Western Roadtrip 2017 Part 3

Why does one do something like keep a stack of brochures and a sheaf of receipts around for 2 years? Perhaps from some sense of duty which was briefly discussed in parts one and two. A duty to what in particular? I guess it’s a duty to detail a set of experiences that one’s family enjoyed (mostly anyway though the last few days in a tiny trailer with 1 year old were rough) on an epic vacation. But to keep these things around for 2 years including an entire 9 months in a new house where the brochures literally laid either on the floor or the dresser for long periods of time as a reminder to one’s unfulfilled duty like a jury summons? What kind of monster inflicts that upon himself? All rhetorical as you might imagine since the answer is and always has been, me.

What makes tonight the night to restart a series of blogposts detailing the adventure from 2017? I have no idea. But here we are, having arrived at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and spent 2 nights exploring a wilderness so epic in scale it makes the mind swim. I’m not reading any moral philosophy currently which was the theme of the two posts last year. Instead I’ve recently finished The Alchemist and have just begun The Untethered Soul. It’s weird when the Universe or Fate or God seems to push all the stars into alignment on a particular theme or topic. Both of these two books have been on my Holds list at the Dallas library for months. Then they both suddenly came available at the same time. They are both concerned with being true to Self, one from a fictional perspective and one from a yogic-consciousness-awareness perspective.

I’ve also read two biographies this year, one on e.e. cummings and one on Charles Goodnight. They both chased and arguably achieved their Personal Legend. The Alchemist details the story of a shepherd who leaves all that is familiar to find his own treasure. It’s a story about being true to what is important to oneself. The Untethered Soul is similar but is more of an instruction manual on the road of discovery. While I’m only a quarter of the way through, a main component to knowledge of Self is always having your heart open. So often, we walk around and live our lives with our hearts closed. In looking back at this roadmap, I realize my heart was closed a lot which led to some of the aforementioned friction of living in close quarters with a 1 year old for two weeks. It is our default to close our hearts out of fear and anxiety. But only by remaining open can we both change our own Self and the world around us.

What does all this have to do with detailing this adventure almost 2 years later? I have no idea. Only that in many ways this two weeks was an expression of Self and that even though I failed at being open all of the time, I realize it was a mighty adventure worth writing about even at this late juncture.

Friday August 18th, 2017

Miles traveled: 206 miles
We left Black Canyon at 9:07 AM and headed for Dinosaur National Monument in Jepsen, UT. We ate breakfast in Montrose before really getting on the road. It cost $34.41 and included a Pour Over Mama Bear Geen Chili Breakfast Burrito and a Bear Paw Bread. It was fantastic but you can see why it might have gotten to be tight quarters in a 14 foot trailer. That’s actually the only receipt I have from the day though I do remember stopping for lunch somewhere in Grand Junction, CO. Dinosaur National Monument and the Quarry there are really incredible. They built a huge building around an excavation of hundreds of dinosaur bones that you can walk though in air conditioning I might add which is a nice feature in August in Utah. We then hiked up to see some petroglyphs that date to the Fremont Culture which was the main draw for Mara. A short drive up the road led us to Josie Bassett Morris’ cabin. Here, Mrs. Morris lived by herself, miles from any fellow humans for 50 years (1913-1964). By herself. Her story is incredible. We then found a campsite in the Green River campground for one night. It’s a beautiful campground that I think we would have been happy to stay at for several nights. But Wyoming beckoned and we hit the road for Seminoe State Park the next morning.

Saturday August 19th, 2017

Miles traveled: 271 miles
This was a long day of traveling and I have the receipts to prove it. While I only kept one from the day before, I have 8 from 8/19/2017. They include a trip to Walmart ($59.88 which included $10.97 for some Zinfandel and $3.98 for some Febreeze- Green Chili Burrito nightmares recurring), lunch at Denny’s for $14.49, a $100 ATM withdrawal (the Powerball had reached almost a billion on this trip so I was buying a ticket), a piece of pizza from Flying J’s (I didn’t want Denny’s), two gas fill-ups ($2.65 a gallon in UT, $2.30 a gallon in WY), 1 12 pack of Coors Original for $13.79 and four yogurts and some pork rinds from Flying J. It was a long drive. Also, southern Wyoming is not the Wyoming of the Tetons or Yellowstone. It is mostly a flat expanse of prairie with more pronghorn antelope than you can imagine. Mara got tired of me pointing out the herds there were so many. But when you come from the plains of Amarillo and they are a real treat to see, I couldn’t help but be excited each time they were just grazing by the side of the road. Once in Seminoe, there wasn’t a lot to do. We mainly had picked this spot because it was as close to the full eclipse as we thought possible. The park is really pretty with a huge lake and a really interesting settlement of people who live in a mobile home park out of the Twilight Zone.

On Sunday, we drove back into town for some supplies and an ice chest because the fridge had stopped working very well. This was also the first time we broke out the generator just to get some air going in the trailer. We also bought Harper her first camp chair which we have to this day. We met some nice people from Boulder, CO who were also up for the eclipse. They took their paddle boards out into the lake several times. I stuck my hand in the lake and realized there were people in the world who were heartier than I. Even in August, the water couldn’t have been much above 55 degrees.

On Monday we broke camp and left the trailer there. While talking to our friends from Boulder, they had told us about the road up out of Seminoe to the north that was a shortcut to Cheyenne. I had assumed we would watch the eclipse from the park but when we heard about the shortcut, sanity (mostly Mara’s) prevailed and we packed up the morning to drive up a crazy road through the mountains to get into the full eclipse. I’m glad we did because the experience was crazy. It was shorter than I expected and not dark like night. But to be standing in the middle of a field in the middle of the day and suddenly be in darkness with the birds quiet is eerie. I took several pictures but none of them do it justice. Just an amazing moment to experience.

When it was over, we packed up and headed back to get the trailer and drive to Steamboat. That story will have to wait, though hopefully not 9 months as the receipts are scattered all over the bedroom floor.

Western Roadtrip 2017 Part 2

This is the second installment of a multipart effort detailing last year’s two week road trip through the Western US. You can read the first one here.

Last time I talked briefly about Kantian ethics and the idea of Duty in the philosophy of morality. For Kant, utilitarianism (the most happiness for the most people) was insufficient as a source of morality and instead we had to rely on Categorical Imperatives, rules or maxims that are unconditional and universal. “Don’t murder” is a Categorical Imperative and for Kant, it was universal and objective. Which of course raises questions about application of the Imperative, in for instance, my current moment when the neighbor’s rooster is yet again crowing at 5:45 and I want to walk over and rip its head off and watch it run around and then fall over dead. “Always write a blog post about your family’s trip” is an imperative that isn’t Categorical because obviously, if we all had to do that, I would have had this series of essay’s completed last year to fulfill my duty to the Categorical.

Categorical Imperatives make up a deontological theory of morality where the system is based on a set of inviolable rules which is attractive to those of us who prefer to not deal with the messiness of people, i.e. engineers. However, there are some clear issues with this type of system. Do not murder means exactly that so then one has to further define what one does in a situation where one is attacked by someone intent on murder. Is it murder if you kill someone in self defense? What about war? What about preemptive war like what the US does these days with drones? When you think about it that way, maybe we could use a little more categorical imperative in our political world.

What does any of this have to do with a road trip with my little family? Nothing except that it’s things I contemplate as I look around the world and wonder about the state of it. It’s interesting to consider that at one time in the not so recent past, philosophy had large effects on the popular understanding of life. Philosophers were written about in newspapers and as recently as the 1950s and 60s, philosophy (existentialism) had a profound impact on the world. Today, it seems we lack any clear exposition of how to live our lives, how to interpret the events of the world, how to make things better. Without the guiding force of the nuclear family and with the further degradation of religion in the Western world and with nothing like a coherent philosophy of morals to replace those things, we have become largely a narcissistic ephemeral society with no larger meaning expressed in our lives. Categorical Imperatives start to sound useful in a situation like this where it seems like no imperatives at all exist in our society other than if you can yell the loudest, you get heard.

While Kant’s philosophy is probably too restrictive and has serious implications for our (overly?) liberal political world, it’s interesting to consider what the imposition of Categorical Imperatives might cause. For example “Always be fair” seems like an interesting start to me as it would refocus our narcissistic attentions away from our own little world and refocus them where it matters, on our interactions with other people. Studies show that children, from an early age, seem to deeply understand the concept of fairness though those kids haven’t chatted with my kid about who gets to play with Melmo (Elmo). So one has to wonder where things start to go wrong?

Probably enough contemplating our (lack of) moral philosophy, it’s not what you came here to read. Unless Google sent you here in search of ramblings about Kant to which I have to say I’m deeply sorry.

Wednesday, August 16th 2017
Miles traveled: 161

Our Campsite the morning we left Navajo and a view of the lake.

We left at 11 AM and I have no notes as to why the start was so late. I think we were just enjoying the mountain air and the view across the lake. In the last installment, I forgot to mention eating at Joseph’s Bar & Grill on old Route 66 in Santa Rosa, NM. One of those places that appear in idealized memories of a bygone era, Joseph’s has been around since the 50s and is a fun place to stop. It’s off the main highway but anything of value is off the highway. We met other traveler’s and talked about destinations and where we were headed. Harper got to run around with other kids and explore the gift shop.

It’s always interesting to me how some places survive the changes of technology and progress while others fade away. What are the reasons why Joseph’s is still around but other nameless places are not? How much of it is talent or work or effort and how much of it is sheer accident, contingency, luck? We hate to think about how much of our life is accidental because it seems to negate our own agency but the fact of the matter is that everything about humanity is contingent, effects building up over time of random accident. I’m glad Joseph’s survived even though others did not.

Leaving Navajo, we had a plan and that was to get to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This seemed totally doable, it’s only 161 miles from Navajo and we’d had a day of rest. Of course, as with much in life, doable plans some times go awry. This was our first day driving in the passes in Colorado and let me just tell you, dragging a trailer with a big truck on the plains of Texas is drastically different than the passes in Colorado. To this day, I’m pretty sure I still have nightmares about making a mistake and tumbling over the side into oblivion. I can’t imagine what semi drivers deal with.

The trip up to Durango and over to Silverton and Ouray was both beautiful and nerve wracking. We stopped in Silverton for lunch at the Brown Bear Cafe and wished for more time to explore this small town filled with Harley riders and tourists taking the train to Durango. But we loaded back up and headed up the Million Dollar Highway towards Ouray. This is an incredible drive, more so from the passenger seat I presume. Once you come back down out of the mountains, you head across the plains towards Montrose. If you know anything of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, this seems confusing. This park is supposed to be a magnificent canyon, one that is awe inspiring and breathtaking yet here you are driving across mostly flat plains as the GPS says 60 more minutes. Then you head east out of Montrose and start climbing up what seems to be an average hill in Colorado. As you enter the park, you still don’t really see how this could be such a big deal.

But once inside the park, this chasm, this rift in the earth suddenly appears out of nowhere. Luckily, you don’t have to drive very close to the edge and we’d already parked the trailer at our campsite. I’d had enough of near death hallucinations pulling a trailer for one day. It’s one of the most awe inspiring vistas you can see in a state with more than its share of inspiring vistas. Pictures don’t really do the place justice, at least not the pictures I took. We stayed here two days taking in the place, spending a chunk of one day down on the river learning about the crazy people who used to try to explore the entire canyon.

All along our journey, we encountered historical figures who attempted incredible feats or took these incredible risks to try and accomplish something that had never been done before. The Gunnison river was the first of these areas that drew people like moths to the light of adventure and (I suspect) fame. The Uncompahgre Valley just west of the canyon was essentially a desert before the 1920s. People living there came up with an idea to dig a tunnel from the Gunnison river through the canyon wall to the valley to provide irrigation water. I can’t imagine thinking such a thing is feasible today with the technology we have but in 1900, I would have thought it ludicrous. But of course, after four years of toil, those crazy people built the tunnel in 1909. I wonder who their JIRA admin was?

Next up, we head towards the desert and the heat and Dinosaur National Monument.


Joseph’s Menu and History


Molas Pass


Molas Pass


Day one hike at Black Canyon


Sunset our last night in Black Canyon

On A Two Week Roadtrip

This is going to be a multipart effort designed to catalogue last year’s road trip. Also, I need to throw away the sack of brochures I have been keeping around for a year.

I have been reading a great deal of moral philosophy lately. Well, “a great deal” is like 4 pages a day because it’s HARD but that’s 4 more pages then almost all of my readers so it qualifies as “a great deal” if you ask me. My reading has been predominantly focused on Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein and how we derive or justify morality in an increasingly secular world. Luckily I haven’t had to read all of those people because that’s craziness. Instead I’m reading Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals. For most of my readers, stick with me because this essay isn’t actually about moral philosophy, at least not primarily. I promise to be just as entertaining as I typically am.

One of the main developments of moral philosophy was Kantian ethics (also called duty ethics and I just made you say “doody”) wherein there are two types of duties (types of doodies), perfect and imperfect. A perfect duty is one that everyone must follow. Kant believed you should never lie under any circumstances because once you decide it’s OK to lie in this one instance, the line becomes fuzzy and you can convince yourself to lie in lots of other circumstances, mostly to yourself when you say things like “Yeah it totally makes sense to put the house on the market immediately after a six month ordeal of getting a crazy successful play up and running”. I digress. An imperfect duty is something like giving to charity. Yeah you should do it but how much? How often? That’s pretty much up to you and Kant wasn’t going to bust into your home and fill out that Paypal form for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

What does any of this have to do with a two week road trip? Nothing really except I needed an intro and I feel an imperfect duty (it’s clearly imperfect since it took 12 months to complete) to write about our travels as a way of cataloging our lives for the time 18 years from now when Harper is in therapy and needs to track her violent crime spree back to something and she can remember through my words about the time we spent fourteen days in a tiny trailer for no apparent reason whatsoever. It’s enough to make anyone homicidal.

Sunday, August 13th, 2017
Miles traveled: 349
We planned to get an early start and so we left at 11:40 AM. Plans are for work, random late starts are for vacations. We drove to Amarillo and stayed the night with my parents, the last time we’d see a non-camping shower and toilet for 10 days. In fictional literature and education, this is what’s called a harbinger. Typically harbingers are for bad things like when the Raven shows up on Poe’s doorstep. This is no different. It was nice to spend a night with my parents.

Monday, August 14th, 2017
Miles traveled: 461
We left at 9:20 AM which actually is early in the grand scheme of organizing a one year old and also knowing this is the last time in ten days you’ll be in a bed that wasn’t purchased at a camping store. We didn’t really have any clear plan other than to head towards Pagosa Springs. Not having a plan is the defining characteristic of the quintessential Western road trip you idealize in your head. Not having a plan with a one year old in a car seat is the defining characteristic of madness. Still, we drove and drove and ended up in Navajo State Park which is actually 35 miles past Pagosa Springs. We actually did have a plan and that was to make it to the mountains on day two so that the rest of the trip could be somewhat more leisurely. Mission Accomplished.

We arrived at Navajo right at sunset. The park is on a huge lake that spans the Colorado and New Mexico border. It’s very beautiful. We ended up staying in Navajo for 2 nights which was pretty much the pattern everywhere we went. We decided that it was more fun to do slightly fewer parks but for longer periods of time. We (the Royal We, where it’s defined by “Brett”) also thought packing up every piece of gear every morning and getting it back out every night sounded insane. We spent time exploring Navajo and just enjoying being somewhere that was cool in the morning and pleasant in the afternoon. There are some great trails at the park, none particularly long, and they are well suited for families like ours. The lake was created by the damming the San Juan River but at the beginning of the lake is the San Juan and the Piedra confluence which you can explore.

Navajo has some large campsites and we spent some time ogling the massive trailers that some people were hanging out in. At this point in the vacation, we were still in the honeymoon phase and while later, we would ogle these types of trailers with insane jealousy and plans of a coup, it was mostly just fun to see the varieties, from tents all the way up to trailers that were larger than my first three apartments combined.

I seem to recall some attempt to get milk or other necessary good on 8/15 where I drove 20 miles or so up some random road looking for a convenience store at 7 PM at night. I also recall total failure in this attempt. Luckily, there are no notes in the Bullet Journal to catalogue this failure.

On Wednesday morning, we packed everything up and headed for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I think based on today’s millennial attention span and my need for feedback and closure, I’ll break this retroactive travel journal into multiple posts. I can’t promise I’ll do one every day until it’s done but one needs goals. And plans.

On The Caloric Content of a Snickers

We recently returned from four days in Savannah, GA, a trip largely defined by extended stops at places of refreshment and gastronomy lightly interspersed with medium length strolls through the city. It wasn’t intentionally a gastronomical vacation but the food choices in the the town were certainly one of the highlights. This morning was the first time I was actually hungry in probably five days and I had to skip dinner last night to even make that possible. We ate shrimp and grits, pizza, kabobs, quiches, steaks, lobster stuffed raviolis, scallop fettuccines, fried chicken, barbecued pork, macaroni and cheese, mashed-fried and scalloped potatoes, famous ice cream, fried peach bread pudding, crawfish beignets with Tabasco syrup, shrimp po’boys and who knows what else that can’t be remembered right now. I drank my weight in Sweetwater 420 and assorted other large, hoppy beers. The total caloric value of the trip would feed a small developing nation for a week.

The good news is we didn’t eat out of a vending machine once which is fortunate since apparently the fact that vending machines don’t inform the consumer of the caloric content of a Hershey’s bar is a critical factor in the rising obesity epidemic as far as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) authors are concerned. You see, a little known tidbit in the ACA is a new rule that mandates all vending machine companies that operate more than 20 machines display the calorie information of the snacks being dispensed the idea being that if we could only get obese people to reduce their weekly caloric intake by 100 calories, the initial cost of $24 million to said companies would be netted out by $26 million in health care savings.

Essentially what the Obama administration has decided is that since we can’t seem to get people to make reasonable decisions about how many calories they take in on their own, we will need to find ways to consciously or subconsciously affect their choices at the expense of a niche market of very small business owners who can’t possibly be politically powerful. Seventy five percent of these companies have three or fewer employees. I don’t know what the profit margin is on Snickers bars from a vending machine but intuitively I doubt anyone is getting rich on their 20 vending machines. To arbitrarily single out a niche market like this is one of the worst things a government can do (and the easiest given the guaranteed political powerlessness that small companies have).

Let’s do a little math based on the known figures surrounding this new rule. The government estimates that if .02 percent of the obese adults in the country consumed 100 calories fewer each week, the reduced strain on the health care system would be monetarily greater than $24 million (the estimated costs of the changes dictated by the new vending machine law). There are 316 million citizens in the US of which approximately 237 million are adults. The obesity rate in the U.S. is 35.7% so there are 84 million obese adults in the U.S. The law is then hoping that 16,800 of them will walk up to a vending machine once a week, see that a PayDay has 135 calories in it and either buy something else with 35 calories in it (which based on my experience with vending machine contents would have to be a roll of LifeSavers) or skip the candy bar entirely. Who thinks this is a good idea? Who sits around in a committee meeting and says “let’s put the caloric intake of each item in a vending machine on the machine somehow which will certainly cause people to not eat out of a vending machine”?

This is the problem with all governments eventually. The current one is just a step farther down the road of paternalistic nanny state than the last one and the last one before that. Little decisions are made by career politicians who forget that every single regulation and law they put on the books actually has effects, both the ones they intend (though really, in this case, I have a hard time believing this regulation is going to result in $26 million in health care savings) and the ones they never seem to even consider in their insular little idealistic bubble. We need more people who are willing to run vending machine businesses despite long odds and fewer people who think vending machines are the cause of any particular health problem. Sadly the former will soon be legislated and sin taxed out of business and we’ll all still be fat, unhappy and without Twinkies.

Camping at Cooper Lake South Sulfur Unit

Last weekend, we took our first camping trip of the fall. We initially were going to go to Doctors Creek on the north side of Cooper lake but ended up switching to South Sulfur because there was more room and they had several programs on Saturday to see. Initially, there were going to be 5-7 people but in the end, it was just three of us and the dog. Mara and I drove up on Thursday night and set up camp. It was Halloween night so we had a little trouble escaping all the little candy monsters in the neighborhood which meant we didn’t get to camp until about 9:15.

We had camped in the Big Star section of the park last year and chose that again when we arrived. We pretty much had it to ourselves on Thursday night which I suppose is fairly common for the school year. We stayed in the same site, #13 which has a nice access path to the lake. The lake is extremely low right now, 13 feet or more, and it has started to look like a wasteland in many places. Both fishing piers are completely out of the water and the boat ramp in South Sulfur is closed.

We had camp set up by 11 and called it a night without a fire. Friday, we cooked breakfast and hung around the camp most of the morning. Around 12, I looked online for geocaches in the area and found one on the main trail in South Sulfur (N 33° 17.353 W 095° 38.707). So we set off for our first geocaching adventure. Once we figured out the GPS, it was pretty straightforward. It’s fun to search for the cache once you get to where you think it might be hidden. We found it after about 5-10 minutes and left our information in the log book. You are supposed to leave a family friendly item in the cache once you find it and after raiding my hunting backpack, we left a handwarmer in exchange for a little plastic toy. The log book mentioned a bonus cache which we went looking for but were unable to find.

After the hike, we headed back to camp to cook a late lunch of burgers. Our friend showed up around 4:30 and the rest of the evening was spent around the campfire. A cold front came through in the early evening with north winds pretty strong off the lake. It was a cold night in a mostly summer tent. In the future, if the weather calls for a cold front, we probably won’t stay at campsite #13 where the wind can blow straight off the lake.

Saturday morning, he and I went to the first program of the day given by the park interpreter. It was on birding. However, the campground had filled up with a very large cub scout troop from Richardson so it was as much about managing a large crowd of hyperactive boys as it was about birding. It was interesting and I learned about the Chuck-Will’s-Widow. There has been a mysterious animal making noises at home right around dusk and into the night. I’ve always wondered what it was. Turns out, it’s a Chuck-Will’s-Widow. So all was not lost at the birding seminar.

We made a trip to the Sulphur Springs WalMart for supplies after the seminar. After that adventure, we had lunch and then we returned for another program at 2:30 on the trees of the area. This time, even more cub scouts had shown up. I’d guess that at least 50 of them were there with chaperones. We all tramped along the Honey Creek nature trail learning about Honey Locust, White and Red oak families, red cedars, wild cheery, persimmon and plum trees among others.

We made campfire chili for dinner which involves pouring cornbread on top of chili in a dutch oven which allows the cornbread to cook nicely. We sat around the fire warding off the cold with hot chocolate.

Sunday morning, we packed up camp and headed back home. The South Sulphur unit is a good camping site for families and has a great park interpreter. It’s a short drive from Dallas and is worth checking out. However, with the lake so low, it’s hard to do any fishing if you are interested in that.

Travels In New Orleans

“It was apparently not known that desire must be dammed up to be self-renewing.” Jacques Barzun

Travel writing is somewhat metaphysical in nature. I mean this in the sense that I am writing about a place trying to convince you it is wonderful many times all the while trying to enjoy the place in question as wonderful. I have to describe to you the paradise of a place while I am enjoying its paradise. It’s all very difficult frankly. However, nothing about New Orleans screams out paradise and thus there seems to me a certain level of simplicity in writing about New Orleans. Of course, being a rather gothic Southern city, the Sodom of all Sodoms as Tim Gautreaux has written, adds back in a layer of complexity that ripples the pond of simplicity. New Orleans is very definitely not paradise. No place where the residents must face death on almost a daily basis could ever turn into a paradise. It combines the maddening weather of the subtropics with a Southern sense of the genteel and then layers all that with a certain testosterone fueled characteristic. The result is a city at once civil and debauched in which nothing seems to be truly beautiful but many things are quite fantastic.

I have been to New Orleans three times now, the latest this past Labor Day weekend. Like so much of the South, a strong sense of history and place pervades New Orleans keeping it strongly tied to its past. At times it seems as if every building is historical in some way. Much of this is lost on the revelers moving through the city streets, frozen drinks in hand, apparently drinking away a multitude of troubles. There is a certain sadness that inhabits New Orleans, an almost fatalistic celebration of bacchanalia carried to extreme. The city is one of the few that I feel like I truly love yet would never live in. It takes a certain kind of psychological framework to exist here, one at peace with the necessary fatalism. Walking the streets of New Orleans bombards one’s sight with spectacles unknown in other locales and assaults one’s sense of smell with a boiling potpourri of fragrances often delicious and disgusting in the same breath. New Orleans at its worst is human nature incarnate, the basest of human instincts not just catered to but actively cultivated in a garden of sin and alcohol. At its best, it exhibits the unconquerable resiliency of the human spirit in face of tragedy and corruption.

We arrived early Saturday morning on the first flight of the day, less than 24 hours after power had been restored to the airport after Hurricane Isaac. As with many of my travels over the past year in the South, the itinerary was largely influenced by the pages of Garden & Gun, the quintessential magazine and voice of Southern culture. We stayed at Windsor Court which can’t be recommended highly enough. It is far enough from the parties and crowds of the French quarter to be reserved and quiet but is a wonderful central location for forays into that section of town as well as the nearby Warehouse and Garden districts. We did not rent a car, never took a taxi or got on a bus and did not feel shortchanged at all. Certainly there are other sights in New Orleans to see but staying here makes many of the main destinations easily accessible.

Saturday involved strolling around the French Quarter starting with a stop at Cafe du Monde for beignets and chicory coffee on the patio while a band played jazz right in front of us. Much of the French Quarter charm is enjoyed outside. Of course, taking a trip there in early September directly puts that in conflict with the steamy weather of late summer so many of our experiences revolved around dashing in places that had air conditioning and cold drinks. Even at 10 AM, the porch at Cafe du Monde was hot and doing anything in the sun involved a significant amount of sweat. Do not make a trip at this time with someone uncomfortable with you being largely sweat soaked throughout the day. It will not be a good time for anyone.

We walked through the French Quarter for awhile before heading back to the hotel to enjoy some AC and a planning session for lunch. Food is a critical part of any trip to New Orleans and above all else, we enjoyed the culinary delights. Lunch was at Frank’s, known world wide for the amazing muffuleta. Do go to Frank’s when in New Orleans. Have the muffuletta. Have a cold Abita beer with it. Do not under any circumstances take any suggestions from the waitstaff regarding other items on the menu like the mozzarella caprese salad which was seemed to be made with tomatoes found floating in the Mississippi and a mozzarella-like substance closer in consistency to riced cauliflower than actual good cheese. Have the sandwich. Drink beer. Your soul will be overjoyed and you won’t have to worry about the overt displeasure of the aforementioned waitstaff person who told you how wonderful the salad was when you leave the entire thing on the table. Trust me on this.

The rest of the afternoon involved a nap in the cold AC again instead of a trip to the Civil War Museum since waking up at 5 AM tends to leave you uninterested in walking through the afternoon heat. That evening, we met an old friend at Iris for dinner. The restaurant had not been on our vacation radar but was excellent. After dinner, we ventured far off the beaten path of typical tourism to Bacchanal, a quaint, fascinating place with a live band featuring accordian and clarinet made all the more fascinating by the fact the entire block still didn’t have electricity and they were only open due to a very powerful sounding generator. Bacchanal has a wonderful outdoor backyard that is perfect for getting a bottle of wine and enjoying the ambiance. It’s in the Ninth Ward, largely destroyed in Katrina. It’s worth a trip though it helped to have a NOLA native to guide us there.

After a night cap at the Windsor Court bar, we retired for the evening. Sunday started off with breakfast at a fabulous restaurant off the French Quarter but right around the corner from our hotel. The Ruby Slipper Cafe makes fantastic Southern breakfasts including BBQ Shrimp and grits and Eggs Cochon, a downhome southern take on the exalted Eggs Benedict. This place was good enough that we ate breakfast here both days. The bloody mary’s are good, the service is friendly and direct and the coffee is strong.

After breakfast, we headed over to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The museum is an excellent collection of art from the South and is worth a visit. The museum store is an excellent one as well. We had hoped to also see the Civil War Museum right next door but it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, something to keep in mind for the future. We walked in the World War II museum but the tickets were slightly pricier than expected and having seen several WWII museums in other locations, we decided to head back to the hotel for calmer pursuits. Dinner that evening was a basic po’boy on the Quarter followed by a ghost tour. If you go to New Orleans, the number 1 rated tour company in town (you’ll find their flyers everywhere) is worth checking out, especially the haunted history tour led by Andrew. He’s a fantastic storyteller (not hurt in the slightest by several rum drinks acquired along the way). The tour hits many fascinating locations in the quarter that you might otherwise walk right by including the three remaining French buildings in the quarter and the most haunted house in town.

After the tour, we wandered Bourbon Street hurricane in hand like true tourists. This lasted all of about fifteen minutes after we came to the conclusion that perhaps the debauchery of the street was better enjoyed between the ages of 25-30 when hormones and desire ruled the logical portions of the brain. Like its close cousin Sixth Street in Austin, Bourbon Street is a place for the uninitiated and the truly drunk. It’s an experience worth having once but there is little of interest if you do not want to drink until staggering. The sociological minded amongst you may enjoy the base human element on display but for those looking for a quiet drink are better off on Magazine or Dauphine Streets. While Bourbon Street is the Quarter, it is the opposite expression of dammed up desire. Here almost anything is on the table literally and figuratively allowing any desire to be fulfilled or exhibited. One would expect little else from a city constantly one hurricane away from destruction, a city full of people who must constantly face the fact of possible catastrophe. However much of Bourbon Street activity is the artificial expression of non-residents allowing inhibitions to run free with little consequence other than what must be a truly devastating hangover for many of them.

Monday was low key and quiet. We spent the morning touring St. Louis Cemetery #1, one of the oldest in the city and resting place of luminaries such as Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy. It’s an easy walk from the Quarter though doing it at night might be a different story. Lunch was a true po’boy at Ernst Cafe. The Ernster piled high with roast beef and either fried shrimp or oysters is fantastic. Another cold Abita or two and you can safely conclude the trip a success.

New Orleans is a fascinating place full of history well worth visiting and exploring. But definitely go in October or March and expect it to be a day time vacation unless you are under the age of 25. We didn’t experience as much live music as we might have liked but the food and the history more than made up for that.

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.