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.
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.
Stone Mountain Park was Roy’s refuge, relief, workout facility and subject for much of the final 30 years of his life. It was a woodland buffer from the grind of urban life, all the fine particulate matter in the air and the bureaucrats downtown. Those of us who knew him would give anything for another of those walks together through Stone Mountain Park on a breezy day. Post full-time retirement he walked there every day that he could, taking pictures in all seasons and all weather. His second blog Stone Mountain Meanderings is worth your time if you didn’t catch it first time around. This photograph of Stone Mountain Lake at the beginning of 2009 evokes Monet and his water lilies in its painterliness. They were both old men with beards who were familiar with their subject matter, and the brief moments in an average day when nature and weather combine to focus the eye, the hand on the canvas, the camera’s lens.
Two years on it still hardly seems real Doc, that all that would be left are the logbooks and maps, photos and blog posts and memories and laughs and the many, many remembered miles we spent strutting and fretting our way across the back roads and creeks and country churchyards. A headstone in your hometown and a righteous sendoff by your friends were good, but not enough. I still grieve a little every day recalling afternoons whiled away at Ground Zero, digging deep into South African resistance music or the oeuvre of Slim Harpo, tossing off jeers and asides at the ballgame on the TV down the hall. “That’s the Cavs,” your disgusted mutter standing in for every let down anyone ever took in the gut, as time expired. So there’s this photo, from your 2006 Blue Ridge trip, an image of American Pastoral that makes me smile at the thought.
Country Churches were one of Doc’s very favorite subjects. He made sure to visit them(and re-visit favorites) throughout his ramblings. If there was not a national forest handy, lunch at the tailgate would nearly always be in a country churchyard. His church aesthetic for the best photographs were exacting, and very nearly impossible to reach in the time and place he shot most of his photos. This shot, about as Currier and Ives as you can get in 2006, fell short by the length of the two utility wires crossing the picture, a technological affront to the identity of the country church as a simpler, earlier place in his mind’s eye.
Sun was setting, the end of a long day touring back roads in South Georgia, headed for our overnight lodgings in Cordele. Doc was compelled to stop and shoot by hand this picture of a pile of railroad ties.
By 2007, Roy’s vacation road logs had become a model of organization and a data mine into the ecological and aesthetic ebb and thrum of the backwoods he traveled. On May 25, 2007, Day 5 of his annual Blue Ridge ramble, he logged the following botanical observations: cinnamon fern, yellow daylily, fire pink, butterwort, black snakeroot. Wildlife sightings that day were limited to a single box turtle. He took this pic of the North Fork, Cherry River around 5:21pm that afternoon.