My Southern Excursion, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the first half of my recent trip to Georgia. I headed south to visit my brother and, suddenly finding myself with unexpected free time, I decided to visit the Gulf Coast. Then, after spending a week touring Fort Benning and the surrounding Columbus, GA area, it was time for me to head north again. Thankfully, I wasn’t in much of a hurry.

In light of my obsession with federally-protected areas, I planned my return trip with an eye towards visiting as many National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, and so on as was feasible. To that end, I set out for Macon, GA and the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. As it turned out, however, my visit coincided with the refuge’s annual hunting season (bizarre, I know), which meant that without a special permit, I could venture no further than the parking lot. After taking a few pictures to prove that I had at least made an effort to visit Bond Swamp, I found my way to Interstate 16 and set off towards Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, on the other side of Macon. My plans were interrupted, though, when I noticed a familiar green mark on my Google Map.

Having taken a number of road trips already this year, I have become quite familiar with the various colors Google Maps uses to mark different points of interest, particularly the shade of green that denotes preserved areas. As one heads northwest on I-16 towards Macon, a small green area appears just before entering the city limits. Recognizing that I’ve just driven two hours through rural Georgia only to find my effort wasted, I pulled off at exit 2 and made my way towards the green spot, which I had identified as Ocmulgee National Monument. Had it not been for Ken Burn’s recent documentary “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea,” I would not have known that National Monuments are the predecessor to the National Parks designation, nor would I have been aware that the fight to declare certain areas National Monuments led to the creation of the National Park system. With these things in mind, and not wanting to waste a drive through central Georgia, I stopped at Ocmulgee’s Visitors Center for a map and made my way into the monument.

As I quickly discovered, Ocmulgee National Monument was created to protect what is left of a series of earthen mounds. Dating back to 9000 BC, the mounds were used by Native Americans for various religious and ceremonial purposes, with many of the mounds supporting structures of some form. After wandering the paths through the adjoining swamps, I climbed Great Temple Mound, which affords views of much of Ocmulgee, and even rises high enough to provide glimpses of downtown Macon. According to the Park Service’s literature, structures at one point stood atop this mound, though it is now little more than a grassy field. Under a clear, blue sky and mild temperatures, the tranquility of Great Temple Mound provided a nice juxtaposition to the busyness of the nearby city. After taking a moment to enjoy the view and photograph every possible direction, I descended from the mound and headed towards Funeral Mound. While not nearly as impressive as Great Temple Mound, I was struck by the notion that several hundred early Native Americans are likely buried under what remains of the mound. Imposing even in its now-reduced state, a funeral ceremony performed on the mound must have been quite impressive. Besides that, the sheer size of the mounds that remain at Ocmulgee, and the fact that heavy machinery did not exist when these structures were built, further demonstrates their importance. From the parking area at Funeral Mound, I was finally able to take in both the Great and Lesser Temple Mounds in their entirety, and the sheer size of Great Temple Mound truly does make one wonder how the structures were created. Having reached the boundary of the monument, it was now time to make my way to the next bit of natural beauty my travels would encounter.

Being nearly two o’clock in the afternoon, I began to wonder if I would make it out of Georgia in one day. After all, it had taken me only about four hours to cross the state during the first leg of my trip. With another National Wildlife Refuge to visit before heading to the forests of Tennessee and North Carolina, I was once again grateful that I lacked any sort of plan or timeframe for returning to New England.

After a short time back on I-16, I once again found myself wandering through the woods of Georgia in search of Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. My hope was that, unlike Bond Swamp, Piedmont would be open to the public. To my great relief (and contrary to the signs on the Visitors Center doors), the refuge was open.

Unlike many of the refuges I’ve visited previously, the 35,000 acres that comprise Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge are interspersed with private property. As a result, it is not uncommon to come across a house, or even a church, while traversing the 56 miles of unpaved roads that the Fish & Wildlife Service maintains. The roads through the refuge provide a unique opportunity to observe wildlife from one’s vehicle, a welcome situation considering the bug population I encountered. This refuge is also somewhat unique in that, due to the demand for cotton in the 19th century, much of the land in this part of Georgia was clear-cut to make way for cotton production. When the refuge was created in 1939, the Fish & Wildlife Service’s first task was to reforest the land and repopulate the new forest with wildlife. Because of these circumstances, driving through the refuge exposes visitors to relatively young loblolly pines and hardwood trees, along with wide expanses that trees have yet to fill. While I did not encounter any wildlife (gigantic winged insects notwithstanding), having grown up in a part of the country known for its dense, old-growth forests, I deeply enjoyed exploring this young forest. Adding to my enjoyment, navigating the roads through Piedmont proved an interesting task, one that required a map from the Visitors Center and a keen sense of direction. As many of the roads are unmarked, the only references to my location were numbered signs indicating boundaries between the 32 wildlife management areas that divide the refuge. Luckily, I was enjoying myself too much to worry about getting lost. After spending a few hours in the woods, and for fear of being locked in when the refuge gate closed, I made my way to I-75 and headed north to Tennessee.

In the coming days, look for the third of four parts to My Southern Excursion.

Complete galleries for each location in this part of my trip can be found on Picasa.