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Time Is On My Side

August 10, 2012

We’ve been on the road for week and a half, and we’ve been behind schedule for most of that time. I’m trying not to be anal about sticking to our itinerary but at the same time it would suck pretty bad to miss out on doing something cool because we couldn’t get there before it closed. Besides, after almost 16 years of marriage to my hyperpunctual wife, it irritates me to be late to anything. But everywhere we go there’s either been unexpected traffic, or road work, or tours that took longer than they were supposed to.

It definitely affected my mood. Even when I’ve been having fun the time has been in the back of my mind nagging at me. I’ve definitely been a little tense and I’ve snapped at Sam several times for taking too long in a gift shop or dawdling when I wanted him to hurry. (In my defense, the kid refuses to choose a souvenir until he’s examined–optically and physically–every single item in the store. It’s like going shopping with an archaeologist.) And I’ve been hoping that at some point we’d get ahead of things so I could worry less and enjoy more.

That all changed on Wednesday. Which is pretty great, because I’m trying to cram way more than we have time for into the second half of this week. The plan for Wednesday, for example, included stops in four cities in two states. We woke up in Chattanooga and headed straight to the Incline Railway, a 117-year-old train/cable car hybrid that goes straight up the side of Mt. Lookout at a 72 degree incline (steepest in the world).

For once the skies were reasonably clear and we enjoyed great views of the Tennessee Valley and the tail end of the Appalachians from the top of the mountain. As we were about to board the tram or whatever it’s called for the ride back down, we saw the most incredible sight yet: a toddler with a mohawk. And did I mention he was wearing an muscle T? If the White Trash Hall of Fame sold postcards, he’d be on ’em.

I only wish the Incline Railway gift shop sold mini figurines of this kid so I could take one home as a souvenir.

Anyway, by the time we rode back down to the bottom and got in the car, we were already running late. This in itself was no big deal but there was a whole chain of stops that was supposed to end with a trip to central Alabama’s Desoto Caverns, whose last tour of the day (complete with light show inside the cave) starts at 4:30 pm.

Now it was time for the most disappointing venue of our entire road trip: the Chattanooga Choo Choo. For just about everyone over 30, and some people under 30, the first (and perhaps only) association with Chattanooga is the Choo Choo. And the Choo Choo is still there. But it’s not a train anymore. Perhaps the second most famous train station in America (behind Grand Central Station) is now a hotel. The train tracks are still there, and there are even trains on a couple of them, but those trains are just for show and don’t actually go anywhere. Sadly, despite what the song says, even if you can afford to board the Chattanooga Choo Choo the Chattanooga Choo Choo cannot choo choo you home. Still, we couldn’t visit Chattanooga without going there, so we stopped in, snapped a few quick photos, and left.

Now it was decision time. We had hoped to see Ruby Falls, a beautiful park with a series of waterfalls, but we were so far behind at this point that if we saw Ruby Falls we’de never make it to the caverns. Sam voted for caverns over waterfalls, so we headed out of town and into Alabama.

And this is when everything changed. Well, really it was only the time zone that changed. But suddenly we went from way behind to way ahead of schedule. I had completely forgotten about gaining an hour when we got far enough west to reach the Central Time Zone. Bam! Noon became 11 am. I celebrated by breathing a huge sigh of relief and then laughing out loud. We were able to do some grocery shopping, get gas, and still make it to our next stop ahead of schedule.

That’s pretty fitting, I guess, considering our next stop is all about fast driving. At some point in the planning I realized that if I’m truly going to experience the south I need to see some cars driving in an oval. Even though it’s NASCAR season none of the races worked out with our schedule. So we did the next best thing: Talladega Superspeedway. We got there just in time for a guided tour of NASCAR’s longest track, during which we drove across the starting and finish line and stood in the winner’s circle.

When I say we drove across the finish line, what I mean is that we sat in a handicapped-accessible van while a 70-year old man drove us very slowly across the finish line. But shut up, it still counts. I don’t really know much about NASCAR and the Hamster knows even less than that, but we both had a great time here. Right next door to the track is the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which we also visited. We zipped through the museum because most of the stuff on display meant nothing to us, but we had lots of fun gawking at the more impressive-looking cars on display. And I was excited to see one car in particular: Will Ferrell’s Wonder Bread car from “Talladega Nights.”

Maybe the best part about this place was that it’s in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it kind of has to be in order to be able to handle 100,000 people and thousands of RVs on race weekend. But when you spend an entire road trip on interstate highways every state looks pretty much the same and you start thinking that McDonalds and Waffle House and Exxon are America. Driving through rural Alabama for a couple hours gives you a pretty different perspective.

And to top it off, we made it to Desoto Caverns on time, and we had the 4:30 tour all to ourselves. The cave formations were pretty cool, but I particularly enjoyed the story our guide told about how, during Prohibition, the cave had been used as a speakeasy called the Cavern Tavern, but only for six weeks because underground bar fights were so frequent that a local reverend heard about the place and called the cops. Also, about halfway through the tour we noticed a large metal cross hanging from the ceiling; the tour guide explained that the cave’s owner is a religious fanatic and the light show included on every tour is synchronized to prerecorded readings from the bible. I guess he noticed the perplexed/disappointed looks on our faces, because he offered to give us an alternate show that he synchronizes to his favorite Blink 182 song.

To celebrate our successful day and our extra hour, we found a state park and grilled ribs for dinner. They were not the most tender ribs I’ve ever made but for 15 minutes on a portable grill they were pretty great. A couple hours later we were in Montgomery, already settled into our room in a surprisingly nice no-name motel just a few miles from downtown. We were well-fed, we were relaxed, and we were, for once, early. It was about time.

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