Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Southern Tour 2013

It was, my wife said, her swansong before her summer teacher's break faded into history. We loaded the car, dog food, overnight bag for the hotel, picnic bag for dinners in the room, and all the little bits and pieces that make middle class road travel a pleasant break. It's my alter ego, the Family Guy, walking his family Labrador (on a pink leash as it happens) his wife carries the purse, he drives, she packs, he loads the car. He watches men riding motorcycles and wonders what that might feel like.
I have long wanted to explore Chattanooga, a city perched on a loop in the river seen from freeways curving round the bluffs and through the canyons. Cumberland Gap was a strategic pass for the generals of the Civil War, and today it's an outdoor play pen for young people with time on their hands. I wanted to see it.

Road trips require freeways and I enjoy using the car to slice and dice my way through traffic. I hug the right lane as I know 70% of tickets are given to vehicles traveling in the number one (left) lane, so I avoid that as much as I can. The car I photographed above hugged the left lane, the sole occupant slouched low behind the wheel. The tag on his Ford Fusion Sport was an enigma. Black letters on a yellow plate with no state, federal or consular ID. A freeway mystery.

Dog walks on the road are a little odd as I walk Herself where I can, parking lots empty fields, the loading zones of strip malls, wherever we are. Cheyenne doesn't much like riding the car, but she very much likes being with us, so as the week progresses she gets tired, but she is always game for a new smell and a new down town. I love listening to her snore as the lights go out in our La Quinta (dog friendly) motel room.

We usually eat a motel breakfast, nowadays they offer more protein and less pastries happily. Lunch is sought out by my wife, her iPhone and Urban Spoon and Trip Advisor. No longer do we stop at random, the Internet travels with us. S&S southern buffet in Macon, Georgia, a local landmark in a dying suburban mall.

Dinner is take out usually, but we try to eat that which isn't available on our small island home. Which we sometimes end up being reminded of in the oddest places:
Food drink and sightseeing, cheap motels, NPR on the satellite, conversations, pictures and three thousand miles later we get home. The result? We have batteries charged for another nine months of work. I like my breaks on the road and I'm lucky that I work a weird schedule so if I time it right I can take a week using not much of my accumulated leave. I don't drink ten dollar cocktails on Duval to refresh myself. I drive to Tupelo instead to spend my money!
Getting on the road is more than a vacation for me. It reminds me who I am. My mother put me on her passport when I was ten months old, and while I was born in England I was baptized in Italy. After my parents were divorced I already had my own passport and I traveled back and forth between London and Rome every vacation, a seasoned traveler at twelve years old. When my mother bought me a Vespa, partly I suspect to annoy her ex-husband who feared motorcycles, I used it to travel every vacation I was in Italy. I learned to ride every road and trail with twenty miles of my home by the time I was almost fourteen. I made roadside repairs and I reveled in the alone-ness of being out of touch. I still do.
Of course nowadays it's hard to be actually out of touch, but I like the feeling that I'm not physically present. I see things that others take for granted but that are far outside the circle of my daily life. Driving through the dappled, tree lined roads of southern Tennessee I know I'm not in Tibet, or on the Peruvian Altoplano, but I'm also not at home. I'm not in the flatlands of saltwater and mangroves. Oak trees, kudzu and trailers parked under pine trees. Brick buildings and Palladian courthouses. Rivers and mountains, might as well be Tibet, because it sure isn't the Keys.
Cheyenne liked exploring Chattanooga, not least because it wasn't the car. She doesn't see stuff like this except when we are on the road.
We ate lunch in TerraMae Appalachian Bistro | Chattanooga, TN nouvelle cuisine southern style. It was brunch actually and it was delightful.
The parchment-like menu was long and filled with classics, all served with a twist. The server was delightful, charming efficient and capable, so far removed from the usual Key West amateurs. The bill was small and Chattanooga introduced itself as a place worth seeing.
I had a breakfast bread pudding, what you or I might call a quiche while my wife had the eleven dollar Appalachian lunchable, plate of local flavors in small bites. We talked and wondered at the high price of endless summer, translucent waters and island life. Inland life seems to be so much less expensive, and a road trip reminds us of that.
Check out the tumbler with sesame seed thick cut bacon sprouting out. Pickled shrimp? Pimento cheese with feta? Those are not Key West flavors.

I like traveling The South because in part the region lives in the shadow of its past and all those stereotypes. You see a movie like The Help and imagine its set in 2013. It's not. The boom years boomed in The South too, and the electronic era brings a lot of the outside world into the quiet corners of the country. I'm pretty sure corruption and racism and nepotism rule the roost to some degree here as anywhere but for the casual visitor from another planet the South presents itself as the ideal region for a varied road trip.

This isn't the desert country of the Southwest obviously, nor is it the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, other regions I have thoroughly enjoyed. The South is its own gentle land of rolling hills, farmland, rivers and good manners. Southerners see Florida tags on a car and assume the occupants are carpet baggers. Not real Southerners, they snort. They'd be right in my case.

But there again I claim no roots anywhere much. Born in England, grew up mostly in Italy, became an independent adult in California and am slowly resigning myself to decrepitude in the Keys. The road trips remind me of my rootlessness, my pleasure in absence, my life away from where I belong.

You hear people in Key West say they never leave their island. I've heard of folks who never leave Old Town. My sisters never leave home anymore and watch the Italian seasons from their Umbrian farmhouses. I suspect it's all genetic or something, like being gay, or the color of your eyes. I find myself unable to shake the travel bug. I'm going to Italy in September so pasta and motorcycles will be on the menu next month.

The good part for me is that I like coming home. This time I have come home to news of changes at work. Next week I shall be working day shift. Not my choice but when the bosses ask, I remember I like working for the police, an environment where "No" is not an option. Besides when they need my help it's good to be wanted. I just wish it wasn't on days. Oh well. Change is good.

For the next ten days The Keys will not feature on this page. Change is good, but normal service will resume only after you travel from here to there with my wife my dog and me. William Faulkner, Vintage Motorcycles at the Barber Museum, Johnny Coley, Cooking School in Atlanta, Tea in Tupelo, Outlook Mountain, the fresh water Aquarium and the history wrecking? All will be revealed.



RichardM said...

Cool! Another road trip…

Thanks for posting pictures from the trip. BTW, how is the Vespa rebuild going?

MBeattie said...

The Vespa is not started as far as I know! I am getting impatient but really there is no rush.

Perry said...

Beautiful sentence, Michael: "The road trips remind me of my rootlessness, my pleasure in absence, my life away from where I belong."

I especially enjoyed your blog this morning, as I, too, am counting down the last hours before returning to teaching here in North Carolina.

Martha Tenney said...

I've spent years of agony trying to find where I belong. I'm pretty much accepting now where I am truly comfortable. I'm a blue-blooded Yankee and nothing will change that.

Even though people in WI say I sound like a Southerner, that is where any similarities with the South end.

I suppose one could just say a person belongs wherever they are happy at the time. Tribal stuff doesn't always win out.

Looking forward to your next posts!

Trobairitz said...

What a great little trip report. It seems you've been a wanderer from the early days and now a seasoned traveller.

Thank you for sharing.

Cody Goldman said...

Great report and I commend you for leaving Key West and exploring. We have spoken with so many people living in Key West that express what you say - no need to leave at all, almost fear of leaving,they seem content to die there. That may be fine too but its not me. Plus how would you know how darn expensive Key West is if you don't have comparisons. Enjoy the adventure and wow, that bread pudding looks amazing.

Conchscooter said...

Thank you all. I sometimes feel so tied tooly writing about the keys....we completed the trip Saturday and I was frantically downloading pictures because we got to see and not so much. Graceland was out unfortunately as we would have had to put Cheyenne Ina cage or half a day and we figured that would stress her out but everything else went swimmingly.
I alo have a twelve day trip to Italy planned for September at the insistence of my sisters.

RichardM said...

Looking forward to the Italy trip photos. Good thing, for us, that your sisters insisted that you attend...