It was 8 o’clock pm on Thursday January 15, 2015 when we said goodbye to Ohio. With the entire Ohio group together, we finished packing ourselves into a car, ready now for the following seven hours South to Nashville. It’s no secret that any good road trip needs good snacks, while at the same time, all good road trips should also have a set list of goals. With a 4.9 pound bucket of animal crackers at our center, finishing the entire thing became one of them. This fell right beside our goal to document the 10-year aftermath of what has been left behind from hurricane Katrina, and though a bucket of animal crackers may not be as impressive or educational, it is quite the damn accomplishment.
Laughter and music filled the car with a happy and upbeat feeling as we inched our way mile after mile towards Tennessee to meet with our Virginia friends. The next 17 and a half hours would come to be quite an experience full of unexpected, unplanned, awkwardly planned and amazing adventures. Near deaths, sketchy adventures, different foods, culture and a true dirty South experience.
The further South we traveled, more and more stars began to show themselves across a clear night sky. It’s amazing how the Earth can completely change in scenery given some hours of distance apart. One moment I’m staring down snow covered maple trees and the icy roads of Ohio, and only some hours later I find myself gazing out at the wide open, warmer scenery of near central Tennessee.
Our first stop, randomly planned as a last minute endeavor before removing ourselves from the state of Tennessee, was the old Tennessee state prison. This short journey was cut significantly shorter when we first approached the gates, only to find that there was still an active prison section complete with a very active guard. Quickly turning around, the six of us met at a nearby gas station just over the other side of some train tracks. With the prison being pretty much out of the question after having been yelled at by the guard, we figured it would be a good time to continue our main route to New Orleans.
Shortly after our failed prison attempt, it was realized that we would need to stop for gas and a bathroom. Now, most people with a level head would not, at least on better judgment, attempt to eat the breakfast sandwich coming from a place known as “Sneaky Pete’s.” Our group however is different. Presented with these sandwiches, bought for the group by one of the six, we may have discovered one of the greater breakfast sandwiches to come out of Tennessee. While it may have been delicious, now with the fear of contracting “sneaky Pete disease” (because why is he being so sneaky?) we were on route down to Alabama.
Planning shenanigans between cars via text and phone call, it was decided that we would stop somewhere during sunrise to capture whatever radiant glow the morning threw to us as we dropped into Alabama. A quick detour from the freeway put us into a small Alabama town, where we could see the sun rising over the distant skyline. An orange glow shone from the dim countryside streetlights in the brisk morning air. We looked out upon a brightening blue sky, tinted with hues of yellow and orange, becoming lighter with every passing minute. After stretching our legs, moving around and enjoying a nice change of non-highway scenery different from the last 10 hours, we were once again headed towards our destination. Next stop – Mississippi.
I’m not sure if it was that we ended up driving basically straight through or the fact that I was running on no sleep, zoning harder than a brick without enough steady streaming thought to come up with a better analogy than a brick, but I can’t seem to remember a damn thing from this state. The closest thing I remember is the completely insane joy we all had upon arriving into Louisiana. Our hotel check in time was not until 2pm, so at the time being around 10am, we still had some good hours to kill. Twenty miles or so from New Orleans we made our very first footsteps into beautiful sunny weather onto the charred remains of a fishing bridge surrounded by an overflowing river. Where benches and picnic tables used to sit in grass, everything now sits covered in water, no longer enjoyed nearly the same as it all was before.
Now heading towards the abandoned Six Flags of New Orleans readying ourselves for our following adventures, we cruised slowly down an outer lying side street towards a main road just on the parks outskirts. Pulling out to make a left turn into the lane in front of us, a sudden crash rattled the entire car sending us into a sliding quarter spin. The opposing vehicle, a large black truck, lost control and nearly raced face first into a telephone pole ahead, obliterating gas prices on the gas station tree lawn, finally swerving to miss the pole by only about a foot. The driver of our group ran quickly to see if the person driving the truck was okay, when a small Asian woman emerged. She was a bit shaken by the incident, as I am sure we all were, but everybody was okay. It turns out that the vehicle she was driving was her husbands company vehicle, so he was called up shortly after, arriving on the scene in just a few minutes. Thankfully this man was once of the calmest and most collected people around, not wanting to kill us and happy that everyone was okay. Looking back on it, it seems like a bit of a tale; something that you would have to witness to truly believe. We had a surprisingly comforting conversation with the man, his two gold teeth shining as he smiled and we all shook hands. Once everything was clear, we were on to our first true abandoned exploration of the trip – an old pink hotel, which sat across the street from the gas station where we currently sat. In the spirit of true exploring, you can’t let something like this stop your adventure and we never will. Even if the bathroom at the gas station resembles a bathroom from hell.
Leaving the gas station, it was agreed that we would meet at our previously booked motel room to rid the excess clutter and baggage throughout our cars and put it into our room. For myself at this point, the tired had begun to truly hit my entire being, and while I felt like complete and total shit I could not refuse to try and explore at least one more location. I had not slept, I had barely eaten a thing since the previous breakfast bagel hours prior. I was beginning to feel like death. As my head pounded, stomach turned and vision began to develop into a blurry mess, I climbed the stairs up, up and up to each higher floor inside this former Days Inn hotel. Standing atop the roof, everything finally hit…I felt as though I was going to simply pass out, fall off the roof itself or just lay down and die. My head pounded so hard it felt as though my brain was about to crack my skull open and leak onto the mossy roof at my feet. Finally able to pull myself together I began to make my way down the nearest stairwell. In a stumbled mess of confusion, I almost laid my hand atop an African wasp that had just so nicely placed himself on the side of a moldy mattress against the wall. It was definitely time that I needed to sleep, and as little as I truly wanted to, it was necessary.
I barely remember the car ride home, or exploring most of the hotel for that matter, but I do remember being woken up a bit more to the smell of the master chef of our group cooking our dinner in the motel bathroom. Yes, the motel bathroom. Daniel, being the world master chef he is, brought a fucking portable kitchen with him, complete with amazing, healthy and fresh food to cook for the entire group. I woke my ass out of bed, because I needed to photograph this genius setup. Now THAT is motel living, my friends.
This is how you do it. We were living the motel life.
As the night came to a close for myself, I stayed back while everyone went out for a quick night venture. I wish more than anything that I could have gone, but my body and head would just not let me. I rested up for a little bit, falling half asleep to one of the ridiculous Chucky films, waking up nearly an hour later to realize that they were playing them in a marathon series. So of course, I ended up watching Chucky for the next hour, finally able to stomach some food and rest myself until being greeted by an exhausted group, half covered in mud another hour later. So instead of setting off alarms like in a recent previous adventure, we all set alarms on our phones to wake us up at 430am, quickly passed out and before we knew it, were up again to greet the day with one of our biggest adventures ever; to explore the abandoned New Orleans Six Flags.
As we stood amidst wild destruction left behind by Katrina looking through tall wooden coasters, the sky was lit with a bright brilliance of stars while the night slowly transitioned to a morning sunrise radiating bright oranges, deep pinks and fiery reds. As the sun continued its ascension above the horizon, all surrounding us was transformed to a vivid view of post-apocalypse, while all we could do was marvel at its intense radiance shining from behind the Ferris wheel, light reflecting from metal bars of roller coasters, not a person in sight. Overgrowth has swallowed many pieces, growing wildly ever since the rain and waves from Katrina flooded everything completely; a gleaming, sun-painted land straight out of Jurassic Park.
Opened as Jazzland in 2000, the park enjoyed a good couple of years until being renamed in 2003 to Six Flags New Orleans; how it is more commonly known. The park boasted 20 rides, 4 roller coasters and even 2 water rides. Unfortunately, unknown to them after signing a 75-year lease with the city, Six Flags would come to experience quite a water ride for itself in 2005.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating and destructive waters rushed over the land, submerging the park as it’s drainage pumps were unsuccessful, failing under heavy depths of such a massive storm surge. For over a month, 4 to 7 feet of corrosive brackish floodwater drowned the park, and due to long-term salt-water immersion, the park was deemed unfit for use with most buildings being declared practically 80 percent demolished. Finally freeing themselves from their lease in 2009, there have been numerous talks of what is to be done with the grounds, but nothing has come of it.
It was a sad and devastating time for the residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas to go through such an Earth shattering storm. Nearly 10 years later, homes remain scattered through New Orleans’ East side, among other areas where hurricane relief was more scarce and less distributed. Walking through some of these areas is like walking through a ghost town that many want to forget, while at the same time hold onto so dearly. As we wandered the streets, half would be abandoned, washed out from Katrina’s destruction, while the other half would be restored, lived in and appear to be a lively piece of the community rebuilt. Don’t wander off too far though, or you might find yourself in the middle of some very unfriendly neighborhoods. Even before the hurricane, people were somewhat hostile down there, but with many having lost their homes even more have become more so. Witnessing the remaining devastation in person was a wild experience, and I am truly sorry to all those who lost family, friends or other important parts of their lives. It’s wild how one moment, everything can be going just as normal, and only a short moment later, things can go completely out of control. This is why we should always let those around us know how much we care.
Things got awkward for us in the French Quarters when our friend’s car decided it would be the perfect time to give up. The car has an issue to begin with, where it needs a jump to start, and while we normally were able to jump it no problem to get it up and going, this time it had to happen directly in the center of 90 percent of New Orleans tourist traffic. Oh, and horses, don’t forget the horses. Pulling up to our right side, cutting off a horse, we were nearly rear ended by a man who could just not hold his horses. Getting rear ended by a horse…no matter which way you try to split that, it just doesn’t sound one bit pleasant. The man continued yelling at us until we finally were able to move out of his way enough to fit his horse through. I’m sure we angered quite a large group of people and cause quite the traffic commotion behind us, but we succeeded, and we were on our way to eat some gator!
We were directed to a restaurant by the name of Huck Finn’s being one who had some of the best alligator in New Orleans. Our waitress starts conversation with us (a table of 6 white as ghost people) asking us about where we are from, so we tell her the Cleveland, OH area, 2 of us being from Virginia. She then begins to ask us if we had seen a recent football game that Ohio played against them, to which Ryan replies “Nah, not much of a Browns fan.” Our waitress looks at us like we had just said something horribly racist, completely holding back probably a burst of anger and a slap for Ryan’s face. She did not know the Browns were a football team. Pretty sure she was relieved when she learned that. See, the issue was, none of us were aware that it was an Ohio a State game that she was referencing…interesting first impression. As we sat finishing our meals ready to head out for our next venture, we were directed by our waitress to a wonderful location to see the sunset, and we were off. She was right; it was brilliant.
As we return for one final night in our motel, Ryan decided that it would be as close to the warmth we will be getting anytime soon in Ohio, and took a quick jump into the pool. Soaking wet and now shaking from the cold night air, he took those dripping final steps back to our motel room, where we would soon all pass out, drained from the previous days but still with so much ahead.
The day is now Sunday, and it’s time to say goodbye to NOLA as we all pack back into our cars, now headed for the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Eight hours from our current location, we have half of our drive home ahead of us, preparing to stay the night at a motel in the mountains. At only 40 dollars a night for a two-bed room, you really can’t beat that price. On the way through Mississippi, our eyes had been focused on a worn out and abandoned mall we had noticed the previous day. A quick venture around the exterior displayed absolutely no means of entrance, and with the police station next door, it was best that we stay away from another Riverside incident. We did make a couple great new friends at the local Wendy’s when Ryan had literally given one employee the shirt off his back, simply because she liked it. We bid farewell to our newly made friends, whom we will most likely never meet again, and were on our way once again.
Our motel room was booked as we approached the state of Alabama. Alabama’s countryside is a beautifully quiet, wonderfully dark land, with an amazingly black night sky hanging overhead, lit by the bright light of hundreds upon hundreds of stars and our very own Milky Way. Deciding to make a blind guess at a random area to stop for photos, we exited the freeway and were dropped into a small countryside town, complete with a small mountain, which provided us the most narrow and curvy road ever to travel up to reach the top. After winding through what seemed like endless forest, we had reached our destination. Standing atop this quiet hillside, the trees open up a clear window to a beautiful deep blue night sky overhead.
Nobody ever really wants to run into someone with a gun, but it seems to happen to us more often than we would really prefer. Apparently, we had landed ourselves onto someone’s land…this someone just so happened to be the only person around. As he slowly pulls up, his 2-year-old daughter on his lap, gun on his passenger seat, he questions us as to what we are doing. Thankfully, without show of Southern hospitality, he didn’t mind us photographing the night sky. In the end, everything turned out much better than expected, but I would definitely imagine it could seem strange, when a group of people with cameras is parked near your countryside property, normally void of most any other human life. We slowly crept back down a treacherous one way road in the wrong direction, and as we zigzagged down making our way through the forest, we were praying that luck would once again be on our side, even if for just a short moment, and that the road would stay free of oncoming traffic. Everything was a success and nothing killed us! Pressing on, we continued our journey.
The night grew closer to a close as we were dropped into yet another Wendy’s – this time in our destination state of Tennessee, fairly close to our resting area. A quick stop for food and we were only moments from the mountains.
Driving into the Smoky Mountains at night was like entering a quiet town that had forgotten to take its multi-thousand dollar Christmas display down nearly a month past the holiday. Everybody has a favorite though, I suppose – either that or Gatlinburg is just the drunk uncle of cities. With such a welcoming display of winter lining the streets all throughout town, I couldn’t help but feel that we had made a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled upon the North Pole.
In the Smoky Mountains, not only do you have the picturesque scenery and surroundings that create a photographers natural funhouse, but you will receive one hell of a package deal if you happen to be a photographer whom also enjoys a good explore through forgotten structures. Within these mountains, behind the trees, mossy rocks and various foliage, lies so many scattered abandoned houses, it’s like the cat and dog chewed up hundreds of Legos and scattered them through a furry green shag carpeting. An entire resort remains, facing the end of their lives, fading to dirt and dust, only to remain as memories among the old dirt trails winding the mountains. In the mountains, cell phone service is non-existent. It was nice to get so far away from the hustle and bustle of normal life below us, adding to that feeling of post-apocalypse, now starting to paint a very realistic impression through imagination. Nobody cared to check their phones, we weren’t sucked into texting, email, internet or social media; we were all alone surrounded by powerful nature. We had everything we needed with us; the company of good friends and an amazing adventure. Humanity seemed to have been lost as we walked the quiet mountainside during sunrise. We must have wandered this never-ending plethora of cracked cabins, strewn along a beautiful creek side for at least five hours, stopping to photograph a wildly different view of each one that we passed.
Our group would soon part ways, but not before wandering an abandoned putt-putt, grabbing lunch and having an interstate food fight between cars. As all good things must come to an end, this venture must as well. I could not have asked for a better group to share this expedition with, and the memories will stay with us all for a lifetime through photos, videos and writing. These adventures will be here for others to hear, and hopefully inspire them to create their own experiences just as great. Even though this one is over, there will be a lifetime more to come, filled with memories that have yet to be created, across lands untraveled, locations unexplored and the forgotten to be found. Until next time.