The McDonald's at 51a
The plan: drive from Huntsville to Atlanta. Obtain Gareth, whose current sojourn in the States has not yet produced the need for a rental car. Drive Gareth back to Huntsville, so that he can have some face time with the locals over a three-day weekend.
Message window, Gareth, yesterday afternoon: "Greg has proposed I-20 exit 51a at 7:30pm EST - there's a McDonald's there apparently."
Now, getting to this point was a bit of a minor achievement (and a point of much discussion amongst said locals) for reasons that have virtually no bearing whatsoever on your life. To have the basics of knowledge to understand why the past 48 hours have been entertaining, you must know two nuggets of information.
- We were supposed to have an ice storm on Thursday night.
- Despite the blinding obviousness of its necessity, there is no direct freeway route between Huntsville and Atlanta.
In typical winter-Alabama fashion, the weather waited until Huntsville school districts sent their students home early, then canceled the ice storm due to lack of interest. In its stead, Huntsville was given stingingly-cold rain and thirteen snowflakes (all of which smacked into my windshield on my way to the store), and no ice to speak of.
In the hours before the ice storm was canceled, most of us sat at our computers, hypnotized by the weather drama unfolding on the Weather Channel. The ice line was between Huntsville and Nashville; would it fall far enough south to hit Huntsville?
The answer: no. The ice storm parties got held in southern Tennessee and eastern Alabama, whose higher elevations meant colder temperatures. (That, or just more interest on the part of the locals in getting a day off of work.)
Characteristically for me, it took me many hours to realize that an ice-free Huntsville did not necessarily mean that it was feasible to make it to Atlanta. Why? See statement #2 in the ordered list above.
There are three ways to Atlanta, all of which have varying types of annoyance and boredom. Route #1 is mountain-climbing route, which takes you through Mentone—which has the dubious honor of having Alabama's only ski resort. Route #2 is not quite the vertical haul of route #1, and it has the additional bonus of taking you through Fort Payne, which someone has officially designed the 'Sock Capital of the World.' Route #3 is the really long, really flat route, aiming straight south on I-65 and then taking the interminable I-20 due east to Atlanta (and taking an hour longer to reach Atlanta than any other route known to mankind).
Huntsville might have been ice-free, but Mentone and Fort Payne most definitely were not. In fact, most reports about roads in that area consisted of perky Weather Blondes™ shrugging their shoulders and saying, "The locals know better than to drive in this crap." As an afterthought, they added in city-wide road closures to deter the Huntsville idiots from saying, "Bah! I'm manly enough to drive on this!"
There was only one option open to me if we wanted to retrieve Gareth: the hours-long rumble strip known as I-20. True, it would get me there, but with a minimum of ice, snow, and visual interest—and a maximum amount of time and gasoline expended. Therefore, I packed a lot of CDs.
(One must be armed with only the best of funk, soul, and Spanish flamenco (hush!) to survive the nearly-eternal time loop that lies in wait on I-20 just east of Talladega.)
Truth be told, the drive wasn't that bad. My copy of Maktub's album Khronos arrived in the mail right before I left, thus taking care of a good portion of the funk and soul necessary to survive I-20. Anything else I might have needed was taken care of by watching the asshole driver of the white Intrepid—the one who thought slaloming around the 80mph-ers at 90+ was a fun thing to do—get pulled over for speeding near the Georgia state line.
In a slightly different universe, I would've tipped the cop on my way out of Alabama.
Meanwhile, I drove and drove as the sky continually repainted itself in deepening shades of blue. The moon hung fat and full, straight ahead over the gap in the trees. I learned the words to songs on Khronos.
My goal: the McDonald's on exit 51a, the one that, when I talked to Kat, she said, "Oh, yeah, I know that one."
According to the map Gareth had sent me, exit 51a would be shortly after the massive exits for 285, Atlanta's Vehicular Accelerator Loop. As the mile markers ticked by, I began to worry. Where was 285? Shouldn't there be an access road showing up eventually? Ah, wait, there's the sign for exit 51a...
...and then the horrible, sinking feeling of realizing that exit 51a was the exit for 285 southbound, and that there was no access road, no McDonald's, nothing. Greg had been mistaken about the exit number, and now I hadn't the faintest clue where I should go.
I took the first exit I could and pulled off into a nicely-lit gas station, calling Gareth while realizing axiom #13 for finding your way around a strange city: never park in any gas station when your mid-sized car is the newest and the most expensive on the lot.
We met up somewhere else. I managed to obtain a fast-food dinner, obtain Gareth, and make return trip without falling asleep or into the time sink. We arrived home at five past eleven. Total drive time: 8.5 hours.
I fell asleep to the sounds of Jeff and Gareth talking animatedly in the living room.
The drive was worth it.