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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


If that Myers-Briggsish seminar we took at work recently confirmed one critical component of my personality, it's that I'm not good at planning vacations. I'm content to skim a guidebook and turn down the corners of a couple pages containing the highlights of a given place, which I may or may not get to depending on how interesting wandering the streets is.

Jack had some illness of lethargy which prevented him from conducting his normal amount of research. I was getting over a sickness myself, and was a few days ahead of Jack in terms of recovery. My main goal for the first day of the trip was not to cough so much upon boarding the plane that they kicked me off and stranded me at home. Everything else was a bonus. Jack had prepared a good set of notes on MS and AL, and I wrote down a couple of things about NY. We were bringing a book about TN, too. My major preparation effort was going to the Roadside America site and coming up with a list of every wacky thing within 30 miles of Rte. 11. We decided to forgo purchasing maps, since we could pick them up at welcome centers or tourist information centers.

Up until the minute the cab arrived we were throwing stuff in bags and getting ourselves ready in the most disorganized manner possible. Generally speaking I'm of a mind that as long as one has a credit card (and a passport if one is going overseas) then everything will ultimately be fine. It wasn't long after we got to the airport, however, that we discovered that we (I) had somehow inadvertently left Jack's detailed notes at home. That deflated a bit of our anticipatory excitement, although he did manage to remember some highlights.

We got off the plane, got our rental car, and asked one of the staff where she thought we might get a good breakfast nearby. She suggested driving the non-highway route into New Orleans. The road was peppered with various edge-area sights: box stores, vacant lots, decaying older strip malls. This one had a difference, though; every so often we'd pass a drive-thru daiquiri joint. It was thus dubbed the "Drinkin' and Drivin' Highway".

A pancake house with a good sign beckoned us from the side of the road. We went in and got seated at a booth. Our waitress was very friendly in the Southern manner. I asked her what she suggested off the menu and we finally arrived at a Belgian waffle with pecans. Whoever heard of such a thing?? Jack got pigs in blankets: pancakes wrapped around breakfast sausages. I got the better of the two. Very fresh pecans both in the batter and on top of the waffle. It was excellent.

Knowing we were too early to check into the hotel, we took a bit of a roundabout route to get there. On the way, we happened to see an estate sale sign. It was a Friday, and frequently the best pickings can be found before the weekend hordes descend. We made a snap decision to stop in to see what kinds of things people down south kept. We parked and then Jack was asked to move the car back by an elderly woman who had apparently never street-parked in her life, since you could easily fit a Shriner car in the space between the two vehicles.

The house was an upstairs-downstairs duplex and we wandered the lower floor looking at the years of accumulated stuff which was remarkably similar to the stuff you find in NoVA. The last room had they holy grail: Heywood-Wakefield end tables at a price unheard of up here. We did one of those "I-don't-know-what-to-do" agonizing dances for a minute, and then decided that if they could fit in our rental car we should take them. We announced this to the salesperson and she emphasized what a great deal we were getting. She offered to throw in a couple of books for free, which was a bonus since we had planned on getting books on the road.

They fit in the car, and so we made off with them and then went to the hotel to check in. Our room wasn't ready yet so we left our bags and drove back towards the Garden District for a wander. It was midday and very hot. Fortunately, the shops beckoned with open doors and icily blasting AC, so we got some breaks once in a while. After stopping for drinks at a bar, we made our way back in the direction we came via side streets, which were quiet and still. Katrina's impact was still evident: some houses were marked with the symbols that emergency responders used in the aftermath, some were left to rot, and others were being slowly consumed by vines. It was sad that such a beautiful neighborhood was still so visibly suffering.

Once back at the hotel we got our room and had a siesta before turning our thoughts to dinner. We decided to go back to Herbsaint, where we had gone last time we were in town. I don't know whether it was because there was no large conference town or because of summer torpor or the slow recovery, but we had no problem getting a table during prime time at this award-winning restaurant.

We both got cocktails, Jack a sazerac and me a Pimms cup. Jack got a dish of gumbo and a plate of pan-fried gnocci with ham and asparagus, and I got a tomato and burrata salad and pork belly with creamed corn. The waiter "didn't take [me] for a pork belly type." I wonder what he would've picked out for me? It was all very satisfying, but Jack won this round.

After that we took a stroll around the French Quarter. I realize why the French Quarter exists, and that people like it, but it is just not my thing. There were fewer people there as well, which meant fewer bands playing music. We stopped into the TI for a map of LA but they didn't have one, although they did have ghost tours aplenty. We walked over to the Faubourg Marigny and nothing of interest caught our ear, so we headed back towards the hotel. We stopped in Jackson Square for a bit, took in the sight of the punk teens and the palm readers, and then called it a night.

Monday, July 06, 2009

God bless America.

"I love your Americana decor, and the wagonwheel table just screams 'western euthanasia'!"

Who can we blame for this typo? The loss of good copyeditors at newspapers? Poor spellers who rely too heavily on spell checkers who also don't notice when their second letter is obviously incorrect? Bill Gates? All of the above?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Points south

Five p.m. on Friday we were informed that a guest house was available on Saturday. We had been wanting to get out of town and all the parks' cabins were full or far away, so we jumped at the opportunity to spend the night in Spottsylvania County.

Saturday morning we got up, made coffee and egg and brie sandwiches on rye, packed up, then started heading south. The drive on 95 was a dream--no one seemed to be up yet, or something, because we encountered no slow-downs. Our first stop was the Fredericksburg Tourist Information office to pick up some maps and pamphlets. We wandered towards the river, where there were masses of boxelder bugs hanging out on all the structures. They looked harmless enough, but I think opening up my screen door one fine spring morning and discovering the wall on either side coated with these things would still give me the heebie-jeebies.

10 a.m. on a Saturday in a college town is a great thing. Students are busy working off the previous night's drunk, and the streets are relatively free from their element. We walked back up to the shopping drag, which contained antique shops and not much else. Jack was hoping to buy a magazine, but we didn't encounter any normal stores that would carry such an item. We did manage to acquire a piece of a chocolate-covered digestive biscuit, though.

As the town began to retreat from its somnolence, we headed south and sought out the Blue and Gray Brewing Company, which was in an industrial park that upon entry was an exact replica of the one where Old Dominion did its thing, with the exception of one of the facilities having a Mary statue in front of it. The older part was where the brewery was actually located, however, and that section looked like it had been there for a good while.

It was a fairly warm morning, causing me to regret at intervals having worn a long-sleeve shirt when a breeze wasn't going, but the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees when we entered the dank, cavernous red-brick historic warehouse space where the brewery set up shop. There was a small bar for tastings and we got to try all of their standard beers plus an oak-barrel pale ale, which had an intense buttery-caramel-y aroma. We then took a tour that went around the inner perimeter where all the tanks were located and got a couple more samples right out of the tanks. We were bummed that we were going to miss the St. Patrick's Day parade that the brewers put on every year in the industrial park the following week...can't imagine who all would come out for that.

On the way out of the park, which was crisscrossed by train tracks, we saw some people in an open boxcar doing something with model trains. I, being me, pulled over and asked if we could take a look. Perhaps a mistake, given that it took us nearly a half hour to get back out again due to an enthusiastic soliloquist from the Rappahannock Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (Current Chapter priority #1: to get an address from the county!). They too were getting ready for the biggest event of their year--next week's parade at the brewery, at which they'd put out a whole slew of model trains and open up some of the other train cars to the public, as well as have small trains to ride on. ("Do you know any kids? They might want to come!") Jack got in the only non-train-related question, which was if they knew what industry formerly occupied the site. It was a manufacturer of cellophane, we were informed, which closed in the 70s. Then it was more train talk, about themes of models and the speed of setting them up and how they're operated ("We stand back here and work the buttons!"). By this point we were famished and all full o' train information, and started backing towards the boxcar steps to escape. It was tough, but we managed to extricate ourselves. It was all I could do not to peel out of the lot.

Lunch found us in Spotsylvania Courthouse, the county seat and not much more than a crossroads road surrounded by outsized justice-related buildings. We had lunch at the Courthouse Cafe, which was uncrowded except for a couple winding up their meal over coffee and smokes and a young man unrequitedly hitting on the teen-age waitress. We both had a tasty patty melt as we perused sections of the Free Lance-Star and as the waitresses hung tacky St. Patrick's Day decorations around.

We then crossed the street and went to the Spotsylvania County Museum, housed in a gothic revival church. It contained a motley collection of gewgaws from county residents, including some dumbbells manufactured in the 21st century in a case next to some artifacts from area Indian tribes and the last cellophane manufactured at the aforementioned factory. Anything goes, apparently. The museum minder sat behind her desk and scolded her daughter repeatedly while we were there: "Serenity, get out of there!" while her son Autumn sat on her lap. We thanked her for staying open for us and picked up some pamphlets of area attractions, then walked back across the street to check out the old jail, with its three-foot thick walls, next to the new detention center. We failed to find the old Confederate graveyard due to the map being not to scale, but I'm sure we looked suspicious to all the justices of the peace and whatever in all the many buildings as we slowly walked around the campus.

Heading west, we crossed Lake Anna and then crossed it again on our way to our destination. When we got there, not having received any specific instructions from our host, we parked at the Big House where our hosts lived and went to the back door, which appeared to be the main point of entry. We ascended to the screened-in porch and rang the bell and waited. After a minute or so, the owners, a couple with widely disparate ages, came around the side of the house to meet us--apparently they had been waiting for us at the cottage. Oops! We drove back over to our driveway and re-parked. The husband told us about the 18th century homestead we were staying in and took us on a quick tour of the tiny upstairs, which was normally roped off. The house had been disassembled in Louisa County, moved to this location, and reassembled on the spot of a previous dwelling. The wife, quiet throughout the tour, pointed out the possessions that were owned by her family, who had lived on the property generations ago. This reed-thin woman, swimming in the sport coat she was wearing and dwarfing her husband by a good six inches or more (not including her Fundamentalist-Mormon-chic hairstyle which added another 2 or 3), seemed supremely uncomfortable around us, not really the welcoming hostess one expects at a B&B. But we were just happy to be there to soak up the fresh country air and sunshine, so her aloofness didn't affect us.

Gentry that we now were, we took a tour of the grounds to visit our small stand of grape vines, the headless fake owl that guards the corner of the property, the cows across the pasture, and the lawn tennis court. Back at the cottage, we reviewed the many magazines and pamphlets at our disposal. There was a louvered closet door in our room that was locked, and it seemed that occasionally a small ticking noise would emanate from inside. This added to the weirdness factor of the hosts, and made me imagine we were being spied on. Sunset came and went, and at twilight Jack looked out the window at the Big House. He noted that the only lights that were on over there were in the basement, and just then, lights started flashing on and off upstairs, as if someone had heard us and was trying to show that they were doing things other than paying attention to our every move. Yikes!

We decided to head back towards the lake for a casual dinner. This restaurant was also gearing up for St. Patrick's Day, counting down the days on a dry-erase board. Nothing special food-wise, though, and the lake was invisible in the darkness beyond the plate-glass windows. Back at the house, the mystery about our hosts deepened when Jack found the old guest book in a drawer. The woman's name in this book was not the name of the current hostess. In 2006 there was a gap of a few months in which people addressed their comments only to him, then the new wife's name appeared. I had assumed that since her relations had lived on the property she had had some ongoing connection with the place, but apparently she somehow just got in good with the current owner and was able to return to her ancestral home.

We began a game of Scrabble and opened our Belgian Ale, which resembled a coarse lambic more than anything else due to its unrefined sour bite. Not a favorite. I got oodles of vowels and Jack got an overdose of consonants, such that he was suggesting that I put down some Hawaiian words, and I recommended that he try for "Mxyzptlk" (the rule against proper names notwithstanding). It was a long and thoughtful game. I eventually won only because Jack still had a Q in his pew when I went out.

The next morning dawned warm again, with a thin scrim of clouds moderating the intensity of the sun on our winter-pale skin. I made us some tea while we waited for our breakfast to be carried over from the Big House. We brought the Washington Post Sunday supplement with us, so I read the magazine while Jack did the sudoko. The hosts brought us breakfast consisting of orange juice, coffee, fruit salad, Betty Crocker blueberry muffins and biscuits stuffed with seriously salty ham. It wasn't a very exciting meal, but we were glad for some sustenance before we headed out into the world.

Our next stop was at Montpelier, the former home of members of the du Pont family. And before that, it was owned by some president. The guided tour of the virtually empty house was pretty interesting, but I think it would've been better with at least one room up with a full complement of furnishings, which Jack informs me is indeed the plan. After the tour we visited the ice house/temple, the wood (which included historically-accurate junked cars), the graveyards of the Madisons and the slaves they owned, and the formal du Pont-installed garden, which was still mostly in its winter hibernation mode. The large boxwoods around were wonderfully aromatic, though.

Finally, it was getting on towards mid-afternoon-starvation time so we started off in the direction of home. We had a pleasant lunch on the front porch of a restaurant in Culpeper, enjoying the passing pedestrian traffic and the sounds of people cranking up their car stereo systems with open windows for the first time this year. Jack got a tasty Starr Hill beer from Charlottesville to go with his tasty bison. We took 28 up to Manassas and saw a silo painted as a giant ear of corn on the way.