A pilgrimage

Arriving in Nashville felt like coming home. In sharp contrast to Memphis, the climate actually made you want to be outside as much as possible; to feel the warm sun and luxuriate in a balmy breeze.

Music, and cowboy boots, are everywhere.

And the bands are just so good. I could sit listening in bars here for days.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash museums made for very entertaining visits, the city is nicely walkable and everyone you meet seems to be happy to be here.

But the absolute highlight of my time in Tennessee (and possibly my entire Stateside trip) is taking a visit to Dollywood.

That’s right; Dolly Parton ‘ s theme park/ cultural centre and museum. There really aren’t words to describe how I feel about this, so I’ll just say that I’m buying two new bus tickets, spending a night in Knoxville and blagging a ride to the tiny, touristy town of Pigeon Forge, as well as spending less time in my beloved Nashville, just to go.

I have no doubt that I am about to have an outrageously good time.

In the home of the Delta Blues

Memphis is not a pretty city. It’s gritty, with roads lined by fast food restaurants. It rains a lot, suddenly and biblically. Billboards declare that ‘Elvis lives!’ every mile or so.

I went to a gospel church service on Sunday morning (when in the South, right?) and the music gave me shivers. Gospel is loud and in your face – it’s not a spectator activity. Everyone was clapping and ‘Yes, Lord!’ -ing. People danced and stomped and it made me laugh with delight. I’m so glad I got to see this.

Graceland was a necessary stop, of course. Elvis’ s house is smaller than you might expect, and the decoration really is something.  The tour gave quite a good overview of his background and career, as well as plenty of opportunities to listen to his music.

Then there was barbeque. I went to Central BBQ first, and ate ribs so delicious that I could hardly walk back. Double J’s was even better.

I’ve also been binge – reading more of the Little House sequels and pretending I’m a settler. It’s quite comforting.

I couldn’t leave Memphis without two more stops; the national civil rights museum, which was incredible and important, and to hear some blues music live.

Getting downtown took a bike ride – I’m actually quite scared of American roads so this was a challenge. Luckily when I got lost, five men gathered round to set me on the right road (sign placement is ridiculously poor, so it’s often difficult to tell which street is which).

Photos to come.

An important question

Are the houses of New Orleans more interesting, beautiful and strange than the houses of San Francisco?

It’s a tough question.

I took it slowly in this famous city; wandering through the French Quarter and Garden District, meandering down Magazine Street.

I love the way the names of the streets are written on the pavement (because the signs keep blowing away…), I love the accent and I love  hearing music everywhere.

I tried as much cajun and creole cooking as my taste buds allowed and got up close and personal with alligators in the swamp. I stayed at a Tibetan compound and saw a live talk show, and met some really wonderful people.

New Orleans still seems a strange place and it’s certainly different from the rest of the US I’ve seen so far. A liking for bourbon won’t bring me back, but the intrigue might…

A taste of Texas

Texas was never in my original plan. But enough people encouraged me to stop in Austin (it’s nothing like the rest of the State! It’s a bubble of liberalism in conservative heartland!) and it was a good halfway point between Arizona and Louisiana,  so I decided to pay a visit.

I’m so glad I did. Austin was wonderful. The shops and restaurants were cool and quirky, there was live music every night and they even have a gorgeous park to hang out in. The city might even make it onto my top cities list!

In the heat of my first day I braved the bus system (very cheap) to go visit the local swimming hole – the cold water was delicious. South Congress was my favourite neighbourhood, but watching a brass band and eating lobster from a food truck was pretty amazing too.

A lot of what made my time here so good was the people I spent it with. My Couchsurfing host John was incredible, with detailed information on what to do, see and eat, as well as great stories to share.

The other surfers at his house were also very cool  and it was nice to have some company exploring the city.

It was nothing like I had pictured Texas to be (guns, cacti and prejudice) and I’m really glad to be proved wrong. Obviously the state is huge and there will probably be parts where that picture does fit – but it’s so good to know Austin definitely breaks the stereotypes.

Understanding America (or my attempt at explaining the US as a travel destination)

My amateur anthropology skills are just buzzing, being here. Americans are so fascinating! For many, the idea of coming to the states is more of a fun-filled, fairly meaningless holiday. But I’ve wanted to come here for years, and the people are a huge part of that.

To me, it’s that contrast of similarity and canyon – esque differences. A lot of elements in character and culture are exactly the same as back home in England; but this only makes the things which do differ, those delightful little details, all the more strange.

From language to food, religion to temperament, these observations fill me with glee.

If anyone ever wants to write a novel but is struggling for inspiration, all you need to do is get on a Greyhound. I swear I have seen more crazy on these buses than anywhere else in the whole of south and central America. And I saw some really strange stuff on my way up here.

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It’s why I feel kind of ‘done’ with hostels. I’ve had a brilliant time backpacking through them and meeting hundreds of Europeans and Australians. Now I want to meet and stay with locals, who can show me what this place is really all about.

The other thing that really appeals to me about the United States is the vast range of differences in the country. Laid back surfers from the West Coast, all the people trying to make it ‘with a dream’ in Hollywood, rugged campers in the national parks and city slickers never five steps away from Starbucks and their office email. And that’s just the South West.

I am so excited to visit the music capital of the world, to experience a melting pot of culture in New Orleans, to see who travels on Amtrak, and gorge myself on country and blues.

I am so happy to be here.

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