Monday, August 8, 2011

A Blast From The Past

Two long blasts from her whistle and the Archery Explorer left the Cordele Station in Southwest Georgia. In vintage 1949 cars two hundred seventy-five passengers settled into comfortable air-conditioned seating as wide-eyed children blew their souvenir toy train whistles and the train rolled down the tracks toward its first destination. Conductors in period uniforms roamed the aisles punching tickets. Time travel had begun for my four-year-old granddaughter and me.

The smell of hot dogs, barbecue and popcorn wafted through the train from the club car as we picked up speed. Scenic country farms and shady pecan groves slid past as we rolled down the rails. Our first stop was Georgia Veterans Park, where we picked up additional passengers. Once they were safely seated we were off again. Crossing beautiful Lake Blackshear we saw moss draped cypress trees lining the expansive shoreline. Fishermen in small boats peacefully awaited their catch.

We arrived at Americus Station at noon, where antique trolleys awaited to take us up the hill to the quaint town above the tracks. Americus is home to Habitat For Humanity, the Habitat For Humanity Global Village, and Habitat's International Headquarters. Our destination was the Windsor Hotel. Built in 1892, the Windsor had recently undergone an eight million dollar renovation to restore it to the luxurious and glamorous state it had enjoyed during the Victorian Era.

We took the elevator to the second floor for a Southern style buffet in the elegant Grand Dining Room. Under crystal chandeliers we were treated to Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and coconut cake.

Following our delicious meal we decided to stroll the antique-filled lobby before making a detour through the Information Center and Gift Shop. Americus is located just minutes from the Andersonville National Historic Site and National Prisoners of War Museum, and some of the history buffs aboard decided to remain behind to picked up on the return trip. The rest of us climbed aboard the trolleys and headed back to our time machine.

Two blasts of the whistle and we were off to Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter. We were told by our volunteer aboard the Georgia Veterans Car to keep an eye out for Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, who could often be seen riding their bicycles around the town, followed, of course, by a large black limo. It was nearly ninety degrees outside, however, and we decided it was unlikely anyone as smart as the Carters would be riding a bicycle that day.

As we pulled into the Station at Plains, I was impressed with how little it had changed in fifty years. With a population between six and seven hundred, only a handful of period storefronts lined the narrow street. There was also a lovely B&B and had a very nice antique mall. Our conductor told us we must try the home-made peanut butter ice cream at Plain Peanuts.

As we exited the train, my granddaughter said, "Grandma, I smell boiled peanuts. Can we get some please?"

"Sure honey," I said. "Let's follow the smell."

We eventually located the tiny country store where were handed a small cup of roasted peanuts to pour over the top of our peanut ice cream. The ice cream was a soft serve masterpiece and the salty peanuts atop the smooth, cold treat delighted the palate. The perfect treat for a hot Georgia day. The tiny store was filled with every kind of peanut treat and souvenir you could imagine. Although the smell of the boiled peanuts was tempting, we decided to save that treat for a cooler day.

After our snack, we took a quick spin through the local antiques store marveling over hand-sewn quilts, carnival glass, and numerous antiques. Then, the train whistle sounded signaling our departure was imminent and we again boarded the Archery Explorer. Our engine pulled us down the tracks to Archery, boyhood home of Jimmy Carter, barely a wide spot in a contry road. The only home we saw in Archery was that of Jimmy Carter. There was a tiny country store with an antique gas pump out front surrounded by fields of corn and cotton. Life in this rural Southern culture revolves around farming, church and school, and after visiting Plains and Archery,you could understand President Carter's graciousness and soft spoken Southern manners.

The "All Aboard" sounded one final time. The train now reversed direction heading ack toward Cordele. We would only be stopping to pick up passengers who had remained in towns along the way. Baby boomer grandparents who had brought their grandchildren with them to enjoy this blast from the past, shared childhood stories as we traveled the tracks homeward.

The scenic excursion train is one of only a handful still operating in the United Stats, and offers a glimpse of the South as it used to be. As we pulled into the Station I felt like we had steppped back into a simpler time.

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