A Sunday Tradition and Encounter
I believe friends, tradition and nature feed our souls. In early October 2007, a friend of mine and I were returning home from a Sunday lunch of southern food, a weekly pilgrimage for me, to a small Main Street café in South Georgia. Sunday lunch or dinner as it is sometimes called in the south, includes fried chicken, garden vegetables, homemade desserts and sweet tea. A treat well worth the 20 mile drive through pine plantations, dappled with foxhunters on horseback, retrieving Labradors on nearby ponds and an occasional fox squirrel foraging on the roadside. The drive each Sunday is not only for the food, but an attempt by me to revive those childhood memories of people in the south, gathered together over a traditional southern meal after church. Whether at my grandmother’s house, a family reunion, or “dinner on the ground” as it was called at rural southern churches, Sunday dinner was a time for friends and family. The trip I make each week resonates of times gone by, now shared with new friends.
Cruising down the rural two lane country road headed for home, my friend and I talked about how hot it had been and whether we thought we would have a real fall this year or not. Having had a few days of slightly cooler weather, only to have that turn into heat and humidity, we hoped winter would not just jump in and take over. We needed a respite from the summer’s heat.
My friend and I can both talk the ears off of a billy goat. Our curiosity about most any subject, keeps us talking non stop when we are together. This Sunday was no different. Bouncing over the uneven rural road, pondering God only knows what; we noticed a gopher turtle as we call them in the south, clawing its way over a small concrete bridge. Trapped by the concrete footer, we worried it would be killed by an unaware motorist. Speeding by, a marking on his back, caught our eye. Sure it was a fish and wildlife tag number to track this diminishing creature; we pulled over and ran back to him, stopping to stare at his back. The bright fluorescent orange letters scribbled on his beautiful shell were a mystery. Maybe it was the letters signifying the agency that was tracking him but we weren’t sure. I picked him up and moved him to the grassy shoulder, watching to make sure he did not return to the bridge. As we prepared to leave, he appeared, clawing his way back on to the road, only to be trapped again by the second of the double bridges. Waiting to make sure he cleared the second bridge, the sound of an approaching car got our attention. Sprinting to his side, I once again picked him up to deliver him to safety. Noticing his back again, I finally made out the words with missing parts. It was “Rufus” scribbled in bright orange paint. Rufus. Someone’s pet! Did he escape or did they let him go? I couldn’t help but think he escaped, as he was a tortoise on a mission, moving fast as though he had some place to be on this overcast Sunday afternoon.
Grasping each side and holding him at a distance, I remembered a previous encounter with a tortoise. The downpour would rival a small cow. I never knew tortoises could hold so much water.
Waving his claws, trying to get loose, I held on to him, maneuvering to the clay road, only a few feet ahead. It looked like the perfect place for Rufus, surely keeping him out of harm’s way. I put him down once again, watching as he dug his claws into the ground, tearing off at a very fast pace. Continuing on his mission, my friend and I delighted that Rufus was moving to safety, away from speeding traffic and perhaps death.
I learned as a child that each fall, turtles and snakes crawl into semi hibernation in north Florida and South Georgia. A true sign that fall is on its way and a dangerous time for reptiles on the highway. Meteorologists may not predict the weather flawlessly, but turtles and snakes somehow know when to begin their journey each year. Gopher holes, always a fascination for me, carried my father’s warning that I should watch out for rattlesnakes too. Seemingly unlikely roommates, the rattlesnake shares the gopher’s den as does many other animal species. Although now Endangered in South Georgia and of special concern in North Florida, during the depression, Rufus and his kin were known as “Hoover Chickens”. The scarcity of food made gopher tortoises a reliable food source.
I think about Rufus from time to time. It is a sure thing that each spring as tortoises and snakes crawl out of hibernation and crawl back in the fall, as I travel this beautiful country road, I will look closely at the backs of gopher turtles. Typically staying in their range and believed to live in excess of 60 years, it is very possible I will see Rufus again. I sure hope so.