So – after years of planning – Ralf and I finally made it to 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 the American South. Happy reading y'all!
Day 1 - Tues 12 September - Vienna to Atlanta
Our journey begins as so many journeys do – a long haul flight with children sat behind you, kicking your seats. After a 4:30am wake up, not necessarily what you need. Nevertheless, our journey from Vienna to Atlanta via Paris was fairly smooth as trans-atlantic journeys go.
The good news is: we didn't have to wait long for our first challenge! We had reserved a hire car for 8 weeks from the cheapest car hire we could find – Thriftys. Yeah ... clue was in the name, really. We thought we would try and pick the car up a day earlier than planned, but we saw Thrifty's true colours. They wanted to charge us for all kinds of extra insurance things and convince us that we needed all the optional stuff because "have y'all driven in Georgia before?!" We were pretty tired and so decided to simply head into Atlanta and to our spontaneously booked AirBnB to rest and make a decision about what to do with the car later.
The accommodation was in the middle of Atlanta but felt like in a leafy suburb – and this was a common thing we found in Atlanta, apparently one of America's greener cities. You can walk a few blocks from downtown with its high-rise buildings and suddenly you are in some kind of suburbia, very green and quiet.
But enough about that – back to the car rental! After asking Google, ChatGPT and Bing (of course), we decided to totally change our plans! Good work guys! Instead of hiring a car for the whole 8 weeks, we decided to rent the car from Atlanta for a week and do a big loop, returning to Atlanta and then take the bus to our next big stop and hire the next car from there. To celebrate our bold and brave decision, we headed to Ponce Street Market, a beautiful brick building full of street food style outlets, to enjoy the first beers of our American trip. We finished off the night on the back porch of our accommodation drinking our next beers in true Southern style, ready for our first full day in the South ...
Day 2 - Wed 13 September - Atlanta to Duluth
I woke up happy to have survived my first night in America. After fueling up with coffee, we took a bus (!) to a car rental place downtown and I prayed that this would be easier than the day before. Fortunately, this was all smooth sailing and we were soon on our way with our Chevrolet Equinox. First stop: the Martin Luther King Jr. museum. This is a free museum with a comprehensive exhibit about the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement and the struggle against segregation. We both learned a lot, particularly about the bus protests organised following the Rosa Parks incident. We also got to see the house where MLK grew up. This visit inspired us to add Montgomery to our travel list, where MLK spent much of his early preaching career.
We had lunch at our first diner (burger, of course) and then drove to Walmart to get supplies. Second major challenge of the trip: trying to find bread that is edible here. Seriously, it is a nightmare.
Our plan was then to head to a motel outside of Atlanta in search of a cheap room for the night. Turns out that prices aren't what they were 5 years ago when Ralf was last in the States and even motels would stretch our budget. But never fear – AirBnB to the rescue again! I found a place in Duluth, a suburb of Atlanta, with a Vietnamese lady who gave us our first taste of Southern hospitality – she insisted on feeding us and giving us artichoke tea. We managed to squeeze in our first run of the trip in a local park (next to the highway, of course – we had to drive there, of course) before grabbing a few beers (and mosquito bites) and heading to bed.
We didn't know it yet, but tomorrow would be a highlight of the first week ...
Day 3 - Thurs 14 September - Duluth to Franklin
The first stop of day 3 was Stone Mountain, a ridiculous rock in the middle of nowhere with Confederate generals carved into the side of it. Yeah, that's still a thing. The rock itself is really something to behold, almost like it has been dropped from the sky in the middle of totally flat surroundings. We decided to hike to the top (only a mile or so) but, by some freakish act of devilry, we had failed to find a Starbucks on our way so we were severely undercaffeinated. Nevertheless, we pushed onwards to the top and lo-and-behold – a miracle! Coffee on the top of the rock! Re-caffeinated and human again, we took in the views from the top all the way to Atlanta and then made our way down to head on to the next stop – Guitar Center!
We entered Guitar Center empty handed and left with 2 things of beauty: a brand new acoustic guitar for me and a lap steel for Ralf, a personal dream of his. With our new babies in hand, we pressed onwards to our final stop of the day – our AirBnB in the mountains near Franklin, via the Tallulah Falls and a Confederate shop called "the Rebel Store". Yeah, that's also still a thing.
I bought a sticker.
We arrived at our AirBnB in the mountains just outside Franklin, North Carolina and were blown away. We stayed with Matt, a brand new AirBnB host and all-round cool guy who let us record a few music videos on his porch and entertained us with his fascinating stories. The views were stunning and his place was gorgeous. We got an early-ish night in anticipation of a big day 4 ...
Day 4 - Friday 15th September - Franklin to Asheville
We left Franklin and Matt's wonderful place behind and headed straight for Cherokee, a town on the reservation home of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The story of the Cherokee tribe is fascinating. They have managed to make an incredible living out of their local casino and tourism, which means that they can provide thousands of dollars to each member of the tribe every year. The museum there was interesting and documented the history of the tribe right up to the removal and the Trail of Tears. The town itself is centred around a few tourist craft shops and the absolutely massive casino and hotel resort. After a sandwich and a coffee, we headed on to our next stop: Asheville.
And what a place Asheville is! We had heard good things but this exceeded our expectations. The AirBnB was a little outside of town (and quite weird) but that didn't matter – at least we had our first twin room.
Asheville has this cool, liberal vibe to it that really spoke to us both. Add the great live music and you have a recipe for a top city. We went to a brewery for a quick beer before heading to our first live music venue – the Grey Eagle – to see the album release show for a band called Pierce Edens. We had no expectations but we were met with a great concert at a very cool place. We were pretty tired so we went home afterwards, and part of me was sad that we couldn't stay a little longer.
Day 5 - Saturday 16th September - Asheville to Knoxville
The day began in a great cafe in Asheville next door to a HUGE video game arcade, full of both new and retro arcade games. I thought about going inside for about 2 minutes before taking the plunge, paying $10 for all-you-can-play and letting my inner child run free! After shooting bad guys in Time Crisis, losing at Tekken 3 and dominating the dance game, we headed off on a slightly longer journey to Knoxville.
Along the way, we stopped at Buc-ees, the largest gas station in the world! And wow – we were not disappointed. This Buc-ees is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokees (see day 4) and has incredibly cheap fuel. It also has a huge food section inside, plus famously clean toilets and a whole bunch of Buc-ees merchandise. We didn't stay long, but we knew we'd be back.
Our AirBnB in Knoxville was nothing special – a windowless room and a bed with a mattress on another mattress that moved like a waterbed whenever anybody turned over. Knoxville was also nothing special. It has a nice square and a few nice streets, but nothing really to write home (or blogs) about. The bars were full of American football fans supporting their local team so we soaked up the atmosphere a little before heading back down the highway to our accommodation and an early-ish night.
Day 6 - Sunday 17th September - Knoxville to Chattanooga
We left Knoxville fairly early and headed in the direction of our next stop – Chattanooga. A quick google of "things to do in Chattanooga on a Sunday" provided us with a very obvious candidate for our afternoon activity: the Georgia Wines 40th Annual Grape Stomp!
The first 100 people got a free t-shirt, so needless to say we were there an hour before it started at 13:00! In the queue, we met the wonderful Stacey and Pam from Indiana who had travelled for hours to be there for the stomp. We gratefully took our free t-shirt and went inside for the complementary wine tasting. Honestly: this was not wine. It was sweet, alcoholic fruit juice. But it was free – so what the hell. We joined Pam and Stacey for another glass of "wine" before heading outside to watch the band, the Wayward Sons (really good, classic Southern rock) in huge anticipation of the first grape stomp. I was expecting this:
Instead, we got this:
That's a bunch of people standing on a plastic sheet stomping on grapes. Oh well.
After saying our farewells to Pam and Stacey, we made the short trip in to Chattanooga. Chattanooga is located on the Tennessee river and highlights include the pedestrian bridge across the river and the amazing Lookout Mountain, the site of an infamous battle in the Civil War called the "Battle above the Clouds" where Union troops captured the mountain from the Confederates thanks to some very thick fog.
"Anything the Yankee troops can do, we can do better"
And so we decided to run up the mountain. At sunset. Romantic, I know.
It was a beautiful run/hike up to the top and we had some stunning views, but we also failed to consider how nature works. As the sun set, things got dark. Really dark. And we still had to run down the mountain. Fortunately, I came fully prepared with the outdoor adventurers primary tool – the iPhone! With my light on, we managed to navigate the remaining kilometres avoiding rocks, roots, bears, yankees and other potential dangers to make it back to the car ... alive!
Our AirBnB was great (free beer and snacks!) and, after a shower and recovery beer, I went out to the local "cool bar" called Boneyard, which had good beers and some people to chat to. I left the bar fully prepared to head even further south the next day, into the great state of Alabama!
Day 7 - Monday 18th September - Chattanooga to Leesburg
The pain of our sore legs woke us up nice and early on day 7, and we went straight out on the road towards our next stop. We made a quick detour to the military cemetery in Chattanooga (from the civil war up to present day) and continued on towards Alabama.
The roads quickly went from 3 lanes to 2 lanes, and then finally 1 lane, showing us that we were heading in the right kind of direction. And you can imagine our delight when we saw signs for ... the next Buc-ees! Once more we enjoyed the world-famous restrooms and took a picture with the chipmunk mascot before refueling and heading off again. I have a feeling you'll be hearing more about Buc-ees as the trip continues.
I also bought the t-shirt.
We made it to the town of Centre where we decided to grab a coffee or 3 and do a few hours of work. Exhausted from having to do something, we went next door to have a beer and enjoy our new favourite food: deep fried pickles. For those of you that have never tried them – don't worry, Ralf and I will make them for you when we're back. No way we're living without these no more.
We slowly made our way to our final AirBnB of the week in Leesburg and drove to Cherokee Rock Park to catch the sunset over the lake (noticing a recurring theme here?).
Hungry for BBQ, we sped down the country roads to try and make it to the local BBQ joint but it closed just as we arrived (19:00!). Goddam sunset. Instead, we headed to the Mexican place around the corner where we nearly gave the waitress a heart attack when she heard we were from Europe.
We decided to wash our quesadillas down with a bottle of whiskey from the liquor store (where every drink comes with a free bag of ice!), and so our first planned "alcohol-free" day was complete. We ended the day with a little jam session before falling asleep under the Alabama stars to complete our first week in America.
What will the next week hold for us? With Memphis, Nashville and the first parts of Mississippi on the schedule, we assume nothing exciting. Let's see if we're right ...
Thank y'all for reading, see you next week!