Last night, we arrived home from our road trip that took us to New Orleans and back – a trip of nearly 3,500 miles — traveled over twelve intense days. We did the trip in our 2006 Toyota Prius, which now has an odometer nearing 100,000 miles, with a car top box on top (and, for half the trip, a bicycle lashed to the roof as well).
I’m old enough to remember the ads that ran when I was a child, featuring Dinah Shore singing, in a convertible, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!” It seemed so exciting – everyone wanted to get out on the open road and visit different states, with the wind blowing through their hair, with spouse and kids in tow (probably a dog as well), cigarette in hand.
I took such a trip when I was sixteen, traveling from my home in Connecticut to Vail, Colorado with my parents, and then on to California, with a return across the South and up the Northeast. It was a nearly four week journey, as I recall, and even though my parents criticized me for reading movie magazines in the back seat and sleeping much of the time, it’s remarkable how much I remember from the trip. I remember how remarkably flat Kansas was…those miles of farmland were impressive – and the awe I felt as we approached the Rocky Mountains. I had altitude sickness in Denver, but that passed soon enough, and Vail – which was a new development at the time – seemed like an Alpine village. It was there that I tasted fondue for the first time, rode on a cable car up a mountain, and hiked through that lovely mountain resort.
I had a summer snowball fight with my father at a picnic lunch stop at Yosemite National Park, snuck into a gambling casino and played at a slot machine until I was discovered by a security guard, and saw a young Liza Minelli perform in Las Vegas. I also went to a topless club in San Francisco (I was snuck into the club, with a fake ID, along with my parents and several social workers), tasted authentic Chinese Food for the first time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and, as we neared home, got my first sense of the South when we stopped in Louisville, Kentucky. I also was struck by the poverty of Appalachia (just after the time that Robert Coles had published his landmark book, “Death at an Early Age,”) as we traveled through West Virginia en route to the nation’s capitol. I climbed to the top of the Washington Monument with my Dad in sweltering August heat, felt awe as I visited the Lincoln Memorial, and celebrated the fact that – while in Los Angeles – I had finally made it to Disneyland. It was a pretty great summer trip.
So as we set out this time, I realized how many years it had been since I’d last taken a really big road trip. Ben, too, had been on extended road trips, but it had been forty years since the last one (for him, the route had taken him to Rocky Mountain National Park and then down through New Mexico and Texas to New Orleans, and through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the way home).
We were driving Abby to Tulane in New Orleans, and we were really excited to be doing this trip – partly because we wanted Abby to have the chance to see part of the country that she had never visited before. Our first night took us to Chambersburg, PA, home of Ben’s maternal grandmother. He’d visited there when he was a small boy; he’d returned two years ago while on a service trip to West Virginia. But Abby and I had never been there, so we were excited to see this town that had been burned by the Confederate Army; the town where Ben had had adventures in his grandmother’s rather grand (now, non-existent) home.
We went on to visit friends in Rutledge, Tennessee – thirty miles or so from Knoxville, and near very little in the way of commercial services…but their house, located on a pristine lake, was in a terrific location…and they had five boats to ‘play’ on. We took a ride on the lake in their pontoon boat as the sun set, and went out fishing again early the next morning as the sun rose. As we drove away, we saw more little Baptist churches than we could count, and listened to Dolly Parton singing about life in Tennessee and thought, “this is beautiful and uncomplicated and hidden away from society – a great life.”
We stayed in Birmingham, AL next. We had the best dinner of our trip, at a Greek restaurant in Homewood, AL (who would have thought that there would be a Mediterranean enclave there?) and in the morning, visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had preached, and walked the civil rights walk through the downtown area. We were dismayed to learn that the church had been broken into the night before, the glass doors smashed.
And then, the Jazz City: still hurting in many neighborhoods, but not broken: full of music, unique Cajun and Acadian and African American culture. There was an afternoon monsoon – not uncommon for the hot, humid summers of New Orleans – and our car got flooded on the street near Tulane. After bailing it out and wet-vac’ing the rugs three times, it was reasonably functional. We observed – and I rely on New Orleanians to tell me their truth – that this city’s culture is more authentically multi-racial and multi-cultural than that one might encounter almost anywhere else in the US…people seem more at home with one another, more willing to engage with people who might be different than they are. We loved this sense.
Along the way, we visited Dwight Henry’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the Seventh Ward – he, one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” owns a place filled with friendly staff who make the most amazingly, sinfully delicious doughnuts we’d ever had. Go there if you can – you will be glad you did. We also managed to get into the French Quarter to enjoy Café du Monde late one night, scarfing down the beignets, café au lait, and of course, loving the attendant people watching.
A highlight was our trip to Plaquemines Parish, to visit our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards. I have written elsewhere on this visit so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say, for now, that this trip was a blessing and a joy, Gail’s cooking delicious, and it was a thrill to see all that had been accomplished in Tyronne and Gail’s town of Phoenix in the seven years since Katrina.
We ate brunch with Abby at a café near the Garden District called Atchafalya while listening to a jazz combo; then, we were gone – we watched Abby walk away, wave to us, and disappear around the corner of her dorm. We headed down the coast into Mississippi, observing the gorgeous beaches and the stairs leading to nothing – washed away in the last storm. We decided to go into the Beau Rivage Casino to take a look, spend $5 in the slots, and eat a hot dog for lunch. It’s opulent and a stark contrast to the poverty we knew existed in Biloxi just a few blocks away.
As we drove away, we saw battalions of bucket trucks headed in the other direction – staging for hurricane cleanup, we were sure. The storm was still two days away, but there was an ominous air on the Gulf Coast, as people gritted their teeth and prepared to hunker down for a storm they hoped would veer away at the last moment.
We spent the night in a tiny ‘microtel’ in Montgomery, AL. I was verbally pinned by the owner of the hotel, who wanted to know (while I was at the breakfast buffet) who I liked in the upcoming election. I tried to give non-committal answers, not wanting to get into such conversations while traveling, but finally acknowledged my strong preference for the President. An Indian who had come to the country forty-two years ago (he said), he barraged me with reasons why the opponent was a better choice. I finally managed to excuse myself and mutter to Ben, “Let’s get out of here.” We visited the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery that is run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and saw the fountain and monument that commemorates civil rights struggles since the late 1940’s.
In Atlanta we were impressed with the kudzu overwhelming the trees. We chowed down on authentic southern cuisine at Mary Mac’s Tearoom. And we had absolutely terrific help at a Car Spa from two young men who, in random acts of kindness, not only extracted water from the floor of our car but cleaned it from top to bottom – for no additional fee.
As we headed north toward Durham (with a nice stop in Greenvile, SC) and then on to Alexandria, we had the sense that we were leaving the country as we’d been experiencing it in the South. Headed out of Washington, DC, we ran into huge amounts of traffic, aggressive and often jerky drivers, many more billboards, and really ugly highways through New Jersey and New York. The drive up from Washington through Connecticut was a bear, and it stood in stark contrast to the open spaces we’d seen in the south. We talked about how smart Canadians are to ban billboards and wondered why the US had taken another path.
And we wondered why we hadn’t done trips like this before. On this trip we saw evidence of the Civil War, and of the Civil Rights movement: signs for sites, sometimes juxtaposed, named after people who had led each of these struggles. Where have we come from since the Civil War was fought on this land? How far have we come from since the struggles of Birmingham and Montgomery? And, we wondered as we caught snippets of a political convention and news of poor coastal communities struggling again to survive devastating natural disasters — where will we go in the future?
What role will we, fellow travelers, play in the next chapter? You never know what you can find out until you get behind the wheel of the car and visit some place that you’ve never been before.