Deep South Road Trip

Our Deep South road trip October 2006. 

Cities visited: Memphis, Tuscaloosa and rural Alabama, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City. Day visits in Little Rock and Dallas.

Length: 10 days. Miles driven: 3,200. Research: Lonely Planet USA Book for city maps and address. Also printed some info from WikiTravel, and of course my friend Google for everything else.

Audiobooks listened to: Lost Lake and The Party Cloudy Patriot. Did you know Ipods have a feature that will play audiobooks at a slightly faster speed?

Route: From Denver I-70 to I-135 in Kansas, then south through Wichita. Oklahoma 412 through Tulsa, then I-40 through Little Rock to Memphis. From Memphis highway 78 to Alabama highway 43 to Tuscaloosa. From Tuscaloosa I-59 and I-10 to New Orleans. From New Orleans I-10 west to I-49, then I-20 to Dallas, and north on I-35 to Oklahoma City, then north through Kansas, and I-70 west to Denver.

It’s been a few years since I’ve done a long road trip. Or at least an original one that didn’t involve driving between Denver, L.A., or the midwest. In the west large cities are geographically isolated, so one usually opts to travel by flying, limiting road trips to more recreational ventures like camping or skiing, or visits to smaller town like Santa Fe or Durango.

I started writing this Saturday evening, 50 miles outside the Colorado border, (from the passenger seat).

Two days prior we were in the steamy climate of Louisiana, and now after departing Oklahoma City we’ve battled rain and harsh cold winds on the open prairies. But now, as if to welcome us home, the sky is a reddish burnt orange, and as usual in October the air is dry and crisp.

Our final meal of the trip was at Montana Mikes in Colby, Kansas, a surprisingly good family steakhouse chain a half mile north of the interstate. The last few hours of a road trip usually seem to be the longest, brought on by the anticipation of sleeping in your own bed, even if it takes well into the night to get there. A dollar fifty for another cup of coffee seems much more logical than a motel room when you’re only 200 miles from home.

On various travel websites I read a question frequently asked by non-Americans and Americans alike is the often negative toned question “Why don’t Americans travel outside the U.S.? Of course travel abroad whether long or short is a valuable experience if one makes it so, and Americans who venture beyond the beaches of Mexico can reap rich rewards in life experience, culture, and recreational adventures. But my answer to that question is to simply view the scale of the United States: Our country is an enormous expanse of land, people, and backgrounds. Within it contain thousands of pockets of variety and culture. If you venture deep into the U.S., beyond the interstates and large destination cities, you’ll find almost anything you can imagine.

For someone living in a manageable and friendly city like Omaha or Wichita a trip to Chicago or San Francisco has all the culture and worldliness as Paris or Tokyo. Conversely someone who makes their life in a hectic urban center can find warmth and solace in a small mountain town or a ranch in the wilderness. So in defense of the “insular American”, there’s a great feeling about connecting with your own land, especially diving into a completely opposite atmosphere from which you normally live and work. In just ten days of driving through the central plains and Mississippi River areas of the U.S. we saw the French settlements of New Orleans, examined Civil War life on the Mississippi River, and absorbed the spirit of a small college town. Within a days drive we were lost in county roads amid Alabama’s rural woods with seemingly more churches than houses. Then a few hours later surrounded by adult vices and non-stop partying in New Orleans.

An American roadtrip is a paradoxical experience: Miles and miles of desolation and endless stretches of interstate, with only the occasional truck stop for company. Then you’re swallowed up by huge sprawling cities with aggravating traffic, searching out fancy hotels and trendy bars to balance out the 20 billboards beckoning you to the Largest Prairie Dog Farm.

Eschewing the major interstate routes for the U.S. and state highways can be of great interest. About every 15 to 30 miles you’ll pass through the “Main Street” of a town – passing parks, small restaurants, and an old downtown with angled parking in front of the shops. Some main streets are bustling with activity, others are past their prime and struggling. But a road trip isn’t complete with a visit to at least one “Small town America”. The interstates cover large distances fastest, and to reach a destination quickly they’re the most efficient. The sacrifice is a monotonous landscape of freeway and seeing little character aside from the ubiquitous chain restaurants and motels that hug the off ramps. The smart traveler knows the best places for food and lodging lie a mile or two into the above mentioned towns. If driving our speedy interstates it’s worth the extra few minutes to stray from the off-ramp, even if just for lunch or to take a walk.

All in all a great trip. Planned well, the frequent rain gave a sultry atmosphere to New Orleans, and no problems save for one flat tire in the French Quarter.

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