Music: Christmas Carols
Well, after almost exactly four months on the road we have finally made it home! It's been so great to relax and stay in one place, but I'm already a little nostalgic for living on the road. Perhaps that's because our last two weeks were so great:
After getting Speedy a new set of front brake pads, an oil change, and even a tire rotation, I picked Alina up from the Pita Pit and we decided to do some walking around the university and the surrounding neighborhoods. We had a good time window shopping in the trendy vintage stores and book shops. We also walked around the massive UT campus for a while, impressed that it was host to twice as many students as live in our home town. After our share of the university area we decided to walk downtown to the Congress St bridge, which 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their home every summer. When we went to Bat 101 at Calsbad Caverns, the guide had mentioned this site, the largest urban bat colony in the world, where every evening at sunset the sky is blackened by the clouds of bats leaving for their evening hunt. Well, at least that’s the case for half of the year. We apparently just missed the migration and waited a half hour to watch about 20 stragglers take off. Not to be discouraged, we decided to hunt for dinner instead of bats. We were much more successful in finding dinner at this great place perfect for us called Vegetarian Heaven. Full and happy, we got back into Speedy, sang along to some of our favorite trashy pop songs until we reached the campsite and retired for the evening
The next morning we got up and hit the road. Our destination was my grandparents’ house in Kilgore where we would spend Thanksgiving. We made pretty good time and arrived at their house by mid-afternoon. I was really glad to see them since it had been so long, so we spent a while just talking and catching up. We ate dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching the old Casino Royale, a 1967 spoof of James Bond movies, not to be confused with the new blockbuster that might actually be good. The movie was a tre sixties kitsch and pretty much put all of us to bed.
The next morning – Thanksgiving Day – we got up slowly and my Grandpa made us pancakes. We spent most of Thanksgiving unceremoniously lounging around and relaxing, which is my favorite way to spend it. Oh yeah, we also got some being thankful in as well. But mostly we just read and talked until late that afternoon when it was time to start on the big feast. My grandparents were very understanding and forwent the traditional Thanksgiving turkey for salmon filets instead. Though there was only four of us we had an enormous amount of food and we did our Thanksgiving duty of eating until incapacitated. That evening we just sat around digesting and watching the highlights of my grandparents’ TiVo, most importantly celebrity Jeopardy featuring the Margaret Spellings, the head of the Department of Education. A few hours of Thanksgiving digestion put us in the mood for more than a few hours of sleep, so to bed we went.
Friday morning we got up, ate breakfast, and said goodbye to my grandparents before hitting the road for a long day of driving to New Orleans. The day was spent mainly reading Anna Karenina in the car, save for a lunch break at a Waffle House. Also we stopped to use the facilities at a gas station and came out to find Speedy blowing up huge wafts of steam out from under the hood. The coolant bypass Speedy received in Seattle had come undone so the engine overheated, but it was an easy fix. While we were tooling around a good ole boy stopped by and tried to help us in classic Southern style: “Y’all see that puddle under that car? That’s a leak.” Very helpful.
We made it to New Orleans by late afternoon and spent a while searching for the Habitat for Humanity site where our friends Victoria and Nell had been staying all week. We actually found it relatively quickly, which was surprising because the best directions they could give us was that they were in St. Bernard’s Parish in an old school that was across from a few big Navy ships. We found them and it was so great to see some college friends. We all jumped into Nell’s brand new Prius (named Super Coche) to drive around the Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by Katrina where they had spent all week helping to build a musician’s village focusing on providing homes and a creative environment for, you guessed it, musicians. The Ninth Ward was truly something to witness, over a year after the storm it is still a ghost town full of abandoned houses. The site that Victoria and Nell had worked on all week, full neat looking houses fresh-painted in neon colors, appeared almost garish amongst all the destruction.
Eventually we left the ward and drove to Uptown, an area practically untouched by Katrina because of it’s (relatively) higher elevation. A friend of Victoria’s from UVA was now living and working there, so we went to her apartment to figure out what to do about dinner. Alina and I had thought that we might stay at the Habitat area and work the next day, but for various reasons that just didn’t look like it would work so we needed to find a place to stay. When I asked Victoria’s friend Annie if I could use her internet for this purpose, her and Margaret, Annie's sister, quickly offered to let us stay there that night. Elated by their generosity, Alina and I set out with the rest of the group towards a nearby restaurant where we all enjoyed traditional New Orleans cuisine, including oysters and catfish platters. After dinner we went for a long walk until we were finally able to get a seat at a swanky creperie where we gorged ourselves on some truly delicious (and healthy!) fudge and ice cream laden crepes. We then waddled back to Margaret and Annie’s aparetment to sit around and chat for a while until we were all nodding off. Because Speedy was back at the Habitat for Humanity site (Camp Hope) we had to drive back with Nell and Victoria and then return to our generous hosts, not without getting lost on the beat up and unsigned streets of New Orleans, of course.
We got up the next morning and went in search of a bakery where we could get our hosts something delicious (and again, healthy) for breakfast. At a nice little café just down the street we bought croissants, muffins, and scones to bring back. We spent most of the morning talking to Annie about her move to New Orleans and what life has been like there. She had lots of interesting things to say about the city and its recovery from Katrina, some of it encouraging, but much of it not. She told us that the most persistent problem in the rebuilding efforts, as we noticed ourselves during our time there, was the lack of government organization. After a while, we decided it was time to go out and start the day.
All day we walked around the French Quarter, window shopping and sightseeing. The French Quarter was in full swing because of a big football game in the area, and because it was comparatively unscathed by the storm, it seemed just as vibrant and happening as it had been when we’d been there three years ago. We got a bit of Christmas shopping done in the French market, had a quick lunch and then enjoyed dessert at Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark where they serve up beignets and coffee with chicory. So good. We spent the rest of the day strolling up and down the streets of the French Quarter and walking alongside the Mississippi River. Eventually we went back to the same coffee shop where we'd picked up breakfast to get a bit of internet and caffeine before our friend from High School, Adam, was ready to meet us.
Adam soon met us and the three of us set out for dinner. We caught up over classic New Orleans cuisine, like poboys and catfish. After dinner we went to a cheap dive bar and spent the rest of the night talking over just a few drinks. It was nice for Alina and me to see Adam because it had been years since either of us had seen him. He's in his final year towards getting his architecture degree from Tulane University. It was interesting to hear him talk about all his experience in New Orleans since Katrina, since as an architechture student he has been designing houses, and will spend most of next semester working on a site. Around midnight Alina and I had to get back to Annie's because she was getting off work and we didn't want to keep her waiting up for us, so we went back and got to bed, planning on meeting Adam the next day.
The next morning we got a slow start and spent a while hanging around talking to Annie and Margaret's housemate Katie. We left late in the morning to give Katie some down time before going to work and also to go get ourselves something to eat. We dined at a pizzeria and then got in touch with Adam, who was on his way to a sports bar to watch the Saints and Redskins games. We drove over there to meet him and spent the afternoon watching the games on enormous televisions. It was a lot of fun, especially since both teams won. The fans in the bar were fanatical in their cheering for the Saints, and were also cheering for the Redskins because their victory would ensure the Saints the top seat in the division. After the games, Adam needed a few hours to work on a paper, so Alina and I headed out to a park and laid around reading, listening to music, and napping for most of the afternoon. When the mosquitos came out, we again went to our favorite New Olreans cafe on Magazine St. to get something to drink before going to dinner at a Middle Eastern place. By that time Adam had called to say he was done with his work so we drove over to his place to figure out our plans for the night. We decided to go see if we could find some live music somewhere, which we did in the Frenchmen's Quarter. We went to two different places and enjoyed the music at both. At the first there was a funny band with a little white guy whaling out lyrics like "my girl she likes my hambone." Touching. After enough of that we went a few blocks down where there was a really good band that did perhaps a few too many Marley covers but made up for it with how good their own original stuff was. After that we returned to Adam's and spent the rest of the night watching Arrested Development.
The next morning Adam had to go to class early and we had a long way to go, so by 8:30 we were on the road headed towards our friend Nell's house in Americus, Georgia, where she works for Habitat for Humanity. We spent the entire day driving, and being that the drive was primarily across Mississippi and Alabama, it was a very uneventful day. We got to Nell's house just in time for dinner, which we were pleasantly surprised to find that one of her roommates was busy preparing. Such luxury. We ate dinner with Nell and her roommates, who both work at Habitat for Humanity with Nell, though in different capacities. The dinner was delicious and we even had dessert provided for us, so we were feeling quite spoiled. Not to mention that Nell lives in what looks like an only slightly scaled down version of the house from Gone with the Wind. Swank. That night we just hung out with Nell, catching up and relaxing. We went to bed pretty early because Nell was planning on getting up at 5:00 the next morning to go to a spin class. Impressed by her dedication, we took the opportunity to go to bed early, and then to sleep in.
Once we got ourselves together we left Americus and pointed ourselves towards Savannah. The drive took us until early afternoon, when we arrived, parked along the river front, and set out to explore by foot. We spent most of our stay in Savannah just strolling around and enjoying the incredibly beautiful city. Savannah is the capital of Southern charm and it was a spectacularly crisp and sunny day, so we had a great time. We got dinner at an English pub and then gelatto by the riverfront, where one of the many vendors of hand-made leaf roses offered Alina one of his creations for free. By that time it was getting towards bedtime, so we hopped back into the car and set out to find a motel. Feeling surprisingly alert, we decided to drive towards Atlanta, our next destination, until a suitably cheap yet decent place offered itself, and an hour later we found ourselves at the Scotland Motel in Metter, GA, where we watched trashy television way past our bedtime and then fell asleep.
The next morning we woke up to someone baning on the door. As I stumbled out of my bed in my underwear I glanced at the clock and realized that it was 11 AM and it was probably the proprietor of that fine motel telling us to get out. Correct! He asked me if I wanted to stay another night, and I said no and promised to be out in 5 minutes. He graciously didn't charge us even though we were in our room a whopping seven minutes past checkout, and we were on the road, feeling quite rushed because of our quick start, even though we were in fact in no rush at all. At any rate, we sped up the highway and made great time getting to our friend Kate's house north of Atlanta. We arrived mid-afternoon and spent the time before dinner hanging out with Kate and catching up. Once her parents arrived home from their jobs, Kate orchestrated a dinner preparation effort, and we enjoyed a delicious salmon dinner. After dinner that night we just hung out and did a lot more chatting right up until bedtime.
The next day we got up and drove into Atlanta to do some sightseeing. We started out with the Martin Luther King historical sight at Sweet Auburn. Here lies his grave, buried in a shrine alongside his wife Corretta Scott King. We walked into the church where he preached during much of the time he was doing his famous civil rights work, Ebenezer Baptist, and went to the National Park Service's visitor center where there is a small but well-done museum about Martin Luther King and the history of American racial inequality. We spent a long time in the small exhibit, nearly an hour and a half. Even though I had been to that same exhibit a few years ago, I had already forgotten the enormous scope of the sacrifice made during struggle for civil rights. I think many of us forget how many people were willing to lay down there lives in the name of nonviolent protest for social change. Humbled and thoughtful, we realized that if we were going to make it to the Georgia Aquarium by 2, the time we had bought advanced tickets for, and eat lunch, we had to get going. We made our way to a little place that Alina had read about in one of the Atlanta guidebooks at Kate's house called the Flying Biscuit Cafe. We knew that we were in for an interesting experience when our waiter asked us completely seriously if we were "ready to ride the train to deliciousville." We sure were! The food was incredible, a very vegetarian friendly place where the waiter practically ordered for us because he claimed to know what we wanted. He seemed disappointed when Alina didn't take his recomendation, and her meal really, sorry to say it Alina, paled in comparison to the meals Kate and I enjoyed. So headstrong that girl. At least she and Kate split plates she wasn't left out in the cold. Eventually, we finished eating, our waiter wished us a "biscuitastic day!" and we were on our way to the Georgia Aquarium.
We were quite impressed by the Georgia Aquarium, which is the largest aquarium in the world (Why? There isn't an ocean near Atlanta...). We were pretty much sold within minutes of our entry, when we stumbled upon the petting area of the aquarium where we got to touch cownose sting rays and bonnethead sharks. Also incredible were the beluga whales, the otters, the huge tank with whale sharks, and the jellyfish. On top of how impressive the aquarium's marine life was, I think we were all also impressed with how nicely the place is laid out. All in all, we had a great time there and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying it. Eventually we decided to get going, so we let Alina have one more shark petting session before heading out. We went for a little stroll through the Olympic Park and even into the nearby CNN headquarters before hopping in the car and heading over to one of Atlanta's must-see locations, the Varsity. Varsity is the world's largest fast food place, and probably my favorite as far as fast food goes. We got their famous orange shakes and some fries and went for a long drive around downtown Atlanta to see some of the city and give the highways a chance to thin out - Atlanta's gridlock is riveled only by LA and, of course, our own beloved DC area. Soon we made our way back to Kate's house, had a bit of soup that Kate had made for us before our arrival, and retired for the evening.
The next morning we took our time getting up and out and said goodbye to Kate and her family and headed towards Columbia, South Carolina. A friend of mine from college, Allison, is in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, getting a masters in Public Health so I wanted to visit her while we were relatively in the area. We made good time getting to Allison's house in West Columbia and spent some time just sitting around her apartment, catching up. After a little while she offered to give us the grand driving tour of the city, so we did that for the next 20 or so minutes, hitting all of the highlights like the SC capitol building and the bbq restaurant owned by a notoriously racist guy that ran for mayor. Eventually it was getting on towards meal time so we began our search for dinner. We had to drive around for a while to find someplace that was open, this being South Carolina on a Sunday, but we eventually found a brick oven pizza place that was quite satisfactory. We returned to Allison's place after dinner and a Ben and Jerry's (where we had the honor and pleasure of meeting the surliest ice cream scooper I'd ever come across) to chill out for a while before going to a night club down the street where Allison's boyfriend was playing in a show. He was part of a series of twenty to thirty minute sets, and he was actually very good. His name is Tim and he plays guitar and accordian to funny numbers like "God Invented Spywear" and "My Nazi Girlfriend Found Out I'm Jewish." Presumably Allison is not the Nazi girlfriend, although she does have the blond hair mentioned in the song... After the show Tim wanted to go to another bar and we agreed, so we headed over to a place in the basement of a building right across from the capital, which seemed to be the one hipster place in town. On the way we jammed to some of our bad pop favorites and got all kinds of pumped up, plus they had cheap rum and cokes, so I was set. We had a good time getting to know Tim, except for one small skirmish between he and Alina due to the fact that he and his family hate Thomas Jefferson. Something about bad fiscal policy, and Alina countered with something about wine. Weird. At any rate, it was his birthday, so we celebrated for a while before heading back to Allison's house to watch some TV (if I have to even allude to what show we watched then you just don't know us at all) until falling asleep.
The next day our destination was Durham, North Carolina, to visit another good college friend, Matt Price, who works at Duke University now. Because he wasn't going to get off of work until six or seven, we were in no real rush to get there, so we took it slowly that morning and didn't say goodbye to Allison until about 11:30. Since we had six hours to make a three or four hour drive, we decided that it was a good day to do something that we had been meaning to do for a while, take THE WAFFLE HOUSE CHALLENGE. What's the Waffle House Challenge? Glad you asked. It is to stop at every Waffle House that you come across all day and to get a waffle. A few hours later, in much pain, we remembered that the original idea was Alina's, and we both hated her for coming up with it and me for thinking it sounded fun. Who is the real idiot here? You decided. At any rate, we didn't quite make it. We stopped and ate at ten Waffle Houses in the first few hours and just couldn't stomach any more. Plus, by that time it had become apparent that we were never going to make it to Matt's before he got off of work if we did complete the challenge, and we didn't want to sacrifice a night with an old friend for more waffles that we would probably throw up. And so, having completed a particularly tough stretch of four Waffle Houses within 21 miles of each other, we decided to just continue driving. As it was, we got to Durham only a few minutes before Matt got home. We went on a short walk to wait for him, and soon he called us to let us know that he was at his apartment. That night we went to dinner at a generic Asian place close to Matt's apartment - we were suprised that we were in a way hungry, just not for anything even closely resembling a waffle - and spent the rest of the evening just hanging around Matt's roomy but sparse apartment.
We slept in a bit the next morning as we had nothing pressing to do and our host was busy taking his final. Eventually we made our way to campus, where we busied ourselves by walking around and checking out some of the new developments such as the new dorms and rec center. I was most impressed by the new parking garage, just because the idea of parking garages in such a tiny town perplexes me on some level. Eventually it was time for me to part with Alina to go to coffee with my favorite WM professor, Bella, my Russian professor for years and the woman who lead my St Petersburg study abroad group. It was wonderful to catch up with her as well as the ladies at the AIDS Network, where I had volunteered throughout college and visited after coffee with Bella. Unfortunately I was unable to catch the other professors I wanted to see, and I think Alina also had that problem, but we weren't very surprised about that as it was the week before finals and we hadn't been good about planning ahead and getting in touch with people. It's okay though, I'm sure we'll both be back soon. The rest of the afternoon was spent just lounging around Matt's place, where we ordered a very late pizza lunch and hung out all day. Eventually we all had things to do on campus: Alina and I were off to the meetings of clubs we were extremely involved in during undergrad, her to Young Democrats and me to AIDS Tanzania, and Matt went to a floor hockey game. After the meeting I went out for a few drinks with this years president, Jenn, and we returned to Alina and Matt's together where they were eating a very late dinner. For the rest of the night we just hung out with Matt, his housemates, and some of their friends, enjoying the good company and how much this reminded us of the four years of our life in Williamsburg.
The next day we took our time saying goodbye and didn't get on the road for our last day of driving the familiar Williamsburg-Warrenton route until noon. This worked out because I was planning on meeting our friend Dana for lunch in Fredericksburg, and she didn't finish class until two. We ate at Sunset Thai, a gem deep within the fortress of capitalism that is Fredericksburg's Central Park shopping center. I'd been comparing all Thai restaurants on the trip to this place, so I think that Alina was excited about it, and I don't think that she was disappointed. After our huge lunch, our fitting final meal of a trip of four months of really exceptional food, we were on the road again. Before we knew it we were unloading Alina's stuff and then only a blink of an eye later I was at the diner table with my parents in my own house.
All in all, this trip was the best thing I have ever done for myself, and I think that we both had a truly incredible experience. Thanks so much to those of you who kept updated though our blog, kept in touch with us as we drove in and out of communication, and especially to those of you who hosted us, because you are truly who made this trip so special! Alina will be following with a post of our trip by the numbers, which should be very interesting, so look for that soon. This is the last word for me, so thanks again for reading!