This year I drove through Alabama, from east to west, only stopping at a welcome center. The welcome center was nice, and the folks running the center were absolutely wonderful and enthusiastic about their state, as they should be.
While Alabama might seem flat, and boring to drive through, know that Alabama holds the richest diversity of wildlife in all of North America. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama has 85 species of reptiles, 70 amphibians, 433 birds, 62 mammals, 450 species of fish, and of course plenty of insects and other invertebrates. It is, as a friend says “the Amazon of North America”, and like the Amazon in South America, it is just as in danger of over-exploitation for resources.
Next time I’m in the state, I’ll spend more time outside of my car.
The road can be lonely and monotonous. It is a real joy to step out of your car and see a smiling human face. The experience of going from the road to foot can be like walking out of a dark tunnel into shining light; like leaving a cave and walking into the midst of a tribal celebration; like walking out of a dark theater, into a bright & busy shopping mall (that last example sucks).
Upon entering the Alabama welcome center I was greeted by the cheerful voice of one of its employees. She looked like a young Sally Field and was dressed in a ranger uniform (the welcome centers are parks, after all). My mind can’t handle going from darkness to amazing beauty so quickly. Combined with the guilt of knowing I would not stay long in Alabama, I ducked behind the shelves of pamphlets, found a few, politely thanked her, and exited.
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 too 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, and beer (which led to this), and the hairbrush & computer mouse I needed.
A UTZ truck in the parking lot of Walmart:
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.
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, was most impressive.
Other than that I also was impressed by:
The hummingbird exhibit
The live snake and amphibian exhibits
The massive sea shore and forest 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.
If you stay at a hotel in Augusta, Georgia, you will get to sleep around 1 am, and then you will wake up around 5 am. Why? Golfers. Southern golfers party hard into the night and then wake up before the crack of dawn.
I should have known. If you see a truck like this in the parking lot of your hotel, you can rest assured that you won’t get any rest…
This past summer I stayed at the Augusta DoubleTree, which is a truly magnificent hotel. Sure, the view from the window of my room faced a hallway, but I kept the curtains shut, so no one saw me sleeping.
Typically people stay at DoubleTree hotels for two reasons: Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005) & warm, complimentary, chocolate chip cookies.
Mitch Hedberg was a very funny comedian who had many jokes that referenced Double Tree hotels.
Double Tree hotels provide their guests with warm, complimentary, chocolate chip cookies. Oh, and they are delicious — they take the cookie out of the tiny cookie oven behind the desk, and it’s like Christmas and your Birthday and a hug, all in one. Their bus shuttles are even decorated with cookies — they are very important to their brand image.
Check out this “Sweet Ride” advertising their delicious, piping hot, complimentary cookies:
I couldn’t bear eating dinner from the hotel vending machine, so I cruised the surrounding area for a restaurant. My two choices were Twin Peaks, which is a strip bar/bar/restaurant…
… or a Waffle House.
The first time I encountered a Waffle House was on a road trip to New Orleans back in 1995. So mysterious! A restaurant, open 24 hours a day, catering to road-weary travelers, and serving only waffles. Of course, I quickly learned that Waffle Houses are essentially diners serving a variety of foods, and at the time I was let down. Like finding out that Santa is just your parents, or that school lasts 13 long years.
Now, in 2015, there was no mystery. It was late. I knew I was hungry, and I wanted to eat. I did not want to eat at a strip bar.
Approaching the Waffle House, a teen called me out: “where you from, New Jersey?” “Yes”, I replied, without pride or fear. She followed me inside — my waitress. My waitress — let’s call her Miss Amazing Eye Makeup — was an amazing human being, with amazing iridescent blue, green, silver & black eye makeup. To say her eyes looked like some rare species of Costa Rican butterfly would not be an exaggeration! Miss Amazing Eye Makeup sat at my table (or did I sit at her table) and proceeded to grill me about fast food restaurants in New Jersey. We came to the conclusion that Georgia and New Jersey shared about 75% of the same eateries (the English language needs more words for “restaurant”). The whole time I felt like she was a cat, and I was a mouse — her eyes could control me — her stare, like a puppeteer’s strings — I didn’t want a large portion of grits at 10 pm, but she willed me to order it. And of course, she got a 50% tip.
I woke up the next day, at 5 am. Thank you, golfers. Once the golfers discharged from the hotel (with the reticence & grace of a herd of angry cattle being washed through a gorge by floodwater), I was able to sleep again for a few hours. The hotel breakfast was expectedly bland, and a little pricey (should have gone back to the Waffle House), but satisfying. They should just serve a bottomless platter of their chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.
Thank you Double Tree, Waffle House, and Miss Amazing Eye Makeup for a memorable 12-hour stay in Augusta.
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 many 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.
Visiting 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, the last time I visited I was with friends, we partied, drank, played cards, and 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 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 the 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.
Unfortunately, the Welcome Center part of the North Carolina Welcome Center was closed. No brochures for me. But I did enjoy this giant folk-art weather vane (pictured above).
The folks hanging out at the Welcome Center seemed like tourists. Lots of jorts (cuffed jean shorts). Lots of people walk their miniature dogs. Thankfully no grifters — the “we need $20 to get back to Erie Pennsylvania” routine gets old quickly (I’m talking to you, Maryland).
I drove into Arkansas and I was exhausted. I needed something to WAKE ME UP, so I rolled the Silver Muffin toward the first food store I saw.
As I rambled through the isles of the food store looking for Red Bull, I remembered to look for local foods or beverages: stuff I can’t get in New Jersey. Food & beverage brands are pretty much the same from California… all the way to Maine, but every now and then you can find a local brand that is so unique and POWERFUL that it doesn’t get pushed from store shelves by the BIG BRANDS.
On this occasion, I discovered Dickies’ (not sure where to put the apostrophe) Peanut Patties in the 6-count “Family Pack”. I know what you’re thinking: “has Dan had his glucose levels checked recently?” Yes, and they’re a-okay. But seriously, you’re thinking “what is a peanut patty”? A peanut patty is a disc-shaped disc, about the diameter of a hockey puck and the height of the width of a #2 pencil, made of de-shelled peanuts suspended in what seems to be solidified meat-colored sugar. And even though I don’t have a family, I bought that entire family pack.
My original intention was to bring the family-size pack to New Jersey to show off to people, like Indiana Jones bringing back an artifact from some far-away haunted ruins… but I ate them the next day within an hour’s time. Yes, I realize I ate a portion meant for an entire family. I was hungry.
So, what did they taste like? They tasted like Beer Nuts, or if you don’t know what Beer Nuts are, they tasted like peanuts suspended in subtlely-sweet sugar. Do you know how persimmon fruit is sweet but not crazy sweet like a ripe pineapple? It was that kind of sweet: a gentle, classy, refined sweet. Getting the patties out of their wrappers was a unique experience — each patty is shrink-wrapped and you have to scrape away at the plastic until an opening is created allowing you to access the candy. If you’re driving while eating the family pack, I recommend breaking them in half using your thigh for leverage. You will also notice peanut patty crumbs covering your t-shirt when you are done eating the entire family-sized pack… grab a pinch of your shirt between your thumb and forefinger and SNAP IT, sending all the peanut patty crumbs flying all over the cab of your vehicle…
While staying at the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn, I developed a strong hankering for nourishment, and whatever candy bars or snack crackers the hotel vending machine offered would not suffice. Certainly, the nearby gas stations had plenty of snacks, but I wanted a meal, and hopefully a meal that had a little bit of local flavor. Fortunately, there was a Huddle House in the same parking lot as the hotel.
A Huddle House is similar to a Waffle House or Denny’s in that they serve hot, delicious, stomach packing food, however, the Huddle House has its own unique vibe. It is decorated like a stereotypical 1950s diner, using the colors red, white, and chrome. The kitchen is open (not behind a wall) and you can see it from any point of view. The visibility of the kitchen and the bright, sparkly colors, provide the diner (me) with an overall feeling of ease that the Huddle House cares about cleanliness and order.
What really made my Huddle House experience shine was Rusty the maitre’d/waiter/restaurant manager/cashier. Rusty was like the operating system of the Huddle House: seating people, taking orders, checking on the status of orders, and doing his best to keep everything flowing. It is kind of fascinating to be able to watch all the employees work together to make your dining experience as perfect as possible. It is like removing the back of a fine watch and observing how all the parts work together to provide the time.
I had fried green tomatoes. They are the perfect combination of sour and crispy, and the Huddle House prepared them perfectly.
The Superman Museum (37.152684, -88.732646), or technically the Super Museum, in Metropolis, Illinois, is both a museum dedicated to Clark Kent/Superman and a comic book store/souvenir shop.
Outside the brightly-colored (red, blue & yellow of course) brick building you’ll find a phone booth (just in case Clark needs to change), a green car reminiscent of the car on the cover of Action Comics #1 (the debut of Superman) and some contraptions that let you take a photo of your head on Superman or Supergirl’s body.
Inside you’ll find a museum, and a comic book store skewed towards Superman and DC Comics. The best purchasable items are the glow-in-the-dark Kryptonite rocks and the Kryptonite candy.
This Super Museum is worth a visit if you’re in the area, and I suppose it would be a must-visit destination for super-fans of Superman.