I've written before on our travel style – Serendipity, or just seeing what we come across and stopping whenever something interests us. I've shared how every place we've been – and I really mean every place – has a story to tell, interesting things to see if you just take the time.
People email us questions about how this actually works out so the other week, after a reader wanted some pointers, we came up with an idea. Stop at the next city we go through and make it a case study in serendipity.
We happened to be northbound on I-75, an hour or so north of the Florida line. Perry, Georgia was the next exit. Ok, we said, let's do it. The time was about 8:30 a.m. and right at our exit was a Holiday Inn Express.
We weren't seeking a room. We were seeking some ideas. And we found them in one of those racks every hotel has just inside the front door, racks stuffed with brochures and pamphlets promoting tourist attractions. I grabbed a handful and returned to the Roadtrek out in the parking lot. Five minutes of reading gave us an itinerary – downtown.
Perry is the county seat of Houston County (pronounced “how-ston”), founded in 1823 as Wattsville but later changed to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a hero of the War of 1812. It is best known for The New Perry Hotel, built in 1870 and rebuilt in 1925, which was a landmark for many Florida tourists who took the old Route 41 south before I-75 was built. That became our first stop.
We love going through historic buildings but alas, it wasn't to be. It was closed. Shuttered up. Recently sold, it was being renovated, said a sign out front. Once it was the center for social, business and civic life throughout the region, an icon of southern culture and the town itself. But it now sits alone and forlorn. If there was any renovation going on, we sure couldn't tell.
So, we checked the New Perry Hotel off our list, dumping the brochure urging us to visit it in the trash. We grabbed the camera and walked to the nearby historic downtown area. This was more like it. Shops were just opening, Shop owners were cheerfully greeting passersby. Several were sweeping the shaded brick sidewalk. We window shopped antique stores, noted a couple of restaurants that looked promising and read the posters for various civic and cultural happenings.
As I was walking up and down taking photos, I spotted some people gathering outside the downtown courthouse, including a military honor guard. I made my way there and stopped to notice a tall monument commemorating those who died in the Confederate War. We have seen monuments like this throughout the south and, despite the controversy raging over the Confederate Flag elsewhere you still see plenty of the flags in the South. Highway signs urging people to use their seat belts in Georgia bear the confederate flag symbol.
The Confederate Monument stands tall and proud and remains a focal point of the Perry downtown.
The ceremony everyone was gathering for was a prayer meeting, to honor those who died in another cataclysmic event for the nation – the 911 Terror attacks. Our visit to Perry happened to be on Patriot's Day and so we went to the Roadtrek and brought out some folding chairs to join those assembling on the courthouse lawn. First responders from Perry – police, fire, sheriff's deputies and paramedics – were the guests of honor and pastors from various churches and civic leaders came to a portable podium in front of the courthouse to offer prayers for them and for the nation. It was a deeply moving ceremony and afterwards, several locals came up to introduce themselves to us. Jennifer even was interviewed by a local newspaper.
The ceremony started at 11 and ended promptly at noon. And we were hungry.
We headed back downtown and chose Swanson's Restaurant, located in a historic 200-year-old beautifully restored building that specializes in down home Southern cooking with items lime collard greens, fried green tomatoes, lima beans and bread pudding. Swanson's is five-star dining. I went with meat loaf and sweet potatoes. Jennifer chose salmon with a squash casserole. We were stunned by how good it was, agreeing it was one of the best restaurants we have visited all year, anywhere.
After lunch, we made our way to the Georgia Artisan's Center, located off I-75 a few blocks from downtown in space shared by the town's welcome center. Here, folk art, crafts, carvings and work created by Georgia artisans are on display and available for purchase. Jennifer bought some early Christmas gifts for our kids and I talked with the welcome center staffers who suggested two other places to visit.
Both, it turned out, were right across the road.
Perry's main claim to fame these days since the hotel closed is it is the location for the Georgia National Fair, one of the nation's largest, held every October at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter.
“Too bad it's not fair time,” I lamented to the volunteer behind the welcome center desk.
“Yes, but I bet if you go over there right now, you'll find lots of things going on. It's used all the time.”
The first thing we found there was an RV rally. Good Sam had a “Samboree” going on with several hundred RVers and a giant vendor display. We wandered about.
In another building was an auction for Mennonite Relief work. The Mennonites send relief teams all across the country to help in times of disaster and the auction, it turns out, was one of their main fundraisers. Jennifer was thrilled to see the beautifully intricate display of Mennonite quilts. Some were over a 100 years old. Others were new, taking over a year to create. No two were alike and the colors and designs were gorgeous.
At another end of the massive fairgrounds complex we found an equestrian competition underway. And not just any competition but the Heart of Dixie Reining Horse Association Horse Show.
What is reining?, I asked a smiling cowboy leading a beautiful mare.
“Reining horses are the ninjas of the sports world,” he said. “Just go watch and see if you don't agree.”
Specifically, the sport of reining is a riding competition where the riders guide the horses through a precise pattern of circles, spins, and stops. All work is done at the lope (a slow, relaxed version of the horse gait more commonly known worldwide as the canter), or the gallop (the fastest of the horse gaits).
Wow. Reining is designed to test the athletic ability of a ranch type horse and its rider. We spent two hours watching the riders and their horses compete. We would have stayed longer, too, but by now it was 4 p.m. and the second place we needed to check out at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter would be closing in an hour.
It is a museum called the Go Fish Georgia Education Center, a museum and an aquarium that teaches through displays and exhibits about the 4,000 miles of trout streams, 12,000 miles of warm water streams and more than one-half million acres of impoundments that makes fishing a $1 billion industry in Georgia.
To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting much. As usual, I was wrong. It was an amazing place, one of the best aquariums I have ever visited. The center closes at 5 p.m. and we only had an hour to see it. Fortunately, we were abut the only customers so we had the undivided attention of some of the center naturalists and guides and they showed us everything except the pond out back where you can actually do some fishing.
There are even a couple of interactive exhibits. One simulates a salt water fishing trip and the catching and landing of one of the big trophy fish along Georgia's Atlantic coastline. The other shows what it's like catching a monster Georgia big mouth bass.
The center, located near the eastern gate if the fairgrounds complex, is alone worth a trip to Perry. We plan a return visit next time we are in the area, which will probably be in March 2016 when the Family Motor Coach Association hosts its big spring rally there.
As we left the Go Fish museum, it was well after 5 (they kindly kept it open a few minutes for us to finish our tour). It was a Friday night in September and Friday night down south means high school football.
So we attended a high school game on the field of the Westfield School, a private academy. High school football in the south is perhaps the leading social event of the week. The whole town comes out. Games start with prayer – no, in the south, they are not afraid of the ACLU and faith, as we saw in the downtown event at the courthouse earlier that day – is a major part of the social fabric that ties folks together down here.
At half time, both the Westfield fans and the fans from the visitor's team emptied the stands and – together- walked around the field in honor of a young local girl who had recently lost her battle with cancer. Then they went back to the stands, the teams came back out and resumed their gridiron battle.
And so ended our day in Perry. About 12 hours in all, jam-packed with memories of interesting places and people.
As an overnight, we had several local campgrounds to choose from if we had wanted to stay. Instead, we just felt like driving, so off we went, headed north to yet another adventure.
So that's how it works. Serendipity travel, proving yet again as I said above, every place has a story.