The Perfect Snowflake

It was something unexpected. An invitation to join a road trip after only three weeks at Georgia Tech, with people I didn’t quite know yet and to a town I knew just one thing about. Where to begin the story of that great journey to place far away? A journey out of Georgia and across Tennessee on MLK weekend, to Nashville with 9 wonderful people who I would call my friends forever after. The best place to start dear reader, is in the middle.

The Air-BnB was huge. Just right for a party of ten who didn’t mind sleeping on the sofas. Alec was making his famous chili in the kitchen as the sun went down on the rooftop decking and the back garden. We milled around exploring the house and the garden, chatting, and taking pictures of each other in the golden light and drinking beer. There was an air of contentment and excitement in this new place among new friends.

I went to the off-license several times that first evening on resupply missions. One shop was across the road from an old grain storage building. A tall concrete thing with a giant mural of an old man looking up towards the sky. We wondered who was so important. He looked a bit like Jimmy Carter to me.

One gray man rises above Dollar General. 7 men in gray wait for one to come out.

When the sun went down and it got cold outside, dinner was ready, and Alec instructed us on how to best serve ourselves his chili in burrito wraps. It was imperative that after you added the chili, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and doritos (in that order) that your burrito was de-juiced over the chili pot and that further seasoning was added on top before wrapping it all up whatever way you liked. The chef was roundly complimented by all at the table. (and by table, I mean in the kitchen/open plan living space. There was no big dining table.)

Left: Chili a la Byrne. 35mm; Right: Hannah and Mel chowing down. Both with a Canon AE-1

After we had filled ourselves up with that delicious meal and with more beer, we ubered into town. The Broadway Strip was our destination. I didn’t expect every bar in Nashville to have a live country music act, but it was so. Every bar did have a live country music act. Our bar was ‘The Ol’ Red.’ Because it was the only place letting people under 21 inside before 9pm. We managed to stay there for the evening to hear Skylar Anderson sing Tennessee Whiskey and Can’t drink you away girl. I don’t know why, but those two songs in particular became the anthems of the trip after that. I listened to those songs standing beside Mel, and maybe that was the reason that they had such an effect on me. We had some common experiences with women at that time which those two songs spoke to. I tried to ask him about that and about our lives with some stupidly cryptic question that only annoyed him briefly before he returned to cheering over the balcony.

I saw Linda was standing further along the bannister I went to her for some company. I asked her what I had asked Mel. “Where are you, and where are you going?” We had some fun discussing that while Skylar Anderson went around with the tip bucket, singing and talking with the wireless microphone. “I’ve been doing the for 5 years and I call it a job!” At the end of the night when he was finished up and getting ready to leave. Linda, Mel and I saw fit to go down and talk with the man himself. “You sang how I was feeling!” I said to him as I shook his hand, Mel and Linda made similar acclamations. We even got a picture with him.

Sometimes, you’ve got to tell someone how you feel. We were big fans. Photo credit, Alec (I think)

We left the Ol’ Red soon after he did and walked up and down Broadway looking for bars that would let us all in. We found none, but we did find a cowboy boots and hats shop. A cultural experience. You could walk in at 11pm as we did and try on all of the party boots that you wanted for free. Many of them were very flamboyant indeed. $400 for a pair though. No thanks. We just took pictures

Somewhere in Tennessee, 1888. Colourised.

On Sunday, after a good breakfast of Danish style porridge, we went to see some of the sights in Nashville. The super bowl semi final was playing on screens in the city center. Nashville vs. Kansas I think. But it was cold outside and we had another plan for the early afternoon. Line dancing. We were in the capital of country music after all. Classes were on every half an hour in a bar off Broadway, given by a teacher who had to stop waiting tables and give us tourists a class in what she must have thought was the most boring dance in the world. Once we got to know the dance, we found that its 4-beat rhythm makes it fit into just about any song you can think of. For the rest of the semester, at every big party in Atlanta, a line dance could break out at any time to almost any song.

That smile says it all. Line dancing became iconic for us after this trip. Photo credit: Linda.

On our second night, after a day of seeing some sights and going to the grocery and liqueur store for more supplies, Hannah made a delicious congee for ten with spring onion, crushed nuts and a lime on top. We taste tested whiskey from a taster’s kit that Julien had bought. There were three varieties. It seemed to me that each was more bitter than the last. We talked over beer and Jack Daniels until quite late at night.

The lovely congee. photo credit: Linda.
Whiskey tasting with the connoisseur himself, Julein. 35mm with a Canon AE-1

We played a wonderful game then when we were all sitting on the couches and brought the chairs over. The game was to tell your life story in sixty seconds. The ten of us had known each other for just three weeks at this early stage, but this was a great way to get a proper introduction to how everyone viewed their lives. The conversation continued down several veins and got quite intimate at times. I think when you’re in a confined space with like-minded people, you tend to get very close very quickly. And so, it was  a pleasantly long night in.

Left: The “Who’s the most likely to…” game in action; Right: Linda, Shauna and I pointing at you, dear reader. Both are 35mm with a Canon AE-1. photo credit on the right to unknown

The next morning, I woke up to Viggy shouting, ‘It’s Christmas!’ Sure enough, it was snowing outside. Viggy had brought his frisbee and Mel and I played outside in the snow. Linda came out and played too. It was cold and we got hungry and no one else had gotten up yet so the four of us decided that the most marvellous thing to do when we got back inside was to play Christmas songs throughout the house, while we made ‘Christmas pancakes.’ That roused the troops well enough.

As we prepared to leave, Viggy continued frisbeeing outside with Alec. Of course, it had to land on our neighbours’ roof and Viggy had to knock on the door to ask for it back. Our neighbours were an elderly couple. The man came out and lent Viggy a ladder to retrieve his frisbee. How the conversation turned in the direction it did, I do not know, but the man revealed to Alec and Viggy that the huge mural of an old man on the side of a tall concrete grain store just down the street was in fact an image of him! Viggy and Alec were dumbfounded, and they told the rest of us when they got inside. We didn’t believe them at first but they were adamant. They were too polite to ask for a picture, so here’s Mel standing in front of the mural instead.

The resemblance was uncanny. Photo credit: Linda

We came home in the two cars via Lynchburg Tennessee where, upon Julien’s suggestion we visited the Jack Daniels distillery. The place was not visually impressive, but the different smells that were in each room and the scale of the production of whiskey going on there (every bottle of JD in the world is made there) and the connection it seems to maintain with its history were striking.

The trees around the factory were covered in a strange jet-black coat of what looked like paint or ink. When asked, the tour guide explained that ‘the black stuff on the trees is a kind of micro-flora which feeds on the alcohol vapours that’s in the air around here. In fact, during prohibition times, one of the ways that a bootleggers forest distillery could be found out was the police looking for the tell-tale “black frost” which was growing on the trees around their distilleries.’ Fascinating.

It was on the factory tour that the perfect snowflake landed in Viggy’s hair. I didn’t thing that they really existed, but there one was in front of me. A fitting omen for the outstanding weekend that was just coming to a close.

The perfect snowflake. suitable that it landed in Viggy’s hair too.

In Lynchburg, after the tour, we had our lunch in a quiet, just-about-to-close-at-5pm diner. The food wasn’t great and the interior over-decorated, but it was something to keep us going and I spotted some local honey for sale at the register. (I’ve an interest in honeys like that because there is a beekeeper around where I’m from in Portlaw who makes honey from just a few hives so you know that the honey is from the flowers around my hometown. There’s something in that that appeals to me. )

The food was sorely needed, for the car ride home was long. 3 hours through rural Tennessee past Chattanooga and into north Georgia. On the way, I was delighted when we decided to read a short story aloud in the car. The story was ‘The Lady and the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov. It was on my kindle and I had read it last year. We took turns voicing the characters. We finished it in an hour, and then talked about it for some more time after that. A rare pleasure with friends, to talk at length about obscure books that you have all just heard read aloud.

Before we knew it, we were parked outside the I-house helping everyone carry their luggage in from the rental car before we returned it that evening. Linda, my star navigator throughout the trip came with me for the last mile of the journey. I was glad she did, or else I may have fallen asleep or gotten lost more than twice as I did anyway. I was sad turning in the keys at the hotel that it had all so soon glided by. That marvellous time with those marvellous people already a memory.

But I was so glad that it had happened. It showed me what was possible. You don’t have to know anything about where you’re going, or what you’ll do there. It’s the people you go with that count, and you don’t even have to know them very well. What made this trip to Nashville the perfect snowflake, was the unexpected bond we formed together over food, whiskey, beer and country music.

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