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Wednesday, 24 October 2007

A Cross-Country Excursion through the Southern States

Written by Josh Mitchell
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When my roommate told me that he was leaving Boston and moving to San Diego, I jumped at the chance to drive with him through the southern states – a part of the country that I have always longed to explore. There are not many times in your life when you are able to dedicate an entire month to traveling.


southOur first stop on the trip was to New Orleans.  There's an old saying about Bourbon Street by Lee Hazelwood:  "You won't find it on any map, but take a step in any direction and you're in trouble."


The French Quarter has been dubbed "The Amsterdam of America" and after witnessing its electric vibe, nocturnal revelry, spicy and succulent seafood-infused cuisine, I can confidently say that you have to run Red Bull intravenously to fully absorb the constant stimuli of the city.


We started our party antics at Tropical Isle, a soulful beach bar known for its world famous Hand Grenade – a melon-flavored, liqueur-heavy drink with enough secret potent ingredients to tranquilize a small goat.


After checking out all the celebrity pictures on the wall and hearing Jimmy Buffet songs from the jukebox, we stumbled over to Pat O’Brien’s where we tried the city-defining beverage known as The Hurricane. Although it has a sweet and inviting taste, The Hurricane is mixed with four different rums. It’s a secretly strong cocktail that sneaks up on you and has you dreaming of supermodels before you can brush your teeth and say your prayers.  After downing three of them, I honestly thought I saw Whitey Bulger tossing beads off of the balcony of The Cat's Meow.


With our stomachs in dire need of some padding, we headed over to the first annual New Orleans Seafood Festival, located across from the Mississippi River inside the stately wrought iron gates of the Old U.S. Mint. 


As we listened to an array of local jazz musicians on the main music stage, we pleased our palates by snacking on a diversity of Cajun cooking: crab balls, oysters, shrimp 'po boy submarine sandwiches, jambalaya, and seafood gumbo. 


southWe ate like we were taking a Marlon Brando speed-eating course, drank like the prohibition was going to make a comeback, socialized like ambitious democratic candidates, and danced like John Travolta's weird scientology test-tube babies.


In an effort to get our heads straight and help us digest, we took a walk around Jackson Square, the most photographed section of the city. Then we stopped by the people-watching paradise known as Café Du Monde, where we shared one of their legendary fluffy beignets – a tasty dessert similar to, and as fattening as, a donut


southAfter we satisfied our sweet tooth, we decided to end our night by heading over to Frenchman Street to hear some dirty southern rock at Igor’s Checkpoint Charlie.  I made friends with a local homeless guy who calls himself "Billy The Kid".  He can balance a Bud Lite can on his head while he does the Watootsie.


New Orleans is a bohemian city that is rich with eclectic individuals and infused with a survival spirit that you can feel permeating through the air – if the stale stench does not overbear it.  Bourbon Street in the morning smells like The Little Mermaid died and crawled up Free Willy's behind.


Before our livers could take out restraining orders against us, we warmed up our vocal chords and hit the road for the home of The Blues and the birthplace of rock and roll:  Memphis, Tennessee.


After the six-hour drive through a variety of sweltering Louisiana cities, we were "Walking in Memphis" with two feet off of Beale Street – one of America’s most famous musical streets. As we explored the three blocks of more than 30 nightclubs, restaurants and retail shops, we felt the soulful ghosts of Elvis and Johnny Cash everywhere.


This is where the action unfolds and, even on a Monday night, Beale Street was bouncing like B.B King on uppers.  We grabbed some BBQ at this down and dirty joint called Pig and had ourselves some pulled pork sandwiches, cole slaw, and baked beans.


After that we walked over to Handy Park where we sat next to the W.C. Handy statue and listened to some local legends croon about how their woman stole their whiskey.


The next morning we went on a guided tour of Sun Studios where, in 1954, a young Elvis stumbled in and told legendary record producer Sam Phillips that he wanted to cut an album for his mama.  The rest is rock 'n roll history.


We took a free shuttle over to Elvis’s home, Graceland, but we were too cheap to pay the $28 admission fee.  We were able to briefly sneak onto his private plane, The Lisa Marie, and we walked over to his mansion and saw his grave.  We also did some bad impressions, gyrating our bodies like two epileptic mackerels, in the touristy gift shops.


southFor dinner we went to the infamous BBQ ribs joint Rendezvous where we enjoyed a full rack of charcoal-broiled dry ribs – they serve them bare and allow you to apply an assortment of messy, yet tasty sauces.


After using a year’s supply of Wet Naps to clean our faces, we headed over to Autozone Park to catch a Memphis Redbirds game.  They are the minor league team for the St. Louis Cardinals.  The local team won and the stadium with its prominent press box and spacious seats was impressive for a non-major league ballpark.


southFollowing a brief stop at The Peabody Hotel to see the internationally famous Peabody Ducks parade through the grand lobby, we headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.


According to Billboard Magazine, Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any other city in the world.  As we headed for Manchester, Tennessee for The Bonnaroo Music Festival, I couldn’t stop thinking of Marc Cohn, Al Green and the gritty independent film about the pimp-turned-musician "Hustle & Flow".


After spending four days camping in a 700-acre field filled with inescapable marijuana smoke, dust and oppressive heat, my roommate and I, although smelling ripe, survived the musical experience they call Bonnaroo.south


Aided by the communal safety net of my sister's cooking, we were able to enjoy the rural boondocks of Tennessee and engulf ourselves in a diverse world of music which, if uploaded onto an iPod, would make us seem like masters of musical dexterity – British rock, Canadian pop, soul, bluegrass, reggae, jazz and alternative hip-hop along with jam-band stalwarts.


We danced to it all.


Among the sold-out audience of 80,000 people – mostly hippy hotties fighting for use of porta potties – there was tie-dye, long hair, peasant dresses and flowers, organic food stands, recycling displays and a Ferris wheel.south


It was part football tailgate and part Woodstock.


We watched Borat in the cinema tent, played guitar video games on Xbox, saw fire eaters, break-dancers, did yoga, and did the running man at the Silent Disco – which is a dance party where everyone wears wireless headphones and hears the same DJ.


We also downed a bag of cheap white wine and then tested our pitching arms in the MLB tent.  Both of us couldn't break 65.  Not bad for being tipsy.


The sheer volume of the stimuli was overwhelming and exhausting.  The musical highlight of the excursion was seeing the reunited trio of virtuosos called The Police.


Watching fireworks erupt, as Sting's undiminished voice sang about "a little black spot on the sun today" was pop culture in motion and right up there with seeing The Pope or Lindsay Lohan partying at your hometown watering hole.


southOther acts that we caught and thought deserved an equally euphoric response:  Lily Allen, delivering funny, sassy, pop songs; Regina Spektor, playing childlike-sounding but layered piano tunes; Michael Franti, now one of my favorite acts, exploding with a politically-minded yet body-moving set.


Bonnaroo was like a small country full of shirtless and braless music buffs who smoked so much grass that they must have had to have their stomach mowed once a day.


southWe exited the festival dirtier than a sumo wrestler's bellybutton and burnt like a BBQ potato chip.  It is probably something I could only do once in my life, but it was a monumental experience that I will never forget.


We woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday morning and, with Bonnaroo in our rear view mirror, we raced three hours to Atlanta to prepare for The Red Sox to do battle with The Braves at Turner Field.


The scenic drive was a breeze as we headed through the mountains of Tennessee and after me singing "Pardon me sir, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?" for the fifth time, I annoyed the dust off of my travel companion and he decided we needed to fuel up at The Waffle House.


The restaurant had a jukebox so we punched in The Charlie Daniels Band and listened to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" as we devoured our hungry man breakfasts.


With our stomachs full and our heart and mind on our hometown baseball team, we mustered all of our focus and energy and powered through to our hotel in Buckhead, an affluent suburb of Atlanta that is dubbed "The Beverly Hills of the South".


Following a dip in the hot tub and a complimentary hour of chicken wings and beer, we walked down to the Marta – which is Atlanta’s public transportation line.


The train connected us to a free shuttle and we were at Turner Field in no time.  Red Sox nation was in full effect.  Boston fans were everywhere, like Gremlins multiplying in the shower.  We were able to get a "Here We Go, Red Sox!" chant blaring by the second pitch.  The team truly is a national phenomenon.south


The outnumbered Braves fans tried to silence us with their crushing and catchy "Tomahawk Chop Chant". You haven't lived until you've heard it live: "Ohhh Ohhh Ohhhhhhhhhhh!"  It roars with a powerful presence and has an intimidating, church choir-like quality to it.


The Sox got crushed the first night but we were able to vindicate ourselves on Tuesday night – we grabbed $10 seats and muscled our way to the front row of the rowdy and active bleachers.


There is not a bad seat at Turner Field and they have the best and clearest jumbo-tron in the major leagues.  Too bad they can't sell out games.  It was weird not having to wait in beer and bathroom lines.


With a sense of victory and relief – we didn't want to walk away with two road losses under our belt – we packed up the car and hit the road for Birmingham, Alabama.


southWe got to Birmingham in the early afternoon, and after dealing with the confusing mapquest directions (it turns out that there is a big difference between 7th street and East 7th Street) we finally arrived at The Hospitality Inn.  The place looked like it hadn't been updated since 1965, and smelled like an old attic, but the price was right at $45 a night, and it was kind of funny in an "I'm glad we're going to get the hell out of here tomorrow morning" kind of way.


After we checked in and changed our clothes, we headed down to Five Points South, the city’s top entertainment section.  We strolled along the tree-shaded streets and stopped and admired the artistry of the Frank Fleming sculpture, "The Storyteller", at the famous fountain.  The sculpture was commissioned in late 1985 and includes a figure with the head of a ram and a clothed human-like body – a "ram-man."  The ram-man is seated on a stump, holding an open book in his left hand and a nine-foot tall staff in his right.  An owl is perched atop the staff.  Arranged in a circle facing the seated reader are an assortment of animals, gazing attentively toward the reader.

Following our appreciation of southern storytelling, we headed over for an old fashioned BBQ dinner at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q.  Everything is made fresh and from scratch at the restaurant and after biting into the delicious Spare Rib Sandwich it was obvious that they take their preparation of quality food seriously.


Once we finished eating, we made our way over to The Work Play, an innovative music venue with a dynamic bar.  Stoli Vodka was giving out free martinis; we had a few as we killed time before my favorite soul artist, Marc Broussard, took the stage.


After an inspiring opening set from singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, Broussard started his act with a song from his new album S.O.S.:  Save My Soul.  The show was electric and the sold-out crowd danced and sung along throughout the entire concert.


Overall, our tremendous excursion was awe-inspiring.  From mountains to beaches, bayous to big cities, the southern part of the U.S. is blessed with sunny weather, beautiful scenery, and vibrant people.  Each state has its own unique blend of history, music, culture, natural wonders and man-made attractions.



©Josh Mitchell


To see more pictures and read more about our trip, check out our travel blog





Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012