When you shut the door to my office, you see 3 framed University of Alabama degrees on the wall that I didn’t earn.  One from 1939 for Jamie Waid; one from 1941 for Prentice Thomas; one from 1967 for Janice Thomas.  When the first 2 were being pursued, the Tide took a train to the Rose Bowl to win its first national championship under coach Frank Thomas, and it featured a player so tough, he earned a nickname for life by wrestling a bear at a carnival, and he played the UT game with a broken leg. When the 3rd degree was being earned, that player nicknamed “The Bear” was the coach, and his teams won 6 national championships.

I spent my childhood longing to see my grandparents’ and parents’ school win a national championship as they’d done.  There were a couple in the late ’70s that I was too young to remember, and then there was the one my senior year of high school that I watched on a portable TV in the locker room of a wrestling tournament, but there would be no titles when I was a 3rd generation student at the Capstone.  While we’ve been great the past 10 years under Coach Saban, obligations with the Air Force Reserves or an unwillingness to spend the required cash have kept me from attending any of the games live.  I finally attend the 2017 game against Clemson in Tampa, but we lost on the last play.

At 6:30pm on Sunday night, my phone rang as we were driving to Variety Playhouse for a “travel slideshow” with Henry Rollins. My friend Ben, a UGA grad, said something about having passes to go on the field when Good Morning America was to be shooting footage, and did I want to meet at the State Bar parking lot at 630am to get my wristband?  I almost said “no.”  I’d gotten up at 4:45am the past 2 mornings and worked 12-hour days for the Air Force, and I was on my way to a live show that ensured a late bedtime.  But I found myself saying “yes” as I tried to find a parking spot.  I texted my friend Jim Bob, who was on his way to my house so that he and his dad could attend the game Monday night; he was in too.  His dad balked at the time and said “no thanks.”

We got up the next morning at 5:25 to leave at 6.  Jim Bob’s dad appeared from the guest room dressed and ready to go.  We pulled into the State Bar at 6:31am, got our wrist bands, and entered the Dome, where we encountered the first of the “you don’t have permission to be here” Dome employees.  A few phone calls from Ben’s friend later, and we were heading toward a cargo elevator down to field level. Then we encountered the second “you don’t have permission to be here” person and again waited on phone calls to be made and conversations to be had.  We were down on the field.  A few minutes later, this happened.

And then this:

And we got to stand a few feet away as this was shot:

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And this:

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And then I got to spend several minutes talking to this dude who won the Heisman when I was 5 and is, I’m pretty sure, the greatest running back ever:

He was gracious and witty and kind, and he didn’t even mind that we were rooting for the wrong team.

Then we went upstairs to where ESPN radio was live broadcasting Golic and Wingo before deciding (after much debate) that I should not try to hide somewhere in the Mercedes Dome when they cleared it out to prepare for the President to come, as the place already had hundreds of Secret Service everywhere, and it was only 10am.  So, we exited the Dome and walked to Waffle House.

A couple hours later, I decided I wasn’t going to make it into the office (as had been my plan), and we were ordering our first round of beers at the Glenn Hotel bar, which was pretty full of Georgia fans but not so crowded that we couldn’t get a table.  I pulled up the StubHub app.  Single tickets up high in the corner of the endzone were $1375.  Surely they’d come down.

Hour after hour went by, and prices crept up.  $1450 for the cheapest single on StubHub.  $1500.  $1650.  $1800.  I texted every ‘Bama grad attorney I could think of to see if they were going and if they knew of anyone unloading an extra ticket.  $1900.  And this is for the upper corner of the stadium.

I accepted that I would be catching an uber home or walking to Stats sports bar whenever my friends left for the Dome.  At 4:55pm, Jim Bob looked on a listserv called TiderInsider and saw that someone had an extra seat in section 101 for $1500.  I texted the seller to see if they could do $1k.  They wouldn’t.  We went back and forth for a bit, and at 5:38pm, 12 hours after I’d gotten up, and 5 hours after I started looking, I had a ticket to the national championship game in section 101, 23 rows from the end zone, for $1200.  An hour later, we were through security, and I was making my way down to my seat.

On the way to row 23, I saw 4 friends from undergrad sitting together (2 of them I’ve known since childhood).  I walked closer to the field and made my way to the center of the row to sit beside the couple whose extra ticket I’d just bought via PayPal.  The stadium was electric, though it was probably 75% Georgia fans, so those clad in crimson were badly outnumbered.

The first half was extraordinarily frustrating.  There were signs of life and hope in the second half when the good guys were led by a new quarterback, but when time expired, and the score was tied 20-20 after a missed field goal by the Tide, I was beginning to regret buying a ticket and wondered if I was just bad luck for our team (being 0-1 at national championship games, and 0-3 at tournament bowl games).

I was wrong.  After the Dawgs hit a field goal, the Tide hit its receiver for a 41-yard touchdown  in overtime–from freshman to freshman.  The guys around me I’d annoyed every time I needed  access to the restroom were now hugging me and giving me “high fives.”  As streamers and confetti fell from the roof of the dome, I couldn’t stop tears from falling from the corners of my eyes.  It took 42 years, but I finally got to see my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide win a national championship in person.  And it was magnificent.

We left Atlanta on December 27th and headed north, stopping for soul food at Southern Star in Chattanooga, our borrowed Kia Sedona packed for 1,000 miles of exploration across the Bluegrass State.  A couple hours later, we were peeing at the Kentucky Welcome Center off I-65, and 45 minutes after that, pulling up to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Here’s what’s ridiculous about Mammoth Cave–it’s 80 miles from where I grew up in Hendersonville, TN. I loved exploring caves as a kid; we had a few within biking distance, and we had a couple more within short driving distance that we explored as high schoolers or college students, but we never went to the national park just over an hour to the north (despite visiting the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc. in the ’80s).  I’ve wanted to visit it for 30 years.  This was the year to do it.  We even primed the spelunking pump a bit by visiting Russell Cave National Monument a few days before Christmas while in north Alabama to see my parents:

The Mammoth Cave visitor center was only open until 4:30pm, but we had enough time to peruse the exhibits, let the children get their junior ranger workbooks, explore the gift shop, eat some fried chicken, and check into our little cabin/hotel room thing.

The next morning (the 28th), we were up early to begin our 2-hour/2-mile guided tour of the cave.  It was freezing outside, which meant the deeper inside the cave we went, the warmer it felt, and the more clothes I was carrying instead of wearing.  Once we’d looped back out, we walked down to the Green River, where we saw ice formations on the surrounding rock and at least 10 fairly tame deer (a couple of shy bucks and many less shy does).

We boarded the minivan and headed north to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, where the children secured yet another junior ranger badge, and we learned where our 16th President spent his first 7 years.

That night, we ate at the Merrick Inn, a suggestion from my friend Jim Bob’s father-in-law who’s lived in Lexington for several decades.  I had some fried chicken, and it was excellent (way better than the fried chicken I had at the cafe at Mammoth Cave, or anywhere we stopped subsequent to this dinner, including the original KFC).  Because it was fancy pants and we’d been hiking in or around a cave most of the day, we drove past valet to a dark area of the parking lot, parked the car, and then dropped trou to put on nicer clothes in the freezing darkness before pulling back around to valet and entering.  The food was worth it.

We woke early on the 29th for our Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tour, which meant climbing into a van with some strangers and heading to Keeneland.  We learned about horse racing and betting and jockeys.  We visited horse farms like Donamire, Hill ‘n’ Dale, and McPeek; we learned about horse breeding and stud fees.  We petted horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and saw some worth tens of millions.  It was crazy.

After our time with the horses, we toured Town Branch Bourbon (part of the famous Bourbon Trail) and Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company and sampled many delicious beers and bourbons and whiskeys.  Then, we checked into the Beaumont Inn, an old finishing school built in 1845 that’s a B&B now (we learned about it from the 1000 Places book I consult before any trip).

Dinner was exceptional, and we enjoyed walking about the inn, looking at old photographs on the wall and playing checkers in the lounge.  And, they have lots of good bourbons, because Kentucky.

On the morning of the 30th, we enjoyed a large Southern breakfast and packed up for the Ark Encounter, a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, KY.  We arrived about noon.  It was freezing outside…like single digits cold (plus wind)…maybe the coldest temperatures I’ve experienced in 30-something years, including hunting and ski trips. But, the ark was warm and had tons of exhibits and information showing where the animals rode and how the process “worked” so many thousands of years ago.  We also rode camels and petted goats.

We stayed for the evening lights show on the side of the ark, huddling around a miniature bonfire the facility built for spectators.  That night, we stayed in Georgetown before heading back to Atlanta on the 31st.

We pulled over in Corbin, KY at the Colonel Sanders Cafe and Museum (birthplace of KFC) on our way to meet my folks in Chattanooga for a 3pm “Sunday brunch” at Easy Bistro and reclaim our dog Winnie from her week of spoiled adulation.  We got home about 5pm, and I put a pork shoulder on the smoker and (with significant help from my bride) prepared for 20-30 friends to come visit for the bowl games in our newly finished basement the next day.

All in all, a fun winter roadtrip, and the Sedona made for a wonderfully roomy, safe, and comfortable ride.  I’d love to go back and see Louisville (and attend a horse race!) and more of the Bourbon Trail establishments when it’s warmer and we have more time, but I’m glad we could have some time together exploring a new state (for the children), getting 2 more NPS junior ranger badges, and enjoying some fine fried chicken to close out 2017, the best travel year we’ve had as a family, from starting on Jan 1 at the Grand Canyon to waking up on Dec 31 near Noah’s Ark in snow-covered Kentucky.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Time to start planning 2018’s national park adventures!

A friend of mine turned 40 in late September, and late September is when millions of Germans celebrate Oktoberfest for 2 weeks, so I felt compelled to attend my 3rd such festival.  And perhaps even more compelling was the chance to see a new country, Belgium, and to sample the sweet sweet beer there, as is recommended in the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book I consult any time I’m considering going anywhere new (the chocolate and the frites were also recommended).

I flew over alone on a Tuesday evening, as the rest of the group had gone the preceding week while I was training with the Air Force and visiting Papa Hemingway. I landed around 10am Wednesday, went to the hotel to don lederhosen and eat, and we were in the Kafer tent a couple hours later.  Once our time there ended, we went to the Paulaner tent (a much larger one than Kafer).

Last time I was at the ‘fest, I had no trouble finding a group of folks right by the stage, offering to buy them a beer, and joining their group.  This time, I was 0 for at least 5.  So, we found a spot on the floor that was somewhat close to the stage, and by gradually moving up every time someone closer to the stage left to use the restroom, we found ourselves just at the base of the stage in no time (learning to enter “camel mode” at college football games and NASCAR races in undergrad has really served me well in life)!  Servers found us shortly thereafter, so we had pretty much all the benefits of a table.

Once the evening time slot elapsed, we poured out into the streets of Munich, finding a large bar with loud music and lots of people.  It was great, until I realized my hat (a gift from my 2015 trip) was missing and started asking every male in the bar with a black hat (and there were several) if he’d accidentally taken my hat.  Realizing this was an exercise in futility, I pouted a bit and walked back to the room.

The next morning (Thursday), I learned that if you fly from Munich to Brussels and don’t pre-pay for baggage, you’ll wait in a very long line that doesn’t move, unless you beg an agent to let you cut the line to pay for said suitcase so you don’t miss your flight.  That afternoon, we enjoyed the famed frites (and mussels!) in Brussels at Chez Leon.  Then, our “chocolate and beer” tour of Brussels began, which is pretty much how I’ll request to be fed if I ever find myself on Death Row and given the opportunity to choose a last meal.  We went to Chocopolis, Pierre Marcolini, and Frederic Blondeel to consume all the available chocolate.

Then we saw the famous city mascot, the Manneken Pis, which is as it sounds–a peeing mannequin–kinda like the one that came alive in that movie in ’87 that featured Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” only the one in Brussels is a child (and never comes alive).

Then the beer part of the “chocolate and beer” tour began, and a good night turned to great.  We went to Benelux, Estaminet Toone, L’imaige Nostre-Dame, and Au Bon Vieux Temps.  Some of these bars were down narrow alleyways where I was certain I’d never leave again (and wasn’t sure I wanted to), only to end at wooden doors behind which were Trappist beers hundreds of years in the making.

We sampled what’s generally called the “world’s greatest beer” — the Saint Sixtus Abbey’s Westvleteren monks’ beer — at a tiny hidden bar where a Delta pilot and a few locals were gathered to do the same.  I loved it.

After our tour ended, we visited a couple of the places we’d seen yet again (including L’imaige Nostre-Dame, where I provided vocals for “Sweet Home Alabama” before a bar full of Belgians–you can see the video here), hit a club with live music called Delirium Cafe and a place to snack called Le Fiacre before getting to the hotel at 330am. The next day (Friday), we’d head to Bruges via train.

Almost immediately after checking into the hotel in Bruges, we decided having a Belgian waffle was essential, and, now that I have the perspective a month or so of hindsight can provide, it was indeed essential.  Then we toured the Halve Maan brewery and saw the pipeline that carries beer to be bottled many kilometers away, which was interesting.

Then we took a cruise down the river, which took more effort than it sounds like it took, because the ropes were up to indicate the rides were over, but we begged to be put on the last boat anyway, and they felt sorry for us and let us do it.  And we got to see amazing views like this one:

Then we explored the town a bit, having food and drinks at The Habit, ‘t Brugs Beertje, and Le Trappiste, and all the local beers were delicious, and all was well.

Saturday morning was the actual day of Angela’s 40th birthday, and we had miles of breweries to tour before we sleep, and miles of breweries to tour before we sleep.  Our driver picked us up early, and the first stop was a farm where organic beer is brewed, called Plukker.  Then we had an incredible lunch at Pegasus that seemed like it belonged in an upscale hotel in Paris, not a tiny town in rural Belgium.  Then we hit the Saint Bernardus brewery for a tour and sampling of a beer I already knew I loved, as they served it at Augustine‘s in Atlanta, where I’d go after my improv classes every Tuesday in August and September. Lastly, we went by the Saint Sixtus Abbey at the Wesvleteren brewery, where the world’s best beer (according to many experts) is made.  It’s not open for tours, but we walked around it and got pictures, and after everyone else got in the van to head back to Bruges, I decided to walk around to the back to see what I could see, and there was an old man selling packages of 2 beers with a commemorative glass!  So I grabbed one (I shared this beer with my parents on Thanksgiving!). And I knew it was a good day (especially since I’ve since read that you have to reserve beers for purchase at least 60 days in advance, and that’s if you can get someone to answer the phone…so, I apparently caught a unicorn under a blue moon).

Our driver took us back to Bruges, and we had some dinner at Malpertuus and then returned to Le Trappiste for more local beers.  We met 4 guys from England who’d graduated from college together 20 years ago and were in town.  I played foosball against a couple of them. The rest of our group but one headed back to the hotel, so the English guys and the two of us went to a place called ‘t Poatersgat.

Then the day stopped being good.

I don’t know exactly why this happened, but my next memory is being covered in blood and having the tallest of the guys from England punching my face while I stood dumbfounded.  I remember saying, “I thought we were all friends; why are you doing this to me?”  At some point, an employee wrapped some ice in a washcloth and put it on my head, and I was taken away by ambulance to the ER.  My nose was broken; there were two deep cuts requiring stitches in my forehead. The doctor opined I was hit with a glass before the fists began.  Colleen, whom I hardly knew before that day (she lives in Dallas and flew over for Angela’s birthday) rode along and indicated the guy who attacked me is engaged, and his friend had told her to stay away from him (since he seemed to be talking to her more than the others were), and she had told him she was not interested, as we were just enjoying our last night in town before an early flight home.  Maybe I said something to him too?  I can’t remember.  2-3 hours are completely gone.

I was released from the hospital early the next morning, barely having time to toss my bloody clothes into my suitcase, find a clean shirt, and hop on the shuttle to take us to the airport for our flight back to Atlanta.  Since getting back, I’ve talked to the doctor who stitched me and corresponded with the Bruges police about the incident (they came to the hospital to ask about the incident and try and help find the perpetrator).  I’ve seen 2 plastic surgeons and a neurologist. I had an MRI a couple weeks ago and an EEG test today.  I find out the results of all these next week.  He wants me to talk to a psychologist; I haven’t gotten around to pursuing that.

Other than the early morning hours of Sunday, October 1, this was an awesome trip that I’d love to take again sometime. But I haven’t been the same person since getting back.

I had 3 more trips (all to the beach for legal education conferences) after this one, but I stayed in my hotel at all of them, unwilling to be around people while at West Palm Beach, St Simons Island, or St Petersburg, FL.  I don’t trust people.  I don’t sleep well.  I don’t want to attend parties or consume alcohol any more.

I’m told my head will heal, and I’m seeing evidence that it’s starting to, but patience has never been a strength of mine, and this injury seems like it’ll take lots of it before all is well again. And so, I wait.  I wait to become well again.