CUMBERLAND ISLAND, Ga. —As I was biking down a washboard road of dirt and sand — the only road that runs the length of this lush, wild island and national seashore — a husband and wife waved me down one afternoon.
They were both about mid-50s, healthy and with bikes of their own, heading up the way I was coming down.
"Did you pass some chimneys?" the woman asked.
Chimneys? Chimneys? No chimneys that I could recall.
There were miles of forest, so thick with live oak and Spanish moss that a green canopy formed above the road. There were wild horses, heads bowed, munching their way through those forests. There were a few vast summer homes. But no chimneys.
The couple said that the chimneys are all that remain from a complex of slave cabins built by Robert Stafford, a plantation owner who made a fortune on Sea Island cotton in the1800s. The couple wanted to find the chimneys not only to feed their love of history but because Stafford was the man's great-great-great-uncle.
"We're ancestors," the woman said, meaning descendants.
Sounded intriguing. So, off we went down that road so narrow that when two vehicles meet, it's trouble. A mile on, we met the caretaker of one of those summer homes, who knew exactly where to send us: down an even narrower road. We passed another half-dozen wild horses that paid us little attention but which we gave wide berths anyway, because those suckers can be unpredictable.
Finally, at the end of the road, in a grassy field, we found the chimneys. About 20 of them were lined in neat rows, still, ghostly nods to history. We wandered silently for a few minutes, admiring the handiwork that has kept them standing so many years later. A few of the chimneys had ornamentation built in, such as a shell half sunk into the concrete above where the fire would have roared. The man said what we were all thinking.
"Just imagine, a slave family raised their kids and made food right here," he said, pointing to where 2 feet of weeds sprouted.
It was touching and disturbing: Exactly where we stood, people treated as property felt safest.
Coastal Georgia is raw like that. The varnished splendor of Hilton Head up north or Florida down south doesn't exist here.
Yes, there is opulence here, but it is more often a time-worn opulence rooted in the business barons of yesteryear (in the case of Cumberland, the Carnegie family). For the latest, the greatest, the glitz and the shiny beauty, look elsewhere on the Atlantic coast. Rustic and lovely, coastal Georgia remains unhurried, unbuilt and alive with history.
It is, in fact, 110 miles of two coasts in one. First comes the mainland coast, where the shore sits against salt marsh and makes a fine place to kayak or watch the endless yellow-green grass turn gold at sunset. Then come the barrier islands that face the Atlantic Ocean. This is where you feel as if you're at the end of the earth. Like on Cumberland Island.
A twice daily ferry that accommodates 300 visitors per day makes Cumberland one of the most accessible of coastal Georgia's wildest islands.
There is nothing to buy on Cumberland — the best you can do is rent a bike — and there is one place to stay, the 13-room Greyfield Inn, where the cheapest low-season room is $395 and men wear sport coats at dinner. The other, more common lodging is camping. It's routine to see backpackers ambling through the island's maritime forest of towering oaks and spiky palm bushes in an unhurried, peaceful haze.
"How long have you been walking?" I asked two women coming down the main road one morning with their lives on their backs and bandannas on their heads.
"Hard to say," one said. "Maybe since10?"
"No, on the island I mean."
"Hmmmmm. Couple of days maybe?"
Cumberland offers 50 miles of trail within its 57 square miles and, equally thrilling, pristine, undisturbed beaches along its shores. The first time you step directly from a dense Southern forest to a stark, lovely beach, you know you want to return.
And then there are the horses. About 200 live on the island, they pay little attention to the visitors, even when within a few feet. But sometimes visitors get too friendly, especially in the mixture of a camera and a foal.
"We've had a number of close calls," a ranger told me. "People backing up just in time, maybe getting their hat knocked off as the horse kicks."
Most visitors come for a few hours and never leave the island's southern end. They see the ruins of Dungeness, a Carnegie mansion that burned down in1959, and the nearby beach.
Then they mosey back to the dock. But there is more to see, such as another Carnegie mansion in the middle of the island called Plum Orchard, which is open to the public on Sundays, and the First African Baptist Church at the island's north end.
There also are the beaches, the trails and the horses. And, of course, the chimneys. They're not on any map because locals don't want tourists treading on private land and stealing the bricks. The caution is apparently for good reason. As that couple and I prepared to leave the chimneys, the woman bent over and grabbed a brick so deeply red, it was almost black.
"I know we're not supposed to do this, but we're ancestors," she said. "I've got to have a brick."
"We don't need that," her husband said. "How are you going to carry it?"
"Oh, leave it," her husband said. "Leave it for the poor black family whose forefathers lived here."
He seized the brick and tossed it back into the fireplace. She didn't argue. She knew where it belonged.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: A ferry runs twice daily from St. Marys, Ga., 40 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla. It is limited to 300 people per day. Reservations are suggested and can be made six months in advance. Round-trip ferry rides are $17 per adult, $15 per senior 65 and older and $12 per child 12 and younger. There also is an island entry fee of $4 per person 17 and older. Visit nps.gov/cuis for details.
STAYING THERE: Two options. The Greyfield Inn (866-401-8581, greyfieldinn.com), housed in a former Carnegie mansion, or camping. Back-country camping is $2 per person per day; beach camping is $4. Campers also pay the entry fee.
EATING THERE: Except for meals that come with your stay at Greyfield Inn, there is no food available. So pack well.