My family and I spent eight days driving around the US. Well, okay, not eight days entirely in the car. An eight-day vacation in which we drive over a thousand miles to visit my writing partner and friend Sarah’s family in Blacksburg for a few days and then drove over a thousand miles to get home again the next week. We took the opportunity to see a lot of the country we hadn’t been in before and stop in several major southern cities.
But over eight days, we drove about 2,500 miles and experienced (in a variety of ways) the following states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama, and some of them twice in different places. We actually stayed overnight in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Birmingham during our travels, each time arriving in the afternoon early enough to do some interesting stuff (if a little touristy sometimes).
Since my husband wanted to do all the driving, having so much time in the passenger seat of the car let me get a lot of mental work done on a short story I’m currently revising and a novel that’s in rewrites — which was awesome, by the way! — but it also gave me time to make a lot of observations about my immediate environment. So here are some of them, presented as objectively as possible, in no particular order beyond when the observations were made. (I kept a running list as we drove.)
1. Buc-ee’s sells weird shit.
2. Driving to a popular city on Friday afternoon of a long holiday weekend will be slow. Driving with hordes of people on narrow bridges over swamps and rivers will be a parking lot.
3. The French Quarter in New Orleans is disgusting while people are out partying in the evening. It is quite charming, despite the lingering smell, early in the morning.
4. The beignets at Crescent City in Houston are better (fluffier, tastier, less greasy) than the ones at Café du Monde, but Café du Monde has some of the best hot chocolate ever made.
5. Heard on the radio as we left NOLA: “People here know the names of the true seasons — hurricane, football, crawfish, and Mardi Gras.”
6. I’d really love to shop in the French Market next time I go to NOLA, and to check out the shops between there and Café du Monde.
7. GoogleMaps is awesome.
8. Hotels in cities and locations that cater to an adult crowd (for example, NOLA’s French Quarter or San Antonio’s Riverwalk) don’t offer the same level of in-room amenities as we’re used to, regardless of how many stars the hotel rates, such as movies for kids or large bathrooms.
9. Downtown skylines are fundamentally the same.
10. A certain casino is using someone who looks just like Ed Young, pastor of the Second Baptist empire (a prosperity gospel megachurch in Houston and its surrounding suburbs), to advertise. This guy’s face was on so many billboards. In one stretch of highway, he was on seven billboards in a row.
11. Relying on radio while driving through the country is chancy at best and horrifying at worst.
12. Nearly all the people we encountered in the major southern cities had exceptionally good manners, even with faced with heat, humidity, traffic, and crowds.
13. The road signs reminding people to buckle up vary from state to state, but Georgia’s look vaguely like the Confederate flag.
14. The Georgia Aquarium is very, very good. Get your tickets online the day before (but if you can’t, do it from the back of the will-call line on your phone). You get a discount if you show up after 4:00 p.m., and they’re usually open till 9:00 p.m. Prepare for crowds, even late in the day, and think strategically — before you go in — about blood sugar and hydration. Definitely take the moving sidewalk while you’re there. Maybe more than once.
15. Charlotte, North Carolina, has magnolia trees and crepe myrtles in bloom to beautify their highways. It’s working.
16. The atmosphere of the Chuy’s in Charlotte is inauthentic to this native Texan, but it’s inauthentic in a charming way, unlike that of the Chuy’s in SugarLand, Texas, which is inauthentic in an offensive way. Their food is still amazing in every city where I’ve tried it.
17. I don’t take enough pictures. Maybe it’s because the ones I take are usually terrible.
18. The roadside Waffle House outside Atlanta has a bug problem.
19. I am surprised by how much I am still weirded out by the unexpected sight of a large-ish spider in motion. I blame the ridiculous and excessive number of legs.
20. The tour guide at the Smithfield Plantation in Virginia was very knowledgeable and generally engaging, but his ideas about the institution of slavery before the Civil War were the most…diplomatic…(and perhaps rationalized) I’ve ever heard. Otherwise, getting to look inside the old house and see the furnishings and day-to-day living situation for the family who owned it was fascinating and fun. (I love old house museums.)
21. Most of the people we encountered in the large southern cities were not white. In the small towns, they were almost all white.
22. Sometimes small towns get creative with their water towers.
23. This is a beautiful country. In the south, it’s covered with trees. It’s like the interstate system was cut and laid through forests.
24. Houston is a wonderful place to live for many reasons, and it also has a lot of fabulous trees, but from a landscape perspective, it’s kind of disappointing.
25. The US doesn’t have too many people for its land. It has too little creativity in how to use the spaces — even the depressed cities — we have so that they won’t present an environmental burden.
26. Road trips inspire me to reminisce about my past. It’s nice that I still have stories that aren’t old to my husband yet. Some, in fact, that he doesn’t even know, even after eighteen years as a couple and six years as friends before that.
27. If you set Pandora to “Cake station” you will get music made only by men, even after an entire day of listening. If you change the station to “Ani diFranco,” it takes until the second day to get music not made by women. Is Pandora polarizing dudebros versus grrls?
So what are you doing on your summer vacation this year? Tell us about your observations on the world in the comments below.