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ROAD TRIP: Trans-Continental Pt. 2 James and the Beluga Whale

ROAD TRIP: Trans-Continental Pt. 2 James and the Beluga Whale

Written by Dave Sebille and Matt McLaughlin. Illustration by Aaron Gelston.

For the purposes of this edit, Matt will speak in italics and Dave will speak in bold.

The drive to Atlanta, although it was only three hours, was rough. Between my hangover and Dave rubbing dry rub in his cornea, we were feeling pretty beat up. But we put down some 5-hours and smokies, found the trucker blood within us, and survived I-85 to get into ATL.

Dave’s Travel Tip #2: “Never go to an establishment rated #1 in the world on a holiday weekend.” The Georgia Aquarium is a truly beautiful place. Unless, of course, it’s the Sunday before Memorial Day and there are 40,000 people jammed into what seems like a disaster relief center.

As we walked around, I started seeing things in the exhibits. A penguin, for the entire time we could see it, remained motionless staring intently into a corner, clearly pleading with some sort of arctic fowl god to flood the whole damn building. Then, sandwiched between two vast men in basketball shorts, I made eye contact with a free floating Beluga whale in a 6.2 million gallon tank. She seemed to look at me with pity. And there was the otter. This poor son of a bitch had an open habitat and could hear all the babbling adults and screaming children. He was curled in the fetal position with his paws pressed firmly into his eyes. I think he and I felt the same.

I pride myself on my patience and tolerance of people of all walks of life, but being thrust into a sea of ignorant, loud, and rude people from all over the world was a true test. And I wanted to murder everyone.

Every one of these bastards was living through a screen. Completely distant from the experience and getting pissed off the puppy filter wouldn’t work on a fucking porpoise. I was getting indignant and I could see Dave was too.

But then it hit me: I was just one face in that crowd. One grumpy, holier than thou face. A wave of calm pumped through my veins as we approached whale sharks and manta rays bigger than anything you could imagine peacefully swimming through the water, unaffected by their surroundings. Be the whale, Dave. Be a goddamn whale shark.

So we went to Hooters.

The Hooters thing started as a joke, but once I realized Dave had never been before, it became mandatory, and I’m glad it did because that’s where we met James.

James, a toothless 75-year-old lugging a battered guitar case, sat next to me at the bar. I bought him a beer, so we became fast friends. James demanded that we cheers after every sentence, which was cute the first 20 times.

We talked with James and he asked us if we were gangsters, which was also cute. We told him about our trip and he said he did Atlanta to Vegas and back in 48 hours with his older brother who was still a truck driver. With that unsettling image in our heads, we cheers’ed three more times before moving on.

One nearly fatal Uber ride later, we arrived at a bar in Five Points, the happenin’ neighborhood in the ATL for a couple of tattooed, bearded white dudes. After we got there, I realized I’d taught an impromptu cocktail class here last summer. Lo and behold the same dude was working. Hell Yes! This is going to be our ATL guy! We’re going to party all night and see the Atlanta that Outkast talks about!

It became clear quickly that this would not be the night Dave envisioned. Our guy was on his phone outside the whole time clearly upset about something. The bar was dead so Dave and I ended up sitting on the street corner outside chain-smoking, drinking Pabst, and talking extensively about our lives. I realized that this was the first time we’d really talked in months.

I felt like I had let Matt down. Atlanta was a bust. We should’ve gone straight to New Orleans as planned. But in retrospect, that conversation, those $2 tequilas, and that moment with my friend made for one of my favorite nights of our trip. It’s easy to forget how important small moments can be.

We booked a hotel room, ordered some pizza, and spent the rest of the night watching episodes of Jail and drinking High Life. We’d realize later it was good we took it easy in Atlanta. New Orleans was gonna be a mess.

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