Sunday, June 13, 2010

Home to Mifflintown, PA

We had a lot of catching up to do at the start of our final day in VA. However, we needed to start out with a nourishing meal, in this case, at Mancini's down the street. We don't frequently go for breakfast because it's crowded on weekends, but on this weekday we had the place almost to ourselves. We bought a copy of the local paper (some obscure rag called "The Washington Post") and sipped on some locally roasted coffee while we ate.

Once we were satisfied, we hit the road. We decided to try to remain in the spirit of the trip even though we weren't on Route 11 at the time. To that end we took Route 50 most of the way out to the junction with 11 at Winchester. The morning traffic had mostly subsided so it was an uneventful yet pleasant journey through horse country.

At Winchester we took a hard right and started heading north again. We squeaked through WV and MD at a rapid clip, passing Martinsburg and Hagerstown on the way to the PA border. In PA we were going to try and see J&C, who lived not too far off the path. To that end we found ourselves with some time to kill in Chambersburg, PA, which was at the crossroads of 11 and another US Route, the Lincoln Highway (US 30).

We parked the car at the circle in the dead center of town and found our way to a small Latin American grocery, where we bought drinks and pastries. (I also accidentally acquired a not-very-appealing looking guava drink that I carried around for several days). We sat on some nice benches in the shade by the Franklin County Courthouse and had our snacks, where we later observed large "no loitering" signs. Why would they put out benches that invite one to linger and then specifically prohibit lingering?

The Chambersburg Heritage center was across the street and, although we mostly went in to use the bathroom, we decided to peek in the museum part. We were immediately accosted by a teenage guide and led into the museum, where she recited the facts about the town in a seemingly pre-recorded patter. The most interesting points were that, (1) given its preeminence as a crossroads for two major thoroughfares, it was invaded three times by the Confederates during the Civil War and burned to the ground once, and (2) they possess a giant, gold-leafed, rotating statue of Benjamin Franklin. The statue rotates excruciatingly slowly, it turns out, but at least it operates by remote control. The guide reverently showed us how old Ben could face the interior of the museum during the day, but is turned to look out the window in the evening. Disappointingly, she wouldn't let us play with it.

On our way out of town we did a drive-by of one of those wacky Roadside America type things, which was a miniature village in someone's yard. Since we didn't have time to have a long conversation with an old dude with nothing but time on his hands, we couldn't stop. It was then that I made my fatal error in navigation, taking us off on the entirely wrong direction on one of those open-jaw shaped roads. I couldn't figure out why none of the town names were making sense, but eventually it became clear that we were heading SW instead of NW. What's more, our friends were waiting for us and we were in a place with no cell phone reception. Argh!

We let the GPS take over at some point and eventually found ourselves in Lewistown, having completely missed our friends' dinner hour with our roundabout route. After having our waitress explain what OIP meant (original Italian pizza), we ordered some pizza and beers. Somehow Jack's Corona was like $5 but I got a tastier brew for 1/10th of the price. Sadly, the beer was necessary to wash down the sub-edible pizza. Not sure what the OIP designation is supposed to refer to (there were several places in the town that had it), but it was a cruel misnomer since it certainly had nothing to do with authenticity.

Given the lateness of the hour, when we finally did meet up with J&C, they were gracious enough to let us stay the night. We caught up with them on all the goings-on of the kids and watched "Snoopy's Reunion", which was full of plot twists the way the kids got into it. C, however, was not so impressed and kept pointing out holes in the continuity, much to J's chagrin and our delight. It was a great way to end the evening on what had otherwise been a pretty solitary trip.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Greeneville to home

There is a point in each journey when the tide turns. Something changes and sets the tone for the rest of the trip. For us, it was the sudden realization that the tables in the back of the car weren't going anywhere unless we took 'em, and we were falling behind. If we continued at the current rate, we'd never make it to the end.

We started our morning in song, unable to resist humming the strains of Elton John as we ate breakfast in The Tiny Diner attached to our motel. We perused the morning's news (which happened to be from the previous week since the paper was only published that frequently) over our meal. We contemplated but ultimately did not get the vengeance omelet, featuring chicken AND egg, just to report back to SIL, who is skeezed out by such things.

After passing Pal's, a local fast food chain with an eye-catching design, we made our way towards Bristol, a town which straddles the TN/VA line, and is known for being the birthplace of modern country music, recording Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and many others over a period of only a few days. Presently it seemed a bit run down, trying to reinvent itself as an antiques shopping hub. We browsed a little but didn't find any gems.

As we entered VA we began to see more and more old roadside signs for motels, restaurants, drive-ins, garages and the like. Not sure what the uptick was due to--maybe the more southerly part of Route 11 was cobbled together later from more minor roads, whereas this portion was legitimately part of the historical driving route of the early 20th century. At any rate, it broke up the monotony some. We also began to travel more through the centers of towns at some point, which both slowed us down and kept our eyes busy.

Our next stop was to the Dip Dogs stand. We were getting into the territory that I had researched at this point, and naturally my investigations led me to food. Now what differentiates a Dip Dog from a regular corn dog? I couldn't rightfully say, except I think there was less of an emphasis on corn in the batter. I wasn't particularly hungry but had to try one in the name of Science. It was good. I'd stop there again, although I'd be more inclined if they had a public restroom.

And from then on, we careened up the road and then got on the highway, stopping only for a sub-par early dinner in Staunton. It was sad having to leave the route for an extended period, but much of 11 through VA was already known to us so I didn't feel that bad about it, although I did miss out on my Route 11 potato chips in Mt. Jackson, one of the reasons we had gone on the trip in the first place. We got home at some late hour, surely alarming the neighbors who had presumed us out of town for another several days (but not enough for them to call the cops, thankfully).

But the tables were out of the car. That was the important bit.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chattanooga to Greeneville

We were once again struck by the quiet of the traincar when we woke up. I guess most modes of transportation are built to be insulated from outside noise when they're moving, but one is not usually aware of this fact because one is not usually in a non-moving conveyance for any length of time. Our morning's repast was bagels and coffee and a newspaper in a small cafe across the street. (We had been perusing newspapers over breakfast at each of our stops in order to gauge the quality of journalism in the various locales. The Times Free Press wasn't half bad.)

By this point in our journey we were starting to fall behind. Since we didn't have a set itinerary it wasn't really possible to miss out on engagements or anything, but if we didn't start making some progress we would end up having some long highway drives towards the end of our trip. Given that that would defeat the point, it took us a while to decide to stick around town long enough for the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum to open, but ultimately we were glad we did.

The museum was situated out in the outskirts of town in an industrial district. We parked and took a look at the sculpture/fountain outside, which depicted a tow truck operator retrieving a man and child from a vehicle that was mostly submerged in the deep blue pool of water below. Very dramatic. If they've memorialized it in sculptural form, it must've happened, right? We then went in, paid our admission fee, watched a video about those hard-working, valiant men and women that are so often taken for granted. After the film we were allowed into the room that held the old trucks and various memorabilia. There were toy tow trucks, dioramas, tow truck-themed quilts, etc., etc., etc. The Hall of Fame was a literal hall, a corridor filled with pictures of the homliest group of people you ever did see. Next up was the gift shop, where I got some nice postcards featuring an ad for the very first tow truck.

From there we went to Dayton, where the Scopes Monkey Trial was held. The courthouse there had a small museum in the basement. The guy working there was elderly and animated and was having nothing to do with this so-called evolution. Fortunately he buttonholed another group of people in there and was lecturing them, so he mostly left us alone. Once they disappeared we fled to the second story courtroom where the trial was held. It was a toss-up between marveling over the events that took place there inside vs. watching them taking down a large old oak tree that had probably been there when the trial took place outside. The tree won.

There was a farmer's market going on outside, and although we weren't yet in mid-summer-full-on-produce mode yet, they did have a decent selection of items. We got a pound of raw peanuts and some South Carolina peaches. I wasn't quite sure whether the peanuts could be eaten raw or not, but once I tasted one I didn't have any qualms about digging into the rest. They were chewier and sweeter than the dry roasted ones, and very pleasant. So good, in fact, that I might have to try to grow them myself.

Lunch was fried clam boats and sweet tea on the shores of a nearby waterway. Then we continued back towards 11, crossing into Meigs County (surely named after my favorite Quartermaster General of the US Army). For an afternoon snack, we went on a tour of the Mayfield Dairy in Athens, where they bottle milk and make ice cream. We were separated by glass from the production lines, but nevertheless we all had to wear silly hairnets. I guess there's a lot of corporate espionage in the dairy industry, as we weren't allowed to take photos. Strangely, we stopped in front of a glass-enclosed office at one point to have a Q&A with our guide, and sitting out on the desk was the list of companies that they provide store-brand ice cream to. Surely that's no secret, but I would've thought that they'd prefer their customers to think that Mayfield was an exclusive brand commanding a higher price. The ice cream itself (purchased at the end of the tour) was okay, but not great. I wasn't sure what the fuss was all about, but perhaps it's just a good place to take your kids in the summer when they've about run through all your patience.

As the afternoon wore on, we continued to wend our way through eastern Tennessee, stopping at Knoxville to visit the site of the 1982 World's Fair, which figured prominently in my youth. The (surprisingly small!) fairgrounds are mostly empty aside from landscaping at this point, with the only remaining major landmark being the Sunsphere. Fortunately the Sunsphere was open for business, so we stopped in for a beer and watched the city below.

Dusk was approaching as we made our way to the tiny town of Greeneville, electing to stay at the Charray Inn. We were greeted by a most enthusiastic staff member, who seemed elated that we chose to stay there.

Greeneville had signs pointing to the historic center, so we went to check it out as dusk fell. There was the usual assortment of Civil War sites, homes of former Presidents, and so on, but the most striking item was a historical marker that had to do with the lost State of Franklin, the capital of which was situated in Greeneville (the reconstructed capitol building is shown). After the Revolutionary War North Carolina donated some of its land to the feds to help get it out of hock, but the landowners in the area were not terribly pleased by this idea. They elected to secede and become Franklin, an independent state, which lasted for all of 4 years. Greeneville itself hadn't fared much better, becoming a quaint backwater bypassed by the highway. That suited us just fine, though.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tuscaloosa to Chattanooga

Our clean chemical dreams were shattered in the morning when we awoke to find bedbug bites on our bodies. Fortunately we each only had a few--we must not have tasted very good. Unfortunately there was not much we could do to avoid bringing them with us in our luggage if they decided to hitch a ride. (Thankfully there were no repeat incidents or home infestations.)

Breakfast was Waffle House on the way out of Tuscaloosa to Moundville Archaeological Park. We spent the morning wandering around the curious manmade hills and coming up with explanations for their existence. I favored the theory that they were built by the CCC in the 30s to bring some tourism dollars to a place that didn't have much going for it. We didn't find any artifacts, but we did see what appeared to be a boletus mushroom growing in the sandy bank of the Black Warrior River, and also some lifelike displays of the peoples who were supposed to have inhabited the area before the Europeans came and mucked everything up. It was hot, and I took every opportunity to drink from water fountains sprinkled about the property.

This was the day we were changing our car. I had grown quite attached to our spacious sedan and its Louisiana plates, but Birmingham awaited us with a vehicle that had a working outlet for the GPS. As we made our way into town, I couldn't stop saying "ain't no ham like Birmingham!" in a high, wheedling tone, in imitation of one of those oldey timey singers on the "Orange Blossom Special". We decided to take a look at the giant Vulcan statue situated there. He was sculpted to symbolize the growing industrial might of the city back around the turn of the previous century. He commanded a good view of the city on his overlook, but we declined to pay the admission fee to go up.

We rode on from there to the car rental place, where, after a really long time and many consultations, they gave us a massive red Chevy HHR, which I imagined would bring on speeding tickets like flies to cane syrup, especially once we got out of state (actually, we had yet to see a cop on the roads). I signed the paperwork even though it specified that drivers were not allowed in the state of NY.

We had a late lunch in a cozy cafe in Trussville, then headed on up the road. Our next destination was the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, where luggage from the airline industry made its way after being irreparably separated from its owner. I imagined that it would be a treasure trove of exotic items, but it was mostly like a thrift store that had slightly less worn stuff. All the really interesting stuff was in their museum, but that too was sparse. Jack managed to find a few reasonably-priced shirts, and I overpaid for a pair of shorts. Since I desperately needed shorts, though, I suppose I didn't overpay by too much.

We meandered our way back towards 11 and then spent a couple minutes in Georgia, a place where Jack had never been (aside from the ATL airport). He didn't feel like he spent a sufficient amount of time there after this excursion to add it to his list. Somewhere on this stretch he got it in his head that the only thing to do was to stop in Chatanooga and spend the night in a train car.
I called up the hotel and asked if they had any last minute discounts, and they did for regular rooms but none for the cars. We decided to spring for it, thinking it would make a nice contrast to the previous night. We rolled into town right around sunset, and entered the beautiful old train station to check in. Once they told us how to find our berth on the sprawling campus, we parked and entered the world of train geeks.

The train geeks were almost exclusively male and of any age, from about 3 to 85. They were giddy with the fact of being there, even if they weren't sleeping in a car (not a lot of people were).
Once we got in our own and got ourselves situated, we checked out the eating options. This was almost a mini-amusement park unto itself, with different eating experiences at different price levels. We opted to go off-site, to the old train hotel that had been converted to a microbrewery/restaurant, the Terminal Brewhouse, next door. We sat on their outdoor patio having some very nice beers and pizzas as the last of the sunlight left the sky. We had a great view of Lookout Mountain in one direction and the awesome "CHOO-CHOO" sign for the hotel in the other. And for once, we were not suffocatingly hot.

After we walked around the neighborhood a bit and saw a small slice of town that appeared to be simultaneously giving in to decay and resurrecting itself, we retreated to our private car for a very peaceful night.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

For the cartographically inclined

Approximate daily routing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hattiesburg to Tuscaloosa

Due to the previous evening's cruising, we had already picked out the spot for the morning meal: Shipley Do-nuts, which caught our eye due to the appealing, donut-shaped sign. Once inside we ordered coffee and another delicious fried breakfast. We asked how long it had been open as we marveled about the open floor plan which allowed full view of the frying operations. They had been there about 30 years. We sat down to consume our treats as some of the early Sunday morning traffic trickled in.

One gentleman, clearly well-known to the staff, ordered a donut and a carton of milk and sat down near us, all the time speaking loudly and cheerily about various Jesus-related things. He proceeded to cut his donut into 1/6ths with a plastic knife and then eat it with a fork. I guess that's one way to savor your food for a bit longer, but it just seemed wrong.

After eating we took one last pass through town, mainly to see if the Coney Island Cafe had opened up, as they were advertising blueberries for sale on their window. It wasn't, and as we were stopped at a stop light on our way out, a truck full of what looked like construction debris pulled up next to our car and the guy motioned to Jack to roll down his window. He said "I got shit flying off my trailer all over the road, man; I really need a cigarette!" Jack was sad to have to disappoint him. We should probably carry cigarettes around with us at all times so we can spread good will wherever we go. You never know when they'll help you out of a jam.

As luck would have it, we encountered a fruit stand/market not too far out of town. We got some blueberries there as well as some "cane syrup", the purpose of which is unknown to us but it looks like light-colored molasses. Due to my reprehensible diet over the past few days I immediately launch into berry eating when we get back in the car and stain my tongue a deep bluish-purple.

The problem with looking at maps is that you get intrigued by places simply because of their names. It was thus with Hot Coffee, so we detoured off the route to check it out. The town was nothing more than a crossroads with some houses, a shuttered grocery (which, according to the sign, was in "Downtown Hot Coffee", and a general store advertising that they were the welcome center for the town. Obviously the path to Hot Coffee was more well-traveled than I had anticipated, judging by the guest book that showed visitors from as far away as Japan. As Jack took a look at the merchandise I cornered one of the two women working there and asked her about the "hoop cheese". She generously gave us a thin slice to try, and it was mild, cheddar-like and tasty. I would've bought some if I had had any means of keeping it cool. Jack did get a t-shirt and mug, and I got some recipes that included cane syrup as an ingredient, so all was good. And since I know you'll ask, they did look like they were set up to serve free coffee to visitors, but the pot wasn't brewing when we were there.

Up the road a piece we stopped off at Dunn's Falls.
The mill seemed to have a termite issue so it felt a little treacherous walking around in there, perched high on a bluff over the Chunky River. We hiked around a bit in the withering midday heat and I took off my shoes and dipped my toes in the cool water, but it was hot enough that we were looking forward to getting back in the car to take advantage of the AC.

Jack's spotty memory of things he had written down to do on the trip included this intriguing tidbit: that the Queen of the Gypsies was buried in Meridian. It was a good stopping point for lunch anyway, so after we grabbed some Mexican food we cruised around a bit until we found what we thought was the right cemetery. Given that there was no one else around we parked on the main road through the final resting place, and headed off in separate directions to try and find it, shouting back to each other when we encountered something interesting. In the end, though, we couldn't have missed it: it was covered in beads, photos, dead candles and other detritus. In what was a major sacrifice for Jack, he allowed me to take the fruit pie purchased a day earlier in LA to give to the Queen, in hopes that she would make the rest of our trip as interesting as it had been thus far.

A little while later we crossed over into Alabama and through the town of Eutaw, the town square for which contained a massive yet empty turn of the century municipal building. Not too much further along we encountered an abandoned schoolhouse buried in the scrub by the side of the road and decided to check it out. We wandered around among the rotting furniture, broken glass and collapsing roof, enjoying the eerie sensation of a place where something bad must've happened, or they would've salvaged more of the stuff out of it. Anyway, that's how I chose to interpret it. We didn't explore the basement, which I'm sure would've held even more treasures.

We arrived in Tuscaloosa near dusk. We took a couple loops around the city evaluating our motel options and eventually settled on the Masters Inn for a very cheap price. The room was clean and quiet and smelled of a recent chemical bath, all reassuring signs for a place of this price. We drifted off to sleep to the aromas of Pine-Sol and bleach.

Friday, August 07, 2009

NOLA to Hattiesburg

New Orleans was in the grips of a rainless month in June, although the humidity was quite high. All the Spanish moss had shriveled up back onto the branches of the oak trees, resembling the arm hairs of a hirsute 70s porn star. While our room was nicely conditioned, it was a bit of a shock to leave the building early in the morning and find it so hot and sunny. We asked the person at the front desk if he could recommend another coffee and beignet place that was not the madhouse at Cafe du Monde, and he suggested a more low-key competitor. The beignets were hot, fresh, and delicious, and we subbed the normal cafe au lait with the iced version. The one sour note was that, in spite of it being in a courtyard that really only served the restaurant, it still smelled like stale vomit. The French Quarter gets up in my nose when I go there and won't let go till I leave the neighborhood. We walked down to the nearly shadeless waterfront park to say hi to the Miss-sipp, then went to go check out and hit the road to start our epic journey. Shortly in we discovered that our GPS unit didn't work, most likely because there was a blown fuse for the electrical hookup.

Not having a destination except for Burlington in 10 days made it a little tricky to decide when to stop, but we pretty much stopped everywhere that looked interesting. It was too early to get po' boys, but we kept our eyes open for some place that might have them as we drove. (For some reason all the Asian places we passed referred to them as "poor boys".) Our first stop was the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. There was a little parking lot with some interpretive signs and a boardwalk out over the water. We saw some cool birds and dragonflies and stuff. Back in the car, Jack got a shot of the sign as we started our Route 11 journey a few miles down the road.

A mile or so further on, we passed through Irish Bayou, a community that amounts to a strip of land bordering either side of the road, and water beyond. It was apparently almost entirely destroyed during Katrina, but seemed to be back in operation by the time we drove by. The one thing that was undamaged was the castle house, which looked like it probably ate hurricanes for breakfast. We stopped at a gas station for water, a LA map and a convenience store lemon pie.

Next we crossed Lake Pontchartrain and sang all the songs we knew about it (1), then headed into Slidell and sang all the songs we knew about it (also 1). We cut away from 11 to head towards Abita Springs, thinking it would be cool if we capped both ends of our trip with brewery tours. The brew pub was pretty much the only game in town, judging by the throngs of people inside waiting for a table, but the actual brewery sits far outside of town. Before we headed out there we stopped by the town museum, situated in a former train station, and hit the water park fountain.

Parking was nearly impossible at the brewery, but eventually we scored one of the last spots. Once we had been given wristbands which cleared us for drinking and were issued our plastic cups, we got in line for the freeeee beer from the taps behind the bar. Since we were so late for the tour, we only got a single beer which we drank while watching the introductory movie, but there were people who were pouring themselves a brew and immediately getting to the back of the line, so some must've managed to get down three or more before we went down onto the factory floor. I bet the tour was a regular thing for some locals--cheaper than a drive-thru daiquiri.

The tour was terrible--the woman was speaking through a megaphone and was almost entirely incomprehensible and she was also reading from a piece of paper. It was almost like she wanted to admit that people were on the tour as a courtesy and really wished they could just get back to the free beer. Which, before too long, they did, but not before I noted that they were using some Sharples centrifuges in there. There was a sign over the water fountain that it had pure spring water piped into it, so I filled up my cup and weaved my way through the people who were back in line and headed for the open road again.

Before too long we had crossed the border into Mississippi and were thinking about where to stay.
At Hattiesburg we bought MS and AL maps and went to the very nice train station. It was obviously a large junction point for freight, but at that hour there were only some idled cars with graffiti and a rusting engine. We thought they'd have tourist information, but the station was shut tight, as was the most of the rest of downtown on this Saturday afternoon. We came up with some Plan Bs for places to spend the night and eat and then settled on the Western Motel and Brownstones, respectively. The former was out by the strip malls, but the price was good and the room was quiet. The young woman at the front desk reminded me of the columnist Jean Teasdale from The Onion--I could just see her going home to her apartment cluttered with cats and her wacky earring collection. She was trying to ignore the skinny, nervous guy pacing in the lobby who didn't seem to have anywhere else to go.

We headed out for an okay meal with local beer at Brownstones, and then watched part of a really long train pass by down the street. We returned to the hotel and took a walk in the dark down some quiet residential streets and then got some Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan ale for drinkin'. Although there didn't seem to be much going on in the city since college was not in session, after dark there were a fair number of people cruising in their shiny vehicles, playing loud music and looking at each other.

None of that for us, though. It was time to rest and get refreshed for another day on the road.