Real road-tripping: Southern swing

Making small-talk at a friend’s wedding in Waco, Texas, after talking about my life in South Dakota, I was more than once asked the same question: “So when did your flight come in?”

confederatecircle It didn’t, I’d reply. I drove the 950 miles down to Texas. And things were just getting started.

Every few years I like to hop in the car and put some mileage on it, seeing as many places as possible on a moderately circuitous route between home and some distant point. The road trip is, for those with more time than money (but a decent amount of each) the ideal way to travel. Flying is good to see a single destination, but driving lets you see things all along the way, too.

So four years ago a friend and I drove to Arizona in March, seeing a half-dozen Spring Training baseball games along with the Grand Canyon and various sites in between. Two years ago I went solo, visiting a friend in Denver, a volcano in New Mexico, a canyon in West Texas and relatives in San Antonio. Last month I retraced some of that — nearly 750 miles were duplicated, the north-south swing from South Dakota to Texas. But after attending the central Texas wedding that was the primary purpose of the trip, I veered off into new territory.

Also new this year: I wasn’t alone. When spending the better part of two weeks driving, it helps to have someone to share the wheel with. Fortunately, coming along with me for most of the ride was my girlfriend, Allison, my partner-in-banter for hours of driving, my guest at the wedding and my host for a surprise visit to her family’s home in northern Louisiana:

Allison and I in front of her library in West Monroe, La. Allison and I in front of her library in West Monroe, La.

But that doesn’t come until a bit later.

Day 1: Sioux Falls, SD, to Omaha, NE (186 miles, 3 hours)

I started out with an evening drive after getting off work down to Omaha, where my college roommate Ian (and 2009 road-trip companion) put me up for a night. I crashed on his futon after getting roundly schooled in a series of Mario Kart heats.

Day 2: Omaha to Oklahoma City, OK (456 miles, 7 hours)

After a greasy-spoon diner breakfast in Omaha, the trip began in earnest. The morning drive to Kansas City was uneventful except very near the end, when I came over a hill to find that a truck had apparently just flipped around a too-tight curve (speed limit down to 55 mph from 70!). Traffic was at a standstill, just starting to pile up. Given where I came to a halt, I decided to engage in a bit of judicious lawbreaking and drove the wrong way up an onramp to detour around the blockage.

Lunch involved Kansas City BBQ, which was pretty good even though barbecue is not my favorite cuisine. Then it was off for the long, flat, quiet drive across Kansas and Oklahoma to OKC.

Day 3: Oklahoma City to Waco, TX (288 miles, 5 hours)

The actual drive to Waco, the site of my friend Abby’s wedding, is supposed to be around four hours. But that best-case scenario doesn’t reckon with Dallas traffic and road construction, a giant headache even without driving through the center of the city. (It was even worse northbound.) Still, we got there in plenty of time for the opening festivities of the wedding weekend: the rehearsal dinner at a ranch outside of the city.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial.

All that came after an unplanned visit to the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, which happened to be across the street from where I parked for breakfast. It was impressive and somber, and I’m glad I stopped.

I post that photo here mostly because somehow, I didn’t take any photos at the rehearsal dinner! You can view some pictures from the wedding photographer here, though neither Allison nor I are in any of them.

Anyway, it was a fun time in pleasant surroundings. I met a bunch of college classmates again for the first time in six years, played soccer out on the lawn with Abby’s new stepson, and got just inebriated enough to make a toast. (It was short and non-embarassing, I think.) There were buses back to the hotel, though not buses with good ventilation and I surprised everyone by managing to fall asleep in the uncomfortable heat.

Day 4: Wedding in Waco

Again, my inner photographer appears to have not yet showed up for this vacation, for which I apologize. Most of the day was pretty quiet — sleeping in, seeing a bit of Waco, a trip to the drug store to get cough medicine for Allison’s unfortunately timed respiratory infection, then getting ready for the wedding. You’ll have to take my word for it that we looked snazzy, because you know.

The newly married Abby and Sam dance the Hora, or traditional Jewish wedding chair dance. (Right: The newly married Abby and Sam dance the Hora, or traditional Jewish wedding chair dance.)

The ceremony itself was Jewish, a mixture of traditional rituals and modern sensibilities, helpfully narrated in both English and Hebrew by the rabbi. (Unfortunately the prime seats I snagged ended up being not so prime when it turned out the wedding party stood in between us and the couple.) The dinner was very fancy, and tasty, though the careful seating arrangements were a bit blunted by the sheer volume in the room that made conversation difficult with anyone but one’s immediate neighbors.

To the certain shock of anyone who has even known me, I even danced a little bit once the music came on. I’m sure I’d have never ventured onto the floor without a better-coordinated girlfriend present, but I mostly didn’t regret it. (Note to acquaintances I will run into at future social gatherings: this is not a precedent.)

Day 5: Waco to Todd Mission, TX, to Huntsville, TX (179 miles, 3 hours)

It was the middle of November, but southern Texas didn’t get the memo. (Back home, Sioux Falls did, with the mercury falling to around 0 during the week I was away.) This Sunday was easily in the 80s and sunny, which was good, because we weren’t trapped in the car. Instead, Allison and I met my aunt, uncle and cousin north of Houston for a visit to the Texas Renaissance Festival.

Allison, Bob, Thomas and Kelly in the stands for a joust at the Texas Renaissance Festival.Allison, Bob, Thomas and Kelly in the stands for a joust at the Texas Renaissance Festival.

Renaissance festivals, or at least this particular one, are basically a cross between state fairs and ComicCon. There’s a lot of overpriced food and merchandise, except everything has a vaguely medieval/fantasy veneer to it — along with a healthy dose of science fiction, steampunk, and things with only the most tenuous connections to genre fiction in the slightest.

They’re also pretty fun, and this time, I remembered to break out the camera.


Birds of prey. Birds of prey.

Cyrano. Cyrano.


Weapons demonstrations Weapons demonstrations

Elephant ride! Above: Elephant ride! Below: Allison, myself, Bob and Thomas

Allison, myself, Bob and Thomas

It was definitely good to get out of the car, into the sun, and see some people wandering around with outlandish costumes and outlandishly fake accents for a day. We ate unhealthy food, drank overpriced alcohol (mead!), saw performances of carillons, bagpipes and insults, and marveled at all the merchandise that would have been all too tempting had we merely been millionaires. And did I mention I rode an elephant? (It’s not particularly medieval, but why pass it up? Sure, it was $8 for about 60 seconds, but if you’re not prepared to waste some money, don’t go to the fair.) Had I gone to the fair when I was a fantasy-loving 12-year-old, I might have exploded with excitement. My slightly more sober adult self merely enjoyed himself a great deal.

On top of all of this, there was good times with friends and family:

Day 6: Huntsville, TX, to West Monroe, LA (349 miles, five hours)

After the excitement and cacophony of the fair, Monday was much quieter — but in its own way, more intense. We drove through east Texas and Louisiana, bound for West Monroe — home of Allison’s parents, who I was about to meet for the first time. Oh, and they didn’t know we were coming.


But everything ended up going pretty well. We announced our surprise visit via phone early in the day’s drive, so everyone was ready when we pulled up into her family’s home, which they had fully remodeled a decade ago. Every one was very polite as we chatted, then went out to dinner for some traditional Louisiana food. (I felt bad I couldn’t finish, though it was probably my own fault for eating appetizers.) The all-important meeting went off without any issue, something I suspect was a big relief to all parties involved.

Day 7: West Monroe, LA, to Memphis, TN (256 miles, five hours)

2013-11-19 11.37.44 On the way out of town, Allison and I stopped by the only reason most people have heard of West Monroe — the home base of the Duck Commander duck calls made by the Robertson family, stars of the smash reality show Duck Dynasty.

I tried to muster the appropriate level of excitement.

The trip involved five hours of driving, but it ended up taking a little bit longer because I found something much more interesting: the Vicksburg National Military Park, memorializing Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg that helped sever the South in two and ensure Union victory n the Civil War.

The actual park was somewhat overgrown with trees, which took away from some of the splendor. But the rolling terrain was suitably impressive:

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That’s a curved panorama of one of the Confederate redoubts during the siege, which was stormed unsuccessfully by Union troops up a narrow trench during one of Grant’s failed attempts to seize the city by force. He finally settled down and starved the rebels out.

2013-11-19 14.48.06 The most notable thing about the Vicksburg battlefield is the monuments dotting it, built by the siege’s veterans decades after the war. For whatever reason, the Illinois contingent paid for by far the grandest memorial, a huge, echoey pavilion. (Or perhaps it’s no surprise, given that Illinois was home to both Grant and President Abraham Lincoln.) Another memorial was a huge spire so tall I had to use panorama mode on my phone to get it all in one shot. Unfortunately, my unsteady hands meant the ramrod-straight spire appeared to go all wobbly halfway up, so I’ll withhold the photo. Those same veterans who erected the memorials also put up signs around the battlefield. The plaques, red for Confederates and blue for Union, are laid out along each side’s lines and contain information about the units who fought there and descriptions of notable actions.

2013-11-19 15.39.19 Also impressive were the remains of a Union gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River during the Vicksburg campaign and re-floated and restored a century later. You could walk inside the ruins of the U.S.S. Cairo and tour a museum explaining its significance and displaying plenty of artifacts from its crew.

Sadly, it turns out that seeing Vicksburg properly requires a lot of time — more time than we had, driving as we were to meet Allison’s cousin and her family for dinner in Memphis. So after two hours, we cut our trip short before getting a chance to explore the heart of the Confederate lines.

No matter, though — an after-dark arrival in Memphis brought a chance to sample that town’s own barbecue options, followed by some quality time with a one-year-old and then much-needed sleep.

Day 8: Memphis to Huntsville, AL (215 miles, 3.5 hours)

2013-11-20 15.07.23 Wednesday was a lazy day — sleeping in and not much driving. Before leaving Memphis we went to the downtown Beale Street, the heart of the city’s blues culture. So with just an hour or two to spare, we went to the city’s Rock N Soul Museum for an abbreviated tour of music history.

It wasn’t the most exciting museum, but was well done. A complimentary audio tour with admission included lots of music samples and narration, giving capsule biographies for many stars of 50s, 60s and 70s music and cultural context for the music in the racial tensions of the time. There were also plenty of artifacts, though none that really jumped out at me as I was looking for iconic photos to take.

Well, okay, there was one thing that was sort of attention-grabbing, alongside things like Ike Turner’s piano: the flamboyant costume of professional wrestler Sputnik Monroe, a Memphis native who was an advocate for desegregation:

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We didn’t get a chance to fully take in the museum, since we were on a timer. Eventually we set out across northern Mississippi and Alabama, bound for Huntsville, Alabama (not to be confused with our Day 5 stop in Huntsville, Texas). There, I met for the first time in person a decade-long pen-pal, Cliff:

I'm the guy on the left. I’m the guy on the left.

Outside the restaurant, in downtown Huntsville, Allison and I cleverly disposed of the leftover chips we had taken home in a doggie bag a few days earlier and never eaten, though the way the little devils swarmed I was nervous for a second. (I needn’t have been. Allison has a black belt.)

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Day 9: Huntsville to Atlanta, GA (220 miles, 3.5 hours)

2013-11-21 10.10.22 Huntsville’s primary claim to fame is that it’s home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. And while we couldn’t go inside, we could tour the U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum, which was top-notch for a pair of overgrown children like Allison and I. Lots of rockets and space vehicles on display (some authentic, others replicas), along with interactive demonstrations and — for some reason — a traveling display about Leonardo da Vinci.

In fact, the museum was so much fun we spent altogether too much time there, and were nearly late for our evening engagement several hours away in Atlanta. But before things came to that, we had fun doing things like Mars-themed rock-climbing:

Allison is the much better climber. Allison is the much better climber.

Life-size space shuttle replicas:

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Really tall phallic symbols rockets:

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Moon rock!

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And various other things to pose in front of:

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Disappointed we couldn’t linger, we hit the road for Atlanta and our date in the evening: the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

Though the evening ended up being something of a fiasco as we were under fierce time constraints and at one point running in full dress clothes through downtown Atlanta to get to our restaurant on time, I did enjoy being able to dress up and attend a classy night out:

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Day 10: Relaxing in Atlanta and a night at the theater

After the tumult of the night before, Friday was spent at a more leisurely pace. We slept in, and strolled instead of ran through Atlanta to get lunch. That night ended up an unqualified success, as we went to a fine performance of King Lear at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. Their setup is something of the dinner theater model: the audience is seated at tables, where they can get dinner before the show, and drinks and dessert throughout.

Post-show, despite the late hour and the early day we had ahead of us on Saturday, we couldn’t resist proceeding from the Shakespeare Tavern to the Marlow’s Tavern a mile away for a nightcap.

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Day 11: Atlanta to St. Louis, MO (555 miles, 8 hours)

At an ungodly hour of the pre-dawn morning, we stumbled groggily out of our motel for our last drive together of the trip: to the Atlanta airport, where Allison was flying home to Philadelphia. She caught her flight without a hitch, and I found myself faced with about 15 hours to do eight hours of driving. (I sure wasn’t going to drive 15 hours on a half-night’s sleep.) So I set off, circuitously, first visiting Georgia’s Stone Mountain — the first attempt at carving giant men into a mountainside by Gutzon Borglum, who would later move on to a more famous work at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

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As an artistic work, Stone Mountain is pretty impressive, and more so the closer you get:


Of course, any monument to the Confederacy is always a going to be a little uncomfortable to watch. The figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis aside, the informative plaques on display were rather light on the existence of slavery, the institution all three were fighting (to varying degrees) to defend.

Not that Lost Cause revisionism seemed to be at the forefront of anyone’s mind at Stone Mountain these days. In fact, me as a tourist seemed rather out of place. Everyone else at the mountain that morning was busy setting up a winter village attraction that would soon open (though with fake snow, of course, because Georgia):

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It was another few hours before my next stop, also Civil War themed: the battlefield of Chickamauga, where in 1863 Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army routed and nearly destroyed the federal Army of the Cumberland — but for the courageous stand of General George Thomas, who rallied fleeing troops on Horseshoe Ridge and held his ground against ferocious attacks until making an orderly withdrawal under cover of darkness. (Thomas got his nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga,” when a union officer observing the situation wrote General William Rosecrans that “Thomas is standing like a rock.” That officer was a young Brigadier General James Garfield, the future president.)

2013-11-23 12.23.15 The view the Union remnants on Horseshoe Ridge would have had as they made their stand.

My favorite part of the battle, though, was the performance of the “Lightning Brigade,” among the most technologically advanced units on the battlefield. Col. John T. Wilder equipped his men — with their own personal funds, until the Army, embarrassed, paid up — with the new Spencer repeating rifles, which could fire up to 20 rounds per minute, compared to three or four from traditional single-shot weapons. This gave Wilder’s men a huge advantage and let them face off many times their number. As mounted infantry, they could also move around the battlefield with rapidity but still hold a line. After a blunder left the Union army fleeing in a rout, the Lightning Brigade not only held its own but was preparing to counterattack and turn the advancing Confederate flank until Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana got in the way and demanded to be immediately escorted to safety.

The battlefield was a driving loop with a cell phone-based audio tour. I was in a bit of a rush but still enjoyed seeing firsthand a battle I had read about just a few months prior at the New York Times’ excellent “Disunion” series, which chronicles the Civil War in real time 150 years to the day after the war’s events.

From Chickamauga I traveled up through Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Illinois to just west of St. Louis, where, exhausted, I finally stopped for the night.

Day 12: St. Louis to Sioux Falls (611 miles, 8.5 hours)

The final day’s travel was quiet, if tiring — west to Kansas City, then north past Omaha to Sioux Falls. I took a straight shot with no detours, no tourism and no photos. After nearly two weeks on the road, and the last two days with heavy solo driving, I just wanted to be home.

That whole 12-day endeavor meant more than just checking a few more states off my to-visit list. It was also both fun and refreshing, a good break from work. Most of all, it was a great time with a swell lady. Even someone as introverted as I can admit that some things are just more fun doing with someone else.

All told I put around 3,300 miles on my car through 14 states, five of which I had never visited before:

Southern Swing on Roadtrippers