Our region is chock-full of experiences that can be enjoyed on a dime, so we asked a few of our contributors and friends to nominate and describe their favorite activities. Now is perhaps a better time than any to share these gems with you, our readers. Each of the experiences on this list can be had for five dollars or less, and many are free. Art by Michael Brown.
Orchid Nurseries, Florida
(nominated by Susan Orlean)
The cheapest (free!) interesting thing I can recommend is to go tour one of the huge nurseries—either an orchid nursery or any kind of big commercial plant establishment—it's absolutely fascinating and quite beautiful.
Hubcap City Band, Georgia and elsewhere
(nominated by Jack Pendarvis)
My favorite cheap thrill in the South is the Atlanta-based band Hubcap City. They play anywhere: in a parking lot, under a bridge, in a bookstore, you name it, often for free. At one show they were bartering—accepting trinkets in exchange for homemade CDs. Once I saw them playing for free in an art gallery and a teenager who was there said admiringly, "They sound like a witch's funeral." They have a trumpet and a banjo and a violin and a musical saw and some big metal things.
Stumphouse Tunnel, South Carolina
(nominated by George Singleton)
At the entrance of the abandoned Stumphouse Tunnel on Highway 28 north of Walhalla, South Carolina, you might take in the shaft of cool air and say, Is that the smell of a bankrupt Confederacy? On the second inhalation you might think, Do I detect the remnants of a blue-vein cheese emanating from this ancient, unfinished railroad shaft that was to connect Charleston to Knoxville? Answer: Both.
BabyLand General Hospital, Georgia
(nominated by Bronwen Dickey)
Admission to the BabyLand General Hospital (i.e.: the Cabbage Patch Nursery) in Cleveland, Georgia, is free. Yes—free! I remember my mom taking me there when I was a little kid, and it was one of the creepiest experiences of my childhood. It was like everything that is freaky about hospitals and everything that's freaky about dolls put together. I remember it as being beyond surreal. And storks. I remember large animatronic storks. Horrifying, if you're five.
(nominated by Wendy Brenner)
Full of ghosts (free) and mystical energy (free), the tiny town of Micanopy, Florida (population: 654), is home to a collection of a dozen or so antique shops, including my favorite, Roberts Antiques, an entire shop of antique postcards (ten cents to a few dollars each) and hundred-year-old photos of people who, mysteriously, look exactly like you or someone you know. I think the town is a vortex of some kind (ancient Indian migration site?), like in the movie Poltergeist, but with the good kind of ghost. I've got a Micanopy t-shirt that says: WHERE MAYBERRY MEETS THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Drive-Through Car Washes and Walmart Blood Pressure Readers, all over the South
(nominated by Joey Lauren Adams)
For five bucks, you can still get high and drive your truck through an automated car wash. I would encourage a splurge here—seven-fifty for the Deluxe. It'll double the pleasure and purportedly adds a coat of wax. Bring exact change, as most machines won't dole it out.
If you're flat-out broke, you can always take a couple of friends to your local Walmart for a blood-pressure contest free of charge. Heart rate is an adjunct and should only be considered in the case of a tie. Machine is located at pharmacy.
Tubing on the San Marcos River, Texas
(nominated by Randa Jarrar)
Bring your own inner tube to the San Marcos River, along with a couple of tall boys (Lone Star or PBR will run you a dollar fifty each). Ride the thrilling rapids down a few miles while enjoying your beers and the water and trees surrounding you. Have a sober friend meet you in a car at the Rio Vista Dam and take you home.
(nominated by Ben Jones, aka "Cooter" from The Dukes of Hazzard)
Foamhenge is in Natural Bridge, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the beautiful bridge itself. It is a stunning thing to come upon, an accurate reproduction of Stonehenge, made from Styrofoam, a creation of the artist Mark Cline, who lives nearby. Apparently the site is occasionally buffeted by winds, vandals, and graffiti artists but, like its namesake, is still there for all to see.
Pinnacle Mountain, Arkansas
(nominated by Kevin Brockmeier)
Pinnacle Mountain State Park, at the western edge of Little Rock, is the highest point in the area, and it allows a nice view of the landscape. It's certainly cheap—free, in fact—and it boasts a few ground-level hiking trails, plus two that lead from the base to the summit, the West Summit (easy) Trail and the East Summit (slightly more difficult, and therefore I suppose more thrilling) Trail. It's open year-round, but it offers a more pleasurable experience in warm weather than in cold; clear weather than in gray. Best of all, if you get lost on the way down, you can wander through the trees without any sign of other human beings, and you can imagine that by some strange power you have been transported to an earlier and better time, a time when there was still the chance that you could be happy, until finally you emerge at one of the base trails or along the smooth black ribbon of the highway.
Mickee Faust Clubhouse, Florida
(nominated by Diane Roberts)
The Mickee Faust Clubhouse is a performance space in Tallahassee's hipster-powered art park, a dark den of thoroughly surreal comedy presided over by a giant, cigar-chomping, Groucho-eyebrowed, Dick Cheneyish rat. Yes, rat. Faust's official biography explains that he was separated at an early age from his twin, whose first name he shares (different spelling). Alas, his brother was seduced by a man claiming to be his uncle who "gave him a nose bob, waxed his tail, and passed him off as a f-----g mouse." Now Brother Rat presides over an Evil Empire in Central Florida, robbing children of their souls. Internationally known performance artist, writer, and comic Terry Galloway is the human behind the rodent. The Mickee Faust Club produces anarchic plays and video projects such as "Queer as Faust," "Menopausal Gals Gone Wild," and "Tammy Faye Bakker's 'I Gotta Be Me.'" Shows usually go for five bucks a pop. Don't take your children.
Mountain Views, Tennessee and North Carolina
(nominated by Dorothy Allison)
My favorite cheap thrill in the South is a steamy paper bag of boiled peanuts, a Dr. Pepper, and looking up at the hills above Chattanooga, Tennessee, or off the side of the mountains near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. If I have the Drive-By Truckers playing on the radio, it approaches the sublime.
Flint Creek Water Park, Mississippi
(nominated by Jesmyn Ward)
My best cheap thrill at home would definitely be Flint Creek Water Park in Wiggins, Mississippi. It's a state park, sort of. For me, going to the park means a long, lazy day spent swimming out in the big, beautiful lake. My family usually brings barbecue and side dishes, and we park our cars near the picnic tables and play music from the stereos. There are usually boats speeding by in the deepest part at the middle of the lake, but the lake is so big that it is easy for us to ignore them.
Le Bakery, Mississippi
(nominated by Matthew Pitt)
Four words, three numbers: Thit Nuong Nem Nuong, $4.25. The heavyweight of this East Biloxi eatery's palate-hopping Po-boys, the TNNN is loaded with both Vietnamese sausage and grilled pork. Sandwiches are served on torpedo-shaped, baked-in-back French bread, and include garlic mayo, cilantro, and julienne strips of vinaigrette-laced carrot and white radish. A Coconut Curry Chicken model, with meat cooked in a style similar to Jamaican stews, is $3.25. During the economy's nosedive, many restaurants pinched portions. Le Bakery lifted prices...fifty cents per Po-boy (apologizing for even that meager hike). See map for directions to Le Bakery.