This week’s column covers about 2,700 miles and spans 15 states — from Hampden, Maine to New Orleans, La. and part way back. Last week, my youngest daughter, Tessa, and I packed up our Honda with her electric keyboard, accordion and a few large duffel bags. We set out on the long trek to the Gulf Coast, where she is about to begin school at Tulane University.
Some readers may remember the last time Tessa appeared in this column, after she spent seven months as a crewmember on the expedition vessel, Wanderbird. Her entry into Tulane is college, part two. It also means a new chapter of discovery for me and my husband, Jonathan.
Having one’s child take time off from college is a boon for parents, and not just because we get a break from tuition payments. One of the best parts of being a parent to young adults is that they lead you into uncharted territory. They shake things up, keep you fresh, show you new ways to look at life, and occasionally introduce you to new parts of the globe. Our road trip from Maine to Louisiana introduced us to new corners of our extraordinary country.
I’ll start my travel notes with a plug for an amazing roadside restaurant. We took a break from the endless truck traffic on Interstate 81 to stretch our car-cramped joints in Strawberry Plains, Tenn. — just outside of Knoxville. The award-winning Puleo’s Grille served fried green tomatoes and cheesy grits with country gravy that would make a southern food lover out of anybody.
Our first overnight in the Deep South was Birmingham, Ala., where we spent a night at the historic Tutwiler Hotel. With only a few hours to look around, we decided to visit a hilltop park, home of the towering statue of Vulcan, god of fire and steel. Vulcan is the city symbol of Birmingham, which was rooted in the iron and steel industries. Birmingham is one of a few U.S. cities with no waterway. Instead,
the intersection of two major railways led to the flourishing of the city’s industries.
The 50-ton Vulcan was impressive, the largest cast iron statue in the world (then again, how many cast iron statues are there?). The view from Vulcan’s tower was also terrific, but the accompanying museum was the most memorable part of the park. We generally study U.S. history through a wide lens, but this tracing of history through the experience of one southern city, including its struggles with boom and bust economies, racial integration and civil rights, was extremely illuminating.
I imagine that few Mainers make the drive to New Orleans, but if you do, prepare yourself for the arrival over water from the east. Tessa and I both gasped as we rose up onto the causeway of Interstate 10, crossing Lake Pontchartrain. It feels like you’re driving toward a fantasy city, floating in the distance between water and clouds.
Indeed, New Orleans feels rather fantastical in many ways, this city of music and multicultural history, with its exquisite, twisted live oak trees lining the streets, charming old architecture, friendly hospitality and undercurrent of vulnerability to the whims of nature.
We got a taste of local flavor after picking Jonathan up at the airport. “Jaques-Imo’s” serves “real N’awlin food.” We ate alligator cheesecake, blackened redfish and a huge standing crab dish called Godzilla. It was a unique eating space, crazy with splashy artwork on the walls and ceilings, where you squeeze your way through the busy kitchen to get to your seat.
Being slightly less hurried on the trip home, Jonathan and I took a scenic route from Atlanta, Ga. through the Smoky Mountains and Asheville, N.C., a quirky, artsy, mountain town that one resident said is known as “the loophole in the Bible belt.” Even without the stop in Asheville for ice cream, the gorgeous drive through the Smokies on Routes 23 and 26 was worth every breathtaking minute.
We are nearing the final leg of our odyssey, and Tessa is settled in New Orleans. Her off campus home has central air conditioning, high ceilings, a resident cat and curtains of Mardi-Gras beads on the front railing. She is launched on her next chapter, and so are we. Jonathan and I face empty nest, part two. But we also are excitedly planning our next trip to a dazzling city on the Mississippi Delta — a surface we have barely scratched. Thanks, Tessa, for making the first scratch and inviting us along.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.