Our visit to Richmond, VA was brief, allowing us just enough time to wander around the grounds of the state capitol and to drop into a single thrift shop. Due to the form and grandeur of the capitol building, as well as the variety of federal offices in the area, we could sense we were approaching the political centre of the country.
While we happened to arrive in DC as George H. W. Bush was lying in state, we decided to skip that line and focus on the Smithsonian museums. We started our day at the Natural History Museum, wandering the impressive collection of ancient sea fossils.
In addition to natural phenomena, the museum includes bits of human history as well. We learned about modern day epidemics and the human response in the new Outbreak exhibit. (We learned the term “natural reservoir”, which refers to the species that carries a disease without being affected by it. It’s usually bats.) We also spotted some poles from the Haida people, whose land we visited earlier in our trip off the BC coast.
In the afternoon Dan insisted on a follow-up visit to the Air and Space museum, having first visited in 2016. Given the size and scope, it was not hard to spend a few hours seeing new things. We tried the VR experience of the International Space Station, and Wendy learned about dark matter from Neil DeGrasse Tyson (on video in the planetarium) while Dan wandered the golden age of aviation.
On Tuesday November 27 we met up with Dan’s Aunt Barb and Uncle Bun for a delicious seafood lunch in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The island is covered in greenery and much of it is bordered by a 12 mile long sandy beach, making it a popular vacation and resort spot.
Later that day we arrived in Charleston for a short one-night visit. Similar to Savannah, the city is full of large southern style mansions. Our one educational excursion was to the Old Slave Mart museum. We learned that until 1856, slave auctions were primarily held outdoors, but for the sake of appearances, the city then mandated that they be held indoors away from public view. Following the new law, dozens of indoor slave markets were established.
On Wednesday we drove to Asheville, NC, mainly so that Dan could visit a few of the 30 breweries that operate out of the small city. Not long after arriving, we learned the city has much more than beer to offer, with an active arts scene and tons of cool used book stores and record stores.
Our brewery visits included the Thirsty Monk, White Labs, Burial, Eurisko, and Hi-Wire. White Labs is primarily a brewer’s yeast manufacturing facility and was the most interesting stop. At their bar, we were able to try beers brewed using the exact same recipe but fermented using different yeast strains – the difference that yeast makes is amazing!
Our brewery crawl was capped off with some Carolina style barbecue – it is distinct from Texas barbecue in its use of vinegar-based sauces and whole-hog style pit cooking.
On Friday we left Asheville and drove an open (ice-free) portion of the Blue Ridge parkway. Despite the grey rainy weather, we really enjoyed the slow winding drive through the mountains.
Next we visited Dan’s brother’s friend Steve and his family in Greensboro, NC. We had lots of fun playing with his young kids, and were able to catch a jazz gig Steve played at a local hotel.
We were also able to meet up with Wendy’s friend Sarah’s parents Mark and Raz for lunch in Greensboro, and then met up with Sarah’s sister Emily and her girlfriend Megan for brunch in nearby Cary, NC.
While in Greensboro it was suggested that we visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The museum is located inside an old Woolworth’s department store where in 1960 four African-American students started a sit-in movement at the lunch counter to protest racial segregation. We appreciated the guided tour, as it made the victims of racism’s stories even more poignant.
After a quick stop in Atlanta for a dinner with friends, we drove back towards the coast to explore the city of Savannah. One of the first things you notice when entering the city are the huge live oaks towering over the streets and the amazing amount of Spanish moss hanging from their branches.
Upon arriving we made our way to the east side of town to visit the picturesque Bonaventure Cemetery and stroll between the old monuments. Confederate generals and old Southern songwriters lay not far from one another. There were many statues throughout the cemetery, though the famous Bird Girl from the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” has been moved to a downtown museum to avoid too much trampling from tourists.
We spent our first evening slowly walking along the Savannah river, learning a bit about the history of the city from its development as an English colony to its occupation by the British during the American revolution and then its role during the civil war.
We had supper at the Olde Pink House, one of many old southern style mansions in the city, and enjoyed some classic southern cuisine: fried green tomatoes, fried fish and pork, and collard greens.
We spent the next day wandering the many public squares and parks throughout the city, touring a few art museums, and visiting the Thomas Owens house, another mansion that featured the earliest known example of indoor plumbing in the USA, and also a separate preserved building that served as the slave quarters. There we saw indigo blue ceilings, painted by the slaves with hand-made paint, meant to represent a protective body of water.
That night we visited Pinkie Master’s, one of the oldest dive bars in town (Jimmy Carter reportedly announced his candidacy here) and enjoyed a few drinks with the regulars. We were served by a heavy metal guitarist who gave Dan some tips about the local scene. We met an ex-drag queen who drank PBR from a straw and had a weekly piano gig at the bar. We also met a retired languages professor who chatted with us in French for a few minutes and recounted a few of the struggles that African-Americans are still facing in the South – her professor’s salary granted her the means to buy a home wherever she wanted in the city but certain neighbourhoods are still not open to everyone.
After a few months on the road and starting to miss family back home, we were lucky to be able to spend a week in Siesta Key, FL with Wendy’s grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law.
We enjoyed a few days lying on the white sandy beach, but did not venture far into the water as the area was still recovering from some red tide.
We spent the evenings enjoying plenty of the food on offer in Siesta Key – fried seafood, pizza, ice cream, and the anniversary special at the Lobster Pot. Wendy’s grandmother also hosted us a couple nights, including a delicious ham dinner for American Thanksgiving.
To break up the pattern of sloth and gluttony, we went for a short kayak tour on neighbouring Lido Key. The guide helped us spot a few manatees and then lead us through a series of mangrove tunnels. The tunnels are man-made and we are told they were originally dug to help with mosquito control. Paddling through the labyrinth of branches was a very unique experience. Apparently the tunnels are no longer allowed to be pruned and will gradually fill in, so it may only be possible to explore them for another decade or so.
One evening we drove up to Tampa Bay to catch the Lightning take on the Florida Panthers. It turns out Tampa Bay is a great hockey town with a loyal following and a really fun arena – they even have Tesla coils that light up when the home team scores! We also happened to be there the night celebrating Martin St. Louis being inducted into the hall of fame.
After leaving New Orleans we drove east to Florida, making it through the Gulf Coast portions of Mississippi and Alabama without even stopping.
After almost two days of driving we made it into Miami and checked into our motel in Wynwood, north of downtown. We were told the area was a virtually abandoned industrial sector a couple decades ago, then some local developers worked to create a trendy new neighbourhood. The coffee shops, cocktail bars, and craft breweries are a familiar sight in a rejuvenated area like this, but Wynwood is notable for the massive amount of impressive street art. Some walls feature carefully crafted works by hired artists, reminiscent of the East Side Gallery in Berlin, while much of the neighbourhood is covered in more traditional (but still impressive) graffiti.
Our two days in Miami were the hottest we have experienced since leaving Ontario back in mid-July. We visited Miami Beach for a few hours, but didn’t last too long in the sun before seeking refuge in a nearby (air-conditioned) Cuban restaurant. We also checked out the Bayside Marketplace, which turns out is not much of a market and more-so an outdoor shopping mall. We used the Miami city bus system to get around all day and were very impressed – we could buy a cheap day pass on our phones and just show our phones to the driver!
Next we made our way down to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental USA. We very much enjoyed the drive through the keys, frequently being able to see the ocean from both sides of the van. We camped on Bahia Honda Key, though had to sleep in the van because it was too windy to set up the tent!
Windy Wendy in Key West!
There were roosters and chickens everywhere. We don’t know why.
On our way back north, we visited the Everglades National Park and saw lots of gators and egrets and herons and one turtle. We camped at a nearby lake and luckily did not need to fend off gators in the middle of the night.
Can you spot the baby gators?
We thought these were cranes for a while. Turns out they’re egrets.
On our way to New Orleans, we stayed one night in Baton Rouge. We did not have a chance to explore the city centre, but dropped into a couple bars, including the oldest blues bar in the city. It was blues jam night, which was effectively open-mic but included a full backing band (who knew all the standards) if you needed.
Our weekend in New Orleans was a ton of fun. The city itself is gorgeous – even far outside the touristy areas the streets are lined with classic southern homes and mossy oak trees. The French Quarter is non-stop Creole townhouses with plant-lined second story balconies. It’s easy to picture Mardi Gras revelers tossing beads and spilling drinks from there.
Outside the city, we were able to take an airboat tour through the bayou. The area is not pristine – there are pipelines and remnants of past industry scattered around – but it was a very different and beautiful nature scene for us.
Our guide was able to spot a few 4 ft. gators in the swamp, and eventually pulled out a baby gator to be passed around the boat for photo opportunities.
Back in the city, our stomachs and livers were treated to an onslaught of cajun delights: shrimp po-boys, gumbo, fried oyster po-boys (found a pearl in one!), crusted fish, étouffée, beignets, boudin, and even free jambalaya from a neighbourhood bar!
We mostly kept our drinks classy, including a Sazerac at the famous Carousel bar. However, we also spent an evening enjoying the general chaos on Bourbon Street along with its sugary selection of drinks, namely the Hurricane and the Hand Grenade.
Live music is ubiquitous throughout the city – there’s even plenty of options for jazz brunch. We stayed on Frenchmen Street a few blocks north of a ton of jazz clubs and visited that neighbourhood one night to catch a local brass band.
Things are different in Texas. Oil pumps are scattered throughout the farm fields, they play Christian rock at McDonald’s, and roosters crow to wake you up after sleeping in the back of your van.
We spent one night in Lubbock, TX on Saturday November 3 before heading to Austin on Sunday. We checked into our cheap motel and quickly made our way to the reportedly hip East 6th Street area. We started the evening with a visit to the Rollin’ Smoke food truck for our first ever taste of Texas barbecue. It was not a life changing experience, but it turns out brisket is actually pretty delicious, and so is smoked mac n’ cheese! We spent the rest of the evening bar hopping, with the Yellow Jacket Social Club being the highlight.
On Monday we walked downtown, passing by the Texas State Capitol. The building is quintessentially American, and is even slightly taller than the national capitol building (everything is bigger in…).
The capitol building features statues and plaques commemorating the different groups relevant to Texas history.
This includes the Confederate army.
Next we visited the Mexic-Arte Museum, which had exhibits about Dia de los Muertos and the Matachines dance/celebration. In addition to plenty of excellent Day of the Dead art, the museum had a handful of ofrendas set up for artists and loved ones. In the Matachines exhibit, we learned that some Mexican cultural practices such as this date back to pre-Columbian times, but were re-purposed by the colonial Spaniards to honour Christianity. In this case, the dance told the story of the Christians fighting the Moors.
Next we stopped into the small but well-stocked Austin Toy Museum.
They even have the Treehouse of Horror characters!
Since our motel was only a few blocks away, on Tuesday we decided to try Franklin barbecue, the highest rated barbecue joint in Austin. We arrived at 11:45am to see a long line out the door (including folks settling in with lawn chairs) and were promptly told they might sell out before we got to the front. Rather than wait around for an hour and a half to find out, we drove down to the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company. With the midterm elections taking place, we saw plenty of Beto O’Rourke t-shirts (and not a single piece of Ted Cruz paraphernalia), highlighting the division between Austin and the rest of Texas.
That night we returned to East 6th Street to drop into a free blues dancing lesson at the local honky tonk bar. We were not naturals. We listened to the live band that followed and remained seated while the local patrons showed off their dance skills.
Wednesday we drove down to Houston to visit the NASA Johnson Space Centre. The amount of original equipment on display for the public was amazing – we saw a full Saturn V rocket built for the Apollo missions, walked through the Boeing 747 used to carry the Space Shuttles, touched pieces of the Moon and Mars, and walked along an Orbiter Access Arm (bridge and white room used by astronauts to access the Space Shuttle).
Astronaut suit for extravhicular activities.
Space robots and training modules.
F-1 rocket engine for the Saturn V rocket.
Saturn V rocket. The first stage has five F-1 engines.
On a recommendation from a friend, we drove down to San Leon to get some barbecued oysters for dinner. Given Texas’ gulf coast and its love of smoked animals, we should have realised this was inevitable. They were delicious!