Category: southern hospitality

Travelling without a Plan…Houston to Nashville Road Trip

I love to travel to the deep south of the United States, especially in the fall. While winter is threatening at home, the weather in Texas feels like summer.  The leaves are all gone in Alberta, yet the trees along the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi are just starting to change colour. The beaches in Biloxi on the Gulf Coast are deserted in October.  Flights are cheaper and accommodations are easy to find. And of course… the Houston Astros won the World Series while we were there so it was definitely a great time to travel.

Plan #1

This trip took many forms and in the end, was not recognizable from our original plans. We wanted to travel to North Carolina by way of Houston to see the fall colours in the Blue Ridge Mountains and visit our son and daughter-in-law who live in Texas. They have an old car of ours that we thought we could pick up there and drive through the Carolinas and be home within our 2 week time limit.  We booked our flight to Houston which was only $180 each for one way.

Change of plans #1

The car wouldn’t start.  It is old and not currently registered in the United States.  My son and a friend spent an afternoon trying to boost it, to no avail. We priced renting a car in Houston and flying home from Raleigh, NC.  but hat would cost about $1200 for 2 weeks because we weren’t returning it to the point of pickup.  That meant we could only travel at most, one week away from Houston.  I booked a flight back home, at $110 each.  Peter’s plan was still to try to get the car running so he was not interested in making plans until he sorted out the car.

Plan #2

The Houston Astros were in the playoffs so we decided to make this a fall sporting trip.  We looked online at the possible sporting events besides baseball.  The Formula 1 was in Austin.  University of Houston Texans were playing football at home and Ole Miss in Oxford, MS had 2 home football games while we were there.  That sounded like a great plan.  We would rent a car and attend some events we had only seen on TV. We booked a rental car for a week for $180.

If we stayed in Houston for a few days we could see the car race and the University Game.  We might even get lucky and get a baseball ticket.  Then we would travel to Nashville for a chance to hear some country music and come back through Mississippi to hang out at a tailgate party in the Grove in Oxford, then watch a home game.  We would return to Houston for more baseball then fly home.  We might even fit in a little golf along the way.

Change of Plans #2

The grandstand tickets for the Formula 1 in Austin were sold out on their website, although there were a few for some of the curves along the track.  It would be a very hot day standing in the sun in one spot.

There was a Dynamos soccer game in Houston on Sunday afternoon with seats. That seemed a better plan. We decided to watch the start of the race on TV on Sunday then go to the soccer game.

That left Thursday to golf at Tour 18.  It is an 18 hole course “inspired” by famous PGA courses including Amen Corner at Augusta and the 17th Island green at Sawgrass.  I only had a few of my clubs tucked into Peter’s bag and no golf shoes, but it was fun to play with my son and husband, and I enjoyed the heat. Peter was 2 under through Amen Corner so he really enjoyed it. The Texas fairways are rough but very thick and fluffy so the balls sits right down in the bottom.

No Plans…Let’s see what happens

Friday was a day to tour around Houston. There were some neighborhoods with so much debris still piled up on the street in front of their houses as a result of Hurricane Harvey.  It consisted primarily of demolition materials removed from flooded homes.  Some houses were having roofs re-shingled.  For the most part, though, it was hard to believe that they had been under so much water a couple of months ago.

We spent the evening at the Beer Market Co.  The playoff game with the Yankees was on.  It was exciting to watch a home playoff game with locals all cheering for their team, and then to have the home team win.  It was almost as good as being at the game, but a lot less expensive.  The quality of craft beer in the USA has continued to improve over the years we have travelled there.  I had a delicious Lemon Ginger Radler.

Plans that changed me

Our kids were busy on Saturday so we decided to volunteer with a group from their church, Bayou City Fellowship.  We met in an area of the city that was needy before Hurricane Harvey and even more so afterwards.  The church had received supplies and donations from around the country for the past couple of weeks.  They had made up bags of cleaning supplies and had many boxes of toiletries, bleach, garbage bags, blankets, towels, toilet paper and paper towels.

Other church members arrived with vehicles full of supplies they had not required in the flood clean up of their own homes.  Mosquito repellent, brooms and mops as well as more bleach were common items.  Someone had donated a couple of cases of new children’s backpacks which brought big smiles to those children who needed one. There were maybe 25-30 volunteers, including several children.

Distribution Process

A large cube truck arrived about 8:30 am.  It contained the donations, as well as some small tents and tables. A large speaker played upbeat music to try to make the day seem a bit more festive. Several people from the line came and helped unload the truck. We set up 4 stations and sorted everything. There were 3-4 people in each tent to distribute the donations. Those volunteers who weren’t at a station helped those in line with their things or just talked with them to see how they were doing. We had to be aware of family groups and give an allotment to each family, not to each member.  This was difficult as several small groups claimed not to be together. Apparently the line to receive supplies had begun to form about 6:30 in the morning.

Many thanked us although several didn’t speak any English.  One woman was thrilled to get a broom!  The odd donated bottle of dish soap or laundry soap created great excitement and work gloves and masks were much appreciated. It was difficult to chat as the line was long and moved steadily.  It was really hard when we ran out of supplies before we ran out of people after about 2 hours.  I got to go home and sit by the pool in the sun.  They had to go back to their damp homes.

Things that struck me about Volunteering

  • Some of the volunteers had been flooded at home too.
  • People are people whether they have or whether they need.
  • I wanted to feel proud about offering to help in a place that needed it, but it wasn’t about me.  I was honored and humbled to have been given the opportunity to serve others.
  • We were asked to see the change in us as a result of being part of this day, to see the world in a new way.

If you want to know more about the continuing relief effort of this group in Houston, check out the church link above.  It includes some moving stories.

Our plans send us north

It was hot on Saturday, but Sunday morning began with a thunder-storm.  When it rains here, it really comes down, even when it’s not a hurricane.

We had several recommendations about trying Airbnb home sharing service and decided to try it out in Nashville.  We booked a private bedroom and bathroom, plus use of the living room for $118 for 2 nights.  Since it was our first booking, we received a $53 discount after that.  Last minute booking is much easier in October than in the height of the summer.

If you might want to try this service, set it up at home first as they want to send you an email and phone text to confirm your information.  We had our phone plans set to just wifi so this was a challenge.  The app made it easier to communicate with hosts over wifi.  Here is a discount link  to Airbnb

Finding the Natchez Trace Parkway

The roads out of Houston are much like the roads in Houston…filled with traffic.  We chose to take as many backroads between Houston and Nashville as possible.  It is over 1200 km so we planned two days to complete our journey.  Our last-minute planning searches for things to do in Nashville revealed that the Calgary Flames were playing hockey against the Nashville Predators in two days time.  What luck!

Natchez was our first stop.  It is a small city on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.  It looks to me like a cross between Vicksburg, MS and New Orleans, LA.  as it is filled with old antebellum homes and has several walking tours for architecture or views of nature.

It is also the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows the old trade routes from the SW corner of Mississippi to mid Tennessee, ending in Nashville, a distance of 440 miles.  It has a slower speed limit, no signs or billboards are allowed, but there are lots of picnic areas and historical points of interest. We saw deer and wild turkeys along the way, but on the first section from Natchez to Jackson, MS, we didn’t see another car in our lane.  October is a great time to travel in the south.

We spent the night in a hotel in Jackson, MS, of Uptown Funk fame, and continued on the second part of the trip towards Nashville.  We had a coffee stop in a little place called French Camp, where we hoped to have a scheduled phone conference meeting with Alberta Golf.  It just happened to be the place where all cell service ceased to exist.

Entrance and exit points to the Trace are limited, so we were lucky to find a little cafe in Dennis, MS, run by a woman and her sister-in-law.  There were a few relatives and a couple of locals in for lunch but the chili and grilled cheese were only $5 and tasty.  The service was so friendly and the stories were great.  Small family restaurants are so worth a stop.

Last Minute Plans in Nashville

We arrived in Nashville with just enough time to check out our Air BnB and get to the hockey game.  The Predator fans are serious about hockey!  We saw so many jerseys, scarves, socks and jackets in Preds colours.  We got  tickets at the back of the middle bowl for about $50 each.  It was fun to be part of this crowd since they had secret chants and cheers for different parts of the game. The game ended with a shoot-out and Calgary won.  We were so glad that we hadn’t filled all of our time and were able to fit in the only sporting event that we hadn’t considered before we left home.

 

Our hosts recommended the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Trolley bus tour of Nashville. Both were well worth the time.  The Hall of Fame was busy, but it had a great historical perspective on country music as well as influences from a large number of performers.  There was a wall of gold records and the Hall of Fame itself is a round room with all the inductees arranged randomly on 5 line staves.  The museum commissioned a painting for the room that included a variety of musical styles and transportation methods used as these styles were becoming popular.  They really did a wonderful job in this museum.

Unplanned Hop On, Hop Off Tour

Bill, our driver, knew so many stories about this city.  He told jokes and connected the past to the present in such an interesting way.  He knew who owned most of the recording studios, where Taylor Swift just bought a new penthouse (and the rest of the building under it), how long the line up might be at Hot Chicken as well as the growth in the number of hotels in the city and why there is a full size replica of the  Parthenon in Nashville.  We were enjoying his performance so much that we decided to stay on the bus for the entire route and hop off on the second loop if we saw something we really wanted to see with more time.  As it turned out, most of what interested us were within walking distance after we got off the bus.

It was well after 3 when we finished all the exploring and we wanted to eat some Tennessee BBQ.  Jack’s had a combo plate we shared with ribs, brisket and pork shoulder and 2 sides. According to our trolley driver, mac and cheese is considered a vegetable so we had to check it out.  They served the meat without sauce, which is served on the side.  There was the choice of Tennessee sauce which is vinegar based and tangy, Texas which is think and tomatoey and St. Louis which was sweet and smoky.  That was my favorite.

Unplanned Music…But what else would you do in Nashville?

Broadway is the main street in the downtown area.  Even though the hockey arena has the same address, most of the buildings from the arena to the river are small bars that have live music from 11am until after midnight.  Some are 2 or 3 levels with music on each level.  Up and coming musicians perform for 3 or 4 hours.  You can go in and listen for a bit then move on if the music isn’t to your taste.  Most of the songs are covers of country stars with a few original tunes in the mix.

We listened to a couple of guys sing in Margaritaville after the hockey game.  They were entertaining with their spin a song wheel to help them with their playlist.

The second night we went into Barlines Bar in the Omni Hotel.  It is across from the convention Center and was really busy when we arrived, but they found us a table right at the stage.  We listened to Hali Hicks.  She had a session guitarist, Jeffrey Weaver, playing with her for the evening.  With her voice and his masterful playing, it was great entertainment.  The local craft beer was excellent and then the Flames vs St. Louis game was broadcast on the screen beside the stage.  And then game 2 between the Dodgers and Astros started on the huge screen behind the musicians.  Could we have planned it any better?

Back to Mississippi

Our son went to college and also got married in Mississippi so we have been there a few times before.  The land near the river is a flat agricultural floodplain where they grow cotton and soybeans.  Cotton was being harvested while we were there.  They kill the leaves which exposes the cotton and makes for easier picking.  It was strange for us to see bales of cotton as large as haystacks would be in Alberta.  The eastern part of the state consists of large pine and oak forests.

We returned on the Trace towards the NW part of the state where Oxford is located.  Our Airbnb hosts lived in the country on a beautiful acreage.  They were so gracious and made us feel like family.  If you want to learn about the people and get a real sense of the place, then this kind of accommodation might be right for you.  We don’t have much experience yet, but it felt like an upscale hostel stay.

We also spent a couple of evenings with our daughter-in-law’s parents in Grenada, MS.  They were so hospitable and even though we technically are family, they treated us so well.  Those who live in the southern part of the United States really have their own culture and way of seeing the world.  It made me think of the Canadians who live in Quebec and want to protect their language and culture within a larger country.  Being kind and gracious to visitors is certainly part of that culture.

Change of Plans #2 Again

Our plans to attend the Ole Miss football game in Oxford seemed too complicated to be worth pursuing.  Tickets were $90 each for a college game although the resale sites had better prices.  We weren’t able to connect with any of our son’s friends to meet up and trying to find parking in this football crazy town (think The Blind Side) made our plan more energy than it was worth.  We decided to change our plans and head south to the Gulf Coast.

Biloxi was a short overnight stop. The beach was white and the sunset spectacular.  The Star Hotel was reasonably priced with friendly staff and the restaurant across the street had a nice wood fire, delicious seafood, local beer and the Astros playing game 6.

Even though we made our road trip based on our wish to attend the football game in Oxford, it was okay that our plans changed. If we hadn’t headed north, we would have missed out on Nashville, the Flames game, our wonderful hosts at Country Living BNB, visits with our Mississippi family and a wonderful night on the Gulf coast.

Being retired and having flexible travel time makes planning on the fly much easier than when I could only travel on school holidays, to the places everyone else wanted to visit.  The fact that we have family living in the area helps reduce the anxiety of having a place to stay.  Try it on your next trip.  Leave some time open for opportunities to present themselves or people to come into your life.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Oriental, North Carolina…I have time, I can travel

Although we are home from our winter in Thailand, I am still retired.  Being open and available to opportunities that present themselves is key to a successful retirement.

Jeanne

I met Jeanne in Thailand when she moved into our building for a month.  I admired her nerve and her interest in the world.  She had already been travelling alone for 2 months throughout SE Asia, as a single at times, as part of a booked group at other times.  Being 67 did not deter her from walking 5 or 6 km every day or tasting all the street food.

She was quick to join into a group of regulars who had happy hour every afternoon in our yard.  She talked to everyone and listened for the best places to tour, to eat and shop for fresh fruit.  Her energy was infectious. I got to know her when her phone was so full of pictures that the red bar couldn’t be ignored for another day.  I helped her download them to her computer and set up a Google Photo album.  Her blog site needed a little help too.

Oriental, North Carolina

Before she left for Malaysia, her last stop before returning home to North Carolina, she told me about her “girl’s retreat”.  Every year she has access to a large guesthouse in her hometown of Oriental.  She invites people that she connected with in her travels abroad and her life at home, women that made a positive impression on her.  When I received my email invitation in March, I was ecstatic!

I decided that I had time and AirMiles so booked a flight from Calgary, through Toronto to Raleigh, North Carolina.  A rental car and 3 hours got me to Oriental on Sunday evening, May 7.

Stallings House

The Stallings House, where we stayed, was built in 1890 and sits on a large lot facing the 3 mile wide Neuce River.  It has 5 bedrooms on 2 levels and an open third level with several beds.  A sitting room, large dining room, kitchen and several bathrooms fill the rest of the house.  There are 2 wrap-around verandas overlooking the river.  This old home is often rented for weddings or large family gatherings.  Jeanne did quite a lot of work on the house and bartered the use of this great accommodation for a week every year.

 

The Retreat May 8-11

There were 16 people stayed in the house.  I was from the farthest away.  There were 2 women from New York State that Jeanne had met in Viet Nam this winter.  There were 4 women from western NC who had travelled with her to China in 1982.  Another woman from Atlanta met her in Australia on another trip.  Jeanne’s cousin and a friend arrived from northern NC and another woman arrived from Florida. There were more but too many stories to keep straight.

There were about 25-30 local women who came and went through the week.

Things to Do

We spent the week doing a variety of activities that were mainly planned by the people who attended.

  • The town mayor/bank manager, Sally, used to visit the house as a girl and shared her stories with us from a book she is writing about her life in Oriental.

Sally’s stories

  • Flora, a 70 year old who won the over 60 North Carolina beauty contest demonstrated her incredible skills as a belly dancer

  • pedicures, facials and massages were also done on the lawn by the river

  • boat trips along the rivers and creeks in the area provided beautiful views and more history on the area and its connection to fishing and sailing
  • Miss Faye, who is a 94 years old, teaches several exercise classes a week.  She spoke on why the same streets have different names in Oriental.  She allowed us to visit her yard where she feeds about 40 turtles dog food every night in a creek behind her house.  They come when she calls.  She is also a Senior Olympian and Humanacare Game Changer. Check out the link about her and her daughter.
  • Pat brought driftwood, paint and wine to spend the afternoon deciding what we saw in our wood and bring it to life with colour.  Most women got right after it with excitement, even before they had their wine.  It surprised me the number who were very uncomfortable with this creative activity.  Their elementary art teachers must not have been very supportive.  Now that I’m in my 50’s I don’t really care anymore what others think of my creative projects.
  • Cheryl took a small group of us who live outside the state on a boat trip to Cape Lookout.  We travelled through the inland waterway, past Shakleford Banks to the lighthouse at Cape Lookout.  There were wild horses, dolphins and an enormous sea turtle along the way.  Many fishermen were fishing in small boats and there were several shrimp boats with the large booms holding the nets out to the side. We were gone all day.

Things to Eat

  • Finola and her husband, originally from Ireland served us high tea on proper china with cucumber sandwiches and scones with cream and jam.
  • Miss Lilly, who was on a cooking show, “Chef and the Farmer” spent the day with us teaching us how to make proper biscuits.  She used lard, buttermilk and self-rising flour.  The lard and buttermilk went into a well inside the flour and was squished together until it was “silky”.  Then it was swirled in the bowl until it incorporated enough flour to make a ball.  The biscuits were squeezed off the ball, flattened in the hand and the edges rolled under.  The baking sheet was filled and then baked.  I’ve never seen any technique like that before.  The results were delicious, especially with some local honey brought by a woman in the group.
  • We visited Georgie’s crab shedding operation.  When crabs get too big for their shells, they molt their shell and purge all their digestive tract and lungs.  Within 2 hours they start to grow new shells and organs.  If they are taken out of the water and put into the fridge, they can’t grow a new shell.  The upper skin is removed with scissors and you are left with a crab that is only meat.  Georgie came to the house one evening and dredged the crabs in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and deep fried them.  Eating outside on the lawn by the river at long tables made the food taste great.  The crabs, though, would be delicious no matter where you ate them.
  • Carol made chef salad for everyone’s lunch one day. This is Laura eating the salad.  Carol is enjoying the pedicure.

Food of North Carolina

Other things I ate for the first time

  • pimento cheese dip and sandwiches.  Everyone in North Carolina seemed to have their own special recipe, but the general ingredients are grated cheddar/monterey jack cheese, pimento, mayonnaise/Miracle Whip and maybe a little grated onion.

  • Grits mixed with chopped ham and bacon, butter and eggs then baked as muffins.  It also reappeared another morning baked in a casserole dish.  Laura arranged for Kentucky bacon and sausage to be sent to the house for this event.
  • low country boil.  After the Girl’s Retreat, Jeanne invited some old high school classmates from the class of ’67 for a “Big Chill” weekend.  Pat cooked up a boil for me before I left at the end of the week.  It consisted of new potatoes, corn on the cob chunks, kielbasa and beautiful shrimp caught the day before.  They are all boiled together with Old Bay Seasoning.  The food is drained then dumped onto a table covered with newspaper and you just pick out a little of each, and a little more, and a little more…  There were several cocktail sauces made with differing amounts of hotness available and lots of paper towels.  What a feast!
  • Not new but a catfish sandwich for lunch the first day.  Crispy fish topped with coleslaw and served between 2 slices of white bread.
  • North Carolina IPA and wheat beer
  • And I caught a fish…

Pin fish used for bait.

Lots of relaxing and story sharing

I had the best time with new people in a new place and I can’t wait to get back to this part of the world again.

Full moon over the river