right up the road

Nestled in the northeastern corner of Georgia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Central Appalachians, sits the quiet, unassuming town of Clayton. It comprises a little over three square miles, an area some 2,400 people call home. If you were a resident of Clayton and you wished to spend the day in another state, you'd have three to choose from: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. All are within relatively short driving distance, accessible by some of the most scenic stretches of highway in the southeastern U.S.

But if you lived in Clayton, Georgia - and in particular, on the shores of Clayton's manmade reservoir known as Lake Burton - I'm not sure why you'd want to leave at all.

On the Monday after Bonnaroo ended, Terence and I and a bus full of exhausted revelers rode from Manchester back to Nashville, where we boarded planes to wherever it was we'd come from. Well, not all of us. Not me. I stayed right where I was, in a hotel adjacent to the airport that I booked online, sight unseen. I ordered a pizza, soaked my festival-sore body in the tub, and fell asleep by 9pm. All according to plan, in other words.

In the morning I hopped a shuttle to the rental car terminal, where I loaded up a Dodge Journey with all the clothes Terence hadn't schlepped back home for me, plus my laptop, iPad, and Gorillapod. I started my sat-nav, crossed my fingers for an uneventful five hour drive, and set forth on what turned out to be one of the best weeks of my life.

I only had to stop for directions twice.

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The route from Nashville to Lake Burton that Google chose for me that day starts out unremarkably. A few hours of flat-to-mildy-hilly monotony, southeast through Tennessee farmland, before beginning to flirt with the Georgia state line a few towns west of Chattanooga. That's where the landscape gets interesting. And by interesting I mean distractingly gorgeous. The green of the Central Appalachian mountains isn't like the green of other forests. It's an insistent green, brighter and younger-seeming than the woods out west. A green that threatens to swallow you up, if you dare step into it. And you'll have many chances to take that dare. SEE Ruby Falls beckons the side of a decaying barn, an invitation painted in huge letters, white on cheery, cherry red. Explore Breathtaking Ruby Falls urges the next, five miles down the freeway. SEE Ruby Falls, LOOKOUT MTN. The signs so frequent, so insistent you feel guilty disobeying them.

But your hosts are expecting you, and it's getting late. So you skip Ruby Falls, which is probably chock full of tourists, anyway. You have a feeling better, more seldom-seen sights await you. So you press on, through mountain country, then lake country, dipping in and out of states you've never set foot in, losing cell phone service, hoping your GPS hasn't betrayed you, wondering, if you had to, if you could even read those two paper Rand McNallys you bought in a mild panic at the general store, where the lady with the crinkly eyes assured you Yep, Georgia's right up the road! It's been a long time since that semester of social studies.

Though wow does your jaw drop when you enter Cherokee National Forest, snaking along next to the Ocoee River where sturdy lodges with canoes and kayaks out front promise adventure. Whitewater Rafting! Walk-ins welcome. Or the one that really tugs at you: Canopy Zip Line Tours. Maybe on the way back. Yes, you tell yourself. On the way back. I could even stay a night down here, rent a little cabin by the water. Why not? Haven't bought my return ticket yet. Play it by ear. For now, though, you have to keep going, tempted as you are to stop at the vacant pullouts alongside the road. Just listen to the rushing water. Just get a good look at this unbelievable place. But no. Bill and Hannah are waiting, the sun is sinking, and your night vision is terrible. You can stop all you want, on the way back to Nashville. And you will.

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Bill comes downstairs barefoot, to show me where to park. A cocoa-colored labradoodle circles his legs excitedly. Ziggy! I carefully inch the SUV around the tightly curving path, trying to collect my suddenly scrambled thoughts as I look up and realize (Oh my god, it's right on the) that the home I'd been invited to stay at (water, it's actually RIGHT ON THE WATER) isn't in the suburbs, tucked away in some smallish town like I imagined, a quick drive or at best a decent walk to the water. It's an honest-to-goodness lake house. It's on the lake. This house is on the fucking lake.

I explode out of the car to greet the 87 year-old friend I've seen, before today, only twice in my life.

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to be continued...