Photojournalist's love letter to
Ga. Highway 83. Story and photos
by Kevin Liles, for the AJC.
Driving my favorite part of Ga. Highway 83, it's easy to lose track of time. With only an occasional house or rusted fence to break up the miles of pine trees, irrigated cornfields and rolling pastures dotted with anthills, driving easily takes a back seat to my thoughts.
Deemed a Scenic Byway by the state, Ga. 83 is an 86.5-mile two-lane road that traverses from Monroe south to Forsyth, passing through the Oconee National Forest and crossing the Ocmulgee River along the way. Its shoulders are so narrow at times, road signs fight for real estate among the milkweed and oak saplings.
I haven't driven Ga. 83 from beginning to end, but the 35-mile stretch from Bostwick to Monticello has been a part of my life since I was 12. It connects the hamlet of Bostwick, where I grew up, to Madison, where I went to school, and to a handful of other towns I've lived in my 36 years.
As a kid riding the school bus, I can remember staring through the scratched windows at the rows and rows of young loblolly pines near the highway's intersection with Nolan Store Road and wondering if the deer liked the neat arrangement, or if they preferred the natural disorder of the forest, like God made it.
When the state repaved Ga. 83 in the early 1990s, I remember following behind the road crew on my bicycle, weaving through the freshly painted dashes and stripes on that hot summer asphalt, coating my tires with yellow reflective paint.
PHOTO: The Bostwick cotton gin, owned by the Ruark family, has been in operation since the 1920s and is still operational.
My first job was at the Bostwick cotton gin. I was 15 and would park my faded yellow dirt bike on the shoulder of Ga. 83, just outside the gin's sliding tin door. I wanted everyone to know I was big enough to work.
Back then Ga. 83 didn't mean much to me. It was just a road, like any other, that got me from point A to point B. But it took on greater meaning when I moved to Barnesville to attend Gordon College. Like many folks, my late teenage years weren't the easiest; rebellion and scrapes with the law didn't mix too well with the deeply conservative, traditional home and community I grew up in. Ga. 83 represented freedom to me — freedom from the small town judgments and ways I had grown weary of.
PHOTO: Ga. 83 becomes Main Street when you enter the town of Shady Dale, and it passes by Robby and Cindy's Cafe and an abandoned snow cone stand.
Even when I wasn't excited about returning home, I always looked forward to the drive. I can remember the first smells of spring rushing through the cab of my truck and how alive everything felt. From Barnesville, I would pick up Ga. 83 in Monticello and follow it up through the one-stop town of Shady Dale, past the decades-old cafe and abandoned snow cone stand. In Madison I would turn left at Ye Old Colonial Restaurant and end my journey in Bostwick.
Over the next several years, I lived below the Fall Line, attending Valdosta State and later working as a reporter for the Moultrie Observer. I landed in Griffin the summer of 2004, starting a job as a photojournalist for the Griffin Daily News. I would spend the better part of the next 10 years in that city. All that time, Ga. 83 was still the way back home.
Whenever possible, I would time my trips home in the warmer months so I could glide through at dusk, when the light turned blue and the crickets started their song. With all four windows down and the thick Georgia humidity swirling around me, it was like a baptism in a South Georgia black water river. I felt cleansed.
At some point, I began to take photographs on my drive. Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs I have taken in my lifetime, I have more of this road than any other.
Last February I moved to Atlanta. Now my drive home is an 80-mph ride out the colorless I-20. It's a lot faster, but it's hard to reflect on anything, the interstate's whine competing with my thoughts. The whole thing has the monotony of a plane ride — you get on and you get off. Nothing revelatory happens on interstates — there's nothing new to see, nothing to carry you away.
Like the time I came upon a man driving an electric wheelchair along Ga. 83's steep hills just north of Monticello. His name was Ron Beekman, and he was just out for a drive.
"How far is Monticello?" he asked me when I stopped to talk. I told him it was about three or four miles. He nodded and assured me that he had more than enough battery to get there.
Though Ga. 83 isn't my route back to Bostwick anymore, I still take it when I can. Like when a song changes meaning through the years, Ga. 83 continually reveals new things to me — things that help me get lost in my thoughts and gain a better perspective. It's a song I don't think I'll ever tire of hearing.
One of the many scenic fields that line Ga. 83 between Bostwick and Monticello.
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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kevin Liles is an Atlanta-based editorial and commercial photographer. A Georgia native, Kevin has worked as a reporter and photographer for several newspapers before going freelance in 2007. A regular contributor to The New York Times, he has also done work for Sports Illustrated, NPR, USA Today, the Atlanta Falcons and Clayton State University.