Last fall, my husband and I set our hearts on renting an R.V. for a road trip from Los Angeles to Florida. We imagined picnicking on mountaintops in New Mexico, sleeping under the stars in Texas and barbecuing prawns (the R.V. would come with a grill, of course) on a Mississippi levee. In the end, our 2,200-mile American journey ended up being memorable, but for none of those reasons.
“We can’t accept anyone over 70 with a British driver’s license,” insisted the woman on the phone. I’m 83, but in my head I’m a sprightly 60, and my husband, John, is 76. Nobody had warned us about this potential obstacle. If they had the same age cutoff for Americans, I thought, the R.V. business would collapse.
We called another company. Their rep said he’d never heard of any age restriction. “No problem,” he said. “We’ve got the perfect R.V. for you.” Except it was 45 feet long. The thought of parking something the size of a London bus was too much, even for my gung-ho husband.
Common sense prevailed, and we rented a Ford Explorer.
Salsa and sticker shock
We were overdue for a break. Aside from my usual job eating cake as a judge on “The Great British Baking Show,” I’d been doing trial runs of my one-woman stage show in Britain and the United States, and it had been exhausting.
So, before we set off on our great adventure, we rented a mobility scooter for two and hit the boardwalk at Venice Beach, in Los Angeles. But our crawl through the deafeningly loud music, junk food and stands selling shorts emblazoned with vulgar words and messages like “Beat Me” did little to re-energize our spirits.
On the day we left California, torrents of rain were falling. By the time we crossed into Arizona, the sun had exploded over the hills in a glorious display of opera lighting.
We made it as far as Sante Fe, N.M., where our hotel, the Vanessie, a charming collection of wooden buildings around a courtyard was, like everywhere, suffering from a lack of staff. The single employee handed us a laminated notice: “Our restaurant, room service and bar are currently closed. A $30 service charge will be added to your bill.”
Happily, Vara Vinoteca, across the street, was open. We ate tiny padrón peppers stuffed with cream cheese and cumin, tuna ceviche and pineapple salsa, and a small bowl of warm, slightly curried mussels in the shell, all served with a flight of four glasses of different California cabernet sauvignons.
I’d have been happy to have all our meals in that simple little room. But Santa Fe brims with good restaurants, quirky architecture, art museums and shops stuffed with desirable things, so we set off to explore. John fell in love with a hatter’s shop, where he bought two authentic Stetsons. He also spent eye-watering amounts of money on two baseball caps for his grandsons. Is there a difference between a $41 and a $5 baseball cap? Apparently.
John was equally dumbfounded at my lusting after an irresistible $150 necklace made from cut-up plastic water bottles and sprayed with red, black and gold paint. Vibrant, bouncy, light as a feather — it was a work of art. But apparently it was a piece that, at least for us, money couldn’t buy: The shop’s credit card system required a U.S. ZIP code, and cash was not accepted. We gave up.
Prices constantly amazed us. The exchange rate has made the U.S. shockingly expensive for Brits, and taxes and tip on top of that? I’m already vaguely offended to be expected to tip when buying a coffee at a counter. And now with the touch screens suggesting tips of 15 percent and up, a latte feels like a major purchase. Only petrol seemed cheap, at half the U.K. price.
Where astronauts dare to dine
“Boring, flat, brown, goes on forever”: Everyone said we’d hate Texas. But we loved it. Maybe because I grew up in the wide-open spaces of South Africa, the little towns with not much more than a windmill and a church touched my heart.
We stopped for lunch at Dirk’s, a Lubbock diner packed with locals eating chicken tenders, sticky ribs and burgers, all flooded with gloopy barbecue sauce and followed by doughnuts or pancakes in a lake of syrup.
The waiter seemed puzzled when I asked, “Do you have any green vegetables?” Then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes, we have green beans.” They turned out to be canned beans in a cloying juice.
We were also puzzled by the way American waiters routinely congratulate you on your menu choice, rewarding you with “Good choice,” “Excellent” or even “Awesome.” You want fries with that? “Awesome!”
By the time we got to San Antonio, we were ready for a drink. A waterside cafe among the raised flower beds, paved walks and roving mariachi bands of the River Walk delivered first-class margaritas (freezing, salt on only one edge of the glass, not too sweet) and still-warm tortilla chips. Watching the young waiter make guacamole at a riverside table was a joy: knife razor-sharp, chile fresh, avocado and tomato perfectly ripe. And his judgment was fine — a smidge of chopped raw red onion, a decent squeeze of lime, and a generous grind of pepper and salt, all turned together gently rather than crudely mashed. I found myself eating very slowly, just to hold on to that flavor as long as possible.
We had the worst meal of our whole trip not far away in the Texas Hill Country tourist town of Fredericksburg, which prides itself on its German heritage. We’d spent a happy morning touring the shops, museums and galleries of the town’s north end, and enjoyed a lunch of fried chicken sandwiches and banana walnut pancakes.
So we had high hopes for the south side. But sadly its historic houses were full of tourist junk like plastic stein mugs and Barbie dolls squeezed into lederhosen. We retreated to a restaurant whose menu boasted of authentic German dishes. We were served pork chops ruined by oversweet gravy, tasteless sauerkraut, sweet and vinegary red cabbage, and potato mash obviously made with powdered mix that had not been brought to a boil. We abandoned our plates and went back to our motel to microwave emergency rations of Campbell’s tomato soup.
The next day, on our way to Houston, we passed a roadside church whose huge hoarding exhorted us to “Give Up Lust — Take Up Jesus.” I thought that sign might be my most abiding memory, until I’d spent a few hours at the Space Center Houston. I never guessed I’d be so riveted by topics like the geology of the moon and how NASA astronauts train underwater.
But the cafeteria! It is astonishing, the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in a public building: brioche or sourdough sandwiches, homemade soups, hot roasts and grills, fresh tortillas, a salad bar to tempt the most die-hard carnivore, and no junk food in sight. It was a long way from the usual NASA fare of freeze-dried food in pouches and tubes.
How to nurse a hangover
Louisiana is famous for gumbos and étouffées, so I was expecting gastronomy as we crossed the state line and drove toward Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum, a Cajun heritage village in Baton Rouge. I guess I was overly optimistic. The jambalaya and blackened fish in the cafe were tasteless and dried out. I’ve had better Cajun food in London.
Plantation Alley, along the Great Mississippi Road, with its half a dozen “Gone With the Wind”-style estates, now open to the public, swept me away. The most beautiful of them was Oak Alley, with its avenue of 250-year-old Southern live oaks, their branches creating a vast green tunnel. But I couldn’t understand how the magnificent trees were obviously much older than the house. It turns out that these oaks are native to the area, and had once grown all over the estate. When the house was built in 1836, enslaved workers were made to dig up 28 of the huge 60- to 70-year-old trees, with root systems equal to the size of their canopies, and replant them in an avenue down to the Mississippi levee.
The Great Mississippi Road eventually leads to New Orleans and the famous French Quarter, with its balconies of elaborate wrought iron — a daytime picture of Victorian good taste. We, ignorant Brits, had no idea that at night on Bourbon Street, that “good taste” became the flavor of daiquiris, pizza and hot dogs against a backdrop of bands belting out rock ’n’ roll, small children beating dustbins, grown-ups playing jazz, and the raucous din of drunken tourists until 3 a.m.
But I liked the party atmosphere, and I’m mighty partial to a daiquiri, so we set off on a pub crawl. I now know that the secret to a good mango daiquiri is fresh mango, and not bottled mango syrup. And the next morning, after one too many mango delights and little sleep, I learned that shrimp and grits, with a good grating of cheese, is the perfect hangover cure.
Turkey, sweet potatoes and slice of modern Eden
Our road trip ended, as it had started, at a beach. Only this one was a mercifully far cry from the Venice boardwalk.
We had rented a house for the week in the small Florida Panhandle community of Seacrest Beach, on the Emerald Coast along Highway 30A. This eight-mile strip — a kind of manufactured, perfectly designed modern Eden — consists of 16 neighborhoods on white-sand beaches between Pensacola and Panama City. Developments with names like Rosemary Beach, Seagrove Beach, Alys Beach, Grayton Beach and WaterColor share the perfect sands and the desired 30A address.
Everyone rides around on bikes, and perfectly tanned mothers gossip over kombucha and wheatgrass at sidewalk cafes. Even the children look straight out of an upmarket catalog.
Friends of friends, on holiday, invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner — turkey with all the trimmings, sweet potatoes, pecan pie and ice cream. In thanking them, I said something about the pleasure of such generosity, family closeness and their children’s politeness. Our host laughed. It’s because we’re from the South, she said.
I’m glad we failed to rent my dream Winnebago back in Los Angeles. If we’d succeeded, we’d never have experienced a traditional American family Thanksgiving. We’d have been in a trailer park, eating takeout. Thank you, Lady Luck.
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