Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Time Traveling By Car

This is part of the Uncivil Miles collection of stories published elsewhere. It was originally published in three parts, but is condensed to one longform piece here.

 
My trip in total was four hours driving time back and forth. Green was going west and blue was returning home.

Just after eight in the morning on Sunday I started the two hour drive to my brother's house in Alabama. The sun had been shining an hour earlier, but the clouds were hurrying in from the southwest and the sky filled with anticipation of the heavy rain that was to come later in the day.

This drive was to be a drive into my past and most of what I saw I would not like, my memories are better than the present.


Atlanta early on a Sunday morning. Photo by me, March 2019.

I left the city in the clouds and with R.E.M.'s Monster album providing the soundtrack for the drive ahead to lead me back in time. The guitar from What's The Frequency Kenneth? was propelling me onward and I was eager to get out of the city. I wanted to be deep into the western suburbs of Atlanta before traffic built up like plaque in a clogged artery.

Go west! Perhaps I-20 looks better blurry. Photo by me, March 2019.

I left the city on Interstate 20. I don't much use I-20 these years on the west or the east side of the city. I-20 was the way I would come into the city as a teenager decades ago. I-20 has a history for me, like most everything in Atlanta, and I don't much care for it. The lanes are narrow inside the Perimeter and the scenery is not much to look at. I consider I-20 an ugly road - not that most interstate highways are pretty.

Ah, the lovely Fulton Industrial Boulevard. Even the name of it, like Peachtree Industrial Boulevard on the north side of the city, is uninspiring. My first ever strip club experience was on Fulton Industrial at a place called Fannie's - pun intended I am certain. My brother took me there to celebrate my 21st birthday in 1994. The female strippers did not much interest me, but still I had fun and puked my way across their parking lot as an inexperienced drinker. Fulton Industrial has always had that illicit reputation of vice and it has earned it well. I hope it never changes.

Six Flags. Photo by me, March 2019.

I crossed the Chattahoochee River and to the left was Six Flags theme park. The roller coaster rides were snaking up into the air and they were motionless for the winter season. No riders screamed into the damp morning air today. The last time I went to Six Flags was sometime in the late 1980s, probably 1989 or something. I enjoy the rides at theme parks, but for some reason I never seem to ever go to the one closest to me. I can only remember going to Six Flags three times in my life and had a cousin that worked there one summer in the 80s.

The Atlanta skyline in my mirror. Photo by me, March 2019.

Past Six Flags and the interstate climbs up this long, long hill and traffic slows. People, especially traffic reporters, refer to this hill as Six Flags Hill since it sits at the bottom of it.

Climbing that hill means you've left the city behind you and you've entered Cobb County. Six Flags Hill is the best view of the Atlanta skyline from the western suburbs. In the photo above you can see it in my mirror.

The bridge in the photo is Factory Shoals Road over I-20. In the early 1990s I went to Christmas tree farm off that road to cut a tree. I assume that place is probably gone now.

My exit approaches and I'll be getting off the interstate onto Thornton Road/U.S. Highway 278. This road, U.S. 278 will be taking me almost all the way to where I am headed. I will be on it for miles through Cobb, a tiny portion of Douglas County, then Cobb again, then Paulding and finally Polk County where in Cedartown I will change roads.

Thornton Road is the exit and what the road is named for the first couple of miles before it changes names several times, but to me it is simply, 278.

The old Parkway/Atlanta West hospital on Thornton Road.

A large hospital used to stand at I-20 and Thornton Road called Parkway and it was also named Atlanta West - I always knew it as Parkway. It was the tallest building in this area and it was commonly used as a landmark by which to give people directions. Whenever I saw it leaving the city and returning to Paulding County I knew I was not too far from home. I had a cousin born at Parkway, but alas the building, which seemed perfectly fine, was demolished in 2004.

Thornton Road is a strip of traffic lights, gas stations, car dealerships, office parks and apartments. There is nothing special about it and you could find roads just like it all over suburban America. It used to be one of the cheaper places to buy gas, but now I have no clue as I rarely go through here anymore.

In the early part of the 1980s some of my favorite childhood memories of summer took place here. There was a water park located here and it seemed like it was just off Thornton right at I-20. The water park had a few water slides made out of concrete and they were rough on the skin. All you had were rubber mats to slide down these concrete slides, but damn it was sure enough fun. I think the place was called Bilbo's, but I'm not certain. The place closed either due to Whitewater opening in Marietta or because of Thornton Road being widened. There is no way on earth you could have a concrete water slide like that today because society is much more cautious and concerned with things that do not much matter.

Welcome they claim. Photo by me, March 2019.

278 slices through the landscape heading ever westward by the suburbs of Lithia Springs (where my mother lived the last few years of her life) and Powder Springs. Then it brings me to where I was born and raised, Paulding County. Whenever I am in Paulding County my eyes see the past as much as I see the present and I prefer the Paulding County that was.

The miles of 278 cut across the land like a blade that opens old wounds in my mind. I no longer know Paulding County, but I did know it and loved it a long time ago. The place has grown at such a fantastic pace that much of what I loved was sacrificed for development. In 1980 the population of Paulding County when I was seven years old was 26,000 people and the estimated population in 2018 was 159,000 people. It is hard for me to grasp that this was place where I played in the woods, ran barefoot down dirt roads and lived the first two decades of my life.

As a kid 278 was not four lanes, but two. Where 278 and State Highway 92 meet at the traffic light and traffic backs up in all directions through the sprawl, used to be a four-way stop. On the southwest corner stood a liquor store called Triangle Package. The road was occupied not by shopping centers, but by brick ranch houses, pastures, chicken houses and woods.

Hiram in the 1980s was considered much of nothing and a distant second to what Dallas had to offer. Hiram was the runt to Dallas. All Hiram had was down by the railroad tracks off Highway 92 in what I suppose you could call "downtown Hiram." All that was down there was a tiny post office and an old mill building; everything else was empty.

Now Paulding County and especially Hiram is one shopping center and traffic light after another. I hate it, I hate the change, I hate the traffic and that is why I never come through here even if I need to for some odd reason. I will always go another way to avoid 278 and thankfully there are still a few backroads left.

But this Sunday morning I decided to chance it and go straight through on 278. Given it being so early on a Sunday I felt hopeful. I made through only stopping at one traffic light and marveled at all the new things they had managed to squeeze in on this stretch of 278. I pity those that think this is great if anyone can actually think this sprawl is a good thing?

My mother and my grandparents on that side of the family are buried in a cemetery in Hiram on 278. As I pass I say, "hello." Visiting the cemetery is the only reason I ever come to Paulding County now. This Sunday I am only passing through on my way west.

The new hospital. Photo by me, March 2019.

What was once woods is now a big new hospital. Paulding County had been needing a new one for a long time. I was born at the old one in Dallas in the 1970s and soon after they stopped delivering babies at Paulding Memorial Hospital. For decades there was no hospital in the entire county to deliver a baby. People would have their children born at Cobb General, Kennestone or elsewhere outside the county.

I had an aunt that worked for many years at the old Paulding Memorial Hospital until she retired. Another aunt was a hospital volunteer there back when they were called "candy stripers." I get a laugh now thinking about how awful the name candy stripers is today but I suppose no one minded back then.

I guess this new hospital is the tallest building in the county now. For years the tallest building in Paulding County was only three floors high. There never was any need to build high out there with all that cheap land to spread out on. Church steeples, the courthouse and the hills were the tallest things around these parts.

U.S. Highway 278 in west Paulding. Photo by me, March 2019.

Getting past the town of Dallas and the sprawl largely ends on U.S. 278. The woods grow along the road, there is an occasional house and that airport. That strange little airport that the county decided it needed to have. Maybe it is a cheap place for rich people to park their planes or something?

Much of the land in western Paulding County is owned by the city of Atlanta which sounds strange if you don't know the backstory. Why would Atlanta, thirty plus miles away, want to own so much land in little old Paudling County? Well, the land was an investment for the city so that one decade it could build a second airport to alleviate air traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson International. This plan was hatched in the 1970s and the city bought all this land here and in Dawson County, Georgia.

In an odd way the city of Atlanta owning this land has turned out to be a good thing because it has kept it from being developed and it is largely unspoiled nature. The area is now managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and is known as the Paulding Forest Wildlife Management Area. The area covers over 25,000 acres of land which is open for people to freely enjoy the nature for hiking or whatever. Of course, it isn't permanent as the city of Atlanta could one day sell the land and it could be developed or logged.

The irony is that Paulding County decided to build its own airport for whatever reason and the city of Atlanta sued them for it. Lawsuits have been flying for years now between the two parties and even Delta airlines have been involved.

Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.

278 climbs and descends over the hills and through the trees. The two communities out this way are Braswell and Yorkville which are not towns because they are not big enough for that. Yorkville did have an elementary school when I was kid which was a small and rather run-down building back then in the 1980s. I went to school in New Hope at W.C. Abney Elementary but I can remember visiting the old school in Yorkville a couple of times; once for a fish fry. Today Yorkville Elementary is gone and replaced by a fancy new school named after Sara Ragsdale. Ragsdale was a longtime teacher in Paulding County, my parents had her as a teacher in the 1960s and I had her as a substitute teacher in the 1980s. She was too old to be teaching in the late 1980s and she had no business still being in a classroom but...it was Paulding County so.

The old Braswell Mountains.

This part of Paulding County that 278 traverses with the ridges was referred to as the Braswell Mountains when I was a kid. Looking at topographic maps today I only ever find Brushy Mountain listed among the ridges and no mention of the Braswell Mountains. The Brushy Mountain Tunnel on the Silver Comet Trail is about the only reason this area is ever mentioned now. The Braswell Mountains must be lost to time.

Entering Polk County. Photo by me, March 2019.

Continuing west and getting further into the clouds that will bring the rain, 278 brings me to Polk County. Polk's landscape looks much like Paulding County without all the sprawl. Though Polk County has grown some, especially in the town of Rockmart, it is still a rural place. It reminds me of Paulding County in the 1980s and that's a good thing. You can still go swimming at Coot's Lake and that surprises me. (or maybe you can't anymore and that's a shame.)

All of this four lane highway used to be two lanes with the occasional passing lane in the 1980s. Polk County was sure enough a trip back into time then and it still is today. Atlanta just hasn't managed to sprawl this far west just yet.

My mother's side of the family had relatives in Polk County and it seemed to take forever to drive from Dallas out to Rockmart to visit them back then. People with names I know are buried all over this county too just as in Paulding.

It has always seemed to me the isolation of Polk County made it feel like it had more in common with Alabama than it did Georgia. Polk County borders Alabama and even today it still feels more Alabamian than it does Georgian.

Photo by me, March 2019.

Polk County is a pretty place even on a gray late winter day. I would like to get out and go for walk in those woods. Those woods look like the woods of my childhood even though they aren't. Often driving through rural Georgia I see woods like these and I have this urge to stop the car and get out and take a walk in them. I never do it but I am looking for something and I don't know yet what this mystery is about.

Photo by me, March 2019.

Highway 278 skirts the town of Rockmart and bypasses the little downtown and Van Wert. The city has grown out to meet the road with fast food and gas stations, just the slightest growth has happened here so far.

I hope for the sake of Polk County that it never becomes sprawled out like Paulding County. At some point this unrestrained growth has to end doesn't it?

"Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that's me

But I've seen it all in a small town
Had myself a ball in a small town"

-John Mellencamp, Small Town

 

Part Two

 

Cave Spring Road. Photo by me, March 2019.

After Rockmart U.S. 278 continues on westward into Alabama and beyond. It was my time to leave the road in Cedartown, a relic of a town, and head north on Cave Spring Road through the last little bit of Polk County up into Floyd County, Georgia.

There are a couple of roads that lead out of Cedartown and head up to Cave Spring but I always take the same road out of habit mostly. I've been up and down this stretch of road probably fifty times in the last fifteen years but I cannot seem to get it out of head. There is something about this road that gives me the creeps. The road has a strange feeling about it and I know that sounds odd.


Cave Spring Road. Photo by me, March 2019.

Day and night and every season I have been through here and no matter the time of day this road seems haunted. Perhaps it is the trees hanging over the road, the sparse houses, the lingering past of the Trail Of Tears that took this very road well over a hundred years ago or more than likely it is all in my imagination...but maybe not. For whatever reason despite having other roads I could take I still come through here and I like it.

Photo by me, March 2019.

It is a rule that whenever you see old cedar trees growing next to a field such as in the photo above there was a once a fence there and an old farmhouse should be nearby unless it has been torn down or fallen in with neglect. Even if the house is gone you can usually spot where the house stood by finding a spot with two old oak trees growing near each other that were planted to shade the house in the summer and there will typically still be Chinese privet growing that was used as hedges.

This was an old farming community that was mostly inhabited by Cherokee Indians before their forced removal in 1838 by European settlers and prior to the Cherokees this was Creek Indian land in the 1700s. The Cherokees had established towns out here in Polk County. Maybe the misery that came upon the Creeks and Cherokees somehow permeated the ground here.

Photo by me, March 2019.

As beautiful as I think this road is, it closes in on you as you leave Cedartown and head north to Cave Spring. At times it seems like you are driving in a tunnel or that the trees will suddenly swoop down and grab you from the road.

Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.

Then just before reaching Cave Spring the road opens up and the sky returns in Dardy Hollow. It is such a pretty spot through here, it reminds me of places I know out in western Tennessee that look just like this.

Cave Spring. Photo by me, March 2019.

Then comes the quaint town of Cave Spring, Georgia. It is a small place with one traffic light in the center of town. The old buildings are now mostly antique stores and restaurants looking to satisfy the tourists that come through here to visit the old spring and the cave.

The other apparent revenue generator for Cave Spring is probably the police department. The town is a speed trap with low speed limits stretching far out of town and you will always see the police parked alongside the road waiting like sharks to devour the speeding prey.

For such a nice looking place I hate driving through here because of the speed trap. The speed trap turns me off to the entire town and I never stop and spend money here. Aggressive small town policing in terms of speeding is a big deterrent to whether I like places and my impression of Cave Spring is not a positive one because of that.

Photo by me, March 2019.

At the traffic light I turn left on U.S. Highway 411, crawl out of town at 35 m.p.h. and I'm only a few minutes away from the Alabama state line and the central time zone.

Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.

Heading west again out of Cave Spring you pass through a residential area. This town apparently had money at one time because of some of the nice old houses that it has. Not all of them are well taken care of though.

I'd love to go in that house in the third photo and see what is left of the original floor plan. It should have a central hallway and all of the rooms are off it on the left and right. It should also have two fireplaces, one in the kitchen and one in the parlor. This style of house is one you see often in the American South.

Photo by me, March 2019.

That is the old train station. I love old train stations and I am so glad to see this one getting used again. It had been sitting empty for years but now it has new life which means hopefully it will not get lost to decay. This station was built around 1880 for the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad.

Welcome to Alabama. Photo by me, March 2019.

As if I had not traveled far enough back in time, I actually gain an hour by entering the central time zone at the Alabama state line. The sign reads, "Sweet Home Alabama," which is associated with that southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, from not Alabama but Florida or maybe that movie by the same name starring Reese Witherspoon that was filmed in Georgia.

The sign looks fairly new by the absence of bullet holes. For as long as I can remember people seem to enjoy shooting the state line signs along the Georgia and Alabama border. It is like a pastime around these parts.

Photo by me, March 2019.

A few miles into Alabama I turn left and head south on the road my brother and his family live on. This road heads out into the hills, by pastures and through the timber land. This is Cherokee County, Alabama and it has pretty landscapes but some parts are mighty empty of people.

Pine Trees. Photo by me, March 2019.

All of these trees through here were planted years ago. They were planted for the sole purpose of cutting them down for lumber or paper. We call the timber crews that come in and cut down the trees, "pulp wooders."

Photo by me, March 2019.

All of these trees are pine trees and they grow nice and dense. They make quite a forest in a very short period of time in terms of tree years. The trees grow so thick that you get very little diversity in the plants and trees that grow. You won't find any hardwoods growing in these pine thickets as they are choked out. You see pine stands of trees like this all over the American South in the rural areas where timber is a big industry.

Alabama has the second largest timber land base in the country behind Georgia with 23 million acres. The products from these trees are worth $14.8 billion according to the numbers from 2013. That is big money coming from these trees.

Some may not like the environmental impacts of the timber industry because of damage to the environment and I have seen plenty of damage in my lifetime especially with regard to soil erosion and silt polluting streams. State forestry commissions claim they are better at "managing" the forests than they used to be but I wonder about it. I know there is nothing uglier than the landscape being scalped of trees and left with bare red ground.

Good luck finding any unbiased information about the environmental impacts of the timber industry in Alabama that is not propaganda touting the economic benefits.

Photo by me, March 2019.
Photo by me, March 2019.

They have started cutting the timber down this road and the land looks ravaged as if a tornado came through and cleared it all away or as if it were a war zone. It isn't a pretty sight to see the trees gone and taken away to make another roll of paper towels or another box in a subdivision somewhere in the suburban sprawl. Hopefully this land will be planted with new tree seedlings after they are done.

Photo by me, March 2019.

Down the road this area was once forest too but it was not replanted after it was clear cut and now it an overgrown field of high grass. In the distance another stand of pine timber grows thick and soon enough those trees will be cut down.

Out in Alabama I have no connection to the land. I have never lived out there. I have family that moved out there fifteen years ago to escape the sprawl and growth of Paulding County, Georgia from where we come. The county in which they live now is Cherokee County, Alabama and the 2017 population estimate was 25,000 people. That population is the same as Paulding County was in 1980 and the remoteness of the place does remind me of where I grew up. I doubt I would want to live out there now at this point in my life but I can see the attraction of the place.

"You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me myself I got nothing to prove"

-Tracy Chapman, Fast Car


Part Three


Purple Rain. Photo by me, March 2019.

Sitting in my brother's living room in Alabama catching up and starting where we left off the previous month the rain began to fall. Not just fall but it poured and sounded like a waterfall running over the house and out into the field in front in newly created streams. The ground saturated from the winter rains could hold no more. My mind drifted from the conversation, I glanced at my coffee and thought of Weiss Lake just a few miles away from where we sat. It had been flooding recently from all the rain over the winter months and I knew today's torrential rain was not going to be good news over there. I considered for a moment being at the lake house standing out on the porch and looking out to see if the dock had been submerged or floated away but then I remembered the lake house had been sold and that was someone else's concern now.

Over the past half year once a month I have been visiting my brother's house and talking about the past. I have been filling in the gaps in our family's history from what he would share. Some of the gaps closed, new ones opened by new questions and some of it was confirmation that I was right and wrong about events. These have been informal, unrecorded interviews that I needed for background for my book. These trips have been about time traveling to when we were kids growing up in Paulding County. We are only five years apart in age but it has always seemed to me that he and I grew up in two different families based on our perspectives being so different about our childhood. Over these past few months I realize now that our perspectives are not so far apart and that we both can agree that how we grew up was not how it should have been.

 

 Let's Go Crazy


This gray, gloomy winter full of rain has been like that winter of 1984. It was the year Prince's Purple Rain had come out and for once my brother and I liked the same music. I was eleven and he was sixteen. He was busy being a teenager keeping the roads hot, cruising the Paulding Plaza and making circles around the McDonald's in Dallas.

That year was when he and I started to drift apart because our ages were just far enough apart to have our interests diverge. I was still a kid and he was the teenager with the hot rod and a driver's license and I got left behind. December 1984 I got the Purple Rain album for Christmas and he I found common ground there, enough so that he let me go cruise with him one night and so he could borrow my Purple Rain cassette.

A girl that he liked lived on Sunset Drive near the McDonald's and he I must have cruised by her house a thousand times that particular night. I didn't know what for because as I sat in the back seat of his Camaro with the passenger seat empty and Prince blaring on the stereo we never stopped at her house. What was the point of this in my eleven year old mind? I did not understand that driving by was the point in the hope that maybe she would look out the window and see him cruising by. Silly teenager stuff to fill a Friday night of gloom in a rainy 1980s winter.

Back in the present and the hours swept by and enough coffee had been sipped until it was time to fight the rain back into Atlanta. One more interview with him in a few weeks and maybe I will understand more or at least I hope that. I still have my own mystery to solve and the keys have to be out there in those silver woods that mark time in rings and might remember more than I do.

The straight and narrow. Photo by me, March 2019.

Heading east I am fighting the rain and the clock. Crossing back into Georgia is the time warp of the eastern time zone. The rain is coming down hard and the ditches are already filled with water.

Due to the weather and the impending darkness I decide to take another route home that involves wider roads and less turns. I stick to U.S. Highway 411 through Rome, Georgia and Cartersville, Georgia. It may take a tad bit longer to get home but I will already be slowed down by the rain storm anyway.

Highway 411, Georgia. Photo by me, March 2019.

Through the city of Rome which I mostly skirt on 411 and then that long stretch of highway with 65 m.p.h. speed limits and nothing but trees and fields until Cartersville.

I like this road because of the lack of traffic lights between the two cities; there might only be two and if you are lucky you do not have to stop once.

The rain is coming down in sheets and the car windshield wipers cannot even keep up at the highest of settings. Everything looks like a watercolor painting and I look down as I cross the Etowah River. I expect it to be flooding like the fields and swamps I pass but the muddy river is still within its banks just barely. All that chocolate looking water started up in the Georgia mountains then  Allatoona Lake before I cross over it in north Bartow County.

If Ko-Ko Joe is out there on the Etowah I hope he went for high ground with all that water coming this way. The late Jerry Reed, born in Atlanta, doesn't get mentioned enough in today's world and with him and Burt Reynolds both dead I wonder if they are smuggling in beer from Texas somewhere out there.

I'm not in an eighteen wheeler but I'm eastbound and down through the rain. Another one of those movies (Smokey & The Bandit) filmed in Georgia from back in the good old days. The highlight for me of watching that movie is looking at the old Georgia scenery. I miss that Georgia.

Rainy Georgia. Photo by me, March 2019.

Getting to Cartersville means sitting in traffic going from one traffic light to the next. I have history here in this town. I spent over a year working here at radio station WYXC in the early 1990s. Some of my memories are fond and some are not but the good outweighs the bad and considering the people I worked for, that not nice married couple that owned the station then, I cannot complain.

Crossing Allatoona. Photo by me, March 2019.

In Cartersville I catch Interstate 75 to make my way south to Atlanta. The rain continues its onslaught, but traffic is light considering it is the weekend. The wet roads have slowed most of us down, normally I drive through here between 70 and 75 m.p.h., but not in this weather; at best I can do between 55 and 60.

Crossing Lake Allatoona I see the flooding below. The lake is way out of its banks and taking in the campgrounds and picnic tables. My history with the lake goes back to the late 1970s and very early 1980s camping, boating and swimming here in the summers. Those were good times perhaps the best in my family, but in the background my parents marriage was fracturing and the trouble would soon flood our family and it would never return to its banks. We would all begin swimming to different shores from here on.

Atlanta in the rain. Photo by me, March 2019.

Hiding in the pounding in the rain is Midtown Atlanta. I am home and this time traveling comes to an end. The present is and has been for a long time that Atlanta sucked me into it like a whirlpool and I've not left yet, if ever I do. It was a better decision to be in the center of the whirlpool than to be consumed on the periphery like Paulding County.

Going to Paulding County is like visiting with a ghost. Most of the past has been erased there and only faint outlines of the place I remember come through the fog of time. I don't miss it because the place I knew is gone. That place has been buried under subdivisions and shopping centers. My mother is buried there, but other than her I have no connection to what lies within its borders. My childhood house still stands behind the pines on the hill, but the home is gone.

Those that live there now know it in their own way with all the roads, traffic, stores and houses. I knew it in my way with dirt roads, mile after mile of tree covered hills, barns in pastures and little stores with odd names like Grands, Little Bear, The Rock Store, Rackley's and Rose's. My name is carved in trees in those silver woods and printed in school annuals, but that is all that is left of me there as my heart and I left decades ago.



There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain

-The Beatles, In My Life