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.