Exploring the South, Part 1: Atlanta

Atlanta is just under a 6-hour drive from where we live. It immediately entered my radar as a place to visit when I discovered that the UW Football team would be playing a major game there. So the reason for and timing of the trip were driven by my love of sports and school, but it was also a good excuse to explore parts of the country that I’d never seen before. The quickest route to the city is to head South then East from Memphis through Mississippi and Alabama. After realizing that it was the holiday weekend and that Jeff didn’t have to work on Monday, I decided to look for other destinations along the way to check out. Not much (okay, nothing really) popped up along this route, so we decided to head back to Memphis via the slightly longer North, then Westerly route and check out Chattanooga. I was going to write about the whole trip here, but decided to separate it into two entries because brevity and editing with writing are not my strong suits. 

So yeah, there was not a lot to note on the drive through Mississippi and Alabama. I thought it was a bit cute that the welcome sign upon entering Alabama said “Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama” as if “Sweet Home” were part of it’s name (wasn’t that just a mediocre movie starring Reese Witherspoon?). Also amusing was that somewhere in our travels across Alabama we encountered a  cartoon cloud. It was sunny overhead then we could literally see a demarcation along the road where it started raining, then we entered, it rained hard for a few seconds, then we exited and it was sunny again. I’d never experienced quite so sudden and obvious a stop and start of rain. A few minutes later we saw a double rainbow. 

cartoon rain
Actual photo of our car somewhere along the highway in Alabama

A small snafu to note would be my twice forgetting the Time Zone we were in. First, I had dinner reservations for us near our hotel on the night we arrived. I looked at the drive time and allowed a 30-45 minute buffer, without realizing that we lost an hour changing from the Central to Eastern Time Zone. Fortunately, we realized it a bit in advance and the restaurant was able to accommodate us. The second was a couple days later in Chattanooga when I forgot that we were still in the Eastern Time Zone (Tennessee is half Central, half Eastern) and I called home Monday morning calculating a two-hour time change instead of three and treated my parents to a rather early, “Hey, what’s up?” conversation. 

Several weeks ago, after purchasing the tickets to the football game, I went online intending to book a hotel in downtown Atlanta for a couple nights only to be met with insane prices. Why on earth were the hotel prices so inflated? I knew there was a major college football game and it was a holiday weekend, but really? So I did some research to figure out if anything else was going on only to find that this was also the weekend of Dragon Con. What is Dragon Con you ask… Well, according to them, they are “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!” Basically an event attracting around 80,000 additional people to the city.

Venn diagram
Overlapping weekend festivities turned out well for a few people

Welp, we already had the tickets to the game, so turned out we were going to save a few hundred bucks and stay a bit outside the city. Since the football game didn’t start until 3:30pm on Saturday we decided to check out the world famous Dragon Con Parade that morning. Our hotel was north of the city and we took MARTA (Atlanta’s rapid transit system) downtown to avoid traffic and parking issues. Every time I experience the convenience of public transit in another major city, a small part of me is sad/angry that Seattle has such a poor transit system. Maybe someday we’ll catch up (I’m not holding my breath though). 

Spotted these guys getting on the subway Saturday morning, as you do

We emerged from the sub station on Peachtree Ave and followed the swarms of Dragon Con-ers (easily identifiable by nerdy attire and/or costumes) to find the parade route. We staked a standing spot along the course and waited about 45-minutes for the festivities to begin. I won’t say I love standing around waiting, but I will say that this was a highly amusing spot to people watch. The cosplay was off the charts. For those who don’t know, cosplay is a term used to describe people wearing costumes, usually self-made, to dress up like one of their favorite characters (although, I’m pretty sure some people made up their own characters or just dressed like something random because, why not?). There were horror characters, super-heroes, sci-fi characters, Disney characters, fantasy, compilations of the aforementioned, a few Donald Trumps and the Pope (I don’t see exactly how those last couple fit into the Dragon Con theme, but to each their own). 

The Parade itself lasted for about an hour and was basically hordes of people marching in character and showing off their imaginative cosplay. They attempted to separate them topically, but I think some people missed the times for their groups, lined up in the wrong spot, or just walked wherever they pleased. Oh, look at Daenerys and the Lannisters behind the Game of Thrones banner, wait, why is there a Ninja Turtle in there? Oh well. There were some “floats” or decorated vehicles. Some convertibles carrying “celebrities” (none of which I recognized), and one vehicle showing off the World’s Smallest Woman. Again, not sure how she really fit into the Dragon Con theme either, but there she was.

It was a total geek fest. I’m pretty sure I saw just about every movie or book, sci-fi or fantasy character I could think of and many many more that I’d never heard of. The parade lasted over an hour with a steady stream of marching characters. I would award this older fellow dressed as Vulture, a villain from Spider Man (who looked about like he was going to pass out from exertion), with best costume, and the Gangsta Storm-Troopers as best group. Actually, wait, put Gangsta Storm Troopers as #2 group, I forgot about the Spartans from 300, I’ll award them #1. They really committed to their characters (l’m talking countless hours at the gym), I feel like they may have been the only group that had certain prerequisites for participation.


After a jaunt thru the College Football Hall of Fame museum, which was surprisingly uncrowded given the proximity to the football stadium and general festivities of the weekend, we headed over to Mercedes-Benz stadium for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. This “neutral” field is actually where an NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, plays normally, but was converted to host Washington versus Auburn for this top-ten match-up of college football powerhouses. I knew this going in, but somehow still pictured an outdoor, college football setting and anticipated sitting under the hot sun for hours on end. I was quite relieved when I saw a beautiful, state-of-the-art covered stadium awaiting us.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. It was not sold-out, but they estimated about 70,000 raucous fans (of which I’d estimate about 75% were pro-Auburn). Auburn had its whole marching band there and gave a couple impressive performances. The Huskies had a few stray band members, but were clearly outmatched in this area. Pre-game highlights included watching these bubble foam things waft towards the ceiling in various shapes and then slowly disintegrate (I looked them up online, I think they were Flogos, or flying logos), and the hundreds of parachuting Chick-fil-A cows that they released from the rafters after they announced the teams. One of the parachuting cows landed on the line for an arial camera and we enjoyed watching it slide around each time the camera changed positions. Well, until it eventually fell off and landed on the field and the ref tossed it aside.

How about we just skip over the actual football game itself… okay? Okay.

Moving on… We caught the MARTA back to our hotel and talked with a couple heading back from the airport, they asked about the game and we asked about their vacation. It seems easier, or rather, more commonplace to converse with a strangers in this part of the country. I’ve heard of the Seattle Freeze but, living most my life in Seattle, it’s what I’m used to. Granted in Atlanta our shared interests over characters at Dragon Con or team loyalties at the football game made it easier to strike up a conversation, but in general, even around where we live in Tennessee, people you don’t know will actually start talking to you sometimes. It’s weird.

The following morning we returned downtown to check out the famous Georgia Aquarium. Turned out, we weren’t the only ones to include this tourist attraction in our holiday weekend festivities. We waited in line for quite awhile to even get into the parking garage and then, after accidentally cutting in front of half the line, still waited another 20-or-so minutes to get into the actual aquarium. Fortunately, the attraction itself turned out to be worth the wait and braving the crowds. Once inside, it was laid out in such a way to accommodate masses of people and, though we would have preferred smaller crowds, we found that with a little patience, we were still able to get amazing views of the beautiful exhibits.

One of the major highlights had to be their collection of four whale sharks. Whale sharks aren’t really whales, or sharks (they feed on plankton), but are the largest known fish in the world. They are rarely held in captivity (Georgia is the only aquarium in the US to have any). They weigh an average of 20,000 pounds and measure around 30 feet in length. Georgia Aquarium’s tank that holds them, along with giant sting rays and other fish, is the size of a football field, is 30 feet deep, and holds over 6-million gallons of saltwater. You enter the exhibit through a tunnel with a moving walkway and the tank surrounds you. We were in the tube a few moments before the first whale shark swam overhead and there was an audible gasp from onlookers as we stood in the shadow of one of the magnificent creatures.  

Whale shark viewing area, the photo doesn’t quite capture how enormous they were

Other highlights from the aquarium included the sea lion show and the penguin exhibit. One of the downsides of how crazy busy the aquarium was was that it was harder, or you had to get there earlier, to see the shows. We showed up too late for the dolphin show and didn’t want to wait another 3-hours for the next, but arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the sea lion show. I’d seen sea lion shows before but somehow forgot how intelligent and nimble these amazing animals are. My most recent memory of them was seeing them barking and lazying around on Pier 39 in San Fransisco, where they weren’t exactly showing off their skills. I was impressed with their array of tricks and cooperation with their trainers, they almost had dog-like personalities in their ability to respond to human cues and were seemingly enjoying themselves. 

sea lion
They were so impressive they could even talk! … Ok, maybe not… but they could do that trick

The penguin exhibit was cool, because 1.) I just love penguins and they’re always one of my must-sees at any zoo or aquarium, and 2.) they had a cool feature where you could crawl through and pop up in the exhibit to see the penguins up close. At first I thought it was just for kids, but then I noticed adult heads popping up in the little glass bubbles that were placed in the exhibit. So I put aside my mild claustrophobia and excitedly entered the crowded tube stuffed with equal parts excited kids and uncomfortable adults crawling under the exhibit and seeing the penguins up close. We spent several hours at the aquarium, and may have spent more or attempted to see more shows if it hadn’t been so crazy busy.  

I could spin around in the glass bubble and see these little guys right in front of me!

Overall, I enjoyed our trip to Atlanta. It was by far the biggest city I’d been in for awhile and it was nice to see some familiar urban features and to be surrounded by more of a melting pot of people. We easily could have spent more time there checking out various other museums, restaurants, and activities. I would happily return again but would like to check out other areas of the region first (New Orleans, I’m thinking of you). We departed Sunday afternoon and drove just under 2-hours North to spend the night in Chattanooga. Stay tuned (or not) to hear about our adventures there…

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