Deeper into the South

Jun 10th, 2018 in Adventure

Part II of my travelogue resumes after an uneventful drive to Atlanta from the Smokies.

On arriving at Forrest’s apartment in Buckhead, we immediately got ready for evening worship at his church. I’ll confess that I was dreading this possibility when I signed on to visit Forrest and stay with him. My personal theology is that of agnostic atheism, and I came to that after a forcefully Catholic education settled into ennui, so a church is generally the last place I want to be. Meanwhile, Forrest is pretty devout and insisted that I should come after I waffled on trying to figure out a good reason to stay at home. I obliged; after all, I’m supposed to be traveling with an open mind here and it’s an important part of his life.

So the church we visited was Atlanta’s Passion City Church, which I think would qualify as a megachurch. It was quite a spectacle to behold, stepping into this massive complex, really almost a stadium, to witness folks in worship. The charismatic pastor was projected onto massive screens with professional cinematography on hand, and a ten piece band rocked out to Jesus while the audience sang along. It was pretty interesting to absorb that in comparison with the more stodgy masses of my upbringing. It’s never going to be my cup of tea to attend these sorts of religious services, but I feel pretty secure in my spirituality, thus it felt more like an observation and less like an ordeal to be there.

I got to reconnect with Forrest’s folks while at Passion City as well. They, the Evanses, visited their son multiple times along his hike and I got to meet them around Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, for the final time I’d see them and Forrest on his hike. Well, they did the nicest thing for me then and treated me to a motel room on a rainy night, and I’ve since felt a strong sense of gratitude for that one gesture. I would spend a few nights with them in their Marietta home and camping at Red Top Mountain State Park later in my stay. They bought a camper with the intent of following their backpacking son around the US and are still getting plenty of value from it themselves.

Between staying with Forrest and his folks, I did a few nights nearby in an Airbnb, as I had some web development work to focus on. My stay was cheap, but dubious. One apartment in a massive luxury complex was converted into an ad-hoc hostel, where it was emptied of most furnishings and then partitioned for a few people to share it. I think this is the exact kind of thing that localities are trying to combat with Airbnb. My goal is to keep my use of the service minimal for the rest of my trip.

Overall, I just don’t quite fit in a place like Buckhead. The locale is a suburbanized capital for affluence and commerce that is much an opposite of my own personal vibe, kinda like Exchange Place or Financial District back home. Also, as I wandered the city, I couldn’t help but notice its propensity for gated communities, which are such an overt way of separating rich from poor. It’s not like it’s an exclusive thing to Atlanta, we have them up in New York too, but behind a gate is not a place I’d ever want to live. This was probably brought on by my efforts trying to get to a coffee shop on the Chattahoochee River to work for a day and it winding up being fenced-in (locals only) and a hassle to get to. But, who hasn’t looked a place up on Maps before and found it way harder to get to?

Forrest and I spent a lot of our time out and about anywhere and everywhere in the city proper for a more balanced view of things. Alas, I neglected to bring my camera for most of these excursions, so much of Atlanta isn’t represented in my gallery. Sorry ‘bout that! I also ventured out on my own for some long bike rides, to locales such as Piedmont Park or The EARL in East Atlanta, where I photographed LOMA & Jess Williamson in performance. My conclusion on cycling is that Atlanta just isn’t there yet. I definitely feel like I was locked in combat with the motorists and the infrastructure for sane commuting in a city this size is very poor.

An interesting dichotomy to Atlanta’s lacking cycling amenities is the existence of the Silver Comet Trail. The trail goes for 90 miles of protected cycling west into Alabama when joined with the Chief Ladiga Trail. Discovering this, I now knew the way to Birmingham, my next stop. Forrest’s mom, Kimberly, dropped me off 40 miles in at Dallas and off I went for a day of free cycling. Riding with your guard down and just enjoying the way is just great, and I wish more of the country had something special like this. Maybe I’ll make my way to Minnesota to give the nation’s longest bike path, The Paul Bunyan Trail, a spin?

I guess the Silver Comet doesn’t drive much tourism, as some of the towns along the way are pretty depressed. The Subway in Cedartown, GA didn’t even have trays. I thought I might spend the night in town, but local people I met there urged me on when asking about camping, assuming I was crazy to even think about staying nearby. Anniston, Alabama, the Western terminus of the path, has one of the highest per capita crime rates in the country. Maybe when Birmingham and Atlanta are fully connected more folks will think about riding it, and those towns a small boost in their economies.

So I did the 150 miles or so between Dallas and Birmingham in three days. I wound up camping up my first night in farm country on the border of Alabama; I felt pretty uneasy about being exposed, but it turns out I’d have an even hairier night as the area turned out to be a hot spot for coyote shenanigans. I laid in my sleeping bag with bloodshot eyes all night as they howled all around me in what I imagined as an aggravated assault on the local livestock, with the farmer’s dogs viciously responding. My night’s sleeplessness was sealed when I locked eyes with one that growled at me before padding off, and every snapped twig or crunched leaf that night left me queasy.

Day two, I lurched out at dawn unharmed and finished my ride on Chief Ladiga in Jacksonville, which had a pleasant coffee shop to pass some time on WiFi. Unfortunately, bailing on the trail brought me right into cycling suffering, as I had to fight my way along shoulderless country roads in high humidity. I passed through mostly nondescript countryside and suburbs before settling in Pell City, stealthily camped behind a church for night two. It was Wednesday, so I had to stake it out until evening worship concluded. I feel generally okay seeking sanctuary on hallowed ground as a traveler.

The Evanses put me in touch with Andrew Christopher, a Birmingham photographer and close friend of their deceased son, John, as a contact for me to spend a few nights on landing in Birmingham. The third day brought me to his doorstep, after a grueling up and down through one of the most affluent suburbs I’ve ever been in, Mountain Brook. Sharp ups and downs defined my travel through the country club backyards of the area. Andrew’s house was a bit past all that noise, in a less ostentatiously wealthy suburb that still gets to enjoy the amenities that come with having big spenders nearby.

It was interesting dropping in for a few days with Andrew, who is a music and portrait photographer like myself. Urban exploration is one of his hobbies that I got to dabble in, exploring the distant or quasi-legal spots in the city and snapping photos. Seeing his drive to shoot all around his city made me wonder why I hadn’t been doing the same back in NYC. I also got an intro with his parents, who welcomed me as a New Yorker. They made the suggestion to try the Jones Valley Teaching Farm as my volunteer opportunity in Alabama. The organization gives an agricultural education to the youth in Birmingham with lessons on their main 3 acre farm, and smaller tended plots in multiple school campuses in the city.

At Jones Valley, I got to learn the definition of cultivating first hand as myself and the crew on-site decided it was time to pull up every weed on their main farm’s 3 acre plot. Rolling a wheel hoe through neatly ordered fields under the sun was the main jam. The staff there were apologetic for the challenging labor that day, but it was just good exercise for me. Andrew’s father, Scott, came around for the lunch break too to show me some real Southern fare at Niki’s West; I was in it for the fried green tomatoes and they didn’t disappoint, nor did the atmosphere!

I split my stay in Birmingham with a fellow from Couchsurfing, Patrick, in Avondale, within the city proper. Once a career nurse, Joe now does massage therapy on his own schedule. Between us, we mastered the art of porch lounging, bantering for hours about anything and everything with the amenities of endless seltzer and a park-side view. It was refreshing hanging out with someone who is “out” in the South and learning about some of that history, such as with Camp Sister Spirit. It was also cool hearing about him and his Couchsurfers doing outreach work with Doug Jones’s campaign in last year’s election that garnered plenty of attention back home in New York.

I took Amtrak out of Birmingham direct to New Orleans. I spent a long time thinking about ways to get to Memphis or Jackson before stopping in at NOLA, but no one responded to my overtures for a hitch on Craigslist, and I didn’t quite feel like doing another bike trip so soon. Amtrak is what I’m generally relying on to get around the rest of this year, and neither city has direct routes from Birmingham. Overall, I left the city feeling pretty good about everything and hope to return again some day.

In New Orleans awaited good times and Taylor Gorman, a friend I made early on TransAm doing her own cross country ride last year. We parted at Illinois so it really had been a year since I had last seen her. Since the TransAm, she has become very involved in the New Orleans bicycle scene while finishing her schooling to become a nurse. The timing was bad, as she had just broken her arm after a crash in a race, but fear not! She’s so hardcore, she bicycled around with her arm in a cast, and so I got a great impression of NOLA by bicycle.

Taylor and her crew were pretty bearish on the city’s cycling infrastructure and drivers, but I thought it was pretty great, comparable to NYC in quality. There’s ample bike paths, though not many protected, and the city’s quite flat. I got a tour of the city by bicycle, an opportunity to witness a game of bike polo, and even attempted a 150 mile ride around Lake Ponchartrain with Ryan Reeves, a friend of Taylor’s who has since set out to compete in the TransAm bike race. My attempt failed 3/4ths of the way in with a blown tire near Middendorf’s, and Taylor was gracious enough to come to my rescue.

After almost a week of gallivanting in the heat, my stay hit an abrupt end when I ran my mouth off a bit too much at Taylor’s in front of guests and to put it lightly, things did not float on. I got the boot, something that’s not happened to me before traveling, and that put a real strain on our friendship. Too often I speak without thinking, and in this case, I got a lesson from that failure. I spent a few days really in the wilderness on this, but have accepted how things went down and taken a lesson from it as I go forward, and if this stays as the trip’s nadir, then I’ll consider myself as having done well.

In the aftermath, I was feeling pretty bummed, and ready to just leave town immediately, but two things stayed my hand. One, that the Amtrak going west to LA only runs thrice weekly, and, two, that I had booked a day’s work with the Saint Bernard Project, which had me travel out to East New Orleans to work on repairing a home that was savaged in a tornado. The man who owned the home didn’t qualify for federal aid due to inheriting the deed informally from his mother, and SBP stepped in. That day was entirely spent on putting up new drywall with a group of Louisianan at-risk youth.

For lodging, I considered stealth camping, but ultimately chose the good life. I found the India House Hostel which turned out to not only be an opportunity to heal but also was a great change of pace. The place is a sprawling complex in the Mid-City area (ironically, not that far from Taylor’s) with A/C, a pool, and a melting pot of travelers, many international, in town to experience the Big Easy for a variety of reasons. Their rates were really fair, so I would spend four days in total there, soaking in the vibes of the nearby Bayou Boogaloo music festival before heading West to San Antonio.

That Amtrak out was a weird one. Something about riding the train alone for hours makes people just want to open up about their lives. Also, New Orleans is simply a place where things happen, and the comparative lull of a train ride can be the perfect place to debrief your thoughts on your time there. I had multiple troubled people lay their pain at my feet and tell me their life stories, unsolicited. I don’t know what to do besides listen politely, I guess there are worse hostage scenarios to wind up in.

After thirteen hours on the train, I would land in San Antonio, Texas, at midnight with no place to stay, the next chapter of HFM Wandering shall continue from there.