Road Trip II: Southeast US (05/2010) [Part 4/4]

2010 July 22
by Jon

THU 05/27/10 – MON 05/31/10
Written 07/12/10 – 07/17/10

Thursday, May 27 - we slept in a bit to recover from the previous day and got out of bed around 8. It was already unbelievably humid then but it was also unbelievably beautiful outside:

Morning off the Gulf Coast

Morning off the Gulf Coast

The residents of Ruskin appeared to be sleeping in that morning and so we took the opportunity to wander across the road to the hotel’s beach onto Tampa Bay.

Along Tampa Bay


Not only was the beach picturesque and empty of any people other than ourselves, but the water in Tampa Bay was so warm it was positively bath-like. It had to be close to 80 degrees. Becky took the time to frolic a bit in the gentle waves:

Wading into Tampa Bay

She also found some clues!

Ocean clues!

A clue!

As you can see, some of the clues were various pieces of detritus dropped by daytime beachgoers: children’s toys, discarded hand towels, beer cans, the usual signs of life not yet combed up that morning from the previous day. But she also managed to pick up a couple of chunks of shell-encrusted rocks that, later, when we were home, she was able to identify as fossils common to Florida! So that’s nice. Being able to identify fossils is one of those things Becky would like to be able to learn how to do. So far this isn’t so easy since New England has a rather remarkable dearth of fossils. Everywhere else in North America, though, you can just find them lying around. Like on the beach, for example!

We walked back to the room, showered, packed up and checked out, departing and hitting the road shortly after 9. We first quickly stopped to get gas and snacks for the day upon getting back to the main road in Ruskin, whereupon I had a brief discussion with a local man who had purchased his beach buggy from a friend in Massachusetts and had noticed our plates. In New England this line of conversation would come off as oddly prying but down South that’s just the way people roll. “Hey, you’re from Massachusetts? I bought a car from someone there once!”

We followed the directions Google Maps gave us and drove up US-41 North instead of I-75 North, which ran parallel a couple of miles further East. Figuring that the Interstate might be heavily trafficked on a weekday, we stuck with the back road. By the time we reached the southern extremes of Tampa, though, it was clear that our progress wasn’t what it was supposed to be as we had fallen 20 minutes behind schedule. Which was a bit of a bummer as it was then 10 and we had to be at our next stop about 50-60 miles away by 11. Clearly we needed to risk the highway. A shame, as by then we didn’t have time to re-enact every Hold Steady song ever and wake up in Ybor City.

The highways weren’t so bad by then, and we were able to hit FL-589 North, fight through the toll booths that seemed to be every 5 miles, and made it to our destination just in time, about 10 minutes of 11:

Day 10 Stop 1 - Spring Hill, FL
Daily total distance: 81 miles

Our destination was the one and only Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, an old, post-war era amusement park about an hour north of Tampa in the middle of not a whole lot.

Main entrance

So what’s so remarkable about Weeki Wachee? They are home to the world’s one and only daily mermaid show. That’s right: for decades now the lucky women and some men of Spring Hill have dressed up in fin-tailed suits and swam in a giant, underwater tank acting out plays. While we were there they were putting on two performances: one, about how great America is that was, unfortunately, being put on only in the late afternoon (we had a lot of driving ahead of us and couldn’t wait that long), and a performance of their very own adaptation of The Little Mermaid. The Hans Christian Andersen version, not the Disney one, since dead Danish poets tend to be less litigious than the Mouse Overlord next door. Though they still did give it a happy ending, for what it’s worth, so it wasn’t totally true to the tale. Even though it was clearly geared for kids, the 11 AM performance was perfect for our schedule, and so we bought a couple of tickets for it and sat down in the indoor arena facing the tank several minutes before the show commenced.

Opening the curtain...

The show begins!

weeki wachee

The mermaids came out and first did some underwater tricks and coreographed moves. Those hoses they’re holding are their air supply; they never surface in front of the audience for air, meaning they’re underwater for sometimes 5-7 minutes at a time. I can imagine that must take some getting used to. The air hoses seemed to be all they needed, though, and the bubbles they created while not in use had the added benefit of creating a fairy-tale atmosphere.

After they did their thing the Little Mermaid emerged from below-stage near the mermaid castle:

weeki wachee

The Little Mermaid

And you certainly know how the story goes: the Little Mermaid dreams of a life outside of the sea and then one day a hapless sailor who also happens to be a prince gets thrown overboard and into her fishy arms:

weeki wachee

weeki wachee

Discovering the shipwrecked sailor

After Prince is revived by her magical kiss and/or air hose he swims off and she confides her infatuation to her friend Chester the Turtle:

Chester the Tortoise

Chester the Tortoise

I don’t quite recall him being in the original story but then again it’s for the kids. Unfortunately, Chester the Plot Device had to share the stage with an interloper in the form of an actual turtle who desperately wanted love:



After the Little Mermaid batted away the stage-hog turtle to the delight of the kids in the audience (and us, too, because it was pretty darned funny) the musical could continue as the Little Mermaid hatched a plan to gain legs and therefore access to the surface by making a deal with the evil Ursula:


See? Evil. She granted the Little Mermaid a set of legs and lungs in exchange for her voice and the mute Little Mermaid came to the surface to dance, soaking wet, with her Prince, whereupon it was revealed that they were both extraordinarily short:

Dancing with the Little Mermaid

Seriously, he was maybe 5′ 4″ and she couldn’t have been over 5 feet tall. One presumes the magnification effect of the water – and not to mention the tail fin – gives the impression of being much taller. But they danced together like magic until – oh no!

Oh no!

The evil Ursula attacked through a port hole near the ceiling! And, while you might have thought that, given her location, she was doing her best Ceiling Cat impression, she was actually calling to the easily-confused Prince in the Little Mermaid’s voice! And, uh, being evil!

Evil Ursula

So, skipping over all the heartbreak and deception in the original story, they did the American thing and went right to the fighting!

Fighting Ursula

And Ursula was vanquished into an off-stage… erm… off-pool whirlpool to nowhere! And everyone lived happily ever after! Hooray!

Hooray!  Everyone's a winner!

Truly a performance for the ages. We wandered around the rest of the park for a bit but, as not much else was open yet, we decided to move on, having been inspired for the day by the mermaids of Weeki Wachee:

Becky with mermaid statue

We were getting hungry, though, so after driving the 40-or-so minutes east on FL-50 to the intersection with I-75, we stopped in for lunch at a vaguely Irish-themed sports bar called Beef O’Brady’s.

Day 10 Stop 2 - Ridge Manor, FL
Daily total distance: 105 miles

And that website pretty much says it all. If the name Beef O’Brady’s didn’t already. Other than us and a smattering of other couples, the restaurant was chiefly occupied by a handful of bikers enjoying several beers over lunch on a Thursday. Our waitress was a woman who looked like she had spent a lifetime in the sun and should have considered sunblock a half a lifetime ago. But hey! Pepperjack sliders! Can’t beat that!

After our lunch there Becky took the wheel and drove up I-75 North toward the Florida panhandle. After a couple hours of uneventful driving she pulled off around 3 so we could make a pit stop and get some gas around Lake City:

Day 10 Stop 3 - Lake City, FL
Daily total distance: 235 miles

We switched places again after the stop and I took us onto I-10 West along the Gulf Coast. Traffic was quite light and, having gotten a solid lunch followed by a couple of hours of rest, I felt refreshed enough for a good, long shift driving. So, I took it out through Tallahassee and… wait, what? Entering Central Time Zone? Huh?

Yeah, turns out that the western end of the Florida panhandle is in the Central Time Zone. I had totally forgotten about that, what with Florida being on the East Coast and all. But, for one, the panhandle is deceptively long: about 300 miles across. For two, it’s pretty far west to begin with. By the time we’d get to Biloxi, MS the next day we’d be a bit further west than Chicago. And before we got that far, we’d have to hit the Central Time Zone. And so, at 5:10 it became 4:10. Again.

I continued on for another couple of hours and, a solid 4 hours into driving I thought it best for us to stop for dinner before I lost feeling in my rear from sitting so long. And, so, approaching Pensacola, we looked for a place to eat:

Day 10 Stop 4 - Pensacola, FL
Daily total distance: 525 miles

Again using Becky’s Yelp app on her iPhone, we found what looked like a perfectly decent cajun restaurant there in the form of Jerry’s Cajun Cafe and, sure enough, it was a winner. It wasn’t very busy at all and so we sat down and had a very nice meal. I got a nice Abita IPA from Louisiana to calm my nerves after such a long shift driving and ordered the crawfish étouffée, which was also excellent. Feeling recharged, I drove the remaining distance on I-10 West for that day, crossing into Alabama at about 7:15. Shortly after doing so we passed a truck hauling a tank. Like an honest-to-God ready-for-combat tank. Welcome to Alabama!

We exited off onto US-98 East before reaching Mobile and swung down to Fairhope, arriving at our hotel around 8 PM:

Day 10 Stop 5 - Fairhope, AL
Daily total distance: 580 miles

Our hotel was the rather enigmatically-named Key West Inn, which was cheap and functional but not much else. A gruff woman at the front desk checked us in and we pulled our car around to our room, noting with a degree of disdain what looked like a couple of typical frat boys hanging out on the porch above and a few doors down from us. Fortunately, they’d stay quiet that night, so perhaps they weren’t as bad as I suspected.

Our room was grungy but serviceable. It was hot and humid as the A/C had been turned off when we arrived, but after about 30 minutes it got down to an acceptable temperature and, by the time we turned off the light, it was cool enough to sleep. The easy chair in the room had a greasy stain on the headrest where, as Becky noted, it looked like someone let his or her Soul Glo. So we didn’t sit there. Still, we were in Alabama! A new state for both of us!

End of Day 10
Cumulative total distance: 2480 miles

I didn’t marvel at that for long, though, since I quickly discovered that my computer was apparently broken. I’d turn it on, the light would come on for a second and, before the boot sequence even started, would turn off again. Hmmph. Plugged it in. Same thing. Let it sit for a half-hour or so. Same thing. Pulled out the battery, blew on it, rubbed it a bit, spun in a circle three times and put it back in. Same thing. “Okay,” I thought. “So this is one of two things: either the battery’s completely blitzed, which would suck but not be that bad since I have a spare at home, or the motherboard is fried, in which case my computer’s out of commission for a few weeks.” Either way, I wouldn’t have it for the rest of the trip. And, of course, it would turn out to be the latter. I kept it plugged in overnight in case the battery had just decided it needed another good, solid charge, but to no avail. Despite working after being left in the car all day in huge parking lots at various theme parks across Orlando the previous day, it was the seemingly far-more-benign drive that day that seemed to do in the motherboard, presumably from overheating.

I had been in the mind to get online if they had wireless and proclaim that there is Internet in Alabama, contrary to popular belief. Instead I found much the opposite: Alabama killed my computer. As for most things that go wrong in my life, I blame Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After conceding there was nothing more to be done then for my poor computer, I settled in to read a while before we turned off the light a bit on the early side, as we had a long day of driving ahead of us the next day. We’d be popping across the border to Mississippi the next day before doubling back all the way across Alabama and to Atlanta, the first major city we’d stay in since Washington, DC a week earlier. A long drive, for sure, and so we tried to make the best of our night in the Deep South.

Friday, May 28 - All screwy from the unanticipated time zone change, I woke up a bit after 6 AM, muttered a bit and brushed my teeth and then tried to nod off again. I gave up about a half-hour later and decided to get up in earnest. I prodded my computer a couple more times and confirmed that, yep, it was broken and there wasn’t a thing I could do about that until we returned home. Damn your computer-breaking ways, Alabama.

We packed up everything into our car and decided to wander across our hotel’s parking lot to take a couple of pictures to prove we were in Alabama. Becky posed under a live oak tree, since they are only found in the South:

Becky under a shady tree

And I found an old timey fire engine that said “AL” on it:


So we were in Alabama. We have proof.

We checked out of the hotel around 7:30 and hit the road back up to I-10. Along the way we stopped for gas and snacks for the day. Becky decided to get some sodas with some local flair:

Diet Dr. Wham

Diet Grapico

Diet Dr. Wham wasn’t good nor bad – though I’m sure if we’d had it before bed it would have woken us up before we had to go-go. Diet Grapico, though, was something else. It was foul beyond belief. It tasted like grape soda with about 40 packets of Sweet-n-Low and a handfull of floor sweepings from a sheetrock factory mixed in with it. I could only stomach a few sips of it before giving up on it altogether. So, yeah, avoid Diet Grapico if you’re in Alabama. Just sayin’.

We entered onto I-10 West and made our way into the heart of Dixie, Mississippi:


Where they remind you to just say no… to imported shrimp:

Say no to imported shrimp

For too long they’ve been taking the jobs normally reserved for honest, hard-working American shrimp!

Around 9:00 we exited onto I-110 South and from there turned onto US 90 West, the highway along the shore in Biloxi, our farthest point West on the entire trip:

Day 11 Stop 1 - Biloxi, MS
Daily total distance: 85 miles

We had a stop in mind, of course, but something caught our eyes first and we had to pull over:

Another gator

Souvenir City

An alligator-mouthed entrance (second of the trip) and a shark busting out of the wall? Why, how could we not stop at Souvenir City? They even had a fine selection of Katrina merchandise!

Katrina merchandise on sale!

Katrina merchandise, by the way, was mostly shot glasses, koozies and various clothing items emblazoned with “I survived Katrina.” Including clothing for children clearly less than 5 years of age, which draws into question the grasp of causality the potential owner must have. But, hey, if that’s not your thing, you could also bring back a live hermit crab!

Be careful we pinch

Becky found what she wanted, though, in the carved coconut wing of the store:

Lots of coconut heads for Becky

She got a few trinkets and stocked up on state magnets she was missing from our journey. I couldn’t find anything that fit my fancy myself, but I was a big fan of the photo opportunity just outside:

Oh no!

It should be noted that those “I survived Katrina” signs everywhere are no joke. Biloxi’s not far from New Orleans as the crow flies and it got hit just as hard. There were still signs of damage everywhere, nearly 5 years later, as buildings were still being reconstructed. Our main attraction for that day – Beauvoir – the Jefferson Davis House (warning: website plays embedded MIDI and no, I’m not certain at all that they are aware it’s 2010) – was no exception:

Reconstructing the Jefferson Davis Library

That’s what’s left of the Jefferson Davis Library. It’s still under construction. Apparently Beauvoir was roughly 80% destroyed by Katrina and so it is still being rebuilt from the ground-up. The gift shop and museum is still housed in a temporary trailer:

Post-Katrina Beauvoir gift shop

We arrived a bit after 9:30 and just missed a tour group head out. We were told they ran every half-hour and we’d have to wait for the next one at 10. So, after paying for our tours and getting our frankly unnecessary wristbands, we wandered around the gift shop looking for goods from the South. Becky found a Dixie bouncy ball:


…as well as a Dixified penny machine:

Rebel penny machine

And I got a lovely hand-painted Christmas tree ornament for my Mom. While I paid for it the woman behind the desk – a middle-aged woman with a heavy accent and the voice of a smoker – asked me if I needed it wrapped in bubble-wrap. I said no, I was driving, so that wouldn’t be necessary. She replied, “oh, okay, cuz you don’t want them monkeys in baggage claim breakin’ it!”

I blinked silently, wondering if I’d heard what I’d just heard. She continued, “you know, them monkeys! The way they throw everything!”

I wanted to see how long I could drag it out and keep her under the impression that I didn’t know that by “monkeys” she meant “black people,” but I was honestly a little afraid of causing a scene (the parking area was monitored by a short but stern woman with a pistol the size of her head strapped at her hip and I suspected they were just a bit touchy at Beauvoir these days) and so I muttered some sort of “thank you” for the completed transaction and silently walked out to put the ornament in my car. So there you go. Mississippi, ladies and gentlemen.

As we waited to start our tour we viewed some cases full of Jefferson Davis’s possessions that were destroyed by Katrina:



Katrina-damaged houseware


Katrina-damaged telegram

Katrina-damaged accessories

Those were just some of the valuables that were destroyed by Katrina; representative samples. I saw enough smashed-in and crumpled metal that day to convince me to evacuate if I’m ever in the path of a hurricane. As for the house itself, they had some pictures of it much worse for the wear in the aftermath:

Beauvoir, post-Katrina

These days the main house has been almost completely restored and looks much like it did before the storm hit:

Restored Jefferson Davis home

We wandered out of the air conditioned trailer and into the hot Mississippi sun along the Gulf toward the house to meet our tour guide:

View out onto the Gulf

View along the Gulf Coast

Becky at Beauvoir

Jeff Davis loved the kids

Jefferson Davis at Beauvoir

Jefferson Davis

Our tour guide was a woman of about 80 years who had a slow, stately Southern voice and a deliberate way of pronouncing everything that gave the air of her being as much a part of the history of the South as the house she was showing us. I’m certain she must be able to trace her roots to any number of old-money plantation-owning families.

Our tour guide

Our tour group numbered about a dozen: apart from us there was a family of four, a middle-aged couple, an elderly couple and a small group of road-worn bikers that, in their dress-down summer clothes, looked more like house painters than rebels. The house itself wasn’t nearly so large as one might imagine: its main receiving hall was but 30 or at most 40 feet long and it fed into four modest rooms, each on a corner. Behind two were the kitchen and a dining room on each wing. And that was it. I’d guess it at around 1600 square feet, in terms of usable space. Maybe over 2000 if you counted the basement, which was off-limits to the tour during the continuing repairs. Not the sprawling mansion one might imagine would serve as the post-Civil War home of the one and only President of the Confederacy and his immediate family for decades.

The Lady's Chamber

Portrait of Jeff Davis

Drawing room


As we were given the brief tour around the house we walked from doorway to doorway in the receiving hall and took turns gazing across brass barriers into each of the rooms:


While the Davises were of course the most famous of Beauvior’s owners, they were not the first nor the last. It was built in 1848 by a wealthy planter named James Brown. Following the Civil War it was sold to Southern writer and intellectual Sarah Dorsey who coined the name “Beauvoir” and, in 1877, invited Davis, then living on the road (including a brief period in exile in Cuba), to live in a guest house (not viewed on the tour due to damage). He and his family would later come to occupy the entire house, and his widow continued to live there after his death until hers around 1900.

Children's toys

After that it was turned into a convalescence home for Civil War veterans and widows until 1957 (do the math: those were some ancient widows) when it was closed and, eventually, re-purposed to its final state as a museum of Southern heritage. Of course, it has been, since then, a source of controversy and has been vandalized on numerous occasions (which might explain the armed guard a bit). Becky read a testimonial of a former employee who claimed that the entire ordeal was exceptionally racist but, aside from the woman at the register, we found the tour itself to be quite non-confrontational (and not to mention refreshingly secular) and couldn’t help but wonder if what Becky had read was a load of sour grapes. Really, the tour didn’t focus on the Glory of the South much at all and instead was largely about the painstaking process of restoration the house had undergone post-Katrina:

Evidence of restoration

Evidence of restoration

And so we ended our tour of the house and walked out to the Confederate grave yard on the property’s back lot. Apparently there was, at one time, snow cones there?

Beauvoir Dixie Kup

Sure, why not. I know I like a snow cone to go with my graveyard. Actually, it would have been nice to help fend off the already-menacing sun as we walked the 200-or-so yards in an open field. Sure was pretty, though:

Becky in the South

Confederate grave yard

The centerpiece of the graveyard is the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier:

Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier

Given the lack of proper identification among soldiers at that time, I’m sure finding one whose identity was a mystery wasn’t all that difficult. What was far more impressive was some original marble paneling that was laid out to the side under the shade of a live oak tree, shattered by Katrina:

Katrina-shattered marble

Katrina-shattered marble

“Stranger, [tread] lightly here, [for] this spot is holy ground.” Here are buried over 200 of our Confederate dead. Once the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy. Now the Confederate Soldiers’ Home of Mississippi.

Katrina-shattered marble

“Each soldier’s name shall shine untarnished on the roll of fame and stand the example of each distant age, and add new lustre [sic] to the historic page.”

And with that we continued our tour of Beauvoir along the Gulf of Mexico, battered by Katrina, but not yet erased from the history of the South.


We had originally planned to view a Katrina memorial also in Biloxi, but we figured that everything we had seen pretty much stood as a monument to Katrina and so it wasn’t really necessary. So, we got back on the highway and started our long journey home, headed East along I-10. We crossed back into Alabama around 11:30 and exited onto I-65 North around 20 minutes later. We decided to start looking for food right away, since there’d be a long haul until the next city. We managed to sniff out a Sonic Burger in Saraland and decided to go for it:

Day 11 Stop 2 - Saraland, AL
Daily total distance: 165 miles

Now, Sonic Burger intrigues me. They show commercials up here in New England all the time but there’s nary a one to be found north of the Mason-Dixon Line. So I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Apparently it’s a carhop restaurant, meaning you sit in your car, press a button to order food, and your meals are delivered by an overworked and exhausted teenager on roller skates.

Sonic Burger!

All of which worked out just fine, even though I was worried of making some sort of faux pas in the whole transaction. It looked like I could have pulled away from our station once we had our food but, since barely a third of them were occupied, I guess it didn’t really matter. I tipped our kid a dollar, too. Maybe not necessary, but for one it was offensively hot out already and was probably just as stifling 50 or 60 days out of the year and for two he was skinny, pale, and had an emo haircut which, in the Northeast I’d roll my eyes at a bit but in Alabama I had to kind of feel for him since I’m certain there was more than a grain of truth to the standard teenage “my parents don’t understand me” in his case.

The food did not disappoint. I had a delicious jalapeno cheeseburger and got a Butterfinger Blast – a mix of candy and soft-serve ice cream – that I happily slurped through a straw for the next hour or so as it slowly melted and I drove up through the Heart of Dixie.

I took us onto I-85 North near Montgomery and shortly thereafter we put in for a pit stop at an Exxon station just out of town, around 3 PM:

Day 11 Stop 3 - Montgomery, AL
Daily total distance: 330 miles

We got some more local sodas there but avoided Grapico. Becky took the wheel for a while and gave me a chance to rest up a bit. We crossed into Alabama at 4:10, at which point we entered the Eastern Time Zone again and it became 5:10, meaning we’d spent precisely 24 hours in the Central Time Zone. Though it had been sunny all through Alabama, it was starting to cloud up something fierce in Georgia and so Becky pulled over around 5:45 to let me take the wheel again in case there was rain as I had had time to study the maps and knew where we were going:

Day 11 Stop 4 - Grantville, GA
Daily total distance: 435 miles

Sure enough, just as we were approaching Atlanta, the skies opened up and torrential rain fell upon the city. The traffic slowed to a crawl, which at least gave us plenty of time to follow the various highway interchanges to make sure we got to our exit safely. From there our hotel was only a few short blocks away and we arrived around 6:45, safe but soggy:

Day 11 Stop 5 - Atlanta, GA
Daily total distance: 485 miles

We were put up at the Days Inn Atlanta Downtown, which, all things considered, wasn’t that bad at all. Checking in became a bit of a to-do, though, through no fault of the staff. The lobby was a zoo, and an indignant woman was in line ahead of me shouting something semi-coherent at the concierge behind the desk. He finally threatened to call the police if she didn’t vacate the premises and then dealt with me. I got checked in and secured a bag cart – largely held together with duct tape and with a stuck wheel that made it want to travel in circles – and loaded up the bags with Becky as I drove around back to park. When I got back to our room I found Becky waiting outside in the hallway: our key didn’t work. I stomped back to the lobby where I was told that apparently the hotel had been struck by lightning during the storm (not as bad as it sounds; tall buildings get hit in electrical storms all the time to no ill effect so long as they’re grounded properly) and, as a result, many of the key systems were on the fritz. I got new keys that, grudgingly, worked, and we finally got into our room around 10 after 7, ending our travel for the day:

End of Day 11
Cumulative total distance: 2970 miles

We relaxed a bit in our room and waited for the storm to pass completely before venturing out for dinner.

Looking out our window in our hotel

Around quarter of 8 we decided to give it a try. We’d looked up some restaurants and decided to give this one called Agave a shot. We hoped that maybe the heavy rains would cut the regular Friday crowd. Nope. Not there, at least. By the time we arrived it was clear that we weren’t going to get seated any time soon simply from looking at the parking lot, which was jam-packed. A valet guy waved us in but I knew we’d be facing probably an hour wait and it simply wouldn’t be worth it. Oh well, we tried, at least.

We drove back around to downtown and found the strip of touristy franchise restaurants near our hotel. I’d previously observed that, during inclement weather, these can actually be easy to eat at, since folks normally walk there and no one wants to go out to walk to eat during a thunderstorm. We parked back in the hotel lot and hoofed it out to this Tex-Mex ordeal called Jalapeno Charlie’s which, sure enough, was nearly empty, and so we got a table and a waiter who looked like Steve Carrel right away.

As you can imagine, “authenticity” wasn’t the best word, but it was getting late and we were hungry enough to eat about anything. So it worked just fine. I had a decent beef burrito and a few bottles of Dos Equis to wash it down and my mood improved substantially as a result.

We decided to explore a bit after eating in the light sprinkles and decided to see for ourselves just how ghetto the purportedly highly-ghetto Underground Atlanta was. The answer? Meh. Looked a lot like Atlanta’s answer to the question of Faneuil Hall that no one really asked. Not scary, just trashy. The mall part was closed and we didn’t feel like exploring the bar part since we got the idea. A fellow selling incense out of a plastic bag accosted us and we took that as our signal it was time to head back to the hotel.

Pretty Atlanta

We returned to our room around 10 and, despite the rain and the bungled dinner plans, felt pretty good about Atlanta. It reminded us of Boston in a lot of good ways, but it’s not Boston, which is something we value in a city. So, hey, maybe it’s a pretty good place. We feel bad that we didn’t have time to drive around and explore it more, but it’s definitely got potential. We hope to return some day.

As for right then, we read for a short while and felt recharged just to be back in a major city. We went to sleep ready to tackle the first of two major days of driving to bring us back to the Northeast the next day.

Saturday, May 29 - we woke around 7:30, showered, packed up our things, and loaded up the car. We didn’t check out of the hotel just yet, though, since we wanted to do a bit of sightseeing first. I grabbed a cup of coffee from an urn in the lobby – now significantly quieted from when we arrived – but it was both boiling hot and profoundly stale (probably re-heated from the previous day) and so I abandoned it after a couple of probing sips.

We decided to walk down the block a bit toward the tourist attractions just starting to open for the day. First there’s the Coca-Cola Museum. Since we didn’t feel like paying for what’s effectively one gigantic advertisement for a company that doesn’t really need much more advertisement to begin with, we didn’t go in. Plus they had metal detectors. I mean, seriously? Metal detectors for the Coke Museum. C’mon, people. These kept even Coca-Cola’s founder out, as it turns out he is made of metal:

Sharing a Coke with John Pemberton

But far be it for us to turn down an offer from mecha-John Pemberton:

Dr. Coke

Plus, Becky could look in longingly at all the Coke history she was missing from the outside:

Becky looking in to Coca-Cola Museum

Our real goal, though, was to head next door to the Georgia Aquarium to get Becky a couple of flattened pennies from Atlanta. We figured at least one machine had to be in the gift shop (true), and that the gift shop is almost always public-access since museums want to encourage people to spend money even if they didn’t buy admission. Well, not at the Georgia Aquarium. We could see the gift shop. We could see the machine in the gift shop. But we couldn’t get there without buying a ticket. Becky asked a security guard if she could just go into the gift shop and the guard hemmed and hawed and finally said she would need an escort. Becky said thanks, but no thanks, it wasn’t worth it. Curse you, Georgia Aquarium.

Curse you, Georgia Aquarium!

As we wandered about its perimeter looking for another way in (we thought maybe there was a hallway that led past the gift shop if one entered from the parking lot in the back, but no such luck) we saw that the aquarium was plastered in posters featuring its new mascot, a computer-animated clownfish with big eyes named “Deepo.” Deepo talked to us over the outdoor speakers and told us about the museum. One can’t help but wonder if a certain mouse fond of his intellectual property is going to have something to say about that. Perhaps he already has, since a cursory look through the Aquarium’s website just now didn’t turn up any references to Deepo. Ah, Deepo. We barely knew ye.

So, having failed to get pennies, we decided to head on to our first real stop of the day and hoped we would have better luck there. We checked out of the hotel and hit the road again around 9:15. We followed US-78 East until it became a highway and took Exit 8 out to the entrance of our first destination:

Day 12 Stop 1 - Stone Mountain, GA
Daily total distance: 20 miles

We were headed to Stone Mountain Park, an outdoor theme park with lots of physical activities for the kids but, more importantly for us, the one and only Stone Mountain, steeped in Southern history and a non-trivial amount of historical association with the KKK. These days, though, Stone Mountain seems to be about good, clean, Southern fun for the whole family for folks of all races. Which is nice.

When we arrived around 9:45 the amusement park was just getting set up for its 10 AM opening and so families were just starting to file in. No one wanted to go on a duck boat ride yet:

Arriving at Stone Mountain

After a bit of confusion and milling about we were able to discern that we did not have to pay admission right there to go see the carving. Good, since we’d already paid for parking. We found a path leading up a hill from where we’d parked and came up to the main visitor’s hall, which by that time was open for the day. We walked through and found ourselves face-to-face with the famous carving:

Stone Mountain

Hooray for Stone Mountain!

You’ll note in the first photo that there appears to be some people laying out a tarp and some blankets. They’re there to camp out for the fireworks and light show that night for Memorial Day. The light show was probably around 10 PM, maybe 9:30 at the earliest. It was then 10 AM. They were planning to camp there for 12 hours. To see a light show. Now, I’m certain that it is a Southern Spectacular and Not to Be Missed if we had the time, but I don’t know that there’s anything in this day and age for which I’d camp out for 12 hours. Ah well, maybe it means I’m too jaded in my Yankee ways.

Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson

Drawing upon your US History class in high school, you might recognize the three men on the rock face as, from left to right, Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Though General Lee’s got a stoic gaze, Davis looks a bit upset. His face is nothing compared to the unbridled look of terror on their horses, though:

Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee

The soul-less zombie eyes are a hell of a thing, too, aren’t they?

If we wanted to learn about Stone Mountain, a helpful magic box in the wall would tell us all about it in five different languages!

Magical talking box

I kept pressing them all just to see if I could hear the sound of Pat Buchanan having a seizure somewhere off in the distance. Or at least Lou Dobbs suffering a stroke if I pressed the “Spanish” button enough times. Failing that, we decided we had to do what needed to be done:

Eating Stone Mountain

It didn’t come out quite as well as the one for those other four guys, though:

Eating Mount Rushmore

We walked back in the visitor’s center and through the gift shop so Becky could pick up some flattened pennies and I could get a delicious Coca-Cola beverage to supplement the caffeine the nasty coffee from the hotel failed to provide me. Becky found a friend there:

Big Chief Suckerpop

We got some other candy but left Big Chief Suckerpop’s plumage alone. It looked too carefully laid-out to mess with, really.

From there we decided to ride the cable car up to the top of the mountain. It was pretty cheap and there was no line then (though from the amount of ropes it looked like they anticipated a very lengthy line around peak times) so we gave it a whirl:

Going up in the cable car

The view back down to Earth

The top of the world!

From there we couldn’t see the carving since we were standing right on top of it, but we did have an excellent view of much of Northern Georgia:

Cable car leading up to Stone Mountain

Atop Stone Mountain

Becky atop Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain


As you can see, they put up fencing to discourage folks from falling to their deaths down the sheer rock face, so we had a little patch of bare rock on which to roam but couldn’t do much in the way of climbing. It was windy up there, too, which made it pleasantly cool, even a bit chilly. A nice change of pace from the blistering sun we’d endured the past several days.

After sitting on the rock face for a while and enjoying the view we decided we’d best catch the next cable car down, as I heard the conductor mumble something about how they only come once every 15 minutes. This time we hopped in line early and I wedged myself in between the door mechanism and the back window so I could take photos of the carving on our way back down:

Stone Mountain from midair

Stone Mountain from afar

And with that we decided we’d seen all we needed to of Stone Mountain. It was around 11 by then and we needed to be on our way, as our next stop was time-sensitive and some distance away. After a bit of trouble finding the way to the park exit (it was hard to fight the natural inclination to follow other cars out, but, of course, they were all going in then) we got ourselves back to US-78 headed West. From there we hooked up I-285 North and got on I-75 North headed through the Georgian foothills of the Appalachians. Around 10 of 1 in the afternoon we crossed into Tennessee:

Welcome to Tennessee

A new state for Becky (the last on the trip), but not for me since I’d been there once before to visit my uncle out in Memphis way on the other end of the state. As for us, we weren’t going much farther, as we exited off onto I-24 West and then drove out to the Chattanooga Riverfront:

Day 12 Stop 2 - Chattanooga, TN
Daily total distance: 155 miles

Why were we there? Why, to take a lovely river boat cruise down the Tennessee River on the Southern Belle. We were early and, as such, the boat wasn’t anywhere to be seen when we arrived. So, we kept driving around, trying to get the lay of the land in the tangle of streets near the riverfront. After trying – and failing – to find a gas station, I decided to pull in to park somewhere. I noticed a fairly active parking lot that charged for parking, but also had city metered spaces lining it along the street, many of which were empty. The meters only allowed a maximum of 2 hours at a time. I did the math and figured we’d be gone for about 2 hours and 20 minutes from when I parked, though; too much time. Since it didn’t seem like the good people of Chattanooga were as ridiculously strict about parking laws as folks in the Boston area are, though, and since it was a holiday weekend, I decided “what the heck,” and risked a ticket for the cheaper parking.

From there we walked across the road and onto the pier where we figured the boat would dock when it arrived back from its earlier cruise. Sure enough, before long the Southern Belle chugged toward us down the river, calliope blaring an upbeat tune:

Southern Belle

It docked not where we were seated on the pier, though, but astride a floating building made out to look like a riverboat just upstream from us that we’d previously marked as a restaurant or a casino, maybe. Turns out it was a restaurant, yes, but it was also where the Southern Belle docked:

Southern Belle pulling to dock

It was down a sharp hill from the riverfront road, you see, and we couldn’t see its sign from where we’d parked. Good thing we’d gotten there early. We walked across the green and toward the entrance:

Entering the Southern Belle

By then there was already a substantial line of folks waiting to board, but fist things first, I needed our tickets. I waited behind a middle-aged man who was excelling at failing at life at the ticket counter, nervous that they’d start boarding any second and shove off without us. After he finally left, though, the man behind the counter took my name and handed me our tickets, all ready to go, from a small pile in front of him. Huh, that was easy. Much relieved, I rejoined Becky, who had found the flattened penny machine and was looking at t-shirts. As the line seemed to not be moving for a while – and then did so slowly as numerous old folks filed on board – Becky ran back and purchased the shirt just in time for us to board the Southern Belle.

Southern Belle

I’d gotten us tickets for the lunch cruise, which, as it turns out, was the same as the regular cruise, except that we got to eat first. They had a good layout of cold cuts, cheese, soups, and salads and we each helped ourselves right away, as by then it was 2 PM and neither of us had had much in the way of anything substantial to eat yet that day.

Lunch on a river boat

Still, of all the things on our journey, ones that require showing up at a very specific time and, if we’re late, we miss altogether tend to make me the most nervous. I was pleased as punch to be sitting down to a nice lunch, having successfully made what I’d deemed to be our easiest-to-miss attraction. And I’m glad we made it, too. After cleaning our plates, we each grabbed a Moon Pie from a big bowl of them they had out – apparently they’re made locally right in Chattanooga – and sat outside on the terrace along the port-side main deck to enjoy the view and a light, cool breeze on a beautiful afternoon:

Moon Pie!

We sat in our chairs with only two other couples occupying the entire port-side terrace on that deck (we’d later head starboard, which was equally sparse. Apparently everyone else had huddled up on the bow of the upper deck as if on a whale watching cruise) and watched as the Tennessee River slowly chugged by:

Tennessee River

Tennessee River

Barge in the Tennessee River

The view was not without points of interest, though. There was the occasional water skier:

Waterskier in the Tennessee River

…and some ludicrously huge houses that our captain pointed out over the PA were where “the rich people live:”

Ridiculous house

Now, I can’t quite recall how much he said that behemoth with all the decks cost, but I believe it was either $600k or $800k. Certainly under a million, whatever the number was. For the record, a decent-sized (by which I mean probably about 2400 sq feet) condo across the street from us – in Somerville, not even Boston proper – recently went for a hair under $600k. That sucker looks like it’s 10,000 sq feet, easy, probably closer to 12,000. For about the same amount. Dag, yo.

After marveling how ridiculously cheaper real estate was in Chattanooga than Boston, our ship slowly turned an about-face around a bridge pylon and headed us back up-river.

Turning around...

We saw the Delta Queen, a decommissioned steam boat out of New Orleans that had been pulled via barge up to Chattanooga and was being turned into a casino:

Delta Queen

…as well as an abandoned, floating TGI Friday’s that was also tugged in years ago but, due to lack of proper permits and trouble with its construction, had sat empty ever since, slowly rusting and rotting into the river:

Abandoned TGI Friday's

But there were good things, too! We saw one island – McLellan Island Nature Preserve – that was home to any number of fisher bird species, such as this great blue heron:

Great Blue Heron

Unfortunately it had also become populated by a clutch of non-native cormorants that had taken up residence there and – the captain had heard from folks who maintained the preserve – largely subsisted on heron chicks instead of river fish. So that might be something they will need to address in the near future.

That said, Chattanooga is a city that is in a renewal. Much like Pittsburgh, in the wake of the departure of the heavy industry that it grew up on that will not be coming back any time soon, it has transformed itself into an art-friendly environment, complete with a new arts center along the river:

Arts Center

So maybe one day Chattanooga will be more than just a town in southeastern Tennessee with a funny name. It remains to be seen. Right then, though, we had seen about all there was on our 90-minute tour and, much as it had done earlier as we watched from shore, the Southern Belle fired up her calliope and played us a jolly ol’ tune as we pulled in to dock:

Cattanooga Calliope

As we headed back into the gift shop I had to show Becky one last thing: a display of magnets called “Memory Lane” that displayed many of the same Jim Crow-era advertisements we’d seen in the Blacks in Wax Museum back on Day 1. Unfortunately, I’d neglected to take a picture right then and, as each minute that passed was another minute I could get a parking ticket, we didn’t have time to shop around right then. So, we rushed back to the car, making a note to look out for Memory Lane magnets in the future.

Whether due to luck or the fact that Chattanooga didn’t clearly advertise that they were not enforcing parking meters over Memorial Day weekend, we didn’t have a ticket. And so we got back into the car, content from our lovely cruise down the Tennessee River. We got back to I-75 North and quickly stopped for gas while still in town. From there we pressed forward through eastern Tennessee, refreshed and ready for a good, solid drive. As the miles ticked by afternoon became early evening and Becky took a few shots out the window of the lovely scenery in historic Franklin:

Half the time the sky looked like this on our trip

The World's Fair!


We also saw some guy who appeared to be hauling what looked like some sort of cross between a fan boat and a go-kart:

Fan boat

I’m not sure what the hell it was, but it was awesome and I want one.

I-75 merged into I-40 East and we followed that up until when we hit I-81 North a bit before 6. We continued along I-81, crossing into Virginia around an hour later. Wanting to get a good, solid driving shift in so we didn’t have far to go after dinner, I pressed on until 8:00, when we finally pulled over in Wytheville, VA:

Day 12 Stop 3 - Wytheville, VA
Daily total distance: 450 miles

Wytheville is, if nothing else, home of a very… fabulous water tower:


…though I doubt the residents think of it that way.

It also allegedly had a Cracker Barrel. I mean, it did. We could see it. We just couldn’t figure out for the life of us how to get there. Finally, after making a break-neck turn up a road with a steep incline that sure looked to me like I was going the wrong way down a one-way street, we managed to get there. I earned my country fried steak, dammit. And double-side of mashed potatoes. Because by that point in the trip I’d pretty much given up on any hopes of keeping a modest diet on the road. If my gut hanging out in any of the above pictures wasn’t enough evidence of that.

It was a good, solid meal, and just what we needed. As we had eaten the sun had set. In the darkness I got turned around and accidentally got going the wrong way on the highway. So, after sorting that out and muttering about how that Cracker Barrel appears to have been in a sort of Virginian Bermuda Triangle, I got us headed on our way and to our hotel, which was, fortunately, not all that far away. We pulled back off the highway around 10:15 a few miles past Roanoke:

Day 12 Stop 4 - Troutville, VA
Daily total distance: 530 miles

When we arrived it became immediately evident that this was probably going to be one of those “character-building” hotel experiences. Oh how right we were. A gruff looking man with a moustache and a stained NASCAR t-shirt stormed out of the lobby as we arrived, jumped in his needlessly-enormous pickup truck, and peeled off into the night. As we walked in, a bleach-blonde woman with more fingers than teeth and a tan that was not entirely natural even for southern Virginia yelled out in a rasp, “well, to he-yull with hi-yum!” In my notes I described her as “irrationally ugly.” I stick by that.

We quietly checked in as the woman returned and asked a few things of the lady behind the counter. She seemed to work there, the blonde one, but she wasn’t wearing a uniform or a name-tag. Meanwhile a cabal of young, silent men watched the whole thing from across the lobby in a darkened nook, huddled around a laptop screen. The whole thing was starting to take on a David Lynch vibe. We got to our room quickly and locked the door, not to come out until morning:

End of Day 12
Cumulative total distance: 3500 miles

The room had some… quirks, too. The carpet was damp. All of it. I sincerely hoped it was because it had just been shampooed and hadn’t dried yet. I’d hate to think what would cause that otherwise. Also, as if to ramp up the Lynch-iness, when I went to use the bathroom the light started flickering. And then it went out. Doing one’s business in the dark is not fun nor recommended.

Still, it had been a long day, we were tired, and we didn’t have all that far left to go. So we just sighed it all off and went to bed pretty much right away. It had been a very good day and we weren’t going to let a crappy hotel get us down. The next day we’d have one final attraction before driving back to New Jersey to see Buddy for the first time in 12 days. And that was something to look forward to.

Sunday, May 30 - trying to ignore the troubles with our hotel, we slept until about 7:45. When we woke up we found that there were two police cars and a half-dozen officers all milling around outside our window. “Of course,” we thought. After the scene we’d witnessed last night, it was only a matter of time. We decided to get out of there as quickly as possible. Which was made markedly more difficult by the lack of light in the bathroom. Showering in the dark is also not recommended.

Still, within an hour we were checked out and had our things back in our car, which, fortunately, was not part of the reason the police were there. We were glad that was the last hotel we would stay in on the trip, because it certainly didn’t make us enthusiastic about another night like that. We hit the road without delay after stopping for gas and snacks and took a lovely drive up US-220 North until we reached I-64 West and took it into southern West Virginia. Our destination, White Sulphur Springs, was just a few miles past the border:

Day 13 Stop 1 - White Sulphur Springs, WV
Daily total distance: 70 miles

We were headed to the lovely and historical Greenbrier, a sprawling Victorian resort plunked down on the western slopes of the Appalachians with the idea of attracting Washington socialites and old-money Virginians alike for secluded getaways. The Greenbrier has a very slow, rolling, Southern air to it, even though it’s by no means in the Deep South. We arrived around 10 minutes after 10 AM and parked in the self-park lot across the way from the main entrance:

Across from the Greenbrier

I’ve been to the Greenbrier as a guest maybe 4 or 5 times in my life, normally for large family gatherings, the last of which was probably 2000 or 2001. I wanted to show it to Becky. We walked in past the guard and toward the main building, which was undergoing a massive renovation:

Entering the Greenbrier

Unable to access the front from that angle, we walked around the huge building and off to one side to another entrance. Before we did that, though, I spotted a gazebo. Now, White Suphur Springs was chosen as the specific location for the Greenbrier because of the spring water that comes from there that – you can probably guess – contains a lot of sulfur. Stuff smells like rotten eggs and doesn’t taste all that great, either. But leave it to the Victorians to decide that that must be healthy for you, and so they built up the resort around it. I’d tried it from the Greenbrier’s spring once on a previous visit and could vaguely remember it being contained within a gazebo, so we wandered over to check it out.


It wasn’t the right gazebo, though. The Greenbrier’s entire property is enormous (it’s officially listed as 6500 acres – a bit over 10 square miles – but much of that is woods) and so there are several gazebos that dot its landscape. At that moment with steady high humidity and rising heat we didn’t feel like traipsing about and inspecting every gazebo for foul-smelling water, and so we decided to head on inside.

The interior design’s the sort of trip that can only be provided by the combination of Victorian interior design and old-money Southern luxury. Even the bathrooms were swanky:

Swanky bathroom

Just how swanky?

Mandatory luxury

That’s right: mandatory luxury. Anyone caught using a paper towel will be promptly escorted from the premises.

The great thing about arriving there in the late morning on a Sunday of a holiday weekend is that most folks were still just getting going: at the pool, eating brunch, maybe playing a round of golf out back. The hallways, though, were fairly empty of people. And so we were able to have the run of the place to take some photos in the various rooms. A big thing in mansions of that size, apparently, is to have rooms with names reflecting their theme, such as the Green Room, the East Veranda or the Trellis Lobby. The result is, when left to one’s devices, some really great pictures:



Swallowed by the carpet


Dancing on the David Lynch floor

Of course, just like the flickering light and irrationally ugly people did at our hotel the previous night, that checkerboard floor and the oppressively vaulted and echoing ceilings made us think of David Lynch. We tried to tap into that spirit:



Red Room

In the process we saw some doors propped open to an expansive ballroom. Toward the back we saw something…

A haint!

A g-g-g-g-g-g-ghost!

In heaven everything is fine...

She told us that in heaven, everything is fine. We took her word for it and returned to the Trellis Lobby.

By that time it was getting close to 11 and it was almost time for us to check in. Not to the hotel, mind you, but to our activity for the day: the one and only Congressional Bunker Tour. We checked in with a short, perky woman in a pantsuit who, thankfully, had our reservations (when I had booked them they didn’t take any credit card info over the phone and there was some confusion where they thought I’d meant June 30 and not May 30 and so I was a bit concerned it didn’t get booked properly) and got us settled up, taking our cameras in the process, unfortunately.

Now, this was the third time I’d done the Bunker Tour. The first was probably around ‘98 or so, shortly after they started doing it, and the second was when I’d last been there, in 2000 or 2001. it was so interesting to me that I wanted to return a third time with Becky. Both times they’d allowed photography, but, of course, I didn’t have a digital camera then and so didn’t take pictures. Unfortunately, the Greenbrier’s policy on photography on the tour changed, and relatively recently.

You see, a while back the whole United States real estate market and, as a result, the entire financial system kind of went kablooey. A lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of people lost their houses, and we were thrown into a recession for a solid two years. You might remember hearing about it. It was on the news.

The Greenbrier was not immune. Suffering the ill effects of the economy as folks cut back on luxuries, it was forced to declare bankruptcy in Spring of 2009, reporting $100 million in assets and, apparently, close to $500 million in debts. It was sold off and purchased by wealthy West Virginian developer Jim Justice, who purchased the Greenbrier for reportedly around $20 million. Justice immediately enforced some changed to get the Greenbrier out of the red. He started a major renovation project and pushed through plans to set up a casino that had been on the books for years but could never get the governmental approval needed to start. In order to staunch the bleeding out of cash until the casino could be completed (it just recently opened at partial capacity while the rest is still being completed but was not yet open when we were there), Justice leased out part of the bunker to a subsidiary of logistics giant CSX (previous owners of the Greenbrier, actually) called CSX IP for them to put numerous servers containing proprietary data underground in a temperature-controlled environment encased in thick concrete. Unfortunately, CSX wasn’t too keen in letting folks take pictures around all their data and so photography has, since then, been expressly forbidden on the tour. Nuts.

We passed the half-hour between when we checked in and when the tour playing Scrabble, having found a board tucked away in a drawer near where we paid for the tour. We watched as the rest of the tour group filled up. Though we’d later be joined by a small group of bikers, the other 8 or 10 folks on the tour were exclusively couples 40-60 years of age suffering from what Becky found termed “Weekend White Guy Syndrome:” wearing white or yellow polo shirts tucked into boxy, khaki shorts that come up above the knee, complete with loafers. One man – I was surprised it was only one – pitched a minor fit about how he had to be away from his phone for the duration of the hour-and-a-half-long tour. I came close to suggesting to him that perhaps he shouldn’t go on the tour if he can’t be away from his phone for that long but decided we’d gone too far our of our way to cause a scene. I suspected that at least half of our group – excluding the late-arrival bikers – were Tea Partiers. A couple of them grumbling below their breath throughout the tour at a lack of need to protect those bums in Congress these days helped confirm that. I did my best to ignore them and enjoy the tour for its historical value.

Now, I wish I could provide you with some photos of all the striking things I saw, but I can’t. You can, however, go to this PBS website that gives a virtual tour, which is about the best I can do for you, aside from suggesting you go down there yourself, which I do, should you have the opportunity.

The back story: it’s late in the Eisenhower administration. The Cold War is ramping up. A memo crosses Ike’s desk imploring Congress to entertain a worst-case scenario contingency plan should the war go hot and Washington DC be attacked with nuclear weapons. Plans are made in secret to construct a fallout shelter across the Appalachians at the Greenbrier. The classified project would become known as Project Greek Island and, after Eisenhower’s initial memo, left no official government paper trail: everything was paid for by the Greenbrier, who was then reimbursed by the US government who had already been leasing some space from the Greenbrier. All employees of the bunker were Greenbrier employees, not US government employees. During its construction in the early 60s, the bunker was tacked on to a medical clinic already planned to be built on-site. It was built directly beneath it, carved into a rocky mountain. Workers at the time privately expressed incredulity in regard to just how deep they were digging and just how thick they were laying concrete for the purposes of a medical clinic for rich folks with tennis elbow, but they all seemed to know better than to ask questions publicly. Many signed non-disclosure forms and passed through security screenings on a daily basis, and that seemed to do the trick to hush them up.

When completed, the total operating budget of the bunker was under $1 million which, as far as the government was concerned, could be written off as rounding error in annual budget ledgers, meaning that, in the 30 years it operated, the US government never had any record of actually paying for it. Aside from the owners of the Greenbrier, only top government officials were told about it: the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader. All others were assured there was a contingency plan in place if they asked, but were not given details. During its operation time no government official ever came forward with their knowledge of the bunker. One presumes the same could be said of any number of Cold War-era secrets they were privilege to.

Employees of the bunker – a skeleton crew of only about six to maintain and clean it and keep it in a state of readiness – were only allowed to work in very specific areas, shuttled in at the beginning of their shift and back out at the end. Again, many knew they were in some sort of secret area of great importance, but none guessed at what it really was. The bunker remained hidden in plain sight behind blast doors leading directly to the hotel, covered in ostentatious wallpaper to discourage folks from lingering too long in front of them:

Prettiest Blast Door

At the other end, an entrance for trucks was simply covered with a false door with a sign reading: “WARNING: HIGH VOLTAGE” to discourage anyone from hanging around there, either. The trick worked for the remainder of the Cold War. The Greenbrier used the open spaces of the bunker to hold conventions. Companies like Ford and GM had auto shows inside the bunker’s main lobby attached to the hotel. Cooking classes were held in the bunker’s galley, decked out in abrasive and clashing patterns, again to keep attendees from wandering around after the class. Meetings were held in one of two auditoriums: one with precisely 435 seats, one with exactly 100. Again, no one stopped to ponder the significance of those numbers, or if they did, they figured it to be a coincidence.

Buried below these, in areas inaccessible to the public, the Greenbrier had built and kept maintained enough beds for all of Congress. Apparently with each new Congressional election every two years, the bunks were re-assigned. It was the task of one of the heads of the Greenbrier to decide, in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, which Congresspeople were to bunk with one another. There was also another clinic specifically for the bunker that was constantly stocked with fresh medical supplies, showers, and a broadcast room with a false backdrop of the Capitol to send out TV signals allowing folks across the country to think that their leaders were still in Washington, DC, safe and sound. One side of the backdrop showed the Capitol in Spring, surrounded by cherry blossoms. If flipped over, it showed it in Fall with orange leaves.

As members of Congress would have arrived, they would have been herded through special showers to remove as much radiation fallout as possible. When they had all arrived the blast doors would be sealed. Strong enough to withstand conventional bomb blasts, the blast doors could not stand up to a direct nuclear strike. Built before the era of ICBMs, the bunker was to be used only for fallout: it was thought that Washington, DC would be hit, but not some backwater town on the West Virginian side of the Appalachians.

Enough food and fresh water was always kept on-hand to feed 500 people for at least 30 days. It was thought that, after this time, the level of radiation outside would have dropped to low enough for the doors to be opened. Power was provided by two enormous Diesel generators fed by gargantuan tanks of fuel that, again, had to be fired up and recycled periodically during the time the bunker was active, as well as an incinerator that would have been used to get rid of any garbage generated, or any dead bodies. Congress’s family members were to also be brought to the Greenbrier, but they would have to stay above-ground. It was uncertain in the contingency plan developed for the bunker if they would survive up there or not. A cache of weapons – including shotguns and M16s – was kept on-hand in case a riot developed in the bunker.

And so the bunker sat, in plain sight but out of the public eye, though the end of the Cold War. In 1992 an investigative journalist named Ted Gup probed into the records surrounding the bunker and smelled it out. He interviewed some folks associated with it but didn’t get very far. Still, he was able to cobble together a piece exposing it and, citing the end of the Cold War rendering the bunker as obsolete, published a report on it in the Washington Post. While it was still in-press, the Greenbrier’s ownership decided to go public with an admission about the existence of the bunker in order to cut off conspiracy theorists at the pass.

Of course, the US government terminated providing financial support for the bunker. Not sure what to do about it for several years, the Greenbrier finally elected to open it up for tours in the late 90s, which is when I first saw it. The tour has slightly changed from then: it’s given in a different direction, a few small areas are now off-limits, and one dramatic effect: the slamming of a huge, 40-ton door behind the tour group to simulate getting locked in the bunker is no longer performed, as the door was developing fractures in its hinges from being opened and shut thrice daily. But it still brings home the point how very real the Cold War was at that time. For folks like me who can only remember it as the mighty United States surging past dysfunctional, broken-down USSR limping toward its inevitable collapse, it really shows just how real a threat the Soviets – and total nuclear war – was seen as at the height of the Cold War. And so I’m glad it has been opened up as a historical testament to that time, even if, 18 years on, the Greenbrier still has no love lost for Mr. Gup.

Our cameras were returned to us at the end of the tour. We were walked outside on a patio where we were allowed to resume taking pictures:


We were asked to turn around and look at the medical clinic situated above the bunker behind us:

Sneaky bunker

There it was, obscured by pine trees. And for 30 years, it was really that simple. An incredibly successful example of the ability to hide things in plain sight.

We were handed a packet of souvenir postcards from the bunker. We thanked our tour guide and with that we departed the Greenbrier. By that point it was 1:00 and we wanted to get some lunch. However, there’s not all that much to the town of White Sulphur Springs, especially on a Sunday before a holiday, and so our options weren’t all that many, which is to say, practically none. Finally, just a short bit before we met back up with the highway, we found a pizza-and-subs joint called April’s Pizza that looked perfectly decent and, more importantly, open. There were only two couples in there other than us – both of whom seemed to know the owners – and so we figured we’d get in and out and on the road quickly. We ordered some garlic bread to start since we were quite hungry and I got a chicken parm sandwich. And we waited. And waited. With the sort of never-in-a-hurry-ever attitude that’s the trademark of West Virginia, our food finally came out and we wolfed it all down quickly. It was good and it was certainly inexpensive, but man, did it take forever.

We left at 2:00 and got back on I-64 East to Virginia. We took it all the way to I-81 North and followed that, hitting West Virginia again – this time on the eastern panhandle – a bit before 5:

Wild and Wonderful

We passed right over it and into Maryland, where we decided to put in for a stop for gas in Hagerstown:

Day 13 Stop 3 - Hagerstown, MD
Daily total distance: 300 miles

This was, apparently, easier said than done. I had to drive several miles to find the dang Exxon station signs assured me was right off the highway, getting a tour of Hagerstown I never asked for in the process. After further trepidation in trying to get back to the highway thanks to some rather difficult one-way roads and unexpected construction, we finally made it back heading North, crossing the remaining short clip of Maryland into Pennsylvania at about 5:40.

About an hour and 15 minutes later we exited off I-81 North onto I-78 East. We followed that for a while, figuring we’d stop for dinner somewhere around Allentown or Easton. When we got there, though, we couldn’t find anything that appealed to us, and so we continued across the Delaware River and into New Jersey around 8:00. A few miles in we found a Burger King right off the highway and decided that would do just fine:

Day 13 Stop 4 - Alpha, NJ
Daily total distance: 475 miles

When we arrived a minivan full of about 8 Arabic (or maybe Iranian) men and women unloaded at the same time as us. Now, not because they were Middle-Eastern but because they were just so many we quickly decided to be a slight bit rude and run ahead of them to get there first. This bold decision turned out to be a good one since the Burger King appeared to be staffed by precisely two people then and, after we were done eating, the group of eight were still slowly getting their food. Apparently the day before Memorial Day is prime-time for slow service.

From there we weren’t too far from our final destination and so we pressed on down I-78 East, up I-287 North and across on NJ-10 to my parents’ house in Denville, arriving safe and sound at about half past 9:

Day 13 Stop 5 - Denville, NJ
Daily total distance: 530 miles

We saw one The Dog who was very happy to see us, if only because we’d provide a foil from the cats who had, again, taken up a full-time task of antagonizing him. We also saw my parents and their neighbors, whom they had over to celebrate a birthday. They were winding down when we arrived and so left shortly thereafter for the evening. I grabbed a couple Amstel Lights from the beer coolers my father had laid out to help relax a bit from the long, hard drive that afternoon and evening.

End of Day 13
Cumulative total distance: 4030 miles

My mother had prepared far too much food – as is her wont – and so after cooling down a bit I tried my best to help her clean up. After that we gave them their presents we’d gotten, started our laundry going, and crawled upstairs to hit the sack around 11. We weren’t home yet, but it was good to feel like we were practically there. Exhausted as we were, we slept well that night.

Monday, May 31 - I woke up around 7:30, switched out our laundry into the dryer, and proceeded to go back to sleep until about 9. After that we got up, showered, folded up our laundry and gathered up all of our things into the car, including, for the first time in two weeks, one The Dog:

The Dog is in the Car!

It was supposed to be blazing hot that day and, upon loading it into the car, we discovered that Buddy’s blanket reeked of urine. We thought he’d peed on it, but we later figured out that it was the cats claiming their territory who’d done it. Cat piss smells horrible. So, we would have to drive the entire way back to Boston with our back windows rolled down. Cats are not my favorite animals.

My Mom had already left for work that morning but Dad had the day off and so he made us a cooler full of drinks for the road and saw us out as we left around 10:30. We hit I-287 North again, crossed into New York and across the Tappan Zee Bridge, hooked onto I-684 North, took that up to I-84 East, and hit Connecticut around 10 minutes of noon. From there we pressed on to Manchester, where we put in for a stop for lunch:

Day 14 Stop 1 - Manchester, CT
Daily total distance: 160 miles

We stopped at our old favorite on the NJ-MA route, Shady Glen, around 1. We got our standard fare of cheeseburgers, milkshakes, fries and onion rings, trying to eat as quickly as possible as Buddy was still out in the cars. The windows were down and we were in the shade, but it was still immensely hot that day. We managed to make it back out in decent time, gave Buddy some leftover fries and onion rings to calm him down, and hit the road again right away, crossing into Massachusetts around 2.

From there it was the same drive down I-90 I’ve done dozens of times before and we got back home to good ol’ Somerville a touch after 3 in the afternoon:

Day 14 Stop 2 - Somerville, MA
Daily total distance: 260 miles

We unloaded the car and unpacked our things. Becky was particularly fond of her coconut head she’d gotten in Mississippi:


We also immediately threw Buddy’s blanket in the wash. It would need to go through twice before the cat urine smell dissipated enough to give it back to him. With all of our things secure and nothing gone wrong at home to report – both The Guinea Pig and The Lizard were just fine and dandy – we were able to declare our trip officially completed, another rousing success:

End of Day 14
Final total distance: 4304 miles

We’d driven barely half as far as our first Great American Road Trip, but we think we’d managed to pack in just as much adventure. Not bad at all, I’d say.

I called up Alex C and went over to pick up our keys from him, thanking him and Ashley F again for taking care of our lower-maintenance animals in our absence. After that we dragged ourselves to the grocery store (since we didn’t have much in the way of food), relaxed a bit back at home, got some Wings Over Somerville for dinner and then watched Even Dwarfs Started Small off Netflix. Dave D had recommended it to us the previous summer and I’d put it in our queue. It took that long to come up, I suppose. It’s… well, it’s something. It’s Werner Herzog directing a bunch of ne’er-do-well dwarfs as they engage in various antics. And that’s about it. Interesting, for sure.

After that we retired to bed, read a bit, and went the heck to sleep. We’d both have to return to work the next day. We definitely weren’t looking forward to it, but, such is life. It goes on. And so do we.

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