Be a Fountain, not a Drain

That was the saying on one of the many churches peppered along Route 5, also known as the backroads heading into Mississippi.

I’d decided to visit Ole Miss, or University of Mississippi in Oxford as I am planning to apply to their MFA program for next Fall. I knew this stop would take me slightly off track, but I had no idea how small the roads would be nearly my entire trip through Mississippi. Before I realized that the smaller highways were due to my desire to stop in Oxford, I wondered if maybe Mississippi just didn’t have “normal” highways. (They do.)

When I arrived in Oxford, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s no bustling city, but it was a nice town with a true downtown area. College restaurants, diners and several hotels were in the area. Apparently William Faulkner grew up there because I drove by his house, marked as a historic landmark. The campus itself was quite large but had a welcoming feel to it. Some buildings were accessible by roads while others were only by walking paths. When I visited potential MFA programs in the past, I always liked to find the exact building where the English department was housed. I had a moment of panic when I drove into Old Miss as I realized I had not bothered to look up which building it was beforehand. Amazingly, the google maps on my phone was able to locate Bondurant Hall but the road was closed for repair. We parked by the main campus “loop” which the doggies enjoyed chasing each other and pooping on. The three of us tried to get into the Hall, but all the doors were locked. A huge water fountain was nearby and as I was walking over to throw Snickers in, I realized a group of ladies were doing their wedding pictures.

By this time it was 3pm and I had still not eaten lunch. The places in town looked cute, but it was sunny and I didn’t think I could go eat for 45 minutes and leave the dogs in the car. We finally got onto a larger highway, I-55 South, when it started to rain. I didn’t know what to expect– a big storm or just a drizzle? What we got was a mist that settled all around the skinny long needle pine trees lining the road. I couldn’t believe this was Mississippi; if it weren’t for all the vines lining the telephone poles and other trees, it could have been Colorado.

The next big city was Jackson, which got Johnny Cash’s “I’m going to Jackson” stuck in my head for the whole ride. I don’t even know which Jackson he was talking about in that song. Very hungry at this point, we stopped in search of food. I ended up at Shoneys, which is in the vein of an Applebees or Fridays, but it is a Southern chain. I ordered a burger and a lemonade, later realizing that there was a buffet and that would have been much faster. At 5pm, it was cool and cloudy out, so I wasn’t as worried about the dogs (but I still ate as fast as I could). Getting back on the highway, I drove past two locals in the exact same 95 Mercedes as me! We locked eyes for a few seconds, totally having a “nice car you got there” moment. There might also have been a bit of the “Yer not from around here” look going on as well. Feeling better, I kept driving for a few hours until we reached Canton.

I found a street with 6 different hotels on it, and after stopping at 2 and being turned away, the La Quinta welcomed us for $80. (All Motel 6 and La Quinta hotels are pet friendly, with no fee!) I felt a lot safer being “inside” rather than being in a motel with an outside door. Snickers and Meeko had a great time watching TV, and then we all fell asleep together on the King bed.

The free wireless gave me a chance to figure out my route for the rest of the trip and book another La Quinta for 2 nights in New Orleans. I’m really excited to see Louisiana and go exploring!

Location: Canton, Mississippi

Sweet Tea, half and half

Hanging in my Aunt’s kitchen is a sign defining the South as “where the tea is sweet, and the accents are sweeter.”

My visit to Mt. Juliet couldn’t have been better. I was greeted with open arms and even a chocolate milkshake! Apparently having a love for chocolate tends to run with first-born Sizemore children. My Aunt and I stayed up very late Tuesday night catching up, talking about our family, and of course explaining my plans for this next year in San Francisco! I think for many families, you only get to see you extended members at holidays or funerals. In other words, when there is something else going on. This was truly the first time that someone from my half of the family (me) came to visit for the sole purpose of visiting, and it was so refreshing to not be in a rush. We even laughed at the past holidays and how my family would be the first to leave.

I spent a lot of time talking with my Aunt and Uncle, who despite their long work hours still find time to be the most amazing Grandparents to my two little second cousins. Many people’s financial futures are uncertain in these times, but in spite of everything, they were always positive and encouraging me to “go for it” with my dreams. But with our Tennessee MegaMillions tickets that my Aunt and I bought, we might just pack it all up and go on vacation for the rest of our lives! (Just kidding)

The only person I didn’t get to catch up with was with my cousin who works in Nashville. I didn’t realize that both the Country Music Awards and Bonnaroo were happening this week/weekend, so his work schedule and traffic were against us.

Snickers and Meeko loved Tennessee too! Snickers got lots of attention and rest on her Dora the Explorer kids couch while Meeko was excited to have another backyard to run around in, especially when there were little cousins to herd! The boys are very close in age, and watching them play reminded me a lot of all the make-believe games I would play with my sister. Right now the eldest is very into Bob the Builder, while the youngest is into doing whatever his older brother is doing. One afternoon I found myself looking over imaginary blue prints. “Jackie? Jackie you paint this side of the barn and I’ll paint this side, okay?” “Okay, what colour are we painting it?” “Blue!” “Blue! Won’t that be hard to see against the sky?” Alright maybe that last question was a bit too complex for him, but we had fun!

I arrived Tuesday not sure of how long I would stay, or how I would feel re-connecting with this side of my family. I ended up staying four nights, leaving Saturday morning after my Aunt and the boys played a game of Firetruck on the bed I’d been sleeping on. Firedog Meeko helped put out the fire too.

The past few days were some of the most relaxing and comfortable ones I have had in a long time. My Aunt, Uncle and cousins were so generous to me– they got me dinner every night and even sent me off with car snacks! It was sad to leave, but I have great memories and even greater pictures of all of us! I feel confident that this re-connection I have made with this side of my family will be permanent. Hopefully Meeko won’t chew anyone’s shoes next time!

Location: Mt. Juliet, Tennessee

The Smoky Mountains & I-40 West

We left Asheville midday Tuesday, June 5th after a delicious pear butter and toast breakfast and Snickers walking into that same pond again. I figured it would be about a 4 hour drive to my Aunt’s house in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

While chatting with my Asheville hosts, I learned about the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is a National Scenic By-way that runs along the tops of the Appalachian Mountains. This same trail is popular among hikers, campers, bikers and a variety of road trip enthusiasts. Upon learning of it, I filed it away as a trip that I would likely travel someday and didn’t think anymore about it.

Traveling along I 40 West, the main highway running through North Carolina and across the state of Tennessee, I suddenly saw a sign for the Cherokee Reservation. I am somewhere between 1/8 and 1/16 Cherokee, and though I am unable to register as an official citizen (that’s a story in itself! Another time though…) I have great pride in this part of my ancestry and have a passion for First Peoples’ Rights. The main reservation is in Oklahoma, but my ancestry is from the North Carolina tribe who have their own reservation lands. Then I saw a sign for Smoky Mountain National Park. I took both signs as a sign that I should take an impromptu detour, not knowing where it would take me or even what direction I was heading!

After about 20 minutes on this other secondary highway, I saw a small brown sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turning right off of the highway (I wouldn’t really call it an exit) I found myself on a windy one lane road heading up a mountain. I pulled over at the first “scenic view stop” I could. Getting out of the car I gasped at the view. The air was so quiet, even the birds seemed distant. Yellow wildflowers waived around my feet and I just stood there taking it all in.

I decided to climb a bit higher up the Blue Ridge Parkway and see what the next scenic stop would bring. Well the next one was completely blocked by overgrown trees, so we headed up to the third stop. Pulling over, I once again admired the view and decided it wasn’t worth getting the doggies out of their crate for just one picture. I stretched a little, and then slowly came to the realization that I had no idea where I was and my phone wasn’t getting any signal. Luckily, Ashwin had a stash of AAA maps in the driver’s side door and one of the was for Kentucky/Tennessee. I found my approximate location, far South of 40 West. I had two options– continue climbing up several thousand feet with the Blue Ridge Parkway going over at least 10 mountains before connecting back up with 40 West, or, go back the way I came.

My brain knew that the way I came would make this an hour and a half long detour total, with 4 hours still do go before arriving at my Aunt’s house. But my heart thought driving through the mountains at 35 mph and going directly through the Cherokee Reservation was an adventure to good to be true. I started up the car, about to turn back onto the road heading up. Then it hit me. Am I crazy? Do I want this car to die on me with only a quarter of my cross country journey completed? Ethel was working so hard already that I couldn’t even make her go the speed limit of 45 mph. I admitted defeat, and the possibility of a slight smoky smell coming from the car, and headed back down the mountain.

I’m still sad that I couldn’t take the road less traveled, but when your car is not in mint condition I think it’s better to play it safe and do what is best for the car. Which is not trying to drive along the tops of the Smoky Mountains. Who knows, if I end up in a graduate school in the South, perhaps I will get another chance at the Blue Ridge Parkway and visiting Cherokee Nation.

Location: Tennessee

Be Kind, Be Careful

I just ate a sandwich that contained organic, antibiotic free chicken. Welcome to Asheville, North Carolina, the Paris of the South.

At the post-wedding casual brunch that lasted all day, I found myself once again talking about my roadtrip plans. I ran into the usual trouble of not having answers for “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” (Answers: Nowhere and everywhere? In my car?) I was chatting with the groom’s mother about my plans for visiting my Aunt in Tennessee but my concerns about making the 8 hour trip in one day. “I’ll probably just stop about half way there and stay in a hotel, it’s all on one highway I think.” “Oh! Why don’t you just stay with my brother in Asheville? And just like that, I found myself being invited in like family to the family that Ashwin is now a part of!

I’d never been to Asheville before, and to be honest, I was expecting it to be a quaint Southern town. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It reminded me a lot of the fancy ski towns in Colorado that I saw on my last cross country road trip. The car climbed high into the mountains, so much so that the air pressure activated the vinegar spray bottle I had packed to clean up doggy accidents. Now the whole backseat smells like vinegar.

When I arrived, I was greeted by the brother and his partner, about to add new plants to their many garden beds. The dogs happily flew out of the car and chased each other around the driveway. I was admiring a little pond with tiny green plants floating along the surface when Snickers came waltzing along. She walked up along the little wall holding the pond back, and confidently walked right in. She had what I can only describe as a mini dog-heart attack as she realized she was 1. in water 2. needed to swim and 3. had to find a way out. We stopped laughing long enough to pull her out by her collar. She was very embarrassed but in typical Snickers fashion, she sneezed, and then rolled around in the grass.

Two sibling cats owned the upstairs of the house, and were not big doggy fans, so I was put in a guest room on the basement level. It was really like having my own little apartment- it was fully furnished with a small kitchen, bathroom and guest bedroom. My hosts ran a weekly poker night out of the basement and Meeko had a great time sniffing out the tiniest crumbs from past snacks.

Once unpacked, I was given a brief history of Asheville and the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the United States. “The home is so big it’s measure in acres instead of feet. Acres!” It was originally built by a Vanderbilt as a surprise for his new wife that he brought over from Europe. “That’s quite a surprise”, I noted. Unfortunately I arrived to late in the evening to go on the 3 hour tour of the house and grounds, but I’m sure I will get to it in my lifetime! My hosts decided to take me on a driving tour of parts of Asheville and then find a place to eat dinner. When asked what I was hungry for, I jokingly said “anything but Indian food!”

Our first stop was the Grove Park Inn, a grand 4 diamond hotel built around 1913. All kinds of Presidents, writers and other wealthy families have stayed there throughout history. The entire outer shell was constructed from granite dug right out of a nearby mountain, but it is done in such a way that you cannot see any of the cement holding it together. The effect is like a grouping of barnacles on a rock in shallow water. One of my hosts used to work at the Inn’s fancy spa, so I truly got the insider’s tour. For example, all of the staff in the hotel have their own tunnels that they must use to get around the hotel so as not to encounter any of the actual guests. One of my favourite aspects of our little tour (besides the view!) were all of the craft style furniture pieces scattered throughout the hallways. They reminded me a lot of my family’s craft-style dining room set that my German Great-Grandfather made by hand. The story goes that the table was big enough to seat the entire family during the Great Depression, even the dog.

Leaving the hotel, we drove through neighborhoods of Asheville to admire the different architectural styles, heading downtown to find a place to eat. Downtown Asheville was hippy central. “Dreadies” one of my hosts pointed out, “…or Trusties” we laughed. I learned of a drum circle that brought hundreds to a centrally located park, the beat echoing off the buildings. Every corner had a street singer playing guitar or just singing. Though I admired their persistence, I will admit not all of them had talent. At dinner, we talked our waitress into some complimentary salt n pepper biscuits, and I tried the most delicious tomato soup I have ever had. It was around 9pm by the time we finished and were walking past the closed art galleries when we ran into a group of my hosts friends.

I am notoriously bad with names, but there were 6 people around my Mom’s age. They admired the henna on my hand and were very interested to hear of my cross country road trip plans. At the wedding, I heard a sympathetic “Oh!” but with these friends, I heard more of “Oh, tell us more!” One lady asked if I was going to wear flowers in my hair as I crossed into San Francisco. “I swear I hear that fucking song every time I arrive there!” We all walked together for several blocks before heading our separate ways. The man I had been chatting with departed with some final advice for me, “As the Buddha once told me, be kind, be careful”.

If it hasn’t come through yet in this post, both of my hosts had the most wonderful senses of humor. Ashwin and I found ourselves chatting with them throughout the wedding because they were so entertaining to be around! I was delighted to be invited to their house, surprised and grateful to be given a tour of the town and taken out for dinner!

And to think I was planning to just “stay in a hotel.”

Looking Indian

This past weekend was the wedding and celebrations of Ashwin’s sister’s wedding. While the days were slow to start (think breakfast at noon) the nights were long and filled with saris, sparkly jewelry, and laughter.

This was my first Hindu/Christian wedding experience, so it was very interesting to see how the bride and groom would combine all of their traditions while meeting both sides of the familys’ expectations. There was a Mendhi party, where the bride gets henna done on her arms, hands, and feet. All of the other women are also invited to get henna done on their hands. I only ventured to getting henna on my left, non-dominant hand. I didn’t trust myself to remember not to do anything with my right hand while the henna paste dried. Traditionally, the women chat while their henna dries, and their husbands bring them food and drink. Oh waiter! *snap snap*

It was at this same Mendhi party that I finally got to wear the beautiful sari that Ashwin’s mother had bought for me in India. There are three pieces– a half shirt, a silky floor length skirt, and then a more decorative wrap that goes on top of everything. Luckily Ashwin’s grandmother did the “wrapping” for me, as it was fairly complicated! At this party, I met much of Ashwin’s extended family and close friends. Many of them commented how Indian I looked, how well I wore the sari, that I looked like an Indian bride myself (thanks youtube video of “gold Indian bridal makeup”!) As a very pale blonde girl, I thought this was quite the compliment. The 3 inch gold and silver heels might have had something to do with pulling off that sari though.

This was only my second friend-wedding, but as I told Ashwin, this time in our lives is like Bat Mitzvah season all over again. I was honored to be involved with this wedding this past weekend, and really excited about all of the new people who I’ve met and will keep up with!

Location: North Carolina

North Carolina: Frogs, lizards, and racoons

We finally arrived in Raleigh around 8pm last night. Traveling with the dogs will definitely have some challenges. Right now the car is so full that only one dog crate can be ‘open’ so we rotated with one in the crate and the other in my lap. A lucky bamboo plant that I had in my office almost didn’t fit in the car, but Ashwin came up with the great idea of having it ride in the dog crate. At a rest stop in North Carolina, Meeko decided she’d had enough of that plant and promptly chewed it to pieces.

The house we are staying in is out in the suburbs. Ashwin was quick to notice how much space there was “in the South.” He suggested we take have the population of NYC and set them up in North Carolina. It’s true though, around every corner there is another lot of land for sale, both commercial and personal. Not a sight one usually sees in a city.

The gardens of the house are beautiful–there are pockets of flowers everywhere, a little pond with a waterfall, and a koi pond. I love little ponds like these because at first glance, you just see the fish. Then you start really looking, and you realize there is so much life going on just below the surface. You see the lizard sunning along the netting, the little water skimmer bugs (seriously, how do they skate across the water? Can we adapt that technology for humans?), and you catch a big bullfrog plunking into the water in fear of your shadow. Snickers had taken to walking along the stone wall of the koi pond, eyeing the fish. I swear one of these times she’s going to jump in.

Speaking of animals, we found two huge spiders in our guest room. This wasn’t a huge surprise as it is connected to the garage, but, as Ashwin put it, they “popped” when he squished them for me. Meeko tried to catch one but I was worried it might be poisonous. A quick google search of “large brown spider nc,” apparently a popular thing to search, I discovered that it was a harmless Wolf Spider.

I’ve got my workout clothes and spf 100 on, so I am off to take the doggies for a walk around the neighborhood. With all the land between the houses, I think staying in the neighborhood will get us plenty of ground to cover!

Oh, and we ran over a dead racoon with the car today. It smelled disgusting.

Cross country road trip: The Plan

I’ve given a lot of thought into how to approach this road trip. My conclusion is that this is a perfect opportunity for me to explore the Southern states that I have never been to before, and to really take my time. I realize that cross country road trips are usually “once in a lifetime” ordeals, but this is actually my second cross country road trip.

The first one was the Summer of 2009, driving San Francisco to Pittsburgh with my boyfriend, with the express purpose of getting his car to Pittsburgh and going to Lollapalooza. With limited time and money, and no doggies, we took the Northern route, camping at the Grand Canyon without a tent and arguing over who had to drive through Nebraska. This time around, I’ll still have money in mind, but with no job to get to (or concert to be at) I can take all the time I want. I also know that driving by myself from Raleigh to San Francisco, I have to be realistic about how many hours I can do each day.

There are a few places that I know I will be staying longer than one night. The first is my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding in Raleigh– I’ll be there from May 30th until June 4th.  We are staying at a family friend’s house, who I’ve heard also has a dog. Maybe Meeko and Snickers will make a friend?

From there, I am heading to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee to visit my Aunt and Uncle and my cousins. One of my cousins has started a family, but I have never met either of her little boys. I’m very excited to meet my new second cousins! I haven’t seen this side of my family in about six years, but with the potential of being in the South for grad school, perhaps I will get to see them more often.

After that, I’ll be on my own for a bit, going through Arkansas and Mississippi. I’ve driven over the Mississippi river once, but this time, I’m going to find a place to stop and hang out by it. Maybe there is a state park along it so I can dip my feet in? If it’s not too out of the way, I plan to drive through the campuses  of Ole Miss (University of Mississippi in Oxford) and University of Central Arkansas as they are potential MFA programs for me. In my head, living in these places for three years would be a grand adventures, but the realistic side of me says you’d better go check these towns out before you sign any leases!

I’ve never been to Louisiana, and being a huge Anne Rice/Vampire Chronicles fan, I have this image of Louisiana that a mix of the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and James Bond’s Live and Let Die. I’m very curious to see New Orleans, to see how reconstruction is going and to find Lousiana State University, one of my dream MFA programs, and University of New Orleans. Continuing west, I’ll stop and see McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

After a few days in Louisiana I’ll drive further south to Corpus Christi, Texas where my sister lives. She’s just finished one part of her schooling to become a Navy Pilot! They are deciding which of the planes they want her to fly, which will determine her next step of more specialized training. By this point, I will probably be sick of driving, so staying at my sister’s for a week will be a fun mini-vacation for all of us!

Driving through the rest of Texas, I’ll head up to the University of New Mexico then west through Arizona. I love the landscapes of the Southwest, especially all of the rock deserts.

What happens next is still undecided. Do I drive along the coast of California along the famous Route 1? Or do I avoid any traffic jams by driving through Nevada? Ashwin votes for California, but I know it would be cheaper and less congested to go the other way.

I plan to make posts each night, and there will be lots of picture taking for each of my stops. I’m very curious to see how this trip will go, especially with two doggies with me, but at this point I’ve done all of the planning that I can!

Next stop, West Virginia!