The Great American Road Trip continues! When
we last left off, my wife and I had stopped for the night in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. What remained ahead of us was a drive to Louisiana, an exploration of New Orleans, and then the final leg of our journey, as we headed home. Along the way, we drove through two national parks, stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast, got caught in a deluge in the mountains, saw the RMS Titanic, stood beside steam engine locomotives, and continued our summer adventure.
So come along, then, as our two-week drive through the eastern half of the United States continues. The drive will go through Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and then finally, back home to New Jersey.
Are you ready? Let’s go!
The Journey Home
The final 1,500 miles of our trip would take us down to The Big Easy, and then we would follow the Appalachian Mountains back to New Jersey. Day 10: Mississippi to Louisiana
Our trip began with one of the shortest drives to date – less than two hundred miles from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.
After having explored the back roads of Mississippi the previous day, we sacrificed sightseeing for speed and stayed on I-55 as we headed to Louisiana.
In planning our trip, we decided to take a detour to add another item to our list of “world’s largest” destinations. In this case, we were going to drive the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest continuous bridge over water.
Lake Pontchartrain is an estuary (a coastal body of water which connects to the sea) that measures approximately 40 miles long by 24 miles wide. From the earliest days of New Orleans’ history, residents had ideas of connecting the northern and southern shores of this massive body of water. A ferry service started in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when the concept for a vehicle bridge was able to be turned into reality. The causeway is almost 24 miles long (via Wikipedia).
The causeway also features a drawbridge to allow larger boats to pass safely beneath it. Speed limits are posted and strictly enforced, as even the smallest of accidents has the potential to snarl traffic for miles.
The view from the causeway was absolutely fantastic, and is one of the most noteworthy driving memories from the trip! The inspiration for this detour came in part from a drive made by Tyson Huge in his 500,000-mile 1994 Acura Legend coupe a few years ago on his way to Florida. I’m thrilled my wife and I took this drive, and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting southern Louisiana.
A friend from New Jersey has a second home in New Orleans, and graciously lent us their vacation house while we were in town. No hotels for us – instead, we were able to stay in a beautiful neighborhood in the city and act like a couple of locals!
No sooner had we unpacked and wolfed down a quick lunch, then we set off toward downtown to visit the National World War II Museum.
My wife had visited the museum several years ago when she was in town for a conference. She had long wanted to take me here, knowing of my fascination with WWII. As she went to buy tickets, I wandered over to examine the massive German Flak 37 88mm gun on display. A terrifying weapon, the 88mm was used against both airplanes and (with fearsome results) against enemy tanks. Interesting fact: in the later stages of the war, American forces had captured so many of these weapons from retreating German soldiers that the US 7th Army created an entire battalion of these guns (via Wikipedia).
The tour begins with a “ride” on a train that takes you into the museum. All aboard!
With clever use of video screens, the train provides an orientation to the museum, while also giving you a sense of traveling through 1940s-era America. During the orientation, you are given a person who served in the war, and you follow their story throughout the museum by checking in at multimedia stations in the galleries. I received a B-25 bomber pilot… which was pretty cool, as my grandfather’s brother was a bomber pilot during the war.
The museum begins with explaining America’s reluctance to get involved with WWII, considering it, largely, a “Europe’s problem.” That ended on December 7, 1941, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A piece of the hull of the battleship USS Arizona was on display. Almost half of all American service personnel killed during the December 7th attack perished aboard the Arizona.
Despite being separated by an ocean, the war came to the American coast. This map showed the effect of German U-Boat submarines on allied shipping – each of the small ships surrounding the US coastline were allied ships attacked and sunk by U-Boats. Look at how many attacks there were off the coast of New Jersey!
The museum next documented the way the American economy shifted into wartime production. Best encapsulated by “Rosie the Riveter,” women formed an important labor force supplement to factory production. For instance, by 1943, 65% of the labor force of the aircraft industry were women (via History).
By the end of the war, American soldiers were the best supplied and equipped troops worldwide. Every soldier, sailor, and pilot had at their command countless guns, bullets, rockets, and any other type of munition possibly produced by American factories.
A large section of the museum was dedicated to the US Marines’ “island hopping” campaign. In a series of brutal battles, the Marines would invade numerous small islands across the Pacific Ocean, dislodging the Japanese occupiers (often at high casualty levels for both sides), as they gradually swept the Japanese forces back toward Japan. The museum designed this section to look and feel as if you are in the jungles with the Marines.
The P-40 Warhawk was one of the most important planes in WWII for the Allies, and saw extensive action in the Pacific theater. Almost 14,000 Warhawks were built by Curtiss-Wright in their Buffalo, New York factory. This particular plane served in China in the American Volunteer Group. Known as the “Flying Tigers,” this squadron was staffed with American pilots who flew under Chinese colors to help defend that nation from Japanese attack.
By 1945, Japanese forces were being pushed closer and closer to their homeland by America and its allies. US military commanders were preparing for Operation Downfall, an anticipated invasion of Japan that would involve an army of 6 million American and British service personnel. Atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, instead forced Japan’s surrender. These are two glass bottles found near the blast zone in Nagasaki. For some reason, these small, misshapen objects, warped by the massive explosion, were the most impactful items I found in the exhibit about the atomic bombs.
After viewing the exhibits on the Pacific Theater, we moved to the Atlantic and the fight against Nazi Germany. This Messerschmitt Bf 109, the primary fighter plane of Germany during World War II, was hanging from the ceiling above the entrance.
An entire gallery exists detailing the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, known to history as D-Day (officially: Operation Overlord). This diorama illustrates just a small fraction of the ships and planes involved in the June 6, 1944 invasion of France as the Allies sought to defeat Nazi Germany.
One of the most memorable sections of the museum was a display of the Germany counterattack in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg. On December 16, 1944, German forces attacked the Allies in the Ardennes region, seeking to encircle the surprised American and British forces. Conditions were brutal – snow and bitter cold took their toll on underprepared American soldiers, as did near-constant artillery fire from German guns. In what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, it took nearly a month of fighting for the Allies to defeat the German attack, and while American and British forces sustained heavy casualties (it was the third-bloodiest battle in US history), Nazi Germany’s defeat signaled its effective end as a fighting force on the Western front of Europe (via Wikipedia).
As the war ended, America and her allies took over administration of the defeated Germany. Some American soldiers helped themselves to items owned by former Nazi officials. This silver teapot, stamped with the Nazi eagle and the initials “A.H.”, was brought back to America by a lieutenant in the US 45th Infantry Division.
In the George H. W. Bush Aviation Gallery, a collection of American warplanes from WWII are suspended from the ceiling. A series of catwalks on floors 2, 3, and 4 allow visitors to have a better view of the planes.
I breezed past the sign that warned visitors with vertigo or a fear of heights to take care, so eager was I to check out this B-17 Flying Fortress. I was happily snapping away with my camera until I looked down… big mistake. I slowly, and carefully, made my way to the elevator.
If you are interested in World War II history, have a personal connection to the conflict, or grew up with stories of this war from your parents and grandparents, then I would highly recommend a visit. Tickets are on the pricier side – $38.50 for an adult, $33.50 for seniors ages 65+, $26 for military personnel, veterans, spouses of military personnel, college students, and children in grades K-12. Tickets are $7 for children 5 and younger, and WWII veterans can enter for free.
By the time we left the museum, we were both ready for dinner! New Orleans is home to a vibrant restaurant scene, and the neighborhood where we were staying was filled with many great possible choices. After walking around to explore our options, we chose Lebanon’s Cafe, a Middle Eastern restaurant.
It was one of the best Middle Eastern meals I have ever had. My wife enjoyed the chicken shawarma platter (left) while I devoured my gyro platter (right). Of special note was the freshly-made hummus, which may have been the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. So, so good! Day 11: New Orleans!
Betty the HR-V drove 0 miles this day, as we further explored New Orleans. Our primary mode of transportation was the St. Charles Streetcar. First run in 1835, it is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. Even the current train cars are historic – they date back to the 1920s. It was an affordable and pleasant way to see New Orleans and avoid the hassle of city driving.
On Canal Street, I made a cardinal sin… I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the map, signaling to all the world that we were tourists. We were immediately approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as “Dave the Ambassador.” Not taking “no thanks” for an answer, Dave the Ambassador proceeded to pull out a pristine map from his backpack and tell us how to see the best spots in the city for free. He did not try to direct us to any specific businesses, and gave us tips on how to avoid the most tourist-clogged destinations. We gave Dave a small tip, and thanked him. As the morning progressed, Dave would turn out to have been our guardian angel, as his advice was spot-on, his “must see” locations were brilliant, and his route was easy to follow. Dave the Ambassador, this is your official “The Open Road Ahead Shout-Out!”
We began our tour of the French Quarter, the oldest section of New Orleans, with a walk through Jackson Square. These tile markers, a hallmark of the French Quarter, adorn numerous historic structures and sites in the city.
Jackson Square marks the spot where Louisiana was incorporated into the United States in 1803. The square is named after President Andrew Jackson, who led American forces in their victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812 (via Wikipedia). A statue of President Jackson stands in the middle of the square.
When traveling, I typically avoid tourist traps. I prefer to find the spots patronized by locals, and not the places overrun by out-of-town visitors. I made an exception for Cafe Du Monde.
Nothing would stop me from my date with destiny… not the hordes of tourists, not the jazz band obviously playing for tips on the sidewalk outside, not the line to get in. I was here to enjoy my first beignet, a deep-fried pastry slathered in powdered sugar. Established in 1862, Cafe Du Monde has been serving beignets and cafe au lait for over 150 years. A single order has 3 beignets. I could have eaten twenty.
The French Quarter’s architecture is instantly recognizable, with many of the buildings surrounded by galleries. As opposed to a balcony, which protrudes from the building, the galleries are supported by pillars which extend to the ground.
Beside Jackson Square is St. Louis Cathedral. A church was first established on this site in 1720. After a fire, the current structure was built in 1789, although later fires, a foundation collapse, and even a dynamite bombing (in 1909) mean that very little of the structure is original. Most of it dates to 1850 (via Wikipedia).
St. Louis is the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States. The interior reminded me of several cathedrals I have visited in Europe. One other benefit – on a hot and humid day, it was also air conditioned (as suggested by Dave the Ambassador).
The most costly repair of recent memory was to fix the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which tore a hole in the roof and caused significant water damage. The church was repaired and its congregation continues on, as it has for over 300 years.
The French Quarter was founded in the 1720s, although a massive fire in the 1780s means that many of the buildings in this section date to the subsequent rebuilding in the 1790s. The architecture represents a unique fusion of French and Caribbean designs (via Wikipedia).
If you’d like to live in the French Quarter, be prepared to spend a few pennies. For instance, 1023 1025 St. Ann Street (pictured), which dates to the 1890s, sold for almost $900,000 in 2018.
Perhaps the most famous street in the city is Bourbon Street. Named after the ruling dynasty of France in the 1700s (the House of Bourbon), Bourbon Street nowadays is better known for its association with New Orlean’s Mardi Gras celebrations. The street’s numerous bars and nightspots, along with the French Quarter’s allowance of open-air drinking, makes it synonymous with celebration and partying.
We then walked to the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans to visit Louis Armstrong Park. The park celebrates the history of music, especially jazz, in the city.
The centerpiece of the park is this statue of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901, and is considered one of the most influential jazz musicians in American history.
Music has long been associated with this section of the city. Louis Armstrong Park includes a section known as Congo Square, where slaves in the 18th century would gather on Sundays for music and dance (via Journal of American History). More recent musical history is told by New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, also located within Louis Armstrong Park.
After we departed the French Quarter and began to make our way back to the streetcar stop, we got caught in a sudden downpour. As we waited under the awning of a restaurant, we got to chatting with the maitre d’, who said the storm should only last for a few minutes. After a few minutes of watching the rain fall in sheets, however, we figured we’d go inside and have a drink at the bar of Creole House. That’ll be the Old Timer (an old fashioned, left) for me, and a Cruisin’ on Canal (a New Orleans-inspired mojito) for my wife.
Our bartender, Lee, was also working the grille, preparing chargrilled oysters. Neither my wife nor I had ever had this New Orleans dish, so we placed an order, and Lee talked us through his recipe as we watched him prepare our meal in front of us. When we finally left the restaurant, the rain had long since stopped, the skies were clearing, and our bellies were full. I found out later that Creole House is located in the oldest building on Canal Street – I was so busy eating, I forgot to take more photos for the blog. Sorry, dear readers!
Later that day, we headed to Superior Seafood for dinner. The restaurant had received good reviews for its gluten free entrees, so we thought we’d give it a shot.
Dinner was… meh. The service was lackluster (which would have been understandable if the restaurant was busy, but it was half-empty). The food was ok-ish. My wife’s shrimp and grits were… fair. My order of blackened catfish was… fair. The drinks were…. fair. If you go to Superior Seafood, you won’t have a bad meal, but in a city filled with great restaurants, you will find far better places to spend your money.
After dinner, we took a stroll through Audubon Park, located near Loyola and Tulane Universities, it is named after John Audubon, the artist and ornithologist (for whom the Audubon Society is named) who moved to New Orleans in the 19th century (via Wikipedia).
After a fun stroll through the gardens, it was time to head home, get packed, and get ready for a big drive the next day. Day 12: Louisiana to Tennessee
After a leisurely couple of days in New Orleans, it was time to get back on the road. Our goal: almost 500 miles in one day.
After breakfast, we packed up the HR-V and began our journey toward the northeast. Our first state line was Mississippi, which we crossed about an hour after leaving New Orleans.
Crossing into Alabama, we hit the absolute worst traffic of our two weeks on the road. Two commercial trucks had collided on I-59, closing all lanes. Traffic was diverted off the highway, onto a detour set up by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
The GPS showed us more backups as all northbound traffic followed the detour. Pulling out our paper atlas, my wife saw that State Highway 11 runs parallel to the interstate, and so we stayed on it for close to 60 miles, managing to shave a half hour off the time the detour would have taken. Along the way, we saw quaint small towns, forests, and farms. Lots and lots of farms. We did make one stop – we mailed some postcards from the post office in Epes, Alabama, population 272. It was a one stop-sign kind of town.
We were briefly in The Peach State as we continued along I-59.
Our journey along I-59 took us into Tennessee, where we would be spending the night.
On our way to the hotel, we picked up takeout from Acropolis Grill, a Greek diner in Chattanooga with a New Jersey connection! Acropolis Grill was founded by a Greek immigrant, Teddy Kyriakidis, whose first restaurant was a diner in Asbury Park, NJ. He then took over a larger restaurant in Neptune, another Jersey shore town, before settling in Chattanooga. Although Teddy has passed away, the restaurant is still a family affair, and Betty, Teddy’s wife, works at the restaurant every day. My wife and I ended up meeting Betty and having a wonderful chat with her about the family history and the Jersey shore. Oh, and the food was excellent, too. My wife had the gyro platter (pictured) while I had the Greek lemon chicken. It hit the spot!
After a long day of driving, we settled into our room to unwind and get some rest. The next day would involve an early start and even more adventure! Day 13: Exploring Tennessee!
Only 250 miles of driving, but it involved lots of planned (and some unplanned) excitement.
Our major destination for the day was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As we drove through the town of Pigeon Forge, I did a double-take when I saw the RMS Titanic parked beside the highway. The Titanic Museum includes a half-scale replica of the ill-fated ocean liner. I first dismissed it as a tourist trap, but having read the website, looked at photos, and heard from a friend who visited it… I’ve got to go! It’s now on my “must see” list for future Open Road Ahead explorations.
After driving through Pigeon Forge (a major tourist destination itself, as it is the home of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park), we arrived at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains straddle the North Carolina-Tennessee border. The park was established in 1934 to celebrate the biodiversity of this area of the United States. It was the 20th national park in the nation.
Stopping by the (very crowded) Sugarlands Visitor Center, we picked up some souvenirs and got another stamp in our National Park Passport. We were on a somewhat-limited schedule, so my wife chatted up two friendly park rangers. They gave us a fun route that was easily doable in our timeframe.
Our destination would be Newfound Gap, a mountain pass in the middle of the park. It was at Newfound Gap that President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940. The rangers told us the site also offers spectacular views of the mountains and valleys.
The term “smoky” comes from the fog that frequently hangs over the mountains. The fog comes from the plants and trees in the park that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that create vapor. Despite their imposing name, VOCs are naturally occurring. While some are dangerous, especially in high concentrations, VOCs are also part of the same process that fill a home with the scent of pine needles from a live Christmas tree during the holidays (via Visit My Smokies, as well as an Open Road Ahead reader!).
The Smoky Mountains are also historically important for Native American peoples. The land was inhabited by the Cherokee, until the Indian Removal Act forcibly relocated many of them to Oklahoma. Although a vast majority left to take the Trail of Tears, a small remnant hid from government forces and remained behind, eventually settling back into their ancestral lands (via National Park Service).
Our drive through Newfound Gap Road (US Route 411) offered stunning views of the surrounding countryside, and also cool tunnels beneath the mountains.
The views in the park weren’t bad…
Arriving in Newfound Gap as rain showers crossed the area, we huddled under an umbrella to straddle the Tennessee-North Carolina state line!
The rangers were correct – the view from Newfound Gap wasn’t too shabby!
After exploring Newfound Gap, we headed back out of the park, driving through the town of Gaitlinsburg. On the way back toward the interstate, we got caught in an abysmal rainstorm. Water fell heavily, offering almost zero visibility. I ended up pulling over into a parking lot and waiting until the rain slightly lessened. A convoy of slow-moving vehicles came past, and I tucked in behind them, using their taillights to guide us down the mountain. It was a bit of unplanned adventure, but Betty the HR-V handled it like a champ! We managed to get ahead of the storm, and then stayed ahead of it until we arrived at Johnson City, TN.
Once we arrived at the hotel, a wave of strong storms rolled through. In between deluges, I ran out to Brassa 51, a local restaurant that specializes in Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken. We shared an order of Polla a la Brassa (left: locally-sourced chicken cooked in a charcoal oven), chaufa rice (right: basmati rice with bell peppers, green and red onions, ginger root, mushrooms, and oyster sauce), and a house salad. After a day of adventures (and stressful mountain drives), it was the perfect meal!
With Betty tucked safely away between two pickup trucks (admittedly, she kind of looks like a Hot Wheels car here), we settled into our last night in a hotel for this trip. Our next stop would be to a historic bed and breakfast in Virginia. Day 14: Tennessee to Virginia
With less than three hours of behind-the-wheel time ahead of us, we allowed ourselves a leisurely morning at the hotel before getting on the road.
Virginia is for lovers! (No, seriously, that’s the state slogan). We crossed yet another state off our list as we headed to the city of Roanoke.
Stopping for coffee, we made a slight detour to check out a park with an unusual name – Hungry Mother State Park. The story associated with the name is that an 18th century settlement was raided by Native Americans, and many of the inhabitants were taken captive. A mother and her small daughter escaped, but the mother eventually collapsed from exhaustion. When the child was discovered, she only said two words: “Hungry mother.” The search party eventually located the body of the child’s fallen mother… hence the name of the park. A fascinating, if grim, story.
We took another detour off the highway to check out a scenic overlook at Draper’s Valley. First things first, Betty needed her glamour shoot.
According to a sign, this is Draper’s Valley, named after John Draper, an early settler. His wife Bettie was captured by local Shawnee during a battle, and six years later, John found his wife living among a local tribe. He paid for her release, and they moved to this section of Virginia.
After battling rain most of the drive, we arrived in Roanoke to beautiful weather. Established in the 1850s, Roanoke has long been an important hub for rail, river, and road commercial transportation. The downtown section of the city offers restaurants, cafes, and shops. My wife went to have fun shopping while I went to explore a museum right up my alley.
Trains! Planes! Cars! It was time to visit the Virginia Museum of Transportation! Housed in the former Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station, the museum chronicles the history of transportation, especially as it relates to Virginia.
Cue the Open Road Ahead theme music! The museum has a noteworthy collection of classic cars on display.
Perhaps my favorite classic car on display was this 1949 Packard Super 8. Packard created cars tailored for the upper crust, often cramming their vehicles with amenities. This Super 8 includes variable-speed windshield wipers (a luxury feature in 1949!), an automatic cigarette lighter, and reading lights for backseat passengers. It cost $3,500 in 1949 – approximately $43,000 today (similar to purchasing an Acura TLX nowadays).
Although best known for producing automobiles, Studebaker was founded as a horse-drawn wagon manufacturer. Transitioning first to electric cars (1902!), and then to gasoline powered vehicles (1904), Studebaker continued producing cars until the mid-1960s.
Things I have learned from my blogging adventures – the 70s rock band REO Speedwagon took its name from the REO Motor Car Company. REO was founded by Ransom E. Olds after leaving another car company he founded: Oldsmobile. The company ceased car production but built commercial trucks into the 1950s. The company’s name and intellectual property are now owned by Volvo (via Wikipedia).
This 1967 Triumph Bonneville T120 motorcycle was originally brought to the states from a US Navy sailor who purchased it in England and shipped it home disassembled in crates. The bike is completely original – talk about mint condition!
For a smaller car museum, there were a wide range of vehicles, many with local connections. I also appreciated the vintage Yellow Cab signage.
I enjoyed strolling down the museum’s “Main Street” as I made my way toward the train yard.
A large gallery had exhibitions on rail travel, including this diesel train cab, complete with working switchgear and instruments. I may or may not have gone in and pretended I was running a train along the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Similar to an air traffic controller at an airport, a train dispatch needed an effective way to keep track of trains as they traversed the rail system. This centralized traffic control board (known as a CTC) from 1945 represented a significant advance in how trains were managed – prior to this decisions were often made by train crews themselves, with limited knowledge of other trains’ locations. I love the sign at the top: “NO JOB IS SO IMPORTANT, NO SERVICE IS SO URGENT, THAT WE CANNOT TAKE THE TIME TO PERFORM OUR WORK SAFELY.” Words to live by.
I exited the building and headed outside into the museum’s rail yard.
The rail yard was filled with historic trains – I felt like a kid on Christmas morning! The #6 train was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, PA in 1897. It operated until 1955 – a lengthy service career for a steam engine!
With harsh afternoon lighting playing havoc with my camera’s metering system, I decided to have a little fun with giving these old-time trains an old-time look.
The most impressive, and imposing, train in the yard was 1218, built in 1943 by the Norfolk & Western Roanoke Shops. This behemoth, weighing 573,000 pounds, could travel at speeds up to 70 mph. During its career, it was the most powerful steam engine locomotive in the world.
Standing beside 1218, I felt very, very small. The 70″ diameter driver wheels were almost as tall as me. Producing nearly 5,400 horsepower, 1218 was nicknamed the “Mercedes of Steam.”
Owing to a Lionel train set I had as a kid, I have always been a fan of streamlined diesel-electric locomotives. 1009 is an example of the EMD E8, an engine built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The E8s were a rugged and reliable design, serving on some lines until the 1970s.
Another E8 was in a bit rougher condition. This example, #1002 of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac line, has been left exposed to the elements.
With its panels long since stripped, the train’s two massive V12 diesel engines are visible. Each engine has a 9,000-cubic inch displacement (the maximum combined volume of all the engine’s cylinders). For a point of comparison, my Honda Accord’s V6 engine has a displacement of 213 cubic inches. So… the train engine is a little bigger.
Several passenger cars sat exposed to the elements awaiting restoration. W. Graham Claytor Jr. was a former US Secretary of the Navy who served as president of the Southern Railway and Amtrak. He also helped to bring the Norfolk and Western Railways’ steam engines back to life, including the 1218 (via Wikipedia).
A fully-restored railway post car was open to visitors. Built in 1937 by the Bethlehem Steel Car Company in Wilmington, Delaware, the Norfolk & Western M1 Post Office car helped the US postal service deliver mail across the nation. In their heyday, such postal cars handled 93% of the nation’s long-distance mail deliveries.
A caboose was also open to visit. The caboose served as the crew’s quarters, and also provided a lookout station to monitor the train for any signs of damage or problems with cargo. As railroad equipment has improved in reliability, the caboose has gone the way of the dinosaur, with only a few in highly specialized use on freight trains.
Beside the rail depot were several horse-drawn carriages, such as this extended roof rockaway carriage. Such carriages would transport travelers from the train station to a more local destination.
After enjoying my tour through the museum, it was time to go collect my wife from the shops of downtown Roanoke and head to our next destination.
Our last night on the road would be spent at a lovely bed and breakfast, the Black Lantern Inn in Roanoke. The home was originally built over a century ago, and served as a doctor’s office, a multi-family home, and a private residence. It was renovated in the mid-2000s, and now is a charming B&B.
Not a bad place to spend a night after two weeks on the road!
Our hosts highly recommended Evie’s Bistro & Bakery, and so we headed over to give it a try for dinner. Once a local grocery store that had fallen into disrepair, the building was converted into a restaurant in the mid-1990s by Evie Edman. Since then, it has served over 28,000 cakes to the public, along with offering a menu of freshly made sandwiches, salads, soups, and entrees.
I’m glad we gave it a try! I dined on the Santa Cruz Quesadilla (shredded cheese, avocado, and tomato on a whole-wheat tortilla) and my wife had a BLT on gluten-free bread. We split a side of the red beans and rice, which was definitely the highlight of a very good meal. We gave it two Open Road Ahead thumbs up!
At sunset, we headed up to Mill Mountain Park. The park sits on a hill overlooking the city and surrounding countryside… not a bad way to end a night!
At Mill Mountain Park, high above the city, is the Mill Mountain Star. It was built in 1949 for the holiday season, intended to be dismantled after the New Year. However, it proved so popular that it has become a permanent fixture in Roanoke, lit almost every night of the year (via Roanoke Parks and Recreation). After a fun day, we turned in for the night. The next day would be our last on the road as we would return home. Day 15: Virginia to New Jersey
The final stretch of our epic road trip: a 7 hour drive from Virginia to New Jersey.
My wife and I awoke early, but Chris and Jayne, our hosts, already had breakfast ready for our departure. We sat on the deck, sipping our coffee, watching the sunrise.
This wasn’t a bad way to start the day either! With our coffee, we first enjoyed yoghurt parfait with fresh raspberries, along with a gluten-free cinnamon coffee cake. Our second course (!) was a fruit salad, served with a homemade breakfast sandwich. After a lovely meal, our tummies full, we packed up the HR-V, said goodbye to our hosts, and began the long drive home.
Looking at our atlas, my wife suggested we make a quick detour to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Running for almost 470 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches from North Carolina to Virginia, connecting Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park (via Wikipedia).
Our first stop was to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center at Explore Park. As the Parkway is a national park, we added another stamp to our National Parks Passport and picked up some souvenirs.
Similar to the Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains get their “blue” from volatile organic compounds released by trees on the mountainsides.
The parkway is dotted with several scenic overlooks, allowing drivers to easily pull over and take in the view.
After about an hour exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway, we took one last look before jumping on the interstate and beginning our trek home.
As we drove into northern Virginia, my wife suggested we make a fun stop for lunch. She selected Shenandoah Vineyards. Founded in 1976, this vineyard has been producing award-winning wines for the past four-and-a-half decades.
Not a bad view for a picnic!
We enjoyed a wine tasting to complement a picnic lunch provided to us by our hosts at the Black Lantern Inn. Hummus, fresh veggies, fruit, gluten-free crackers, and a glass of wine… it was a delicious way to take a break from the road!
Our route took us briefly through West Virginia.
We had an equally quick drive through central Maryland.
We then had a longer drive through Pennsylvania. A MUCH longer drive. Between traffic, road construction, and slow drivers, I-81 and I-78 in PA took close to four hours – at least an hour longer than our estimate.
Fun fact: there is no “Welcome to New Jersey” sign on I-78, so this sign pointing toward Newark, New Jersey, will have to do!
After two weeks on the road, with over 4,000 miles under our belts, we pulled the HR-V into the driveway… we were home! It was an unbelievable adventure, and we made the kinds of memories that will last a lifetime. Throughout it all, Mom’s HR-V was a trooper. I’ll have more to say in the conclusion, but for now… onward!! Gratitude
Before closing, I’d like to take a moment to thank all of the friends and family who helped us along the way, from those who opened their homes to us, to those who gave us tips and advice on our route, to those who sent us a well-timed text message, email, or phone call with a bit of encouragement. It all was greatly appreciated.
We’d like to add a special note of gratitude to my Mom, for lending us her 2021 Honda HR-V, Betty (pronounced BET-TEE), for the drive. Betty surprised us with her massive storage, easily swallowing all of our luggage. She was fuel efficient, going long distances between fill-ups and helping make the trip affordable. She proved sure-footed in inclement weather, while comfortably gobbling up the miles on the interstate.
Before returning the HR-V to my Mom, I took a morning to thoroughly clean and detail her car.
I popped the hood and removed two weeks of road grime, dead bugs, and dust. My biggest concern when we borrowed my Mom’s car was the small engine’s power – the 1.8-liter motor is geared toward fuel efficiency, and produces less than 150 horsepower. And while it will never be confused with a race car, we found that the car produces plenty of power. Not once were we ever left wishing we had a bigger motor, even while climbing mountain passes. Kudos to Honda for a well-made engine!
Next up: detailing the interior. It took some elbow grease, but two weeks of dirt, sand, and crumbs came out, leaving the car showroom fresh once again. The front seats were comfortable, the controls all fell easily to hand, and the entertainment system was easy to integrate with our cell phones. My only quibble was the size of the cupholders in the door – while the cupholders in the center console can hold almost any bottle or cup you throw at it, the door cupholders barely fit a small water bottle. It presented a challenge when we would, say, want to stow our water bottles when we kept our hot coffee from Starbucks (or Caribou!) in the center console. That’s maybe my only criticism, and we came up with some work-arounds.
The star of the show was the “Magic Seat.” Fold the rear seat down, and you have a flat load floor. The entire seat also folds upward if you need to fit a tall item that won’t clear the back tailgate, allowing you to store cargo up to four feet in height. The HR-V impressively hauled all of our gear, including a 40-quart plug-in cooler, three overnight bags, our backpacks, bags of food, and various other items.
After returning the HR-V, it felt good to be back in my Accord. However, I admit to feeling sentimental about Betty – she was a great road trip companion, and like a terrier that tirelessly accompanies its owner everywhere, the little HR-V was always up to tackle whatever challenge we threw its way. Wrapping Up
States Visited: NJ, PA, OH, IN, IL, WI, MN, IA, MO, TN, AR, MS, LA, AL, GA, VA, WV, MD
Total mileage: 4,319
Average fuel economy: 31.5 mpg
Fuel used: 135.6 gallons
Total fuel cost: $529.88
Average speed: 51 mph
Total hours of driving time: 84
Our Great American Road Trip of the Summer of 2022 was one of the most memorable vacations I have ever taken. From dinner beside Lake Erie, to exploring the otherworldliness of The House on the Rock, to photographing hummingbirds, to riding the Fenelon Place Elevator, to following the Mississippi Delta Blues Trail, to eating great food in New Orleans, to driving through beautiful mountains, the trip was the best of adventures.
Thank you for coming along on this special journey down the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.