TYBEE ISLAND, GEORGIA
At the end of May, Tybee Islanders lay siege to one another in an epic water battle known as The Beach Bum Parade. Scores of tropics- and pirate-themed floats launch from the north end of the island to drive down Butler Avenue with tubs and garbage cans filled with aquatic ammunition while hundreds of islanders and tourists line the street ready to fight back with their plastic bazookas, buckets and hoses. It’s a bad day to leave your car windows down or have your hair done, but it’s a great day for childlike abandon.
The event is a snapshot of life on Tybee—a three-mile-long world of simple pleasures where people don’t take themselves too seriously, even though it lies just eighteen miles over marsh islands and bridges from Savannah’s elite historic district and just across the river from Hilton Head Island's gated communities and golf carts. There are million-dollar mansions here as well as trailers; there are pristine dunes and a beautifully restored lighthouse on the North Beach as well as smoky bars and souvenir shops on the South end of the island. There are movie stars and generations-deep shrimpers, there are loggerhead turtles and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (among the biggest in the country—some reaching nearly 100 pounds). Tybee is one of the most diverse island ecosystems in the country, lying between Caribbean and North Atlantic migration roots. A great blue heron and snowy egret might flap down simultaneously to land in opposition on a felled scrub oak trunk, or a pelican’s pterodactyl-like wings will cast a fleeting shadow across the beach. Wild life comes in human and animal forms; it’s a welcoming habitat for both.
Locals talk about how many bridges they’re willing to cross to go off island—generally, fewer with each passing year—and indulge in good ol’ gossip, like speculation about a boat scuttled for a local politician to earn seed money for an island restaurant, and the outing of domestic scuffles listed in The Tybee Breeze. It’s a place where Tony Arrata, who penned Garth Brook’s classic “The Dance” used to play his guitar on the porch of Fort Screven’s old munitions building, and where chef Jodee Sadowsky serves killer shrimp and grits at the divey Breakfast Club (and also catered JFK Jr.’s wedding on neighboring Cumberland Island). Feel free to bike around with a “traveler” in your handlebar koozie when you leave Doc’s Bar after marsh crab races, or try your luck at b-i-n-g-o at the American Legion Hall Post 154 on Friday nights.
It’s a good life here “at the end of the road,” one that’s sustained Euchee hunters, Spanish missionaries, English pirates and now a few thousand year-round residents and the tourists and Savannah residents who flock east on Route 80 to the breezes each summer. It’s a place where good Samaritans stop on the highway to safely return turtles to the marsh and colorful turns of phrase make ordinary conversations memorable. It’s also a place where a middle-aged man propels himself on a skateboard with a crutch, and dolphins leap out of the marsh just yards from your car. You never know who or what you’re going to see on Tybee, but it’s always a great show.