Category Archives: Travel

Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 7-11

Friday certainly started dramatically. With Hermine having come ashore as a category 1 hurricane causing a lot of damage and the projected path taking it almost directly over the top of Savannah, the city was in a little bit of freakout mode. Everything shut down – schools were closed, businesses shuttered, people stayed home from work. The town took it very seriously.

So it was a little bit of the boy who cried wolf when Hermine, downgraded to a strong tropical storm by this point, pretty much fell apart just before it got to Savannah. There was a lot of wind – it blew down a few trees, a lot of branches, and a couple of things that weren’t secured properly like some metal crowd barrier fences that got blown into the street. There was a decent amount of rain but it only caused some localized street flooding. There were a few power outages around town, but that was really it.

Still when there’s a hurricane a-coming (Golden Girls reference), it is best not to spit into the proverbial wind so I pretty much stayed put in my room for the bulk of the day. Around lunch time the wind was blowing rather gustily but there wasn’t much rain so I decided to venture forth and find something more interesting than the Hilton Garden Inn’s lunch buffet. Unfortunately, as mentioned, everything was closed. Even the McDonald’s was closed, so you know they weren’t kidding around. So I slogged back to the hotel and did the buffet. It was exactly what you would expect of a Hilton Garden Inn buffet.

0601_hgilunch

By late afternoon, the rain had stopped, the wind had died down, and the sun was even peeking through the clouds so I moved some stuff around and went to 700 Drayton for dinner. Located in a gorgeous mansion built in 1881, the restaurant and neighboring hotel are right up at the top of the pecking order for “fancy” in Savannah. Due to the storm, I had one of the many rooms in the house all to myself with a stunning chandelier and a fireplace…

0602_700

0603_diningroom

Dinner was a wild boar shank braised in IPA and served with cheddar grits and asparagus.

0604_700boar

I was a little nervous ordering it seeing as how I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with boar before. As much as we’d like to think is just a pig that hasn’t been housebroken it is actually pretty different in terms of the taste but a lot of it depends on preparation. Chef knew what he was doing here. It was practically falling off the bone, deliciously tender, and a little fatty on the edges but in a good way. The cheddar grits were a little on the bland side but it was probably just the boar overwhelming things. I’d give it a solid A- overall.

A lovely surprise came at the end of the meal when the check was presented – or rather a note that told me that The Fat Pack had taken care of my meal. Steve, Diana, Nettie, Steve, Chuck, Wes, Audrey, Robin, and Leigh Anne, thank you very much. It meant a lot to me that you would do that, although I’m still not sure when I told you where I was going to be eating so I’m pretty sure there was some witchcraft involved in that.

Afterward, I ventured over to get that picture of Scary Mary that I mentioned. This is a statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in a window on an enclosed bridge that runs between a church and a school and has gained a bit of a reputation as being either haunted, possessed, or just downright creepy. I’m voting for all three after I looked at the pictures I took. Now, before I go any further I want you to get context of where Scary Mary is at…

0605_scarymarydistance

She’s facing an alley behind the church so it’s not look out onto the street or a courtyard or anything.

Now… look at these two pictures, which I did nothing to other than resize them… the first where the statue looks fine, almost beatific…

0606_scarymarysmile

And this one, where I’m pretty sure she has developed a bit of an evil grin…

0607_scarymarysneer

Now, I’m sure that this is just because it had rained and the window was a little foggy and I moved positions slightly when I took the pictures and its some sort of reflection in the glass, but come on! That’s creepy, right?

That night I went back to the bar where I was amused by this sign:

0608_drinking

And hung out with drag queens as midnight rolled in and I turned 50 years old.

0609_drag

Saturday morning, on my actual birthday, I went back to 700 Drayton to take park in their cooking class. Led by New Jersey native Peter Russo, the classes run regularly all week out of a custom built kitchen and feature a bunch of different programs. The one I did was a Farmer’s Market, where Chef took us across the street where every Saturday you’ll find a bunch of locally grown produce, cheeses, meat, and more in the gorgeous Forsyth Park…

0701_cooking

0702_cooking

0703_cooking

He had already gotten the meat so we picked up kale, grits, red onions, carrots, cheddar and herb goat cheese and had a honey tasting just because it was there. He gave us some tips on how to spot the best produce (which boiled down to “when in doubt, ask – they WANT you to buy something”), we cooed over the chickens eating watermelon…

0704_cooking

And then we took our purchases back to the kitchen and got to work…

0705_cooking

0706_cooking

We prepared… grilled chicken in a jerk spice marinade; grilled beef fillets; grilled shrimp in Maryland Old Bay seasoning; kale cooked in butter, garlic, onions, and bacon fat (which Chef Russo kept calling “love” – “this is love” he’d say as he spooned it into a pot) and then topped with bacon; roasted carrots and onions in a balsamic reduction; and cheddar and goat cheese grits. As you can tell, from the photo above, the man is not shy about the fat content in his food. When preparing the grits he brought out a gallon of whole milk and asked, “How much of this should we put in here?” Someone said, “A cup.” Another said, “Two cups.” He said, “That’s right, all of it” and poured it into the pot. The same was done with cheese, butter, and bacon fat. He may die young of a massive coronary, but he will be revered as a god.

After we ate, I just walked around a bunch, enjoying the city. Forsyth Park, the squares, the moss-covered tree-lined streets, the cute shops.

I went to one called Chocolat, purveyor of all things sweet by Adam Turoni. This guy is a bit of a prodigy – he started cooking when he was 8, got his first kitchen job at 14, became the lead pastry chef in a restaurant at 17, and had published several books and opened his own chocolate making company by 20. I on the other hand just turned 50 and I watch a lot of TV. Whatever. His stuff is outrageously expensive, but so, so good. I got some milk chocolate caramels with a dark chocolate drizzle and sea salt, Bailey’s Irish Creme truffles, a honey infused chocolate bar with hand-painted edible gold leaf, and a jar of honey caramel to bring home. Here are a few of the pieces…

0714_chocolat

One of my sightseeing stops was at The Waving Girl statue along the river. Florence Martus was her name and, according to legend, she fell in love with a sailor who went to sea and to ensure his safe return she greeted each ship as it came into the Savannah River from the Atlantic with a handkerchief by day and a lantern by night. They say she didn’t miss a ship once in more than 40 years between 1887 and 1931 as she waited for her love to come back to her… but he never did.

0713_wavinggirl

Then it was time for Bacon Fest 2016! Knocked back a day by Hermine, the festival features arts and crafts vendors, music, booze, games, and (of course) food vendors offering a bunch of different bacony goodness items…

0708_bacon

I was a little disappointed because the number of food vendors was smaller than it has been in the past and the offerings not quite as original. I was told by one person that several restaurants had to drop out because they were originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday and couldn’t commit to Saturday and Sunday so they just didn’t come. Hermine, you bitch!

But I still got some interesting bacon inventions including Chicken Fried Bacon with a ranch and Buffalo sauce drizzle…

0709_bacon

A classic bacon wrapped hot dog with ketchup and onions:

0710_bacon

Bacon pups… which I was told were like hush puppies with bacon, cheddar, and jalapeno but which tasted like corn bread and nothing else. The woman who told me what they were was very nice and I can’t imagine why she’d lie to me, but I suspect she was…

0711_bacon

And for the sweeter side, cherry glazed bacon and chocolate bacon…

0712_bacon

I know it’s sacrilege, but I’m not a fan of the chocolate bacon. But I will keep trying it until I find one I like.

I got back to my room and was delighted to find a package there from Maureen, who very thoughtfully sent me birthday cake… or rather, six of them in sealed Mason jars from Wicked Cakes of Savannah. There is cookie dough, wedding cake, red velvet, turtle, lemon and blueberry, and carrot. I devoured the cookie dough and brought the rest home with me so it’ll be birthday cakes for the next week. Thank you Maureen!!

0715_cakes

Since the Lady Chablis had cancelled her show, I decided to go instead to the Savannah Theater to catch one of their long-running singing and dancing revues, “Savannah Live!” The facility is the oldest continually operating theater in the United States, first opened in 1818. It has been substantially redone after fires and hurricanes damaged it, most recently in the 1940s when it got its current “streamline” art deco look…

0717_theaterext

0718_theaterint

The show featured a cast of six singer/dancers, a featured singer, and a five piece band who did covers of everything from Queen to “Phantom of the Opera” to Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Midnight Train to Georgia,” naturally) to *NSYNC and beyond with a little bit of comedy and heartfelt salutes to our troops along the way. Having reviewed every revue that has ever played Vegas, I have seen this type of show a bazillion times and what I found most interesting was not the talent or quality – they are all fine, good, some even quite good – but rather the spirit. The people in these types of shows in Vegas are still holding onto the idea that they are going to be famous some day. These folks in “Savannah Live!” seem to just want to entertain the folks that come to their town. It may not have been standing ovation worthy (although they got one, which we need to get under control and only give out to productions that actually deserve them) but it was light-hearted and earnestly delivered fun so I give it a thumbs up.

After the show, I took another walk through the some of the less popular squares and streets away from the bar district that draws the drunk, loud tourists who do stupid things like pedal just to get a drink:

0716_peddle

Why would you do this? You can go sit on a bar stool and someone will bring you a drink and you don’t need to do anything other than lift it to your mouth. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t.

Anyway, I don’t have the kind of camera that will take really good night pictures, but you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that it is absolutely beautiful, serene, somehow magical, and with just the right touch of the eerie to give it that something extra special.

0719_savnight

0720_savnight

0721_savnight

I of course went back to Troup Square to visit my beloved Armillary, featured heavily in my book Ineritas and also swung by the Colonial Park cemetery, which is featured heavily in book two (which I am currently writing).

0722_troup

0723_cpark

0724_cpark

0725_cpark

Then of course it was back to the bar for some more drinking, dancing, and drag shows, where I was thrilled beyond measure to catch Layla, a saucy queen who loves to do country music, doing the classic “Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” speech from “Designing Women,” which I used to know by heart…

“And that, Marjorie, just so you will know and so your children will someday know…” If you’ve never seen the whole thing, watch it here:

All in all, it was a very, very fine birthday.

Sunday I was a bit bummed – I always am when I have to leave Savannah – but I cheered myself up with a visit on the way back to Atlanta with a stop at the Woodbury Shop in Senoia, the official home of “The Walking Dead.” I bought a bunch of stuff and visited their museum, which has props from the show and walls that have been signed by all of the cast. Check out the one from Melissa McBride below…

0801_walkingdead

0802_walkingdead

0803_walkingdead

0804_walkingdead

0805_walkingdead

Accommodations provided by The Grand Hyatt in Buckhead, which had a nice view of the Atlanta skyline in the distance:

0806_grandhyatt

And then finally my last southern meal, at a restaurant called Southern Art. Chicken and dumplings soup, buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and macaroni and cheese. I left very happy and very, very full.

Finally IMG_3289

Capture11

I flew home today and there is really only one more story to tell and it is of the crazy woman on my plane. I had a window seat, which I prefer (more room, less getting bumped by people coming down the aisle), and as I approached my row, crazy woman was standing in it, in front of the aisle seat. She was in her late 50s, I’d guess, with lots of makeup, lots of jewelry, LOTS of perfume, and either a lot of vodka or a lot of mental instability.

She said, with a slightly wild-eyed look, “Are you in the window seat here?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you want to switch to the aisle seat?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I prefer the window.”

“But I need the window,” she said.

“Uh… what?” I asked, now holding up people behind me because she wouldn’t let me into my seat.

“I need the window!” she said, freaking out a bit.

“I’m sorry,” I said and kind of pushed past her to get to my seat.

She then plopped down in the aisle seat and stared at me with a hateful gaze, silently for about 30 seconds and then said, “Are you going to keep the shades shut?”

“The window shades?” I asked, unsure if I had hear her correctly. After she nodded vigorously and crazily, I continued, “I’m not sure. I may watch a movie and I have some work to do so I’ll probably keep them shut most of the time.”

“I am terribly claustrophobic,” she proclaimed loudly, “And the window shades must remain open.”

Okay, so, up until then I’d been confused but was handling it with what I thought was a firm, but polite, standing of my ground. But at that point I was done. I was tired, I was cranky, I was hungry, I was done.

“Perhaps,” I said, channeling my best Julia Sugarbaker, “You should have of that before you bought an aisle seat.”

“There were no window seats available when I booked my ticket!” she practically screamed.

“Funny,” I said, still full Julia, “There were when I bought mine.”

She harrumphed… almost literally harrumphed and got up, pushing past the people who were still boarding so she could get to the flight attendant. She proceeded to complain that I was unwilling to switch seats with her. The flight attendant said, “If he doesn’t want to move, there’s nothing we can do,” which was good because at that point you couldn’t have gotten me out of that seat with a crowbar.

The woman in the row ahead of us, meekly raised her hand and said, “My son will switch – he has a window seat.” The crazy woman harrumphed back to my row, gave me a harrumph that seemed to indicate she thought she had some sort victory over me even though my skinny ass was still sitting exactly where it had been all along, and then harrumphed to take the kid’s seat. She raised the shades with a slam, and then stared back repeatedly until the plane took off. During the flight she was up no fewer than 20 times, asking the flight attendant for water, for juice, for an extra blanket, for nuts, for the time, I stopped paying attention, but it is worth noting that the woman’s new seat… was in ROW 1!!! Literally she could have said, in a normal speaking voice, “Excuse me, Flight Attendant?” and the flight attendant would have heard her but she decided it was necessary to get up out of her seat every single time. I was so tempted to sneak over there and shut the shades while she was up.

Perhaps I just need to watch Julia Sugarbaker some more.

Thanks for following along. I hope you had some fun reading because I certainly had a lot of fun doing. It was good 50th birthday trip. Looking forward to 51!

Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 5-6

One one eye obsessively on The Weather Channel app, I checked out of the hotel on Wednesday morning with a revised plan for the day. Originally I was going to do several offbeat museums in and around Atlanta and Georgia including the CDC Museum, the Waffle House Museum, and the Crime and Punishment Museum (complete with electric chair!). But not knowing what the storm was going to do made me want to just get to Savannah, get checked into the hotel, and hunker down while making a new plan from there.

How does one “hunker” exactly? Whatever.

Since it was kind of on the way, I did go ahead and make a brief stop at the CDC Museum. Well… I tried. It turns out that you are not allowed to drive onto the CDC campus with an open bottle of vodka in the trunk of your car. Or any other kind of liquor for that matter. They didn’t really explain why but I envisioned all sorts of Hollywood level disasters (“How did the level 4 virus get out!?” “Someone brought a bottle of Grey Goose into the parking garage!” “Damn it, man!!”)

So I had to go park in a big shopping complex across the street (CVS on one corner, CDC on the other) and walk in, where they promptly yelled at me that I wasn’t coming in the right way. Something about a visitors’ sidewalk. I don’t know. Anyway, I finally made it inside, had to have a full cavity search performed on me (or perhaps I was just annoyed by that point and it seemed that intrusive), and then was directed to the museum.

It’s basically all about diseases – ebola, typhoid, legionnaire’s, AIDS, you name it – and other calamities that can affect your health like terrorist attacks, nuclear meltdowns, toxic chemical accidents, and so on. Yeah, real cheery subjects. They had a bunch of funky looking equipment that was explained in a way that I think they think made sense but didn’t, really. This thing for instance…

0501_cdc

It’s an electro-positronic-dynamic-thingamajig. It does something important I’m sure.

I did enjoy the cheeky artifacts of disease prevention campaigns of yore:

0502_cdcvd

Feeling the need for a Silkwood shower, I high-tailed it out of there and got on the road to Savannah and got into town around 2:30. I’m staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, which has absolutely none of the charm that the hotels that I have been in before did, but it’s clean, it’s comfortable, and I have a balcony that I won’t be able to use much because of all the rain and wind.

I took a walk and then lazed around while the first outer bands of Hermine made their way through Savannah. Rain and wind. Shrug.

For dinner I went to Alligator Soul, a funky little upscale restaurant located in the basement of a building in the historic district. It’s new Southern, meaning updated twists on classic fare. They started me with an amuse bouche of beef tenderloin in a balsamic reduction with garlic and chives and I was indeed amoosed. Then came the warm multi-grain and garlic focaccia bread with lemon herb butter and I was even more amoosed. The main course… a filet wrapped in brown sugar cured bacon and done in a veal demi-glaze, served on a bed of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. I can’t remember the last time I had a steak this good… perfectly prepared, insanely flavorful, slightly decadent with the bacon. I loved it – favorite meal of the trip so far.

0503_alligatorsoul

I got an after dinner drink of a white chocolate martini but couldn’t finish it so the waitress said, “You want that in a To-Go cup?” And I said, “I do love this town.”

After dinner I watched it rain a bit more and then headed next door to the local gay bar, which was very quiet until about 40 very drunk, very straight, but very fun Australians on some sort of holiday tour came in. It got loud after that. I didn’t help matters much by buying them all Jello shots. Welcome to America!

Thursday I was going to do the road trip down into Florida but the weather was just too dicey so I stuck around Savannah and tried to get some of the things that I was going to do on Friday accomplished a day early. I went out to Tybee Island to visit the museum that was closed off when I was in town last year but made a stop at the lighthouse across the street first just to see if I could get some good pictures of the storm coming in.

0504_tybee

I’m not sure what made me think that my reaction to going to the top of the thing and out onto the tiny little catwalk that surrounds it at the top would be any different than the last time but I assure you it wasn’t. I took one step out there and immediately freaked the fuck out, almost fell to my knees, and practically had to crawl back inside. This photo was taking through a window from the interior of the lighthouse.

0505_tybee

The museum is located in an old battery garland along the beach that dates back to the 1800s. Although not the most contemporary of museums in terms of presentation, it had a fascinating history of both the military and civilian lives of the island through the years. The area peaked in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Tybee was a major resort destination, with grand hotels, bathhouses, beachside pavilions, and amusement rides. As with most things built of wood in that era, a big chunk of it burned down and although some of it was rebuilt it never really regained its appeal, especially with competition from nearby Florida beach communities reaching their zenith.

The displays are down in the bowels of the battery and you can go up onto the top to look around…

0506_tybee

0507_tybee

One of the things that fascinated me was the Hotel Tybee, the grandest of resorts originally built in 1889. It was a beautiful Victorian structure that burned down in 1909 and was replaced by an even more grand cement one in 1911. The bulk of the hotel is long gone, torn down in 1961, but I went to where it was anyway and the hotel that sits there now – a boring modern thing – had some books about the island and the hotel so I can binge a little on history. I think I’m going to put it into one of my Interitas novels.

Right next door is a foodie famous place called The Breakfast Club, which is only open from 7am until 1pm and, unsurprisingly, serves (mainly) breakfast. This place is such a destination that the last two times I have tried to visit the lines were wrapped around the block to get in. Since I was there late on the day before a tropical storm was set to roll through, I was able to get in quickly and have a seat at the counter for a late breakfast/early lunch. I got their Philly cheese steak omelette – tender chunks of top sirloin with onions, mushrooms, and cream cheese. It was an interesting mixture that took me a moment to get used to but I got there quickly and enjoyed the hell out of it.

0508_breakfast

Afterward I tried to swing by to get a picture of Scary Mary, a statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in a window at a local church but it’s also a school and it was in session so I didn’t feel comfortable going onto the grounds to do it. She will be in one of my Interitas stories as well, so I will get her before I leave at some point.

Another line of storms moved through and then it cleared out so I went over to River Walk to sit, read, and enjoy a cocktail (or 3). Peach vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, and a few other things I have forgotten. Yum.

0509_drink

0510_riverstreet

For dinner I visited another new Southern restaurant, A.Lure. They had amazing biscuits before the meal with “pina colada” jam and I had their meatloaf for dinner – ground filet mignon, foie gras, and caramelized onions with fingerling potatoes and chunks of blue cheese. I forgot to take a picture of it before it was half destroyed…

0511_alure

The only reason I am not raving about it is because the steak the night before was still lingering in my memory, but it was very, very good.

As the first serious parts of the storm rolled in I went back to the bar and had a few drinks while watching a drag show. One of the ladies wanted to know why they only gave boring white people names to hurricanes. If she was in charge, she’d go ghetto fabulous and do things like Laquisha and Shanaynay. I am now obsessed with this idea.

Hermine really started hitting overnight, with a lot of rain and a lot of wind and a few thunderclaps that were loud enough to shake me out of bed, but for the most part it has just been a bad storm. It is looking like the bulk of the bad stuff is skirting to the west of Savannah so right now as I type this, when the eye is passing nearby, it’s just heavy rain and gusty winds and not much else – nothing like the damage and flooding that she wreaked in Florida.

Once the storm passes later this afternoon, I’m going to try to get my Savannah visit back on track. They did cancel Baconfest for tonight, but are still on for tomorrow and now Sunday as well. The Lady Chablis show was cancelled for tomorrow night so that’s a bit disappointing but I’m going to go see a local revue instead.

Off to come up with good drag queen names for hurricanes…

Southern Fried Road Trips Days 4 and 5

We’ll get to the weather forecast in a bit, but first let’s talk about days 4 and 5.

I started Tuesday morning the way all good mornings should start, with donuts. The place is called Sublime Donuts, located near the Georgia Tech campus. It has quite a reputation for being among the best in town and this is one of those times when the reality didn’t live up to the hype. I had a double chocolate, which was just not good at all – very doughy – and a raspberry filled chocolate heart that, while perfectly fine, was not fantastic. I was annoyed and disappointed.

Wouldn’t be the last time that day. (insert ominous foreshadowing music here)

0401_donut

From there I headed north toward toward North Carolina. Now, I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would I want to go there, pretty much ever, but especially when We (the collective, politically aware group of us) are supposed to be having nothing to do with North Carolina because of the whole “There’s a man in the ladies room!” controversy. I mean if Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato aren’t going to NC, I shouldn’t either, right?

Bonus points if you got the “Designing Women” reference.

Here’s the deal: I like to gamble. And the nearest place to Atlanta to do that is in Cherokee, North Carolina. I decided it was helping the tribe and the people who work there more than the state and if that’s a delusion then it’s a happy one that I am choosing to embrace, much like the one that says Prince is still alive and living on an island, where two backup dancers just follow him around striking curious poses.

Bonus points if you got the “When Doves Cry” reference.

The drive up there is quite lovely. It’s about 150 very scenic miles as you drive up into the Smoky Mountains, and there are some breathtaking vistas along the way. I didn’t stop to take pictures of any of them but you’ll just have to trust me. It’s purty.

Two random roadside sightings, also without photographic evidence, sorry. The first was a sign on the side of the road, roughly the size of a city bus, that read simply “GOATS”. Giant letters. Yellow on a red background. No other context. Just GOATS.

The other was the Donald Trump for President billboard. It was almost as much of a curiosity as the GOATS one.

Before I get to lunch, I have to flash back a few nights earlier to give you context. I was playing blackjack with a 70-year-old transgender woman at a gay bar in Georgia… no, really… and when I mentioned that I was heading up to Cherokee in a couple of days she said, “Well, you have to stop at Dillard House – it’s this great restaurant where they just start loading you up with really good southern food and they just keep bringing it.” Challenge accepted!

Dillard House is, appropriately enough, in Dillard, Georgia, high in the Smokey Mountain foothills surrounded by scenery like this:

0402_gacountry

The restaurant, lodge, riding stables, and petting zoo facility is lovely and the big dining room has huge windows that look out onto scenes like the above. And sure enough, they just start bringing you food. Now, since I was eating by myself and I have a hard time eating a lot of anything, I refused more than a dozen dishes – everything from coleslaw to pickled beets and a bunch of other things that I have forgotten. What I accepted is what you see on the table:

0403_dillardrest

That would be fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, corn on the cob, roasted potatoes, chicken pot pie, flank steak, and a basket of fresh baked rolls and biscuits (not pictured). I was very excited about it all but found most of it to be merely okay-ish. The chicken pot pie was probably the best thing on the table, with thick chunks of potatoes and other veggies but the fried chicken was dry, the flank steak was too chewy, and the fried green tomatoes were an affront to the concept as far as I’m concerned. So yeah, disappointment number two.

“That’s okay,” I thought. “As I drive back down to the highway, I’ll put down the windows and enjoy some fresh mountain air.”

It is worth noting that this was not the first time I put down the windows on the Ford Fusion Smugmobile. It was, however, the first time the windows wouldn’t go back up. Actually, they would go up, but they wouldn’t stay up (that’s what she said). As soon as they got to the top of the track, they started going down again. I pull over and start in with a spirited game of “What the fuck?” I shut the car off and turn it back on. I shut the car off, get out of the car, lock it, unlock it, get back in, and start the car. I screamed loudly in frustration. Nothing worked.

I looked it up on the web and got nowhere so I called Enterprise and their suggestion was to bring it back to the location where I rented it… you know, in Atlanta… 150 miles away.

Suddenly I remember a trick we had employed on Plucky Survivors trip when our Plucky Mobile, a Buick, started to lose piece a big chunk of its front end – we went to a Buick dealer and they fixed it, free of charge.

So I looked up Ford dealerships and there was one about 10 miles away. I was prepared to drive there but I called first and spoke to a service adviser who told me that the windows needed to be “reset.” He said, put the window all the way down and hold the button for 5 seconds. Then release it for 5 seconds. Then put the window up and when it gets to the top, hold the button up for a few seconds.

Really?

But after several failed attempts and a great deal of additional swear words, it finally took and I was able to continue on my merry way.

The Harrah’s in Cherokee is quite nice, larger – bigger than most Vegas casinos – with all the usual gambling suspects and so yeah, I played. And I won. And I lost. And I won. And I lost. And I lost. And then I won. And then I lost. Enough said.

Dinner was in the Diamond Lounge at the casino involved beef brisket out of warming tray and a slightly soggy dinner roll. Also, enough said.

I drove back to Atlanta after dark and those mountain roads are not fun. Especially when you stop for a moment and put the window down and then IT REFUSES TO FUCKING STAY UP AGAIN!!! Several more attempts at a reboot and it finally worked again. I’ve decided I have no reason to put down the windows so I just won’t from here on out.

Total mileage was about 325 for the day.

Wednesday was a lot less disappointing. I got up early to do a Civil Rights Road Trip, starting in Selma, Alabama.

How you can tell you’re in Alabama… the high-riding pickup track with the confederate flag in the back window and a bumper sticker that read, “Do you believe in life after death? If the answer is no, you better be bullet proof” alongside pictures of AR-15 style rifles. If I had nothing left to live for, I would go up to that person and say, “No… I don’t believe in life after death. Are you really going to shoot me now, shoot me now?”

Bonus points if you got the Bugs Bunny reference.

The first stop was the Baptist AME Church in Selma where both of the marches started – the ill-fated one that was stopped by the Alabama Highway Patrol in an incident that would be known as Bloody Sunday, and the successful one a few weeks later. It’s still a working church so you can’t go inside but they have some monuments and historic markers outside.

0404_church

0405_church

From there I drove over to the Selma Interpretive Center. Opened about five years ago, this small museum has one room with a handful of exhibits dedicated to the march and what started it. There isn’t much to see here but it is all very powerful and includes a bank of video monitors where you can watch testimonials from people who were there. Interestingly, and affectingly, they had a few from people on the “opposition” sewn into the story. One woman talked about how the march was just an excuse for orgies and drugs and that Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife who was murdered during the march by Klansmen, was nothing but a common prostitute. Mind you, this is not some 50 year old video – this is new material, recorded within the last few years. Terrifying.

0406_selmaint

0407_selmaint

0408_selmaint

0409_selmaint

0410_selmaint

0411_selmaint

There was a lot of construction going on – they are planning on expanding into the second and third floors of the building and adding more exhibits, which should be open in time for the anniversary of the protests in March, 2017.

Then it was over the Edmund Pettus bridge, which still feels foreboding in some way all these years later.

0412_edmund

On the other side of the bridge, this is where the Alabama State Patrol beat and tear-gassed the first attempt at the march.

0413_bloodysunday

A few steps from there are memorials to important people in the movement and a sculpture honoring the marches.

0414_selmapark

0415_selmapark

Down the road about 20 miles is the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, a sister facility to the one in Selma, that I have actually been to before.

0416_lowndes

Ten years ago, Mary and I were on the last couple of days of our inaugural Plucky Survivors trip and we, along with Plucky Passenger Jessica, stopped here just a couple of weeks after it opened. It was a highlight of our trip and I remember it being incredibly powerful. It still is.

You start by watching a video that is, ostensibly, about the march, but is also about the importance of voting. Back in 2006 we wrote “this powerful short movie should be required viewing in all high schools. Heck, it should be required viewing for every citizen of this country.” I believe that now, more than ever, and I bought a DVD that includes the video on it. At some point before the election I am going to figure out a way for everyone to be able to see it.

The rest of the center is very much the way it was 10 years ago, which is to say fantastic. I love the area where they have statues of people marching toward a window. The picture doesn’t do it justice… it’s moving…

0417_lowndes

This part of the day was very emotional for me, partly because of the topic and how horrifying it all was and, in many ways, remains today, but also partly because of Mary. Sometimes I really miss that chick.

Onward I marched (drove) taking a quick stop at the memorial for Viola Liuzzo. As mentioned above, she was a Detroit housewife and mother of five who saw the Bloody Sunday march on the news and decided to come down and help during the one led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a few weeks later. After the march, she was driving people back to Selma when her car was driven off the road by Klansmen and she was murdered.

0418_viola

I made it to Montgomery and of course went to the capitol building just to complete the concept. It took me about an hour’s worth of driving. They took four days of walking.

0422_statecap

The next stop was the Freedom Riders Museum, located in the former Greyhound Bus Terminal where the activists were attacked. The woman running the facility took great pride in the museum and when into very fine detail about the people, the movement, and the building itself. She showed us the original blueprints marking what used to be separate White and Colored entrances, waiting rooms, lunch counters, bathrooms, and ticket windows. She said, “Segregation didn’t just happen, it was designed.”

0419_bus

0420_bus

There isn’t much to the museum but it’s still a worthwhile visit, especially if you don’t know much about the Freedom Riders. For the record, they started as a group of young people – mostly college students – black and white, male and female – who decided to draw attention to the recent Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in interstate travel by taking a Greyhound Bus from Washington DC to New Orleans. Along the way they were beaten, hospitalized, attacked with Molotov cocktails that destroyed one of the buses, arrested, and imprisoned.

This was 1961.

I needed a little break so I went for lunch a locally recommended BBQ joint called Dreamland, located in Downtown Montgomery. I had Brunswick Stew, smoked BBQ sausage, and mac and cheese and if I hadn’t eaten at Daddy Z’s a couple of nights before I would have called it good, but by comparison it was only fine.

0421_bbq

I also took a swing over to the Alabama Cattleman’s Association offices. Why? Because they have place called the MOOseum. How can you not want to go to a place called the MOOseum? Especially when this is parked outside?

0427_mooseum

Unfortunately it’s mostly an advertisement for eating more beef with very little humor beyond the truck and the name, but it was good to get a bit of a brain cleanse from the heavy topics of the day.

Which, I then returned to with a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center offices in Montgomery. Out in front is a water sculpture done by Maya Lin:

0423_civilrights

0424_civilrights

Both wall and disc are covered with flowing water – it’s quite lovely.

After passing through very heavy security (metal detectors, armed guards, etc.) I looked around the center, which is small but very well done, offering testimonials to people who have been sacrificed in the fight for civil rights. It mentions Dr. King and Medgar Evers naturally, but most of the stories are of people – and some incidents – that I had never heard of. I won’t recount them here – they are all too horrifying – but they encompass all points on the civil rights spectrum from race to religion to sexual orientation and beyond.

I loved this quote on the wall:

0425_civilrights

At the end is a giant video wall with the names of people who have committed to the cause of furthering civil rights. Put your name in and you get to see yourself included…

0426_civilrights

The last stop of the day was at the Tuskegee Airman National Historic Sight. Located at the former airbase where the African-American air corp trained, the National Parks Service has restored one of the hangers as a large interpretive center and rebuilt another hanger, the control tower, and more. The story of these brave men and women and what they faced just for trying to protect their country during WWII is both uplifting and profoundly sad.

0428_tuskegee

0429_tuskegee

0430_tuskegee

I drove back to Atlanta (total mileage about 440) and stopped to pick up a local favorite – Woody’s Cheese steak.

0431_cheesesteak

It was good, not great, but I think expecting to find a great cheese steak in Atlanta is like expecting to find great BBQ in Philly. Probably not likely.

So now, finally, the weather and the next few days.

Tropical Depression Nine is out there spinning around near Cuba and is expected to become Tropical Storm Hermine sometime tonight or tomorrow. Then it is going to march across Florida and Savannah on Thursday and Friday if the forecasts are to be believed:

213525W5_NL_sm

It is expected to have sustained winds of up to 65 mph (just a few shy of hurricane status) and drop as much as 15 inches of rain in some areas.

So, tomorrow – Wednesday, instead of lollygagging around Georgia on a circuitous route to Savannah, I’m just going to drive straight there and hopefully get some some of the things done that I was going to do on Friday that might get rained out. My trip into Florida on Thursday where I was going to go to the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and the Pulse Nightclub memorial at the site of the shooting has been cancelled, although if the storm moves out faster than expected, I could still do it on Friday and get back in time for Bacon Fest! We’ll see.

More to come…

50th Birthday Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 1-3

Georgia is a state of contradictions. On the one hand you have confederate flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks with NRA and Trump bumper stickers and on the other hand you have deep fried BBQ pork. You can see why I’m conflicted.

I got here Friday afternoon after a flight that was uneventful except for the rather indirect route we took to get here. Everything was fine until Oklahoma and then some bad weather forced us off the flight plan. We went north, then south, then back west again, then flew in a circle, upside down, and in a figure eight pattern. Okay, I’m exaggerating but not by much. The path on the in-flight monitor looked like a a child had scribbled on the wall in crayon.

We left more or less on time but were almost an hour late by the time we got to Atlanta. A quick rental (Ford Fusion Hybrid Smugmobile) and little traffic got me to the Hyatt where they promptly upgraded me to a top floor corner room with a gorgeous view of Midtown.

0101_atlantaskyline

I changed quickly and then I practically sprinted up the street to South City Kitchen, my first restaurant of the trip tradition.

I was tempted by their insanely delicious fried chicken but tackled, ultimately, by the smoked pork chop. I’ve had it before but they are preparing it differently now, and while it is hard to improve on perfection they have managed to do it. It’s smoked and grilled with a rich sorghum glaze and sits on a bed of charred Vidalia sweet onions. Insane! I got a side of their smashed bliss potatoes and I was, appropriately, blissed out.

0102_porkchop

Every day on my vacation I’m going to do themed road trips, just because I’m not a sit by the pool kind of guy and it helps my OCD to have something to obsessively plan.

Saturday was my Atlanta Icons trip and I did about 75 miles in and around the city and its burbs.

I started with the inaugural Great Southern Food Truck Rally, a festival held on a college campus in Kennesaw, one of the northwest Atlanta bedroom communities that is mostly tract homes and strip malls but nicer than that. The event featured about two dozen local food trucks offering everything from Maine Lobster to barbeque to Greek to Polynesian and beyond. I needed more of my down south flavor so I got samples from three different trucks.

0201_foodtrucks

The first was Nana G’s Chik-n-Waffles, where they were offering a small portion of their namesake dish. The waffle, maple syrup, and powdered sugar was perfect and the chicken was a little spicier than I was expecting but still very good. Of the three things I tried, this absolutely won hands down.

0202_chicknwaffle

Next was a BBQ truck that I have forgotten the name of, although it was (Insert Person’s Name) G’s BBQ, to which I had to ask “Any relation to Nana across the way?” They didn’t get it.

From them I got a pulled pork sandwich sans sandwich (yes, just a pile of meat) and macaroni and cheese. Both very good but not award winning.

0203_bbq

The last was another BBQ place that I didn’t bother remembering but it wasn’t very good – smoked chicken that was drowning in a boring tomato based sauce.

0204_bbq

Next on the Atlanta list was the Atlanta History Center, a fantastic campus of museums, restored historic homes, a research center, gardens, and more. The main building has several galleries with permanent and rotating exhibits, the main one being Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta. It traces the city’s history from its roots (Attention The Walking Dead fans: before it became Atlanta it was called Terminus) through the civil war and into modern times. It’s one of those great hands-on, interactive exhibits that allows you to do more than just stand and look at things behind glass.

0205_ahc

0205_ahc_barber

0207_ahc_exhibits

Other exhibits include a balanced and really interesting examination of the Civil War, which focused more on the battles than the political and sociological reasons for it, a folk art display, a look at Native American influence on the region, a fun room called Atlanta in 50 objects (much of which was suggested by patrons), and something about golf that I paid absolutely no attention to.

0208_ahc_cow

0209_ahc_civilwar

Outside are beautiful gardesn that you get to stroll through to the Smith Family Farm. The house and several outbuildings, complete with sheep and chickens, is a Civil War era homestead that was moved here and restored with care. The furnishings, the tools, and even the costumed actors are faithful to time period and managed to not break character when some asshole (me) asked them “Did they really have air conditioning in 1864?” To which the young woman hand stitching a blanket replied, “We are truly blessed, kind sir.”

0211_ahc_farmhouse

0212_ahc_sheep

0213_ahc_cabin

Next was Swan House, the 1928 era mansion that built on these grounds for the Edward Inman family, heirs to a cotton brokerage fortune. It was donated to the city after Edward’s wife Emily passed away in 1966 and from it they created the Atlanta History Center. The house is stunning inside and out, with a stately oval drive leading to a columned portico and a terraced backyard with a watefall fountain. Almost all of the rooms are open and the restoration and upkeep here is spotless. You can tell they really care about this place.

0214_ahc_swanext

0215_ahc_swan50s

0216_ahc_swanstairs

0217_ahc_swanterrace

I was so impressed that I made it #46 on my $50 for 50 by 50 list.

Next, I headed into Downtown Atlanta for the VIP tour of the CNN Center. This was mostly an excuse for me to stalk Anderson Cooper although I was disappointed to learn that he does all of his stuff from New York. “He doesn’t even come here for meetings? The company picnic? Nothing?!” After that it just wasn’t fun anymore.

Actually it was very interesting, with a look behind the scenes at how they keep their multiple channels going around the globe 24 hours a day. The VIP tour was a smaller group and got to go onto the HLN set, into a working control room, and traipse through the main news center where people were working. Well… “working” may have been more like it. One woman was sitting at her computer buying shoes. Slow news day, I guess.

0219_cnn

Dinner was uninspiring. There were a couple of restaurants I had picked as possible contenders but wound up going across the street to place called Henry’s just because I was feeling lazy. It’s a comfort food type of restaurant and the meatloaf and mashed potatoes were fine but not fantastic so let’s take a mulligan on that.

Huh… I guess I was paying attention to the golf exhibit.

0220_meatloaf

Sunday was my Outsider Art Road Trip, which began at Constitution Lakes Park on the southeast side of town, home to the Doll’s Head Trail. The history of this place dates back to the late 1800s when the South River Brick Company was formed on 51 acres with a railroad right of way cutting more or less through the center of it. The excavation pits became Constitution Lakes years after the brick works had gone out of business when the area was flooded by the nearby South River. It became a county park in 2003 and this is where it gets strange.

A local contractor, Joel Slaton, had fallen in love with the park and hiked its grounds often. The trails cutting through the woods were littered with trash, some left by people, some by the floods, and some by history – bricks and clay tiles practically carpet the forest in places. Some of it was even dumped by the trains who would stop in this area to get rid of whatever they didn’t want.

In 2011, Slaton was out in the woods and came across a doll’s head, which he put into the nook of a tree just because. When he came back the next time the doll head was gone so he found another one and did the same thing. That, too, disappeared. Annoyed, he started using whatever trash he could find to create art installations along the trail. In the years since, the place has become hallowed ground for the offbeat and artistic. It’s fascinating, creepy, funny, and inspiring in a lot of ways. I only wish I could be this creative.

0302_dhtrail

0312_dh

0307_dh

Anyone can contribute to the installation – the only rule is that you have to use stuff found in the park. Any new items will be removed.

Important notes should you ever want to visit yourself… First, there is only one way to get there and despite what it may say online there are no signs until you are deep in the woods. Follow the paved path out of the parking lot and just keep going. Second, and this is important, take a Sharpie. Just trust me. Second, wear bug spray. While the trail may start as the aforementioned paved path through the scenic Georgia woods it becomes, at its worst, a mere suggestion of a way to get through the dense underbrush.

At the bottom of this post are tons of photos.

I was going to continue my outside art day with a restaurant called Folk Art but when I got there approximately nine thousand other people had gotten there before me and all of them were waiting to get in. I passed and went to the next stop, Junkman’s Daughter, a sort of thrift-shop meets Spencer Gifts oddity emporium. It was… eclectic. I got National Embarass Mints with Donald Trumps face on the tin.

0343_junkmans

0344_junkmans_sculpture

My plan B lunch spot was The Diesel Filling Station, a former gas station turned into a bar and restaurant. They are famous for their drinks including a Bloody Mary made with BAKON vodka and Zing-Zang and their burgers. I wasn’t ready to start drinking yet so I just went for the Diesel Burger, a half-pound of meat with spicy as hell (in a good way) BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, bacon, and an onion ring. Damn! I said that internally several times, partly because of the spicy as hell BBQ sauce but mostly because it was such a good burger. I am pleased that those 9,000 people redirected my route.

0345_dieselburger

Then it was a 90 mile jaunt northwest of Atlanta to the little town of Summerville and a place known as Paradise Gardens.

This oddity was once owned by Howard Finster, a Baptist minister who, at the age of 59 in 1976, claims to have had a celestial vision – an image appeared on his thumb. It was God, said Finster, who told him to 5,000 pieces of sacred art. By the time he died in 2001 he had created more than 46,000 works including paintings that are hanging in Atlanta’s High Museum and graced the covers of albums by REM and The Talking Heads. He was called the “Andy Warhol of the South.”

He turned this suburban bit of land into a holy grotto of sorts, with sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and peculiar landscaping all over the grounds and outbuildings, the biggest of which is the 16-sided, 40-foot tall “World Folk Art Church.” On the one hand, it’s a fascinating look into the mind of an artist – one who is driven to create despite a lack of training or particular skill. On the other hand, it’s a Baptist minister doing fiery rants about Sin, the fallibilty of man, and the divine nature of God, only as art instead of from a pulpit. I don’t mind art done as devotion – the Ave Maria Grotto that Mary and I visited on one of our Plucky Survivors trips, was a serene, beautiful, and contemplative example. But this was in your face, confrontational, and too angry for me to really appreciate.

0346_paradise

0347_paradise

0348_paradise

0351_paradise

Or perhaps it was the massive thunderstorm that came out of nowhere pretty much the moment I stepped outside onto the grounds. Yes, I was concerned about lightning and not from the storm.

0353_paradise

Back in Atlanta, I had to get my first REAL barbecue fix – the food trucks were fine but anything served out of a thing on wheels doesn’t really count. So I went to Daddy Z’s, a place that has gotten more “Best” and “#1″ accolades than just about anywhere else. I don’t know why I haven’t visited before – I’m always a little leery of a place that gets that kind of attention, thinking it will get spoiled by the inevitable crowds that follow. But Daddy Z’s is keeping it authentic, y’all, with a hickory and oak pit, slow cooking, with their own custom made sauce in mild or spicy.

I wanted everything so I ordered the sampler platter (I know, shut up). It came with two ribs, a quarter pound of pulled pork, a quarter pound of brisket, a side (macaroni and cheese in my case), Texas toast, and a half-dozen Que Wraps.

What’s a Que Wrap you may be asking? Well, see, you take pulled pork and you wrap it in dough and then you deep fry that son of a bitch. Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!! I’m in love. I may also be slipping into a food coma.

0354_daddyzs

0355_bbq

By the way, the pork and brisket are UNDER the ribs in the above picture.

All in all I did about 200 miles by car and probably about 2 miles by foot. Not bad.

Tomorrow is a Gambling Road trip as I go up to Harrah’s in Cherokee, North Carolina and then Tuesday is my Civil Rights Road Trip, where I going to go over to Selma and drive the route to Montgomery, stopping at the museums along the way.

As promised, more pics of the Doll’s Head Trail:

0301_dhpaved

0303_dh

0304_dh

0305_dh

0306_dh

0308_dh

0309_dh

0310_dh

0311_dh

0321_dhy

0320_dh

0319_dh

0318_dh

0317_dh

0316_dh

0315_dh

0314_dh

0313_dh

0322_dh

0323_dh

0324_dhy

0325_dh

0326_dh

0327_dh

0328_dh

0329_dh

0330_dh

0331_dh

0332_dh

0333_dh

0334_dh

0335_dh

0336_dh

0337_dh

0338_dh

0339_dh

0342_dh

0341_dh

0340_dh

Mardi Gras Day 5: Fat Tuesday

Fat Tuesday arrived and I skipped the big parades (I had enough beads, thank you very much) and headed over to the Bourbon Pub to watch the Bourbon Street Awards.  Hosted by bitchy drag queen Bianca Del Rio, the event puts a big stage on the street and judges give away thousands of dollars in prize money to vary categories like Best Costume, Best Drag,  Best Leather, Best Group, and Best in Show.

The streets were packed with costumed folks enjoying the festivities:

nola_06_01

I had bought the VIP package at the bar, which includes access to a balcony overlooking the stage but by the time I got there at 11:15am it was already full.  The street below was wall-to-wall people so  I wandered back downstairs and took up a position next to the bar where I could sort of, kind of see out through the windows.

That’s when I ran into Mathieu, a guy that I used to work with at a bar in West Hollywood 20 years ago.  He fills in at the Bourbon Pub on Halloween, Southern Decadence, and Mardi Gras and he immediately started shoving cocktails in front of me.  Figuring it was noon somewhere I started my day of drinking.  This is me and Mathieu and below is a picture of drink #5 or 6, which was somewhere around 2 in the afternoon.

nola_06_02

nola_06_04

I don’t know why I took a picture of the drink.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Although I could hear the whole thing, I couldn’t really see the awards happening just outside the nearby doors.  Plus, my photography skills were compromised by the alcohol, but I got a couple worth sharing…

nola_06_03

nola_06_05

nola_06_06

 

At some point I muttered “I need to get something to eat” and wandered off in search of food.  I’m not sure what time this was but it was later in the afternoon and I had been drinking for hours on an empty stomach because Mardi Gras.

The streets were still packed.

nola_06_07

nola_06_08

nola_06_10

 

I wandered around for awhile before finally settling on the Clover Grill, a tiny diner that has been in business since 1939.  Since they claim to have the best breakfasts in the Quarter, and because I was in the mood for drunk food, I ordered an omelet with ham, cheese, and onions plus hash browns and sourdough toast.  It was perfect but I don’t know if I would think that if I hadn’t been drinking for hours beforehand.

nola_06_09

 

From there I went to a couple of additional bars and then back to the Bourbon Pub where the free alcohol was still flowing (make friends with a bartender – just saying).

After that I went back to the casino and gambled and drank more until the wee hours of the morning.

And so ended by lusty tales of adventure with Mardi Gras.  The next day it was back to LA (surprisingly hangover free) and then back to work.

But I have beads… lots and lots of beads.

 

Mardi Gras Day 4: I’m Just Wild About Harry

So it’s freaking cold today or at least my definition of cold.  Something like 50 degrees with wind advisories because of the gusts up to 40 mph.  I know those of you sitting in the bone-chill bullshit that is the north and east are calling me a wimp, but I still say that those of us who were smart enough to move to sunny climes get to complain when it’s cold and those of you who stayed behind don’t.

The weather is important since I spent the vast majority of the day outside.  It started with a jaunt over to Cafe Beignet, a small shop on Royal Street in the Quarter, which isn’t the famous one that does beignets (that would be Cafe Du Monde) but is still quite popular as evidenced by the long, long line that stretched out the door.

I was there because it was the starting point for a walking tour I had booked (before I realized how cold it was going to be) but I was hungry so I stood in the ridiculously long line and eventually got a muffaletta sandwich and a glass of fresh lemonade.  The former usually includes some combination of ham, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, provolone, and olive spread on a bread that is close to the ciabatta family but not quite the same.  This one was mostly ham, which was fine with me, and quite tasty despite the fact that it was pre-made, wrapped in plastic, and served cold (I didn’t have time for a fresh, heated one).

nola_05_01

 

I managed to get down about half of it before the tour started, run by Historic New Orleans Tours, a company headed by Rob Florence who was friends with Mary.

My tour guide was a lovely, young French-Canadian woman whose name I have forgotten already (Claudette?  Claudine?  Celine?  The cold wind blew it out of my head).  She had only been living in New Orleans for a little more than a year but she knew her stuff backwards and forward.

We started with a general New Orleans history lesson in the courtyard of the court building then walked up to a house near Rampart that had been the home and business place of a woman of “ill repute.”  It’s here that we learned all about Storyville, the red light district just outside of the French Quarter, where prostitution and other vices were embraced until the early 1900s.  From there it was on to a St. Louis 1, one of the most famous cemeteries in New Orleans.  Interesting to note that you are no longer allowed to visit the cemeteries on your own – you have to go with a registered tour company.

This being the day before Fat Tuesday there were roughly nine billion people in the cemetery so getting to specific tombs was challenging (we heard about reputed voodoo priestess Marie Laveau but couldn’t get anywhere near her tomb).  Still, got a few pictures…

nola_05_02

 

Below is the Italian society group tomb.  According to our guide, the statue there was seen in the movie Easy Rider when Dennis Hopper climbed up on it and sat in its lap.  Since then, the Archdiocese has not allowed any filming in the cemetery.  Understandable.

nola_05_03

 

Below is the future resting place for Nicholas Cage.

nola_05_04

 

Needing warmth, I went back to the hotel and spent some time in the casino before heading for dinner.

I visited a cool restaurant called Legacy Kitchen, located in the Warehouse District just a few blocks from my hotel.  Nice space – vaguely industrial, fitting the neighborhood – and a menu of modern American food.  I started with the Cajun Queso; tortilla strips served with a bowl of spicy cheese and smoked tasso ham.  Yum…

nola_05_05

 

And then moved on to the fried chicken and waffles.  Double yum!

nola_05_06

That maple syrup was fantastic and it provided a perfect counter-balance to the Memphis hot chicken.  I was very happy with my choice.

The night wound up with the parade from the Orpheus Krewe, one established by Harry Connick Jr. in the 1990s.  I got a good view point right at the turn from Canal onto Tchoupitoulas and enjoyed the first few bands and floats, one carrying Harry Shearer.  Then about a block up from us, the parade stopped.  Then a fire truck came in.  And then two energy company trucks came in.  This is what it looked like from my vantage point for the better part of an hour…

nola_05_11Not terribly thrilling.  Apparently there was smoke coming out of one of the under-street vaults and they needed to make sure it wasn’t going to blow up while a Mardi Gras float was sitting on top of it.

Things finally got underway and I totally overdid it on the beads.  It’s like heroin – you just have to have more.

nola_05_19

One of the strands in there was thrown by Harry Connick Jr.

I finished off the night with a few cocktails, not knowing that I should have given my liver a break (insert dramatic foreshadowing here).

More parade pics…

nola_05_07

nola_05_08

nola_05_09

nola_05_10

nola_05_12

nola_05_13

nola_05_14

nola_05_15

nola_05_16

nola_05_17

nola_05_18

 

 

 

 

Mardi Gras Day 3: Part 1 – The Friendship Oak

I’m breaking the post about Day 3 into two parts because it would be too long otherwise and you might suffer from emotional whiplash.  Part 1 is a ruminative look back at a dear friendship while part 2 is about BBQ and boobs.  If you’re more interested in one or the other, feel free to skip around.

In order to understand what happened today I have to go back in time to look at a couple of snapshots from the past.

It was September 9, 2006 and my best friend Mary and I were on the last day of our inaugural Plucky Survivors See America road trip, a 2,500 mile journey that visited six states, went to the biggest ball of twine and the Britney Spears Museum, and saw me turn 40 in a depressing room with a suspicious stain on the wall in a Rodeway Inn in Hot Springs, Arkansas (just as I always dreamed it would happen).

We were winding our way to do a drive of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi back to New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina, and this is what we saw…

This entire stretch along the Gulf, from Ocean Springs, through Biloxi and Gulfport, down to Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian (some 40 miles or so), was all but wiped off the map by Katrina’s fury. We were at a disadvantage; foolishly, we hadn’t seen it in its pre-storm glory, but we could imagine.

Along the north side of Hwy 90 stood glorious Southern mansions, some dating back to the 1800’s, set amongst mighty live oaks. So it’s the best of the South, the most beautiful a beautiful region has to offer. And on the south side was the wide, wide Gulf of Mexico with warm waters lapping at white sand beaches. We looked at this, and said “Well, who wouldn’t want to live here?”

And now? The beaches are still there, but on the north side of the street, a broken driveway, a column or two, a ruin, but mostly….nothing. Mile after mile after mile of nothing.

Our final official stop of the trip was at the Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus. This live oak is 500 years old (it was a sapling when Columbus landed!), its trunk’s circumference is over 18 feet, and its branches spread out 156 feet.

Mary and I sat on a stone bench under the tree’s mighty limbs, the plaque at our feet reading: I am called the Friendship Oak.  Those who enter my shadow will remain friends through all their lifetime. 

IMG_2489

Mary died in February of 2010 – on Fat Tuesday, as it turned out.

On September 3rd,  2010, I came to New Orleans for my birthday.  It was the first year that I wasn’t doing a Plucky Survivors road trip with Mary, but I took a drive anyway.  I wrote this…

I turned 44 today.

That’s a mostly unremarkable occasion except for as it relates to many of the birthdays that came before it. I spent my 43rd birthday getting inked at the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. 42 came with a 250 mile journey into West Virginia to get a hotdog. My 41st I powered through nearly a pound of BBQ at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. And of course 40 involved breaking into an abandoned dinosaur attraction in Arkansas and the Biggest Ball of Twine in Branson, Missouri.

Birthdays 35 through 39 were spent singing karaoke and eating bacon wrapped hot dogs. Before that, well, who knows really? I’m getting old and the memory is not what it used to be. But I know on many, if not most of them, I was taken out to dinner, usually somewhere involving Italian or steak.

The through line on all of those birthdays was Mary. I spent them all with Mary.

I left New Orleans at around 10:30 this morning, driving east under crystal clear blue skies. Getting out of the French Quarter by car is no easy feat, but I managed to not run over a single pedestrian, which I think earns me some sort of Big Easy cred.

US 90 is called the Chef Menteur Highway, although why is apparently up for debate. French for “Chief Liar,” there are some who say the region got its name from the local Choctaw Indians who were annoyed at governor who reneged on a treaty. Others say that it has to do with the Mississippi itself, all crooked twists and turns.

But whatever, the road is two and four lanes that cut through the eastern part of Orleans Parish, then up a narrow sliver of land between Lake St. Catherine and Lake Pontchartrain. It crosses a bridge and then meanders through the extreme southeast corner of Louisiana before passing into Mississippi and eventually becoming the highway that runs right along the gulf coast to Biloxi.

To say this area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina is like saying said hurricane was a bad storm. In many areas Katrina literally scrubbed the earth clean, taking houses, buildings, trees, roads, bridges, and everything else and throwing it all a few miles inland. The devastation caused by the flooding in New Orleans was horrific; stomach-churning in a “this can’t be happening” kind of way. What happened east of New Orleans was unimaginable. It’s almost impossible to wrap your brain around it.

Five years and a few days later, it is still easy to see the legacy of Katrina. Some of the buildings that were left standing are still there, abandoned hulking ruins with the high-water marks still visible, like a dirty ring on a bathtub. In other places, especially as you move further east, there are driveways to nowhere – places where there used to be something but now all that is left are weeds filling the cracked pavement of parking lots.

But in between that are new beginnings. I didn’t drive more than a couple of miles at any given time without seeing some sort of construction going on. And there was much more that had been complete for years obviously. Shopping centers, restaurants, apartment buildings, houses, condominiums, schools, and more, outnumber the ruins these days.

And as you get out on that tiny slip of land between the lakes, dozens – hundreds – of new houses, all up on stilts 15 or 20 feet high, seeming to point toward the open waters saying “go ahead, I dare you.” I think, at first, that it’s crazy. There will be another storm someday and it seems foolhardy at best to want to come back here; to build here; to try to live here. But then I remember that I live in California where, at any moment, the “Big One” could come along and swallow the entirety of Los Angeles and I think, “Who am I to judge?”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s what we do, us humans. We get knocked down and we get back up again. Our homes get knocked down and we rebuild, hopefully stronger than before. And eventually, yes, there will be another storm, but we’ll rebuild after that one, too.

Mary and I always looked for themes, analogies, and metaphors for our Plucky Survivors trips. I had the better part of 70 miles worth of them driving along Highway 90.

It was just past noon when I turned off the highway into the Gulf Coast campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach. It is a metaphor in microcosm. Many of the buildings are still abandoned, their empty windows staring out almost plaintively, their foundations and walls still cracked and crumpled. But elsewhere there are brand spanking new buildings and rehabilitated old ones. The campus is starting its new chapter, slowly, but surely.

I parked and grabbed a few things from my backpack, and walked across the lawn until I got to the plaque.

“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through their lifetime no matter where fate may take them…”

There is more grass around the tree than when Mary and I visited as the final stop of our very first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. More grass and more leaves. The tree looked a little battered but basically intact a year after Katrina but now it looks alive, healthy, and ready for all of the students to come back to the school around it.

A few weeks ago, Mary’s sister Deborah (Plucky Passenger 2007!) sent me a photo she had printed out from the website. It was of Mary and me, sitting on the bench next to the plaque under the Friendship Oak. She had put it in a cow-print frame, of course.

I took the photo and the frame, along with the beads I was wearing on the day Mary died, and placed them gently into a crook at the base of the tree.

Then I opened the plastic baggie that Steve had given me and began to sprinkle some of Mary’s ashes.

There was a bit of a breeze blowing in from off the Gulf, and the ashes floated in it. The sunlight cutting through the leaves of the tree caught them and they seemed to sparkle, like they were infused with microscopic diamonds.

When it was done, I stood there, my eyes closed, listening to the air moving around me, through the tree and the grass. It whispered softly. Gently. It seemed to be saying, “It’s okay. You can go on now.” I didn’t even notice I was crying.

A car pulled up and two women got out, one in her fifties perhaps and the other a bit younger. They walked around the tree and started taking pictures of each other in front of it. I walked up to them, trying to wipe away my tears, and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of the both of them. They said yes, so I had them sit on the bench and framed the shot just so.

“Are you two friends,” I asked?

The older of the two hooked her arm in the other woman’s and pulled her close.

“Best friends,” she said.

I took the picture.

and then I walked back to my car and got back on the road.

So today, February 7, 2016, a couple of days before Fat Tuesday, nearly six years since Mary left, I took a drive again.

The highway is much the same, although of course 10 years later there are fewer scars of Katrina still visible.  Most of the buildings are newer and the bridges were washed out have been replaced.  And people are still saying “I dare you”…

nola_03_01

 

For miles there are the pristine white beaches on one side…

nola_03_03And newer homes on the other side where those stately mansions used to be…

nola_03_04And because they really want to tempt fate, someone went and put a shopping mall AND a giant Walmart along the highway…

nola_03_05

In some ways, it is like the hurricane never happened and yet you know it did.  You can still feel it in ways both big and small, from the huge new levees built along the highway to the occasional abandoned building, rotting in the sun a decade later.

The Oak is still there and seeing it was like seeing an old friend.  This is hallowed ground to me and I stood amidst the limbs and placed my hand on the trunk and stood in the place where I sprinkled Mary’s ashes.  I sat on the bench – now metal instead of stone – and gazed around the reborn campus, the previously gutted buildings now rebuilt but quiet on this beautiful, sunny, blue sky of a Sunday.

Those who know me know I’m not a religious man, but moments like that are the kinds that will give even the hardest of cynics a moment of divinity.

nola_03_06

nola_03_07

nola_03_08

nola_03_09

nola_03_11

nola_03_10

nola_03_12

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mardi Gras Day 2: Ava Gardner Was a Wise Woman

We begin today with a quote from legendary screen siren Ava Gardner.  She was quite a character and enjoyed carousing almost as much as she enjoyed men.  I read this – spoken affectionately about her friend Esther Williams – while having dinner in New Orleans and it seemed apt…

“A party isn’t a party without a drunken bitch lying in a pool of tears.”

So true… Now on to the recap:

In general, I’m not great at sleeping when I’m not in my own bed and don’t have a fan to provide white noise for blocking out ambient sound, so you can imagine what it’s like here in the Central Business District of New Orleans, which I have decided is the loudest place ever.  Trains horns, ship horns, car horns, sirens… lots of sirens… I’m going to have to drink more to get myself to sleep.

I started my day with a stroll through the Quarter, snapping a couple of pictures in Jackson Square along the way.

nola_02_01

nola_02_02

From there I went to the Voodoo Museum, a small, rickety place with a couple of rooms overstuffed with various photos, shrines, and ephemera.  I have been fascinated with voodoo for a long time – I even wrote a TV show about it – but there wasn’t much here to lock onto.  It was mostly just a bunch of stuff that didn’t have any context or meaning.  The good news is that it felt authentic – whether it was or not is beside the point.  Sure, it’s a tourist joint but it didn’t feel like one.

nola_02_03

nola_02_04

Then it was off to lunch at Yo Mama’s a bar that I remembered as having amazing burgers.  I was not disappointed… loaded with bacon and served with a baked potato also loaded with bacon (and sour cream, chives, butter, and cheese).   I’m pretty sure this picture is in the dictionary next to the word cholesterol.  Or heart attack maybe.  Whatever… Mardi Gras is French for “no calories.”

nola_02_05

In the afternoon it was another parade – the Krewe of Iris, this time. It started with this, which I have decided is the worst parade float ever…

nola_02_06

 

Note the woolen cap and scarf and heavy coat on the person in front of me.  Yes, it is that cold.

Lots of pictures down below but here are the throws I got – some good ones including beads with purple babies and a really nice one with an Iris badge and more:

nola_02_13

I had hoped to catch the Endymion parade, which I’m told is a really spectacular one, but again, the idea of starting on time seems to be something that people look at and then shrug at.  So by the time it was getting down to the area where I could’ve gone to see it, it was time for me to head off to dinner.

Oh dinner… Commander’s Palace, widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world.  I had a table overlooking the back yard garden….

nola_02_14

They sent out an amuse bouche of a goat cheese and onion tart on a small piece of garlic ciabatta bread.  I was officially amused – seriously, the flavor packed into that little two bite teaser was insane.  This is how you know you’re at a place where the chef knows their way around a kitchen.

I got the chicken and andouille gumbo, which was spicy as a hell but amazing…

nola_02_15

Then the filet, topped with mushrooms and onions on a bed of the creamiest whipped potatoes in the history of the world.  The steak was perfect – cooked expertly, juicy, and tender.

nola_02_16

By the way, this is one of those “pictures don’t do it justice” kind of things.  It looks kinda gross but trust me it was fantastic.

Then I capped it off with the strawberry shortcake and all I can say is that despite the fact that I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to eat very much of it after that huge meal, I managed to devour at least 75% of it. This is what it looked like before I dug in…

nola_02_17

I waddled back to the room and then finished my night off with more alcohol at a local bar, because I was hoping to run into that drunken bitch making it a party.  I wasn’t disappointed.   This is New Orleans after all.

Parade pics – note the Riding Elvi!

nola_02_12

nola_02_11

nola_02_09

nola_02_10

nola_02_08

nola_02_07

 

Mardi Gras Day 1: The Things People Do For Beads

I’m not sure what made me decide Mardi Gras was a good idea.  Perhaps it was the free hotel and free airplane ticket from Harrah’s.  Well, free is probably not entirely accurate since they give me stuff like this because of how much money I waste in their casinos.  But still, it was “free” and I’ve never been to Mardi Gras and I’m turning 50 this year and I’m apparently trying to prove something to myself and there would be free alcohol at various places and if you do that complicated little bit of math, it adds up to Laissez les bon temps roulez.

Harrah’s New Orleans is fine – probably on par with, if not a little nicer, than the Harrah’s in Las Vegas.  Rooms are generously proportioned, clean (although dusting doesn’t appear to be housekeeping’s strong suit), and about as bland as you can.    The only strong demerit I can give them is that the hallway on my floor smells like someone was murdered out there and the killer used 10 gallons of bleach to cover up the crime.  It was so astringent that it made my eyes water.  The other floors don’t smell like that (had to go find a vending machine) so not sure if the murder theory is correct or not but something happened that required some heavy duty cleaning.

I have a view of the Mighty Mississippi, although it’s hard to tell at night.

nola_01_01

I got in about 7:30 and immediately downloaded WWL’s Parade Tracker app.  The local CBS station puts a car at the head of every single parade so you can see exactly where it is.  With dozens of them happening over the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, and a generally casual relationship with the concept of starting on time, an app like this is a must.

I wandered out into the streets around the Central Business District, which was thick with revelers although not as many as expected.  There was plenty of room along the parade route to get up to the barricades.

With many blocks between the Hermes Krewe parade and me, I decided to find something to eat.  Choices were limited and I was hungry and desperate so I kinda failed by walking into the first thing that said “Po’Boys” – a loud joint called Serio’s.  I ordered a roast beef and they told me to pick it up at the end of the counter when they called my name.

“But you didn’t ask my name,” I said politely.

“Oh,” the cashier said handing me a receipt, “Well now you’re Brent ‘cuz that’s what I put on the ticket.”

Okay.  Brent it is.  Brent’s Roast Beef was not great, for the record.

nola_01_02

Then the parade, with some colorful floats and lots of bead tosses.  I got a few but wasn’t as aggressive as I could have been.  It’s pretty cut throat out there.  People will cut a bitch for beads.   Pics of the parade at the end, but here are my throws…

nola_01_08

After I had my fill of the noise and fury and the cold (it’s down to the low 40s at night and only 50s during the day), I made my way down the quiet, calm, respectable little road known as Bourbon Street.  Mind you this was about 9:00 on Friday night, so it hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

nola_01_09

It’s nothing but loud, drunk people on the street screaming at the other loud drunk people on balconies overlooking the street who are yelling “show us your <insert body part of choice here>!”  And of course, people did.  I saw more bare breasts in 20 minutes on Bourbon Street than I have seen in 20 years of reviewing Las Vegas showgirl productions.

But I finally made it to the far end of Bourbon where I got VIP passes to a nightclub, the Bourbon Pub and Parade.  It came with free drinks so I had a few and got this picture from the balcony.

nola_01_10

Saturday it’s going to be a little bit of sightseeing, some more parades, and some much better food including dinner at Commander’s Palace.

As promised… parade photos…

nola_01_03

nola_01_04

nola_01_05

nola_01_06

nola_01_07

Southern Fried Road Trip Day 9: Aiigh! Zombies!!

I really didn’t want to leave Savannah this morning.  I was very cranky about the whole idea of it.  But I have decided that I will, at some point, make this place (at least part-time) home and so that goal firmly entrenched, I was able to point the car west.  But first, one last stop to pat a turtle…

150905_01_ricktroup

When you read my book, you will understand the significance of that…

The theme for my last full day of vacation was back roads and zombies.  Instead of taking the interstate to Macon, I took a series of two-lane highways through towns like Statesboro, Portal, Twin City, Swainsboro, Wrightsville, and Toomsboro.  None of them are terribly exciting, but they were much more colorful and interesting to cruise through than a constant blur of trees rushing by at 80mph.

I did see a notice of interesting roadside oddities including Randy’s Pickin’ Parlor in Bloomingdale, Georgia – a guitar shop and live music venue that looks like run down shack set back from the highway.  I kind of wished there was a show going on so I’d have an excuse to stop.

The other was in tiny Portal, Georgia, where they have a big sign advertising the upcoming Turpentine Festival.  Yes, turpentine.  And it’s the 34th annual, I have just found out with Google’s help.  It’s something about going back to yesteryear and learning the art of turpentining.  Did you know there was an art to turpentining?  I certainly didn’t.  And I absolutely didn’t know that it was festival worth.  October 3, 2015 – parade, fair, food, entertainment, and a street dance.  Mark your calendars.

Then it was the day’s main attraction – a tour of iconic places that were used as settings for The Walking Dead.  Last year, I got a picture of Terminus…

IMG_1055

And this year, I got the highway where the survivors are stuck at the beginning of Season 2 (where Sophia went missing)…

150905_02_twdroad

I tried to get a picture of the prison but it’s a working studio where they film TWD and other shows so you can’t get anywhere near it.  Ditto Father Gabriel’s church, which is on the studio grounds and Hershel’s farm, which is a private residence guarded by very tall fences and sternly worded signs.

So it was on to Woodbury!!

150905_03_twdwoodbury

150905_04_twdwoodbury

The town’s real name is Senoia, Georgia, about 45 south of Atlanta.  The main street, where they shot the bulk of the scenes that took place in the Governor’s little corner of the world, is thriving with antique stores, restaurants, candy shops, and more, with dozens of people wandering around, taking pictures, and buying stuff.

The town is the main headquarters for TWD exterior filming.  The prison/studios are about a mile away and the Alexandria Safe Zone is about two blocks off of the Woodbury main street.  Another one you can’t get close to but you can see the metal fence in this shot…

150905_05_twdalexandria

They also have an official TWD store, which must have 30 people in it when I was there (the picture doesn’t do the crowd justice)…

150905_06_twdstore

I asked one of the locals, “Was TWD the best thing that ever happened to this town?”  She sort of shrugged and said, “It’s divided.  Some people love it because the town was kind dying before all this happened, but others are a little tired of the tourists and the traffic and the filming disrupting their lives.”  Understandable.

So of course I had to buy some TWD swag.  Mark Rehn… the mouse pad is for you…

150905_07_twdswag

Then it was on to Atlanta, where I am safely ensconced in a terribly boring Hampton Inn that was only thing I could find that was well-located and somewhat reasonably priced.  It’s no Marshall House – instead of a veranda with a rocking chair overlooking a tree-lined street I have a window looking at a parking lot and the back of a Kroger’s – but it’s fine.  No, really.

One last dinner… there’s a BBQ place right next door called Lovies, so I got me some pulled pork and mac and cheese.  It’s not bad – not the best I’ve eaten on the trip – but overall I’d give it a solid B+.

150905_08_lovies

I fly home tomorrow and then start the process of sorting through the nine bajillion photos I took.  I should have my author photo proofs sometime early next week and then it’s the mad dash to get the book ready for a late October or early November release.

I hope you enjoyed reading along with my little adventure.  I certainly enjoyed doing it!