I love road trips. And I’m happy to have just completed one that took me on a glorious loop from Washington, DC through Nashville, New Orleans, Savannah, Raleigh and up the East Coast to Delmarva and back to the District again. Along the way, I was joined by one of my best friends, met some great new people, learned a whole lot about science and American history (my faves), had a proper beach weekend and grabbed a slice of the American experience.
My first stop was in Bedford, VA, home of the National D-Day Memorial. The memorial’s three sections commemorate the planning, execution and aftermath of the largest amphibian invasion in human history. The pool pictured below includes PVC piping that shoots out air to simulate the bullets that strafed Allied soldiers as they landed. The sand in the memorial was imported from Normandy Beach.
A statue commemorates Dwight Eisenhower’s role as the architect of the invasion. The map in the rotunda represents his invasion plan. Eisenhower had a British toy maker manufacture a map and models to help plan the invasion. The men who delivered and assembled one of his maps had to stay confined to headquarters for more than a year given the powerful sensitivity of what they had seen.
This French statue of Victory was dedicated to American soldiers in the aftermath of the First World War. In the Second, the statue’s face was blown off. A donor paid to have the statue restored and shipped to the United States.
Veterans and their families frequently visit the memorial and place flags at its terminus.
The grand American World War II narrative naturally downplays the role other Allies played in securing victory. Russians, in particular, teach the war very differently since they sustained, by an order of magnitude, the greatest casualties in the greatest war humanity has ever fought.
Sufficiently unmoored from the present, I further retreated to the Natural Bridge in Virginia, which I’d last visited when I was a child. Rain broke over the mountains. I went to the caverns, which were much smaller than I remembered. The rain would take weeks to get down there. When I descended to the bridge, I passed a couple speaking German and marveled at the alacrity with which scabs can sometimes form over history’s wounds.
When I reached the bottom of the trail, I was gloriously alone, and stood agape at what time and erosion can wring from the Earth.
George Washington marked the bridge as a young surveyor. I was reminded of Carl Sandburg’s “Washington Monument by Night.”
The name of an iron man goes over the world.
It takes a long time to forget an iron man.
I wended southwest down the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is among America’s Byways, historical, scenic and lackadaisical alternatives to Eisenhower’s belligerently efficient interstate system. The Blue Ridge extends from the more familiar Skyline Drive and I found its vistas more interesting and less crowded.
I pushed forward till nightfall and camped at Rocky Knob.
Next up was Greenville, Knoxville and Oak Ridge. But along the way, I saw signs for the Gray Fossil Site. Intrigued and motivated by an inherent trust of all brown highway signs, I made an ultimately worthy detour to the site, which is operated by East Tennessee State University and contains rare North American mammal fossils.
These are among the new species discovered at the site, including an American panda.
The site itself stemmed from a discovery in 2000, when the shifting of a highway, declared necessary in the name of public safety, pried open a 5 million-year-old window — actually, a sinkhole — into wild North America. Around that time, our ancestors were just getting the hang of walking on two legs.
The site will produce new finds for years as paleontologists carefully scrape away the muddy shrouds of time.
They are led by people with, it seems, a decent sense of humor.
I proceeded to Greenville, Tennessee, home of President Andrew Johnson, who operated a tailor shop there and later bought and improved upon a pretty house thanks to his adept real-estate swapping, which produced his post-Presidency fortune (and later, the fortune of one of his former slaves).
National Park Service employees there are practiced in the clearing up ongoing confusion between impeachment and removal from office. Johnson, a strict interpreter of the Constitution, was one of those rare presidents who sought to limit the power of his office. Unfortunately, he did so at a time when a strong hand was likely warranted to bind the Union back together. He died, I learned, shortly after being elected to the Senate and after unsuccessful runs for political office post-Presidency. He was buried wrapped in an American flag with his head resting eternally on a copy of the Constitution.
Greenville also maintains a civic museum, which celebrates the town’s broader history, including its citizens’ military service. Eisenhower followed me here, too, via a preserved copy of his order to the troops on D-Day.
Magnavox was a big influence on Greenville though the plants and assembly lines have gone idle, shipped to other places and other peoples.
My back was bothering me thanks to a rather silly fall the week before from the surprisingly dangerous perch of an office chair. I had wanted to camp in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but my coccyx protested mightily. I detoured to Knoxville, where I met a man who worked on oil rigs and made the acquaintance of a few law students who showered me with friendliness.
Rested, I departed the next morning to the American Museum of Science and Energy near Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Oak Ridge was a secret town, constructed during the Second World War to refine uranium and produce fissile materials that would be assembled into the first nuclear bombs at Los Alamos. The Manhattan Project was the largest and most expensive scientific experiment in human history. And it was an astounding success.
So secret was its mission that most of the workers there did not know how their tasks related to the projects’ end goals or, indeed, what the end goals even were. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a great many of them were as surprised as everybody else.
The military experimented with four methods of refining the uranium, not knowing which, if any, would work and sometimes started building things before the physicists and engineers could finish the plans. The ultimately successful route involved calutrons, machines that vaporize uranium then use magnets to separate its isotopes. The calutrons were operated by a bevy of young women who were told to move dials in response to the swaying of needles. They didn’t know what the needles indicated or the knobs controlled.
The refined uranium they produced was shipped in secret to Chicago then Los Alamos, in briefcases handcuffed to the wrists of plainclothes military officers.
Thus, were countless deft movements of young women’s hands balled into a nuclear fist, half a world away.
Oak Ridge also offers a bus tour that departs daily from the museum. It includes a visit to a decommissioned graphite-moderated reactor that produced the first sustained nuclear reactions and the first derivation of electricity from nuclear fission.
Workers would manually insert control rods to speed or slow the reaction.
The control room:
Port 16 next to the control room was connected to a small engine, producing electricity.
Oak Ridge is investing in a new education facility, that included this seal from Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, which sought to tame and eventually domesticate the atom.
Despite those efforts, the atom, and the men who wielded it, nearly set civilization back to its bipedal routes, as discussed in the museum’s exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which included this display of fallout shelter items and the iconic “Duck and Cover” campaign from the Federal Civil Defense Administration. John F. Kennedy aides claim that when the president was briefed on military plans that included a potential surprise first-strike on the Soviet Union, he lamented, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
The bus tour, which was highly detailed, took us past nuclear waste sites and experimental stations devoted to newer, truly green forms of energy such as switchgrass-derived biofuels. Overwhelmed at the greatness and the terror our intelligence can produce, I took in the landscape. “Oak Ridgers” should be proud of their service, but we should all be scared of our ability to end our own ways of life.
I’ll give the last word on Oak Ridge to its former director, Alvin M. Weinberg.
Relegated to the less energetic, but still peppy power of internal combustion and gasoline, I departed to Nashville, where I met up with the inestimable Laura M. to celebrate her birthday and the end of her first year of nursing school. I got to socialize with a wonderful coworker, also a “Nashvegan,” as I grilled assorted foodstuff from the gourmands who attended the party.
Nursing school, it seems, is a hard lot and despite the school year’s end, studies and tests continued, so the guests departed early. Laura kindly showed me her neighborhood watering hole. Later, I tried some of the ambitious sangria she had made, but the dehydrating power of wine produced violent hiccups that sent me to the water jug and eventually to bed.
It was worth hitting the sack relatively early…I had more presidential homes to visit!
Andrew Jackson should have lived to appear on Cribs. His home is beautiful and the grounds are sprawling. Like Washington’s Mount Vernon, it is the product of a dedicated association of women who successfully preserved our history. Unfortunately, the home bans photography of the interior. Its most striking feature is a storyboard wallpaper depicting the tale of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Like Telemachus and Penelope, Jackson’s wife Rachel was forever waiting a soldiers’ return from war.
Laura won the visit by correctly guessing the cost of a post-fire wallpaper replacement and remounting. It is rare to see shock register on the practiced faces of historical home tour guides, especially those in period dress, but she produced it.
This is Jackson’s grave, which sits in the back of a garden. He visited the garden every day, for it was also where his beloved wife was buried.
From Nashville, we tacked south down the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, another genius project of the National Park Service. The parkway follows a trading and postal route of the Old American Southwest and boasts historical sites and markers every few miles. It also offers the best-designed and most detailed National Park Service map I’ve ever had the pleasure of plucking from a roadside kiosk. It’s many panels unfurl like an encyclopedic Jacob’s Ladder.
The most striking stops are so-called Indian Mounds.
The mounds are evidence of relatively recent occupation. The land we drove through is among the richest agriculturally in North America. Native Americans lived in abundance here, but European germs killed probably more than 90 percent of them. European guns and steel would do much of the rest. Did I mention I was reading Jared Diamond during this trip? He was a worthy companion, too.
As in all things road trip, we had to forgo many sites. We were delayed in Nashville by the need to assist a friend with car trouble and secure some Nutella-based birthday brownies, which we slowly consumed over the course of the trip. We consoled ourselves by noting that we were, “Making great time,” an affirmation that became the trip’s mantra.
We further delayed ourselves by taking a rightful, but unfruitful detour to Tupelo, Mississippi, through which the trail passes. Although friendly in the Southern manner, citizens of Tupelo are unlikely to be able to direct wayward travelers to the city’s eponymous supplies of honey. Perhaps production has moved elsewhere. We stopped by a sweets shop that promised to carry the goods, but it was five minutes after closing. We also took to bothering a nearby apiarist over the phone, but he couldn’t make an exception for low-volume retail customers such as ourselves. Unnecessary advice: If you ever call a bee keeper, don’t use “Is this the apiarist?” as your opening line. It leads to confusion, dead air and can stretch mightily at the bounds of Southern politeness.
Thus, we made haste down the parkway as the sun set and the vistas, too, closed up shop. We camped near the parkway’s end at Rocky Springs. Along the way, we listened to old folk radio, saw a thunderstorm roll off the Mississippi River, and passed through the aftermath of a tornado that denuded a half-mile-long stretch of swamp along the parkway.
In the morning, we proceeded to the old town site of Rocky Springs, which was abandoned in the 1800s. What remains are eroded building sites, two curious safes and two water cisterns.
A historic Methodist church is located right off the NPS property. Its congregants disbanded in 2010 because of their shrinking size, but the site remains. Such holy sites must undergo a procedure of “desanctification,” an odd word which made its first appearance to me on a laminated piece of paper inside the church.
The grounds are startlingly beautiful, with Spanish moss hanging off old trees.
There is an ornate grave site behind the church.
Small fences surround many of the graves. This was the most detailed and reflected the moss-laden trees nearby.
Laura helpfully captured the contemplative pose I tend to assume when confronted with the weight of history and evolution.
She knew more than a little bit about this marker I spotted. Various types of these small brass plugs are littered through the United States and used for surveying, geocaching, and other purposes.
Our next stop was New Orleans. Laura activated her support network of foodie friends, thus enlightening my simple-minded palette to the joys of fancy cheeses, gumboes and fried alligator, as well as many proper cocktails and delightful local beer.
Our most satisfying food journey, however, involved a few hours of mass transit tomfoolery and transfers, which brought us — via an ancient trolley car — to Danny’s Seafood (Number 2). Skeptical and running low on protein, I did a double-take at the GPS readout on my phone. Yep, this was the place. Of course, I should have known better. Any recommendation that yields such a divey exterior must necessarily have a rewarding meal buried within.
If you find yourself at Danny’s (the first or second), I recommend the shrimp po’boy.
New Orleans is a city apart from the rest of the United States, with its strong French influence and the drain of people that followed the drain of floodwater. Evidence of wear hangs on the city like dampness on clothing pulled too soon from the dryer.
Residents cling strongly to the city’s characteristic dilapidation and its rich and vibrant history.
We saw many children practicing at the clicking and clanging family of instruments.
In the offensively modern downtown corridor, we passed a movie set. I’m pretty sure it was a sci-fi film.
The dilapidation got better and more working class when we crossed the Mississippi via public ferry to Algiers.
It oddly reminded me of my home in Forked River, NJ. Perhaps it’s because it remains cloistered and very, very white. But it was also the bearing of its people, the quietness of its streets and the smiling, comradely, but distant familiarity with which restaurant patrons greeted one another.
Also, we discovered that New Orleans’ lax open container laws extend to its ferry system, and we were able to enjoy road sodas on the ride back into the hustle and bustle of downtown.
New Orleans is also home to the country’s official World War II museum. Digging ever deeper into my fascination with democracy’s triumph over fascism, we spent several hours there. Left to my devices, I might have spent several more and eventually moved in.
My favorite artifact was a wallet. It belonged to Jack Lucas, a Marine who lied about his age to sign up, was found out and put on truck driving duty. Because he wanted to see combat, he stowed away on a ship not knowing where it was bound. It emptied him out onto Iwo Jima, where he participated in the war’s ugliest battle. During the fighting, he dove on two grenades, saving fellow soldiers, and became the youngest recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He survived, but lost his wallet, to which he had attached a note to help ensure that his mother received the $16 it contained. Decades later, the Marines found the wallet and sent his family a check for $16.
The museum included Japanese propaganda, which I hadn’t seen before. I call this “Franklinstein.”
And it had several displays that helped bring the scale of the war down to the visitor. For instance, the relative size of Axis and American armed forces before the war started:
A diorama depicting the scale of D-Day operations:
And D-Day and Okinawa’s scale compared to what the Americans thought it would have taken to invade Japan’s home islands:
Faced with this prospect and armed with an atomic weapon that promised to bring the war to a swifter end, President Truman signed an order authorizing the military to drop the bomb.
Overwhelmed again by World War II, we grabbed some more food and beverages and enjoyed the peace dividend of lax open container laws. This is the best light beer I’ve ever had. It’s creator wanted to make something he could enjoy while mowing his lawn, the bartender told us.
And we let our buddy Ben know we were having an okay time.
New Orleans’ art museum also has an expansive sculpture garden with several ambitious pieces.
My favorite part of road trips is the easy transition from cities to wilderness. From New Orleans, we traveled to Gulf Islands National Seashore (thanks again, NPS!) outside Pensecola. It was glorious.
Laura taught me two important things:
First, it’s important when enjoying wilderness to stay the hell away from other people. The site we visited was a half mile from the parking lot and we saw some families camped there. So we pressed another quarter mile or so down the beach. Other people thus remained visible, but not necessarily audible. And it’s worth noting that the Pensacola skyline was still in view, too.
Laura had the genius idea of scoring two po’boys on the way out of New Oreleans, which we able to consume on the beach. This yielded my second lesson, which centered on my cooler’s many inadequacies. Laura is known as a two-cooler traveler. One cooler for goods, one cooler for ice. It is a great fault of cooler manufacturers globally that they have not found a way to effectively separate ice from that which must be cooled. Melting ice, after all, has a way of ruining bread, coleslaw and sundry other delicious items. We contemplated drawing up some diagrams and writing strongly worded suggestions to Coleman.
We also had the sublime joy of observing at least four ghost crabs go about their business. The crabs’ eye stems allow them to see 360 degrees, though it can’t see directly above its head. They approached us quite closely, to the point where we thought they might try to snack on our toes. This is a picture from Wikipedia. Alas, I did not snap my own pictures of the crabs, although the moon was bright enough to have perhaps afforded the possibility.
From there, we went to Savannah and met up with Laura’s friend McKenzie, who is a 5th-generation resident of the city and shared some wonderful stories with us. Her grandmother, for instance, helped protect a historic home across one of iconic squares from which she lived. Because it would have been undignified to cross the square on foot to offer tours of the historic home, her grandmother would hire a car to pick her up. But it would have been ridiculous, McKenzie told us, to drive only halfway round a square. Thus, the driver was instructed to circumnavigate the entire square, then drive halfway around to their destination. That’s classy.
The next morning, we made a quick pitstop to Charleston, SC, where I had some generously fat Gulf oysters. The waterfront is interesting, though we didn’t linger there long.
From Charleston, we traveled to Raleigh, where JB and company showed us the local boom-boom-bah scene. I discovered that travel does little for my appreciation of loud music, which remains quite low. However, JB is an accomplished dancer and he taught me that breakdancing is a misnomer and practitioners refer to it as b-boying or “b-boy” for short. He also provided us with a ghost pepper, the world’s hottest. On Laura’s advice, it was diluted into a pesto (“ghost pesto”), but not before we tried tiny slivers of it. It was HOT and I’m glad none of us were crazy enough to take a sizable bite.
Raleigh boasts a world-class natural history museum, which has a new wing. The establishment has the best-written copy I’ve seen in a science museum, with popping headlines and crystalline and universally accessible prose. They had several beautiful cutaways, including this one of a sand dune:
And another of North Carolina’s geology:
The state’s geology, of course, is shifting, thanks to climate change. The museum has several exhibits on climate change and sea-level rise. Ironically, the building is two blocks away from North Carolina’s state legislature, which recently voted to ignore scientists’ projections about rising seas to protect short-sighted coastal property owners. Enjoy it while it lasts, dudes.
Visitors can make their opinions known.
Of course, I KNOW sea-levels are rising, thanks to science. As a coastal resident myself, I think it would be just super if we did something about it, as many states have elected to do.
Visitors can also explore the consequences of various decisions about energy use for the atmosphere and the planet’s temperature. Play the game and you’ll find out the only way to “win” and prevent extensive warming of the planet is to throw everything we have at cleaner and smarter energy choices, though you don’t necessarily have to go full bore with more nuclear energy.
Scientists work in the center, including these excited, but absent paleontologists:
And these veterinarians, who were helping a turtle with a shell infection:
There’s also a great right whale exhibit:
And like all good state science museums, North Carolina proudly displays their Apollo moon rock:
And, of course, we found some Sagan:
From there, we went to Fenwick Island, DE to catch the middle end of an in-progress beach weekend with some dear friends, including Ben T. and the about-to-be-married Aaron D. and Lauren R.
We continued our streak of relatively full moons:
Group photo test shot. We call this “being Aaronic.”
Actual nice group photo.
Laura’s total mileage, during which we were able to read aloud most of Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume.
And my total mileage, which tracked an amazing trip I won’t soon forget.
Special thanks to the Corolla. You’ll get your oil change soon, buddy. We made some great times.