I had no idea what to expect on my “Southern States Tour” of the U.S, but I knew I would come home changed and inspired to explore more. I had the pleasure of making new friends along the way, saving on costs and gaining many more great memories. Majority of my two week tour was spent in the grand state of Texas. We explored from the coast of the Gulf, along the border to the far western deserts of Big Bend National Park.
A few days before I ventured south, I posted an ad on Craiglist rideshare. Two guys my age, Phillip and Lucas, joined me for the ride to Nashville, leaving Lucas in Evansville, IN. Phillip was eventually heading to Houston and so I offered him to tag along to New Orleans. I picked up my fellow couchsurfer ,Tanja, and we left the next morning. A few hours from Nashville, we stopped in Lynchburg to tour the Jack Daniels Distillery. The tour is interesting and free to make up for the fact that it’s located in a dry county.
We arrived to our host’s place late, but it didn’t matter because we had the place to ourselves for two days. We were within walking distance from a nice park and the zoo. The architecture of the houses and downtown of New Orleans is really unique and I really enjoyed exploring the city. The music of city was something else and diverse throughout different bars.
A real treat was wandering the empty trails of Jean Lafitte National Park on Christmas day. The park was closed with few people around, so it felt like we had it all to ourselves. The temperature was mild and the forest was thick, trekking through as much as we could just in time to leave and watch the incoming storm on Bourbon Street.
I loved the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. Luckily, I appreciated it on Christmas day because I went back the next day and I hated it. The crowds of tourists, double parked vehicles, and nonstop traffic gridlocks these streets quick. In conclusion, Bourbon Street is great on Christmas during a thunderstorm and I am being completely honest. No crowds, a few weird encounters, and an afternoon of great laughs. Only thing that could top that afternoon is if a giant party broke out, lasting an entire week with women taking their shirts off.
The voyage continued west with a new addition to the crew, a friendly lad from New Zealand named Anton. This guy completed the trio of awesomeness necessary to cross Texas to Big Bend National Park and head back east to Austin by New Years Eve. Tanja, Anton, and I traveled to Houston, and then eventually Padre National Seashore within a day to check out the seventy mile protected coast line, discovering an evil presence throughout the area. Before I go on a tangent and disclose the madness, I will provide some background on Padre.
The Padre National Seashore is seventy miles of protected shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico. After visiting this location, I feel it is only protected because the area is so devastated by mankind’s industrialization. The beach was peaceful and beautiful, but felt staged as I could see oil rigs in the distance of the Gulf. Another interesting thing I learned is that the Gulf of Mexico has two openings that are about sixty miles each. The current flows a certain way that collects garbage and waste from around the world, dumping upon Padre Island. Our buddy Rick at the visitor center showed us all sorts of random containers from around the world, not to mention a dolphin spine and complete turtle shell.
The evening in Corpus Christi was just as interesting with the fire we watched inside Whataburger, the cockroach infested motel we bailed out on, and some gangbanging junkie asking us for drugs. Once we were safe and fully recovered from our meals at Whataburger, I decided to take my two foreign friends on a real U.S tour. We prowled the dark streets of Corpus Christi and strolled through multiple oil refineries. One refinery had a street going through the heart of it, but we kept our distance from the others. These monstrosities are quite intimidating, containing between one and four exhausts bursting flames continuously. I was repeatedly reminded and referring to Skynet from the Terminator series, especially T2: Judgment Day.
The following morning we departed evil and continued west along the Mexican Border to Big Bend. It was an amazing ride, but I felt like I was going to die. The first week of my trip I was pretty sick and this was the day that wiped me out. I had no energy and was lucky to drive what I did. I made sure to gaze upon the landscape stretching into Mexico and it was gorgeous.
Border patrol had inspection stations near the border and exiting Big Bend, asking for ID’s and one even had a dog sniff the car. We drove every route you could to access the park and all the paved roads of Big Bend. We even drove a thirteen mile gravel road that I was uneasy about at points. The park has a ton of roads for 4X4 vehicles. The coolest route leaving Big Bend National Park took us through Big Bend Ranch State Park and the border town of Presidio.
The route was described as the most beautiful drive in Texas and did not disappoint. The hills made you feel like you were on a roller coaster and the views were spectacular. Driving through Presidio was kind of eerie as well; especially when we later heard it was occupied by the Cartel. The sight of following the Rio Grande was amazing and even more intriguing inside the National Park.
We were determined to see the Rio Grande and get as close to the border as possible. We could have spent over a week exploring Big Bend, but we only had two days. The town we were staying in was about seventy miles from the park to begin with and driving across the park is a trek in itself. Big Bend had many different landscapes and took us all by surprise. Mountains towered over the desert, forests and Rio Grande with a distinct feature that was only here. I was astonished how much the landscape and temperature changed from one area of the park to another.
One morning it was about fifty degrees Fahrenheit, but when we drove up to the Chisos Basin it was significantly warmer. We drove east in the park, cooling off again and finding an interesting little business on the border. Mexicans were crossing the border to sell souvenirs to the tourists of the park. A few guys sat on the bank of the river, watching for Border Patrol, while another crossed and collected “donations” on a horse.
New Years Eve we went back east to meet up with our couchsurfing host in Austin. A couchsurfing party was formed quickly and we had an awesome meal before hitting the town just in time to see the fireworks on the bridge at midnight. I learned the diverse nature of east and west 6th street, exploring both ends during my stay. The most amazing thing to ring in my new year was Hoek’s Death Metal Pizza. It was an unbelievable trance that engulfed my senses with the sound of metal blasting and the taste of a giant slice of jalapeño pizza. What was not to love?
I had an excellent stay in Austin. It reminded me a lot of Denver or Boulder and I felt there was something everyone can enjoy in this little blue oasis in a sea of red. Tanja and I walked a fair amount of the city with some surfers from California named Jordan and Simone. They were responsible for the delicious curry consumed the night before and staying with the same host as us. We were located close to the downtown, so it was easy for us to explore and enjoy the city. The next day we met up with Anton and checked some of the local treats and hot spots with his and our soon to be host, Caitlin.
Another couchsurfing party developed from Caitlin hosting Tanja, Anton, a guy from France named Nicolas and I. A surfer from Minneapolis named Brian joined the party and had plenty of travel stories to share. We convinced Caitlin in no time to leave the next morning and join us on our way back to Chicago.
Anton left the same morning as us to California as we began our drive north to Dimebag Darrel’s grave in Arlington, Texas and eventually reaching Hot Springs, Arkansas. We toured the downtown and the little that was of Hot Springs National Park. We took a scenic drive through a forest that maybe lasted thirty minutes. Afterwards, we walked the one mile maximum trail past the bathhouses and through the beautiful, well maintained park. The park was nice, but the hot springs were completely capitalized except one lone hot spring, which did make it worthwhile.
The day continued driving to Memphis, Tennessee and ultimately to our final stop, St. Louis, Missouri. It was 3p.m on a Friday afternoon and Memphis felt like a ghost town. We saw a big stadium, a giant pyramid stadium, an Elvis statue and the downtown. Fried food was the extent of our lunch choice, so we headed onward.
St. Louis was the perfect final stop before coming home and I wish I could have spent more than a day there. Our host Dani told us a ton of things to do, including the Budweiser brewery, a free zoo and free museums. We spent our time wisely by first taking the elevator to the top of the Arch. The elevator ride was pretty cramped and strange, but then we arrived at the top. The walls are slanted to the windows, giving me an odd and almost frightening feeling as I gazed upon the city. The afternoon got even better as we took a trip to the City Museum. A builder gutted a ten story building (formally a shoe factory) and used recyclable materials to build a wacky and crazy playground for adults.
The outside had huge slides and metal rings you can climb through, taking one at least forty feet above the ground to an old airplane body. The rooftop was closed, but has a school bus overhanging the side of the building and it apparently shifts forward off the ledge. The inside of the building is made up of a number of caves that you can get lost in for hours and even lead dwellers beneath restaurant booths. A ridiculous stairway leads you to a five story high slide. I developed a technique to completely slide on my butt, gaining maximum speed, but mostly resulting in injury.
Our transformation into a child for a few hours was the exact adventure needed to prep myself for the harsh realities waiting at home. At least kidnapping a couchsurfer helped soften the blows of returning to work and school…Till next time, Peace.