Ambitious plan? Actually easier than it looks. With drive times between stops relatively short, we could fit in a lot in 17 days. I hadn’t been back to the South in 20 years, so I was excited to reconnect with old friends. Plus, Rafa could finally see an important part of my past. We picked up where we left off from our previous road trip, had an incredible time & managed to get home just before the world went into lockdown…
Starting a long journey in a familiar place makes that first day much more enjoyable. After exploring the fantastic mansions around Forest Park, Rafa & I returned downtown to visit something we’d missed last year: the Old Courthouse. I’d envisioned a dry tour with little to see —wrong! We freely roamed the beautiful building & had a great introduction to what would be a constant theme for this trip: slavery & the US Civil Rights Movement.
After lunch at 4 Hands, we continued walking south to Soulard. Beautiful afternoon light, gorgeous restored houses, & a bustling market showed us yet another side of St. Louis. Rafa had hoped to visit the Anheuser-Busch factory, but all tours were booked full… still, we got a glimpse of my favorite style of industrial architecture. To compensate, we popped into Ernesto’s (as in Hemingway) for a glass of wine before catching a bus to Urban Chestnut. Off to great start!
We had major trouble picking up our rental car at the airport, so I’ll never rent from Enterprise again. Enough said about that. Finally we made our way south to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, where he met his future wife after graduating from West Point. We barely had time for a picnic lunch at Jefferson Landing & a quick visit to its large military cemetery. One thing I always forget is how few hours of daylight we have when doing these road trips in the winter. But we arrived to our overnight stop just before the sun set…
After meeting our gracious host at the Main Street Inn, we dashed out for a quick walk… the pics above show how the sun was about to disappear, but that made our afternoon all the more romantic. As the first European settlement west of the Mississippi River, the town remained populated by the French even after Louisiana became part of Spain (1762–1800). Rafa & I even found markers for El Camino Real, which connected the town to New Madrid.
Dinner options were slim due to Superbowl Sunday, but we found a nice pizza joint open. The place came to a standstill as the Shakira/J. Lo half-time show started, with some people commenting they didn’t know either of the performers! A cross-cultural experience indeed.
The bulk of our sightseeing happened the next morning, visiting three of the five remaining vertical post houses in the US. We also had time to visit the Centre for French Colonial Life… incredible to see so much European history from the 1790s this far west. Even more amazing is the fact that anything survived from that time since the river can flood in a big way. Another great stop for us with more US-Spain connections.
Chilly & windy, we had less than ideal weather for a planned picnic lunch in the Trail of Tears State Park. I think we were the only ones there! But Rafa & I got majestic views of the Mississippi River, walked 30 minutes through the woods & made friends with an armadillo. As Rafa’ s cold took hold, we pulled into our next stop…
Our hotel occupied a former bank, so the lobby & common areas were suitably grand. Rafa & I took advantage of a break in the rain to explore what we could on foot. Downtown had a re-developed, PoMo vibe to it, but the waterfront delivered with beautiful old architecture, a few fantastic antique shops, & a huge, muraled barricade to prevent future floods. Rafa made it through an early dinner & great beer at Minglewood Brewery before we called it a night.
Although rainy & I felt like Rafa had given me his cold, we couldn’t skip a quick stop in New Madrid. Rafa wasn’t the first Spaniard to visit, but we did get corrected on the town’s pronunciation: MAD-rid, not mah-DRID. After a courthouse visit, we got back on the road during a torrential storm… what a great time for my cold to flare up.
Crossing the bridge into Memphis made me feel like a kid again. I knew this would be a trip down memory lane, but I wasn’t expecting nasty cold symptoms & icky weather. Also, we should have added an extra day here… but we saw a lot all the same. Downtown had changed so much that I recognized very little, but we hit the Orpheum, Beale Street & the YMCA where I used to work.
Rafa & I spent the next morning in Whitehaven to drive past Graceland, see my old schools & what used to be the local library. I spent SO much time there as a kid! I thought taking the back roads would be more interesting, but Elvis Presley Blvd looked like a war zone instead. Even the hotel receptionist said her son asked recently: Why can’t we have a nice city? Good question, Memphis.
After dipping down to Mississippi to see the lab where I used to work, we headed to the National Civil Rights Museum; I still remember attending the open ceremony in 1991! So well done, so difficult to fathom, & a fantastic learning moment for Rafa. That evening we had a mini-reunion with a few friends from high school & college that I’d been able to contact. My bestie John even took us to the bizarre Bass Pro Shop inside the Pyramid. Insane concept, but great, misty views from the top.
Last on the list was a visit to some of my favorite professors at Rhodes College. Even if Rafa was bored out of his mind, it was great for me to reconnect. We left to have some good eats at Central BBQ. John came along for the day since he graduated one year before me, & I got some good alone time with him afterwards to catch up. The High Cotton Brewing Co. got a big meh from me & Rafa, but snow fell as we left. Great way to leave the city. Roads were clear the next morning, & the sun finally came out as we drove on to…
We planned a quick look around the interpretation center before lunch, but that turned into watching the full, 45-minute video of the history of the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. With 24,000 casualties, the 1862 conflict over the course of two days was one of the worst of the entire war. We drove out to Poppy’s BBQ ten minutes away, had a great lunch (with banana pudding!) then spent the next three hours driving through the entire site. Gorgeous weather along with few people —we probably saw five other cars the entire time— made for a magical afternoon. No doubt one of the best days of the trip, especially the stop along the Tennessee River.
After 26 years since my last visit to Alabama, I didn’t know what to expect. As the largest city of The Shoals, Florence sits on the Tennessee River & the area has a surprising number of historical sites: the W.C. Handy birthplace, the Helen Keller birthplace, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a university with real lions, & even a pedestrian bridge to the middle of the river. We hit as much as we possibly could.
Absolutely loved the houses in the Walnut Street Historic District, but not so much the Confederate statue in front of the courthouse in Tuscumbia… in fact, that was the only moment I felt uneasy during the entire trip. As we took pics of the courthouse & looked at the old trains nearby, some noisy guys in a pick-up truck circled a couple times with rifles in plain sight. I said to Rafa, “Don’t look around, only look at me & follow me directly to the car. We’re leaving.” Technically they did nothing wrong, but being from the South I wasn’t going to let an opportunity arise. Something just didn’t feel right.
We got on the road early —me without coffee— but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While on the road to Huntsville, I saw signs for Waffle House! How had I not thought about taking Rafa there earlier?! Grits, hash browns, sausage, a pecan waffle… so, so good. That gave us the energy we needed for the Space & Rocket Museum. Rafa even braved the rides. I don’t remember from my visits as a kid such a military focus, nor the omission that von Braun was a Nazi. Seemed like a bit of whitewashing to me.
We were a little tired when we arrived to the hotel, but I urged Rafa to rally for a walk through the city. Rain was forecasted the next day, & afternoon light was just right. This was another perfect day, especially after finding Yellowhammer Brewing with an onsite pizza oven. Rain arrived in buckets as predicted the next day, but I did laundry, worked a little, & we went to Yellowhammer again because it was so good.
Even though Rafa was getting sick again, we had to get to the Alabama School of Fine Arts early. PJ, my bestie from Rhodes College days, has been teaching chemistry there for 20 some years… plus she hooked us up to teach the AP Spanish class that day. Imagine me showing pics of Semana Santa to those kids! We also talked with any LGBTQ+ staff or students who wanted to find out more about our life together in Spain. Dinner with PJ at Jim ‘N Nick’s BBQ hit the spot, as did our drinks & chat at Good Brewing Company afterwards. Next morning, I couldn’t believe I was finally standing in front of the Sixteenth St Church. So tragic.
Can you believe I grew up in the South & had never been to Atlanta? Neither can I. Atlanta has some frickin’ crazy drivers, so we were thrilled to drop off the car after checking into our hotel in Buckhead. With only a few days to explore the city, we had our work cut out for us. The first full day Rafa & I went to the state capitol —our third to date— full of rowdy school groups, two Confederate portraits, & a recent portrait of MLK, Jr. sadly tucked in a corner. Not a great impression. After a quick walk downtown, we made it to the Carter Presidential Library… which had less personal info about his past than Truman’s. At least the Wrecking Bar Brewery at Little Five Points gave us a friendly welcome!
Next mornng we arrived at the Atlanta History Center as it opened & literally spent the entire day there. What an amazing experience! The Cyclorama wowed us, the local history section gave us a great feel for the city, the museum café served a romantic Valentine’s Day lunch, historic houses were set in beautiful grounds, & we managed to see the remaining four exhibits before closing time. Exhausted but energized from what we’d learned, Rafa & I walked back to the hotel to rest a bit before heading out for Chinese food. They even gave us chocolates… awww.
On our final full day we wandered through the Auburn Street district where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. Loved seeing Ebenezer Baptist Church, but compared to other museums we’d seen on this trip the exhibits seemed outdated & disorganized. An unexpected highlight for me was Oakland Cemetery with all the monuments to Confederate dead… never expected to see that in 2020! We called it a day early, Rafa crashed at the hotel & I started packing. We had time to see the Margaret Mitchell house before flying home the next day, but again, maybe I didn’t want to learn more about that Lost Cause narrative. Oh well.
We covered 777 miles (1,250 km) in 17 days but in very manageable sections. As I wrote in my journal, “I’m still processing a lot of what I saw in the South.” Some things had changed, lots hadn’t, & seeing long-time friends was priceless. Going back gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own life decisions as well as do a little what-if mental exercise. I truly love being from the South; that’s my core identity 100%. But I’ve been fortunate to add other layers on that foundation over the years & also put my time there into a larger context. Who knows how life would have unfolded if I’d stayed, but I’m very grateful that I could share the South with Rafa. I should go back to saying y’all more often!