How I spent my autumn vacation: shirtless in sunglasses gazing at the sea. And driving. Lots of driving.

We covered 4000 American kilometres by car, train and bus in the last couple of weeks. We went from Florida to Texas via Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. That’s a lot of states.

It was a long trip packed full of Americana experiences and excellent times. And driving; many hours were spent in the three different but incredibly similar cars we rented. Not to mention a nine-hour train ride and a ten-hour overnight bus trip.

Fool me once
The first car we rented was in Miami. It wasn’t a great start: I embarrassingly misinterpreted the gee-whiz enthusiasm of our rental associate as genuine, and thus accepted an upgraded car (sunroof? Yeah! Sunroof!) and comprehensive insurance to take us from Miami to the Keys.

In retrospect, which I was able to focus on (thanks to the kind facilitation of Chiara, my wife and traveling companion) almost the entire drive to the Keys, it was most certainly nothing more than a cynical upsell, coated in wide-eyed bonhomie. But that downward dip – and a couple of other low points – notwithstanding, we had a pretty amazing adventure as we wended our way from Florida to Texas. Along the way I learned a few things.

Some lessons learnt
1. America is big. We covered a lot of ground, and yet really only saw a very small southerly part of that country.

2. There’s something about the meditative state of long travel that is deeply satisfying and enjoyable, probably a combination of the blurred landscapes, the rumble of the motor, and the oldies radio. And yet, no matter how enjoyable and peaceful it is, in my experience you arrive at your destination in a mood somewhere between irritable and grumpy.

3. There’s a lot of animals down there. We saw: hammerhead sharks, baby and full-grown alligators, sea turtles, dolphins, many fish (on our plate and in the sea), stingrays, roadkilled armadillos, frogs, iguanas, eagles, herons, a purple bird, a snake, and more.

4. There’s some good eating down in the American south! And most of it is very bad for you. All of it is delicious. Highlights include Tacos in Austin (and Miami), a Lobster Reuben at Florida Keys Fisheries, Texan Barbecue at Goode Co. Barbecue in Houston, vegan everything at the wedding, and Cajun food in New Orleans.

5. The tipping culture really confuses the politeness issue. Is that lady being nice to me because she’s a nice person, or because she’s expecting me to reimburse her for her folksy wisdom? Not clear. Never clear.

Speaking of New Orleans: wow, that city is something special. The carefree musicality pervades it, as do high water marks from Katrina, and abject poverty. But when it’s on rhythm it never misses; trumpet blasts and tuba blats on the street, a heart-stoppingly soulful rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit in the first club we walked into, and food, drink and voodoo mysticism everywhere.

We had driven for two days from Savannah through Alabama. So we were exhausted when we arrived in New Orleans. The place we stayed was in Faubourg Marigny, just east of the French Quarter, in what I now know to be the best part of town. The streets there don’t look inviting, the decayed charm at first seems best enjoyed from the comfort of a rolled-up-and-locked driving tour. But we stopped, got out and wished we never had to leave.

That two-day roadtrip was the biggest straight travel stretch of our journey, but because we had the rental car we decided to carry on the next day and go see some bayou outside of the city, at the Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Park. So the next morning we got up, and made our way out to the park. The bayou was incredible. So swampy! The swampiest!

Swamps like this exist. I seen ’em!

We were slightly disappointed to not see any alligators out in those swamps full of them, but we did see all kinds of old creepy forests and stagnant streams and lizards and frogs. It was a perfect introduction to New Orleans.

Immediately after our swampventure we had to return the rental car to the airport. The GPS sent us on a tour of shipyards and backroads, and then, just as we reached “Airline Drive”we got hit from behind. It was a low impact collision, but that didn’t make it a good thing. Just a slightly less crappy one.

After exchanging insurance information with our assailant, we returned the car. The attendant seemed pretty disappointed in the state of the vehicle, but we were pleased that on this occasion we had accepted the comprehensive insurance, so we just dusted off our hands and headed back to town.

Of course, an alligatorless adventure, followed by getting lost, and then rear-ended left us feeling slightly defeated. And for the next few days we had some trouble enjoying New Orleans. We felt unsafe in broad daylight in the city’s main park, got rained on during our riverwalk, and bought none of the tourist tat at the French market. Still, we couldn’t help loving the city; but try as we might, we couldn’t quite conquer it. It was like the po’boys we ordered on Frenchmen Street: just too big and unwieldy.

Then on the last day we finally cracked it. We took streetcars around town with minimal wait time, then we had an amazing breakfast. Towards the end of the day we put a hold on sightseeing to stop off at the casino and win $25.02. Took us all of fifteen minutes. We’re that good at casino.

Then we went back to Frenchman Street for tattoos, palm readings, more live music and an excellent dinner. That was a good day. That was also our last in The Big Easy, as that evening we boarded a bus for Texas.

There was more
Other exciting things on the trip:

  • Seeing a hammerhead shark leap out of the water next to a boat in the Florida Keys. Turns out that those boaters were fishing for sharks right next to where we had spent the last three days swimming. NBD.
  • Performing Marbles solo improv in Austin Texas at the amazing Hideout Theatre. It was so great to go to this improv hub in a booming improv town, see a bunch of folks I know from festival days of yore, and do some solo improv, which I love. Plus we ate some great tacos in that town.
  • Wedding times. We were in Texas for a wedding of some close friends and it was a special event on her parent’s property outside of a small town well outside of Austin. We spent the day of the wedding pitching in to get everything ready, then we had awesome wedding times followed by some camping in a borrowed tent. It was great to not just be at the wedding, but to be a part of it.
Texas BBQ. I get it now.

Tent City Mudpit
When the more formal wedding festivities had segued into the late-night revelry it got real. Most of the attendees retired to another corner of the property known as Tent City, for bonfires, lawnchairs and kegs. Just before dawn Chiara and I retired to our borrowed tent. Then, just after dawn it started pouring storming rain. Fortunately our tent kept us dry… for about fifteen or so minutes. Then it got rainy inside the tent. Then it got rainier.

As we watched the puddles spread on the floor I figured I only had one play: get the rental car, come rescue Chiara, then return to the parking lot to plot our next move from the dry interior of our waterproof vehicle.

Most of this plan worked really well. Until we tried to leave Tent City in the car. By that time the rain had worked its way well and truly into the dirt (apparently it rained about two inches in those few hours), so that sandy dirt became pure mud.  And, as we headed for freedom, our rental car got stuck in that mud.

Misery loves company and so my selfish heart leapt to see other cars get stuck in the mud too, as other people tried to make similar escapes. All in all, seven cars needed to be pulled out of the mud by tractor in the morning.

We however, were not among them, as I managed, using broken sticks and devastating raw cunning, to drive ourselves out of the stuckedness into the makeshift parking lot. My triumph never looked back at that company my misery so recently loved.

Once parked we promptly fell asleep for the rest of the morning. We thus missed the morning’s hungover misery and heartfelt goodbyes, but were relatively well-slept, all things considered.

That afternoon we made our way to Houston, for a visit that featured a lengthy visit to a seedy laundromat and not too much else. Except for a glorious meal of Texan barbecue (see photo above), and a short stop on the way to the airport, where Chiara found a perfect pair of Texan boots. Which she’s wearing currently.

So yes, after all those kilometres (or miles, if you swing that way) we’ve changed. For the better.