On the Road in America (Road Gypsies)

Somewhere in the USA

This year my wife and I drove over 10,000 miles around the United States.  We drove (mostly on local roads) down the East coast, across the Gulf coast, through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California.  Then up the coast to Northern California, back to the San Francisco area and then turned East, eventually driving across Route 90 to and down to Chicago, then back to New York on Route 80.  What follows then are some of the stories of that trip written as we drove.

March 21, 2011

I’ve taken a few trips in my life.  I hitchhiked across the country when I was twenty, I spent thirteen months in Korea, traveling back and forth across the Pacific in a troop ship, my wife and I spent nine months on our sailboat traveling back and forth on the Intercoastal waterway to the Bahamas, and now, again with my wife, driving freebird style across the country. There is something in me that motivates me to move every now and then, to stay away from home,  to seek adventure in the variety of life.  I seem to have a need to get away from who I am at the moment, filled with all the mistakes, the past events of that me, to see if there is another me somewhere on the road. I am neither a road scholar seeking knowledge (as Elderhostel calls them) nor a hobo or tramp always on the move for food and work, I am just a guy who is more interest in the journey, than the destination.

The Great American Road trip begins..in the rain.  36  degrees.  Milage zero. We leave at 7:30, stop for our  last NYC latte and soy capachino. Much  traffic and Tobee driving.  I will soon put my audio version of “On the Road.” Tobee  drives right through a red light on 3rd Avenue and 33St.  We drive towards the OuterBridge Crossing Bridge.  We pass the landfill and I hear the ghosts of 9/11.  the landfill is surrounded by swaps, marshes, and auto junk yards. As we drive the Jersey Turnpike I remember Jean Shepard’s wonderful rant about the Jersey Turnpike.  And the clink and clank of empty bear cans late at night.  Driving the Jersey Turnpike is not the best way to see New Jersey, Route one along the shore is better or even the Garden State Parkway, but we want to put some distance between us and New York.  We turn onto Rt 9 right off the Delaware Bridge.  It is a scenic route close to Delaware Bay.

We drive along Route 9, along the coast of Delaware Bay.  This is a forgotten world.  Tourists zoom by, missing a way of life that has died.  I spot this strange-looking building off the road a bit, so we turn around and park to take some pictures.  It is misty, damp, a bit cold, cloudy overhead.  this old wooden building, rotting in the wind and rain, stands still in the quite.  It is an old lighthouse, left to rot.  Its insides are gutted and dirty.  Windows are broken.  You can’t read the sign but it says Keep Off and it is the property of the United States Government.  Is this what we do with our history?

March 22, 2011

Thunder and lightning as I fell asleep last night did not stop me from thinking about the sun-yellow  forsythia demanding to be seen against the winter-muted colored foliage and the lighter purple and white of Magnolia blossoms gently moving in the breeze.  I realized that we were driving into Spring. And in a day through Spring and into Summer.  A quick transition.

We leave Exmore at 8:45 and down flat flat Rt 17 to the Cheseapeake Bay bridge and tunnel.  It is a long, long, long bridge that leads to Norfolk.  We find Rt 17 which heads South along side the Dismal Swamp Canal.  Dug by slaves between 1793 and 1805.  We passed through the canal in 1971 on our trip South in our sailboat.  Seeing the canal brings back the memories of a different time.  The canal was laid out by young surveyor George  Washington who was also an original investor for the lumber.  We stop for a raised bridge at the Inter-coastal waterway.

Traveling on local roads gives you a chance to see more of America.  We see abandoned houses and shacks.  Roadside dinners, and eateries.  Popeyes and 7 elevens.  Trucks making deliveries. Straight flat roads and scragly trees.

Along Rt 17 we pass through Elizabeth City, stopping for a latte at Muddy Waters cafe.  We floowl Rt 17 forever, through Edenton, Williamston, and Washington.  At Washington, we turn off and head to Belhaven and out favorite museum;  The behave memorial museum.  this museum, housed over the Police station, was started  by Mary Eva Blount Way (1869-1962).  Miss Eva collected everything she could from the surrounding area.  A huge collection of buttons, a wedding dressed flea, a two snouted baby pig, a one eyed pig, an eight legged pig, etc.  Plus some much stuff that she might be considered a hoarder, except that she labeled everything.

The picture above is of the Bellhaven Memorial Museum, above the Police State/Town Hall in Bellhaven, North Carolina.  We first came here in 1971 when we were traveling on the Intercoastal Waterway in our 36′ ketch, Childhood’s End, going to the Bahamas.  We stop here almost every time we drive South.  Bellhaven is a small agricultural town near the coast.  It was and still might be the center for farms in the area.  As such the founder of the museum collected every thing she could find in the area.  Two-headed snakes, three-legged chickens, a huge button collection, all the stuff our doughboys brought back from WWI and II.  I know you are thinking WTF!  But you should take a look at another part of America that is dying.  This type of place may hang on for a bit longer, but eventually someone will want to build a condo, because Bellhaven is on the water, and the next thing you know in come the bulldozers.  Goodbye Bellhaven and the fela collection all dressed up in formal wear on their way to a wedding.

Fully satiated, we back tracked away from Belhaven and back onto Rt17 to New Bern where we switched to Rt70 and headed to Morehead City.  We wanted to have dinner at Captain Bill’s but it was still closed for the season.  We ended up at the Channel Marker restaurant for a delicious dinner of broiled scallops.

March 23, 2011

We are free to go where we want when we want to go.  We are road gypsies.  Today we go to Charleston, via Rt 17 along the Atlantic Coast.  Morehead City is a town the supports the beach towns, lots of fishing boats and a stop on the Inter-coastal waterway.

We take Rt 24 along the water to Rt 17. Small owns like Bogue, and Cape Carteret , NC. Gas stations, trailer homes, all pretty neat places but every now and then a real white trash place piled with junk.  I see many familiar names too like West marine, Lowes, and Best Western Hotels.  Also names I have never heard in my life like  James E. Homer Real Estate.

The land is flat and filled with pine forests.  the geography must effect how people live their lives. if the land is the same, I suspect the people will tend to be too.

Purple Wisteria grows in peoples backyards and I image I can smell it as we drive by.

We pass by Camp Lejune with all the military stores: Saigon Sams’s, Crazy Cuts specializing in military haircuts, lots of tattoo places.  I wonder where the whore houses are?

As we drive down South I realize we have lost the small town America of our past.  It has been replaced with highway and strip malls.  Americans seem to have rot be someplace while never actually being anywhere.

We pass over the Cape Fear River.  I look for Bridgeport’s favorite son, Robert Mitchum, driving on the road but he is not here. Cape Fear, one the best named spots on the East coast.  Pickup trucks with guys in baseball caps, dump trucks, lumber trucks full of fresh cut trees,homeboys slumped down low in their seats, Toyotas with old black ladies going to church, gasoline tankers, sixteen wheelers, beat up white trash cars with missing doors and piled full of crap. American flags wave everywhere, not like sophisticated New York City.  Drivers smoking cigarettes, talking on their phones, and drinking beer.  Mothers going to the store for food.  people going to work.  Papers thrown on the top of the dashboard, maps, coffee cups, rosaries on the rear view mirror. An E-Zpass to paradise as we all move forward, keeping low and never giving them a silhouette.

Spotted moss hanging from trees and Palm Trees just south of Morehead City.   Stopped near Surf City to look at the Atlantic Ocean, now close to the houses as the ocean rises.  Still awesome and fearful and beautiful.

You can see remnants of the old way people lived down here although most is gone.  An occasional dilapidate  house falling down or an old gas station long closed when this was a two lane blacktop.

Categories of Churches in the Charleston Phone book:  African Methodist Episcopal, Anglican Catholic, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Baptist Free Will, Baptist General, Baptist Independent, Baptist Missionary, Baptist Southern, Bible, Buddhist, Catholic, Catholic Old, Christian, Christian Disciples of Christ, Christian Independent, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of Christ, Church of God, Church of God Cleveland, Tennessee, Church of God in Christ, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Community, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, Episcopal Reformed, Evangelical, Full Gospel, Greek Orthodox, Holiness, Independent, Interdenominational, Islamic, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Lutheran Evangelical, Lutheran Missouri Synod, Lutheran Wisconsin Synod, Methodist, Methodist Southern, Methodist Episcopal, Methodist United, Metropolitan Community, Nazarene, New Testament, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, Pentecostal Church of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Presbyterian, Presbyterian U.S.A., Reorganized Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, United Church of Christ, Untied Pentecostal, Unity,and Word of Faith.  That’s a hell of a lot of churches for one town!

March 24, 2011

We have been staying at Hampton Inns because they are clean, free breakfasts, free Internet, and very, very consistent.  So consistent that we do not know which one we are in, they are all the same.  like sleeping in your own house, sort of.  About $90 per night.  we get to Charleston and the inn we want to stay at downtown is full.  So we settle for a Days Inn.  The place is a dump.  The TV has a hole in it that looks like someone put a bullet into it. The Ac sounds like a garbage disposal unit that is on all the time and when the AC kicks in it sounds like we are going into hyperdrive.  Needless to say, I did not sleep too well.

Charleston is probably the best looking city on the east coast and maybe the country.  We walked all around the town looking at the houses. we ate apples in the Battery Park  overlooking Fort Sumpter.  Visited the Gibbes Museum of Art, a great local museum. We ate at night at Magnolias. Had homemade potato chips with blue cheese: delicious.  Magnolia was good.    Service was great.  The restaurant is probably a bit over rated.

March 25th 2011

We leave about 8pm, stopping at the local Starbucks for coffee (not all towns have gourmet coffee places folks) and drive out Rt 26 to The Francis Beidler Forest and swamp.  Very  nice for a 1.7 mile walk with Tobee.

Then to make time, we speed to I95 and head south to Rt 84 in Georgia.  I95 is the worst  highway in the US, nothing but gas stations and cheap places to eat that taste like crap.  Twinkie heaven and diet coke paradise.  Part off the air conditioned nightmare that America is turning into with everyone in a hurry and no real places to go.

Thankfully, we turn on to Rt 84 and back to a semi-local road.  Flat, with zillions of toothpick-like pine tress growing and awaiting slaughter by the paper mills of Georgia.  Forest fires dot the horizon as we drive through smoke over the roads.  One place we actually see the smoldering black ash by the roadside. We pass through many small towns some nice-some trashy. Moss now hands from many of the trees.  Flowers bloom in gardens of the nicer towns. Junk cars flower in the trashier towns. Jessup, Screven, Blackshear, Waycross,  Argyle, DuPont, and finally to Valdosta, Georgia.  We are exhausted and car crazy.  We eat at a mexican restaurant that is within walking distance of the hotel.  No more car for us although the concierge tells me of a great local BBQ place.  It will be in my dreams only.

I think that the good-old boys who hunt and fish know more of nature than the sophisticated people who live in the cities.  We may look down on them as white trash, but at least the respect and are not afraid of the woods like most city folk.  They eat what they kill and respect the animals they kill.  They are more like native Americans than all the do-gooders who cry crocodile tears for those at Wounded knee.

Tomorrow we head for Florida and turn west towards California.

March 26th, 2011

Left Valdosta early, had breakfast at a Huddle House in Quitman, Georgia, passed into Florida on Rt 221 about 9:45.  The restaurant had a bunch of good old boys dressed in Levi overalls with suspenders.  Quitman, Georgia is about as South as we will get, the blacks who ate at the restaurant sat on one side and the whites on the other.  I am sure it was voluntary.

We are seeing more moss and less pine trees as we head towards Perry, FL.  The land is still flat, but the foliage is changing. The moss is so beautiful hanging so easily and swaying in the breeze.  One thing you don’t see here or in the south in general are rocks.  Now I know the south has rocks, just go to north Georgia, but down where we are now and in all the low lands there are no rocks sticking their heads out of the dirt like we see in New England.

We pass through small north Florida  towns, Ashville, Greenville, Shady Grove (!!!), Lake Bird, and Boyd.  Finally to Perry.   The road is almost empty of cars this Saturday morning.  Driving today is like having a museum to yourself, no one in front or behind you.  Driving today is beautiful.  Two lane blacktop to paradise.

We listen to more of “On the road.”

An old church,New Hope Primitive Baptist Church decays slowly beneath the swinging moss.

Word of Truth Tabernacle church is another.

The  azaleas are bursting with color here, mainly bright blood red. Pinks purples white.

The topography of north Florida is flat.  Along Rt 98 it is almost like a cypress swamp, but drier.   Small trees, dwarf palmetto, and other brush spot the road view.  I spotted turkey vultures roosting in a tree and a shearwater flying high above the road.  I could tell by the V tail it had. White Flowers, swamp lilies,  grow in abundance by the Side of the road.

We stop at St Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the coast.  We hike about 1 mile on a trail by the gulf spotting an alligator, and nice black snake (banded water snake, I think).

From there we shoot down the coast to Panama City.  We eat at Hunt’s Oyster bar, $4.75 per dozen.  Just great although Apalachicola Bay oysters are not as tasty as their colder water brothers and sisters. Panama City Beach is just like North Myrtle Beach, and parts of the Jersey shore.    Overdeveloped, crass, commercial, and visually polluted.  The beach is pretty nice though.

March 27, 2011

Calypso, Mini golf places, Every thing is themed, Good time Charlies liquor store, Dollar outlets, Polynesian condos, McDonaldson, Arby’s, and  Brew thru drive in beer store.  This place is monstrous un controlled zoning Darwin IAEA a place to schlock.

The water is beautiful as is the white sandy beach.

Donut shops, pizza places, more drive in liquor stores.

Driving along  98 alt along the water

Bayou Bills restaurant

Back on 98 and out the trash beach of Panama City.

We pass mall after mall after mall.

T-shirt stores bathing suits, all multiple colored.

Steak houses, sushi places, donut shops, gas stations,  outdoor advertising boards, banks, real estate offices, condo sales, lots for sale, or lease, emerald this and legacy that, regatta and breakfastlunchdinner, waffle or pancake houses, Walgreens and CVS, Alvin’s Island tropical department stores, dune buggies and golf cart rentals, sunsations clothing stores, payless Joe,s fast, close , convenient, recreation centers, water rides, power ball, tropical eaves, bingo, blockbuster, T-shirts 3 for a dollar. Pizza Hut, Shell gas, WinnDixie, Texico gas, Target Jersey Mike,s subs, goodwill, Burger King, tattoo, storage, strip joints, Church of Christ United Methodist, fresh shrimp, Hog,s breath cafe, taco bell, 5$ beach store, patios plus, palmetto plaza, and suddenly over a bridge to nothing but white sand dunes.

I decided to visit the EOD memorial at Elgin AFB, but we could not get in because I am a civilian.  I was here in 1962 for EOD training where they dropped inert bombs and we dug them up and practiced disarming them.  I gave my country six years, but I could not go see the memorial.  I understand , but it hurt a bit. Seriously.

Comfort Inns, Econolodge,  Super 8(roach house), discount liquor stores, Taco Town, Subways, Hampton Inns, mobile home parks, gentlemen’s clubs, used car lots, Days Inn, Best Western,   As we head towards Pensacola.

We stop for lunch on Mobile bay at a small town boat ramp and park.  it was on the eastern side of the bay, very nice and quiet.  These people live the good life here.

We finally stop at Biloxi, Miss.  The devastating effects of hurricane Katrina are still very, very apparent.  It must have been horrible when that storm came ashore pushing a wall of water in front of it.  We see empty lots, just a small part of a wall still standing, overgrown, desolate.  We eat at the bonefish grill, just Ok as the food is overly heavy.

As we drive down there groups of Sunday motorcyclers drive two-by-two down the highways, enjoying their version of the good life.

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