SAVANNAH—It’s hard not to love this town. It’s easy on the eyes, colorful, and there are flowers everywhere.
There are also sweaty tourists, out and about, on foot, exploring Georgia’s oldest city on a sunny afternoon. I wander among them, keeping at least fifty feet away. My surgical mask on.
For the past few weeks I’ve been rediscovering America. I’ve had friends email and ask why I’m on a road trip during a worldwide pandemic.
The answer is because I was starting to lose my mind at home. After almost a hundred months indoors, I had grown deeply lethargic. Maybe even depressed. A friend of mine recommended a change in scenery.
At first I was apprehensive about traveling, but then I figured: “You know what? My mental health is a wreck, and if I don’t do something about it, who will?”
This American tour has been good medicine. I’ve learned a lot, too. The first thing I’ve learned is that Georgia is hotter than the fires of hell. It is 102 degrees outside today.
This is actually a valuable lesson because it reminds me of how artificial our society can be. We modern Americans, for instance, have air conditioning, non-stop digital entertainment, gourmet take-out, and round-the-clock Walmarts where you can buy spray cheese at any odd hour of the night.
But when you visit historic towns like Savannah, you get a sense of how life was three centuries ago. And it dawns on you that our modern electrified society isn’t necessarily the “real” world.
Early Americans’ lives were filled with real-world nature, agriculture, and back-cracking work. They were serenaded by crickets, backyard chickens, frogs, and distant pianos; we have car stereos and electric lawnmowers. They brewed rainwater-and-dandelion tea; I eat spray cheese on Fritos.
My wife and I walk over to Oglethorpe Square for a look around. The place is filled with young tourists seated on benches, all playing on their smartphones.
It’s bizarre to see so many people wandering the ruins of history, but staring at little glowing devices.
There is a tour guide nearby, giving his spiel to a small crowd. I overhear him say that this city is where our country’s first crops were tested. Long ago a little patch of local dirt named Trustees’ Garden was lush with our nation’s very first strains of cotton, peaches, rice, grapes, mulberry trees, and olives.
“Savannah’s soil,” says the tour guide, “was the beginning of American agriculture. This is where it all began, folks.”
I can’t explain why, but I’m overcome with an urge to grab a handful of dirt, just to feel it. After all, the cotton shirt I’m wearing right now traces its heritage back to strains of cotton first grown within this Georgia earth.
I wait until nobody is looking, I stoop low and touch the warm soil. That’s when I lock eyes with a small pug doing his business a few feet from me. He, too, is showing deep appreciation for this earth.
After a full day of walking, my wife and I rest our feet and grab coffee in a little café. It’s a nice joint. Inside, everyone is wearing surgical masks.
A large family enters the place. They are loud, young, and rowdy. The family’s kids are chasing each other, knocking over napkin dispensers, shouting. And here is the best part: they’re all coughing violently. Everyone in this family is obviously sick. And maskless.
The manager is calm, but firm. He escorts the un-masked family outside and gives the father a brief lecture. The family leaves, but not quietly. The father shows his No-No Digit to the manager and storms off, still wiping snot from his nose.
When the manager reenters the building, we the customers don’t know whether to applaud him or build a bronze statue in his honor. We are grateful for what he did, but this new normal feels so weird.
My wife and I tour the rest of the city until we develop blisters on our feet. And even though it’s almost suppertime the ambient temperature is still 102 degrees. It’s not hard to figure out how this town got its name.
We hit the River District. Many of the alleys are paved with stones that arrived from England in the 1730s. These English river rocks have seen it all. From carriage wheels and Model Ts, to Toyotas and happy little pugs.
But I think what I like most about Savannah is how tough these people are. This town had a hard time just getting started. The fact it’s still here is a bona fide miracle.
The whole city nearly burnt to the ground. Twice. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, after the fire of 1820—when the downtown was still covered in soot—yellow fever started killing off half the population.
Over at Colonial Park Cemetery are mass graves from the outbreak. The headstones are nothing short of sobering. Many mark the graves of infants.
But in some strange way, it’s comforting to know that our ancestors faced the same problems we have. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me feel less alone.
We wander along the river, watching the distant boats. I meet an elderly man dressed in ragged clothes. He smells like gin. He’s braiding decorative roses from palmetto fronds, humming to himself.
He hands me a rose for no apparent reason. I am caught off guard by this. I offer to pay him for his beautiful work, but he says he doesn’t want money.
I ask why he’s being so generous to a stranger like me.
“Don’t need a reason to be nice,” he says.
Well. I wish the whole world felt the same way they do here.