Ever since reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I’ve been captivated by the idea of exploring the country.
Or a least the Eastern interior for starters, with no fixed plan, my mind an open highway, albeit one with Pittsburgh, Ashville, North Carolina, Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans as stops along the way.
So when the opportunity presented itself, I packed an oversize bag — because I haven’t yet perfected the art of traveling light — and prepared for a weeklong escapade with a friend.
THE STEEL CITY
Parting ways with New York at around 4 a.m. on a Sunday, we headed for Pittsburgh. The drive was my first taste of the great outdoors, with barns more commonplace than houses and cows speckling the countryside more often than people. Cornfields grew to wild heights, far surpassing my five-foot stature, while other crops formed parallel designs in green fields.
From the window of the passenger’s seat, life looked simple for a while.
The sights changed as we entered the city, which is home to some 300,000. Known as the “City of Bridges,” Pittsburgh welcomed us with three golden bridges, or “The Three Sisters.” The yellow structures — the Rachel Carlson Bridge, the Andy Warhol Bridge and the Roberto Clemente Bridge — honor the environmentalist and artist, who were Pittsburgh natives, as well as the Pirates’ legendary right fielder and humanitarian.
There was a lot of congestion, as crowds gathered for a baseball game between the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. This was my first baseball game since childhood, and I sat in the bleachers and ate peanuts like a true fan. I couldn’t tell you what the final score was, but the $262 million, 38,362-seat stadium was worth the visit. With an intimate mix of baseball tradition and Pittsburgh progressiveness — not to mention more than 40 eateries to choose from — this limestone temple to Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and other Pirate greats was half the experience.
Afterward, we strolled across the Schenley Bridge, another golden passageway. The left walkway was adorned with padlocks, known as “love locks,” which visitors use to leave their mark on the Steel City for years to come, just as they do in other cities. Unprepared, I made a mental note to bring a love lock next time.
THE CALL OF THE WILD
A Holiday Inn Express served as our Pittsburgh home, but in Asheville, North Carolina, a mini yurt was our two-night abode.
We were “glamping,” a term used to describe “glamorous camping.” The yurt was complete with a queen-size mattress, electricity, a mini fridge, a grille and an outdoor shower. It was my first camping experience in some 10 years. And it proved the most carefree part of the trip.
Both nights ended with clear views of the stars and their constellations, which dotted the deep indigo blanket of the sky. When it came time for shuteye, I listened to nature’s playlist — the sounds of crickets and bullfrogs amid a delicate breeze.
A full day in Asheville commenced with a morning hike by the French Broad River, a 218 mile-long river that flows from North Carolina to Tennessee. Later that day, we embarked on a two-hour tube ride down that river, which dropped us off — wet but relaxed — in the city’s downtown art district. The rest of the day was spent meandering in and out of galleries and antiques shops, where artists and collectors took time to talk with us. The shops sat adjacent to a large, abandoned building that was marked by intricate graffiti, part of a nonprofit initiative to preserve urban art, known as Foundation Walls.
THE MUSIC CITY
With one day in Nashville, we had a lot of ground to cover, though it wasn’t difficult to find the starting point.
At noon, the entire city was filled with the smooth sounds of country music, with performers in every bar that lined the city’s Honky Tonk Highway. Curious to hear all that we could, we wandered in and out of the most popular spots, enticed by the music.
But we also dove into some of the history of the Music City and visited the Johnny Cash Museum. Beginning with Cash’s early childhood, the walkthrough showcased moments from the singer’s life, from his handwritten songs and journal entries to professional documents from his time in the Air Force and photographs taken with his wife, June Carter.
After treating ourselves to some scrumptiously sweet Southern barbecue, we threw ourselves into the country music scene again and danced until the wee morning hours.
THE KING’S QUARTERS
Memphis was a short, afternoon visit, devoted to a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s estate, Graceland.
The interior design and décor were reminiscent of the 1970s — “the King” died at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42 — with shag carpet lining the ceiling, primary colors coating the walls and wood paneling lining the kitchen. The Jungle Room was certainly one to note, apparently the animal-themed result of a lavish shopping spree.
And for antique car lovers, Elvis’ collection was nothing short of jaw-dropping, with “steeds” from the likes of Cadillac and Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz.
Before we left, we made sure to eat some peanut butter and banana sandwiches, coated in bacon grease, the King’s lunchtime favorite.
TAKING IT EASY IN THE ‘BIG EASY’
My road trip experience came to a close in the culturally eclectic, aesthetically colorful city of New Orleans. And though we spent two nights there, my only regret was not having more time to explore this enchantingly mysterious city.
Of course, we began by venturing down the legendary Bourbon Street, where we were instantly sucked into the jazz scene. A far different style from Nashville, the music was soulful, the performers were sassy and everyone who was anyone was dancing. In the morning, we stopped by the noted Café du Monde — which first opened in 1862 — on Decatur Street and indulged in its famous doughy, fried, sugary beignets. The Place d’Armes Hotel, our home away from home, was certainly no yurt but a registered landmark, built in 1725 and serving originally as a school.
Despite the city’s deep-rooted association with voodoo and vampires (courtesy of onetime resident Anne Rice), we didn’t personally encounter any spirits, though we did take a two-hour “haunted history” walking tour through the city’s French Quarter, which highlighted an intriguing mix of past crimes and unsolved mysteries that have given rise to many urban legends.
Unable to resist, I brought parts of the city home with me in the form of Mardi Gras masks, one-of-a-kind artists’ prints and a life-size, hand-painted, turquoise sugar skull, associated with the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day (Oct 31 through Nov. 2).
Perhaps these mementoes will one day bring me back to the city for more adventures.