A Road Trip Across America
Published: May 2009
By Joel Stein
In search of barbecue, bluegrass, and a better understanding of his marriage, <b>Joel Stein</b> hits the open road on a bumpy cross-country tour.
My wife left me in San Antonio. I wasn't surprised. There had been subtle signs over the past few months that she didn't want to drive across the country, such as her repeatedly telling me she didn't want to.
But ever since we quit our jobs and decided to abandon our Manhattan studio apartment for a house in the hills of L.A., I'd hoped to exploit our freedom. I wanted to drive west to feel the vastness of the move, to understand the country instead of just transporting ourselves on a plane from one giant yuppified city to another. So I made her watch Lost in America. I ignored her fears about the trip adding more stress to our lives, and how it was making her feel even more rootless than we already were. I thought it would be romantic. I had also thought similarly about the studio apartment.
I loosely outlined a full-on 17-state, 6,000-mile tour of the United States, from Cassandra's parents' house in Hoosick Falls, New York, to Hollywood, full of barbecue and plantations and wide expanses of national parks.
The reason Cassandra abandoned the trip in San Antonio had nothing to do with me or the trip or the troubles we'd been going through in our marriage: she got a modeling job. This was especially surprising considering she isn't a model. But three weeks before we left New York, a model scout saw her carrying supermarket bags, which, admittedly, she does do really well. Two days into our drive, she got a call hiring her for a magazine-ad campaign back in New York. That's when I found out that being married to a model is not all it's cracked up to be.
The car she left me in was a Ford Escape SUV hybrid. This, I figured, would be the ultimate L.A. car: environmental, rugged, and completely hypocritical. The SUV hybrid was more wasteful than it sounds, since once it gets above 25 miles an hour, it's completely gasoline-powered. And we averaged 80. I went through more tanks than Donald Rumsfeld.
But the smooth, roomy car was perfect for a cross-country trip, especially since the best part of having a vehicle with a battery is that it has a real electrical outlet. That plus two cigarette lighters allowed us to plug in an iPod hooked up to the radio, a radar detector, a PowerBook G4, and a Magellan RoadMate 700 GPS system that directed us to every hotel and restaurant we went to. By Macon, Georgia, we'd solved Fermat's Last Theorem.
Drive South, Young Stein
We took our first leg fast, getting down I-95 to Cassandra's friends in Hilton Head, South Carolina, in two days. Hilton Head is the whitest place in America, which I can scientifically prove with the fact that it is the home of the original stand-alone Jeff Foxworthy store. That's an entire store with nothing but items plastered with YOU KNOW YOU'RE A REDNECK WHEN... sayings. Including a Foxworthy's Redneck Bar-B-Q Sauce I can't really rate since I can't bear to open the bottle with its awesomely campy black-and-white sketch of the smiling comedian. Ironically, you know you're a redneck when you're collecting unopened barbecue sauces.
It was in Hilton Head that I calculated that even if we skipped the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks—the highlights of the trip—we still wouldn't make it to Los Angeles in time for Cassandra to fly back for her modeling gig. And it was in Hilton Head that Cassandra stated how stupid it was to drive across the country just to fly back to New York. And it was in Hilton Head that a lot of the issues in our marriage flared up. And it was in Hilton Head that my editor at Travel + Leisure told me to stop whining and get back in the Escape.
Neither of us was happy. The SUV felt even bigger during the long silent stretches. We cheered up a little in Savannah after following a tour trolley to a quaint old cemetery and quaint garden squares, where the guide yelled "that was in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" whenever it stopped. Suddenly, I felt I was getting closer in my search for truly authentic America. I wasn't as much interested in discovering this by interacting with "real" people as I was in eating their food.
Our first stop was brunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, an old brick basement boardinghouse from the 1840's that, with its Victorian teapots and lace, captures the Old South by saying charming without saying slavery. We waited in line for an hour before sitting family-style at a table and passing around plates of every Southern food ever created, all of it amazing and some of it not even fried. It was perfect, like Thanksgiving with much better food and no members of your family. It reminded me that regional American food has a terroir that makes traveling to find it worthwhile. And that such thoughts are best kept to yourself when trying to compliment the Mrs. Wilkes' waitresses.
The Big Muddy
From Savannah we headed due west on I-16 and then U.S. 80 through Georgia until we ended up in Pine Mountain at a place called Callaway Gardens, which I was initially sure was home to a cult. Not only is Callaway Gardens the size of a national park, and not only do they sell all kinds of weird Callaway Gardensbranded agricultural products (muscadine wine, Speckled Heart Grits), but teenage kids were also holding hands and calling Cassandra "Ma'am." It's basically a privately held national park, with one main road that travels from the giant lodgelike hotel through arboretums and hiking trails and golf courses and fishing ponds and butterfly sanctuaries and other things Norman Rockwell would approve of.
After going for a hike and eating the phenomenal breakfast at Callaway Gardens' Country Kitchen (where the secret recipe for the red-eye gravy on the biscuits is equal parts ham fat and coffee), we headed on 80 through one of the poorest areas of the country, from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, which kept us even quieter. From there, we drove the Natchez Trace, one of the oldest paths in America, which is densely wooded, twisty, and pretty, but not pretty enough to justify going any slower than necessary through Mississippi.
We got on Route 61 to Louisiana, driving past marshy, sparse, bug-infested swamps. Through a lack of planning, I had trouble finding an unbooked cottage in St. Francisville. I had stubbornly insisted on coming to plantation country instead of New Orleans, doing that stupid thing men do when they want to re-create an experience with their wives. I had been there on a trip with the staff of Time magazine, and our plantation, wherever it was, seemed charming and vast and secluded, and at the time I had really wanted Cassandra to be there.
But now I saw it differently. Around Baton Rouge, people need to do something with these big, old, expensive, Faulknerian plantations they've inherited that sit in depressed areas, so they turn them into B&B's or jails. Either way, it's a little creepy. Especially when, at breakfast at the Green Springs Inn & Cottages, our elderly hostess mentioned that the courts ruined the local school with desegregation. But her homemade pear preserves were killer.
Deep in the Heart
The drive on I-10 to Austin seemed long, and things weren't going that well again. I spent hours pouting as Cassandra ignored me, e-mailing with her friends on her Treo, which she suspiciously locks with a password.
Luckily, we immediately loved all things Texan. Texas is where the charm of the South blends with the über-Americana of the Western desert. And in Austin, you can experience all of that while still feeling as if you're in a blue state. We really felt the Texas-ness at the Hotel San José, a renovated motel where the concrete floors are covered with cowskin rugs. On Sunday morning, at the gospel brunch buffet at Stubb's Bar-B-Q, Cassandra became entranced by gospel music. We watched as the tattooed and the pierced two-stepped to a straight-up bluegrass band at a bar called the Continental Club. And, at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon, we hung with the crowds spread deep outside to the highway-facing parking lot drinking Shiner Bock, before going inside to lose $1 betting on how long it would take a chicken named Red to defecate, in a game called Chickenshit Bingo. For the record, it took Red less than three minutes.
I've never been to any other presidential libraries, but I'm positive that the LBJ Library & Museum on the University of Texas at Austin campus is the best. I can't imagine that any of the others have an animatronic president leaning against a white fence and telling unintelligible jokes. And they probably don't have exhibitions on the sixties featuring a life-sized video re-creation of go-go girls, in which one dancer was wearing a skirt so short I could see that she was wearing a thong. I don't think that's historically accurate.
That night, after eating the best barbecue—soft, deeply smoked brisket that didn't even need sauce—and rich banana pudding at a gas station called Rudy's Country Store & Bar-B-Q, exhausted and happy, we rented The Getaway from the motel. As I watched Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw threaten to break up and a marriage-weary Sally Struthers cheat on her husband in front of him, I wondered if it was stupid to think a long drive could fix things between Cassandra and me. Long drives only exacerbate the problems that are already there. And we have the rest of our lives for that.
In San Antonio we stayed at the very cool Havana Riverwalk Inn, where each room is individually decorated in a Modernist take on an Old West motif, with newspaper clippings shellacked onto the wood wardrobes. We walked by the beautiful but touristy RiverWalk, a bunch of restaurants and shops right on the lower banks of the San Antonio River, which would have been particularly romantic if someone hadn't been e-mailing on her Treo. Then we smartly drove outside the center of town to have dinner at the Liberty Bar, a homey local joint with white tablecloths. It happened to be Monday night, and everything that was more than $50 on the already reasonably priced wine list was half price. We got a Kistler Chardonnay for $37.50. I don't think Kistler himself can get that bottle for that price.
I kind of thought Cassandra would stay with me until Phoenix, just to see me through the vast Texan desert, but she wanted to make sure she got to New York a day early for her modeling gig so she would be well rested. Cassandra, it seemed, imagined modeling to be much more active than it is.
West Texas looks a lot like Saudi Arabia. On I-10, cell phone service is sporadic and there are lots of warnings about dust storms. If you want to feel really alone, drive through west Texas by yourself after your wife leaves you to become a model. I kept picturing my Escape blown over in a dust storm and vultures picking over the burrito bits on my jeans while Cassandra danced on a table at Marquee high on coke with a breast falling out of her dress, Tara Reidstyle. This was mostly to keep myself awake until El Paso.
There is nothing good about El Paso.
I forced myself on to Las Cruces, New Mexico, which has a historical, ghost-towny center that is now primarily about Billy the Kid and chile. I stayed at Lundeen Inn of the Arts, a bed-and-breakfast that's also a gallery for American art. It seemed as though Jerry Lundeen, an architect who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Scottsdale, Arizona, had designed everything in town, including the headboard of my bed.
In the eight hours since Cassandra had left me, I'd become creepy. I hadn't shaved in two weeks and hadn't talked to anyone all day. When I did need to talk to people, like the Lundeens, I mentioned my wife a lot in unconvincing ways. I felt like a murderer who'd figured out that compared with cheap motels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and art galleries are the last places cops will look.
Throughout the trip, I'd tried to eat only local food, and though Cassandra needed occasional breaks from barbecue, I could now subsist on a diet solely of burritos nutritionally supplemented by a bag of baby carrots I'd bought at a Wal-Mart in Mississippi.
It was here in the desert, abandoned and burrito-stained, that I had to make the most important decision of the trip. I could head north to Vegas, where some friends were at an electronics convention and where I could score an invite to the porn awards as some kind of revenge against my wife that, unfortunately, she might not even mind, or I could go to a spa in Scottsdale and relax and think about Cassandra. I kept plugging both destinations into my GPS, switching back and forth. They were equidistant. Porn stars or spa treatments. Beautiful vistas or giant fake breasts. This was where my life had wound up.
Scottsdale was the best decision I have made in a long time. My oversized suite at Sanctuary had a fireplace, an outdoor bath, a lit Thai lemongrass candle, and a glorious view of Camelback Mountain. I was big pimping, and after walking around in my Frette robe and eating a great meal at Sanctuary's restaurant, Elements, I realized that pimping felt meaningless without Cassandra. And that perhaps it was the fact that I often phrase my love with such metaphors that was causing our relationship trouble.
The next day, I ate a Sanctuary-packed picnic in the Escape and got across the country by sundown. Three days later, I picked Cassandra up at the airport and drove her to our new house. She seemed happy to see me. We haven't talked about the trip much. I think we're best staying home for a while.
WHERE TO STAY
Hwy. 18/354, Pine Mountain, Ga.; 800/225-5292; www.callawaygardens.com; doubles from $134.
Hotel San José
1316 S. Congress Ave., Austin; 800/574-8897 or 512/444-7322; www.sanjosehotel.com; doubles from $145.
Havana Riverwalk Inn
1015 Navarro St., San Antonio; 888/224-2008 or 210/222-2008; www.havanariverwalkinn.com; doubles from $129.
Lundeen Inn of the Arts
618 S. Alameda Blvd., Las Cruces, N. Mex.; 888/526-3326 or 505/526-3326; www.innofthearts.com; doubles from $75.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, Ariz.; 800/245-2051 or 480/948-2100; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com; doubles from $165.
WHERE TO EAT
Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room
107 W. Jones St., Savannah; 912/232-5997; lunch for two $30.
Callaway Gardens' Country Kitchen
Hwy. 18/354, Pine Mountain, Ga.; 800/225-5292; breakfast for two $20.
801 Red River St., Austin; 512/480-8341; brunch for two $30.
Rudy's Country Store & Bar-B-Q
2451 Capital of Texas Hwy. S., Austin; 512/329-5554; dinner for two $15.
328 E. Josephine St., San Antonio; 210/227-1187; dinner for two $60.
5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, Ariz.; 480/607-2300; dinner for two $150.www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com
WHAT TO DO
1315 S. Congress Ave., Austin; 512/441-2444.
Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon
5434 Burnet Rd., Austin; 512/458-1813.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum
2313 Red River St., Austin; 512/721-0200.