by Tim Gilmore, 3/5/2020
1. Legend Tripping
Though long abandoned, the Riverside Motel, by the Florida-Georgia state line at the St. Mary’s River, still takes lodgers. Yes, the floors and the doors have rotten away. Yes, the mattresses decompose, contaminated, in the middle of wasted rooms. Wasps, however, hang their pulpwood nests on crumbling curtains and mud daubers coat the walls with their long earthen tunnels. I’ll wait to tell you how many bird nests we found.
And an abandoned motel and liquor store attracts urban legends and legend trippers along with the wrens and rats. Legendary “urban explorers” like David Bullet have photographed the motel and St. Mary’s Liquors, as have young bloggers who claim they’ve fought “evil entities” called the “Flesh Rippers of Jacksonville,” and young “Urbexxers” calling themselves Sugarbomb and Flowerbomb.
These days, “urban legends” spread most virally through the internet and aren’t solely urban. When young people make pilgrimages to the real-world settings for such stories, the fact that these places exist seems to confirm the veracity of the stories themselves. Obviously, statistics don’t exist for legend trips like they do for Disney World, but surely “legend tripping,” the name folklorists and Urbexxers give these pilgrimages, has become the great underreported American pastime.
These corridors, this crumbling souvenir shop, these rooms with stacks of 1970s television sets, like a folk-art version of a Nam June Paik exhibition, this tiny open closet with a faded red dress still draped on a hanger, twisted and hardened in its own rigor mortis, they offer a kind of salvation. There’s meaning because there are stories.
2. Nellie and Knud
Even apart from that final tragedy, the years the police considered Nellie missing, when Knud decided he couldn’t run the business without her, unless that story covers a truer one, the Olforts left traces.
Most of all stories are lost. Almost everyone who’s ever lived has disappeared completely. Sometimes the lives from the past that intrigue us most are not those best documented. They’re the faded figures who walk before us in the faintest of outlines.
They have a name, a birthplace, a year nailed here and there to a place on a map, an occasional record. Nellie and Knud are like that.
In 1918, Nellie Vanzant was born in Nassau County, just north of Jacksonville, where she lived her whole life, one of 10 children born to parents also born in Nassau County. Her recorded death date could never have been correct. It failed to take into account the years she was “missing,” and months lapsed from the date her remains were found to the official recording of her death.
When you know the story from the end, you can never appreciate it rightly from its earlier years, within its earlier years, when Nellie and Knud lived each day not imagining their deaths, not thinking of themselves, backward, from a time when they would not be.
Census records list Nellie’s childhood address as “the second dwelling” on “the middle road” in Nassau County. Knud had come from another world, born in Denmark, immigrating at age six or seven with his family, his mother Maria and father Axel, to Chicago.
Whatever brought Knud Howard Olfort south, a “K.H. Olford” [sic] divorced someone named Genevieve, who was born in Wisconsin, in Nassau County, population approximately 10,500, in 1939. The 1945 census listed a 38 year old Genevive [sic] Olfort, born in Wisconsin, a “housewife” at “Fla. State Hospital” in Gadsden County, Florida’s only state mental institution, just west of Tallahassee. Nellie and Knud married in Nassau County on March 17, 1943.
In 1954, Nellie and Knud opened their motel and lounge just under the state line between Florida and Georgia. Interstate 95 had not yet carved its way across the East Coast, demolishing urban neighborhoods in Jacksonville and Miami, and smaller highways still connected this vast continent, roads like U.S. 17, sweeping down Georgia through North Florida and Jacksonville.
Sundays in Georgia were “dry days,” days you couldn’t buy alcohol in the Peach State. So Nellie and Knud positioned their fiefdom just across the St. Mary’s River in Florida, inviting Georgians to dip down to the Sunshine State, buy a fifth of gin or a gallon of rum or an unofficial non-measurement of illicit distillations of sour mash whiskey, moonshine, and bring it up over the line.
On tourist routes on backwoods byways in 1960, New Jersey dads in too-tight short-sleeved Hawaiian-print button-up shirts brought families, because they felt responsible for them and because they resented feeling responsible for them, to rural roadside shops where the kids bought just-hatched alligators and mothers bought possibly toxic cocktails shelved in old coconuts.
In 1975, runaway moms from New Jersey or dads fleeing families they resented feeling responsible for, bought neon-painted alligator jaws in the souvenir shop beside the lounge where a two-ton oakwood mirrored back bar held a bottle of every most dangerous concoction distilled or brewed in the Deep South.
In 1993, Callahan and Yulee kids escaped to the big city of Jacksonville, just south, where they’d heard you could find Everclear and see “monster trucks” drive over and crush smaller pickups and regular-sized automobiles. Meanwhile, on that bygone byway, the weird old man with the funny accent—hadn’t he come from some foreign place like France or San Francisco?—couldn’t keep his place up. It collapsed. Things grew into and over it. The old woman was gone.
They said he’d let the place go, was hiding something, or hiding her, running people off his property, defending his “reasonable expectation of privacy,” as guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment.
Did it matter he’d divorced his first wife and committed her to a psychiatric institution? And did it matter than Knud married Nellie and left Genevieve to languish in the land of lobotomies and electroshock? Hadn’t Nellie’s and Knud’s marriage lasted?
Now the word “whiskey” fades in all caps above the yellow paint and aluminum awning of St. Mary’s Liquors. The sticker advertising Champale, “the malt liquor you drink like champagne,” faces up from smashed glass in the back bar mirror. The questions of how Nellie and Knud interacted here seem unanswerable: how they spoke to one another, how they touched (what they knew, by smell, of each other’s mood, having lived intimately for decades), what happened the night before Nellie’s disappearance, what happened the next night.
3. Always a Bird’s Nest
One of the first things my sister Wanda says when she wanders into some abandoned factory or house or stranded icebreaker ship, is:
“Where’s the bird nest?” She’s led me to ancient trees topped with the two-ton nests of bald eagles, to monogamous bluebirds’ yearly summer homes, to waxwing colonies that follow robins.
“Robins tend to be bold, in big numbers,” she’ll tell me. “Waxwings come around in large numbers too, but tend to be shy. There’s always one single waxwing that’s the lookout.”
Before we step into the first motel room, which nobody’s occupied for 30 years, she says, “There’s always a bird’s nest.”
So, yes, here’s a nest, and here’s another. Here’s a nest atop the Venetian blinds. Here’s a nest neatly purposed in the plaster blasted off a brick wall. Here’s a nest perfectly placed in a bathroom sink. Room no. 8, room no. 9, room no. 11—nests in the bathroom sinks.
We’ve counted at least a dozen bird’s nests in the old motel. Just like, as we wander along thick dead marsh grass, purple milk thistle, blackberry thorn and broom sedge, we walk with rattlesnakes, water moccasins. We don’t see them, but they see us.
4. “I Was Standing by the River.”
“I was standing on the Georgia side of the St. Mary’s River by the blue bridge on U.S. 17 when they pulled the car out of the river and found Nellie inside.” It’s been more than 20 years, so Jill Helton, publisher and editor of The [Camden County] Tribune and Georgian, asks forbearance if certain details are less than clear.
“I do,” she says, “distinctly remember them pulling the car out on its side and then seeing a dark mass flop over inside the car when they righted the vehicle on the boat ramp as water and mud poured out of it.” The Camden County Sheriff’s Office ran a boat patrol and search-and-rescue team and had recently acquired a side-scan sonar, which allowed them to pierce the “black water” of the St. Mary’s to recover victims of drowning.
Knud died two years before Nellie’s car came up from the river, her “mass,” likely her skeleton repossessed and accreted with earth and river and corruption, spread, as Deputy Chris Sears recalls it, “between the front and back seats. It would have been hard to determine where she was seated.”
Jill, who studied journalism at Eastern Illinois University, had come down to St. Mary’s in 1993 to be with a boyfriend, but soon “ditched the boyfriend and kept the town.” She’s edited The Tribune and Georgian since 1996. She’ll never forget Nellie’s delayed welcome, that summer of ’99.
Nearly 30 years since Nellie disappeared, my sister and I walk beneath the blue bridge. We step onto the stairs of the domed boathouse built of river wood and boat salvage and trees grown in dark water.
The boathouse watched Nellie’s car plunge into the line between Florida and Georgia and sink out of sight. The boathouse watched Nellie’s car come up from the river. It took her six years to cross the state line.
I ask a man pulling his jon boat from the river if he knows about the boathouse, or the story of the woman who ran the liquor store and motel just down the road. A rotten Confederate flag enshrouds the motor on the back of his boat. A tattoo of the number “78” stands out on one cheekbone. He looks at me like I’m wondering if he murdered Nellie himself. He says he knows nothing.
Jill’s husband Mike remembers men playing poker in the boathouse. I’m trying to count its sides. It’s more than octagonal. Its upper-story deck rail and posts are tree trunks and branches. Locals think it’s haunted. They can’t remember when it was open, doubt it ever was, and call it “Joe Jack’s Place.” Apparently Joe Jack has not stopped by in quite some time.
When sheriff’s deputies pulled Nellie up into Georgia, there wasn’t much left. Forensic evidence had washed away in the tides and the earth, just like we all do, sooner or later. Jill recalls “people saying it was possible Nellie had dementia and drove into the river, but others speculated foul play.”
Once when I was a kid, I swam from Florida to Georgia and back. I don’t care to get back in that black water now. Wandering with my sister through abandoned sites of other lives, visiting St. Mary’s Liquors on a Sunday, I doubt God cares about “blue laws.” Nor do the wrens in motel room nests. Nor does the honeysuckle reaching long slender arms through rusted window frames.
Wanda points out the rates on the backs of rotting doors: nine dollars a day for one person; $12 daily for “two in one bed,” $14 for “2 in 2 beds,” or another two dollars for “extra person.” I pat my pockets, just in case, but don’t carry cash, and legend tripping costs only the tank of gas. Salvation is free. We’ve earned it because we’ve been, and leave our stories to the earth that reclaims us.