Well friends, the time is nearly at hand – the much anticipated Herr clan eastward migration from Texas to North Carolina is just around the corner. As the only native Southerner on this 1,400 mile journey, I felt an odd compulsion to cobble together a few facts and other observations about this strange, wonderful part of the world. (technically, Patrick, being a native Oklahoman is a Southerner as well, but given the deep South trajectory of our voyage, and possessing a few spare hours and a bottle of wine, I figured I would try my hand at producing a travel guide. Admittedly, it’s not Fodor’s, but hopefully it will suffice.)
This epic road trip, Griswoldean in its scope and limitless potential for bumbling comedy, has garnered the attention and curiosity of friends and family alike. So, my plan is to file daily dispatches from the road – updates on progress made, mileage covered, historical sites visited, mullet sightings, Elvis sightings, Mark Sanford sightings, interior air quality index (flatulence indicator) and other pertinent (or more likely, totally irrelevant) information.
Sunday, 12/27/2009: A very enjoyable and relaxing Christmas was had by all in Austin over the past few days. Melissa & I, Fran & Nita, Luke, Patrick’s son Cole and his mother, Sharon all stayed over at Lyn and Patrick’s beautiful new home. Melissa & crew cooked up a veritable feast on Christmas Eve that kept us in varying stages of food coma throughout the weekend.
Yesterday evening, after dinner with my aunt & uncle who also live in Austin, Melissa & I returned to Lyn & Patrick’s to find them, Fran and Nita playing poker and about a quarter of the way through the Four Rose’s bourbon we bought Patrick for Christmas. By the time we joined in, presumably for a couple of quick hands, it was around 10:30. Two hours, a couple dozen hands and half a bottle of bourbon later the ladies had gone to bed, leaving Patrick, Fran & I sitting around the table telling stories, laughing and planning the route for our upcoming road trip. We polished off the bottle and stumbled off to bed around 1 am.
This morning rolled around to find us moving slowly, but not too much worse for the wear despite the unadvisable quantities of Kentucky bourbon consumed the previous night. Fran & Patrick proved their engineering
chops by masterfully cramming approximately enough gear to supply an Everest expedition into the rooftop cargo carrier (newly purchased for this trip) as well as every available nook and cranny of the Acadia, while still leaving enough room for seven adults to shoehorn themselves in besides.
We didn’t get on the road until noon but made admirable progress once we started. We took in a few hundred miles of east Texas back road flora and fauna on Highway 79 between Austin and Shreveport, then stopped for dinner at a great little locally owned seafood and Cajun restaurant called Ralph & Kacoo’s just past Shreveport in Bossier City, LA. After dinner we pressed on another 160 miles to Vicksburg, MS where we’re resting up for the night. Tomorrow we plan to tour the Civil War battlefield here and then get back on the road. Not sure if we will make Columbia tomorrow or not. We’ll see how it goes and I’ll keep you posted.
Total miles covered: 317
All great expeditions have to endure and overcome their low points – Shackleton lost his ship “Endurance” to crushing ice flows, yet guided his crew to safety through months of frozen hardship in the Antarctic. Lewis & Clark led the Corps of Discovery through 2,000 miles of uncharted western territory, hailstorms, bear attacks, raging river passages and the occasional cranky Native American before reaching Oregon. And so in the great tradition of those past expeditions, the Herr clan Confederate Road Trip experienced a bump in the road (both literal and figurative) today shortly after leaving Vicksburg.
It started out optimistically enough. I have always heard that necessity is the mother of invention, and so after a day of driving that would make sardine cans seem positively open-aired and lavish by comparison, the decision was made to create more interior room by loading the presents and other items onto the rooftop. All the men agreed that placing the load in two trash bags to water proof and attaching the bags behind the existing luggage carrier with shrink wrap would provide sufficient protection against the wind and would secure the packages quite nicely. Admittedly, the engineering marvel of the luggage carrier from the prior day might have left us feeling a little cocky and, like test pilots, we were eager to test the boundaries of engineering and technology (not to mention common sense). But we felt it would work. And so we found a local building supply store and commenced with the shrink wrapping.
A handful of Mississippi good ole boys stopped in their tracks and watched in bewildered amusement as we used an entire roll of industrial wrap to secure the two bags to the rooftop carrier. You could almost hear them whispering to each other in a Foghorn Leghorn brogue “Ah say, son, just what in tarrrrnation are those Yankee-boys doin’ anyhow?”
Wrapping complete, we tested the load by driving slowly over to the Vicksburg National Battlefield Memorial just a couple of miles away. Over the next hour or so, we toured the battlefield by car. All went well, but over lunch it was decided that duct tape might put a secure finishing touch on the load. It seemed almost overly cautious at the time, but what the hell? And so, well fed and drunk on confidence we made our way over to nearby Mississippi Hardware to purchase the tape.
The general consensus after adding the duct tape was that it was quite possibly the ugliest packing job since Jed Clampett and crew drove to California but that it was, in fact, roadworthy. And so around 2:30, we ventured onto I-20.
As we made our way towards Jackson and the eastward miles ticked off, we began to feel a rising sense of satisfaction and confidence in the shrink wrap and duct tape arrangement until around mile marker 53, when a car pulled up beside us in the left lane and the driver began to point at us (with which finger I do not recall). He seemed to be motioning in the general direction of the roof, though he didn’t seem particularly agitated. We decided to pull off at the next exit to have a look see and supplement the duct tape job if needed. You might imagine our shock at walking around to the back of the car and finding not a single trace of the shrink-wrapped packages. They were gone – vanished like a fart in the wind.
We were taken aback. Taking a quick inventory of the missing items – Christmas presents for the folks back in Raleigh, a laptop, among other items, and we decided that a recovery effort was warranted. And so with eyes peeled, we headed back west on I-20 to see what we could find, thinking that the driver who motioned to us must have seen something fall off and the packages would probably be easily retrieved no more than a couple of miles back. As we drove along it became obvious to me that Mississippians had not exactly embraced the spirit of the highway signs mounted every few miles encouraging them to “Pick it up Mississippi”. There was litter everywhere. Mississippians must have the cleanest cars in the country given the amount of trash they toss on the interstate.
And so every few minutes, someone in the car would see something that resembled a laptop case or a present, only to be disappointed when we would stop and investigate more closely. We were determined to find something – anything – at this point though, so we made the decision to back track all the way to Vicksburg and retrace our route completely. When we made it back to Vicksburg, it was around 4:45 and the winter sun was beginning to fade as quickly as our hopes of recovering anything. By the time we had driven the 50+ miles back east again it was dark and we had nothing to show for all of our driving. We were all getting hungry and had developed a collective and acute case of the “fuck-its”, so I called the highway patrol to report the missing items in case anyone called in about finding any of it, and we headed east.
We made it to Meridian, MS for dinner and into Birmingham to stop for the night around 11:15 pm. We were exhausted and, after the days events, looking forward to a leisurely, non-eventful, patently boring drive to Columbia on Tuesday.
Total miles driven for Monday: 387
Actual miles of forward progress: 279
Total mileage for trip: 704
Tuesday in Birmingham started slowly. We were all a little road-weary and had arrived in Birmingham late the night before. Our pride was still stinging from the catastrophic shrink wrap failure of the previous day, so with a short drive to Columbia on the agenda we took advantage of the opportunity to sleep late and ease into the day. After breakfast, Fran and Patrick took in a tour of one of Birmingham’s iron factories (Birmingham is known as the “Pittsburg of the South” for its iron and steel production), Lyn and Nita toured the Civil Rights Museum, Melissa and I got in a run and Luke took advantage of a little well-earned solitude back in the room. It was a cathartic break and by the time we reconvened, morale had improved greatly.
After a late check-out, we piled back into the Acadia and, following the recommendation of the hotel clerk for a good locally owned bbq restaurant, made the short drive to Sweet Bones BBQ. During the entire trip, my intention was to take everybody to a true, down home Southern BBQ roadside shack. You know the kind of place I’m referring to – a ramshackle, low-slung, cinder block and corrugated metal dump of a building – the kind of place that leaves you wondering if you are due for a tetanus shot – but whose smoky, pork-laden aromas have you salivating the moment your tires crunch into the gravel parking lot. So I was a little concerned when the GPS led us to a modern outdoor mall, complete with a Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and parking lot full of Range Rovers. This was not what I had in mind. I didn’t feel any better when we walked in only to find a very clean, professionally decorated interior, complete with wide-screen plasma TVs and golf shirt-clad wait staff. This place had all the calling cards of a chain restaurant, which we had made a blood oath to avoid during the entirety of the trip. I felt a little defeated as we took our seats.
Happily, Sweet Bones delivered in a big way. It was locally owned as it turned out, and the bbq was some of the best I have had. Between the seven of us, we were able to sample just about everything on the menu – pork ribs, spare ribs, pulled pork and brisket. The sauce was a smoky-sweet red sauce, and while I will always be partial to the mustard-based sauces of central South Carolina, this stuff was good!
Everyone had a sweet tooth after the bbq, so we ordered dessert. Luke, Patrick and Lyn ordered peanut butter pie and the rest of us ordered the cherry cobbler. The dessert portions were almost comically large – the peanut butter pie was as thick and heavy (and as hard to finish) as a Herman Melville novel. We all contributed and Luke, especially, gave a valiant effort, but the peanut butter pie proved to be just too much.
It was close to 3pm by the time we waddled out of Smokey Bones and got on the road. Just as we had hoped, it was an uneventful drive across eastern Alabama, through Georgia and into South Carolina. We arrived in Columbia around 10:15 pm and, finally ready to eat again, settled into the back booth at Liberty Tap Room in Columbia’s Vista area. We had good food and beer, great conversation and by 11:30 we were all exhausted and ready to turn in. We stayed the night at my house in Columbia’s historic Rosewood neighborhood.
Total miles driven Tuesday: 367
Total mileage for trip: 1,071
We started the day off with breakfast at the Gourmet Shop in 5-Points and were on the road relatively early – by 10am or so. It was a short three and ½ hour drive from Columbia to Raleigh, interrupted only by a brief foray into that strange and inexplicable slice of Americana known as South of the Border in Dillon, S.C.
“SOB”, as it is often called, is a bizarre amalgam of Mexico and Dixie – a wacky collection of souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, motels (evidently, people actually spend the night here) and a 200 foot tall sombrero tower. We bought a few white elephant gifts for John – one was an eagle and wolf figurine (“redneck chic” might be the best way to describe it) and the other was a miniature bust of Barak Obama which, for some unfathomable reason, had blue eyes.
We completed the last leg of our journey, rolling north through endless Carolina pines and arriving in Raleigh by around 3pm. That night we had a wonderful dinner at Vivace’ Italian Restaurant with John & Mary, Mark & Jenny and Grant & Sarah.
It was the end of the road for us. Seven states and nearly 1,400 miles. We lost a few presents along the way but arrived in Raleigh with the same number of people that we started with in Austin and that is no small miracle. What’s more, we’re all still speaking to one another. And while there are no plans for a repeat of this trip in 2010, I think we’ve all come away with some great memories, and isn’t that really what its all about?
Total miles for Wednesday: 276
Total mileage for trip: 1,347