The Official Southern Man's Travel Guide
Bouncing back and forth through states, flying in and out of towns, and chalking up heavy, heavy dosages of car mileage, I'm coming to the realization of where the hotspots crammed into this divine land we call the South are, in some cases, hidden and blazingly pronounced in others. So dear readers, consider it your greatest fortune to be taking a glimpse onto this weary wanderer's accumulating travel guide. From the Atlantic to the Gulf, from the bayous to the Appalachians, I am starting to get a real idea of where to go and where not to go in the land of Dixie. In no way is this list complete, as my job continues, I am sure that this list will continue. But for now let this advice suffice, and may this help you in any road trip you may take into our Southern frontier. (and it is a frontier, trust me.)
For white sands and little waves head towards the panhandle of Florida for the brilliance of the Gulf. I grew up not too far from there, and as far as my travels go on exotic shores (Mediterranean, Caribbean, Adaman, etc.) few can compete with this nice slab of paradise, except when it's hurricane season.
Mississippi has no beaches or none worth mentioning. I went there intent on finding a beach with or without tourists, all I found were tourists and a bunch of casinos. No beach. And I ended up losing 5 bucks to the casino. So unless you are like some of the many poker-playing, slot-machine jerking tourist families who, yes, even bring their children to the spectacular casinos around Biloxi, I would not consider Mississippi for a beachy getaway.
The little visited Louisiana beaches, I found, are little visited for a reason. I, one time, drove 2 hours south from New Orleans just to get to a beach (that's how beach crazy I can be) and came to find out on one of their more popular islands, the beach had brown, coarse sand and bad water. Here the muddy Mississip leaves its mark and so the coast here falls short of a beach connoisseur's ideal. Although they have very good shrimp here...it was almost worth the drive.
Alabama...two words...Gulf Shores. Remember it, relish it, and be ravished by it. In some cases, it is rated better than the Florida Panhandle.
The Altantic is large and therefore its waves knock upon the US coast a bit harder. On that side of Florida, there is Cocoa Beach with its cinnamon sands and its uproarious waves...which make watching surfers in the dusk possible. Plus hurricanes stomping through this area are less frequent, therefore many clever businesses place shops, bars, and restaurants on top of piers jutting out into the Atlantic, where you can eat your tilapia AND watch surfers in the dusk. And not to mention the Atlantic has one advantage over the Gulf...you can have one spectacular sunrise, as the sun leaps over the waters. Also if you happen to be on Cocoa Beach, you may have the luck I didn't have, and make it down there the same exact date that a rocket is to be shot of from Cape Canaveral, which is next door.
Georgia, can be surprising. There are communities down there that are pretty beachy and worth a visit. Although, I only got to see the beach at night.
South Carolina, I hear, is spectacular. Though I haven't witnessed this yet; I will soon.
Few can compare with my love for beaches, as my love for mountains. For sheer beauty alone, I would say you must visit Mt. Cheaha in Alabama, our highest peak, which only rises a middling 2,000ft or so above sea level, but because this is the very toe of the foothills of the Appalachians you witness just how majestic a mountain can be as it juts up from straight forest. (That is if you know the right spot; which I guess I'm the only one that can help you there. So I would have to guide you.) Not to brag, but it still impresses me everytime I go there..And that's coming from (okay so yes, it just may be so I can brag), someone that's been to the Rockies, the Guatemalan Highlands, the Tibetan Himalayas, and several mountains and hills in Greece and Turkey.
The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee are refreshing. It's just that you have to wade through heavy tourism to get to them. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, I had no idea a few weeks ago, are inundated with marketing strategies to make your getaway into the mountains not a getaway at all. But I guess once you get past the idea that it is the mountains that you have come to see and not the putt-putt course, you can sort of admire this strange culture in its own right. For there are some Ripley's Believe It or Nots, a Dollywood, white-water rafting, myriads of dinner-theatres, and plenty of beautiful Russian girls that walk to these summer jobs of theirs on the main strip squeezed between these mountains, that give this area its own flavor. If you go to the highest point in Tennessee and walk up the paved walkway, along with the 50 other tourists, and you see a large tower, I climbed half way up that tower, for the scenery and to the amusement of my cousins.
Speaking of distinct flavors, the Ozarks in Arkansas can deliver something very unique. Here it is the mountain folk, not necessarily the mountains themselves, that really make the scenery. There is one town you can wander up to on any given Saturday that folks will crawl out of their cabins, trailors, huts, crags, etc. and all meet together with their banjos and fiddles and jam out to Bluegrass music all day long.
In North Carolina, you can be sure and stop by the Cherokee Indian Reservation nestled in the misty Appalachians here. They have all types of trinket shops and museums, and, yes, even tribal bingo. One day, right before a fierce rainstorm, right when the clouds wore that ominous gray hue and a mystical coolness is felt, I got tired of all the touristy Indian stuff and drove my car up into uninhabited white man territory. No Trespassing signs were popular and the road became a narrow dirt path crossing streams and rivulets while mountains rose up gigantically on both sides. The storm began to pour forth its fever while I whizzed by several redmen who gave me second glances as I sped down their backroads on their reservations, hoping not to get my tire stuck in the redman's mud. Poor Injuns, not even these remote corners of Appalachia can they keep the white man out.
In North Georgia, there are mountain communities that revere the mountain communities of their former European ancestral homes. This is where I attended the Scottish Highland Games and where the highest mountain in Georgia is. The towns in this area are quaint and neat. I'm thinking of the Germanic Helena, though I haven't been there in years.
Nashville. If I were homeless this is where I'd live. It is the buckle on the Bible belt, and many of the people here are wealthy, hence the name Cashville, which for a homeless man means free stuff. The climate is not really very cold or hot, and there is music...sweet music, erupting all down the streets. And then I could strum a guitar or a harmonica all day, and watch the rising country stars walk by. A fun city to walk downtown through. Though, stay away from the women who are from here and the outlaying suburban areas, from my experience there is something in the glitter and glam mixed with the staunch Protestant outlook, which with such adverse polarity of ideals, it makes them crazy. I guess God placed them there to give all those country singers something to whine about. If you ever see a big blue dumptruck with the slogan 1-800-GOT-JUNK sprawled across the side...wave to them I use to work there and if they don't know me than they've probably heard of me.
Atlanta. A nightmare to drive through during the day; A dream to drive through in the wee hours of the morning when no traffic is about. Imagine a 6 or 7 open lane freeway with few cars in sight. All the while, skyscrapers shining forth their beautiful lights into the night sky. It's magical. You can weave back and forth on this huge slab of asphalt and nobody cares. It's like you're in one of those racing video games where its just you in some magnificent metropolis. If you're ever up in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, and you have a craving for a coffee, go to the Daily Grind there, find the guy with the Johnny Cash tattoo on his forearm, his name is Snavely, tell him you know me and that I sent you and he will pour you a free cup of coffee.
Little Rock. Had some remarkable encounters with some homeless people here. I really couldn't tell you a thing to do here, nor do I think could anybody else really...except hang out with the homeless. Once upon a time, me and some friends from Harding spent the night in an alley with 2 homeless men. So if you're ever strolling through downtown Little Rock and you see a mysterious figure named Brooks with a completely sloshed buddy of his named, Red,...tell them the 4 Harding guys said "hello". Also if you happen to find a fellow living in a car who is OCD, that is hanging out in Book Stores, sipping Starbucks coffee (he was the most unusual homeless man that I've ever met.)...that is Frank. Tell him, that I said "hello" as well.
New Orleans. I've already raved on about this city. Just so you know though. It is one of the most interesting cities in the US. While the parts nearer the Ponchatrain were wiped out from Katrina and still striving to come back, some parts seem rarely touched. I speak of the French Quarter which is the heart and soul of what New Orleans is. If you are ever on Decatur Street where the tourist information center is...go in that little center and see the older blonde gentleman named Daneux (he's Cajun) he will talk your ear off with story after story.
Memphis. Not a whole lot of good here. It's best to just pass right on through. Beale Street's okay. It's like a miniature glimpse of New Orleans. And there's that glass pyramid that looks interesting shining in the afternoon sun. I don't have much advise, accept to, in that same afternoon sun, go down to the river and watch it flow on by. They've got lots of parks nearby where this is possible. And if you're feeling adventurous, cross over to the Arkansas side...the town called West Memphis...it's not far. And try to find an area on that side to watch the Mighty Mississippi float on by. When you're out in the country...the river and all those books of Mark Twain take on a different dimension as you see that massive river flow on down. It's quite poetic.
Birmingham. Ordinarily, I would tell you just to pass right on through this little metropolis, but since I am on intimate terms with this city, this being the place (or thereabouts) where I reside when not on the road, I know a good deal more than your average traveler. If you ever happen to be driving through this city and you have time to kill, you really must stop at a little building off of I-65 from exit 252, its in an Alacare building on Lorna Rd. It's where I attend church and let me tell you...at anytime of the day things are going on there. On an ordinary day you can walk in there and just hang out with all the others who like to hang there. It doesn't matter if you don't even know them. You are more than welcome. But if you are around for Sunday Morning or Wednesday evening, then you get a special treat...you get to hang out with the entire church and a free meal to boot. We call it Disciples' Fellowship. And it's the primary reason, I feel a rush to get back to Birmingham, in my travels, so that I can attend this wonderful community. Also, if you happen to look up on Red Mountain and see the large statue of a man. That's the Vulcan. I used to work there. Go there and tell the ticket operator, whomever it is, that I sent you to get in for free. You may or may not get in, but you'll probably get a big smile and even a hug.
Orlando. There is probably a whole lot to do that I missed out on. If you're ever in Disney World tell the head of the security there that her blonde-haired, blue-eyed terrorist said hello and that he was wondering when his ban from Disney would be lifted.
Dothan. Yes, I know,...I'm sure you get the joke. But, it is my hometown...and therefore it stars in MY travel guide. Dothan is the Peanut Capital of the World. If you're ever around in the first week of November you can actually see peanuts being spilled out of the back of a cement truck.( I didn't realize the sheer originality of such a concept until I moved out of Dothan and told others about this). You can also drive around this city and count all the little peanut figurines that are made to look like different characters, a radio announcer, a cowboy, Elvis, etc. And if you're ever craving a cup of coffee here go to the Dakota's on Ross Clark Circle and tell the heavy set guy in there with the Emo hair and the large earrings, that's Brad Clayton, tell him that you know me, and you probably won't get a free cup of coffee, but you will get lots and lots of stories about yours truly, most of them untrue. He he.
Well, that's it I'm off to Kentucky and West Virginia...in which I will surely learn more to add on to this list. And certainly probably newer categories, as experience on the high road teaches me.