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South and Back Again

October 25, 2006

Grab a cup of your preferred beverage and settle in—here’s my road trip report. If you just want to look at the pictures, they’re here.

Day 1—Home to Rolla, Missouri
This first day was spent driving through places we’ve already spent a fair bit of time in: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and the part of Missouri around St. Louis. I’d hoped to connect with a friend I haven’t met in person yet once we hit Missouri, but we couldn’t coordinate our schedules. That was probably for the best because Mr. Karen and I got a late start from home for no reason I can quite determine. We were mostly packed the night before and our target departure time was a very reasonable 10 a.m., but it was almost noon by the time we finished all the last minute stuff and made a stop at the ATM to load up on cash. Eh, I guess that’s part of the charm of a road trip–no need to rush to leave the house to make the plane.

Once we got going, we made steady progress, stopping only to pee and eat. It was full dark by the time we passed through St. Louis, which meant the Gateway Arch (a.k.a. the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) was lit up all pretty, which meant I felt compelled to take a picture even though we were zipping by at 60 or 70 miles an hour (Mr. Karen was driving at the time). Oh, digital photography, how I love thee for not making me feel at all guilty for taking shots of anything and everything that catches my eye. Just after the arch, we passed New Busch Stadium and marveled at how it was all lit up–we’d completely forgotten about the NLCS. Duh. We stopped for gas not too far past St. Louis and not too long after that hit our first construction delay not too long after that, so I was glad I’d peed at the gas station. I was also glad to stop for the night when we hit Rolla (rhymes with “holla”, I understand), because 12 hours on the road is quite enough.

Day 2—Rolla to Ft. Smith, Arkansas
When I looked out the window of the hotel room in the morning to make sure the car was still there (I didn’t really expect it to be gone, checking is just a habit) I saw there was a pretty little pond with a sidewalk all the way around. If I’d noticed it was there the night before I might have gotten up earlier so I could have walked it before we had to leave to make our lunch date—ah, who am I kidding, I probably would have still slept in. Next stop was Joplin to meet Kelly and Anthony for our first buffet of the trip. Mmm, pizza and fried things.

After lunch, I took Mr. Karen on a driving tour of the town to show him what I’d seen when I came down on business trips in years past. Then we made our way down to northwest Arkansas, stopping along the way at the George Washington Carver National Monument (which, like Notre Dame Cathedral and other sites we’ve stopped at on previous vacations, was under construction, though I don’t see how they could have known we were coming because we didn’t decide ourselves until we saw the signs on the highway). It had been raining or threatening rain all day so we did not take the walk out to the cabin that Mr. Carver sometimes visited but just looked at the pictures in the temporary visitors’ center before heading south. We stopped for gas just before the Arkansas state line and the station we chose based on what side of the road it was on happened to have a huge liquor store instead of a little convenience store like most stations have, so we browsed for a bit and I got some of the Moscato di Asti I’ve been looking for and Mr. Karen got a couple small boxes of wine, almost like juice boxes for grown ups. The rain followed us to Mr. Karen’s aunt and uncle’s house, where we had dinner and chatted for a while before making our way to Ft. Smith to spend the night.

Day 3—Ft. Smith to Tupelo, Mississippi
We awoke to find it was still raining but decided to head to Petit Jean State Park anyway, hoping it would clear up in time to let us do some hiking without getting soaked. It didn’t, but our drive was not wasted, as we had lunch at the lodge in the park. I was delighted to see the cup of mayonnaise packets on the table as well as fried cheesecake on the dessert menu–what’s vacation for if not to indulge, after all. After lunch we sloshed through the rain to the Cedar Falls overlook and peered at the waterfall through the mist and fog before heading to the nearby Museum of Automobiles. They have a very nice collection and it was relaxing to admire the vehicles in the quiet atmosphere (only disrupted once by the player piano banging away). We saw Bill Clinton’s Mustang and Elvis’s Ranchero and Winthrop Rockefeller’s Cadillac (complete with solid silver hood ornament) and a beautiful Auburn Speedster and lots of other interesting cars. Then it was time to get into our own vehicle and drive some more through increasingly bad weather. When we got into our hotel room in Tupelo we found there was tornado warning in effect. Probably just as well I didn’t know that earlier; I was tense enough with the gravel and dirt from the shoulder washing onto the road without worrying about a funnel cloud too.

Day 4—Tupelo to Jackson
We’d talked about stopping in Memphis to see Graceland, but that didn’t work out, so we did the next best thing and visited Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo. The museum was closed for renovation so we just looked at the house (tiny) and the gift shop (big). After our second lunch buffet of the trip, we spent the afternoon and early evening driving down the Natchez Trace Parkway, which was very pretty, especially since it had finally stopped raining and we could see the scenery. We tried a bit of hiking, but the rains the day before had left the path rather soft in many places and covered by small lakes and streams in others; struggling through the shoe-sucking mud wasn’t that fun so we turned back after giving it a good try. Later we found an easier, gravel-covered path and did that whole loop. It was just getting dark as we came into Jackson and I took many shots of the gorgeous sunset out of the window of our moving car. When we got to the hotel, I grabbed the camera from the door pocket where I’d stashed it and it slipped out of my hand and hit the asphalt. Uh oh. I’d accidentally dropped my new work cell phone in the parking lot at lunch and it came away with only a tiny bit of cosmetic damage, so I hoped this would turn out the same, but no. The camera was broken. I put fresh batteries in, still broken. I tried the wall adapter, still broken. I tried attaching the camera to my laptop to see if it was just a problem with the display, but no, broken. Crap, crap, crap. We’d been planning on getting a new camera, since this one was old and bulky and misbehaving periodically, but we hadn’t planned to get one this soon.

Day 5—Jackson to New Orleans, Louisiana
After breakfast, we went to Walgreen’s to get a disc of the pictures on the card in the broken camera (I had this wacky idea I might have time to start formatting them for this entry while we were still on the road—ha). Then it was on to Target to see if they had the cameras on the short list I’d compiled in my online research the night before. I figured we’d start there because I wanted to be able to return it in another city if need be, and there are Targets pretty much everywhere. We ended up leaving with a Canon PowerShot SD600 Digital Elph. That seemed fitting, as we’d gotten a first-generation film Elph for our 10th wedding anniversary trip to Paris, and here we were on our 20th anniversary buying another Elph.

Because the battery for the new camera needed to charge before we could use it, I don’t have any pictures of our drive down to New Orleans. I wish I could have taken a photo of the BLT I had at lunch, as it was the best one I’ve ever had, mostly because the bacon was both crispy and plentiful. If the kitchen hadn’t closed five minutes after we got there I might have ordered another one. “Closed” seemed to be the theme of that town; the quilt shop down the street had hours posted of 10 to 5 but was shut up nice and tight when we got there around 3. Oh well, not meant to be.

Driving into New Orleans from the west, we didn’t notice any obvious storm damage. If we’d been there pre-Katrina and knew what it was supposed to look like, perhaps we would have, but as it was we couldn’t really tell if the out of skew buildings we saw were storm ravaged or just suffering normal decay. After we checked into our hotel, we walked to the Aquarium of the Americas only to find it had just closed for the day; it was a similar story at the Riverwalk mall nearby. Thwarted! It turned out okay, though, as we happened upon a restaurant off the river where we had quite a tasty dinner. I was served a ridiculously large portion of goat cheese ravioli but it was so delicious I had to finish it. Why I thought dessert was a good idea I do not know; the piece of carrot cake I got was enormous and I barely managed to make a dent in it.

During dinner, I was admiring the posters on the wall of the restaurant and wishing I could take a picture of my favorite. Just before we left, I remembered that my new work cell phone has a camera in it. Duh–if I’d thought of that before I could have been snapping pics all day. I was so happy when I got a shot of the poster I liked. I am not as happy now, as I find that Verizon makes it all but impossible to get photos off the phone without paying them for the privilege, and that’s just annoying. Do they not get enough of my employer’s money already? Evidently not. (Update: I did finally manage to get the photo of the poster off the phone. Now I too can be one of those people who apologizes for crappy cellphone images.)

When we got back to our room, the champagne and chocolate covered strawberries had arrived (they came with the romance package I’d booked for our anniversary), but we were too full to even think about eating more. We did manage to find room for some champagne, though!

Day 6—New Orleans to Montgomery, Alabama
We slept in, went downstairs for the breakfast buffet which was sensibly open until lunchtime rather than 9 or 9:30 like other places, came back up to the room and ate strawberries while enjoying the view. Then we headed out to explore the French Quarter. After about six blocks (Mr. Karen says it was three but don’t believe him), I was ready to quit and go find something to do inside because it was just miserably hot. I was melting—melting, I tell you. Yeah, yeah, picturesque, but I’m melting over here. Fortunately, it started raining and that cooled things down and I was able to start enjoying the sights more. Since so many of the buildings have balconies, we didn’t even get too terribly wet.

After a late lunch, we retrieved our luggage from the bell desk at the hotel and retrieved our car from the valet (only after he brought down the wrong car and then told us we needed to see the cashier, who told me I owed them $30, which surprised me since I’d paid for parking when I checked out that morning; good thing I knew where I’d stashed the receipt). Driving out of town to the east, we saw lots of evidence of Katrina–whole streets of houses uninhabitable, some with FEMA trailers dotting the front yards, businesses shut down, their signs blown out. It was sobering, especially realizing this was more than a year later.

Day 7—Montgomery to Commerce, Georgia
Swayed by AAA calling it a gem attraction, we started our tour of Montgomery at the First White House of the Confederacy, where I was happy to find several antique quilts to admire. Then we walked around the state capitol grounds, with its gigantic memorial to the Confederate war dead. It was about this time that Jen called to confirm our plans for that night; it was only her mention of a taking a late lunch that made me realize I’d completely forgotten we needed to travel from Central to Eastern time zone when we’d set the meeting time. Oops. We made a quick tour of the tiny F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum (arriving, as seems to be a habit of ours, just before they closed) before hitting the road to Georgia.

We made good time right up until the point we had to head out of Atlanta to Athens. Then it was traffic, traffic, traffic, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in days. Eventually we made it to the meeting spot and Mr. Karen dropped me off while he went to park the car. It being the night before a UGA football game, I wasn’t sure how easy that would be, but he returned after not too long saying he’d found a spot in a lot where he ended up paying with one of the little boxes of wine we’d bought in Missouri (gotta love a college town). Jen arrived not too long after and was completely nice about our late arrival (I mean, we’d called, but still, we were very, very late).

We ended up at a Thai restaurant which had cute hats on all the chairs and served the largest glasses of plum wine I’ve ever seen. Before too long, Robyn joined us and we talked and laughed and ate until after the restaurant closed. I was so glad to finally meet these two lovely ladies in person. Fortunately we could continue our bonding after the restaurant closed because this being a college town there were plenty of other establishments to choose from. I was a tiny bit disappointed that we did not get experience bathroom karaoke, but maybe that was the universe’s way of telling me I have to come back for another, longer visit.

Day 8—Commerce to Knoxville, Tennessee
We’d made a lunch date with family in South Carolina, so we had to get up and on the road early. Fortunately the beautiful weather continued from the day before and that made it a bit easier to take. We arrived at our destination right on time and before too long we were hitting yet another buffet. This one specialized in BBQ, so I had to sample four kinds. I had to.

We ate dinner in North Carolina with the founder of Purple Systems, who is also Mr. Karen’s college roommate. He’s semi-retired now and he and his wife and children are getting settled in their new place in the mountains. They’ve got lots of land and a beautiful house and several outbuildings (one of which is another, smaller house) and horses and goats and chickens and a creek and a very fancy pool that’s under construction and all sorts of other stuff.

Day 9—Knoxville to Home
We spent almost the whole day on I-75, a route that’s familiar from the times we’ve driven down to Florida and back. I’ve never done it in the fall, though, and we were fortunate to hit it this trip at peak color in Tennessee and Kentucky. At least I think it was peak color, because I cannot imagine it being any prettier than it was; it was almost too beautiful. I took many pictures out of the moving car, but we also got off at an exit to nowhere just to look at the trees.

The other highlight of the day was a visit to the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin. We ate lunch before we got there, so did not consume any chicken but just looked at the artifacts, which were surprisingly interesting. I learned that bobblehead dolls existed before plastic, that without I-75 we wouldn’t have KFC, and that the Colonel posed for the cover of a record album called “Tijuana Picnic”. Most things were labeled well, though there was one room with mystery items— the statue of the Colonel I understood, the hamster cage, not so much. Driving out of town, we saw more than one billboard proclaiming that Halloween is a “devil thing” and urging us to ask our pastor about it. I don’t think so. If my pastor is going to tell me that little kids dressed up as princesses and pirates are doing the work of the Dark Lord, I need to find a new church.

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful. We saw a trailer with tinted glass that must have been carrying celebrity horses and drove through Cincinnati just as the Bengals game ended (and later were passed on the road by a minivan painted orange with black tiger stripes) and it started raining again but at least it wasn’t snowing like it had a couple days before we left on vacation. We got home in time to watch the Vikings game that had taped earlier in the day and the end of game 2 of the World Series–go Tigers!

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