Two years before Hurricane Katrina, and a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, a co-worker/friend and myself decided to take a road trip through the South.
Georgia was on our minds because we were landing at Hartsfield–Jackson in Atlanta, but New Orleans is where we wanted to go the most, if only for the food. The plan was to cover some 2,000 miles in just a few days. Andy, my traveling companion, was the communications officer where we worked.
I was the office manager.
Andy was also an accomplished musician. He was the lead guitar player for a seasoned, MOR rock band. The original founder of the group had quit, so the other band members hired Andy on a contract basis. They were getting on in age and did not tour as much, so it worked out well with our employer.
The flight had been pleasant, and getting our rental car was quick. We realized on our way to the lot that it was cold, even for February, but we are used to the cold. First stop would be Macon, Georgia where Andy had an acquaintance who was a writer. He and his wife were going to put us up the first night, but the real reason he wanted to go to Macon was to eat some Nu-Way hot dogs. With their distinctive red wieners, Nu-Way is the second oldest hot dog restaurant in the United States. We were greeted by the writer and his wife, and it wasn’t long before we were treated to homemade pecan pie and sweet tea, which was not that sweet, I thought.
But what did I know.
They had plans, so Andy and I drove around Macon for a while. We stopped at H&H Restaurant for lunch. Nothing like southern comfort food. Back in the early 70s, The Allman Brothers and other struggling musicians, starving physically and financially, would show up to be fed by Mama Louise, one of the co-owners. We went to the counter and ordered items from the board on the wall. At least that’s how it was when we visited. When it was time for desert, there were homemade pies and cakes on the menu.
The baker must have been in her eighties but very much enjoyed her work.
We visited the Georgia Music Hall of Fame which, unbeknownst to us, was destined to close a few years later. Very cool place, as it were. We then stopped at a grocery store to stock up on snacks for the trip. We were the only two white guys in the place. It eventually dawned on us that the south was still segregated in some ways. Something we didn’t understand but the cashier smiled at us anyway. She was gorgeous. If there was a contest for the most beautiful cashier in the south, she would have easily won.
Slice of Nostalgia
We made our way to the original Nu-Way restaurant in old Macon, if only to look inside, as we were stuffed like a sausage in its casing. It didn’t matter because it was closed. We went to the army surplus store, and then headed back to the writer’s house. Before we got there, we stopped at the Nu-Way restaurant that was near to where our hosts lived. Although it was not the original restaurant, Andy could finally feast on the red-colored dogs he had enjoyed on previous gigs to Macon.
After more pecan pie and a pleasant evening with the writer and his wife, it was time to call it a night. I was given the bed in their daughter’s room, minus the daughter. She was staying with her boyfriend.
I had a good night sleep despite being interrupted now and again by the pleasant sound of distant train whistles.
We were up early the next day, ready to hit the road. We decided to take the scenic route and make our way past Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and into Louisiana. As crowded as the highways were, we encountered little traffic on the side roads. Small churches dotted the manicured landscape. For long stretches, we were the only car on the pavement.
Driving around a bend, we came upon a road gang. The prisoners were picking up garbage in a field by the side of the road. There was one guard wearing sunglasses and holding a 12 gauge shotgun ahead of the group. There was a guard behind the prisoners too. The prisoners were dressed in gray garbs and beside them on the road, a school bus, painted gray, slowly kept pace. All the prisoners were black. The guards were black, however, the bus driver was white. We were coming from the other direction and as we neared the bus, the driver waved at us as if they were all on a happy outing.
Although we didn’t know what crimes they had committed, we felt bad for the prisoners.
Strangely enough, the sky had become cloudy and gray. Now, everything was gray.
Onward . . .
Not long after passing the detail of prisoners, we entered a town. To the distant left of us towered a large building. At first we thought it was a hospital only to realize that it was a prison, perhaps the Draper Correctional Facility? We still don’t know if the road gang was from Draper or Staton.
As we drove deeper into Alabama, we veered onto highway 65. The sunshine had returned. We stopped at a diner along the way. I wish I remembered where it was because they served the best coleslaw. After a good lunch, we knew that our furthest destination west was within reach: The Big Easy. And in New Orleans, more food and music awaited us than we ever thought possible . . .
*This is the first of a two part series that chronicles the travels of Michael Bellamy through the south. Michael is the author of our Memory Lane series and enjoys driving his 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC and his 2001 Ford F150 7700.