Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2007 we changed up our strategy a bit and designed an itinerary for what would prove our most kid-friendly outing ever. Granted, my son was now twelve years old and less kid-like than he used to be, but the idea was sound in principle.
Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Florida!
When most people think “road trip” in the fanciful sense, they imagine a long drive through a scrolling sideshow of creative oddities, specialized museums and giant-sized objects and whatnot. Some American interstate landscapes are boring and not worth treasuring — the grassy plains, the heavily commercialized thoroughfares, the forests that look exactly like ours back home, those scenery-censoring noise-canceling barriers that have become the norm in cities whose residents have grown sick of hearing or looking at cars. In some unfortunate areas you can drive hundreds of miles between points of interest while your camera lies undisturbed and nestled in your pocket lint.
We still need to devote a vacation to Georgia itself someday rather than just passing through like we did in 2007. But even in passing, the way south didn’t lack for eye-catching displays.
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As we sped off from Dinosaur World, we were still snickering amongst ourselves until the traffic slowed to a halt. Many long minutes later, we discovered the blockage was the result of an accident that had strewn motorcycle parts and fluids across the right lane. That shut all of us up for a while.
Shortly beyond the Tennessee border, we stopped for lunch in Goodlettsville at a Jack-in-the-Box, the first of many times I insisted on eating at restaurants we didn’t have back in Indiana. It’s hardly a foodie’s paradise, and we’d already tried it in 2005 in Nashville, but it sufficed. We needed a break from the road. We didn’t even mind that the service was subpar because the manager was stuck running the front counter solo. I was also impressed to learn that some Jack-in-the-Box food-science genius had found a way to batter-fry macaroni and cheese. Remember, this was years before fried mac-‘n’-cheese became trendy upscale fare. At the time this was a critical landmark on the road to making all known foodstuffs batter-fryable.
From Goodlettsville we headed southeastward into the beautiful mountain scenery. All around us was a splendorous depth of dipping valleys and rolling hills and towering, rugged terrain dwarfing anything we have back home. And we had plenty of opportunity to dwell on every last verdant detail of every last acre of sweeping countryside because, a few dozen miles before Chattanooga, the midday traffic decelerated with little warning from a steady 70+ MPH to the speed of Miss Daisy.
I lost track of how much time we spent creeping up one mountain and down the next and up again. Not only could we spend quality time as a family — which we mostly spent taking turns complaining about the country gridlock — but we also got to see an invention we’d never heard of: runaway truck ramps.
At numerous points along the downhill interstate slopes, they’d carved out these uphill dirt paths that extend for several hundred feet off to one side or the other and provide a last-ditch saving grace for out-of-control truckers to direct their ten-ton deathtraps away from potential casualties. Theoretically the uphill slope and uneven surface should provide enough inertia to counteract all that killer momentum…but on the fanciful notion that it might not, I spent a few minutes imagining a cool slo-mo shot of an 18-wheeler flying up and off the other side of the ramp Dukes of Hazzard style, pitching down, down, down the mountainside. There’s a trailer money shot just waiting to be filmed if one of the Fast & the Furious films haven’t covered it yet.
After a certain point, the standard mile markers were all but replaced by a cornucopia of billboards for Ruby Falls and Rock City, either of which would make a great name for a hip, happenin’ gubernatorial candidate, but in this case are components of Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga’s biggest tourist attraction. And their road signs never let you forget it. As the interstate wound back and forth and back and forth across the Tennessee/Georgia border, those signs were our primary reading material, warning us of the guilt we should feel if we don’t visit them someday.
Once the interstate left Tennessee once and for all and stayed on target through Georgia proper, traffic finally lightened up enough to help us make up lost time all the way to the outskirts of Atlanta…which, thanks to the backup, we reached just in time for rush hour. And came to a dead stop again amidst the notorious ATL freeways. The next hour-‘n’-a-half was a complete rerun of the last Tennessee leg, with the truckers and farmers replaced by yuppies and different farmers.
I was especially steamed because we had dinner plans at 7:00. Punctuality is kind of my thing. I don’t like being late for anything. Even prefacing it with a cute “fashionably” modifier doesn’t take the edge off. I’ve never seen anyone watch me arrive somewhere “fashionably late” and tell me I’m somehow that much cooler for it. “Late” means I delay someone else’s plans or I miss out on something. I’m not content committing either annoyance if I can help it.
We reached our exit in Marietta and found our hotel rather quickly, checking into our room at exactly 7:00. We called our hosts and apologized profusely, emptied the car, sped toward our rendezvous, passed the exit, turned around, rejoined the exit, passed the rendezvous, doubled back, turned down the right side street, passed the rendezvous entrance, tripled back, and cut through another hotel’s lot until we finally arrived…at the local FuddRuckers, an old favorite from our 2004 trip to Niagara Falls.
Needless to say, we were relieved to spend a few hours out of the car and in the company of internet friends, a couple we’d known for years who met through the same message board and who now had the cutest li’l daughter in all of Georgia. Anne and I enjoyed our Southwest Burgers and our conversations, and enjoyed occasional bemusement at the congregation of men who had reserved the banquet room that same night and almost all of whom were wearing loud Hawaiian shirts. It was like a Hawaii Five-0 fan convention next door. I peeked into their room at one point and saw several young ladies lined up auction-file at the front of the room all wearing black dresses with plunging necklines. I made a face and stopped eying their weird shindig after that.
By the time we begrudgingly parted ways with our hosts and left our Beatles-themed table, the employees were stacking the other chairs and most of the Magnum PI extras had presumably relocated to other sites with more liquor and less competition. We returned to our hotel and finished out the night flipping channels, pausing only momentarily for a fascinating PBS special about the Blue Man Group (how anyone can catch that many gumballs in their mouth and chew them all at once into putty without asphyxiating is beyond my comprehension) before the familiar tones of the same old Futurama reruns lulled us to sleep.
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DAY TWO: Sunday, June 10th.
When you mention Marietta to people who’ve heard of it, you evoke the same knee-jerk response: “Have you seen the big chicken? You gotta see the big chicken!” After a tiny continental breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and drove a mile up the road to see Marietta’s big chicken.
It used to be a mom-‘n’-pop diner. Now it’s a corporate-owned KFC. The eyeballs rotate. The mouth opens and closes. Perhaps it was a technological marvel in its time. Maybe it once held a special symbolic meaning to the suburb of Marietta — pulled them together during a time of sports-related crisis, or once snapped off and ironically crushed an infamous chicken thief, or stood proud and defiant through Sherman’s march. Even the local ads for some of the surrounding restaurants give directions based on their proximity to it. One Mexican restaurant even used as its tagline, “Right across the street from the big chicken!” If name-checking the competition with reverence counts as a competitive edge in the bustling Marietta market, more power to ’em.
Regardless…it’s the big chicken. It remains the big chicken evermore, heed must be paid, and pay we did. It could’ve been a more meaningful experience if the KFC had been open for breakfast and we could’ve dined under the unseen butt of the big chicken. Alas.
From there we wound our way through more daredevil Atlanta traffic on an early Sunday morning. We made an extensive stop for one attraction, which we’ll return to in Part 3. Anne and I have vowed to return to Atlanta again if only to cross the great and powerful Dragon*Con off our bucket list.
Beyond Atlanta we spent the next several hours trekking I-75 down the full length of Georgia, stopping along the way for such curiosities and perpetuators of Georgian iconography. The World’s Largest Peanut in our lead photo was by no means alone in its objective of vivifying the land and obscuring the horizon, though it might be best if you disregard its adjacent picnic shelter, which was strewn with litter.
As you’d expect, the Peach State has a giant peach. Or rather, had. I’ve just discovered this very peach was destroyed in a windstorm in spring 2011. Alas, poor peach.
Georgia also has a nuclear missile. Y’know, as you do.
Yes, that’s a nuclear missile standing right next to a gas station in Cordele. Sadly for more sanguinary tourists, some killjoy had it decommissioned years ago, doubtlessly not imaginative enough to justify storing radioactive materials next to large tanks of gas, or possibly jittery about mutating the farmers at large.
For anyone who needs even more explosive power in their day, behind the gas station is a Krystal’s franchise, the southern answer to our White Castle. We stopped to try some of their dinkier snacks such as Corn Pups and Chili Cheese Pups and imitation White Castles. This cheap but fresh assortment helped compensate for my meager salad lunch.
As we drove into Georgia’s lower half, the roadside attractions dwindled away to be replaced by billboards heralding the city of Valdosta, apparently a land of whimsy and wonder and thrills and delights, yet several dozen miles away. The further we drove, the more they sprouted, saturating the formerly pretty landscape. With 20 to 25 miles to go, the signs were literally posted mere feet apart, one right after the other, in some places outnumbering the trees. Imagine a lout smacking you with a picket sign. Imagine him smacking you every 2-3 seconds. Imagine this going on for the better part of an hour, and you can’t stop him because somehow your personal goals require him to do this. Now someone punch me in the nose, because I can’t stop reliving it.
Overpowering nearby Ashburn’s own potential traps like the Crime and Punishment Museum and the seasonal Fire Ant Festival (whose slogan I can only imagine would be “Celebrate the Burning!”), Valdosta’s number one powerhouse attraction as far as they’re concerned is a theme park called Wild Adventure. Over half the signs devoted to its rides and its associated water park, which billed itself incoherently as “H2O-Mazing!”
One FM frequency (92.1, promoted with still more signs!) was devoted solely to advertising WILD ADVENTURE! and anything tangentially related to WILD ADVENTURE! For those too slothful or too wracked with pitiable giggle fits to change the channel, it’s just “WILD ADVENTURE!” after “WILD ADVENTURE!” after “WILD ADVENTURE!”. Heaven forbid you actually make it into Florida to visit a celebrated name-brand theme park — first you must survive the Brand-X WILD ADVENTURE! gauntlet.
The advertising onslaught eventually eased up once we passed the Valdosta WILD ADVENTURE! exit, though not without a few straggling WILD ADVENTURE! signs warning us of what we missed, because obviously we must not have been paying attention, otherwise Common Sense would have taken over and directed us right into WILD ADVENTURE! and these final signs were Valdosta’s idea of a last-chance WILD ADVENTURE! intervention. WILD ADVENTURE! WILD ADVENTURE! WILD ADVENTURE! WILD ADVENTURE! WILD ADVENTURE!
Seven thousand billboards later we crossed the Florida border. Into the land of TAME DOLDRUMS, I suppose.
To be continued!
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