A total of ten days, 3,426 miles, nine states and two cars. One granny, one dog, one boy, one me and G joining us for the last two days.
It feels amazing to look back on it and think we did that – I could definitely have taken longer and seen more. There is so much in this country – although at times driving though the Southern Plains it felt as if there was pretty much only one horizon, one view and one prevailing wind.
Day 1: Darnestown to Knoxville – 510 miles
It was difficult to drive out of Darnestown with our packed-up car. Despite having rented a big SUV, the boy, Monty and Scotty Grannie were surrounded with bags placed either strategically for easy reach of their contents or crammed hopefully into small crevices. I focussed on the positive memories from our 3 years, 3 months in Maryland and the excitement of 10 days on the road took over. The homemade sandwiches made from Thanksgiving leftovers helped too.
The drive gave way from happy familiarity to some familiarity to rememberences of names and places and then to random recognitions. Driving through the Shenandoah Valley was as lovely as ever with the trees putting up their final autumn display and the smokiness of the layers of mountains melting into the sky. I am glad we spent a lot of time there – Virginia is a beautiful part of the US.
We made it to the hotel in Knoxville, which thankfully had room service. Even Monty, crashed out on painkillers appreciated this especially as it came complete with bacon served in a dog bowl just for him.
Day 2: Knoxville to Memphis – 434 miles
Knoxville is a friendly, pretty, small town especially while wearing its Christmas finery – its charm was complete with the discovery of a lovely French Pancake house – perfect for breakfast.
The drive to Nashville took us through thick forests, along winding highways alongside and over mountains. Arriving in Nashville is always confusing and exhilarating – you are met with the smell of booze and stale food, live music blaring from every bar and an infinite number of people to watch. Unfortunately one is quite limited with a dog, but we did manage to wander around, find the music stars and plunder the GooGoo shop. Monty was universally admired and managed to find a lot of junk to eat too.
The total absorption of Nashville was hard to pull away from, which meant that we drove to Memphis in near to complete darkness. In those situations, it is always good to pull off the road and look up at the masses of usually unseen stars.
Day 3: Memphis to Little Rock – 194 miles
Although most people think of Graceland when Memphis is mentioned, we elected to explore the National Civil Rights museum at the Lorraine Motel.
It is a moving and thought provoking place that has displays on slavery, which are horrific in their mundanity, alongside accounts of escapees and those who fought for freedom. It then travels through the civil war, the emancipation proclamation, reconstruction, jim crow to the protests, single-sex marriage, the election of Obama and Black Lives Matter. Amongst all the emotion and feeling one of the hardest parts was walking between the rooms where MLK spent his last afternoon. They are still set out as they were left with old coffee cups, full ashtrays and even a pair of glasses. The boy has learned about the civil rights movement at school and was especially taken with the bus where Rosa Parks sat and the twisted burnt out bus of the Freedom Riders. Well worth a visit and in a fitting environment. The boy’s reflection was: ‘America is a free country, why can’t everyone have equal rights?’
Downtown Memphis is another lovely town, full of charming buildings, with a tram running through it. The Mississippi river runs alongside Memphis, dividing Tennessee from Arkansas. We spent a happy hour or so running around the park there, playing soccer and enjoying being outside the overwhelming crush of bags in the car.
Driving across the Mississippi felt like a milestone. All of a sudden it felt like a different country – no more rolling hills, just massive flatness and straight roads. We came off the I-40 just because for a while. Surrounding us were farms with no start or finish, we drove through towns/hamlets with populations of 631 and less. How do they survive? Where do the kids go to school? Does everyone know each others business? What is life like there? When the population changes does someone go and change the sign to reflect the number increase or decrease? All I know for certain is that there isn’t a lot out there apart from farm shops and empty stores.
Day 4: Little Rock to Oklahoma City – 381 miles
The morning in Little Rock started off with thunderstorms and lots of rain, so we missed out on exploring the area. I want to give Little Rock and Hot Springs NP another chance as the areas we did stumble on were really interesting. One guy loved it so much he moved from San Francisco with his mother and brother to start a new life there – ‘Small fish in a small pond’. Once he realised we were British, he confided that he loved Edinburgh because he had lost his virginity in a big hotel there.
After the rain stopped we went for lunch in a diner in another smallish town. It had the distinction of being super quiet as most of the businesses were closed. Fortunately for us, the lovely diner was open, complete with chills, burgers and a sickening root beer float.
The leg to Oklahoma City was through growing banks of clouds and powered with the hope that we soon would be able to switch out the car for a bigger model. Unfortunately this hope was dashed by the pair of ‘helpful people’ staffing the office at the airport. The evening then plummeted further by the discovery that it was bowling league night all over the city which meant there was no lane to be had anywhere for love or money.
Not the best night on the trip.
Day 5: Oklahoma City to Amarillo – 350 miles
Today was the day when all the poor eating and lack of sleep started to kick in with the vague symptoms of bad colds settling low over us like the clouds we had driven through the previous days. Unfortunately this meant that none of us had the energy to sample either the delights of Taco Beuno or any BBQ as we left the city behind feeling more squashed than ever. Spirits lifted when I found a nice guy in Alberqueque who would allow us to switch our car for a bigger model and we began to dream about stretching our limbs and generally having more room in the car.
Oklahoma City was when we started traveling Route 66, which basically is a more meandering version of the I40 – sometimes it joins with the I40, sometimes it is along a dirt road and sometimes it can be dead ends.
On this stretch it was mostly flat and straight. We followed the interstate, getting off when we had time and wanted something a bit less monotonous. One such side trip led us to a type of ‘living museum’ – basically a collection of buildings ‘manned’ by creepy looking waxworks trying to represent what life was like when America consisted of small dusty towns joined by 66 and the railways. At least they had railways back then. Monty took it upon himself to protect us from the fiberglass horses tethered in the museum town though.
In the next town was one of those vastly open, yet strangely intimate (if you ignore the high ceilings and warehouse-sized interior) coffee and cake shops common in remote towns. Full of people gathering and random antiques and pictures. This one was unique in that sectioned off at the back, before one got to the creepy toilet, was a one-seat hair salon. The coffee is generally pretty average in these places, but the people are so friendly and helpful that you want to stay and become part of the community. Maybe that is why people gather in places like that?
Amarillo and it’s endless chain stores and neon was hard to take after the wilderness of AK and OK. Monty must have felt the same as we were called back from a promising looking dinner by complaints of a barking dog in our hotel room…