From Wildsam Travel Fellow, Justin Armstrong:
I’m standing at the dock listening to the park ranger warn the other visitors to the island about heat stroke and snakes. Forty-five minutes later I’m walking onto Cumberland Island, a place equal parts primordial forest and Southern Gothic novel. Flannery O’Connor’s version of Hawaii.
Ian (a photographer joining me on this leg of the trip) and I hurry past a family with coolers and children in tow, as they wander the footpaths near the ranger station in search of their campsite. Our plan to hit the beach before the other twenty or so visitors that arrived on the boat with us involves taking a reverse route, getting off at the Sea Camp dock and hiking back down to catch the afternoon ferry at the Dungeness ruins. It works marvelously.
The Spanish moss-laced live oak forest gives way to a deserted beach, devoid of people and things for five miles in either direction. Like kids freshly freed from a hot road trip station wagon, we tear off our clothes and run into the ocean, pausing briefly at the water’s edge to take a temperature reading with our toes before plunging into the surprisingly warm Atlantic. Waves push us back against the shore where we can marvel at the solitude of this once-in-a-long-while place. At the end of the boardwalk back up over the dunes, an outdoor shower gives us the chance to rinse off some of the salt. “I can’t help but feel like we’re getting away with something," Ian says, unable to hide his smile. I totally agree. It’s like we’ve jumped the fence to some island estate with a private beach. But we don’t get caught and we head south through the woods to explore the rubble of Dungeness, a fallen-down mansion most recently occupied by the Carnegie family in the late 1920s before being abandoned and eventually deeded to the National Parks Service.
Dense, humid forests appear timeless and without human inscriptions, the roads and trails wind their way through the island’s beautifully overgrown guts. Raccoons, armadillos and deer watch us in their kingdom as a warm afternoon rain falls in waves. Feral horses and feral houses, both now free of ownership on this outpost.
Up the coast back to Sea Camp. We dry our socks in the afternoon sun while we wait for the ferry. Minutes ticking by. Soon we’ll be back on the other side, tires on blacktop, hurtling into Florida and a different sort of oceanside, and a different sort of ruin.
Photos by Ian Brewster