I've come to look for America
January 11, 2016 12:43 PM   Subscribe

The plan is: a counterclockwise loop beginning & ending in New Orleans with stops in Biloxi, Mobile, Selma, Montgomery, Huntsville, Shiloh, Memphis, Oxford, Vicksburg, Port Gibson and Natchez. I have a working list of what to see, what am I missing?

Is counterclockwise best? This is flexible and it came from a place of realizing I didn't need to drive all the way the hell across Florida to do Mobile. Originally this was two trips: New Orleans to Mobile and back via Biloxi and Memphis-Oxford-Little Rock but then I realized I really wanted to see Huntsville and Montgomery and Alabama wasn't that tall so as to make this impossible.

Timing would be spring, TBD.

TL;DR: any towns not mentioned above that I should it on a loop beginning & ending in New Orleans? Proposed itinerary below.

I have read: this and willnot's question that led to it, this, this (although I'll have a car), this, everything tagged for MS, AL, TN and Louisiana

On the list:

-Biloxi coast, really as a place to stretch and the idea of the casinos there have always intrigued me. Too much Grisham? Probably. Is the Jefferson Davis mansion worth seeing?

-Mobile - USS Alabama. Depending on flight time into New Orleans I might over night here.

-Mobile to Montgomery via Monroeville (To Kill a MOckingbird) and Selma. Overnight in Montgomery and plan to see: Rosa Parks and Freedom Rides Museums. Civil Rights Memorial. First White House of the Confederacy

-Montgomery to Huntsville for the Space Museum

-Huntsville to Memphis via Shiloh - is there anything else worth stopping for on the route? I'm not that interested in TN and Memphis is to see a friend. I've done the Civil War battlefields in Virginia and Shiloh has always been on the mind. I know there are mixed reviews as to whether it's worth seeing but consider it worth seeing in my book. Also appears to be a good midway to stretch.

-Memphis: friend stuff, Graceland (tacky, I know, but up my alley), Peabody Ducks (thanks, AskMe) and the Civil Rights Museum.

-Oxford: the Grove

-Vicksburg to Port Gibson on the Natchez Trace

Is a week doable for this? Too long?
I know it's a lot of driving but as someone who just did an amazing road trip from ABQ to Santa Fe via Shiprock , Four Corners and Durango, it doesn't faze me. I feel like the hike from Port Gibson to New Orleans would be long. Worth stopping somewhere. Baton Rouge detour?

- I've been to New Orleans and, to be honest, didn't love it so not planning to spend a ton of time. I can be talked into it if there's a good reason/ a lot has changed.
-Definitely interested in some Dixie/Old South. Thinking Mississippi best for this? Sounds lile Natchez might be perfect.
-Admitting heresy. Not a fan of BBQ. I'll try it but for the purposes of this question, we can skip the BBQ discussion. I have seen this food discussion.
-From Memphis I will probably hop over into Arkansas to say I've been, but not interested in driving all the way to Little Rock. Anything of interest near the border?
-I have the National Parks Passport and love parks & history so you can assuming I'm going through their site for things I'm missing. Will also be mining Roadside America.

posted by TravellingCari to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
-Biloxi coast, really as a place to stretch and the idea of the casinos there have always intrigued me.
Abita brewery in Abita Springs LA. Darwell's in Gulfport. Beau Rivage is the nicest, if you like that sort of thing - I saw a nouveau cirque show there that was great. Ocean Springs is a nice town to walk around in. Beaches in the area are nothing special.


Graceland was very interesting, worth a stop. I also like the Rock n Soul museum.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:05 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm from rural Arkansas, outside of Little Rock where the Ouachitas give way to the flat, wet, poor delta. Couple notes:

There's a whole lotta nothin west of Memphis. It's flat agriculture for a very long stretch, broken by Crowley's Ridge and not much else. I-40 helped revolutionize transit and shipping, but it decimated small town life in its path. There are a lot of old city squares, though, if that's your sort of thing and you're willing to go freewheeling off on state roads. You might need to go as far as the White River to see these old, decaying towns that had prosperity in a different age, though, and that's probably farther than you want to go (if not, look up Newport, Batesville, Calico Rock, etc.). Some people get a kick out of goofy place name signs, and Greasy Corner, AR is not far from Memphis at all. If you like canoeing or kayaking through lazy, cypress and oak lined bayous and oxbows, you can do that almost anywhere you want out in the delta. I'm partial to Bayou Meto, but, again, my homelands are further west than you want to go.

I'd also suggest you look into archaeological (Parkin site, etc.) and geological sites (Reelfoot rift, Crowley's Ridge, etc.) of interest if those are your interests. Otherwise, they're not much to look at through layperson eyes.

If you're anywhere near Montgomery, you'd be remiss not to make a diversion to Gee's Bend / Boykin. The quilts, oh my lord the quilts. A good very rural counterpoint to the academic, political perspective on race and segregation that you'll get in Montgomery.

Love Oxford to death. It's an endangered gem (there are more like it, but furtherthan you want to go on this trip, like Eureka Springs, AR, for future consideration).

I'm envious as all hell. That's a lot of driving for one week, but if you're a fast-paced type should be no problem. Have a good time.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Even if you aren't planning to *do* anything in Birmingham, presumably you'll be passing through on your way to Huntsville. I'd suggest Chez Fonfon if the timing works out; it's the most casual of the Frank Stitt restaurants and is really great and not BBQ. No reservations required.
posted by hollyholly at 2:14 PM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm envious as all hell. That's a lot of driving for one week, but if you're a fast-paced type should be no problem. Have a good time.

Thanks late afternoon...
You've made me even more excited about this trip. Part of the reason I'm saving Arkansas is I want to see it properly. Fayetteville, Bentonville, the Ozarks and a dip north into Branson are definitely on my overall bucket list, but add too much driving for this trip. I know who to ping when I plan that one though.

Oh and I love crazy name places. Wanted to do Truth or Consequences on my New Mexico trip but ran short on days. This is some fun reading.
posted by TravellingCari at 2:16 PM on January 11, 2016

Ocean Springs is a nice town to walk around in.

Woohoo, OS getting some love! Check out Tatonut if you can get there early and like donuts, or for that matter even if you hate them but think it's possible there's theoretically a donut somewhere in the world that you would like - that's where it is, probably. If you like pottery, Shearwater has cool stuff.

Your Montgomery - Huntsville leg takes you through Birmingham. There's a really cool motorcycle museum not too far out of your way. Five stories of bikes, including some of the earliest ones built - did you know there were working steam powered motorcycles? I don't know why that place isn't better known - I used to routinely drive through Birmingham and had no idea about it until a couple years ago.

I've never been to Shiloh, but if Graceland is your thing specifically because Elvis is your thing, then you might consider going through Tupelo instead for that leg - that's where he was born, and there's a small museum.

On your way to Oxford, if you are into bonsai there is a weirdly huge bonsai nursery in Olive Branch.

Once in Oxford, the Grove is nice, but it's not super big or anything, and the real experience is being there for a football game. You could also check out Faulkner's house, Rowan Oak, and walk around the Square for food and shopping. If you dig catfish, for sure ditch the Square and instead check out Taylor Grocery.

If nothing else, you are going to eat really well on this trip. Even if you don't get barbecue.
posted by solotoro at 2:39 PM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're in Oxford and interested in seeing really southern feeling stuff, it's probably also worth your time to stroll along Lamar north and south of the Square for a stretch peeping the houses. Faulkner's grave is in that area, too, if you want to pay your respects.
posted by billjings at 4:30 PM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Rohwer, AR (the site of one of the WWII Japanese internment camps) is not terribly close to Memphis, but is only a couple of hours out of the way between Memphis and Vicksburg, and would put you on a decent enough route to hit Greenville and Indianola, MS, which you should definitely see, being B.B. King's hometown and all.

When you do eventually do Arkansas proper, Hot Springs absolutely must be on your list, and I'd suggest a quick stop in Fort Smith for the Fort Smith National Historic Site (and some catfish at Catfish Cove if the timing works and you like that sort of food. I like the Ozarks better, despite having grown up in Fort Smith, but Judge Parker was quite a..character and his courtroom is worth seeing.

I have lots of feels on an Arkansas trip; that is just the stuff I probably won't think of if you later ask specifically about northwest Arkansas.
posted by wierdo at 6:28 PM on January 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ocean Springs - if you have time, I really enjoyed the Walter Anderson museum. You can see murals of his peering through the windows of the community center next door to get a feel for it.

Oxford - if the timing works out, a baseball game might give you some of the flavor of a Grove tailgate. Besides Rowan Oak, the university library has a huge blues archive. Big Bad Breakfast is my only must do when I return to Oxford, they serve lunch as well.

If you're interested in the blues or setting some of the Delta, Clarksdale has a good museum and the ground zero blues club. There's also a BB King focused museum in Indianola. But: more driving.

I support driving around some small southern towns, I saw so much strangeness in a "southern Gothic comes alive" way.
posted by momus_window at 6:47 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all! This is all perfect & exactly what I was looking for. Somehow I see Arkansas on tap for 2017. Fall 2016 is promised to Arizona and Utah for which I ran out of time when doing NM and Colorado.
posted by TravellingCari at 7:25 PM on January 11, 2016

  • Downtown
    • Downtown Memphis sits on bluffs above the Mississippi River. Both the Peabody and the Civil Rights Museum are a couple of blocks east of the river. Hike downhill to the riverfront park, on your way from place to place. Obviously, you will also see the river at Vicksburg and Natchez, but still. The river park (below) will highlight this, but: it's a long river. It goes lots of places, and there have been a lot of river towns. The only cities that are still there are on the high ground, and in places where the river has stayed there.
    • Also in between the Peabody and the Civil Rights Museum is Beale Street. I mean, sure, it's touristy, but it's also right there. You can just walk through and check it out.
    • On the north side of downtown: I don't have any particular interest in the Bass Pro Shop, but how often do you get to shop in a big glass pyramid? Whenever you want to, if you're in Memphis.
    • The Mud Island River Park opens for the season on April 11. There is a walkable scale model of the lower Mississippi.
  • Midtown (east of downtown)
    • Sun Studios is kind of in between downtown and Midtown on Union Ave.
    • Overton Park has the Memphis Zoo. There are two giant pandas, at least one of which is usually awake and eating. Also, this spring they are opening their new hippo and crocodile exhibit. It's one of the best zoos in the country.
  • Further east, you can visit Shelby Farms, which I'm pretty sure is the largest urban park in America. It's under construction, though. I've driven through rural Arkansas and plenty of other places in the South, but the only time I ever hit a deer was in the Memphis city limits on the north end of Shelby Farms.
  • Barbecue notes: The whole "dry rub ribs" thing originates with the (justifiably-famous) Rendezvous downtown. That's the only kind of ribs they serve. Everywhere else in town will serve you either "dry" or "wet" ribs, or half-and-half. I recommend Central BBQ in Midtown as a good option. Consider also one of Memphis's other wacky BBQ inventions, such as BBQ nachos, or BBQ spaghetti or pizza.

posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:31 PM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

By the way, highway 78 (from Tupelo and Holly Springs) is the least-flattering of all potential approaches to Memphis, or possibly any city.

Highway 72 (from Corinth) turns into Poplar Avenue, the main drag all the way from downtown to Collierville.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:34 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I live in Midtown Memphis, and grew up in east Arkansas. If you want to drive across the river just to say you've been, it would be about a half-hour trip. But there's really nothing there except miles and miles of rice and soybean fields, with an occasional truck stop along the way. If you're planning a later trip to the prettier parts of Arkansas, I wouldn't even take the time to do it.

Oxford's square is cool, and worth the time to see, but the Grove is really just a smallish college park until football game day. I really did like Natchez, and there's lots to see there. The Trace is a pretty drive, with some neat history along the way, but keep in mind that it's a two-lane country road and the speed limit is 50 (strictly enforced!), not a quick way to move on to your next destination.

Graceland is a must-do stop, but it is pretty expensive. Worth it, though, an American icon and everyone should go once, whether or not you're a fan.

I am a huge supporter of my sleepy little backwater city and I hope you have a great time here. PM me if you want more info.
posted by raisingsand at 8:49 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

There’s a good bookstore in Oxford, Square Books.
I enjoyed the Alice Moseley Museum in Bay St. Louis a few years ago. Not sure if that’s the same location I went to.
posted by bongo_x at 11:35 PM on January 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Again, amazing. You all really nailed my interests. I'm really starting to look forward to this trip and hope to set a date. Will keep in mind possibility of baseball to showcase the Grove since timing won't work for football unless maybe Ole Miss' spring game. Don't think I want to go that late in spring though.

Specific question for those of you who know Memphis well: how dangerous is it really? I've lived in Urban areas for the last 15 years specifically Manhattan for the last 8. Are there any specific no go areas around the tourist spots? Thanks for the zoo tip, Huffy Puffy. Love Pandas!

Will see about Tupelo. It's not so much Elvis that is my thing as a need to do something that's pure kitsch. Vampire tours in New Orleans, Pirate House in Savannah, all things witchy in Salem, the World's biggest X... done, done and done. I also think it's a bit of iconic America that I should do even if I'm not a music person. I did the Rock and Roll while in Cleveland for similar reasons and was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed it.

Thanks again!
posted by TravellingCari at 7:07 AM on January 12, 2016

Memphis is not nearly as dangerous as reported. Long story...

A professor at the University of Memphis created a program called Blue Crush to help our police department become more effective. His premise was that very small crimes are usually caused by the same person/group in any given neighborhood, and if you could identify and remove the offender before their crimes escalated you could impact the overall crime level. In order for it to work, every single crime must be reported and used in the data analysis, which is done on a weekly basis. The MPD then uses the data to deploy personnel.

Memphis uses the highest standard of reporting, and reports every single crime, unlike most other decent or large cities. The program is wildly successful, with our crime rate dropping significantly every year. Police departments from all over the world come to study it. Unfortunately, the by-product is inflated crime stats.

We have also overhauled our court system, resulting in our Republican county mayor invited to the SOTU last night by the White House.

Bottom line, we do have a level of crime that is comparable to other cities, it's not the safest place in the world. But if you follow the regular rules of city living, you should be just fine.
posted by raisingsand at 9:38 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

The area around Graceland has a higher rate of crime, but I wouldn't expect that you would have issues as long as you're the same level of aware that you would be in any major city. I would recommend visiting during the day. Your friend who lives there can likely help with these kinds of calculations.
posted by woodvine at 12:40 PM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks both - much appreciated.
posted by TravellingCari at 3:26 PM on January 13, 2016

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