Extremely high vantage points are usually among the coolest tourist attractions. There can be a powerful thrill in visiting faraway cities and lands, riding stories into the air above them, and getting a bird’s-eye view. Usually we’re talking skyscrapers such as 30 Rockefeller Plaza or One World Trade Center in NYC, Chicago’s Willis Tower, or Baltimore’s World Trade Center. Sometimes they’re natural protrusions such as magnificent Pike’s Peak or Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington. At such places it can feel positively empowering to look down upon all those new surroundings. It’s not quite so endearing to ride up the side of a monolith that looks down upon an entire race and the armies that fought for their freedom.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events 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. My son tagged along from 2003 until 2013 when he ventured off to college. We’ve taken two trips by airplane, but are much happier when we’re the ones behind the wheel — charting our own course, making unplanned stops anytime we want, availing ourselves of slightly better meal options, and keeping or ruining our own schedule as dictated by circumstances or whims. We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.
For years we’ve been telling friends in other states that we’d one day do Atlanta’s Dragon Con, one of the largest conventions in America that isn’t in California or New York. We’d been in Atlanta, but we hadn’t really done Atlanta. Hence this year’s vacation, in which we aimed for a double proficiency in Atlanta tourism and over-the-top Dragon Con goodness. Before we went to D*C, there was the road trip to get there, and the good times to be had before the great times at the big show.
DAY Four: Wednesday, August 28th.
Other than arrival and departure, Wednesday was the only day of our vacation in which we left Atlanta city limits. After a quick stop for donuts, we headed due northeast to the town of Stone Mountain, named for the giant-sized hunk of rock next door. Stone Mountain itself rises 825 feet above ground level, five miles in circumference. It’s really big and noticeable, with nothing else nearby matching its height. Previously owned by a company that supported the Ku Klux Klan and even let them hold a “rebirth” ceremony on the grounds in 1915 that was exactly as tacky and horrifying as you can imagine, Stone Mountain was bought by the State of Georgia in 1958.
All around the northern perimeter is Stone Mountain Park, combining elements of an amusement park and a state park into one, plus a mountain. There are carnival rides, nature trails, picnic areas, and a laser show on Saturdays and holidays. With a variety of ticket options it’s touted as fun for the whole family.
Meanwhile from above, the horsemen of the Southern abyss gaze into you and your family leisure time.
The State of Georgia opened the park on April 14, 1965, in the middle of the Civil Rights era and on the very centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. For value-added theme-park themey-ness, carved into the side of Stone Mountain are the Big Bads of the Civil War — Jefferson Davis, president of the erstwhile Confederacy, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. That’s 1½ vertical acres of carving, some forty feet deep into the mountainside.
The project began circa 1923, well before the State’s involvement, lobbied for in part by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (responsible for one heck of a lot of absolutely unnecessary Confederate tributes nationwide over the past century-plus) and under the supervision of an artist and KKK member named Gutzon Borglum. Due either to artistic differences or funding issues, Borglum was later fired from the project, and all his preliminary work blasted away in 1925. While the sculpting would continue using techniques he pioneered, he did okay for himself on his next installation, an eerily similar project called Mount Rushmore.
As with many American labors of love and hate, World War II came along and work ground to a halt. When civil rights blessedly started to become a thing at last, Georgia’s state legislature and segregationist governor arranged the aforementioned 1958 mountain purchase. Sculpting restarted in 1964 and completed in 1972 — eight years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act and four years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Despite the wave of Confederate memorial takedowns that were sweeping our nation for a while, obviously Stone Mountain has defied easy removal by angry activists using ropes and pulleys tied to SUVs. Actual Georgia law was enacted requiring government approval to alter this altar of militant white dudes in any way. During her nationally noticeable campaign, one-time gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams expressed the views of many a Georgia constituent, that Stone Mountain ought to have its artwork blasted to smithereens, possibly with the only tool big enough for the job, the amazing colossal vacuum from Spaceballs. Upon Abrams’ defeat, whether fair or otherwise, that potent dream was back-burnered for the time being.
Peculiar folk that we are, Anne and I wanted to visit Stone Mountain to see for ourselves. It’s not the first time we’ve visited an attraction deeply at odds with our own values (see also: our guided tour of Jefferson Davis’ place, or that time we just knew a convention was about to rip us off), but sometimes we want to see such details in person, then share the experience so others can see what they’re not missing. Relatives who used to live in the area had recommended we check it out, though not for reasons matching ours. Longtime MCC readers know of Anne’s affinity for and proficiency with American history, which has guided many of our sightseeing choices, for better or worse, whether sympathetic or antagonistic.
So yeah, we paid the minimum $20 basic park entrance fee just so we could take a look around. Among the features we noticed first were the lack of bathrooms on the park map and the numerous locals who were paying to use Stone Mountain Park for their morning exercise regimens. After a few minutes of long drives from one sparse parking lot to the next, we realized the amusement park was mostly closed. We weren’t here for a Tilt-a-Whirl or elephant ears anyway.
Fortunately the part we were most interested in was open — the Skyride, an aerial tramway that transports visitors up 2,385 feet of cables to the top of Stone Mountain. I understand there’s also a hiking path, which I’m sure is nice. We presumed correctly that Dragon Con would more than meet our annual exercise needs later in the week, and decided the Skyride might be nicer.
To be continued…
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