Cross-country road trip from Bend
Slideshow, Part 2: Epic road trip visits the South, New Orleans, Florida and more

The second half of my 4,500-mile, cross-country drive with photographer Barb Gonzalez was markedly different from the first leg.

Having agreed to deliver his 2006 Toyota Camry to her son, who had moved to Orlando, Fla., we set out from Bend on April 1. Within 10 days we had made it as far as Kansas City, Mo., traveling more than 2,000 miles across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains on interstate highways and country roads. That part of our travel was documented in these pages a week ago.

We broke the second section of the journey into two parts. Leaving Kansas City on April 11, we traveled via Memphis and New Orleans to Orlando, arriving in the entertainment capital — best known as the home of the Walt Disney World theme parks — on April 18. After a stay of five nights, we proceeded to Miami and Key West, Fla., the farthest point to which we could drive in the mainland United States. We flew back to Central Oregon from Fort Lauderdale on April 29.

En route, we had our senses assaulted by the American South — our eyes, our ears and our taste buds. Winding through the Ozark hill country to the lower Mississippi Delta, we spent nearly a week in the cradle of American blues and jazz music, venturing from Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion to the Dixieland clubs of New Orleans.

But far more than that, we embraced a new understanding and appreciation of the trials of our country’s African American culture. From the National Civil Rights Museum, on the site of the Martin Luther King assassination in Memphis, to the former slave quarters on the Oak Alley Plantation near New Orleans; from Kansas City to Key West, with all the stops in between; we found ourselves immersed in one lesson about black history after another.

Ozarks to Memphis

Our first day’s drive from Kansas City was a long one — about 450 miles through Missouri and Arkansas to Memphis, Tenn., on the Mississippi River. We made a short visit to Branson, Mo., which has a reputation as a country-music capital filled with theaters and music halls. We found it to be a heavily commercial, disjointed strip, extending for more than five miles west from the original town to manmade Table Rock Lake. We acknowledged Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede and the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Happy Trails Theater, nodded at the God and Country Theatre and the Lawrence Welk Resort, and left just as quickly as we had arrived.

Far more charming was the Ozark Folk Center, an Arkansas state park just outside the small hill town of Mountain View.

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Founded more than a half-century ago to preserve the traditional heritage of the Ozark Mountain region, the Folk Center includes a crafts village of 24 separate buildings, where volunteers demonstrate everything from spinning to candlemaking, and an auditorium where people dance to the sound of banjos, mandolins and dulcimers. We enjoyed a lengthy conversation with Sherman Anderson, a semi-retired craftsman who demonstrated his skill in making spinning tops with a foot lathe. Then we were back on the road.

Two nights in Memphis were really not enough, but we made the most of our visit. Number one on our list of places to go was Graceland mansion, the erstwhile home of Elvis Presley (1935-77), whom many fans consider the greatest popular singer of the 20th century.

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So popular is the 13.8-acre estate, we saw license plates from across the country in the stadium-sized parking lot. Shuttle buses whisk visitors to the mansion every few minutes for the start of guided tours that include Presley’s fabled “Jungle Room”; the trophy building, where scores of gold and platinum records are displayed; and the graves of the singer and his parents. Then they return to a commercial complex that features a half-dozen gift shops, the singer’s private automobile collection, and exhibits about his life and career.

We were far more impressed by the National Civil Rights Museum. Encompassing the historic Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968, the museum opened in 1991 but completed a $28 million renovation only a week before our arrival. And it held us spellbound.

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Beginning with a history of the European colonial slave trade in Africa, it related the early history of slavery in the United States and the century of blatant discrimination that followed the Civil War. Multimedia exhibits told of the violence to which African Americans were subjected well into the 20th century, the courage that so many displayed in nonviolent protests, and the inspiration their efforts lent to civil-rights movements in other countries.

Blues country

We spent our second night in Memphis on Beale Street, its wall-to-wall nightclub scene extending for several blocks. From B.B. King’s Blues Club to the Rum Boogie Cafe, and including the historic Orpheum Theatre, Beale is lined with neon-lighted music clubs, restaurants and bars where the booze flows freely, long into the night.

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King was born and raised in Mississippi’s Delta Country. So, too, were other famed blues musicians who made their marks in Memphis and elsewhere around the country — artists like Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke and Johnny Winter. When we left Memphis, we headed down U.S. Highway 61, made famous by Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, and down Mississippi’s designated “Blues Trail.” More than 150 roadside markers introduce travelers to the people, places and events that shaped the blues artists’ lives.

Little more than an hour’s drive southwest of Memphis, these signs led us into Clarksdale, a town of about 20,000 where, serendipity awaited: We found a blues festival in progress. On sidewalks and street corners throughout the otherwise quiet community, impromptu concerts inspired foot stomping, hand clapping and shouts of approval from people who had the foresight to bring their own lawn chairs. Cherokee tamales were the snack of choice. And just down the street, in the old train depot, the Delta Blues Museum recalled the careers of Clarksdale natives Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton, among many others.

That night we made it as far as Vicksburg, Miss., a strategic Mississippi River town with a rich Civil War history and a floating casino in an old paddle-wheeler along Catfish Row. We took time the next morning to drive slowly through Vicksburg National Military Park, learning about an 1863 siege that helped Union forces to gain control of traffic on the lower Mississippi, and thus turn the tide of war in their favor.

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Caught in a severe thunderstorm between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, we detoured into Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation, an antebellum estate and national historic landmark on 25 acres. It was raining so hard, we weren’t certain if the Mississippi River levees were holding the water in or out of the grounds. A guided tour of the Greek Revival-style “big house,” framed by rows of graceful Virginia oak trees, introduced us to the pre-Civil War lifestyle of the Jacques Roman family. Their main cash crop was sugar cane, the farming of which relied upon slave labor; exhibits in the reconstructed slave quarters now describe the day-to-day lives of these men and women, who are remembered only by their first names.

New Orleans

Thunder and lightning greeted us to New Orleans. “NOLA,” as it is known to residents and visitors alike, is one of this country’s truly distinctive cities, its unique geographical location and history having bestowed upon it a rich Creole-Cajun culture unlike any other city.

We stayed in the French Quarter at the ornate Maison Dupuy, a delightful boutique hotel comprised of five adjacent townhouses — one of which once housed the nation’s first cotton press. Located midway between Bourbon and Basin streets, and a mere six blocks from the broad Mississippi, the hotel is central to many of the city’s leading attractions.

We spent two full days in New Orleans, mainly exploring our fabled neighborhood. We took in the singular architecture of colorful facades, arched windows and wrought-iron railings. We visited St. Louis Cathedral overlooking Jackson Square, where jazz musicians perform day and night. We stopped by Preservation Hall, whose nightly jazz concerts are legendary. We wandered into the district cemeteries, its lavish crypts rising high above the ground so that flood waters will never carry the bodies away, and through shops devoted to voodoo religious artifacts and Mardi Gras masquerade attire.

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And then there was the food. Me-oh-my-oh — jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo. Beignets with espresso in the morning. Oyster po’ boys or red beans and rice at midday. Etoufée and alligator sausage. New Orleans’ culinary universe extends far beyond the flavors that chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse have made famous.

We had our best meal of the entire trip at the Commander’s Palace, where chef Tory McPhail, born and raised in Washington state, was honored by the James Beard Foundation as the best chef in the American South just a year ago. The Garden District restaurant is no less spectacular, a colorful and sprawling 1880 Victorian landmark with turrets, columns and gingerbread trim surrounding a central courtyard. McPhail served us an amazing contemporary Creole repast that featured farmed turtle soup, shrimp with pickled okra, seared fois gras and spicy veal tenderloin.

We ventured out of the city once on a half-day “swamp and bayou” tour of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

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Traveling through the Barataria Preserve on a flat-bottomed boat, we saw at least a dozen alligators — some of them nestled in tall grasses or on muddy banks, others swimming through the bayou channel — as well as wild pigs, nutria and a score of herons and other swamp birds. The excursion served to remind us that the natural environment is not far from NOLA’s urban frenzy.

Across Florida

There were fewer travel highlights as we continued east from New Orleans, sticking close to Interstate 10 as we followed the Gulf Coast through the southern legs of Mississippi and Alabama and into the Florida Panhandle. The white sandy beaches of Biloxi and Pascagoula, Miss., were beautiful indeed, but with the skies overcast and spring break looming, we pushed onward, overnighting in Tallahassee en route to Orlando.

We found no manatees at Manatee Springs State Park — days later, we finally sighted a trio of the ancient water mammals in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge — but we were impressed by the raw beauty of the flooded woodland along the Suwannee River, which flows through the state park. It was quite a contrast to the thoroughbred horse ranches of the Ocala area, second only to the bluegrass country of Kentucky.

Then we were in Orlando, where Barb reunited with her son, Evan, for five days. I relaxed at the Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive, a quiet oasis amidst the frenzied activity of one of the country’s busiest family vacationlands. Surrounded by amusement parks and franchise restaurants, I enjoyed a brief respite from travel. Disney World didn’t move me on an afternoon visit; even EPCOT Center seemed stale and in need of an upgrade or renovation.

Universal Studios Florida was a better investment. Barb and I were joined there one day by Evan and his girlfriend, Ashley Naranjo, and we wound up spending hours in the theme park’s Islands of Adventure section. At “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” we wandered the lanes of Hogsmeade village, rode through Hogwarts Castle, and even experienced the sensation of the sport of quidditch.

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Toon Lagoon and Seuss Landing helped me to recall some favorite comic characters from my youth, while the kids reveled in Marvel Super Hero Island. When I was done with the rides, I retired to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville for a cheeseburger in paradise.

We visited another of Barb’s relatives in Hallandale, a north Miami suburb, and said our goodbyes to Evan and Ash, who gratefully returned to Orlando in Evan’s car. Then we borrowed another vehicle for a final excursion to the Florida Keys.

Into the Keys

The Keys are an archipelago of coral islets that arc southwesterly for more than 150 miles from the tip of the mainland Florida peninsula. Dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico, they are linked by a single four-lane road, U.S. Highway 1, which crosses the fringe of Everglades National Park before spanning a causeway to Key Largo. Here, it’s known as the Overseas Highway, as extensive sections are built above the ocean waters.

At Lower Matecumbe Key in Islamorada, we stopped over at Robbie’s Marina, where we hand-fed bait fish to hungry wild tarpon and joined a 2½-hour snorkeling excursion. The world’s third-longest living coral reef (after those of Australia and Belize) lies a few miles offshore the Atlantic side of the Keys. Our catamaran made two stops above the reef, and we enjoyed swimming among a wide variety of tropical fishes and coral formations.

We could also have stopped to explore a sea-turtle rehabilitation hospital or to swim with dolphins. But we were anxious to reach Key West, certainly one of the mainland United States’ most isolated communities. And the town of 25,000 lived up to our expectations.

This was, after all, the town where author Ernest Hemingway lived during the 1930s and wrote several of his most famous novels, including “A Farewell to Arms” and “To Have and Have Not.” His legacy lives on at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where descendants of his six-toed cats maintain a constant presence.

Key West also was the place where President Harry S Truman maintained the “Little White House,” where he came to escape the pressures of life in the nation’s capital in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

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The residence today is open to tours. It’s just down the block from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which preserves the shipwreck bounty rescued from Spanish galleons by the noted treasure hunter of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Tall ships take visitors on sunset tours from the Historic Seaport at Key West Bight, where seaside saloons complement the less atmospheric bars along Duval Street.

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We preferred the seafood at The Stoned Crab, a wonderful restaurant at the Ibis Bay Beach Resort. At the urging of the hotel’s Australian immigrant owner, Chris Holland, we spent a couple of evening hours paddling illuminated glass-bottom kayaks over shallow sea waters. The wealth of nocturnal ocean life, from unusual sponges to lobsters and barracudas, was amazing.

Final thoughts

What a trip! We’d do it again in a heartbeat — after sufficient recovery time, of course. We would probably select a different route next time, although both of us would love to spend more time in several cities, such as Memphis and New Orleans.

A cross-country trip is a great way to experience the diversity of the United States. From the high mountains and wide-open spaces of the West, through the vast farmlands of the Great Plains and Midwest, and into the lush woodlands and waterways of the Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast region, we had a memorable month.

Our encounters with man and nature will remain with us for a lifetime. While we are happier than ever to call Central Oregon home, we learned a great deal about places and regional cultures, helping us to better understand the needs and desires of Americans from parts of the country different than our own. These were things we never learned in a classroom.

I understand now what the well-traveled Mark Twain meant when he wrote: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

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