Published September 03. 2012 4:00PM Updated September 17. 2012 3:53PM
I picked the perfect time to visit family in the south: August, on the heels of a hurricane.
This was our second visit to the Lonestar Star, where we are still graciously received at my husband's pretty-much kin (he grew up with these folks when they lived in Connecticut for several years), who live just west of Fort Worth. We'd had such a great time when we visited a few years back — days lolling around a ranch, eating BBQ and Tex-Mex, and marveling at the landscape — that we'd been threatening to return ever since.
As bona fide mad-people, we made the trip by car (the last time, too; some people never learn), refueled with notions of seeing the country, digging the culture, and eating as much BBQ as possible. Besides, we have a Prius.
Naturally, having been holed up in CT for way too long, I experienced the usual pre-trip provincial-paranoid litany of reasons why we should stay home like good hobbits: the dog would surely perish without us (he didn't; he played with his best friend and dog cousin the whole time); the house would burn down (it didn't); the lack of activity on the homefront would send a Bat-signal of sorts to every ne'er do well in the area to come and relieve us of our valuables and our cats (all of which my sister came to babysit).
I think I chilled out for good once we crossed the Mason-Dixon line and the mountains of Virginia rolled out like nature's pop-up book. With all those signs beckoning us to buy fireworks, eat at Cracker Barrel (not recommended), and take in the sights (caverns, a sheepskin outlet, the world's largest cedar rocking chair!) shook me from my separation-anxiety gloom and replaced it with my kooky love of observing my fellow man in his natural habitats. And our country offers several of those habitats: desert, hill country, bayou, city, small town and all the trailer parks in between.
And they're awesome. Here's some notes from my travels from Connecticut to Texas and back again.
1. Southern hospitality is real, starting with our hosts, who put us up for a few days at their ranch and let us, once again, loll around, marvel at beauty of their acreage, and drink endless espressos from their home machine, which can compete with any Starbucks rig. They are graciousness personified.
But you also find that hospitality in unexpected places like gas stations and welcome centers.
True story: at the Mississippi welcome center, one of the ladies who works there, after literally welcoming me to the state, offered me coffee, water, key lime pie and king cake. A welcome center in the Atchafalaya region of Louisiana was equally pleasant: the building was all polished floors and cleanliness, and the lady there really didn't want us to leave without having some coffee and water.
I think CT might take a few pages from THAT book.
PS. The south is the only place where I'm cool with being called "ma'am" because I'm assured it's said in the spirit of respect. Up here, I'm convinced it's a 20-somethings way of being smug.
2. Memphis is fabulous. Within two minutes of setting foot on Beale St., we declared Memphis our new home. If it wasn't so hot, and if we didn't have to drive, we'd have been determined to have a beer at every club on the strip in celebration of the city's greatness. We'd stopped in Memphis last trek, and encountered the best BBQ of that trip at a little hole in the wall not too far from Graceland. We took another route this time, and landed on Beale St., a music-filled, café-populated strip of blues and BBQ. Everyone we met there was very, very nice and, once again, the BBQ we had at Blues Café is a contender for the best I've had—including samplings in Texas. Must stop shop: A. Schwab Dry Goods, where we found Elvis-flavored peanut butter and banana flavored taffy as a host gift, a chocolate guitar for a birthday gift, and the world's coolest T-shirts. Need voodoo supplies? Look no further.
Per wikipedia:" A. Schwab dry goods store is the only remaining original business on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. A family owned store, their motto is 'If you can't find it at A. Schwab, you're probably better off without it!'"
3. It's really, really hot in Texas. My hostess in Texas assured me we were in the cooler summer season, with temps only in the low 90s. She bemoaned the humidity, which we hardly noticed. Humidity in Texas means your skin won't dry out as quickly once you go outdoors vs humidity here, where it leaves your skin covered in sweat-sunscreen-slime (little did I know what New Orleans would be like). One begins to feel like a wuss when one sees the natives wearing jeans and long-sleeves with nary a sweat bead visible. PS. Those hats? It ain't fashion entirely: it's how you survive in that dry, bright, relentless sun. Never, ever go to Texas without a hat of some sort. Luckily, there's many places around where you can grab a cowboy hat if you'd rather do as the Romans do.
4. Respect nature, and try not to freak out about the scorpions. Up north, we've become accustomed to nature not trying to kill us terribly often. Not true in Texas, where poisonous snakes, ambitious fire ants, and scorpions abound. (On night 1, a little non-deadly scorpion popped up out of the drain to say hi. After that, one must actively put the memory out of one's mind.) The wild pigs are pretty tough customers, too. If you hang in the country – which you should, because it's beautiful – remind yourself that coyotes are the least of your worries deep in the heart of Texas.
5. San Antonio is awesome. We took the drive from the Fort Worth area down highway 281 (recommended vs the interstate) into San Antonio, about five hours or so. San Antonio became our oasis and charmed the pants right off of us. From the Alamo, Market Square and the Riverwalk to its spectacularly friendly people, good food, and amazing cleanliness, San Antonio is well worth the trip. We stayed at the Crockett Hotel, named for, of course, Alamo hero Davy Crockett.
6. If the throng of people walking around is any indicator, New Orleans is doing just fine after Hurricane Isaac. All of which isn't to say that Isaac didn't leave a huge mess and a lot of grief in its wake; indeed, we weren't sure about our plan to start heading east by way of NOLA, since reports indicated a pretty messy aftermath in the Gulf Coast region. I'm pretty sure we got the last room in Lafayette, La. (not recommended) as hotels were booked solid from Baton Rouge westward, filled by folks displaced from their flooded homes and/or without power. We even encountered a couple in San Antonio who fled their wet residence in favor of some Texas heat.
Heading into NOLA on I-10, more evidence of Isaac gave us pause: flooded, inaccessible exit ramps and local radio reports of thousands still without power (and really, really, really cheesed at the energy company) and unable to get into their homes. But the sun was shining, and the ramps into the French Quarter were open, so we pressed on and I'm so very glad we did. It was my first trip to the Crescent City, and I'm thrilled to have discovered it's as fabulous as everyone says.
With only a few hours to hang, we got right down to business: brunch at Café Du Monde. As we approached the famed Decatur St. coffee house, we could hear a brass band at work right outside the café. We ate our beignets and drank our perfect café au laits on the patio to hear the rest of their act. The singer doubled on trombone and he was mighty good at both.
The rest of our tour consisted of shopping for kitsch (guess who bought a voodoo doll?), walking the French Quarter (best sign on a Bourbon St. bar: "Come in and wait out the storm with us. We never close."), lunching at the Gumbo Shop (recommended), and a drive through the Garden District (also recommended). It was a short trip, but now we've got a long NOLA to-do list for our next visit (includes drinks at Lafitte's).
I also learned that we don't know from humidity up here. I've never been so hot and sticky than I was in New Orleans. Somehow, even that's cool.
On the way out, we listened to more AM radio and heard officials issue a mandatory evacuation to residents of parts of nearby St. Tammany Parish, a strange, poignant juxtaposition to the levity in the city.
7. Driving north begins to officially suck once you cross into Pennsylvania—oddly, very close to the Mason-Dixon line). I have never witnessed such dramatic douchery as I did crossing through Pa. just yesterday—Massachusetts drivers have nothing on these peeps. Take caution.
Now a good thing about Pa. before I get yelled at by the Keystone State Proud: great fireworks, pretty country, the Amish seem cool.
Got a soft spot for the South? Recommendations for visitors to NOLA? Did you wrestle a bayou 'gator and live to tell the tale? Share your stories in the comments, y'all.