Searching for Crawdaddy by Christian Heeb

“Where in the God’s name is Crawdaddy gonna sing?” said my wife in a fake Southern accent as she threw her hands up in the air. With this exasperated gesture, she almost hit the ceiling of our tiny rental car as I drove over a jumble of graded back roads in the heart of North Carolina. These roadside corridors give access to America’s poorhouse, which is nowhere more visible than in the South.

Delia Owen’s bestselling book Where the Crawdads Sing is set in the marshlands of North Carolina.  Similar to the marshlands of South Carolina and Georgia, we knew that a fantastically beautiful landscape along the hurricane-plagued shores of these old slaving states awaited us.

As for most works of popular fiction, a whole industry of bloggers, guides and general cyber-loonies has popped up to advise people where to experience the magic of said book in real life. An online site claimed that the story took place near the city of Asheville. I had gotten to know Asheville on earlier trips, and I knew it was a city located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by forest with no swamps or marshes to speak of. I didn’t even bother to go there even though it played a small role in the book. The closest swamps would be east of the city of Charlotte, but those are filled with hardwoods and savannah that apparently do not have the fictional charm of the book’s landscapes.

Instead, we drove to the city of Wilmington on the coast where we hit a bar, The Blind Elephant. I thought the name fitting for our blindfolded search for a non-existent book location. The bar was packed on a Friday night.  No enigmatic Southern gentleman with greased moustaches, nor any wispy-eyed Southern belles were in evidence, just plain Americans in khaki pants with expensively corrected teeth and their share of weight problems. People always seem to burst out of their clothing here.

The barkeeper had a smile like Tom Cruise but was too busy to be of help. I talked to a plumb guy in a little boy haircut  who wore a frog-green Lacoste t-shirt. He mentioned he was running for something or other and probably thought I was a prospective voter or maybe he was just being friendly. Bob, Bill, or Jim said “There is a swamp park at Greenfield Park & Garden” but it sounded as boring as a bar in heaven. My wife was talking to a woman with two inches of foundation on her face and gigantic brass earrings. She was as drunk as a drowned raccoon and mumbled “South Carolina is where it’s at”. I heard someone else say something about “My state is the right state and those darn Crawdaddies are really our Crawdaddies”.

My wife had the mask on that hides her true feelings and people mistake for empathy or at least interest. “So far, no go,” I said while we snatched a parking ticket, courtesy of the city of Wilmington, from the car’s window.

Groups of high heeled women in puny dresses, tipsy from Happy Hour, thronged through the dark street of a semi-deserted American downtown. “Let’s get out of here before some sexually frustrated male starts shooting someone,” I said into the muggy air. My wife had already gotten into the car and had a look that said: “What are you waiting for?”

North Carolina ain’t sexy. Nothing really impressive emerges before my mind’s eye, except for some terrible politicians. Just hurricanes that flatten the Outer Banks every couple of years. “No wonder,” I thought “that spit of sand sticking out into the Atlantic is called Cape Fear. “

Following the coast towards South Carolina, we saw expansive beaches and smelt the perfume of blooming dogwood trees. There were quaint homes, manicured lawns, abandoned gas stations from the 1940s, and several large cotton fields. If you follow the coastal low country from North Carolina to Georgia, the landscape stays pretty much the same. The people seem the same, the cars, houses, restaurants, and even the vegetation is of a dulling sameness.

I was looking out for some impoverished looking young girls and some evil rednecks, as Owens describes them in her book, but only found reasonably nice white Southerners with their Southern drawls. On the beach near Hilton Head, two African American couples were playing in the sand, and I started to talk to them. They were from Charlotte and came here for a few days of fun at the beach. “It feels good to be out of the city,” they said. There are many obstacles for black folks in the U.S., and even more in the South. Driving as a black gets you stopped by police, which may get you killed instantly if you make the wrong move. Being black costs more in health insurance, property insurance, and education. They had never heard of the book, and they had no idea there were swamps here.

Once upon a time, the marshlands and swamps, the off-shore islands and their palmetto thicket, the palm trees and hardwood forests not only gave shelter to the remaining Native tribes but also provided hiding places for the Maroons—people who had escaped from enslavement at the Southern plantations. To this day, small communities of Maroons live along the coast. When they lived in isolation, they created their own customs and language and now, some of them welcome visitors. At the Geeche Kunda Visitor Center, travelers meet and interact with folks from the community and learn about their culture. But we were looking for “marsh people,” or “white trash,” a term Delia Owens uses in her book? The people who live on the fringes of society in dilapidated trailers, surrounded by rusted-outs cars and bulldogs in the yards? The people who love their guns, their beer, and the American flag?

One of them, Marvin Robert Killoug, turns out to be a jolly fellow. With his nipple piercings, topless muscular body, and a name that spells rebel, he fits the stereotype. He seems happy with selling peaches from his folk’s farm. “Y’all wanna buy some of the finest peaches on this planet?” he asks us. Of course we do and they are sweet and tasty, but I remember my mission and ask him about the location of the book and where crawdaddy might live. “Never heard of it,” he said. “All I read is the Bible. That is the only book we need around here. You wanna buy more ‘em peaches?”

Marvin Robert Killough selling Peaches near Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida, USA

Marvin seems nice and clean. A good Southern boy and so we buy more peaches and head south. The scenery here in South Carolina and Georgia’s low country still hasn’t changed all that much. It looks like Owens described it in the book

People in the South are generally friendly, resistant to change and against the expansion of American cities. If you leave politics out, you will have a good ole’ time here. We dined at small eateries and stayed in cheap motels with a Waffle House a few yards away. Waffle House eateries are sprinkled across the South like toxic air particles. They are filled with impoverished waitresses with the classic “y’all” drawl. The food tastes like cardboard mixed with preservatives, but it is cheap and if your stomach can take it, you will be happy as long as you avoid the muddy coffee.

We found the marshes, we found the palmettos and palms and the empty sandy beaches. We found forests and oak tree promenades and we saw poor black folk in dilapidated shacks and Delia Owens’ “white trash” in dented trailer homes. We saw stately mansions inhabited by clean-cut, puffy Southern men and their Stepford-wife-type blondes, so we asked ourselves where else we needed to go. Perhaps on a boat ride?

We connected with Captain Frank Bourgeois, a retired sea captain who runs boat tours on the gulf coast. Frank looked like a mix of Santa Claus and Ernest Hemingway and carried a gun “to keep the riffraff away.” I did not see any dangerous-looking people, but he assured me the world is a perilous place and he needed to protect people like us from them. We took off and followed the serene Weeki Wachee River towards the sea.

Large palm groves, palmettos, and thick vegetation grew along the shore. A sprinkle of large Southern houses, all raised on stilts and built from wood, came and went while we glided towards the nearby gulf. A kingfisher passed like a missile, its shrill cry echoing back and forth across the wetland. Once we hit the marshes, Captain Gunslinger stopped, cut the motor and pointed at a large sausage in the water. The sea cow or manatee, one of those gentle creatures that doesn’t mix well with pleasure boats, was feeding on underwater grass. I noticed a great blue heron standing above the waterline like a sculpture in one of the countless art galleries that litter the towns on the Sun Coast.

Once on a galaxy far, far away, before the Northern flight, before air conditioning and super highways, the gulf coast of Florida was an all-you-can-eat buffet. Like in other coastal marshlands, all you had to do was throw out a net or a hook and haul in tonight’s dinner. Clams, mussels, and all types of fish were so abundant it was impossible starve here. The first inhabitants were so strong and well fed they kicked out the first Spaniards who came looking for gold.

I was thinking about the book and the Crawdaddy story, and could see where the inspiration came from. You could write a story like that anywhere along the eastern seaboard. Europeans imagine the United States as a land of big cities and Western landscapes like Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. They don’t know much about the rest of this huge country, the many subcultures, the biodiversity, land forms  and they know nothing of the old South.

Captain Gun eventually drove us into the Gulf of Mexico, a blue expanse of placid waters under a cobalt blue sky. “It is very shallow here,” he said. “There is a plate underneath us that extends 150 miles into the gulf.” His young assistant Bobby dived down to the bottom in no time and brought up some scallops. “Fantastic food straight from the sea,” he said with a smile.

I had to admit it was a beautiful boat trip.  The air was warm and pleasant, the sky the deepest blue and Captain and Bobby made jolly guides. It’s one of the miracles of the American South that you meet all these friendly folks who are so different from the news headlines and our misconceptions of them.

Back on the dock, no hoodlums threatened us so Captain Gun didn’t need to worry. We said our goodbyes and went to town. “A drink,” I said to my wife. I was thinking of a pint of dark beer. All day long I had the old Johnny Cash song “I never picked cotton” in my head

Folks said that I grew up early
And the farm couldn’t hold me then
So I stole ten bucks and a pickup truck
And I never went back again
And it was fast cars and whiskey
Long legged girls and fun

It was probably because of a cotton field we had passed on our way to the jetty. I found a bar along the highway, and we went in. Instead of long-legged girls and fun, we found pot-bellied middle-aged men with sad eyes and dirty baseball hats slumped over battered bar stools. A young woman with too much makeup and a piercing on her lip was smearing dirt from one end of the glass to the other.

“What’s your poison?” she asked me and sounded as if she was trying to emulate a barkeeper 40 years older who has served in the Marines and took no shit from anyone.

“I’ll have a pint of dishwater liquid in an unfrozen glass.”

“Huh?” she said and looked puzzled. She was one of those rare people who actually listen when talked to. “Two Budweiser in a glass please … if you have one that is not iced.” The beers arrived. I paid upfront and left a tip so she could start saving for more piercings. Asking for local travel advice in a bar never is a good idea. People who hang out in bars don’t know about their natural surroundings. That’s why they are in the bar in the first place.

We travelled as far south as I thought the book’s natural environment suggested. Delia Owens is in the process of writing her follow-up book, which takes place in northern Florida. This was still the South, the home turf of such rock icons as Tom Petty, The Allmann Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, and Eagles guitarist Don Felder. “Sweet Home Alabama,” the iconic Redneck anthem, was blasting from the speakers in the bedraggled bar. The pot bellies did not move. I started to suspect they were decoys to attract other men with sad eyes.

“Let’s head back up the Georgia Coast,” I told my wife. I thought I understood where Delia was coming from. She grew up on the Georgia coast and now lived in the Aryan hinterland of Northern Idaho. I suspected she set her first novel in North Carolina so she could shield her home in Georgia from intrusive eyes. North Carolina’s marshes were close enough even though she really was writing about Georgia. That way, she would not offend anybody back home and could still tell her tale. I felt pretty smug about my intuition. I was familiar with the Georgia low country and always considered it an under-rated gem on the East Coast!

Rich people, really rich people like Hank Paulson—George W. Bush’s former Secretary of the Treasury, who wanted a check for one trillion dollars from Congress to fix the financial crisis—own the very private island of Little St. Simon’s off the Georgia low country. I once stayed at a small eco-lodge there and was more than impressed. The island is a nature reserve and the building very low key and unpretentious. There is a long history of wealthy people flocking to the gilded shore. Jekyll Island used to be a hunting preserve for the Rockefellers, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Pulitzers and is now owned by the state of Georgia. On Jekyll Island, you can sit on the beach and marvel at de-rooted palm trees as the sun rises over the Atlantic. But the true beauty is in the marshes nearby, as Owens describes them in the book.

We drove through secluded coastal marshes. Big oak trees, gnarled and mossy, rose behind us like sentinels of a magic past. As my wife sat down on a little wooden bench, her auburn hair caught the glow of sundown. Another great blue heron sat perched on a log waiting for a careless frog or fish. He was probably getting paid by the local tourist board to pose for tourists like us. My wife was quiet and enjoying the sultry humid air that felt like liquid velvet. I sat on the ground and breathed in. It was one of these moments when living is just enough. Then for a second, I heard it or at least my mind tricked me into hearing the Crawdaddy sing.

About the photographer:  Christian Heeb is a Swiss/American photographer based in Bend, Oregon. A lover of big open spaces, Christian is best known for his images of Native American people and the landscapes in which they live. He has published over 200 coffee table books of his photography, countless calendars and numerous magazine articles. When not photographing on commission he leads photography tours and workshops worldwide.

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