By Matthew C. Hulbert
It was 45 miles to Washington, we had a full tank of gas, no cigarettes, it wasn’t dark, and if I remember correctly, we were both wearing sunglasses. Forget the orphanage, our plan was simple: equal doses of pulled pork and historical tourism. Not exactly a mission from God, but an august combination for this pair of southern historians nonetheless. Unfortunately, as so often happens when history nerds like us, hopped up on sweet tea and barbeque, are left to freely roam the halls of an historic house or museum, our simple plan was derailed by visions of archaeological grandeur. In short, the plan went awry, quickly. Not two hours later, we found ourselves trespassing along the banks of a shallow creek in search of ancient artifacts. This turn of events ultimately begs the questions: (1) How in the hell did we get there? (2) What in the hell were we thinking? As is probably the case with most quixotic treasure hunts, a confrontation with our incompetence as would-be excavators and the answers to those questions only materialized on the ride home…
The day began with a trek to Washington Market Barbeque—a Mecca of sorts for pork enthusiasts of the eastern persuasion (that is, vinegar based). Jim Cobb labeled the Mississippi Delta the “most southern place on earth.” Washington Market must have run a damn close second. Where else in the South do pulled pork, Brunswick stew, and circa-1988 Grave Digger tank tops coalesce so gracefully? Housed in the remnants of a defunct grocery store (hence the lingering “market” moniker), the building’s external façade can be deceptive to the first-timer. Travelers fooled by this weathered disguise probably end up at nearby Zaxbys or Pizza Hut—each a disgrace to the slow-cooked southern perfection that a slight boost in culinary fortitude might have revealed.
For those brave enough to venture past the army of pickup trucks that stand guard over the entrance, polaroids of dead bucks, largemouth bass, and trophy rattlesnakes help guide patrons to the meat counter. At this point, most assume they’ve made it to the Promised Land. An impressive array of meat and sides sit before you as a timeless gentleman wearing a white paper cap and apron—old school if such a thing ever existed—offers to take your order. You think all is well, but this is the precise moment when the unsuspecting customer is bushwhacked by very serious decisions: Pulled pork or ribs? Brunswick or Macaroni? All of it? Just how much of this can I eat without making myself sick? How sick really counts as sick anyway? Was Longstreet really to blame at Gettysburg? Ok maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
After patiently waiting our turn behind the man in the Grave Digger tank top (which, incidentally, is available at Grave Digger’s official website for a bargain basement price of $8.99), Mr. Randall retrieved our pile of sandwiches from somewhere in the back. Somewhat like the Wonka Factory, the exact composition of WM’s sauce and cooking process remain shrouded in mystery—secrets housed, it seems, by that enigmatic back room. Pizza Hut, Grave Digger, and mystery withstanding, it was (as it always is) worth the hour drive. Now, with sweet tea and arguably the best barbeque that the Peach State has to offer in hand, the first phase of the plan had gone off without a hitch.
We departed Washington Market with a course set for the Washington-Wilkes Museum. After spending roughly an hour perusing the various rooms of the old house, we crossed paths with an arrowhead exhibit. Now, to be fair, what boy, at least in his childhood adventures, hasn’t picked up a triangular shaped stone and wished (if not pretended) that it was an arrowhead? Anyhow, the damage was done. Inspired by the exhibit, we slyly (or so we thought) quizzed the museum curator about where such artifacts could be found locally—if, that is, any half-assed Indiana Jones’s were planning to spend the afternoon looking for them. With specific instructions to search along a creek that intersected the grounds of the Callaway Plantation our expedition party (all two of us) embarked confidently. Our lead, it seemed, was foolproof.
When one of us can stomach recounting this story, it’s usually about this point that we inform our puzzled audience (somehow hypnotized by our geological ignorance) that neither of us, despite numerous diplomas from celebrated SEC universities, had any idea how the hell to find an arrowhead. In fact, we probably had a better chance of catching Mr. Chain Blue Lightning, himself, than falling upon anything tantamount to an artifact. If I may lift yet another fitting invocation from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)—despite our best efforts, we didn’t find “doodly squat.” Best of all, our foolproof advice had erred in one critical capacity: the creek, our suggested site of archaeological fame, did not actually reside on the Callaway property. Rather, it meanders along the boundary of a well-marked hunting club lease. With two aspiring excavators suspiciously traipsing around the private property of several well-armed strangers in rural Georgia, what could have possibly gone wrong?
The trip home gave us ample opportunity to assess where we’d gone wrong. Like all good leaders, we blamed our bad luck on faulty intelligence. Surely, had there actually been arrowheads to find in that creek, two ace historians such as us would have unearthed them, right? As more miles passed, better judgment prevailed—we would just never tell anyone about our ill-fated odyssey. Clearly, that pact didn’t endure long. Parts of the story are just too entertaining to bury (more entertaining, I might add, than any Crystal Skull nonsense for which certain parties who will remain unnamed here should be ashamed of themselves). With our silence broken, we can now return to our initial questions: How in the hell did we get there? What in the hell were we thinking? The answers, I think, actually uncover some worthwhile historical perspective. Our half-cocked southern treasure hunt spanned two historic plantation homes, one cultural landmark (if you don’t think so, take it up with Grave Digger), and a slew of memorable human interactions (the stuff of oral history legend, no doubt). Granted, we probably had a better shot at finding Confederate gold under the Washington Library than any Native American relics, but the basic curiosity underlying this search for the raw materials of history thoroughly reveals why we do what we do in the first place. Sure, the pulled pork was incredible and an arrowhead or two would’ve been nice, but an inherent drive for historical inquiry (and later commentary) was always, if subconsciously, at the core of the equation. Take that, Tony Horwitz.