To get to South Carolina from North Florida, one must drive through Georgia. My route of choice is US Route 301, mostly because it's a friendly back road, not an interstate highway.
Route 301 is only a mile from my home in Callahan, Florida, and once I get on that road, I can drive at my leisure for several blissful hours without leaving 301. The part of the highway that runs through Georgia is never a destination for me; it's only a means to get me where I want to go in another state. But while others think that 301 is slow-moving or even monotonous, I find it to be one the most fascinating drives in my part of the world.
In season, you can buy pecans all along Route 301. Some at farm stands, some from people sitting in their cars on the side of the road with cardboard signs on their bumpers advertising their wares. You also will come across cotton fields that go on for miles, and especially in November, right before the cotton is harvested, it's really quite a beautiful sight.
Route 301 was the way to travel through Georgia before I-95
Before the completion of Interstate 95 in the 1960s, Route 301 was a bustling thoroughfare, abounding with motels, gift shops, gas stations, and produce stands. Today, the remnants of simpler times remain engulfed in vines, diminished by years of rain and sun. Partially collapsed barns stand precariously in abandoned fields, a silent testimony to the former farmers who lost their second generation growers to college educations and beckoning big city lives. But communities still remain, charming, little Georgia towns with names that no one knows how to pronounce. Like Nahunta. And Ludowici. And in between these towns are narrow stretches of barren macadam lined with cotton fields, pecan groves, and dilapidated buildings. A slice of Americana everywhere you look.
At the Florida/Georgia state line, intrepid Route 301 travelers are greeted by William Fowler of 3-D Produce, sporting baskets of peaches, tomatoes, mangos, and homemade moonshine jelly. Where former produce dealers offered locally grown fruit and vegetables, much of 301’s produce stands now sell fruit from other places. Fowler’s stand is located in front of a convenience store with a familiar feel to it. Nearby the produce stand, Dean Richards is the purveyor of hot, boiled peanuts, offering plain or Cajun varieties. If you are not fond of boiled peanuts, you will change your tune after eating a bag of his. So hot they will burn your fingers, the peanuts give off a bacon-y odor that remains in your car long after your 301 road trip is over.
Folkston folks know their trains
The first major community along Route 301 is the town of Folkston, the gateway to the Okeefenokee Swamp and home of the Folkston Funnel. The Funnel is a double train track that serves as the main artery for railroad traffic into and out of Florida. The viewing platform features lights, ceiling fans, and a scanner to listen in to radio traffic between trains, along with picnic tables, grills, and restrooms. But the best thing about the Funnel is meeting the train enthusiasts who hang out on the platform for hours. They know everything there is to know about the 60 trains that pass through the Funnel each day.
Continuing through Georgia, the unincorporated town named Hortense is home to historic Rogers Cemetery; old farmhouses dotting the byway make for great photo opportunities. Just up the road apiece you will come to Jesup, known far and wide for having the oldest drive-in theatre in the state of Georgia. The drive-in offers the latest films, but treats its customers as it did back in the 1950s. Car hops schlep hot dogs and burgers directly to the cars, and some of the parking spots still feature the old fashioned speakers, although most people listen to the movies through their radios nowadays.
In Ludowici, Hillbilly Bait and Tackle stands proud for visitors, along with a pawn shop and the famous Ludowici Trading Company, where you can purchase eclectic antiques and collectibles. An old toilet with feet sticking out of it is one of the shop’s main attractions. Onto Glennville, Folsom Farms sells the best Vidalia onions in the world. Some folks say you can eat Folsom’s onions the same way you would eat an apple. Not far from Folsom’s, the Santa Maria Restaurant serves up real Southern food to rival even your grandmother’s. Continue north on Route 301 to the town of Claxton, you will find the famous Claxton Fruitcake Company. You can purchase their fruitcakes all year, and a little chit chat with the proprietor on duty will yield you a wealth of information on this much maligned holiday treat. Another first-rate restaurant located in Claxton called Mrs. Roger’s serves up the finest collard greens – roll down your car windows and you can actually smell them cooking as you drive down Route 301.
As I get closer to the end of my Route 301 journey, I drive into Statesboro, the largest city and the county seat in Bulloch County, Georgia. The home of Statesboro University, much of Statesboro’s historic buildings have been beautifully restored, and today it is a thriving college community. The Eagle Brewing Company is a favorite local watering hole, just one of the numerous restaurants, bars, live music venues, bookstores, and other businesses that cater to Statesboro’s diverse population. The Sugar Magnolia Bakery is one of my favorite eateries in Statesboro. Besides their wonderful sweet treats, they have the best seasonal pizza and hot sandwiches. There's even live music on Saturday nights.
When I finally get to South Carolina, I am feeling a little sad to get off Route 301. Now I have to read my map, drive on interstates through big cities and on beltways, and find my way to my destination. There are family members to visit, trails to hike, and rivers to paddle, all north of Georgia's Route 301. After all is said and done, I look forward to coming back the same way I drove up. Because I live in one of those little towns off Route 301, and gee, it feels good to be home.