Saturday, November 04, 2006

Last full day in the U.S.

If you are reading this blog for the first time, you might be surprised to find yourself reading not about France but about the United States. I've been on an East Coast tour for a month now, traveling from Upstate New York down to North Carolina and Alabama, and ending up in Illinois. I fly back to Paris from Chicago tomorrow, and I plan to resume posting topics about life in France's Loire Valley later in the week.

Meanwhile, I've been in the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, area for a couple of days, staying with friends. I spent five years here in the 1970s, when I was in graduate school. I have a lot of nostalgia for the University of Illinois, but it certainly has changed. I hardly recognize the campus, with the exception of its old core, the main quadrangle.

The old Greyhound bus station in Evansville, Indiana

I'm thinking about transit these days, in anticipation of our flight back to France. On the way from Kentucky to Illinois, I drove through Evansville, Indiana, just because I had never been there before. The old Greyhound bus station was the most interesting thing I saw there.

I crossed into Illinois at Mount Carmel, where an old friend grew up. She lived in Paris back in the 1970s, when I did. Then I took a detour off the main highway, just to see the sights. I ended up on very narrow roads and got stuck behind a school bus that was dropping off children in the Illinois equivalent of a village.

Stuck behind a school bus in southern Illinois

The bus stopped in front of at least 5 houses — trailers, actually — and at each one or more kids got off. The houses were just a few hundred feet apart, but rather than let them all off at a single stop and leave them to walk to their respective houses, the bus made all those stops. I was stuck, because it is against the law to pass a stopped school bus in the U.S.

The shadow of our Chevy Impala on an Illinois field

Later, Walt snapped a picture of the shadow of our car against a typical Illinois landscape as we drove north. The sun was going down.

The quadrangle at the University of Illinois on a nice fall day

Yesterday, we walked around the Illinois campus. The sun was out and the weather had warmed up enough to make walking outside pleasant.

The College of Agriculture building on the quad at Champaign-Urbana

Today, we had lunch in an old student hangout on campus called the White Horse Inn. As we left the place after enjoying a nostalgic hamburger with cole slaw and fries, we noticed some students on the 5th-floor balcony of their apartment across the street. Today the Illinois-Ohio State football game was being played on campus, and a lot of students were partying (evidently). These particular guys were rowdy. When they saw us, one of them yelled: "You guys are too old. Get the f*** out of here!"

I guess my University of Illinois days really are over. I might as well go on back to France.

Friday, November 03, 2006


First of all, let me say Kentucky was really pretty. The drive from Dale Hollow State Park, near Albany and Burkesville, over to Glasgow KY took us along a hilly two-lane road through many small towns and settlements. A lot of the houses along that road (route 90, which runs along just north of the Tennesse border) are neat little brick bungalows. There are many red-brick churches. The fall colors were beautiful on November 2.

I saw this sign half a dozen times along route 90.

There are also many picturesque ruins. Old falling-down houses with porches stacked high with junk are a common sight. Old general stores, closed up and in various states of decay, give you a flavor of what local life in this area must have been like before everybody had a car to drive. In a lot of ways, it made me think of the Loire Valley, where still today fewer people drive cars and where small villages are spaced out along narrow roads at regular intervals.

The "village" closest to the Dale Hollow resort is called Frogue.
I don't know how to pronounce it.

The lodge (or motel) at Dale Hollow is completely modern. You couldn't find a nicer place (considering the $55-a-night rate we paid) anywhere in Florida or California. But you know you are in Kentucky as soon as you get three miles up the road.

Back in the early 1980s, I knew a Frenchman who lived near Versailles and who thought Kentucky was one of the best American words he had ever heard. He would joke about one day going there on a vacation. I think he was half serious about such a trip, but I'm not sure he really believed such a place really existed. I wish he could have been with us yesterday.

You still see houses like this one, but many of the houses along the road
were neat and clean little brick bungalows.

Kentucky reminds me very much of North Carolina as well. Back in olden days, Daniel Boone forged the trail over the Appalachians at the Cumberland Pass, and many Carolinians and Virginians followed him west into Kentucky. The big difference right now between KY and NC is that rampant development and sprawl haven't yet hit Kentucky. That's a good thing for KY.

A "trailer home" that we passed along the way. Notice the Confederate flag
used as a curtain in the center window. (Click the picture to enlarge it.)

Farther north, up on the Ohio River at Owensboro, the barbecue restaurant called the Moonlite Inn was full of suprises. First of all, it seats 300 customers in a series of spacious dining rooms. And it was packed at 12:15 on a Thursday afternoon. I enjoyed listening to conversations all around, and especially to the wait staff. The people of Owensboro seem to have a strong Southern accent, despite being so far from the Old South.

The mutton barbecue was excellent. The meat was succulent and smoky. It had been shredded and coarsely chopped after long slow cooking. I wasn't crazy about what they called the "dipping sauce," however. It was a brown, watery liquid that didn't add much flavor. The bottles of dipping sauce on sale in the restaurant store listed the ingredients as, first, water, then Worcestershire powder (what is that?), vinegar, and sugar. The barbecued mutton would be much better with some good Eastern North Carolina hot-pepper vinegar on it. Nothing is better on barbecued meat than Wilber's vinegar sauce from Goldsboro, North Carolina.

The separate entrance for people who want to take their barbecued meat home.
These are American icons: an ice machine and newpaper vending machines.

We drove out of Kentucky into SW Indiana after lunch and drove up small roads along the Wabash River all afternoon, on our way to Champaign-Urbana. Just a few miles north of the Ohio River, in Mount Carmel, Illinois, the accents were no longer southern. Neither was the landscape.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Barbecue across the South

I'm excited today because we are going to try a new kind of barbecue (or Bar-B-Q, as they seem to spell it here in Kentucky. It's one of the fun things to do when you travel around the south, if you eat meat.

In North Carolina, this time, we got to go to the two best-known barbecue joints in the state. One was Smiley's Barbecue in the town of Lexington, near Greensboro and Winston-Salem, N.C. Lexington-style barbecue is hickory-smoked pork shoulder served with a slightly tomato-y, slightly vinegary sauce. At Smiley's, I ordered coarsely chopped barbecue, and the meat was tender, juicy, and flavorful.

But to my eastern North Carolina palate, Smiley's cooked pork wasn't really barbecue. The meat was bathed in liquid, and it wasn't spicy enough. Real barbecue is exemplified, for my, by the hickory-smoked, vinegar-sauced, whole-hog meat cooked up and served at Wilber's Barbecue Restaurant in Goldsboro, N.C. The meat is not floating in sauce, and there are flecks of hot red pepper in the vinegar sauce and through the shredded or chopped meat.

I've been going to Wilber's since the mid-1960s. It's on the main road, U.S. Highway 70, between my home town, Morehead City, and the Raleigh-Durham area, where I went to college. Wilber's barbecue never disappoints.

We visited friends in Anniston, Alabama, on this trip. They are people I met on an Internet forum. In Anniston, we had lunch on Tuesday at Daddy's Barbecue. The meat was shredded, hickory-smoked pork, and it was delicious. My only criticism of it was the way it was served. They put a pile of barbecued pork on the plate and them dumped on a generous quantity of a sweet dark-red sauce that wasn't bad but wasn't necessary. The pork would have been better without it.

We also had barbecue in Atlanta. We bought it from a chain restaurant called Sonny's. It was surprisingly good, especially the shredded pork, which was seasoned with a hot-pepper-vinegar sauce. We also tasted the beef barbecue at Sonny's, but I found the sauce too ketchup-y and sweet.

Three years ago Walt and I tried barbecue in Georgia and in South Carolina. The Georgia version was ketchup-y sweet. The S.C. version was bathed in a mustard sauce that was also very sweet. I don't like my barbecue sweet.

In Owensboro, Kentucky, today, we are going to have lunch at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. The specialty there is Kentucky mutton barbecue. Wow, barbecued lamb. It should be interesting, and it might be delicious. I'll report on it later.

Alabama to Kentucky

We had a really nice stay with our friends E. and L. in Anniston, Alabama, from Sunday evening until Wednesday morning. We drove up to Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama, where the trees were showing off their yellow, orange, and red foliage. We also went to a nearby winery and tasted some muscadine, villard blanc, and chardonnel wines. Not to mention a peach wine and a blueberry wine. They were interesting, and a couple were good. Yes, chardonnel, not chardonnay. It's a hybrid.

Near Cheaha (TCHEE-uh-HA), the highest point in Alabama at about 2300 feet

This morning, before our departure on our trip to Kentucky, I told E. and L. that I wanted to have donuts for breakfast. They don't usually eat donuts but they were good sports. L. and I drove over to LaMar's Donut Shop in Anniston and bought a dozen glazed donut holes, one plain old-fashioned donut, one glazed old-fashioned, two regular glazed, and two maple-glazed. We all ate some, and E. then packed up the leftovers for us to take on our trip to Kentucky.

Needless to say, we don't eat many donuts in France.

We left Alabama in sunshine and cut through a little corner of northwest Georgia. It clouded over. A few minutes later we were in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it started raining. It rained hard all afternoon as we drove up through the eastern Tennessee mountains and the towns of Spencer, Sparta, Cookeville, Livingston, and Byrdstown.

We arrived at Albany, Kentucky, at about 3:00 p.m. It was pouring rain. We just drove through, which was a disappointment. We wanted to see it better. The population of Albany KY is 2200, which makes it smaller than Saint-Aignan. We couldn't take any pictures. It was raining too hard.

Tonight we are staying near Albany at the Dale Hollow State Park Resort hotel. It's a modern place on a big artificial lake, and it has wireless Internet access. A minute ago, Walt opened the dorr and went out onto the patio of our ground-floor room. "Uh-oh, a skunk," he said. I had to take a picture.

This skunk came close but did not spray us.