My wife and I are about to embark on a road trip through North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s more of a long weekend than an actual vacation. We’re staying with old friends in Brevard, North Carolina, visiting Asheville (and, inevitably, the Biltmore) and making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of country music in Bristol, Tennessee.
Bristol is where, in 1927, an early recording session launched the careers of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, a/k/a “The Singing Brakeman.” Rodgers, who died young of tuberculosis (he really was a brakeman) became the first person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
OK, you’re wondering what all this has to do with cars. We’ll use a car on the road trip! Admittedly a faceless mid-size rental, but it’s still a road trip, with total unknown territory around every corner. We toyed with using one of my classic cars—maybe the Mazda Miata?—for this adventure, but then we’d be worrying about the car’s safety all the time (or, at least I would).
No, better to focus on exploring the back roads. Didn’t William Least Heat-Moon (born William Trogdon) write about this in Blue Highways (1982)? Get off the interstates and see the real America. Brake for tag sales, and for everything else, too. It’s funny, when I’m on auto industry ride-and-drives I always want to go with partners who’ll take it at a leisurely pace and stop as much as possible. Who cares who gets back first! It’s not a race.
“Look where we are!” Theresa Russell says that to Art Garfunkel in Nicholas Roeg’s must-see film Bad Timing (A Sensual Obsession). They’re in Marrakech, Morocco at the time. But you can say it anywhere. The world is endlessly fascinating. Is that a store selling “collectables n thingz” up ahead? Stop!
And then there’s food. Here are a few memorable meals I remember. Walking into a cavernous restaurant/grocery store in Texas between Austin and Dallas. The place was called Boo Boos. “Is this your first visit to Boo Boos?” the proprietor asked. We had to admit it was. We had the catfish. In the same state, Snuffy’s Barbecue near Port Aransas (where the whooping cranes are) was memorable. Al-T’s Cajun Seafood and Steaks served the best crawfish etouffe we ever ate, but it’s in Winnie, Texas, not Louisiana. It’s right off Route 10, on the way to Port Arthur (where Janis Joplin grew up—that’s why we were going there).
Somewhere near Portland, Oregon we stopped at the Joel Palmer House, a restaurant that featured wild mushrooms in every dish. The meal was gathered, not grown. On the road in Italy, driving a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, every roadside place we stopped at—in and around Venice, Urbino, Florence, Santa Margarita Liguria, Lucca and the Italian Alps—had fabulous food. At one place, when we asked for the check about 10 minutes after we finished eating, the chef came out concerned. In Italy, you linger over your food.
Duck’s Dam Diner (it’s real name) in Oklawaha, Florida was memorable, and not just for the food. I loved Giovanni’s Inn, a dark Italian place in the woods of Wurtsboro, New York with deer heads on the wall. Lots of deer heads. And a buffet restaurant in Warsaw, North Carolina had great local barbecue. In Gatehouse of Fleet, Scotland, the peach melba was the best ever. Didn’t have haggis, though. On another trip we went down to Torquay, where they filmed Fawlty Towers. It’s on the “English Riviera,” and there are palm trees, but it’s cold! In Tasman, New Zealand I encountered a tea stop, the eccentric Jester House Cafe, that encourages patrons to feed the eels. They were huge and came slithering out of the water.
There were sights, too. The Dr. Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute in Waco, Texas (before the Branch Davidians) was pretty good, as were car museums in many states—Owl’s Head in Maine, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg in Indiana, Simeone in Pennsylvania, Saratoga in New York. Chattanooga, Tennessee has the International Towing Museum! Did you know they used to cut old touring cars down into wreckers?
In Millinocket, Maine, we discovered a virtual ghost town that was left by the closing of a paper mill. In Albuquerque, New Mexico we visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History and a reptile museum. In Arizona, we visited the little border town of Bisbee, went down in the copper mine, and checked out all the art galleries. We made Mexico a day trip.
Of course there are blips on trips like this. Flat tires. Rain. Problems finding a place to stay. I remember a New York State motel where the only place that smelled more strongly of disinfectant than the rooms was the office. In another place, in Las Vegas, a Band-aid someone left on the floor remained there through three days of “room cleaning.”
But not knowing what to expect is the charm of road tripping. The less you think about it, the better. We went to Port Arthur because, well, Janis Joplin grew up there. To Rockport, Texas because somebody said it was a nice town. Get out and see our big, beautiful world.