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Dan and Ralf's American Adventure - Week 5

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Welcome to week 5 of our 8-week trip through America, starting in Atlanta and ending in Dallas in November. I want to write this weekly blog to keep people up to date on what we've been up to and share some thoughts and reflections on America. Happy reading y'all!



Day 27 - Sunday 8 October - Memphis to Grenada


We left you last week in Memphis, living our best lives with Keith in the hot tub. With sadness, we had to say goodbye to Keith and make our merry way onwards, back on our original path, always heading south down the Mississippi river.


We had 2 final things to see in Memphis before we departed. The first was Sun Studio, the place which first recorded Elvis and where other greats such as Johnny Cash also recorded some of their classic songs. We got there early to make sure we got on the tour, which was an excellent decision, as we managed to nab some of the last spots.


The studio itself is quite small, but you did get a sense of the history of the place and it was surreal to stand in the live room next to the instruments that these legendary musicians played, even the original microphone used by Elvis. If you're ever walking in Memphis, definitely check it out.


I bought a sticker.





Warning: things get weird from here. Our second and final destination in Memphis was a store called Bass Pro that's located in an enormous pyramid (in a homage to it's twin city, old Memphis in Egypt, apparently). What could be so weird about a fishing and hunting store in a huge pyramid, I hear you scream? Imagine walking into a theme park inside a pyramid, where the theme is "fish and other stuffed animals, plus a few alligators", and where you can also stay (there is a hotel inside) and eat and basically spend the rest of your life fishing and having a great time. And when you're bored, you just ride the glass elevator up the centre of the pyramid to the top where you have views over all Memphis. Congratulations – you've just imagined Bass Pro in Memphis.




I didn't buy a sticker.


It was but a short drive to our next stop, Oxford. Famous for its university, the founders of Oxford thought that, by naming it after the brainiest city in England, it might encourage the brainiest folks of America to come and soak up all that knowledge. They even transported an original phone box from Oxfordshire to the town square to make it legitimate. Unfortunately, judging by the people we saw there, the brainiest people in America stayed firmly where they belong ... in England. Sorry, I had to.


Jokes aside, it was a nice place. We had to visit the university, Ole Miss, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we reference it in one of our songs, so it comes in second on our list of places we have written songs about and have also been to after Iowa 80 (see week 4). It was also the scene of a huge riot when the first black student enrolled there after segregation. In 1962, people there were so angry about a black person going to their university that John F. Kennedy had to mobilize more than 30,000 troops to stop them, the most for a single disturbance in American history. Read that again.


I bought a sticker.





Our final stop was Grenada, which gave me fond memories of my trip to the original Grenada in Spain a few years ago with Nicki. Going to the Alhambra palace, sipping red wine as the sun went down, wandering the old town ...


Grenada, Mississippi does have a couple of similarities with Grenada, Spain according to ChatGPT. They both share a name, for example. They both have the pomegranate as a symbol. Other than that, quite different. I was considering getting my updated COVID vaccine there (this is where I lose the anti-vaxxers – bye!). As my cousin Z and his wife Steph have a newborn, it's important that we're up-to-date with our vaccines before we visit. Honestly, I was a little nervous about getting my vaccine in America. To put it mildly, I have heard mixed reviews of the US healthcare system, and I wasn't at all sure how this would work.


Z kindly did some research and said I should be able to schedule an appointment at Walgreens and just take along my passport. However, I decided against it this time round when a quick search for the local Walgreens came up with multiple news articles about how, barely a few weeks ago, a local man had held people hostage there for a few hours before being shot by police.


Our accommodation was mercifully far away from the Walgreens, on the beautiful "Avenue of Pines". It was a cabin which I think could qualify as a true tiny house. It had an outside shower with cold water and a composting toilet. It was actually really peaceful and was a fun place to stay.




As usual, we got hungry and thirsty. It was Sunday, so we had a grand total of one place to choose from. Applebees, some kind of American food chain which mercifully also sold beer. We browsed the menu for appetizers and every single item on the menu would have provided enough calories for each of us, plus a horse. We found the only items on the menu below 1,000 calories (the chicken/prawn bowl) and hoped for the best. Spirits rose when we saw PBR beer for $1.50.


And so ended our Sunday night, full on calories and sleeping in a hut. We couldn't wait to leave Grenada, and head north to our spiritual home: Batesville.

 

Day 28 - Monday 9 October - Grenada to Greenville


Today was a special day. Back when Ralf and I decided to start writing country music, we needed a band name. That we would be "Brothers" was clear. But what would our surname be? Where would we be from? It had to be somewhere south, where country music is played on repeat. It had to be somewhere random, where nobody really lived. It had to be ... Batesville, Mississippi. Google maps to the rescue once again.


You cannot imagine the anticipation and excitement as we drove towards Batesville. We were finally coming home.


Our first stop was the laundromat to finally wash our rancid clothes. Whilst we were waiting, we popped into the local cafe and asked the barista (not sure if he'd had formal training based on the coffee we got) what it was like to live here. It wasn't a rave review.


I bought a sticker.


We found a few signs that said "Batesville" and took some pics. Look at our happy faces.





Next stop was a restaurant called Dixieland BBQ. They say a poorly recorded video is worth a thousand words, so here is a little explainer for y'all:





The other customers were likely perplexed by a Brit and an Austrian singing about their local BBQ joint, but if they were, they didn't show it.


Batesville will always have a special place in our hearts. But as usual, we had to travel ever further onwards, to the town of Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum. The museum itself was nice, giving a solid history of the blues musicians who grew up in and around the area and who were extremely influential in the whole blues movement.


I bought a sticker.

Clarksdale itself is falling apart, and was the first example for us of the poverty that pervades so much of Mississippi. Everywhere you looked, there were derelict buildings and abandoned cars. I wondered how a once thriving city could be reduced to this in such a short amount of time.





With a very small tinge of melancholy, we left Clarksdale and headed south to Greenville, our resting place for the night. I had found a cheap motel there with a fitness room and a pool, so I limbered up in the car, ready to dive head first into the fresh water and then channel my inner Arnie to pump iron all night long.


We arrived ... and it was awful. Just awful.


Our first warning sign came when we entered our room and I heard a strange beeping every 30 seconds. I asked Ralf whether he also heard it, worrying that I was finally losing my mind. We soon discovered that it was the smoke alarm, beeping to either tell us there was a fire or it was running low on batteries. A brief check around the room and surrounding area convinced me that the motel wasn't ablaze, so I went to the front desk to let them know that our alarm was playing up. The response of the receptionist was "Oh yeah, they all do that. Don't know why. You'll get used to it."


I inhaled deeply. And again. I let Ralf know about the latest developments and we decided there was only one thing for it. We removed the smoke alarm entirely, detaching it from it's wiring. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then ... beep. For God's sake. We then removed the apparently depleted battery, knowing that this would do it. It had literally no power left. And then ... beep.


Shortly before I converted the fire alarm into a frisbee to send across the parking lot, it mercifully stopped. Perfect, I thought. I needed to get rid of some of this frustration with a relaxing swim and then maybe a few kilometres/miles on the treadmill. I felt like I hadn't really moved in days.


I'm glad I didn't bother getting changed. The outdoor pool was covered and looked like it hadn't held a drop of water since 1996. Not to worry, the fitness centre will sort me out, its just round the corner.


Temporarily closed. Temporarily closed?! Are you kidding me? It was a storage room! Full of crap! The only way I was getting a workout was by breaking in and lifting boxes! Angry, frustrated, miserable, I made my way back to the room.


This is where I made my next mistake. I took a look at the bed. And the towels. I will say this – to the best of my knowledge, this place was too bad even for bed bugs. Take that Paris!


There was literally nothing to do in Greenville other than the favourite American pastime: fast food. So off we drove, looking for food and wifi for Ralf to record a podcast the next day. We found food (Subway, the first time on the trip) but we did not find any wifi.


We returned to our "accommodation" feeling full yet so very empty. Luckily, what the room lacked in cleanliness, it made up for in the size of its TV so I watched an average movie and fell into a restless, fitful, disgusting sleep. No photos.

 

Day 29 - Tuesday 10 October - Greenville to Vicksburg


Feeling the strong desire to cleanse myself of the grime of the day before, I went for a run along the levee which protects the town from flooding. We checked it out the day before and it was quiet and far away from cars, so I felt safe running along there. It felt great to move again and I enjoyed the early morning sun and views of the river, waving merrily to everyone I passed.


We left the motel as soon as I was showered (the water was a strange yellow) and took the short trip across the river to an old plantation in Arkansas, owned now by the university. Of course, we were aware that both Arkansas and Mississippi were old slave states and the endless cotton fields were a constant reminder of what happened here.


The house itself was immaculately preserved and we were lucky enough to get a private tour (as we were the only people there).



We had a little time pressure and Ralf had to be somewhere with working wifi for a podcast interview in the early afternoon, and working wifi is somewhat of a rare commodity in Mississippi. We sped down the highway to Vicksburg, hoping that our motel would have the wifi it promised on the website. Of course it didn't. Ralf threw me out in central Vicksburg and went on the hunt for wifi, luckily finding it in the Wendys next to our motel. Oh Wendy – you never let us down.


With some time to kill in Vicksburg, I wandered around and stumbled across what looked like a cute little restaurant. There were maybe 5 or 6 people inside, and as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone turned around to look at me. I'm pretty used to that by now, and as usual, everyone wanted to know where I was from. The most common guess is Australia, which concerns me. Everyone was extremely friendly and keen to tell me where to go next. As I was about to leave, the local church rector walked in and offered to show me around the oldest church in Vicksburg. How could I refuse?


Off I went to the church, which managed to survive the famous siege of Vicksburg in 1863 largely unscathed and even offered daily services throughout the siege for the people of the town. The rector allowed me to go "backstage" and take a look at how the organ worked, which I found fascinating. He wouldn't let me play though – his loss.



I was pretty desperate for a coffee at this point and went downtown to find a cafe. The only one in town closed at 12:00, so I was bang outta luck. I went to the tourist info and they informed me that the local Italian restaurant doesn't do coffee, but they do espresso. I had to chuckle to myself.


The man in the restaurant indeed informed me that they don't have coffee, but they do have espresso, so I gladly accepted my non-coffee and sat at the bar next to a young couple. They turned out to be from Switzerland, on a similar 3 month trip through America and Mexico. They were shocked when I started talking German and we chatted for another 30 minutes, with me doing my best to get through their very strong Swiss German.


Once they left, the lady behind me addressed in me in German as well! She was born near Frankfurt and moved to Oklahoma. I nearly fell off my bar stool.


After an hour of speaking German in an Italian restaurant alongside the Mississippi, I was in need of a beer. Luckily the local craft brewery was directly opposite, and I started chatting to an older couple sat next to me at the bar. They were "RVers", travelling America for most of the year in their RV. They gave up their home and most of their stuff a few years ago, and have been doing this ever since. I couldn't help but be impressed.


Turns out, it was trivia night that night, and I never say no to a good pub quiz. We formed a team and managed to somehow come 3rd. Not sure what that says about the average intelligence of Americans.


They were kind enough to drive me home in their pick-up and I joined Ralf in our motel, mercifully better than our last one and with a great view out to the Wendy's drive-thru. And so ended the most Dan-like of days.




 

Day 30 - Wednesday 11 October - Vicksburg to Baton Rouge


So far on our trip, the sun had shone basically non-stop. Today, our luck turned and we had a wet and grey day to get through. But we are not made of sugar, as they say in some places, so we got into the safety of our car and drove to our first stop, "The Tomato Place".


It is a little hard to describe the Tomato Place, and even harder for me as a Brit to pronounce it correctly. It is basically part store, part shack on the side of the highway. It has a southern grandma back porch kind of feeling to it, and inside there are a lot of tomatoes. Ralf found it on a travel blog and it was fascinating. We both got a sandwich which we saved for lunch, so you'll hear about that later.



We were looking forward to Natchez as we had heard a lot about the city, mostly its architecture. It was a centre for slavery due to its location on the river and we stopped briefly at the site of an old slave market, complete with this small monument to a dark chapter in the city's history.



Driving in Natchez is a nightmare. The whole place is a maze of one-way streets and traffic lights which seemed to change the second we got there. We decided to park the car, get a coffee and then try our luck on foot as the rain started to ease off.


We ate our sandwich, which was excellent.


The architecture in Natchez is indeed pretty cool, with a lot of plantation style houses, and a very strange-looking church.





Natchez seemed like the kind of place one might spend a couple of nights, but we needed to press onwards, ever further south to the capital of Louisiana – Baton Rouge.


We arrived pretty late at night at our AirBnB accommodation in the suburbs. As we pulled in to our place, I couldn't help but notice the house directly next door, which was a smouldering wreck.


I double checked the pictures of our accommodation, now slightly suspicious of the low price. We knocked on the door of our place and the owner casually told us that their neighbour's house EXPLODED a couple of weeks ago. Quite miraculously, nobody was injured.



I suddenly was no longer in the mood for BBQ, so I ate at the local Vietnamese restaurant and I can't tell you how grateful I was for some food that wasn't deep fried. It wasn't even a bit fried. I was the only person there, which says something. It was delicious.


I went to sleep grateful that we hadn't been staying here 2 weeks ago when our neighbour's house exploded, and excited for what we knew would be a big day tomorrow. New Orleans – here we come!

 

Day 31 - Thursday 12 October - Baton Rouge to New Orleans

Firstly – let's celebrate that Ralf and I made it 31 days without murdering, or even severely maiming each other! And what better way to celebrate than a trip to the party capital of America, New Orleans.


On the way, we stopped at Baton Rouge to see the very impressive capital building and Louisiana museum. The museum covered a very wide range of topics, from how the state gave birth to its particular styles of music and the Mardi Gras parades, to how the river has shaped the area over the centuries and the role it played in preparing America for WWII.



After a pleasant couple of hours there, we sped over an interstate (that is literally built in the water) to New Orleans. We were struck straight away by the different vibe the city has. It doesn't feel like America at all. The architecture in the French quarter is defined as "Creole" or "French Colonial" and looks amazing. People open carry their drinks (thankfully not their guns – yet) and there is a wonderful buzz about the city.





Our hostel was only a couple of blocks away from the famous Bourbon Street where many of the bars and clubs are located, but we had other plans. Ralf has been itching for a second tattoo for a while, and I planned to get my first one on this trip. Some say you shouldn't make these kinds of permanent decisions whilst a little bit tipsy, but I say – you're probably right. In any event, Ralf found a tattoo place which did walk-ins and I thought to myself: if not in New Orleans, then when?


The tattoo parlour seemed to have basic hygiene standards and I was encouraged by the fact that they don't do anything for under $100. As tattoos go, ours was very straightforward. We wanted our band name, ERNST, tattooed on our arm. I wasn't hopeful that they would simply accept 2 strays off the street for a tattoo but we were lucky enough to get the last spots of the day.


My tattoo artist was covered, head to toe, in tattoos. A good sign. He explained to me that he got some of them in prison. Ok. He was a really nice guy with over 20 years experience and he tried to ease my understandable nerves by telling me stories about his time working for gangs in parlours up and down America, including how his friend got beaten up for trying to quit.


A mere 20 minutes later, we were done. I was very happy with the result and Ralf went next, getting the same tattoo from a different artist.



I got a sticker.


We celebrated our ridiculous decision with a beer and some local delicacies – gumbo and jambalaya. Gumbo is a kind of soup made with okra, beans and rice, often with seafood or chicken. Our jambalaya was more tomato-based and with pasta, and both were delicious.


Our hostel offered happy hour from 7 until 8, and this particular happy hour was happier than usual – the beer was free! We joined a small group of fellow travellers and enjoyed a few beers whilst playing "the question game". I am sure you can imagine the types of questions that were asked.


It was here that we met Shane, a fellow Brit who was taking an extended trip as part of his work. I normally avoid Brits wherever I can, but I made an exception for Shane, mostly as he had been here for a few days and promised to show us "the cool stuff".


We decided to avoid Bourbon Street, with its bright lights and too loud music. I think we heard "Yeah" by Usher at least 4 times walking by. We went to Frenchmen Street instead, more known for its live music than its vomiting on the streets. It started well when we turned a corner and there was a band playing outside the local chicken shop with a small crowd.


We aimed for a bar called "The Spotted Cat" and I was instantly sceptical. There was a queue outside, and it was busy inside. There was also a $5 cover charge. But inside – a whole different story. We decided to try a "hurricane" as our first drink: we'd heard it knocks you off your feet. Oh boy, would we regret this tomorrow.


The 2 bands who played were outstanding. The second band had played every single Thursday night for 13 years, and you could tell. We had such a good time dancing and hurricaning the night away until we stumbled home at 2am, our ears ringing from the trombone played in our faces.



I drank as much water as I could, fearing that tomorrow would be Cincinnati part II ...

 

Day 32 - Friday 13 October - New Orleans to Hattiesburg


Luckily, this was not Cincinnati Part II – Return of the Toilet. The hangover was very different this time. Ralf and I both awoke with a light headache and a deep sense of grogginess, which would follow us throughout the day and make performing the most basic tasks a herculean effort.


We checked out and were very thankful to see our car was exactly where we left it, with all its windows intact. We headed straight to Starbucks to try and blow the grogginess away with a flat white. Nope, still there. Maybe a walk to the river in the blistering sun would help? Nope, even worse.


We did, however, come across something magical. A place called "Ernst Cafe" was just next to the river, and we'd heard about it the night before from our waitress who saw our fresh ERNST tattoos and assumed we REALLY liked that cafe. Of course we had to go there and freak out all the staff. We walked in and presented our tattoos to the first waitress we saw. She shrieked in excitement and I asked for a sticker. Unfortunately they don't do stickers, but they did do cups, and she went and got us 4 cups to take home with us. We decided to come back for lunch and were joyfully reunited with our old friend once again – the fried pickle! This time, with fried jalapeños thrown in for good measure. The grogginess started to disappear through an explosion of calories. The waitress was right after all – we do really like this cafe!




We really wanted to see some more of the swamp landscape which surrounds New Orleans, and so we drove out to one which was en route to our next accommodation in Hattiesburg. The wildlife here was badly affected by Hurricane Katrina and you could see how the area was still in the process of recovery. We went for a walk along the boardwalk in the hope of seeing some alligators but the closest we got was a stick which resembled one. In a further sign of our grogginess, we left the car running in the car park when we left for our walk. For an hour. At least it was nice and cool when we got back in ... sorry environment!



It was a short drive to Hattiesburg, our resting place for the night. Our accommodation was a gorgeous Victorian-style house, with some incredible interior design. I also appreciated the very complimentary pillow on the bed.



Hattiesburg seemed like a nice place, and we decided to head to the local Olive Garden for dinner. Ralf in particular was curious to try another chain that we had heard about, and I remember that 2 people I met in Gadsden worked there and told me to avoid it. Too late. It wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't Italian. I was fascinated by the little portable TV screens that were at every table, so that you could play games whilst waiting for your calorie bomb and even order and pay without ever having to speak to a single person. It did seem vaguely dystopian, but at least the kids were entertained.


I was still groggy, but at least I was full. And I was ready for the final task of the day: getting my COVID and flu vaccine. I thought that the vaccine side effects can't be worse than the hangover.


I booked my appointment at Walgreens for 7:45pm (I googled for any recent news first to make sure nobody was being held hostage) and, somewhat surprisingly, the process was pretty smooth. I just needed to pay for the flu shot, the COVID vaccine was free, and nobody asked for my passport. The pharmacist did forget about me briefly (overworked and underpaid, I assume), and then remembered that I was sat there, waiting. Two jabs later, I was done. Apparently the scheme is working really well and he does 20 or so shots a day, which is a little more than I expected for Mississippi.


And so I went to bed, hoping that any side effects would happen through the night in my sleep.

 

Day 33 - Saturday 14 October - Hattiesburg to Thomasville


Today is a special day for a couple of reasons. There was a solar eclipse here, apparently. I tried to see it but looking directly into the sun can be added to the ever-growing list of stupid, permanent decisions I've been making recently. We were also heading to Laurel, one of the nicest small towns in Mississippi according to a list Ralf found somewhere.


But most importantly, it is our anniversary. That's right. 14 years ago to the day, I met Ralf and Thomas at a Florence and the Machine concert in Vienna, and we celebrate together every year. Thomas mentioned something about being "too busy to fly to Mississippi" or something, so we had a video call instead. Thomas is a huge America fan and it was great to catch up with him on our special day. We also had a little treat in store for him later on today ...



The town of Laurel was nice, and it seemed to also really like itself – there were quite a number of shops selling Laurel-based gifts and souvenirs. My eyes lit up in excitement. This place must be Stickerville. I searched amongst all the Laurel coasters and badges and can holders and bags ... and there was not a sticker to be found. At least one lady apologised for their (in my eyes unforgivable) oversight.



We ploughed onwards to our final stop – Thomasville! That's right. We managed to find an AirBnB in a place called Thomasville, Alabama, so we could, in some small way, spend the evening with Thomas. And what a place it was! It may be small, with only 3,600 inhabitants, but it has completely revitalised its downtown and even has its own newspaper, the Thomasville Times. Look at our happy faces!




Our accommodation was also outstanding: a huge, ranch-style house complete with a swimming pool and ... what's this?! Another hot tub! There was only one way we were going to end the evening on our anniversary: 6 cold ones, country music blasting from the speaker and the 2 of us in a hot tub in Thomasville.


Could life get any better?




Upcoming next week: the return of Nashville, the return of Nicole (from Cincinnati) and a 4 day country music festival in Dallas, Texas. Once again, stories guaranteed!


Thanks for reading y'all!

 




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g brock
g brock
Oct 22, 2023

Dan & Ralf- enjoyed speaking to you at the In & Out by Texas Motor Speedway (long live country music!). For your remaining time in Texas, and for as long as your red meat tolerance can hold out, just follow this list and y’all will be all good! Well it appears I can’t paste a link..no problem just search the Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ list and stick to it. Preferably the most recent (2021?) version. Cheers!

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