Category : USA – Chicago to Texas

Route 66

June 1-6, 2022

(Get your kicks on) Route 66

Bobby Troup

It was inconceivable that we would undertake this epic road trip and not drive along at least a part of the infamous Route 66. Perhaps the most famous road trip in the World, Route 66 runs for around 2,000 miles traversing eight states. It starts in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Santa Monica, Los Angeles in California.

We joined Route 66 at Shamrock having driven the 160 miles from Wichita Falls that morning. Over the next few days we followed the road as we drove east to west across New Mexico (with a short detour to beautiful Santa Fe) and into Arizona where we left it at Flagstaff in order to travel south-west to Sedona. We were interested to follow the old route or ‘Historic Route 66’ and to see what inspired its iconic status.

Shamrock was a great place to start as it has a number of classic Route 66 attractions. We started with lunch in the historic Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Cafe, an Art-Deco building dating back to the Great Depression.

After lunch we drove east to another small town, McLean, where we visited the rather wonderful Devil’s Rope Museum which also included a Route 66 museum which had some old route 66 exhibits.

The fascinating Devil’s Rope Museum

We learnt that barbed wire was invented in the 1870’s and that its invention changed the the American West. It meant that livestock (in particular cattle) could be contained. The barbed wire museum was quite possibly our favourite small museum of the entire trip. As well information on the history of barbed wire there were lots of displays of types of barbed wire along with rather attractive sculptures made of barbed wire.


(Is this the way to) Amarillo?

Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield

We ended the first day on Route 66 in Amarillo and there was really no other option than to go for dinner at the The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Touristy but, when in Texas, we had to have a steak and they were very good! We didn’t, however, feel brave enough to accept the 72oz steak challenge.

Steak, steak steak! I’m looking at a happy man here!

Whilst in the area we visited both the Bug and Cadillac Ranches which lie to the east and west of Amarillo respectively.

We then followed a bit more of the original Route 66 taking in some of the towns some of which are ghost towns or almost ghost towns now. We passed through Vega, Adrian, Glenrio, Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, and Grants. In some, such as Tucumcari, there were some lovely vintage motels and many of the towns have murals and Route 66 tourist sites.

When we got near to Albuquerque we took a diversion to go north up to Santa Fe, a beautiful city and region. We stayed there for three nights and then spent a night in Albuquerque before continuing on Route 66 (which follows Interstate 40 – I40). Once back on the road we realised there was a detour that would take us on a road less travelled which would be more interesting than the interstate so we dropped down from Grants to do a loop on New Mexico State Road 53. This took us through the Ramah Navajo Indian and Zuni Reservations past some beautiful scenery and we barely saw another car.

Winslow, Arizona

Our final stop on Route 66 was in Winslow, Arizona in order to do what every tourist in Winslow does – Stand on the Corner. In the middle of Winslow is Standin’ on the Corner Park (effectively a junction) which commemorates the song, Take It Easy made famous by The Eagles. It includes the verse, ‘Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.‘ It was a very hot day and so we enjoyed coke floats before heading back on the road.


May 24-31, 2022

After a fantastic and exciting week in New Orleans we were ready for a holiday within a holiday! So, we packed up the car and hit the road again for the 400 mile drive to the beach resort of Galveston in another new state for us – Texas!


We had booked three days in a lovely Airbnb in an apartment complex with a pool. It was located a couple of streets back from the beach. That evening we had a steak dinner at the Saltgrass Steak House and then parked ourselves on bar stools at a great dive bar, the Island Pier Club and planned what we would do for the next few days.

The dreaded double line!

Our plans were scuppered though when the next morning Richard felt ill and tested positive for Covid. It was bound to catch up with us at some point! Jo caught Covid three months later on Vancouver Island.

Luckily, only one of us caught it each time and didn’t pass it to the other (thank you vaccinations!) and so when one was sick the other was able to drive, if necessary, and buy supplies, groceries and take aways to keep us going whilst the other recovered and stayed away from other people.

Galveston is a chilled out beach resort. Perhaps the sand isn’t as powder fine as in Florida but the beaches are lovely and the sea wasn’t too cold.

So, no beach for Richard but that didn’t stop Jo from going!

It is also a great place for birdwatching with lots of wading birds so Jo also ventured out to find some good birdwatching spots. We had been recommended a neat App – the Audubon Bird Guide. You can search for specific areas and it will show you what type of birds have been seen there recently. Here are some of the birds we saw with our best guess at identifying them. Please do comment if you can identify them and confirm our guesses or correct us!

After three nights in Galveston, we had to move on as we couldn’t extend our accommodation booking. It was a holiday weekend and city folks were descending on the beach. We were sorry to leave. Richard was still ill and testing positive so we decided to book an apartment in Houston where we could hole up for a few nights. We hoped that in a few more days Richard would then be feeling better and testing negative. As we drove through and out of Galveston we were accompanied by stunning views of the coast and beaches that extended for miles.


We booked a nice apartment in Houston as we expected that we would be spending a lot of time in it! Sadly, because Richard was ill we weren’t able to visit the Houston Space Center or any other attractions in Houston. We also regretfully concluded we should remove Austin from our itinerary as Richard would not be feeling well enough to enjoy it and the friends we had planned to see in Austin were also recovering from Covid. We also had a deadline by which we needed to drop the car in San Francisco so couldn’t wait too long before continuing with our journey. A great shame but we hope to visit Austin another time perhaps visiting when the Formula 1 Grand Prix is taking place or a music festival. Luckily, the apartment complex had an outdoor swimming pool so Jo was happy (it doesn’t take much).

So, we didn’t see any of Houston but we did watch a lot of news and sadly it was dominated by the aftermath of a devastating school shooting which took place at Uvalde school in Texas on 24 May. Twenty-one lives were lost making it the deadliest school shooting to have taken place in Texas. The National Rifle Association (NRA) held its annual convention in Houston whilst we were there and it was horrifying to watch them maintaining that the shooting was not impacted by the arms legislation, that rather than reducing access to guns it should be extended, and that schools would be safer if teachers were also armed.

After four more days of rest and isolation, Richard was starting to feel better and so we decided to continue our journey and head for the next stage which was to drive along a section of Route 66 starting at Amarillo. We needed to break the 600 mile journey to Amarillo so we stopped for the night in the town of Wichita Falls (no connection to Wichita Lineman song made famous by Glen Campbell but it didn’t stop us singing it). That evening Richard took a Covid test which came up negative and he was feeling well enough to venture out for a quiet dinner and a couple of drinks at the Backporch Drafthouse.

Bug and Cadillac Ranches, Texas

June 1-2, 2022

Bug Ranch

Around 30 miles east of Amarillo is the VW Slug Bug Ranch, a smaller version of the more famous Cadillac Ranch (see below). In this case, a graveyard for five half buried Volkswagen Beetles. A cool little place for a short stop.

Cadillac Ranch

Just on the outskirts west of Amarillo is Cadillac Ranch. An public art installation created in 1974. It is similar to Bug Ranch but bigger and much more well known. Pretty cool!

New Orleans, Louisiana

May 17-24, 2022

We arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) mid-afternoon and found our Airbnb in the Lower Garden District/11th Ward. Slightly off the beaten track in a neighbourhood where some streets had been gentrified and others had not (where ours was of course!). It had a New Orleans voodoo vibe with dark furnishings and was in the shotgun style (all the doors line up through the property to allow a much needed through breeze). Not as pristine as our flat in Nashville but it had everything we needed including a kitchen and air-con (essential as the temperature and humidity were continuing to rise). Unfortunately, there was building work going on next door which woke us up early most days which was not so good! But it was just a short drive from the centre and there was a nice little outdoor bar a couple of blocks away (The Tchoup Yard).

The heat had affected the car and the sensors for one of the tyres seemed to have got too hot and was no longer working. The tyre pressure when we checked it manually seemed fine so we had carried onto New Orleans and then called the rental company. They seemed less than worried about it so we thought maybe it was a known issue, but not ideal on a basically brand new car – it had ~4,000 miles on it by this point.

Exploring NOLA

So, the next thing to do was to get our bearings and get to know New Orleans so we booked onto a city tour. We also booked up a number of gigs so we would experience some New Orleans jazz and blues over the week. It was too hot for a walking tour so took a bus tour. With an engaging native New Orleanian for a guide, we got a great overview of the history of the city including the impact of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the city in 2005. We heard about how New Orleans was a melting pot of different cultures and influences having been settled by native inhabitants before being ruled by the French and then Spanish and finally becoming part of the United States in 1803. Being an important port and with cotton and sugar plantations it was at one time the largest slave market in the United States. These influences can be seen and experienced throughout the city in the vibrant music, the delicious southern creole food, the association with voodoo and so on.

The tour went through a number of areas including the French quarter, the 9th Ward and the Treme as well as the City Park where we stopped at Cafe du Monde for the obligatory beignets. The 9th ward was badly hit by Hurricane Katrina and we could see that some houses had not been restored and people that had been displaced had either not returned to New Orleans or moved to another property.

We also had a detailed tour of one of the impressive cemeteries. Once again here you can see that New Orleans being built below sea level has always caused problems for the residents as instead of graves people are entombed in ornate marble chambers above ground because the ground is wet and swampy and prone to flooding which would mean that you sometimes you couldn’t keep a good (or bad) man down and they would float away even when weighed down with stones!

After the tour, we headed to Bourbon Street which is a historic street in the French Quarter filled with music bars (much like Beale Street in Memphis and Broadway in Nashville). It’s worth a look but the better bars with better musicians are to be found elsewhere.

We returned to the City Park on another day on our own to walk around the lovely sculpture park.

We also drove back to the Treme and visited Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square within it. Congo Square is an important place linked to the history of the development of New Orlean’s music. Enslaved Africans would meet in Congo Square on a Sunday from the 18th century and dance and sing. These influenced the development of Mardi Gras Indian traditions, the Second line and New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues music.

Our least successful outing was an airboat tour of the Louisiana wetlands or ‘Bayou’. Billed as an ‘alligator tour’ we saw precisely zero alligators. The airboat was fun and the scenery nice but the guide seemed dejected from the beginning, presumably because he knew with the heat we weren’t going to see any alligators and he had to try to pretend that there was a chance that we would!

It’s all about the music…

During our week in New Orleans we wanted to learn about the predominant music in the area which is the New Orleans jazz. As we had with country music in Nashville, we wanted to experience this city’s music in its different forms. In this case from traditional to the fusion with blues, funk and other styles. Most importantly where with country music there needed to be a guitar, with New Orleans jazz there needed to be brass – be it a trumpet, trombone or horn. We based our choices on where to go and what to see on the limited knowledge we had gleaned of New Orleans musicians and venues from the TV! Specifically from the drama series Treme (highly recommended). It’s set in the Treme neighbourhood of New Orleans and the drama starts three months after Hurricane Katrina. What’s wonderful about the series is not just the insights into the lives of residents of the area be they musicians, chefs, lawyers or politicians but it is infused and almost driven by the music. Many of the musicians and venues featured in the series are real. We also had a tip from Stan Street in Clarksdale who had recommended that we head to the venues such as The Spotted Cat and d.b.a on Frenchman Street and stay away from Bourbon Street – wise words indeed!

  • Wednesday at the Square was an open air festival held every Wednesday evening in Lafayette Square. It was super hot that day (18 May) but the music was funky with Erica Falls and then the fabulous Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
  • Preservation Hall is an intimate historic venue where traditional New Orleans jazz has been performed since 1961. It’s round the corner from Bourbon Street but a world away from it in atmosphere and the quality of the music. We saw the Preservation All Stars which on the night we went (19 May) featured the jazz trumpeter Wendell Brunius along with Mari Watanabe (piano), Caroline Brunius (clarinet), Richard Moten (double bass), Shannon Powell (drums) and Freddy Lonzo (trombone). Wonderful to see the elder statesmen of jazz taking the music seriously.
  • We saw a couple of bands at the Blue Nile that we really enjoyed. On 18 May we saw a group of young musicians, Where Y’at Brass Band, who took the roof off the venue. We also saw the larger than life trumpeter and singer that is Kermit Ruffins playing with his Barbecue Singers. The gig was high energy and great to start with and then, the more Kermit imbibed, the more disorganised it became. Some other really good performers joined him though (including the singer James Winfield and pianist Yoshitaka ‘Z2’ Tsuji) and so it was a wonderful night overall and a very memorable experience.
  • At the d.b.a we saw the Treme Brass Band and, yes, they played the Treme theme song. In fact the song was an existing piece written by John Boutte and entitled Broke Down The Door (The Treme Song).
  • Other bands we saw that deserve a notable mention were: the Andre Lovett Band, Piano Man G, Street Lyfe Band, and Tajh and the Funky Soles.
Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Singers at the Blue Nile

Natchez Trace Parkway

May 10-17, 2022

On the day we left Nashville, the temperature was due to reach 28ºC. So, we unpacked our shorts and packed away our jeans and fleeces. The temperature continue rising as we headed south to New Orleans and stayed warm until mid-September when we were half way across Canada.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile scenic drive which passes through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. We started at mile 444 and worked our way down to mile zero at Natchez. It roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor and major trade route between the eastern states and the southern trading ports along the Mississippi River in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the green tree-lined route there are historic sites, beautiful viewpoints, waterfalls and swamps. 

We intended to drive the whole of the Natchez Trace Parkway from just south of Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. We were also going to hop off the parkway in order to explore other areas on and around the Mississippi Blues Trail such as Memphis and Clarksdale and then rejoin the parkway at the same point so we could experience it in its entirety.

Franklin, Tennessee

Before joining the parkway, we stopped off at Franklin, a town 20 miles south of Nashville with a quaint main street of restored Victorian buildings; cafes, antique shops, galleries and a lovely old theatre. The town was, and still is, very wealthy. Our interest was that it was a key site in the American Civil War (1861-1865) so, after a wander around downtown, we visited The Carter House. The American Civil War was fought between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). It was not simply the morality of slavery that the war was fought for but a combination of factors to do with the economics of slavery and state autonomy with the South wanting to expand slavery to the western territories whilst the North wanted it to be white labour only.

The Carter House

The Carter House was central to the Second Battle of Franklin in 1864. The house was the headquarters of the Union army before and during the battle and the Carter family took refuge in the basement. It was a significant battle and over 1,000 bullet holes are still visible around the house and the other buildings. The Confederate troops experienced a devastating defeat when they charged Franklin with the loss of thousands of Confederate (and also significant numbers of Union) soldiers. The Carter family also experienced loss directly as one of the family’s sons, a Confederate solider, was mortally wounded in the battle. As well as learning about the battle, we also learnt about how the family and slaves there lived and how the war affected them.

Entering the Natchez Trace Parkway

On day one we completed 107 miles of the Parkway and took in a number of sights; the Jackson Falls which was very pretty but slightly marred by a group of lads that were throwing rocks off the top of the falls where they smashed on the rocks below. Then we visited the Meriwether Lewis memorial (he of the Lewis and Clark expedition fame that we had encountered in the Crossings Exhibition in Chicago) and whose death near the memorial site was considered suspicious. 

Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama

We then left the trace to spend the night in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The next day we took in a bit of music history and architecture. First up was a visit to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Started in 1969 by four session musicians (who became known as ‘The Swampers’) from the nearby FAME Studios. It quickly gained a reputation and many artists recorded numerous fantastic tracks and albums there (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd (who referenced The Swampers on Sweet Home Alabama) and many more before it’s relocation in 1979). The stories behind the music are stuff of legend; perhaps none more so than that the Rolling Stones dropped in unexpectedly during their US tour to record a few songs including Brown Sugar and Wild Horses (the latter which Keith Richard’s purportedly composed from the loo (now keep almost as a shrine – see photo!)).

Next up was a tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian House, the Rosenbaum House. Unlike some of his grander architectural creations these were supposed to be a bit more financially attainable and to be lived in, though by no means was that possible by the working or even middle class. The Rosenbaum family lived there from the 1940’s until 1999 when ‘Mimi’ Rosenbaum gifted it to the city of Florence. She knew the importance of keeping it intact and left the original furniture and their belongings in situ as can be seen in the living room.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House, Florence, Alabama

The lines of the house (horizontal) and materials used permeate inside and out and Lloyd Wright’s control of his projects meant that he also designed all of the furniture. This control meant it was not easy to live in with, for example, a very low dining table and chairs as they had to align with one of the horizontal lines! And he never did fix the leaks in the flat roof.

We then drove the couple of hundred miles from Alabama, through a bit of Mississippi, before returning to the state of Tennessee because… ‘I’m going to Graceland, Graceland – Memphis Tennessee…’ (Graceland, Paul Simon).

Memphis, Tennessee

Our base in Memphis was a spooky Victorian Airbnb in a very quiet part of town.

During our two nights in Memphis, we explored Beale Street which is lined with blues bars and clubs, went to the National Civil Rights Museum and Sun Studio.

On Beale Street, we saw Cam Cole busking on the street but most of the bars and restaurants had cover charges and long queues so we tried quieter places but were a bit disappointed with the standard of the music. We did see a good band at the Rum Boogie Bar (Eric Hughes band) one night and also quite enjoyed the Duelling Pianos at an Irish bar. 

The National Civil Rights Museum is one of those museums that is so well done that you learn so much and we spent a full three hours there. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated so after walking through the museum you walk past rooms 306 and 307 before crossing to a building across the road which was a boarding house where the shot was fired from (or was it?) with details of the investigation and the man they charged. The museum is not just about Martin Luther King Jr or Rosa Parks or the stories we all know. There were lots of threads and parts of civil rights history described on a very well curated path through the museum and we began to understand how he different stories and events knitted together. Whilst the museum is an incredible educational opportunity for people from around the world, it is not without controversy itself. There was a protest outside the museum led by Jacqueline Smith (known as the ‘Smith Protest’) since 1988 when she, a long term resident of the motel, was evicted in order for the museum to be built. The protest is centred on the fact that the motel has been turned into a tourist attraction which has led to the gentrification of the area with local communities being uprooted and alienated instead of refurbishing and uplifting them.

Sun Studio is perhaps most famous as the studio where Elvis was ‘discovered’ and started his career. However, it has a first class rock and roll pedigree and was also reputedly where the first rock and roll single ‘Rocket 88’ was recorded in 1951 and many blues, rock & roll, R&B and country artists recorded there in the 1950’s and 1960’s including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis (to name a few). But, back to Elvis. The story goes that in 1953, the 18 year old Elvis walked into Sun Studio and paid to record a couple of songs reportedly as a gift for his mother. The receptionist Marion Keisker thought he had a good voice. She said, “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’ Subsequently the founder of Sun Studio, Sam Phillips, asked Elvis to sing a few songs but they didn’t seem to hit the mark. Elvis then started messing around singing an old blues number called ‘That’s All Right’ (Arthur Crudup) and Sam knew he had found the sound he had been looking for. A local DJ played the song on his radio show again and again for two hours and shortly after that the single was pressed and released and was an immediate success. The Studio expanded massively due to Elvis’ success and in 1955 Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to Colonel Tom Parker so that Elvis could gain a national audience.

It’s getting hot – over 30ºC now!

Continuing with the Elvis theme, on the day we left Memphis we visited Graceland taking the inevitable corporate package tour. It was actually a very efficient production line and there was so much to see. The Graceland mansion was just a small part of the tour and the most stilted really as you shuffled road in a long queue with the audio guide iPad but it was interesting to see the sheer decadence and luxury though the house and rooms all seemed small by today’s standards. The rest of the exhibitions: cars, in the army, outfits, films etc. were self guided and gave a glimpse into various aspects of and times in Elvis’ life, though it had all been curated so that it glossed over or missed out completely anything that was less than wholesome or that was controversial.


Clarksdale, Mississippi

Next stop Clarksdale to explore the blues history of the area. The infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent are purportedly located here at the intersection of highways 49 and 61. We loved our 24 hours in Clarksdale packing as much of the time as possible with live music and learning about the Delta blues. We wished we could have stayed another night or two to continue to take in the atmosphere and because we were staying in an amazing hotel (Plantation style Clark House Inn) but all the accommodation was booked up. Given it is a such a small place the number of incredible musicians that were born there is pretty impressive: Sam Cooke, W C Handy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Ike Turner to name a few.

We started at the ‘Bad Apple Blues Club’ where Sean ‘Bad’ Apple was doing his daily history of the Delta blues lecture/performance. Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram credits Sean as being one of the bluesmen he learnt from when he was starting out and he was the drummer in his band back in the day. Sean was joined at times by Artemis Laseuer who we found out played drums with Cedric Burnside. We had seen Burnside playing a few years earlier at Dingwalls in London when the incomparable Jimmy Regal and the Royals were support. We visited a couple of the blues clubs – Ground Zero (Lightnin’ Malcolm and friends) and MS juke joint Reds (Frank ‘Guitar’ Rimmer) The next day we started with a visit to the excellent Delta Blues Museum which gave a great overview of the history of Delta blues as well as lots of information on individual performers. We then went to the Women In Blues festival where we saw some great women musicians though there wasn’t much of a crowd (perhaps because it was outdoors and very hot with no shade). We saw Queen Iretta & Johnie B. Sanders, then Lady Trucker and then Ghalia Volt. It was a shame we couldn’t stay for the evening. During a break we went to seek out air-conditioning and a cold drink. We wandered into the ‘Hambone Art & Music’ shop? bar? stage? Art gallery? All of the above. The proprietor, Stan Street, does a bit of everything and a lot of art. It was fascinating to chat with him over a couple of cold drinks and we bought one of his paintings as a souvenir before heading out into the heat for a last look at the festival stage before leaving town. CD purchased (Ghalia Volt – highly recommended) – it was time to hit the road.

We had some great food in Clarksdale; fantastic southern fare at Levon and 2nd breakfast at Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes – highly recommended for fast, cheap and amazing hot pancakes (blueberry pancake for Jo and 3x plain pancakes with bacon (well, the US version) and maple syrup for Richard – yum, yum, yum).

We couldn’t leave Clarksdale without driving through the famous Crossroads, then onto Tupelo to visit Elvis’ birthplace the next morning (and so conclude our Elvis triple of Sun Studio, Graceland and his Tupelo birthplace) and where we would then hop back onto the Natchez Trace Parkway to drive from mile 293 to around 100. Time passes peacefully driving down the Natchez Trace. It’s so quiet without any commercial traffic and feels almost like driving through an extremely empty part of the UK with the green trees and fields to either side of the road.

On one of the stops a family of ‘plainly dressed’ people struck up a conversation with us. Plain dress is a practice among some religious groups in which people dress in clothes which are plain coloured, traditional and modest. We asked questions about each other’s countries and politics. They were supporting some people from the Ukraine and had recently visited and were very well versed on the situation in Ukraine and we had some areas of common views in that respect. There were also areas of difference – they believed Trump had been robbed and was still their President and there were other areas where our views were significantly different from theirs though in order to maintain an amiable conversation we didn’t think it worth sharing them!

We stopped for the night in a suburb of the Mississippi state capital Jackson. As a treat, following a night in a terrible Econo Lodge in Tupelo, we used some hotel loyalty points to stay in a lovely Marriott hotel which had a pool which was a welcome respite from the heat and availed ourselves of the hotel laundry.

The next day we did a self guided and interesting walking tour of Jackson though it was so hot we did struggle. At one point we bought some cold drinks in a cafe and after an interesting conversation with the manager about our trip and the fact he had been in the UK 30 years previously he came up to us before we left to give us some free bottles of water and to wish us well – a lovely gesture!

We then completed the last 100 miles of the trace which was uneventful until suddenly there was a violent thunderstorm and we found ourselves bombarded with massive hailstones. Not being able to see in front of us but also there not being anyway safe to pull over Richard drove as slowly as possible. When it stopped and we got out of the car we were sure there would be pock marks all over the car from the hail but we were lucky and it was undamaged.

Natchez – the end/beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway

In Natchez we stayed at the Natchez Grand, an old hotel that was probably grand in its day but was past its prime., but it was in a good location. We walked the path on top of the hill overlooking the Mississippi river and bridge and walked down the road. It was lovely to have a bottle of cider outside of the ‘Under the Hill Saloon’ and to watch the sunset as we waited for our dinner table to be ready at CampHouse.

After dinner we went back to the Saloon where we wiled away a couple of lovely hours watching local musicians Brint Anderson and Matt Willis. We also bumped into a group of six Brits on tour and had a good chat with them about our respective adventures.

The next day we drove around Natchez which is a very small quaint city (approx. 15,000 pop). Set on the Mississippi River, it’s known for antebellum mansions. We toured the Melrose Estate House (National Parks Service). The focus of the tour was on the story of the enslaved people there rather than the grand families that had owned the houses. It was very good and the tour guide was especially good at calling out racism and civil rights abuses both historical and current at every opportunity. Very interesting house, grounds and history.

On the way to New Orleans we made a slight detour for a very quick visit to Baton Rouge to see if we could pick up some information about Louisiana from the visitor center. The visitor center was located in the Louisiana State Capitol Building and it was a bit of a maze inside the building. This mean that we got to see a bit of this lovely Art Deco building. We also got a tip to go up to the observation deck on the 24th floor. Wow! A fantastic view of the city!

Nashville, Tennessee

May 3-9, 2022

Before we set off for Nashville, we did our chores (hitting the laundromat and the car wash) and then spent an hour wandering around Paducah (Kentucky) and learning a bit about its history, mainly since European settlement in the 1820’s, through the flood wall murals which give a (heavily sponsored) potted history of the city. Set on the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, Paducah was an important port for steamboats and subsequently an important railway hub for the north-south Illinois Central Railroad. During the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to take a neutral position but was occupied by the Union forces (‘the North’) under General Ulysses S. Grant in retaliation for the Confederacy (‘the South’) forces occupying Columbus. We would learn more about the Civil War and its impact on the history of the US and its people as we travelled through the southern states. Much later in the 1950’s Paducah became an ‘Atomic City’, the energy plant being closed in 2013. 

And so to Nashville, taking the long and scenic route down the Land Between the Lakes, where we were looking forward to a week exploring and experiencing the city known as the Country Music Capital of the World. Not knowing much about country music and, to be honest, not being particularly fond of what we had heard, we were very interested to find out why people love it so much and why it has been growing in popularity recently. We had a comfortable base for the week in an AirBnB flat in a traditional house.

Our base for our week in Nashville (just the ground floor!)

Being in the home of country music it seemed serendipitous that the great Willie Nelson would be playing a gig just south of Nashville during our stay. We booked tickets but were disappointed that on the day of the gig one of the band contracted Covid and the gig was postponed indefinitely. Given Willie Nelson is in his late 80’s, we fear we may not get another chance to see him play live.

Enjoying a Segway Tour of Nashville

The first thing we did in Nashville was to do some exploring to get our bearings and what better way to explore a city than via Segway. The tour took in the Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park which includes the World War II Memorial in a beautiful setting along with the State Capital and all the sights of downtown Nashville. We followed this up with a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame, finding out about the history of country music and its influences and how it came to be a multi-million pound business and also a very good civil rights exhibition at the public library which gave us a deep dive into how that played out in Nashville and the sit ins at lunch counters, organised by the Nashville Student Movement and Nashville Christian Leadership Council, which were a key part of the protest to end racial segregation in the city during early 1960.

Music tree of Jefferson Street

We also found a hidden gem in the Jefferson Street Sound Museum – a tiny place run by Lorenzo Washington documenting what used to be the area for black music in Nashville. He’s documented all the clubs, and who played there. Other visitors were musicians and we had an impromptu jam with Henry Perry on harmonica (taught by DeFord Bailey!) and Mike, a local music student/teacher, on guitar.

And so to the music…

During our week in Nashville we tried to experience a range of country music in a range of settings and we did pretty well: 

Broadway – right in the heart of Nashville, this thoroughfare is chock full of honky tonk and live music venues pumping out loud country music which pervades into the street. A good place to start but by no means the best music we heard. The music here was generally cover bands and on the rockier side – it was all about turning it up to 11, drinking and having fun. Tourist hell or a great night out? We enjoyed it for what it was.

Broadway – the ‘Honky Tonk Highway’

The Grand Ole Opry – the ‘home of country music’ – originally founded in 1925 as a one-hour radio ‘barn dance’, it is now the longest-running radio broadcast in US history. A must when visiting Nashville, we saw nine acts which showcased the diversity of country music including elements of bluegrass, Americana and folk with some traditional famous singers alongside some contemporary groups and new upcoming acts. An impressive venue and show. 

The Station Inn – a small listening room where we saw the most fantastic band, The Kody Norris Show, and realised that perhaps we did like country music after all – particularly if there is a banjo, double bass and a fiddle involved! This band had the look  – coordinating tailored and tassled outfits with rhinestones, hats and boots and they raced through a toe tapping energetic fusion of hillbilly/bluegrass with a rockabilly slant and expert picking. Yee Haw!

The Kody Norris Show at The Station Inn

The Listening Room Cafe – in this venue we saw the Song Suffragettes a collective of female singer songwriters who perform individually but on the same bill as female singers find it more difficult to get work than male singers. There were six singers playing acoustic sets that evening: Belles (All Hat No Cowboy), Abby Cates (Roadtripsong), Hannah May Allison, Mary Mauld, Michele Pereira and Mia Morris (Fucket Bucket).

Song Suffragettes at The Listening Room Cafe

An epic snow crab bucket dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack for Jo (whilst Richard ate his steak and then waited patiently for Jo to finish..) and then onto see more live music. Not completely unpredictably, the planned early night went out the window when a good rock band was found (Fall Hollow). We also saw Brendan Stevens and the Undertones who did a rousing version of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline but had no idea that there was already a band called the Undertones…

Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie – Though we experienced a lot of country music and, surprisingly, found we liked some (such as Bluegrass), we couldn’t resist an evening of blues music and found some straightforward blues courtesy of the Stacy Mitchhart Band at this dedicated venue.

And so, having done lots of research into country music and had an introduction to the history of this area it was time to leave Nashville and start our journey south on the Natchez Trace Parkway. 

St Louis, Missouri

April 29 – May 2, 2022

After leaving Minneapolis, we headed down through Iowa towards St Louis. It was too far to drive in one day so we stopped for the night in Keokuk, a small city in Iowa where the river is the boundary to three states (Iowa, Illinois and Missouri).

We then travelled onto St Louis and stayed with my (Jo’s) second cousin, Charles.

Charles, Jo and Richard outside Charles’ house in St Louis

It was great to see him and to meet his two lovely cats (though it did mean for a wheezy couple of days for Richard).

In the afternoon, we went to the National Blues Museum which gave us a good introduction to the history and social context for the music we were hoping to experience on our southern road trip over the next few weeks when we would travel down the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville down to New Orleans.

We then took a wander around the famous St Louis Gateway Arch and took a boat trip so we could view it from all angles.

The next day we explored a local sculpture park (we love a sculpture park and this was another good one).

We then explored the Historic Faust Village which contains restored homes and structures from the 1840s to early 20th century. There was an open day where local volunteers were on hand to show you round the buildings and explain how people lived in those times.

Historic Faust Village, Chesterfield

We ended the day with an early evening visit to Lone Elk Park where we saw some elk, deer and a cheeky racoon.

Lone Elk Park

The next day we went to the famous St Louis Zoo. At the zoo, we saw a majestic polar bear whose was far too big for the small area he lived in….

And then it was time to move on. We packed up, said goodbye to Charles and drove for about 3 hours to Paducah in Kentucky where we stopped for the night.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 26-29, 2022

Tuesday 26 April 2022 was our 14th wedding anniversary and what better way to celebrate than to take a long, rather boring, car journey – quality time!

It was great to arrive in Minneapolis and see and stay with an old friend, James Everest. Our first evening we were treated to a preview of a new song that James, the Blue Lady and a choir were rehearsing prior to the performance on Friday (which sadly we wouldn’t be around to see). It was a beautiful melodic and upbeat piece. We were in the garden, and boy was it cold, but there was a fire and with James on the guitar it brought back fond memories of nights around the fire singing (Summer Breeze and other classics) deep in the sand dunes of Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula all those years ago.

Richard and James

Later that evening we met up with Sarah, James’ partner, for dinner at Merlins Rest, a British style pub establishment.

Wednesday was a beautiful, cold, but crisp and sunny day. We spent the morning at the pretty city of Stillwater where we saw the local artist Jim Denomie’s final exhibition (he sadly passed away earlier this year). His work is extremely colourful and compelling. You can see an interview James did with Jim here.

We had a lovely walk around the city and by the river crossing the bridge so that we could walk from the state of Minnesota to Wisconsin as the state line is in the middle of the river.

James, Sarah, Jo and Richard
On the bridge at Stillwater

In the afternoon, we walked around the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden which had a wonderfully interesting range of modern sculptures (from Henry Moore to current artists).

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

In the evening we went to Carbonne’s Pizza and Pub as they had a band playing (Art Vandalay). It wasn’t really a good place for a) a band to play or b) to see a band. James knew that but we persuaded him to take us there as we wanted to see some live music. Still the pizza was fine and there was cider (Loon Cider) for Richard.

Thursday was the main event, a tour of Paisley Park, Prince’s home and recording studio. It was extremely corporate and a bit full of itself, but the range of exhibits on show and the space itself captured the imagination. It was fascinating to see the main recording studio and to see collections such as Prince’s incredible outfits and shoe collection. No photos were allowed in most areas but there was a section at the end where you could take photos so here is a selection.

Paisley Park
Paisley Park

Lunch was a soul food delight at Mama Sheila’s House of Soul.

Mama Sheila's House of Soul
Mama Sheila’s House of Soul

We then went on a sobering walk around the square where, in 2020, George Floyd was murdered and the surrounding area. The square has become a memorial site and there is tribute after tribute to George Floyd and the many others that have been murdered in the city and throughout the country. There is a lot of public art including murals and sculptures. One of the art installations in a nearby green space is the ‘Say Their Names’ symbolic cemetery which contains 150 headstone markers; one for each of the ‘People of Color’ killed by the police in the United States. Sadly, the ‘cemetery’ continues to be added to with numerous headstones marking the killings of people since George Floyd’s murder. When will it end?

George Floyd Mural
George Floyd Mural

That evening, James had a band rehearsal and so we took ourselves off to the Strike Theater to see a female sketch comedy group called LadyBrain performing their show, Resting Yuk Face. The sketches were great but it was a bit over priced for a 60 minute show and a bit lacking on atmosphere with only 9 people (including us) in the audience in a room with 100 person capacity. We then popped into a Cider House, Sociable Cider, to try a couple (or more) of their ciders. The Freewheeler was pretty good but we weren’t convinced by the cucumber and chilli cider!

And so, it being our last night and with a long drive ahead of us in the morning we knew the sensible thing to do was to go back to James’ for an early night. So, what we did was walk over the where James and co. were rehearsing and hang about with them over a few beers as they wound down and then we went back to James’ where we ate chips and James’ special recipe salsa (which includes corn), drank more and James treated us to a small sound garden demo before we finally headed to bed in the early hours.

Not surprisingly we were all late to rise on the Friday. Our aim of getting on the road early went out the window but a happy result was that we had a lovely final catch up with James and Sarah over brunch at the Standish Cafe. Many thanks to James for putting us up and showing us the sights and it was great to spend some time with James and also getting to know Sarah.

Chicago, Illinois

April 20-25, 2022

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

Lao Tzu

The Journey

After (many) months of planning with various hiccups along the way and the final nail-biting waiting for the Covid antigen test result at the airport, we are off!

Jo with our luggage leaving the house
Leaving home

We had a good flight and we got through the formalities at O’Hare pretty swiftly and have our passports stamped so we have 90 days to explore the US of A!

Jo and Krista at F. O'Mahonies bar
First night in Chicago we are at a bar

We are staying with Jo’s friend and former colleague, Krista, and she is the perfect host. We’re tired from the journey so our first evening is a low key meal and couple of drinks at the bar at the end of the street, F. O’Mahonies, which do some of the best cheese curds in the country (mmm – delish!). Richard is relieved that this first bar serves (hard) cider (phew – panic averted!). The next few days, we will explore some of the sights and take in the local culture.

Our first full day

On Thursday 21, we do the fantastic Chicago Architecture Foundation Center River Cruise (highly recommended). A Chicago Architecture Center volunteer gave us an overview of over 50 buildings along the Chicago River. The tour goes into how Chicago grew from a small settlement into one of the world’s largest cities in less than 100 years.

Richard and Jo on boat tour

After the boat trip we found The Northman Cider bar by the river was open for its first day of the season. It was a hot day and we needed our thirst quenching so it would’ve been rude not to try it out…

Then, on a tip from the boat guide, we spent some time walking around some local parks (Lakeshore East and then Maggie Daley, Butler Field and Buckingham Fountain). We saw people doing a Segway tour (always good fun but we didn’t have time so will save that for another time).

Grabbed a sub-style sandwich at Potbelly – nice food and customisable, suspect we’ll be back if we find them along the way

We then met with Krista for a sunset roof top cocktail and dinner at Upstair’s At The Gwen – a mid-level roof terrace down town which had a good view, nice fire pits and good food and drinks.

Then onto Rosa’s Lounge for our first taste of live music and the blues! We’d booked for ‘Thursday Night Live’ Blues Featuring Lil Ed Williams and got that and loads more. Local legend, 86 year old, Mary Lane was in the crowd and got on stage to sing several times, and sassed with Lil Ed all night long. Willie Buck did a set, and loads of others switched in and out including Boney Fields. Audience was only about 30 in a room that could hold 100, but it was, nevertheless, a great atmosphere. We lasted until just after 1am, the band, including Mary, were still going but we were done in! Super busy day with an amazing show to end it.

Jo, Krista, Mary Lane and Jame
Photo with Mary Lane between sets

The Uber home was funny – a young girl driving a Mini-clubman – no way were three of us getting in the back and she wasn’t happy clearing two years of trash off the front seat for Richard! She mellowed by the end of the trip after some of Richard’s fascinating roundabout and Docent talk!

Day 2

The next day (Friday 22) we had a slow morning after the night before! The weather forecast of rain and more rain was correct and so a day at museums and exhibitions was in order.

First stop was the Newberry Library for Crossing: Mapping American Journeys exhibition. Some great maps and exhibits on how the europeans expanded across the USA, in various transport methods and at different times, provided us with a good overview of the history and context of various routes and areas we’ll be travelling through over the next few months.

Our next stop was the Chicago Cultural Center for Jin Lee: Views & Scenes exhibition of photos which had some interesting but not particularly beautiful images. We also saw both the glass domes in the building – the famous Tiffany dome and the Grand Army of the Republic stained glass dome – both spectacular and beautiful.

We had a lovely dinner at Beatrix on N. Clark St. before taking in some stand up comedy at Lincoln Lodge – a proper showcase with a compere (Alex Dragicevich) and six acts including Deanna Ortiz, Gena Gephart, Jared Goldstein and Geoffrey Asmus. Stand up is always a good way to get an insight into the local issues and it was good to see that the Lodge has a real educational focus with peer and educational support for comedians as they develop their careers (seemingly quite different from the UK).

When in Chicago – baseball!

Three days into our time in the US and it was time to go to our first baseball game and what a game and venue: the famous Wrigley field to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play the Chicago Cubs. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon and Krista had got us great seats along the 3rd base line. Neither team are doing well right now, so who knew what might happen….. 0-21 was what happened – insane score, Cubs smashed the Pirates all over the place. Pirates made about three hits in total. An exciting game and one it will be difficult to top. Stopped at O’Mahonies on the way back – as you do.

Saturday night we dined at Wilde with Krista’s friend, Jame, then on to Delilahs for drinks. An amazing bar specialising in whisky and punk/rock/grunge music. Best Islay whisky collection Jo has ever seen outside of Islay including a bespoke Islay whisky created with the bar (Kilchoman Delilah’s and Jack Rose Collection Sauternes 2016) which had to be sampled and was delicious! We spent a long time talking with Sally and Mike, the owner of Delilahs. By the time we left at 1:30 ish a trip to Kenya was planned for 2023…

Our last day in Chicago was a lazy Sunday, a chance to hang out with Krista and to regroup and get ready for the next stage of the journey. We ended our time in Chicago in style with a wonderful steak dinner at Gibsons Italia which had a great view of the river bend and downtown from our table, fabulously well seared steak and a delicious spread of sides. We even got comped a dessert that no-one really needed (but we ate it all!)

And onwards…

Monday morning, Krista dropped us at the airport to pick up the car. Thank you to Krista for a wonderful time in Chicago!

We had a choice of cars: Chrysler 300S or Audi A5 Sportback. The A5 would be like a not as good version of what we have at home, and a much smaller boot than the Chrysler so we took the beast which will be perfect for cruising around the country. Fully blacked out! 3.6L V6 but only makes 300bhp, 2022 model with ~1680 miles on it. Eventually got the Apple Carplay working which improves the entertainment and navigation, but the built in cellular and satellite radio will help when we have no mobile signal.

Our car for the next 52 days
Chrysler 300S in black, with all black options
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