“This is the most Southern experience I’ve ever had,” my friend Jennifer said. We had paddled in kayaks and paddleboards down Little River from Rope Mill Park in Woodstock and were hanging out on the boats at the foot of Allatoona Falls. Jennifer is Southern – she grew up in Smyrna and then Pickens County – but she has a Korean mother who is very Korean, so she views Southern culture as both outsider and insider.
Allatoona Falls is hidden in a cove near where Toonigh Creek and Little River converge at the eastern flank of Lake Allatoona. You can only get there by boat. Launching from Rope Mill Park, you paddle between the giant concrete pillars of the I-575 bridge, the roar of the cars above competing with the buzz of insects and splash of oars.
At the waterfall, about a dozen kids and grown-ups were clambering around the slippery rocks or lounging in the shallow lagoon at its base. The moss and algae on the rocks form a natural slide the kids were scooching down over and over again with gleeful shrieks.
We were sitting on our boats near the shore when a merry band of partying white college-age guys (and a gal), I was guessing UGA from the red baseball cap the woman wore, paddled up next to us.
We’d seen them on our paddle in, one guy doing flips off of a rope swing into questionably shallow water. One kayak pulled a hibachi on a makeshift raft which appeared to be a white vinyl lawn chair buoyed by foam swim noodles slit in half and jammed onto the arms. The hibachi smoked as it rode down the river, the charcoal already lit and smoldering. Another raft housed a boom box blasting a mix of 80s rock and hip hop that everyone on the river could hear. Twenty-first century Huck Finns.
I was a little worried when they pulled up right next to us. We were different. Shannon and I were two middle-aged white ladies, Jennifer is an Asian-American from Pickens County, and Jennifer’s boyfriend Kai is a biracial tattoo artist with long spirally curls framing a GQ-handsome face.
One of the partyers wore a T-shirt that said “America: Defending Freedom Since 1776,” and another guy was wearing plus-size American flag swimming trunks. The skinny guy who we later found out goes by the name J Beezy Bob (at least on Instagram) was chugging from a bottle of Fireball whiskey.
But sometimes people surprise you. As Toto’s “Africa” rocked the river, they broke out the hot dogs and bratwurst and began to cook on the water. J Beezy Bob offered Kai his bottle of Fireball. Kai took a long pull and handed it back. J Beezy Bob grinned and took another pull himself. A pact had been sealed. J Beezy Bob wanted Kai to know that he was part of his tribe. “Defending Freedom” handed Kai a hot dog, which Kai ate with ritual solemnity. We were all friends on the river.
The guys bonded further over tattoos, after Jennifer noticed that J Beezy Bob had a tattoo of the Hylian Crest from the Legend of Zelda video game, the same tattoo that Jennifer’s brother Kevin had. “It’s nerd shit,” Jennifer confided. J Beezy Bob wanted to know where Kai’s tattoo parlor was so he could come get some ink from him.
Shannon and I climbed to the top of the waterfall and I realized with a shock that there were houses not twenty yards away. The pristine and only-accessible-by-water spot was in someone’s backyard. When I Google-mapped it later, I saw that we were at the back of a subdivision of McMansions called The Falls of Cherokee.
I peed in the woods out there anyway, peeling off my wet bathing suit and squatting stark naked in someone’s backyard. After all, what would Huck have done?
It was Saturday in the Park at Rope Mill. When we came off the river, mountain bikers zipped across the faux-rustic bridge leading to trails and the ruins of the old rope and cotton mill.
Cotton – a different kind of “most Southern experience.” I cringe when I drive past the remaining cotton fields in North Georgia, some of them the exact same fields where hundreds of slaves picked cotton 150 years ago.
When you walk up the trail, you see the foundations of the mill, now tagged with graffiti, and the long stone wall that created a canal through which the water was forced to drive the wooden wheel that powered the rudimentary machines.
Where the water wheel would have been, I scared a grouse, who scolded me with a loud queet queet and landed on a low-hanging branch next to a blue Budweiser bottle lodged on the muddy shore. The grouse looked like a velociraptor with feathers – the size of a small hawk, with a strangely long neck it stretched out as it scolded. The bottle glowed blue in sun and might seem a treasure to someone of the past or the future, who would wonder about the god named Budweiser.
This meshing of time periods – the spandex-clad bikers, the dinosuaresque bird, the 19th century stone ruins, the highway’s massive concrete columns, the roar of cars across 575, the blue beer bottle, the scent of the kudzu’s purple blooms, the river browner than it used to be, but mostly the same.
New South, Old South, Very Old South.
Afterwards, I decided to go Very New South and contact J Beezy Bob on Instagram. This was a much more intimidating adventure for me than kayaking down a river. Social media is for me an unknown landscape, a scary wilderness.
I didn’t have an Instagram account, so I went online and created one, then messaged J Beezy Bob. I bragged about it to my 14-year-old daughter like I was a six-year-old whose training wheels had just come off. She just rolled her eyes.
I asked J Beezy Bob why he and his friends go to the river and what being Southern means to him.
It’s always fun meeting new people and sharing the good times, he wrote. I was born and raised in Georgia and plan on dying here too. He’s planning on getting a new tattoo from Kai as soon as he has the money.
The grouse is a sign that the river is healthy, with an abundance of fish. Well, relatively healthy. Little River, the Etowah and Allatoona are brown because there is so much sediment from development. Lake Allatoona has tested high in recent years for mercury, PCBs, fecal coliform bacteria, and fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. It has at times been in danger of becoming eutrophic, meaning a dead lake, due to algae blooms triggered by the excessive nutrients. The Georgia DNR recommends only eating one large bass a week from Allatoona.
But a fisherman we passed on our paddle was throwing out a net to catch threadfin shad to use as bait. He said he’s been catching good-sized bass near the falls. Clearly the catch has been good for the grouse as well.
The human ecosystem here is also showing vitality. The people out here paddling and biking and hiking and picnicking have remembered some things we have mostly forgotten—not only how to be present to water and trees and wildflowers – but also the camaraderie of the river or the trail. Sharing something, even Fireball and bratwurst.
As it did for Huck and Jim, the river erases the boundaries that usually separate us. The highway world still looms above, oblivious drivers doing 80 in a 65. The Old South still persists, memories of cotton and rope. But on a hot afternoon, we go to the waterfall. We pretend the houses and the highway aren’t there. We ignore the ruins. We eat hot dogs cooked by strangers on a homemade raft.
Thanks to Jennifer Stogner for the details and J Beezy Bob for the photo!