A Land Ruled by Dinosaurs

Ten minutes after I stepped off the plane, I was attacked by a mosquito the size of a bird. It slammed into my head as if it didn’t know where it was going but judging by the heat, I imagine it was trying to get inside the terminal and on board the next plane out. Having spent the first 27 years of my life in Texas, I’d been familiar with summer heat, but I was in no way prepared for the wall of torched humidity and Mesozoic-sounding cicadas I’d encounter in this swampy place. It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t of the Lord.

After dodging no less than three more of the giant bugs that patrolled over this land, I made it into the pseudo-air-conditioned oasis of a jeep that was older than I was and didn’t have a working speedometer. I didn’t care, I was just happy to be out of the reach of the bugs. I hate bugs, yet I knowingly came to this place that was lousy with them. In New York, some people carry pepper spray for protection, but here, a can of Raid felt more appropriate.

The tiny airport sat the middle of a field surrounded on all sides by dense trees—trees that concealed whatever lied beyond them—and as we drove into the woods and toward the unknown, I was informed we were low on gas. The line where the woods ended and the town began was of little distinction but gradually, buildings began to dot the sides of the roads. I could make out small neighborhoods and businesses, a few restaurants and churches as well, but truth be told, the gas station we pulled into would have gone completely unnoticed had we not known to pull into it.

Tall grass sprouted upward between the cracks in the pavement and atop the rusted roof sat an even more rusted sign. The sun-bleached paint had almost entirely chipped away from the siding and a thick layer of windblown dust covered the windows like screen doors. The station felt as if it hadn’t been updated since what I liberally assumed was the mid-1960s and really, it looked like a movie set—the sort of façade built solely for the purpose of blowing it up.

A large and weathered man in faded coveralls greeted us at the car. After some clumsy small talk, I deduced he intended to pump our gas for us, something I’d never experienced. He looked every bit the part of this town’s local everyman—his skin darkened and heavy from decades of sun exposure. Inside the large dust-covered windows, I saw an elderly man sitting in a black leather chair he’d probably been sitting in since the station was built. To the left, a younger but equally sunburnt man wearing overalls too big for his slender frame tinkered with car parts inside the garage.

Looking back as the first man began to pump our gas, I realized he was doing so from an antique gas pump that lacked buttons, dials, or credit card scanners. I wondered aloud if that meant gas was paid for inside the station and was informed not only was that true, but they only accepted cash. The station had never been outfitted for credit or debit cards and today, the total would be written on a slip of paper as an IOU. An IOU? I was in an alternate reality—a sort of picture-in-picture existence. Maybe I’d boarded the Oceanic Six by mistake and this was my personal Lost island. My eyes spun like pinwheels as the gas pump dinged with each new gallon.

As foreign as this place was, I hadn’t journeyed across deserts and oceans to get here. This wasn’t a third world nation or even a mostly forgotten village in eastern Europe. No, this was a tiny town in Georgia situated two hours from the Florida coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. It existed as a sort of time capsule of small town Americana; a town in which Gomer Pyle would’ve fit in nicely. I’d made the trip from New York City to see a regional theater production of Shrek the Musical in which my other half had been cast as the lead. I was excited to see the show, but less so about the small town in which it was being performed. I’d tried to be reasonably open-minded about the experience until that dinosaur bug hit me in the face. It’s not that I’m some sort of travel snob—I wouldn’t even categorize myself as being “well-traveled”—but I did spend a summer in grad school studying in London and was able to explore Great Britain, Scotland and Paris during those months. Spending the summer in Europe felt like freedom with unlimited newness around every landmark and in every cobblestone but I’d never seen anything like this place. It felt as foreign to me as any place on Earth.

I really do believe the point of travel is to escape—to jettison yourself from your daily rhythm and allow yourself to fall into step with a foreign beat. For me, landing in Middle of Nowhere, Georgia, was as much a change of beat as landing in Paris or Edinburgh or Las Vegas. I’d escaped my routine—my speed-walking, crowd-avoiding, nonstop grind of a rhythm—and entered something far laxer. The get-it-when-I-want-it attitude that New York enables people to become accustomed to would not work here. This was a different world and I was really trying to see it as such—as an adventure just like anywhere else.

Sitting at the service station near the center of town, the gas pump dinging as it pumped, I pieced together that these three men were a grandfather/father/son triplicate who’d been running this station since it was built. They were a family for which the phrase “howdy doody” wasn’t a passé descriptor, but the actual greeting used to greet us. On closer inspection, the man seated inside in the leather chair looked as if he had one foot in this life and one in the next. He was interesting to me, as if Ebenezer Scrooge had a deep southern accent and smiled a little more. He sat at a desk he appeared to be proud of, with trophies and awards from decades gone by sitting alongside yellowing black-and-white photos framed in heavy wooden frames. He spoke of the “damn democrats” and how the president is going to “save our country” from them. He also said that same president would never lie to them, which indicated this was a man who’s never read a newspaper or been online before. Maybe I was on the Lost island after all.

Apart from the man’s disorienting political views, there was something lovely about his gas station. It sat at the top of the small downtown drag of old yet well-kept storefronts and the sound of passing trains filled the air at any given minute of the day. American flags hung from roadside awnings and crepe myrtle trees lined the streets showboating their plumage of cream, pink, and lavender flowers. I found it all incredibly apropos, comforting almost. Small town America exists to most of us as a fabled entity; something we don’t believe actually exists outside of stereotypes and romantic comedies starring Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. Yet here it was in real life—a town where the signs outside restaurants still congratulate their patrons by name on their newborn grandchildren. Still, with all its colorful yet simple joys, I sat in the jeep at the antique gas station and wondered, What keeps someone in a town like this? Don’t they want to see more of what’s out there?

I heard that question in my head and how judgmental it sounded. Oof. Don’t be so elitist Ryan. Your mother would not be proud. I’d been raised in the suburb of a big city but I’d always dreamt of something more; something bigger. In New York, there’s an opportunity every single day for something one-of-a-kind to happen. In this small town, business-as-usual seemed to be the preferred rhythm of choice and to me, that seemed boring as hell. Don’t they want adventure? Driving through a neighborhood, I saw people going about their routines—playing in their yards with their kids, fixing their cars, reading the newspaper on the porch—and that made me think about how much I like my routine. It doesn’t have lawns and car repairs, it has subways and bodegas and Central Park, but it’s my routine—my business as usual—and I love it. For all I knew, these people loved their routine as much as I loved mine.

That proved to be a nice a-ha moment in the jeep and I felt proud of my own self-examination so early in my trip. Clearly, I now had this town all figured out. They liked their trucks loud and their social progress at a minimum. Fine. Now, I could just lean into it and enjoy this slowed-down, conservative reality for a few days.

And that I did. Fried chicken and local donut shops, humid forest sunsets and Super Walmarts, it was all so foreign from my routine but fit like an old glove. I didn’t check social media and I didn’t spend time scrolling endlessly through news feeds and photos—I just relaxed and let my non-stop way of life exhale for the first time in a long time.

When the evening came for me to attend the musical, I got to the theater early, took my seat and waited alone for the show to begin. Eavesdropping happens to be one of my spiritual gifts so I listened to the people seated around me, silently joining their conversations. To my right, a group of adults talked slowly in a southern drawl, saying phrases that included, “It was as hot as the hinges of Hades,” and “Well, she was supposed to design a goat house for me.” This was the sort of regional diction I expected to hear on this trip and I was supremely satisfied that this place delivered on its small town promise. A goat house? I wished I could see that. Lean in, Ryan, I told myself. It’s just you and the goat farmers now.

That’s when, to my left, a high-pitched “Yas girl” came squealing out of a flamboyant college student. It was something I didn’t see coming, an audible sign that I didn’t have this place figured out at all, and I was embarrassed at my arrogance in believing I had. I actually found it oddly inspiring. I thought I was one place but really, I was smack in the middle of a slice of the diverse America rarely seen on social media because people are too busy fighting with one another. It felt like I was having a Grinch-on-the-mountain moment where my heart and understanding both grew in size and capacity. I was really taking to their foreign land, its tucked away pockets of diversity, and its ability to surprise me.

The next evening, I had some time to kill before the show so I figured I’d explore a small park near the theater. Since arriving, I’d become enamored with the way heavy curtains of moss hung off the trees, something I’d never seen in person. That sort of scenic design had been relegated to bayou scenes in True Blood or Interview with a Vampire and couldn’t be further from the dry Texas woods of my childhood camping trips. Walking into the park, I came across a swing—the type you’d usually find on a porch—hanging in the center of a cluster of trees. Sitting on the swing in the shade, I rocked under the canopy of leafy silhouettes, swinging like I hadn’t in years.

As a kid, the only real feature on a playground I cared about was the swing. From as early as I can remember, nothing thrilled me in the way flying through the air on the swings did. When we were small, my dad pushed us from behind the swings to vault us into the air with more might than our little legs could muster. My brother, sister and I would beg for more, more, more until we wore dad out. Swinging became even more fun as I grew older and larger. Then, I could create more momentum, thus being able to swing up as high as the chains would allow—high above the bar on the set. When I reached the top, the chains would lax and it felt like what I imagine floating in outer space felt like—drifting through empty air toward the planets and stars and comets. But the chains would lax only for a moment before snapping back firm on the downward swing. That feeling of unencumbered freedom, of being untethered from the ground, was the best feeling in the world.

On the large Georgian porch swing in the park, I may not have been flying through the air, but I felt centered and calm. I was alone; no other people in the park and no cars on the quiet streets—only me and the sounds of the cicadas and the babbling creek. It felt primitive, simple, as if I was fully fading into the slowed down reality and losing myself to the trees and the creek and the moss and the shade.

After a few minutes of blissful peace, the silence was interrupted by the sound of a car driving by on the small road. Instinctively, I turned to look. Mostly what I’d seen on the road at that point were pickups, but what I saw driving by wasn’t a truck or a rusted jalopy. It wasn’t a tractor or even an SUV from one of the college students in town. No, what I saw driving down that country road was a hatchback hybrid that’d been professionally painted to look like the tour jeeps in Jurassic Park.

My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, I would recognize the red and green designs from a mile away, and my jaw dropped as I saw the words “Jurassic Park” actually painted on the side of the car. It was an exact replica of the jeeps from the film that’s been my favorite since I was ten years old. Frozen in my own astonishment, I didn’t have time or even modern technological awareness to get my camera out to prove it happened. No social media update, no Instagram post, I just stared. Speechless.

As it passed me, my gaze broke and I turned to the trees and loudly exclaimed, “Did you see that?! Did anyone else see that?!” I was so gobsmacked I thought I might burst into tears. Then, from the branch of a mossy tree, a giant owl that looked like Hedwig from the Harry Potter movies swooped down near me. It perched on a lower tree branch a few feet away from where I stood and stared directly into me. It was so big, its presence so looming, its eyes so intense, all I could do was laugh and say to it, “Well, you can’t tell anyone you saw it. What good are you?” It must’ve agreed with me because it hooted and flew off.

The entire moment felt like a mirage, like I was living in some sort of southern gothic fanboy alternate reality where these sorts of moments happen to a regular guy like me. Not a single other car drove by and not another person was the be found in the park. It was a moment only for me. I stood in the center of the trees quietly listening. Within the sounds of birds and bugs and water from the creek and squirrels in the leaves, I’d truly escaped to another place. Not just another physical place, but a new place. Middle of Nowhere, Georgia: A place of prehistoric-sized surprises and revelations.

In the end, I stayed in that town for five days and for as much as my time surprised me, some of my presumptions weren’t entirely off base. I did witness how the “small town” mentality is being clung to at all costs and how some people’s worldview doesn’t extend beyond their front yard. But I also saw students fighting for social change, auditoriums full of diverse people and ideas, and yes, I even met plenty of “damn democrats” who loved living in that old-fashioned town just as much as their politically-opposite neighbors. Between that and the handful of one-of-a-kind-moments meant only for me, I had quite the adventure.

When my long weekend in this no-longer-so-foreign place came to an end, I made my way back toward the field that surrounded the airport. Mindful of the dinosaur insects that swarmed there, I ducked into the terminal and sat down in my tiny seat on the tiny plane. The last person to get on the plane was a woman with a Cheshire grin on her face. She was seated in the row in front of me but before she got herself fully situated, she turned around to those of us sitting in the back half of the plane. She told us that she’d finally found this specific candy she’d spent “forever” hunting for and wanted to know if we would like some. She pulled out a large white paper bag of individually wrapped red Brach’s candies and handed it to me. She smiled and said, “Take some and pass it on, there’s plenty for everyone. I’m just so thrilled to have found them, I had to share.”

Now that’s something I’ve never seen in New York.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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