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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.