Fawcett poster just like every other country gas station. But it does have a lot more beer than most country gas stations. All the real tourists come into Billy's to have a beer. As I entered I took my baseball cap off my head, but inside three good old boys were talking to a real dirt hippie girl and they all had their International Harverster caps on, so I put my baseball cap back on.I bought a six-pack of Schlitz for $2.50 and drank a can right there.
Fancy writers, photographers, and TV cameras try to capture Billy Carter's Gas Station, but friends, I've been there, so eat your hearts out.
The mini-tour gave me the lay of the land. Now, with a roll of bills in my fist, I did the souvenir stores. I bought Jimmy Carter coasters; Jimmy Carter fans; a Jimmy Carter tee-shirt; two Plains maps; many fine postcards; a copy of Plains Monitor and the Plains Statesman - each only a quarter; decals for my car; and, of course, peanut brittle, peanut candy, peanut butter, and just plain peanuts.
Which is the souvenir store for you? For grandeur go the Hugh Carter's; for scope go the Peanut Museum; for convenience go the the train station and grab a bite to eat as you buy, buy, buy; for efficiency go to the Old Fina Station; and don't forget Walter Grocery if you need picnic items with your sourvenirs; to beat the crowds go the emporiums out of town (the one to the east is swank, the one to the west rustic); and to get the beer can you bought at Billy's authenticated, go to the Coin Souvenir Shop where Mr. Maggio will inscribe "Billy Carter's Gas Station, Plains, Georgia," and the date for only a quater a can.
For any friend of enterprise, Plains in a paradise. But for anyone who has to go to the bathroom, Plains is not quite ready.
But the plumbing is coming. The ditch is there. I did my bit and grabbed three big clumps of Plains clay - real Plains dirt for the folks back home. If every tourist took a clump of dirt, before long Plains would be plumbing.
At the moment you see nothing up close and personal of Jimmy's. No softball glove. No report card. No shoes. No putt-putt putter. No shopping lists. No rare footage.
In time, I see the Presidential Library, a Life of Jimmy Theme Park, a statue of the Prophet Micah with a revolving Top o' the Town Restaurant on top. The Hoosiers I took the mini-tour with already made a date to come back in five years to see what wonders unfold.
Sure the TV news reporters always find some citizen of Plains who doesn't like the tourists, the rising land values and the growth. All the tourists joke that "somebody is sure getting rich." But that somebody is just folks. Shucks, I only counted four cars in Billy's driveway.
But there's no stopping Plains. Arabs might have the oil, but Plains has the dreams. In a world of coming shortages, myth will soon be the world's growth commodity. Forget the Dow Jones Average. Keep and eye on the number of beer cans Maggio authenticates. he immortalized eighty-six the day I was there. Goodnight, Americus, and You too, Walter Cronkite
It's hard to leave Plains. But you have to go. When the sun's down in Plains, it's real dark. We moved on the Americus, a bigger town ten miles east.
Americus is a good ending. It has magisc of its own. The clerk at the Best Western said the Inn was filled, but he got permission from the networks to rent the rooms the networks have on perpetual reserve. We got one of the network rooms.
"Which network usually has the room we're in?" I asked.
"Leslie Stah!" I sighed.
To my surprise the room looked just like any other motel room. The bed was no bigger than a normal bed. The Bible was opened to the 37th Psalm, but TV people live such hectic lives who can blame them for consulting the Bible.
The tour was over. I'd learned that presidents and even TV newspeople are just people. For the hell of it I read the 37th Psalm.
" . . . the meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves . . ."
Ah, shnooks forever!