tenn sign

After New Orleans we stopped over in Jackson, Mississippi for the night, then headed up to Memphis the next morning for Day 21. This would be a mix of history and fun: our last stop on the Civil Rights Trail and music on Beale Street!

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Piggly Wiggly historical sign in Memphis

I didn’t know Piggly Wiggly started in Memphis. I’ve never been in one, but always loved the name.

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trolley

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I expected Memphis to be a more bustling large city, like Atlanta. But it’s small and looks a bit tired. We took a trolley through the old downtown shopping area. Many storefronts were vacant and there were few people; it was sad. The decline of old shopping areas in any city depresses me. Surely this stretch of Memphis was a bustling place full of life at one time. Malls were one of the worst ideas of the 20th century.

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Lorraine Motel sign, Memphis, Tennessee

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We got off the trolley at the Lorraine Motel, the site of MLK’s assassination. It was chilling and sad and a bit surreal to see the balcony, thinking of that famous photo. I have vague impressions of the event — I was seven and a half. I have more memories of RFK’s assassination two months later. It was the first time I understood that a big world existed beyond my backyard swing set. 1968 — what a year. Similar to 2020, adults must have been wondering what the hell was going on. 

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Balcony at Lorraine Motel, in Memphis Tennessee

Like a moment frozen in time, the end of one man’s path toward a dream shared by many.

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rooming house

The rooming house where James Earl Ray took his shot is just across from the motel. Such evil in an unassuming place. Chilling.

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Having seen MLK’s birthplace in Atlanta, churches he preached at, and the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech, it felt like we had come full circle, tracing the arc of his life. I’m glad Mtuseni was interested in all of it. When we were in Cape Town we saw the balcony where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison. Locations of historic events like this just give me goosebumps.

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am a man

A fitting last photo for the Civil Rights Trail leg of our road trip.

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We passed up going in the Civil Rights Museum; the line was long and the heat was cranking up. Luckily a woman downtown told us about Central BBQ, right behind the Lorraine. I’m not a huge meat fan but ate every bite of a pulled pork sandwich the size of my head. Mtuseni polished off a rack of ribs; the bones looked like they’d been bleached white in the desert when he was finished. When in Memphis, you gotta do BBQ!

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central q inside

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central q sign

Thanks to the woman on the street for the tip on this place. I didn’t have to do BBQ research!

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After lunch we walked past the entrance to Beale Street. It was mid-afternoon and I knew it would be more lively at night. There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so we headed over to a park along the Mississippi River. And this is where my big meltdown occurred.

We’d had three weeks of temps over 90 degrees… every freakin’ day. You know it’s bad when Southern weather forecasters talk about record-breaking heat! There was no respite in the park, not one tree. I sat in a thin strip of shade next to a wall of the visitors center — which was closed for a wedding. I was tired and cranky and done. I wanted to cancel the hotel that night and immediately head for Texas in the air-conditioned car. I was like a four-year-old having a whiney tantrum.

Mtuseni found another shady place to sit, away from my bitching. At home he doesn’t have air conditioning. Or heat. Or electricity. If it’s cold, he’s cold. If it’s hot, he’s hot. Not that he doesn’t complain when he’s home. (I’ve heard it so many times over the years!)  But in his community, you just live with stuff.

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river boat

The view from my heat stroke induced meltdown… the mighty Mississippi.

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After a while I snapped out of it and we headed over to Beale Street — and had a blast! We checked out BB King’s store, people watched, and marveled at all the neon. We were so full from Central BBQ we didn’t want dinner.

 

beale st mtu day

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B.B. King's Company Store in Memphis Tennessee

Cool store. I could have bought a ton of stuff but didn’t want to carry it all night.

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stax shirt

I really wanted this t-shirt but it was sold out. I wanted to see the Stax Records Museum, too, but it was a drive from downtown and had odd hours.

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beale neon crowd2

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We ended up watching the Redemption Day Band in a small park for free. The band was so tight, playing blues and funk and R&B. The leader and singer was in his 70s, and he never stopped. We watched for over two hours, had some beer and wings, singing along. (Well, I did!) And they just kept going. The guy’s probably still singing! 

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band dancer

This old guy had a good ol’ time dancing much of the night, sometimes convincing a young woman to join him. Music keeps people young!

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The vibe was so happy and mellow, everyone enjoying music and laughing and dancing on a late summer night. When the leader asked people putting tips in the bucket where they were from it was all over the world! Then a woman who’d been dancing up front by herself for much of the night dropped in her dollar. The guy asked, “Where you from, darlin’?” She said, “Up the street.” Everyone laughed. By then it felt like we were all part of the neighborhood.

Check out our Instagram for a hello from Beale Street!

I’m so glad I didn’t bail and leave Memphis early. We had such a fun time. It was a great send off as we set out for a trip milestone the next day — crossing the mid-point of the country. And thankfully leaving the southeastern heat and humidity behind. 

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blues sign pair

So long from Memphis!

nola marker

For our first full day in New Orleans we made the pilgrimage to Cafe du Monde. We weren’t impressed; they taste like fried dough you get on Boston Common. Even the obscene amount of powdered sugar they’re buried in can’t hide that. I told Mtuseni it was just something you had to do, like having boerewors in South Africa. The best part of the experience was the trio playing some snappy jazz right outside the cafe — a great way to perk up the morning.

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beignet big deal

The requisite beignets at Cafe du Monde. We didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I knocked most of the sugar off mine, I wanted to keep my teeth through the day.

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du monde pair

Yep, we’re at Cafe du Monde. I’d prefer another trip to the Waffle House.

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We crossed over to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, which is stunning. For someone who attends church in a strip mall, Mtuseni doesn’t get the opulent church thing. Growing up Catholic and ringing gold bells as an altar boy, it’s old hat to me. I lit a candle and sat for a few minutes and talked to my father, who passed a few months earlier. He would’ve loved this trip.

St. Louis Cathedral exterior in New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral looks a bit like Cinderella’s castle with the multiple spires.

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Painted ceiling and altar at Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

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Altar in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

The altar reminds me of my grandmother’s church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in Massachusetts.

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The beignets weren’t a very substantial breakfast — we were used to filling up on free hotel buffets. We scouted someplace for an early lunch and the Johnny’s Po’Boys sign drew me in. I’d been craving a fried oyster po’boy since we crossed the Louisiana border. But the recent hurricane had stirred up algae — no oysters! I got a tuna po’boy that was as big as my arm (not my intention). I gave half to a homeless guy sitting in front of the cathedral. 

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poboy shop

I love old sandwich shops like this. Kinda got the diner thing goin’.

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Johnny's Po-Boys sign in New Orleans

I swear my tuna po’boy was not much smaller than this guy’s!bb

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We strolled through the French Market until the heat again became stifling, so we popped into the Jazz Museum. I had no expectations other than air conditioning, but I was totally impressed! Well-curated exhibits, tons of cool photos, artwork and mementoes: they pack a lot into what looks like a small space.

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good jazz sign

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jazz mural

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Louis Armstrong's first cornet in New Orleans Jazz Museum

Louis Armstrong’s first cornet. I remember seeing him on the Ed Sullivan Show as a kid. “Well Hello Dolly!”

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Mtuseni immersed himself in an exhibit on Professor Longhair. He listened to every recorded narrative and song clip — and was fascinated that he taught himself to play piano on a broken one he found on the street.  We ended up meeting the professor again at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland weeks later. He was a cool, talented cat!

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longhair better

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We even got to see a free jazz concert by the Nicholas Payton Trio in a sweet little studio. Great show, great talent! The museum was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening break from the heat.

Check out video of the Nicholas Payton Trio on our Instagram!

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concert stage

Great space for a free concert at the Jazz Museum. Mtuseni doesn’t know jazz — but he loves live music.

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After dinner we took the trolley to Frenchmen Street for a little more live music and a little less crazy chaos. Weeks of togetherness and relentless heat finally got to us: We had a sidewalk screaming match that entertained and spooked the tourists, but then hugged it out and watched a great band in a little bar, sitting right up front. You can’t be angry too long in New Orleans! 

Check out our Instagram for some music from Frenchmen Street!

The next morning we had breakfast at The Governor — a great spot with caricatures of Louisiana politicians from times past… and their criminal exploits. One young woman’s job seemed to be just going from table to table asking people if they’re happy. She was like sunshine moving through the room. NOLA felt like our first taste of real Southern hospitality.

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governor pair

Good breakfast. Great, friendly vibe. We loved this place — and we’re not big smilers in the morning!

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After breakfast we took a trolley to the Garden District to check out the pretty homes and lush streets. We walked round a while but — surprise! — it was super hot! So we hopped on the trolley back into town and just strolled the streets, enjoying the architecture. The ornate balconies reminded us of Long Street in Cape Town, a similarly lively and fun street in Mtuseni’s neck of the woods.

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pearl oyster balcony

This image could be from Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa!

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fern balcony

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Far down Bourbon Street I noticed a building that looked much different from the others in terms of age and history. Sure enough, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was built in the 1770s — and is one of the oldest bars in the country. It looked like the Hobbit lived there! 

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Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar in New Orleans

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar — tell me a hobbit didn’t once live there!

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blacksmith bar sign

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blacksmith hearth

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Inside you could sense the old blacksmith doing his work at the brick hearth. I would have easily sat and enjoyed the ambiance and a beverage or two. But our time was winding down. Mtuseni could see how smitten — and a little bummed out  — I was, so he convinced me to get a frozen purple voodoo cocktail to go. It was so cold. And so good. And so strong! Thank god we still had a little walking to do before we took off.

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purple drink

Damn, two sips of this voodoo cocktail and I look drunk. It was the heat, I swear! I tried to save the cup; it didn’t last the trip.

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We returned to the French Market and got some souvenirs. Mtuseni got a hat that said “laissez le bons temps rouler”— once I explained to him what it meant. We did have good times — great times — in New Orleans, and were sad to leave. Mtuseni says we really celebrated his birthday there, since Montgomery was such a bust.

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french mkt

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We took one last look around the city from the rooftop where the car was parked, then headed down Canal Street and onto the highway. Next stop… Memphis.

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I loved this photo from the Jazz Museum. It seems to capture the energetic, laid back, fun vibe of New Orleans.

welcome sign

From Gulfport it was a fairly quick drive to New Orleans. We arrived early afternoon, parked downtown, and strolled Canal Street until check in. It felt great to be in a place with some grit and energy after so many sleepy southern cities.

la bridge

Mtuseni was a little freaked out on the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. Leaving New Orleans he thought we were gonna blow off the side.

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We popped into an outlet mall near the casino to escape the swamp-like humidity. I bought Mtuseni a Fossil watch for his birthday. He was thrilled; it’s practically a luxury brand in South Africa. He’d never heard of outlet stores and was fascinated by the concept. The rest of the trip he could spot an outlet mall sign a mile away! 

After recharging in the hotel, we skipped over to Bourbon Street and quickly came upon a trumpet player and drummer jamming on a corner. The street was packed with people in various states of lucidity — all grooving and smiling and having a good time. Let the party begin! I’d never been to New Orleans but certainly knew what to expect. Mtuseni didn’t have a clue; he was wowed.

Check out video of more sassy brass that night on our Instagram!

After a while we grabbed dinner where I introduced Mtuseni to gumbo, which I love. Then we went back out into the crowd — even livelier in the dark and after who knows how many drinks. People-watching galore!

Mtuseni isn’t a drinker, and I’ve become a lightweight over the years, but we both are crazy for music. I was psyched when we came upon some zydeco, and gave Mtuseni a probably half-assed backstory. But all you really need to do is hear it — and feel it! Zydeco just makes me happy. Mtuseni said his mother uses a washboard to wash clothes, not make music. 

We saw a few bands in different bars before finally heading back for the night. We had another long — and hot — day ahead of us. 

Check out video of a great band at Prohibition on our Instagram!

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prohibition pair

I didn’t have a huge ass beer at Prohibition, but I did have enough to grin about it.

miss sign

After celebrating Mtuseni’s birthday the night before, we returned to downtown Montgomery on Day 17 to see some sites on the Civil Rights Trail. With the Memorial for Peace and Justice closed, there weren’t a lot of options; that had been the main reason to stop in Alabama. 

Even during late morning, with all the government offices, there were hundreds of empty parking spaces everywhere. And no people up and down the wide quiet streets. It felt like a Twilight Zone episode.

Maybe the streets were empty because the heat and humidity were mind-boggling. It felt like the sun was ten feet above us and white hot. (And it had been record-breaking heat above 90 every day since we began the trip!)

Having seen the experience of slaves at the Museum of African American History in DC, I told Mtuseni to imagine what it must have been like picking cotton in the fields all day in heat like this — and certainly no AC or refrigerator to come home to. Actually you can’t imagine it; we were melting just walking a block. I don’t know how they did it. 

The story of Rosa Parks has always fascinated me. The courage and impact of one woman’s simple act, to just say, “Enough.” I’ve always wanted to see where she waited on that day. I don’t know what I expected, to see a bus stop and streetscape from the 1950s I guess. To really get a feel for her life then. But the bus stop is nothing more than a sign, surrounded by modern buildings. All context was gone.

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bus stop sign

This was pretty much it for Rosa Parks’ bus stop. My face pretty much explains my impression.

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We passed on the Rosa Parks Museum. Montgomery had been so underwhelming and we knew it wouldn’t compare to the museum in DC. So we walked back up to the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, who created the stunning and emotional Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. As a big fan of architecture and the new more immersive style of memorials, I was excited to see it. 

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Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama

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But even this disappointed. I’d expected it to be massive but it’s quite small, tucked on a little plaza to a building. It’s lovely, meticulous, tranquil — but the size limits its impact. It feels like a fountain in a mall. Sorry, Maya!

We did stumble on a cool mural commemorating the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. I think that was the highlight of the city visit.

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"A Mighty Walk from Selma" mural in Montgomery, Alabama

“A Mighty Walk from Selma” … luckily we came across this mural while staggering in the heat.

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Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama

Yet another church that wasn’t open. When I was a kid churches were open all the time… if you needed to pop in for a quick prayer or respite from the world.

We made our way to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where MLK was pastor in the late 1950s, but like the church in Savannah it was closed for a private tour. And that closed our visit to Montgomery. We got in the car, cranked the AC, and made a beeline for our stopover in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The Gulf of Mexico was pretty much what I’d heard: flat and gray and hot. For someone whose soul is fed by the ocean, I didn’t even go on the beach. Mtuseni did, and created a surprise for me that will have to wait for an October post.

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gulf pool

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Our hotel was right across from the beach and had a small pool. I plopped into it, ready to be refreshed and awakened, but it was warmer than bath water. There was no escape from that sticky heat outdoors.  

The best part of Gulfport was finally solving the mystery of the Waffle House! There was one sitting by its lonesome in a field next to our hotel. We’d started seeing the yellow-tile signs as we entered the South. They were everywhere! I had no idea what the place was. Mtuseni wasn’t curious, but I had to know.

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waffle house sign

After seeing this sign along highways across the South, we finally discovered what delights awaited inside!

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So breakfast the next morning was at the Waffle House. I love diners. I almost did my practicum documentary on a diner in college. The movie Diner is one of my all-time favorites.

I was psyched to sit at the counter and order simple over-easy eggs, bacon, and toast. After weeks of the same free buffet in hotel after hotel (where I never used that awful waffle machine) a made-to-order breakfast was heaven. I explained to Mtuseni the whole diner culture, sitting at the counter, the short order cook right in front of you, the waitress calling out orders in shorthand and knowing the regulars by name. Pure Americana. I was immediately a Waffle House fan.

And of course I had a waffle, too! (It was tasty, but I didn’t finish  it.)

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waffle house ctr

I look fat in this picture. Partly it’s the shirt — and partly it’s the effects of sitting and driving for days. For the South, I probably look anorexic.

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(Just joining us? Since everyone’s in various states of corona lockdown,  we’re reliving the Long-Distance Dad road trip from last fall! Start the journey with us back on the August 30 post. Ride along with us — in your easy chair — across 10,000 miles into October.)