Saturday, 24 October 2015

US roadtrip with kids in tow

We all have that wonderfully cinematic image in our heads of the ‘Great American Road Trip’.  You know the cliché: the wind whistling through your hair as you manoeuvre the open-topped sports car through the majestic scenery of the open plain; the stereo pumping whilst the sun beats down upon your journey to the next adventure.

Then you remember your children in the backseat and, suddenly, the dream shatters.  You can only envisage the car sickness, the sticky sweet wrappers and the nursery rhymes on loop as you tackle the rush hour traffic of another unidentifiable North American town.

But, with a little preparation and a sense of adventure, that once-in-a-lifetime road trip through the dramatic scenery of the USA with the children is something you’ll never ever regret.
So, when we decided to visit the southern states of the USA, we knew a road trip was the only way to see the real America.  It would be an opportunity to see the iconic landmarks of this wonderful country whilst taking the trip at our own pace, choosing which aspects of Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama we wanted to see.

I must admit that Coca-Cola World was an unusual location to kickstart the holiday but, in the searing and sultry heat of Atlanta, the prospect of an air-conditioned building with free ice-cold drinks, was far too tempting.  The internationally-recognisable neon signage of Coca-Cola took us on an unexpectedly interesting and entertaining beverage adventure.  When pharmacist John Pemberton first concocted his drink in 1886, I doubt very much if he ever dreamt of the worldwide monopoly that would flow from its success.  In the Product Tasting Center, visitors can try any of the franchised products from around the world.  To see the children clutching their plastic cups and tearing around the siphons, loading up on sugar for the next leg of our trip was slightly unsettling but they were having too much fun tasting bizarre combinations of Estonian Blueberry and Bahaman Banana to make them stop!  And, as if one global conglomerate wasn't enough, we then stopped at the nearest Walmart to spend holiday money on lego creations, which are dirt cheap in the US.  Now, that was a fun part of the holiday - attempting to get The Black Pearl back in our hand luggage!

After our sugar-fuelled fizzy foray, our next mission was to fully explore the wonderfully cosmopolitan city of Atlanta and her influence on the remarkable life of Martin Luther King Junior.  Nowhere else in the world possesses such an electrifying history of civil rights and, to be catapulted back in time to the inequality of 1950’s USA, was both thought-provoking and profound. 

Born in Atlanta in 1929, King grew up in a suburb of the metropolis near to the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church where his father would preach.  This bastion of Christianity in Georgia is situated directly opposite the Martin Luther King National Heritage Sight, a museum which houses chilling footage of the Klu Klux Klan and key exhibits detailing the Civil Rights Movement’s unfaltering mission.  It is indeed humbling to consider that such an iconic individual was born in such an unassuming neighbourhood yet went on to represent a nation of citizens committed to positive change.  For the children to be experience the life of this great man was a real highlight of the trip.  To listen to my son’s innocent questions and to try answering them diplomatically and sensitively was a challenge.  To begin our road trip in Atlanta put the rest of the holiday into historical and cultural significance for us all.

In direct contrast to the sombre history lesson in Atlanta, we drove on through the open country to our next destination of Tupelo, Mississippi.  Knowing that part of our planned trip was to explore Elvis’ influence on popular culture, we were determined to see where The King was born.  The tiny two-roomed clapper-boarded home where Elvis Aaron was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley in

1935 is now a Mississippi Historic Site and devoted fans swarm here to pay their respects to the unassuming beginning of rock ‘n’ roll.  It’s beautiful, calm and there is a respectful serenity to the house.  Having listened to our Elvis CD on repeat all the way through Georgia, the kids were quite in awe of this simple house with its deck swing and tiny rooms.

The next day, in stark contrast, we journeyed over the state line to Tennessee and into Memphis to follow in the trail of Elvis. Just outside Memphis, along an indiscriminate stretch of highway is the 13 acre splendour that is Graceland.  Bought by a twenty two year old Elvis Presley in 1957, this mecca for rock fans is a pilgrimage for over half a million fans a year.  Emotional visitors are ferried around the site by minibuses and the audio guide starts from the second you begin the musical journey up the winding drive to the kitsch interior of Elvis’ heyday home.  Surprisingly, the house seems small and claustrophobic due to the cornucopia of trinkets and souvenirs charting a megastar’s career.  To see his grave at the end of the tour is unexpectedly moving and the respectful silence stays with you.

To complete our exploration into Elvis’ life, we then visited Sun Studios In downtown Memphis where the music greats all recorded; grainy footage of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee performing are evocative of days gone by and, as you wait to enter the museum, the small café takes you back to a vibe of rebellion and revolution.  The newspaper cuttings, the jukebox and the sodas all make you feel as if you should be wearing ankle socks and fooling around with a brylcreemed-haired boy in a leather jacket who Daddy just wouldn’t approve of! 

With all the fun of a holiday such as this, practicalities do have to be considered and accommodation is obviously a major cost of any holiday but on a road trip through North America, it needn’t be a prohibitive outlay.  If you’re willing to be spontaneous, there are some amazing bargains to be found.  The trick, we found, was to source a motel/hotel voucher booklet at gas stations or at the state visitor centres.  These books are free and are jam-packed full of vouchers for rooms along whichever route you’re taking that day.  By not planning ahead, we were able to choose where to stop when we felt we needed a break and, seeing that nearly all motel rooms come with two double beds as standard, there’s plenty of room for an average family to sleep for under $50 a night.

Obviously, we did plan ahead to some degree and that little bit of research before we left the UK was invaluable when it came to some of our favourite memories.  In Vacherie, Louisiana, we had organised a cottage in the grounds of Oak Alley, one of the most famous sugar plantations of the south.  Iconic 300 year-old oak trees line the sumptuous quarter-mile path up to this ante-bellum beauty and  staff dressed in period costume serve mint juleps on the terrace overlooking the 25 historic acres of land leading down to the banks of The Mississippi.  To have this stately home to ourselves at night was a highlight of the trip; equipped with a torch, we left our former slave-quarters for an evening exploration (in pyjamas) through the silhouettes of the mighty oaks.  To hear the echoes of Oak Alley’s history under a summer’s moon reminded us of the underlying cruelty of slavery in the south.

Another day another dollar and the mighty Mississippi was beckoning us towards our next state of Louisiana with her rich history and raw beauty.  The seemingly-endless Mississippi River following us, we drove through long sections of coastal marsh over sweeping bridges which looked to be floating on the alligator-filled swamps.  Who needs in-car DVDs when you have two eager kids with a bet on as to who will see the man-eating alligator first?

We had been warned about our next stopping point and I must admit that I was slightly apprehensive in exploring New Orleans with two wide-eyed children in tow.  I had been told to drive everywhere and to stay centrally.  Never one to be conventional, however, I plumped for a house on the outskirts of the city, away from the crowds in an original ‘shot-gun’ house.  Built in the early 19th century, these houses were designed to withstand a bullet attack on a house. 

Consisting of a narrow rectangular structure with three to five rooms in a row, these structures would ensure that a bullet fired into the house from the front doorway would fly cleanly to the other end of the house without taking a victim.  As I lay wide awake under the mosquito net on our first night in ‘The Big Easy’, listening to the rumblings of the monolithic cargo trains transporting goods across the continent, I confess nerves and did perhaps check on the children more than was usual at home! 
As the sultry Louisiana morning sun rose in the sky, I realised that I needn’t have worried and there, opened up in front of us, was a treasure trove of delights. Beautifully ornate iron balustrades looked down upon the narrow streets of La Nouvelle-Orléans and each house stood proudly distinct from its neighbour with its bright colours and individualised design.  This was a city unlike any other.  Matthew and Annie loved the laidback approach to life in the city and, as we sat next to obscurely-wonderful people on the old wooden trams, I watched their little faces trying to fathom how this place could be so wild and wacky yet bear, simultaneously, the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As is wont with road trips, perhaps the most amazing day came as a complete surprise. Tired of driving on our epic 500 mile journey-in-a-day and needing lunch, we pulled off the I-85 freeway into Montgomery, Alabama and parked in the first available spot we found.  As I was faffing about in the boot, trying to find more factor 50 to slather on my freckled-faced son, I absently-mindedly read the sign next to me.  We had parked at the exact spot that Rosa Parks had queued for the bus on that fateful December morning in 1955.  The very spot where she refused to move from her seat. Having already learned so much about Civil Rights when in Atlanta, it seemed fortuitous that here we were standing at perhaps the most important bus stop in modern world history.  Further exploration led us into the Rosa Parks Library and Museum where there is a reconstruction of her famous bus with video footage of her involvement with Luther King’s mission.  For children, this visual representation of the struggle really helps to contextualise the events and, when the mock-up bus, shakes and rattles, it really does feel as if you’ve been transported back to the injustice and inequality of yesteryear.
Arrival back to Atlanta after our mammoth two-week journey saw us reflect on our family adventure.  Yes, there were tiring days.  The day we had breakfast in Louisiana, elevenses in Mississippi, lunch in Alabama and dinner in Georgia was a gruelling day of overtaking juggernauts on the endless highway for nine hours but we saw so much and experienced the subtle changes as we crossed each state line. 

Even through the epic travelling days, we loved every second of this amazing trip and having Matthew and Annie in tow just enhanced the experiences.  Seeing sights through the wonder of a child is so refreshing and the enthusiasm for adventure in a six-year old is truly contagious.  As we dropped the hire car back at Atlanta, we waved goodbye to our free-spirited adventure and began to plan the next.

Would we do a road trip again with two young children?  You betcha!  To be in a spectacular country with adventures around every corner, planning the trip together and deciding which aspect of ground-breaking history to investigate next makes for a holiday of surprise, enlightenment and genuine fascination.
Just do it! 

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