Part 4 — The Southeast
This is part 4 in a series documenting my grand tour across the US.
If my journey through the Southwest was about new experiences, the Southeast was about revisiting old ones. Florida was the first place I came to in the US when I was a teenager in the 90's. To come back twenty something years later with my own little family — it felt both familiar and nostalgic. Back then, the US was something I’d only experienced through TV, music videos and movies. Growing up around all the history of London and Europe, this felt new, exciting and even exotic. I clearly remember being amazed by strip malls and outlet stores. Perspective is certainly relative.
The NPS defines the Southeast to include Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, North & South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Like the other regions, this area has tremendous geographic and historical diversity. We visited every drivable National Park including the Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Mammoth Cave and Congaree.
Our route through the Southeast looked something like this:
We entered Florida by driving down the West coast. After arriving at our first stop, Naples, we walked up to the beach to catch a glimpse of the Gulf Coast. We hadn’t quite reached the furthest point of the trip but as the view opened up, I felt overwhelmed with a sense of “arriving”. For weeks we’d been planning this journey, never entirely sure if we’d get this far. Perhaps it was the sun, dropping slowly behind the horizon… or the thrill of some nearby dolphins that had come up for air… or the memory of standing in the same spot two decades earlier with my parents. But here I had the distinct sense that I could turn back now, safe in the knowledge that we’d made it. In that moment I realized this sleepy beach town had become our destination.
The next couple of days we spent driving through the Everglades. Living up in the Northwest, it’s easy to forget that places like this even exist in the US. The vegetation and weather alone make it feel like a completely different country. I recalled that without ever crossing an international border, we’d seen glaciers, mountains, forests, dinosaur footprints, canyons, oceans, swamps, and now… alligators.
It’s an amazing experience to see alligators and crocodiles in the wild. These are animals who ‘walked with dinosaurs’ and have been in the US for nearly 10 million years. Surprisingly, I learned that they weren’t discovered by humans here until the 1800’s, from which point they were relentlessly hunted. Their numbers were so decimated by the 1960’s, they had to be put on the endangered species list. Fortunately, their populations have recovered since then. It’s both sobering and saddening to learn that these species who have survived uninterrupted and largely unchanged since the Jurassic period could barely survive 100 years of man.
Once we left the Everglades, we explored Southern Florida. This is a land dominated by water. Key West, the most Southern point in the US and former home of Ernest Hemingway. Also, the Atlantic Ocean, which our dogs approved of mightily. It makes me smile to know they’ve dipped their paws into two different oceans, even if these trivial labels matter little to them.
One night, I had the chance to take the photo below. This remains one of my favorite images and strongest memories from the trip. As the sun was setting, I stood at the edge of the now derelict seven mile bridge and opened the shutter for a full 2 minutes. The clouds painted streaks across the sky while the feeling of the warm wind helped commit the experience to memory.
As we were leaving Florida, we stopped briefly in Miami, Melbourne and Cocoa Beach before continuing on to South Carolina. We had traveled for 4 weeks and roughly 3 weeks still remained. It felt so far from Seattle, yet every mile I would drive from this point would bring us closer to home. It was a strange feeling — on one hand we were sad to be heading back, yet on the other I knew more time and distance remained than I’d ever traveled prior to this road trip. A whole country of adventures still lay ahead of us.
Hilton Head was our first stopover point. Here we once again walked the sandy white beaches of the East coast and took one last look at the Atlantic. I also saw my first horseshoe crab. I’d never even known these existed before. They look amazing, as if conceived by a science fiction artist and are often referred to as “living fossils”, due to their 450M year old ancestry. TO underscore their scifi nature horseshoe crabs’ blood is blue (due to not requiring hemoglobin) and has been shown to have medicinal properties. Unfortunately for them, due to this and overfishing, they have now achieved endangered status. I sighed upon learning this, reminded of our almost limitless capacity to hunt any animal to extinction.
Away from the beaches, we spent time in downtown Charleston and Greenville. We loved both — Charleston especially, which we found lived up to its status as one of the friendliest and most historical towns in the US. Although it was our first time here, we had been connected to SC over the years through one of dogs, Sora. Seven years ago, Sora had been found wandering this area in terrible shape. He had been shot in the face by someone with a shotgun and had been found several days later, blind and in immense pain. Fortunately someone connected him with Noah’s Ark rescue, an amazing charity that specializes in the kinds of animal abuse cases that most of us can scarcely imagine and in many ways would prefer to not think about. Fortunately, the connection with Noah’s Ark was the lifeline he needed. A few weeks later he was being driven across the country to meet us in Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sora had not been back to South Carolina since and one of my goals of this trip was to bring him back to say “hi”. In Florida I contacted Jennifer, who runs the organization and we excitedly planned to meet. We had spoken many times but we’d never met in person. Jennifer is one of life’s truly great people — she has a humbling capacity for caring, enduring and yet also action.
A few days later we were at the Noah’s Ark rescue center and the reunion was complete. Sora, was beside himself with excitement. Being such a happy dog, it’s always hard to know if he actually remembers someone or is just delighted to receive love and attention. Being this happy is a nice problem to have.
We spent a few wonderful hours at the facility and met some of the other dogs under their care. If you are an animal lover, there’s many great charities out there so any help is good help. But in my opinion, there’s few better than Noah’s Ark and the work they do with neglected, abused and bait dogs is life changing. More details for those interested can be found here.
Next up was Kentucky. Our main reason for visiting here was to stop by Mammoth Cave National Park which contains the world’s longest known cave system, with 400 miles mapped and explored. We joined a tour and walked a section of it. I’ve been in caves before while not as visual spectacular as some others (e.g. Great Basin National Park comes to mind), it’s size and scope more than make up for it. As is customary on these tours, the guides turn off the lights at the start to experience “true darkness”. It’s a remarkable feeling, to literally see nothing with your eyes open. This is something that’s hard to replicate in normal, modern environments. “True silence” is also also thrown in for free. Down there it’s so quiet you can literally hear your own heartbeat.
Our final stop in the Southeast was Tennessee. I had always wanted to come here. Nashville, which I’ll get to in a moment, was one of the nicest big cities we visited across our entire trip. It shared some similarities with Seattle — great neighborhoods, great food and a lot of people who were not actually from there. The natural beauty of Tennessee is vast as well. Great Smokey Mountains is undoubtedly the highlight — maybe the most significant National Park in the East. We drove along and through dozens of miles of forest, streams and rivers. So much so that views like below started to become routine.
There’s also a section of the National Park called Cade Cove where you can visit 150 year old residences and churches. It’s always a fascinating experience to see how some of the early settlers lived. One baptist church below was particularly memorable. I’m so used to seeing European style churches with their greatness and grandeur. By contrast, this felt spartan and utilitarian in nature and was clearly a reflection of the times in which it was used. I almost felt the need for penance just by being there.
Up to this point, our trip had been remarkably problem-free. We’d dodged a few winter storms, gotten lost a number of times and had a run in with some deep sand & snow. But all of this had been manageable. This changed on a Friday night while driving down the I35 into Nashville at rush hour. I had stopped at a Shell and while filling up with gas, noticed the pump was working very slowly. I decided it was taking too long and we bailed, intending to drive onto the next gas station. About a mile onto the Interstate all the engine lights came on. We lost power immediately and I barely managed to get onto the hard shoulder before the engine cut out completely. I turned the engine over a couple of times…. nothing.
The sensation you get when your transport fails you is a sinking feeling. First slowly, then all at once, you realize the difficulty of your situation. How much cargo you have, how far you have to go and so on. The self reliance and independence of having a car is quickly replaced with feeling stranded and isolated. Fortunately I had cell signal and managed to get a call out to a tow truck.
For the next two hours we sat while 18 wheelers barreled past and shook our car. I took the time to book a hotel, find a Subaru dealer in town (fortunately one existed) and mostly wonder how much damage had been caused. When our tow truck arrived, we found out that our dogs would have to ride in the car on the flatbed behind us. Until this point, I had always liked to believe that my dogs knew I was the driver and the reason behind all their adventures. I was concerned about them on the back of the tow truck, imagining they would panic when realizing that the car in which they were sitting was moving without someone at the wheel. This fear and fantasy were both extinguished as soon as we started moving. Both dogs looked up, looked around, climbed into the front seat, and promptly fell asleep. And so I learned that if dogs were to assume anything, it’d be that I’m a passenger in our car just like they are. For them, autonomous driving is already here.
Later we found out that the reason for the engine failure was actually due to contaminated fuel. Yes, this is actually a thing and while we were unlucky to stop at a station that had this obvious quality problem, I felt very fortunate for everything that followed. Subaru Nashville did an amazing job, calling in one of their techs to fix our car in less than 24 hours. Our insurance, State Farm were also incredibly helpful, covering much of the costs for the car and the expenses incurred. On balance, we were lucky that this happened within a large city and not on some sand dune in freezing temperatures without cell signal.
It was one of those moments when the stress of what‘s happening coexists and battles with the relief of what could have been worse. As time passed, I was mostly just thankful. And with the “bad gas” experience behind us, we were ready to take on The Rockies.