The High & the Low

Road Rules

Why a great road trip is often all about the right pit stops

illustration: Michael Witte

I should begin (with apologies to Robert Frost) with the roads—and the road trips—that should not have been taken. The great majority of these were embarked upon during my college career in Washington, D.C., almost always in the company of my roommate Anne Flaherty, and invariably featured inappropriate departure times, insufficient funds, improper nourishment, and absolutely no preparation (not to mention the occasional substance or two that might prevent either one of us from ever running for public office if we inexplicably got the urge). Anne is one of those deceptively “nice” Irish Catholic girls from Boston who was eager to head South, where she had never been. I had learned to drive on the back roads of the Mississippi Delta at age twelve and had a fast car with five speeds and a sunroof. Together, we were an accident that—astonishingly—never happened.

We went home, for example, to my parents’ house for Christmas in a blizzard, having set off after dark armed only with a bottle of sherry, a can of smoked almonds, seven dollars, and Anne’s father’s Amoco credit card. We went to Kentucky to get a friend out of jail, a trip notable for the discovery of the Hardee’s breakfast biscuit, then in its infancy, and the fact that I had ingested enough of something or other to be convinced that the denizens of the West Virginia town where we stopped for beer and a bathroom had only one eye, in the center of their foreheads. “It’s really true what they say about these people,” I kept saying over and over to my already freaked-out traveling companions. “It must be what happens with all that inbreeding.”

Or not. It is, in fact, what happens to adolescents who grow up subscribing to the Rolling Stone of the Hunter Thompson era. To us, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was not a cautionary tale or even simply a screamingly funny read, but a guidebook we could not wait to get old enough to follow. If we had known how in the world to get our hands on some ether, a Thompson favorite, I feel sure we would have brought that too.

Thompson’s habits proved, over the long haul, to be his undoing. We managed to grow up (Anne is now an upright banker and I am godmother to her eldest son), but in what could best be described as baby steps. Once, when Anne was gassing up my increasingly road-ravaged automobile in preparation for yet another jaunt, the Iranian who owned our neighborhood station asked if she wanted him to check the brake fluid. When her answer was an irritated and uninterested “I guess,” the guy, a high-strung refugee from Khomeini’s “revolution,” went berserk. “You guess? You guess? You do not guess with your life.”

These days one of my more frequent road companions is John Alexander, an artist originally from Beaumont, Texas, who with his buddy Dan Aykroyd also makes a seriously good vodka called Crystal Head. They spend a lot of time in the Crystal Head Mobile, a fifty-five-foot-long diesel truck converted into a plush bus, crisscrossing the country to promote it, and John actually knew Hunter Thompson. Still, like mine, his treks are much tamer than they once were. For one thing, the contraband mostly consists of caffeine and a prudent allotment of ice-cold Bud, and dining and other cultural opportunities are far more important.

This past fall for such an excursion, we met in Memphis to follow a circuitous route to Oxford, where a show featuring John’s work was opening at the University of Mississippi Museum of Art. The first leg, from Memphis to my hometown of Greenville, is one of my favorite drives in the world, not least because of the names of the towns you blow by: Lula, Sledge, Sardis, Bobo, Alligator, Rena Lara. The first time we followed the Mississippi River down through the Delta together, we stopped at the Hollywood, a café just north of Tunica, Mississippi, which is justifiably famous for its fried dill pickle chips, insanely good burgers, and a BLT with fried green tomatoes named for my good friend Penn Owen. This time, I introduced John to the pleasures of the Blue and White, a landmark opened by Pure Oil in 1924 that was pretty much the only place to get anything to eat in all of Tunica County until the 1990s, when gambling transformed the place. John has for years divided his time between a loft in Soho and a house in the Hamptons, and you could tell he was a man deprived. In neither of his current homes is it possible to enjoy an all-you-can-eat plate lunch plus corn bread and tea for nine dollars, so he made two trips to the buffet, which on this particular day featured both fried pork chops and chicken and dumplings.

The evening stop was Greenville and dinner at the inimitable Doe’s Eat Place, followed by lunch the next day at Fratesi’s Grocery, on Highway 82 East in Leland. The clientele consists almost entirely of farmers, the decor features entertaining taxidermy including a stuffed bobcat with a squirrel in its mouth, and the menu boasts some of the world’s best fried chicken along with an unlikely (and surprisingly delicious) po’boy filled with fried olives.

Armed with several jars of Fratesi’s olive salad, we cut back over to Highway 61 and headed north. In Cleveland, a sign in front of a store called Da Spot (“Everything You Need to Keep You Covered”) forced us to pull in. The coverings turned out to be a tad on the skimpy side, but there were other creative gift shopping opportunities, including dangling earrings featuring various signs of the zodiac, and some scented oils with names highly unsuitable for inclusion in a family magazine.

Ironically, it was after we came to a halt in Oxford for a couple of days that things became a blur. I inevitably lapse back into my crazy coed phase when I am there, but I do remember a few things: The museum show was beautifully hung, our friends Tom and Dorothy Howorth had a swell party after the opening, and there was a football game that Ole Miss naturally lost but where I met the former Miss America Phyllis George, on whom I’d had a girl crush the year she won. When it came time to leave, I headed south to New Orleans and John headed north to catch his plane in Memphis. Unlike me, he knew it would be his last chance for good eating until his next Southern road trip, so he asked the fellow driving him to stop off for one last meal. When they walked into Betty Davis’s BBQ on Highway 7, Betty herself was behind the counter. “What kind you got?” John asked, already wondering whether to go for the chicken or maybe some ribs. “Large and small” was the answer, and it was pulled pork, period, on a bun. Two days later, he was still rhapsodizing about the “hands down” best barbecue he’d ever had. I reminded him that it took the road to find it.