Letting the bons temps rouler – Road trip through the Southern USA

South Beach Miami

A road trip is a very American thing to do. The US Americans love their cars and the infrastructure in the country is perfect for this form of transportation.

New Orleans is my destination, I want to see the Mississippi in all its splendor. But the road trip USA begins in Miami South Beach where I spend the first three days. Just 5 minutes from the strip, the Tropics Hostel is a little oasis for me. It is a place to feel normal within this silly city, and cooking your own food in the open-air kitchen makes life so much more affordable. Many of the guests are as stupid as the city itself, but there are a few who are down to earth. But almost everyone seems to have some kind of secret story going on behind their outer appearance. I share my room with eight people, every day people come and go. Some of these folks are going about inscrutable businesses, they work as go-gos or promoters for clubs at night or try to pursue the good old dishwasher-cum-millionaire-dream during the day. An Austrian girl is only here so not to loose her green card. An older pilot comes every year as the flying is cheaper here. A young guy from the North wants to become a stuntman and believes the chances are better here than in Hollywood. Some people I don’t see through at all.

Road Trip USA: Beach hut in South Beach, Miami

Everything in this strange city is facade. Welcome to the plastic beach – who knows if the Gorillaz did not write their song here. The people show off their most expensive clothes and their well-trained bodies in front of the picturesque art deco setting. The streets are full of prizy cars with plenty of horsepower, millions of dollar pass me by on wheels. However, if you take a closer look you notice that probably half of the cars are actually rentals and some of the lips and boobs are artificial, too. Just like the city itself. At first sight you see only wealth and jetset life, luxury shops and high class restaurants. If you look behind the facade, you discover homeless people and crazies, gangsters and dirty alleys.

I visit the Everglades for an afternoon, this huge nature park which spans across the whole length of Florida. In an airboat we hover above the water with 350 HP and see alligators and colorful birds. But the eco system here is in danger. Ever since Florida taxed the keeping of snakes as pets, many people have set free their Pythons. These snakes, up to 6 meters long, have no natural enemies around here. Their population grows steadily and they eat everyhing the other animals need. Sometimes they even feast on an alligator! Besides, the irrigation system of Florida slowly sucks all the water out of the Everglades. And then their’s the weather, of course, something you don’t even have to talk about nowadays. Let’s say that much: It has never been that dry.

Road Trip USA: Alligator in Everglades National Park

After three rather chilly days in Miami during which I have tried to understand the American mentality in vain, it is about time for my trip. I start Northwards in the cheapest and, for that matter, smallest rental car. Afer half an hour of getting lost I return to the rental company and embarassedly do get an overprized GPS after all. Then I move on. The pilot has recommended Lake Okeechobee, but it proves quite hard to actually find it. Locals tell me that its shore is now in a completely different place from where it used to be, due to the lack of water. At some viewpoints you need binoculars and former lake houses don’t deserve that name anymore. Feeling a bit disappointed, I continue towards Tampa and cross some sweet smelling lime plantations on the way. Corn chips and Arizona Ice Tea, this is how I remembered driving in the States from my times as a tourguide in Cali. The Native American names of places seem rather exotic to me and I am full of expectations.

In Tampa I stay at Gram’s Inn, a treehouse-like collection of oddities. It is a cool place, but the atmosphere among the guests is lethargic and hostile. Over a few cans of beer, I talk to two guys from Cologne about the inconsistencies this country confronts the traveller with all the time. Openness and helpfulness on the one hand, the love for violence and the omnipresent bragging on the other. And that’s only where the whole discussion starts. The two advise me strongly not to take a closer look at Tampa.

Road Trip USA: Gram's Inn

So I start cruising towards Tallahassee early next morning and look for small roads instead of the Interstate. On the roads I see oversized motorhomes which even pull SUVs behind them. Everything in this country is so much bigger! I want to swim with manatees in the Crystal River, but when I arrive all the tours are already over. I find an old boat captain who is willing to take me to these strange vegetarian animals, but his boat does not work after all. The feeling continues that this trip does not really keep its promises. I move on and find some remote places whose names end in ‚beach’. The vibe there is rather sad though. Signs warn of bacteria in the water, many of the houses are for sale, rain is drizzling down. There are no people to be seen at all. I eat a monstrous soft shell crab sandwich which briefly makes me happy again. Then it starts raining for real.

In Tallahassee I only get to see an overprized motel and a street full of fast food restaurants. Not so easy finding food here as a Vegetarian. I am pondering about giving up the road trip altogether and move on straight to Mexico. Somehow this is all not good. Everything is too expensive and I don’t really get anything for all the money I spend. Even the driving I had imagined too be more exciting, it proves to be mainly boring.

But on the next morning, I pull myself together and continue on my way. The eclectic program on 87.9, broadcasted from the Tallahassee campus, saves my mood. When the reception fails I switch to a country channel. While I slowly make my way through Sothern Alabama, this type of music really does make sense. Then I zapp through the various channels and listen carefully. You can learn a lot about a country when you listen to the radio. I hear Christian propaganda and very manipulative advertising noone would dare to produce back home. But the top issue today is the pre-elections and people discuss about the moral justification of birth control which I almost can’t believe.

In the afternoon I reach Biloxi and learn that this city in the Gulf has been wiped out completely during hurricane Katrina. It is the first city I seem to like. I can’t even say why. Maybe it is the friendly Vietnamese who give me a discount in their motel as soon as they hear me say the three words I know in their language. Maybe it is the sun that finally comes out. I go for a run on the beach and then eat a very tasty seafood gumbo, actually a Louisiana specialty. Gambling is legal in Mississippi, so I pay a visit to the Hard Rock Casino. But all the blinking slotmachines, the noise and the many people wear me out. By the time I have finally understood the rules, I have had one Bourbon too many and decide to go home. That way at least I don’t loose money.

Road Trip USA: Hard Rock Casino, Biloxi, Mississippi

On the next day I finally reach New Orleans. Mardi Gras celebrations are in full swing and the streets are full of drunken people. Nowhere else can you drink in the streets, in Florida this might even get you in jail. Amidst the celebrations in the French Quarter with its colonial flair I join a tour on which I learn a lot about about this city which is the birthplace of Jazz and has French and Spanish roots, but also a strong African heritage. The tour ends on the cemetary where voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is buried and Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda take acid in ‚Easy Rider’ and go berzerk. The graves, built like cupboards above the ground, together with all the voodoo stories paint a very spooky picture of this city which had almost been given up after Katrina. I would like to know more about the world of ghosts here, but now it is pouring down with rain.

Road Trip USA: Another New Orleans cemetary with no rain

I find shelter in the house of my couchsurfing host Lauren. There is another couchsurfer there, Brent is a young Floridian cycling across the States. The two of us share the two couches in the little wooden house in Uptown with Zoe, a huge American bulldog lady. Finally I have found nice people, we are all getting along immediately! Together with Lauren’s friend Tracy we discover the bars on Frenchman Street at night. There is music everywhere, bands as well as Djs. Many genres can be heard, but Blues and Jazz are peeking through everywhere. The booze is cheap and the locals really know how to party. The atmosphere here is completely different from the one in plastic Miami. People here do not try to be something they aren’t. They are open and nice to each other. Rather my kinda place.

On the next day there we see our first parade. People are very excited because Will Ferrell is playing the king on one of the floats. There certainly are parallels to the German carnival, but the atmosphere is really something different. It’s not about political messages here, it’s all about the fun and the music. And, of course, about catching as many colorful beads made in China as possible, which proves to be rather competitive. The Marching Bands really knock me out, they play a wall of music that makes everyone shake their butts. This music together with the breathtaking dancers, the impressive costumes and the bags full of Pabst Blue Ribbon we have brought – What a party!

Road Trip USA: People in costumes at Bacchus Parade, New Orleans

Now it is Monday. I have now understood that New Orleans’ people use almost any chance to celebrate which I can really relate to. But the Monday before the ‚fat Tuesday’, inofficially ‚Lundi Gras’, is the king among all the city’s parties. We start early, Lauren’s friends Jessica, Stacy and Damien have invited us for a barbecue. We eat barbecued salmon, drink canned beer and play frisbee. Then we make our way back to St. Charles Street where the excitement is big once again. This time we are all wearing costumes and fight hard for all the beads we can get. When the parade comes to an end, we want more. And so we drive over to the French Quarter in Lauren’s old car where the party is now out of control. The streets are full of people. Mardi Gras always sees some shootings, but we only get to meet nice people. We move from bar to bar and apartment to apartment. Then I finally get to see the Mississippi which has been the motivation for this trip after all. I pay the huge, muddy river the due respect and ceremonially pee into it together with Brent.

Road Trip USA: Houses and bridge along the Mississippi

Mardi Gras itself is a rather quiet day for us. We are all hungover and tired. Brent has lost his passport, Lauren a cheque of 80 bucks, I have lost my voice. I cook for the two and then visit an old plantation home situated half an hour West of New Orleans. Like almost everything so far, this place is also closed but I don’t mind so much this time and still find some beautiful corners. The last days have really appeaced me. Then I explore Lauren’s neighborhood. Many of the houses were completely under water after Katrina, on some doors you can still see the chalk signs the military put there to indicate if they found bodies. No matter who you talk to about Katrina, noone is happy with how the States dealt with this catastrophe. It is not the first time I hear the word racism in this context.

Road Trip USA: Street signs and cars on the Esplanade, New Orleans

Something I don’t understand here and in Miami is all the crime which is on a whole other scale than back home. In New Orleans people steal a lot and you mustn’t go into some quarters if you don’t want to get shot. Many people carry guns and many people don’t hesitate long before using them. This is not how I imagine a free country.

On the following day I head back Eastwards. I have two girls on board, friends of a friend in D.C. . Suzanna is working in film and also tries her luck as a rapper, Lisa is a photographer. Besides, I have discovered that ‚Harry’, my car, play music from a regular USB stick which changes almost everything. The two make the more than 600 miles a lot easier to bare. Suzanna leaves us in Tallahassee, Lisa and I make it all the way to St. Augustine. It’s only there that I realise that came to the oldest city in the States. The wooden Southern style houses are picturesque and the city has a good vibe.

Road Trip USA: Old car and old building in St. Augustine, Florida

On the next day the weather is as you would expect it to be in Florida. I should have probably gone up the East Coast right from the start. We have lunch in a wonderful little beach village with surfers, beach cruisers, sanddunes and jeeps with balloon tyres. I eat alligator tail. I almost don’t dare to say, but it tastes like chicken…

Lisa finds a bunch of hippies who take her up the coast. I am on the search for my own hippies. Because coincidence has it that just now there is a Rainbow Gathering taking place less than an hour from here. And such a gathering has been on my to-do-list for a long time. But when I get to the place in the middle of a State Forest just around sunset, it does not look particularly nice. Nature is beautiful, they even have bears out here. But the few left-over wannabe hippies are really nothing but very dirty kids who talk about nothing other than drugs. Just when I reach the big open space with the campfire, the nightly congregation is taking place. Reluctantly I join in and soon find myself in the circle, holding hands with a sad looking woman to my left who flinches with every barking dog and to a guy on my right who does not even seem to be alive anymore. We chant a few ‚Oms’ into the forest of palmtrees, then I quickly get the hell out of there. I jump into my Kia which, around here, is not only the smallest car to be seen but also the cleanest, and drive back to the Atlantic coast. I imagined this to be quite a different experience but now I am really just happy to have left. I stay in a motel in Flagler Beach.

Road Trip USA: Food stand in Daytona Beach

The next day begins early with a run on the beach for a cloudy sunrise. Then I take the car and drive up and down the beach, something you can only do in Daytona. The last time I did that was thirty years ago with my parents. I pay a quick visit to the lighthouse South of the city and then I sneak into the International Speedway. In two days, Daytona 500 is taking place, and this is yet another very American thing woth seeing. I manage to watch a few training rounds. The cars are not only fast as lightning, but also deafeningly loud. But it is very cool to have been able to see that live!

Road Trip USA: Race car at Daytona International Speedway

From there I drive down the A1A Beach Boulevard all the way to Plantation where my former Suntrek colleague Amy resides at her aunt’s very posh house and has invited me over. We dine like kings, drink all the wine there is and entertain ourselves in the game room with shuffle board, flipper and foosball.

On the next day I go past Miami and island by island I work my way down to Key West. Here it finally is exactly like one imagines Florida. Fancy cars, huge boats, colorful houses and stunning beaches. The sea runs on both sides of the road for long stretches, it is really hard not to like this place. I buy a wooden pelikan, get run over by a retired woman on a bicycle and bitten in the foot by a fire ant. And all of that in just five minutes.

Road Trip USA: Monument at southernmost point in the USA

I arrive in Key West just in time to take a picture of the Southernmost point in the States before the sun sets in a very decorative manner. It is only then I realise that I have not thought about accommodation at all. I spend the next 7 hours looking for an affordable room and while doing that drive the whole 150 miles back to Miami. Spring Break has started, it is the weekend and exceptionally warm for February. That’s why virtually every place in Southern Florida is booked to the last bed. I find a shithole without bahroom in South Beach at last, for which they charge me a stiff 100 Dollars. Parking of Harry is another 20, but I have no choice.

I have covered 2500 miles. There were good moments and bad ones. At least during the second week things really seemed to fall into place and I was in the flow. But I probably won’t ever be able to make complete sense of the United States. And now I am definitely ready to move on. Cuba, here I come!

This post is also available in: German

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