One of the gifts of traveling is meeting people you never would have crossed paths with if it weren’t for your travels. A moment of serendipity in Washington, DC allowed me to meet a family from Mississippi I am lucky enough to now call my friends. While I met them in May, they told me to look them up if I ended up driving through northern Mississippi on my way to Austin.
Look them up I did and what a special treat it was to be invited into their lives.
But first I had to arrive by way of Tennessee and Alabama. Hit the road early leaving Chattanooga before 7am and was treated to the rising sun glimmering off the trees and water. Luckily, was headed to central time so gained an hour on my driving schedule.
In rural Alabama, two separate people asked me what a girl from Oregon was doing down here. I was charmed by their inquisitiveness and curiosity and chatted with them for a few minutes about my travels. You just never know who’s going to strike up a chat with you.
Finally reached Oxford, MS, home of “Ole Miss”. If you’ve seen the Blind Side, one of my favorite movies, you will recall this is the school the Tuohys want Michael Oher to attend.
I knew nothing of Mississippi, my familiarity with the place limited to spelling the name of the state with syncopation during elementary school (M-I-SS-I-SS-I-PP-I.)
From my perspective, most Americans (myself included) know very little about their own country. We stick with our hometowns or college towns or big cities, but we don’t get out and explore the vastness of America.
At least I hadn’t. And I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the USA with all its depth, complexity and history. The more I see, the more I realize I haven’t discovered.
Oxford was a delightful surprise, a small-town where sitting at morning coffee, everyone knew everyone strolling by (and they stop to chat) but also full of sophisticated shops, restaurants and architecture.
Gorgeous green and architecture downtown.
A peek at the home of William Faulkner, didn’t walk back and check it out but will next time.
The lovely courthouse in the middle of the town square.
Brick city hall.
Cute puppies for free! Outside a coffee shop where we had our morning joe.
My lovely new friend (and domestic goddess idol / amazing mom/wife & hostess) Keri.
Just hanging with William Faulkner.
Amazing houses downtown line the streets.
Eating a delicious pulled pork sandwich, some lima beans and sweet tea. Now a BBQ addict. (Also learned, BBQ in Mississippi really means pork BBQ whereas in say Texas, BBQ will be assumed to be beef.)
My new best friend, Mary Cile, her snacking on a Milky Way while we watch Ella Enchanted.
That would be a deep fried apple pie, the most amazingly delicious thing I may have ever eaten, courtesy of Handy Andy’s. Yes, they fry a lot of things in the South. And now I know why. Because it tastes unbelievably amazing!
It was a special stop, filled with new friends, new foods, new discoveries. Charmed by Oxford, I realized there’s even more of America I have yet to discover.
And Southern hospitality is the real deal.
Headed west towards Harrisburg, PA and boy did it feel good to see the letter W after the interstate number. I have been ready to head southwest. That’s where home is.
As soon as I turned south onto I-81, I felt the energy of the East Coast dissipate and a languidness settle into me. It felt good.
Needing a break after a solid 4 hours in the car, I took a three-mile detour off the interstate, seduced by a sign proclaiming Orr’s Family Market. Off I went, in search of fresh produce. (Sucker, I know.)
It was worth it. I stepped out of my car into the West Virginia heat, ready to pick some fruit. The blueberries were scarce to non-existent, but the raspberries were bountiful and tart enough to turn sweet off the stem with a hint more sun.
Picked some of my own fruit.
Then shopped the bounty of already picked fruit - melons, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, cucumbers.
This is my kind of America.
Spent the night in Blacksburg, Virginia with a woman from Airbnb. Ate dinner at a little Thai cafe called Mekong with delicious fish cakes. Slept soundly and woke up to my host having made deliciously strong coffee, setting me out on my day.
When I hit the Tennessean border, I stopped at the visitor’s center. A woman helped me pick a route and called me sweetie. I was in the South and it felt good. Worked my way through the back roads of Tennessee, much needed after the stretch of I-81.
Winded my way through beautiful countryside and even passed the Bush’s beans factory!
Crashed for the night in Chattanooga at a Super 8 and ate sushi for dinner. Half off all rolls and 99 cent beers. Works for me.
Drove a long haul from Maine to Philly in one day. Tried to avoid the I95 as much as possible and skirt NYC traffic. Succeeded mostly in my efforts and was treated to some pretty New Jersey/Philadelphia countryside along the way.
Once in Philly enjoyed two nights at my aunt Carol’s, exploring the city. Thanks to my aunt for her hospitality and amazing tour guide skills.
Horses in Chestnut Hill.
My aunt Carol outside her old address.
Transported in time.
Old Pine Street cemetery, headstones so old, the engravings have washed away in time and rain.
Except for a few.
Some have just grown into the trunks of the nearby trees.
Middle Eastern food on South Street.
The plaza of the Barnes Foundation.
In front of the camera for a moment.
Photo credit to my aunt (Carol Rauch.)
A delicious dinner of roast chicken, potatoes, cucumber yogurt salad and simple green salad. Ah, the trick to great roast potatoes is to cook them in chicken fat!
Henry, the little dachshund guest of my aunt’s. He slept in my bed, burrowed under the covers. And in typical dachshund fashion, thinks he’s the alpha dog. Reminded me of a favorite childhood movie, the Ugly Dachshund.
Living in the two largest cities in America for the past 8 years, I brushed off the idea of being a country girl, but somewhere I felt this longing for simple pleasures, like fresh-cooked pie, laying out by the lake, going for drives in the green of countryside, slowing down.
A little farm-stand in Maine reminded me why I love the country. It surprises you in the same way a city does, new discoveries around a curve in the road, that if you didn’t slow down enough to see, you’d blow right past.
You enter Echo Lodge to find it empty of humans, with a radio humming along, bins filled with produce and sunflower bouquets dotting the inside. It’s as if an elf has been at work.
Based on the honor system, you take the produce you want and put money in the lock box. These stands are common on the East Coast, but novel to a West Coaster, especially a former city dweller.
Pick up a jar of sunflowers for $5. Return the mason jar if you can. If not, no problem.
Maybe you’ll be lucky and fresh zucchini bread will be available.
Shelves dot the inside with charming bits and pieces, reminding me of a childhood treehouse.
Sit on the porch for a bit. Leave content.
From Cape Cod, I had to find my way to Maine, and going to Boston did not appeal. So I looked on a map, and saw a big green block in New Hampshire, and said that’s what I want to be near.
Thought I would spend two days sunning at a lake, but instead was treated to immense thunderstorms for two days. It rained, it was kind of chilly, but it was beautiful.
Stunning natural landscapes meet New England Americana charm.
The last night it looked especially creepy out the window of my hostel. I was the only guest in this huge hostel as it poured and thundered out my window.
Warning: rant ahead.
This pretty much sums up my attitude towards driving from DC to NYC:
Screw you I-95, what the F is a turnpike, and why do I have to pay a freakin’ toll every 5 miles to drive on your sh*&!# road full of potholes that is only three lanes wide?
Let me introduce you to how we do things in the rest of the country. You get on the road. You drive. It’s called a freeway. Free being the operative word.
First of all, how am I supposed to know I am going to have to pay $36 worth of tolls over the course of 90 miles? And why don’t you take credit cards? Haven’t you heard of the whole cashless society thing?
Don’t even get me started on the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hour. Clearly I had a break with reality thinking it was a good idea to attempt crossing into Manhattan at 430pm on a Wednesday.
Before I hit NYC, had lunch with my aunt in Philadelphia and saw a bit of the park.
Friend and wine in NYC.
I thought my punishment was over but apparently not. Driving to Cape Cod from Brooklyn on Memorial Weekend Friday equals another form of modern torture. We should just subject terror suspects to rush hour, holiday weekend driving in NYC. They’ll talk right away.
Luckily, eight hours later, I arrived to this:
And this beach.
My friend Harmony schools us.
Seriously, how is everything so cute in New England?
The next day we explored the National Seashore, this is at Race Point beach.
Aww, another Oregonian parked right next to me on the edge of the Atlantic. What are the chances…
Nope, it’s not Fourth of July, just Provincetown in May.
Next we were off to Marconi Beach, which I of course thought was called Macaroni Beach.
A day on the beach = seafood and beer time.
Driving from Memphis to Nashville, a few observations —
1) Tennesseans love to speed.
2) State troopers abound on I-40. (I found out why, and it’s not because of the speeders, stay tuned.)
3) The hills of Tennessee are quite beautiful.
Spent one night in Nashville at a mediocre, overpriced hotel and had a mediocre, overpriced dinner, but did have interesting conversation with the bartender who was an aspiring musician. She moved to Nashville from Missouri to pursue her dream.
I plan to go back to Nashville to properly explore the city, as it was a way station for me that night.
Left the next morning for Asheville. Had heard great things about this little town in North Carolina.
Passed by some rolling hills on the way.
As soon as I arrived in Asheville, I felt East Coast energy. The Southern warmth had disappeared, the friendliness of the heartland gone.
I stayed at an adorable hostel called Sweet Peas. It was immaculate, modern, charming. But one issue, it is on top of a nightclub. By 1am, I realized I wasn’t getting to bed anytime soon, by 2am, I was just pissed, and by 3am I finally drifted off.
I probably should have just joined the party but I was so annoyed that it tainted my impression of the city. Asheville struck me as a little pretentious and stuck-up, yet surrounded by natural beauty.
Onto Washington, DC the next day.
Driving through the hills of Virginia was beautiful and I was back in countryside, but I felt this longing for Texas and the heartland states. Something was shifting inside of me.
Driving into DC on a Sunday night was a wise choice as the notorious DC traffic was light and as I entered the capitol, I was struck by the beauty of the city. Gorgeous, bright spring green, white stately buildings, the Potomac shimmering in the dusk.
The next day I had a tour of the national monuments led by a ranger. We met at the Department of the Interior and our gang of 12 headed out to visit the nation’s monuments. There was a charming family of six from Mississippi that I fell in love with, two retired couples from Montana, myself and our ranger.
Ranger Mike led us on a comprehensive tour of the monuments, giving us details about the artists and the history behind the memorials.
I loved this quote about women’s role in World War II.
The Lincoln Memorial really is quite beautiful.
I learned that the Lincoln Memorial has more visitors each year than any other park in the entire National Park system, including Yosemite and Yellowstone.
Mementos such as these roses are placed by visitors and left in place all day.
The Vietnam War Memorial was the most emotional for me. Something about seeing all the names of the soldiers killed got to me. Walking through the memorial I didn’t feel the need to take pictures, I just felt the sadness of lives lost.
One of my favorite sculptures was the Vietnam War Nurses Memorial, which depicts three nurses in varying states of distress, grief, and service. I was pleased that there is an homage to nurses who have lost their lives and an acknowledgment of the service provided by these women and men.
Ranger Mike explaining the artist’s choices in creating the Korean War Memorial.
Statues depicting farmers who had lost their farms during the dust bowl and the bread lines of the Great Depression.
Our newest junior park ranger.
Me and my new friend from Mississippi (loved that she called me ma’am, that’s manners.)
So I asked one of my Mississippi friends about the state troopers in Tennessee since he drove up to Memphis a lot and he said they aren’t stopping speeders, they are searching cars for drugs as I-40 is used to transport a lot of drugs west to east.
I made new friends, saw my nation’s capitol and shifted my perspectives more than once.
Sometimes you just need a place to sleep and a place to eat. Shreveport, LA was that for me. It was a halfway point between Austin and Memphis, a place to crash, but I had a few fun moments.
One of them was eating at Texas Roadhouse which for those of you who don’t know is a chain restaurant that serves steaks, chicken and other Southern delicacies at affordable prices. It’s not super-gourmet, but it’s pretty tasty. They let you shell peanuts at the table and throw the remnants on the floor, country music blares from the speakers and beer flows freely. At least it did in Louisiana.
After dinner, I noticed the size of trucks in the country. I actually felt pretty conspicuous in my Civic.
At the motel, I met a man with a philly cheesesteak cart who works the fairs in the area. He needed to plug in his refrigerated truck so his meat didn’t spoil. I noticed that he had very few teeth left. I was struck by a few things - how hard he must work day in and day out, and that he was impoverished enough to not have had dental care.
But that he was friendly, interesting, and mannered despite the setbacks he had in life. Obviously I didn’t know his full story, but something about him moved me.
The next morning, the motel lobby was filled with construction workers who were filling up on the free breakfast before heading out to their jobs. They must have spent the night at the motel en route to a job site, and again, I noticed the long hours these men were putting in.
I was about to put in my own long hours on the road to Memphis.
You learn things about yourself on a trip, some mundane, others profound.
One of the mundane ones was that I prefer driving in the early morning. The roads are empty, the scenery is more beautiful and I’m alert (once I’ve had some coffee.)
So on the way to Memphis I was on the road by 645am, and was treated to a Louisana sunrise. The mist was rising off the fields.
Driving through Arkansas, I saw a lot of natural beauty. I was also reminded that most of the poor in our country live in rural areas, not urban centers.
Arrived in Memphis ready to eat some good food. When in Memphis, you must eat BBQ and I chose Central BBQ. The most delicious pulled pork sandwich ever, with a side of baked beans and a sweet tea.
Was also treated to some live music.
I stayed in the Cooper-Young neighborhood which is marked by this interesting miniature above the road:
The next day I checked out the Mudd Island Museum and Park which illustrates the history of the Mississippi and surrounding areas.
A view of the Mississippi.
Not sure if I share the sentiment, but glad I got to visit.