Last fall, I applied to seven graduate schools of journalism and writing. One of them was Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD.) In January, I signed up for a student visit day and decided to make a road trip out of it. I spent three days visiting my aunt in Charleston, South Carolina before heading to explore the "Hostess City of the South"- Savannah, Georgia.
Day 1: Thursday January 28
I left Charleston mid-morning with the sky threatening rain. Inching along Highway 17, I wondered whether I would make it to my campground on Tybee Island, Georgia before the downpour. With a three hour drive ahead, I had nothing but time and road.
South Carolina's coastal region is known as "The Low Country." Humid, swampy, and flat, it stretches 200 miles along the Atlantic Ocean. It is in part defined by the "ACE Basin," an estuary of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and South Edisto Rivers.
The Low Country occupies a particular cultural and culinary place in the South. This is the land of shrimp-and-grits, but it is also the land of antebellum plantation homes. It is impossible to separate the legacy of slavery from this land.
One important feature of the Low Country is the Gullah heritage. The Gullah are the descendants of slaves who were brought to this region. The Gullah have retained some cultural and linguistic ties to West Africa. "Gullah" language is also sometimes referred to as "Geechee" or "Creole," which is a blend of traditional African languages, English, and French. This is different from the Louisiana Creole, however.
A few interesting political figures of our day have roots in the Low Country. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up speaking Gullah in Pin Point, Georgia. He attended high school in Savannah, where he was the only African-American student. A few years ago, the Chicago Sun Times ran a story about First Lady Michelle Obama's family roots in a Low Country slave plantation.
After about three hours of driving southeast from Charleston, I crossed into Georgia. At some state lines, the sign has this warm greeting alongside a rendering of a juicy peach: "Welcome, We're glad Georgia's on your mind" - a reference to the well-known Ray Charles song.
I always smile when I see those signs.
I told some family and friends that I would be camping near Savannah instead of staying in a hotel downtown. Some of them thought this was a little (or a lot) nutty. But the hotels in Savannah were expensive for one person, the local hostel was booked, and even searches on Air BnB were turning up pricey results. At $23/night, the campground was a steal. Plus, it was fully developed with showers and facilities, so I would still be able to look presentable for my campus visits. The temperature wasn't going to dip below 40 at night, so that wouldn't be a problem. I have really come to embrace camping as a hotel alternative, and in this case it worked out well.
One of the main industries here is shrimping. The waterways in and around Savannah and Tybee Island are littered with docks and boats of all sizes and conditions. It takes about a half hour to get from Savannah to Tybee Island. You pass over three bridges lined with palm trees. Long stretches of Atlantic coast spread out to your left and right. Once on the island, you quickly notice the vacation kitsch of the place. There is certainly a Key West vibe.
I arrived at River's End Campground around 2:30. The place is geared toward RVers and snowbirds fleeing the cold north, but they do have some tent sites. I quickly set up my tent, changed into more professional clothes, and hopped back in the car to head to the city.
My class visit was scheduled for 5:00-7:30 at Arnold Hall, the building that houses SCAD's writing, art history, and other humanities classes. I sat in on Professor Lee Griffith's Book Publishing class, in which students learn how to write and pitch book proposals to editors and publishing houses. SCAD prides itself on setting students up for professional success in creative fields, not simply teaching them creative methods and setting them free, like some art schools tend to do. So for the writing program, SCAD emphasizes practical skills like knowing how to communicate with editors, prepare business writing documents, and market yourself as a writer.
I think this is so important. A lot of MFA programs simply release newly minted writers into the world. Sure, MFA students have terminal degrees and are technically qualified to teach at the university level. Besides the fact that college level writing positions are far and few between, many writing students fresh out of an MFA likely haven't worked jobs except as teaching assistants or editors at the school's literary magazine. Perhaps they are good or even great writers, but they might not be prepared for actual employment. It's no easy feat to make a living as a poet or short story writer, the two tracks that MFA programs tend to offer. The real world is much bigger and competitive, and some amount of non-fiction writing skills are essential to paying the bills.
I chose not to apply to traditional MFA programs because I felt I would not get a marketable degree that would lead to full time employment as a writer. While SCAD is an MFA program, it is the only one I applied to - my other schools offer specifically Masters in Journalism programs - and I think SCAD can still be a pragmatic choice for a writing degree because of its "business savvy" curriculum.
At any rate, my class visit went well. I grabbed a quick dinner after and returned to the campground to crash in my tent.
Day 2: Friday January 29
This was my "free day." I had no SCAD obligations, so I was able to explore the city on my own. I woke fairly early at camp and hit the road by 8:30. I found a great cafe, The Sentient Bean, and spent an hour or so catching up on emails and planning my day.
It was 55, sunny, and breezy. Perfect for a day of sightseeing. The cafe was right across from the entrance to Forsyth Park, perhaps one of Savannah's most defining features.
Forsyth Park is famous for its drooping, moss-covered live oak trees lining the walking path, as well as the central fountain.
The park is serene, filled with old Southern charm. College kids sunned on the grass, parents pushed strollers, and dogs happily chased frisbees. Forsyth Park is movie-scene perfect.
Exploring downtown Savannah on foot is easy enough if you follow Bull Street through a series of "squares" leading north from Forsyth Park to the river. In total, there are 22 squares in the city.
Chippewa Square is particularly special, as it is the location for the famous "bench" scenes from Forrest Gump. The actual bench that Tom Hanks sat on was just a prop and is on display in the Savannah History Museum, but the square makes for a good photo op.
Other squares commemorate historical figures, battles, or events. One especially significant place is the former Union Army Headquarters during the Civil War.
Other famous landmarks in Savannah include the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and Bonaventure Cemetery.
Bonaventure Cemetery was made famous to a wider audience when one of the statues in the cemetery, known as "Bird Girl," was used on the cover of the New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Published in 1994, the non-fiction/true-crime book is based on events in 1980s Savannah involving the murder of a male prostitute. Eccentric characters include the locally famous drag queen Lady Chablis, the University of Georgia bulldog mascot known as Uga, several lawyers, a "voodoo doctor", and many more.
I haven't read it, but intend to. The book spent 216 weeks on the NYT bestseller list and was made into a movie starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the cemetery to check out one of the spookier settings in the city.
At any rate, I walked through many squares and admired the landmarks. I grabbed a quick lunch and, when the day really warmed up, decided to head back to camp for some beach time. I spent an hour or so admiring the flat, calm Atlantic and enjoying the warmth. I didn't venture back into the city for dinner, instead going to a pizza joint not 800 feet from the campground entrance, and tucking in early since I had a full day ahead.
Day 3: Saturday January 30
This was SCAD Day- a full slate of events for potential SCAD students. I woke early and packed up camp, since it was my last day, and drove over the bridges one last time.
SCAD Day is for both undergrads and graduate students, and it's not necessarily for admitted students. We began at 9:00 with a reception at the fashion building, with coffee and light breakfast. An hour long graduate admission panel was held upstairs, and after that the day was hours to attend tours, program-specific events, etc. We all got "swag bags" of SCAD gear. Being a design school, anything that SCAD produces is cleverly branded. Everything is colorful, cheeky, and functional. I could tell that they pride themselves on design and utility.
I visited a few campus building, including the library, and had lunch at a dining hall (for free, thanks SCAD!) before heading back to Arnold Hall for the writing program's visit day. Professor Griffith, my host from Thursday night, was there, and we were able to talk alone for about an hour about the program. I got a good feel for SCAD's philosophy, and I could see that writers could flourish in this city.
I lingered for a bit, and decided to pile back into the car around 2:00 for my four hour drive home. It was a superb day: 65 and brilliantly sunny. The fall-colored leaves that scattered the ground seemed out of place. For January, it felt like a dream.
I think if there is one word to describe Savannah, it is just that: dreamy. Everything feels slow, meandering, wistful. The air is heavy with humidity, and also with the slightly foul river scent. Savannah is sort of a contrast between beauty and reality, secrecy and the light of day. On the surface, it radiates Southern grace and charm. But like any place, there are demons, whether it is crime, or the lingering effects of slavery, racism, and Southern history. This is not to say that I found Savannah to be a cruel place. On the contrary, it seemed as progressive as it gets in the South. But I was only there for three days, and I was there from a tourist/visitor prospective. I am sure there are tensions between the bubble of SCAD students and the actual Savannah residents, as in any college town.
There is so much I didn't get to explore. I barely hit any of the city's famed bars or speakeasies, barbecue joints or bakeries, galleries or museums. I only scratched the surface of the literary and artistic pulse of the south.
I'll close with perhaps the best tribute to the state, from the great Ray Charles: