It’s been quite a few years since I’ve taken a road trip with my boys. Oldest son stopped wanting to go when he started college a few years ago, but youngest son, a traveler at heart like me, just finished his first year of college and was anxious to hit the road. The thought alone of traveling with my former travel-buddies was exciting enough, but I decided to challenge myself by setting a budget of $500 for five days (See Road Trip Challenge). So, with youngest son in charge of our routes and destinations, we set out for our first stop Atlanta, Georgia.
The Highland Inn is an eighty-something year old hotel in need of a little TLC… and maybe some electrical upgrades, but it comes recommended by a friend and is the only hotel in the popular Virginia Highlands area, so we decide to give it a chance (*My friend later told me it had been over a decade since she’d stayed). Let me just start by saying our room was $68 including tax, which is less than half the price of any other decent place in town and its in a great spot, with dozens of restaurants, shops and bars all within walking distance. We walk out of the sweltering heat and are relieved to step into a cool, clean smelling room, nevermind the slight excess of extension cords dangling from the electronics in our room, thankfully the window air conditioners are plugged straight into the wall (one less fire hazard). I look up and notice a round outline on the wall with a few stray wires blooming from the center. “I guess that’s where our smoke detector used to be,” I say.
After using the bathroom, I realize the door I came through is now stuck shut, but luckily there’s a second working one. So, I head over to my section of the room to lay on the bed and attempt to read by first flipping on my lamp which doesn’t work, at least not until I accidentally bump into the cord. Hmmm, maybe it was better dark. With the new lamp light, I can clearly see few big hunks of ceiling plaster dangling above my bed.
I laugh and tell the boys to walk softly.
“Well, it definitely has lots of character,” Jake says. Jimmy, who’s still busy inspecting for bedbugs, finally gives the all clear. Surprisingly though the room is immaculate, just a little run down. Semi-comfortable with our accommodations, we head out.
With the unmistakable scent of pot and incense wafting through the streets, we roam around Little Five Points, a grungy area filled with bars, head shops, and hippy clothes. Homeless men hang outside some of the shops ogling women as they pass. Afterwards, we stroll in the other direction past our hotel and are relieved by the contrast of the well-dressed twenty-somethings and the million dollar houses only a few blocks away. I relax and stop looking over my shoulder. Cities always surprise me like with poverty and prosperity all intermingled. Jake is anxious to get to the nitty gritty of the big city, so we hop in the car and head towards the skyscrapers.
Driving around downtown, first thing we notice is the graffiti covering almost every flat surface in the city. Being a photographer, I appreciate the expression of art when it’s done tastefully and with thought, rather than just random curse words and gang signs and when vibrant colors are used, it can make great backdrops for portraits. I can remember living in conservative Richmond, being super excited to discover a graffiti-covered wall, only to come back a day later and find it gone, painted over by the city workers. I’m at least happy that’s not the case here, most buildings are either covered with bright colored looking murals or at least some form of art expression.
Just as we’re about to give up on cruising around, we stumble upon Oakland cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Atlanta. I love cemeteries, so I convince the boys to wander around with me while I snap pictures of broken old statues and mausoleums tucked beneath towering old oaks and magnolias. It is a little too creepy to do this alone. We wander around the confederate portion of the cemetery, the final resting spot of almost 7,000 soldiers, many unknown. After I read off some of their names and calculate how old they were when they died, most in their 20’s and 30’s, I say a little silent prayer for them and decide this place is the highlight of my short trip to Atlanta.
Day 1 total- $98 (includes a mediocre dinner at Manuel’s tavern)
Cloudland Canyon State Park-
In the morning, we drive two hours to our next destination in the North Georgia mountains. Feeling like we deserve a little indulgence, I spend a few extra dollars on a camp site with both electricity and running water, making our total accommodation cost $25 for the night. I don’t realize until almost rolling off my cot at bedtime, we picked an un-level camp site. With the tents all set up, we spend the afternoon hiking through the trails in the thousand-degree heat. It was only after we descend 1,200 steps, literally, and hike down miles of trail we start to cool down. At the end of our second trail, we come across a giant pond with waterfalls flowing into it. Jake and I quickly take off our shoes and socks and dip our feet into the chilly water. He wants to swim, but thoughts of what could be lurking in the water make me content to just get my feet wet. I also think of the signs we passed throughout the park letting us know not to expect to be rescued, even in emergency situations. Since Jake is wearing heavy shorts, he too decides to stay dry.
Every few steps, I glance down to notice spiders, bees, and flies scurrying out of the way of our footsteps. I’ve never seen so many bugs in my life. Later, we even find a scorpion under the tent. We make our way back through the trails and return to the campsite in the late afternoon. I was a little worried we’d end up lost and I can’t imagine being out there in the dark (especially with no cell coverage). Even though, everyone is exhausted, I can tell how much the boys are enjoying this. I’m so grateful to be able to take time in my life to do things like this with them, with them grown. I never had the opportunity to travel much with them when they were little.
Our bathhouse is pretty nice for a campground, but since I have a totally irrational fear of spiders, I’m jumping as hell and constantly on guard keeping watch for them every time I go in. After a few uneventful trips back and forth, I start to relax and blissfully take a nice, long, bug-free shower. But then, on my last trip to the bathroom, everything changes.
I’m sitting on the toilet in the stall with the slightly too-big wooden door wedged shut, when I spot him. He’s sitting in the corner of my stall maybe 12 inches from my feet, looking right at me. Fear seizes me, and makes screaming or even moving impossible. I squeeze my eyes closed trying to refocus several times, praying I am mistaken. But there he is- black, furry, and as big as my fist. Goosebumps quickly sprout up on my arms and legs as my mind involuntarily imagines him crawling on me. I stand up and take a deep breath trying hard not to faint and try my best to get the wedged-shut wooden door open without startling him. I never take my eyes off of him. Maybe he’s dead, I tell myself as the door reverberates against the concrete. When I get the door open, I run from the stall and out of the bathhouse, my heart pounding against my chest. A fellow camper sees me flustered and asks what’s wrong. She’s obviously an outdoorsy woman with her short hair and Merrell hiking outfit and shoes and I can tell she’s judging me by her half-smirk. “Go in and look at him then,” I tell her. She comes out a moment later with wide eyes and says, “He just might be the biggest one I’ve ever seen too.”
Thank God… and Peroni, the Italian beer makers, for the alcohol for helping me survive this night. I try my best to push the experience from my mind and go to sleep, but with the tent on a bit of a slope, I have to hang on the side of my cot to avoid rolling off. Also, the tent is so small, definitely not a four-person as the package states. I can’t even imagine four small children fitting comfortable in this tent. The wind howls all night, not steady in a way that might lull you to sleep, but more like a sound that’s a bit like an approaching train… or tornado. I wake a hundred thanks to both the wind and a barking dog in the distance and am pretty sure we’re all going to die and be eaten bugs before anyone finds us.
I pray for daylight and when it finally comes, the first thing I see is perfect silhouettes of a dozen or so daddy long legs and some of their smaller friends covering the top of the tent. Knowing they can’t get inside, I feel exhilarated and happy to have survived the night in hell. Knowing we’ll soon be leaving the woods makes me want to jump up and down and cheer. The boys somehow enjoyed this. Tonight, I don’t care if I spend four million dollars on a hotel, I’m sleeping in a real bed… in a real room… with no bugs.
Jake does his best to make a wood fire in the little grill so I can heat up water for my instant Starbucks. After almost an hour and two dumped lukewarm pots of water and ashes, we give up, pack up and leave. Between the bugs, the heat, and my night terrors, I leave with the impression that Camping really sucks.
Off to our next stop, Rock City…..
Day 2 total- $30 (includes $5 firewood. We ate snacks packed from home for dinner).