Sunday, December 16, 2007

My Fall road trip thru the South

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on November 22nd 2007 in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

Today I will depart from my usual discussion of US politics and talk about my road trip through the Deep South last month.
At the beginning of October I began my first road trip (following my last graduate school class of the week) on a hot and muggy Thursday evening. I drove from Dallas Texas to Little Rock Arkansas, a trip which covered about 550 kilometres in approximately 4 ½ hours at an average speed of 120 kilometres per hour. (I must also confess that I do have a bit of a heavy foot when I’m driving on the highway.)
The US Interstate highway system connects virtually all US cities and permits travellers to cover long distances at relatively high speeds. Just picture a divided 4-6 lane highway like the M-1, minus the traffic jams of course, connecting Dublin with Cork, Galway, Shannon, Belfast and Derry and you will have some idea of what the US Interstate highway system is like.
I lived in Little Rock for several years before I moved to Dallas and have returned there on a number of occasions thru the years but not since 2004. I must say I was amazed at the difference the Clinton Presidential Library has made on the area of downtown Little Rock that adjoins it. The Clinton Library is a beautiful piece of architecture which sits on a site which runs along the banks of the Arkansas River. But I was most amazed by what had happened to the buildings for several blocks west, north and south of the Clinton Library.
To the west and north of the site, where there had once been run down hotels and office buildings, there were now new or renovated office towers alongside first class hotels and restaurants. To the north and the Interstate 30 highway traffic ramps, instead of a three floor Fone Brothers paint factory and warehouse, there is now a public library restaurants and clubs and upscale urban loft apartments. An area of downtown Little Rock which was once totally devoid of humans after the sun went down is now alive throughout the day and well into the night with tourists visiting the Clinton Library or strolling through the beautiful riverfront park that adjoins it.
As I left the city the next morning to continue on my journey to visit my mother and sister in Memphis, I was also struck by the sight of a huge new Baptist Church which had arisen on a site next to the intersection of Interstate highways 40 and 30. When I had last passed this way there had been nothing but trees there so the unexpected change in scenery was a bit startling for me. But as I settled in for the 250 kilometre drive to Memphis, I was greeted by the same rice and soybean fields that I had remembered from years past. I even saw an old single engine crop-duster airplane swooping up and down against the blue sky while methodically spraying pesticides on the fields that stretch out from the highway as far as the eye can see.
Memphis had also changed a lot during the eight years since I had last visited, though not as much it seemed as Little Rock had. A movie called The Firm starring Tom Cruise was filmed entirely in Memphis Tennessee if you ever want to see what this city built on the bluffs high above the Mississippi River actually looks like. I lived in Memphis for a year before I moved to Little Rock and remember hearing a lot of great music while I was there. Memphis is world famous as both the home of Graceland and Elvis Presley as well as the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. But I prefer to remember it as the home of the blues, B.B. King and Rendezvous ribs.
After having a grand day with my mother and sister I resumed my journey across the Deep South, by eschewing the Interstate highways for the two lane country roads of northern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. I drove about 400 kilometres and then stopped for the night in Huntsville Alabama which is the home of the United States’ space program and headquarters location for NASA.
While this region of the south has not changed a great deal over the years, I couldn’t help but notice the effects of climate change on this area of the country. When I resumed my journey of another 400 kilometres to Atlanta the next morning, I passed by numerous lakes in this semi-mountainous region which were showing the effects of several years of a severe drought. Boat docks were sitting high and dry 10-15 meters above lakes which were at their lowest recorded levels in history. Fields of corn and soybeans were shrivelling in 33C summer heat even though it was autumn.
When I arrived in Atlanta Georgia early Saturday afternoon I found myself in a traffic jam while I was still many miles from the city. The cause was the shutdown of one of the three lanes of traffic due to the construction and paving of two new lanes on either side of Interstate 75, which would eventually increase the number of lanes in each direction from 3 to 5. I was born and raised in Atlanta and always look forward to my visits there, but I must confess that I am not happy with many of the changes which I see happening to my old hometown.
I had a lovely dinner with my brother, his fiancée, my sister and her daughter at my favourite New Orleans cuisine restaurant in the Buckhead area where I used to live. But the area is now awash in high rise condos and offices which are coupled with mind numbing traffic congestion. As a result, the character of the neighbourhood has been lost and I mourn the fact that it will never again be the same.
I then drove to Birmingham Alabama on Sunday to see my sister and niece, but forgot that there was a NASCAR stock car race at the Talladega Speedway that same afternoon. As I passed by the race track, I saw thousands of RVs and travel trailers parked all around the Race track and knew I was in trouble. I ran smack into a post race traffic jam and it took me 2 hours to travel 15 kilometres.
Monday afternoon I resumed my trip back to Dallas accompanied by many of those RVs I had seen on Sunday. When I arrived that night I was glad I had made the trip but I was also very happy it was over. Imagine how you would feel if you had just driven 3000 kilometres in 96 hours to visit relatives in 3 different cities.

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