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.