USA: Part 2 – The South

Previous: USA: Part 1 – East Coast

Day 16 – Southport NC to Savannah GA

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North Carolina is below both the Mason-Dixon line and the line I just made up that geometrically bisects the US horizontally, so whatever way you look at it this is The South. There were early signs in the change in accents, the increase in humidity and temperature, plus the uptick in fried chicken restaurants, but if we were under any illusions then they were dispelled today as we drove through swamps and mist and past gnarled live-oaks starting to get draped with spanish moss.

 

Our hotel was a last-minute replacement, booked for us by hotels.com when it turned out they’d oversold the one we originally chose. Hotels.com gets an A+ for customer service for fixing their mistake by booking us into an even better hotel which would have cost us twice as much!

We had time to stroll up and down the beautiful but touristy River Street before we reported to the Georgia Belle for our dinner reservation. We’re going with the wisdom that, when touristing, it’s best to lean into it… and what better way in the Deep South than a dinner cruise feat. live band and line dancers on a paddle steamer. The paddle steamer was a fraud, featuring purely ornamental paddles and steam funnels, and Lana and I did pull down the average age by at least 10 years, but it was a lot of kitschy fun nonetheless.

 

Following our return to port we relaxed for a while, waiting for our second appointment of the evening: 11pm in Johnson Square for the Dead Of Night ™ Ghost Tour!

 

Savannah claims to be the most haunted city in America, although our tour guide did admit that many others also claim the title. The city knows how to emphasise its spooky side though. Wonderfully atmospheric public lighting penetrates the evening mist; it illuminates the city’s tree-lined streets and its many lush-foliaged squares, catching the gnarled branches and the huge amounts of Spanish moss draped over them.

Not that atmospherics are necessarily required: Savannah was a slave town and the accompanying violence, and home to plenty of other dark events besides. We heard of a nasty old man who was done in by his indentured servant while taking his nightly bath, then of her pregnancy and eventual hanging. We heard of epidemics of yellow fever and of mass graves, of swarms of cockroaches coming out from the cemetery, and of mysterious glowing figures being seen in the background of tourist videos. My personal favourite: the alcoholic travelling salesman who wouldn’t take no for an answer from his landlady, found one hundred years later, walled up in that same landlady’s boarding house.

We both loved Savannah – it’s atmospheric and architecturally stunning; it’s home to a lot of interesting history that we only had the chance to scratch the surface of. This is definitely going on the list of places for a repeat visit. Although to be fair, that list might be a long one by the time we’re done: we certainly have more to see New York and DC as well.

 

Day 17 (New Year’s Eve) – Savannah GA to Orlando FL + Universal Studios

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No time to take the scenic route today, we had plenty of miles to cover in order to get to Orlando in good time to celebrate New Year’s. There were two milestones to celebrate in the four boring hours down into Florida: the trip odometer ticking over to 1000 miles, and the exterior temperature breaching 30 degrees.

 

We were aiming for New Year’s at Universal Studios and managed to get in before the park reached capacity…

 

… and in time to see the parade. Under a heavy, darkening sky, surrounded and illuminated by so much manufactured fakery, it felt like a portent of the coming apocalypse. Of course, I may have just seen Ghostbusters one too many times.

 

I should say now that I won’t be exhaustively describing the various parks we’re heading to over the next 3 days. I know enough from my experience of this first afternoon that I’ll have a lot to say about the weirdness of Orlando, but that it’s probably best said as a summation of the experience, once when we’re free and clear of it.

For now: Happy New Year!

 

 

Day 18 – Magic Kingdom

Hot hot hot, and heaving with people. Disney apparently does have attendance limits, and today we weren’t close to them. I know for sure that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near this place if it was at capacity. Insane.

 

 

Day 19 – Water Park + Hollywood Studios

We started the day at Typhoon Lagoon, one of the two Disney water parks and quickly discovered that Americans attend theme parks in the same way that Australians dress. Bear with me here: a curious thing you’ll see in Australia is that as soon as the calendar ticks over into winter, you’ll start seeing everyone rugged up in coats and gloves, whether that’s sensible for the temperature or not. Similarly, on the first day of spring, people put their knitwear away in favour of shorts and floaty dresses. We saw the same effect at Typhoon Lagoon: whereas Magic Kingdom was horrifically crowded, the water park was desolate by comparison, and the accents I was hearing were often British or Irish. Here’s my theory: it’s winter here, so the Americans just assume that it’s too cold to go swimming. Joke’s on you, Americans: this is a balmy British summer. I’ve headed to the beach in much colder than this!

Whatever the reason, it was a welcome change. We rode the rafts and flumes, jumped waves in the wave pool, drifted around the lazy river, and it was glorious.

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In the late afternoon we caught a bus and boat over to Hollywood Studios, watched Indiana Jones in his Epic Live Stunt Show (R)(C) grab the statue and narrowly avoid the giant boulder…

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… wandered around and were generally put out to be back surrounded by crowds of slow-moving people, then left for dinner.

 

Day 20 – Islands of Adventure

Grudgingly, I paid extra for an Express Pass for today, knowing that I didn’t want to leave Lana waiting for me while I spent 2 hours queueing for roller-coasters she’s currently (due to Cletus) unable to ride. More on this in my summation later on. The Express Pass was effective, though, cutting the queue time down considerably, which meant I could get on a few thrill rides today…

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… and also be the guinea pig for some rides which Lana could do, including Bluto’s Blige Rat Barges, which does not lie when it tells you you’re going to get wet. We were saturated:

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Islands of Adventure is probably the better park of Universal’s two in Orlando, I’d say. Today was a lot of fun.

Bonus content: have you ever wondered what Lana or I would look like if our DNA were combined with that of a dinosaur? Courtesy of the Jurassic Park DNA Combinator, wonder no more!

 

 

Sidebar – a cynic’s review of Orlando

As promised, I’ll try to sum up my thoughts on this weird, weird town. I came here before and did a lot of the same things on a family holiday as an 11-year-old, but my experience this time around was through the critical eyes of an adult and was very different.

Orlando

It’s huge. It’s hard to overstate how large it is, from the epic expanse of the Disney campus (they have their own highway system with busses to ferry guests the multiple miles between sites) to the unending sprawl of strip malls, motels and themed restaurants. Aside from the occasional hotel tower or ferris wheel, it’s very low-rise and there seems to be no center to it, no CBD; it just looks the same from all directions. I can’t imagine living here even temporarily, let alone liking it enough to stay*. How is this place governed, I wonder? In order define a place enough in order to govern it, doesn’t it need a center? A high acropolis from which to survey the city? Orlando has no high point. It’s more like a slowly spreading puddle of vomit: close up there are interesting chunks, but zoom out and it’s a homogenous ooze that feels repulsive.

*I get the feeling that a lot of the people who do live here are only here because of the amount of money in the place. The parks are economic powerhouses, separating families from terrifying quantities of cash on a daily basis, and obviously some of that feeds back to their legions of staff. The crowds of park guests need feeding once they leave for the day, which supports the myriad of restaurants spread through the city, each with a staff of chefs and servers living on tourist tips. The city is truly built for cars; there is no physical way to walk between most places, and the distances are often too great even if you had an appetite to, so hundreds of people ply their living driving cabs or rideshares. Everywhere you look, cash is flowing. Even if most of it ends up in corporate coffers, many people are being supported by the Orlando machine.

The Parks

That these parks exist to wring as much money as is humanly possible from guests is obvious, so the overpriced food and gift shops outnumbering other attractions by literally five-to-one were no surprise to me. There have been some developments since I was here last, however, which take things further.

Firstly, if I was to define a ‘theme park ride’, I would say that some kind of car should take people around a circular track, either at thrilling speeds with twists and loops, or more sedately, while moving through some interesting scenery. Water is an optional extra. There is a disappointing trend to replace this kind of ride with a ‘motion simulator’ where the car stays stationary, the scenery is projected onto a screen, and the motion is simulated by moving the car on hydraulic rams. Disney is guilty too, but it’s Universal Studios who have embraced this whole-heartedly, with fully 9 in 10 of their big-ticket rides now being motion-simulated. It makes sense for them: the rides are physically smaller (not needing a track), are safer, and I assume are easier to maintain. For some reason, most people seem fine with it and the queues are certainly no shorter. For me, it feels like one step too far into fakeness. I come to theme parks because I enjoy the attention-to-detail in the fake scenery and buildings, but to take the ride out of the physical, and to trade-in that attention-to-detail for virtually generated scenery feels like a cop-out.

Secondly, the Express Pass. Every ride now has two lanes: the plebs only able to pay US$160 per person for a day’s entry, and the people willing to shell out more cash on top for shorter wait times. Both parks do it, but Disney has made an evil art form of it. While at Universal a pass will buy you a 50% reduction in queueing time, Disney have renamed the normal queue to ‘stand-by’ as if to rub your face in the fact that the express lane will shuffle past you at a rate of more than four-to-one. And in the false economy of the park, where you’re value-anchored by the sky-high prices of the merchandise and the food, it becomes too easy to say to yourself “OK, I’ll pay another US$150 on top to not have to wait two hours to ride the roller coaster I’ve already paid US$160 to ride”. I know this, because I paid the cash to skip the queues on the last day, and it felt like good value. Obviously you could tell me that this system only exists because idiots like me are willing to pay the price and support the unfair two-tier economy, and you’d be right. Healthcare is the same: I paid much more than US$160 to skip the public health queue and go private to get my shoulder operated on, and it produced similar feelings of hypocrisy at shoring up an unfair system. But I’d level the same accusation at Disney that I would at healthcare providers: you are creating a situation where resources are diverted to the higher cost tier such that the lower tier so much disadvantaged as to be unfit for purpose. It means that the only rational thing for people to do, if they have the money, is to buy their way to the higher tier. But if the tiers did not exist in the first place, resources would be equally shared between all people wanting to access the service, and the experience would be acceptable for all. This is why universal healthcare for all with no cost at point-of-service is essential, and why Disney and Universal badly need to get rid of their Express Lanes.

A weird thing I also noticed about the parks, is that as well as being spotless, they’re also completely devoid of insects. No ants, no flies. Bodies of water everywhere, yet no mosquitoes. What’s up with that?

Coming soon: a reply to the above from Lana, who is far more upbeat than I am…

 

Day 21 – Space + Orlando to Sandestin

Oh my, what a day. I was looking forward to today as one of the highlights of the trip, because it is my firm belief that humanity’s crowning achievement was the Apollo program, culminating in the moon landing with Apollo XI, and that the Space Shuttle is the most beautiful thing ever fashioned by human hands. Expectations were set at sensible levels then…

Which might explain why, on arriving at Kennedy Space Center and finding out that the US government shutdown would mean that we couldn’t do the tour that I’d booked, I had a large sense of humour failure. A conservative-looking mother situated near to my colourful outburst felt it necessary to apologise to her daughter for having to overhear me raging at Trump for his dick-measuring political posturing. As Lana pointed out, this pearl clutching was probably unneccesary, as any given 14-year-old is overwhelmingly likely to have heard the word ‘dick’ before.

So, we didn’t get to go into the Vehicle Assembly Building (tallest 1-story structure in the world), but we did at least drive past it…

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…on the way to the Apollo building, an area which houses the entirety of the Apollo-era firing room, now hooked up to a multimedia system which plays back the original sequences of lights and beeps through the control desks, replicating the experience of being in the firing room as Apollo VIII launched. They’ve put incredible detail into the experience, down to putting vibrating machines in the ceiling to make the roof tiles rattle as if a rocket were igniting outside.

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But it’s through the next door that things get really incredible: a full Saturn V rocket (unflown, of course), laid on its side in a hangar. This thing is iconic, and it’s bloody big. You might recall the Rocketdyne F-1 engine from the Smithsonian in Washington. Here’s what 5 of them look like in situ:

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Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s an idea of how the whole thing plugs together:

 

As well as the rocket itself, there are a few other Apollo-era artifacts which were quite special to see:

 

As incredible as the Apollo exhibit was to see, it was space shuttle building that really got me in the feels. Tears were in my eyes as the doors slid up to reveal the space shuttle Atlantis in all its glory.

 

It’s hard to put in words what it means to see these objects ‘in the flesh’. It’s partly about the beauty of the machines in-and-of themselves. It’s partly about looking at something so hugely (literally) complex and marvelling that a group of humans could organise themselves enough to actually build six* of them. It’s partly about what they represent in terms of the human spirit of exploration. For me, the Saturn V and the space shuttle represent the best of what it is to be human.

*Of course, it’s hard to forget that of the five shuttles that actually flew to space, only three still exist. One of the most arresting exhibits was a piece from each of the two lost shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, recovered from the wreckage left as they fell back to earth.

 

Having got that out of my system, we needed to get out of Cape Canaveral sharp-ish, because we had a long way to drive. No pretty back roads today, just a lot of miles to pound out.

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Day 22 – Sandestin FL to New Orleans LA

We’d eventually gotten into Sandestin at 10pm CST, having benefitted from crossing time zones, and took advantage of the same change to sleep in for an extra hour. Sandestin is a beach resort town on the gulf coast, featuring golf courses, pricy boutique shops and pure white sand the consistency of powdered sugar. The air temperature didn’t reflect the beautiful blue skies, so paddling wasn’t on the cards, but we took a beach stroll anyway.

 

Not too bad a drive today…

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…and one which crossed no less than three state lines:

 

The cypresses and dune grasses of the sandy gulf coast around Sandestin gave way once again to muddy, reedy river deltas and Spanish moss-draped trees as we crossed back into swamp country around Mobile, Alabama and if I wasn’t checking the GPS I could have been easily fooled into thinking we were back up in the Carolinas.

The final stretch of road leading into New Orleans is the causeway dividing Lake Ponchartrain and the expanse of water which eventually becomes the Gulf of Mexico. We crossed as the causeway sank into a gorgeous orange sunset.

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We followed up a quick dinner in the Marginy neighborhood near where we were staying by seeing (what turned out to be) the first of many jazz bands playing one of the many bars and music clubs up and down Frenchmen Street.

 

Day 23 – French Quarter

One thing we’d seen the night before, but which was confirmed at brunch this morning is that no meal in New Orleans is not made better by musical accompaniment, so we ate out eggs and grits to the sound of NOLA trad. jazz (clarinet, trumpet, banjo, double bass, washboard) and were (highly) entertained by Bella Blue, bunch burlesque dancer.

Of course, one can’t sit around enjoying brunch forever in a city as interesting as New Orleans, so we only stayed sitting down for three hours or so, before heading to the riverside to take a tour around Mardi Gras World, a cavernous warehouse and series of workshops used to construct many of the floats used in NOLA’s insane Mardi Gras parades.

 

It’s astounding to hear how much time, effort and hard cash goes into the props and figures used for the parade floats, and the various trinkets which float riders throw out into the crowds (2,500 tonnes of plastic bead necklaces alone, every single year), and all of it privately funded by the various parade ‘krewes’, non-profit organisations funded through dues paid by their members.

We made our way back the French Quarter, scarfed down a portion of piping hot beignets (crossaint-like donuts of French origin) and headed to meet the guide for our second tour of the day: Vampires, Voodoo, Murder and Witchcraft in the French Quarter. Lana and I have quite a few walking tours in our combined experience, but the guide for this tour was among the best I’ve had. Hilarious, characterful and able to turn some unassuming locations (an unremarkable short-term carpark, for example) into places of creeping dread.

We heard about the Iraq war veteran who dismembered and cooked up his girlfriend before buying drinks for a lot of bemusedly grateful people and then jumping to his death from a hotel roof.

We heard about the Count de St. Germain, owner of mansion in the quarter which was never furnished apart from when he threw one of his lavish parties, parties at which he’d never be seen eating and would never share the bottle of wine he drank from. His wine cellar was eventually found to be composed entirely of bottles of absinthe mixed with human blood. St. Germain skipped the city when his secret was discovered, but sightings of him have continued through the 20th century into the current, the most recent being in 2014.

Most chillingly, we heard about Madame Delphine LaLaurie. Probably Louisiana’s first serial killer, she tortured, mutilated and murdered upwards of a hundred of her slaves in the attic of her mansion in the French Quarter.

 

After dropping Lana back at home, I headed out once again to Frenchmen Street, hopping between bars before eventually settling in to the Blue Nile for an evening of highly crunchy jazz fusion. This is a great town for a jazz fan, there’s a huge variety of music on every night of the week and most of it is free as long as you’re buying drinks.

 

Day 24 – Garden District

We wandered through the French Quarter a little more this morning, now in the light of day, making our way to the Treme district to meet the third tour guide of our stay…

 

…whose company was required in order to access St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, one of the many ‘cities of the dead’ in old New Orleans. An above-ground cemetery, the tombs take advantage of the blistering summer heat to slowly cremate their occupants. The method is so effective that a single summer is all it takes to reduce a corpse to crumbled ash, which can then be swept to the back of the tomb and down into a cavity underneath, ready for the next unfortunate family member to take their place.

 

We caught a cab over to the Garden District after the tour concluded, to take a walk through its leafy streets and take in the architecture. I asked Lana midway through whether she felt like she was being dragged along against her will. She said that the best way to sum up the experience for the blog would be that “a walking tour of old houses happened to Lana this afternoon”.

Forgive the length of this next gallery, but it’s neccessary to get across just how rich, varied, and majestically opulent the architecture of this district is.

It makes me a bit sad that the currently living generations have not constructed very many buildings (private residences or otherwise) which will look this good in a hundred year’s time. Another thing to add to the to-do list for when I get filthy rich.

 

Day 25 – New Orleans LA to Jackson MS

Our final breakfast in New Orleans needed to be a reasonably quick one, so we reluctantly went back to the same place as we’d been yesterday, just around the corner from the AirBnb. We had a different server this time, though, who handed me the menu showing the opposite side. Around the same time, but for entirely separate reasons, I discovered that the menu had an opposite side, an opposite side which had far more exciting options than yesterday!

I spent a while trying to deliberate between pulled pork Eggs Benedict, shrim jambalaya Eggs Benedict or good ol’ fashioned fried chicken Eggs Benedict, before noticing that the cafe sold a dish titled ‘The Trifecta’. All of the above, on one plate, for a very reasonable price. I gave it my very best shot.

Stomach groaning, we loaded the car and drove west out of New Orleans. Today’s route would take us along the banks of the might Mississipi, past Baton Rouge and up to Jackson MS…

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… but first, a stop just outside New Orleans at the Laura Plantation. Laura is one of at least twenty preserved planatation houses and grounds, surviving from the original 500 or so lining both banks of the Mississipi.

We took a tour of the plantation with Kyle, a young chap who claimed to be from the bayou and to have french as his first language. I think I could have suspended disbelief for Kyle’s very odd accent if he didn’t drop it for brief instants, and if he hadn’t mixed up his gauche and his droit. The tour itself felt like it was less than it could have been, given the glimpses we were given of the family who owned the plantation and the stories that I’m sure Kyle could have told us about them had he not been focussed on trying to convince us he was Cajun. As it was, the highligh of the tour for me was Pascal the cat, a ginger kitten who gave zero shits about our tour of the wine cellars and set about tearing apart a bird he’d caught and dragged in there, right in front of us.

We left Laura and followed the banks of the Mississipi inland. Not far into the drive, I realised that I’d made a mistake. I was expecting that we’d be able to slowly drift upstream, overlooking the river as it made its languid turns across the landscape. I had overlooked two crucial pieces of information: 1) the Mississipi floods, and hence is protected by large earth levees on both banks, blocking all view of the river from the road; 2) the levees are privately owned all the way up the river to Baton Rouge, and hence not publicly accessible for even a brief stroll to take a look.

We followed the admittedly impressive grassy banks as far as Baton Rouge, then called it a day, crossed the river and chose a quicker route to get us up to Jackson. As we progressed north, the wetlands of the Mississipi delta dried up and turned into cypress forest and farmland, dotted with small towns (mostly clearly low income, predominantly black from what we could see, but continuing to look active).

 

Day 26 – Jackson MS to Dallas TX

The first day of three long days of driving to get us from the Gulf of Mexico over to Utah, today was never going to be particularly event-filled.

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We crossed back over the Mississipi and into Texas quite early in the day…

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…and watched the land flatten out, get more dry and lose most of its trees. East Texas oil country:

Many miles of plains stretching into the horizon we finally pulled into Dallas, just in time to get into the Sixth Floor Museum. The museum is set out over the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, overlooking Daley Plaza, and tells the story of the JFK assassination. It covers the politicical climate in the 60s, both locally and nationally, preceeding it, and the ensuing investigations, arrests and conspiracy theories. Lee Harvey Ozwald’s sniper nest is there, behind the stacks of school books. You can look out of the window, down to the plaza and the grassy knoll, then finally to the road, where a small but ominous ‘x’ shows where the fatal shot landed.

I was looking forward to Dallas as a stop along our route, and to see the museum, but I didn’t expect to feel a sense of being close to history as much as I did. I think it’s partly about the place that JFK’s assassination has in popular culture, but I’m also struggling to come up with another event that has been both burned into global consciousness as much as this has, and which has as strong a sense of place: one so localised to one particular spot on the earth. The best alternative I can think of is 9/11; I had a similar feeling looking at the naked foundations of the World Trade Center as I did today looking at the ‘x’ on the road where Kennedy died.

After checking into our AirBnb for the night (comfortable, but decorated exclusively with picture frames containing vaguely religious motivational quotes and greetings card sentiments), we headed out to the cinema. It’s one of those luxe new multiplexes which trust you to drink beer in the cinema as long as it’s in a plastic cup and which allows you to order dinner from the comfort of your reclining chair, served during the movie by comically tiptoeing wait staff, bent over to avoid getting in the way of the screen and probably ruining their lower backs in the process.

The pizza was terrible, the movie was incredible. Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse is yet another stab by Sony Pictures at getting out favourite web-slinger onto the big screen. Wisely they’ve put Peter Parker into a supporting role and the movie instead focusses on a variety of Spideys from alternate dimensions (including the absolutely golden Spider Man: Noir and Peter Porker aka Spider Pig). It’s the first feature-length animated Spidey (as far as I know) and the animation really feels like a step change compared to anything else I’ve seen. The characters are rendered in an offset lithograph comics-style, but as you’d expect from a movie dealing with alternate dimensions, things get trippy very fast and the animation style reflects this to incredible effect.

Dallas marks the western side of East Texas, and East Texas is the westernmost culture which considers itsself part of the Deep South. Tomorrow, we’ll be heading into the Wild West.

Next; USA: Part 3 – The Wild West

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