Mike and Dan’s Southern Progress
Daniel Emberley, May 1998
So, we had this dilemma.
Michael’s mom had given us a set of Chinese dishes when we were visiting her in Houston over Christmas. She had brought them over with her from Hong Kong, and had given a set to each of her children when they married. Also some beautiful embroidered pictures. And Michael had a stack of LP’s in her living room that they would both just as soon have seen in his house as in hers. The thing was, these were all too heavy and/or bulky or rare to entrust to an airline or delivery service. Michael also wanted to do some title research on Mom’s house that could only be done in the Harris County Courthouse.
We had plans to do a road trip across America this autumn. Iowa, Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Dollywood, Texas, like that. Then we found out we (or at least, Michael) would need to go to Hong Kong sometime in the fall, and wouldn’t know when until just beforehand. That killed the road trip.
Then again ...
We decided to combine the duty and the threatened vacation. Make sort of a “Southern Progress”, in the tradition of Harriet Martineau, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Thelma and Louise. This is that story.
Saturday, May 9
Michael had done thorough research into auto rentals. Most agencies didn’t want to lease for a two week period with unlimited mileage. The best deal was with Ford directly, who leased us a bright shiny white Taurus. Plenty of trunk room, nice upholstery, AM/FM radio, AC and, most importantly (as you shall see) Cruise Control. The dealer is out in Fairfax City, so we got up early at the apartment in Arlington, Orange Lined out to Vienna, and caught a cab to the dealer. Drove back to the apartment and house, picked up our respective bags, and headed out of town on 95. This first leg was a well-traveled stretch, to our friend Marty’s in Mt. Ulla, North Carolina, so we didn’t see any need to dawdle. Got to Salisbury, NC, around dinner time. Stopped in at the local Walmart to let Amata know we had arrived, and to pick up trip provisions. Marty had been there moments before, looking for us as she shopped, knowing we could not pass it by. Ah, a harbinger of discount sleuthing to come! Being the Saturday before Mothers’ Day, Marty warned us to watch out for folks picking out maternal gifts. Have so many plastic flower arrangements ever passed before our eyes in one hour? I think not. Marty introduced us to her new hound dog and pickup, and we reacquainted ourselves with her other dog, “Vivian Leigh”. Marty lives out in the country, with her aged mother, in a new home built on the old family farm. She prepared a wonderful London Broil on the grill, with salad, fresh bread, and pie. We had a great visit, and Marty was nice enough to put us up overnight.
This is going to be an intensively food-focused report, this being through the South, so you may as well break now, get yourself an iced tea (“Sweetened or Unsweetened, Sugar?”) and a Mallow Pie, and return.
Sunday, May 10
We left early, which was good, ‘cause Marty had to get the house ready for church group. We headed west into the mountains, getting to Asheville just before lunch. Bought tickets at Biltmore, and went right in to their Mothers’ Day buffet. Fabulous presentation, with breakfast hot foods, baked goods, salads, luncheon hot foods, carving station, and desserts. One of the best buffets we’ve ever eaten, served in a lovely room with a live chamber quartet on the grounds. Incredible smoked trout salad, caught in their own trout streams. Biltmore is the largest home in America, built for a Vanderbilt heir by Richard Morris Hunt with grounds designed as both baronial estate and working dairy farm by Frederick Law Olmsted. It is run by a private foundation, who have turned the dairy into a winery. Interiors of the main house are opulent, with terrific and exhaustive servant quarters that we pilfered for ideas for our new bathrooms. The grounds are so large that you have to drive from one spot to another, along azalea-lined carriage roads circling reflecting pools and forests. Was just as good, as it was getting a little drizzly, the only rain on our vacation. Did the winery tour, but passed on a tasting. Left Biltmore, drove through Maggie Valley (Maggie is rumored to be the town drunk) and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Between the fog, rain, and the sharp curves in the road, was a little scary, but fun. Parkway led right to Smoky Mountains National Park, where the roads straightened out a little, mist cleared, and we got sun again as we crossed the Eastern Continental Divide. Incredibly beautiful, with creeks gushing through the rocks on either side of the road every few hundred feet, pheasants, and deer. We were too late to check out the ranger station, but just in time for sunset in the mountains. Pulled into a Super 8 Motel (our chain of choice) in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Main drag in Pigeon Forge is a mini Vegas-esque strip of family hotels, tourist traps, country music houses, and Christian bookstores. Checked out the charms and tshotchkes at a promising stand-and-mini-golf, and turned in.
Monday, May 11
Why Pigeon Forge, you might ask? Dollywood! Ms Parton had grown up in this valley. A gold-mine-themed amusement park, Silver Dollar City, had gone bust here in the 1970’s, leaving the area as dirt poor as Dolly remembered it. She bought the park, remade it in her image, and has created the tourist industry in these parts. It could have been selfish, condescending, and self-aggrandizing. Instead, it comes across as well meant, well done, and a generous gift to the people who raised her. Plus, it’s a great theme (and wholesome) park! Water flume roller coasters that plunge you into the spray, but not before delivering views of the Smokies mountains that surround you. Appalachian crafts are performed and sold live (we bought lye soap). Dolly’s life is told several ways: in a recreation of the cabin she was born in, in a small museum, in a movie (“Heartsongs”) and a live show (“Paradise Road”). For the live “Broadway style” show agents must have scoured the mountains: we suspect every gay man in the Smokies is in the show. Did you know Dolly used to be Porter Waggoner’s partner? Or maybe it was Lyle Waggoner. Whatever. “I Will Always Love You” was written by Dolly to the correct one after she dumped him and went solo (and you think Madonna is ambitious ). The highlight was four women in different shades of blonde wigs (with different bosom sizes too) representing each stage of her life sashaying and singing together to “Here You Come Again.” Dolly confessed via videotape that her feet and waist size are small “because you know, honey, things don’t grow in the shadows.” Michael and I loved it! It was funny, self-mocking and not pretentious.
The movie involved a big screen interactive theater: water splashed on you in rain scenes, butterflies flew around the room when Dolly same to them on screen, etc. Michael had to wonder at Ms Parton’s infatuation with splashing guests when we least expect it - his jump when sprayed during the film was priceless. Mind you, Michael and I were already totally soaked from one of the rides. I got corn dogs and other fried delicacies at Aunt Sarah’s Fry Shoppe, and Michael found a roast turkey leg at Uncle Clem’s Smoke Shack, so good eatin’ was had by all. Other highlights included a “Dukes of Hazzard” type 3-D interactive ride (you sit in the seats, look at the screen, and the car you’re sitting in rocks when the car chase begins). Michael noticed that, aside from himself and one African-American family, everybody was a bit on the pale side.
Leaving town we stopped in the county seat, Sevierville, where there is a not-very likeness of Miss Parton in bronze. Dairy Queen for dinner. Was disappointing, not as good as we remembered from our different childhood trips. Fortunately, had a fireworks supermarket (I can’t make this stuff up!) next door, which helped redeem the stop. Did the Interstate across Tennessee. Saw the World’s Fair tower in Knoxville from the highway. At Nashville checked in to a Family Inn outside of town. Horrible. Bates-Motel-nasty paneling, poor ventilation, and the most expensive night we paid for.
Tuesday, May 12
Discovered the joys of Waffle House at breakfast. Hash browns “all the way” are fried up with onions, peppers, tomatoes and diced ham, and topped with cheddar cheese and chili. Breakfast of champions! Checked out the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Nashville had a World’s Fair before WW I to celebrate the centennial of their founding. The fair grounds make a nice park on a rise overlooking the downtown. The Parthenon is the only full scale replica of the pride of the Acropolis, and since Greece’s lost its top to a Napoleonic explosion this is really where you have to go to get a sense for the building. Of course, it was under renovation, so we got that sense of Athens from outside of a chain link fence. Better than having to eat feta cheese, in any event.
Across TN on Interstate 10. Very dull. Stopped at tourist trap Casey Jones Village outside of Memphis, which has grown around the home of that king of railroad folklore. Decent pseudo-country store. On to Memphis proper, and Graceland. Did the Elvis tour, the planes, the gift shops. Shag carpet on the ceiling and floor, more mirrors than at Hugh Hefner’s, gold record memorials, and seatbelts across the queen-size bed as per FAA regulations. Overall, the house is cool, but smaller than we thought - just the home of a well-to-do family, probably drove the neighbors crazy. Priscilla should have hired a decorator.
We parked down by the river and walked across a glass bridge to Mud Island. The Army Corps of Engineers created the island to improve navigation on the Mississippi, then gave it to the city to do something with. They’ve turned it into a park, whose centerpiece is a to-scale fountain model of the river from below St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Fantastic. We floated a paper cup downstream, watching the eddies and bends and checking out the bronze town maps along the way. Was a useful way to plan our drive for the following day, as all the river crossings are accurately shown. Lake Pontchartrain is represented by a large fountain, and the Gulf of Mexico by a public swimming pool. The excitement sent me into insulin shock; fortunately, they have a decent ice cream parlor on the island. Caught the aerial tram back to our car, and went looking for dinner. One of our travel books recommended a place called Buntyn’s, which had moved since the book was published. The proprietors had stuck a cardboard sign with the new address in the door, and with a little bit of geographic intuition we tracked it down about five miles out into the suburban fringe. Had been a railroad roadhouse at the original site for 80 years, and had only moved a month before. Was worth the trip. Great meatloaf, beets, and peach cobbler. Bread so fresh and warm it melted in our mouths. Very crowded, but very friendly. Checked out a Piggly Wiggly, and cruised the Fed Ex headquarters by the airport. We did an evening drive through the neighborhoods back downtown to Beale Street, which was both smaller and more commercial than I expected. Saw no reason to stop at either a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Cafe, so found ourselves a Super 8 (the best of our trip: refrigerator and microwave!) and turned in.
Wednesday, May 13
This was probably the best road-day of the trip. After Tunica, MS, where the casinos that feed off Memphis cluster, we had a memorable drive through the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is nowhere near the mouth of the river, but is the northwest part of the state near the levee. Much of it is below the rive proper, and all was once divided into large absentee plantations. The poverty lingers, and attempts to lure tourists by evoking the great musicians who came from here only provide a melancholy musical background to the concrete shacks with tin roofs. Nevertheless, Michael liked the local cuisine -- great greasy food -- fried chicken, fried gizzards and livers, fried potatoes, basically fried everything. We traveled “The Great River Road”, which was mapped by states along the Mississippi before the interstates and is in many places forgotten by all but locals. Rice and cotton fields. Stopped at Winterville Mounds State Park, one of the sites of pre-Columbian Mississippian native culture, well interpreted at a ranger station. At Great River Road State Park had an overlook and tower with great views of how the levee actually protects the community. Employees were dressed in what appeared to be green and white striped pajamas. We couldn’t tell if they were prisoners or not, didn’t have the nerve to ask, but suspect so. No chains, but there were what appeared to be overseers. Excuse me, prison guards. Oops, Mississippi Park Service Supervisors.
The River Road took us to Vicksburg. Both being history buffs, we were let down. Unless you want to invest a few days tracking the siege around the area there’s not a lot to see. Every once in a while, between an Exxon and a McDonald’s, you’ll see a rise in the ground and plaque dedicated to the sons of Alabama, or Virginia, or wherever, who protected that spot.
Caught the Natchez Trace Parkway out of town. A very pretty road, but not a lot to see. Fortunately, very little traffic, so we were able to zoom to the only remaining inn on the road, Mt. Locust. National Park Service maintains it and explains how people would float their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, sell their goods and the rafts as lumber, and walk back to Nashville and north on the Trace. Walked around Natchez proper, a beautiful city. It owes its preservation to the fact that, as wealthy plantation farmers closely tied to northern markets, the city fathers sympathized with the Union and turned themselves over to General Grant without much struggle. An antebellum bank bore the motto “Frugality Is the Heart of Wisdom”, or something like that, which of course Michael loved. The old railroad station has been gentrified into a nice gift market and center to buy tickets for surrounding plantation houses. The homes are maintained by an interlocking weave of preservation societies, local and national. The big season to visit (“pilgrimage”) was a few weeks before, so we did not have to deal with crowds. Got barbecue at the Pig Out Inn, and found a Super 8.
Thursday, May 14
Visited two plantation houses before heading out of town. Longwood is the largest octagonal home in America. Construction of the exterior was completed around 1859, but only the ground floor finished before the War. The owner was a Northern sympathizer, which meant that when the Union soldiers weren’t eating his hogs and taking over his homes, the Confederates were burning his cotton crops. Money was not plentiful after that, and the family went on for several generations living in the ground floor. It is plenty spacious and beautifully decorated in a sort of American-Oriental style. The upstairs is a single breathtaking shell of a room, three floors high, leading to the windows in a tower that would have been planned to be a viewing site. We then headed over to Melrose, which is run by the National Park Service. The house was closed for renovation, but the grounds were excellent.
We went to Fat Mama’s for lunch. There’s this “tamale belt” running through the Mississippi Delta, no one knows why. The tamales tend to be deep fat fried, of course, rather than steamed. Fat Mama’s is the premier tamale joint in Natchez, and serves a mean plateful, with pickled onions and hot pickles on the side.
As planned two days before in Memphis, we crossed the River at Natchez, and headed straight west across northern Louisiana. These are the cotton fields that built the wealth that made Natchez. Sort of dull today. Decent if redneck road stops. Just outside Alexandria, dead in the middle of the state, we played out what Michael refers to as “the meat pie incident”. Most of the road stops have gas, 7-11 kind of stuff, and a hot bar with fried food: catfish, tamales, chicken livers, etc. Michael was waiting in line a long time behind several irate locals who were demanding meat pies. No, not the crawfish pies, meat pies! The teased blonde behind the counter mentioned that the last one had just been bought by “that fat boy who just left”. Of course, when Michael met me at the car, I was just brushing the last pie crumbs off my lips. It was tasty! He broke down laughing and filled me in. Somehow, I’ve always thought of myself as big boned, but the folks in Alexandria, LA, would certainly know a fat boy when they see one! Gotta start a diet.
We also had our one close call with the law on this road. A cruiser started following us on Highway 28 across Louisiana, and tailgated us for about half an hour. Michael drove very carefully, and kept the car at 55. As the state trooper gave up on us Michael chortled “Ha Ha, I have cruise control and am a member of the Pennsylvania bar!” Had non-eventful crossings of the Red and Sabine Rivers, and entered Texas. A big sign in the shape of Texas stated “Welcome, you have just crossed the border between Texas and the United States.” Seriously.
Since this road is so little traveled, we had great views of both rivers. After wondering quite what Michael’s rules were on passing other vehicles, I asked him about them. Turns out he knew that a dotted line meant he could pass, and a double solid not. He had no idea what a combination solid-dashed line meant, explaining some of our closer calls. I gave him a pleasant discussion from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles Handbook. I quote: “What is these stupid lines? We never had them in Texas! We have real roads.”
Having both been humbled, we entered hazed covered (from the fires in Mexico) Houston, and drove to Mom’s. She had made us a special Chinese dinner, and afterwards we watched the final Seinfeld and turned in.
Friday, May 15
First thing we drove downtown. Cruised around a bit until we found a parking place for $1.25, as Michael thought $1.50 for Houston parking was outrageous. Parking is a Texan right! Walked a little bit around downtown, checking out the lobbies of Philip Johnson’s Republic BancShares and Pennzoil Place complexes. They’ve turned an old convention center into a movie megaplex, which is interesting. Then into the Harris County Registry of Deeds, where Michael checked on legal status of the family homestead. Everything looked good. He’ll have to come back at end of June for one more relevant piece of business. It went much more quickly than we thought, so we had a morning to play with. Went to James’ Coney Island for a snack. This is a chain of hot dog restaurants across Houston, with excellent dogs. The proprietor, in his friendly Southern way, told me to be sure to come back, and when I mentioned we made it in every time we visited from Washington, he gave us two-for-one coupons for our next order. God, I love the South!
The Whitney had organized a major retrospective of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. He is one of the greatest of the Pop artists, the person who brought photography, silk screen, and collage together. He was involved artistically and/or romantically with Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. He was also a native of Port Arthur, Texas, a mosquito-refinery-redneck pit down the coast from Houston , so of course, they had to have the show. It was too big, though, for any of the three biggest art institutions in Houston. In response, they pooled their resources, and each presented about a third of the show. Was terrific, as it let us see it all in bite-sized pieces.
All of which is prelude to our going to the Contemporary Arts Museum, which had Rauschenberg’s kinetic, mobile, and active pieces. A 20-by-8-foot piece called “Soundings” lit up when you made a loud noise in front of it, displaying the actual piece only when you were active. Worked great when I did a clompy tap dance. “Mud Muse” is a giant tank of mud plopping in junior geysers in response to a prearranged tape and the noises around the piece. Too cool. CAM also has a great shop, and were having their annual stock clearance sale, so we cleaned up. Across the street to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, which had Rauschenberg’s work from the last decade, including his “The 1/4 Mile or Two Furlong Piece”, which was amazing. He adds panels to it all the time, and has been working on it since the mid-1970’s, so it serves as sort of a timeline of both his work and the world around us. The panels are about 10 feet high, some internally lit, some traditional canvas, some breaking out into sculpture. Am very glad we got to see it, and presented so well.
Off to antique and junk shops in the Montrose neighborhood, where Michael fulfilled another trip goal, locating a 1. beautiful, 2. antique, and 3. cheap doorknob for his kitchen door. Lunch was oxtail and chopped steak at This Is It, a soul food restaurant just on the edge of selling out to its success. We met Mom and Mary, Michael’s brother Ellas' wife, and went to a bank to witness and notarize Mom’s new will, which Michael had drawn up. A quiet dinner at home. Mrs. Seto started taking old industrial containers labeled “Monosodium Glutamate” and “Cooking Fat” out of closets, and we unpacked dishes. They were still in their original wood-straw packing from Hong Kong thirty years ago. There were three sets, two red and one yellow, supposedly of 10 place settings. Every time we would count up a particular type of dish and come to an odd number Mrs. Seto would pull out another box. She is a very special person. It was a real discovery trip, of the kind I haven’t had since my Grandmother passed away. Sorted, arranged, and repacked dishes for distribution to Thomas (the eldest brother) and Ellas.
Off to coffee and dessert in Rice Village with our friend Robert. The Village is a little like LA’s Westwood, or like Chevy Chase might be if Georgetown University was alongside it.
Saturday, May 16
Had dim sum out in Bellaire, the new Houston Chinatown, with Mom, Ellas, Mary, and some of Mary’s relatives. Ellas was in town from Mesa, Arizona, for an interview, so Mrs. Seto had all her sons in town at the same time. We took Mrs. Seto to the third installment of the Rauschenberg retrospective, at the Menil Collection, which had his early and most famous pieces, from the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Mom didn’t know quite what to make of the cardboard boxes flattened against the wall, but when I told her that yes, some were just old boxes, but others were clay and silk-screened representations, she seemed to be more intrigued. When told that the box pieces are probably worth thousands of dollars, she said “White folks are crazy! I should get into the art biz. I could make a fortune selling junk like these boxes.” We did spend the rest of the day laughing every time we passed a corrugated carton, in whatever context.
Drove out to Sugarland, where we visited with Thomas and May and their daughters Isabelle and Belinda. If you built Germantown in a cane field once worked by the Texas State Penitentiary for the Imperial Sugar Corporation, you’d get Sugarland. The girls are five and three, and are a delight. Low and behold, when we mentioned that we were going through the dishes, May laughed and brought out several more. We sorted through those, and let them know where to get the rest of their set at the house. Amazing. At least now I know where Michael gets his organization skills! Thomas and May treated us to a delicious Cajun seafood dinner at Papadeaux’s - the portions were enormous, well prepared, and none of us could finish what we ordered. The restaurant is kid-friendly, with a balloon sculptor and courtyard fountain for play, so we took turns taking the girls around. Great fun.
Sunday, May 17
Awoke early, packed the dishes in the car, and said good-bye to Mom. Straight east across Texas, passed Port Arthur and crossed the Sabine into Louisiana. The fog from the Mexican fires was bad, seemed to be causing me itchy eyes. Through Cajun Country along the Great River Road. Visited two plantations below the Mississippi levee, Nottoway and Oak Alley. Nottoway is also known as the White Castle, and is a great restoration/renovation to guest house use. The river has taken over its gardens, and the levee is only feet from the house. Oak Alley is a much simpler home, whose greatest feature is the lines of oaks on either side, many of which predate it. Caught dinner, red beans and rice, at a road house outside New Orleans.
Drove into French Quarter and checked into our guest house, the Biscuit Palace. Our two nights there were a wedding present from our friend Charles Bishop. We almost didn’t get in: the host had left keys for us at the corner store, but we never got that message. Picture me and all my nervousness. After a long day’s drive, in a strange city. As Michael circles the block. Banging frantically on what seems to be an antique garage door. Quite a picture! Fortunately, another guest was leaving the building, and clued us in. The building had been constructed in the late 1700’s for the gentleman who later wrote the legal code of Louisiana under American occupation. A classic French Quarter structure, a heavy gate on the street led to a garden courtyard. Steps took us to open air galleries, off which the rooms opened. Our room had been the original owner’s mother-in-law’s suite. We found a welcome letter from the host and bouquet of flowers from Charles. We unpacked, rested a bit, and savored the air conditioning. Took a night stroll around the Quarter, enjoying the lights of Jackson Square, the art galleries on Royal Street, and the tawdry come-ons of Bourbon Street.
Monday, May 18
Did a quick march down to the French Market, where I introduced Michael to the wonders of beignet at Cafe du Monde. Never wear a black tee-shirt when eating beignet covered in confectioner’s sugar! Went into the Cathedral St. Louis, and crossed the Square to the river. Walked down the river front to Riverwalk Mall. The only other time I had been here, in 1984 for the World’s Fair, this was all fairgrounds. Was interesting to see how the city had put the space back to use, introducing a new streetcar along the water’s edge. There seemed to be convention of gastroenterologists and people in wheelchairs going on - we never figured out the connection. The conflict of wheelchair users and the Vieux Carre’s doors and entries, frozen pre-1900, was a site to behold. The Riverfront Mall’s climate control was welcome, and took us several blocks down to the Warehouse District. The neighborhood is trying to be the SoHo of the South, and is quite a successful rehab. Would live here in a heartbeat, given a job and sufficient help from Mr. Carrier. Walked past the galleries on Julia Street, and the Fifth Circuit Court, from which the case Brown vs. Board of Education was appealed to the Supreme Court. Michael hissed, as this is the court that blocked the University of Texas from using ethnic background as a criterion to determine , and after Reagan judicial stacking is one of the most conservative in the nation. Lafayette Square was the first residential square developed outside the Quarter, but like many of the nice once-residential squares in London, is now surrounded on all sides by institutional structures, some quite beautiful. Michael has this thing against mailing letters at street mailboxes, so we walked up to the main city Post Office, then down to Lee Circle and the Virlane Collection at K&B Plaza. The collection is an outstanding corporate one of modern art and sculpture, some arranged in the plaza outside the building, and some in the first floor lobby spaces. Fantastic, and free. Only hope the gallery is not closed by whoever has bought K&B, which seems to have been a bank. Building nothing to look at, but won an American Institute of Architects award in the late 1950’s. Decided to damn the heat and walk up St. Charles Street. Passed through a neighborhood of streets named after the muses (Calliope, Mnemosyne, etc. - love it!), and into the Garden District. Strolled the District, which lived up to its reputation as a wonderful collection of American architecture from the 1870’s to about 1920. We also visited its cemetery with the famed-for-New-Orleans-high-water-table raised tombs.
Finally, I gave in to either heat stroke, or insulin shock, we’re not sure which. Got a water/iced tea/sweets infusion at a local coffee house, then shrimp po’boys at a bar on St. Charles. Caught the streetcar back into town, getting off and walking up Canal. The old department store area is no healthier than in any other American city, and Rampart Street east was a typical border street. We should have walked back one block into the Quarter, but who knew? Did discover the major gay bars and book store not on Bourbon. Louis Armstrong Park was closed, possibly for the movie that was being filmed in the neighborhood while we were there. Never figured out which or who was starring, just saw the vans and a few street closings. After a quick break at our room shopped our way along Royal, Bourbon, Dauphine, and the French Market (fresh fruit, hot sauce, and pralines). I got a great cast iron piece which I’ll use as an air return register in the new bedroom. Found an inexpensive restaurant across the street from the Market, where we got great stuffed mushrooms and artichokes, and split a muffaletta. LOVE that sandwich! Said our good-bye to the river at the Moon Walk, and did some final shopping in the festival marketplace that was once the Jax Brewery. On our way back to the guesthouse Michael found what looked like a decent audiotape in someone’s trash, so of course, we adopted it as our own. More on THAT below!
Tuesday, May 19
Crossed Lake Pontchartain, whose name trips mellifluously off Michael’s tongue. Cut across the short bit of Mississippi and then a long dull haul through Alabama. Highways there didn’t even have fast food to break the monotony of the pine tree tunnel we seem to prefer in our Interstates. No National Public Radio. We decided to pop in the tape we picked up the day before. Turns out to have been some mother in New Zealand recording a letter to her daughter in America. “Cynthia in town for the Queen Mum’s luncheon.” Very horse ranching and la-di-da. Was more amusing than the local radio, so we invaded their privacy for the length of the tape. Road never came close to any towns - maybe the Feds and state government quarreled when the routes were planned? I think Wallace was governor then, maybe that had something to do with it. Had planned to see several places in Montgomery, but in the end, did a quick drive around the Capitol, stopped at Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial fountain at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and got out of town without even a tip of the hat to native daughter Zelda Fitzgerald. Wonder if she felt the same way?
Crossing into Georgia, were able to spend a few twilight hours at FDR State Park in Warm Springs. This was a wonderful stop. We arrived too late to get into Roosevelt’s Little White House, but were able to walk around the CCC-built cabins and interpretation areas near Lake Delano, and saw some wonderful bridges at sun down. Vaguely reminiscent of the area in New Hampshire where I spent my summers growing up. Did a lightning walk around the closing shops in the village - this is definitely worth a return visit, maybe for a two day stop. Some decent barbecue at one of the only two businesses open after 4PM, the other being a Chinese restaurant of questionable pedigree.
Raced across state to Atlanta, and checked into a Super 8 outside of town. One concern we had on the leg back was not leaving anything in the car. We figured if the car was stolen, eh, it was a rental, but the dishes were irreplaceable, so we carried them in with us every night. We ended up choosing locations out of town, and asking for 1st floor rooms. It worked. We had an hour to kill, and local literature said the Georgia State Farmers’ Market was open 24 hours, so we headed one exit up the highway. Well, it was open, but we were the only people there. Felt very creepy, like we’d discover somebody wearing cement shoes in the next market stall. We suspect it was hopping 8 hours later, but we had an agenda to meet!
Wednesday, May 20
Hadn’t really planned to spend much time in Atlanta, but she seduced us. First, checked out Centennial Olympic Park, a beautifully landscaped area downtown. Great water displays. The city is going to get sick of the Olympic theme at some point, but they’ve preserved it in brick and concrete in the park, so the legacy will be there for a while. Walked over to CNN Center, home of Ted Turner’s empire. A GREAT building lobby! They’ve combined live CNN broadcasts, studio tours, shopping, restaurants, and working building stuff in a dynamic, interesting atrium. Didn’t want to like it, but can’t help myself. Got some Cartoon Network stuff in Ted’s store (Atom Ant t-shirts, half-off!). Whizzed by the Margaret Mitchell House on our way to the High Museum of Art. A terrific collection. Most of the stuff is second best, no first rate masterpieces, but in compensation they’ve arranged the collection well, thematically, in a way that teaches themes in art history and how they cross cultures. They were hosting two first-rate shows, one of Toulouse-Lautrec prints and drawings, the other of Walter Evans photos. Some of the Evans shots had been taken at Nottoway during the Depression; was cool to juxtapose them with our recent memories of the place.
Scooted across Georgia, because of course, we’d spent more time in Atlanta than planned, and into Charleston. Got to the Neck in time for dinner, which we caught at Hyman’s Seafood. She-crab soup, deviled crab po-boy, hush puppies, and the best scallops we’ve ever had. They opened with boiled peanuts, and we have to confess, we don't see the point. Maybe was a way to flavor them in a world before commercial seasonings and dry roasting? Checked in to our B&B, Calhoun House. This was a classic gay B&B, complete with loquacious hosts who expected us to immediately hit the bars. Ran into an acquaintance of Michael’s here from D.C., between whom their was nothing to say. Convinced our hosts that we were really lace-curtain gays, rather than of the disco-party school, and got their advice for walks around town. Had a beautiful, romantic walk around old Charleston, one of the loveliest cities we’ve ever scene. Down King Street, the High Battery, past the old city market (“NOT where the slaves were sold, that’s just propaganda.” Pullease!), customs house, and synagogue. Well preserved, some authentic Colonial, much great ante-bellum eclectic housing after that, and fine Victorians farther out to Calhoun. Like a stroll from Boston’s North End down Beacon Street to Comm Ave, a great progression of American architecture, extending out like the rings of an onion from the Battery.
Thursday, May 21 - 4th Anniversary of Our First Date
This was the day before the Spoleto Festival opened. Our timing was in one way horrible, as we missed all the performances and art that for two weeks turn Charleston into a cultural nexus. On the other hand, we got to see the city all spiffed up, the performers arriving and setting up in the public spaces, without the crowds. Checked out the columns of the Old Charleston Museum in Citadel Park, all that’s left after a fire took the building - neat ruin. Then toured the Charleston Museum, which is a great museum of the history of the city and the Carolina Low Country. Also toured one of their house museums, the Joseph Manigualt House, across the street. Probably 1800-1810, excellent Robert Adam details in a very livable home. In connection with Spoleto, the College of Charleston was hosting a Chinese-American artist who built an installation in their art gallery. “WashingTown” tried to develop the theme of the Chinese community of Charleston, most of whom ran laundries early in this century. What we saw of it did not strike us deeply. Caught lunch at a Blimpie’s on campus - who knew they existed this far from New York? Saw the Battery by day, then headed out of town.
Stopped at the sweetgrass basket stands just outside the city, where African-Americans have been making these distinctive woven items for two centuries. “Classic.” “An artistic investment guaranteed to appreciate in value.” At $60 a basket, one we could pass up, thank you.
Took Route 17 up the coast, which took us into the heart of Myrtle Beach. Great beach community, although a narrower strip of actual sand than expected. Tawdry 1960’s concrete, but classic beach-side retail and food. Got Hawaiian Shave Ice and Italian sausage, and shopped some trashy trinket shops. Was a motorcycle weekend, so we were some of the few visitors not in leather and displaying copious and inappropriate expanses of hirsute flesh.
The city itself runs in four strips parallel to the ocean:
Could the last be émigrés from Hilton Head, perhaps? Did backloads north through North Carolina, along the sounds of the Atlantic. Greenville is a very pretty and well filmed town, an east coast enclave and shooting location for Hollywood. Picturesque farmland between wide rivers and strip-malled towns. Flew through New Bern, where we caught a glimpse of colonial Tryon Palace up a block. Pushed ourselves as far north as we could, giving up at Elizabeth City, just south of Hampton Roads.
Friday, May 22
I had insisted we see the Chrysler Art Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. We’re glad we stopped. The Chrysler family left the city a gem of a collection. The glass is amazing, as are the art nouveau furniture and a temporary show on artistic interpretations of Civil War battlefields. Well sited in a pretty neighborhood of 1920’s grand homes called New Ghent - very “Magnificent Ambersons”. Michael loved the houses there. Lunch at a pub in a converted church, then inland to the Williamsburg Pottery Factory. Discount shopped our way north, stocking up on pots, plants, and other goodies there and at the Fredericksburg WalMart. Introduced Michael to Fuddrucker’s, where he discovered how to turn a fixin’s bar into a complimentary salad. Finally, with NPR on the radio (finally indeed - when that pager satellite blipped, it took NPR with it, not to mention auto-charge-card-use at gas stations) we headed up 395 and into the city, where we unpacked at our houses and collapsed.
In summary: We drove 3,851 miles. We ate inexpensively and well for two weeks, and got to see a bunch of places we’d always wanted to but would not have made a special effort to see separately. We got the dishes and other gifts back safely from Houston to D.C., and did some legal work for Mrs. Seto. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have another half to full day at several of the stops; and we underestimated some of the longer, more boring drives (cross Alabama and Tennessee). Gas was cheap, weather cooperative, and the car comfortable. We had a great time, and still had three days to recover on our return!