We’re safely back from St Louis, but not without various excitements.
The excitements began on Tuesday night, when we drove halfway up Mississippi and spent the night in a Super 8 Motel in Durant. You should know the following: that the “Super” part of the motel’s name is, perhaps, an over-statement of its charms; that if you want to stay somewhere just off I-55 in central Mississippi you should opt for Grenada (pronounced like the grenade you throw, rather than its namesake in old Andalusia), for reasons I’ll go into in a moment; and that if you decide, against your better judgment, to spend your honeymoon night in said Super 8 in Durant, Mississippi, you can book a special honeymoon room with a circular, four-poster, faux-leopard-skin-covered bed. (We saw it through the window. Really.)
I took some photos at the Super 8, because I realized that I’ve stayed in more motels in Mississippi than in any other state of the union – in Oxford (twice), Jackson, Sardis (twice), Grenada, Vicksburg, and now Durant, not counting a hotel in Biloxi years ago – and most of them were Super 8s. They all look like this, more or less:
Because the traffic leaving New Orleans was terrible, we didn’t arrive until around 8:30 PM. Where could we get some dinner? The Pizza Inn, the motel manager advised, but he urged us to hurry – it would be closing at 9 PM. So we unpacked quickly and drove the mile or so into “downtown” Durant, which is essentially a T-junction, and discovered that the restaurant recommended was an Express Pizza Inn in the gas station. In other words, it’s a place where you walk into the gas station, wend your way past the beef jerky and patriotic fridge magnet displays, pay to have something microwaved and shoved into a paper bag, and then eat it in your car.
Call me old-fashioned, but I didn’t really want to buy my dinner at a gas station. Not when we could make the 20-mile round trip to Lexington, on the other side of the highway, and enjoy its state of total darkness, its creepy-looking prison facility, and its Sonic drive-in.
When I was growing up in New Zealand and in thrall to the TV show Happy Days, believing it to be a faithful approximation of life in America, I thought that drive-ins were incredibly glamorous and exciting, staffed by roller-skating waitresses and frequented by high-spirited, letter-jacket-wearing youngsters. It’s not really like that in real life, especially not in 2007 at the Sonic in Lexington, Mississippi. You have to order by speaking into the machine, as you do in a regular drive-through, and if you have a foreign accent, as I have, the person taking the order will not understand a word you’re saying.
She will, in fact, ask: “Say what?” She will do this more than once, until your impatient husband, thinking of the ten-mile drive to get home, will lean over you and shout the order into the speaker. Except he will get the order wrong, so you have to contradict him, and then everyone is even more confused. Eventually, after menacing SUVs with dark-tinted windows pull up alongside you, and everyone else (all in SUVs) gets their food delivered before you do by a serve-person who drifts from car to car as though she is dreamily wandering through a daffodil-filled meadow, and you grow a little tired of listening to the music of the 80s, 90s and Today that’s blasting across the concourse, a small, soggy bag of food is delivered, and you can drive back to the Super 8 in Durant and eat it before it congeals.
This is why I recommend staying in Grenada, where there’s an ACTUAL Pizza Inn, as well as numerous fast-food places, including the best McDonald’s anywhere in the USA. Really. It’s like their flagship store: interactive video games for children, WiFi, smiling and helpful staff, a broad counter where you can sit and read the provided newspaper (the Something or Other Clarion, but still); hot food; an efficient drive-through; and the kind of multi-generational, multi-racial clientele that makes you feel you’ve walked into a commercial shoot. This may not seem like a big deal to people who go to McDonald’s in other countries, but in the US the standards vary a great deal. The worse one of all is on the corner of St Charles and Louisiana here in New Orleans, where people have to get out of their cars and go looking for someone in order to place a drive-through order, and after waiting forty-five minutes in line on a wet night, you get told that the menu has been reduced, all of a sudden, to four items, none of which you ordered.
Donna Tartt grew up in Grenada, and Trent Lott was born there. Of course, we could have stayed in nearby Kosciusko, the birthplace of Oprah, but it’s quite a way from the highway.
By the way, in case you get carried away by the description above and decide to move to Grenada, read this first, about Grenada’s past as a “segregation stronghold.”
On the way back from St Louis yesterday – an eleven-hour trip, during which it rained the whole time – we stopped for lunch in Batesville, Mississippi. Because it was T. Middy’s birthday, I wanted him to have a special treat. And what could be more special than lunch at Cracker Barrel?
(I have a Cracker Barrel map of the US in the car, so we can plan our pit stops wisely. We like to eat at places where The Flag is visible at all times.)
And speaking of the car … I knew that WE hated the long, dull drive up to St Louis. We’re always discussing: which is worse? The endlessness of Mississippi? The predictable-but-still-annoying congestion just before you cross the river in Memphis? That soul-sucking hour crossing the flat NE corner of Arkansas? The hours still to go through the character-free flood plains of eastern Missouri, where the services are spaced fifty miles apart?
But we didn’t know that our car hated it as well. And that after driving last Wednesday evening into a frigid, wind-swept St Louis, the car had no intention of making the return trip. We bought Goldie (as we called the car, even though it was, frankly, more beige than gold) in St Louis, on a ferociously hot day in 2002, the day before we moved to Iowa. We didn’t realize that Goldie was waiting for an opportunity to return home for good. On Thanksgiving morning, we managed to get it started and to drive it – the car shuddering, spewing foul exhaust, and cutting out at stop lights – to our niece’s place in Wentzville. But that was as far as Goldie intended going. Various of T. Middy’s family members, who know about cars and engines (and the things T. Middy should know but doesn’t because he’s too busy reading the Atlantic, struggling through books by William Gass, and downloading Bob Dylan albums onto his Nano) made dire predictions, involving the word “gasket” and sums greater than a thousand dollars. This is a week after we spent $400 fixing Goldie’s brakes. At some point – namely, after driving 90,000 miles in it over five years – it’s time to get a new car. Much as we loved Goldie’s unique features, e.g. manual locking, roll-up windows, AM/FM radio, inability to stay in third gear, and 150,000 mileage, we decided to wave goodbye.
We drove home yesterday in a 2004 VW Jetta (Otto von Bismarck, or the Gray Baron – though Bismarck himself was a Count: whatever!) with leather seats that heat up – not that we will need heated seats in Louisiana on more than two days in a given year. But the new car is sturdy and speedy, and once we strip it of all the Dean Team paraphernalia plastered over it by the dealer, it will look smart. We have loaded its trunk with our hurricane-preparedness kit, ie a flashlight.
Soon we may learn how to use central locking. We need to take it one step at a time.
Because of the car fiasco, which involved renting a car for two days, and spending hours at various dealerships pretending to know how to negotiate, we had c. three hours on Saturday afternoon to finish all our Christmas shopping for the T. Middy clan. My blithe predictions that I would be in a mall on Friday afternoon with the rest of America was wrong: I was test-driving a Honda Fit instead.
The cats who are not ours seemed pleased to see us this morning, but really, I think they are treating this place like a hotel. Or at least an outdoor restaurant.