Down South

Goal #18 :: Trust a Stranger

When I originally added this goal to the list, I had no idea what it would entail. It has the good kind of ambiguity that lends itself to interpretation. At the same time it’s such a juicy goal there exists the pressure come out with a great story.

This was Dan’s first day on the trip. He flew into Nashville that morning and we had planned on checking out a few more sites, including the Country Music Hall of Fame and an open-bar Thrillist party (that Dan’s friend would be attending). After a day walking through scorching heat, we were pretty worn, and decided it was time for the air-condition Hall of Fame. We paid the parking fee and climbed the steps to a stadium sized cultural staple. It may have been the southern food coma that’d set in not 20 minutes before, but the $25 entry fee felt like a good ol’ fashioned middle finger in our sweaty faces. After a simultaneous “fuck that,” we vamped in the gift shop, ironically trying on cowboy hats while we decided our game plan. “D’you wanna just drive to Savannah tonight?” Dan proposed. “Let’s do it,” I agreed. We might’ve just needed better tour guides, but after a day and change we were seeking a deeper South. At about 5pm we hit the road, excited with our decision to change it up.

Our navigation put us about 8 hours from Savannah, but we had camping gear and a long drive so we didn’t overthink it. It was on the late side, so we just missed Ruby Falls (the largest underground waterfall) and Rock City Gardens (supreme cliff vista that vaguely sounds like a KISS song). Atlanta was never part of the itinerary, but it made perfect sense as a pit-stop for dinner. Since we were going to do ATL for dinner, I texted my friend Sara back in New York. She’s from Atlanta and has multiple family members in the restaurant industry, so asking her recommendation was a no-brainer. She gave us the name of her family’s place – Oak Street Cafe in Roswell, GA (15 mi north of Atlanta). Her cousins run the place and apparently her grandma makes the meatballs! I immediately plotted the journey with my phone, but realized we’d be an hour too late. We thanked her for the suggestion and reverted back to scouring Yelp for a meal worthy of our hunger. We both craved seafood and set our sights on a spot called The Optimist. With seating ending at 10pm, and our ETA being 9:55, we knew there was no room for error. One wrong turn could be the difference between a great meal and an okay one. We reached the block, but drove passed the restaurant by a few hundred feet. Dan, having driven the last four hours, was a bit braindead at this point. After what seemed like an eight-point-turn, I hopped out of the car and ran into what I thought was the front door. It was actually a backdoor by a more private dining area, but I made it to the bar with haste to find someone who’d seat us before the clock ran out. The first server I found led me to the maître d’. She was super friendly and was happy to hear that we drove straight from Nashville to their restaurant. We valet parked and were seated within a few minutes.

It was the eve of my birthday and we ordered like kings. Green curry mussels to start, followed by swordfish and Alaskan halibut for Dan and I respectively. Everything was amazing. The mussels were probably the best thing we ate all trip. We couldn’t let the curry go to waste, and asked our waiter Paolo to hook it up with more garlic bread. When the dessert menu came, I don’t think we were actually hungry, but our curiosity led to two more plates; I opted for the fried peach pie with white pepper ice cream and Dan went with the classic key lime pie with whipped cream. It was around 11:30 by now, and we knew Savannah was a bit out of our reach with an impending food coma and a lack of sleeping arrangements. I sipped an espresso and used some camping apps to find a local campsite that didn’t require prior reservations.  After an unsuccessful search, we asked Paolo if he knew any spots that didn’t require reservations.  We’d already filled him in on our epic checklist and the overall improvisational nature of the trip, so he first suggested a city park to camp in, admitting that he didn’t know the legality of doing so.  We shrugged off the situation, as an encounter with the police was probably the best-case scenario of that plan.  New to the area, he went off to ask the manager if he knew of any places to camp.

Paolo came back a few minutes later, “the manager has an empty lot you can camp on if you’re up for it.”  We both exclaimed “that would be awesome,” with a tone of incredulity.  We laughed at the oddity and serendipity intertwined in the moment.  With the proposal accepted, Darren came up to the table and introduced himself.  We explained the original plan to make it to Savannah and he agreed that we bit off a little too much road this late in the day.   He gave us the low-down on his newly purchased property; a partly finished recording studio, situated next to a tattoo shop and across from a dive bar on Ponce de Leon, had an overgrown lot behind it that we could camp in.  “It’s got a fence all the way around, so no one will fuck with you,” he assured us.  He added that he was booked for  a recording session in the morning, so we’d have to be out first thing (which I assured him was already our game plan).


Darren at The Optimist

Darren drew a diagram of the lot was location on a napkin and gave us the address.  We thanked him profusely and snapped a quick photo.  After leaving Paolo with a fat tip, we fetched the car and headed toward our new destination.  “What the fuck is happening right now?” we laughed on the drive over.  A new Black Keys single kicked off on the radio, as it really felt like the stars aligned for us just minutes ago.  His first night on the road, Dan needed some contact solution.  We pulled off to a Wallgreens for some supplies.  While I waited for Dan,  I drank a mango Gatorade and watched the parking lot come alive its nocturnal inhabitants.  I could tell then and there this was about to get interesting.


Entry to the lot

We drove a mile or so down the road to find our side street and turned left.  We crept down the block, eyes peeled for the vacant space we’d call home for a night.  A long wooden fence hid its contents before the one-story commercial spaces sprouted up at the end of the block.  “That’s got to be it,” I pulled a U-turn at the first storefront and threw it in park.  I walked to the far left end of the fence where there was trashcan storage and generous hole in the wooden fence.  I stepped through to find a steep drop into a valley covered in ivy and overgrown weeds.  I turned to the right to see a staircase dimly lit by a nearby streetlamp.  “Hopefully it’s flatter over there because this is way to steep to camp on,” I thought to myself.


Apt building overlooking the lot


Urban Campsite

I returned to the car to update Dan that we’d found the place and to come check it out.  Dan was verbally not a fan of the whole idea anymore.  The lot was certainly not the tranquil prairie we imagined; it was closer to the vacant lot you’d come across in Lower East Side in the Guliani era.  That being said, the apartment building overlooking the lot was a blessing and a curse.  It challenged the privacy of the yard to the fact that vagrants couldn’t post up for too long.  At the same time, with half of its windows lit, we kept our headlamps on low as we questioned the legality of our situation.

Dan offered to pay for a motel, pointing out that the risks far out-weighed the benefits.  I argued that we’re doing it for the story, that we were on this path for a reason.  I reasoned with him by suggesting we setup the tent, lock our valuables in the trunk, and if it came down to it, sleep with our knives.  We setup the tent in record time, cleared some broken glass from the vicinity, and tossed our sleeping bags into the tent before heading back to the car.  As we repacked the trunk with everything tempting enough to break a window, Darren rolled up to check in on us.

“Ah, you guys found it” he said from his window.  With the car half-packed, I walked across the street, headlamp still on.

“Yeah, we just setup the tent and are getting our last few things… thanks again for letting us crash,” I replied.

“No problem.  Just make sure you’re out first thing tomorrow,” he muttered just louder than a whisper.

I assured him that we were still planning on departing at 7am.  He offered us his hand to shake at a 45 degree angle as he whispered his salutations.  In retrospect, it must’ve been a cool-guy handshake, but in the moment it definitely tainted the entire scenario.  As he drove off, Dan turned to me “What the fuck was that?  This is not right.  Some shit is about to go down.”

I confirmed the weird vibe, “You know I was cool with all of this and then that just happened.”  I convinced him that the prudent thing to do was to finish locking our things up in the car and walking to the bar on the corner. It was a win-win since we could hangout on the porch and watch the block for unexpected guests as well as get a couple rounds of liquid courage before our brazen attempt at urban camping. We made our way into a sweet dive called The Local. I knew I was home hearing the Ty Segall and then Harlem blaring from the speakers upon entry. Mindy, the punk-rawk bartender, poured me a birthday whiskey while we drank a top-shelf selection of Dan’s over rocks.

We met some friendly people at the bar who seemed to also have Nashville and Savannah in common. Dan took a liking to one of them, and as her friends left for the next bar on their journey, I felt my sleep deprivation kicking in. I said my goodbyes and headed back to the tent. It was still hot and humid, so I unzipped my sleeping bag and slid my sheathed knife under the airplane pillow. Dan soon joined me and kicked off his lemon-print Adidas. The pungent odor of his sockless foot-sweat seared the tent. “You are getting your own tent for the rest of the trip,” I coughed. He apologized and quickly fell into a whiskey-catalyzed slumber.

As I layed en-guarde in the doorway of the tent, I notice a blue flashing light illuminating the apartment building. Were the cops here? Did someone see our tent from the window? Should we just stay in silence and hope it’s unrelated? The knot in my stomach grew until I decided to do some recon. Slipping my shoes on, I dashed up the stairs in my best ninja. I peered through a hole in the fence toward the origin of the blue light. It was just neon advertisement. Wow, time to relax dude.

With a full exhale, I returned to the tent in a casual gate to find Dan had slid down the incline in to the middle of the tent. I zipped myself back into the tent, hoping to disturb him enough that he’d return to his area. No dice. I kicked my Bucketfeet off and cuddled up to pillow+knife combo to catch a few winks. That’s when the snoring started. This was full-drunk snoring. I don’t know how he’d got so drunk, but I think all the travel had something to do with it. I lay there pondering how the women in his life could deal with this. I told him to “shut up” in a stern tone, which would only interrupt the noise for a minute or so. Let me clarify – he’d slid half the tent down, so he’s a foot from my head, facing my ear, snoring at full volume. That’s when I chose feet over snore. Yes, the feet that smell like sockless shoe-wearing after a day of walking in Nashville in 98 degree weather. Yep, that’s how much I needed to get some rest.

After about ten minutes, with my face pressed into my t-shirt, my mind drifted into the subconscious, images of how I imagined Savannah to be animated before, Whack!, kicked in the back by good ol’ Drunkin Danuts behind me. “Are you serious right now?” I bitched. As if perfectly timed, the second kick came as fell asleep for the second time. “Dude you gotta stop kicking me” I said loud enough to jar him to a half-awake daze. The whole point of urban camping was to come out with some sleep. I fall asleep. Deep sleep. At least an hour or two has passed. Dan wakes me up. It’s twilight. “I’ve gotta shit, what do I do?” Equally enraged and in disbelief that he’d bother me for such a thing, I mumbled an unintelligible “wet wipes in the car.” I fall back asleep.

A fuller morning light wakes me up and my alarm soon follow. We breakdown and pack up the tent like the Gestapo is on their way. We laugh again, looking over the lot in daylight. “Let’s get the fuck outta here,” we agree and head to a spot called Thumbs Up, a greasy spoon diner on the way to the highway.  I wish I could remember the exact words Dan used, but he confessed that he’d been quick to judge the situation; something like this: “Here I am thinkin this dude it gonna mug us, when he’s obviously a really cool guy that just let to strangers crash on his property.  I gotta stop doing that.”  Whatever he took away from it, I’m glad it was positive.  We’re all fed fear and distrust by the media.  It’s good to stand your ground and rely on the good nature of strangers once in a while.

Before we hit the road, we take turns brushing our teeth in the bathroom and order from a build-your-own-breakfast menu. The waitresses broke the mold in terms of being attentive and hospitable and we were on our way with coffee-to-go cups. Definitely a good note to leave Atlanta on.  Savannah here we come!

Thumbs Up Diner

Thumbs Up Diner

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