Day 17: The French Quarter: My next home?

April 30, 2009

frenchqr

DAY 17: New Orleans, Louisiana
Miles traveled: 2,970
States visited: 12 (just added: Mississippi, Louisiana)
Weather: 85, sunny

I’m in New Orleans. This is my second couchsurfing experience of the trip. My host is Brandon and he lives in a huge old house in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, which, for my Pittsburgh readers, is kind of Lawrenceville-ish. It has a very diverse mix of people and it’s a really interesting area next to the French Quarter, with really old, colorful houses. We went to dinner at some place that specializes in seafood (I ate alligator for the first time), then hung out with some of Brandon’s friends on a porch and did some people watching.

Later in the evening one of his friends took us to Bourbon Street, which was really fun. The old-style buildings are attractive and the atmosphere was total party and debauchery, even on a Tuesday evening. There is no open container law here, so you’re allowed to take your drink out of the bar and walk down the street with it. It was so weird walking into a convenience store at 1 am with rum & coke in hand.

frenchnight

Brandon was hosting some other couchsurfers as well – Jackie from Colorado, and four French girls. I had lunch with the Frenchies at a place called the Cake Café and it was quite enjoyable, both the food and the conversation. I’m meeting a ton of cool people by couchsurfing – I think that’s the way to go from now on.

neworltrio

Brandon’s friend Josh took us to see a couple of cemeteries. In New Orleans, you can’t dig six feet underground because the water table is so high. So everyone has to be laid to rest above ground in mausoleums. We went to the St. Louis Cemetery #1, which had lots of ritzy resting places. It’s a pretty big tourist attraction, since voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried there.

Then we went to another graveyard that was at the opposite end of the spectrum. People in the city who can’t afford a proper burial often take their relatives to ghetto cemeteries like this. They dig a hole a few feet deep and dump the body in. Over time as the ground gets weathered, bones begin to surface. I saw pieces of human skull and all other sorts of bones. Many of the headstones were wooden and/or handwritten. It’s pretty sad but fascinating at the same time.

cemetery

bones

I absolutely love New Orleans – I could really see myself here. Here’s a link to my new article about unusual and off the beaten path things to do in New Orleans. I’ve now added it to my list of cities I’m considering moving to, along with Seattle and Chicago. I was supposed to leave town this morning, but there’s no way that’s happening. I’m going to put in another full day here. If I didn’t have a music festival in Memphis starting tomorrow, I’d spend the entire weekend here.


Day 16: I’d rather be at the beach

April 29, 2009

wavespensa

DAY 16: Pensacola, Florida
Miles traveled: 2,910
States visited: 10 (just added: Florida)
Weather: 82, breezy

Wait, I am at the beach!

I love the beach. Yesterday was one of those days that I feel fortunate to be on this trip. It was a Tuesday morning in late April. I should’ve been sitting behind a desk in an office somewhere, but instead I was at the beach in Pensacola, feeling the ocean breeze and hearing the crashing waves.

dangerous

There weren’t many people there, probably because it was a Tuesday morning in late April. The red flag was up so I couldn’t play in the water. I read that two days ago, lifeguards had to pull 28 people out of the water because of the strong waves. So I stayed along the shore and enjoyed the sand. I got to use the beach setting on my camera at an actual beach for the first time.

pier

After the beach I set off for New Orleans, where I’ll be couchsurfing through Thursday morning. I’m expecting a memorable adventure in that city. Stay tuned!

beachboy


Day 15: Just the good old boys, never meanin’ no harm

April 28, 2009

hazzardmuseum

DAY 15: Alabaster, Alabama
Miles traveled: 2,390
States visited: 9 (just added: Alabama)
Weather: 85, sunny

I found the most awesome museum in the world. Yesterday while looking for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, I discovered something much more exciting – Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Museum. Admission was free! This place has several rooms of Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia, toys, autographed merchandise, Roscoe’s actual uniform from the show, and all sorts of similar stuff. I felt the Uncle Jesse section was lacking, though. He was the true star of the show if you ask me.

They had some of the vehicles from the show – you could get your picture taken inside the General Lee for $10.

genleeclose

Yesterday was the driving-est day I’ve had yet. I drove 3 hours to Nashville, then 6 hours south into Alabama. I only had a couple hours to spend in Nashville. I just happened to find a perfect parking spot that was near both Vanderbilt University and Music Row, the neighborhood where a lot of country music stuff exists. I saw the home of Curb Records, GAC (the country music version of MTV), and lots of recording studios.

musicrow

I drove over to the Country Music Hall of Fame and considered going in, but I cha-cha’d to find out the price and it was $28. That’s twice as much as the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame! No, thank you.

I’m not a huge country fan but I was disappointed to miss out on seeing the Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn exhibits. Keilan told me that he once played a guitar that had been owned by Johnny Cash. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my envy about that.

I usually like to drive through small towns, but I had 400 miles to cover in Alabama yesterday, so I had to I-65 it. I was amused that one of their rest stops has a “Beautification Award” that they apparently presented to themselves.

beautification

I never imagined that my first traffic jam of the trip would occur in Birmingham, Alabama, but indeed it did. Montgomery and Birmingham have very attractive skylines. There’s a ton of civil rights history in Alabama, and I feel guilty that I didn’t think to seek out any of those sites until I was already driving through the area. If I’d had two days in Alabama instead of one, I would have tried to find some of those for sure.

aladefend

I’m headed to Pensacola for a beach visit, and then it’s over to New Orleans for a couple nights. This will be my second couchsurfing experience of the trip. I’m looking forward to it!

Here’s the projected path of the second leg of my trip, from Nashville to Austin.

nshtoaust


Day 14: On top of Old Smoky

April 27, 2009

merocks

DAY 14: Knoxville, Tennessee
Miles traveled: 1,825
States visited: 8
Weather: 85, sunny

As I mentioned yesterday, this weekend I went hiking in the Smoky Mountains with my friend Keilan. We decided to hike the Two Chimneys Trail, which leads to one of the highest points in the park. The hike was only 2 miles long but it was pretty much straight up – the elevation rose 1,750 feet in those two miles.

The hike was arduous and tiring – and then we got to the summit. The final 100 feet or so normally involve winding up a narrow trail, but the trail was closed for “maintenance,” meaning that the only way to complete the journey was to climb up some treacherous rocks. This was like a climbing wall but without a harness, with a misstep leading to serious injury or dismemberment or worse. Fortunately Camp Kon-O-Kwee prepared me well for this sort of thing.

rocks

keilanrocks

I like rock climbing so I was fine most of the way, except for one small section that was pretty scary because there was no obvious foothold. Too far to turn back and determined to complete the climb, I went for it and was able to scramble up the rocks to the top, where the view was spectacular. The pictures don’t do it justice. (As always, you can click on the pictures to see larger-size versions.)

meattop

I didn’t get to fully enjoy my time at the top, because all I kept thinking was, How in the world are we going to get back down? There were some other folks up there as well, and they decided that the best strategy was to take the trail that was closed for renovation, rather than trying to shimmy down the steep rocks we had just climbed up. So I followed them down the trail, which was much easier to navigate than the rocks.

viewsmoky

Reaching the top was a rewarding triumph. Afterwards we played in the rapids and jumped around on some of the rocks.

mejump

keilanwater

I was glad to have Keilan show me some of the local sights in eastern Tennessee. Today I’m checking out Nashville briefly, then heading south towards Pensacola, where I hope to get in some beach time tomorrow morning before moving on to New Orleans.


Day 13: Worship the Dolly!

April 26, 2009

dolly

DAY 13:  Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Miles traveled: 1,785
States visited: 8 (just added: Tennessee)
Weather: 89, steamy

This weekend I’m hanging out in Knoxville with some close family who are visiting the area, and their dog Izzy, the cutest dog ever. It’s nice to get a taste of home while I’m traveling.

izzy

Friday night we wound up in McKay’s Used Books, CDs, and more. They had some ridiculously low prices – I bought two books for 87 cents total. We also went downtown to Market Square, which is similar to Pittsburgh’s Market Square.

Yesterday I went off to visit my volleyball pal Keilan, who is back in Tennessee for the weekend where he grew up. We went hiking in the Smoky Mountains. I’ll write more about that and post some great pics tomorrow.

We drove through the town of Pigeon Forge, which is quite interesting. It’s the home of Dollywood, so that and its proximity to the Smokies mean that it is loaded with tourists and tourist-y stores.

pigeonforge

Driving down the main highway you see all these crazy shops and amusements, like the Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride, Black Bear Jamboree, Hillbilly Golf, an Elvis Museum, Christmas stores that are open year-round, lots of go-kart racing, and even a helicopter sightseeing company. The nearby town of Sevierville boasts a lifesize statue of Dolly Parton, which I thought looked more like Loretta Lynn, at least until you get up close.

dollyface

Keilan’s family also provided some home-cooked meals and some Wii entertainment. His 3-year-old niece whipped us all at Wii bowling, posting a score of 169. This girl had literally just peed her pants two hours earlier at the mall. I swear I’m not making that up. Then she comes home and schools us all.

I’ll be in the area for another day. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s report on our treacherous and harrowing climb to the top of the Smokies.


Day 11: Assume the tortoise position

April 24, 2009

vortex

DAY 11: Smyrna, Georgia
Miles traveled: 1,542
States visited: 7
Weather: 79, hailstorm of the century

I spent the past two days with my couchsurfing host Stephanie just outside Atlanta. On Wednesday we checked out a local bar in Smyrna called Varner’s. We got there too late to join in their weekly poker game, so we waited around for trivia night to start. This was a lot like any other trivia night, except it was adult trivia night. Two-thirds of the questions were about movies and the other third dealt with obscure sexual terminology (the “tortoise position,” anyone?)

Our team managed to take second place, though I was no help at all. (I need to find a trivia night that focuses more on music!) Our prize was a $20 bar credit, which helped defray the cost of our food and beverages, of which there were many.

On Thursday we headed into Atlanta proper to check out Piedmont Park, a park downtown that is similar to Central Park. Lots of beautiful scenery and wildlife, including turtles (but apparently no tortoises.)

turtles

We went to Little Five Points for lunch at Vortex, a restaurant with lots of attitude. Their menu contains a full page of rules and regulations, detailing their “no whining policy” and “no idiot zone.” Their food was outstanding – the chili cheeseburger & tater tots I got were big enough for two meals.

We got hit up by a spiky-haired individual named Casey to contribute to some environmental cause. I thought Casey was a guy but Stephanie insisted she was a girl. I suppose we’ll never know. Unless this blog catches fire throughout the internet and Casey stumbles upon this post.

Little Five Points is a really funky neighborhood, but it’s small. It is definitely the hipster capital of Atlanta but I don’t know if I’d want to live there, necessarily.

americanapp

Last night I encountered the hailstorm of the century. I always hear about golf ball-sized hail, but I’d never really seen it until now. The storm, and an extended invite, prompted me to stay an extra night in Atlanta, where I spent the evening playing poker with Stephanie’s roommates. We played Texas Hold Em, which I hadn’t played before, but a combination of beginner’s luck and an unlikely series of flushes allowed me to emerge victorious.

mesteph

Stephanie and her roommates were very accommodating. I’m glad I chose to couchsurf in Atlanta. Today I’m off to Knoxville to meet some family, and then to the Smoky Mountains to do some hiking this weekend, before heading to Nashville and New Orleans next week.


Day 10: About food and Fred

April 23, 2009

jimmycarter

DAY 10: Atlanta, Georgia
Miles traveled: 1,400
States visited: 7
Weather: 68, windy

I’ll be here in Atlanta for another day so I’ll file a full report on the city tomorrow. For now, I thought this would be a good time to address my food budget. As noted before, I’m living on a $7/day food budget, which sounds impossible, but it’s really not. First off, that doesn’t include the snacks & canned foods I already have in my van. And I’m only drinking water, so I never have to pay for drinks. I’ve been taking advantage of the $5 footlong at Subway – that’s big enough to serve as lunch and dinner. Those are great because they’re cheap and they allow me to get some fresh vegetables in my belly.

This is my best friend on the road: a giant bag of Tootsie Roll midgees.

tootsie

I’m rolling over the food budget from day to day. So if I only spend $5.50 for food on Monday, the extra $1.50 carries over to Tuesday, meaning that I have $8.50 to spend. Whatever I don’t spend on Tuesday rolls over to Wednesday, and so on. So far I’ve been running a surplus on my food budget, so I actually have close to $20 available for food today, in the event that I feel like splurging and hitting up a chain restaurant (don’t count on it!)

I’ve had surprisingly little fast food, thankfully. Some meals I’ve cooked myself in a mini-oven which runs off the cigarette lighter. Other times I’ve eaten at diners or gotten hot food from a supermarket (the Harris Teeter chain in North Carolina is my new favorite grocery.) In terms of fast food, I’ve done Taco Bell, KFC, and Moe’s Southwestern Grill once each, and that’s it. Moe’s is great because you get a huge serving of free chips & salsa with every order, so you only have to order 1 taco, and you get enough food on your plate to stuff yourself. For less than $3!

On a somewhat related note, I keep seeing this store called FRED’S. But I have no idea what it is. A department store? A grocery store? A home improvement store? There’s absolutely no indication from the signs or from the outside of the store what it might be. I’m dumbfounded that Fred would be so secretive about his establishment. Doesn’t he want anyone to shop there? If I see another one, I’ll scope it out.

freds


Day 9: What’s the frequency, Athens?

April 22, 2009

bulldog

DAY 9: Athens, Georgia
Miles traveled: 1,360
States visited: 7 (just added: Georgia)
Weather: 68, sunny & incredibly windy

Athens is the second college town I’ve visited, and it puts Charlottesville to shame. Compared to Athens, Charlottesville is a DUMP. It’s a WASTE OF HUMANITY!

Ok, I exaggerate, but Athens might be the coolest college town I’ve ever visited. It reminds me of State College, only with more interesting shops and more alternative types wandering around. There are a bunch of restaurants with outdoor seating that faces the university. There are small music clubs. There was a Ben & Jerry’s which had a line around the block – apparently it was free cone day. There’s a place called The Junkman’s Daughter’s Brother, which is a lot like Spencer’s gifts, only it’s four times as big and sells stuff you’d actually want to buy. I could’ve spent hours there.

junkman

There was a thrift store called Dynamite! that I liked, except that it was a bit too pricey. There was a restaurant called the Last Resort Grill, which fully lived up to its name – it was completely empty, even while all the other restaurants were doing plenty of business.

I wanted to grab a meal at Michael Stipe’s vegetarian restaurant Grit but didn’t get a chance. I did stop in to Wuxtry, the record store where Peter Buck used to work. I also drove by something called The Tree That Owns Itself. Evidently, in the 1800s, this guy owned a really nice tree, and when he died, it was in his will that the tree be given to the tree itself. I’m not sure how that works legally but now the tree is famous. If you ask me, that tree is just a publicity whore.

treeowns treewriting

Today I’m on to Atlanta to stay with some folks from couchsurfing.com. I’m not sure what to do there but I’ve been told to visit Five Points. I’ll be there until late Thursday.


Day 8: When nature calls

April 21, 2009

forestpic1

DAY 8: Abbeville, South Carolina
Miles traveled: 1,254
States visited: 6 (just added: South Carolina)
Weather: 66, overcast

I just spent the past two days in a secluded campground in South Carolina. I joked in my last post about needing a vacation from my vacation, but it was actually true. In the first week of my adventure, I rarely had time to catch my breath. Most of my free time was spent in a frantic scramble to find wifi. I didn’t get to relax enough.

My travel schedule afforded me two days in South Carolina, and after I decided not to go to the ocean because that was pretty far out of my way, I made the decision to find a campground. I found one in Sumter National Park. Here I enjoyed peace and solitude, hot showers, and the surroundings of nature, all for the low, low cost of $7 a day.

Somehow I survived the past 60 hours without Internet access. I’m completely refreshed and ready to hit the road again. One thing I realized is that I shouldn’t kill myself to blog everyday. If I can I will, but the world won’t end if I don’t.

I did next to nothing while I was at this campground, except for an afternoon hike, which took me past some old gold mine shafts from the 1800s.

mines

I caught up on a lot of reading as well. I have 3 books that I’m reading on this trip. One is On the Road by Kerouac, a book I started years ago but couldn’t finish because I found it boring. I’ve picked it up where I left off, and it’s more readable now. He met some crazy characters on his journeys – hopefully I will do the same.

I’m also reading The Andy Warhol Diaries. For the last 13 years of his life, Warhol kept a detailed journal of his daily events, and this 800-page book presents most of those diary entries. Warhol not only writes candidly about his encounters with other celebrities (like a ‘70s version of Kathy Griffin), but he also lists all of the purchases he makes in a given day and the cost for each. His entries include lines like “We had office pizza lunch ($5)” and “Cab ride downtown (cab $7, tip $3).” I’m fascinated that Warhol kept track of such minor details. It offers an interesting window into his life. This book is huge and I bought it specifically for this trip because I figured I’d need 4 months to complete it.

The final book is one Robin gave me called Book of Unforgettable Journeys. It has several short articles about trips to different places in the world. So far I’ve read the ones about Florida and Georgia, since I’m traveling there next. This seems like the kind of thing I could write. I’ve been thinking about trying to pursue writing in some capacity after this trip is over; perhaps I’ll blog more about that in the future.

loungin

I have a great week coming up. Today I’ll be checking out Athens, Georgia, and the next two days I’ll be couchsurfing in Atlanta. Then it’s off to Knoxville and Nashville and possibly the Smoky Mountains this weekend.


Day 7: I’ll have a pound of the surrealist chipped ham

April 19, 2009

charlotte

Day 7: Charlotte, North Carolina
Miles traveled: 1,080
States visited: 5
Weather: 75, sunny

My two days in Charlotte were nice although I wish I had done more advance planning so I knew which neighborhoods to check out. On Friday, I read in the Charlotte version of the City Paper (which is bizarrely called Creative Loafing) that there was a gallery crawl in the NODA neighborhood. I was amused at my good fortune at finding something cool to do. I thought NODA would be a big, walkable neighborhood like Lawrenceville, but it turns out it’s basically just an intersection, with a few businesses on each side. I counted 3 galleries, none of which were interesting enough to walk in. Lamest gallery crawl ever!

There were 3 kids sitting on a corner playing Metallica’s “One” on acoustic guitars. The neighborhood boasted one noteworthy attraction – a cleverly-named grocery called the Salvador Deli.

salvadordeli

I drove around to find a bar, on the off-chance that they might be showing the Penguins playoff game, and amazingly I found one. They were showing the Pens game instead of the Carolina game, remarkably. I got to watch the first half and I left thinking the Pens were doomed, but evidently they came back and won. Woohoo!

Saturday morning I found myself stuck at an intersection for 30 minutes while hundreds of 5K runners went by. I wasn’t in a hurry so it didn’t bother me too much, but I was shocked that the police did this without alerting drivers to available detours or blocking off the street entirely. You just can’t make people sit there for 30 minutes with no advance warning!

I went for a jog and for some reason I kept thinking I was in Seattle. Maybe it’s just because the area felt like Seattle, lots of bike lanes, beautiful scenery and seemingly progressive people. Now I know how musicians feel when they’re on tour and they have to ask the audience, ‘What city am I in again?’

In the afternoon I stopped by a mall, but that was pointless. There’s nothing for me at malls. I looked around for some good thrift stores but couldn’t find any. My GPS located the office headquarters of Goodwill, but no actual stores. Then I went to Reedy Creek Park and played the most awesome disc golf course anywhere. This course even has water hazards! It was very challenging. I shot +28 for the 18 holes. I managed two pars, which I celebrated as if they were holes-in-one.

My tee shot on #17 went awry:

discintree

Charlotte is a really beautiful city. I could see myself living there. In the next week I’ll be headed into South Carolina, then Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, then up to Knoxville and Nashville. I’ve located a campground in South Carolina that charges $7 a day. I think I’m gonna hang out there for a couple days and relax. I need a vacation from my, um, vacation. If I do that, I may not have internet access until Tuesday, so be patient, the updates shall return…