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Clever Girl

More on my road trip earlier this month to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine…

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My final night in New England was in Bennington, Vermont, in the southwest corner of the state. The next morning, I sucked it up and headed south on a succession of interstate highways, down through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia.

At the end of the day, I stopped in Winchester, Virginia, near the north entrance to Shenandoah National Park. I would have an early start on the Skyline Drive.

The next morning was clear and nicely brisk. No one was on duty at the Shenandoah entrance station. A sign read “Pay when you leave the Park.”

I had the road to myself. I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and headed out.

Two minutes later, a young adult black bear emerged from the greenery on the right side of the road about 20 yards ahead. I stopped immediately and grabbed my camera from the passenger seat.

The bear — which turned out to be a female, as you’ll understand directly — glanced at me, then ambled across the road.

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When she reached the grassy strip on left shoulder, she stopped and looked toward me again.

I eased forward, camera at the ready, until I reached her. At that point, my car was paused in the right lane. The bear was 10 feet away on the left side of the road.

Although she showed no aggression, I was apprehensive. Could I romp on the gas and get away if she rushed me? I decided I could.

The bear stood stoically on the grass, looking at me. I took a burst of photos that I knew would be keepers.

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Why she remained there instead of continuing on her way was puzzling. She seemed in no hurry to leave.

But I had my photos, and I figured it was best not to prolong the encounter. I tossed my camera onto the passenger seat and slowly drove on.

Mere seconds later, I watched in my rear-view mirror as a bear cub emerged from the woods and scampered across the road to join mom.

Clever girl. She had been waiting for me to leave, so it would be safe for the youngster to cross the road.

No cars were in sight in ether direction. In fact, I hadn’t seen another car since I entered the park. Undoubtedly, driving backward on the Skyline Drive is illegal, but I put the car in reverse anyway, and I began inching back toward the mama bear and her cub. The two of them sat quietly on the grass at the edge of the road, watching my approach.

This time, for reasons I still don’t understand, I grabbed my cell phone instead of my Nikon. I raised the phone and took three photos.

Two were hopeless blurs. This was the third.

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Thinking back on the episode, it’s obvious why I could never be a professional photographer. Having taken several shots, I became concerned that I was hassling the poor bears, and I felt compelled to go away and leave them alone.

A real photographer would have continued shooting with both cameras, firing off hundreds of shots using a variety of angles and settings.

But, no, I drove away, leaving the bears posing perfectly for God-know-how-many-more awesome photos that I do not have.

What a jerk move.

A few miles south, I arrived at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. It was 9:00 AM, and two female employees were just opening for the day.

I went inside, looked at a map, browsed around the gift shop, and purchased a Shenandoah refrigerator magnet featuring a bear cub.

Betty, I saw a mother bear and two cubs on the way here yesterday,” one employee said. “About a mile south.”

Oh, the cubs are so CUTE!” the other woman gushed. Apparently, everyone loves Shenandoah’s black bears.

When I told them I had bear photos taken 10 minutes earlier, they were thrilled. They fawned* at length over the mother-and-cub photo on my phone.

The bears, the ladies told me, are very mellow. They keep to themselves, but they’re acclimated to cars and people. The mother bears have learned how to deal with cars, and their cubs know to stay hidden until the mom gives the okay to come forward.

Bears, as you may know, are smart creatures, probably on a level with dogs and pigs. Some studies say they have longer memories and are more devoted and attentive as parents.

Judging from her size, the mother bear I encountered was young. The cub probably was her first.

But she already understands people and the park roads, and she knows how to care for her baby. That knowledge will stay with her every season she has cubs.

Clever, indeed.

* Fawned. That’s a pun.

 

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Wicked Week

I just got back from a road trip to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Most of it was new territory for me, so I went slow, took my time. I had a wicked good week.

The only downside to the trip was getting there from Georgia, which meant two long days of miserable Interstate driving. But, once I arrived, rural New England was peaceful, pleasant, clean, and green.

The residents probably would take offense at this, but I saw little difference between the three states. Basically, the terrain, the weather, the architecture, and the accents were all the same.

Everything there has a decided Yankee vibe. An interesting change from back home.

In New England, I noted, Dunkin’ Donuts is like McDonald’s in the rest of the country.

Firewood is for sale everywhere.

And I had the feeling that the locals were enjoying the pleasant summer weather only guardedly and temporarily. They were poised, I sensed, to switch back to winter mode at any time. After stocking up on firewood, of course.

 

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Typical green scene in Vermont. Or maybe New Hampshire.

Having no special agenda, I drove a number of off-the-beaten-path routes (as recommended by my copy of National Geographic’s Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways) and ended up in some interesting places.

In Burlington, Vermont, for example, frivolity reigned.

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Burlington, I discovered, is a major haven for hipsters, hippies, and other free spirits. Back in the 80s, Bernie Sanders was Burlington’s mayor.

The highest peak in the region, Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, is the “home of the world’s worst weather.” The summit is accessible via a harrowing eight-mile auto road, which was extra scary the day I drove it due to dense fog. I took these photos at the top in a chilly rain.

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One of the most magnificent places in the area is Acadia National Park, which takes up most of an island on the coast of Maine. It combines lush greenery with the rocky and majestic Atlantic coast.

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Probably not so serene and idyllic in January during a nor’easter.

Weather wise, this is the most pleasant time of year in New England, so Acadia was maxed out with tourists. Even finding a place to stop and get photos was a challenge. In another month, the crowds of leaf-peepers will triple the traffic.

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The tourist mecca of Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia. It’s a quaint harbor town and home to a sizable lobster fleet. Maine lobsters, they say, are more abundant today than ever before.

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Which brings me to another reason I made the trip: to enjoy an authentic New England lobster roll.

I succeeded. Three times.

FYI, lobster rolls come in two varieties: Connecticut style (served warm with melted butter) and Maine style (served chilled with mayo and a splash of lemon). Most locals prefer the Maine variety, and, in fact, I never came across a place that served them warm.

The first two times I had them, they were delicious, but somehow, a bit lacking. They were stingy on the meat, and the buns were lined with shredded lettuce, which diluted the taste.

Moreover, I had them in restaurant settings, which was all wrong. Too civilized. And the food was prepared out of sight and brought to my table like some ordinary meal.

I wanted genuine. I wanted rustic. I wanted the thing cooked where I could see it. I wanted it served outdoors, on a paper plate, as I assume all self-respecting Maineiacs prefer it.

And, fortunately, I stumbled upon a place that, in my mind, served lobster rolls in the proper manner.

It happened as I drove back to the mainland from Acadia. Up ahead was a small trailer in a gravel parking lot. A large, hand-lettered plywood sign out front read LOBSTERS.

The trailer was surrounded by tables and chairs under awnings, and a dozen people were queued up in a line that disappeared into the trailer. I pulled into the parking lot.

Behind the trailer, teams of people were carrying baskets of lobsters from several pickup trucks to a table behind a row of steaming pots.

Under a canopy, two men handled the cooking. Under another canopy, teams of pickers deftly collected the meat.

After a few minutes in line, I was inside the trailer. A stern, matronly woman with forearms like Popeye took my order: lobster roll, chips, a pickle, and a beer of my choice from the display case. The bill was $14. She took my money and sent me outside to find a table.

While I waited, I wandered around and observed the proceedings.

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Then, dinner was served.

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And wicked good it was. Ample meat, lightly seasoned, nicely chilled, no extraneous filling, and sublime taste.

My beverage, by the way, was from Sea Dog, a brewery in Bangor. I chose Wild Blueberry in honor of the small, sweet New England variety of blueberries currently in season.

I savored the meal slowly and deemed the trip a success.

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Finally, what road trip would be complete without souvenir t-shirts?

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For the return to Georgia, I decided to follow the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina. This would take longer, but it would spare me a lot of Interstate driving.

I was rewarded with an early-morning bear encounter on the Skyline Drive. That story in my next post.

 

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Trip 25

Part 4

Wednesday morning after a hearty Canteen breakfast, I set out east on the Clear Creek Trail. It was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and initially was used by mules coming up from Phantom Ranch, but now is for hikers only.

Halfway up to the Tonto Platform is Phantom Overlook.

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The CCC’s stone bench and other nifty trail work.

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Phantom Ranch from Phantom Overlook.

Half a mile later, at this bend in the trail, you get the first view of the Colorado River looking upstream.

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The trail continues the long climb up to the Tonto Platform. The Park Service claims to perform regular maintenance up there, but it appears to be minimal.

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After a few more bends of the trail, you get this awesome downstream view. Ordinarily, I avoid the word awesome, but in this case, it fits.

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The Black Bridge (lower left) is where the mules cross the river.

The golden cottonwoods at the bend in the river mark the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. Phantom Ranch is along Bright Angel Creek half a mile upstream.

For scale, consider this:

– The Tonto Platform on the south (left) side of the river — the prominent ledge halfway up — is half a vertical mile above the Colorado.

– The South Rim, the highest point in the distance, is a full vertical mile above the river.

A closer view:

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Look close, and you can see the Silver Bridge, where most hikers cross the river. It’s in the shadow just before the Colorado disappears around the last bend.

Three miles from Phantom Ranch, you arrive at what I consider one of the grandest sights in Grand Canyon: the view looking up at Zoroaster Temple.

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I know these things are subjective, but I think Zoro is a phenomenal landform. It’s beautiful and majestic, with amazing symmetry.

And it becomes even more impressive when you are standing close, the arms looming on both sides.

Magical.

Many people observe that being at Grand Canyon is like a religious experience. I certainly see it that way.

As it happens, so does Bob Dylan. These are the closing lines from Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” from 1963:

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

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Early Thursday morning, the mule riders left Phantom Ranch and returned to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail. Starting out, we still had pleasant, shirt-sleeves weather.

But about halfway to the rim, that abruptly changed. Dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped. The coats, gloves, and earmuffs came out. It was the beginning of a storm that would leave Northern Arizona and most of New Mexico in the deep freeze for the next week.

The South Kaibab is an exposed, ridgeline trail, and, especially near the rim, the wind can be brutal. For the last mile of the ride, we sat hunched in our saddles, shivering in an icy, 40-mph wind.

I could feel Twinkie leaning, leaning, leaning against it. I did my best not to interfere.

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So far, I have no specific plans for another trip to Grand Canyon, but the odds are pretty good I’ll go again.

Yes, I do believe I’ll go again.

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Trip 25

Part 3

So, there I was, newly arrived at Phantom Ranch and gloriously happy — joyful, ecstatic, stoked, take your pick — to be there.

Mostly, my thoughts were on the following day, when I planned to hike out the Clear Creek Trail for the day. The hike would be a bit strenuous, a climb of 1,500 feet up to the Tonto Platform and a distance of six miles round-trip, but the views make it worthwhile.

After a steak dinner at the Canteen, I walked down to the boat beach and the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. By the time I got back, night had fallen.

At 8:00 PM, the Canteen reopened, and I staked out one corner of a quiet table. For the next hour, I nursed another beer and leafed through some books from the library. The Canteen has a wall of books devoted to Grand Canyon history and geology.

At 9:00 PM, I said goodnight and headed back to my cabin; I didn’t want to miss the arrival of the full moon. I had experienced a full moon at Phantom before, so I knew what to expect.

To prepare for the moment, I got comfortable on the bench in front of the cabin, opened the container of brandy I had brought along in my saddlebag, and poured two fingers’ worth into a plastic cup. I commenced to sipping and waiting.

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My cabin.

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The view toward the Canteen.

Thanks to a few strategic streetlights and light from the canteen, I could see my surroundings clearly.  Now and then, guests walked by on the main path 20 yards away, headlamps flickering through the foliage. Overhead, the east wall of Bright Angel Canyon was growing steadily brighter as moonrise approached.

In the spirit of the moment, I drank a toast to the River Gods, and whatever other deities might be listening, and I thanked them for my good fortune.

I toasted Phantom Ranch and thanked it for years of incredible memories.

I toasted Twinkie, who had been so calm and cooperative during the morning ride. While I spent Wednesday hiking, Twinkie would be rewarded with the day off.

By the time I toasted Grand Canyon in its entirety, the brandy and the emotion caught up with me, and tears came to my eyes.

Dammit, I thought, You never used to cry at anything. Now look at you.

But the tears flowed because, at that moment, I was blissfully content.

Then, just in time to keep me weeping like a fool, the Moon sprung from behind the rim. Phantom Ranch was bathed in a brilliant, most sublime light.

I gasped, leapt to my feet, and took photos, all forgettable.

As I returned to the bench with a sigh of satisfaction, a slight movement on the right side of the path caught my attention. I peered intently at the spot.

Seconds later, barely 10 yards away, a fox emerged soundlessly from the undergrowth. He paused on the path, looked carefully around, and spotted me.

My presence didn’t seem to concern him. He studied me calmly for a moment and continued on his way.

I blinked in disbelief. The incident was almost surreal. Had I imagined it?

Of course not. A passing fox just looked you in the eye.

Blubbering anew, I raised my cup and toasted the fox.

The next morning at breakfast, I told a staff member about the encounter. I knew ringtail cats live around Phantom Ranch, and you spot them occasionally, but I wasn’t aware of a fox population.

Yes, she said, foxes do reside at Phantom. What I saw was a gray fox. They’re quiet, harmless, and fairly common. The Park Service is especially fond of them, she noted, because they hold down the rodent population.

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In my next and final Trip 25 post, my hike along the Clear Creek Trail.

 

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Trip 25

Part 2

On Tuesday at 7:00 AM, we mule riders assembled at the corral at the top of Bright Angel Trail. The wranglers gave us instructions, assigned us a mule, and adjusted our gear. We were ready for the trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon.

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At 7:30 AM, we started the 10-mile ride to Phantom Ranch.

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The most important bit of advice from the wranglers: trust your mule.

For practically the entire trip, they told us, you’ll be riding uncomfortably close to the edge. Trust your mule. Avoid the temptation to lean away from the edge; doing so will cause the mule to compensate and lean toward it.

In case you’re wondering, mules are not the “easy way” into Grand Canyon. Unless you’re a seasoned rider, a mule trip is almost as strenuous as hiking.

Riding uses muscles you didn’t know were there. And, especially on the trip down, it isn’t easy to stay in the saddle. You aren’t lashed down, and nothing says you can’t go flying over the handlebars.

But I hung on, and I trusted my mule, and five hours later, we arrived.

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With a groan, I climbed down from my faithful steed, Twinkie.

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I dropped off my gear at my cabin (at right below, across from the Canteen).

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After a celebratory beer, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photos.

When we left South Rim that morning, the temp was 35 degrees. At Phantom Ranch, it was 72, calm, and sunny.

That’s fairly typical of the Canyon floor in winter, because all that rock collects and radiates the heat of the sun.

This also explains why summer nights at Phantom sometimes remain above 100 degrees.

Within an hour, the muscles in my legs had recovered from being astride a mule for half a day. I wasn’t wincing and hobbling around any longer, and I was ready to explore.

For starters, I stopped at the mule corral and said hello to Twinkie.

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In Part 3, I drink a toast to multiple deities under the light of a full moon.

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Trip 25

Part 1

When I started this blog in 2009, among the first stories I posted was Bliss, a recollection from my childhood about the magic of waking up at the beach and savoring the sounds, sights, and smells of the moment.

Well, last month I was blessed with a similar magic moment, and it happened, fittingly, at Grand Canyon, my go-to vacation spot for lo these many years.

Ah, Grand Canyon. I certainly have a thing for the place. My December trip was visit #25.

My family and friends see this as something of an obsession — harmless and amusing, but a bit irrational.

Not really. I simply discovered a place that fascinates me, pleases me, speaks to me — and I’m in the process of exploring it.

Every trip has been unique. Carefully planned to be that way. It hasn’t been like, say, going to the Lincoln Memorial or the Bronx Zoo 25 times.

Allow me to elaborate.

Trip #1 in 1994 was a one-week raft trip down the Colorado River. Trip #2 in 1995 was a two-week raft trip.

Trip #3 in early 1996 was a hike to Phantom Ranch, the guest ranch/lodge on the floor of the Canyon. Trip #4 in late 1996 was a hike from North Rim to South Rim.

Over the years, I’ve hiked in Havasu Canyon and Paria Canyon. I’ve camped twice at Toroweap in the remote western region. I’ve taken four river trips and four mule trips. I’ve backpacked on the Tonto Platform. I’ve ventured off-trail in some crazy places.

I’ve hiked the Canyon with my sons, separately and together. I’ve gone rim-to-rim twice. During the course of all that, I’ve stayed at or passed through Phantom Ranch, one of the most terrific places on earth, 14 times.

And no two of those trips were alike. None.

Long ago, I promised myself that when the thrill is gone, I’ll be done with the place. If the day comes when I don’t get butterflies about going, or if the hikes and the scenery seem repetitious, or if I stand at South Rim contemplating Cheops Pyramid or Zoroaster Temple and my heart isn’t in my throat, I won’t go back.

But, having just returned from there, I can report that the thrill is not gone. Nothing about it was ho-hum or repetitious. I’m still exhilarated by the sheer grandness of Grand Canyon.

My December trip was built around a mule ride to Phantom Ranch. I booked the trip in winter because in the off-season, you’re allowed to stay two nights. That gives you an extra day to hike, explore, and enjoy the Grand Canyon vibe.

As a further incentive, mule riders stay in private cabins — unlike hikers, who either stay at the campground or in one of the dormitories (two dorms for men, two for women, 10 beds per dorm).

To fully appreciate this story, you need to know a few things about Phantom Ranch and how it functions.

The place is, quite literally, a desert oasis. It’s rustic, and it requires genuine effort to reach, but it’s perfectly comfortable once you get there.

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Phantom Ranch consists of a campground, cabins and dorms for the staff and guests, the Canteen where meals are served, a ranger station, mule corrals, a heliport, a boat beach for river rafters, and assorted support facilities (water treatment plant, laundry, maintenance sheds, and so on).

The facility was built in 1922 where Bright Angel Creek meets the Colorado River. The Kaibab Trail, which runs from North Rim to South Rim, passes through the spot.

At any given time, the population at Phantom is about 100 people, give or take.

The center of activity is the Canteen, which serves breakfast and supper, provides box lunches for the hikers, and sells supplies, snacks, and souvenirs.

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Nightly from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, it becomes your friendly neighborhood tavern.

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So, there you have it. In Part 2, my trip gets underway with a mule ride down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch.

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Mr. Dynamite

Last month, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, exploring the city. I went simply out of curiosity. I knew very little about the place.

We Smiths, you see, are from Savannah, and we always dismissed Augusta as that other cotton town upstream on the Savannah River.

Silly us. As I discovered, Augusta is an interesting and attractive place.

But it wasn’t always thus. In the decades after World War II, the city had become seedy and rundown — bedeviled by trash, brothels, strip clubs, and the shells of empty mills and factories. Finally, in the 1980s, the city fathers acted.

Augusta invested heavily in cleaning up and modernizing the riverfront and the downtown district. Former factory buildings became condos. The worst of the strip clubs were zoned out of business. The brothels, I assume, went underground.

Augusta built Riverwalk, a beautiful city park that runs for a dozen blocks atop the levee and along the river.

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An art museum was built at one end of Riverwalk, a history museum at the other. Most of the downtown streets were landscaped and prettified.

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The key to understanding Augusta is geography. The city was built at the “fall line,” where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. This is the spot where upstream navigation on the Savannah River ends.

At the history museum, you learn that Augusta’s economy was founded on tobacco and later thrived on cotton and textiles.

You learn about the construction in 1845 of the Augusta Canal, which starts at the fall line and flows south through the city. For years, the canal generated power for factories.

And, no surprise, a large part of the history museum is devoted to the life and career of Augusta luminary James Brown.

Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite.

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Brown was born into poverty across the river in South Carolina in 1933. When he was five, he and his family moved to Augusta, where they lived in a brothel run by his aunt.

Brown had a tough childhood, and he was incarcerated by age 16. But he prevailed. And even though life knocked him around at regular intervals, he went on to gain fame and fortune in true Horatio Alger style.

Today, one of Augusta’s major downtown streets is James Brown Boulevard. The civic center complex is James Brown Arena. Nearby, in James Brown Plaza, is a life-size bronze statue of Brown at the microphone, wearing his signature cape.

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The plaza is a favorite spot for tourist photos.

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As it happens, the statue is across the street from K’s Buffalo Wings, where I had stopped for lunch. I emerged from K’s, wiping hot sauce from my beard while trying not to drop my lemonade, and walked over to the plaza.

The spot was shady, but hot, this being Augusta in June. Occupying the benches around the statue were half a dozen black guys ranging in age from 20s to 60s. Two were eating lunch, a few were chatting, one was reading. They all looked up as I approached, but quickly lost interest.

At the time, I was the only tourist in the plaza. I took photos of the statue from various angles, trying to avoid getting people and traffic in the shots. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, a voice behind me said, “No offense, man, but you don’t look like a James Brown fan.”

I turned around. It was a young man in his mid-20s, holding a takeout box of K’s chicken wings. He was neatly dressed, probably an office worker on his lunch hour.

“Well, I’m not a huge fan,” I said, “But he really had talent. He was quite an entertainer. I saw him at a concert in Macon once, back in the 60s. ”

“For real? You saw James Brown back when he was young?”

“Yeah, I was in college in Athens, and a few of us drove to Macon to see him. I was in my teens. He was about 30, I guess. Really in his prime. He was amazing.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “I saw him on stage a few times before he died. But he was pretty old, you know? Not James Brown like in the old days.”

“I don’t remember too much about the concert,” I said. “It was so long ago. But he was a trip — so much energy. Dancin’, struttin’, and sweatin’. One guy followed him around the stage to wipe his brow.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah, yeah, the cape routine. He falls to his knees, he’s exhausted, and they put the cape around his shoulders.”

“That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Man, I wish I coulda seen him in those days. I sure do.”

“If you’d seen him, you’d be old like me. You don’t wish that.”

“No, but I sure envy you seein’ him.”

The conversation stalled. Then the young man asked, “You from around here?”

“I live over by Athens. I just came to see a little of James Brown’s Augusta.”

“Well, you enjoy. Nice talkin’ to you, man.”

He returned to his lunch. I walked back to my car.

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Here is the man himself, live in 1964, performing the cape routine.

 

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