2011 Road Trip Day 14 – Vicksburg to Wylie

Roads: I-20 to US-80 to US-69 to State Highway 78
Miles: 367
Time: 6 hours

Well it’s over. I’m still processing the trip in many ways. First off, let’s talk some totals. I was gone from the house for 14 days, the longest vacation I’ve ever been on, at least since joining the true working world. I stayed in 9 cities over those 14 days in 8 states, 3 of which I’d never visited before. I drove 3082 miles of roads between cities though the actual total was higher than that by probably a hundred or so miles. The biggest driving day was actually the first at 652. The shortest trip was 150, Knoxville to Asheville. I filled up with gas 11 times. The most I paid for gas was $3.369 outside of Rocky Mount, NC where apparently I was desperate on 12/12. The least I paid was $2.999 twice, once in Knoxville on 12/5 and once in Jackson, MS on 12/16. I spent $517.54 on gas. I ate about three movie size boxes of Reese’s Pieces. I never finished the first bag of sunflower seeds. I exercised once, a run along the seawall in Charleston. I was horrifyingly hung over once. I booked 5 hotels through Expedia, 1 through Priceline and walked up to 2 Best Westerns. The most I paid for a meal was $67 at High Cotton in Charleston. The least I paid other than free breakfasts was probably the 3 or 4 Combo #1s I got from Taco Bell. I wrote 10,154 words about the trip.

The final drive back from Vicksburg was smooth. It’s a beautiful drive in the fall and early winter, a fact I’d missed on the drive out because of the rain I was fighting all the way there. Even as late as December 18th, there is a ton of color on the trees in Mississippi and Louisiana. I tried to take a couple of pictures as I drove but couldn’t get the camera to focus and decided against stopping on the side of the highway. I had thought I might explore Vicksburg a little on Saturday morning. However, the main attraction there is a Civil War loop that is 16 miles long and pretty involved. So I just headed out for home with only a few stops along the way.

Before this trip, my preferred vacation style was to settle down in one location over a few days and really explore it, to get a feel for the character of a place, actually get acquainted with people in hotels and restaurants. Probably my all time favorite vacation was to Belize where it felt like you were part of the family there. Busy vacations almost always stressed me out.

This trip was obviously busy. With the exception of the two times spent with friends in Knoxville and DC, it felt like a 14 day stretch of one night stands. Each day was physically new, each morning filled with unknown potential for what lay in store, each new city superficially met and explored before moving on to the next. No relationships were ever created or even intended. This trip was driven completely by desire for newness and exploration. The results were widely varied, exhilarating one day, disappointing the next. The goal was always how to maximize the minimal time spent in each location, focusing on physical breadth instead of emotional depth. There was no knowledge of special places to touch, to experience deeper, to explore.

But much like the occasional one night stand, the potential for something deeper was created in many places. I fell in love with Charleston, as in love as one can be while only visiting the rich, touristy enclave around the French Quarter and south of Broad Street. The sense of place the city has and the connection to its past is enchanting. I’d like another date with Asheville. Because of the timing, I only saw the Biltmore. But there is a wealth of interesting attractions and history in downtown Asheville that I’d like to see again. I could spend a week at Pensacola Beach easy. The influence on the Civil Rights movement that Birmingham has had is rich for further exploration.

This trip was more about the road than it was about any of the destinations. When I first began the sabbatical that this trip likely closes, I read Larry McMurtry’s Roads – Driving America’s Great Highways. I took much of my inspiration from his stories of traveling the roads of this country. He was more focused on the actual roads and the experience of traveling them than I was but his explanations inspired me to write daily about my travels. This trip was never intended to be deep in the way a single trip can be. It was an exploration, both of the American South that I have grown more and more fond of over the years and of myself, my relationship to who and what I am. I experienced fairly acute loneliness during the trip. I had immense fun as well. I did more spontaneous things than I’m usually inclined to do, mostly out of necessity given the nature of the trip. There were no real plans, nothing set in stone that I definitely had to do. It was a trip born of stream of consciousness that turned in new and unknown ways.

While this wasn’t a trip to France or Australia, in many ways it was a trip of a lifetime. Unless my budding writing career suddenly careens into Stephen King or those lottery tickets come through, the chance for taking 14 days off for a road trip of say, the American West, is increasingly unlikely. Overall, I’m thrilled with how it turned out. There is little I would have changed other than adding another week so that I could have explored Florida which was actually the genesis of the entire idea. But overall, I’m extremely happy with the results. I learned an amazing amount of things about lots of places in the South, places I probably never would have visited on my own. Places like The Battle of Chancellorsville outside Fredericksburg, VA. I learned about the history of Birmingham, how the iron ore industry built and shaped the fortunes of that city. I saw the Biltmore, an extravagant wonder I didn’t even know about before this trip. As with all travel, it really ended too soon and I’m already looking forward to my next adventures.

2011 Road Trip Day 13 – Pensacola to Vicksburg

Roads: I-10 to I-110 to US-98 to US-49 to I-20
Miles: 338
Time: 6 hours

Today started early again at 5. I’ve been going to bed by 9 pretty regularly with little to do at night and thus, 5 AM becomes a natural waking time. With the stress from the car issues yesterday along with an unusually big driving day, I was out early last night and up early this morning. This works out pretty well since I can’t seem to write much at night but 5 AM writing comes pretty naturally. I can’t believe I just wrote that.

I arrived at Allen Turner Hyundai in Pensacola at 7:30 on the dot when the service center opened. Of course, this morning all the warning lights were out on the car so I began to wonder if it was all a bad dream. As it turned out, it wasn’t but it was under warranty, they had the part in stock and I was out the door with no charge at 9 AM. As an aside, I’m not from Pensacola obviously but I can’t say enough nice things about the folks at Allen Turner. They were pleasant, they got right on the changes and had hazelnut coffee and breakfast. One more data point in the “Hyundai is great” stack.

Yesterday, my plans had been to be in Mobile and play around there today on day 13. But the dealership was in south Pensacola and I hadn’t been on the beach any this trip which initially was a contributing factor to taking it. Plus, my dad said the beach in Pensacola was really nice with white sand. So I headed south to try and find my way out there. It was a little adventurous because I-110 doesn’t have any on ramps from where I ended up. South Pensacola isn’t the most wonderful neighborhood but at 9 AM, I figured all the troublemakers were still sleeping things off from the night before. I eventually ran out of southern real estate and made my way on to US-98, the road across the bay towards the beach.

The morning was thick with fog and thus, the drive over the 2 mile bridge wasn’t particularly scenic. There were several signs posted before getting on the bridge to check fuel levels because there was a long bridge ahead. I expected it to be 10 miles or something but it was only 2. This warning made me think of the Hankook tire commercial where some freak in a Batman suit jumps off a cliff to promote tires (if you can make that logic work, I’d love to hear it) and there’s a disclaimer at the bottom “Professional-do not try at home”. Thank God for disclaimers, I was totally pulling my Batman suit out of the closet and headed to the nearest cliff to try. Ahem. Needless to say, the bridge was only 2 miles long and if you ran out of fuel in that time frame, you were going to run out before you got to the nearest gas station anyway.

There is a second bridge over to Pensacola Beach, much shorter and without the warnings. Once in town, the fog began to lift. I stopped at the Visitors’ Center which clearly has a life mission of making things easier for snowbirds. They had signs and leaflets everywhere specifically targeting snowbirds. AFter the visitors’ center, I drove up and down the main drag of the town a little. It’s a typical beach town with brightly colored shacks selling a variety of wares to the tourists. There seems to be a general carefree attitude though I may be projecting given my affinity for beach towns. The real estate market in Pensacola Beach seems rather depressed though as I saw quite a few for sale signs. I would imagine that in the current economy, a second home on the beach isn’t high on the priority list anymore. After scoping out the real estate scene, I headed for Casino Beach. Once upon a time, there was actually a casino here but it was razed in 1974. Pity. I wasn’t prepared for the beach but I rolled up the jeans, took off the shoes and headed out.

It’s is a beautiful beach. The water is a gorgeous blue-green. The surf was high and crashing, a fact that made the 10 or so surfers quite happy. This time of year, the water is cold, at least by Gulf standards, somewhere around 75. That sounds warm until you get your legs soaked because you misjudged the height of the waves. The beach is a beachcombers dream. I was there late but I would imagine that arriving at daybreak, you could find some good shells. As it was, there were hundreds of broken sand dollars and colorful shells. The sea bed 10 feet offshore looked rocky so I’d guess that many shells get broken or crushed before arriving on land, hence the white sands. I walked up and down the beach several hundred yards.

I have always been a beach person. There is something about the sand, the salt air, the sound of waves crashing on the shore wiping out all other immediate sound, these things nourish me. My mental outlook on the tail end of this trip has oscillated quite a bit but walking up and down that beach turned it back towards the positive side. I’m glad the car broke down because I would have missed this wonderful little beach town if it hadn’t.

After walking the beach, I changed into some dry pants and ate lunch on the beach at Crabs, We Got ‘Em which sounds like something Dennis Rodman said to Madonna once. Odd euphemistic restaurant names aside, they are right on the beach with a view of the crashing waves and the food is good. I could have sat there all afternoon I think and in fact, briefly considered it. But it would have made for a long trip home on Saturday, over 12 hours and I just didn’t want to do that. Pensacola Beach will have to wait for a longer vacation another time. But it was a destination that never would have been on my itinerary if not for a broken down car.

Obviously, this wasn’t a planned part of the trip. Some might say that everything happens for a reason. I don’t think this is true save for the micro-level “my throttle position sensor broke” but it is an exceptionally useful mental perspective to take to heart. I’ve always been a worrier. Worried about this and that, what might happen at some point in the future or what did happen in the past. Lately, I’ve been growing away from that through conscious effort. Last night, when the car first decided to die along the highway 80 miles east of Pensacola, I initially got a little worked up. This is only natural. But in the past, I might have let this event affect the remaining portion of the trip. Instead, I took it as a chance to change directions, branch out and try something unexpected. Thousands of people wiser and more eloquent than me have said it before but it bears repeating for those of us who are slow learners. Adversity can either be the beginning or the end of your trouble. With a mental framework of “Everything happens for a reason”, it’s far easier to adapt and adjust to adversity, to grow from it, to do things that are unexpected. When your mental framework is built around “Bad things always seem to happen to me”, growth is impossible.

My throttle position sensor broke because things break in this world. How you adapt to the broken things in life that can transform your experiences from a constant stream of frustrations to a constant opportunity for growth and change. No matter how much we plan, we have such precious little control over our lives, a tiny little sphere of influence that’s limited to essentially the immediate present and possibly a few weeks into the future. No action on my part could have changed the fact that the car broke down before I reached my destination. All I could do was deal with the adversity in the most positive way I could think of. I’m not very good at this yet but I’m thrilled it worked out yesterday.

After lunch, I pointed the GPS to the Mobile Botanical Gardens. It seemed fitting that 14 days ago I started this trip with a visit to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and that now, I’d essentially end it at one. The Mobile gardens aren’t nearly as extensive but they did have a winter garden with azaleas that still bloomed. Being so much farther south, there was more color in the Mobile gardens. The camellias were still very pretty and I captured a small box turtle in some photographs as he stared placidly at me. I left around 2 to ensure the drive north was done in the daylight.

US-98 and US-49 from Mobile to Jackson are quite scenic, more so than than the highways of North and South Carolina with the sentries of pines infinite along the road. There are hills and white sand rivers through Mississippi, pretty rolling vistas of meadows and verdant green fields dotted with cattle. For the most part, the road was quiet with few other cars headed north on an early Friday afternoon. I ran into the front around Hattiesburg that had been dumping water on home for a couple of days. The sun disappeared and the rest of the drive became gloomy and rain filled, the brightness and warmth of Pensacola gone for now. But they’ll return another day on another trip, hopefully in the not so distant future.

2011 Road Trip Days 11 and 12 – Charleston to Pensacola

Roads: US-17/I-95/US-1/I-10
Miles: 634
Time: 12 hours

Wednesday was a rest day in Charleston. While I had a list on my itinerary of things I wanted to see and do in Charleston, I apparently forgot to look at it completely and instead did other things. The first was go for a run at 7:30 in the morning along the seawall. I have always thought if I lived in an ocean city, I’d run more just because it’s infinitely more enjoyable running along the ocean than it is slogging through random neighborhoods back home. The seawall in Charleston was built in the 1800s along the rivers which allowed the people to reclaim quite a bit of the peninsula where downtown Charleston now sits. I’m not sure about the wisdom of such ideas but it appears to have worked out for them so far.

The Vendue Inn is a bed and breakfast of sorts so I had breakfast in the Library, the hotel restaurant. It’s a quaint little place with good views of the street outside in a few of the rooms. It’s not one big open place but instead is clearly a modification of previous architecture to hold tables in a variety of smaller rooms.

After breakfast, I headed for Patriots’ Point where the USS Yorktown is moored. Two years ago on a similar trip to Corpus Christi, I visited the USS Lexington and 6 years ago, I saw the USS Intrepid in New York City. I guess I’m out to see all the old carriers from World War II. I had planned to go on the Fort Sumter tour but felt like I would enjoy the carrier more. As it turns out, if you’ve seen one carrier, you’ve seen them all in a lot of ways but it had great Navy and Marine planes in the hangar bay and on the deck. The history of the Charleston naval base is worth the trip as well.

They have a submarine at Patriots’ Point, the USS Clamagore which is included in the ticket price. Now THAT was a new experience, one I don’t expect to repeat soon. It’s hard to explain how cramped the space was. I kept trying to figure out where 80 men lived and worked but the placards kept saying it was right where I was standing. I’m assuming the inside has been slightly modified just to included some exhibit information but overall, I can see why submariners on leave might act slightly crazy. It’s hard to fathom how brave men like that must have been 70 years ago to climb on a boat of that size and deploy to sea for what must have been weeks at a time.

There are several other attractions at Patriots’ Point but after a few hours on the Yorktown, I was ready to move on. I went to the South Carolina Aquarium next which is a quality aquarium. As a bonus, when you go on Wednesday when school is in, you’re likely to be one of about 5 people in the entire place so you get it to yourself. As you walk through, the aquarium tells a story from the river ecosystems of the mountains and piedmont sections of the state all the way down to the ocean ecosystems. They have a rare albino alligator who was rescued from a nest in Louisiana and purchased by the South Carolina Aquarium when it became apparent that he couldn’t be housed in a normal alligator enclosure due to his inability to stand long periods of sunlight.

The aquarium has river otters which are always inveterate entertainers. They have quite a few sections dedicated to kids and their education including a place to touch rays. The main tank is one of the biggest in the country and houses over 750 fish. It’s 42 feet deep and holds 385,000 gallons of water. They have daily scuba dives that are educational in nature where the divers are miked and talk a little bit about the aquarium tank. On my trip, since it was the holidays, they had Scuba Claus which entailed the diver dressed up as Santa Claus. I’m sure he was thrilled. But it was fun for the few parents and kids there.

After the Aquarium, I just walked around Charleston looking at the magnificent homes in the area. Strolling down Church Street, I’d guess that 90% of the homes are designated as historic in some way. I ate dinner at High Cotton which is highly recommended. You’ll probably need reservations on the weekends but it’s worth it. It’s pricier than some restaurants in the area as well.

Thursday, the road trip resumed. I had struggled with the next destination. The initial plan was to go to St. Augustine for the World Golf Hall of Fame. But Wednesday night, I felt more tired of the routine than I had and went to bed thinking I would just turn for home. Luckily, when I woke up, my mood had improved and I decided not to change the itinerary just because I’d had one bad mood. The drive to St. Augustine along US-17 and I-95 is similar to other coastal drives in this area. The roads are lined with pines and most of the scenery involves either the craziness of roadside attractions in rural South Carolina or construction. There was a 12-15 mile stretch of construction along US-17 which greatly slowed things down but overall, the trip was pleasant. At a gas station at the US-17 and I-95 juncture, an older couple had locked their keys in the car. It was clear they didn’t have a lot of money and instead of calling a locksmith, the old man borrowed a heavy ax from someone else at the store to break his window. I left before that happened but it was interesting to experience.

Getting closer to Florida, the landscape tends to open up in to broad coastal river plains. There still isn’t much to see at 75 miles an hour but it’s an improvement over the claustrophobic feeling of the pines.

The World Golf Hall of Fame is a neat place, one worth visiting if you’re in the area but probably not worth the 300 miles it took me out of my way. Plan to spend at least 3 or 4 hours there if you want to get the full experience. I’d recommend the audio tour even though I didn’t do it and in fact, no one else in the place did either. It wasn’t even mentioned at the front. However, without it, you resort to reading lots of little plaques about things and it’s not as enjoyable. I had a limited amount of time since I wanted to head farther west but if I go back, I’ll do the audio tour.

They have a challenge green and a putting course which are included in the price of the ticket. On the challenge course, you have 2 balls to hit at a peninsula green 135 yards away. If you get both on the green, you win a small prize and if you get a hole in one, you win a trip to next year’s Players Championship. I got both on the green but didn’t get a hole in one, unfortunately. The putting course would be fun with friends but I didn’t feel like I had the time.

I headed west with the goal of reaching Mobile by about 10 PM. Unfortunately, the car had other plans and cratered briefly on me outside Pensacola. I got it started again and managed to get into Pensacola for the night. I’m hoping the repairs are reasonably easy not to mention cheap since this road trip is starting to add up in costs.

Today was one of the bigger driving days, if not the biggest. It sucks that it ended on such a poor note but these are the chances you take when you embark on a trip like this. My car is pretty reliable and people make longer trips regularly with far less dependable cars. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and into my home town by Saturday afternoon. That will be 14 days on the road, something I’ve never done on any vacation. It’s been a fascinating and enlightening experience. I’ve learned a great deal about the world and a great deal about myself.

2011 Road Trip Day 10 – Fayetteville to Charleston

Roads: I-95 to I-26
Miles: 227
Time: 4 hours

I started out this morning with a trip to the Airborne and Special Forces Museum in Fayetteville. My cousin’s husband has been in Airborne for the past year or so and he gave me an inside look into what it’s like to jump out of airplanes for the Army. The museum is fascinating and filled with information on the history of the Airborne in the US military as well as the history of the special forces. It’s got replicas of the inside of C-130s, gliders from WW II and other artifacts that give you a sense of Airborne. My grandfather was in the 82nd when he jumped on D-Day and any chance I get to see what that was like is a treat. There is a full 82nd Airborne museum here on Ft. Bragg but that had to wait for another trip.

I left Fayetteville later than I expected but that’s what this trip is for. The plan was always to visit Charleston but I wasn’t sure how many nights I was going to stay. On one hand, there are several other places along the Eastern Seaboard that I’d like to see and investigate. On the other, Charleston is rife with history and charm that warrants more than just a passing trip through town. In the end, I decided to splurge there and stay down on the wharf. By doing this, I could walk to a lot more things and see the old city more fully. I pointed the GPS and the car south on I-95 for the short trip.

The drive through much of coastal North and South Carolina is not geographically interesting, at least not in the way a trip through the Great Smokies in northwestern North Carolina is. The road is almost always flanked with tall pines which only occasionally open up to allow a glimpse of a farm or cotton field. At worst, you may get filtered views of large swaths of harvested pine forests. Logging is apparently still a major industrial concern in the Carolinas.

However, there are plenty of interesting things to see along the road that are not natural, in that they are only a part of nature because man decided they would be. South of the Border is a large shrine to roadside capitalism that of course is just south of the North Carolina border on I-95. I didn’t stop but in reading the history of the place, I probably should have. It began 60 years ago as a 600 square foot stand selling beer to people from dry North Carolina. It’s now the largest employer in Dillion County, SC which probably isn’t impressive on a grand scale but at a local level, is quite a feat. While my trip has been more about historical artifacts and landmarks, it’s places like South of the Border that symbolizes the culture of the Southern road trip. For the entire length of North Carolina, billboards try to implant the idea of stopping at South of the Border as a requirement. This guerilla marketing at the individual consumer level is probably quite powerful if you’re not intent on getting to a particular destination before dark. Or if you have a car load full of screaming kids who want to ride the ferris wheel. With slogans like “You Never Sausage a Place”, you can imagine the angle.

Both NC and SC have a custom of honoring dead State troopers by naming bridges after them. Other states may have this custom but it’s especially prevalent in the Carolinas. Unfortunately, it also seems to happen quite often as many of the bridges between Fayetteville and Charleston are memorial bridges. It’s a constant reminder of the danger State Troopers are in on a daily basis.

I-95 is a fantastically maintained road, especially when compared to some of the Tennessee roads between Birmingham and Knoxville. It is smooth and straight, allowing for the mind to drift away from the pain of being in a car for long periods of time. In the distant past, South Carolina was largely agrarian and there are still signs of this along the road. Cotton is currently being harvested here and while it’s all done mechanically with combines and trucks these days, it wasn’t so long ago that people picked the cotton, people who were enslaved to plantation owners. The history of the South is a tragic one and I can’t help but think of these things as I drive along the roads here.

In present times, people are much more likely to work in a Honda factory than they are on a cotton farm, I’d imagine. South Carolina has a Honda ATV factory which briefly dominates the view when you drive past it. Unfortunately, even the advent of high tech manufacturing has not changed the demographics much in Timmonsville, where the plant is located. Over 25% of the population of the town still live below the poverty line. It’s a largely African American community and it makes me wonder about the industrial changes of the South over the past 150 years.

Once I turned onto I-26, the drive became even more tunnel like. I-26 shoots east and west through the state and on the section into Charleston, it’s lined by trees with the median full as well. There is little to visually distract you from the back of the semi truck in front. The speed limit is 70 but the locals all seem to drive 78-80. Maybe that’s why there are so many trooper bridges in South Carolina. The drive into the city was similar to other cities. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected at 5 PM but I had the fortune of going against the grain again. The modern city of Charleston contrasts completely with the feel and the vibe of the section of town centered around Broad Street. The closer you get to historic Charleston, the streets grow narrower, lined with cobblestones occasionally and the buildings begin to take on the feel of French architecture.

I’m staying in the Vendue Inn. It’s quite nice and is housed in historic buildings in the French Quarter section of Charleston. Once I got situated, I walked the streets of Charleston for a couple of hours. The city, at least in this section of town, has a very old world Southern feel. There are many churches along the narrow streets, many with burial grounds that probably date back 300 years. At night, the huge overhanging oaks and low street lights give a spooky feel that is both unnerving and inviting. I feel more literary here as evidenced by this thousand word essay written at 5 in the morning.

After walking around undecided for quite awhile, I ended up at Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar for dinner. The food was fantastic but the service on a sleepy Tuesday night was somewhere south of that mark. There are over 300 restaurants in this section of town so I would imagine it’s a highly cutthroat business. Or maybe there’s just enough money to go around for everyone.

I had a drink at the Rooftop bar at the Vendue Inn which invokes views of the bay and natty visitors laughing gaily over wine and cocktails. What I got was scotch in a plastic glass and an across from some second tier college feel. Granted, it’s a Tuesday night but I felt a little let down by the overall feel of the place.

This trip has been and continues to be intellectual fun. I continue to see new and interesting things on a daily basis. However, I realized last night walking around Charleston that it’s been emotionally unfun. A solitary road trip certainly opens up the possibility of doing anything you like but doing it all alone has gotten tiresome. It’s easier to handle loneliness in a routine at home. Loneliness on the road is acute and constant, an empty hotel room or a table for one ever present. I’m starting to feel slightly desperate for a conversation that rises above the level of “I’ll have the herb grilled pompano and a glass of the Malbec.” I got some of that in DC, Fayetteville and Knoxville when I stayed with friends. But travel is more fun with other people. I’m glad I chose to do this trip but I’m thinking it’s getting close and closer to time to turn for home.

2011 Road Trip Days 8 and 9 – DC to Fayetteville, NC

Roads: I-95
Miles: 324
Time: 5 hours

It never ceases to amaze me how much better the second day after an indiscriminate night on the town actually feels. I still wasn’t 100 percent but I also wasn’t contemplating jumping into the Potomac with a 55 gallon drum of concrete tied to my leg. On top of that, the West Wing tour started an hour and fifteen minutes later than the East Wing tour had on Saturday, a bonus of immeasurable advantage. Nish and I headed downtown around 10:30 and hit the White House. The West Wing tour is considerably more prestigious than the East Wing tour in that the general public doesn’t get to go. Only staffers of the Administration can bring their family and friends on the tour so it felt considerably more important compared to the general crush of Saturday’s tour.

I felt very privileged to be seeing up close the same rooms I’d seen in movies, television shows and press conferences for so long. The Rose Garden, even in winter, is beautiful and you can imagine generations of Presidents’ kids playing on the lawn. Seeing the Oval Office up close was amazing though our tour got very crowded because they were shutting down all tours for a press event at noon. Even with the press equipment in the room, you got the sense of what had gone on in the room over the years. I even got to see the door of the Situation Room though nothing more since it’s not actually on the tour. I’m thankful I have a friend working in the Administration who gave me the opportunity to see this piece of history.

After lunch, we headed back down town to the United States Botanic Garden. Again, visiting lots of gardens in the winter time doesn’t make for the most compelling visits as far as the outdoor portions are concerned. However, this botanic garden also has a huge indoor conservatory with a fascinating collection of environments symbolized in plant life. Jungles, deserts and tropical rain forests all exist within the conservatory. They also had a room full of beautiful orchids growing. There is a jungle canopy walk where you can walk around on the eye level of birds if the birds live on the second story where vines intertwine with trees. They had a model train collection for Christmas which was also highly popular. The Conservatory and botanic gardens are something that most people don’t think about seeing when they come to DC (I know I hadn’t in several previous trips) but it’s a beautiful and intriguing place.

Sunday night was devoted to eating at home and just chatting and catching up, something that hadn’t happened much with the crush of activities over the past few days. I enjoyed hearing from my old friends.

Monday morning, I left when they left for work and pointed the car south towards North Carolina. The drive out of the City was uneventful and smooth. It’s always better to be going against traffic in DC if you can do it. I had hoped to visit the Edgar Allen Poe museum in Richmond, VA but alas, there is some unwritten universal law that says all interesting museums must be closed on Monday. I have run into that twice now and it’s frustrating. Instead, I just kept the car pointed south until I got to Fayetteville with the exception of a stop at the North Carolina Visitors’ Center and a gas station. Day 9 was pretty low key in general. I had dinner with my cousin and her family at Luigi’s in Fayetteville, a very good Italian restaurant. After that, I read in the hotel. Tomorrow is a visit to an excellent military history museum on Fort Bragg and then points farther south, Charleston, SC.

So far, I’ve traveled 1883 miles from home. I’ve seen parts of 3 states that I’d never visited, quite a few attractions and historical landmarks that have been wonderful and 4 cities I’ve never stayed in. The trip has been fascinating and wonderful. I’m not sure exactly how much longer it’s going to last but I’m really glad I chose to do it. Like many of the things in my life, it sprang more from serendipity than from meticulous planning. So far, that has worked out. I’m looking forward to the last three cities that I have definitely listed on my itinerary, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville. After that, I suspect I will turn back west towards home and make a valiant effort to return to normal life, having gained experiences that will last a lifetime.

2011 Road Trip Days 6 and 7 – Charlottesville to D.C.

Roads: US 250 to VA-22 to US-15 to VA-20/Constitution Highway to VA-3 to I-95
Miles: 130
Time: 3.5 hours

The morning of day 6 was spent at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t on the original itinerary but came highly recommended. I”m glad I went as it is a fascinating place. Jefferson spent 40 years building, unbuilding and building again his house up on the low mountain. He began work on it when he was 26 and didn’t finish until he was 66. The house is a mixture of the classical and French styles. It’s interesting to see how architecture has evolved over the decades. The beds, typically built into an alcove in Monticello are tiny by today’s standards. The history of Monticello is fascinating as a functioning agrarian household with slaves and free workers working side by side to keep the daily life going. His vegetable beds are immense and many are even planted in winter. The grounds themselves are pretty with trails under mulberry trees.

After Monticello, I headed for D.C. The GPS took me up out of Charlottesville on US-15 and then the Constitution Highway. This drive is highly recommended for the beauty of the farms, towns and foothills the road winds through. It has many historical markers along the way though these are never particularly well marked or announced and are therefore hard to stop for. One nice thing about Texas roads are the historical markers and the ease with which you can pull off to read them. I didn’t read any of the ones on this road for that reason. From Wilderness to Fredericksburg, there are several sites of major Civil War battles. These National Parks have a great deal of information as well as driving tours of the major points along the battle. I only had time to stop at Chancellorsville. The Battle of Chancellorsville was one of the highlights of the South’s campaign. Here Lee and Jackson outfought a much larger Union force. Unfortunately, it came at a very high price in the wounding and eventual death of Stonewall Jackson. The visitors’ center at the main Chancellorsville park is worth checking out if you are interested in this history. The driving tour of this part of the battle includes 10 stops. The retelling of how the Union and Confederates clashed here in 1863 is gripping. I only hit 7 of the stops because light was rapidly fading but it’s worth spending a couple of hours on the tour.

The drive into DC was uneventful. Arriving at rush hour on a Friday probably wasn’t the best idea but I was going against traffic for the most part. Saturday morning, I went on a White House tour of the East Wing with my friend Manisha who works for the Administration. Of all the tours I’ve taken, this was the most crowded. However, Nish is an excellent tour guide and I learned quite a few things about the house.

The rest of the day was spent in recovery mode as we’d been out very late the night before. Dinner was at Vidalia, a wonderful restaurant in D.C proper. They serve food with a strong hint of the South. It’s not cheap but worth eating at if you are looking for some place rich and fancy.

I”m starting to feel like the trip is wearing on me though that may be an effect of the indiscretion of Friday’s extremely late night. I”m missing my own bed, a routine derived around normal things in my life and most of all just home. I’m hoping that striking out on Monday to new places will lift this feeling some. The stay in DC has been good but it’s also hard because we’ve been going out so much. I’m not used to that any more and that’s probably what’s driving the slight homesickness. The coming week has a ton of interesting stuff planned though so with any luck, that homesickness will fade.

2011 Road Trip Day 5 – Asheville to Charlottesville

Roads: US-19 North to I-26/US-23 N to I-81 N to I-64 E to US-29 North
Miles: 362
Time: 5.5 hours

The morning was cold and clear after the front moved through during the night. The car doors were partially frozen shut, nothing that a little force couldn’t fix but still well below freezing. I had stayed at the Baymont Inn just down the street from the Biltmore Estate so that an early start would get me to the gate when they opened. I wasn’t the first in line but then it seemed that many people had actually planned their vacation and thus bought tickets early. The drive into the estate is bucolic and evokes a much earlier time when George Washington Vanderbilt was entertaining guests for weeks and months. The French Broad River runs through the entire estate. Before I even got to the ticket stand, I saw a flock of turkeys coming down from roost and later learned that roast turkey was Vanderbilt’s favorite meal.

I rode the shuttle from Parking Lot A to the house. I wish in retrospect that I would have walked, it was a short 8 minute walk and the house coming into view through the path and trees would have been stunning. Still, words cannot possibly explain the sheer size and grandeur of the house. Finished in 1895, the house still remains the largest private residence in the United States. The house alone covers over 4 acres of land. It is a testament to what vision and more money than God can do if so desired. Even having visited, I can’t completely comprehend the scope of the place. The tour takes 2 hours if you get the audio tour and listen to each station which I did. Lots of people were just wandering through and that seems almost pointless to me. Why visit an historical landmark of such scope and then just brush through it without a full examination? Perhaps that’s the $75 ticket price talking but still, the opportunity to really learn about Vanderbilt and his house were avoided by well over 50% of the guests.

The bottom floor of the tour includes the banquet room, billiards room, tapestry room, library, music room and garden room. There are heads of moose and elk on the wall of the banquet room that are immense yet look like child’s toys in relation. In an era when ostentation was considered de rigueur in Vanderbilt’s social circle, this house must have still been shocking to his guests and family. Understand that Vanderbilt was a bachelor when he built it and even later in life was only married with a single child. They lived in a house with 250 rooms and a staff of 35. Of course, guests would come and stay for weeks or even months. Still, this was a house built in a very rural area of North Carolina that probably wasn’t even lived in full time. A testament to the kind of wealth the Vanderbilts held.

A certain nostalgia swept over me during the trip, not one of having ever experienced something like this house myself but a literary nostalgia for what it must have been like to come to the estate in the early 1900s. To sit in the tapestry room while a guest played on the piano, chatting with other friends of the Vanderbilts. Working out in the gymnasium, swimming in the heated indoor pool, hunting on the grounds. Even for the most wealthy guests, it must have been quite something.

After the house tour, I walked the gardens which are just as impressive, laid out by the same man who built Central Park. Winter isn’t the best time to appreciate them yet the Walled Garden as well as the layouts of the Shrub and Azalea Gardens are amazing. There is a Conservatory that houses amazing specimens of orchids and ferns. The gardens got just as much attention as the house did and must be a spectacle in spring and summer.

Included in the tour is Antler Hill Village, once the dairy which is 3 miles from the house. It’s since been converted into a top-notch winery along with shops and excursions for those staying at the Inn. The winery tour is short but an extension of Vanderbilt’s original hope that the estate would have an agricultural focus to provide for the guests of the estate. The dairy at the time was state of the art with cows that produced some of the highest butterfat content, making the milk and ice cream delicious.

There was also an exhibit of Tiffany lamps currently on display but I had been on the estate 6 hours and still had a long drive. I pointed the GPS towards Charlottesville, VA and took off. Stopping only once for gas and a coke, I arrived in Charlottesville at 8 PM.

2011 Road Trip Day 4 – Knoxville to Asheville

Roads: I-40
Miles: 150
Time: 3 hours

Today the front definitely caught up with me, physically and mentally. The temperature dropped significantly and the wind switched out of the north. When I left Knoxville it was raining and it didn’t stop until about 7 PM. The drive through the Smokies was probably very pretty but most of my attention was focused on staying on the road. The trucks carrying a nation’s goods are thick on this section of I-40 especially leaving Knoxville east up through the split with I-75 to Lexington. Even with three lanes and a truck restriction that keeps them out of the left one, it can be a little tricky getting around them in a pouring rain.

I-40 through the Great Smokies had fewer trucks and was striking even in winter. The river runs beside the road all the way through and when you can glimpse it through the trees, you can see why this is a popular destination for river rafters. I did get to use my new umbrella purchased yesterday in Knoxville but its magical rain-stopping powers seem to have been left behind in that city as it just kept raining. I walked around the North Carolina Visitors’ Center wishing the weather had been slightly better. I’m not sure any pictures would have been worth it but it was hard to find out in the rain. Ansel Adams said of the Great Smokies “They are beautiful but they will be devilishly hard to photograph.”

Once in Asheville, I visited the Asheville Vistors’ Center to get my bearings. I struggled with whether to even stay in Asheville and if I did, what to do. The Biltmore is here and that’s been highly recommended by many people. But the town itself is neat and has other things to do. I knew the Biltmore would take most of a day and wasn’t sure I was committed to that. In the end, I decided to see the Biltmore on Thursday because my body basically said it was today would be a day of rest.

I took a nap at the hotel and then went out for dinner at Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville. It’s a fantastic little restaurant with excellent Southern food including a decently sized gluten free menu. I had Cajun Catfish on Goat Cheese Grits and it was very good. Dessert was a sweet potato crème brûlée which was heavenly. After dinner, I walked around downtown Asheville as the wind blew 30 MPH out of the north. I had a good coat but it was bitterly cold. I decided I wasn’t up for a drink anywhere and headed back to the hotel.I got back to the hotel around 8 and was asleep by 9. Guess 4 days of constant vacationing is my limit. Tomorrow will be the Biltmore then at least 4 hours on the road north so I can get a little closer to DC for Friday morning.

2011 Road Trip Day 3 – Bumming around Knoxville

The front I outran on Sunday in Louisiana finally caught up to me in Knoxville and the weather turned rainy. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten cold yet so walking around wasn’t bad but all outdoor activities had to get shelved which is too bad since Knoxville is largely an outdoor kind of place. The first stop of the day was at the Knoxville Museum of Art. It’s a small museum built in 1990 on the World’s Fair grounds. There were 4 main exhibits. The main floor was showing local art students’ artworks. The upper floor had an interesting exhibit by artists from Eastern Europe who lived through the fall of Communism in their homelands. Also on that level, a linear retrospective through the art work of East Tennessee was featured. It was interesting to see artists like Lloyd Branson, one of the first popular artists in Eastern Tennessee and then follow his influence down through successive generations.

On the bottom floor was the Thorne Rooms, 9 scale miniatures rooms built out of the collections of Mrs. James Ward Thorne who had collected them throughout her life. It was fascinating to see the miniaturized versions of English kitchens or early American Bedrooms. These rooms provide a window into what it was like during previous time periods.

After the KMA, I went downtown and walked up Gay Street, the main happening thoroughfare in downtown Knoxville. The East Tennessee Historical Society is definitely worth a visit. They currently have a special exhibition on Abraham Lincoln and his presidential influence on the Civil War. Their main collection, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection is an immense and immersive history of how Eastern Tennessee has developed. You’d probably have to spend 2 days in it to really absorb it all. It details everything from the interactions with the Cherokee Indians to the development of enriched uranium at Oak Ridge.

After the museum, I just strolled the street for a little while. Mast General Store is an immense old time general store with plenty of current items to satisfy any shopper. I ended up at Volunteer Landing, a nice area on the Tennessee River. After Gay Street, I spent some time in the shops around Market Square. The Oodles Uncorked wine bar is worth a stop though that may be the wine talking.

2011 Road Trip Day 2 – Birmingham to Knoxville

Roads: Interstate 59 N – Interstate 75 N
Miles: 265
Time: 4 hours

We’re eliminating the “Stayed” portion of our summary because frankly, this place isn’t worth mentioning. I started the day at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It’s a neat little botanical gardens, walkable in about 2 hours during the winter when there isn’t much to see. It would probably take closer to 3-4 hours to see the entire thing in the summer. The rose garden was well laid out but there aren’t many roses that bloom in December. They have a fantastic vegetable garden that clearly gets a lot of care and attention. One worker was side-dressing the cabbages as I walked through. They also have a three level herb garden with food and medicinal herbs that inspired me to plant more of those when I get back home. I think it’s required that all botanical gardens have a Japanese section and Birmingham was no exception. They had a neat Karesansui gravel garden that I spent 10-15 minutes just sitting and meditating in front of. They have an extensive day lilly section and there was even one very lonely little day purple day lilly that got very confused about the seasons. It was striking as the only bloom in that section of the garden. The camellias were very striking including one Japonica specimen that must have been 20 feet tall. If you’re in the area, definitely check the gardens out.

After that, I had breakfast in Five Points South which is a section of downtown that I wish I had known about the night previous. It was near the university and alive with people. I’m assuming it might have made Sunday night a little less “Taco Bell on the floor of the hotel” and more “vodka tonics while watching the Saints game in the company of people almost half my age.” Regardless, it was a fun section of town.

The Vulcan sculpture was Birmingham’s contribution to the 1904 World’s Fair and was a fascinating exposition on the history of the mining industry that created Birmingham in the 19th century. I hiked up all the stairs to the top of the monument only to find out that the walkway around the top of the statue was see-through. If you know me at all, you know I don’t like to walk on something I can see through. I managed to edge my way around for some breathtaking views but also suffered a minor panic attack and contemplated calling 911. I only half kid.

After the Vulcan park trip, I tried to go to the Sloss Furnaces Historical park only to discover it, like many of the attractions in Birmingham, was closed on Mondays. So since I had a dinner date in Knoxville, I decided to head up the road towards Tennessee. The trip was quite scenic and with the exception of one 12 mile stretch of construction out side Gasden, uneventful. It interesting how cities choose to put their worst neighborhoods near major highways. In Gasden, there were what looked like inner city housing projects along the road, boarded up and empty. It was a striking picture that stood out among all scenic portions of the drive.

The bottom of Chickamunga Lake in Chattanooga runs right along I-59. It’s a really pretty stretch of water. There were several rivers that the highway crossed over and it always makes me wonder what people fish for on those bodies of water. I was planning on spending about an hour exploring something in Chattanooga, probably a battlefield but forgot that the time changed in Tennessee and thus, had to keep driving through. I reached Knoxville about 6 PM and hung out with friends of mine who I haven’t seen in several years. I may stay over one more night here unexpectedly but that’s the beauty of not having an itinerary.