And after going there, I'm not sure why anyone would want to.
To be fair, my expectations may have been set a bit high. When I planned a trip down south with Keith about a month ago, I envisioned an idyllic and charming southern experience like something out of The Notebook, or Forrest Gump. My packing reflected this; I jammed my most Daisy Duke-like shorts into a suitcase, expecting the weather to be warm. It wasn't. It was about the same temperature 800 miles north of Georgia in Wisconsin. So much for those Dukes.
Weather aside, there were other reasons why my trip down south wasn't exactly what I expected. I'm sure there are Spanish moss covered houses and charming southern relics that exist somewhere in the state of Georgia (and the other southern states we passed through; Tennessee, Kentucky). But we did not see them. They were highly outnumbered by the nauseating urban sprawl that dominated the majority of the drive. The abandoned barns and rolling hills I expected were replaced with NRA billboards and Chick-Fil-As. Many of the towns looked to us like "Waukeshas of the south" (no, that is not a good thing).
It is fortunate that Keith and I had a particular destination in mind, or I really wouldn't have too many nice things to say about the part of Georgia that we drove through (in fact we mostly cracked a recurring joke about "hill people" throughout the ride, a claim that my southern-born roommate asserts is not too far off track. Yes, we are pretentious northerners). Perhaps the worst town of all was Summerville. I don't think I saw one charming relic whatsoever. Fast food and neon signs dominated the town, an old southern village which claims on its website to have a variety of parks and green spaces, and other cute southern-y railroad things. Websites are bullshit.
When we finally, finally, FINALLY got off the winding mountain road that led us to our denouement, I was almost certain we had made a terrible mistake in coming to this hick town in the middle of nowhere. I'm not trying to be rude, but that's what it was. A hick town with no visible redeeming qualities. In fact its only redeeming quality is basically invisible. Off the main road, down a dirt road, past another road. And there it was. Paradise.
Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, Summerville, GA
I don't think I have ever been more relieved to reach a destination before this moment. Suddenly everything felt okay. We weren't going to get eaten by hill people. We parked our car, approached the visitors center, and were greeted with warm and welcoming smiles. I always feel relaxed in the presence of art, but this was nirvana.
The grounds were to close in two hours, but we didn't have to rush because we were spending the night. We had rented an "artist-designed cabin in Paradise" from Airbnb for $150 (totally worth it, if you ever decide to go here). We didn't really know what to expect, but after seeing the other options available in Summerville, we were very relieved to have chosen this. We not only got to sleep right across the street from Paradise, but we got keys to the grounds, and were allowed free range of the gardens at night. I think we were both a little bit in awe that we were just handed the keys to one of coolest things we had ever seen.
After a brief tour from a new employee, the staff drove away, and we had it all to ourselves. The only real rule was "lock up the gate at night." The executive director of the gardens, Jordan Poole, gave us a recommendation for a restaurant in town. We considered it for a brief moment but then changed our minds. After seeing the abysmal town of Summerville in comparison to the beautiful gardens, we didn't want to leave, and chose instead to scavenge a dinner from leftover scraps that previous guests had left behind. It was all we needed, because we were in Paradise.
After dinner we were eager to walk through the gardens again. I was delighted that there were two cats, Calvin and his brother Hobbes, running around the grounds (of course there are cats in Paradise). They seemed happy to have us, too. A stream ran through the gardens and tiny fish scurried away in every direction as we tiptoed around the mosaic boardwalk. The white dogwoods blooming in Georgia's early spring blew in the breeze. As the sun went down behind the mountains and the magic hour approached, I felt totally at peace with the world. I forgot where we were. I forgot all about the sprawl, and the fact that we were just in some other boring American neighborhood right across from some boring people in some boring houses who were probably NRA members. I had always envisioned Paradise Gardens to be some extension of a quaint and cozy little town that was already a paradise of its own; the Summerville that Summerville's misleading website depicts. But if that were the case, would Paradise Gardens even exist at all? Would Howard Finster have wanted to change what he saw out his window everyday?
Cat "Calvin" following us around the grounds
The mirror house at the magic hour
Enjoying the gardens after hours
Lit gardens after sunset
Interior of artist-designed cabin (designer Summer Loftin)
From our sunny arrival, to our nighttime explorations, to our morning coffee, we received a more fulfilling experience of the gardens than most people who visit for an afternoon or on a tour usually receive. But looking back on it now, I wish we would have stayed two nights. There's no rush to leave
paradise, go back to reality, and back to the sprawl. Next time I visit, I won't drive the whole way because now I know exactly what lies between here and paradise, and I would prefer to bypass it. I remember a particularly obnoxious billboard in the middle of Indiana: HELL IS REAL. Painted in huge white letters on a black background. Yes, it is. It's called middle America and it is depressing. It's no wonder that people like Howard Finster and other outsider artists create surreal environments for themselves. Howard Finster has been called a "visionary," but that's not really how I see it. Finster was just better at reinterpreting the American landscape than the rest of us are. Paradise isn't some far away place on an island in the middle of the ocean. Paradise is right in our backyards, existing as a necessary means to escape from the American hellscape that surrounds us.
In other words, Summerville could maybe be beautiful underneath all those neon signs. I'm trying really hard to convince myself of that.