August 1, 2007
Today we left Cherokee much earlier than we'd prefer, departing at around seven. Our day was so full of plans that I feared for a later start. Jenny, who hates early mornings, kindly stayed awake to navigate us through the winding roads south of the Smoky Mountains. The mist that rose off the rivers and hung to the mountains was almost purplish. Our first goal was Rome, Georgia, our home when Jenny and I attended Berry College. While I'd had the opportunity to return to my alma mater a few times since our '94 graduation, Jenny hadn't been back for about a decade. And since Vienna was between the ages of two and four when we were students there, she had few memories of those happy days.
As the crow flies, the trip from Cherokee to Rome would appear to be brief, but we required about three and a half hours to reach our destination. Upon arrival, we immediately recalled that baking summer heat we experienced long ago and saw lots of deer that also live on campus. I've been told that Berry College has a remarkably high deer/student ratio, and we saw enough of the animals to confirm the possibility of that fact. Our tour included a visit to the old Water Wheel in the Mountain Campus, a drive between the stately Georgian-style buildings of the main campus, the castle-architectured women's dorms built by Henry Ford, and a quick pass through our old apartment complex, once called the Rome Georgian Apartments. Since Vienna is entering her senior year of high school, I was understandably possessed of the booster spirit, recommending that she follow in her parents' footsteps and attend Berry College. But right now she seems set on a California university. Even so, we all enjoyed our chance to relive old times in a place that evolves but never seems to change.
Our next stop was an odd choice, the orgasmically consumerist World of Coca-Cola pavilion in downtown Atlanta. Jenny and Vienna were unimpressed with this choice, but I'd visited the place a few years back and remembered it as being fairly cool. Of course, comparing this media-stimulated ode to the glorious history and global reach of Coke to the more humble Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas, would be like comparing Wal-Mart Super Centers to the corner grocer, particularly when you consider that tickets were 15 bucks a piece (on top of a ten dollar fee to park). I must say though, this place is pretty cool. We particularly enjoyed a display of old city view postcards, each notable for an inclusion of the Coca-Cola sign somewhere in its background; the "pop art" exhibit, which contained some of Andy Warhol's works dealing with Coke iconography; a theater that played Coke ads throughout history and around the world; and one of those bump, blow, and spray "4-D" immersive movie exhibits whose plot dealt somehow with the search for the secret ingredient to Coke (spoiler alert: it's "you"). But the real highlight of the World of Coca-Cola pavilion was our visit to the tasting room, an assemblage of soda fountains dispensing international Coke products from countries that include Japan, India, and South Africa. While the place was packed, we had no problems hopping from dispenser to dispenser, enjoying a tasting tour of varied fruity, gingery, and even sour interpretations of sugar water. Vienna even concocted a "suicide" filled with a tap from each brand. Naturally she imagines that it'd make a swell drink. After claiming our free bottles of Coca-Cola and passing through the mammoth gift shop, we returned to our car and headed west.
For dinner we stopped at an Atlanta suburb and enjoyed a meal at Wallace Barbecue. As the dinner rush slowly commenced, we shared a combination of ribs, a pork sandwich and a beef sandwich. The ribs were chewy and nicely bounded by fatty strips of bacony skin. The spicy, vinegary sauce was a bit watery for my taste, though it added a zing to the meat. But the shredded beef sandwich was a revelation. Moist and tangy, that sandwich really surprised us with its hearty flavor. Wrapping up our visit we returned to I-20 and chatted joyfully. Even as construction shifted us onto a single lane that was separated from off-ramps we were relaxed and non-stressed. Heck, I felt so mellow I saw no need to notice the state of the gas gauge -- until the yellow light flashed its warning that we'd nearly run out of gas. At once, the realization that we were stuck in a one-lane construction zone that allowed no exit until the state line about 10 miles away became more than a little annoying. Amid a few obscenities, I even uttered the phrase "perfect storm."
There's a strange sort of giddiness that strikes when you're running out of gas, a mixture of fatalism, frustration, and acute focus. You curse every decision you made that brought you to this point. You wonder how much reserve remains in the tank. You turn off the AC and drift in neutral as long as possible. And you survey the hills that lie ahead with dread, knowing that you'll need to pour on some gas that may not be available. You anticipate the moment when you'll depress the accelerator to edge you over the hill and you hear that awful clunk when the car refuses to advance, just as an 18-wheeler is gunning down on you. You turn on the hazard lights and try to ignore the growing unease of your passengers. You're out of gas, it's your fault, and there's nothing you can do. At this point giddiness turns to fear.
As we passed the state line Jenny announced that the next major exit would not appear for five miles, and we considered turning off at the one-mile mark in search for a flyspeck town that might offer a gas station. But since construction had ended I felt safer on the road, knowing I could easily find a shoulder if the car gave out. So, against Jenny's advice I pushed ahead. We drove in silence and hoped that I'd made the right decision (though I think Jenny wouldn't have minded an I-told-you-so moment at this point). At last we spotted a friendly exit with lots of gas station signs. Within moments we laughed and pulled in. I didn't even look at the price for gas in these parts. Jenny and I hugged and became friends again, and we turned once more onto the freeway.
As the sun began to set, I aimed for Anniston, Alabama, and the Goal Post Bar-B-Q. Truthfully, I planned this visit only to see its animated neon sign of a kicker punting a football. But since night wouldn't fall for another couple of hours we decided to stick around and grab a meal. I asked for a pork sandwich while Jenny and Vienna savored two pieces of chocolate mousse pie. Entranced by their dessert, they missed out on a terrific sandwich, tender and juicy enough not to require any extra sauce. We chatted with the owner and servers and enjoyed a nice break from driving. Later on, Jenny returned to the car and worked on her real estate ventures while Vienna and I took a walk around the block and photographed the sign. It was nice to chat about our forthcoming plans -- a trip to Memphis, a night in a sharecroppers shack, a return to Hot Springs, Arkansas -- and to recognize that our trip, while largely complete, was hardly over. Returning to the Goal Post Vienna and I set up shots and enjoyed the gathering twilight. Finally we thanked the friendly folks inside and headed back through town toward the superslab.
Jenny and Vienna initially hoped to stay in town, but I sought one last photograph: The Moon Winx Lodge in Tuscaloosa, two hours away. We planned to arrive there the next day for a day shoot, but I felt a burst of energy and dreamed of seeing that famed yellow moon lit in gaudy neon. We discussed and negotiated and finally agreed that two more hours of night driving wouldn't be so bad. Vienna got her first pick of music, a Nirvana greatest-hits CD, while I enjoyed some of my "night music" playlist in the second hour. Jenny bopped to her own iPod music and enjoyed a vacation of her own. We rolled down the windows and listened to a symphony of crickets and frogs and trucks racing by, pulling into Tuscaloosa quicker than we anticipated. The Moon Winx greeted us with its huge glowing sign and we celebrated the end of a wonderful day. Oh, one other thing. We wrapped the evening up with a trip to Krispy Kreme. No doubt, the Wood family goes on a diet when we return.