Last week, I wrote a belated post about my summer trip to the United States, in which I visited New York and Louisville. The post finished with me heading towards Nashville, Tennessee.
We were heading south from Louisville to Nashville and stopped off along the way at Mammoth Cave National Park. This is a tourist centre located on top of a vast network of caves stretching across a big chunk of the southern United States. We took a look around for about an hour and then headed off towards Nashville. I didn’t take many photos and those that I did take turned out blurry and awful, so you’ll have to use your imagination. It’s not hard; it was a cave.
We arrived in Nashville and found a parking spot immediately in the busy tourist district. This was unexpected and we were just intending to drive around quickly, but it seemed like the gods wanted us to stop and check out some honky-tonks. We stopped in at a few places to sample the local ales, including Robert’s Western World, which was a particular highlight.
In Nashville, we stayed a night or two at my friend’s parents’ house on the outskirts, in a beautiful, green neighbourhood, where each house had a large tract of land and looked like something out of another period of time. People were friendly, the roads were quiet, and there were deer running everywhere. We would come back and stay again later, but it was time to start the road trip for real.
From Nashville, Tennessee, we headed south (again). This time we had swapped the red convertible for something more suited to long-distance driving: a Ram Bighorn. The convertible had been fun, but it was small and there was only a radio, which pretty much picked up insane right-wing talk shows and fiery Bible readings. The Bighorn had Bluetooth, and that meant I could use Spotify. Ah, 2019, what a time to be alive…
The drive through Tennessee and Alabama took some seven hours, with a stop-off midway for BBQ and beer somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Actually, everywhere we saw was the middle of nowhere. Alabama has that sort of appearance. The road we took wound slowly through small towns where people sat on porches and lived in clapboard buildings or trailers. The best house in town always seemed to be where the police cruiser sat.
At a certain point along the way, the Spanish Moss began. It was immediately familiar to me from a hundred films I had seen, but it was the first time I had ever actually encountered this odd phenomenon in person. It swarmed all over the live oaks and seemed to be everywhere once we crossed that invisible line into the Deep South.
Our destination was Destin, Florida. We would be staying near the beach at my friend’s grandparents’ home in a gated community. We arrived around midnight, shattered from the journey, and crashed quickly. In the morning, though, we took a look around. The houses were small but obviously expensive. Everyone had a fancy car, but no one drove them; this was golf cart territory.
We were supposed to have a golf cart, too, but it had been pilfered prior to our arrival. Thankfully, we had a backup vehicle: a Mustang belonging to the grandparents. This seemed like a good trade-off at first, but in the community the speed limits were 12, 19, and 23 miles per hour. Yes, those numbers are not typos. Those were the actual limits. Out on the highway through town, the limits were 35 and 45, which didn’t make it much better. I had the chance to drive a couple of times, and the car was so powerful that it seemed to hit whatever speed limit was in place in about a half-second, and soon you were braking to slow back down.
For about five days, we sat on the nearby beach (a private one that we had to sneak onto) and guzzled beer like it was going out of style. One day, we saw a large manatee floating by, and twice I saw loggerhead sea turtles. I have swum with a great many turtles in my life, but this was the first time with a loggerhead. There were lots of dolphins, too.
After those days at Destin, we moved on east. It was another long drive to the Atlantic Coast at Georgia, but this time it was not as interesting. Whereas in Alabama we had wound through little towns, now we were on a big flat freeway with little to see except the occasional bird of prey overhead.
In Georgia, we stayed at the world’s worst motel in a little shithole called Kingsland. The pool was covered in a thick green goo and the room smelled like mould. Thankfully, there was an excellent BBQ joint across the road, and an odd saloon in nearby St. Mary’s. We managed to avoid the motel as much as possible.
After a great many beers and the best part of a bottle of whisky, I awoke with a headache and felt desperately sick. It was a bad state of affairs given that we had a boat trip lined up. I looked seasick enough already, and Harrison proposed calling off the trip to Cumberland Island that we had planned. I refused and soldiered on.
Thankfully, the boat trip had the opposite effect to what you might expect, and by the time we arrived in Cumberland I was feeling fine. Perhaps it was the scenery, or perhaps it was the dolphins and manatees that we saw from the boat… How could you not feel fine in a place like this?
We spent the day cycling around Cumberland Island on crappy old bicycles. It was exhausting but a wonderful day. The island is beautiful and filled with wildlife, like the dozens of wild horses that roam. They were left by the Carnegies, who used to own most of the island before they turned it over to the government to be preserved as a park.
Rather than blather on more, I will just leave these photos of Cumberland:
The following day, we visited the wonderfully-named Okefenokee Swamp. It is inland from Kingsland and St. Mary’s, and covered ground in both Georgia and Florida. We took a circuitous route to get there, hoping to see some of the local area, which we did. It was flat and woody, with lots of churches and defunct country stores. Much of the South was beautiful and yet decrepit. It’s a place where recent history has seemingly been unkind to the people. There is a great deal of poverty visible right from the road.
The Okefenokee was even more enjoyable than Cumberland Island. Here, we saw alligators, a bobcat, cottonmouth snakes, and many birds. We rode on a small train operated by a bizarre 18-yr old who told us he lived “in a double-wide with my parents and 26 animals.” He had several rats in his pocket, which he was trying to give away to tourists. Apparently, they were too much for even the double-wide.
In part three, I will post stories and photos from the final leg of the trip, as we head over the mountains and back to Tennessee, completing our grand tour of the American South.