This was supposed to be a big vacation year for me.
After moving back to Athens in February, I had laid out a fairly long list of festivals, three-day weekend vacations and races to go see this year: the Shaky Knees and Sweetwater music festivals, my annual trip to the Indy 500, visits to Martinsville and Darlington for some NASCAR races, and a few days out in Colorado at the end of summer to play some golf with a few of my oldest friends.
So much for best-laid plans. By the end of May, it was clear that most all of these events and trips were off. From March through June, I hardly ventured outside of my house. And it was eating at me.
I was ready to cancel the Colorado trip, too. As a guy with Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder) who takes bimonthly doses of an immunosuppressant drug, I thought flying may be a bad idea.
Then, one night, it hit me: I could just drive there. Man, what a trip that would be. I could eat a lot of good takeout food, check out a lot of state parks and see plenty of sights that I had not seen before. Heck, I could take a full two weeks off to do it.
Plus, driving gave me a chance to see some friends along the way and visit some cities that had long been on my list to check out. I could go through Memphis, hang out with some friends in Oklahoma City, and spend a full week in Colorado looking at mountains.
I would also get a glimpse how three time zones are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic here. Living in Georgia where there aren’t too many rules, I wasn’t sure about how other states were faring.
I guess there was only one way to find out.
9 a.m. Central Time, Thursday, August 20
A springer spaniel named Charley Taco kicked me awake at 4:50 a.m. to jumpstart the longest vacation I have ever taken. I figured there was no advantage to going back to sleep for a couple hours, nor was there much of a chance.
The going-on-vacation adrenaline was already pulsating. It was time to get on with it.
I picked up I-20 in Atlanta and drove east of Talladega and rolled into Birmingham at 8:15, right into the teeth of the morning rush hour.
But the interstates were almost empty. The traffic was lighter at 8:15 in Birmingham than it was at 6:45 in Atlanta. Even in late August, it seemed the working crowd was mostly still working at home.
Every few miles, I saw a billboard of Nick Saban encouraging Alabamans to wear their masks for the sake of football. Alabama DOT signs reminded motorists that wearing a mask was mandatory.
I wondered which approach was more effective.
At the Love’s Travel Center in Jasper off I-22, I got to see if everyone was following the rules.
Everyone inside – on either side of the counter – wore a mask.
I guess those Nick Saban PSAs are paying off. The mandatory mask ordinance probably doesn’t hurt.
3 p.m. Thursday, Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis has the worst roads I have driven on since I was in Philadelphia. They are beat to hell.
A lot of Memphis looks awfully tired, which fits my speed better than most places. I arrived at 11 a.m., just in time to be one of the first in the socially distanced line for a BBQ sandwich at Payne’s. I paid with a card, grabbed my sandwich and a Coke – fresh tea was off limits – and proceeded to make a proper mess in the front seat of my car.
The big crowd at Sun Records kept me in the car. Fortunately, STAX Records across town was a significantly larger and less crowded facility.
I paid for a tour ticket and quickly realized I was the only person on it. At 1 p.m. on a Thursday, I had the STAX Museum — a venue devoted to the history and appreciation of soul music — to myself. No mask seemed necessary, but I kept one on anyway. Those were the rules.
What STAX didn’t have was a proper record store inside, so I ventured over a few blocks to venerable Shangri-La Records. The store was open by appointment only, an appointment I did not have.
It turned out August in Memphis was a lot like Athens in May.
My mask stayed on as I visited the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, which was probably not the most efficient store I could have stopped at to buy a pair of pants. From there, I stopped at the Cozy Corner for my second lunch of the day – a rib plate with baked beans and BBQ spaghetti. The dining room was closed.
The meal sat in my lap as I drove over the Mississippi River for the first time.
7 p.m. Thursday, Batesville, Arkansas
As I walked up to the front door of Fred’s Fish House, a family of five stormed past me heading back to the parking lot.
Every other table inside was full, and for good reason. A lovely woman the waitresses called Grandma — with an accent that sounded East Tennessee to me — recommended the fried catfish and hushpuppies as the best in Northeast Arkansas.
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Grandma had just asked the family of five to leave the restaurant. They tried to pull their shirts up as they walked in, and they wouldn’t take the disposable masks Grandma offered them. Grandma wasn’t having it.
She was no fan of having to wear a mask, but she and the wait staff, as well as everyone who walked in, wore them anyway. If that was the law, Grandma was going to follow it.
I liked Grandma, and I liked Batesville. The first day of my vacation ended at Batesville Speedway for the first night of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series’ Topless 100 – the cars raced with their roofs detached, but everyone kept their shirts on.
I wore my mask into the track and quickly realized that I was in the extreme minority. Fortunately, I picked the right track to socially distance.
The grandstand around the 1/3-mile clay oval was huge – a good three to four times more expansive than the concrete grandstands around the Georgia dirt tracks I frequent. The slabs were deeper and wider, too, with bolted-on seats in the center and plenty of space on the sides to set up your own camping chair. Of course, I brought my own chair.
With the slabs being a good six feet deep, I didn’t have to worry about someone sitting over my shoulder. And with only about 1,000 or so fans in the 10,000-seat stands, there was plenty of room to move around on this Thursday night.
As the feature race was about to begin, I noticed there was no one within 30 feet of me in any particular direction. I took my mask off and breathed in the dust-filled air spiked with racing fuel and rubber.
It felt fine. It felt normal.
I sat there and watched a great duel between Jimmy Owens and Tim McCreadie and forgot there was a pandemic crippling the world. I was lost in the smells of the racetrack, humming from the power of the cars using the concrete as current.
This was my first trip back to a racetrack since the world had ended, and it felt just like 2019.
I hoped I didn’t get sick.