A friend who’s been following this blog, called this kind of trip, immersive. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s the perfect adjective to describe this kind of travel. Going to the great cities of the world…visiting the great museums…seeing the world’s greatest architecture…that is one kind of travel. I know that it is rich, rewarding, enlightening and fun. I would like to incorporate some of that kind of travel into some of this immersive style.
But, for whatever reasons, at least for now, I have been drawn to this more-personal approach to experiencing new places. I want to meet people who have different lives from my own. I want to see what their everyday lives are like. I want to drive through the landscapes that they live in. I want to drive extensively on highways and back roads that take me to places I haven’t been.
And then there are these creative outlets…guitar, singing, songwriting and performing…photography…especially street portrait-photography…and country-western dancing. So, I combined all of these interests, and others (live music in small venues, horseback trail-riding, day-hikes, ethnic and regional comfort food) that pretty much allowed this road-trip to design itself. All I really had to do was begin asking myself, “Where can I go to indulge these interests?”, and the rest sort of took care of itself.
So, in my limited experience, if I have any advice, it only confirms the kinds of advice you might hear or see on programs like Globe Trekker, or Michael Palin’s, Sue Perkins’, or Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows: be open…be curious…be genuinely interested. Take nothing, and no one, for granted. Be genuinely friendly. Be respectful of others’ cultures, lives and worlds. Talk to strangers…introduce yourself to strangers…ask questions.
Be willing to have a joke, a friendly joke, made on you. If you can take a joke…and especially if you can make jokes on yourself…be self-deprecating…people will instinctively gravitate toward, and embrace, you. This is universal.
Volunteer your ignorance, and ask to be educated. People love to share what they love doing, and where they love going, with people who are genuinely interested. Be open and willing to enter your adopted hosts’ worlds on their terms.
Approach travel in these ways, and you will find worlds…and I suspect the world…opening up to you. You will meet amazing people and enjoy amazing experiences that broaden your perspectives and make you a better person.
I want to thank everyone, again, who stopped in to this blog, and supported me along the way with their interest and kind comments.
I’m going to leave you with two Toni Price songs, the first, that started off this whole adventure, and the second, from the same album. They make a nice soundtrack to the highlights photo-gallery, below.
My final stop on my last day in Nashville was the intimate East Nashville music venue, The 5 Spot, which was on my pre-trip short-list, and had been recommended to me the night before, by my server at Dino’s, which is only blocks away. I honestly didn’t know anything about The 5 Spot, other than that it kept coming up in Google searches for best music venues in Nashville. And even after visiting, I feel like I’m only beginning to understand what it is, and its place in the East Nashville community.
As I’m thinking about it, it might be easier to explain if I sort of back into this story. Until about ten years ago, about all I knew of Nashville was its reputation for country music. Then, around that time, I was introduced to the music of an Americana duo called Gillian Welch, whose music I fell in love with. As I researched more about Gillian Welch, I found out that they lived in East Nashville, renovating an old movie theatre into a recording studio, primarily for themselves. And from what I was reading, it sounded like East Nashville had previously fallen on hard times, but was gradually coming out of that, evolving into a mecca for all sorts of indie musicians, DIY recording studios and artists.
In more recent years, I had heard about an innovative indie alt-blues/rock band called Alabama Shakes that also turned out to be based in East Nashville. And so, the neighborhood of East Nashville, was gradually seeping into my consciousness over time. I’ve been curious about it and have wanted to start exploring this area, so that’s partly how Dino’s, Family Wash (which I didn’t get to) and The 5 Spot made it onto my short-list for this trip.
As I started working on this post, I bumped into this article, an obituary for the recently deceased co-founder and co-owner of The 5 Spot, that will explain more than I can about what The 5 Spot and East Nashville are about: Nashville Scene – 5 Spot Owner, Diane Carrier.
The night I went to The 5 Spot there was a four-act bill, four music acts that started at 6:00, an early show. I may have gotten there as early as 5:00, not knowing when they actually opened. The young man who answered the door said I was right on time, that they were just setting up. I was, in fact, the first person there.
I don’t have photos of the interior, other than the performers on stage that I’ll show you later, but The 5 Spot is very bare-bones. The room was fairly dark. There is a long bar along one wall, that seemed old and nicely worn. There were a handful of small tables with chairs. They seemed old and worn, as well. The walls seemed nearly bare. The overall décor seemed to be no-décor. And there was a very plain stage with a red-drape backdrop and spotlights. The room had a nice, neighborhood bar sort of divey feel.
The bartender, who turned out to be the young man who let me in, was friendly and talkative, so we immediately struck up a conversation. I mentioned the Family Wash, and his immediate response was, “Yeah, their Shepherd’s Pie is amazing.” Where have I heard that before?
Gradually, it was the musicians who were scheduled to perform that started trickling in next. And they were all friendly…particularly this woman…Lindsey…who sat right next to me and started chatting right away.
Oh, and I had my DSLR camera with me, so that always gets attention, just sitting on the bar. A gentleman with silver hair, who had been chatting with the musicians, got on stage with an acoustic guitar and played through a couple of songs, conversing through the microphone with the sound-tech, who was in a little corner behind the bar at the opposite end of the room. This was the sound-check.
A short while later, this same gentleman took the stage again, performing the opening set of the night, a mix of original and cover songs, but not country. Here are a couple of photos I was able to capture during his set.
I later introduced myself, asking if he was the owner, and in fact, he was…introducing himself as Beau. So, before I knew who Diane Carrier was, I had met her recently-widowed husband, William “Bones” Verhiede, who is mentioned in Ms. Carrier’s obituary.
Beau was very laid back, seeming almost to not want any attention, despite sort of quietly chatting among the musicians. In hindsight, I would not be surprised if his quiet demeanor was at least in part due to the grief I can only imagine he is still working through.
I commented to Beau about how great the sound system was, and he began to explain how he had it custom-designed for this room. He also explained how the stage, itself, was designed to contribute to the quality of the sound. So, now I was beginning to understand that this was no ordinary neighborhood bar.
The next performer was…I think I have this right…Bob Lewis, who had accompanied Beau on his set. It seemed that all of the musicians knew each other well, had performed at The 5 Spot regularly, and so conversed with each other between the stage and the audience, which was easy because the audience was very light.
The next performers were an acoustic duo who called themselves simply, Jesse and Noah. As they played, Lindsey told me that they were the sons of the singer who sang the pop hit Let Your Love Flow, in the 1970’s. Anyone who was in high school during the 70’s, as I was, knew this song, since it received enormous airplay.
So, as I started writing this post, I researched Let Your Love Flow online, and sure enough, it was sung by a duo, The Bellamy Brothers, and Jesse and Noah are the sons of David Bellamy, one of the Bellamy Brothers.
Last up were Lindsey and her niece, whose name escapes me. Lindsey’s niece sang harmony to Lindsey’s mostly-original songs. Here are a few photos from their set.
I had no idea what to expect at The 5 Spot, but on this night, it seemed mostly like a venue where musicians could get on stage to try out some original material, although Jesse and Noah’s set was very polished. It was a much mellower scene than Robert’s Western World from just a couple of hours earlier, and without my knowing, just what I needed to complete my last night in Nashville.
My second fun-stop on my last day in Nashville was Robert’s Western World, one of the historic honky-tonks on Music Row. Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge have quickly become my favorite stops on Music Row, although my experience on Lower Broadway is still somewhat limited. I am just drawn to these two venues for the vibe and the music.
Eileen Rose and the Silver Threads was my favorite band from my first visit to Music Row, three years ago, and as it turned out, they were performing a three-and-a-half hour set at Robert’s that afternoon (they have a long-standing gig there, which is some indication of just how good they are). So, from Husk, I headed straight for Robert’s with my DSLR camera, because I not only love listening to this band…I love photographing them.
When I arrived, as usual for this band, Robert’s was packed. The postage-stamp-sized stage at Robert’s is against the front windows. There is a very small space in front of the stage, where folks can dance, if they’d like…and they do. Robert’s is narrow and deep, with a very long bar along the left-side wall (if you’re facing the stage), a row of small tables along the length of the right-side wall, and just a few small tables crowded-in between the front door and the stage-end of the bar.
What I’m saying, from a photography-perspective, is that it is nearly impossible to find a good photography vantage point without being in anyone’s way. So, shoehorning myself into a spot that was out of the way was a gradual process of introducing myself to the people in this cramped area off to the side of the front of the stage near the front door. I’m explaining this in order to give you some idea of what it takes, just to get yourself into a sliver of a space where you can even begin to hope that you might be able to get some nice photos. But, as usual, I was determined.
So, there’s the front door. Then, there was a nice young man manning the door, checking ID’s, and making sure that no one leaving left with a glass beer bottle (only plastic cups are allowed on the sidewalks). This young man had a barstool. After introducing myself and beginning to show him some of the images I was getting, he graciously allowed me to sit on this barstool, while photographing, when he was standing. It was one of only a couple possible, limited vantage points to the stage.
A lot of the time, I was actually crouching down in this little nook, with my back against the wall, shooting away, while people flowed in and out of Robert’s in front of me, practically brushing their knees against my lens. So, this was a pretty comical scene, but I didn’t mind at all. I was being polite and considerate to everyone around me, and I was in photo-op heaven.
Just a couple of feet deeper into Robert’s were the first small tables, with seating really only against the wall. There was a couple, in their seventies I think, sitting at the first table with their backs against the wall. The gentleman was wearing a cowboy hat. I asked them if they’d mind if I crouched down in front of their table to take some photos. They were extremely friendly and accommodating. They said that they come to Robert’s all the time to see The Threads, and said that I wasn’t in their way at all, so to spend as much time as I wanted crouched in front of them…I could even stand in front of them, if I wanted. At times, I was even kneeling right on the floor in this spot, with folks brushing back and forth in front of my lens. But, again, I was perfectly content, totally focused on attempting to get the best images that I could. So, these extremely tight spaces became my vantage points for this entire shoot.
I also introduced myself to the lead-guitarist/pedal-steel player, Rich Gilbert, who was standing nearest to me on the stage. Rich was extremely down-to-earth (as was the whole band, which is one of the reasons for their popularity). I ended up having a few brief conversations with Rich, during pauses between songs, or when they were passing the tip-bucket (for my part, I was very generous. I couldn’t seem to stop opening my wallet, they were so great).
Turned out Rich had lived in Boston for twenty years, and had lived in Portland, CT, for a while, which is the town adjacent to where I went to high school. So, we had a nice time chatting. I was getting what I thought were some really nice photos, and let Rich know that I would figure out how to send them to the band on a flash drive. So, I’m still working on that.
The Threads play traditional country standards from artists like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and many others. They have a huge repertoire, and take requests. Check out the bios of The Threads band members. It’s pretty impressive, and will give you a sense of why they are a Music Row staple.
I just really have a blast listening to them, photographing them, and watching regulars and tourists (like me) respond to their amazing renditions of country standards. I do want to say this…all of the band members are great. But, watching Eileen connect with her audience, belting out country classics, and watching Rich…a guitarist’s guitarist…completely blow you away with stunning playing, whether on electric guitar or pedal-steel…are true joys to experience.
Here are a handful of the best images I was able to capture. At one point, Eileen began to gear the audience up for an amazing, extended guitar-solo by Rich, so the images showing Rich de-tuning a string, playing up beyond the highest frets on the fingerboard, and playing beer-bottle slide guitar, were part of this solo that probably lasted ten minutes. You really had to be there to appreciate what he was doing.
I stayed at Robert’s engrossed in listening to and photographing the Threads for at least two hours. They are that good. So, if you visit Nashville and Music Row, be sure to check Robert’s band schedule for the Threads and try to make one of their shows.
And then, I was off to my final Nashville destination of this trip…The 5 Spot, in East Nashville…
My final day in Nashville before my two-day drive home to Connecticut began uneventfully enough. Turned out, that I had underestimated how many miles I’d be driving on this trip, and was actually nearly due for a second oil change (every 3,000 miles!). So, first thing in the morning, I headed to a nearby Toyota dealership, not only to get my oil changed, but to have my already-tattered, plastic skid-plate completely removed, because it had begun to drag on the pavement the night before, on Music Row. It took a couple of hours to get this done, because the service department was already booked up. But, the folks at the dealership were really great, and somehow squeezed me in.
Now, remember my Oxford, Mississippi friends, Josh and Chelsey, and the must do list they gave me? Well, on that list under Nashville is Husk – Sean Brock. I had heard of Sean Brock, a good chef-friend of Anthony Bourdain’s, and Sean Brock’s restaurant, Husk, which I remember, from another Parts Unknown episode, as being in South Carolina. But, I didn’t realize that Mr. Brock had also opened a second Husk restaurant, right here in Nashville. So, guess where I was heading for lunch? For anyone still counting, this would be #6 on the Bourdain Effect list.
By the time my car was ready at the dealership, it was already 12:30, lunchtime. And in my foodie naiveté, it had only occurred to me at that moment that I should probably call ahead to see if I could even get into such a trendy, highly sought-after restaurant, until I was setting my GPS for the address. And good thing I did, for two reasons. First, when I called, the very nice hostess informed me that Husk was only open until 2:00 for lunch, and I was still at least a half-hour away. And second, she also informed me that all of their tables were in fact completely booked in advance…but…that there was first-come, first-served availability at their bar. So, I made a bee-line for Husk.
Husk is known for being an upscale, trendy, locally-sourced, heirloom and farm-to-market sort of restaurant. Sean Brock is a James Beard Award-winning chef. Needless to say, I was straying a ways from my down-home comfort-food roots on this excursion. And I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was not expecting to find Husk in a stately, somewhat unassuming, nineteenth-century brick home, in a quiet neighborhood, a bit off the beaten path. First, if you are not a resident of Nashville, you pretty much need GPS just to find it. Husk blends in so well with its neighborhood, that you are just as likely to drive right past it, as to notice its inconspicuous sign near the sidewalk. Here is the exterior and sign:
Husk’s historic home is built near the top of a hill overlooking downtown Nashville, and into the side of a steep slope. The interior is divided into a few cozy dining rooms, including a lower-level dining room with floor to ceiling windows. The bar, where I had lunch, is also on the lower level. The hostess and wait-staff were all extremely friendly, even as you would pass them in the hallways, if in a semi-formal sort of way. This was not hanging out with the waitresses at Champy’s Fried Chicken in Muscle Shoals.
I had not looked at the menu before going. I just assumed that this is the kind of restaurant where, if you need to ask what anything costs, you might want to reconsider. It wasn’t anything outrageous, but I did make the conscious decision to treat myself to whatever was recommended, with no second thoughts. You only live once.
When I got to the bar, there were only a couple of other people there, so it was easy to get a seat. In my trademark fashion, I explained to the bartender that I had heard about Sean Brock and his South Carolina Husk restaurant on Parts Unknown, but didn’t realize there was also one in Nashville. I also volunteered that I could use some help in ordering.
The bartender started by explaining that Husk’s bar is primarily a whiskey bar.
I knew that Sean Brock is a bourbon connoisseur, but I again volunteered my ignorance about whiskey (I didn’t even know that bourbon is a kind of whiskey. I thought bourbon is bourbon. Whiskey is whiskey), and would be happy to go with whatever the bartender recommended. So, he began by bringing out this bottle, and explained what it was.
As the tag and bottle indicate, this bottle is from a keg of bourbon hand-picked by Sean Brock and the distiller. As the bartender informed me, they only make five of these bottles available at Husk each month. So, there was no question. This is where I started my lunch.
Next, the bartender recommended the Husk Burger, a large, locally-sourced beef, two-patty burger with caramelized onions, cheese…and I stopped listening after that. So, here’s my lunch (remind me to not bite into my lunch before photographing it, next time. I didn’t have the presence of mind to just cut it in half to show what’s inside. My apologies).
As I was leaving the bar, I noticed this:
This is Husk’s cured-hams and bourbon display vault. My thought was, any restaurant that had a ham and bourbon vault, was serious about what it was serving.
So, this was my Husk treat. The bourbon and burger were amazing. Anthony Bourdain strikes again. If you ever find yourself in Nashville, Husk is definitely a restaurant that you should consider treating yourself to.
From Oxford, Mississippi, my final fun-stop on this trip was two nights in Nashville. On my way to Nashville, I stopped in Memphis and East Memphis for a few hours, to take the Gibson Guitar Factory tour, and to try “sweetbreads” at Hog and Hominy, as suggested by my new Oxford friends, Josh and Cheryl. I wrote about these stops in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat myself, here. Both stops were well-worth the time spent, but as a result, I didn’t arrive in Nashville until early evening, which was totally fine.
On this, only my third visit to Nashville, I had not yet experienced Lower Broadway…Music Row…at night…so, that was my first destination. This being a Friday, I was bound to see it in full party-glory.
I heard a playful Music Row motto that goes…Get drunk and make bad decisions. Although I took no photos…that pretty much sums up the scene that you are bombarded with, even just out on the streets at night on Music Row. You don’t even have to enter a bar. Actually…allow me to rephrase… I did not see anyone stumbling around, raving drunk. Everyone seemed very civil. It was just very loud…very crowded…and there was no shortage of drinking going on. But, the night was young.
The sidewalks were jammed with throngs of people…loud music was spilling out from pretty much every doorway…and from many rooftop bars. Party bicycles (have you seen these? An elevated mobile party-bar, powered by about ten seated party-revelers surrounding the bar, most revelers equipped with bicycle pedals) were casually pedaling their way down streets packed with people, cars and horse-drawn carriages. The revelers tend to be loud, playful, getting drunk and interacting with pedestrians as they cheer and sing songs. I could see how that would be fun.
On Music Row, open-carry of alcoholic drinks is legal, so people can honky-tonk-hop, carrying a drink (limited to plastic cups, I believe). I know this is not the right term, but there are bouncers at almost every doorway, checking IDs, taking cover charges (if there is one), and generally keeping an eye on things. Maybe “bouncer” is the right term!
So, whether you are inside a bar, a honky-tonk or out on the street, there is no escape from the party-zone cacophony. Lower Broadway is loud. The side streets are loud. You are immersed in it. I am not saying that this is a bad thing. I am only saying that this is what you should be prepared to encounter if you go.
In general terms, I am not a loud, party-person. Yes…I will still hoot ‘n holler for a great band, but for better or worse, I should not be anyone’s first choice for “designated reveler”. Come to think of it, I may have only arrived at this revelation as a result of having my senses bombarded from all sides on Music Row, and realized in that moment that, on this particular night, it was a little too much for me. So, after maybe a half-hour of wandering the streets (I didn’t even dare enter a honky tonk), I was ready for a much quieter scene. So, I got in my car…pointed my GPS to Dino’s, the oldest dive bar in Nashville (East Nashville, actually)…and headed just across the Cumberland River from Music Row…only minutes away.
This is actually the only photo I took that night, and it’s not particularly good, even for a cellphone snapshot. But, this is Dino’s. It was featured on the Nashville episode of Parts Unknown, so it counts as yet another by-product of the Bourdain Effect (I believe this is #5, if we include the Mississippi Delta, itself, for anyone keeping track).
I really liked Dino’s the moment I walked in. It’s small. It’s cramped. It’s a greasy-spoon. It’s an old diner, dripping with history. Except for the laid-back, hip crowd and all of the cellphones, you could almost swear you had just walked into a film-noire mystery thriller to hand over the goods to a guy named Jake.
There are only a handful of tables and a similar handful of seats at a short counter, where you should be prepared to sit cozily hip-to-hip with your neighbor. At the counter, you are so close to the griddle that you could practically help out flipping burgers. This is where I ended up. Suffice it to say…this was my kind of place.
Everyone was friendly. I ended up chatting with a couple of the twenty-something (maybe they were early-thirty-something? Hard to tell) staff. I told the young man who took my order, about my trip, and that I was thinking about checking out the Family Wash (nearby) for some live music. He said the Shepherd’s pie at the Family Wash was amazing, but that I should really check out The 5 Spot for music (also nearby). So, I tucked those thoughts away.
When I wasn’t chatting, I was enjoying just listening to the staff chat among themselves. They all seemed so care-free. I wasn’t jealous, or anything. It was more a matter of thinking how far back I had to look to remember the last time my life seemed that simple.
At the counter, I had a burger…a great burger…fries and an IPA. Comfort food. I was a happy man. The short, chalkboard menu on the wall also lists more-trendy comfort food selections. It was just right.
Dino’s is open until 3:00 a.m., and I think, as a result of its closing time, it had/has a reputation of being somewhere that musicians would turn up after their sets…but, you’ll have to fact-check me.
By this point, I had already had a long day, with my tour of the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, my time spent in Memphis, and all of the driving to get to Nashville. So instead of seeking out some live music, I headed to my hotel, which was maybe fifteen minutes away.
But, if you find yourself in Nashville, I would definitely check out Dino’s. I’m sure I’ll be back.
From Greenville, Mississippi, in the Delta, I was able to make it to Oxford, Mississippi…which is outside of the Delta, a little after nightfall. As part of the “Bourdain Effect”, my only destination was the bar above City Grocery Restaurant in Oxford Square, featured in the Parts Unknown – Mississippi episode.
I have to say this: Mr. Bourdain, and/or his friends, the program’s staff, or whomever does the research for his shows, definitely finds the most interesting, coolest places to go. Oxford Square and City Grocery are no exception. Oxford is a college town…home to the University of Mississippi…”Ole Miss”. Oxford Square reflects that diversity that college towns tend to evolve into and cultivate. It is lined with hip/trendy restaurants and boutiques, and was thriving with activity on this Thursday evening…people everywhere…heading out to a bar before dinner, and then dinner. Here’s a photo of one side of the Square, and another of City Grocery’s storefront, with the bar on the second floor.
The Square reminded me of two college towns not far from where I live in Connecticut…Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts. But, being in Mississippi, a state that I was only barely beginning to scratch the surface of exploring, I was struck with a sense of warm familiarity juxtaposed with stepping into a deeply mixed history and culture that I knew very little about.
This time, I brought my nice DSLR camera with me into the bar, hoping to get a few nice photos. I don’t know if it’s the camera, or that regulars at the bar see this stranger getting very involved in taking photos in their bar, but my camera has repeatedly become a sort of entrée, or calling card, wherever I go. People notice it…they notice me…and they approach me.
Here are a couple of photos I took while sitting at the bar, playing with focusing first, on the reflection of a cool wine-bottle chandelier in the mirror behind the bar, and then, focusing on the chandelier, itself…just to see the effects.
And as I was ordering my dinner at the bar, I’m sure I chatted-up the bartender a bit, explaining my trip and how I had seen City Grocery on Parts Unknown (very touristy, I know). Eventually, a very nice young couple, a few seats away, started up a conversation with me. Apparently, they had overheard my conversation with the bartender, who is a friend of theirs.
Meet Josh and Chelsey, and the bartender (whose name escapes me, unfortunately).
Josh is a Mississippi Delta native, who had moved away, and eventually re-settled in Oxford. Chelsey is a graduate of Ole Miss. They were taken with my interest in Mississippi, the Delta region, and the South, in general. They even bought me a drink and invited me over to chat.
So, over the course of, I think maybe an hour and a half, Josh and Chelsey explained a lot about the area, and gave me a list of “must-do” restaurants and museums that I need to eventually visit. Here is the list that they compiled over the course of our conversation, and wrote on a couple of bar napkins.
Chelsey said she was also very interested in learning how to use a DSLR camera, so I gave her a little crash-course with mine. Here is one of Chelsey’s photos, where I was explaining depth-of-field, and set a single auto-focus point on the camera. I asked Chelsey to point the auto-focus point on the Budweiser sign to see the resulting foreground-blur.
And here’s another that I took with the same setting, to demonstrate foreground and background blur among the bar bottles.
Josh and Chelsey were the nicest couple. I am so grateful that they struck up a conversation with me. They made my night. We exchanged contact info, and I sent them the photos I had taken of them. They loved the photos. When you are on the road, photos like these are a really nice way to thank some of the people you meet for their friendliness and hospitality.
Chelsey said that before I leave Oxford in the morning, I need to go to the Ole Miss campus and check out The Grove, which is a traditional/historical grove of trees deep in the campus, where on football game days, everyone sets up tailgate parties. So, the next morning, I headed to the campus, which was only blocks from my hotel, and began my search for The Grove.
Little did I know, that my search for The Grove would eventually provide me with a tour of much of this beautiful, old…and huge…campus. But, Chelsey had also cautioned me, that the posted speed limit on campus is a very odd 18 mph (which I think she said is in memory or in commemoration of an Ole Miss football player), and that I should not exceed this speed limit. She said that she once got ticketed for going something like 19 mph. So, I heeded her warning.
After at least a half an hour of creeping along a maze of roads on this very hilly campus, stopping every so often to ask directions from passing students and faculty who seemed as lost as I was, I eventually found The Grove. There was no game that day, so I wasn’t able to see The Grove in all of its tailgate-glory, but getting an accidental tour of the campus was really a treat. Although, I have no idea how students even find their classes.
So, this was Oxford, Mississippi. My next, and final, fun stop before heading home was a return visit to Nashville (there’s no such thing as too much Nashville).
Early in this road-trip, I mentioned how some of my motivations for choosing places I wanted to at least drive through, were towns or cities mentioned in lyrics of some of my favorite songwriters. Lucinda Williams, who is originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, is one of my favorites. Lucinda often includes references to Louisiana, the South and Texas in her lyrics.
One of my favorite songs of hers is “Lake Charles”, which includes a lyric about Nacogdoches, Texas. At the time, I had to look up Nacogdoches to figure out where it was. Turns out, it is in the heart of what is known as the “Piney Woods”, or “Tall Pines” region of East Texas, north of Houston. I had never been to this area of Texas, so guess what?
Nacogdoches also happens to be the oldest town in Texas, for all of you history buffs.
I had a nearly twelve-hour driving day ahead of me, so I didn’t have time to actually stop in Nacogdoches. But I at least wanted to drive through that area of the Piney Woods region. In most of what I’ve seen of Texas, so far, the trees are of shorter varieties. But, the Piney Woods region appears to be mostly very tall, dense, pine forests. It was very pretty to drive through and reminded me of my native New England…without the maple trees.
I will have to return at some point, and spend more time there. Nacogdoches is supposed to be a cool town. I believe it is also a college town.
From Nacogdoches, I continued northwest, to Shreveport, Louisiana, and across northern Louisiana. Because I was not taking the most direct route to Oxford, MS, my actual destination for that night, I had to periodically “fool” my GPS, by giving it general city names, as in Nacogdoches and Shreveport…gradually working indirectly toward my one planned stop before Oxford, which was a Tamale stand in Greenville, MS.
Unfortunately, in Louisiana, I mistakenly forgot to set my GPS to Vicksburg, MS, from where I had planned to pick up Highway-61…the famous “Blues Highway”…that runs north/south through the Mississippi Delta region. So, instead, my GPS took me through some very pretty farm land in the southeast corner of Arkansas. For a while, I had no idea where I was, but trusted that my GPS knew what it was doing.
I’m mentioning all of this because of the continued “Bourdain Effect” on the later part of this trip. If you are at all interested, I suggest that you check out the “Mississippi” episode of Parts Unknown. I found it fascinating. I really knew very little about Mississippi until I bumped into that episode on NetFlix, while planning this trip. I didn’t even know that the Mississippi Delta was in Mississippi. I thought it was where the Mississippi River entered the Gulf of Mexico, in Louisiana, but that is the Mississippi River Delta. I’m glad we cleared that up.
You would be better off getting a brief history of the Mississippi Delta region from Parts Unknown, than from me. But, suffice it to say, that after watching that episode, I decided to include the Delta…at least driving through a portion of it…on this trip.
One of the southern/soul food restaurants featured on Parts Unknown, is Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville. The problem for me was that Doe’s does not open until 5:00pm. So, in my planning, I looked for, and found, a Plan-B eatery, in the event that I got to Greenville too early to eat at Doe’s…which is exactly what happened.
And if you watch the Parts Unknown episode, you will also find out (as I did), that after the Great African-American migration to northern cities from Mississippi, Mexicans began migrating into Mississippi to help fill the void. As a result, in Mississippi, tamales, in particular, have become as much a part of Southern soul food as bar-be-que. So, my Greenville Plan-B became this place…Hot Tamale Heaven, a roadside, take-out stop, run by African-American women, serving the best tamales you’ve ever eaten:
As you can see…I am beginning to learn some history…through soul food.
After filling up on tamales, I was finally able to pick up a long stretch of Highway-61 (which, by the way, was Bob Dylan’s inspiration for the title and title-song of his ground-breaking album, “Highway 61 Revisited”. I had no idea. I’m learning as I go.).
During this stretch, I shot a few minutes of my drive with my dash-cam. This is not an amazing video, but it will give you a little idea of what driving through the Delta feels like:
From Greenville, I headed to Oxford, Mississippi, my destination for that night.
So, this was November 1st…Halloween+1…my last day in Texas before slowly making my way back home to CT. I only had two destinations…Burns Original BBQ for lunch (as seen on the Houston episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown)…and dancing at Big Texas – North, in Spring/north-Houston, less than 3 miles from my hotel, the sister country-western dance hall to Big Texas – South, in Webster/southeast-Houston, which was my first dance hall stop in Houston on this trip.
I honestly don’t remember doing anything else that day, which likely means I did laundry and took a nap at my hotel. The next day was going to be the longest driving-day of the trip…Houston to Oxford, MS…nearly 600 miles…so, I know I was physically gearing up for that.
Houston is funny. There is no zoning. So, you can literally just turn a corner and find yourself suddenly in a different world. I love that. As with the Himalaya Restaurant and Little India, GPS had me driving on a typical Houston, very mainstream “Generica” frontage road, parallel to a highway…it told me to turn right, into a shopping center…and poof…the entire shopping center was comprised of Indian-owned businesses. Very cool.
The route to Burns Original BBQ was very similar. I remember that on the Parts Unknown episode, the filmmakers made a point of bringing the viewer into the segment by highlighting street views of the area it is located in. It was a very modest, quiet, peaceful, predominantly African-American neighborhood, nicely shaded with a lot of trees.
So, GPS guided me out of a high-density, very commercial area into this suddenly very quiet, peaceful subdivision of modest homes, people working out in their yards, etc. You don’t expect to find these sorts of peaceful enclaves in a city that seems dominated by tangles of highways and stacked highway interchanges. I realize it may seem very “touristy” of me, but I found this very cool…very tranquil.
And Burns, itself, is sort of nestled in the middle of this quiet neighborhood. There may be one or two other small businesses next to it, but that’s about all. It’s not a commercial shopping area. And Burns was busy. It was midweek lunch hour. Most of the customers seemed to be getting take-out. There was a constant flow of cars leaving and arriving in the cozy parking area. There was also a short, but constant, line at the counter.
I didn’t know what to order. All I knew was that I’d have to be quick about it, judging by the pace at the walk-up counter. I went with the 2-meat half-pound dinner…brisket and mild sausage…that included two sides, because I wanted a little variety. This was the smallest meal you could order, next to the “Monster” stuffed potatoes, which are arguably just as big.
Here’s a snapshot of my lunch:
This was not a half-pound of meat. I think it was much closer to a pound-and-a-half. So, “generous portions” would be an understatement. And it was delicious. It’s no wonder that Burns has been around since 1973, and continues to thrive.
So, along with Himalaya Restaurant, my visit to Burns BBQ became part of what I’ll call the “Bourdain Effect” on my trip…seeking out a few of Mr. Bourdain’s stops in cities he visited that happen to either be on my route, or that I changed my route slightly, in order to try these places out. And so…there is more to come.
My last stop in Houston was Big Texas – North, to see what country-western dancing I could find. Big Texas – North is…big. It has a nice, big, racetrack-style dance floor, with a bar and seating inside the racetrack. It also has multiple bars and lots of seating outside the dance floor. As with my night at Stetson’s, I apologize that I decided not to take any photos, because I really just wanted to find some dancing and try to meet a few people.
There was actually a pretty big crowd, early, at Big Texas, so that was refreshing. I did take the beginner two-step class. But, instead of taking the waltz class that followed, I headed over to the other side of the racetrack, where an intermediate two-step class was in progress. It was the middle of the class, so I just watched from the sidelines. The teaching in this class was a bit closer to what I am familiar with, so it was fun to watch.
When the open dancing started, I did manage to get a few two-steps in, and a west-coast, so that was nice. But, I was really more on my own than at Stetson’s, despite this being a bigger crowd and just as nice. I’d definitely head back to Big Texas in the future. It might just take a little longer to meet and start chatting with some of the regulars, though I did chat a bit.
So, this was my last night in Houston…and in Texas…for now.
Okay…so…I learned that my car will survive the remainder of my trip. Major sigh of relief. Check.
I followed in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain at the amazing Himalaya Restaurant, including the honor of meeting and chatting with the chef/owner. Double-check.
As I mentioned, following my four sort of intensively-immersed days in the Texas Hill Country, my plans for the remainder of this little adventure were primarily little things. There were many days that I had very little planned, especially during the day. And my nights, while still in Texas, were mostly spent checking out country-western dance halls I had not previously visited.
Houston is huge. But, it is not so much built up, like New York City, as it is built out. For better or worse, Houston is the poster-child for urban sprawl. The road and highway systems in each of the Lone Star State’s major cities are insane…in…sane. If you look at a Google map of Houston, for example, and have never been there, you might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. On your computer screen…zoomed out…in two-dimensions…the highway system appears very simply and neatly laid out. Downtown is sort of in the center of two concentric highway loops, with highway spokes radiating out, more or less evenly distributed.
But, one of the features you don’t see…can’t see…from this bird’s eye view, and in only two-dimensions…are the highway interchanges. Zoom in on pretty much any highway interchange and you will begin to see what I mean. Zoomed-in, these interchanges start to take on the form of an artist’s rendering of a complex, braided, sailor’s knot.
And if you could see a three-dimensional view, you would see that some of the strands of this braided knot are actually two, three…up to five-level, high-flying, fly-over ramps, the highest in Houston (I just read) being 115-feet, the second highest in the U.S.
These fly-over ramps are everywhere…and you can see more under construction everywhere you go. Houston has this reputation of constantly changing…constantly evolving…and you see it everywhere.
I just found this cool video that explains, and takes you on, each level of the above 5-level “stacked” highway interchange. Buckle-up and take a ride:
So, this was actually one of the little personal challenges I gave myself for this trip. In my mind, all of these “little” destinations in the Lone Star state’s big cities would force me to get used to navigating these tangled, high-flying stacked highway interchanges, not to mention the constantly-shrinking and expanding number of lanes (fun fact: the above, 5-level stacked interchange is 27 lanes wide at its widest section. Read’em an’ weep.).
So, my little, harmless excursions served this dual-purpose of randomly exploring different areas and neighborhoods of a few of these major cities, as well as to begin to get more acclimated to navigating their highway systems’ quasi-M.C. Escher-esque feel.
Last night’s hotel was in Pearland…south/southeast Houston. Himalaya Restaurant was in West Houston, between I-610 (aka “The Loop”), and the Sam Houston Tollway, the next of these concentric highway loops.
Tonight’s and tomorrow’s hotel was in Cypress, a suburb of northwest Houston, where I headed after Himalaya, just to check in and unpack. Followed by a little excursion to two Cavender’s Boot City stores, one also in northwest Houston, and the other out in Katy, which is west of the Sam Houston Tollway (actually, I may have driven on a portion of the above stacked interchange on my way to this Cavender’s), and is where I found my second pair of western roper-style dance boots on this trip (pay-dirt, baby!).
You see, we don’t have western-wear stores in New England. Not really. There are a couple/few very small ones, which is great. But, once you’ve seen the selection at one of the big chains in Texas, or out West, you realize that you really need to go to these places if and when you have the chance. Western boots are just too difficult to attempt to buy online, without actually getting to try them on. The fit really has to be just-so.
My final destination for Halloween, was a night out at Stetson’s Nightlife Dance Hall, in Humble, a suburb of north/northeast Houston. See? I was intentionally sort of driving all over Houston. Houston was almost beginning to feel a little familiar to me…this, my fourth visit to the city.
My apologies, but I intentionally did not attempt to take any photos at Stetson’s. I really just wanted to see if I could get some dancing in, and meet some people. Stetson’s was really nice, but its dance floor was smaller than I’d imagined, judging from the photos on their website. But, it was a fairly light crowd (again…Astros/World Series-factor), so there was plenty of room to dance.
When I arrived, a lesson was in progress. As I ordered a bottle of water at the bar, I asked the barmaid if she knew what dance-style the lesson was. She said she didn’t know, but that I should ask the woman dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, seated with girlfriends across the room, and she’d likely know. So, as usual, I went with that, but I was honestly a little hesitant, thinking, “Oh, great. I am a new face. Now, I’m supposed to walk clear across this dance hall…passing plenty of other people…and ask this very attractive woman in a scanty Wonder Woman costume what dance style this lesson is? She is immediately going to think I’ve come over to hit on her. I’m sure this is going to go well.”
So, I was extra-cautious with what I said and my body-language as I approached Wonder Woman and her table of girlfriends, which was the right thing to do, because I could tell that she and her girlfriends were, in fact, a little on the cool-side, sizing me up, intention-wise, as we briefly talked.
Crisis averted, the lesson was a beginner Country Polka…all triple-steps…which I don’t know, but I could pick up beginner patterns. So, I joined the class, and as is customary, I introduced myself to each new follower, as we rotated partners. As I mentioned before, this is a great way to allow the regulars to also size you up to see if you are there to dance, or to try to pick up women. So, I am always very clear, in words and body-language, that I am just a nice guy who is purely there to dance.
Wonder Woman did also join the class at some point, so she and I were paired up at least once during the lesson. She was statuesque, and could easily have been cast as her costume’s character in a blockbuster movie. But, I think her mental jury was still out, regarding what my intentions at Stetson’s were, despite my not even attempting to chat with her during the lesson.
Nothing against Wonder Woman or her girlfriends. They all seemed very nice. But, I wondered…do I somehow…anywhere…remotely…come off as being any kind of a player? If I do, I don’t see it. I understand the concept, but I have no idea how I could possibly telegraph that impression. For me, it is already challenge-enough, simply to enter a new dance hall, eighteen-hundred miles from home, where I don’t know a soul, and eventually muster the courage to ask a woman to dance.
I sat out the second lesson, country waltz, because I knew I would only forget the little I learned in the Polka lesson, if I took the waltz. Once the open dancing started, I did ask one woman from the class up for a Polka, apologizing my way through it, but she said I was doing fine.
At some point, I got up the nerve to approach Wonder Woman for a two-step, I think, and we had a nice dance. Her name is Nancy, as it turned out, and I think she was beginning to see that I was only there to dance and that I was maybe a little nervous about it, being in a new place.
A Nightclub Two-Step came on, and I asked Nancy if she knew it. If you don’t know, Nightclub-2 is a slow, very graceful dance that tends to move around the floor quite a bit. Nancy said she knew the very basic step, but hoped to take more lessons at some point. She was game to try it out with me.
Well, by the end of this dance she could really tell, by not only the way I was leading, but by how focused I was on helping her to have a nice dance, that I was just a nice guy with good intentions and some good dance foundation. From then on, she actually started chatting with me, and we did at least one more Nightclub-2, which we basically had the entire floor for, because no one else was doing it.
Nancy also suggested that I ask a couple more specific women up to dance, friends of hers, who she said were really good followers. And so, I did ask one of those women up for a couple of dances, and we chatted, too.
Another woman from the class also approached me to chat at one point…Ro. She was very nice.
And a guy approached me to invite me in as part of a group birthday photo for one of the women. So you see, people will be watching you out on the dance floor, whether you are aware of it, or not. I think it’s only natural. And it’s one way to sort of size a person up. Is this a sleazy guy, or is he here to dance? Is he hitting on the women in our dance community, or is he a social-dancer, himself?
Nancy said she wanted to send me more detailed info re which nights of the week are best to head to each of the nine major country-western dance halls in Houston, so we exchanged contact info, and she did send me those details. She also suggested that I start using Face Book and Face Book Messenger, because that is how she and her friends communicate about when and where they are going out to dance…for whenever I’m planning a trip back to Houston. So, I still need to work on that.
This was all very innocent, and really nice to be sort of welcomed-in to the Houston dance community.
So, my night at Stetson’s turned out to be my third and final Houston Halloween treat.
My second day in Houston happened to fall on Halloween. Fortunately, I encountered no tricks…only treats.
My day started out at the Toyota dealer near my Pearland hotel, which is southeast Houston. Roy, the service manager who was helping me out, was really great. Even though these dealerships are already booked up for service work, they were able to make time to check out my trusty ’06, bruised and battered, Camry.
It took a few hours to get it in to get looked at, but they checked it all out and determined that it was actually the A/C condenser, that sits in front of the radiator, that took the brunt of the retread impact. It was damaged and would need to be replaced. The radiator, which sits just behind the condenser, and which was my biggest fear, was either bent slightly, or had a minor dent, but passed the crucial pressure test with flying colors. Amazingly, there was no other mechanical damage to my car.
Roy said it would take at least a couple of days to get a new condenser, and that a replacement radiator was back-ordered at least a couple of weeks. So, getting my car repaired in Texas really was not an option. But, Roy said that since the radiator had passed the pressure test, I would be fine to drive my car all the way back to CT, where I could get it repaired at my convenience, and should not have any problems, other than possibly losing my A/C, which wasn’t an issue, since I would be heading into cooler weather, anyway. I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet. That was my first Halloween treat.
So, I was good to go. Next stop…the Himalaya Restaurant in “Little India”. In Anthony Bourdain’s Houston episode of “Parts Unknown”, he focuses on Houston’s ethnic diversity. I believe he said that Houston is the most ethnically-diverse city in the U.S. I thought that was very cool, and decided to try to stop at Himalaya as part of my trip.
It turned out that Himalaya is located in a small shopping area that appears to be entirely Indian businesses…very cool. I have never been to a Little India and I love Indian culture.
Himalaya is not a big restaurant. But, it looks like they do a huge take-out business on top of dining in. There were literally stacks of huge take-out orders ready for pick-up. And the walls? They are covered with framed awards, magazine and newspaper reviews and other accolades.
I arrived toward the end of the lunch rush. In my usual fashion, I volunteered to my waiter…a somewhat formal Indian gentleman who barely spoke any English, but was a really good guy…that I had seen Himalaya on Parts Unknown, but that I could use some help ordering. He pointed at a rectangular, subdivided plate with a different dish in each compartment that nearly everyone at the next table had, so I said, “Sure! That looks great!”
I had no idea what I had just ordered, but I was just going with it, like so many things on this trip. This sort of sampler also came with amazing house-made round flatbread, similar to pita bread that you tear off pieces from to either stuff with the sampler dishes, or dip in the curries that the dishes were cooked in. I didn’t know what I was eating, but everything was amazing.
And as I was enjoying this meal, I noticed an Indian gentleman, dressed very casually, chatting with a few of the customers. He even had his photo taken with one of them. So, I had a hunch that this was the owner.
At some point, I caught his eye and he came to my table. Again, I explained that I had seen his restaurant on TV. He introduced himself as Chef Lashkari, the owner. How cool is that?
I explained that everything was delicious, but that I didn’t know what any of the dishes were. So, he told me what each dish was. Here’s a snapshot of my lunch. I don’t remember exactly what each dish was, but starting from the bottom-left…a chicken curry…a lamb dish…a chick pea dish…Chef Lashkari’s own Indian take on Shepherd’s Pie…and finally, Biryani, a seasoned long-grain rice dish with meat:
While we were chatting, I noticed what looked like a package of some sort of fried dessert dough balls on a counter. I asked Chef Lashkari if those were for sale. He smiled and said, “I’ll give them to you.” I tried to politely decline, saying I’d be happy to pay for them, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I was thinking of getting them to go. This was too funny.
I also asked Chef Lashkari if I could get a photo with him, and he was more than happy to. So, my waiter came over and took a couple with my cellphone.
Then, Chef Lashkari really surprised me by asking if I could email him the photo. He gave me his card, which had his email on it. He is such a nice gentleman. I was honored.
So, to top things off, after our conversation, my waiter came over with a serving of these fried dough balls. They were soaked in syrup that reminded me of caramelized flan syrup. They were so out of this world…you can’t even imagine.
When I got back in my car, I emailed the photo to Chef Lashkari with a nice thank-you note. Himalaya…my waiter, who was so great…and Chef Lashkari, had already made my day. So, that was my second Halloween treat.