Two-thousand nine-hundred miles to go. We're heading south on I-81 and I've never seen more farmland, more Amish-country, mustard field, grassy rolling hills into red barn farmland. I'm practically waiting for a buggy to roll by. Pennsylvania must be the most beautiful state I've ever seen. Ian and I are driving towards North Carolina in Ian's red pick-up truck, our stuff bulging out in every direction, a kayak, bike, and cooler all strapped down to the roof of the cap. And, now, with this farmland in front of me, I've never wanted to stick my hands in moist, rich soil as much as I do now. It is exactly how John Grogan describes it in NY Times Bestseller Marley & Me (an endearing book about a young newspaper journalist and his chaotic yellow lab).
Over the next few hours we cross through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and into a leafy, almost rainforest-like North Carolina. The farther south we go the greener it gets--as if winter never touches these humid, soggy places. In Virginia, we pull off for dinner at an unassuming intersection with an Applebees and a Waffle House catty-corner to each other. Our choice? Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant—a plantation-like restaurant, with home-cooked perfectly battered fried chicken, warm, baked apples with hints of cinnamon, savory spoon bread (a rice pudding-textured corn bread that is salty and sweet and feels so good sticking to your tongue and your teeth), and proper Southern sweet tea.
It isn’t until after dark when we pull into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rain pelting us from above a canopy of giant trees. Because the park is sliced down the middle by the Tennessee/North Carolina border, the exact state our tent is pitched in is still in question, but the babbling brook nearby lilts us off to sleep—even if the ground we are sleeping on feels like the hardest slab of slate ever.
I tell Ian I want to take a walk in the morning, check out some of the looming park nearby, but in a tired state of thoughtlessness, Ian locks his keys in the car. Calling AAA is proving to be a feat up here in the mountains, and soon a crowd of fellow camping guys has gathered around the car, sticking knives and sticks and antennae into the crack in the door to jimmy it open and telling jokes in thick Southern slurs. It is a miracle when Ian manages to jab his antennae onto the unlock button.
We drive through the Appalachians for a while, winding past a boulder-filled riverbed in which the water level is too low for swimming. We pass through Maggie Valley, a small mountain town with storefronts that tout one tourist attraction after another—Ghost Town in The Sky, All-American Transportation Museum, Blue Ridge Gem Mine. It’s hokey here, but beautiful, and kids don’t seem to notice cheesy anyway. We pass through a Cherokee Reservation, with storefronts touting moccasins and Kachina dolls and I am reminded of a Kachina doll I once had, whose long, black eyelashes lolled up and down when I moved her. We pass the 1996 Olympic’s White Water Rafting Course and Ian tells me this it the white water capital of the U.S. and I believe him. Every building we see is another adventure company guiding trips down the Ocoee River. Gates are set up through each rapids course for more technical trips.
Heading south on I-81 again, we have a destination in mind: Dreamland BBQ, a restaurant I read about in Travel + Leisure. After descending out of North Carolina, we pass through a leafy Georgia and into sweltering Alabama. We pull off the highway in Tuscaloosa, a honey-suckle scented backwoods neighborhood of Alabama where mouth-watering Dreamland is located. On your way to Dreamland, your nose will tell you if you are headed in the right direction long before your eyes see their sign. Inside, the place is a dive: no windows and the walls are covered in college sports teams’ memorabilia. We sit down at a table next to a framed newspaper clipping of President Bush. Apparently the President placed an order of ribs to-go so he could enjoy them on a flight.
“We have three items,” says our buxom waitress in a thick Southern drawl, “Ribs. Potato chips. And banana puddin'.” Turns out, the ribs can actually be separated into three items also: Rib sandwich. Rib plate. Or slab of ribs. Before we can even order, a stack of white Wonder Bread on a paper plate is set on our red checkerboard cloth-covered table with the most delicious, spicy BBQ dipping sauce. A slab of ribs is plopped down before us, also drenched in the same sauce, and before we know it, the tender meat of the ribs has fallen off the bones into our mouths. A few sips of sweet tea, bellies full, we exit the restaurant to the sounds of church singing coming from a nearby service. Only, we can't see any churches, only small one-room wooden houses with chipping paint and clotheslines. The woman's voice is alone, singing words of hallelujah and we are back on the road headed for the once-fallen city of sin and indulgence, New Orleans...
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