10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.

Undiscovered New York: Drinking History in New York’s Oldest Bars

Welcome back to Gadling’s weekly series, Undiscovered New York. Don’t act surprised when I tell you we like our bars here in New York. Sure, you can grab some suds in just about any town in the United States, but New York boasts a culture of drinking that goes hand-in-hand with the manic highs and crushing lows of our obsessive-compulsive residents. Just take a look at some of New York’s most famous residents as proof.

Writer Dylan Thomas supposedly drank as many as 18 shots of whiskey one fateful night 1953 before meeting his maker. Beyond Thomas, New York has frequently played host to a literal “who’s who” of famous alcoholic artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Jackson Pollack. Tragic as their alcoholic deaths may be, their lives are inextricably linked to New York’s hard-boozing culture and legendary taverns and nightspots.

Which leads us to another question – are any of these historic watering holes still open for business? Nobody is saying 18 shots of whiskey is a good idea for anyone, but wouldn’t it be neat to throw back one or two in the same spot as Thomas? What about a bar that’s been open since the Civil War? Click below to get Gadling’s picks of New York’s best historic bars.Bar One: McSorley’s Old Ale House
When you talk about historic bars in New York City, the first name off most people’s lips is McSorley’s. Irish immigrant John McSorley first opened the doors to his legendary ale house on East 7th street in 1854. Since then the bar has played host to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John Lennon. Females give thanks – up until 1970, McSorley’s did not permit women patrons, a policy reinforced by the bar’s slogan: “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.” When you stop by down a few pints of McSorley’s famous ale, make sure to drink in the bar’s amazing atmosphere including sawdust-strewn floors and a huge cast-iron furnace behind the bar.

Bar Two: Chumley’s
Ah Chumley’s. Perhaps one of New York’s most famous writer bars, Chumley’s is a former speakeasy and haunt of some of New York’s most famous literary residents. An unmarked door at 86 Bedford Street hides the entrance to the preferred watering hole of such greats as William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and E.E. Cummings. Sadly, structural problems with the building forced the closure of Chumley’s in 2007. But fear not, the reconstruction is in progress – we’re all hopeful that Chumley’s will be back in business later this year.

Bar Three: White Horse Tavern
Opened in 1880, the White Horse Tavern may not be New York’s oldest bar, but it more than makes up for it with historic charm. A West Village favorite in the 50’s and 60’s, the White Horse was played host to New York’s thriving bohemian artist scene, including regulars like our friend Dylan Thomas as well as another famous Dylan (Bob) and other cool cats like Jack Kerouac and Doors frontman Jim Morrison.

Bar Four: The Ear Inn

Dating from 1817, The Ear Inn was a famous haunt for New York’s longshoremen, who passed the hours drinking pints awaiting the arrival of merchant ships on the nearby Hudson waterfront. The Ear Inn was originally owned by James Brown, aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The upstairs of The Ear Inn has an interesting history as well, serving at various points as a smuggler hideaway, a brothel and also as a boarding house. Some say the ghost of “Mickey,” a former sailor still awaiting the arrival of his ship, haunts the bar’s interior. I guess when your drink disappears suddenly you now have a built in excuse.

Bar Five: Brooklyn Inn
Manhattan does not have a monopoly on historic bars, and the Brooklyn Inn is proof. The bar’s beautiful interior is adorned with hardwood and intricate tin ceilings. Believe it or not, the carved wood bar was imported piece by piece from Germany. While you take a moment to comprehend the logistics behind such a feat, don’t forget to check out the bar’s eclectic jukebox which boasts some killer tunes for the hood’s legion of music snobs.