Archives For road trip

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.)

alabama sign

Well, I’ve already fallen behind the perfect “one year ago today” posts for the arm chair road trip. I can see now why it was impossible to post in real time during the trip; there was not one minute of extra time!

Days 16 was pretty much the low point of the trip — with one exception. After hitting the gym in the morning in Atlanta, we set out for Montgomery, Alabama.

This has never been high on my list to visit — or anywhere on my list — but Rosa Parks and the bus boycott are important events on the Civil Rights Trail, which I wanted Mtuseni to see on the trip given his experience in South Africa. And I did want to see the new National Museum for Peace and Justice, informally known as the Lynching Memorial, which is supposed to be a profound experience. I thought it would give Mtuseni a deep sense of the violence and repression of that era, with its parallels to apartheid.

I had read some things about Alabama, including recommendations to just drive through fast without stopping, but I brushed them off. It didn’t take long before I understood.

Five miles over the border I got off the highway to a small gas station and store surrounded by nothing. I parked to the side, not needing gas, and Mtuseni stayed in the car. When I returned, an old guy in his 70s was standing near the car. He glared at me and then at Mtuseni, back and forth, his grizzled face dripping with disdain. His message was clear.

I could feel waves of hatred directed at us. Mtuseni contentedly munched his umpteenth bag of salt and vinegar chips, thankfully unaware of the scene unfolding few away from him in the blazing sun.

I was unnerved. And pissed. I felt like a protective papa bear; nobody was going to openly exhibit such prejudice toward my sweet kid. I narrowed my eyes to slits and returned his glare. For a second was I ready to say, “You wanna go, old man?” But then I thought, “This is the Deep South. He probably has a shotgun in the back. Just get in the car.” He kept glaring at us as I drove away, not shaken but a little shocked. And disgusted..   

When I was in South Africa, Mtuseni had to point out to me the disapproving looks we got from old, white Afrikaaners. I had’t noticed. They were more subtle in their bigotry, maybe because they’re the minority. But not that old southern cracker. He showed off his prejudice — and ignorance — proudly. 

At our hotel outside Montgomery, I talked for a while to the young Black girl working the front desk. Telling her about the incident, she didn’t flinch. She said it’s common, and told me about White guests who won’t touch the pen she hands them to sign the register, or who won’t look her in the eye. I was floored. Welcome to Alabama, where it’s still 1949. I won’t return.

And on top of that, she told me the lynching museum was closed the next day. That was really the main reason we were there, and I doubted we could kill time for an extra day to see it. 

But there was one bright spot: It was Mtuseni’s birthday! We’d never been able to celebrate it together before. We headed into “downtown” Montgomery — which is basically a few mid-size office structures, some government buildings, and about 50,000 empty parking spaces. Even Mtuseni, who’s generally impressed with everyplace in America, said, “It’s dry here.”  

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riverfront sign

Nice sign. We didn’t venture down there. It looked desolate and creepy.

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We skipped the riverfront, despite being a couple blocks away. From the map, it clearly was no Savannah or Charleston. We scouted out the few restaurants and found a decent-looking Italian place, full of what seemed to be government office workers.

Mtuseni had a good meal, including his first time eating shrimp. The servers brought over his birthday dessert and sang “Happy Birthday” shortly after his entree was delivered. (Really, how hard is it to time that? The place wasn’t even busy.) But Mtuseni was happy. Birthdays aren’t generally big celebrations at home; there’s no money. His smile on his 27th birthday on a trip across America salvaged a pretty crappy day. 

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mtu bday

Our first birthday together…. 27! But he’ll always be my little yellow polo shirt boy with the book bag, my first glimpse of him in 2009.

auburn street

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Day 15 was our last day in Atlanta. After picking up Mtuseni from church, we headed to the birthplace and resting place of Martin Luther King, Jr. — the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

Not far from the shiny towers of downtown, the tree-lined street has humble, well-kept wood frame houses with porches and picket fences. It seemed a little crazy to just park on the street like we were going to pop in to someone’s house for coffee and cobbler — when we were visiting the home of a renowned leader. But it’s the same at JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. Actually, the street reminds me of Brookline a little.  

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king plaque

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Martin Luther King Juniors birthplace house in Atlanta

MLK’s birthplace. Who could have imagined the life this sweet little house would produce.

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The house offered timed tours but neither of us was that interested; it’s basically an old house. But we did browse the gift shop on the first floor and picked up some souvenirs on the way back. 

Just about a block down the street is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Sr. and his son had preached. I could imagine the family just walking from home to the church, waving and chatting with people sitting on their porches along the way. 

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Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia

Ebenezer Baptist, the original church where MLK — and his father before him — preached.

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Ebenezer Baptist Church neon sign in Atlanta Georgia

I love old neon signs. This one is pure and simple — don’t need more for a church!

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A block down from the church is the museum and the newer Ebenezer Baptist. The museum is well done with artifacts and timelines. It’s amazing how much impact MLK had at such a young age.

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Martin Luther King Junior National Historical Park sign

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Mtuseni was engrossed in the civil rights history exhibits. He has a unique perspective with South Africa’s experience of apartheid — there are similarities and differences in both situations. Yet there’s still so much work to be done in South Africa. I’ve come to realize through my years with Mtuseni how deep the scars of apartheid run. 

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timeline

bbMartin Luther King Jr speaking at the March on Washington in 1963

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Wagon that carried Martin Luther King Junior's coffin.

The wagon that carried MLK’s coffin during services.

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Tomb of Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Georgia

The tomb of Martin and Coretta is in a long reflecting pool painted bright blue. It’s garish and distracting; a quieter, neutral color would be more fitting and respectful.

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The contemporary Ebenezer Church was closed for services. Looking through the photos of this day recently, I saw that Mtuseni had taken photos inside the church. I asked how he was able to do that — and when. He said that he went inside after the service ended, and I was probably looking for a bathroom. Haha… that sounds about right!

After the museum we headed back to my friend’s house to just hang and eat takeout. It was nice to relax and avoid hotels (and those damn waffle machines!) We were recharged and ready for the next stage of our swing through the South…. music and history!

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