Deep South Run: The Live Blog

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ANDERSON COUNTY, SC–Interstate 85, the major artery that runs from Atlanta, GA, through Upstate, South Carolina, and into to the northern reaches of the Southeast is a wet mess today. It is Mad Max dangerous, despite it running slower than it usually does. Nine years ago–back when I lived in this county, the stretch of four-lane interstate was home to the worst car wrecks I ever saw. It’s not a backwoods county, but it was good ol’ boy enough that I, for better or worse, ended up too close to the accident scenes. The most vivid memory is standing over a body bag as it was opened up. Inside was the top half of a human body, burned down to the bone. It was a kid on his way to college at UVA. His mom died in the same wreck, despite being in a different car. I still can’t stop seeing it. It’s been nearly a decade. Worse, though, I think was the girl who nearly had her head cut off by a car that crossed the center divider and went airborne. I spent a lot of time on invesitgations into why the state hadn’t installed cable barriers in the too-thin medians. Eventually, after I saw more than my share of dead people, the state got its act together and installed cable or cement carriers for most of the length of this interstate in South Carolina.

Today, we denizens of Mt. Otis are on I-85 in Anderson County and headed south. My mobile work station is set up in the passenger seat, allowing me to maintin an online presence for my employers while still making tracks. It’s a double-edged sword, this ease-of-working set-up. While it allows me to get some work done, it also puts the wife behind the wheel. She’s a relatively safe driver, but also likes to nararrate the drive. We’re seeing the same thing out the windows, but…well, we’ll leave it at that. I’m tired and cranky and probably not the best traveling companion right now, either. Regardless, it’s snowing now. Snowing chicken feathers, anyway. You’d have to see it to appreciate it.

Indeed, every breathing thing in the house came with is. The wife is decked out in a velour PokerStars jumpsuit. I’m in cargo pants and a two-layers of t-shirty goodness. The kid is kicked back in his car seat and watching The Incredibles. The dog, Scoop, is stoned out of her damned mind on tranquilizers. We won’t be in Anderson County for long. Our journey is a week long and will take us through every state in the Deep South (unless you’re one of those people who considers Florida part of the Deep South). Georgia is less on my mind than on the horizon.

More from there in a bit…(1:00pm ET)

HART COUNTY, GA–It’s 92 miles to Atlanta and I’m hoping I’ve accidentally been knocked unconcious before we get there. Despite being the capital of the South and one of the most–if I dare say it–cosmopolitan cities within 600 miles, it’s still Atlanta, which means it sucks sideways when it concerns anything involving travel. We have timed this trip to avoid anything resembling a rush hour. Still, we will slow down to a mere crawl when we pass through around 2:30pm. I know this because it’s part of Atlanta’s city charter.

So, why would we do this? Why would we load the car on a Tuesday and decide to travel across four states and back in a week? Why would we do this just a couple weeks removed from a ten-day work trip in the Bahamas. Well, it’s a few things, really. First, I spend a few days every Janaury in Mississippi. Usually, I’m in Tunica playing poker. This year, circumstances made it such that that poker trip isn’t happening. Still, the wife’s family lives there, a scant few miles from where I used to live. Our first stop (not counting the six or seven bathroom stops we’re sure to make) will be Jackson, Mississippi. That is about an eight-hour drive from Mt. Otis. After that, the wife and I will head down to New Orleans and hole up in the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon St. while we wait for several friends to make it in from out of town. After that it’s marriage for one of our closest friends.

That’s the real reason we are navigating through a rainstorm in 33-degree temperatures. When we left the house, it was 35 degrees outside. Now, it’s 33 and threatening to drop more. The only thing hot in this county is the TOPLESS, TOPLESS sign as you cross the border. The locals love that one. But, really, in an area of the country where bare knees can sometimes be seen as too titilating, a topless diner was really a stroke of genius. Pun not really intended, but I’m leaving it there anyway.

Despite working on just a few hours sleep, riding with a headache, and having to work from the passenger seat of an SUV, I’m actually really excited about making it to the Big Easy. Outside of places I’ve actually lived, New Orleans is top of the list in memories. From bignets at Cafe Du Monde, to the food/drink at Fat Harry’s, to a big mess of crawfish on my buddy Al’s back deck, New Orleans used to be the place I went when I was looking for a place that wasn’t home, but welcomed me like like I was a native son every time. (1:41pm ET)

SUWANEE, GA–I can smell Atlanta.

Actually, I can smell the remains of the fast food we picked up on the way out of G-Vegas, but it’s close enough. Sprawl means you can smell and feel Atanta a good 45 minutes before you get there. I sort of feel guilt for making the wive drive the first leg of this journey. If I were officially off work, I’d be driving all of it. So, now, I’m fielding instant messages and offering snide opinions that are probably ill-advised.

I should have better memories of Atlanta. I’ve spent many a good night there. Saw the Braves make the World Series one year. Saw the Cigar Store Indians play with the Reverend Horton Heat while simultaneiously challenging people to play pool for money and picking a fight with a dwarf in a leather jacket. Once sat around a bonfire for ebout eight hours playing guitar when it was 40 degrees outside.

Despite all that, my best memories of Atlanta have been on nights I didn’t actually go there. Really, the best things about Georgia don’t happen along I-85. To feel really at home in Georgia, one has to go to Athens. Or, better yet, go to Savannah and cross the bridge to Tybee Island. There you’ll find a place you can call home, if even for a weekend.

I find it a little odd that I’m nostalgic for a place I’ve not yet left. I consider the Southeast my home and, when and if I leave, I’m gonna miss it.

All of it except Atlanta, anyway. (2:00pm)

ATLANTA, GA–Gotta find a way to distract myself from this for a few minutes. How about you meet Al?

Al was the first Jewish guy I knew–or, at least, he was the first guy I knew that I knew was Jewish. After meeting Al, I had a hard time understanding what all the hubub was about.

Al was from New Orleans, but was attending the University of Missouri when I got there. He was a year older than me, but took me under his wing quickly. With a deep New Orleans accent–the first I could really indentify as such–Al led me to my first Mardi Gras in Febraury 1993. I occasionally look back at the pictures at the 19-year-old version of me–slicked back hair, denim shirt, no wrinkles, 15 years younger and more naive than seems possible. Naive in New Orleans is better than you might think. You never expect the trouble you’re about to get into, so you don’t know to be wary of it.

I won’t wax forever on that trip. Suffice it to say, it was a series of firsts for me. It was the frist time anyone had walked up with a paper grocery bag and dumped five pounds of crawfish in front of me. It was the first time–and certainly not the last–that I pulled the crawfish tail out with my teeth, then crushed the head between my fingers while sucking the juice into my mouth. It was the first time I saw girls randomly taking their clothes off for no good reason. It was the first time I–a guy who had never even seen illegal drugs–saw somebody fashion a pipe using nothing more than a pencil and a roll of tin foil.

Al took me back to New Orleans again after that and I owe him big for introducing me to one of my favorite places in the world. We lost touch about ten years ago. I don’t know what happened to him or his other running buddies, G and Sal. Damn, but we had a good time together.

I’ve been to New Orleans a lot of times since then. It has never been as good as that first trip. In fact, a couple of times, it was downright bad. However, a majority of my time in one of America’s greatest cities was perfect. I am having a hard time not getting overly excited about it.

It occurred to me last night, though, that this is the first time I’ve been married in New Orleans. My love and I have been there together before, but never as a married couple. Shouldn’t be too diferent, should it? (2:20pm)

TALAPOOSA, GA–Well, Atlanta wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. There was only one tragic SUV rollover accident and we only slowed to 25mph twice. Now, we’re back on fast highway. It’s I-20 for us now all the way to Jackson. Apart from being exceedingly boring, I-20 is a very reasonable stretch of road. We pick it up in Altanta and will run it all the way across the Alabama border. From there, it’s pine forests, the Talledega Speedway, a sleepy little town where–as a one-man-band TV guy–I once chased a cop killer, Birmingham, steel towns, the Mississippi border, lumber yards, and finally Jackson. On the scale of interestingness, it’s way the hell away from driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, but a sight better than driving across I-70 from Missouri to Colorado. You can trust me on all three of these. No drive compares to the PCH for beauty. The only thing I’ve ever seen that comes close is the Blue Ridge Parkway in October. And nothing is more boring than driving across the Kanas Plains.

It appears now, as well, that we no longer have to worry about the weather. The sun is coming out and the temperature is up to 41 degrees. I figure we’ll hit Jackson by 7pm CT. That’s not too bad.

As the pine trees plow by, or we by them, I find myself thinking about the worst thing I ever saw in New Orleans. I’d just left the Tropical Isle on Toulouse and ended up in the midde of a massive street brawl. It was Mardi Gras 1994 and it was so crowded that any fight between two people was going to turn into a riot. I was happy to escape with no blood on me. I turned the corner onto Bourbon and walked a block or two up. I didn’t have to worry about toppling over due to intoxication. The last few days before Fat Tuesday meant the streets were filled to capacity. Like always, I followed the crowd’s cheers and gaze. Nearly everyone on the block was looking up at one balcony. That usually means there’s a girl taking her clothes off. I stopped and looked up…just in time to see a guy climb up on a balcony rail and scream “Woooooooooooo-hooooooooooooooo!” And then, completely against his will, and in line with how gravity usually works, the guy fell off the second story balcony and to the ground. I don’t know how the crowd hushed quick enough for us to hear the guy hit the ground, but it did. If you’ve heard the old saying about a sack of potatoes…well, that was what it sounded like.

The guy was alive when the dragged him by me. His eyes were open anyway.

For the first time ever or since, I sobered up immediately. You just don’t see something like that every day.

I walked a couple more blocks down when a girl ran full-chest into me.

“I’ll kiss you for those beads,” she said, pointing to one of the 100 strands I had around my neck.

I shrugged. “Okay.”

“But,” she said, “No tongue. I don’t want to get AIDS.”

I shrugged again. “Okay.”

And then the girl stuck her tongue in my mouth anyway. (3:15pm ET)

TALLADEGA NATIONAL FOREST, AL–What sucks about Alabama is…well, that’s just the start of the joke I’m not prepared to tell. Alabama gets a bad rap. I think it’s guilt by association, what with it being so close to Mississippi and all. Alabama is actually a really pretty state. It would, however, be a lot prettier if it managed to keep its roadsides free of litter. We’re now doing 75mph through the Talladega Natonional Forest, specifically, just crossing the border into Calhoun County and we’re seeing a lot more trash than one should see. Here in just a bit, I’m going to take over the wheel and barrel as fast as is safe toward Jackson. The quicker I get there, the quicker I make it to Louisiana.

The previous entry here paints New Orleans with a rather ugly brushstroke. It’s not always that way. Mardi Gras, I assume especially in the days before Hurricane Katrina, is an insane time in the French Quarter. It’s no place for a kid and it’s not really a place for anybody over 40. It’s easy to get hurt. The rest of the time, though New Orleans is a place where one can lose himself temporarily or permanently, and do so quite happily. If you ever go, here’s your must-do list:

  • See the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
  • Have a sandwich with extra debris at Mothers
  • Have bignets at Cafe du Monde
  • Drink at least one hand grenade at the Tropical Isle
  • Watch people sing karaoke at Cat’s Meow
  • Have real New Orlean’s BBQ shrimp
  • Eat oysters
  • Have a poboy
  • Go for a wash and drink at Checkpoint Charlies

    Bonus points:

  • Spend an hour in Oz
  • Spend 15 minutes in The Dungeon
  • Spend half an hour in a Bourbon Street strip club

    Sadly, I’m already regretting how little time I’m spending in New Orleans on this trip. I’m also already a little hungover from the bachelor party I’m attending…on Thursday. 2:41pm CT

    EMBRY, AL–I don’t get motion sickness. While that’s not entirely true and a few guys who were on a North Sea ferry with me in 1997 might have a couple of stories, I don’t get motion sickness. I’ve ridden in cars, trucks, planes, trains, boats, helicopters, and, verily, blimps and I’ve never thrown up.

    Right now, that could change.

    Alabama’s road contractors decided to see if they could come up with a notion that overstepped failure. You know that motorboat sound you make if someone does the chop suey massage on your back? That was the noise we made for five miles while trying to talk. I feel like hell.

    The road leading to Pell City and Birmingham has finally smoothed out, but I’ve lost my desire to look at a computer screen for a while. I’m going to fight for the steering wheel. If I succeed, I suspect the wife will take over the live blogging duties over at In Search of Walden. Note: Walden is most certainly NOT in Alabama. If she decides she’d rather listen to more 80s music, you’ll hear from us again on the other side. Later, all.(3:05pm CT)


  • Brad Willis

    Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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    3 Responses

    1. I waved when you drove past Suwanee, but you didn’t wave back. So you suck.

      btw, head to the Camellia Grill at the end of St.Charles while you’re there. Breakfast you can grab a chili cheese omelet (served any time) or a bacon cheeseburger. Opened back up about half a year ago, and Uptown institution. Give CJ my best, and safe travels.

    2. Never been to the deep south.

      Thanks for inviting us on your trip 🙂

    3. Well I’ve done just about everything on your list. BTW more than one hand grenade can be dangerous.


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