A road trip around America’s South
In September 2012 I needed to see customers in some of the southern states of the USA. I flew directly from London to Atlanta.
I landed on time at 7:10pm.
The immigration queue was not too long, but the guy on the desk was not in a good mood. I struggled with the questions because I couldn’t really understand his Southern drawl. He then repeated things again in a manner that suggested that he thought I was about 5 years old.
Anyway I got the stamp. Welcome back!
I got a bus from the international terminal to the domestic one and then waited outside in the pleasant warm night air for the 9pm shuttle van to Chattanooga; a two hour drive away.
I was quite impressed with this service. 10 people in a little bus, comfortable enough and a nice friendly atmosphere.
They dropped me off at my Chattanooga airport hotel at 11pm and I was asleep by 11:30pm.
I woke up and caught a taxi to Hertz. There were two very friendly people at Hertz asking me questions about the UK and joking with me. Eventually I got the keys to “Corrolla-chan”. She was in lot 13, my lucky number, and she was a grand little car.
I had a brief run through the downtown past the “Choo Choo” at the old station and then out to my first customer. The meeting went really well and I carried on to the second call.
The scenery around there was lovely. I thought I would like to go back and have a longer look around sometime. I stopped for lunch in a little town and, as I had promised myself, purposely stuck to “Southern Cookin”. I ate a very nice chicken fried steak with fried okra and corn bread on the side. I received nice friendly service in the little diner too.
I did the second call and that went well too. I then got the confirmation that I had half expected: Friday’s call would have to be cancelled (until next year).
Road Trip Begins
It was 4pm on Thursday.
I made a quick decision that it would be pointless to spend Friday flying to Las Vegas for just 1 hour in the office. I decided to take Friday off.
I confirmed a flight for late Saturday afternoon from Nashville, re-confirmed the car hire to return in Nashville and bought myself a map. I called the office and they told me to be extra careful driving in the South and to avoid entering Alabama at all costs.
With country music cranked up on the car radio I was off. Bloody minded as I am, I headed straight down towards the Alabama border.
My first stop was Lynchburg. This was a little town next to the Jack Daniels Distillery, and although it seemed an authentic enough town it did have a bit of a Hollywood feel to it.
It was an almost too perfect preservation of a Southern town. Most of the shops were functioning but you had things like old retro cars lined up at the gasoline station.
I stopped off at the Pharmacy and they had the old retro soda fountain. I sat there drinking a Coke and chatted with the woman serving.
There were lots of Confederate flags everywhere. They even have “CSA” car stickers. But they also have the same number of Union Stars and Stripes as elsewhere. I think they have reconciled being on the losing side of the civil war but kept their Southern pride in the old flag. Very interesting.
A few miles further south I crossed the Alabama border.
A place to sleep
Lynchburg had spoiled me. I was expecting another nice little town. I thought I would pitch up in a place with a little saloon and drink a few beers with the friendly locals before retiring to a nice warm bed.
No chance. It was just strip mall after strip mall; the American nightmare. All there seemed to be was chain restaurant after chain hotel in the usual boring characterless sprawl.
I was getting tired and so I gave in.
I put the Corolla down at the Budget Inn. The obese woman behind the counter was not pleased to see me and she seemed to struggle to understand that my driving licence had no photo. I told her that my passport was even better photo ID or at least it was just as good. I don’t think she had actually seen a passport before. Eventually I won the argument and she took my 40 dollars and gave me a key. The room was fine. It even had 10 hangers in the closet of 10 different designs; quite a collection.
I went back and asked if the Mexican Restaurant across the road was any good. The woman told me she had never eaten in there but she told me there were certainly no other restaurants close by.
I decided to risk it. There were no Mexicans in the restaurant. No customers either. I was shown to my table by a spotty pale white woman. I supposed that there must be Mexicans in the kitchen, but after I had eaten a chicken chimichanga that tasted as if had been fried in Diesel, I thought perhaps there weren’t. The road trip had hit rock bottom.
I had a reasonably restful night but the jet lag and the food woke me up too often. I was out of there at 7:30am.
Good Morning Mississippi
After a few miles I found a donut shop. Actually it was called “Donut Shoppe” to stress its link with old England I supposed. I drank enough coffee to settle my stomach and then headed out towards the Mississippi border.
I turned off the main road and found a little side road that headed in the direction of Memphis. I crossed back over into Tennessee and found some stunning scenery. There were fields full of cotton almost ready to be picked and massive, massive houses.
I drove through mile after mile of this kind of scenery. There was hardly any other traffic around.
Towards Memphis the farms got even bigger and I passed through a lovely old village set amongst the old historical plantations.
I stopped in Memphis for an early lunch. I walked around the centre and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had restored the street car system and were using a mixture of Melbourne and Lisbon Cars.
I had a nice wander around. I looked at all the Civil War history stuff and I recognised some of the sites from the Tom Cruise film “The Firm”
I had a submarine sandwich at a local Deli (surprisingly good) and then I was off again heading for Nashville. The plan was to rush down the interstate at 80mph for 2 hours to cover two thirds of the 200 mile trip and then go on the back roads for the final third.
It worked well. It rained hard for two hours and then brightened up for the last 60 or so miles into Nashville. I found a nice little scenic back road, made a few stops and got to Nashville around 6pm.
I had only had a taster but I was impressed with rural Tennessee. I could easily have spent another few days driving around.
I checked into the cheapest shittiest looking motel (55 Dollars) I could find on the outskirts of Nashville. It was pleasant enough though. The friendly Patel brothers running it gave me a rundown on the city and called me a cab to get into the centre.
10 minutes and 6 dollars later I was on Broadway. I quickly found a place to eat and had an excellent feast of BBQ pork shoulder with all the southern dressings, covered in hot sauce and washed down with sweet tea.
I then spent a wonderful 4 or 5 hours until past midnight wandering around the bars in the town. Every one of them had some kind of live music. Not all of them were country, but most had some kind of a country theme.
It was a really decent Friday night. It was marred only by the fact that the music was usually so loud that it was difficult to talk for more than a few sentences to anyone I met in the bars.
There was music everywhere !
Music in the bars…
Music on the street…
Music in the record store at 11pm…
Music back in another bar…
And music back in the record shop at midnight being broadcast live on the radio…
Surprisingly, I didn’t drink too much and I wasn’t too much worse for wear when I headed back in a cab at 1am.
Grand Ole Opry
The jet lag had me up at 6:30am again and I was out, coffee’d and muffin’d, ready for action by 8am.
The plan was just to go to the centre, park the car & see the sights before heading out to the airport for the 3pm flight to Dallas and onto Las Vegas.
I stopped by the old Grand Ole Opry in the downtown…
And the new (larger) grand ole opry on the outskirts…
and had a look around the downtown in the daylight….
The highlight of the morning was a couple of hours spent in the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame.
Like a lot of US museums it was incredibly well put together.
I am not really a country fan. I am on a sort of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline sort of level. But like all good museums this one drew you in to the story and makes you want to know more.
Even better, they were having a Patsy Cline exhibition on the 3rd floor.
It was quite moving to see people watching her on the big screen and everyone just sitting there being captivated by her beautiful voice.
I will admit to moist eyes here.
What a beautiful voice. What a tragic life. How many stars did US light aviation kill in the early 1960’s?
They also had a theatre with real songwriters doing little performances and explaining how they write the songs. It was all quite fascinating actually.
The Hall of Fame, a beautifully and tastefully done circle of a building with all the members celebrated along the walls, was connected to the museum.
As I exited the museum, already in a good mood, I got a little bonus. They were having a BBQ festival on the front lawn.
I wandered around and tasted a few of the offerings. I had seen this sort of thing on documentaries a few times and had always wanted to try it.
They were talking it very seriously and it was very competitive.
I tried excellent chicken wings and beef brisket. It was all pretty good stuff and a terrific atmosphere.
At the end of my US visit I returned to Atlanta and had a good look around the city. I walked around some of it and used the excellent MARTA subway system to go to the more distant parts.
The two main tourist attractions in the city were the CNN studios and the Coca Cola museum. Both of them were excellent.
I also made it out to Grant Park and saw some of the civil war memorials and even met some interesting characters who were there dressed in uniforms and re-enacting the battle.
I sampled Atlanta’s famous “Varsity” fast food chain and also ate at another chain “Waffle House” (found all over the South). Both were very good.
Postscript – “Atlanta Again”
In October 2017 I returned again to Atlanta for a trade show.
I had one day spare.
I visited the South Eastern Railway Museum on the edge of town. I travelled there from the last station on the MARTA system and back again with two very interesting Uber drivers; one from Haiti and one from Bangladesh.
The museum was interesting enough. It was a little short on locomotives, but it made up for it by presenting a fascinating display of restaurant cars, sleepers and observation saloons as well as one carriage used by President Harding.
The museum also told the story of railways in the south with a particular emphasis on the Southern Railway and its crack train the Southern Crescent.
Back in the city I visited the superb collection of Martin Luther King museums that are based around the house where he was born and the church where he preached.
In one of the MLK museums there was a section on Rosa Parks. This was actually made more poignant by the fact the trade show had featured a bus restored to its 1950 condition complete with segregated seating.
I continued with a walk along Auburn Street. In the 1930s this street was the most prosperous African-American district in the south.
I had an excellent meal at the Twin Smokers BBQ restaurant.
I finished everything off with some local IPA.
And then made a final trip to the airport on the MARTA train….