Saturday, December 20, 2008

Southern Crossing: Nashville-Birmingham-Atlanta

Another leg, another early morning. Emma, John, and I got up at dawn for an epic day: south from Nashville to Birmingham, then across Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia. Our dance card was quite full, as well, as we were planning to stop at a roadside archeology museum in rural Tennessee and to spend several hours in Birmingham.

John slept in the back as we sped down the highway toward Cornersville, TN. The idea to visit the Wyatt Archaeological Museum came from the same road-side attraction website that had been the source of our trips so far, and, as usual, we were not disappointed. Cornersville was a quiet town of rolling, green hills sheltering a patchwork of small farms, the kind with wagon wheels resting against the shed and a smattering of cows in the paddock.

A few wrong turns finally brought us to the museum, which focuses on the life and work of an archaeologist who spent his life trying to scientifically prove biblical events. The museum was shuttered, and we were concerned that it had closed until we heard a door slam in the trailer parked next door. A tall, bearded man strode across the gravel driveway, unlocking the tiny two-room building just for us.

He introduced himself as Wyatt's protege and successor, pointing out a few highlights as we made our way to a drafty cinder block room at the back of the building. The room, which was covered in posters and a large mural depicting Noah's ark, was bare except for a big screen TV on an AV cart, the sort your teacher would wheel in to the classroom to show you NOVA in middle school. He pressed play and left the room

What followed was a homemade documentary about Wyatt's work. According to the video, the man's calling began in Turkey when he became convinced he had found the remains of Noah's Ark near Mt. Ararat. He went on to claim he had found the ruins of Sodom and Gommorrah in southern Israel, the point of Exodus out of Egypt on the Gulf of Aqaba, and the tomb where the Ark of the Covenant was buried. The video, edited sloppily, followed his rise to semi-fame with a mixture of awe and adoration. Emma's head was on my shoulder, as we were both tired from the early start, but neither of us could take our eyes away from the screen.

Some of the displays at the museum at the Wyatt Archaeological Museum

The caption says "Crystalline Capsules around the Sulfur Balls-- From Gommorrah"

As it turned out, the video was actually most of the museum. Once we were finished, there was only another small room to look at. We walked around looking at a model of how the pyramids were made, trying not to mutter the snide comments we were dying to make too loudly (scholars have been theorizing for hundreds of years, but this guy just so happened to get it right)

How the pyramids were built

There were several other objects presented as evidence-- a cast of a chariot wheel from the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba, a piece of petrified wood said to be from Noah's Ark, crystallized sulfur from the fiery rain God brought upon Gomorrah. I found it all very silly. Let me clarify, although my religious beliefs are generally pretty secular it wasn't the Christian undertones that the Wyatt Institute was built upon that bothered me. It was really the enormous leaps of logic that got my goat. As Emma and I discussed after we returned to the car, finding a chariot wheel in the ocean in a place where chariots were very common for a long time does not an Exodus make. Neither do some rock formations in the Negev desert automatically scream "mythic center of sin and hedonism." I appreciate that Wyatt and his followers found some pretty interesting artifacts, as just-plain-artifacts go. But as for applying those artifacts to bolster a history based on religious events, well, I wasn't buying it quite yet. Doesn't make the museum any less fascinating, though! In fact, that anthropologist in me finds it all the more intriguing.

It was my turn to drive through Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It was early afternoon and both of my compatriots were asleep. This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip, drivingwise. The afternoon sun slanted on the highway, and I twiddled the radio to find something to listen to. What I found was some sort of rural radio Craigslist. People were calling in saying things like "I have four chickens to sell, and I'd like to buy a sack of grain." The announcer would give a number for interested parties to call, and sometimes a few minutes later would say that the lot had been sold. While I was listening to this program, I suddenly realized we were driving over a vast swamp, the kind I've never seen before, miles of water thick with weeds and mangroves, the way I imagine a bayou looks. There was something divine about driving on this vast bridge over a swamp in Alabama, listening to the farmers drawl about their chickens and corn in the slanting light. A perfect moment.

We arrived in Birmingham shortly afterward. Emma had spent a little time there after Hurricane Katrina, doing clean up, and she had such positive impressions that she pushed hard for us to go back. Specifically, we came to see the Civil Rights Institute, which was highly recommended, and to explore the Birmingham Museum of Art.

As we disembarked from our car, we were greeted by a tall, gangly black man in over-alls, who introduced himself to us as "Bond, James Bond." After this quirky greeting we were a little wary of him, but his brand of crazy seemed to be fairly benign. He correctly deduced that we were tourists (the Massachusetts license plate might have given us away) and started giving us a brief history of civil rights in Alabama, pointing to the memorial park across the street -- which we would visit later -- and speaking in a fairly poignant way about how the city has progressed in his time living there.

We spent almost two and a half hours exploring the Institute, which is one of the best museums I've ever visited. The exhibits were thorough and informative, but they also retained interesting interactive elements including life-size models, video, and fine art, and they never let you forget the intense humanity behind all of the words. I was alternately moved, saddened, and infuriated--all emotions I would hope to feel when learning about civil rights history.

One of the most interesting parts of the Institute visit for me was the opportunity to see, for the first time in my life, black people teaching other black people about their history. As a white upper-middle class suburban kid, that was just not part of my experience growing up. But we were at the Institute in the middle of the week, and the only other visitors were local kids on field trips. Their teacher guided them kindly from exhibit to exhibit and I tried not to be too obtrusive as I traveled through the museum, looking with them, and to some extent at them. Their eyes were as round as they took it all in, and I heard one little boy ask his teacher, "Does that mean that my dad and uncle were a part of this? Does that mean they were treated this way?" His voice wavered. It was a powerful, deeply sad moment.

The Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham

We spent more time than expected at the Institute, but had time to briefly explore the Museum of Art before it closed. I opted to wander the museum's lovely Asian collection (mostly ancient Thai and Japanese; no photography allowed) before dropping in on a rotating modern art exhibit on the first floor. There, I found myself entranced and disturbed by a video piece depicting the artist and her partner immersing themselves in water repeatedly, the bubbles and ripples playing endlessly over their faces, shot from below the surface. As the video progressed, the images blurred gradually, almost unnoticeably, until a gray mass not recognizable as a face and the buzz of white noise filled the screen. I was joined by a man about my age as I watched. He introduced himself as a student at a local community college, and we watched the video together in silence.

Inside (and outside) the Birmingham Museum of Art

By late afternoon we made our way to the memorial park across from the Civil Rights Institute. This park was set up in memory of four little girls who were killed in a famous bombing of a church across the street during the Civil Rights era. It is part sculpture garden, part memorial and is very affecting, featuring images of violence and wrongdoing from throughout the struggle. In one corner, a metal cast of the high-powered hoses used on marchers confronts the viewer. In another, the visitor walks a claustrophobic, frightening path through a sculpture out of whose walls slavering dogs jump. It is a very visceral memorial, balanced out by four pool/waterfalls in the middle of the park, representing the four little girls at peace. There, a sculpture of Martin Luther King rises over a plaque reading "place of revolution and reconciliation." After experiencing the symbolic pain of the civil rights era, the park reminds visitors of its ultimate goal.

Images from the memorial park

Replicas of the high-power hoses
The inscription reads, "I ain't afraid to go to jail"

Before we left Birmingham, there was one more stop to make: Mrs. B's Kitchen, a legendary soul food restaurant. For not very much money at all, we were each able to buy a multi-course soul food feast of ribs, spaghetti and meatballs, black-eyed peas, candied yams, and the best banana pudding I have ever had (and I don't even really like banana pudding.) All of us ate like it was our last meal, left the restaurant hearing our seams creaking, and it was totally worth it.

It was my turn to drive as we headed east from Birmingham to Atlanta. We passed the to-scale model of the Statue of Liberty, and as we got on the highway, "Sweet Home Alabama" by Thin Lizzy came on the radio. We got really excited, turned the radio way up, and then shortly after were ashamed of ourselves for singing along loudly and turned it back down. It was a silly moment.

Around twilight we drove through Anniston, Alabama, home of the world's largest office chair as of 1983.) We managed to find it after a few false starts.

Sadly unfocused pictures of the world's largest office chair, as of 1983, in Anniston, Alabama

From Anniston it was a straight shot through the evening to Atlanta, where we stayed with John's parents. It was very late when we arrived, so John introduced us to the dual delights of Steak & Shake (which is a late-night joint serving its name) and Korean karaoke-- a great way to end a long, lovely day.

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