Tuesday, March 7, 2017


The second day of my drive through the south I ate some fresh fruit for breakfast and then hit the road.  Kings Mountain had been a good stop.  A wonderful way to end a very interesting first day on the road. And I had covered a lot of miles.

As soon as I crossed into South Carolina the place where the Civil War started and the home to a wide assortment of fairly belligerent bastards the speed limit dropped to 65 and the price of gas went up. Not a good sign.

After going about twenty miles, they started pitching peaches like there was no tomorrow.  I have no idea why. There were billboards everywhere along I-85 heralding great deals on peaches.  You’d think they invented the damn things.  I figured they were just trying to screw their southern neighbors in Georgia, who, after all, live in the Peach State.  And in the bustling metropolis of Gaffney, the town fathers had painted a large water tower bright orange to make it look like a peach. It was not even peach season. But y’all come!

There were long strings of truck convoys blocking the fast lane every ten miles or so and I would suddenly go from 80 mph to 60, waiting for the slow-moving beasts to move over so I could pass.  It made what would have been a very pleasant drive a giant pain in the ass.

South Carolina is home to many little wayside colleges in the middle of nowhere mostly technical and  bible colleges Coker College, Limestone College, Voorhees College, North Greenville College all  leading the golden way to the despicable Bob Jones University in Greenville where they speak with the serpent’s tongue. 

South Carolinians sure do like their Jesus.  One out of every five billboards  praised the word of the lord and promised my salvation. There was one humongous sign that really caught my eye right next to the Tanger Outlet Mall  at an interchange near no known town, somewhere south of Ashland, that proclaimed:  

“That’s good, “ I said to myself, “because he’s got some ‘splaining to do.”

But Jesus couldn’t outgun the baser delights of man.

There were gun stores galore. I’m not sure how that works. Is a gun really an impulse purchase?  And can an out-of-state schmo just pull in and buy a loaded weapon?  That’s way beyond insane, but there it was.  A nice shiny piece just waiting for you to nuzzle as you drive.

Fireworks are also big fun and the folks down in South Carolina obviously like to blow shit up.  There were endless cinder block bunkers along the highway, offering two for one sales, like Big Jake's Fireworks Warehouse the “biggest in the world”.  Who actually measures these places?

And a new addition to the roadside attractions were moonshine stores.  I tried homemade liquor when I was going to college down at Randolph-Macon in Virginia back in the early 70s, and it tasted like gasoline.  I never understood the attraction.  But if the billboards were any indication, the stuff was really popular with the tourists these days. I guess that now that they have their own TV show it’s cool. There was a really nice looking establishment just off the interstate called Palmetto Moonshine with a sipping room, but I didn’t stop for a taste.

It always struck me as odd that a bible thumping state like South Carolina could so shamelessly advertise all manner of pornography and wanton sex along its most high-profile roads.  It seemed like every interchange was offering a taste of forbidden fruit.  There were Adult Superstores and strip joints  - “We Bare All! - lining the highway like main street in Gomorrah.

It appeared from my limited view, going 80 mph down an interstate highway, that almost everybody lived in a trailer. There were trailer parks galore. Parks is too kind a word. They resembled backwoods compounds with rusted cars rotting in the overgrown yards and dead animals hanging from the scraggly  trees.  It was pretty unsettling.

Every little town advertised Motorsports, little red clay circular tracks with rickety stands that no doubt are the social hub of the area on a warm Saturday night.  I guess you have to make do when there’s no high school football.

Flea markets were also quite a draw.  Vendors lined open tracts of land, hawking secondhand goods while surprisingly large crowds inspected the merchandise.  I wondered whether they were locals or tourists.

But what garnered most of my attention while passing through South Carolina were the police.  The cops drove around in menacing black Dodge Challengers, with tinted windows, often in packs, rousting motorists by the side of the road, going through their bags and luggage. That would definitely ruin a nice vacation.  Thank goodness the WAZE social network always alerted me to their presence before they could spring their trap.  It definitely put a brand new spin on the phrase “Southern Hospitality”, though I guess that myth was shattered ages ago.

But it wasn’t all surreal or scary passing through South Carolina.  There were numerous lakes and reservoirs that looked quite inviting.  But all of them, like the biggest of the bunch, Lake Hartwell, were starved for more water.  The water levels were way down, exposing the red clay banks, and forcing the marina operators and waterfront homeowners to build long extension docks to the lake. So, even when there was some rather attractive natural feature, like a shiny man made lake, it was still kind of depressing.

By Georgia the hardwoods were starting to bloom.  And I even noticed the  occasional native white shadblow that mimic those godawful Bradford pear trees that I had so liked back up in North Carolina,

And then came the south’s biggest metropolis, Atlanta.  The traffic jam started thirty miles from the city.  I decided to stay on I-85 and go right right through the heart of the beast, rather than take the beltway around town, because Atlanta is actually a pretty cool city.  I hadn't been there in many years and the new high rise skyscrapers in the city core were quite breathtaking.  A testament to new money.  But the traffic was like D.C. and I crawled along at a snail's pace.  It was good for the visuals but a bit stressful with all the stopping and starting as we crawled by the the heart of Dixie.  The most disheartening thing about Atlanta is that  it is spreading south to Macon, like Salt Lake City is engulfing Ogden, Provo and Orem. Prosperity has no end like cancer.

My destination was Macon, Georgia.  Specifically, the “Big House”. This was the grand,Tudor-style house that the Allman Brothers lived in with their wives and little kids in the early 70s, at about the time they were just catching fire.  It is now a free museum located in a very nice neighborhood of stately homes.  The museum showcases furniture, photos, guitars, clothes and all sorts of memorabilia from their wild and woolly past.

The Allman Brothers were my favorite band when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who were tearing up the music world, and for my money, “Whipping Post” is still the finest piece of music ever created.  I was lucky enough to see them perform several times before Duane and Berry Oakley crashed their choppers at the same intersection in Macon and died within months of one another.  So sad.

Whipping Post

I met them after a show down in Richmond in the notorious “Fan District” in 1971, and they were scary good.  A wall of blues.  And they came on like crazed bikers, which is essentially what they all were.  In those days they would get up in the morning and drink some magic mushroom ice tea that was always in the fridge, jam the afternoon away drinking whiskey, pop some black beauties so they were wired for the show, and then crash in the wee hours of the morning with more liquor and a few seconals or tuinols. Such a lifestyle was, of course, unsustainable.  But the Brothers were like a force of nature. And while I would not want to denigrate the talent of the Allman Brothers Band that rose from the ashes of Duane’s death, nothing was ever the same after the loss of their lead guitarist.  It was like Little Feat after Lowell George passed away.

I highly recommend the “Big House” if you are traveling through Macon. And the town itself is really quite attractive and inviting. Macon was once a hub of commerce and has some really nice historic sandstone buildings.  And there’s a very nice Arts and Dining district.

I ate a ridiculously cheap and yummy dinner at a nearly empty Thai restaurant on the main drag called Sangs.  

After dinner I crossed the street and checked out the Hummingbird Bar in a Byzantine-arched, red sandstone building.  As soon as I walked inside I was blown away by the smoke.  Everybody was smoking.  When was the last time you went into a bar where they allowed you to smoke?  I was stunned … and amused.  So, I bellied up to the bar and started a conversation with a very friendly lady bartender.  It was Happy Hour and they were offering $1 Pabst Blue Ribbons. I ordered one, and then a couple more, just taking in the weird scene.

When my beer came, I said, “I can’t remember the last time I was in a place that served PBR’s and let you smoke.”

The bartender chuckled.  “Yeah, you don’t see that combination too much any more.”

“How do you get away with the smoking?”  I asked.

“We are strictly a bar.  We don’t serve any food.  If you don’t do food in Georgia, then you can let the patrons smoke.”

Things are different in the south, for sure.

I  had been alerted at the Big House to a free screening of a new documentary at the historic Douglass Theater nearby and I walked over to the show around seven and snagged a seat.  The theater was like one of those old ornate vaudeville places and it was filled with old hippies and black blues musicians an interesting mix indeed.

The movie was called “Sidemen - The Long Road To Glory” and it told an amazing story about three blues masters  Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Willie Big Eyes” Smith on drums, and Pinetop Perkins on piano  – all of whom got lost in the wake of their well-known band leaders Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.  It was a fascinating and sad tale that I, who considers himself a music aficionado, had never heard.  And it brought tears to my eyes several times. All three giants recently died in their 90s within a few months of one another.

As I walked back to my motel, I began to notice that Macon seemed to have more apparently homeless black people than I have ever seen any place in America.  At every intersection they were aimlessly jaywalking across the street in a chaotic dance, carrying their possessions in black garbage bags.  It was like they had emptied the local asylum.

The cable in my motel offered 18 religious channels and ads for The Casket Store, but the next morning there was a local news story about an annual event that takes place in Macon every spring called “Sleep Out For The Homeless”. Local pastors and advocates camp out in a school yard to highlight the terrible issue of homelessness.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, a line from Jim Morrison’s “American Prayer” kept running through my head.  

“Death makes angels of us all,
And gives us wings,
Where we had shoulders,
Smooth as raven’s claws.”

Road Log
Left Kings Mountain, Georgia at 10AM and arrived at Macon, Georgia at 2PM.
300 miles

Saturday, March 4, 2017


I left Annapolis to visit some old friends who I worked with at the Grand Canyon Canyon and who now live in Tallahassee at ten on a Wednesday morning in late February, with the hopes of  dodging the rush hour traffic around Washington and northern Virginia.  The plan worked like a charm and I zoomed around the nation’s capital  on the Capital Beltway without any delays.  It was a partly cloudy  winter’s day with temperatures hovering in the low 50s pretty typical for the warmer-than-normal winter of 2017 in Maryland.

Interstate 95 was virtually empty relatively speaking.  I mean, it’s always pretty much out of control, but at least it wasn’t a parking lot, which it what I usually encounter.  There wasn’t enough traffic to even warrant opening the  Express Pass lanes and I made great time.  I was in Richmond in less than two hours almost a record..  But there were lots of trucks and everyone was going about 70 in every lane, so it was still pretty cranked until I got to Petersburg, Virginia,  where I exited onto I-85.

As soon as I started driving down I-95’s western cousin, it was an entirely different vibe.  There were dense woods on both sides of the highway and noticeably less traffic. The landscape went from urban to rural in the space of about ten miles.  And  I literally breathed a sigh of relief.  But the woods looked slightly forlorn, mostly raggedy-ass scrub pines draped in brown dormant kudzu that looked like dead seaweed.

The speed limit soon soon went from 65  to 70 and I was going about 80 most of the time.  I hit the cruise control and settled in for a smooth ride.  I  engaged my trusty WAZE app and for the next two days it alerted me to anything up ahead that might be a problem, like a cop, debris in the road, a construction backup, or an accident.  It was a wonderful tool to have there by my side and during my 950-mile drive from Annapolis to Tallahassee, Florida, it came in really handy and saved me several speeding tickets in South Carolina and Georgia.  And every time I saw a speed trap, I dutifully alerted the WAZE network.  I got multiple thank yous from grateful motorists.  Power to the People!

My destination at the end of the first day was Gastonia, North Carolina, where my mom and dad always stopped back in the sixties, when I was but a wee lad and we were heading south to Boca Grande, Florida each spring.  That meant about a seven hour drive from my home, not including the stops.  A long day at the wheel indeed.  But I like driving through new lands, or those long forgotten, so it was all good.

After about four hours everything started to merge into snapshot impressions …

I expected gas to be much cheaper in the South.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I associate the deep South with cheap gas and bible thumping. Jesus had bought premium space on countless billboards along I-85 but gas was only five cents cheaper than up in Maryland.  It was running at about $2.19 a gallon.  No wonder rural America was pissed off and voted for Trump.

For me, spring is measured by what the trees are doing.  By Greensboro, the temperature was hovering in the mid 70s and  there were bright red buds on the maple trees.  But nothing was green or in bloom yet.  Spring wasn’t quite there, but it was coming fast.

By Charlotte those man-made harbingers of spring, the white cotton ball Bradford pears were in their full bloom glory.  And even if they were created by a mad botanist at the Beltsville lab in Maryland, it warmed my heart to think that I had finally escaped winter’s chilly grasp.

I hit Gastonia at rush hour and the place resembled strip shop hell.  I exited, waited for every traffic light along the insanely backed-up Highway 321. It was like everyone in the goddamn town was on this one stretch of road.   I came to the Motel 6 where I had planned to stay, but the whole scene was so industrial strength depressing that I turned around and headed back for the Interstate.  I decided to get a few more miles under my belt and then stop further south at an interchange that didn’t teem with ugliness and traffic.

About 30 miles farther down I-85, I came to a place from my past: Kings Mountain, North Carolina, very near the South Carolina border.

Many years before, when I was living the life of a nomad, I had been exploring the south and stumbled onto the Kings Mountain National Military Park on a very cold Autumn night and ended up camping in a completely empty campground.   After freezing my ass off, I awoke to sunlight and warmth and strolled around what turned out to be one of the most significant  and unheralded battlefields in American history.  This was the spot where the American Revolutionary War turned in favor of the Patriots.  After a long string of defeats at the hands and bootheels of Lord Cornwallis, a rebel force of 900 surprised a larger army of Loyalist troops on October 7, 1780, about nine miles south of the Econolodge where I stayed on my return visit in 2017.  The Rebels routed the Loyalists and then proceeded to butcher many of those who surrendered.  The defeat so unnerved Cornwallis that he abandoned his plan of conquering North Carolina and retreated back into South Carolina.  And from that point on, it was all pretty much downhill for the Brits until their final surrender to General Washington at Yorktown.  Who knew, right?

Having already visited the park, and with night descending, I went foraging for food and ended up at a local dive called Mi Pueblito.  What a find!  I love Mexican food and this family-owned and operated restaurant served down home authentic Mexican delights.  The place was packed with locals, which is always a good sign.  The chips were home-baked, the salso rich and tasty, the Modelo chilled to perfection, and the chimichangas and guacamole salad out of this world.  And I saw  or, rather, heard something hilarious while eating my dinner.  A hispanic family sat down and started an animated conversation in Spanish.  But occasionally they would break into English, and when they did, they did so with a backwoods hillbilly drawl.  It was comical as hell.

And therein lay the lesson for the day:  Appearances can be deceiving, but more importantly, a journey is measured by what you find, not what you see.

Road Log
Left Annapolis at 10AM
Arrived at Kings Mountain, North Carolina at 8PM
470 miles