There could not be a mountain back roads run with Doctor Flowers without a fair amount of Toots And The Maytals to play as part of the soundtrack along the way. Frederick Nathaniel Toots Hibbert was a ska and reggae originator that both of us preferred to Bob Marley at the head of our Reggae Pantheon. Doc had most records Toots had released, and several more that were probably released without Toots’ permission, culled from record stores and thrift-shops. Collecting music was hard work in those days, pre-internet. Toots Hibbert enjoyed a long and durable career as singer, songwriter, and force of nature. We played his music at Doc’s Memorial Service. Toots released his final record, Got To Be Tough on August 28, 2020. He died of COVID-19 on September 11. The unspeakable tragedy of his loss is made sharper by the fact that Got To Be Tough kicks ass and is as relevant musically and lyrically as anything he put out, in over a nearly 60 years of recording. However you might listen to music, go search for it and play it all the way through. It will be better time spent than watching the news or liking a funny meme. I listen to it and think of better times for all of us. I know Doc would’ve loved it, and we would’ve mourned Toots’ passing together, either at Ground Zero with a UT Women’s game silently playing out on the TV in the background or riding slowly along some county road in North Georgia, winding through the early morning gloaming, Doc beating rhythm on the steering wheel of the ‘Ho, saying “damn, Toots”. Time is growing short for us all. I just wish Doc and Toots had gotten a little more of it. Doesn’t seem like much to ask, looking back.
I had to burn some leave time so at the end of June I fled home and hearth and my pandemic routine for a long swing through South Georgia, looking to capture a Roy Burke back roads trip vibration to sooth my soul and slow my velocity. We lost Doc five years ago this month. The timing seemed appropriate. I traveled some 900 miles in three days, from the Kolomoki Indian Mounds outside of Blakely in Early County in the Southwest corner of the state, to the eastern and western approaches to the Okefenokee Swamp. I looped through flat Georgia farmlands and stopped for roadside pecan candies and watermelon and peaches. I beheld the Legendary Folkston Funnel and I paid my respects at Jackie Robinson’s Birthplace, on an obscure vine-tangled ridge-line at the edge of Grady County, near the Florida border. I picked the backroads as best I could, and tried to make time to document the journey with my trusty crappy Android phone camera. I brought along Doc’s old county maps to log, but also updated my navigation techniques using Google Maps and PolarSteps.
Over the course of three days there were a few moments that I was able to commune deeply with his spirit. In particular the beginning of day two, early morning out of Valdosta, fortified by Daylight Donuts, I headed across what I had figured beforehand was the crux of the run, State Route 94. It runs from Valdosta to St. George, across the most remote section of Georgia, briefly becoming Florida State Route 2. As I approached the crossroads village of Statenville in Echols County, I spied a public boat ramp at the Alapaha River crossing.
I stopped to take a few photos of the meandering, iced-tea colored water, soaking up an eco-system far removed from the urban generica monoculture I had come to shake off of my frontal lobe. It wasn’t Doc and his truck this time, just me and Scarlett the Honda. But he was close by, snickering at my pitifully limited camera. The Alapaha runs some 200 miles through South Georgia and Northern Florida, where it eventually flows into the Suwanee, then into the Gulf of Mexico. Doc would have approved of it’s calm dark slide through this mostly unspoiled place. It was my moment of Doctor Flowers satori.
Later that day in Folkston, on the other side of the Okefenokee, I took a picture of a window-door hybrid.
On the morning of day three, taking a county road in Tift County, I came upon the crossroads of Chula, Georgia. I actually had some good light. Doc would’ve enjoyed Jones Peanut Co.
For those of us who shared in his world until June 2015 it’s been a hole in our lives where our cup of smartness and nature and water and science and music and photography and back-road trips and quintessential curmudgeonliness used to be filled to the brim. I have intermittently tried to summon him up through his work here at doctorflowersredux. Harold and I have made several road trips in homage to Doc, tracing his maps with our memories. There have been some moments where we summoned up the right Doc Vibe, but many others where we realized that you can’t ford the same mountain creek twice, that our map skills and memories and time marching on and another new fucking Dollar Store at the country crossroads makes it hard to grasp, those moments with Doc on the road, the truck stopped as he grabbed his trusty camera for a couple of shots and wry commentary. So this was my new way to summon him up, June 2020.
From Roy Burke’s spiral bound secretary’s notebook, the second of three he filled up on his Blue Ridge vacation from 1986: Saw a deep red barn, contrasted against a green hillside, with a winding road. The shot didn’t pan out; however, I found my first wild basil–a neat little lilac-colored mint with flowers growing in bristly clusters in the leaf axils. And, next to the truck, the Common St. John’s Wort, an uncommonly pretty 5 regular with yellow petals, dotted on black around the margins. I looked and simply smiled…Over in that big clump of trees there must be a thousand crows, well maybe 8 or 10, mobbing, squabbling, and kicking up a general racket. I’m inclined to sit here for a while. Keep my wildflower books and notes up front, now; before in the briefcase in the back of the truck. Each time–tailgate down, briefcase open, briefcase shut, tailgate closed. And the Minolta in travel-ready position. The longer the camera stays zipped in its bag, the less inclined I am to stop and seize a quick opportunity.
Sittin in the shade of a big maple, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. 1220. Cool, soft breeze. This, the Western part of Augusta County radiates peacefulness. An orderly graveyard across the road, one acre, wrapped in black wrought iron fence, deeply rolling, mixed farmland dotted with well-kept old buildings. People stop to ask if I’m o.k., and seem sorta disappointed to hear that I don’t need to be aided. Green, everywhere deep greens with a thousand textures. Glowing in the midday sun. To the west, running north and south as far as I can see, foothills of the George Washington National Forest. Covered in a mosaic of regrowth. Patterns. Inviting…Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my vacation here.
I was probably 24-25 years old when Doctor Flowers first showed me Noontootla Creek. It’s been my favorite place in nature within(relatively) easy reach ever since. It rolls down between mountains in and out of rocky, wild rhododendron-shaded grottos before it empties into one of those perfect little Appalachian Mountain Valleys that dot North Georgia in out of the way places down county roads to which Doc was drawn over and over again. The first time he took me there it was a full scale expedition in his recently acquired proto-SUV The Beagle, loaded to the walls with every manner of supplies and repast. Checklist that included gumboots, comprehensive photo gear, chips ahoy, vast and curated music selections via his cassette tape library, maps, rain-gear, sliced turkey sandwiches with cheese and mayo on buns, maybe sometimes a little green leafy material and accoutrements for maximum mind expansion, mixed nuts. It was a perfect crystal blue Spring day in the mid 1980s in my memory, pollen washed out of the hills by a day’s mountain rain before, listening to everything from Hearts of Space to Toots and The Maytals on the slow, deliberate ride into the mountains. When he reached the right spot along Forest Service Road 58 and hove to in the Beagle, I followed him up FS58 on foot as he walked along the road reading the flora along the road-bank aloud as sure as I would read the sports page. He identified the early Spring wildflowers one by one. Doc knew nearly all of their names and nicknames, stopping occasionally to go to the guidebook or check off one new to his current year’s list(to later be compared to a second, lifetime, master list). We went there many times over the years, during every season. We scattered some of his ashes there in a driving, crying rainstorm at Three Forks in 2016 to mark his passing. Oddly enough Doc didn’t save many photographs of the creek itself in his archives, so I present here a pic of the road along which we walked that first time, as well as another one of a violet in flower, close by the creek.
Over the years I accompanied Doctor Flowers to Noontootla Creek maybe 8-10 times. I’ve also taken friends and family there in the decades since to splash in the creek, hike, eat, drink and love. Every now and then I’ll just take off on a Tuesday and head for the hills, well past Ellijay and into the watershed of the Mighty Toccoa, winding the roads until they turn to gravel then winding them some more, until I come to that same spot along the Noontootla Creek. I’ll just stay a while, forest bathing, glad to be at my special place. But I’m always reminded of my friend who found found the Noontootla first and showed it to me. Thanks Doc.
The best back-road trips with Doctor Flowers aka Roy Burke usually included forays into small towns, which if they rated, featured some weathered windows and doors for Doc to suss out and capture on his trusty camera(in later years a digital Nikon). The entrepreneurial dreams and aesthetic choices he loved to capture were those of the independent hangers-on in the near-abandoned blocks nearby the square. The actual commerce in many these places had long before decamped to the bypass or the interstate, plopped down in a late 20th century shopping mall tied to the Wal Mart, or the food gas bathroom node at the interstate crossings of Generic America. Left behind are often the ruins of the glory days when everyone ‘came to town’ to trade, to gossip, or in the case of this would-be club, sip a Bud Light. He took this photo on one of our last Christmas week runs together, in 2013. Our ultimate goal was to see and feel the mysterious Ohoopee Dunes, which we saw and documented the next day outside of Swainsboro. But towards end our first day out we found ourselves in Downtown Louisville, Georgia, with the perfect winter afternoon light to hunt some windows and doors. The uneven-ness of it all, the land and carpentry and paint job, the Rothko-like color and line juxtaposition, the light fixture from another century standing guard, the ghostly Bud Light light, with the battered OPEN sign putting the lie to it all–it’s a quintessential Roy Burke photo.
Crows were one of Doc’s favorite creatures. They are one of the easiest birds to watch because they live almost everywhere, from downtown to the forest and most places in between. Their raucous calls(crows) to one another always seem to be delivered with the spirit of the back-row heckler or inveterate smart ass. A regular funny highlight of our back roads runs was the sight of a diligent crow or two(or three) patiently hopping out of the state route right of way as the cars passed, then heading right back for some tasty roadkill. “Must be something good there, Rob.” “I think so, Doc. Good as the Golden Corral to a crow.” At one point Doc purchased and learned to use a PS Olt crow call. I admired it so much that he bought one for me as a Christmas gift one year. But you have to be pretty savvy to try to call up/fool a crow. They are legendarily smart, shown able at various points to remember people, give gifts, and use tools. Your best bet is to lean flat against a large tree trunk and act inconspicuous as you blow the call. Most of the time the crow will spot you and call you out for the piss-poor crow imitator you are. Every now and then you can fool them into returning a companionable call, beginning an authentic crow call and response, but not often. Corvus brachyrhynchos is no fool.
Strangely enough in Doctor Flowers’ photo archives there aren’t too many pictures of crows. The one above is the only one on hand, although he kept a dozen or more archival pictures of crows from other photographers. Now-days when I spy a crow I think fondly of my friend and usually start up a conversation with the crow, an animal spirit stand-in for Doctor Flowers. “How’s it going today, Doc?” The crows seem to cut me some slack, not thinking me crazy. I’d like to think if there is a heaven, it is much like that Dade County, Georgia transmission tower shown above, my best friends and loved ones gathered on the cross beams, cackling and crowing to each other, no more care for the world below.
Doc had a soft spot for abandoned, rural gas pumps. We discussed the logistics of acquiring one and putting in the back yard at Ground Zero but things never quite lined up. He took many pictures of them, though, including this one in Hancock County, Georgia in 1998.
Ground Zero was Doc’s home base, his safe place, his patch of land, suburban retreat. He bought the house on Brasac Drive in Stone Mountain in the late 1980s when the neighborhood was still under construction, choosing the house and lot because it overlooked the wetlands on the fringe of Hairston Park. He could look out the back of the house and see woods and swamp, not other suburban houses. After he moved in he made a grand landscaping plan(seen above) called Loco-Motion/The Three Year Plan. Thanks to Paul Lamarre for unearthing this drawing to be seen here. Much of the plan Doc created, sweating away countless hours weeding and digging on days off, the physical labor an antidote to too many days sitting at a desk or in a conference room. He built a morning glory net over the living room picture window and enlisted some friends to pour a concrete(not flagstone) patio out back. It was his shelter and the place where he spent many of his happiest years. I and his closest friends and neighbors were lucky to spend time there with him, too. The house is still there, but Ground Zero only exists as an idea anymore, in drawings like this one, the busy, deep mind of Roy Burke spilling out on the page again, a marvel.
Around Christmas time, Doc and I would get together, sometimes with Paul, for a holiday toast, a meal, exchange gifts. We would listen to Bell Wringer, his Christmas music mixtape. Sometimes I would stay the night in the guest room at Ground Zero, preparatory to an early morning run into the mountains or down to South Georgia the next day. I always read before I go to sleep, and the light in the guest room came from one of these lamps. He had a few in the upstairs guest rooms. They aren’t antiques or museum pieces, just a functional little lamp with an unmistakable low-wattage yellow lightbulb. I keep one by the front door today, and the atmosphere it creates reminds me a little bit of good times with my friend, especially around this time of year.
Doc loved the Blue Ridge Parkway. It sang him a siren song of beauty, majesty, sound engineering and good governance. In honor or Rev. Reheis’ August pilgrimage the length and breadth of the ‘Parkway, here are three shots on film of S curves near Big Spy Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia near mile post 26, taken last century.