I drove out of Atlanta on I-75 and switched over to I-16 in Macon, Georgia on my way to Savannah to meet up with my first road trip partner, the incomparable Ms. Lesley Marie Stockton. We’d planned her leg of the trip back in March (Savannah, Ocala National Forest, St. Joseph Island, Cajun Country, and undetermined Fourth of July plans at the time), which seems like a million years ago now, but I was so excited to see one of my dearest NYC girls. She brought a feeling of home along with her.
The Antebellum South on Steroids (aka, Savannah)
The Food. We ate well in Savannah. Real well. Our first night there, Lesley took me out to a belated birthday dinner at Local 11 Ten and we had an incredible meal. From the food to the drinks to the way badass service, this was a hell of a great spot. The next day, we had lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room. This was life-changing. It was hot. Like, real fucking hot. I purposely didn’t want to eat breakfast so as to save my appetite for this epic meal. This is how it goes. You wait in line for however long it takes - in our case, about an hour. It’s akin to waiting in line at Franklin’s in Austin - you kind of chat it up with folks around you, drink cold water to keep your body temperature at a decent level, and talk about how fucking starving you are. Then, you’re waved in. At that point, you’re so hungry that it feels a bit like being brought into the gates of heaven. The air is cool inside and permeated with the smells of Southern cooking. We were seated at a table with six other folks - a rather obnoxious young woman with her poor, beaten down fiancee and four older women from New Jersey who were in town on vacation at a nearby beach house rental. They were amazing. We could tell they’d been friends forever and had that familiarity you only get after putting in 20+ years. Then the food starts coming out. It’s like a cascade of serving bowls being set down on the table. Any Southern delicacy you could possibly want is placed no more than four feet from your face. Black eyed peas and three different kinds of squash and okra and THE BEST GODDAMN FRIED CHICKEN I HAVE EVER HAD and biscuits and mac and cheese and potatoes a million ways and dumplings and pork chops and some sort of roast and…well, whatever. You get the point here. There was so much food. And every single dish was incredible.
The Squares and Parks. Savannah is undoubtedly beautiful. Spanish moss is hanging from all the trees and the gas lamps are out in force. It’s a gorgeous Southern town that clearly takes pride in its manicured parks and Antebellum homes. I enjoyed walking around exploring the neighborhoods, even though it was a million degrees.
Honestly, that’s kind of it. Lesley and I only had two nights in Savannah and that kind of seemed like enough for me (and her, too). There are a lot of really great restaurants and we only were able to sample a few of them, but I’m at a loss as to what else we really would have done if we’d stayed an extra night to check out a few more. Savannah is a huge tourist town and I think, in general, I’m just a little gun shy with those. We did a little over half of a hop on/hop off tour that was informative, but also pretty hokey. We’d probably have stayed on if it wasn’t for our need to get over to Mrs. Wilke’s by 1:30pm coupled with my intense need to find a bathroom. But, I can’t say that looking back, I am devastated that we missed the last five tour sites.
The Florida Tropics (aka, Ocala National Forest)
Central Florida Walmart. You have seen that People of Walmart blog, right? That’s what we walked into. It was incredible.
The Springs. After Lesley and I set up camp, we were drenched. It felt like a million percent humidity down there and elevating your heart rate just a few ticks would produce sheets of sweat. Once we had the tent up, we went to check out Juniper Springs, the namesake of our campground. It couldn’t have been more perfect - the temperature was icy, the water was a gorgeous shade of blue, most of the families had gone for the day so it was somewhat mellow, and the little fishies were nibbling at our feet. The next day, we continued our Central Florida Springs excursion. We returned back to Juniper Springs around 10am to find a much more bustling environment than when we’d left. It was a Saturday and this was clearly a popular spot for family hangouts on the weekend. We’re talking pop-up tent set-up, barbecues, big ass coolers, 36 packs of Mountain Dew, and all kinds of kids running around. The people watching, though. Well, the people watching was superb. Think of “People of Walmart” and then put them in bathing suits so that they’re particularly incredible tattoos are exposed and that will help paint a picture for y’all. We also decided to explore Salt Springs, another springs in the National Forest. This one was much bigger than Juniper and had a slight salinity to it based on the water’s composition Also, this was THE PARTY. There must have been 40 boats on the other side of the swimming-only area - there was loud music, dogs swimming in the water, koozied Bud Lights, more bad tattoos, leathery skin (seriously, if this wasn’t a PSA for sunscreen, I don’t know what is), a few mullets, 64-oz soda cups. The folks at this spot did not disappoint. But, even more than that, these springs were pretty gorgeous. The recreation area was huge and there were several trees to shade the grassy hangout areas. The swimming area itself was three times the size of Juniper Springs and ranged from wading to diving depth. The springs in Ocala were the highlight. It was really a little too hot to do much exploring (we really were hoping to spot a raccoon riding on the back of a gator, but no dice) and being able to access the water to keep cool was pretty key.
Juniper Springs Campground. Camping in Florida was TROPICAL. We slept on sand, were surrounded by a lush forest full of ferns and palm trees, and saw more bugs than we could count. We were also eaten alive. I can’t remember ever having itched so bad - I basically looked like the poster child for adult chicken pox. That being said, Lesley, bless her heart, got the brunt of it. A few days later, I was putting sunscreen on her back and had a flash of a thought “holy hell, when did Lesley develop adult-onset backne?” She had not. One or two mosquitos had attacked her back that badly. One of our more memorable moments was standing in Costco on our way to St. Joseph Peninsula, looking at an OFF! display, trying to decide if we should buy it or not, all the while mindlessly scratching ourselves until we realized the hilarity of the situation. We were applying Afterbite like it had traces of heroin in it.
Lesley’s Chef Skills. Lesley can cook you under the table. I’d put her up against most anyone. And she answered my “what the hell do I cook in the campground” cry. That girl cooked one of the most perfect chickens I’ve ever eaten in my cast iron skillet, roasted a bunch of veggies in foil packets on a hot fire rock, roasted corn in the fire, chopped it all off the cob and turned it into an insanely delicious salad that was perfectly refreshing for the weather. I picked up some pointers that I’ve probably forgotten by now, but hopefully I can refresh my memory when I get to camp cooking again.
Panhandle Camping (aka, St. Joseph Peninsula)
The Ford Graveyard (May They Rust in Peace). This wasn’t actually at the campsite, but on the drive there. We were on a little byway along the Apalachicola National Forest and saw an open space with like thirty or forty old rusted out trucks and cars. We turned around, pulled over, and explored for a bit. It was rad. The story goes that they were all used on the Harvey family farm at one time or another and had just been laying around the property until Pat Harvey decided to put them all together in one place along this road. I don’t know much at all about old cars, but some of them looked to be from as far back as the early 1900s.
Lesley's Message in a Bottle. On our first stroll along the beach at St. Joseph Peninsula, Lesley came across an empty handle of Jim Beam with barnacles around the cap. Inside was a rolled up piece of paper. She managed to get it open with some elbow grease, only to find that the paper had gotten wet and barely anything was legible...except "THIS IS RUSSIAN LANGUAGE." We have no idea how long this thing was actually out at sea (we seem to think it doesn't take long for barnacles to grow on something) or where it had been put into the water, though a friend of mine looked up currents and determined if it had been placed in the water at a beach, it likely would have been in Iceland in order for it to make it to this part of the Florida coastline. It also could have been chucked off a boat. Or thrown from a plane. Hell, who knows. But, now it's a great story.
The First Sunset. I am sure I’ve seen sunsets like this before, but I can’t remember the last one that came close to this. The sky was neon pink. The Mother did us good that first night.
The Storm. And then she brought her fury. Thankfully, the rain didn’t start until we had turned in for the night, but holy hell. The storm that first night of camping was definitely the most violent of the trip so far. Wild cracks of thunder, spotlight-like lightening, 40-mph winds. Lesley told me the next day that she had dreams throughout the night that were storm-infused. I feel like one involved drowning. Or maybe I’m just making that up. But, yea, the night did not lend itself to restful sleep.
The Set-Ups. We quickly learned that St. Joseph Peninsula is mostly an RV campsite. I think all the sites had electrical hook ups and that’s totally fine. I get that entirely. What a gorgeous place to come hang out for a week or however long. We marveled at the camp set-ups, though. Folks brought all kinds of stuff - huge shop fans (which, frankly, bravo dudes - you know how to keep those mosquitos at bay), flags introducing the family (The Smiths) with cutsie sayings like “What happens at camp, stays at camp,” stringed lights, tiki torches, too many golf carts to count, a slow cooker (!). I’m surprised I didn’t see a recliner. It was impressive. These people took glamping to the next level.
The Beach. This was my first beach visit of the trip. And probably only one of two for the summer. The day we were there was after the storm so the waves were fierce. It didn’t allow for a whole lot of swimming, but it was pretty great to get in the water down in Florida, which was bathtub warm, though not that usual shade of gorgeous blue because of the weather. The sand was as storied white and soft as I had heard. Later that evening, we came back to the beach to watch the sunset again and were hypnotized by the sand crabs. We watched them dig their little holes for the night (or until the tide washed them away again). There were two in particular we watched for several minutes, analyzing their sand throwing techniques and evaluating the effectiveness of each style. One had a pretty powerful arm (claw maybe?) and was able to send the sand much further from the opening than the other. It's been a crazy long time since I've just sat and observed the repetitive behaviors of such determined creatures and it really got my mind to thinking about animals, evolution, and their place in this world. That’s for a later entry, though.
The Raw Bar. Lesley and I had been looking forward to gulf coast seafood for days. However, unbeknownst to us, most restaurants in the area are closed on Mondays. Thank the lord for Shipwreck Raw Bar, though, because that joint is the only one open seven days a week. We went in at happy hour, drank some wildly cold beers, and got down on some oysters on the half shell (with a sleeve of saltines thrown down upon delivery). We foolishly only ordered a dozen to start, plowed through those, and had them shuck another that were brought to us along with some peel and eat shrimp. It was glorious.
We had a real long drive to Louisiana. I think all said and done, it was close to nine hours, which was the longest I’d driven on the trip by that time. I was thankful for Lesley to help break up the drive. I drove the most hours that day of the two of us, but right when she got behind the wheel, we hit a nasty storm that lasted for most of the rest of the way to Opelousas and I know it was crazy stressful for her to be driving through all that. We were both wiped by the time we finally made it to our Airbnb.
Jim and Christy’s Airbnb - The Barn Behind The Whirlybird Honky Tonk. Lesley did a real good job of finding us a sweet spot to stay (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2617349). Jim and Christy are from the Bay Area and had been fans of zydeco, the culture, and the food, hitting up festivals throughout the country and visiting the Lafayette area for years. They finally made the move down to Opelousas almost a decade ago and are living on this great old plantation property that they’re trying to turn into a farm and educational center for the area’s culture. When we arrived, they showed us our room in the barn, which we shared with Cheryl (more on her later), that was behind their honky tonk. The Whirlybird has quite a story. They’d bought and moved this building from a piece of land to their old fish camp, built it out into a honky tonk where they’d have dance parties with local musicians, and then left it behind when they sold the whole property. Somehow the guy who’d bought it couldn’t handle the property (that part of the story was a little unclear) and their friend who’d moved the building the first time had contacted them about its availability. They paid to have it moved once more to their plantation home and there it now sits, hosting those same dance parties in the cooler months (there is currently no AC) and also people who rent it on Airbnb. You could probably spend at least a few hours looking at all the stuff they have in there - these folks clearly love to hit up a good flea market and seem to have been doing so for decades. The barn was also just as fun to explore - we had a great living room and kitchen where Lesley and I both wrote and drank coffee in the morning, a cool room where we both slept comfortably, and a lovely patio to hang out on at night - all for like $85 a night. If any of y’all ever head through Cajun Country, give me a holler and I will make all your dreams come true.
Sidenote: Cheryl. Cheryl was our roommate of sorts at Jim and Christy’s. We only had the opportunity to chat with her a few times, but she was beyond engaging and so interesting to speak with. She used to be a reporter, most notably with NPR, and lived all over, most recently in Los Angeles. She worked her ass off for years and didn’t leave much room for fun. Somehow, she got into zydeco music and started attending festivals, which is where she eventually met Jim and Christy. A few years ago, she completely changed up her life by taking a chance and moving down to Opelousas, giving herself a few months to see if something came of it. She rented a room at Jim and Christy’s, found a temporary job at the local paper, and that turned into a full-time position as the editor. I have a lot of respect for her - she took a huge risk by giving everything up to make a move for her happiness and you can tell it really paid off. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve encountered on this trip so far - very well versed in politics, foreign and domestic affairs, and the nuance of the region in which she now lives. Lesley and I loved getting to know her.
The Food. I really should have made this the first bullet point, but whatever. I guess if I don’t put it first, it doesn’t make me seem like such a glutton. Lesley had been wanting to come to Cajun Country for a while to check out its culinary offerings and I was happy to be along for the ride. I was mostly interested in the Acadian region to get a better feel for the culture as a whole and the food is its life blood. We went hard our first day there, basically eating our way through the area - gumbo, fried catfish, boudin balls, boudin, crackling, fried chicken, fried okra - we ate it all. Now that I’m writing this after the fact, I will have to say that I’d thought the best gumbo I’d ever had was at Prejean’s (where we ate twice). But, my mom later spent a few days in the region before meeting me in New Orleans and brought me back some gumbo from another spot that was 1/4 the price of Prejean’s and twice as good, so I was proven wrong. The whole area is full of little convenience stores that sell all kinds of cajun delicacies. If I lived there for any length of time, I’d probably gain 50 lbs and develop some kind of low-level, obesity-related health problem. Regardless, I was more than happy to have had the chance to experience what they had to offer.
Chicot State Park. On our second day in the region, we decided to get out and see some nature. We’d been told of a cool state park that was about an hour’s drive, so we took a bunch of back roads and found ourselves outside of Ville Platte at Chicot. As you might imagine, the nature in Southwestern Louisiana is much different than what I’d encountered in the Eastern part of the country. There weren’t many hills to climb, nor any incredible overlooks. But this park really showcased all of the indigenous nature of the area. We came across a swamp that was full of shades of green and Cypress trees growing out of it like tentacles. The nature trail itself was so well done and took us through the forest, over water via wooden causeways, and had all kinds of information on the local vegetation and animals. My favorite part of this trail, though, were all the tiny frogs. Like, itty bitty tiny. As we’d walk along, they’d hop out of the way, sometimes in huge groups of 15 or 20, which looked like some sort of mass frog exodus. They were real cute. Lesley and I were sweating our asses off during this very moderate walk, but it was nice to get out and do a little moving after eating so heartily.
Cajun country was a real highlight of my time with Lesley. This is a region that I’d love to get back to, especially on the weekends when I could go listen to some music. I can’t say that zydeco is really my all time favorite, but my mom used to bring me to zydeco festivals when I was a kid, so there’s some nostalgia there. Plus, I hear those dance parties are some of the most insanely good times you can have. I guess I’d probably be okay to come back and eat more gumbo, too.
The Fourth at the Fish Camp
The last leg of my time with Lesley fell over the Fourth of July. We left Opelousas and headed to New Orleans for just a few hours to meet up with our friends Ben and Susan and then drove out to a fish camp in Mississippi. This was our friends, Britta and Chris’, family place and Chris grew up going here as a kid. Some other friends - Joe, his wife, Robin, and Matt - were also out there with us over the weekend, so the house was full up. I was only with them for about 36 hours, but we packed it in:
- Two nights of fireworks over the bayou
- FINALLY getting to see two gators (albeit little babies) in that bayou water
- A beach trip to the Mississippi Gulf, which was so goddamn weird - it was like everyone from the Florida Springs headed west to meet us at the beach. Confederate flags were all the rage and the I saw more huge pick-up trucks that seemed to compensate for deficiencies in other areas than I cared to count. It was nice to be back at the beach again, even though we got rained out just a few hours in.
- Terribly bad movie watching - y’all seriously need to check out Gleam the Cube.
- Lots of porch swing time
- Bourbon chats - my favorite kind of chats.
That place was pretty rad and a great end to my first friend visit on the road.
It was goddamn amazing to have Lesley join me for a week and a half. We had some hilarious times, some incredibly unique experiences, some significant conversations, some challenging conversations, and an even deeper love for one another. I'm real happy she was my first companion.