Friday, November 30, 2007

Chicago-St Louis-Memphis-New Orleans-Houston

We had a wonderful time seeing a little more of this rather large country. We had been invited to Houston, Texas to spend thanksgiving with Rowan and Shirley (my brother and sister in law) and Shirley’s family… or we invited ourselves, can’t quite recall. 

Instead of flying both directions, we thought it would be a great opportunity to include some side trips along the way. A brief amount of planning, a couple of guide books, a GPS box and a hire car saw us depart on Saturday 17th November – bound for Saint Louis, Missouri. Driving through Illinois, we truly understood why this state is known as the ‘prairie state’: very little topography, not a lot of vegetation (unless one counts corn fields), and seemingly endless expanses of land. 

We booked the Adams Mark hotel in St Louis ahead, overlooking the rather lengthy titled Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. This was a lovely hotel with a great buffet breakfast. Each of the hotels we stayed at along the way, made the mistake of allowing the boys to eat free at the buffet breakfast… little knowing that the Gearon boys (although only 2 and 3 years of age), can make a serious dent on a buffet serving unlimited scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, bacon and lots of fresh fruit – their favourite foods. 

The ‘big arch’ in St Louis is truly remarkable and timeless. A true ‘folly’, this piece is the defining monument in St Louis and is of gigantic scale – it is very hard to capture the enormity of it in a photograph. I applaud the construction of these monuments – extremely contentious and hugely expensive, but really able to give a city some presence and focus (think Eiffel Tower, Paris: Guggenheim Museum, Bibao).  We took the boys to the top of this in a rather cramped gondola/ tram/ ferris wheel type conveyor. The views were far but flat, yet we were able to witness the grandeur of the mighty Mississippi River below. 

From St Louis we travelled to Memphis, Tennessee. We tried to get off the interstate highways for a little while to see some smaller towns and to get a feel for the land. The interstate system throughout America is a very comprehensive network of roads, interchanges, looping connections, overpasses and merging lanes. We thanked the GPS system a hundred times over for guiding us through this maze, which can be somewhat daunting to the uninitiated, but extremely efficient to the well-versed or direction-loaded driver. The system ensures one can drive through several states without ever having to reach an intersection.  All amenities (with mostly chain restaurants / fast food joints) are located at regular intervals and the traffic volumes ensure these are well patronised. 

We checked into the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. This was out of our price range, but had been well recommended by Paul’s parents, the online guides we referred to, and my much trusted Lonely Planet guide. This hotel is huge, long established and of an opulent nature. The most oddly defining feature is a daily parade of ducks from their rooftop home, down an elevator, through the hotel lobby and into the lobby fountain at 11am each day, with a return journey at 5pm. This is a well-publicised event and hoards of people turn up each day to witness it. A ‘Duck master’ provides a description of the event, rolls out a red carpet and then escorts the ducks to the fountain. Duck motifs proliferate in this hotel. Another feature of this hotel is really comfortable beds. So comfortable that they have a mail-order service to provide these, and their signature linen, to satisfied guests. 

While in Memphis, we debated visiting Graceland (Elvis’s home). It was not necessarily high on our agenda… but we were there... so why not. We had told Luc that we were going to Elvis’s home. Luc has had some experience with Elvis, having heard his songs on the Lilo & Stich soundtrack and on our own ‘kids mix’ that we play at home. As we stood in line to buy tickets for the Mansion tour, Luc asked me “Does Elvis live here?” I replied “No honey, Elvis died. He doesn’t live here now” I’m sure their would have been a dozen people nearby that would have disagreed with me, but this didn’t stop Luc’s face falling “He died?!” Not that Luc really understands death yet, but he was shocked. Later in the tour, a line of people were waiting to pay their respects at Elvis’s grave. Luc wanted to know why the people were all standing in a line. Paul explained to Luc that this is where Elvis had been buried. Luc immediately wanted to go and “dig Elvis out of the garden”. A fascination with death, burial and resurrection was born!

From Memphis, we headed towards New Orleans, Louisiana, passing through the state of Mississippi (known as the ‘poorest state’ in the Union). 

Reaching Louisiana (the second poorest state), it was sad to see ‘Casinos’ appear as readily as gas stations and fast food outlets. These were not in the ‘Casino’ status that I have come to expect of Australia’s high-end and pretentious casinos, or Las Vegas’ embracing and exuberant casinos, but dirty looking pre-fab buildings, located road-side and often tacked on to gas stations or seedy diners. We figured that a road journey to a Louisianan must include a gas, food and gamble stop. It was rather disheartening. 

We checked into our ultra-luxuriant hotel Le Pavillon and wondered if we had checked into the right place. All marble, chandeliers, plush upholstered furniture, artworks and a bourgeois French appeal, the grotty travellers and two young boys seemed somewhat out of place! When we found out the hotel provided complimentary p&j sandwiches and piping hot chocolate from 10 to 11pm every night, we realised we had, indeed, checked into the right place ;-)  The boys took advantage of the rooftop spa and pool the next day (although only Paul braved the unheated pool). 

New Orleans has a skeleton of a really happening place. We could see it in the vibrancy and pride of the locals, the sheer volume and breadth of good places to dine and listen to music, and a huge focus on shopping and fine art. (Hurricane) Katrina obviously had a huge impact upon this poor city, as these options are largely relegated to the touristy French Quarter, while the rest of the city remains somewhat destitute. There is an eyrie quietness to the shuttered up businesses, and ‘for lease’ signs proliferate. An implied air of desperation lingers and we were strongly advised to keep away from certain quarters (due to muggings and street violence – even in broad daylight), and advised to catch a taxi when we went out one night (even though we were only traveling several blocks). The St Charles streetcar had just lengthened its route the week we had arrived and this was obviously a huge psychological hurdle cleared. New Orleans once survived on the trade that conferences brought in. Katrina helped destroy many accommodation options and the city has had a hard time reestablishing itself as a destination city.   

Luc’s fascination with death and burial was fed with a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery No 1. The defining feature of New Orleans cemeteries is that they are all above ground – as the city is below sea level, graves fill with water and bodies can be washed away in storm events. Cemeteries are therefore filled with family crypts and vaults. Bodies are ‘repackaged’ after two years, into more compact bags, and therefore these ‘burial grounds’ have large capacities. 

The Garden District is truly beautiful with some magnificent homes. Paul and I were reminded a little of Brisbane, with the lush vegetation and sub-tropical feel of the place. We could only imagine how stinking hot the place must get in the height of summer. We both agreed that we would love to spend some more time in this magical and exotic place – quite unlike anything else we have witnessed in the States (it felt like we had travelled to another country). 

Our last days drive on Wednesday (21st) included driving right across Louisiana into Houston, Texas. Our approach to Texas saw us driving into some ominous storms which we managed to beat – thankfully. The storms brought with them some cooler and rainy weather – a little unseasonal and not at all what we had been hoping for!  Houston is all wide roads and strip malls. Accusations abound as to Houston’s lack of a ‘heart’. I sure wouldn’t want to be a tourist without a car in this city. Despite it being against all my urban design principles about what constitutes a good city, Rowan and Shirley were able to show us some really interesting places and give a bit of history and context to the spread-out city. I will have to write more about this at a later stage… 

Photo: the boys at the Downtown Aquarium, Houston. Looking up from underneath a fishtank

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