One tank trip: Enjoy nature and history together with a camping trip to Jekyll Island

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

A linguistics professor remarked in class once how, after a long day of designing SAT test questions, she and her colleagues debated aspects of human nature. They agreed that people have a strong desire for affiliation — to belong somewhere, to something — and in order for that to happen, we have to understand what sets us apart.

As humans, we share a quest for distinction. We want what separates and defines to help us navigate social groups, structures, and community in finding where we belong.

If you were a turn-of-the-century shipping magnate, oil baron, publishing mogul, or other wildly successful businessman, you knew wealth was your top distinction and sought to mingle with people similarly distinguished. In 1886, the Jekyll Island Club launched as private hunting retreat, uniting Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer and more top-tier gentry for three months each year until 1942. At the beginning of the 20th century, the club represented 1/6 of the world’s total wealth.

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

But time can be a patient equalizer.

At just over 90 miles south of Savannah and under two hours away, what was once an exclusive playground for America’s ultra rich is now a vacation paradise for everyone. 2022 marks 75 years of Jekyll Island as a Georgia State Park, and you, too, can check out this naturally beautiful and history-rich island get-away. Camping is integral to these one-tank adventures, and Jekyll Island Campground offers $33-a-night primitive sites and $48-a-night pull-through RV spots. The 12 tent sites are in a back corner of the camp, in the middle of which, a fenced-off sanctuary harbors birdbath, multiple birdhouses, and a collection of 30 types of birdfeeders. To which my site was immediately adjacent.

A 15-year labor of love, 90 year-old, Elliot Corbett, maintains the structures and replenishes seed everyday. The bird sanctuary is funded completely with donations. He was re-filling white millet as I set up camp.

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

“The hardest is keeping everything squirrel-proof,” chuckled Corbett. “Those thick center pipes on the feeders are impossible for squirrels to climb, and the domes on top help keep raccoons out. We get all kinds of people from all over in the spring and fall just to see the birds. Painted buntings are very popular this time of year, hence the millet.”

After setting up the tent, I hopped on my bike and pedaled about three of the island’s 25 miles of designated bike path to the Historic District. I booked a 9:30 a.m. tour at Mosaic Museum then pedaled back past camp to Driftwood Beach to grab my own images of those iconic Jekyll Island trees still anchored in the surf.

As the setting sun filtered through mossy branches, I saw only a handful of riders and pedestrians winding along the pathway.

At Driftwood Beach, however, I wasn’t unique in my quest. A small militia — ok, maybe 40 people — climbed on sun-bleached logs trying to access the best branches without slipping into high tide. People laughed, joked; I agreed to take pictures of newlyweds; kids played pirate and chased each other in the sand. It was lovely. And easy to belong together as strangers reveling in surreal seascape at day’s end.

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

The next morning around 5:30 a.m. a chattering flock of something large — maybe egrets? — rousted me. The trees blazed quickly into loud motion. I slipped from the tent, put on bug spray and slid into a lawn swing near the sanctuary, silently merging with the background.

Hummingbird silhouettes materialized and receded. A pileated woodpecker clung to a live oak on the other side of the sanctuary as two rival Carolina wrens provoked each other on the fence inches from my face. Squirrels passed at my feet. Not being a bird didn’t make me feel as if I didn’t belong in the moment. I was part of a scene of species going through their morning motions.On time and at the last minute, I biked to the Mosaic Museum for the tour. Historical interpreter, Cathy Haase, pilots a red, multi-car, golf cart-sized trolley through the district and speaks about the island’s early history, club’s origin, and the families who could afford the prestigious membership.

In the nine years Haase has been leading tours, she’s meticulously memorized names, dates, and places, delivering them in well-timed vignettes often punctuated with wry punch lines in keeping with her reserved tone and whip-smart personality.

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Haase emphasized that we can thank former Georgia governor M.E. Thompson for Jekyll Island. When club members evacuated in 1942 because of World War II, Jekyll sat abandoned, leaving structural maintenance largely undone as well as a heap of unpaid taxes.

The few remaining members were reluctant to sell when Thompson first reached out to them, but they soon realized there was little they could do given the amount of back taxes. In 1947, M.E. Thompson acquired Jekyll Island for the State of Georgia for $675,000.

Everyone gets into the club, now, and thousands of visitors do each year, experiencing first-hand what it might have been like as a Rockefeller or Pulitzer on winter retreat.

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Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

If tent camping isn’t your thing, for around $300-a-night, you can book a room at the Jekyll Island Club Resort. But even on a tent budget, you can still dine at the club, drink good coffee, and check out many of the structures in the historic district.

For the record, I think my former professor missed it. Instead of distinction as the thing that unites, I think overlapping spheres of connection help us find our place. And there’s a place for you on Jekyll Island.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: One tank trip: Enjoy nature and history together with a camping trip to Jekyll Island