Last fall, my husband and I were concerned about renting an RV for a road trip from Los Angeles to Florida. We envisioned picnicking on mountaintops in New Mexico, sleeping under the stars in Texas, and cooking shrimp (the RV would come with a grill, of course) on a Mississippi levee. In the end, our 2,200-mile American trip ended up being memorable, but for none of those reasons.
“We cannot accept anyone over 70 with a British driver’s licence,” the woman insisted on the phone. I’m 83, but in my head I’m a sprightly 60, and my husband, John, is 76. No one warned us about this potential obstacle. If they had the same age cutoff for Americans, I thought, the RV business would collapse.
We called another company. Their representative said he had never heard of any age restriction. “No problem,” he said. “We have the perfect RV for you.” Except it was 45 feet long. The thought of parking something the size of a London bus was too much, even for my gung-ho husband.
Common sense prevailed, and we rented a Ford Explorer.
Salsa and sticker shock
We were adjourned for a break. Besides my usual job of eating cake as a judge on “The Great British Baking Show”, I did tests of mine a one-woman stage performance in Great Britain and the United States, and it was exhausting.
So, before we set out on our great adventure, we rented a mobility scooter for two and hit the boardwalk at Venice Beach, in Los Angeles. But our crawl through the deafeningly loud music, junk food and stands selling shorts emblazoned with vulgar words and messages like “Beat Me” did little to lift our spirits.
On the day we left California, torrents of rain fell. As we crossed into Arizona, the sun burst over the hills in a glorious display of opera lighting.
We made it all the way to Santa Fe, NM, where our hotel, the Vanessa, a charming collection of wooden buildings around a courtyard was, as everywhere, suffering from lack of staff. The single employee handed us a laminated notice: “Our restaurant, room service and bar are currently closed. A $30 service charge will be added to your bill.”
fortunately, Vara Vinoteca, across the street, was open. We ate tiny patron peppers stuffed with cream cheese and cumin, tuna ceviche and pineapple salsa, and a small bowl of warm, lightly-cured mussels in the shell, all served with a flight of four glasses of different California cabernet sauvignon.
I would have been happy to have all our meals in that simple little room. But Santa Fe is full of good restaurants, quirky architecture, art museums and shops filled with desirable things, so we set out on our journey. John fell in love with a hatter, where he bought two authentic Stetsons. He also spent eye-watering sums of money on two baseball caps for his grandchildren. Is there a difference between a $41 and a $5 baseball cap? Apparently.
John was equally dumbfounded by my lust after an irresistible $150 necklace made from cut-up plastic water bottles and splattered with red, black and gold paint. Lively, bouncy, light as a feather — it was a work of art. But apparently it was a piece that, at least for us, money couldn’t buy: The store’s credit card system required a US zip code, and cash wasn’t accepted. We gave up.
Prices have consistently amazed us. The exchange rate made America shockingly expensive for Brits, and taxes and tip on top of that? I’m already vaguely offended that I’m expected to tip when buying coffee at a counter. And now with the touch screens suggesting tips of 15 percent and more, milk feels like an important purchase. Only petrol seemed cheap, at half the British price.
Where astronauts dare to eat
“Boring, flat, brown, goes on forever”: Everyone said we hated Texas. But we loved it. Perhaps because I grew up in the wide open spaces of South Africa, the small towns with not much more than a windmill and a church touched my heart.
We stopped for lunch at Dirk’sA Lubbock diner packed with locals chowing down on chicken, sticky ribs and burgers, all doused in gooey barbecue sauce and followed by donuts or pancakes in a lake of syrup.
The waiter seemed confused when I asked, “Do you have any green vegetables?” Then he smiled and said, “Oh yes, we have green beans.” They turned out to be canned beans in slaked juice.
We were also baffled by the way American waiters routinely congratulate you on your menu choice, rewarding you with “Good choice,” “Great,” or even “Awesome.” Do you want fries with that? “Cool!”
By the time we got to San Antonio, we were ready to drink. A waterfront cafe among the raised flower beds, cobbled walks and roving mariachi bands of the River Walk delivered first class margaritas (frozen, salt on only one rim of the glass, not too sweet) and still warm tortilla chips. Watching the young waiter make guacamole at a riverside table was a joy: knife razor sharp, chile fresh, avocado and tomato perfectly ripe. And his judgment was good – a sliver of chopped raw red onion, a decent squeeze of lime, and a generous grind of pepper and salt, all rolled together gently rather than coarsely chopped. I found myself eating very slowly, just to hold on to that taste as long as possible.
We had the worst meal of our entire trip not far away in the Texas Hill Country tourist town Fredericksburg, who is proud of his German heritage. We spent a happy morning touring the shops, museums and galleries of the north end of town, and enjoyed a lunch of fried chicken sandwiches and banana walnut pancakes.
So we had high hopes for the south side. But unfortunately its historic houses were full of tourist junk like plastic stolen mugs and Barbie dolls crammed into lederhosen. We retreated to a restaurant whose menu boasted authentic German dishes. We were served pork chops ruined by overly sweet sauce, tasteless sauerkraut, sweet and vinegary red cabbage, and mashed potatoes obviously made with a powdered mixture that wasn’t boiled. We left our plates and headed back to our motel to cook up emergency portions of Campbell’s tomato soup.
The next day, on our way to Houston, we passed a roadside church, whose huge gathering exhorted us to “Give up Lust – Take Jesus.” I thought that sign might be my most lasting memory until I spent a few hours at the Space Center Houston. I never would have guessed that I would be so affected by topics like the geology of the moon and how NASA astronauts train underwater.
But the cafe! It’s amazing, the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in a public building: brioche or sourdough sandwiches, homemade soups, hot roasts and grills, fresh tortillas, a salad bar to tempt the most die-hard carnivore, and no junk. view It was a long way from the usual NASA fare of freeze-dried food in bags and tubes.
How to nurse a hangover
Louisiana is famous for gumbos and étouffées, so I expected gastronomy as we crossed the state line and drove to Louisiana State University Country Life Museum, a Cajun heritage village in Baton Rouge. I guess I was too optimistic. The jambalaya and blackened fish in the cafeteria were tasteless and dried out. I have eaten better Cajun food in London.
Plantation Alley, along the Great Mississippi Trail, with its half-dozen “Gone With the Wind”-style estates, now open to the public, blew me away. The most beautiful of them was Oak Alley, with its avenue of 250-year-old Southern live oaks, their branches creating a vast green tunnel. But I couldn’t understand how the magnificent trees were obviously much older than the house. It turns out that those oak trees are native to the area, and once grew throughout the estate. When the house was built in 1836, enslaved laborers were made to dig up 28 of the huge 60- to 70-year-old trees, with root systems equal to the size of their canopies, and replant them in an avenue down to the Mississippi River. dam
The Great Mississippi Trail then leads to New Orleans and the famous French Quarter, with its balconies of elaborate wrought iron – a daytime picture of Victorian good taste. We, ignorant Brits, had no idea that at night on Bourbon Street, that “good taste” became the taste of daiquiris, pizza and hot dogs against a background of bands coming out rock and roll, little kids hitting trash cans, grown-ups playing jazz, and the hoarse noise of drunken tourists until 3 in the morning
But I liked the party atmosphere, and I really like a daiquiri, so we started bar-side. I now know that the secret to a good mango daiquiri is fresh mango, and not bottled mango syrup. And the next morning, after one too many mango delights and not enough sleep, I learned that shrimp and grits, with a good griddle of cheese, is the perfect hangover cure.
Turkey, sweet potatoes and a slice of modern Eden
Our road trip ended, as it began, at a beach. Only this one was mercifully far from the Venice boardwalk.
We rented a house for the week in the small Florida Panhandle community of Seacrest Beach, on the Emerald Coast along Highway 30A. This eight-mile strip — a kind of manufactured, perfectly designed modern Eden — consists of 16 neighborhoods on white-sand beaches between Pensacola and Panama City. Developments with names like Rosemary Beach, Seagrove Beach, Alys Beach, Grayton Beach and WaterColor share the perfect sands and the coveted 30A address.
Everyone rides bikes, and perfectly tanned mothers gossip about kombucha and wheatgrass at sidewalk cafes. Even the kids look straight out of a high-end catalog.
Friends of friends, on vacation, invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner – turkey with all the trimmings, sweet potatoes, pecan pie and ice cream. In thanking them, I said something about the pleasure of such generosity, family closeness and the courtesy of their children. Our host laughed. It’s because we’re from the South, she said. It wouldn’t be the same in Chicago. Maybe for the next road trip, I’ll take a northern route to see if that’s true.
I’m glad we didn’t get to rent my dream Winnebago back in Los Angeles. If we had succeeded, we would never have experienced a traditional American family Thanksgiving. We would have been in a caravan, eating a meal. Thank you, Mrs. Luck.
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