Wild Horses, Low Tire Pressure, and the Official Chicken of Jesus: My Westbound Road Trip

I recounted by eastbound road trip in On The Road Again, and my beautiful New England Christmas in My 12 Days of Christmas, so technically, this is Part 3 of a trilogy! Hey, it’s not Lord of the Rings, I’m not Tolkien and I’m not a hobbit… but this IS about a great travel adventure, so…

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Atlanta

Heading away from New England is never easy for me, but after having spent a wonderful couple of weeks and enjoying festive holidays, most of my friends were back at work and getting on with their everyday lives, and I knew it was time for me to move on to other adventures. So on a sunny morning, fortified by an extra-large Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast, I headed south, easily slipping through the New York metro area before rush hour began, and spent the night in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. The next morning I stopped in the city to visit District Doughnuts, where they have a crème brûlée donut. The young server whipped out a blow torch to melt the granulated sugar on top of my cream-filled donut before she handed it to me!  What will they think of next?

My next stop was just outside of Richmond, Virginia where I met a Facebook friend named Pam for lunch. We’d met a few months ago on several Fleetwood Mac fan sites on Facebook in the midst of Fleetwood fans arguing over who was at fault for the band’s self-destruction last year. Though it pained us both as diehard Stevie Nicks fans, we shared the opinion that alas, Stevie was completely in the wrong for having Lindsey Buckingham, with whom she’s worked on and off since 1968, unceremoniously fired, leaving the band a pale shadow of its former self. We commiserated over these events as we shared lunch, and I knew I was south of the Mason-Dixon line as I  dined on a fried green tomato eggs Benedict.

From there it was on to Virginia Beach to visit my cousin Marsha and her husband, Stan for a few days.  I don’t have many family members left, but Marsha has always been one of my favorites and I always enjoy my visits with her. Not too long after I arrived, we were off to a fabulous party at the home of one of her friends. There was great food, about 25 very welcoming and funny guests, and a raucous “Yankee swap/white elephant” Christmas gift game during which I got stuck with a stupid cat-shaped mug with the caption, “I used to have a husband, but my cat was allergic.” Sigh.  As soon as I opened it, I knew that no one was going to steal this gift from me, not matter how badly I wanted them to! Marsha didn’t fare much better, getting a mug shaped like a toilet, but Stan was able to steal and win her a moose nativity set (picture Mary and the baby Jesus with antlers) that was much coveted by everyone at the party, so she emerged victorious!

On Sunday I met my old friends Kathy and Jane, with whom I’d attended the Masters program at William & Mary in the early 1980s. We had brunch at a local place called Bee and the Biscuit, which is always mobbed, but we arrived at 9:00 and only had a bit of a wait. It was a lovely 60 degree day and the place has an outdoor fire pit, so we went to sit down by the fire and one leg of my hard plastic chair sunk into dirt, toppling me over backwards and causing my entire chair to shatter into a dozen shards of plastic. I stuck my back on a rock, but didn’t seem to have hurt myself, but still, I couldn’t get up on my own power, as I’d had the wind knocked out of me and there was nothing for me to grab onto to pull myself back up. It took about four kind bystanders to hoist me up! Talk about embarrassing!  Thankfully, the breakfast was delicious and I discovered a new place to add to my list of best pancakes in the USA! I’d fall out of a chair anytime for another batch of those!

After brunch I said goodbye to Jane and Kathy and intended to go for a much needed walk at the beach, but I couldn’t find my cell phone. I knew I’d had it with me when I left Marsha’s, so it had to be either at the restaurant or somewhere in my car. I went back to the restaurant and checked around the table, as well as in the area where I’d fallen, and then checked Lost & Found, all to no avail. I ended up driving back to Marsha’s to borrow her cell phone and started calling myself, hoping my phone would start ringing from somewhere inside my car, but no such luck. I drove back to the restaurant and walked to the area where I’d fallen, called myself and I heard ringing coming from a bush, but it still took me several seconds to find it! I could not have purposely hidden it any better if I’d tried. I guess when I fell, I went backward with such force that the phone flew about 2 feet out of my pocket and lodged itself in the very center of a bush, invisible to the naked eye! I was so relieved, and the hostess, who had helped me look for the phone earlier, cheered when I told her the good news. I don’t think the folks at this restaurant will soon forget me!  After these adventures, I had a great walk on the beach and then spent the rest of the afternoon playing countless games of Upwords, a Scrabble-like game that Marsha and I cannot get enough of. For dinner, she made us a Carolina “low country boil”: a stew of shrimp, clams, sausage, corn, and potatoes, and I made some absolutely amazing hushpuppies to go with it, if I do say so myself.

On Monday Marsha and I drove an hour south into North Carolina to see friends of hers who used to board their horses at Marsha’s place. These friends manage a shelter/refuge for wild horses that have been rescued from the islands along North Carolina’s outer banks. Like the famous Chincoteague and Assateague Islands off of Virginia’s eastern shore, there are wild horses in North Carolina as well. The folks who manage the refuge we visited said that they’ve actually done DNA tests on these wild horses and they do trace back to Spanish horses that hundreds of years ago were brought over by explorers and/or were on boats that may have capsized. Sometimes these wild horses experience injuries or health problems and sometimes they become a “nuisance” by invading private property or national parklands and must be removed.

So these folks rescue, domesticate, and breed the horses they rescue, and it was really interesting to hear about their work and meet some of these horses. The most amazing story was about Amadeo, a chestnut stallion who’d been swept into the ocean and washed down the shore for several miles. He suffered damage to both eyes in the process, and was blind and in pain. Vets removed his eyes and replaced them with glass eyes and he’s been cared for here since 2011. He heard us enter his paddock and immediately came over to explore, jumping back a bit when his nose made contact with one of us, but then immediately wanting to make friends. I fed him carrots and he followed me all over the field and put his head on my shoulder. I just loved him. Later I got bitten by a dark brown mare who was a recent addition to the ranch and was still pretty feisty; she seemed to mistake my thumb for a carrot stick and gave me a somewhat painful break in the skin, but nevertheless it was a great time.

After that, Marsha and I went on to the Outer Banks and the sleepy town of Corolla  where I braved driving on the hard sand beach that extends north from Corolla and into the area where the wild horses live. Theoretically you can drive along this beach all the way back to Virginia, but one needs permits to do so. We drove about 7 miles up and then turned around and I was amazed by how remarkably firm the sand was. It was such a thrill to be driving only a few feet from where the waves were breaking. There were strange tree stumps sticking out of the water in some places that seem to have been remnants of a forest long ago inundated, perhaps by a hurricane. The clouds were amazing, the colors of the sea were striking, and the sense of isolation was really an experience. Of course every once in awhile a local would speed past us at high speeds, and we even passed a huge logging truck along the way. It was quite an adventure, though we never spotted any wild horses.

Afterwards we watched a gorgeous sunset over the bay that separates the Outer Banks from the mainland and then had to search high and low for an open restaurant, as this place closes up like a drum over the winter. Eventually we scored some excellent Mexican food, that I washed down with a delicious pomegranate-blueberry margarita!

On my last day at Marsha’s we met her friends Gail and Alice for lunch, I went for another walk at the beach, we played more games of Upwords, and then Stan took us out for a really excellent seafood dinner at Blue. I will not soon forget my tempura-fried shrimp and the amazing chocolate bread pudding Marsha and I shared for dessert.


The following morning It was then time to move on again, and I drove about four hours south to the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina to meet my friend John and his wife Pam. John was one of my favorite professors as an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts and now lives in Chapel Hill. We met at Dames Chicken and Waffles, a place I’d discovered on a prior trip, and John and Pam were good enough to humor me and meet me there for lunch, which was of course, chicken and waffles. From there I headed to Lexington, South Carolina for the night and had a delicious and lighter meal (yes, even I have a limit to how much rich food I can consume!). I went to a place called Private Property and had a local Carolina favorite, she-crab soup, followed by an appetizer portion of Cajun blackened alligator medallions, which were delicious and actually  reminded me more of beef than chicken. With such a light meal, I had room for dessert and savored every bite of their house made bread pudding. I chuckled to myself at a memory I had of one of my very first trips through the South, when I concluded that the reason the South lost the Civil War must have been because they were too full to fight! Southern cuisine is really something special.

My next stop was Atlanta where a major goal was to visit sites where TV’s The Walking Dead is filmed, and I have recounted all of that in another blog. But of course I sampled more amazing southern cooking and had a nice time wandering the city in the balmy weather Atlanta was experiencing. From Atlanta I skirted along the northern parts of Alabama and Mississippi and landed in Collierville, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb to visit my friend Daniel and his family. I met them when I stopped at a popular local restaurant for breakfast about 10 years ago on another road trip. We struck up a conversation, they invited me to join them for breakfast,  and we’ve been friends ever since.

Daniel and his wife Sarah seemingly experienced great trepidation trying to decide where to take me for dinner because of my passion for good food, but they needn’t have worried. First and foremost, I was there to see them, but they actually picked a place that I adored, so it was a win-win situation. We went to Wolf River Brisket Company, and I ordered something I’d never heard of: burnt ends and waffles. To Daniel and Sarah’s amazement, I was pretty unfamiliar with beef brisket, never mind the burnt ends! Well, I am glad I discovered them, crunchy and tasty and tender barbecued meat over a cornbread waffle served with slaw and mac & cheese. Lord, I love the South!  On Sunday morning while Sarah got their two young daughters ready for church, Daniel’s parents joined him and me for breakfast and I am always so touched by how they go out of their way to see me when I roll through town. I always feel better about getting back on the road after Daniel’s father, Gregg says grace and makes a special request to keep me safe in my travels. We lingered so long after breakfast that I think they ended up being late for church, and I hope Sarah…and the good Lord can forgive me for making them late!

I’d wanted to head north to Denver from here, but I was hearing reports of a series of big storms out west that would make it impossible for me to get back into California through Donner Pass, so going through Denver seemed pointless. Instead I headed to the “Big D” – Dallas, and I enjoyed being back there as it’d been a few years since my last visit. I think that I must be the ONLY person in the world who cam flip on the Mp3 player in the car to play the theme from the TV show Dallas as I speed toward the city’s impressive skyline feeling like one of JR Ewing’s feuding family members. For dinner I discovered a small chain called Velvet Taco, that specializes in making a variety of innovative gourmet tacos of varying cuisines. Their slogan is “Tacos without borders…”, and they also advertise a WTF Weekly taco special, both of which made me laugh out loud. Perusing their menu I saw all kinds of amazing concoctions with Indian, Middle Eastern, Cuban, Asian and southern themes, each served in a taco shell. I sampled three: one was a southern shrimp and grits taco with blackened shrimp, creole remoulade, charred tomato salsa, and pepper jack cheese grits. Another was the “picnic chicken taco” containing rotisserie chicken, crispy chicken skin, and warm honey-dijon potato salad, and the third was a slightly more traditional taco of marinated pork, onion, pineapple, and avocado cream on a hibiscus corn tortilla. Who comes up with these things? Whoever it is, he or she is a genius; these things were amazing and I was only sorry I had no room for their red velvet cake dessert!

Just outside of Dallas, things got a little more interesting. Way back in Virginia Beach my Low Tire Pressure gauge had come on in the car, and given that I had just bought new tires in August, I was surprised, but a visit to a local Firestone dealership found that my tires were all a bit low and after filling them up, the light went off and all was fine. But as I passed through Fort Worth, the light came on again, so I swung into another Firestone dealer and they said the pressures all seemed fine, but could not get the light to go off. Despite their reassurances that all was well, this didn’t sit well with me, and the warning light stayed on all the way to Lubbock. I visited another Firestone dealer and they put the car up on a lift and found that I had a nail in one tire. Since I had bought my tires from Firestone, they repaired the tire for free and I was on my way again. And then just as I was entering Albuquerque, New Mexico, the light was back again. Pulling into yet another Firestone shop – I am glad they are so plentiful – I soon discovered that I had a nail in another tire as well that had not been spotted in Lubbock. Ugh! They also said that the Lubbock folks had greatly over-inflated all my tires, and I’d been lucky I hadn’t had a blowout!  I guess Gregg’s prayer for my safety back in Memphis worked! Thankfully, they were able to repair this tire as well, and that was the last time I saw my dreaded tire pressure light!

Backtracking a bit, in Memphis I’d shared with Daniel and Sarah that I have never eaten at a Chick Fil-A restaurant before,  and their stunned silence said it all. Daniel sincerely looked me in the eye and said, “Brother, they are awesome! You have to go! It’s the official chicken of Jesus!”  So in Weatherford, Texas I pulled into one of the franchises and was astounded by the sheer volume of traffic at the drive through, with employees out there helping people with their orders. I went inside and was enveloped in a cloud of peace and good will the likes of which I have never experienced in any fast food place, or in many 5 star restaurants for that matter! Smiling, happy, polite people took my order, advised me on menu items, poured me a king-sized cup of ice water, and sent me off with my traditional chicken sandwich feeling happy to be a member of the human race. And the chicken… the chicken was “heavenly”.  I texted Daniel to tell him where I was, and ended with “I am now a believer. Amen, Brother!”

I also stopped off in the Albuquerque suburb of Bernalillo to dine at an old favorite of mine, Abuelita’s. They serve up delicious New Mexican specialties, and it’s one of the few places one can get stuffed sopapillas, which are puffy, light pastries similar to Navajo fry bread… if you have ever had that!  LOL  I got one stuffed with marinated pork and it was so good, I flagged down the waitress and ordered a second one, this time chicken. That was my only meal for the day and I enjoyed every last bite.

As I drove across northern Arizona in 60 degree temperatures and sunny skies, I heard that California was being clobbered by torrential rains and heavy mountain snow, so I obviously had chosen the right route. Shortly before sunset I rolled across the California state line near Bullhead City, Arizona and continued on to Bakersfield that night. My friend Jonie, a fellow student from my Ph.D. program at UC Irvine, lives in Bakersfield and we met for breakfast at the popular 24th Street Café. I had read that their pumpkin pancakes were a specialty and Jonie, God help her, had never had pumpkin pancakes before. So we both ordered them, and these were some seriously memorable cakes. Jonie may be in for disappointment from here on out if she orders them elsewhere, as after these, there’s no place to go but down. I need to get to Bakersfield more often… to see Jonie, of course! Over breakfast. At this café.

Happily sated, I headed toward San Francisco for the last 5 hours of another amazing road trip. I always feel sad at the end of these trips, and often say that after a night or two of good sleep, doing my laundry, and getting the car’s oil changed, I could just hop right back into the driver’s seat and hit the road all over again. There is simply no greater feeling for me than the freedom the road gives me, the gorgeous scenery that this country has to offer, the friendly and funny people I meet along the way, the diverse and delicious foods, and so many dear, dear friends waiting for me at the end of another day’s drive. I urge any of you reading this who have ever thought about making such a trip not to put it off. It will be one of the most memorable adventures you will ever have, and you’ll never feel the same way about the United States again after such an up close, intimate experience. And who knows, maybe I’ll bump into you at some local diner and a friendship will be born. It could happen!