It began simply enough, with my long-suffering associate Jason Justice and I discussing barbecue. One of the grand Southern traditions, there are plenty of examples of the genre here in the sainted Southland, where it seems like every corner has a stand with a hand-lettered sign reading "Barbecue," "Bar-B-Cue," or, simply, "BBQ." You'll also find lots of strong opinions: The mere mention of a pig slow-cooked over wood can ignite hour-long debates of vinegar based versus mustard, as well as all the other esoterica associated with the Fruit of the Swine.
When it comes to technical knowledge, I'll readily admit my bona fides are iffy at best. I did, however, grow up sliding into booths in places like the Briar Patch and Sprayberry's, as well as that stand at the corner of Long Branch and 52 that has, arguably, the best 'cue north of Atlanta, where even the owners aren't certain what the name of the place is. Not to mention the now-defunct Sweet Daddy Ken's Titanic Barbecue from my college years, whose sign was festooned with the legend "Goes Down Real Good."
All of which is to say, when we heard there was a nationally known barbecue place on Georgia's St. Simons Island called Southern Soul, it became our sworn duty to fuel up my '72 Stingray, aka "Scarlett," and point her sharp nose south toward the coast. To do this properly, however, we decided to do it old-school: no Interstates, and no GPS. Instead, we'd rely on my well-stained 2002 Rand McNally, which has been from Key West to the coast of Oregon with me. As it turned out, we'd wind up having a little more of the "old-school" driving experience than originally contemplated.
Since no barbecue road trip is complete without at least three stops, we planned to start out at The Hickory Pig in Gainesville, Georgia, for the first. We expected beautiful weather, so naturally I pulled out the T-tops and stowed them in the suitcase I'd ordered from Corvette America in time for the trip. At around 7:00 that early July morning, I picked up Jason, and, after saying goodbye to his indulgent wife and two sons, off we went.
Itself the recipient of national attention for its barbecue sandwiches, The Hickory Pig is owned and operated by Phil Beaubien, who, a sign inside warns you, is not qualified to teach cows how to swim. He is, however, authorized to fly the ultralight aircraft that he built last year, pictures of which adorn the inside.
Technically, The Hickory Pig isn't open at 7:00 on a Saturday. Biscuit Delight, though, is. They might as well be the same. You open the door into the common dining area, where there are about three tables with chairs around them and all the fitting accoutrements of swinedom. The door on the left, where you usually give Phil your order, is closed. Biscuit Delight's counter on the right, however, is open, and they'll happily pass over a sausage biscuit and cuppa for a reasonable three or four bucks. As it turned out, this was the only pork I ate on the trip: Forever tainted by Kansas City barbecue, I found myself leaning toward beef, leaving Jason to cover the pork side of the ledger.
A little light conversation with the regulars, and it was time to get on the road in earnest. Although it was still before 8:15 when we pulled out, Phil was hard at work outside, a steady stream of smoke already rising from the smoker parked beside the building. Behind the building, incidentally, is the "singing porch," which houses the karaoke machine--something I had discovered quite by accident one afternoon after bursting forth with a few bars of Patsy Cline in the dining area, only to find myself hustled out back for a little impromptu Hank karaoke.
From The Hickory Pig on Thompson Bridge Road, we quickly picked up U.S. 129 (the northern end of which contains the feared Tail of the Dragon) and took it down to Athens, home of the University of Georgia and one of the only two Varsity restaurants I consider legitimate. By Athens, it was starting to warm up a little, so we slathered on a little sunscreen as we took 78 southeast out of town. Since we were avoiding the Interstate, the route we'd plotted out was somewhat circuitous: through Washington, Waynesboro, and Hiltonia, and then past Egypt (no, really--Egypt, Georgia) to the second waypoint, Rusty Pig in Rincon, a suburb of Savannah.
Although we'd planned the trip in advance, what we hadn't expected was the heat. I had been to South Georgia in the summer before--I did 1,800 miles through coastal Georgia and Florida last July in Scarlett--but that first Saturday in July was supposedly the hottest day on record in Georgia, a solid 105 degrees. And while my Corvette is equipped with A/C, it doesn't work. With the top off beneath the merciless sun, the heat quickly became unbearable in the car. An intelligent man would have put the top on, but I mistakenly thought the increased airflow would overcome the soaking heat from direct sunlight. I was wrong.
We paused for a map check underneath a BP's awning after we crossed I-20, and then left civilization for the true back roads--roads with more nothing than I'm used to seeing in one place. Don't think I'm dog-talking rural Georgia: I live in rural Georgia. But where I am, we have mountains, curves, the occasional brook…nothing like these featureless state highways, arrow straight and un-shaded as they stretched endlessly through the piney woods, portions of roadway completely submerged in the mirage.
As we were pulling out of Thomson, still a little early for lunch but open to serendipity, we passed a barbecue joint near a strip center.
"What do you think?" I asked Jason.
"I smell something," he replied pensively. "But it could be the car." We kept going.
From there, our route took us through Waynesboro, the Bird Dog Capital of the World, through another town advertising its Mule Day celebration, and on to Rincon in the searing heat. Every hour or two we stopped for more sunscreen and either water or Gatorade to replace the sweat pouring out of our bodies.
We pulled into Rusty Pig around a quarter to 2:00, having been on the road for more than five hours and feeling more dead than alive. I was acutely aware that we had sweated through all of our clothing and could not possibly smell pleasant. I ordered a brisket plate and headed for the men's room to wash up as best I could.
Rusty Pig is a Christian-based company, and unashamedly so. The restaurant's T-shirts bear a Bible verse, and each table has a tract next to the pair of sauce bottles: one vinegar based, one mustard. As for the 'cue itself, the brisket was cut at an angle and with a loose, moist texture, and came with plenty of fat to be trimmed off. It was quite good with either of the two sauces, but while I'm more used to the vinegar based, I preferred the mustard on it. Jason ordered the pork, and found it similarly tasty.
Jason broke the silence as we ate. "That was really hot, man."
"That was pretty terrible," I agreed. I got up to refill my sweet tea and stood there for a moment in the air conditioning, looking out across the parking lot to where Scarlett sat, like the line from "Thunder Road," like a killer in the sun. After close to an hour, my shirt had finally started to dry out.
"Yes," Jason interrupted my thoughts, "we have to go get back in. Sorry."
Ill-tempered in the heat, Scarlett didn't want to start, but finally roared to life, the 350 settling into its well-cammed idle as I burned myself on the gearshift and the thin chrome strip on top of the door. After a few miscues with road numbers, we successfully avoided the major traffic of Savannah and headed down 17 toward St. Simons, idling through Eulonia and Darien, where Scarlett and I had spent a pleasant afternoon last summer. The heat continued unabated.
We hit the hotel around 5:30, and promptly drained the courtesy water cooler in the lobby. The trip had taken a solid three hours longer than it would have on the Interstate. Once in the room, we turned the air all the way down and moved a pair of chairs in front of the vent, where we stayed for the next hour. Inertia had set in, and in this case, "inert" was the operative part of that word. The most energy I could muster was to start texting Street Shop, Inc.'s Tray Walden to price out a new A/C system to go with Scarlett's upcoming engine transplant. Jason was looking up the temperature in Baghdad on his phone. It was in the 80s.
Eventually we summoned the energy to wander around the island, visiting the historic Christ Church on St. Simons, near the oak where the Wesleys preached some 300 years ago, then crossing the Torras Causeway to the mainland and over to Jekyll Island, which is close enough to see from St. Simons. Once the private playground of the Rockefellers and other wealthy families who owned it, Jekyll is now almost completely owned by the government, an interesting analogue for our culture at large. And thanks to the focus on conservation, much of the island--such as its characteristic dunes--remains untouched and lovely.
Leaving Jekyll at sunset, we headed down the causeway and hung a right onto 17 North and the imposing cable-stayed Sidney Lanier Bridge, which is more than a mile long and towers almost 500 feet at its highest point. I aimed the Stingray's high fenders toward the sky like a gun sight and rolled on the throttle, and when I hit the top of the bridge a couple hundred feet above the water, the Lowcountry opened below, the salt marshes below practically vermeil in the fading light.
Back on St. Simons, the well-neoned face of Southern Soul sits just off the merry havoc of the traffic circle, near the end of the runway for the island airport. Last year, even with GPS, I'd had trouble finding it, and resorted to calling: They drily suggested I look for the plume of smoke rising from the front of the building. This time I knew where to look, and, a little after nine, I pulled Scarlett into a space in front of a large stack of firewood that bookended one side of the outdoor seating area.
Originally operated out of an old service station, Southern Soul burned a few years ago and has since been rebuilt, fortunately avoiding the sterile, plastic feel of new construction. Inside, the walls bear the customary indicia of a pork palace, including awards and a painting of a preternaturally large pig holding a PBR. Place your order on the left side of the long bar, then either pull up a stool or pick one of the four or five tables inside. Or, if you're more heat tolerant than we were at that moment, get comfortable at one of the long wooden tables outside.
I ordered a brisket sandwich and had a seat by the door to drain a glass of sweet tea while Jason ponied up for a pork sandwich. The brisket came, dry and cut square across the tight grain, with all the fat trimmed off and bearing a marvelous pink smoke ring. Even without sauce, it was incredible. Adding the "hot and spicy" sauce, which I selected over the mustard and vinegar variants, it was even better. Jason and I ate contently, me working steadily on the brisket and the fries, well-dusted with kosher salt, and then paused and looked up.
"It was worth it."
After dinner we swung by the fishing pier near the base of the St. Simons lighthouse. From that vantage point, we could make out the dark bulge of Jekyll to the south and the bobbing green and red lights of the shrimping fleet off in the distance to the east, enjoying the steady wind before heading back to the hotel for the night. One thing hung over our heads: When we arrived at the hotel after our brutal ride, Jason had reminded me that the ordeal was only half over. We still had to get home.
It was still dark when Scarlett snarled to life in the parking lot the next morning, and I reached under the front bumper to pull the covers off her Cibié driving lights. It was 5:30, and we were heading home--via the Interstate.