Slow down, America!

Slow down, America!

We have been doing a lot of interstate driving – I-95 and I-64 to Williamsburg; the interminable I-85 to North Carolina and Atlanta; I-20 through Georgia to Alabama; I-22 from Alabama to Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, I-55 to Arkansas – and I am amazed at how fast people drive and how noisy it is in the van with the windows rolled down. Of course, I’ve been more aware of how fast everyone else is going because everyone else is going faster than us. Wesley at full throttle is closer to`the minimum speed limit than the maximum so it might be that folks are going as fast as the law allows. What I shake my fist at as they fly past us though is the way they change lanes at the last second nearly clipping our tail, try to pass on the right when the blinker is on signalling we are trying to move right to get out of the way, and how they look so damn smug in their cars with the automatic transmissions and the windows rolled up and air conditioning blasting. We’ve gotten a few honks and waves from folks who either feel some nostalgia for seeing one of these VW Westphalia dinosaurs still stomping the earth or can’t believe some idiot would take the thing on a public highway, but for the most part, people just want us in the rear view mirror.

The stretch of State Route 78 that we drove out of Birmingham, Alabama, may have been most unpleasant bit of driving I’ve ever done, and I cut my teeth behind the wheel in North Jersey and currently live in Northern Virginia, where drivers are notoriously unable to merge, thus turning twenty mile trips into day long ventures. It was hot. There were red traffic lights every hundred yards, narrow lanes and big trucks on all sides, and the only businesses that seemed to exist in the otherwise empty strip malls were pawn shops, Dollar stores, garages, fast food joints, and adult novelty superstores. And then we saw a WalMart and that explained why the other retail businesses – including a grocery store – had failed. The highlight of this part of our trip, by a longshot, was seeing a dead armadillo by the side of the road.

Another highlight - sunset from our Mississippi camp

Another highlight – sunset in Mississippi

We’ve been on the interstate so much rather than the more time-consuming but interesting and scenic country roads because we are still on a schedule. We committed to meet R’s parents in Atlanta and my cousin in Arkansas on certain dates so we aren’t able to linger another day at camps that we like. We also want to get to Mexico, so pushing on day after day isn’t all bad, but it does change the dynamic from take your time to hurry up – which is opposite of how we envision life once we leave the United States in about ten days.

As R pointed out, the places we’ve been in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and now Arkansas, may turn out to be just as foreign to us as Mexico will be – maybe even more foreign because in Mexico we expect things to be different but in the States we expect things a certain way. It would have been nice to be able to spend some more time getting to know these places. Most of the Alabama that we drove through was flying the confederate flag from a ramshackle home that had several abandoned cars with weeds growing up through the engine block permanently docked in the front yard. Bet you don’t now how many used appliances you can discard by the side of a barn: a lot.

J and Coconut sleeping on the top bunk of Wesley after an evening downpour washed out the tent Maya planned to sleep in

J and Coconut sleeping on the top bunk of Wesley after an evening downpour washed out the tent Coconut planned to sleep in

To be fair, our camp on Monday night on Clear Creek in Alabama, part of the vast Lewis Smith Lake, was pretty. And the drive west towards Mississippi on Country Road 278 was a nice change from interstate driving and revealed a few nice homes in seemingly otherwise forsaken towns. Maybe there is more to these towns than we could see – I don’t know – but at least our experience was a bit more organic because we drove through at about 45 m.p.h. and with the windows down. We did spend about 20 minutes chatting with a park ranger who had come to take a water sample near our camp in Fulton Campground on the Tennessee River-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi. He was enthused about our trip and may follow through on some of his own wanderlust – which would be great if we inspired him to do that. This is to say that anyone we’ve talked to has been nice.

This is the view we woke to at our Clear Creek camp in Alabama on Tuesday

This is the view we woke to at our Clear Creek camp in Alabama on Tuesday

Natural Bridge near the Mississippi - Alabama border. We stopped while driving along State Route 195 for a short hike and picnic lunch

Natural Bridge near the Mississippi – Alabama border. We stopped while driving along State Route 195 for a short hike and picnic lunch

For the most part, Coconut and J look at their screens while we drive and R navigates from the passenger seat or orders things on our friend’s Amazon Prime account that we forgot or have already lost.  We are expecting R’s new swim shorts (three pair; they were on sale), her old lady face cream, a VW repair manual, and our replacement credit cards to be shipped to our next known address in Tulsa, which belongs to my cousin, who will host us next Sunday. Coconut is also hoping some of her friends will respond to the letters she sent.

The kids reading, doing other worthy things, or even playing some games on their screens while we drive is fine. Once in a while we can get them to look up at something interesting like a ride-on mower parked on a front porch and sometimes Coconut will ride shotgun so R can sit back with J and play cards. J spends a lot of time playing games on his Kindle and we need to help him download some books once we get to free Wifi.

Coconut reading a book after taking a swim in the lake

Coconut reading a book after taking a swim in the lake

We haven’t spent much time living out of the van yet to establish a routine, but we have started to engage Coconut and J in helping set up camp when we arrive and doing some chores around camp while we are there. I’ve taught J how to scrounge unused or partially charred firewood from the unoccupied campsites and he’ll take off doing that and report back on the burned ones that are still good but that he doesn’t want to carry because he will get his hands dirty. Coconut will set up the chairs and her tent. They both do the dinner dishes. They’ve been receptive if less than enthusiastic about doing these things but we’re hoping that we can help our children succeed not by doing for them, but by showing them what they can do for themselves. This slower pace of life on the road is new to them, and we realize enthusiasm may go up as the temperatures go down. So far all any of us have wanted to do once we get to camp is put on our swimsuits and hit the water.


Top 2 Things to do in Atlanta with kids, plus a few more

Top 2 Things to do in Atlanta with kids, plus a few more

When you’re visiting Atlanta with kids, there are really only two things that are must-dos, according to my kids: The World of Coca-Cola and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site. That’s not to say that Atlanta doesn’t have anything else to offer, just that these two are head and shoulders above the rest.

vintage vending machines at the world of coca-cola


The World of Coca-Cola


Coca-Cola was born in Atlanta and grew up to support its mother city in a big way. Never ask for Pepsi in Atlanta unless you want to be seen as an eccentric outsider.
We’ve spent years telling them how bad soda is for them, and here my children learn all about how magical this syrupy brown stuff is. If you are at all skeptical about the influence of advertising on human brains, you will be amazed at the amount of propaganda here. You will start to enjoy all the pretty Coca-Cola-inspired artwork in The Lobby, and get nostalgic looking at the advertising when climbing through The Coca-Cola Loft, and then you’ll be perplexed by the 6 minute show in the Happiness Factory™ Theater, and if you don’t get downright teary when learning about the impact of Coca-Cola on poor people around the world at the Live Positively® Portrait Wall, you know you’ll break down at the classic Mean Joe Green commercial in the Perfect Pauses Theater. They’ve got you right where they want you. And then they set everyone loose in the tasting room, where more than 60 different sodas from around the world are on tap in a United Nations of sugary goodness (except for the bitter Italian soda – you’ll know it because the floor is sticky from everyone spitting it out). With everyone hopped up on high fructose corn syrup, they seal the deal by handing each and every person a freshly bottled Coke as a souvenir as they exit. Whatever your thoughts on Coke when you enter here, they will most likely be confirmed by this visit.


Address: 121 Baker Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30313-1807
Fee: Adults – $16, Children (3-12) – $12, Children (2 and under) – Free


Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site


All of our children learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school, so to bring them here is a really special experience. The historic site comprises Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and the birth home of Dr. King. Ebenezer Baptist Church has been restored to its 1960-68 state when Dr. King served as pastor with his father. The grounds are largely self-guided, so you will walk from the Visitor’s Center, to the church, and then pay respects at the crypt of Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King. The exhibits in the Freedom Hall may not hold the attention of the littlest visitors.


Address: 449 Auburn Avenue NW, Atlanta, GA 30312
Fee: FREE but to tour the birth home of Dr. King, you will need to register on the day of your visit.


The Varsity


The world’s largest drive-in, the Varsity is always hoppin’, especially when there’s a Georgia Tech game going on downtown. The carhops traditionally sang the menu to you, and were an important part of the Varsity experience. Burgers, chili dogs and fries or onion rings are the standard fare. Fried pies and homemade ice cream top things off. Check out their website for the right lingo to use when ordering. Order a “P.C.” for a plain chocolate milk – but it’s always served over ice.


Address: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30308 and 5 other locations
Fee: Burger, fries and a small Coke under $5


Little 5 Points

After the World of Coca-Cola, this was my tween twins’ favorite stop in Atlanta. A funky neighborhood full of little shops – thrift stores, record stores, lots of restaurants – perfect for wandering on a lazy afternoon. My kids’ favorite shop was Bang-On, where they could customize a t-shirt on the spot.


Address: Centered around the intersection of Moreland and Euclid Avenues between Inman Park and Virginia Highlands
Fee: Free to walk around! Bring your wallet to shop.


Olmstead Linear Parks


Because sometimes the little ones just need to run – what we call around here a “frolic attack” – you might want to head over to Atlanta’s loveliest urban park. When the massive neighborhoods of Druid Hills were being developed in the late 19th century, the developer called upon Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, to create some parkland for the area. The resulting linear parks run along either side of Ponce de Leon Avenue and are a favorite for runners.


Address: Along Ponce de Leon Avenue near Moreland Avenue
Fee: Free


Check out this post from Val in Real Life about the Center for Puppetry Arts in midtown Atlanta!

Getting there:

By air: Atlanta is within a two-hour flight of 80 percent of the U.S. population, so what are you waiting for? Atlanta’s airport is one of the most efficient and well-designed in the world, which is a good thing, because it’s also the busiest. From the airport, the MARTA rail system can take you to its hub station in Little Five Points in only 17 minutes.

By train: Amtrak’s Crescent line runs through Atlanta from New York City to New Orleans. This is much less romantic than it sounds.
By car: You’re going to need a car to get around Atlanta, so why not just drive there? Do you really need me to give you directions? You’ve got a computer – map it yourself!