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Epic US Road Trip 2017 – The South
After 2 weeks of driving south, a right turn in Jacksonville, Florida on Day 14 saw us turning our back on the pioneering history of the Eastern Seaboard. From there on out the 1,575 miles of ground we covered over the course of a week in travelling first in a westerly & then northerly direction through The South was all about the slow and inexorable return back towards the cooler climes of New England, sill the depth of a rather big country away when pulling out of New Orleans, as deep as we’d go in the Deep South, on the morning of Day 17. Welcome (back) to The South. Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi & Tennessee.
We were aiming to overnight in Jacksonville, Florida when pulling out of Savannah, Georgia, some 140 miles to the north, on the afternoon of Day 14. Being the largest city by area in the contiguous US meant the lack of room in many a Jacksonville inn on an October Tuesday evening came as something of a frustrating surprise. It also meant we pushed on an extra 30 miles across the Florida panhandle, eventually being halted by somewhere called Macclenny. The only night we’d devote to the Sunshine State, when bedding down in somewhere like Macclenny you really do feel like you’re just passing through, which is exactly what we were doing.
dMb US State Digest
State Nicknames – The Sunshine State. State Motto – In God We Trust. Admitted To The Union – March 3, 1845 (27th state). Population – 21 million Floridians (3rd most populous state). Area – 65,750 sq miles (22nd largest state). Capital – Tallahassee. National Parks – 3 (Biscayne, Dry Tortugas & Everglades). National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 5/1. Famous For – Sunshine; speaking Spanish & Latino vibes (almost 25% of the state population is of Hispanic & Latino descent); Micky Mouse & Walt Disney World; diversity; Miami Beach chic; snowbirds & retirees; tourism & all-inclusive theme parks the size of countries (Florida receives well over 100 million visitors a year and the state’s lucrative tourism industry employs nearly 1.5 million people); Art Deco architecture; Spring Break parties; wetlands & everglades; once belonging to Spain (Florida became a US territory in 1821); environmental issues; the manatee; citrus fruit, especially oranges; space shuttle launches from the Kennedy Space Center; the month-long recount of the 2000 Presidential election that put George W. Bush in the White House despite losing the popular vote; good times; golf courses; powerboats; being the southernmost state; NASCAR (born in Florida’s Daytona Beach in 1947); alligators; lightening; tornadoes; beaches; the Keys & big game fishing. State Highlights – All that fun in the sun; Miami’s Art Deco district; offbeat Key West. Florida Titbits – Florida is Spanish for “land of flowers”, a name bestowed upon the land by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León when he spotted and landed on the peninsula on April 2, 1513, making Florida the first region of the continental US to be visited and settled by Europeans; mostly surrounded by water, Florida has the longest coastline in the contiguous US (approximately 1,350 miles / 2,170 kilometres); it has the lowest high point of any US state (105-metre-high (345 feet) Britton Hill); it is one of only two states, the other being Hawaii, and thus the only continental US state with a tropical climate; Florida is one of seven states that does not impose a personal income tax; a renowned retiree haven, Florida contains the highest percentage of any state of people over 65 (almost 20%); proving that it’s not really a small world after all, Walt Disney World’s 4 theme parks, 27 themed resort hotels, 9 non-Disney hotels, 2 water parks, 4 golf courses and other recreational venues are the most visited vacation resort on earth with over 50 million annual visitors; a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 47% of state residents agreed that Florida was the best state to live in (but they would say that).
– Guy Fieri, celebrity chef
Day 15 || October 11 2017
Route || Maccleeny, Florida to Mobile, Alabama.
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 397 (639)
Posted From || Mobile, Alabama
Today’s Highlight || The Florida/Alabama state line
Oh yes, we’re motoring now alright. ‘Twas easily the busiest day of the lot on the road today, Day 15. Almost 400 miles of westerly driving along Interstate 10 across the Florida panhandle saw us getting back to Alabama, state #11 (it was state #18 last year). Having experienced the Civil Rights history synonymous with the state’s centre last year, now we find ourselves on the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile, as deep in the Deep South as we’ve ever been, and we got here from Macclenny via a stop in the Florida capital of Tallahassee. That was interesting. Different, but interesting.
Florida (FL) || It’s a nice place Tallahassee, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that for the tourist there just isn’t a whole lot to see here, ironic really given its status as the state capital of the tourism behemoth that is Florida. A planned city full of suits, bureaucracy and heat, Tallahassee was chosen as the site for the State capital in 1824, conveniently located equidistant between Augustine and Pensacola, the two largest cities at the time and obvious choices for a capital. Convenient then and convenient now – the city’s geographical location meant it was a convenient break for us in the 395-mile drive west from Macclenny towards the state line with Alabama.
I saw this quote in the lobby of the Florida State Capitol today and thought it apt.
– Ernest Hemingway
dMb US State Digest
State Nicknames – The Yellowhammer State; Heart of Dixie; The Cotton State. State Motto – Audemus Jura Nostra Defendere (We Dare Defend Our Rights). Admitted To The Union – December 1819 (22nd state). Population – 4.8 million Alabamians (24th most populous state). Area – 52,400 sq miles (30th largest state). Capital – Montgomery. National Parks – 0. National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 2/2. Famous For – Racial segregation; being the birthplace of the ill-fated Confederate States of America; French influence; cotton; Rosa Parks & the Civil Rights Movement; Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird. State Highlights – The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a US National Historic Trail; typically Deep South antebellum architecture. Alabama Titbits – The word Alabama means ‘tribal town’ in the Creek Indian language; the state is hot, sticky & windy – along with Oklahoma, it has the most reported EF5-rated tornadoes, those delivering total destruction of buildings, of any state; the 1901 Alabama Constitution, with almost 800 amendments and running to over 310,000 words, is by some accounts the world’s longest constitution and is roughly forty times the length of the US Constitution; Hitler’s typewriter, a survivor from his Eagle’s Nest mountain retreat, is exhibited at the Hall of History Museum in Bessemer; not a place to be poor, Alabama’s income tax on poor working families is among the highest in the US (although it does levy the lowest property taxes in the US); forget Louisiana’s New Orleans. Stretching back to 1703, Mobile, Alabama is known for having the oldest organised Carnival, a.k.a. Mardi Gras, celebrations in the US.
We’re now in Mobile at the head of the Gulf of Mexico’s Mobile Bay, a mere 2 days after departing the eastern seaboard & its Atlantic Ocean. Named after the Mauvilla Indians, it’s a new city in a familiar state. I’ve always wanted to come here, for no other reason other than one of my very favourite YouTube videos emanates from here. Leprechauns in the Deep South? Generally no, but tonight yes.
New Orleans is a 2-hour drive from here. The city is the only reason we’re this far south – this wasn’t on the original itinerary. That said, we’ll be there tomorrow, Epic US Road Trip 2017 Day 16. We’re super pumped for that.
Day 16 || October 12 2017
Route || Mobile to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 167 (269)
Today’s Highlight || The French Quarter, New Orleans
As it turns out, Mobile was the Day 16 calm before the storm. Seemingly things can get just as raucous in the southern Alabama port city as they can in nearby New Orleans (OK, maybe not that raucous), but what we experienced of Mobile to start this day was a million miles removed from how we ended it on the infamous party streets of the New Orleans French Quarter (Vieux Carré), so much so that it’s hard to believe the two French-influenced Deep South port cities are separated by a mere 150 miles of US Interstate 10.
Alabama (AL) || The largest city on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, Mobile, a.k.a. The Port City, is Alabama’s only saltwater port, one that has shaped the city right from its very founding by the French in 1702 as the first capital of their La Louisiane (New France) colony; the French needed a base along the Gulf Coast to achieve his grand plan to drive the English out of their Atlantic colonies. Thereafter the port city was a colony of Britain & Spain before American troops captured the city during the War of 1812. Something of a cultural centre with a shady, oak-infused Historic Downtown of wrought iron-heavy mansions, the city is the birthplace of Carnival, a.k.a. Mardi Gras, celebrations in the US.
Things are a little different down here to what we experienced of central ’bama last year, understandable give the fact that Mobile is the state’s only real coastal town. Unfortunately for Mobile we had bigger crawfish to fry and so didn’t see a whole lot of what the city has to offer, finding only as much time as was necessary to stop off in Battleship Memorial Park en route from Mobile’s Eastern Shore to New Orleans.
Battleship Memorial Park
Mobile’s military park, occupying a large plot of land on the western shore of Mobile Bay, displays a number of notable World War II-era veterans saved from the scrapheap (planes, tanks and whatnot), as well as some more modern warring paraphernalia such as a Lockheed A-12 spy plane. A lot of the equipment was damaged (or destroyed altogether), and the park itself forced to close for 4 months, when Hurricane Katrina infamously blew through the region in late August 2005. No such meteorological menaces to worry about on this particular gorgeous Deep South mid-October day.
Having left Mobile, we needed to cross an 80-mile stretch of southern Mississippi in order to get to the state line with Louisiana (only passing through today, we’ll be back in Mississippi proper tomorrow). We (very briefly) forayed across the state line from Vicksburg, Mississippi, further north, into Louisiana on Day 24 of Epic US Road Trip 2016. On that occasion we didn’t see a ‘Welcome to Louisiana’ state line sign, and nor did we make it down to New Orleans. Today we put right both of those oversights.
dMb US State Digest
State Nicknames – Pelican State (official); Bayou State; Sportsman’s Paradise; Creole State; The Boot. State Motto – Union, Justice, Confidence. Admitted To The Union – April 30, 1812 (18th state). Population – 4.7 million Louisianians (25th most populous state). Area – 52,380 sq miles (31st largest state). Capital – Baton Rouge. National Parks – 0. National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 1/2. Famous For – Jazz; French, Creole & Cajun influences (Louisiana is the only state with a large population of Cajuns, descendants of the Acadians who were driven out of Canada in the 1700s because they wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the King of England); Tabasco sauce (originated here); being laid-back; traditional po’ boy baguette sandwiches; deltas, coastal marshes & swamps; canals, ditches & levees; Carnival, a.k.a. Mardi Gras; multiculturalism; thunderstorms, tropical cyclones and hurricanes; slavery; the Purchase of 1803 (when the US acquired the then Louisiana territory from France). State Highlight – The Big Easy, a.k.a. New Orleans. Louisiana Titbits – Claimed for France by Robert de La Salle in 1682, Louisiana was named after Louis XIV, King of France from 1643 to 1715 (to this day, Louisiana is the only state that still refers to the Napoleonic Code in its state law); it’s the only state in the US with political subdivisions termed parishes (64 in total), equivalent to the counties of the other 49 states; the state has more Native American tribes than any other southern state; somewhat ironic given its multilingual heritage, Louisiana is one of the only states in the US with no official state language; the southern coast wetlands of Louisiana are among the fastest-disappearing areas in the world, mainly due to human mismanagement of the coast; the state is far and away the biggest producer of crayfish (known as crawfish in the US, small warm-water lobsters without claws) in the world, accounting for some 90% of world’s supply; rich in petroleum and natural gas, Louisiana was the first site of petroleum drilling over water in the world; The Empire State Building-esque Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge is the tallest state capitol building in the US; as of 2016, Louisiana, with the nickname Sportsman’s Paradise, was the birthplace of the most NFL players per capita for the eighth year in a row; in Louisiana, biting someone with your natural teeth is considered a simple assault, but biting someone with your false teeth is considered an aggravated assault.
Louisiana (LA) || The largest city in Louisiana & located near the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, the home of jazz & Mardi Gras. The city’s historic French Quarter (Vieux Carré), where we hung out, is, and while characteristically & infamously gritty, a nice place to wander nonetheless, awash as it is with colonial-era charm – the whole district is a riot of churches, colourful wooden architecture and beautifully preserved foliage-draped wrought iron balconies. And not forgetting, of course, that a beer, a luminous fishbowl cocktail & a devil-may-care joie de vivre party scene is never far away no matter the time of day or night.
New Orleans & The French Quarter (Vieux Carré)
Louisiana’s largest city, New Orleans was founded on a crescent of the mighty Mississippi River – hence one of its nicknames as ‘The Crescent City’ – in 1718 and named after Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, the Prince Regent of France. Today the city of almost 400,000 sprawls on both banks of Old Man River, the waters of which are nearing the end of its 2,320-mile (3,730 kilometre) journey south to the Gulf of Mexico from its source in northern Minnesota. Sprawl it may do but it is The Big Easy’s compact 1.7 km² French Quarter (Vieux Carré), the city’s heart on the north side of the river, that attracts the vast majority of the hordes. First laid out in 1722, the year New Orleans became the capital of Frances’ La Louisiane (New France) colony and from where present-day New Orleans grew, the French Quarter is a US National Historic Landmark District-listed 80 blocks of colonial-era architecture, ironwork galleries, overhanging arched balconies, drooping foliage, dilapidation, graffiti, grunge, parties &, yes of course, misfits.
The oldest part of what is often classed as the ‘most unique’ city in the US, most of the French Quarter’s historical buildings that stand today date from the late 1700s, when the city was under Spanish rule, or from after US annexation following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. All the earlier French structures were either decimated by fires in 1788 & 1794 or succumbed to the passing of time. All, that is, bar one.
Hardships & Katrina
Plagues, wars and imperial regime changes. And all that before the wrath of Katrina. While there are still, a decade-plus on, many a New Orleans so-called Dead Zone, the French Quarter (Vieux Carré) suffered little flood damage relative to the rest of the city as a result of Hurricane Katrina doing her damndest to wreck havoc on the city on August 29, 2005 – the district is some distance from the breached levees and sea walls that failed so spectacularly to protect the surrounding city, 80% of which was submerged by the time Katrina, the second costliest natural disaster in the history of the US, had blown through. The ‘Katrina Tattoo’, the line on buildings that marked the heights of the 2005 floodwaters, isn’t to be found in the French Quarter, but there are other, many other, blights on the landscape. It all adds to the gritty uniqueness I guess.
– On display in Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans.
Grungy & gritty New Orleans has always been a beacon for the misfits of America, a mix of confused destitute types and societal non-conformists. Suffice it to say there’s no shortage of characters on the streets of the French Quarter, a people watching location par excellence.
Speaking of misfits. Cue Bourbon Street.
New Orleans is a drinking city and no mistake. A place to let everything go, this is a city where seemingly anything goes, party central with the party firmly centred on the French Quarter’s infamous Bourbon Street, a neon-lit party zone that actively embraces getting shitfaced 24/7. Revelers, hopping from one no-cover-minimum-drink-purchase bar or jazz club to another with a bucket beer or luminous fishbowl cocktail in hand, come here to have a good time, and it seems a lot of them do just that.
Everyone knows what Bourbon Street is like. It’s loutish in the extreme, a 24/7 bachelor/stag & bachelorette/hen party booze-fuelled good-time zone. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s bright & it can get blurry in a hurry, an experience perfectly summed up on a t-shirt I saw for sale in the French Market that read ‘I meant to behave, but there were too many other options.’ Bourbon Street. You either roll with it, steer clear altogether (Bourbon Street is possibly an unavoidable consequence of a visit to New Orleans so this, I fear, is easier said than done), or hit a happy medium – take a stroll along its length at least once to appreciate what you’re not missing. Even those who want to entice all to visit the city hint at the alternatives to New Orleans’ most infamous street.
A few more captures from a few eye-opening rambles up and down Bourbon Street.
The highlight of the visit to New Orleans for me was the architecture, the more colourful & tumbledown the better. Here are a few parting shots from the city of eye-catching edifices seen during explorations of some of the quieter streets of the French Quarter & its immediate vicinity.
Meridian, Mississippi. October 13, 2017.
“We stopped off in Meridian, 200 miles north of New Orleans. Why? It’s the birthplace of one Jimmie Rodgers. Who? Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a ‘The Man Who Started It All’, all being country music. And while getting directions in an attempt to find his museum on the outskirts of the town I got to covet a look at Meridian’s impressive 1920’s Temple Theater, albeit from the outside.”
Day 17 || October 13 2017
Route || New Orleans, Louisania to Fort Payne, Alabama.
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 480 (753)
Posted From || Fort Payne, Alabama
Today’s Highlight || The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway
It was easily the busiest day of the lot so far on the road today. Four hundred eighty miles of US Interstate we covered today, Day 17, just over the halfway point of the wider road trip. Being on a crusade to traverse the 600 miles of road that separates New Orleans from Sparta, Tennessee by mid-morning on Day 18 ensured today was a day of covering ground. That said, there were still a few interesting stops en route. It seems there always are.
We didn’t need to depart New Orleans by going north via the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, but then we would have never driven the longest bridge in the world. As it turns out we did. Or did we?
Back on dry land, it was a 35 mile drive northeast to the state line with Mississippi.
dMb US State Digest
State Nicknames – The Magnolia State; The Hospitality State. State Motto – Virtute et Armis (By Valor and Arms). Admitted To The Union – December 1817 (20th state). Population – 3 million Mississippians (32nd most populous state). Area – 48,400 sq miles (32nd largest state). Capital – Jackson. National Parks – 0. National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 1/1. Famous For – Cotton fields; rural country roads; poverty; Juke Joints; being the coolest state to spell out (M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I); the racist past & civil rights history; being the birthplace of Elvis (Tupelo); riverboats & the Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the Blues. State Highlights – Delta drives & authentic Juke Joints. Mississippi Titbits – Once one of the 5 wealthiest states off the back of slave-driven cotton production, now Mississippi is the poorest state in the US, ranking low on the list of nearly every national marker of economy and education; although majority white since the 1930s & the Great Migration, Mississippi, at almost 40%, still has the highest percentage of black residents of any US state; the entire state is lowlands with a mean elevation of just 300 feet (91 metres) above sea level and is thus susceptible to flooding; school corporal punishment is common in Mississippi; the first Coca-Cola was bottled in 1894 in Vicksburg, Mississippi; a slow state anyway, Sundays & Mondays in Mississippi, and especially in the Delta, are so-called slow days. Best not be in a hurry in this part of the Deep South.
Even though we were passing through, we still found time to search out a pioneer. A musical one. And now that we have, I’m somewhat surprised we didn’t tick this box last year; we passed through Meridian en route from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Selma, Alabama. That said, we were in a rush. It seems we’re always on a dash in this portion of the Deep South, somewhere that shouldn’t be rushed.
Mississippi (MS) || We stopped off in Meridian, 200 miles north of New Orleans. Why? It’s the birthplace of one Jimmie Rodgers. Who? Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a ‘The Man Who Started It All’, all being country music. And while getting directions in an attempt to find his museum on the outskirts of the town I got to covet a look at Meridian’s impressive 1920s Temple Theater, albeit from the outside.
Although the light was fading fast, there was still enough road-trippin’ time remaining on this day to cover another 240+ miles of US Interstate driving. That got us over the state line back into Alabama and saw us sitting in a traffic jam (roadworks, as always) when bypassing Birmingham before halting for this day in Fort Payne. It’s cooler here, a good few degrees cooler than the southern Gulf Coast we left earlier in the day. Dad likes that (he struggled at times in the hot & steamy Deep South). We’re 130 miles shy of Sparta, Tennessee location for the one-day bluegrass festival we’ll enjoy tomorrow, Day 18. Yep more bluegrass. One-day, bite-sized bluegrass, the sole reason for the epic dash north.
Day 18 || October 14 2017
Route || Fort Payne, Alabama to Sparta, Tennessee.
Miles (Kilometres) Driven || 142 (229)
Today’s Highlight || Sparta’s one-day A Lester Flatt Celebration
We saw leaves falling today on the 142-mile drive from Fort Payne to Sparta, Tennessee. Just after crossing the Mississippi/Tennessee state line, and although oh-so subtle, it was still the first obvious signs of autumn that we’d encountered on the road trip so far. Of course plenty more of that to come over the following weeks as we continue the push towards the autumnal glory of a New England fall, but right now we’re all about the music. Today, Day 18, was the first of many dedicated to Tennessee, musical Tennessee, the best and some say the only kind of Tennessee there is.
dMb US State Digest
State Nickname – The Volunteer State. State Motto – Agriculture and Commerce. Admitted To The Union – June 1796 (16th state). Population – 6.6 million Tennesseans (17th most populous state). Area – 42,100 sq miles (36th largest state). Capital – Nashville. National Parks – 1 (Great Smoky Mountains). National Scenic Byways/All-American Roads – 4/1. Famous For – Music; Jack Daniel’s; Elvis & Graceland; the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. State Highlights – Bluesy Memphis, Nashville honky-tonks & the Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee Titbits – The name ‘Tennessee’ originated from the old Yuchi Indian word ‘Tana-see’ meaning ‘The Meeting Place’; it was the last state to secede from the Union prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and the first state to be readmitted after the war. One gets the impression it never wanted to leave; Tennesseeans are sometimes referred to as Butternuts, a tag which was first applied to Tennessee soldiers during the Civil War because of the tan color of their uniforms; Tennessee has more than 8,600 caves, the most of any US state; the state ties with Missouri as the most neighbourly state in the US – it is bordered by 8 states; Tennessee won its nickname as The Volunteer State during the War of 1812 when volunteer soldiers from Tennessee displayed marked valor in the Battle of New Orleans; Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is the longest continuously running live radio program in the world. It has broadcast every Friday and Saturday night since 1925; the state is divided into 3 distinct geographical regions, a.k.a. Grand Divisions, legally defined social & cultural regions known for their distinctive musical heritage and as represented by the three stars on the state flag – Bluegrass (eastern Great Smoky Mountains), Country & Western (rolling central hills), & Blues (western lowlands); the state has not one, not two but 9 different official state songs. Yes, music rules ‘round these parts y’all!
Tennessee (TN) || Founded in 1809 and named after the famed town in Greece, Sparta is small-town musical Tennessee with some big-name former residents, one of which, Lester Flatt, is one of the most influential proponents of the bluegrass sound he helped to pioneer. Present-day Sparta is grabbing this association with both hands and running with it, even going so far as to brand itself as ‘Bluegrass USA!’ (& who could blame it if doing so is going to attract the likes of bluegrass-lovin’ us).
We probably would have stopped by anyway, but the one-day musical celebration of Sparta’s most famous native son that is the annual A Lester Flatt Celebration gave us the only reason we needed to ensure we’d bust a gut in driving the 1,937 miles (3,117 kilometres) we drove to get here – via a deep Deep South detour – just 6 days after saying goodbye to the 4-day Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival in Manteo, North Carolina, only 650 miles away at its most direct. We tend not to do most direct. Epic US road trips are more epic that way.
A few more captures from an enjoyable day in Sparta.