With a population of fewer than twenty thousand, the embarkation point for Cumberland Island is a sleepy southern town named, St. Marys. The drive down from Savannah was short—only one and half hours. Our rental house again suited us perfectly—a cozy, two-bedroom cottage stocked with all the essentials, lovely porch, even a pair of bikes.
As in Savannah, we slid comfortably into our own rhythms. We cycled around town. Carrie found a serene, secluded spot to do yoga by the river. I wandered main street and lurked in the cemetery, listening to birds and perusing cracked tombstones until nightfall, when I splashed home through the tide as it crept up the side streets ...
I had first glimpsed Cumberland Island in a magazine piece about JFK Jr. And Carolyn Bisset’s wedding. The photos of the location captivated me. They revealed an alluring, mysterious landscape—a wild tangle of trees slung between narrow expanses of windswept, golden sand; the natural habitat of wild horses, reptiles, winged and shelled creatures of all kinds. I knew that it was a place I needed to see for myself one day.
Early in the morning, I checked in at the Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor’s Center in St. Mary's where a ranger gave a short orientation before leading our small group to the Cumberland Queen, the ferry that would float us 45 minutes downriver to the island. Onboard, I chatted with Tom, a structural engineer from Charleston who often visited the area. He reminded me of the importance of having two things when spending a day on the island: water and insect repellant. Luckily, the tiny concession stand on the boat sold both.
We landed at Sea Camp Dock and I rented a bike that looked like a 1950's beach cruiser and handled like an 8-year-old's BMX bike. Upon this fine machine (with legs pumping wildly and arms stretched like Gumby), I rode up and down the palm-fringed dirt road that bisected the heart of the island. I went north first, to Grayfield Beach where I attempted to portage a rust-colored pool of water to reach the ocean and was promptly swathed in a cloud of biting flies. Oops. Tattooed with welts, I retreated to the tree line and doused myself with the bug spray Tom had so wisely advised me to buy but that I had somehow forgotten to apply. Maybe I should go south, I thought. To the Dungeness ruins—an abandoned shell of the opulent estate once inhabited by the Carnegies.
My wheels crunched solidly up the dirt path toward the once-grand gates of the Dungeness mansion. An empty picnic table beckoned beneath the shade of a massive oak and I stopped to eat lunch. Afterwards, I lay back and stared up at the dome of large, moss-draped branches. All around me rose the drone of insects, hypnotic and soothing—like the evening sounds of summer camp or dusk in an Iowa cornfield. I nearly dozed off when the binaural swell crescendoed in a sudden wave, cresting and plummeting with such a force that it gave me chills. I sat up and switched on my field recorder.
There I stayed—still and listening. Letting my ears and pulse rise and fall on the tide of the insect chorus.
Finally, I packed up and wandered the ruins: a smattering of statues, anemic walls and jagged foundations still standing after a fire ravaged the estate in 1959. I was struck by a chord of loneliness—neither good nor bad. The indifference of time, perhaps, starkly illustrated by the picked-clean bones of a once-opulent grounds.
I pedaled down a palm-lined slope and past abandoned out-buildings, rattling over damp, rutted earth to the tidelands where waves of tiny crabs scuttled in a giant, glittering carpet.
At the marsh's edge, I abandoned my bike and stood motionless at a cusp of trees, conscious only of the thing that I had come to see—a band of wild horses, standing in the loam, feeding. Three adults and one foal. I watched them through the shimmering grass, lost in a sort of joyful ether as more horses approached from the shore. The lead horse walked proudly with a chieftain's gate, a bright, white bird riding on its back. They nickered at me and I gave them a wide birth but stayed for some time. Just me, the windy marsh and eight wild horses ...
Carrie and I found each other at Sea Camp Beach in the beautiful, cloudless afternoon. She had arrived on a later boat, wandered the trails and found an idyllic place in the sand to meditate and soak in the golden heat. We were both enamored with the magic of the island and talked nonstop on the boat ride back to the mainland.
At our "favorite" Greek restaurant near the marina, we collapsed at a sunny table, burnished by the sun and buoyant from our adventures. Later, we pedaled home in the soft, indigo haze of dusk, gravel crunching beneath our wheels until we finally slowed to a stop in front of the cozy, little bungalow on Norris Street. Our home away from home in quaint, coastal Georgia ...
More photos of St. Mary's ...
Cumberland Island ...