Greetings once again. We are now on our way from Vegas, where we spent Sally’s birthday, to the Grand Canyon, and then heading south through Arizona before arriving in San Diego, in a few days time.
I last left you with thoughts of our cockroach visitors in Disney World, but I need you to now take your tourist hat off, forget all you’ve heard or done before and come with me on a journey through the more unknown America – the wilderness, the deserts, the cultures and the amazing places that usually don’t make many people’s itinerary.
We drove for 8 hours northwest from Orlando to Alabama. Obsessed with American football and race – two things Southerners never stop discussing – this rectangular state has a complicated and fascinating heritage. Its nickname is The Heart of Dixie, its population is 4.6million, its capital city is Montgomery and it is famous for the birthplace of musician Hank Williams, the Civil Rights movement and the courageous activist Rosa Parks. Montgomery was the first of our stops as it houses the Rosa Parks Museum. The explosion of the Civil Rights movement happened here in Montgomery in 1955 when an African American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, launching a bus boycott and galvanizing the Civil Rights movement nationwide. This movement campaigned for desegregation of everything from public buses to private universities. Rosa Parks was arrested, which sparked a bus boycott and began to turn the tide in favour of racial equality. Alabama saw brutal civil rights and voting laws eventually prevailed with the help of Martin Luther King. The museum shows a video of what segregation meant to the African Americans who had to live with segregation everyday, and does a fantastic reenactment of that bus-seat protest and has displays showing how the tough civil rights movement was but how they fought and won.
After that we drove north to Birmingham to visit the bigger and more well-known Civil Rights Institute. The Civil Rights violence once earned the city the nickname ‘Bombingham’ but the city itself, although mostly a business district still has a certain amount of charm about it. The Institute is the most worthwhile sight in town and does not disappoint. Even though we had learnt so much earlier in the day in Montgomery, the Birmingham Institute goes into far more detail and manages to seriously stir your emotions with moving videos of people involved or whom it affected, and a few of Martin Luther King’s memorable speeches.
Our last Alabama stop was Mobile (pronounced Mo-beel), right down in the South West of the state, on our way to New Orleans. Mobile is interesting and fun in the same sense as New Orleans, only the volume and brightness are turned way down. The Dauphin St historic district is very pretty and lined with the town’s most popular bars and restaurants, and is where much of the Mardi Gras takes place. Unlike the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which is still noticeably affected by Hurricane Katrina, Mobile looks as though the storm never happened. For dinner that night, we thought we would take Lonely Planet’s advice and eat at Wintzells, a historic restaurant that serves fresh oysters fried, steamed, stewed or raw on the half shell. I ordered the biggest plate of grilled oysters I think anyone would have ever seen. There were 16 of them, but the shells were as big as your palm. They had been grilled in 4 different ways, with either spinach, cheese, chili sauce or a mixture of everything. Oysters are massive in the south so you know they will be fresh and tasty and they didn’t disappoint. Well done Lonely Planet.
Even though it was a flying visit through Alabama and we didn’t get to see much, I must say, the state does have a lovely vibe about it. Everyone is incredibly friendly and fantastically interested in where you’re from and what you’re doing in Alabama, and streets and cities are kept very clean and feel more like towns than they do business districts. With a fantastic history and a charming patriotism, Alabama is definitely worth a visit.
A few hours later we were crossing the border into Louisiana. Louisiana has three nicknames – Bayou State, Pelican State and Sportsman’s Paradise. It has a population of 4.3 million, its capital city is Baton Rouge, is the birthplace of musicians Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Britney Spears(!) and is famous for its Creole Cajun cooking and the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. It also has a fascinating history. The lower Mississippi River area was dominated by the Mississippian mound-building culture until around 1592 when Europeans arrived and decimated the Native Americans with the usual combination of disease, unfavourable treaties and outright hostility. The land was passed back and forth from the Spanish to the French, to the British and back to the French. After the American Revolution, the whole area passed to the USA in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and Louisiana became a state in 1812.
We drove straight to New Orleans and while driving through the streets were very pleasantly surprised with what we saw. I was expecting to still see signs of devastation after Hurricane Katrina lashed the city and levee breaks left residents homeless and rebuilding their lives. However, the town’s unofficial motto is still “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll). The people of New Orleans have embraced the process of rebuilding, and though the population in town has been halved, the areas along the Mississippi river, most frequented by visitors, never saw flooding and are rich once again with the city’s trademark joyfulness.
It’s a great city to walk around, with sounds of sweet jazz, funky brass, R&B and blues beating from every corner and doorway. It seems that everyone in New Orleans just wants to have fun and enjoy life. You can’t help but smile at its beauty and in-your-face charm and live for the moment while you are there. The French Quarter is the most attractive and popular area and centres itself around the infamous Bourbon Street. It’s not a huge area and can be seen and done within a day or two, but you want to stay longer just to take advantage of the slow pace of life and the fantastic food and drink constantly on offer.
The afternoon we arrived we had a quick lunch where I had my first and probably last muffuletta, a New Orleans sandwich made with a whole round Italian bread loaf, salami, ham, cheese and pickled olives. When asked if I wanted a half or a whole, me being me, he opted for the whole. This thing was enormous, being a whole loaf of bread, but I finished and thoroughly enjoyed it! After lunch we took a leisurely stroll around the French Quarter to get our barings, found a charming and relatively cheap hotel for the night and headed out for some cocktails on Bourbon Street and then some dinner. Bourbon Street, architecturally is beautiful with its elegant 18th Century Spanish colonial buildings complete with cute balconies and bright colours, but culturally is a bit of a letdown. The street is full of bars pumping out way too loud music, offering 3 for 1 cocktails, free admission and anything else they can think of to get you in. It’s very popular with a younger crowd looking for non-stop parties and students on Spring Break. We had a drink in a very pretty courtyard while listening to some quieter and more traditional jazz, then took a walk down Royal Street and Decatur Street. Royal Street is lined with stunning houses turned into art galleries and boutique stores while Decatur Street, being the quarter’s main street, is busier and full of restaurants, cafés and various artists selling paintings of the city and other abstract work.
After all this walking around we popped into Bubba Gump for a well earned shrimp dinner. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a very quaint chain with a wonderful system on getting your server’s attention. They have 2 signs on the table, and it’s very simple. When you want a server you show the “Stop Forrest, Stop” sign, and when you don’t need a server to come to your table you show the sign :”Run Forrest, Run”. Amazingly simple and yet so fun, until they tell you off for not remembering to turn the “Stop Forrest. Stop’” sign over when you’re server has been over!
After dinner we stopped at the famous Café du Monde coffee shop to pick up some even more famous New Orleans beignets for breakfast the next morning. Beignets are delectable deep-fried, powdered-sugar coated square doughnuts. They are served piping hot and fresh out of the fryer, but they do suggest you wait a while to eat them to save yourself from a day of excruciating heartburn!
Before leaving, the next morning we took another quick stroll down to the pretty French Market and the Mississippi River banks which was incredibly industrial seeing as New Orleans is a business port, and then started our drive towards Texas.
On the way we passed through Baton Rouge. A girl we had met in Fiji had mentioned it had been one of her favourite places she had visited while traveling though the USA. What a dump is all I can say. We stopped to get gas in a residential area and I thought we were going to get carjacked and mugged. It was just awful and we although we managed to take a few photos of ‘houses’ and commercial buildings, I’m pretty sure they will all fall down within the next few years.
From Baton Rouge it was a long, long drive west through Louisiana and then up through Texas to get to our next destination. Texas’s nickname is the Lone Star State, it has a population of a staggering 23.5million, is the birthplace of Buddy Holly, Matthew McConaughey and Janis Joplin and famous for having produced 2 Presidents Bush’s, corndogs, Dr Pepper, cowboys and The Cowboys and is world famous for BBQ! Plus, the state is larger than England, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands combined! Sure, the Wild West lives on today mostly in attitude, so if you’re expecting stories of cowboys dusty from the trail and horses on every street then you will be sorely disappointed. Businessmen and millionaires outnumber rich cattlemen and oil strikers, and you’re more likely to see a Dallas fashionista than a rodeo boy in a Stetson and tight fittin’ jeans!
However, we did get our fix of cowboys and line-dancing the night we arrived in Fort Worth. Fort Worth became famous during the great open-range cattle drives of the late 19th century, and this Old West outpost attracted some infamous characters such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as Great Depression-era holdup artists Bonnie and Clyde. Fort Worth is still quite traditional with cattle drives, rodeos and ropin’ ‘n’ ridin’. That night we went to Billy Bob’s Texas, the state’s largest Honky-Tonk bar. In fact, many famous country and western performers including Garth Brooks have played here. The place is vast with 2 huge stages and dance floors, pool tables, a small food bar, a mechanical bull and live bull riding competitions at weekends. We were lucky enough to be there on a Saturday night so while we eagerly awaited the bull riding we watched locals swing each other around the dance floor to the latest country and western tunes, while supping down beer with some delicious BBQ burgers. Our ticket also included table seats for the Restless Heart show, an obviously well known and popular band in Texas. We had no idea who they were and weren’t instant fans but the crowd was going wild and thoroughly enjoying themselves! Although we felt slightly out of place being practically the only patrons there without appropriate cowboys boots and hats, while standing on the outskirts watching everyone two-stepping, we had a great time and felt it was the perfect place and way to see real Texans doing real Texan things.
That was as much Wild West and cowboy stuff we were going to see while in Texas. The next day it was a quick drive over to Dallas. Thanks to the ever popular series in the 80s, most visitors expect to see Oil billionaires and BMW driving yuppies in and around the city, and that is actually what they do see. Even though it is only 30 miles from Fort Worth, the 2 couldn’t be more different. Dallas is a cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers and up-market restaurants, the place where John F Kennedy was shot and South Fork ranch, both which most people come to Dallas for.
JFK’s assassination sent Dallas and the rest of the country into a state of shock in November 1963. The fatal shooting was then followed by a manic manhunt and the accused Harvey Lee Oswald’s eventual assassination. The Sixth Floor Museum, once the Texas School Book Depository and where Oswald supposedly pulled the trigger, now houses the fascinating museum allowing you to step back in time and see eye witness videos and photographs of the shooting. An audio guide takes you through JFK’s life before his Presidency, how he planned to use his power for change but never got the chance to, and points to all kinds of conspiracies as to why he was killed. It’s incredibly moving and thought provoking stuff. You can also walk down to the infamous grassy knoll where some believe a fourth shot was fired from, and stand on the white X on the road at the exact spot where JKF was shot.
After the Sixth Floor Museum we decided to go to a place called Sonny Bryan’s for some apparently fantastic Texan BBQ meat. We jumped in the car, turned on the sat nav and 10 minutes later we arrived. But, when we got closer we saw a sign saying “Run out of food. Nearest restaurant (and an address)”. So we put their other address into the sat nav and off we went again. On our way we noticed we were heading back towards where we had just come from and sure enough a few minutes later we were driving up to the car park we had left not 15 minutes ago. So we parked up again, walked around the corner and there it was! Amazing how things like that happen, isn’t it?!
After lunch we drove about 40 minutes outside of Dallas to a little place you may have heard of before – South Fork Ranch, home to the Ewing Family from Dallas!
If you’re interested the story goes like this. The ranch was originally owned by the Duncan family who had lived there for over 10 years and had 2 teenage sons. One day, they heard and saw a helicopter flying above and then hover over their property. Five minutes later the helicopter had landed and there was a knock on their door. The 2 men from a TV studios in California explained that they were location scouting for a new TV series set on a ranch in Dallas. They asked if they were willing, for the right sum, to allow them to use their property to film this new series. The Duncan’s said no, the men went away and came back with a higher offer, the Duncan’s said no, the men came back later with an even higher offer and eventually the Duncan’s said yes. However, the wife had certain stipulations. They could only film during the Summer holidays so that their sons lives were not affected too much, and they couldn’t use the inside of the house, which actually was fine with the studios as they had a set built in LA already. So, in the Summer holidays the Duncan’s property would be filled with trailers and filming equipment for 8 weeks, and they would film what they needed for the whole series, which must have been awful for the women who had to strut around in fur coats in the 100°+ temperatures! After a couple of years though, a radio station let slip the location of the Dallas ranch and hundreds of thousands of fans would appear daily to spot their favourite stars and eventually the Duncan’s decided to sell up and move away from the chaos. It was bought, then after Dallas was taken off air, sold to a billionaire who decided to change it into a conference centre and tourist attraction.
To be honest, it’s not great. There is a 3 minute tram ride that takes you from the welcome centre to the house, a 10 minute story (the same one I just told you) and then you are free to walk around the house and take photos. However, because all inside scenes were shot in a sound studio in LA, you don’t get to see much that you would recognize. What you do realize it actually how small the house is. All filming that was done outside was done with wide angle lenses making the house seem far bigger than it really is. The pool was made to look like an Olympic size pool but could actually barely fit in you and a couple of friends. But the setting is idyllic and you can see why the studio was so attracted to the beauty of the property.
The next day we drove south to Austin, apparently a must stop in Texas. Austin is the state capital so in the morning we did pop into the capital building which was just stunning. This is where all the governors of Texas held and hold office and the state treasury is based. The building itself is huge and the inside is decorated with ornate golds and marble, and fabulous paintings of previous governors hang. We also popped into the biggest cowboy boot shop we’ve ever seen! It’s famous in Texas and called Allen’s Boots. They must have had thousands of different kinds of boots, for men and women, in that place. Some were traditional, some had silver on them, some were bright pink and multicoloured. Sally had a great time trying them all on!!!
That night, taking Lonely Planet’s advice we decided to pop to the Continental Club to see what was going on as it’s ‘the’ place to go in Austin. Even though it was a Monday night we were sure something would be going on and that it would be worth the trip. We turned up, walked in the door and were the maybe 10th and 11th people in there. It looked like a small scummy student union with a tiny stage and the clientele left a lot to be desired! We ordered a beer each and then a surly man walked up to us, asked to see some I.D which we happily showed, and were then informed that there would be a cover charge in 15 minutes. We looked around and laughed. A cover charge? For this place? A) there was no one in there and B) you’d have to pay us to stay in that dive more like! Needless to say we finished our beers super quick and scurried back to our car.
Out last stop in Texas was Gruene (pronounced ‘Green’) which is on the National Historic Register. It’s a very cute little town has kept it’s historic charm and not changed much in the last 100 years. There’s a cute little all-purpose store selling local produce, cute but somewhat tacky souvenirs and ice cream, wonderful antique shops that we spent hours wondering around and a dance hall that claims it’s the oldest dance hall in Texas. Down the hill also is a company called Rock ‘n’ River where you can rent massive rubber rings and lazily float down the river over the course of 4-5 hours. We were going to do this but it was looking quite popular that day and so the peace and serenity that I’m sure makes it such a wonderful experience would probably have been lost somewhere.
So that was Texas. I must admit I was hoping to like it slightly more than I did, but once you get past the slowly disappearing cowboy boots and rodeo, all that’s left are big cities and big accents. Plus, in order to get off the beaten track and find your own Texas, you need a lot of time! Make no mistake, this is one huge state!