Trip Report - Blues & BBQ in the Deep South

Discussion in 'Holidays & Travel' started by Agg, May 31, 2012.

  1. Agg

    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    This is a trip report from a holiday I took with Sciby in the USA in May 2012. I'm writing this largely to organise my own thoughts and serve as a reminder to myself, so it'll probably be hugely long and heavy on pointless detail. In short, we travelled through the Mississippi Delta from Memphis to New Orleans, soaking up as much blues history and southern comfort food as we could.

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    If that sounds cool to you, read on. Note: for each day I include just a few photos, and at the end of each day, a link to the Flickr set of all photos from that day. They're a little jumbled in the sets due to using camera and phone and upload/timezone shenanigans.

    Background:
    My wife is very interested in nutrition, specifically the low-carb and paleo-food movements. She became aware of a "Low Carb Cruise" around the Caribbean where members of that communty could attend lectures and presentations and socialise etc. I'm not interested in that, but I am fascinated by vintage blues music and the history surrounding it. We soon hatched a plan to travel to the USA together, then split up in LA. She'd go to Texas to start her cruise and I'd go to Memphis and start my blues trip. She would of course meet up with people on the boat, but I was resigned to (and somewhat wary about) doing this trip by myself, until a chance conversation with Sciby at an OCAU meet in December revealed that he'd always wanted to do a driving trip in the states. Some planning over the next few weeks (during which we realised food was going to be something of a focus for us over there..) and off we went!

    Day 1 (Friday) - Arrive in LA - Santa Monica
    Wifey and I had booked our tickets months earlier, so Sciby was on a different flight and would meet us in LA. For the 13-hour SYD-LAX leg we flew Virgin Australia in normal Economy, but we paid a few extra bucks for the emergency row seating. I actually forgot to get a photo of how much legroom we had, but suffice to say, to get my bag out from under the seat in front of me involved undoing my seatbelt and taking a short walk across the emergency exit. :) So, despite being 6'3 with long legs, I had no issues with legroom.

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    Actually, next to me on the flight was a guy named Kyle, and we got chatting as you do on a 13 hour flight. Turns out he's a professional movie stuntman and commutes from Sydney to LA regularly. Kind've a cool start to my USA trip. He previously flew Premium Economy but now prefers to do what we did, normal Economy with exit row seating. It's not much more than half the price of Premium but better in some ways. I will say though, you need your earplugs and eye mask if you want to sleep, as you are near the toilets so there's a bit of milling around in front of you, plus the toilet door opening and closing occasionally etc. Wifey slept fine though, bundled up against the window in a pile of blankets.

    However, I didn't sleep very well the night before due to planning/nerves/excitement, and didn't sleep at all on the flight, mostly due to being in the middle seat so not able to get comfy, and being absorbed in my little Android tablet media world. So by the time we landed in LA and went through the nearly 2-hour queueing process to enter the country (!) I was feeling extremely tired - and of course it was only noon local time. Like any gamer I've pulled my fair share of all-nighters, but I soon realised the plan to hire a car and drive around LA would have to be scrapped. I wouldn't have been that comfortable driving this tired at home, so was in no state to be learning to drive on the wrong side of the road in a strange, busy city like LA.

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    Given we were splitting up for nearly 2 weeks the next morning, wifey and I were content to just hang out in LA rather than go mental for the tourist sights. Besides, we don't really care about celebrities or hollywood etc. Santa Monica sounded like a cool beachy alternative kinda area so we set our sights on there. I got in contact with Sciby and he was content to hang around his hotel, so wifey and I hopped on the bus, which for $1 each gave us a 40-minute look at the fairly unexciting bits of LA between LAX and Santa Monica. We mostly hung around the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Boulevarde - sorry if you now have that song in your head. :) As we sipped our drinks and watched the world go by on the arcade, we could have easily been in Melbourne. For some reason it really has the same kind of feel for me, both the city/arcade part we saw on Day 1 and the more arty alternate beach culture side we saw on the way back at the end of our trip.

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    For lunch, wifey had a hankering for a burger, so we went to Johnny Rockets which is a 50's themed burger joint - seemed appropriate for our first meal in the USA. I think I had the Houston and a Cherry Coke. Wifey had a more standard burger (didn't eat the bread, naturally) and some salady thing.

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    The big surprise for me about LA is how it's so obviously a desert that someone has planted trees in. I guess I knew that already, but to see the sandy flatness of it all from the air and on the bus was a real surprise. There's distant mountains on the horizon but between you and them it's so flat, and everything seems to be so far away from everything else, even coming from a spread-out city like Sydney. I can see why everyone has cars here. The air is quite smoggy and the sun has a real heat to it, even in May, which seems to bake the dust and soot onto everything. Like any major city you could spend years exploring it, but we only had a couple of days total (one at each end of the trip), so I'm reluctant to pass any real judgement on whether I like LA or not. I'd be happy to come back and spend more time here sometime, though.

    Anyway, after wandering around a bit it was starting to get dark, so we hit the bus again back to the hotel. Near the bus stop was a Carl's Jr, another burger joint, so my dinner was a Single Southwest Patty Melt, which was delicious! Something about the texture of the bread really made it.

    Here's all the Day 1 Photos.
     
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    Day 2 (Saturday) - Arrive in Memphis - Rendezvous - Beale Street

    This day started with a bang - despite having set two alarms, one on my phone and one on wifey's watch, we managed to oversleep by nearly 2 hours, waking up less than an hour before wifey's plane to Houston was due to depart. Cue panic! She actually just missed her flight - I think her bags made it but she didn't. Fortunately, they were happy to put her on the next flight for no charge, so no real drama in the end.

    Meanwhile I caught my later flight to Memphis with no issues, despite being jammed into Delta Airlines domestic cattle class for 4 hours. The shutters were down for the whole flight as it was blindingly bright out there, but as we began our descent into I opened mine and saw, firstly, the odd pyramid that someone built to remind everyone that Memphis is named after the biblical capital of Egypt, but most strikingly, the big brown river carving the landscape in half. That's when I realised my trip was really underway.

    Sciby and I had cunningly arranged to meet at the Thrifty hire car desk at Memphis airport. Which doesn't exist, as is the case with many airports now. You get on a courtesy bus and get taken to the appropriate lot 5 minutes away from the airport. So, after some confusion we managed to meet up and take possession of our hire car - a current model Dodge Charger! Exceeeept.. it wasn't. Turns out Thrifty have dropped the Charger from the fleet entirely and the nearest thing, which was some considerable distance from our original hopes, was a Ford Crown Victoria. Still, this let Sciby and I pretend we were in a 70's police action drama. It's a big, soft, slushbox of a thing to drive - and as we were to discover, perfect for big wide American roads. Besides, I had felt a shiny Charger might attract a bit too much attention given we would be driving through some of the poorest parts of the country in a few days time.

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    Sciby was keen to get driving, so I fired up the GPS and we were soon at the hotel. I think by the time we'd settled in it was only about 5pm or so, so it was time to tick off a couple of things on the Memphis list. Our first taste of Memphis BBQ had to be at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous. Whenever you tell anyone you're going to Memphis, they say go here. I'm also fairly sure that tonight was the only one of our nights in Memphis that they were open, although it being the weekend of the Memphis in May Beale St Music Festival may have changed that. So, we made this our first stop in case there was a huge queue.

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    Actually, one major landmark right next to Rendezvous is the Peabody Hotel. This is a proper old luxury hotel which dates back to 1889, although this building was completed in 1925. It's perhaps most famous nowadays for the ducks that hang out in the lobby fountain, and ride the elevator to and from their penthouse on the roof each morning and evening. But the Peabody has its own place in history too. As author/historian David Cohn proclaimed in 1935: "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepherd's, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby... ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta". It's pretty swish inside and the horse-drawn carriages waiting outside are a nice touch.

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    Outside the Peabody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFxigxkND3c
    Outside the Peabody (again): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0q7PMC7lWAk

    So, onwards to Rendezvous. It turns out there were a lot of people waiting for service in the bar, but they were churning through pretty quickly, so we had a table in only a few minutes. Depending on who you ask or which documentary you watch the details are fuzzy, but long story short, Greek deli owner Charles Vergos was cleaning out the basement of his building one day in the 1950's and discovered a prohibition-era coal chute which was adapted into a BBQ pit. He switched to selling BBQ ribs in a unique dry-seasoned style which soon became the talk of Memphis and pretty much defined the Memphis BBQ scene. Nowadays there's loads of great places in Memphis to get BBQ, but it seemed an appropriate place to begin our pilgrimage. I had the pork ribs and brisket plate, which came with the (we soon discovered) standard side-serves of BBQ beans and coleslaw.

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    I have to say, it was pretty darn yummy. The local recommended beer was "Ghost River Pale Ale" which I confess to not being that impressed by. But the ribs were incredibly tender and tasty, the brisket moist and light, falling easily apart and the coleslaw does a great job of clearing your palate between bites. I'm not going to rank this as one of the greatest meals of my life, but it was very satisfying and a great welcome into Memphis.

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    Next stop: Beale St. Time for some blues history (instead of me just stuffing my face). Back in the day, Beale Street was a centre for the black community in Memphis. It wasn't a touristy thing or in any way remarkable really, except that the black community shopped there and ate there, so travelling musicians would play music on the street corners. One end reaches right down to the river, and remember that the Mississippi really is like a superhighway through the region, so it was naturally a busy commercial area. Theatres and an auditorium opened and it became a cultural centre. All the big names in blues and jazz frequented the area. In the mid 60's civil rights issues and economic decline gripped the area, and then, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis and everything changed. The city was abandoned by businesses and rocked by riots and strikes. Beale St was boarded up and then almost entirely knocked down under the guise of urban renewal. Finally in the 1980's it was re-developed, but the Beale Street you now find is a tourist-oriented, cartoonified version of the genuine blues epicentre it once was. So, suffice to say we didn't have any idea what to expect, but we had to at least visit while we were in town.

    Parking near Beale Street was apparently a nightmare, and we'd had plenty of warnings about car crime in Memphis, so we decided to see if there was a courtesy bus or similar from the hotel. The front desk waved over a lady who was sitting nearby, and after some confusion, we worked out that our new friend Rena ran some kind of unlicensed taxi service in exchange for cash "donations". She was friendly and full of info so became our default way of getting around at night. We'd ring her from wherever we were and she'd turn up, and for a few bucks take us back to the hotel or whatever. It seems a bit strange, but when in Rome..

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    It's worth noting at this point that the timing of our trip was largely dictated by the departure and arrival dates of my wife's cruise ship. We had to meet up in LA at both ends of the trip, and because of this, it seemed we would be in every town at the wrong time for various festivals or events. It became almost a running joke during the planning phase. But the one big exception was that, the two nights we were in Memphis, the Beale Street Music Festival was underway, in a park near the street itself, as part of the Memphis In May festival - the biggest annual event for the city. So when we arrived at Beale St, it was nothing short of bedlam.

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    On one hand you had drunken fratboys barfing in the gutters, and on the other the sharp-eyed locals scouting the crowd. A crush of people seethed in all directions. Younger folk strutting their stuff and shoving and laughing, while older tourist types tried to push through to the next sight. Police on horseback and electric trikes moved through to keep some semblance of order. Music boomed out of most of the doors but you could barely hear over the roar of the crowd, and the volume of the nearby festival. All this wrapped up in the hot sticky evening air made for quite an impression. Given the warnings about car crime, violent crime, pickpockets and aggressive panhandlers in Memphis, we were maybe feeling a little paranoid. Plus, having only just landed in the city (and the country!) we weren't up to speed on the social cues etc, but the vibe just wasn't that cool. In a little pavillion section there was a market where I got some pink shiny bracelets for my 3yo daughter, but most of the actual shops seemed to be generic tourist traps with "I went to Memphis" tshirts and Elvis keyrings.

    Oh yeah, I can't believe it took me that long to mention Elvis. You pretty much can't escape him in Memphis. We're not Elvis fans so we didn't go to Graceland, but even so, there's murals and statues and Elvis-themed trinkets everywhere you look. To escape the crowd we eventually worked our way to A. Schwab's Dry Goods Store, the only surviving original Beale St business from before the renewal. As such it's a tourist destination in its own right, not just a place to grab some t-shirts. It's also a bit of an oasis of calm compared to the street. We got talking to the guy behind the counter who turned out to be a nutter for Australian animals. Finally, I bought some CD's/DVD's/Tshirts and we decided to head off and come back to Beale Street tomorrow when it was less mental. We had been told not to walk off Beale Street at night, but with the festival in town there were so many people, and so many cops, that it felt pretty safe.

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    We found an icecream place - still very hot here, despite being well into the night now - and watched the trams - or trolleys as they're called here, for a while. A little further on, there was a cool little cafe with a blues band playing. It was tempting to stay there longer, but it'd been a big day, so we got Rena to pick us up and crashed out back at the hotel.

    Here's all the Day 2 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
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    Day 3 (Sunday) - Memphis - Sun Studios - Corky's

    Today we had to sort out some technological issues - Sciby had bought a T-Mobile SIM, but discovered it didn't work properly in his phone. It worked in mine, but only for 2G, but I coped. Anyway, long story short, we went to IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for breakfast:

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    Then drove around somewhat aimlessly after discovering that, on Sundays, T-Mobile (and many other stores) only open AFTER 11 or 12. Presumably this allows for churchin' and wotnot in the mornings? This is the deeply religious south, after all. Every town we drove through (later in the trip) seemed to have 3 or 4 churches.

    Anyway, this like a good time to take in Sun Studio, which was between the hotel and Beale Street.

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    Elvis fans know all about Sun Studio, it being where he was discovered and made his first recordings etc. I was more there for the Johnny Cash and Howlin' Wolf mojo, but it was cool regardless. We did the guided tour which includes audio snippets and plenty of info, bought a few CDs and tshirts etc, chased some squirrels at a nearby park, then back on the road.

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    Inside Sun Studio lobby/shop: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLIcHQMcRgI
    Squirrel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKfrmgzOt98

    We ended up at Best Buy, which is of course a huge electronics retailer. We sorted out some boring phone stuff, but one of the staff members (Josh) we spoke to was a bit of a local food fan and scribbled some must-visit eating places on the back of a receipt. One of which was Corky's BBQ, which we happened to pass on the way back to our part of town. We weren't super hungry after the IHOP experience, but locally-recommended BBQ can't be ignored and we were unlikely to be back out this way again.

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    Corky's seems a bit, I dunno, McDonaldsy or something. It's a chain with about a dozen franchises rather than a one-off guy-making-BBQ place. But I will say, they had the best BBQ ribs of the trip. At one point I was talking to Sciby, with rib paused between plate and mouth, when the meat literally fell off the bone, leaving it bare in my hand. That's super tender. Sauce was great too, this being more traditional wet BBQ, compared to the dry rub at Rendezvous. The place was really loud though, and after a slightly stressful technology morning and GPS shenanigans driving around, it wasn't the most relaxing place to dig in. But they seated and served us within minutes, we were full within minutes, tshirts bought and back to the car. Thanks for the recommendation, Josh! Like most people leaving the place I took half my order with me in a takeaway box!

    Driving in Memphis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH8dWu4Jw3I

    We chilled back at the hotel for a while, then did a bit more general driving around and sightseeing. We ended up at Beale St again but it was still pretty mental, so after a day with a lot of driving around but seemingly not a lot achieved, we hit Taco Bell for dinner on the way back to the hotel. About $10 to feed both of us! The variety and cheapness of fast food would be a real issue for me if I lived here. :)

    Here's all the Day 3 Photos.
     
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    Day 4 (Monday) - More Memphis - Beale St and Surrounds

    With technology sorted, our last full day in Memphis had to be a big one. So, naturally enough, it was raining. Nevermind - another recommendation from Josh yesterday was "Bryant's Breakfast", so that was stop #1. Turns out it's a popular place, not in any way touristy but packed with locals loading up for the day, including a couple of cops and lots of general working type folk. So we hoped for some authentic honest southern chow and weren't disappointed. I got the "sampler" coz I just couldn't decide. This included 3 eggs, 3 biscuits, sausage, bacon, country ham, pork tenderloin, potato cake, grits and gravy.

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    Most of it is buried under the biscuits. Speaking of which, biscuits are a big deal in the south. They're basically what we'd call scones, but fresh cooked and soft. Everywhere sells them, including McDonalds and Pizza Hut. They pretty much always come with gravy, which I think is made with chicken fat or something, coz it was absolutely delicious at Bryant's. Despite all the various meats on offer I couldn't resist just having the biscuits dipped in the gravy. The other little pot in that photo is "grits". Not what I expected! I thought it would be some kind of fried grain on your plate type thing. Turns out it's kinda like porridge but with grainy bits in it. I preferred the gravy. :)

    Inside Bryant's Breakfast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTng5Kl-azE

    Next door was a somewhat oddly-named Japanese restaurant:

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    Gorging complete, it was time to head back to Beale St and some nearby attractions, hopefully now devoid of drunken tourists and stabby pickpockets. First stop, the Gibson Guitar Factory, which is just off Beale. Sadly they don't let you take photos while touring the factory floor, but it was great to see all the guitars being made by hand, by people with basic tools. No automation or overseas outsourcing here, it seems! The lady doing the tour also had no amplification so had to bellow over the sound of sanders and dust collectors etc. I asked why they didn't give her a microphone and mini amp and she replied "IT'S ALRIGHT HONEY I WAS BORN LOUD!" .. which I couldn't disagree with. :) Even as a Fender fan it was a cool place to visit and tour.

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    We bought some tshirts then moved on to the Rock n Soul Museum, which is literally across the road from the Gibson Factory. This was a pretty big facility - they provide headsets you can program to tell you about each exhibit as you wandered around. It covered the emergence of the blues and the birth of rock and roll - without too much focus on Elvis. For a blues history nerd like me this was great, and I think Sciby tolerated learning a little as well. :)

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    You'll be surprised to hear that we were quite hungry by now. Another "must visit" in Memphis is Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, a short walk from Beale, so we headed there. It's a little hole in the wall type place with virtually no signage but was fairly busy thanks to the festival on the weekend.

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    I had 2 pieces and some fried pickles - turned out to be plenty of food. Ah, so this is what KFC is trying to be a mass-market version of! Nice crunchy spicy batter, super soft juicy chicken. The batter was a little too salty for me though, which turned out to be the case in most places I had fried food. Still, I'd take it over a box of wicked wings anyday.

    It's probably worth mentioning "Sweet Tea" at this point. This is the default drink in the south - everywhere has it, usually in big help-yourself urns on the counter, or served in giant plastic cups like Gus's did. This is cold tea of course, available as "sweet" or "unsweet" - and very refreshing it is too. For whatever reason it just seems to really fit here, and we found ourselves quite the tea connoisseurs after a while. My tip: sweet tea is too sweet, unsweet not sweet enough, so ask for a "half-sweet" tea. They'll literally pour it half and half from each jug/urn and we found that the perfect compromise.

    Another thing I haven't mentioned: Geocaching. I'll go into more details in a future "travelling with technology" article, but in short, it's basically a treasure hunting game you play with your GPS. Locals leave little containers hidden in interesting places and as you travel around, you can find them. It's an interesting way to find places you wouldn't normally go to. It wasn't a focus of our trip, but I usually checked if there was one hidden nearby to wherever we happened to be, and if we were stuck for something to fill time, we'd go find some geocaches nearby.

    I mention this now because that's what we did for the next hour or so. At the western end of Beale Street it reaches the river, and there's a scenic walk along there with a few geocaches hidden along it. What better way to burn off our bellyfulls of Gus's World Famous Hot 'n Spicy Fried Chicken? It gave us some nice views of the river and Memphis's iconic bridge. We also saw a statue of some guy with a guitar.

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    Beale St waterfront: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqyFDZH2mfg

    We spent the evening back on Beale Street, doing a little shopping - I bought a cigar-box guitar - and finally settling for dinner at B. B. King's. We'd been told the fried catfish was another "must try" in Memphis, and it was alright. Salty again, and nothing too amazing to be honest. Next time I think I'd hit a few more of the BBQ places instead. But there's not many places to hear live music on a Monday night, and the band was pretty good, with the guitarist wailing his way through some classic blues tunes. After a little more shopping we waved goodbye to Beale Street, and indeed to Memphis.

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    Tomorrow we head out, away from civilisation, into the wilds of the Mississippi Delta.

    Here's all the Day 4 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2012
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    Day 5 (Tuesday) - Memphis to Clarksdale via Arkansas

    So, today we left the city and headed out on Highway 61, the "Blues Highway" immortalised in many songs, south into Mississippi. It was an early start, but we didn't have to be in Clarksdale until after 3pm. Clarksdale is less than 2 hours from Memphis so we had plenty of time to wander around.

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    Driving just south of Memphis, still fairly built up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGRb1olNGpg

    We didn't have too much of a plan, just some spots to hit on the way if we could. The first was the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Son House, one of my favourite old bluesmen. These markers have been placed by the state government and are a good way to locate spots relevant to blues history. Sadly though, there doesn't seem to be a comprehensive listing of GPS coordinates or even addresses of them, so sometimes it's a bit hit and miss to locate them. We drove around the Lake Cormorant and Robinsonville area for a little while, marvelling at the huge expansive fields and the flatness of the surrounds. We found a cool old abandoned barn and stopped for photos, but eventually got back onto the highway. There's a lot of old farm equipment and buildings out here, but it's still very much an active farming area.

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    Actually one of the first places you go through is Tunica, or Tunica Resorts. Due to a quirk of Mississippi law you can only have casinos (and in the past, alcohol) on or adjacent to the river. Hence the big paddle steamers of old, many of which were built as floating casinos or barrelhouses (bars) and spent their entire lives moored on the riverbank. Anyway, the modern result of this is that Tunica Resorts is now the third biggest gambling destination in the USA (after Las Vegas and presumably Atlantic City? or Reno?). Billboards urge you to come and eat cheap food and see live bands while throwing money into the river. Huge casinos loom on the horizon. But apart from that there's very little sign of life out here.

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    We weren't having much luck finding anything specific, but I didn't mind. I've been hearing about Lake Cormorant and Robinsonville and this whole area for years as I've been reading up on blues history and watching documentaries etc. So it was cool to be there on the ground and get something of a feel for the area. Howlin' Wolf on the CD player helped set the mood. But eventually we stumbled across this shack and screeched to a halt. Turns out this is the Tunica MS Visitors Centre, and although it's pretty cheesy (and I suspect more recently-built than it looks), the lady there was extremely helpful and gave us maps and directions.

    Driving through the delta: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee8ICfHqXc0

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    So, before long we'd found the Son House marker. I wasn't sure exactly why this marker was where it is - there's a small cemetery nearby, but Son House is buried in Detroit. Turns out this was the location of one of his most famous recordings, in 1941. You can hear the train mentioned on the info board in the video below - he's playing with (among others) Willie Brown, the same friend Robert Johnson asks you to take a message to in his "Crossroad Blues".

    Son House, "Walking Blues": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRRK9WTzUuY

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    Robert Johnson is of course the most famous and probably the most influential delta bluesman - certainly when Paramount reissued his recordings it caused a massive resurgence in interest in the blues. Many people consider him to be the "father" of the style, but I take issue with that, with many others being around before Johnson. Not the least being Son House, who directly influenced the younger Johnson, as well as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and others. House was himself influenced directly by Charley Patton, and indirectly by the work of Blind Lemon Jefferson, so the lineage keeps going back. Anyway, I guess I side with House over Johnson because I think he's underappreciated - but I'm a big fan of both of them, both as musicians and as characters of the era.

    Robert Johnson - "Crossroad Blues": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9haj3RM1Sk

    Speaking of which, our next stop was the old Abbay & Leatherman plantation, where Robert Johnson spent much of his childhood:

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    Abbay & Leatherman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHBS3LTr6bU

    Ok, enough blues history for now. Our brunch target was the Blue & White Restaurant, south of Tunica on Hwy 61. It's not shown on the local tourist maps, but I'd seen it on a doco or something and had marked it down as a place to check out. And boy, were we glad we did! In typical southern style the presentation of the food is very basic, but the flavour, wow. Sciby and I agreed later that this had been one of the best meals of the trip, without a doubt. I had the "country fried steak", which is sometimes called chicken fried steak, and despite the name is actually savoury mince fried in batter, with a creamy sauce and chili cheese fries and a side of fried "bell pepper" (capsicum) rings. That sound you can hear is my arteries hardening. Sciby had a burger with mash+gravy, and we both enjoyed the best half-sweet tea of the trip here too:

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    We realised while here that we'd missed a geocache back at Abbay & Leatherman, and given we had time, decided to head back there and then over to the Tunica Museum for another couple of caches. We ended up being bundled into the museum's theatre by the ladies on the desk, to watch a short film about the area and then tour the museum with a coachload of grey-haired folk who seemed to be in the area mostly for the casinos. So that was a bit unexpected, but interesting enough:

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    Next we ducked over into Arkansas, to visit the town of Helena. This is of some significance in the blues, and home to the Delta Cultural Centre. But if I'm honest, we mostly ducked into this state to grab some geocaches and thus add another US state to our stats. Still, the museum was interesting enough and we got a good look at the river as we drove over it. In fact the bridge kind've threw us off as we approached, because it's so skinny and tall we genuinely couldn't work out what it was until we were almost on top of it. Helena itself has seen better days though, and seems to be pretty much a ghost town now. Lots of empty, run-down buildings and not a lot else.

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    The river is really impressive up close. It's so wide, and is moving so fast. I couldn't imagine what the first explorers on foot made of it. Imagine having to cross that with the resources you had on you?

    Thanks to the bridge and our hire car which Sciby had by now christened "Vera" for reasons not entirely clear to me but somehow related to Firefly, I think, we crossed back over into Mississippi again and headed down into Clarksdale. Our accomodation for two nights in Clarksdale was the Shack-Up Inn, which I'll cover in more detail in tomorrow's report as today's is massive enough already. After dumping our bags it was time for food, so we headed to "The Crossroads" for some Abe's Bar-B-Q.

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    "The Crossroads" are at the corner of Hwy 61 and Hwy 49, and the story for the tourists is that this is the very crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar as well as he could. But without busting out the blues nerdery too much, this is not really that crossroads, if such an event ever occurred at all, which of course it didn't. :) In fact that story was mostly told about Robert Johnson after his death, largely by that famous drinker-of-whiskey and teller-of-tales, Son House. But it grew into the most pervasive of blues myths, so here we are.

    I had the pork plate and some tamales. I confess I largely ordered the tamales out of curiousity, because of Robert Johnson's song They're Red Hot (Hot Tamales). They turned out to be a kind've spiced corn meal mixture wrapped in a corn husk. Nice enough on crackers I suppose. The BBQ, despite the plain presentation, was excellent - soft and tender with a great smokey sauce.

    We headed to the nearby Hambone Gallery, one of very few places to have live music on a Tuesday night. We listened to a few songs but it'd been a big day, so back to Shack-Up to crash out.

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    Here's all the Day 5 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2012
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    Day 6 (Wednesday) - Clarksdale and Surrounds

    So here we are in Clarksdale, MS, probably the most significant large town in the rural delta. As mentioned previously we were staying at the Shack-Up Inn, which is a very cool place with a mix of old sharecropper cabins, cotton gins and (I suspect) more recently-built lodgings. This is all on the edge of Hopson Plantation but I believe is run entirely separately. We were originally booked into the "Crossroads Shack" (naturally) but discovered that only had a single queen bed when we arrived, so fortunately we could change to the "Other Sky Shack" at a discounted rate - thanks Guy!

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    We really loved it here. Luxury accomodation it isn't, but it was perfectly comfortable and just such a cool and relaxed place. Really rustic with an iconic photo op everywhere you look. The place is run almost like a commune, with the staff playing music or frisbee while waiting for customers to turn up. You can buy a beer or take a free donut in the lobby then sit on the deck playing one of the guitars they have lying around for guests. We also got adopted by one of the resident cats who hung out in our rooms eating our snacks and lurking under the beds. I could have spent a week here quite happily, drinking Southern Pecan, playing guitar and pretending I was a local.

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    After exploring the grounds and the nearby Hopson plantation we headed into town. There were a couple of blues trail markers (and geocaches) I had in mind but on the way we stopped to look at another blues trail marker we'd driven past yesterday. Turns out this is the Riverside Hotel, where travelling musicians would stop back in the day, and unfortunately famous for once being the "Afro-American Hospital" where Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues", died of injuries from a car crash. The story of her being turned away from a "whites only" hospital nearby probably isn't true, but that rumour was one of many that fuelled the civil rights movement in the south. Thousands attended her funeral.

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    Bessie Smith - "Down Hearted Blues": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nobsWuEScl0

    Ike Turner is one of Clarksdale's most famous sons, and we found his blues trail marker, and nearby the very nice "Sunflower River Walk" park. We were hunting high and low for a geocache in this park when we saw a lady sitting nearby with the geocache on the table signing the log etc. So that's why we couldn't find it where the GPS said it would be. :) Nice to meet her, and she gave us a few tips for New Orleans as she was heading north from there. We just kind of wandered around looking at the sights for a while.

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    By now the free donut at Shack-Up had worn off so it was time for food. One highly recommended place in Clarksdale is "Hick's Tamales", made famous by a presidential (Clinton) visit a few years ago and covered in a couple of foody shows I'd seen since. So we headed over there and, after establishing if it was actually open or not, I had a plate of beef tips and some tamales, while Sciby had the ribs.

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    Hick's was unfortunately quite a disappointment for us - probably the only real one of the trip. Maybe we were there before the kitchen was up to speed, but the food was pretty average. The tamales were just sloppy and bland, and Sciby wasn't too impressed with his ribs. The beef tips were ok (boney of course, but quite tender) and the sauce was OK but unremarkable. We ended up leaving quite a bit of our food and not bothering with a doggy bag.

    After this we headed over to the Delta Blues Museum, one of the major attractions of the area. Photos weren't allowed in the museum though, which is incredibly frustrating. However it was a pretty big museum with lots of cool stuff and exhibits, none of which I can remember now coz I wasn't allowed to take any sodding photos of any of it. But worth a visit.

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    There's a "blues alley" kinda setup here with a few music stores and the like. During the festivals I imagine this would be a pretty busy place, but it was nice to have it almost to ourselves. Nearby is the Ground Zero Blues Club owned by Morgan Freeman, a Clarksdale resident. This is the major live music venue of the town and pretty much the go-to place for most blues tourists. We ducked in here briefly but were planning to come back tonight so didn't stay long. Just took a moment to write my name on the bar, as you do.

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    Also nearby is Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, who have a hugely helpful website and are very much involved in the local blues scene, even to the point of making documentaries etc. So we ducked into there, chatted to Roger the owner for a while, bought some CD's, DVD's and Tshirts then walked outside and spotted a Son House marker in the footpath.

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    With a bit of time on our hands we headed out into the fields, firstly in search of the blues trail marker for where Muddy Waters grew up in a plantation shack, but then further out around Stovall etc. We pretty much just cruised around soaking up the scenery. One of the big surprises for me was how beautiful it is out here. It's so lush and green, and so flat, you can see across the fields for miles. It kind've confuses your brain with the massive distances, so the clouds seem like they're right above your head.

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    Near Stovall, MS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CIj_I-GrOQ

    Muddy Waters is more well-known as a Chicago electric blues legend, but he spent much of his early life working on Stovall Plantation. Apparently he was a harmonica player, but heard Son House playing guitar on the plantation and decided to learn that instead. Driving around here made me realise what a relatively small area produced so many of the big names in early blues. In an afternoon you can drive around the whole area encompassing so much of the original stories. Of course, not so easy back in the day for poor sharecroppers with no cars and no money.

    Muddy Waters - "Got My Mojo Workin'": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hEYwk0bypY
    Muddy Waters & Son House: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4hk0KaLSbo

    There's a strange phenomenon we observed in many of the southern towns. The towns themselves are often quite run-down and decrepit, and out in the plantations the housing and stores etc are all very basic as well. But strangely between these two zones there's often a belt of large, often quite modern, houses, and clearly no lack of money. This was clear to see on the way back into Clarksdale from Stovall, and I'm convinced one of the houses we passed was that of Morgan Freeman, having seen it in a doco a while ago.

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    We stopped off at a petrol station on the way back to stock up with snacks, then chilled out back at the Shack-Up for a while. We met Steve, a local who sold us a CD of his music (apparently played on JJJ although he doesn't know how to get royalties for it) and told us a few stories. After a bit more wandering around the grounds taking photos, playing guitar and drinking beer, we headed back into town to Ground Zero for some live music, terrible beer and bar food:

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    The selling point of the band was the female singer who I can't remember anything about, sorry! But the guitarist was clearly Pink Floyd influenced, with his Dave Gilmour signature guitar and soaring blues-meets-psychadelia solos. I cornered him at the bar and asked about his influences and he confessed to being a Gilmour fan, but wanting to sound less like him in future. "Who do you want to sound like, then?" I asked.. he replied "Me!" which I thought was an excellent answer. :) I also asked the sound guy if the predominantly older white blues-fan audience was the norm, and he said "nothing is the norm in this place", which I guess we can take any way we like. Still, not a bad way to spend the evening and bid farewell to Clarksdale. Back to Shack-Up for a bit more geekery and snackery (while trying to stop the cat eating all our chili sunflower seeds) then call it a day.

    Here's all the Day 6 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2012
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    Day 7 (Thursday) - Clarksdale to Jackson

    Today's mission was to get from Clarksdale to Jackson (the capital of Mississippi) and hit a couple of blues nerdy places along the way. The only reason I chose Jackson was because it was pretty much exactly halfway between Clarksdale and our ultimate destination of New Orleans. Splitting the trip into two days of about four hours driving (direct) each seemed sensible enough, and although historic Vicksburg was nearby, from reading on the net it seems there's not much to do there besides visit civil war battlefields. It seems most people from Vicksburg go to Jackson for fun anyway. So, that sounded near enough to a plan for us.

    First stop: Tutwiler. One of the earliest data points in blues history is "Handy's Epiphany" in 1903, a story that for some reason really fascinated me and stuck in my mind. In short, W. C. Handy, already a successful composer and musician, was dozing waiting for a train to Memphis from Tutwiler when he awoke to see a "lean loose-jointed negro" playing slide guitar with a knife and singing, producing "the wierdest music I had ever heard". The song was basically a modified field holler about "goin' where the Southern cross the Dog". This marked one of the crucial points where the blues left the plantations and became part of widespread popular culture. Handy took this music (and some from other encounters) and composed several songs including "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues", some of the first recorded blues songs, the first 12-bar blues and the first standardised use of flat 3rds and 7ths, now called "blue notes".

    There's apparently a mural to this event in Tutwiler somewhere, but I couldn't find any GPS coordinates or even an address, so we simply drove around the small town roughly following the train line for a while. It was certainly an eye-opener, as this is an extremely poor, almost entirely black community. There's a big prison which seems to be the only real industry there now. All the shops are closed and the buildings are in disrepair. When I was planning this trip, someone cautioned me that I would be travelling to some of the poorest parts of the USA, and this really came home to me in Tutwiler. But we found the mural after a while:

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    Tutwiler mural: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV7bYD0zsSI

    We hadn't planned to, but ended up spending a little while looking for Sonny Boy Williamson II's grave, which is nearby (and marked on the mural). But we weren't having much luck and I wasn't all that bothered about finding it, and to be honest, we were starting to feel a little uncomfortable about wandering the back streets of Tutwiler. So on we went.

    Our next mystery destination was Robert Johnson's grave, which I simply knew to be "on Money Road near Greenwood". So we found Money Road and drove along it for a while, until we saw what looked like a Blues Trail marker but turned out to be a "Freedom Trail" or civil rights marker.

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    While we were here, and reading the grim tale of Bryant's Grocery, we heard a train honking loudly on the nearby train line for what seemed like nearly a minute. It seemed something was going on, and the train was slowing to a stop. Soon, another train appeared coming the other way, also honking like a madman, and I genuinely wondered if we were about to witness (and film) a collision. Turned out they were just being super cautious or something. Still, it was good footage for my train-obsessed son when I got home. :)

    Train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Oc-DkoQAqI
    Second train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t317DtPiOJ0

    Soon we stumbled upon the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which I recognised from docos etc. BTW, there are three Robert Johnson grave sites in the delta. One is universally agreed as being wrong, one has some claim to being right, but this one was confirmed by two eye-witnesses who knew Robert Johnson and were there when he died. In case you're wondering, he was poisoned at the age of 27 at a juke joint (music club), by the landlord, for messing around with the landlord's woman. It's almost a cliche in itself! But the church yard and grave site are a really nice quiet spot, even without the history lesson. Plus there was a quite tricky geocache here..

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    So, we paid our respects and moved on. I had previously said I wouldn't be going to cheesy places like RJ's grave site, but I'm glad I did. I don't believe in an afterlife or anything but there was certainly some contemplation to be had in such a beautiful setting. I couldn't really NOT go visit while I was in the area - you can't get much more immersed in the vintage blues than that.

    RJ's grave is just outside Greenwood, so we drove into there in search of food. It's a nice old city and probably deserved more exploration, but after satisfying our urge for salad at Subway (I had a "Mister Pibbs" to drink, which is like root beer mixed with cherry coke) we headed back out into the countryside.

    The next stop was "where the southern cross the dog", which you might recall was what the mystery bluesman was singing about when W. C. Handy heard him in Tutwiler. This is an old 90-degree rail crossing in Moorhead, where the Southern Railroad line crossed the Yazoo Delta (aka Yellow Dog) line. This one was tricky to find also, but fortunately someone has placed a geocache nearby, so we could use the GPS to get straight to it. Turns out it's been turned into a little park which is somehow disappointing, but also good if it means it will be preserved.

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    On the way out of Moorhead we stopped at a "doublequick" service station for snacks and fuel. Sciby bought a big sweet pickle in a bag, as you do. It was nearly a month after we returned to Australia before he plucked up the courage to eat it. As we left, a huge yellow iconic American schoolbus arrived.

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    So now we set out for Jackson. I didn't take many photos while we were driving around, because it was much the same as we'd seen all through the delta. Amazingly flat, but stunningly green and lush. Endless fields between tired run-down towns. Little churches appearing seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't too hot and the roads were in good condition, so with the radio on in our big slushy car and handfuls of snacks to keep us alert, it was pretty cool just slowly cruising southwards on the backroads, grabbing the occasional geocache or reading blues trail markers. There were big eagles cruising overhead and I tried to take some photos of them without much luck, with my little travel camera.

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    Driving between Moorhead and Jackson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4Y0_rlA8eE

    We'd be driving along and see a sign saying "Blues Trail Marker" with an arrow, and usually go check them out. In fact I think there was only one I recall us not stopping for. So we discovered the piano player Pinetop Perkins, one of my favourite old bluesmen Skip James, and the famous Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia.

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    Skip James - "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNftrsCMiQs

    Soon we arrived in Jackson - or more specifically Flowood, which is a nice area to the east of Jackson proper. It reminded me of Canberra, with a kind've convention centre feel to it and some presumably man-made lakes. After chilling in the hotel room we headed out for a spot of caching around Flowood and some food, which eventually ended up being Wendy's. Another big day on the road tomorrow so we pretty much just zonked out instead of exploring Jackson proper.

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    Tomorrow we take a break from blues history and have ourselves something of an adventure instead.

    Here's all the Day 7 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
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    Day 8 (Friday) - Jackson to New Orleans via Baton Rouge & Puppies

    As this holiday progressed, it was becoming less and less planned. In Memphis for example there were lots of things I wanted to see, and a few things in Clarksdale, some in the delta, and by the time my planning reached New Orleans I'd basically thrown my hands up and said "bourbon street, I've heard of that, that'll do". So, after a blues history heavy day yesterday there was only one thing on my list today, which was to go to the town of Crystal Springs, south of Jackson, for a Robert Johnson museum. But as we set out I realised I'd pretty much had my fill of museums and obscure bits of railroad track, as much fun as it'd been, so I was content to just wander southwards and see what we happened across. It turned out that having no real plan for today was good, as today had its own plans for us.

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    So, after grabbing my breakfast of a Little Debbie Snack Cake Honey Bun and a slushy at an amusingly named "Kangaroo Express" service station, we headed south on I-55 towards Crystal Springs. I finally got some photos of some of the eagles we kept seeing. On the way our sugar-hopped brains were distracted by a lake park with some geocaches in it, so we headed there on a whim and did a little bush-bashing in quite a nice (if mozzie-infested) area near Lake Chatua.. chatuga.. chagut.. Lake Chunkybuttmonkey.

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    This area has many claims to fame, the most notable being the location of the first ever P. T. A. meeting, a train hitting a bus in 1942 and some kind of tomato-based history for which it calls itself "Tomatopolis". I may have misused the word "notable" there. They also had really weird narrow toilets, which I assume is to keep bears out?

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    But there's not a whole lot to Crystal Springs, and we discovered the RJ museum was closed, with a sign saying to ring a guy on his mobile to come and open it up. But we elected not to do that, and instead grabbed some more geocaches nearby and some blues trail markers then hit I-55 south again. Actually, one marker was for Tommy Johnson, whose "Canned Heat Blues" is a great early blues song I'm learning to play on guitar m'self (although I doubt I'll sing it like he does). Turns out he's from Crystal Springs.

    Tommy Johnson - "Canned Heat Blues": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ7o34UZyXQ

    Similarly to elsewhere in the south, once you get a little way out of the fairly scruffy central part of Crystal Springs you find big houses with well maintained lawns etc.

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    We soon got bored of the interstate so headed off towards the town of Bogue Chitto simply for its amusing name. Rather than heading directly south to New Orleans, we decided to take the back roads over to Baton Rouge then come into New Orleans via the Great River Road instead. By virtue of this thinly-constructed plan we found ourselves driving past a few trailer encampments, some fairly rustic dwellings, many roadside cages which we assume are for keeping bears out of your garbage bins, and one shy tortoise which we moved off the road.

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    Tortoise on road: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teL_Gt5EmDc

    Due to our excellent navigation skills we found ourselves in McComb, which is on the wrong side of I-55, but they had an Arby's, which we stopped for lunch at. It was pretty freakin' great. I had a turkey ruben or something, which I inhaled. To the person who put the massive Arby's sign up near the highway, where it can be seen from every other fast food place nearby - nice marketing, it worked on us.

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    So now we headed almost due east towards Baton Rouge. BTW, Baton Rouge is French for "red stick", and refers to the markers used by native americans to indicate their territories. French because Louisiana belonged to the French for a long time, which is why there's a strong cajun/creole culture there. I mention this to illustrate the near endless stream of trivia that Sciby had to endure from me for two weeks. Anyway, after a while we hit the town of Liberty MS, about which I don't have much to say, but on the way out of town, in the rain, with logging trucks whizzing past, we spotted a puppy sitting in the middle of the road. In hindsight it was almost funny that Sciby and I needed no discussion at all, I simply said "There's a puppy on the road!" and swerved off to the verge, and Sciby was out of the car and running back for the puppy before I'd even fully stopped the car. While I tried to get our enormous hire car enough off the road to avoid the logging trucks, but not fall into the big grassy ditch from which we'd never get out, Sciby appeared at the window holding not one, but three puppies. Into the passenger footwell they went, while he spent another 15 minutes in the rain checking both sides of the road for any more, but there weren't any.

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    These little guys were tiny, probably only a month old, and in pretty rough shape as you can see. There was no doubt in our minds that they had been dumped. They were completely bushed and just slept the whole time we had them with us. So, there's no photos of the next little while coz we were in something of a crisis. Two semi-lost Australian tourists in rural Mississippi with three dumped puppies on a Friday afternoon? We had to sort something out as we were heading to New Orleans that night, which would have been an even worse place for them. So we headed back into Liberty with our puppies, christening them Robert, Son and Muddy on the way, naturally. Thanks to agonisingly slow internet out there we were having trouble finding a vet or similar, so eventually stopped at an antiques/books shop that was in a converted service station. The time spent in this shop is another whole story in itself, but after about an hour of ringing various vets who didn't want them, pounds who weren't open or couldn't take them and exploring other options, we finally found a no-kill animal shelter in Baton Rouge who would take them. I have to give Sciby kudos for taking the reins in this situation and doing the phonecalls etc, after my plan to simply give the puppies to the antique shop people, even offering money for food etc, didn't work. Eventually we had something of a plan and with the puppies now in a box we headed out to Baton Rouge. Note that Baton Rouge is in Louisiana, and we had found the puppies in Mississippi, which somewhat complicates things.

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    The drama continued a little after we arrived, with the lady who had said they could take the puppies turning out to be not quite as in-charge and not quite as well-informed as it'd seemed, but after some negotiation we were able to drop the puppies off. It was a pretty sad place, with animals of all kinds (including a raccoon) in cages, but they were confident they'd be able to place the puppies with temporary carers and then find homes for them. So, with a great feeling of relief, we said goodbye to the nice volunteer type ladies and were getting into the car, when a fully-uniformed, cropped-hair ranger type person appeared and shouted at us "Hey, what part of the state are you from?"

    We both panicked, being well aware of the dubious nature of bringing puppies from Mississippi into a shelter in Louisiana, so I tried to explain that we weren't from anywhere in the state, or even the country, but were poor lost Australian tourists who were trying to do our bit for the poor lost puppies.. when we realised he was asking which part of Michigan we were from, as our rental car had Michigan plates, and he was originally from Michigan. How we laughed, nervously. And then left, hurriedly.

    Not much to say about Baton Rouge. We wanted to find a geocache to tick off the city, and when I fired up the app the nearest one was 80 metres away, so a screeching halt, quick find, then back into the car and off to New Orleans. We came in via a road that I thought was called the "Great River Road", but now seems to have been the Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway. As you can imagine, this is basically a long expressway mounted on pylons over a swamp. It gives you an idea of how, well, swampy the whole area is.

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    But, soon enough we were at the hotel, and after the usual shenanigans, had checked in and taken a few shots of the city from the window. Once again the city is dominated by the river, and the massive container ships going along it give a sense of how it really is a major highway through the country.

    View from the hotel room: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o2EJI1DaE0

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    Huge ship on the river (with comments from the supercoaches): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXBPYFM_e3Q

    As I mentioned earlier, I pretty much had zero plans for us in New Orleans. I had heard of "bourbon street" and "the french quarter", and Sciby wanted to go see something called "the lalaurie house", but that was it. Turns out both the street and the house were in the french quarter which was a short walk from the hotel, so we headed there for some food and to see what was what in New Orleans.

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    Street Performers in New Orleans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyDlldBIms4

    There was some cool live music on the way, but Bourbon street turned out to be New Orleans's version of Memphis's Beale Street, but multiplied many times. Barfing fratboys on every corner, people throwing beads at every woman they saw in the hope of getting some flashed boobs, rows and rows of strip joints with hawkers trying to get you to come inside etc. Shops selling alligator heads and generic "I got wasted on Bourbon Street" tshirts. I had some pizza, but everyone seemed to be getting hammered, and this really seemed like one environment I would not want to be drunk in.

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    I guess I'm an old fart now coz it really wasn't my scene, and after a fairly stressful day I wasn't too impressed with New Orleans. We ducked into Embers Steak House for some food - I had some delicious gumbo, a shrimp po'boy (a submarine sandwich basically) and Sciby had red beans and rice, a Louisiana classic. The bread was huge and hard, so I just took the shrimp out and ate them - they were ok, batter very salty as seems to be the norm. The gumbo was fantastic, though. Our friendly waiter was cool, but the busgirl (who takes plates away) was extremely chatty, and this slowly turned into a sob story and basically an elaborate way of trying to get a big tip out of us, which left us both feeling a bit creeped out.

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    So, this is New Orleans - or at least, this is Bourbon Street. After a week in the delta it was frankly a baffling ordeal. Too many people, too much shouting to come see titties or drink big-ass beers or give tips, too many flashing neon lights and stuffed gator heads and plastic voodoo dolls. Oh, and giant glowing plastic drinks called Hand Grenades, which I confess I quite liked, and softened my mood somewhat, no doubt due to the huge amount of alcohol in it.

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    But it had been a big day, so we soon crashed out back at the hotel. At the time I was glad we'd only booked 2 nights in New Orleans, but I wondered how I'd feel after a little more exploration tomorrow.

    Here's all the Day 8 Photos. The order is very jumbled due to crappy wifi at hotel so uploading only some of them there, and the rest after getting back.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
  9. OP
    OP
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    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Day 9 (Saturday) - New Orleans

    Today was our one full day in New Orleans, so we set out to explore the French Quarter. But first we drove off to Target in another part of New Orleans to buy more luggage to fit all the tshirts and stuff we'd bought on our trip. I'd also picked up a cigar-box guitar in Memphis so was seriously running out of room.

    But anyway, we soon headed back to the French Quarter. We mostly avoided Bourbon Street after the previous night's experience but as we wandered around we crossed it occasionally. At about 11am there were still fratboys being quietly sick in the gutter - either having a very late night or a very early start. The hawkers for the titty bars were still just as keen as during the night, too.

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    But if you ignore Bourbon Street, the rest of New Orleans, or at least the French Quarter, really started to grow on me. Little narrow streets with big balconied old houses on each side, decorated with flags and plants etc, it's got a real vintage charm to it. Strange to see all the modern cars parked out the front, though. It's a reminder that this isn't just a giant museum, they're all real houses with real people living in them.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    As I mentioned before we basically had no plans for New Orleans, so we wandered around getting geocaches, which took us around most of the French Quarter and showed us a few cool things. Sciby wanted to check out the LaLaurie House, which has a dark past and is supposedly one of the "most haunted" houses in the world. Nowadays it's a private residence without even so much as an information plaque, but I confirmed we'd found it by asking a local. He also pointed out that Brangelina lived further down the road in a narrow grey building.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    There's just such a cool relaxed vibe to the area. You can almost always hear live music wafting over from another street or a nearby corner, anything from a four-piece jazz band to a group of guys singing acapella or someone just practising saxaphone with his hat on the pavement. I spotted a guy I remember from a Misc Pics photo, and we also noticed that some of these houses have something of an old-school approach to security:

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    More street performers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udQ1dSmGatk

    One other thing we felt we had to do in New Orleans was eat some crawdads, or crayfish. These are basically yabbies but cooked in a vat with spices, potatoes, corn etc. So we made that our general plan for dinner, and wandered into Cafe Fleur-de-lis for brunch. Sciby had their seafoody version of Eggs Benedict and I had the seafood omelette. They apologetically told me that they were out of prawns so would it be ok if I had extra crawfish on mine? No problem. :) Yummo, too.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    After brunch our directionless wandering took us to a nice garden-strip area which the GPS in my camera now tells me was in Marigny. By now we had started to really like New Orleans. The further we got from Bourbon Street, the more we liked it. Sciby even picked out a house he'd buy if he was a millionaire. :)

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Then we wandered over to the French Market, which is an indoor/outdoor market like most others you've seen. For some reason I didn't take any photos here, except for the mango smoothie I had to cool me down - the weather being quite hot and sticky by now, but not unbearable.

    [​IMG]

    And then, as often happens in New Orleans, the hot stickiness gave way to torrential rain. We had been making a bee-line for Cafe Beignet to try their eponymous pastries and we pretty much made it there without getting soaked. But once we'd settled down at the bar with our searing-hot coffee and were waiting for the Beignets to arrive, it was roaring down. Fortunately the live band continued undeterred, and we'd found some nice chatty American tourists nearby, so we settled down to wait out the rain.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Eventually the rain stopped - it has the tropical feel of a place where it rains often, but not for too long. So we headed back to the hotel to chill out for a bit, then met up with a friend of Sciby's from Japan, Doug. He's a nice guy, a New Orleans native and took us to Deanie's Seafood to get our crawdad fix. Once again we ate at the bar, which is much more common in the States than in Oz. We stayed there for a couple of hours or so, eating our pound of crawfish each and drinking local beers. One I quite liked but I can't remember what it was now, and another was a Strawberry Lager which was an interesting experiment we need not repeat. Eventually I asked the barmaid to recommend a proper New Orleans drink and she made us all Sazeracs. I'd forgotten that I'd learned about these on a drinking TV show, and they were fantastic! Wonder if I'll be able to get one in Oz.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    So, now full of food and slightly drunk, we wandered around a bit more around St Louis Cathedral and saw a cool demon robot dude freaking out the tourists:

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Eventually we found ourselves in a tiny bar in Pirate's Alley, which had some fancy absinthe setups. I've had absinthe before so.. I can't actually remember what we were drinking. But we met a couple of nice guys, one a local tour guide and the other an ex-Microsoft employee who had taken a year off to go sailing and skiing and was now studying to become a doctor. A few more hours passed in a blur of fiery drinks, tiny burgers and tall tales:

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
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    After a while our new ex-microsoft friend told us about Frenchmen Street in the 7th Ward, which he explained is where all the cool music went when Bourbon Street became what it is now. So, despite it being fairly late already, we decided to walk there and check it out, via a few geocaches and sights:

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Frenchmen Street was indeed a pretty cool spot, with live jazz and blues booming out of a few doorways, a big crowd on the street but with a much cooler vibe than Bourbon. It reminded me of Glebe or Newtown in Sydney. There was a very eccentric guy selling his art made from forks - we got chatting and I ended up buying a ring with a harmonica on it, made from forks. I got him to pose for a photo and he extended a slinky from his collander beret.. it was all getting a bit surreal.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    So, now feeling a bit worse for wear but much more enamoured with New Orleans, it was back to the hotel to zonk out. Tomorrow Sciby would be driving to Texas, while I would hang around here until the afternoon, then fly back to LA to meet up with my wife after her cruise.

    [​IMG]

    Here's all the Day 9 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2012
  10. OP
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    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Day 10 (Sunday) - New Orleans, back to LA

    This morning Sciby drove to Texas while I flew back to LA to meet my wife. He had a fair way to go so headed off first thing, while my flight wasn't until the late afternoon. So naturally I headed out to get the last few geocaches we'd missed and take my last wander around the French Quarter. Plenty of music to hear and things to see:

    More street performers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9L-6T4WZuQ

    Eventually I ended up on the waterfront, in a quite nice park, with some joggers and interesting statues. Of course there was a big paddle steamer, the SS. Natchez, moored there too:

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    New Orleans waterfront: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTx3JtPcuA0

    After that I'd basically found every geocache in the area and walked up and down most of the streets of the French Quarter over the last few days. There was one far distant geocache, so having nothing else to do before lunch, I walked there - seeing a horse and buggy lose a tyre on the way. Anyway, my destination was the grave of Marie Laveau, the witch queen of New Orleans. I had no idea what to expect, but once I arrived, I was sure I'd seen this walled cemetery in a movie or something:

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Note that it's not a graveyard - the bodies are in the crypts, not below the ground. Each crypt is for a family, and when another family member dies, the crypt is opened, the remains of the previous coffin are removed and burnt, and the new coffin is placed on the pile of bones below. So literally generations of families are piled up in some of these crypts. Makes it a bit disturbing that some of them have fallen in and are partially open now.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    The last picture above is the grave of Marie Laveau. She was a Voodoo practitioner of great fame back in the day, and legend has it if you write XXX on her grave she will grant you a wish or something. Anyway, there was an endless stream of tour groups stopping at her grave, and an endless stream of teenage girls throwing offerings of cigarette lighters and (presumably fresh from Bourbon St) plastic bead necklaces, etc. Still, it was a cool place and I'm very glad the geocache led me to it. I wandered back towards the hotel, looking for food.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Eventually I found myself at "Gumbo Shop", which sounds a bit like the McDonalds of creole cuisine, compared to some of the other cool French-named cafes and authentic-sounding restaurants. But it's a long-established business and they reckon their gumbo is the best in town, so it was worth a shot.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Well, this was my last meal in New Orleans, and turned out to be one of the best of the whole trip. I had a small bowl of pretty-good gumbo with a deliciously soft and crunchy roll, and took the waitress's recommendation to have the "Blackened Catfish St Peter" for my main. This was unbelievably great - genuinely one of the best meals of my life. The catfish skin is somehow charred while the flesh is still soft and tender, and then a creamy, cheesy, crabmeat sauce with crawfish is ladelled over the top. Just stunning. Oddly no sweet tea on the menu though! We're not in the Delta anymore, Toto.

    So now I staggered over to St Louis Cathedral and the nearby Jackson Square, passing through a market on the way. The cathedral is really beautiful, named after the King of France, and is the oldest continually operated cathedral in the USA. I happened to be there just as the bells starting ringing:

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Cathedral bells ringing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3fWz1wAU-E
    ...and more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwwjMV6-ru4

    And then it was time to say adieu to New Orleans and head out to Louis Armstrong International Airport for the flight to LAX. I'd really grown to love New Orleans, and could quite happily live in the French Quarter or nearby if I could afford it. The music and cafe culture really appeals to me, as does the rich history and amazing cuisine. Judging it purely by Bourbon Street would be like thinking Kings Cross is all there is to Sydney. I'll have to come back with the family some day.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    One final note for today. All through the trip, Sciby and I had been drooling over the many Mustangs, Chargers and Challengers we'd seen on the streets. We'd originally hoped for a Dodge Charger for our rental car but the booking had mysteriously changed by the time we picked up our slushbox instead. So when I got to LAX, got a courtesy bus over to the Avis counter and asked for a cheap car with no booking, he naturally said "I'll make that a Mustang for our small car rate, sir!" I was well chuffed. It was a beautiful car, and perfect for driving around California (even if only a small part of it) tomorrow.

    [​IMG]

    Except the boot was so small it barely fit my suitcase, never mind the ones my wife would be adding tomorrow when we drove around LA. So I took the keys back to the desk and swapped it for some crappy Nissan hatchback thing. Goddamnit.

    Here's all the Day 10 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
  11. OP
    OP
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    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Day 11 (Monday) - LA, more Santa Monica, back to Sydney

    We find ourselves in Los Angeles once again. This time a little way from the airport in, I kid you not, Beverlywood. I'm not entirely sure why we chose here but it seems nice enough. I went for a walk at one point and helped a little old Jewish lady to cross the street, and a little old Jewish man to get his bags out of a shopping trolley. Another notable sign boasted of "Kosher Sushi"... I'm detecting a theme here.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    View from the hotel room: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0nPYnKKkqI

    But we didn't hang around here long. A lazy room-service breakfast of "Denver Omelette" got us up and heading out. We had to pretty much kill time all day and then fly out at 10pm local time, to arrive just after Sydney Airport's noise curfew lifts at 6am. So into the car we hopped, having left our bags at the hotel after checking out, which of course meant we could have been driving the Mustang instead of the Nissan, shutupshutupshutup.

    Actually, driving in the USA was really no big deal. It's not like the car now has a joystick instead of a wheel or anything weird, it's just that everything is completely flipped in your mind. So you have more of the car on the other side of you than normal, you turn closer to the curb when turning right and further from the curb when turning left, and the seatbelt is on the other shoulder. Despite hours of driving in many conditions I only had two incidents where I was (arguably) on the wrong side of the road - but in both cases it was a narrow access road with no centre line marked and no traffic around, so nothing to prompt me to drive on the right. Both times I realised within a few seconds anyway and eased over. Ok, one time Sciby did shout a bit. And the other time my wife did. But it was no big deal, honest.

    My wife wanted to check out the shopping to be had on Main Street, Santa Monica, so we headed over that way. This is a trendy but "alternative" neighbourhood with several blocks of shops for clothes, shoes, food etc. This is the area that I mentioned in the Day 1 post as reminding me of some of the cooler alternative bits of Melbourne. Or maybe Glebe/Newtown in Sydney, but a lot cleaner and with an ocean breeze coming in from one street over.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    We picked up a couple of geocaches, one notably at the "Santa Monica Community Garden" which is a cool social initiative. People grow and share their own flowers and veggies etc in this communal space - although the gate was locked when we were there.

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    Our chilled-out strolling led us to Ben & Jerry's for a Mango Smoothie, which gave me something to slurp on and watch the world go by as wifey shopped.

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    We also found a cool shop/gallery, closed at the time, but with amazing metal sculptures in the window. I can't seem to find it on Google, annoyingly.

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    Feeling the need for some real food, we hit Finn McCool's Irish Pub for some bar chow, and resisted the urge to sample their whiskies so early in the day. Wifey's steak and my potato skins went down pretty well, though.

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    Main Street runs parallel to Venice Beach, two blocks away. So we continued soaking up the sun and good weather by walking along the path there, with all the beautiful people on their various bikes and skates etc:

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    At the far end of the beach is the Santa Monica Pier, which had some touristy shops and attractions. What is it about piers and carousels? :)

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    Santa Monica Pier (LOUD wind noise, beware): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2GcPhaoE_c

    By this stage we were both feeling like we'd been out in the sun for long enough, so started to wander back to the car, then to the hotel for our bags. Before we left Venice Beach, we spotted some fit people doing fit stuff:

    Fit people: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzwakWTMGuQ

    Got the bags, then a quick stop off at Trader Joe's at my wife's insistence. Here we got snacks for the plane. Like Whole Foods Market, which we hit on Day 1, it's kind've a health food shop - but also sells craft beers and icecream and stuff. Anyway, loaded up with trail mix, dark chocolate covered pomegranate seeds and other gourmet goodies we got our bags and found a petrol station to top up the hire car before dropping it off. I resisted the urge to indulge my newfound love of slushies with a Big Gulp, figuring a full bladder and customs queues are not friends.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    So, our bags were packed, our rental car was topped up, and we were on the way to the rental car return with quite a lot of time in hand before our flight. At this point wifey, the health food nut, reminded me that I'd forgotten to tick off one box in California, which was to visit an In-N-Out Burger, and wasn't there one right near LAX? So, it turns out she does listen when I ramble on about things I've read on the internet. :) The gimmick of this place is that the menu itself is extremely plain, but there's a "secret menu" (which I now note is findable on Google) which everyone orders from.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    The only thing I could remember from the secret menu was "animal style double double and animal fries", which I mumbled shyly like a secret mantra, not really knowing what the acolyte behind the counter would bring me. He didn't bat an eyelash, and soon I had my meal ... which turned out to be one of the best burgers I've ever had, and the chips-with-stuff-on weren't half bad either. Despite not really being hungry after lunch and snacks etc, I wolfed the lot down in minutes. Really, really great.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    So, that's the image I'll leave you with. Me, glistening with sunscreen, wolfing down an enormous and probably hideously unhealthy meal despite not even being particularly hungry. Turns out the major act of gluttony I saw on the trip was from myself, because we really didn't see the American stereotype of hugely obese people gorging on enormous meals then rolling away on accessibility scooters. In fact, everyone we met seemed to just be your normal folk, and pretty much everyone we spoke to was happy and friendly - maybe our accents helped there. Or the tipping system which makes service staff be nice to everyone. Anyway, we had a good time, that's for sure. Buuurp.

    Here's all the Day 11 Photos.
     
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2012
  12. Lazee2

    Lazee2 Member

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    Agg, I just read through that and i am SO glad I'm full from dinner! All those food pics YUM!

    Thanks for taking the time to do the trip report, looking forward to the rest of it.

    Few Q's:

    1) Did your Aussie accents attract much attention? On a lot of US forums people always seem to love it when they meet people with foreign accents, did you feel the love?

    2) Eatery serving sizes and pricing. I've heard people putting on 5-10kg's from spending a month in America, and usually a claim that the serving sizes are HUGE and usually cheap. Could you give us a rundown on that side of things? Average cost for most meals? What about beer pricing?


    How long have you been wanting to do the trip?
     
  13. Munkiboy

    Munkiboy Member

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    Rendezvous bbq is fantastic isn't Agg? Love the atmosphere both inside and outside that joint. Did you watch them cooking the ribs?

    I'm not Agg, but living in the South we get it a lot. Although not as much as we used to which is concerning to us (wifey and I). Often get free appetizers or dessert for being from Australia. Almost every yank you meet says "OMG I love australia/want to visit so much/it's on my bucket list/". Stranger is the number who say "I have a friend/cousin in Perth".

    In the south HUGE. Elsewhere, still generous but the South is where it is at. And at least in the south it is cheap. Northeast it is more like AU pricing we found.
     
  14. OP
    OP
    Agg

    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Just posted Day 5 - which turned out to be enormous. :)

    Actually, the main thing people said when we said we were from Australia was "oh, we had some Australians here yesterday/last week/month".. seems we're a plague over there. I didn't have anyone call me out on my accent, but if you've heard the podcasts I have a bit of an odd Aussie/American/English thing going on due to living overseas as a kid. Two people on the trip said I sounded english. Sciby has much more of an Aussie/QLD accent to my ears, and I don't think he got called out much on it either. I remember one guy asked us both what part of England we were from.. I said the big southern part.

    Where we were travelling is some of the poorest parts of the USA. Plus there's not a huge amount of tourism outside of the music festival times. So, I'd say serving sizes were pretty unremarkable mostly - judge for yourself from the photos. However it is fairly cheap, especially fast food places. Sciby and I ate at Taco Bell for about $10 to feed both of us. There's also huge variety available in the cities (not so much in the delta towns) so you could go nuts on the fast food there. But it seemed to me in the states that basic things like food, parking, buses etc were fairly cheap. Certainly there's upmarket stuff available in the cities if you want it. But we weren't constantly battling ridiculously huge piles of food. Also, we didn't see that many obese people. Maybe in Florida or other more affluent areas the food and people are huge, but where we were it was all pretty normal, so that's another myth busted. Beer pricing I don't really remember - we did drink a few while we were there but the pricing didn't stand out as cheap or expensive that I recall.

    Actually it all happened really quickly. I've been interested in the vintage blues since I started to play guitar a couple of years ago. As I learned to play I just seemed to gravitate towards this music and became fascinated by the whole era, the stories and characters of the time. I don't really know why. It could just as easily have been death metal or classical I suppose. :) It was only in about November that wifey discovered the cruise and we booked our trips around then, and over the next few months I planned my side of things in a bit more detail.

    Nope, too busy eating! :) But yeah, it's a cool place. Lots of people there because of the festival so we didn't stick around too long, but it's definitely worth a visit. The brisket was delicious, but I think Corky's beat them on the ribs front. Sciby maintains it's an unfair comparison because of the wet/dry BBQ thing. Wotevaaa.

    Brisbane is in the south now? ;) We had a bit of that, the guy at Schwab's in Memphis was very keen to talk about Australian animals, and we had very friendly waitresses and other folk we met. In fact everyone we met was really nice and friendly. We had one nutter yell at/through us in Clarksdale and a few panhandlers in Memphis but that's standard stuff in cities I think. I think if Sciby could have fit the waitress from Blue and White Restaurant into his suitcase he would have.

    Strange, we didn't really find that at all, in terms of meal size. Maybe the hole-in-wall places we were going to don't specialise in that. I guess you could order bigass sizes if you wanted, many menus had two sizes of everything available. Or maybe I'm just used to eating big when I go out. :) But it wasn't a notable or memorable aspect of the trip.
     
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2012
  15. Sciby

    Sciby How long have you had these droids?

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    I got that a few times, notably in LA where some older black guy asked me where I was from, then proceeded to call the Queen a c-bomb whilst saying how good buddies Australia and America were...

    Restaurant beer seemed to be standard prices - $4-5 for a pint roughly... although i went out drinking with friends in Austin and the bars on Sixth St were hawking $2 beers and basics... and they weren't skimping on the alcohol.

    The brisket at Rendevous was awesome... although I think the brisket I had in Lockhart, TX, was pretty awesome also... I liked Corky's texture, the way it fell off the bone, but there was too much of the sauce. *shrug* it was damn good either way. The dry rub can't be compared to that, because I think they affect the ribs in different ways.

    I certainly would have given it a redhot go.

    I was struggling after 2-3 days though... lots and lots of food/meat, and I think my stomach is still geared towards the smaller Japanese meals from my 4 years there...
     
  16. OP
    OP
    Agg

    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Yeah, but I think that'd happen here too, if you ate out at restaurants for basically every meal and had almost pure meat dishes each time. :) Interspersed with sweet tea and donuts..
     
  17. Tekin

    Tekin Member

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    Hey! Awesome trip guys.

    I've been working in the states for the last 2 years, so I've been forunately able to get down to a few of these places - not as long continuously as you though!

    I was in New Orleans ('nawlins!) for Memorial day weekend (28th of May) and it was kinda nuts. Let me know if you want any recommendations for food / drink places, we all went as foodies and ate very well.
     
  18. Creekin

    Creekin (Taking a Break)

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    so this is where all my ocau membership fees have been going..... :Pirate:
    maybe i watch too much manVfood :D
    but i am dying to go there just to eat all that slow cooked meat *droolz*
    im sure id have a heart attack in a month, but would be totally worth it...

    does stuff like this taste as good as it looks?? :Paranoid:
    [​IMG]
     
  19. OP
    OP
    Agg

    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Ta, but we've been back for a while. :) Just updating the trip log slowly. Day 6 now posted!

    Actually going back through the photos makes me realise how non-good a lot of the food looked! But most of it was great to eat. :) Presentation of food isn't really a big deal in the south, it's often just a paper plate with some beans and slaw slapped on it next to your BBQ, but the flavours and tenderness etc are great.
     
  20. OP
    OP
    Agg

    Agg Lord of the Pings

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    Day 7 and 8 posted. Puppies!
     

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