Jonah McDonald is an author, storyteller, and a park ranger. His two books, Secret Atlanta: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure and Hiking Atlanta’s Secret Forests: Intown and Out, offer deep dives into interesting places in Buckhead and throughout the metro area. His books each reference one of his passions, history and nature. Jonah is an avid hiker, and he actually arrived in Georgia on foot!
“I grew up in Memphis and I moved here when I was 22 or 23 years old. I hiked the whole Appalachian Trail to get here. When you look back at your life you can almost always see how you got where you are, but when you’re at the beginning point you never know where it’s going. I look back on the Appalachian Trail and I say, well, doing that kind of adventure primed me for a life of big projects. Writing a book takes a huge amount stick-to-itiveness, and something like the Appalachian Trail does too. It’s not just about the skill of hiking, it’s about keeping yourself mentally focused.”
One Step at a Time
While hiking the AT, Jonah had an epiphany. He was having a particularly bad day on the trail when he read a pamphlet called Steps to Inner Peace about a traveler in the 1960’s known as Peace Pilgrim. Jonah felt that his path was similar to what he was reading, but his path didn’t take him where he initially expected.
“I had a voice in my head that said, “you need to start writing sermons.”, and I was like, Oh, my God, I’m going into the ministry. That’s my role. That’s what my life is going to be. And then the same voice said, “let’s just do one thing, and then the next step will be revealed.” I’d heard that my whole life- all you have to do just take one step, and then see what’s in front of you. Then take another step, and then see what’s in front of you…
I moved to Atlanta and I wrote a sermon. I was like, “I’m gonna do it, but I don’t know what it’s going to be about.” I got a call from a friend who was in theology school, who said, “we want to bring a guest lecturer in to talk about the religious concept of pilgrimage. Jonah, It strikes me that you would be good at that.” I was like, “I just wrote that talk.” I’ve never given that talk again, it was just that one time. It turns out that history is all about stories. My work is all about stories. I even became a professional storyteller, telling folk tales and personal stories.”
Telling Atlanta’s Stories
After the success of his first book, Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out, Jonah was approached to write Secret Atlanta. He felt the pressure to get the facts straight, and he was nervous about telling other people’s stories.
“I interviewed people and asked them for help and support, and even gave different organizations the ability to double check the facts. I was really nervous that people were going to see the stories I’d written and be like, “it’s not true.” Having humility about it and saying, “I’m still learning, and I want to learn from you”, I found I didn’t get anything wrong in the book. There were some aspects of stories that I could have gone a little further with if I had known, but I didn’t. Instead of people getting upset at me for not having one aspect of the story, they’re like, “I can’t wait to tell you, Jonah.” Now they feel like they’re telling the author something and it gives them more passion about it. I think oftentimes the people who could have been enemies of this book, ended up being boosters of the book, because then I’m like, “so glad you taught me this.” Whenever you put anything down publicly, you’re like, “who’s gonna yell at me?”, but it hasn’t been that way. People have been very cool.”
Buckhead’s Secret Stories
Jonah’s first experience in Buckhead was a trip to Dante’s Down the Hatch. He enjoyed his dinner and walking around Buckhead, but the Friday night traffic dampened his enthusiasm to return to the neighborhood. He discovered many surprises when he was doing research for Secret Atlanta: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.
“When I was writing the book I started wondering, what are the aspects of Buckhead that can be those surprising moments, like Dante’s was? Path 400 is this sneaky little thing in the middle of the skyscrapers. I tell in the book about Frankie Allen Park, and the history of the Macedonia Park neighborhood that was there. Now you walk in to watch your kids baseball game, and there’s this little cemetery there, and people don’t really know what’s going on there. And there’s several of those little cemeteries scattered throughout Buckhead. It’s the thing about any neighborhood you go to, but Buckhead is a great one because it’s so historic. You can find these little nooks and crannies between the traffic and the skyscrapers. If it wasn’t for the skyscrapers, those pockets wouldn’t be cool. Right? It’s because there’s both of them. It’s almost like you need the modern bustling Buckhead in order to have small sneaky things like that garden in the in the Grand Hyatt. There’s more to see here than just what you expect. I think that would be, for me, the most memorable part of getting back to Buckhead. Realizing that one experience I had with traffic was was not the whole story.”
For more information about Jonah, his storytelling, and his books visit http://www.jonahmcdonald.com/.