Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fish Out of Water: Day…I Lost Count

Quick housekeeping: Tomorrow night I'll post pictures!

From here on into Rome, the river scenery stays just about the same from day to day. Between last night’s margaritas, a heavy rain shower around midnight, and some guy in our campsite with the most obnoxious, thundering, pass me a defibulator type snore, it seemed like a good day for me to check out the other side of Paddle Georgia. After the paddlers load the school buses in the mornings, toting their full Gatorade containers and shiny with sunscreen, what happens back at camp? How does a sudden influx of 300 or so people camping out at the high school affect the town? If Paddle Georgia aims to raise awareness about the rivers, how does our immediate presence impact those directly in contact with this bunch?

The most convenient place to start seemed to be the nearby Laundr-o-rama. Right around the corner here from the high school sits a low brick building about as big as a minute, humid and thick with lint in the air. I took my bag of wet things, some quarters I changed with our coffee vendor at camp, and a good James Lee Burke novel to pass the time. As soon as I had loaded my laundry and settled down on a bench in front of the building, an older black man came and sat down beside me. He wore beat-up old Pumas and a worn baseball cap advertising some auto mechanic. “Hey,” he leaned over to me, “Hey, you know anybody’s got it made?” “Excuse me?” I responded. “You know anybody’s got it made,” he repeated, like a statement of fact. I thought about it a minute, and then said no, I did not personally know anyone who has it made. I know of such people, but none of them are personal acquaintances. I asked him if he had it made. He said no, he didn’t, but he knew a guy who had a nice truck, and that guy probably had it made. Then the old man started to ask me about various people, did I know so-and-so or this guy or that guy. I kept repeating that I was not from Calhoun and didn’t know anybody he was asking about, nor was I likely to even if he kept asking. Finally, he cocked his head at me and said “You one a them people over at the high school, right? I seen them tents. You going out on the river or something? Why you wanna do that?”

A similar conversation occurred after I tucked my clean and folded clothes back into my dirty, odorous and now baking tent. We set up our spot right in a breezeway of the school; from the creative nametags around the doors it looks like we sleep right outside of the art classroom. As I gathered my things to walk into town, the teacher showed up with her cup of coffee and set of keys. She seemed nervous, as if she were invading my space. I tried to communicate deference, since I was so obviously invading hers. Finally she set down her mug and a deep look of concern crossed her face. “I’m happy to have you here,” she started, “but I really don’t think this is a good idea.” I assumed she meant taking over her school campus and tracking river mud through her hallways gave her some consternation, but that wasn’t her issue. “I worry about so many people in that river,” she admitted. “What about all those toxins they found last year? What if you all get sick?”

I walked up the street, past the refurbished train depot that sits like a guardhouse on the edge of downtown, and found a cute little place to eat called JD’s. A sign taped to the window of the restaurant read “Welcome Paddler Georgia Participants.” Inside, a few locals enjoyed French fries and hamburgers, hot dogs and homemade desserts. I watched them, eavesdropping some, as I ate my cheeseburger (so amazingly delicious after a week of slightly warm and damp turkey salad sandwiches). I heard a conversation about a woman losing her job at a local plant. Another table talked about a mutual friend who might be sick. As I paid my bill, I told the waitress I wanted to bring people back that evening for some of the homemade desserts. “That’s fine, hon,” she said. “We’d be happy to have you.” Window-shopping my way back to the campsite, I noticed the welcome paddlers sign taped to many of the doors and windows. I was the only paddler left in town to shop.

People worry these days. They worry about illness, money, jobs, things they can control, and things nobody can. Some in our group operate from an education perspective; they shift into little lectures with the custodial staff or the local Chamber of Commerce ladies about the good this trip does for river awareness. That’s just not ever going to be me. I want the rivers cleaner, too. I guess it just doesn’t feel like my place to come into their town and give them something new to worry about. All I can do is be a polite guest, toss a little money into the local economy, and hope to generate some interest in what goes on between the muddy banks. Because I don’t know anybody who’s got it made, do you?

1 comment:

  1. I love your blogs about Paddle Georgia. I so wish I was on the paddle! But, alas, I am in school and I HAVE to finish my education.

    I think of many of the same things you do. What kind of impact do you have on a town when you stay in tents and pay for your food from the group you're traveling with. Do many of the people from the paddle stay in hotels or are most of them in tents? Other than the influx of people how much money is actually spent in the community?