Greek Gods, Ghost Towns, and a Coke Bottle Sky: Crossing America in Four Too-Swift Days
Several times a year, I drive between New Orleans and Michigan, accompanied by a pair of cats, a trunkful of art supplies, and---if I'm lucky---a human willing to tolerate the above. No two routes are the same and each journey is defined by the creatures it is shared with. As captain of the ship, my rules are simple:
Expressways are avoided.
Brakes are liberally applied.
Chain restaurants are lava.
Prepare to sleep somewhere weird.
In January, Sister and I set off to accomplish the old journey in a new way. The following itinerary may be completed in a brisk four days, though it will leave you wishing to linger longer in the corners and byways of this strange little country.
Day 1 Kalamazoo, Michigan >>> Lexington, Kentucky (7+ hour drive)
Our sugar tank fueled by Sweetwater's Donuts we passed swiftly into Amish country, slowing to a crawl behind less swiftly moving buggies. Welcome to Shipshewana, Indiana, beloved for its handmade quilts, soft pretzels, and bike trail. Out of "Shipse," we passed lines of flapping laundry and stomping horses, and on into Columbia City, where lunch awaited us at the Pickles Café, followed by a wander and an eyeful of the old Whitley County Jail, now operating as a popular haunted attraction. It's something to marvel at, that the most beautiful building in town was the jail. If anyone is willing to toss me in there and throw away the key, I'd be willing to marvel at it for a lifetime. Before leaving town, we stopped at Brewha Coffee House, bounteous in caffeine options and coziness, though the resident geocache remained elusive.
Some ways down the road, we halted to pay respects to the army of colorful stone lions patrolling Rushville, Indiana. And there, another opportunity for coffee in the cheerily checkered Mocha Moose Coffee & Antiques, where we were greeted by a friendly barista and local artist restocking her wares.
We arrived in Lexington too late to do anything but hunt for food and settle into our Airbnb, which proved to be my all-time favorite Airbnb find of all time: a 100-year old fisherman's cabin nestled in the hills of Kentucky. I've found that, in terms of road tripping, it's hard to strike out in the Bluegrass State, and I usually make a point of booking at least one night of any cross country journey there, the towns of Paducah and Bardstown being exceptionally snug harbors. I can't say I've ever passed an uneventful night in Bardstown. On one occasion, my mom and I spent the night in its jail. On another, my brother and I closed down a bar with two of the locals, sharing deli sandwiches and getting the inside scoop on a local murder case before wandering home through 300-year old Pioneer Cemetery. If, over the course of your road trip, you do not hear a good murder story from locals---or end up entangled in one---then you're probably doing it wrong.
Day 2 Lexington, Kentucky >>> Atlanta, Georgia (7+ hour drive)
With regret, we left our fisherman's cottage and made our way to Atlanta where a cozy RV awaited in the backyard of our Stone Mountain hosts' suburban property. The RV's walls had been helpfully covered with jokes and friendly instructions on everything from turning on the heated blanket to successfully pulling off a toilet visit, and its Welcome Book introduced us not only to the local sites, but also to the personalities of the RV's adjacent chicken coop. Welcome to Airbnb at its finest.
There's more to be done and seen in Atlanta than can be contained in a measly paragraph (or three), but here is a start, boiled down after several years of visiting Sister during her grad school tenure at Emory. Begin the day with coffee on the Chattahoochee, tucked away in the gated Walton Apartment Community (you'll need a car for access, but to be fair, this applies to most of Atlanta). Take a hike across the suspension bridge and trails of Emory's Lullwater Preserve., where the ruins of an octagonal powerhouse seem to have leaped straight off the pages of a fairy tale. Travel diverse inroads to the city's history by visiting the Swan House, Margaret Mitchell House, and Martin Luther King Birth Home.
For nighttime shenanigans, a gal's got options. Stroll downtown Decatur and take in its local-art-filled shops before dinner and brews at Twain's, wallpapered in pages of Samuel Clemens cheeky text. Pass an evening under the stars at the Starlight Six Drive In. Or pass an evening under the stars at the Fox Theater, designed in the 1920s to look like an open Arabian courtyard. Once described by a local newspaper as having a "picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination," the Fox now hosts traveling Broadway shows, one of which transported the Michigan gals "way down Hadestown."
Day 3 Atlanta, Georgia >>> Selma, Alabama (4+ hour drive)
From Atlanta on through to Montgomery and Selma, you're on a trail steeped in US civil rights history. In Montgomery, the site of Rosa Park's arrest and Martin Luther King's church are just two of many worthy stops. The US Civil Rights Trail offers a more comprehensive list, along with an interactive introduction to the history of the movement. Before you depart Montgomery, refuel with a home-brewed chai at Prevail Coffee. Follow in reverse the footsteps of the famous Selma to Montgomery march, along its designated Historic Trail, US Route 80. As you go, the Eye on Travel Podcast podcast makes for an enlightening listen, featuring interviews with a variety of early Civil Rights leaders contemplating the legacy of their involvement in Bloody Sunday. Arriving to Selma, the beauty of sunset hitting the Edmund Pettus Bridge belies its sad history.
Selma is home to the largest historic district in the state, and though parts of it are in need of a polish, downtown Selma (and Alabama at large) is a jewel box of historic architecture. As you peer through dusty window panes into the downtown's gloriously unrenovated shop interiors, you can't help think that with the right polish (re: investors with heavy pockets + tourists), she'd take her place beside Savannah and New Orleans. This traveler is apparently not the first to think so, and renaissance efforts are ongoing, led in part by new owners of the historic St. James Hotel. Receiving weary travelers since 1837, the St. James is one of the oldest surviving antebellum riverfront hotels. You'll have to report back to me on the state of its innards, as I've only ever peered longingly at it from the sidewalk.
Happily, Selma offers cats and humans a number of opportunities to sleep in historic digs. On my first visit to Selma, I stayed in the lovingly refurbished Woolworth Lofts (pictured below). Planted in the middle of historic downtown, just a short walk from the river, you can choose from several apartments, depending on cat and cat lady needs. If you fancy sleeping in a pecan grove, I can also vouch for the delicious coziness of this Airbnb cottage a short drive from the downtown, and worlds away from the bustle of its busy road, drawn behind a veil of trees. On my next visit, you can bet your bridge tender's house I'll be staying here.
Don't skip dinner at the historic Tally-Ho restaurant because you'll need all the energy you can get for a full day of hiking one of my favorite corners of the south, the nearby ghost town of Old Cahawba. Though now more "ghost" than "town," Old Cahawba has been many things: a Confederate prison camp, political center of a coastal mound building civilization, thriving antebellum river town, and the former Alabama state capitol. Mind where you step in the old cemeteries, where those who never left town sleep entwined in heavy tree roots. Also, mind the spiders, big as your paw, strung between trees and waiting to snag visitors walking with their noses pressed to screens.
Day 4 Selma, Alabama >>> New Orleans, Louisiana (6+ hour drive)
The final leg of this journey lends itself to contemplation of what in the Hadestown kind of country am I living in, where one might begin in the tracks of a buggy wheel and end tearing into a donut spelled "beignet," criss crossing towns where prisoners live in palaces, old ladies shake it for dollars, and Orpheus sings bluesy American rhythms, America's musical architecture, it turns out, being perfectly suited to ancient laments. The gaudy fullness of this country is why, whenever I witness the tendency among fellow Americans towards national self denigration, I feel a twinge of pity for them, for what is to my eyes so obviously an impoverished point of view. We're tragic and we're hopeful and maybe we're a little overeager with our towns' murder mysteries. But a country where even the chickens are friendly can't be all bad. Wherever you go, you see evidence that we're revising, reinventing, and renaissancing ourselves.
Ralph Ellison wrote that “the persistent drive to define human hope in the United States….[is] not through avoiding those aspects of reality which were brutal and dehumanizing, but taking that too as part of the given scene, and then determining to go beyond it. Not to ignore it, not to pretend that it didn’t exist, but to humanize it, to take it in, to make it connect with other aspects of living-with the dream, with the sounds of the future and the sounds of hope.”
Or as Orpheus might put it,
"To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now"
As rural traffic zooms past my cat-laden jalopy, I mull over a question put to the sisters by their Rushville barista: "What's the trick for not getting stuck in one place?" As someone who frequently feels stuck, it's a question that I don't feel all that qualified to answer. I suspect that my truthiest answer would be the least satisfactory: that it's not always a matter of how far we can fling ourselves. In all our days, in all of our towns, there is always the detour to be taken, and possibilities contained within it. The slighter recalibration requires a different bravery than presenting a passport. It's as simple as the door we've passed a thousand times, now open and beckoning. There's a curiously persistent urge in the human heart to pack up our things and fling ourselves from what is comfortable and known, onto new countries and stages, new vantage points from which to regard our fellow animals, discovering things both familiar and new: a coke bottle sky of a thousand thousand mirrors, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves.
They've all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America
“...it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.”
Road Trip Checklist: