50th Birthday Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 1-3

Georgia is a state of contradictions. On the one hand you have confederate flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks with NRA and Trump bumper stickers and on the other hand you have deep fried BBQ pork. You can see why I’m conflicted.

I got here Friday afternoon after a flight that was uneventful except for the rather indirect route we took to get here. Everything was fine until Oklahoma and then some bad weather forced us off the flight plan. We went north, then south, then back west again, then flew in a circle, upside down, and in a figure eight pattern. Okay, I’m exaggerating but not by much. The path on the in-flight monitor looked like a a child had scribbled on the wall in crayon.

We left more or less on time but were almost an hour late by the time we got to Atlanta. A quick rental (Ford Fusion Hybrid Smugmobile) and little traffic got me to the Hyatt where they promptly upgraded me to a top floor corner room with a gorgeous view of Midtown.

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I changed quickly and then I practically sprinted up the street to South City Kitchen, my first restaurant of the trip tradition.

I was tempted by their insanely delicious fried chicken but tackled, ultimately, by the smoked pork chop. I’ve had it before but they are preparing it differently now, and while it is hard to improve on perfection they have managed to do it. It’s smoked and grilled with a rich sorghum glaze and sits on a bed of charred Vidalia sweet onions. Insane! I got a side of their smashed bliss potatoes and I was, appropriately, blissed out.

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Every day on my vacation I’m going to do themed road trips, just because I’m not a sit by the pool kind of guy and it helps my OCD to have something to obsessively plan.

Saturday was my Atlanta Icons trip and I did about 75 miles in and around the city and its burbs.

I started with the inaugural Great Southern Food Truck Rally, a festival held on a college campus in Kennesaw, one of the northwest Atlanta bedroom communities that is mostly tract homes and strip malls but nicer than that. The event featured about two dozen local food trucks offering everything from Maine Lobster to barbeque to Greek to Polynesian and beyond. I needed more of my down south flavor so I got samples from three different trucks.

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The first was Nana G’s Chik-n-Waffles, where they were offering a small portion of their namesake dish. The waffle, maple syrup, and powdered sugar was perfect and the chicken was a little spicier than I was expecting but still very good. Of the three things I tried, this absolutely won hands down.

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Next was a BBQ truck that I have forgotten the name of, although it was (Insert Person’s Name) G’s BBQ, to which I had to ask “Any relation to Nana across the way?” They didn’t get it.

From them I got a pulled pork sandwich sans sandwich (yes, just a pile of meat) and macaroni and cheese. Both very good but not award winning.

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The last was another BBQ place that I didn’t bother remembering but it wasn’t very good – smoked chicken that was drowning in a boring tomato based sauce.

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Next on the Atlanta list was the Atlanta History Center, a fantastic campus of museums, restored historic homes, a research center, gardens, and more. The main building has several galleries with permanent and rotating exhibits, the main one being Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta. It traces the city’s history from its roots (Attention The Walking Dead fans: before it became Atlanta it was called Terminus) through the civil war and into modern times. It’s one of those great hands-on, interactive exhibits that allows you to do more than just stand and look at things behind glass.

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Other exhibits include a balanced and really interesting examination of the Civil War, which focused more on the battles than the political and sociological reasons for it, a folk art display, a look at Native American influence on the region, a fun room called Atlanta in 50 objects (much of which was suggested by patrons), and something about golf that I paid absolutely no attention to.

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Outside are beautiful gardesn that you get to stroll through to the Smith Family Farm. The house and several outbuildings, complete with sheep and chickens, is a Civil War era homestead that was moved here and restored with care. The furnishings, the tools, and even the costumed actors are faithful to time period and managed to not break character when some asshole (me) asked them “Did they really have air conditioning in 1864?” To which the young woman hand stitching a blanket replied, “We are truly blessed, kind sir.”

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Next was Swan House, the 1928 era mansion that built on these grounds for the Edward Inman family, heirs to a cotton brokerage fortune. It was donated to the city after Edward’s wife Emily passed away in 1966 and from it they created the Atlanta History Center. The house is stunning inside and out, with a stately oval drive leading to a columned portico and a terraced backyard with a watefall fountain. Almost all of the rooms are open and the restoration and upkeep here is spotless. You can tell they really care about this place.

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I was so impressed that I made it #46 on my $50 for 50 by 50 list.

Next, I headed into Downtown Atlanta for the VIP tour of the CNN Center. This was mostly an excuse for me to stalk Anderson Cooper although I was disappointed to learn that he does all of his stuff from New York. “He doesn’t even come here for meetings? The company picnic? Nothing?!” After that it just wasn’t fun anymore.

Actually it was very interesting, with a look behind the scenes at how they keep their multiple channels going around the globe 24 hours a day. The VIP tour was a smaller group and got to go onto the HLN set, into a working control room, and traipse through the main news center where people were working. Well… “working” may have been more like it. One woman was sitting at her computer buying shoes. Slow news day, I guess.

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Dinner was uninspiring. There were a couple of restaurants I had picked as possible contenders but wound up going across the street to place called Henry’s just because I was feeling lazy. It’s a comfort food type of restaurant and the meatloaf and mashed potatoes were fine but not fantastic so let’s take a mulligan on that.

Huh… I guess I was paying attention to the golf exhibit.

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Sunday was my Outsider Art Road Trip, which began at Constitution Lakes Park on the southeast side of town, home to the Doll’s Head Trail. The history of this place dates back to the late 1800s when the South River Brick Company was formed on 51 acres with a railroad right of way cutting more or less through the center of it. The excavation pits became Constitution Lakes years after the brick works had gone out of business when the area was flooded by the nearby South River. It became a county park in 2003 and this is where it gets strange.

A local contractor, Joel Slaton, had fallen in love with the park and hiked its grounds often. The trails cutting through the woods were littered with trash, some left by people, some by the floods, and some by history – bricks and clay tiles practically carpet the forest in places. Some of it was even dumped by the trains who would stop in this area to get rid of whatever they didn’t want.

In 2011, Slaton was out in the woods and came across a doll’s head, which he put into the nook of a tree just because. When he came back the next time the doll head was gone so he found another one and did the same thing. That, too, disappeared. Annoyed, he started using whatever trash he could find to create art installations along the trail. In the years since, the place has become hallowed ground for the offbeat and artistic. It’s fascinating, creepy, funny, and inspiring in a lot of ways. I only wish I could be this creative.

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Anyone can contribute to the installation – the only rule is that you have to use stuff found in the park. Any new items will be removed.

Important notes should you ever want to visit yourself… First, there is only one way to get there and despite what it may say online there are no signs until you are deep in the woods. Follow the paved path out of the parking lot and just keep going. Second, and this is important, take a Sharpie. Just trust me. Second, wear bug spray. While the trail may start as the aforementioned paved path through the scenic Georgia woods it becomes, at its worst, a mere suggestion of a way to get through the dense underbrush.

At the bottom of this post are tons of photos.

I was going to continue my outside art day with a restaurant called Folk Art but when I got there approximately nine thousand other people had gotten there before me and all of them were waiting to get in. I passed and went to the next stop, Junkman’s Daughter, a sort of thrift-shop meets Spencer Gifts oddity emporium. It was… eclectic. I got National Embarass Mints with Donald Trumps face on the tin.

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My plan B lunch spot was The Diesel Filling Station, a former gas station turned into a bar and restaurant. They are famous for their drinks including a Bloody Mary made with BAKON vodka and Zing-Zang and their burgers. I wasn’t ready to start drinking yet so I just went for the Diesel Burger, a half-pound of meat with spicy as hell (in a good way) BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, bacon, and an onion ring. Damn! I said that internally several times, partly because of the spicy as hell BBQ sauce but mostly because it was such a good burger. I am pleased that those 9,000 people redirected my route.

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Then it was a 90 mile jaunt northwest of Atlanta to the little town of Summerville and a place known as Paradise Gardens.

This oddity was once owned by Howard Finster, a Baptist minister who, at the age of 59 in 1976, claims to have had a celestial vision – an image appeared on his thumb. It was God, said Finster, who told him to 5,000 pieces of sacred art. By the time he died in 2001 he had created more than 46,000 works including paintings that are hanging in Atlanta’s High Museum and graced the covers of albums by REM and The Talking Heads. He was called the “Andy Warhol of the South.”

He turned this suburban bit of land into a holy grotto of sorts, with sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and peculiar landscaping all over the grounds and outbuildings, the biggest of which is the 16-sided, 40-foot tall “World Folk Art Church.” On the one hand, it’s a fascinating look into the mind of an artist – one who is driven to create despite a lack of training or particular skill. On the other hand, it’s a Baptist minister doing fiery rants about Sin, the fallibilty of man, and the divine nature of God, only as art instead of from a pulpit. I don’t mind art done as devotion – the Ave Maria Grotto that Mary and I visited on one of our Plucky Survivors trips, was a serene, beautiful, and contemplative example. But this was in your face, confrontational, and too angry for me to really appreciate.

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Or perhaps it was the massive thunderstorm that came out of nowhere pretty much the moment I stepped outside onto the grounds. Yes, I was concerned about lightning and not from the storm.

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Back in Atlanta, I had to get my first REAL barbecue fix – the food trucks were fine but anything served out of a thing on wheels doesn’t really count. So I went to Daddy Z’s, a place that has gotten more “Best” and “#1″ accolades than just about anywhere else. I don’t know why I haven’t visited before – I’m always a little leery of a place that gets that kind of attention, thinking it will get spoiled by the inevitable crowds that follow. But Daddy Z’s is keeping it authentic, y’all, with a hickory and oak pit, slow cooking, with their own custom made sauce in mild or spicy.

I wanted everything so I ordered the sampler platter (I know, shut up). It came with two ribs, a quarter pound of pulled pork, a quarter pound of brisket, a side (macaroni and cheese in my case), Texas toast, and a half-dozen Que Wraps.

What’s a Que Wrap you may be asking? Well, see, you take pulled pork and you wrap it in dough and then you deep fry that son of a bitch. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!! I’m in love. I may also be slipping into a food coma.

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By the way, the pork and brisket are UNDER the ribs in the above picture.

All in all I did about 200 miles by car and probably about 2 miles by foot. Not bad.

Tomorrow is a Gambling Road trip as I go up to Harrah’s in Cherokee, North Carolina and then Tuesday is my Civil Rights Road Trip, where I going to go over to Selma and drive the route to Montgomery, stopping at the museums along the way.

As promised, more pics of the Doll’s Head Trail:

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