What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Judson Barber on Rollercoastering Through the South

In the final installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Judson Barber takes us on his road trip to find the best rollercoasters in the American Southeast. Read on to join the adventure—and for Judson’s excellent photographs. 

Years ago, I heard from somebody that one of the tricks to surviving grad school is having a good hobby. Anything that can give you a break from the rigors of academic life—something that lets you disconnect from the burdens of books to read and paper deadlines to meet—will get you a long way. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem distracting myself.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but since I was a kid I’ve always had this compulsion to collect stuff. Back then it was stamps, coins, action figures, whatever I could get my hands on. As I grew up and started to travel that evolved into collecting different places, or pieces of them, and now each summer I attempt to visit different regions of the country that are new to me, if I can. After spending most of my life in the hazy, brown, concrete deserts of Southern California, what some might consider the most mundane aspects of different parts of the country—dense foliage, remote highways, scenic vistas—bring me a very special and unique delight. Getting away from urban sprawl of mass suburbia to more rural parts of the country is a welcome treat in itself.

In recent years, those trips have been guided principally by one thing: new roller coasters and amusement parks. Corny, I know. But it’s something that still grabs my interest year after year. These trips through the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, and this year Southeast, have allowed me to collect place in a more experiential way than through kitschy tchotchkes from wherever.

This summer I had my sights set on a major oversight in my regional experience. My trip started in Atlanta where I spent my first day. From there I went up I-75 to I-40 through Knoxville to Pigeon Forge, TN to visit a place that should be on everyone’s to-do list, Dollywood. Pigeon Forge also offered up a unique research opportunity—a trip to the newly opened “Alcatraz East” crime museum. But this isn’t a venue for that sort of academic writing, so I’ll leave you with just a few photos of the façade of that industrial building, nestled comfortably between Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Island Inn and the Comedy Barn Theater.

From Pigeon Forge, Highway 441 South took me through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to the epic Newfound Gap lookout which separates the Volunteer and Tar Heel states. From there, Highway 19 reconnects with Highway 74 and then I-40 to about Asheville, and then I-26 turns south for about 35 miles until it reconnects with Highway 74 again, headed into Charlotte. There’s a theme park that straddles the NC and SC border, called Carowinds (“Where the Carolinas come together!”) where I spent the next day and a half.

After my time at Carowinds, and a quick stop in the small town of Belmont, NC for some of the best Barbeque in the state, it’s a straight shot down I-85 through South Carolina back to Atlanta.

In all, the four days in July added up to about 16 hours of driving which took me through 4 states (39 new counties), and on 31 new roller coasters.

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