Austin to Boston: Through The South

Lessons learned are sometimes positively correlated to miles traveled.

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With each passing mile of a road trip, I think you learn more about yourself and the world. There’s something about driving for thousands of miles through new terrain to stimulate your mind and imagination. This is the longest road trip I’ve ever attempted, by a long shot, so, I’ve learned a lot.

Now, I’ve done more driving than the average person, because I’ve traditionally driven as part of work. I’m not a truck driver with millions of miles under my belt, but my conservative estimate is around 500,000 miles. So, I’m drawing a distinction between “driving a lot,” and a “road-tripping.”

Driving from New Orleans to Pennsylvania was especially enlightening. Over the last 3 weeks and over 1500 miles, we’ve gone from the sugar-sand beaches of the gulf coast, through the forested hills of central Tennessee and Kentucky, over the mountains in West Virginia, briefly through Virginia and Maryland, and ending up outside the small, colonial-era town of East Berlin, PA.

If you judged our life based on a time-lapse video of our surroundings, you might guess that we’re traveling backwards in time. I certainly feel like we have. I’m staring out the window at the fields surrounding Gettysburg, and there are farmhouses that are probably older than my grandma’s grandmother, and maybe even her grandmother. Real estate is stuck in time here.

 

Lesson learned: You don’t know squat until you’ve been there.

The biggest travel lesson that I’ve learned on this trip is that you really have to stand in there, in that spot, to understand and FEEL that place, where ever “there” is. There’s no history book, channel, campfire story or movie that can make you feel like you’ve been there.

There’s no substitute for the sensory experience. Feel the grass on your feet, twist your ankle in a damn hole in that grass, look down the barrel of a replica cannon, smell the wood, water, and vegetation, and just BE there in the moment.

I guess that I’ve always known this, because of the way I feel when traveling somewhere new. It’s a contained excitement. I usually feel like running around jumping and clicking my heels together, but people definitely look at look at you funny when you do that. That excitement is fueled by a little anxiety about the unknown, the new smells and sights, and the joy I get from learning something new, touching new ground.

This lesson sunk in when we stood next to a “cannon” on a hill south of Nashville.

People stood here, near this very spot, fought, shot cannons, and died. I got a little emotional. I pulled myself together by thinking about the thousands of people that have died of natural causes in this neighborhood since then. Somehow, the thought of thousands of dead people made me feel better about the people who died in the Battle of Spring Hill. What is wrong with me?

 

 

The road trip:

Driving out of Louisiana, the landscape changes from the bayou, river-delta of New Orleans, and turns into more familiar “beachy” terrain through Mississippi and Alabama.

We visited Biloxi on the recommendation of our neighbor in Texas. He said that they have the most beautiful beaches. So, we changed our plans and spent the work week there.

This is a town that was definitely hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Nearly all of the beach-front property is empty or new. It was stark. I’m assuming that the lack of reconstruction has been driven by changes to zoning laws or insurance regulations. All of the new houses (just a hand full of them) on the beach are built up on stilts, maybe 12-15 feet high.

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What I couldn’t understand about Biloxi is how it was so empty. It was mid-June, too early for much concern about Hurricanes, and not really hot yet, but then we went to the beach.

Biloxi really does have beautiful beaches, but the ocean water is brown. After doing some reading, I discovered that the water is brown due to the rivers that empty into the bay. All sources say that the water is clean, but brown. In addition to the water color, the coast there is protected by barrier islands, and is therefore not known for good surfing, so I think that may be a couple of reasons for the lack of tourists.

We left sleepy Biloxi without exploring that much, as we were saving our time and energy for Gulf Shores, in Alabama. The area has been on Danielle’s bucket list for years, and I’ve always wanted to see what it’s all about. Admittedly, I’m a mountain man, and have less of a desire to spend time at beaches than Danielle, so she was leading the charge to see Southern Alabama.

The Orange Beach/Gulf Shores area is a resort-style party city. 20-story-condo towers line the sugar-sand beaches. There’s hundreds of boats floating in the bays, hanging out in the sun, and there are even more boats navigating the rivers and canals.

Whether by land or by water, it’s a giant party. The waterfront restaurants conveniently have floating docks for parking your boat, and concrete lots for parking your wheeled vehicle.

If you’ve never visited a bar called Flora-Bama, you’ll need to add that to your list. It’s probably one of the top three bars that I’ve been to, with a style completely its own. This multi-level, multi-stage, live-music bar is an attraction unto itself. You can easily get lost within its levels, but all halls seem to lead to the beach. We didn’t figure out how to avoid the “cover charge,” which they only charged us, despite 5 other people bypassing us at the register (grrrr).

Fun is in the air, maybe more so here, in Alabama, than at any point on our trip so far. We spent the weekend discussing how and when we would come back and live there for a couple of months.

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We drove north through Alabama late in the afternoon, several hours behind schedule. We were both excited about seeing Tennessee, as neither of us had been there before, but we definitely lingered on the coast, talking about having a house on the beach someday.

Once again we saw the abrupt change in landscape from Alabama to Tennessee. I’m convinced that the character of the landscape played a part in drawing lines between states. Alabama is relatively flat and wooded. Then you enter central Tennessee.

As you crest one hill, there’s a bigger one behind it. I wouldn’t call them mountains, but the hills and valleys are very pronounced. Like Louisiana, Tennessee has A LOT of bridges. In Tennessee, however, those bridges span numerous valleys and rivers to keep the roads relatively flat. Otherwise, you’d burn a lot of gas getting over the steep, rolling hills in Central Tennessee.

The other thing that you can feel as you drive north is the growing population. In Tennessee, the landscape is completely wooded, forest everywhere, just like Alabama, but you can see driveways and mailboxes lining nearly every road.

Side note: they call their roads Pike and Trace (Natchez Trace and Columbia Pike, for example), not Street and Avenue, as I’m accustomed to.

We stayed in Natchez Trace Campground, next to a beautiful lake, pinned between a wilderness preserve and a national park (err.. National Parkway). We were about an hour and a half south of Nashville. The only complaint we had was the total lack of cellular service and crappy wifi bandwidth, which put us in a bind as far as work obligations go (we spent the week commuting to find cell service).

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We did, of course spend a short weekend in Nashville, and loved it. Nashville has the feeling of a metropolis that sprung up around a college. College towns don’t have the population or thriving economy, and colleges in big cities tend to be isolated areas, a college neighborhood. Nashville is different.

Beside the thriving music scene, which is something to behold, there are so many neighborhoods that feel like they’re next to a campus. Thriving town squares, with shopping and restaurants during the day, and live music being piped out of every other building at night.

I’m not as big on the club/bar scene as I have been in the past, but it’s not an experience that you can miss in Nashville. Wander into any bar on Broadway for a great live show, and when they play something that you don’t really like, you can just go next door. You could do that all night and not see every performance that night. There was Country, Rock, Top-40, Rap, and hybrids of all those genres mixed together. There was top-notch music for everyone.

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We drove north, out of Tennessee, bound for Diamond Caverns Campground just outside of the Mammoth Cave National Park. We stayed just long enough to get to play 9 holes of golf on the local course and explore Mammoth Cave for an afternoon. If you’re in central Kentucky, you owe it to yourself to visit the park. It’s the largest system of caves in the US, some 400+ miles of mapped cave systems, and just like every other National Park I’ve visited, it didn’t let us down. Do yourself a favor and book a tour or two in advance. We regret not doing that.

As you move northeast through Kentucky, the land becomes flatter. Not flat, but rolling, gentle hills, occupied by farms or horse pasture. It becomes clear why Kentucky is known for it’s horse-centric culture. They have rolling, open countryside that is very suitable for raising large mammals, and the terrain is more suitable for training them. You couldn’t do that in the large, rolling, forested hills of Tennessee.

After staying for fireworks over the weekend, we decided to leave Kentucky early and spend a couple of days sightseeing our way to Pennsylvania. We meandered our way into West Virginia and spent a quick night in Hurricane, WV. This state has the coolest names for their cities…Hurricane (only a cool name in a land-locked state, btw), Charleston (great name for a state capitol, but maybe I’m biased), Looneyville, and more.

Our drive the next day through West Virginia, took me home to Colorado. West Virginia is a state of mountains. I had no clue. We were climbing mountain passes, driving past ski areas, and enjoying vistas that went on for miles. After driving through, I know that I’ll be back.

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After landing outside Gettysburg in the middle of the night, I took a look at the road behind us, from the Gulf to the Mason-Dixon line.

I can see why there was a war over the region. Politics aside, it’s a breathtaking part of the country, and I can see how Unionists and Confederates would want to keep control over this sliver of the globe, to call it home. It’s beautiful and easy to fall in love with, never mind the natural resources, access to other parts of the hemisphere, and vast expanse of fertile, wet land.

Just take a drive through and you’ll FEEL what they were fighting over, and why so many were motivated to die to keep control of this land.

 

Austin to Boston: East Texas and The Bridge to NOLA

From the island in Texas to the bridge over the bayou, you’ll see a lot and learn even more.

We arrived Friday evening for a weekend in an Austin Air B&B. It was an “artist’s bungalow” in an amazing location, blocks from South Congress. We had a great weekend exploring the city and seeing the sights, which is my second favorite thing to do.

It was a 1930’s bungalow, with limited air conditioning, and a warm, humid night, so we quickly found the porch swing. Halfway through my last surviving Colorado beer (Grapefruit Yanker IPA), the sky opened up. Combined with the ceiling fan at the center of the porch, the storm created the perfect setting for talking and laughing the night away. It was awesome.

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There are definitely moments in life that deserve recognition, and this was one.

In fact, I have learned this lesson before. During the time in my life where I was happiest, I noticed a consistent pattern. I found that when I payed attention, I started to notice more happy, noteworthy moments in my life.

Intentionally taking time to recognize the event made me feel good. All I had to do was pay attention to the moments and find the beauty.

It turns out that recognizing even one of these events will make your day better, and a few of them can make your day great. Eventually, these moments began to crowd out the negative ones, and I found myself enjoying them throughout the day.

I had one of those moments in Austin on that porch swing. I took several intentional seconds to linger in the feeling of that moment, and then I stepped outside in the rain to soak it in, literally and figuratively. I don’t know how many random decisions and conversations led me to this place, but I’m genuinely happy to be here, right now.

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I need to do more of that, wherever I am.

We hit the road (“wheels down”) on Sunday and stayed overnight near Lake Conroe, north of Huston. The RV park there was very family oriented. There were kids everywhere; which is great if you have kids. So, maybe not my favorite place to stay, but definitely appealing to a very wide audience and worth a visit.

The main thing I’m going to remember about that park, however, is that there were 7 sets of washers/dryers for 360 campsites. If you do the math, someone has to be doing laundry every hour the laundry is open, seven days a week, for everyone to wash once a week. So, I sat, waiting for machines to become available for a couple of hours, in my “laundry day outfit.” Ugh.

We were wheels down around 5pm, after Danielle was done with work. Given the time, we decided to head east, through the countryside, skipping the freeway and Huston’s traffic.  That was a beautiful drive, and the countryside is completely different than the Northern Plains and central “Hill Country.”

In this part of Texas, the land is very flat, but with a much more consistent water supply than the north. The trees get much taller and the underbrush gets thicker, to the point that you’re totally surrounded. The only color variations are yellow and white lane striping, near-new black asphalt, and the ribbon of late-afternoon sky above. Everything else is a shade of green.

Trees line the highway through this entire section and run perfectly parallel to the road on both sides, for miles. They’re so hearty and dense that they act as a barrier. Don’t drive off the road because your car won’t survive, but the trees will.

I didn’t realize how big Texas was until driving across it. Interstate ten, which cuts through southern Texas all the way from Louisiana to New Mexico, is 880 miles long. The last exit before crossing into Louisiana was exit number 880. That means that on the highway, Texas is wider than California is tall. California is less than 800 miles, top to bottom, on interstate five.

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Photo Credit: Unknown

In my opinion, Louisiana should have a sign at the border that says: “Louisiana – welcome to The Bridge State.” From the boarder, through Baton Rouge, to New Orleans is like one long bridge. There are some brief stretches on land but they’re few and far between.

The introduction to The Bridge State happens slowly at first. You pass over low-lying, short bridges that span sections of bayou. Then they make a statement…

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Photo credit: Unknown

The Calcasieu River Bridge, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is the tallest bridge I’ve been on. Naturally, as soon as we stopped, I had to Google it. I found out that it’s considered dilapidated, dangerous, and some government agencies have even banned government vehicles on the other bridge.

I’m so happy that I didn’t know that while on top of the bridge (see, found some roses).

There was also a noteworthy point, before Baton Rouge. While on another bridge, we came to a construction zone where workers were running new wires, somewhere off the side of the bridge.

We were stacked in traffic for about 5 miles, bumper to bumper, in one lane. The moon was out, but it was overcast and periodically foggy. As we were sitting in traffic there, however, you could see more due to slow speeds and numerous headlights.

I was a little spooked by seeing that we were 20-30 feet off the water. At one point I could see a flash light illuminating one of the bridge-support pilings from below. I assume that it was someone out night fishing on bayou under the bridge.

When the moon did shine through a break in the clouds, it illuminated water as far as I could see. If it weren’t for that and the fishermen, my imagination would have told me that there was nothing below us. The bridge could have been spanning an infinite abyss for all I knew.

Driving in the dark can be creepy, especially if you have an over-active imagination. I got an eerie feeling thinking about the situation we were in. We were on a bridge, in The Bridge State, on a totally unfamiliar bridge, with an infinite abyss below.

If there was an accident, and someone went off the side of the bridge, they could end up disappearing into the abyss. Or, more realistically, the could end up upside down in the swamp with the snakes, alligators, and…night-fishermen.

I just realized that I think about car accidents a lot, which is probably a function of driving alone in the dark a lot. I wasn’t really alone of course. All of my traveling companions sleep as I drive into the wee hours of the morning. So, it’s just me and my geeky podcasts, which I’ll dive into at some point.

The last surprise came when we got off the freeway to make the final descent (surprise, from a bridge) down to dry land and the RV park. At this point, I have NO CLUE where we are, and I’m blindly following Google, who doesn’t know I’m towing a large trailer containing nearly everything we own.

We got off the freeway in an abandoned industrial neighborhood. Google says make a left, so I do. It was a really sketchy road. We had to cross a few sets of train tracks and a couple of flooded sections of road. I can just imagine that the flooded section is 50 feet deep and that we’ll sink, nose first, into the abyss.

Great, it’s The Bridge State, and there’s no bridge when I really need one.

There was a four-foot-high concrete seawall protecting the neighborhood below on the left side of the road, as we reluctantly pushed forward with Google’s reassurance. On the right were a long line of abandoned warehouses, yacht manufacturing, the signs said. It was like driving through a Law & Order set; you couldn’t have made it creepier if you tried.

But, nothing happened. Google, as always, was right, and we pulled into the RV park and met Leo, the night watchman. Leo was super friendly and talked with us for 20 minutes before letting us park. He said that he wasn’t supposed to let us in the gates because we were too late. Thankfully, Leo is a nice guy.

So, here we are, Pontchartrain Landing, in The Big Easy, and neither of us has been before. This is going to be fun.

More pics from Austin:

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Denver, CO to Columbus, TX

Paranoia, night driving, and luck lead us to a WET Texas experience

The superstitious part of me thinks, maybe irrationally, that you can make things happen by saying them out loud. For example, telling someone not to forget something inevitably causes them lock their keys in the car or drop their driver’s license in the shredder, and that is your fault.

So, when the Costco employee approached the truck window and said that my tires are looking cracked, I said thanks and proceeded to scowl at him as he walked away. How could he? No explanation, no recommendation, just a death sentence.

Nothing ended up happening to the tires, but I was biting my nails all night, thanks Sean. I’m pretty sure I’m harboring an irrational fear. Saying it out loud probably won’t make it go away, either. Funny how that works.

Driving south out of Colorado is beautiful, especially in the spring. The grassy air feels perfect, the mountains are still snow-capped, and everything in between is fuzzy and green. When you leave Colorado and enter New Mexico, there’s a drastic change in landscape, however. Mountains in Colorado, dry desert in New Mexico and prairie in Texas. It’s almost as if the people drawing the maps did so based on the terrain.

It took us over 11 hours and more than 500 miles to get from Denver to Lubbock, TX. We have been traveling at night because Danielle works a day job, so driving has been dark and quiet. I’m okay with this arrangement, as I’ve always been a bit of a night owl (maybe full night owl).

There’s a weird phenomena that happens at night across the Northern Texas Plains. The center-pivot-irrigation equipment all have blinking lights, and when you’re driving at night, the blinking patterns can make it seem as if it was one light is moving with you. 70 miles per hour and there’s a floating, flashing light that can maintain the same speed. Then, immediately out the other side, the same thing.

I calmed myself and tried to justify the experience. Conspiracy theories dominated my reasoning. It was creepy sitting alone with the blinking lights and my imagination. But, after googling it, I could see that it was okay to take aluminium-foil hat off.

Blinking lights, damn, all worked up over nothing. My imagination never fails to entertain.

Travel happens at a different pace in the middle of the night. My copilot and Stella are sleeping. Shamus is quiet but not always sleeping – cue elbow licking. Nobody knows what Carne does, because she travels in the trailer. I can only conclude that she’s also sleeping because she whines for food, early, with the birds, reliably (shotgun emoji).

There’s a definite correlation between the number of miles away from Denver and the variation in terrain. The farther away your are, the less the variation. It gets FLAT in Northern Texas. So do the animals.

Biting my nails about our trailer tires, I’m also wide awake looking for animals through the darkness. Driving through the Colorado mountains in late fall is great training for this real-life onslaught. I thought I had seen it all, and I was wrong. There must have been 5-6 animals per mile near the highway, just the living ones.

It was a totally-moonless night and there were several vehicles stopped after just hitting an animal. I narrowly missed a hand full of critters and a few deer without waking the passengers, nothing short of a miracle.

There’s steady parade of headlights coming the other way. Which could be explained by the popular conspiracy theory in Denver that everyone is invading, looking to steal their awesome, micro-brewed secret sauce. But, could also be explained by people fleeing the war zone behind them.

Lubbock was nice, what little we saw of it. We parked for a few hours for work and were on our way.

 

The second leg of the trip took us from Lubbock to Austin, over 9 hours. We pulled into Austin for the night around 2am. We were quickly and rudely reminded of the staggering power of humidity. The air was so thick with water that it was foggy, but not fog.

Are you supposed to be able to see the air? Conventional, Colorado logic says: no.

We weren’t plugged into a power supply, so there was no air conditioning. It was hard to get to sleep that night, and we slept with the door open, in a random Walmart parking lot, which is a first. It was like sleeping in a hot tub, in front of a Walmart.

The next day was Saturday and no less humid. We always gravitate towards the local college campus because that’s where we feel at home, so we strolled around the campus at UT Austin.

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We had an easy 2-hour drive to our new home (for 10 days). We are parked outside Columbus, TX, right off the Colorado river, about halfway between San Antonio and Huston. We have a large stand of trees shading the camper and are completely surrounded by wildlife. See the picture at the top.

It looks like a Disney movie outside the window, armadillos and everything. It’s growing on me, despite the humidity. This weekend: Austin, Huston, and Monday in NOLA.