Tales from the Trail(er): Scattered and Smothered

One of my favorite things about traveling is being fully submerged into a culture. I have been lucky enough to travel around the world – from big cities like Buenos Aires and Paris to small villages in Vietnam and Bolivia – but I haven’t truly thrown myself into all that America has to offer. And wow, America has a lot to offer. Since our last update, we have traveled through three extremely distinct cultures, all within the span of five days.

We left Florida with a cheer (sorry Florida,) and headed over to Mississippi via Mobile, Alabama. Of course we had to make a stop for Alabama’s “Best BBQ” at Brick Pit. This guy has been on the Travel Channel, the Food Network, and has won awards, but has left this place in all its grimy glory. He is all about food – and we were glad. Two plates of pulled pork and slow roasted ribs later, and we were on our way.

From Mobile we headed over to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi where I reunited with an old college friend (seriously, twelve years ago? Ugh.) After Katrina hit ten years ago she felt compelled to come down and help, and has been there ever since. We got the tour of the damage – the lots still for sale ten years later, the high mark of the water miles away, and heard stories of people swimming out of their homes, and an old couple who held on for dear life in the top of a live oak tree. Crumbling foundations still lingered and entire blocks held the ghosts of a long-gone town.

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A church, rebuilt after Katrina, and an angel carved into a tree, representing lives lost.

But the true culture shock happened the next day when we were invited to a crawfish boil surprise party for Aunt Cami’s fiftieth birthday. Forty minutes out into the country we headed with some Michelob Ultra’s, not knowing what to expect. We parked in the grass next to grazing cattle and a kid riding an electric dirt bike ‘round and ‘round the house. Chatty women huddled in the kitchen preparing venison sausages and my friend’s husband was busy hauling coolers of crawfish out of the trucks.

While the scene was nothing I had witnessed before (except in a few movies,) I wasn’t prepared for the love and warmth that came from these people. They handed us beer, told us their secret Crawfish recipe (sorry, my lips are sealed,) and took us in with open arms. While I could only understand about half of what Uncle Chip was saying, and only a quarter of Bubba, they were all smiles and laughter. When the surprise was done, (“Is that why y’all told me to go take a shower?”) and the gifts opened, and we headed for the cars, every single person ran out as we were leaving to hug us goodbye and make us promise we would come back. You couldn’t ask for nicer people. The spicy taste of crawfish lingered on my lips as we rolled away.

Now, the crawfish feast was hard to beat, but the next day I had another culinary defining moment in my life: Waffle House. If you are ever craving diner food, the kind with runny eggs and perfect hash browns that come ‘scattered, smothered, covered’ and a dozen other ways, then this is the place. I have been dreaming of this institution since Bon Appétit featured this article about a 24-hour shift at Waffle House. I had Dave take my picture outside and when I entered, the entire staff clapped and cheered for me. “Welcome! Your firs’ time the Waffle House? Girl, si’ down!” I ordered the breakfast of champions and was happy as a clam. Dreams do come true.

We continued on our way to the city of magic and mystic, to the place of folklore, where truth is as wild as legend: New Orleans. I was ready for kitschy shops and overpriced beignets, (and it has those,) but I was shocked at the unbelievable music on every street corner, the jazz spilling from every nook and cranny. Men tap danced, magicians lurked by the cemetery, chess players patiently waited for their next victim. Flowers and ivy spilled over balconies and sun reflected off the worn cobblestone streets.

We enjoyed lunch at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District (with 25 cent martinis?! “Six please,”) and then wandered Bourbon Street and the quieter alleys of the French Quarter, discovering hidden art shows and great musicians behind every door. I don’t know about voodoo, but New Orleans is certainly magical.

We hit the road towards east Texas and drove for what felt like eighty-seven hours. (Little did I know that west Texas would be even more boring than east.) After the endless roads through the desert, we noticed suddenly that men’s beards were getting longer, pants were a little tighter, and we could smell hops in the air. We had arrived in Austin. I had the privilege of reuniting with three wonderful friends in this city who gave us the low-down on great food trucks, music, and breweries. We had to take a stroll down the infamous “Sixth Street” to see the madness for ourselves, despite everyone’s warnings. And yep, saw a guy throw up.

Despite the barf, we ate some great food in the city, had great beer, and ran on a few trails. Austin proved to be such a drastically different culture than New Orleans and Mississippi for the hipster-nation and gentrification. Now don’t get me wrong – I drink good coffee and love vintage shops – but we were hoping for the “Keep Austin Weird” culture we had heard about for years. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, tucked between the rest of Texas and Sixth Street, and not in that $5 cup of coffee we had. But we vow to return to Austin one day for another go at it.

But damn, that was a good cup of coffee. Next up: The great Southwest.

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