Travelling the US is similar to driving throughout Europe, only state by state instead of country by country.
Geography, customs, food and dialect or accent change, attitudes, too, many perceptible even to the casual passerby. What makes the trip so much fun, apart from the vistas and food, is the people we’ve met along the way.
And as I sit in the excruciatingly well-lit breakfast room at the Super 8 motel in Norman, Oklahoma, listening to the slow drawl of an old man lamenting the misfortune of the poor guy driving the car that was struck by a train nearby (he lived, to the low-key delight of everyone in the room), it feels like a good time to summarize some of the characters we’ve encountered.
We set out to meet America – or at least an unscientific sampling of its inhabitants – and here’s our new cadre of oddball friends.
The old guy at the Orville and Wilbur Wright Museum, Kill Devil Hills, NC, who wore a “USS Kearsage” veteran baseball cap. Striking up a conversation with him, we learned that the Kearsage was the ship assigned to pluck Gemini, Mercury and Apollo astronauts from the ocean when they plunged to their return. He beamed with pride in sharing his relationship with history, and later pointed out a display in the museum to me, emphasizing a baffling fact: “From first flight to the moon in 66 years,” he said. “Think about it.”
Rhett – Manager of the Buzz’s Roost restaurant and bar in Georgetown, South Carolina, whose streetside pitch lured us into the joint in pursuit of boiled shrimp and a dose of local karaoke. He was slick, in his reversed leather driving cap and black jeans, and welcomed a pair of northerners as though to his dining room table. Rhett beckoned us in, explaining that they’d gone slightly upscale with their cuisine to compete with the other (both??) restaurants on main street. Earnest and imploring, he posed a tough pitch to resist.
The real characters of the joint were the performers, though:
- Mr. Ed, a 400+ pounder who seemed either a regular fixture or part owner of the place, as many patrons stopped by to pay their respects on their way to the microphone.
- John Wayne. A slight, wizened guy in a floppy western hat, John (yep, that’s his real name) had a hankerin’ for Hank Williams and long neck buds. He did a serviceable job on the former, a damned good job on the latter.
- Steve Buscemi lookalike, who got drunker, more off tune and out of control as the night wore on. Funny thing was, the crowd seemed to like him more the worse he got.
- The dancers. I touched on the winner of the T-shirt dance-off in an earlier post, but I’m still haunted by the memory of the reubenesque winner whose gyrations in a microskirt are tough to forget.
- John – volunteer receptionist at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, NC. Ours was the only car in the lot when we pulled in, and I think John had spent much of the day in solitude, reading the German history of World War II to while away the hours. He seemed happy to have someone to talk to, so he shared his history of 28 years as a submarine crewmember during the Cold War. He spoke of his 78-day submersion, the chilling effects of living underwater in close conditions for extended periods of time, and his dissertation more than made up for the fact that the museum’s displays were for the most part non-existent as they underwent repair.
- Rooster – The towering 70+ year old blues crooner, festooned in his brilliant red leather suit, a consummate showman who sang, danced an old man’s shuffle and generally entertained as he has for over 30 years on Bourbon Street. He’s a fixture in The Blues Bar. Check him out. Taking a shining to Gabi, he settled in next to her while singing some suggestive blues ballad, stealing a smooch on her cheek then picking up – as men are wont to do – on her accent. He surprised us by reaching into his back pocket for his wallet and, using his lighter to guide the way, proudly showed us a photo of his British-born wife of 19 years. We never left the Blues Bar the one night we were in Nawlins, expressly due to Roosters’ crowing. At one point an inebriated woman danced a solo on the floor with a blue boa, leaving a trail of blue feathers behind as she retreated to her laughing friends. I told Rooster – who was sitting at the bar letting the band carry a few tunes without him – that it looked to me like Rooster had plucked a blue chicken. He roared and gave me his business card.
- The old guy at Wayne’s Barbecue, Livingston, La. – Having pulled off the highway for lunch, we stopped on the way out to chat with one of the wait staff and an old man she was sitting with as she took a break. Turns out he worked for a bit in Lunenburg, Mass., and we talked about Central Mass., Ft. Devens and his life in the concrete abutment business. He seemed amused when we told him we’d spent the night in Kosciusko, Miss. (pronouncing it “koSHEWsko”, as my Polish friends in Pioneer Valley had when I was a kid, some of them indirect descendants of the famous Polish General). He took his hat off, scratched his brushcut head, and said, “Oh, y’all mean KosEEesKo. Buncha towns up that way got Indian names.” As my dad loved to say, never argue with an expert. So I didn’t, and we thanked them for lunch and hit the road again.
- Varine Carr. Lord knows how old Varine is, but this manager of the Shangri La Resort in Ouachita, Ark. seemed constantly in motion during our two-day stay there. Up well before dawn to make pies (her daughter-in-law told us her daily max had been 50 – that’s Five-oh!), then doing dishes, making change, chatting with her neighbors or regulars who’d stopped by for one of the three meals the Shangri La café serves seven days a week. She reminded me of my mom, a white-haired dynamo whose presence set a tone of down-home, stick to your ribs comfort. Varine was a major reason why we decided to stay an extra night and drink in the wonders of Arkansas, the Shangri La, and Lake Ouachita. Varine and her husband bought the place 53 years ago, and though he passed away five years ago she continues to run it with her three sons and their families, taking a break only in November and December to re-charge the batteries and get ready for the next fishing season.
So far, people have been incredibly engaging and friendly, waving hello from a distance and asking where we’re from if they got close enough. We’ve steered clear of talking about Ted Kennedy, healthcare, or our support of President Obama, and that’s probably helped keep the conversations upbeat and positive.
It’s been a bit weird, often dining in the presence of stuffed animals and huge fish, as locals proudly display their mastery of wildlife either as a show of superiority or a means to feed themselves.
Overheard at dinner at the ShangriLa:
“How many deer did you keel last year?’
“Ah got four. Three huntin’, and one I run down on the road.”
“Shoulda keeled more, that way I’d worry less about runnin’ ‘em down on the road.”