Day 57 – Sunday, Aug. 25 — Home at last!!!

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Rhonda, Lee & Claire Willard
(I can’t tell if the smiles are because they’re happy to see us leave?!?)

We left Lee, Rhonda and Claire Willard on Sunday morning for the final leg of our journey — the drive home to New Jersey!  What should have been a four-hour drive took six hours, due to the traffic in the Virginia/DC area and to delays on the New Jersey Turnpike.

We arrived back home in Maplewood at around 5pm…. tired from our long journey, but glad to be home.    Ethelyn, of course, was home to greet us.  A sight for sore eyes, indeed!

We’ve since unpacked the Odyssey and done laundry… and started to go through all the stuff we collected on our journey (what to keep, what to throw away??).  Frankly, I’m glad to be done with the blog…but I already miss the excitement of the open road and all the great things to see in this great land of ours.  Now it’s back to reality…whatever that might be.

Day 56 – Saturday, Aug. 24

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At the Carrboro Farmers’ Market

Another travel day. In the morning we joined my friend Charlie Goss for a trip to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market (Charlie’s wife, Karen, had to work), where I indulged in some delicious sweets: a sweet potato maple donut and a blueberry muffin.  We then bid farewell to Charlie and continued our drive north.

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Lemongrass, anyone?

Our next — and final stop of the trip — was Dumfries, Virginia, where we visited with Lee Willard, one of my childhood friends, and his wife (Rhonda) and daughter (Claire).  Although I had seen Lee & Rhonda at our 30th high school reunion two years ago, the last time I had visited them at their home (and seen Claire) was in August 2004, right before Hurricane Katrina, when they were living in Monterey, California.  (I’m sure Lee won’t mind me saying that I prefer Monterey to Dumfries.)

Lee, a retired Marine colonel, had prepared a nice barbeque dinner for our arrival, and after dinner we just hung out and chatted before an early bedtime.

Day 55 – Friday, Aug. 23

Not much to report today, as it was spent mostly in the car for the drive from Atlanta to Chapel Hill (ok, Carrboro), North Carolina, where we are visiting with Karen & Charlie Goss, friends of mine from Cornell.

For you geography geeks, driving to North Carolina from Atlanta requires driving through — you guessed it — South Carolina, where we stopped three times: at the South Carolina Visitor Center in Fair Play, so that I could empty my bladder; in Anderson, for lunch at Pizza Buffet (my advice: stay away); and in the town of Blacksburg, to fill up our tanks — the Odyssey with gas, and our stomachs with Dairy Queen.

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The first — and only — urinal I ever used in the great state of South Carolina

The last time I visited Karen & Charlie at their home in Carrboro was 13 years ago this week, when I was in between jobs.  Ethelyn was five months pregnant with Aytan, so I decided to skip town for a bit to a visit to North Carolina and Washington, D.C.   Karen & Charlie’s son, Derek, was only about five months old then; it’s amazing what 13 years will do (their daughter, Jessica, was 9 then; she’s now 22, a Cornell graduate, and living and working in New York City, so she didn’t get the opportunity to see me — or my attractive beard).

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Karen & Charlie with Buffy Spaetzle Snowflake Goss, one of their three dogs
(and yes, that is the dog’s full name)

Shortly after we arrived this evening, Charlie prepared us an absolutely delicious dinner of grilled trout, grilled squash, and pasta with homemade pesto (I have no idea what Karen contributes to the household).  Then Charlie and I headed out to do some grocery shopping and to pick up some ice cream (again, I have no idea what Karen contributes to the household).  We hung out for a bit before heading to our respective bedrooms (me to the same one I slept in 13 years ago; I hope they changed the sheets).

Our plan for tomorrow — the end of Week 8 — is to leave Carrboro in the mid-to-late morning and drive to Dumfries, Virginia (about 45 minutes south of DC), to visit Lee Willard, one of my friends from high school.  That is the last planned stop before our odyssey ends, on Sunday, where it began — at home, in Maplewood, NJ.

Day 54 – Thursday, Aug. 22

Happy Anniversary, Ethelyn!  (Yes, today is our 14th anniversary!)

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At the King Center

The main event for Aytan and me (and Paul & Wendy) today was a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change — aka, the King Center.  It was an appropriate and meaningful follow-up to the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which we visited Tuesday in Montgomery.

The King Center, which is a National Historic Site, includes the main visitor center, with exhibits on King and the Civil Rights movement; the crypt containing the remains of both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King; and Dr. King’s birth home.  Around the corner is the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King (and his father) preached, which we also visited. IMG_6452 IMG_6456 IMG_6459

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The horse-drawn wagon that carried King’s body during his funeral procession

I was greatly moved by the Center and its exhibits, and I believe Aytan was, too.  Aytan likely thinks of the Civil Rights struggle as ancient history, but I still find it hard to grasp the tremendous racism, hatred and related violence that existed overtly in our country during my lifetime.  The Center does an impressive job of showing the extraordinary courage of those who fought, through passive resistance, for justice and equality.  It also reminded me once again of Dr. King’s tremendous charisma, intellect and oratory skills — and how low we’ve sunk as a nation, with the likes of Sarah Palin and George W. Bush as dominant forces in our recent political landscape.  IMG_6467 IMG_6470

After leaving the Center, we returned to Paul & Wendy’s house to chill for several hours, then ordered in some pizza and settled down to watch “Paul,” which Aytan and I bought on blu-ray at a Target in Santa Fe the other week.  Now it’s off to bed for our last night in Atlanta before driving to Chapel Hill, NC, tomorrow.

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Never try to outdrink a golden doodle

Day 53 – Wednesday, Aug. 21

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The delicious margherita pizza — seconds before it was gobbled up

Our first big activity today, after waking up late, was meeting Paul for lunch at Antico Pizza Napoletana. It was by far the best pizza Aytan and I have had on our 8-week odyssey.

After dropping Paul back at his job — he’s vice provost for enrollment services at Georgia Tech — Wendy, Aytan and I went to the Georgia Aquarium — the world’s largest aquarium.  It’s a good thing we went after lunch, because a single slice of pizza and a fountain soda will set you back about $10 (and that’s after the admission price of $30 for adults and $24 for kids).

The aquarium has some amazing exhibits, as well as a pretty good dolphin show (“AT&T’s Dolphin Tales”).  Here are some photos of the exhibits (which I’m too lazy to describe at the moment):

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beluga whale

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Aytan and Wendy in front of one of the fish tanks

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albino alligator

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dragonfish

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in front of the world’s largest aquarium tank, with some big-ass fish (and mammals)

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Aytan’s impression of this fish: “It’s not a toomahh!!” (for you Kindergarten Cop fans

After a few hours at the aquarium, we headed back to Paul & Wendy’s house to chill for a bit.  Then it was out for a few games of bowling at Midtown Bowl, where I bowled my best game ever — a 179 — after one of my worst games ever (an 82, I think).

Sufficiently doped up on onion rings and mozzarella sticks at the bowling alley, we then headed to dinner at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, a famous Atlanta institution, known for its down-home Southern cooking.  While the salmon croquettes were a poor choice for my entree, the side dishes were awesome; I had tomato pie and sweet-potato souffle.  Perhaps the best part of our Mary Mac’s experience, however, was the backrub from Jo, Mary Mac’s “goodwill ambassador” (that’s what her business card says).  A nice way to end our first full day in Atlanta.

Day 52 – Tuesday, Aug. 20

After waking up late and checking out of the Courtyard by Marriott, we drove the few miles to downtown Montgomery, where our first (and main) stop was the Civil Rights Memorial and Memorial Center, sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Inside the Civil Rights Memorial Center

The memorial center houses a fairly small museum with a few exhibits that focus on the 40 people whose names are inscribed in the Civil Rights Memorial in front of the center — people who died during the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, from Emmett Till to Martin Luther King, Jr.  (The dates in the memorial range from 1954 to 1968; those dates were chosen because the former was when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education and the latter was the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.)  Although the museum is quite small, the exhibits are quite powerful,, and I felt it was very important to bring Aytan here to show him this dark chapter (one of many, unfortunately) in our nation’s history.

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Part of the memorial, still covered for renovation

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The focal point of the memorial is a circular granite slab with the names and dates of key events in the Civil Rights movement

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The main element of the memorial

The memorial itself — designed by Maya Lin, who designed the the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — has been undergoing renovations for several months and was still under wraps somewhat today (it’s scheduled to be “open” again in the next week).  Fortunately for us, a woman who works in the center was kind enough to let me walk around the barricades to see and touch the memorial, which normally has water running over it but was dry today due to the renovation.

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The Alabama State Capitol

After leaving the Civil Rights Memorial we walked two blocks to the state capitol, where we took a brief self-guided tour.  I didn’t want to spend too much time in the capitol, especially after seeing the portrait of George Wallace, so after a few minutes we headed to the gift shop to buy a souvenir shotglass before heading out for lunch.

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The world’s largest fireworks store?

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It’s like Costco, with nothing but fireworks

We left Montgomery shortly after 2pm (local time) for the 2.5-hour drive to the home of Paul & Wendy Kohn in Atlanta, from where I’m writing this blog.  On the way we made an unscheduled stop in Cusseta, Alabama at Shelton Fireworks — which bills itself as the world’s largest fireworks store — to buy a nice gift for Paul & Wendy (who doesn’t like sparklers?).

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Paul & Wendy

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Wendy’s bird

Shortly after arriving we sat down to a delicious homemade meal of salad (tomatoes from Wendy’s garden), pasta and eggplant parmigiana (tomatoes AND eggplant from Wendy’s garden), followed by homemade peach tart for dessert.  It was, without doubt, one of the best meals I’ve had in our two months on the road.

Day 51 – Monday, Aug. 19

We checked out of the Sheraton in Metairie this morning and headed to City Park in New Orleans, where we visited the sculpture garden outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. We had also planned to play minigolf or go boating, but the heat and humidity caused us to pack it in after spending 30 minutes or so in the sculpture garden, which is quite spectacular and well worth a visit. Here are just a few of the great sculptures we saw:

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We then headed back to the French Quarter for some lunch — and to pick up another bag of beignets, our last food in the Big Easy.

Before leaving town I wanted to see some of the areas of New Orleans hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, so we took a slight detour to the Lower Ninth Ward and surrounding areas.  It was pretty incredible to see — nine years later — the tremendous number of destroyed homes still visible, vacant and decaying, as well as many empty and/or overgrown lots where homes once stood.  On several homes we could make out what looked like the markings left by rescuers immediately after the storm indicating that the houses had been searched and confirming that no persons were inside.   Here are a few pictures:

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So on that depressing note, we headed out of New Orleans for the five-hour drive to Montgomery, Alabama.  Of course, we had to pass through Mississippi to get to Alabama, and we stopped just twice — once at a Dairy Queen in Biloxi, and another time at a gas station to buy a shotglass for our souvenir collection (one from each state visited!).

We plan to do a bit of sightseeing tomorrow in Montgomery — I’m particularly interested in some of the Civil Rights exhibits — before heading to Atlanta to visit one of my best friends and college buddies, Paul Kohn, and his wife (Wendy) in Atlanta.

The trip is quickly winding down…

Day 50 – Sunday, Aug. 18

We arrived in New Orleans around 1pm today after the three-hour drive from Lake Charles. We checked in to the Sheraton in Metairie (I booked it for $35 cash and 2,000 Starwood points!) and had a late lunch there before driving to downtown New Orleans, about 7 miles away.

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G-d bless America!

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Live street music

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Standing tall on Bourbon Street

Our first stop in the Big Easy was the French Quarter. There was plenty of music, booze and hookers — and Aytan took advantage of it all! Actually, he wasn’t allowed in to any of the bars since he’s not yet of age, but I told him that we could just tell the bouncers that he’s 12 and dyslexic, so he THINKS he’s 21.

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Gotta love the drunk white guy…

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Be glad you can’t see her face, because she’s one of the ugliest friggin’ mermaids you’ll ever see

We spent three hours walking around the French Quarter. I tried to enjoy the great live music — blues, rock, jazz — emanating from many of the bars on Bourbon Street, but Aytan impatiently begged me to keep moving along, as he had no interest in the music — or much else, for that matter (even the sex shops — go figure!). Actually, Aytan was quite uncomfortable with the humidity, especially since he had acclimated nicely over the past several weeks to the dry climate of the West and Southwest.

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In Louis Armstrong Park, across from the French Quarter

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Dusting the powdered sugar off after a bagful of beignets — one of the few times you’ll see Aytan use a napkin

We took a brief stroll through the Louis Armstrong Park, adjacent to the French Quarter, then headed back across the Quarter to the famous Cafe du Monde, which my brother Mike suggested we visit. We waited patiently at the Cafe du Monde’s take-out window for some of their famous beignets, which Aytan took to like flies to shit (or fish to water, but I like the flies-to-shit analogy much more).  He enjoyed them so much that he didn’t even mind the mess from the powdered sugar.  We each gobbled down a bagful — 3 per bag — and were tempted to go back for another, but common sense prevailed.

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Tempting…but no thanks

After a bit more strolling around, including through the outdoor French Market, we headed back to our car and then drove back to our hotel, where we Skyped with Ethelyn (Aytan’s mom and my wife) for a bit before heading out to a late dinner.

If the weather holds up tomorrow, we’ll spend more time in New Orleans before heading on eastward.

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Here are some words I never thought I’d see together: “Mercedes-Benz”… and “Superdome”

Day 49 – Saturday, Aug. 17

A short post today, for two reasons: Not too much activity today, and I’m tired and have a headache.

Our main activity today was a visit to Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas. Quite frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment.

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Inside the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility

We began our visit with a two-part tram ride; the first stop was at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where astronauts train for missions using full-size replicas of a variety of equipment, including sections of the International Space Station (ISS). IMG_6113The second stop was to view the Saturn V rocket, which was, I admit, pretty impressive. (There are two tram options, both of which visit the Saturn V rocket; one also visits the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility while the other visits the mission control center, and Aytan chose the former.)

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Aytan in front of the Saturn V rocket

Then we headed back to the main building for the rest of the exhibits, which were typical of those found in many science museums. I did enjoy a 20-minute movie on the history of the space program; on display in the front of the theater where the movie was shown was the original podium from which JFK made his famous speech about sending a man to the moon (“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”), given at Rice University in September 1962.

IMG_6126There were a few more interesting exhibits, including artifacts from several space missions, but overall I found the bulk of activities and exhibits at the center geared to younger children. So overall, neither Aytan nor I was too impressed with the space center and would only recommend it if you happen to be in Houston and have a few hours to kill. Which, apparently, we did.

IMG_6154After leaving Space Center Houston we headed east toward New Orleans but, knowing that we weren’t up for a five-hour drive, set our GPS for Lake Charles, Louisiana, about two hours east (and three hours west of New Orleans). So I sit here in our room at the Red Roof Inn, typing out the last few words of the evening before turning in…

Day 48 – Friday, Aug. 16

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Noah, Lauren and Farland Chang

Another driving-heavy day.  We left the Rodeway Inn in Junction, TX, at 10am for the 115-mile drive to San Antonio, where we arranged to meet up again with Farland Chang and his kids, who were on the final leg of their cross-country odyssey and headed back home to Irvine, CA,

Aytan and I arrived in San Antonio at noon and hooked up with Farland, Noah and Lauren for lunch along the Riverwalk, a nice riverside area with lots of restaurants (and boat tours).  Farland chose a Mexican restaurant, where we were serenaded by a mariachi band (for a small gratuity, of course).

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The Alamo

After lunch the five of us headed over to the Alamo.  Nothing too special to report; it’s pretty much what you would expect: an old building on a nice property, with a few other old buildings, all in the  middle of a city.  I was disappointed to find out that photography is not allowed inside the main building (which originally was a Roman Catholic mission).  We spent about 30 minutes inside the Alamo itself, then Farland and the kids bid us farewell, as they were on a tight schedule: They had an evening appointment to stargaze at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, TX — 400 miles west of San Antonio.

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Aytan wouldn’t take a photo of me in this coonskin hat for sale in the gift shop, so I took the photo myself

So Aytan and I went back to the Riverwalk after some gelato and took a brief walk along the water, then headed back to the car for the three-hour drive to Houston, where we are now (at a Four Points by Sheraton, thanks to my Starwood points!).  Our plan for tomorrow is to visit the NASA Space Center, at Farland’s recommendation.   Then tomorrow afternoon or Sunday morning we will head out on the road again, toward New Orleans.

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A quieter part of the Riverwalk (away from the restaurants)