on road trips and summer breaks, part II

continued from part I

We woke early the next day – fortunately with all limbs attached – and headed out immediately to cover the second half of road to Texas, car eating up the miles as we sped down deserted highways. We were near to embarking on the part of our trip that, for me, would be a series of uncharted cities; some I never thought I’d have any reason to visit in my lifetime.

Austin was one such city.

We arrived late in the afternoon, after a pit stop at an Amish grocery in Oklahoma for an in-car picnic lunch of chive-and-garlic cheese on crackers, and unpacked at N’s apartment in north Austin. It was the first time in seven months I’d seen her – the longest we’d gone without physical contact in the 14 years I’ve known her – and we spent the evening catching up over dinner about her second semester as a first-year PhD student, my cousin’s wedding and my last few weeks in DC, L’s Fulbright in Mexico. I felt that peculiar sense of sadness again then, nostalgia for the simplicity of school life and anxiety about an uncertain future. It passed quickly, though, when N took us out to a favorite bar for the night and we arrived back late and fell into exhausted, dreamless sleep.

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The next day was a lazy one, as L and I took care of some errands while N was in class, before heading out to Gourdough’s Public House for late lunch and the US-Belgium game. It was a remarkable bar, as each menu item involved some sort of doughnut as a component, somehow making the combination of red meat and breakfast dessert seem appetizing. So naturally we ordered burgers with doughnut buns as an all-American backdrop to the match. Despite the disappointment in the game, any lingering emotional pain lost out to the pain we felt from our food comas (another constant theme in our road trip). N gave us a short, driving tour of Austin after lunch, pointing out hip neighborhoods, taking us to see the stunning Capitol building, and weaving through the UT campus as we rode out our gluttony. We picked up a pizza for dinner – though we really could have stood to skip food altogether – and parked our arses on the couch for the night, watching Clue and chatting until we fell asleep with half-eaten pizza slices on the table.

Our final day with N was spent thrift shopping and visiting Dragon’s Lair Comics, where L and I picked up too-many clothes and I battled a profound urge to stock up on old manga and graphic novels. Brunch at Magnolia’s earlier in the morning kept us energized for much of the day, before stopping in early for the night to pack up. N set off for a flight home the next morning, and L and I used our free afternoon to do more thrifting – stocking up on throw pillows at this point, if that’s any indication of how excessive our spending habits had become – before checking in with our airbnb host for the evening, dragging our considerably heavier luggage up rickety wooden steps to a seafoam green-painted house.

He ended up not actually living in the house we were staying in, instead using one of the two bedrooms as a workshop for his and his partner’s, believe it, silicon mermaid tail-making business. A peek in the door of the workshop gave us a glimpse of a massive, half-painted tail suitable for a quasi underwater burlesque show, each silicon scale painstakingly attached by hand and painted a rainbow of watercolor blues, purples, and greens. There was also a temporary tattoo vending machine nestled against the wall of the bright teal living room to really complete the image.

L and I exchanged looks at the sight, feeling as though we’d stepped foot in an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque circus ring, shrugged, and made ourselves at home. We laid out our suitcases, freshened up briefly, and stepped out for a dinner of wurst and sauerkraut on pumpernickel buns at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden, getting a feel for south Austin neighborhoods. It didn’t take us long to decide that they were effortlessly hipster, with barrel furniture and distressed wood tables and chairs accenting every home and cafe, as Austinites dressed in ankle boots, loose frocks, and bright cropped pants strolled about with an air of cool nonchalance most other cities try too hard to mimic. Feeling distinctly uncool, we drove over to Cream Whiskers after dinner for dessert, a cafe we realized upon arriving served solely cream puffs with various fillings. Which, really, is never not what you’re in the mood for.

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Our return home from dinner was met with a minor hiccup when we realized that the bathroom door was locked from the inside. Using a thin nail I found among some of their work tools, I fiddled with the push-lock in vain for a good few minutes before giving up in frustration. L called our host and told him the story, while I resigned myself to the idea of using the backyard as a toilet. Ten minutes later, he arrived with friends in tow, blackout inebriated, dressed to the nines in gogo boots and galaxy-printed skinny jeans, and after a few incidents involving prying screens off windows with butter knives and throwing drag queens onto shower rods, we managed to get the door open. We also won ourselves an invite to their July 4 cookout the following afternoon, which was certainly not how I imagined our night would go. They cheerfully slammed the door shut on their way back to their prior activities, and we went to bed, utterly bewildered.

Finding ourselves still in the house the next morning, dispelling any possibility of the previous night having been the product of Ambien-induced hallucinations, we made off for a Mexican lunch at Sazón. Heaping plates of enchiladas de pipian and cochinita pibil in our bellies – possibly the best meal of our trip up to that point – we decided to drop in on the cookout, for curiosity’s sake more than anything.

It was… Well, I’ll just say that there was a massive inflatable castle-slash-water slide involved. Possibly also a tattooist inking rainbow-filled unicorns on those with $60 to spend.

We left Austin later that night. Drove three hours west before stop #2 in potentially-Psycho-motel, and fell into bed, utterly bewildered.

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The next morning we set off on our remaining 5-hour drive to Big Bend National Park, arriving in time for dinner at a small bar in Terlingua, a self-proclaimed Ghost Town that seemed less like a town than it was that single bar and the motel on top of it. It was a fine dinner in any case, and we were there long enough to hear a song performed by local musicians – one of whom was an accordionist – before heading back to our home for the night. The dry, desert weather was a welcome change from the suffocating humidity of Austin, so we took a twilight stroll along the road and took in the dusty mountaintops that stretched for miles around us. It was quiet out along the ghost town, with little artificial light to brighten our path and scarcely the sound of a car driving by. We stayed out for some time, watching the sky turn from orange to pink and finally dark as the sun made its slow descent behind the mountains. We turned back then, not wanting to be far from the motel once full darkness hit, and stayed in for a few hours, stretching out on the largest bed we’d had in weeks and relaxing for the first time in what felt like months.

Once night hit, we quietly made our way back outside to the car lot, picked up the sleeping mats from the trunk, spread them out on the gravel road, and lay with our backs to the ground to watch the expanse of sky and stars overhead. Darkness had cloaked the sky like a blanket of shadows with a hundred pinpricks of light, glittering like diamonds. More stars than I had ever seen in my life. I felt the same sense of calm that I had in Michigan, watching the beach stretch out into the grey of the fog ahead, feeling both insignificant and full of potential, suspended in infinity. It wasn’t sad or frightening or eerie; just alive. We eventually went back inside to sleep, but I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed outside, willing the stars not to disappear.

We spent the following morning exploring Big Bend, stopping every now and then to step outside to feel the desert breeze and watch the mountains stretch out like tapestries on all sides. We stayed for a few hours, driving aimlessly through the park’s weaving roads, getting lost in the plains and hilltops, before bidding farewell to West Texas and making our way toward Louisiana.

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We arrived by late night after two days of driving, just in time to pick up our key from the front desk at NOLA Jazz House. A new hostel, open hardly a month prior to our arrival and barely a mile from the French Quarter, it was full of excited faces and a flurry of rapid Greek and French and German, and reminded me deeply of L’s and my trip to Portugal three years before, in a similarly colorful hostel with the same feeling of excitement. We quickly dropped our things off at our room – “Pirate’s Alley” – before heading back to the front desk to ask for cheap recommendations on food and map out our two days in the city.

Unsurprisingly, our itinerary revolved primarily around restaurants, and our first day started off with a breakfast of poached eggs and fried catfish in creole sauce – one of my best breakfasts in recent memory – at the Ruby Slipper Cafe in midtown. We strolled through midtown streets for a short while after, sky overcast and brick roads glimmering from the rain that had fallen hours earlier. L regaled me with tales of her first visit to the city years before, as we arrived at Cafe Beignet for my first (but certainly not last) beignet-and-latte experience. Warm and chewy and at once melt-in-your-mouth, powdered sugar fingerprints leaving their mark on coffee cups and not-so-careful shirt sleeves, we savored the donuts in silent bliss in the little brick-and-mortar cafe. We didn’t have too much time to linger, though, before catching a cab to New Orleans’ Celebration Distillery for a tour among old barrels and even older machines, all that had weathered the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina almost 10 years ago.

1979386_10152605445819136_6648102451277821532_oThe post-distillery afternoon brought us to the French Quarter, where I marveled at the quiet splendor of its tightly-packed, tall three-story brick houses, their softly melancholy vacant upper-floor balconies, the wrought-iron portico twisting like latticeworks of proud ivy. I’d never seen anything quite like it, and I was hypnotized.

We strolled through narrow, cobblestone alleyways for a time, L pointing out how the city had changed since her last visit as my eyes traveled from building to building, committing the rusted reds and faded greens to memory as the soulful sounds of live jazz lilted out of every open door. Our priority was the St Louis Cemetery No. 1, which, upon our arrival, we realized had closed at 3pm (inciting a burst of irritation, as I’d have loved nothing more than to be able to walk among the gravestones after dark). We peered through the iron bars at the white and grey tombs within, and she told me about the vaults, the above-ground mausoleums that shield the corpses from the ground water, almost resembling small houses more than graves. (Cities of the dead.) We stayed for a bit, watching, before turning back toward the French Quarter for a second round of beignets.

We found ourselves at, unsurprisingly, Cafe du Monde, a sharp contrast from our post-breakfast brick-and-mortar haunt, bustling with people (mostly tourists) and waiters carrying trays piled high with beignets and chicory coffees. We sat at a small table against the wall, placed our order, and had our lattes and beignets, steaming hot, within what seemed like seconds. Round 2 proved just as delicious as round 1, donuts just as melt-in-your-mouth and powdered sugar just as unruly. We ate them slowly over conversation, gingerly dipping them in bitter, earthy coffees and taking in the day. The sky was starting to turn twilight pink when we left the cafe, though still mostly grey from the clouds that blanketed overhead.

In short, perfect for a ghost tour.

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Our tour guide was a robust man, lively and good-humored, though I couldn’t guess how much of it was a natural disposition and how much was credited to the foamy, amber brew he swirled around a clear plastic cup as we walked through the French Quarter. In any case, it was an enjoyable few hours, less terrifying than it was a historic tour of New Orleans’ grisly past, as he told us about Spanish and French control of the city, pointed out homes where Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner had stayed and written, and took us to the corner mansion where the infamous Delphine LaLaurie lived in the early 1800s (as well as a few filming sites of American Horror Story’s most recent season, which is, unequivocally, the only reason I know who Delphine is). By the time the tour ended, the sun was near to setting fully, so L and I made our quick way downtown to Cochon Butcher for a dinner of sandwiches and key lime pie before hopping aboard a streetcar headed for uptown.

We rode for a while – an hour, perhaps, though time felt still – with our heads resting on arms leaning out of open windows, eyes watching the beautiful mansions along St. Charles Avenue glide by, Mardi Gras beads hanging from tall oaks twinkling in the midnight starlight, grand colonnades at once inviting and threatening, as though we were trespassing upon secrets not meant for us.

Our streetcar took us beyond St. Charles onto S. Carrollton, where we hopped off and walked a few blocks to the Maple Leaf Bar for a live jazz performance by the Rebirth Brass Band. We stayed for some time, shoulders swaying in tune with the music amidst the throng of fans cheering on expert trumpet and trombone riffs, before exhaustion began to set in. Approaching our thirteenth hour out, we decided to turn in for the night, and made our slow way back to the hostel.

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Day two was considerably slower than day one, and we sleept in late enough to catch a few breakfast pancakes from the hostel before heading out for a second attempt to see St. Louis Cemetery. The weather was also considerably less bearable – hotter and suffocatingly humid – than the day before, so we were lucky to have already done most of our sight-seeing. Still, we spent a while at the cemetery, exploring makeshift alleyways weaving between the tombs, many of which towered high above us. It’s easy to get lost in the cemetery, to feel invisible among the white and grey stones, with all the world reduced to the flowers and tokens of remembrance strewn at their feet. I felt a deep sense of calm wash over me as my fingers lightly traced the names and dates carved onto the marble slabs that adorned the tombs. Though not very religious, I couldn’t help but feel as though the place was alive with the spirits of those resting there. Or perhaps just the memory of them, felt so acutely in the roses resting atop the graves and the quiet visitors that drifted by. Most striking was the tomb of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, its white stone painted with colorful exes, wishes drawn onto the grave in the hopes that she would grant them.

We lingered for a little while, until throngs of tour groups began making their way through the cemetery for a chance to see Marie. We drove back toward the hostel for po’ boys and rum raisin bread pudding at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. Full to bursting from another flawless New Orleans meal, we may have taken a short nap in the car before we headed back uptown for a better look at the St. Charles mansions and Tulane and Loyola universities, imagining ourselves in those grand buildings and how it would be to live in the city for the rest of our lives.

We parked the car in the downtown business district and walked a short ways to Lüke, one of NOLA Chef John Besh’s acclaimed restaurants, for an early evening oyster happy hour. There we stayed for about two hours, ordering 50-cent oyster after 50-cent oyster, pointing out the absurdity of eating 12 oysters apiece before proceeding to do just that. Walking back north toward the French Quarter with bellies full of tartar sauce and briny molluscs, we popped into Magnolia Praline Company so I could buy a box of pralines for mum, and ended up taste-testing a variety of light-your-internal-organs-on-fire hot sauces. Thereafter we decided to go by Cafe du Monde a second time – “you know, since we’re here and all and haven’t had dessert since lunch’s rum raisin bread pudding” – for a third round of beignets-and-lattes. Somehow still upright, we walked back to the car and drove out to Bywater for dinner at Pizza Delicious.

I’m sure that for any normal human with a regular, moderate eating schedule, the pizza lives up to its name. By the time our pizza arrived at the table, we realized we had made a big f*cking mistake. After a few painful attempts at eating, we stumbled out of the pizza joint, took a few strolls through Bywater streets, and got back into the car toward the hostel. We somehow eventually made it to bed, crawling under the covers, convinced that our eating habits were actually going to kill us before our trip was over.

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Feeling mostly recovered from our previous night’s gluttony, we skipped breakfast and checked out of the hostel the following morning, bidding a bittersweet goodbye to New Orleans as we drove a little ways south for a boat ride along the bayou. Our boisterous Cajun tour guide – Captain Jerry, as he called himself – was cheerful company as we glided languidly down the swamp. The boat was spacious and mostly empty, just two other families with excited kids peering over the boat’s edge eager for glimpses of gators hiding in the shrub.

Jerry told us the history of the bayou and of his own childhood swimming with his siblings alongside baby alligators. We were lucky to see a fair few, lazily paddling across the bayou waters and sun-bathing along the banks. Jerry surprised us by hoisting up a little one for us to meet, one that L and I called Henri and quickly fell in love with.

We drifted along the water for a few hours, taking in the blues and greens of the bayou, the sights and sounds of dragonflies fluttering between water lilies and floating logs, and the occasional gator or turtle glancing at us with profound disinterest as we sailed by. I rested my arms atop the edge of the boat as my eyes swept across the landscape, peaceful and quiet but for the musical strumming of Jerry’s staccatoed accent as he spoke without pause. When the tour came to an end, L and I approached him for recommendations on a cheap but delicious Cajun lunch, and he happily pointed us 10 miles down the road to Jan’s Cajun Restaurant for seafood gumbo and shrimp-and-oyster po’ boys. For a final Louisiana meal, we figured we’d hit the jack pot.

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We drove out soon after lunch, headed toward Georgia, stopping for the night an hours’ drive from Savannah and making our way to the city for lunch the next day. It was the last full day of our trip, skies still overcast and threatening to spill over, and our sojourn was brief: a short stop at the bright and retro Soda Pop Shoppe for lunch; a quick walk along the brick streets of the historic downtown; snapping a photo of the Lady & Sons restaurant, paying homage to a woman whose baking inspired my own many years ago; dessert at the famed Leopold ice cream parlour nestled next to the SCAD theater; and a brisk walk along the Savannah River just as the rain began to fall. Then we were back in the car and headed home.

Three weeks and a little over 3,000 miles of road. It’s hard to believe they flew by so quickly, and harder still to believe I’ve only been home a little more than a week. It feels like another lifetime that L and I were dancing along to live jazz and stuffing our faces with doughnut-burgers. Yet here I am, sitting at mum and dad’s, well and truly on vacation for the next few weeks.

It’s odd, having nothing to do; no agenda of sights to see or sandwiches to eat or miles to drive before the clock strikes midnight. I’ve never had nothing to do in my life. Summers were always full of working part-time jobs and internships, and before that doing summer reading and book reports, glancing over syllabi and getting necessary work done before the start of a new semester. Now I’ve got a lazy cat, cable TV, and a perpetually unread stack of books to live vicariously through until I’m off again. Though I’ve never been one to sit still for very long. I’m sure there will be Cville visits and drives up to DC for the next few weeks to break up the monotony of suburbia.

Still, it’s nice in its own way, not having to think about what comes next. I’ll just have to meet it when it gets here. And until then, I’m sure I’ll be driving until I’m lost on the road.

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