Dead Authors, National Parks and Biscuits

Okay, Day 32 on our quest to stay warm this winter under the guise of seeing national parks, dead presidents’ graves, and dead authors’ houses. We’ve seen a bunch of each of them, and with another 30 days, at least, to go, we’re going to see a bunch more.

For the record, right now we are visiting family in the Birmingham, Alabama area, after having camped at St. George’s Island on the Florida panhandle, south of Tallahassee and east of Pensacola for a few days. Initially I thought we would stop and spend some time in the Pensacola area on our way here, a place where I was stationed briefly, twice, during my Navy days in the late 1960’s. But we’ve got such good karma going right now that we didn’t want to even think about revisiting those days, or the place that was my last stop before the Gulf of Tonkin. So, it’s Alabama for the weekend, with Lillian’s aunt and uncle.

Lillian’s dad was born and raised in the south, and all of his living brothers and sisters, now mostly in their 80’s, are still here, as are their offspring. We’ve spent the night with one cousin, and one aunt and uncle, and as we continue traveling through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, we’ll stay with a few more. I’m looking forward to it because of what Lillian said at breakfast yesterday morning: “Tonight’s the last night we have to sleep on the ground for a while.” And because these southern women make really good biscuits. From here we head for Nashville and Memphis (Yep, The Ryman and Graceland), then to Arkansas for a visit with a college roommate. Then we’ll head on to the Texas Gulf Coast to see the whooping cranes. We’re going to spend a lot of nights camping in Texas. A lot. Probably most of February.

Notes from the Captain’s Log on January 26, 2013 (I call myself Captain because I have been doing most of the driving while Lillian navigates. Not just because it’s a male thing, or that I’m a better driver, it’s just that I am a lousy navigator, and we seem to get where we are supposed to be much better with Lillian navigating):

  • Days on the road:  This is Day 32. We left December 26.
  • Miles driven : 5,279. We’re averaging about 25 miles per gallon in the Outback, so we’ve used about 210 gallons of gas.  Average gas price has been about $3.25, so we’ve spent close to $750 on gas, far less than we’ve spent on food and lodging, in spite of how many nights we have camped. Food is our biggest expense. A big part of our vacations is always enjoying the local cuisine, and we’ve been consuming seafood at a record pace, both across the campground picnic tables and in local eateries. Lillian said the other night “It is impossible to eat too much shrimp.”  Or, it turns out, oysters. We just left the Apalachicola Bay, where most of America’s fresh oysters come from. Our maître d’ the other night told us that the Bay wasn’t slicked by BP’s spill, and the oysters are oil-free. Not only that, but they are delicious. We’ll eat more along the Gulf as we proceed on. And some more shrimp too, I expect.
  • Cheapest Gas: $2.99 a gallon in Fargo, North Dakota. Most expensive we saw was about $3.69 on a few islands.
    • States visited: 14. The Dakotas, the “I” states (Iowa, Illinois and Indiana), Ohio, the Virginias (real and West), the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. We’ve actually spent an overnight in all of them except Illinois and Indiana. We’ve camped in only four: the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, but for pretty long stretches in them.
    • National Park Service sites we’ve visited: 18 for me, 19 for Lillian (I skipped Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and spent half a day at the World Golf Hall of Fame, in St. Augustine, FL, where both are located). Five of them are full-fledged National Parks: Cuyahoga, Congaree, Great Smoky Mountains, Dry Tortugas and Everglades. The rest are National Monuments, National Historic Sites, etc., all managed by the National Park Service. There are almost 400 NPS sites in our country, about 60 of them National Parks. North Dakota has three: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Knife River Indian Villages and Fort Union National Historic Sites. We’re on a mission to do all the National Parks before we die. We might die trying.
    • National Park Highlights: We like them all, some way better than others. Dry Tortugas, with its historic Fort Jefferson, wins so far. Fort Jefferson, constructed from the 1840’s to the 1880’s, is a ten acre brick and concrete fort occupying all but six acres of a tiny island which is Dry Tortugas National Park. The remaining six acres of the island are taken up by boat docks, fishing docks, a storage area and a small campground (five primitive sites). The 16-acre island is located 70 miles west of Key West, reachable by float plane or a 3-hour ferry ride (we chose the ferry so we could take our camping gear). The ferry delivered about 150 of us for the four-hour visit to the island, then 143 of them went back to Key West and seven of us stayed behind for an overnight experience. We camped in the sand. The island has no eating facilities and no fresh water. We took cold supper and breakfast and a couple gallons of water, plus some other liquid refreshments. We swam in 72 degree water until a cold front blowing in from the north (the one that left snow in Alabama) drove us up onto the beach. Our hoped for starriest-sky-ever-night hopes were dashed by the front, which kept the skies cloudy all night and much of the next day. The trip back to Key West featured 4 to 6 foot rollers, which kept Lillian on her feet on the back deck for the three hour trip. She arrived back in Key West with her stomach intact. We capped off the day with sushi on the dock as the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of the weather and nasty seas, it was probably our best 36-hour trip ever.
    • National Park Sites Runners-Up: We camped in chilly Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we also hiked on the Appalachian Trail and drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, both of which are administered by the NPS. We saw a lot of alligators in the Everglades National Park. We saw what 15,000 books look like in one house at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. And we got a wonderful history of the end of the Civil War at Appomattox Courthouse.
    • Non-NPS Highlights:
      • The Avett Brothers concert in Greensboro, NC, on New Year’s Eve. It started with an opening act at 8 p.m. and ended in a raucous encore by the Avetts at 12:45 a.m.
      • A day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Every old rocker’s dream.
      • The pork chop sandwich at The Snappy Lunch Café in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Andy Griffith’s home town. It’s a deep fried porkchop that overwhelms a hamburger bun and serves as a full meal. Beyond that, it is so good I cannot describe it. Neither, I suspect, could Andy, other than saying “Golllllllleeeee!”
      • Standing in front of Sam Snead’s locker at the World Golf Hall of Fame. (And to think Lillian missed that!)
      • Thomas Jefferson’s outdoor biffy—the real deal—at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s second home and plantation getaway in western Virginia.
      • Fresh oysters. Two dozen as appetizers before a fish supper in Charleston, two and a half dozen in Florida.
      • Fresh shrimp. Everywhere.

Lillian brought a book along called “Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West,” (National Geographic, 2008), which has taken us to the homes of many dead authors, and will take us to many more. We’ve seen either the birthplaces or homes of Flannery O’Connor in Savannah, the already-mentioned Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Harper Lee and Truman Capote in Monroeville, Alabama, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery, Alabama. Still on our schedule are Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi, William Faulkner in Oxford Mississippi (and maybe John Grisham’s too, although he’s not dead yet), and O. Henry and Katherine Ann Porter in Texas. Anyone taking a car trip anywhere in the U.S. should get this book and take it along. It gives you excellent background on the authors, their homes and landmarks, and phone numbers, addresses and hours of operation of the places you’ll want to visit.

Here’s a couple other things I’ve noticed along the way.

  • Most states do a much better job than North Dakota does of paying attention to, and paying notice to, their favorite sons and daughters, natural landmarks and architectural and engineering accomplishments. Highways and bridges buildings and lakes and parks are named for local heroes, such as politicians, statesmen, athletes and movie stars. North Dakotans are not naturally boastful people, but as Dizzy Dean used to say, “It ain’t bragging if you done it.” Most states also tell you the names of rivers, creeks and streams you are crossing with green road signs, and we don’t do a good job of that either. More about that idea in a future blog post.
  • North Dakota is about the only state left which does not have logo signs on the Interstate. Logo signs are those blue signs on the shoulder as you approach an off ramp with the logos of the gas stations, restaurants and motels you can expect to find when you get off the freeway. We don’t have them in our state because Harold Newman, owner of Newman Signs, and his sales crew, have done an excellent job of lobbying the North Dakota Legislature to make them illegal here ever since they were authorized by the U.S. government back when I was tourism director, contending that they compete with the outdoor sign industry and discourage billboard advertising. I really like Harold, and his general manager, Dean Anderson, and we finally just agreed to disagree on this issue after we took a couple runs at allowing them in the 1980’s. Harold still sends his sales team in to monitor the Legislature every session just in case someone gets an idea to revive this in North Dakota, but so far they have dodged that bullet. I bet tourists wandering through our state wonder why we don’t have them.

So, that’s the update after our first month on the road. Right now, I can tell by smell wafting up the staircase that Aunt Fran’s biscuits are about to come out of the oven, so I’ll quit. You don’t want to be late for Aunt Fran’s biscuits. Lillian is pretty much documenting us on Facebook, so if you’re interested in photos, you can find them on her Facebook page.  I mean, doesn’t everyone like to sit and look at vacation photos of their friends and relatives?

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4 Responses to Dead Authors, National Parks and Biscuits

  1. Pat hertz says:

    I would have gone with Lillian to the castillo de San Marcus, also, while roger did the Golf Hall of Fame, but we had the time, so did both. Both very impressive. So many amazing places…not enough time. Just do the best you can. I am missing only 3 states, Vermont, Connecticut, and Oklahoma to complete my goal to see all the states in the US. We will get them all this summer. Have a wonderful, safe trip. And, enjoy the shrimp and oysters.

  2. Michael Kane says:

    Will you make any attempt to see New Orleans?

  3. Larry Heilmann says:

    Too bad you missed the Castillo. Dry Tortugas is spectacular. When you get to west Texas Fort Davis National Historic Site is interesting and also Guadaloupe Mountains National Park -the highest point in Texas. The University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory is also a nice place up in the mountains far from anywhere. I have been to 38 of the 59 national parks but it looks like you have been to some I am missing. Agree with you completely about signs and historical markers in ND. We need you back at the Tourism Office!

  4. Jen Whitcomb says:

    Jim –

    Your blog is a very fun read. We are vicariously living through you – until the kids are a little bit older and can handle some serious miles! It was so nice to catch up with you both this morning and hear about the next leg of your journey. We can’t wait to hear about the birding in Texas. Safe travels!

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