Jul/Aug 2004 Travel

The Rucksack Letters: July 25, Atlanta

by Joseph Mourning

In July of 2001, I left Florida with a backpack and a journal. I had a few good pens and came equipped with two standard sized thumbs. What else to do but hitchhike and write? What followed were 44 letters, written to an ever-growing group of friends whom I met along the way.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
            —Dr. Martin Luther King

Murmured chanting woke me just after seven. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and joined the monks in meditation from my room to start the day focused and in balance. They offered me breakfast, but I felt they had already offered more than enough hospitality, so I took only coffee. Actually, I've gotten into the habit of not eating until noon or so anyway. I know a breakfast is a healthy start to any day, but to conserve my food, I don't eat until I'm hungry.

Before I left the monastery, I bowed in respect to my newfound friends, and the older monk invited me back the next time I was in the area. I promised to return as I got into the car bound for Atlanta.

In all honesty, I didn't know what to expect from the city or why I really wanted to go. I had only been through once before and that was at eighty-five miles per hour. I guess I was looking forward to seeing it at a slower pace.

I stopped at the first parking lot I found and paid four dollars for the day. I put some trail mix and water into my rucksack. Four dollars was the only money I would allow myself to spend. I set out on foot, heading northwest according to my compass. I had no destination except to find a map of the place. I found one in a downtown hotel and asked the clerk to show me where I was, which was just a few short blocks from the Olympic park. I was amazed to think of the crowds this city saw only a year ago, replaced now by a few homeless people and winos on park benches and lawns. How bad it could get.

I crossed the street to the CNN Square Mall and window shopped in the stores, wondering who was going to shell out twenty-five bucks for a CNN ball cap. But people were indeed there to buy them in droves.

I thumbed through the CNN T-shirts and notepads,
watching others go pay for their CNN tote bags.
They had CNN cups and CNN glasses,
anything with a price tag could be sold to these asses.
They paid with their Master Cards, Discover, and Visa,
For CNN coffee and CNN pizza.
And when the CNN fans left in their CNN visors,
CNN had free advertising and raised all the prices.

Sorry about that. The Lorax made me do it.

So I left CNN to discover the Underground of Atlanta, which was touted everywhere from street signs to bus stops as the spine of the city, but I was sorry to see that it was just another mall. It was a very cool mall, but it was just a mall. I had an early lunch in the food court thanks to the friendly teenagers who kept handing me food on toothpicks. I had curried chicken and teriyaki beef, little ham roll ups, and something I think was being touted as a type of pork product. I thanked them all as I went through the court, thinking of all of the money I was saving as they told me the prices of each item with a medium drink and a side of chips.

I visited some of the art shops, fortunate that I had no place to hang their wares. And I noticed brand-name stores where I spent money in the past but had no urge to even go into now. It didn't take me long to walk to the other side, where I stood in the spray of the fountain, staring at Wyland's whale wall, a mural of life-size aquatic creatures air-brushed on the side of a building.

I asked about the tour of the World of Coca-Cola but decided it a bit pricey to pay six dollars to look at Rockwell reprints and learn about the creation of fizz. The line was long; the queue snaking back and forth must have been five rows deep, with twenty minutes until the next tour. I smiled as I thought of the sign I had seen across town that read, "Hey Atlanta! Most people prefer the taste of Pepsi."

Across the street was the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest church in Atlanta. On the steps, a church staff member was scolding a black man for urinating on the side of the building. The man looked homeless, in tattered clothes and matted hair, and he promised he would be back in twenty minutes for the Eucharist when the staff member asked him to leave. I decided to stick around.

The gate-like door was finally opened, and as promised, the black man returned. He strode calmly to the front of the sanctuary and placed his hand lovingly and respectfully on the heart of the Christ statue just to the left of the altar. He then bounced back between the pews, greeting everyone in the congregation with a handshake and "Praise God!"

The priest led the prayers, a kind-eyed man with silver hair and matching goatee that seemed to give him credence as he stood before us in his green and white robes. He gave a short message on the dignity of God we can see in ourselves, and I continued to watch the black man as an example.

He lasted no more than thirty seconds in any given seat before he would stand and move silently to sit by someone else. Whether he was praying for them or scoping them out for marks I'll never know, but I was apprehensive when he came to stand right behind me. He was the first in line for the body and blood of Christ, and the last to leave as he stood next to the priest, mirroring his actions by shaking hands and blessing people. I thought he might be mocking the man of the cloth, but I watched as they hugged and prayed for each other. An hour before, I had watched this man get shooed from the steps, and now he was back in grace. This, I thought, was the dignity of God.

I shook the hands of both the priest and the black man, blessed my own forehead with holy water as I had seen others do, and then went back into the city.

There was a park at Edgewater and Peachtree where I stopped to ask for directions to the public library from some nine-to-five office jockeys eating their lunch. Their bench, which seated several of their kind along the circumference of the park, was a concrete rail that surrounded a field of grass. Hordes of the homeless lay still in the shade of the trees. I wondered how the scene would look from above: a ring of lower-middle around a rink of lower-low.

I found the public library to check my email and considered going back to CNN for Talk Back Live standby tickets, but I found out the topic was celebrity gossip and considered it a waste of time. I wouldn't have watched it on TV if I had one, so I didn't see the point of catching it live.

On one of the maps was a "Freedom Walk," but no one I asked knew anything about it. I was hoping that it was a path Dr. King had taken, but found no information. But the path did go through his neighborhood of Sweet Auburn, past the YMCA where meetings of nonviolent change took place, and the Wheat Street Baptist Church where young Martin had prayed. These places had been or were being restored, but the rest of the community surrounding them seemed to be held together with band-aids.

I looked through the eyes of John Wesley Dobbs, a statue of his face at the corner of Sweet Auburn and Fort Street, to see shadows of the overpass fall on chipped paint pool halls and boarded up windows. I walked with Dr. King decades too late—as I usually am—and found few people lined up to remember him. With open admission to the museum in his honor, I'd found something free, at last, and there weren't many there to enjoy it. His memorial brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of the sacrifices he made so that people could go stand in line and pay six dollars to learn the history of Coke without being discriminated against. I found it sad that people would rather pay to revel in commercialism than pay nothing for the history of freedom. I knelt at the eternal flame, praying for the "beloved community" the man who was laid to rest on the reflecting pool behind me had died for, and I begged God to send him back. Dr. King now rests on a reflecting pond for a reason—so that we may constantly reflect back on the words he said and the truths he spoke and apply them to our lives today.

I left Atlanta free but forlorn as I thought of how often we all forsake our freedoms. I've heard it said that man doesn't want freedom, but would rather be led, allowing decisions to be made by others on his part so that he may continue on in their simple ways. I think it's true for many of us—those who not only watch corporate commercials but also actually pay for the tour.

Just outside of Dawson, I reached the summit of a Georgia hill, and the Blue Ridges of Appalachia rose through the clouds. On my car's CD player, Adam Duritz sang of Miller's Angels and God's unwavering love, as mist seeped through wrinkles of land. I thanked God for freedom and thanked God for Dr. King.


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