Mother Nature spent the previous evening dumping water. The greedy ground absorbed it like a thirsty sponge, and the trees used the precipitation as a moisturizer.
"Do you like my bark?" one white oak tree asked a neighboring maple. "It's so soft and supple––I'll bet you can't guess my age."
"Shut up, blockhead," the angry maple said. "Or I'll call a lumberjack, and he'll count your rings."
Trees can be so vain.
The prospect of potential mud did not stop five determined Trailheads from hiking (Roy, Steve, Brad, Roy, and Patrick). George called an audible at the last minute. He had somehow forgotten he was on taxi duty for taking his family to the airport. His bandmates scoffed. The hearty gang was eager to explore Whittier Mill Park. We considered hiking this trail last Summer, but after googling photos of the paths and thick brush, we deemed it a "Chigger Holler" level of danger.
The 17-acre city park is tucked in a secluded pocket of northwest Atlanta. Whittier Mill Park was once the site of a cotton mill erected in 1895, and the workers lived in the surrounding Mill Village homes–– paying outrageous rents of $1 per week! Residents shopped at the convenient company store (it rarely had BOGO sales).
The mill closed in 1971. We suspect rents had increased to $4 a week by then, and the entire mill and park area fell into disrepair. In 1988, most of the mill's remains were demolished, leaving skeletal ruins of the carpenter's shed and original mill tower.
In 1994, concerned residents began an effort to turn the overgrown eyesore into a lovely park. They raised over $200,000 in 1998 and started a series of improvements, like adding a playground, sitting areas, and a Bocce court. The neighbors did a terrific job and kept up the maintenance. We suspect rents and property values have gone up considerably. The cozy neighborhood is neat, orderly, and well-maintained—it's one of Atlanta's hidden gems.
Before the hike began, Brad commented on the comfort of his fancy Kuhl designer hiking pants. He loves the elastic waistband, describing it as "perfect for barbecue pig-outs," and was excited to test drive them later. Elvis was excited to see Fio and the human gang again. The dogs smiled like they were in paradise. And with Trail Master Guy at the lead, the troops and furry wranglers marched out.
We examined the remains of the Whittier Mill office tower and, not knowing the history, wondered if this was the famous place where Rapunzel let down her hair. That poor girl had split ends to beat the band. No wonder conditioners could never tame her locks. There was a holiday wreath hanging from the tower, and we liked the festive bricks.
We spied some train tracks up the hill in the distance and began walking toward them. Trailheads are attracted to danger. And when we find it, we run screaming with arms flailing.
As we hiked, we learned most of us had railroad men in our ancestry. Patrick, Roy, Steve, and Brad all have tracks in their blood, which is much better than having tracks on our veins. But not Guy. There is railroading history for his people––they probably smoked fat see-gars, drank expensive brandy in Waterford Crystal snifters, and ordered their underlings to get back to work.
Roy had a few railroaders in his family tree, including his Great Uncle Roy and Grandfather Roy (front row, third from left in the overalls). These two Roys gave young Roy the pocket watches they used while working on the railroad all the live long day.
Trailhead Roy said he wore a railroad pocket watch in his jeans while attending high school.
"Did the other kids think you were a nerd?" we asked.
"No," Roy said. "They thought I was slightly eccentric. And I thought I was exceedingly stylish."
We bet the other kids thought he was a nerd.
Young Roy pulled a few of the watches out of the bank lock box for a quick photo session. These beautiful timepieces kept the trains running on schedule. No apps required.
Patrick confessed his fear of train tracks. Weird, right? Did he think Snidely Whiplash would tie him down to them? Who knows––he's an eccentric. Or a nerd. We kept a sharp eye out for any train activity. No one had any coins to put a penny on the track for good luck after a train flattened it paper-thin.
We walked by piles of railroad ties and contemplated taking one until we realized the wood would be very heavy and it would be a lot like work, so we kept moving. There was no sense getting hernias on a hike. We walked to the steep hill's edge and looked down into nature's abyss.
"This would be a great place to dump a body," Patrick said. He had a faraway gaze.
"Uh, yeah," everyone else said, slowly stepping away from him. Perhaps Snidely Whiplash should fear Patrick. He always keeps an eye out for available dumping grounds. We assume he's a hitman in his spare time.
We took some portrait shots of Trailhead members on the tracks trying to look macho. We suspect our railroading ancestors took a few rapid revolutions in their graves.
Moving on, we found some trails and hiked them. Slick leaves lined the ground, and many patches of green moss were slippery as greased eel sweat. Brad took a fall; someone had to. The accident was a great way to initiate his fancy pants—and an important reminder to watch our steps.
We came upon a wooden bridge spanning an enormous valley of possibly two or three feet. One of the bridge slats was missing! Would we be able to cross the damaged bridge and survive? The brave men girded their loins (not a pleasant thought or sight), mustered some courage, and attempted the dangerous crossing. Amazingly, we made it––such adventurous souls are we.
Soon, Trailheads came to the fast-moving Chattahoochee River, carrying branches, wood chunks, litter, and waste. The brown water was acting as nature's garbage chute. Sad. It was a mess. We wanted to hug a tree, but they were still wet, so we continued hiking.
We came upon a train trestle bridge high above us. The cement spans acted as canvases for an impressive display of colorful graffiti. We took in the art show (arms behind our backs, as one does). Trail Master Guy wanted to explore down in the weeds and discover more trails. There were large puddles he stepped his way across while his troops stood watching.
"Are you nuts?" the rugged outdoorsmen asked, watching their Trail Master. "We're not doing that. Our fancy, over-priced, Gore-Tex, designer hiking boots might get wet."
Guy got tired of trying to blaze new trails and returned so we could double back to the cars. Our appetites had awoken and were demanding to be fed. This week's lunch choice was a short drive away: Jim' N Nick's Community Bar-B-Q in Smyrna. It's part of a chain with 40 restaurants in six southeast states. Come along, and let's check them out.
Jim' N Nick's has an interesting history. It was begun in 1985 in Birmingham, Alabama, by Jim Pihakis and his son Nick, in an old pizza place. The father and son team perfected their pitmaster techniques and recipes. The word quickly spread across barbecue sauce-drenched lips.
As the restaurant expanded, the founders taught newbies and allowed them to maintain the integrity of their community spaces and places while using their proven menu of various regional favorites. They also help their local communities with various fundraising efforts. The restaurant's motto is “Respect the pig." Roy had eaten at the Birmingham Jim N' Nick's many times when he lived there.
As we entered the beautiful Smyrna eatery with a full bar, we saw a server wearing a logo tee shirt reading "BODY BY BRISKET" ––we felt right at home. Trailheads sat outside because Elvis and Fio's furry rears always slide off indoor chairs. Our server was a great guy named Michael, who made us feel welcome and acted as our barbecue sommelier, guiding us on our ordering journey.
Some baby yellowjacket-looking bees joined us for lunch. They were attracted to Brad and Guy. We suppose because they're so sweet, or maybe because they are dog owners and looked like easy marks. The docile bees landed on their hands with no threat of stinging since they probably hadn't gone through venom puberty yet. Brad has a special connection to bees and it showed.
Michael brought us a basket of Jim' N Nick's famous cheesy mini-muffins, heavenly warm puffs of savory deliciousness that melt in your mouth and soothe the grumbling belly. They come with a small cup of warm honey butter for slathering your muffin and making the ride down the gullet even more delectable. And once they get you hooked on them, they offer the muffin mix near the front door. Then you can have a t-shirt reading, "BODY BY MUFFIN."
A tissue lined the muffin basket featuring some of Jim' N Nick's sloganeering: "Carve your own path," "Smoke is sacred," "All bark. All bite. 24/7," "Feed your fire," "Trust your gut," "Forged by family," and "Pitmasters of our own destiny." Being ex-marketing folks, we liked the smart messaging but wondered if this joint would live up to the hype.
The answer is a resounding YES it does.
Those of us who got pulled pork sandwiches were happy as pigs in––wait, that metaphor's not going to work. Let's just say we loved our sammies. Jim N' Nick uses toasted Martin's potato buns, the Cadillac of bread, for delivering a sandwich safely, deliciously to an eager, open kisser.
The tender pork has a sweet smokey flavor. Roy had his smoked meat (inside and out) with the Carolina sauce, a peppery vinegar concoction he loved. "It has the perfect amount of punch," he said.
Roy ordered his sandwich in North Carolina and North Alabama style––with slaw on top. And to top that off, he ordered a side of slaw. Plus, the sandwich comes with a little container of extra slaw. In other words, the bearded Trailhead had a head of cabbage with some pork on the side.
Brad, Steve, and Patrick opted for the red barbecue sauce, a tasty dressing that does not overpower the meat. None of us went for the Alabama-style sauce, a mayo-based white sauce. We understand Jim' N Nick's is famous for its version of the white condiment that was developed initially by Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama, to compliment his barbecued chickens. Roy grew up on that white stuff and swore by it. It's in his veins––literally. He should see a cardiologist about that.
Guy ordered the daily special of fried catfish and was ecstatic. The planks of fish were batter-dipped and fried golden brown. He dipped his catfish into the cool tartar sauce, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He cooed like a cat in the sunlight as he ate. He was a joyful Guy.
We were happy for him since our beloved Trail Master had shoulder surgery scheduled for the next day and couldn't lead us on our next outing. Trailheads will probably go to a field and graze like sheep without his astute leadership. Get well soon, Guy!
Back to the review––Trail Master Guy gushed about his corn on the cobb. "It's cooked perfectly, buttered, and has just the right amount of salt and pepper." He rotated the cobb with his hands, working his mouth like wind-up chattering teeth.
Now, let's talk slaw. Those who ordered it (see Roy's sandwich above) couldn't stop praising the coleslaw. "It's some of the best." "Incredible." "Love this stuff!" They became instant Jim N' Nicks slaw fans. Hey, where's the tee shirt for that?
Brad praised his collard greens. "Great flavor," he said. "The're the real deal." We believed him because the Auburn graduate knows his greens well. He majored in leafy vegetables history, with a minor in smoked meat theory.
Patrick had the hand-dipped onion rings. They were fried crispy and an excellent companion to keep his sandwich company. Brad got fries, which were good enough to please Sling Blade (remember that movie?).
When we finished eating, the friendly manager and Michael brought a half-dozen warm cheesy muffins for the pups. The canines agreed the muffins were the bomb, and gobbled them up in one big bite, giving the joint four paws up.
All in all, we fell hard for Jim N' Nicks. If you're out Smyrna way, make tracks there and dig in. Take it from the choo-choo crew of Trailheads, you'll love it. And maybe consider getting a tee shirt or sack of muffin mix to prove it.
Rating: Four Ribs*
Jim' N Nick's Community Bar-B-Q
4574 South Cobb Dr.
Smyrna, GA 30080
*About Our Barbecue Rating System
Trailheads do not claim to be food experts, epicureans, or sophisticated palettes. We are hungry hikers who attack a selected barbecue venue and ravage our way through whatever smoked fare and fixings they're dishing.
Our reviews feature what we believe are the highlights of the menu we sampled. So our intent is not to trash talk the saintly folks who tend to smoldering smokers on hot, humid summer days. They are sacrificing themselves in the noble art of smoking meats and feeding the drooling masses. Many are independent entrepreneurs who are the backbone of this humming American economy.
Now that you know our standards, you may wonder why every barbecue place gets a four ribs rating. The answer is easy: our group has acclaimed designers, and they think the ribs graphic looks cool.
Who are we to argue? Enjoy.