June 22, 2023

Georgia is always on my mind

The fascination came early.

Even before I could drive, I was smitten.

Decades later, I am still like a kid in a candy store. I struggle to decide which I like best. That’s why I can never get enough.

When Emily was in pigtails, we would slip through the Altamaha River swamp in a skiff. In a hushed voice, I pointed out the young buck with velvet on his antlers, the tiny wood ducks trailing their mother in the oxbow lake, and the sofa-sized alligator sunning in the mud. She was trying to listen, but she was distracted by the hum of mosquitoes.

Wrinkling her nose, she whined, “Daaaaaad, why does God make mosquitoes, ticks and red bugs anyhow?” Propping the paddle on my knees, I leaned forward and said, “That’s His reminder that we aren’t in Heaven yet.”

I once heard, “All the way to heaven should be heaven.” And if you take time to soak up the majesty of God’s gifts to Georgia, life can be heavenly.

But still, I can’t decide which part of our state I like the best.

If I’m wading through wiregrass, beneath the canopy of longleaf pines, with my eyes fixed on the quivering tail of a bird dog crouched and locked in a point, I think, “It can’t get any better than this.” Over a supper of fried quail and cathead biscuits, I always offer a special blessing of thanksgiving. And ever since my first venture into the blackwater wonderland of the Okefenokee Swamp, I remain in awe.

I’ll never forget an unbelievable night in Atlanta. Our Braves were in the World Series, and three generations of NeSmith boys—Big Dink, Alan, Eric and I—were there and chanting.

There were those times in Sanford Stadium, watching Herschel Walker do herculean things with the pigskin. And even though it didn’t happen in Georgia, how about our Dawgs’ winning back-to-back national championships? But we did witness—in Sanford Stadium, minus the hedges—the night 85,000 roared, “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!” as our women won the soccer gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. How do you beat that?

Well, spend a weekend camping in Rabun County. See the mountain laurel shouting with color, sniff the crisp air and listen to your grandson squeal as he reels in a feisty, walking-on-its-tail rainbow trout. And then savor that moment over a campfire, backlit by a night sky studded with twinkling stars.

Pretty special, huh?

Our family—all 16 of us—love basking in the natural wonders of 

Georgia’s outdoors. Sunrise on the coast of the Golden Isles is a 

special time of day. And it’s an extra special time for our son 

Alan to take his sons, William and Fenn, fishing in the surf of 

Cumberland Island. As soon as all eight of our grandchildren 

could walk, they were holding fishing poles.

When we were 14, Pete Hires and I rode a Trailways bus from Jesup to Augusta to watch the Masters. We marched in Arnie’s Army. The Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, earned his first green jacket. I never return to the Amen Corner, nestled in flaming azaleas, that I don’t find myself back in 1963 and wondering, “What could be more glorious?”

Watching the sunrise over the Atlantic can’t be forgotten, either. Whether you are just outside the breakers of Cumberland Island, catching a trout, or casting a net in a tidal creek, with a bald eagle gliding overhead, few places are more picturesque than our coast. Or how about watching your beautiful daughter say “I do” in Jekyll Island’s historic Faith Chapel?

Oh, my.

And then there was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s first inauguration in Atlanta. My favorite singer, Ray Charles, displayed his genius. Massaging the keys of a black-lacquered Steinway grand, Ray sang my favorite song, “Georgia.”

Yes, yes.

Georgia is always on my mind.

I’m a sucker for small towns, back roads and country stores.

That’s how I found Providence Canyon, snug on the Alabama line. With Tom’s peanuts and a 6-ounce Coke, I marveled at the mammoth orange sun slipping behind Georgia’s version of the Grand Canyon.

In the twilight, I slapped a mosquito on my neck, smiled and thought: “That’s His reminder that we’re not in Heaven yet.”