This is what you get when you drive 4000 miles, cross country, without a car wash: a bumper covered in insect corpses.
I took two trips in 2015, one short and one long.
The long trip, looped through 19 states.
The short trip was to Raleigh & Chapel Hill, NC.
These are my stories:
- South of the Border: the Quintessential Roadside Attraction
- Augusta Georgia: Golfers, Cookies, Grits
- Alabama the Jewel of North America
- Jackson Mississippi
- New Orleans in 3 Hours
- Exhausted in Little Rock
- Elvis Presley’s Jets
- Land Between the Lakes, part 1
- Land Between the Lakes, part 2
- Kuttawa Kentucky Huddle House
- Fort Massac Illinois Rest Area
- Big John: Metropolis’ Other Hero
- The Superman Museum in Metropolis Illinois
- The World’s Largest Statue of Superman
- Jungle Jim’s: the Greatest Supermarket in the America
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
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.
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”. )
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:
It’s “swank”, right? Look at this chair. That is a swank chair.
The highlight of staying in the 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 number 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.
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 wheelchair. He did not simply have a broken leg; it 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 wheelchair 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.
It is impossible to write about Raleigh, North Carolina without mentioning the Crepe Myrtles.
Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are flowering trees imported from Asia. They seem to average about 10 feet in height, come in pink, red, purple & white, and are literally everywhere in the Raleigh area.
The sheer number of crepe myrtles is shocking. Now you’re thinking that I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not. If you live in the area, you’re probably numb to it: “the sky is blue, the grass is green, and everything along the sides is pink.” But for an outsider driving into North Carolina, the experience is sort of like the “Stargate” scene in 2001, a Space Odyssey, but instead of a stream of colored lights, it is a stream of flowering trees.
If that reference is to obscure, just imagine driving through a pink tunnel made of flowers.
Gardiner, NC, Suburb of Raleigh
I stayed at a Best Western in Garner, NC. The hotel was fine: pool, “lobby breakfast”, quiet, comfortable rooms, and plenty of parking. Garner, NC, the city, is essentially a highway encrusted with strip malls and big-box stores, surrounded by a web of winding, hilly forest roads. That is my perception of it. I visited the local Walmart to check out the locals. While the Walmart did not have the bins of fireworks that I was hoping for, they did have isles of snack cakes, beer (which let to this), and the hairbrush & computer mouse I needed.
Raleigh Museum of Natural Sciences
The primary place I visited while in Raleigh was the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. As museums of Natural Science/History go, I would put it somewhere between the American Museum of Natural History and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science; all are good, but the North Carolina one falls in the middle.
The first thing you notice when approaching the museum is the massive planet Earth/globe. It is massive enough to be mentioned in Roadside America:
Inside the Museum you’ll find four floors of Natural Science exhibits, most if not all, focused on North Carolina fauna, flora, and geology. The massive whale skeletons, and arthropod zoo, were most impressive.
Other than that I also was impressed by:
- The hummingbird exhibit
- The live snake and amphibian exhibits
- The massive sea shore and forrest replica/reproductions
- Graphics that explained the different areas & layers of North Carolina geology
- The large assortment of taxidermied animals
- The gift shop was solid. I bought a squid replica, and admired an electric fan shaped like a fox.
Fox squirrels are massive — almost size of a house cat — I did not know that.
Rambling Around Town
When visiting a city, I like to walk around the town without a plan or compass, with the goal of stumbling upon some interesting sights and experiences. I like to visit the stores & restaurants locals frequent; sit on park benches and observe the local vibe like a local would; try to see the city through a local’s eyes.
During my three hour ramble around Raleigh, I discovered a giant acorn, a sand castle 200 miles away from the ocean, and world-famous Clyde Cooper’s BBQ. Clyde Cooper’s BBQ had pork skins, which I get for my sister’s chihuahua from time to time. The chihuahua is passionate about eating parts of other animals.
It is worth mentioning that I visited Raleigh right after all Confederate flags and memorabilia were removed from State/Government buildings, including museums. Had I visited weeks earlier, I may have had a different experience.
Earlier this year I visited North Carolina to meet a famous cicada expert (Bill Reynolds of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC). While I was in the Raleigh area, I decided that it would be a good idea to visit Chapel Hill, NC. I had not been to Chapel Hill since the 1990s, and at the time I had a blast, so I felt it was worth a second visit.
Chapel Hill has spawned many interesting musical acts, but perhaps their most iconic is Southern Culture on the Skids (SCOTS). SCOTS is a perfect mix of elements of rock, psychobilly, country and novelty music — it’s like they took parts of each, and made something better than the sum of the parts. One of my favorite SCOTS songs is Camel Walk, which features the lyrics:
OWWWW WEEE, Little Debbie, Little Debbie
I’m a comin on home, baby, ’cause you make me wanna walk
The problem is the Little Debbie, Little Debbie part. A problem you say? Yes, because I became momentarily obsessed with Little Debbie snack cakes. The problem with that is when I eat too much Little Debbie snack cakes, it saps my energy. Realistically speaking, you should only eat one dessert a day — and not buy two or three boxes of snack cakes and some Pabst tall-boys, and then spend the majority of your vacation watching YouTubes and napping in a hotel room (a little hyperbole, but close enough to the truth).
So, to recap, you can see how my unrestrained mind works: 1) Visit North Carolina, 2) think about visiting Chapel Hill, 3) think about Chapel Hill’s best band SCOTS, 4) think about their song Camel Walk and its lyrics about Little Debbie snack cakes, 5) go to Walmart to buy a USB cable but leave with Pabst and boxes of snack cakes, and 6) hang out at the hotel — instead of Raleigh or Chapel Hill — because I ate too many snacks.
Learn from my mistakes: no matter how delicious banana cakes are, limit yourself to one a day. You will appreciate them more, and you will get more out of life.
That was a massive tangent. Back to Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill is the perfect college town. They have all the right ingredients.
√ Music venues.
√ Music stores.
√ A variety of non-chain restaurants.
√ (I will assume) bookstores.
√ a College (UNC).
√ better weather than most states north of North Carolina.
√ an interesting local culture featuring unique art, music, and food.
√ College students.
Visting Chapel Hill for the second time was like visiting a movie set after watching a really awesome movie about it. So what do I mean by that? Well, last time I visited I was with friends, we partied, drank, played cards, went to amazing local restaurants, bars, and music events — heck, my friends and I even danced on stage at a SCOTS show! SCOTS drummer David Hartman (dating a friend at the time) took me to a favorite BBQ joint. You couldn’t ask for a better Chapel Hill experience.
Visting in 2015, all the right elements were there: the Local 506 bar, CD Alley, the brewpubs, the restaurants with their painted goats, colorful band flyers and stickers festooning every vertical surface. I’ll say it again: it was like visiting a movie set of a movie I’ve already seen. (Now I’m thinking of the NLP technique where you step outside a memory and view it objectively, but let’s not go down another tangent.) Sobriety, daylight, time limitations, and a lack of companions made my visit decidedly different — but I still had fun.
What I enjoyed about Chapel Hill this time around:
- CD Alley (405-C W Franklin St): a great little record store, with a good selection. Appropriately, I bought a CD of SCOTS’ Zombified album (which is great Halloween rock n’ roll music). CD Alley feels like an authentic record store: cramped, dark, decorated outside with stickers and fliers of local bands — for a music obsessive, it feels like home.
- Carolina Brewery (450 W Franklin St): good brewpub. I had the Firecracker lager (I think), which was tasty.
- Local 506 (506 W Franklin St): they were closed, but it was great just to stand outside the door and take in all the interesting, multi-colored band flyers
- All the interesting stickers and band flyers all over town. Some people don’t like graffiti, especially when it is done to their property without their consent, but in a college town, it just makes sense. Light poles and mailboxes would look naked without it.
Even though my second Chapel Hill visit was not as “epic” as my first, there was one thing that made it special — one thing that I would not have experienced the last time around, and that is the Ackland Museum (101 S Columbia St,). Ackland was around last time I was in town, but leisurely enjoying a well-curated museum was not on my agenda in the 1990s.
Ackland is a wonderful medium-sized museum with a well-balanced diversity of art spanning many centuries and styles, from the ancient…
… to ultra modern…
So what did we learn:
1) Go easy on the snack cakes, but do enjoy them from time to time.
2) If you return to a place you’ve been in the past, don’t expect it to be the same, but do enjoy it for all that it is.
3) Sometimes you get more out of life when you take it fast, but it is also enjoyable when you take it slow.
In late May 2015, I went on a POWER VACATION! What is a POWER VACATION, you ask. Let me tell you.
These are the rules of POWER VACATION!
- You must visit more than one state or province per day. I visited 16 states in 8 days.
- You should have a pre-planned itinerary before departing, but you must deviate from your plans at least once.
- Never pre-book lodging. Use your cunning and the internet to find reasonably priced, and interesting lodging along the way.
- Take photos of the things you might never see again: roadside attractions, the sun setting over your hotel, a strange bug, the Doubletree warm-cookie van.
- You must pump your own gas. Except in New Jersey!
- Make massive mixtapes! Listen to an entire iPod of music. Fill a Flash thumb drive with 32GB of music, and listen to it all.
- Talk to strangers. Treat everyone you meet as a friend, even though you might never see them again in your life.
- Sample unique, local foods. This might mean a strange candy or confection at a truck stop grocery store.
- Bring some Energy Drinks and 5 Hour Energy bottles. After driving for 9 hours in a row, you will need them. This kid has reviews of energy drinks.
- If you get sleepy while driving, pull over ASAP. Don’t put people’s lives at risk.
- Make sure your vehicle is road-worthy. If it’s your car, get it serviced before you depart. Make sure the spare tire is inflated.
- Make sure you have an assortment of things to listen to. Fast music for driving fast. Slow music, podcasts, and audiobooks for slow traffic.
- Keep your car clean. Don’t let energy drink cans and gum wrappers accumulate. Throw them out along the way.
- Stay alert to weather changes, and take precautions.
I’ll probably add to these lists, but you get the idea.