The Land Between the Lakes, Part 1

Arrival

The Land Between the Lakes is a large National Park nestled between two long, artificial lakes. The park features 170,000 acres of forest & wetlands, bison, a planetarium, and every 13 years, Brood XXIII cicadas. The park offers virtually any type of boating & outdoor activity imaginable.

Imagine Manhattan if all the buildings were replaced by trees, and the rats were replaced by deer and bison — that is The Land Between the Lakes.

I arrived at the park just in time to hear some chorusing cicadas (they get quiet around 5pm). In the background, weekend warriors raced their fishing boats up the lake — their engines making “bwaaaa bwa bwa bwup bwup” sounds as they struggled to keep pace with their captains’ pride.

Land Between the Lakes

Park

There were several hours of light left in the day, so I chose to enter the park before finding a hotel. I drove the speed limit, in an effort to drive slow enough to hear the cicadas I was listening for… much to the chagrin of everyone else driving on the park road. They flashed their lights, and weaved in and out of lanes, all serpentine like, in an attempt to cajole me to drive faster. But I was stedfast in my determination to travel the speed I desired. Eventually, these bullies of the road passed.

The road never seemed to end — mile after mile of forrest-lined road. It was glorious.

Pig Truck Man

I managed to raise the ire of the driver of a giant, matt-black, pig-truck — once again by driving the speed limit. The giant, matt-black, pig-truck was like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: it was a monster pickup truck, jacked-up about 3 feet higher than normal, pained matt-black, two huge stacks belching black, sooty smoke, with a pig nose for the grill, and lights for the nostrils. Most folks would be terrified by the sight of such a vehicle, two feet away from their bumper, but I was thrilled by it. I’m weaving, trying to get a photo, but failed. It was awesome though. Eventually it passed. It would have been an honor to have been run off the road by the pig truck. All that said, I do look like exactly like Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road, so the guy probably thought I was his leader. He just wanted to say “Hi”.

Quest for Bison

I made it as far south as the self-guided Elk & Bison prairie tour, paid the $5 entry fee, and was very pleased to see these mighty creatures up close.

Stretching Bison

Bison at Land Between the Lakes

When I was a child I spend a lot of time around lakes, rivers, woodlands, and forests. I loved the smell of a country road after a rainstorm; the mirror finish of a lake; the lively communication of birds; the contrast of a red newt on soft green moss; and awe-lispiring views of lush, green valleys from the top of tall hills.

People find solace & peace in the pop culture & toys of their childhood — Star Wars, comic books, Frankenstein, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, Donky Kong, a Nirvana record, etc. For just a moment it allows them to go back in time, and escape from their troubles, worries and responsibilities. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I find solace in nature. A National or State park is my Comicon.

The Land Between the Lakes, part 2

Welcome to the truck stop

I arrived at the Hampton Inn at sunset. The sky was ablaze with ribbons of orange, gold and red. I watched the colors fade behind the hotel; when the last drop of red drained from the black stage of night, I walked into the hotel and checked it.

It must be said: no one tries harder to please their customers than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. It was Memorial Day Weekend. You would be hard-pressed to find a hotel more patriotic than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. Their staff were uniformed in red, white & blue; a variety of patriotic flair pinned & clipped to their torsos and heads. The hotel lobby was festooned with red, white & blue decorations… It was amazing. U.S. Flag key chains were free at the counter. The staff were all pleasant and helpful. Free breakfast in the lobby everyday, including a waffle maker. Free lemonade and treats throughout the day; come back from a long day of outdoor adventure — a cold glass of lemonade is waiting for you. Free toothbrushes! Forget to pack your toothbrush — they have you covered. Clean rooms with refrigerators and wi-fi.

The most memorable hotel worker was the night-shift desk clerk. Imagine Penn from Penn & Teller, covered with red, white & blue flair, and just bursting with enthusiasm about the holiday weekend, and with eagerness to help hotel guests. I couldn’t help but think: this guy loves his country, loves his job, loves helping people, and it’s 2am and he has to deal with drunks and whatever maniacs are awake in the middle of the night. What a mensch!

Hampton Inn in Kuttawa KY

The truck stop featured three or four gas and diesel stations, two burger joints, two hotels, a steak & country music restaurant, a Huddle House, a drive through liquor store, and a lady who sold barbecued meats from a grill she towed behind her truck.

I know what you’re thinking: “how many times did you drive through the liquor store drive through?” Sadly, zero times. Instead I just walked there (and bought many PBR tall-boys).

And “did you fall in love with the lady who sold barbecued meats?” Sadly, no. If I did, I would still be in Kentucky.

Drive Thru Liquor Store in Kuttawa KY

PBR, country music wafting through the night air, and taking photos of gas stations at night. Once the cicadas are quiet, that’s how I do it.

Exxon in Kuttawa KYBP in Kuttawa KY

Local Stores

The next day, while cruising around the Land Between the Lakes area, listening for cicadas (why I was in the area in the first place), I made sure I stopped by local stores and markets to get an idea of what local life might be like.

The local flea markets were intense, and possibly magical. Imagine a roadside lined with rows of shacks made from plywood and hope. Inside each were antiques, toys, clothes, Christmas artifacts, knives, preserves, dolls, cellphone cases, drones, and other dreams without a home — you name it, they had it. I walked away with pickles, a knife and some LP recordings of the Bible.

Red Door Antiques was pretty good. They had a wide variety of antiques and collectables. I picked up a vacuum tube tester and some rhubarb preserves. I enjoyed seeing a Big Jim vinyl camper that I think I had as a child (I vaguely remember destroying it by peeling the vinyl from its cardboard frame because I liked the sensation of the vinyl tearing).

Big Jim vinyl truck

I visited an outlet store mall. Only 10% of the stores were occupied. I bought another knife — this time a multi-tool. I was surprised by the overall lack of activity in the area — maybe it was because of the holiday weekend. Maybe not that many tourists were visiting the park?

But no, the Walmart was backed to the rafters with people. Probably all looking for a USB cable, just like me.

Oh well.

Kentucky and the Wonders of Limestone

The limestone rock of Kentucky provides the world with two natural wonders: caves and water for Bourbon.

Caves, of course, are amazing subterranean geological formations often created by the seepage and flow of water through soft stone like limestone. Bourbon, of course, is an amazing American alcoholic beverage made from limestone-filtered water and corn.

I visited southern Kentucky in the spring of 2014, after documenting the emergence of Brood XXII cicadas in the northern part of the state. I had a few days to kill, so I headed south for a tour of the Jim Beam distillery, and then Mammoth Cave National Park.

Jim Beam

The Jim Beam distillery welcome center & tour is as perfect as you might imagine. When you visit, you’ll first notice the massive black barn-like buildings. These are used to hold the barrels of bourbon as the liquor matures.The buildings are spaced far enough apart so that if one catches fire, the flames won’t be able to reach the other buildings. Bourbon, like most booze, is highly flammable.

Jim Beam Distillery, Kentucky

The welcome center, emblazoned with the famous Jim Beam logo, resembles a cross between a country store and an old West saloon. The interior is essentially two floors of gift stores where you can purchase tour tickets, all varieties of Jim Beam bourbon, and many souvenirs. I was tempted to get the $200+ used Jim Beam barrel, but it wasn’t going to fit in my car. I chose to get the Jim Beam Maple, which the cashier recommended pouring in my morning coffee. The bathroom was modern (it did not resemble a barn) and very clean.

Jim Beam Distillery, Kentucky

Jim Beam samples.

The tour (spoilers ahead) takes you through the bourbon making process, from grain and water, through to the final product. The highlight was I got to pour my own bottle of Jim Beam Single Barrel. Along the way I was treated to the sights, sounds and smells of a working distillery — lots of tanks for fermenting the mash, massive pipes, barrels, lots of wooden structure binding & framing it all together — all the stuff you might expect. The tour culminated with a tasting session, where I got to try three varieties of Jim Beam. I think Booker’s was my favorite.

Overall it was a pleasant afternoon, well-spent learning American booze history, and obtaining fine bourbon whiskey from the source.

Mammoth Cave & Travel Lodge

My retro hotel room, Mammoth Cave Park, Kentucky

Later that same day I arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park, too late for a cave tour, but early enough to book a room in their on site hotel. I had the choice of a cabin, or a room in the building attached to the tourist center. I opted for the later, and was rewarded with a room that seemed like something out of the 1950s, or maybe early 1960. Definitely pre L.B.J. Brick interior walls, no wi-fi, old black and white photos of the cave. “Lodge” is the word I would use to describe it. It felt like an interior scene from the TV series Twin Peaks. I fantasized about winning the lottery and living there for the rest of my life (I’m sure I could get Wi-fi at the local Cracker Barrel… I think.)

Part of the fun of staying at the lodge was watching the antics of other people staying there. The best was watching people try to get a cell phone signal. I watched four guys each take turns helping each other climb a tree in hopes of getting a signal. They would boost their friend up, and invariably he would tumble to the ground. Guys, you’re in the middle of a National Park — no cell phone signals here. Actually, not being able to get a signal was nice — it is so rare to go a day without email, web, twitter, instagram, etc — it was like a two-day vacation from the 21st century.

Before sunset I walked the nature trail surrounding the tourist center. It was fantastic and refreshing to walk amongst the nature. Not too far from the “Lodge” I discovered the rear exit of the cave, and sneaked in un-guided. The exit was about 40′ in circumference, and went down at an angle of about 35 degrees for a few hundred feet before reaching a point that was blocked off. Cool air flows from the cave exit, which is quite refreshing and awe-inspiring on a warm spring day.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

After a solid night of sleep in my amazing room, I had southern breakfast (grits, biscuits and white gravy) in the tourist center dining room. Breakfast was not free, as it was in a dining room (remember the rule: breakfast is only free if it is in the lobby). It was here that I had my first mind-blowing experience, which was hearing the southern-Kentucky accent. I’ve been to about two-thirds of the States, and southern-Kentucky has the most distinct accent I’ve encountered. It was thrilling — I kept asking for more coffee and water just to hear the waitress’ voice again.

Next, I booked the longest cave tour available. About 80 people and I boarded busses, and set off for the cave. At the entrance of the cave, the ranger/tour guide laid out the rules of the tour, all of which were violated hundreds of times, by my observation:

  1. “Keep your child with you at all times.” Kids buzzed around in manic figure-eight patterns out of reach of their parents control.
  2. “Do not take photos and hold up the tour.” People took a million photos, causing the tour to be broken up into unreachable segments, or piling together like the arch of a caterpillar’s back.
  3. “Do not imitate Golem and say ‘My Precious’ when we turn the lights out to show you how dark the cave is.” Okay, this last one wasn’t really a rule, and I did it.

The long cave tour (spoilers ahead) takes you down hundreds of feet of cramped, jagged limestone on slippery steel stares. Then you travel, mostly horizontally, though the cave, until you reach the end and ascend. Only the end has drip-stone formations (stalactites and stalagmites), but it is worth the walk and wait. The tour guide told the story of the men who discovered, explored and dynamited open the cave, all to exploit is as a tourist attraction. Back in the day, their intent was to exploit the local caves for revenue. Sustainability and environmental impacts were not known or considered. Still I have to admire the moxie and bravery of the men who blasted open the caves for future tourists and researchers.

The final stop of the tour had us wash our shoes in a special solution, to destroy a fungus which is killing the local bat population.

I spent the rest of the day hiking the woods around the tourist center. When I think back over the past few years of my favorite experiences, this was definitely one of them. Hiking the trails, stopping to stare in awe of the sun setting over a lush green valley. It is my “happy place” so to speak.

Salamander. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Green River. "The cave maker". Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Cave City and other local towns

Driving to Mammoth Cave National Park you’ll see an abundance of signs for antique stores and rock shops. You’ll also see a lot of people selling geodes on their front lawns — geodes being those ball-shaped rocks with (hopefully) crystals inside. People just set up tables and blankets on their lawns and sell geodes.

I visited the rock shop with the most billboards, which was Big Mike’s. Big Mike’s rock complex featured two shops, a “mystery house”, and a yard loaded with bins filled with hunks of colored glass. The colored glass is pretty to look at, and catches you eyes from the roadside, like tennis ball-sized hunks of rainbow. I bought two crystal formations (no clue what they are) from one shop, and various Mammoth Cave souvenirs from the other.

Big Mike's Rock Shop

After the visit to Big Mike’s I headed for local antique stores. Along the way I discovered the wonder that is the combination souvenir/fireworks/knife store. I visited several, and bought plenty of souvenirs, but no knives or fireworks. You see, I do have some self-control.

Barrel Dog, Cave City, Kentucky

Next I hit a strip of antique stores on Broadway Street in Cave City. I ended up scoring an inexpensive Mandolin and many vinyl records. The most memorable store was Magaline’s Antique Mall, which is staffed by Magaline, who dresses in the style of “Hello Dolly” Levi, and a guy who looks remarkably like Donald Rumsfeld. They noticed my lack of a Kentucky accent, which led to a conversation about “Super Storm” Sandy, how Chris Christy would never be elected as president, and how the biggest problem with Washington is the influence of big business.

I visited Cracker Barrel for dinner ordered a half-dozen sides and nearly exploded with excitement over the waitress’ thick Kentucky accent. I left a way-too-large tip in appreciation.

One more night in the Lodge, and I left for New Jersey — a 15 hour ride fueled by Red Bull, candy and Powerman 5000. I got back in time to see the sun rise, and then I slept until 4pm. But when I woke, I had some of that fine Jim Beam Maple Bourbon in hot coffee.

Jackson, Mississippi

On the third day of my Spring 2015 road trip, I arrived in Jackson.

( Read more about the scientific aspects of my road trip on Cicada Mania. )

My destination was the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (2148 Riverside Dr, Jackson, MS). The location was particularly vexing for my GPS, which led me through a maze of lumpy streets, the surface of which rose and fell with an amplitude of about a half a meter. It was as if I was driving over frozen waves or ski slope moguls.

( An aside: My in-dash GPS is good, but it isn’t great. It probably isn’t as great as Google/Wais is, but I’m not going to risk my life and the lives of others squinting at a cellphone screen, or juggling one in my hand while I drive. I do use Wais when I’m stuck in traffic though. )

The Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences

Two Headed Snake

The Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences was nice. Their best attractions were their live fish, reptile and amphibian environments. They had a two-headed snake, and more cute baby alligators than you can imagine.

The live fish exhibits were particularly fascinating and enchanting. Definitely a perfect atmosphere to chill out in after a long drive on a hot day.

Catfish and Gar

Trails behind the museum led to the LeFleurs Bluff State Park. The trails wound through what seemed like miles of woodland, past alligator infested lakes and the Pearl River (which I will assume is also infested with gators). My “desk potato” body was out of breath by the time I navigated all the trails and returned to the Museum.

Here’s a video of some of the many natural wonders you’ll find in LeFleurs Bluff State Park:

Maybe it is wrong to say “alligator infested lakes”. It is their home, and has been for millions of years.

( My condo is a “Dan infested condo”. )

The Hotel

Needing a place to stay, I found the nearest Hilton, and said “I’m a Hilton Hhonors member, what have you got for me”? ( Two h’s in Hhonors, BTW. ) Membership has its privileges and I got a penthouse suite, floor 14. Great view of the city. I liked that the desk chair looked like it was made in the 1960s.

If “classy” has a spectrum, the Jackson Mississippi Hilton falls on the “swank” side of the spectrum, rather than the “posh” side. This is the room:

Jackson Mississippi Hilton

It’s “swank”, right? Look at this chair. That is a swank chair.

Swank Chair

The highlight of staying in the a penthouse suite was that Ms. Diva was in the suite next to mine. How did I know Ms. Diva was next to me? Her Bluetooth name gave her away. I got to meet Ms. Diva in the hallway, and she looked like Janet Jackson, which seems appropriate.

Most of the hotels/motels I stayed at had breakfast in the lobby, but the Jackson Hilton had its own classy dining room. And breakfast was not free. Rule of thumb: if breakfast is in a dining room, it is not free; if it is in the lobby, particularly if there is a lobby waffle maker, it is free.

I was amazed by the amount of pickup trucks in the parking lot of the hotel. Pickup trucks seem to be the new SUVs — everyone has one because they’re handy for hauling shit back from Costco and Ikea.

Dracos

After deliberating where to eat for about three hours, I settled on Dracos’s which is a seafood joint in the same parking lot as the hotel.

Draco’s claim to fame is their charbroiled oysters. In the spirit of trying everything at least once, I gave them a shot. And guess what: they’re freaking amazing. Oyster + butter + parmesan cheese + charbroiled flavor = amazingly delicious. I can’t lie.

How Lucky I Am

I was done exploring LeFleurs Bluff park & the museum, I’d met Ms. Diva, I’d had amazing oysters, so it was time to go. I stopped by a chain pharmacy (can’t remember if it was a CVS, Rite-Aid or Walgreens, and not that it matters) to load up on water, Red Bull and some snacks. At the front of a checkout line was a gentleman in a wheel chair. He did not simply have a broken leg; if was apparent that he suffered from considerable physical and neurological disorders. Every moment of his transaction with the cashier was a struggle; finding the change, handing it to her, holding the soda he had purchased — all a struggle. A second and third cashier opened their registers, and the rest of us customers were able to check out quickly. I left before the man in the wheel chair, and turned back to notice that he was stuck in the automatic doors. I held the door open for him, and he was finally able to leave.

I am thankful for how lucky I am to have been born with a relatively sound mind and body, and that I am able to drive around the U.S., pretty much anywhere I want to go without much effort or resistance. I’m a lucky guy.

Exhausted in Little Rock

Sometimes you just can’t get a good night’s rest.

May 20-21st, I stayed at a Comfort Suites in Alexandria, Louisiana. The hotel was absolutely gorgeous: new, clean, flat TV, wifi, wood furniture, a fridge. I watched David Letterman’s final show, and then hit the sack.

What should have been an awesome night of sleep, turned into a nightmare. Throughout the whole night: thunderstorms. Local news warned of flooding. I pointed my flashlight at the parking lot — it seemed to be flooding. Then the hotel power went out. Noise and worry reduced 8 potential hours of sleep, to 2 or 3.

Before noon, I hit the road and started heading for Texas. The weather was lousy and when I got closer and closer to Texas the weather got worse and worse. I’m not saying that I saw a funnel cloud — but I saw clouds that looked like two elephants wrestling with their trunks.

I stopped by a Starbucks to regroup. I walked in and headed for the bathroom. The cashier screamed at me “SIR, YOU CAN’T USE THE BATHROOM UNLESS YOU’RE A PAYING CUSTOMER”! What was I supposed to do? Order a grande mocha latte and balance it on my head while I peed? Howard Schultz, get your staff in line. After grabbing the smallest black coffee, I checked the weather. Texas was about to have some of the worst weather in their history — I made the call to head east, away from Texas. Of course my GPS had other ideas, and routed me through Texas before sending me north-east towards Little Rock, AR. Modern conveniences — Starbucks, GPS — they all give me shpilkes.

Welcome to Arkansas

A stop for energy drinks & peanut patties was enough to keep me sentient & focused, but I needed to get off the road and get some rest.

Around 3pm I arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tired & annoyed, I found the closest motel, booked a room and after spraying myself with Deep Woods Off (just in case because bed bugs), and slept for 18 hours. 18 HOURS! Compared to the hotel I stayed at the night before, this place was sort of a dump. The staff were great, but my room looked like it hadn’t been updated since 1978. It was definitely crusty.

My nap was punctuated by noises from tow trucks and hotel patrons, and the periodic fear that my car was being stolen, but I finally got all the sleep I needed.

The guy in the room next to me looked like character actor Dennis Burkley, which was cool.

And they had a lobby waffle machine! Four stars.

Random Notes and Observations from the Road

This article isn’t about anything specific, just some random notes and observations…

Wawa Trucks

The best convenience store is the one that is open when you need it. That said my favorites are: United Dairy Farmers, Quick Check, Circle K, 7-11 and Wawa.

Delaware might be the most boring state to drive though. Fortunately, it is small.

If you like history and/or war, I recommend Dan Carlin’s Harcore History podcast for long road trips. Particularly when you are stuck for 6 hours in Virginia traffic.

Everyone has unique tastes in music, so I hesitate to recommend any one band. That said, if you like metal or hard rock, Powerman 5000, Hatebreed, Ministry, System of a Down, Clutch, and Pantera make good “I have to drive for 15 hours straight through the night” music.

On that topic, most people’s preference for music seems to be based on 1) the culmination of their own unique life experiences, 2) advice from their family, friends and peers, and 3) the urge to fit in with a group. People don’t choose the circumstances they are born into, so I don’t judge people on their taste in music. I might ask you to lower the volume though. Or turn it up!

North Carolina has the prettiest highways on the east coast. Every mile or so of the road seems to feature a new type of flowering plant. They also have a lot of fireworks supermarkets & adult book stores.

South Carolina’s highways are rough. Georgia’s roads are a mixed bag of bad and good. Mississippi’s roads are bizarre and lumpy (especially around Jackson). Louisiana’s roads seem to be made out of moon craters — did I miss the event when 5 Million meteorites struck the Louisiana road system?

Don’t risk a lukewarm shrimp po’boy.

Generally speaking people in the south are a lot more friendly and polite than people in the north. Arkansas seems to have a lot of nice, friendly people.

I personally think Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy drink are the best beverages of their kind. I always take some with me on a long trip. I also bring plenty of water.

Stay hydrated. Protein will dehydrate you. Caffeine will make you have to take many pee brakes. Sugar will give you a quick boost, but then drag you down physically and emotionally. Don’t eat anything risky, i.e., something that would send you scrambling for a toilet, e.g., cheese, milk products, fish, uncooked meat, etc.

Read a book on 72 hour survival like Cody Lundin’s 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. The tips inside such a book could help keep you alive if you get stranded.

I live in New Jersey, where you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. When I travel, each gas pump & nozzle presents a new challenge. Some work as easy as a dream. Some are embarrassing nightmares — hopefully I give the locals a good laugh while I try to operate these infernal contraptions.

Jungle Jim’s: the Greatest Supermarket in America

Jungle Jim’s (4450 Eastgate South Drive, Cincinnati, OH) is the greatest supermarket in America.

Jungle Jim in Wizard Mode.

Imagine waking up one day and thinking: “you know what, I’m not satisfied with the boring local supermarket.” “I want a market that has the most diverse selection of foods & beverages imaginable, including exotic foods from faraway lands, and I want the experience to be fun for the entire family.” I imagine that is what Jungle Jim thought when he got the idea for the Jungle Jim’s supermarkets in Fairfield and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now imagine a food store as huge as a Walmart, featuring every type of food you can imagine (and some you cannot), decorated with gorillas, rhinos, real airplanes, 50′ dragons and 1960’s cultural icons. Imagine a Whole Foods + a Wegmans + a Trader Joe’s + a liquor store + a cigar store + Disney Land, and that is Jungle Jim’s.

Don’t believe me? Check these stats:

  • Five isles of hot sauce, with a real fire engine parked amongst it to get your attention.
  • Two or three long isles of soda pop (they call it pop in Ohio).
  • A candy section as big as a house.
  • Isles and isles of craft, international, and big-brand beers, and wines.
  • Five or six isles of International foods.
  • Need candy shaped like a toilet from Japan? They got it.
  • Need Jelly Babies from England? They got it.
  • Need Licorice Cats from Holland because that is the old thing that cures your gout? They got it.
  • Need some “century eggs” or bird nest soup from China? They got it.
  • Need some lollipops with crickets or ants inside them? They got those.
  • Need a hookah pipe? They got those too.

Whenever I’m in the Cincinnati area I fill my entire car trunk with unusual foods, snacks and pop from Jungle Jim’s. It makes the 10 hour trip all the more worth while.

Foodie Entrance:
Foodie Entrance. Jungle Jim's, Ohio

Restrooms:
Jungle Johns. Jungle Jim's, Ohio

Why, yes, they do have 5 isles of hot sauce:
Hot sauce. Jungle Jim's, Ohio

A random display devoted to 1960’s musicians? Sure, why not:
1970s themed trailer. Jungle Jim's, Ohio

Coke R2-D2:
Coke R2D2 in Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati OH

New Orleans in 3 Hours

Is is possible to experience a city in only three hours? No.

However… if three hours are all you have, you can still have a great time. This article will show you how to have the maximum amount of fun in a limited period of time, using New Orleans as an example.

#1: park your vehicle, because you’re going to walk the town. Choose your parking space carefully. I chose to park near the place I wanted to visit the most (Red Truck Gallery). The streets are narrow in New Orleans, so fold in your driver-side mirror, so a truck doesn’t knock it off your car.

#2: if you’re going to drink, do that first, so you’re sober by the end of your improvised tour of the city. I recommend Muriel’s (801 Chatres Street). This bar/bistro serves amazing fancy drinks (or regular drinks, if you’re not into fancy drinks). It is also an opportunity to use a clean bathroom (so rare when you’re on a multi-city road trip).

Fish Mouth Down Spout in New Orleans

#3: Observe everything. As you walk around the town, notice everything quirky, unusual and unique about the city. Record it all in your memory, and put photos of it on Instagram, Flickr & Facebook (if you use those sites). In New Orleans, be on the lookout for: drain pipes that look like fish, koi fish painted on the sidewalk, fleur-de-lis symbols, ornate drains along the foundations of buildings, the occasional Mardi-Gras bead embedded in a sidewalk crack, random things like wreaths made of snow cones, and of course the amazing New Orleans architecture. Remember: you might never get another chance to return, so soak it all in, so you have no regrets later on.

A snow cone wreath? Why not. #nola Koi on the side walk. #graffiti #nola

#4: Pick a primary destination, and spend an hour there. You might chose to check out some jazz music, or maybe your thing is to feast on gumbo and muffuletta, or maybe you just want to chill in a park and watch some street performers. Again, notice every detail — every sight, smell and sound. Soak it all in, and participate if you can. Tip performers.

My primary destination was the Red Truck Gallery (938 Royal St). The art they feature really resonates with me. I’ve met them at art fairs like Scope in NYC, but to visit their gallery in person, was really something special. I made sure that I connected with the people working in the gallery, I took a free card advertising their latest show, and I soaked every detail in. I got to meet artist Bryan Cunningham, and bought one of his paintings.

A wall of art by Bryan Cunningham in the Red Truck Gallery: Red Truck Gallery in New Orleans

Generally speaking, if you like one destination in a neighborhood, you’ll enjoy others near by. Royal Street in New Orleans has many unique galleries and shops, and I made sure I visited as many as I could.

Art by Jill Ricci at Orange Gallery (819 Royal St.): Jill Ricci art at Orange in New Orleans

Art by Chris Roberts-Antieau at Antieau Gallery (927 Royal St.): Antieau Gallery in New Orleans

#5: Connect with people. Smile. Make sure you talk to people. Try to get an interesting story or two from them. Even if you’re in a city for only three hours, don’t be a ghost.

#6: Eat Something! Eat something unique to the city. My “food” of choice was pralines. America’s greatest art forms include music and food — New Orleans has both, so make sure you experience them.

#7: Visit the touristy side of town, and load up on souvenirs. In New Orleans you specifically want to get boxes of pralines, beads (and get the fancy ones), and hot sauce, in addition to the standard t-shirts, magnets, stickers and shot glasses. Get plenty of stuff with the color scheme purple, green & gold; stuff with the fleur-de-lis on them, plenty of alligator heads and jesters.

#8: Have some fun people watching. Checkout the performers, musicians, shopkeepers & barkers. Check out the tourists. Check out the locals. Check out the locals checking out the tourists. Don’t be surprised when a women on stilts, wearing a purple, green & gold bikini, hands you a flyer for an exotic revue or for a nearby poorboy shop.

Once you’ve achieved all these steps, you are free to go. Unless you are not sober — if so, hang out until you are.

Remember: you only live once, so experience all you can without harming others, and without regrets.

Elvis Presley’s Jets

Back in 1995 I visited Graceland (35.048798, -90.026006) and took the tour of the mansion. I saw the Jungle Room (I remember lots of green shag), the TV room (decorated in the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers), and the billiards room (with pleated fabric on the walls and ceiling). While the mansion was much smaller than I expected, it was clearly the castle of a king who knew what he liked, and had it custom-made. At the time I was unable to see Elvis’ jets.

Flash forward to 2015, and I’m back at Graceland specifically to see the Elvis’ private air force. Rumor had it that his jets were sold to a collector, and this was my last chance to see them.

I had a minor incident with the parking lot toll troll. Here’s a tip for the folks who run Graceland: put up a big, easy to read sign that says “Parking $10”, so “foreigners” like myself understand that there is a fee to park. Yeah, the troll called me a “foreigner”. It doesn’t bother me. I look like Lucious Malfoy, so I understand her confusion.

Having paid my dues to the toll troll, I made haste for the jets. The folks who run Graceland are shrewd business people — to get to the jets, you have to get a ticket and then navigate a gauntlet of souvenir gift shops. Make no mistake: the souvenirs are Graceland are some of the finest quality souvenirs you will ever buy. There are no snow globes that leak; no pint glasses with logos that wash off after the third wash; no chintzy t-shirts with neck holes that are too small or that shrink or fade after the first wash. Graceland = quality. I got an awesome gold on black TCB Quickly t-shirt & a bumper sticker for my vehicle.

Bumper Sticker

On to the Jets…

There are two jets at Graceland. One large, and one small. The large one is called the Lisa Marie, and the small one… might also be called the Lisa Marie (I’ll get back to you on that).

The Lisa Marie:

Elvis' Lisa Marie Jet #3

Elvis' Lisa Marie Jet #4

As you can see from the photos, it’s a nice, looking jet. Nice red, white and blue color scheme. Maybe a little schmutz on the undercarriage. It doesn’t have the “wingtip device” featured on modern planes, but otherwise it looks like a standard passenger jet.

The Lisa Marie has everything Elvis could need: a bar, a conference room with a surfboard table, and a bed for sleeping or “hunching”. Everything inside is either green or brown or somewhere in between — the same color scheme as the Jungle Room in the mansion. My mother had green appliances in the 1970s, so I think it was a 70s thing.

Bed, covered with a plastic slip cover:

The Bed on Elvis's Jet

Conference room with surfboard table:

Inside Elvis' Jet

The smaller jet

The smaller jet was much less auspicious, and more practical. It was clear that this vehicle was for short trips — maybe to hop across town to get a peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich.

Elvis' Small Jet #2

I’m glad I got to see Elvis’ jets before they were hidden forever in a collector’s warehouse, or ground up for scrap metal. Elvis was a King, and in most ways he exemplified the good (jets & mansion) and bad (burning out your body from having to work so hard) of the American dream.

South of the Border, the Quintessential Roadside Attraction

South of the Border is an amazing guitar solo in the otherwise medicore song that is Interstate 95.

Another View of the South of the Border Sign

Growing up, South of the Border was legendary. It was a mystical placed filled with fireworks, primary-colored souvenirs, and frozen desserts. Any kid lucky enough to have a family that made the road trip from New Jersey to Florida returned from summer vacations with magical tales of the place — and paper sacks overflowing with firecrackers, bottle rockets and roman candles. And of course their family car (typically a station wagon) was tattooed with the iconic South of the Border bumper sticker.

South of the Border Gorilla

At the decrepit age of 46 I finally made it to the Mecca of roadside attractions. I arrived at about an hour before sunset, providing the perfect light to make all the yellows yellower, and all the reds redder, including the sombrero and slacks of the gigantic South of the Border mascot dude. 85% of everything at S.O.B. is colored a slightly-orange yellow (like Velveeta cheese) and tomato red.

The grounds were populated by several gorillas and flamingos. I am not sure of their significance other than family photo opportunities. Maybe a hug for a road-weary and lonely traveler.

South of the Border is roughly the size of a college campus, filled with multiple gift shops, a fireworks store, places to eat and get ice cream, and a hotel/motel. Each gift shop has its own personality. One has a nautical/ocean/tiki/flamingo theme; another is upscale and hoity-toity featuring gifts costing hundreds of dollars; and yet another is a supermarket-sized building dedicated to Mexico-themed souvenirs. The nautical-themed shop resonated with me, since I live at the beach, and the staff were helpful and humorous. I loaded up on magnets, ash trays (I don’t smoke), shot glasses (I rarely drink), coffee mugs, and of course bumper stickers (which cost a dime or a quarter, and the proceeds go to charity).

SOB

I purchased a lot magnets: sobmagnets

Since this was day one of a 9-day road trip, I did not purchase a sack of fireworks, but I did festoon my vehicle with the classic South of the Border bumper sticker.

Finally visiting S.O.B. filled one of the many holes in my swiss-cheese soul. The mystery was no longer a mystery. I got to do what all the lucky kids got to do 40 years ago.

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Post Script. If I was still in college I would probably write a paper about how S.O.B. engages in cultural appropriation, or stereo-types Mexican culture. 25 years later, I’m just happy the place still exists.