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The Many Surprising Things I Learned (& Ate) on My Long Drive South

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In October, while I was on a trip in southern Mexico, reporting on the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, my grandfather had a stroke. About a week later he was dead. Because I was still waiting on my Mexican residency permit and couldn’t leave the country without permission from the immigration office, I didn’t make it home to Baltimore in time to see him. He’d slipped toward death with unusual speed. He was a wonderful man, but never a patient one.

He left behind a dinged up 12-year-old Toyota Highlander, which my grandmother offered, very generously, to give me. This, I figured, might be my best chance to populate my new home in Mexico City with the detritus of my previous ones; I guess this is what you call settling down. So in the first week of January, I packed my things into my grandfather’s truck—a cargo heavy with over-determined symbols—and started the long drive south from my parents’ place in Baltimore to Mexico City, where I’d moved about 18 months before after just shy of five years living in India. Friends in Mexico told me this was the most American thing they’d ever heard, both sentimental and cinematic, which they did not seem to mean as an insult. A friend in Los Angeles said the whole thing sounded like a post–Almost Famous Cameron Crowe movie, which I took as an insult whether he meant it that way or not.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Skirting the eastern edge of the Appalachians, I stopped in Damascus, Virginia, where I feasted on wild venison and farm-raised vegetables, prepared by excessively generous friends of friends of a friend, and fired a crossbow for the first time.

I stopped outside Asheville for breakfast at a place called Hickory Nut Gap Farm and when I asked if getting sausage and sausage gravy was too much, the woman behind the counter said, “Absolutely—but you should go for it.” (I did. It was too much. It was great.)

In Atlanta I was moved by the Buford Highway Farmers Market, where that foundational American myth, the Melting Pot, manifests unexpectedly in the beautiful banality of a grocery store, its aisles divided by region and country, each one populated by people from everywhere.

In Oxford, Mississippi, I visited Faulkner’s leaf-strewn grave and, at chef Vish Bhatt’s Snackbar, ate one of the best restaurant dishes I’ve eaten in recent memory: collard-wrapped catfish griddled crisp and served under a drizzle of curry leaf-butter, a perfect Keralite pollichattu rendered in the flavors of the Deep South (Asha Gomez would adore it). The dish was a one-two punch of Proustian nostalgia and total surprise; it tasted like India—like home—and like the American South, a foreign country.

Janet's Mexican Pork Tamales

Janet's Mexican Pork Tamales by Anna Francese Gass

Shane's Fried Chicken

Shane's Fried Chicken by Shane Mitchell

I ate hot tamales smothered in chile and a physics-defying lemon meringue pie in the Delta.

I ate thin fried fish, crunchy as chicharrón, at a seafood joint called Middendorf’s on the edge of Lake Maurepas.

In New Orleans, where a friend and colleague from Mexico City, Felipe Luna, met me for the rest of the drive south, we ate po’boys that were basically banh mi, goat cheese–stuffed King Cake, hulking free happy-hour oysters, and drank a half-dozen frozen Irish coffees despite the weirdly frigid weather.

In a place called Donner, we stopped at Chester’s Cypress Inn for shatteringly crisp fried chicken, frog legs, and gizzards, and took directions from a guy who told us that Whiskey River Landing in Henderson, Louisiana was the place to be for live zydeco and dancing on a Sunday evening.

Leaving Donner, we followed a road that ran parallel to the Atchafalaya River. We must have driven past the bar three or four times before realizing that, to get there, we’d have to drive up over the levee that separated us from the gray, moss-dripping swamp on the other side, framed in Whiskey River’s windows like a Dalí: miniature and strange and vaguely sinister.

Whiskey River is essentially a plywood box built out over the bayou and might well be, based on what little I’ve seen, the most perfect bar in the U.S. Couples spun across the dancefloor, like tall, angular Jody and her serious, pint-sized dance partner, evidently—at least to me, the visiting homosexual—the resident queer person (think Truman Capote at the rodeo); like lovely, radiant Kimberley and her bear-like boyfriend, who moved more gracefully than anyone else there. Smoking was allowed inside and beer was somehow both cheap and good. Every time a customer left a tip, the bartender rang a bell. Whiskey River adds a lot of wings to heaven.

Standing at the edge of the dance floor—the Mexican and the Gay, surely the setup for some kind of joke—Felipe and I were approached by a guy in a camo hat and cowboy boots. I flinched and slouched onto a stool, weakened by the weight of my mid-Atlantic suspicions, made heavier by my years in India, where my sexual orientation was, at least in theory, punishable with jail time.

He asked where we’d come in from.

I said Baltimore.

“That far?” he wondered.

Felipe answered, “Mexico City.”

He looked at us incredulously and asked, “Where in the hell is that?” Felipe explained. The guy in the hat flashed a smile and nodded, said it was cool for us to have come so far, and told us to have a good night and a safe trip. I stood up from my stool, happy and a little ashamed, and thanked him.

The Tiny Mexico City Street Where One Family Runs Every Eatery

The Tiny Mexico City Street Where One Family Runs Every E... by Brooke Porter Katz

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Searching for Home in Aunt Mariah’s Recipe Box

Searching for Home in Aunt Mariah’s Recipe Box by EmilyNunn

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The whole night was like that, punctuated by clichés that turned in on themselves as they played out to the tune of accordions and stomping feet. Clichés like my ugly gut reaction to the guy in the camo hat, and the surprise that none of us ended up being the punchline of his joke. Clichés like Kimberley and her impossibly graceful boyfriend, the very picture of a former high school romance well on its way to happily ever after. Surprises like the only time all night that he stepped away from her, only to take our Cowboy Capote in his burly arms and swing him gorgeously over the floorboards.

Bells were ringing left, right, and center. It was, Felipe said, the sort of place that could make you believe in Hollywood love stories, sentimentality and all.

As soon as we left the bayou, Mexico emerged on the horizon, like the plains laid out below the crest of a hill. It was there in Houston’s taco trucks (though not in the ice storm that we brought in from the east), in the big flat expanse of East Texas, and, when the weather cleared, in the hot bright sun that bore down on us like a flashlight.

Even still, Felipe and I both heaved sighs of relief as soon as we entered Laredo. After days of silent towns without a soul in sight, of houses shuttered against gray skies and cars sealed tight as though pedestrianism were an airborne contagion, it was a joy to be in a place where families—some white, mostly Latinx—filled the streets, where speakers blared banda, where evening brought everyone out for beer and food and conversation about adolescent nights across the border in Nuevo Laredo and how rapidly things had changed there in the last decade, courtesy of the drug war—not, it goes without saying, for the better. It felt good to be in a place where life took place in public rather than behind closed doors. It felt like the world coming out of hibernation.

We left Laredo at dawn the next morning. Entering Mexico, a border agent inspected the car and my paperwork and, seeing that the vehicle was registered in my name, eyed me as incredulously as the guy at Whiskey River. She declared everything "muy legal" before waving us through. It was embarrassingly easy given the horror of crossing the other way.

We drove over the deep concrete trough that cradled the slow-moving Rio Grande, which, at least in the dry chilly winter, wasn’t very grande at all. Like most land crossings, it was, culturally and geographically, if not politically, a formality. Mexico had begun many miles earlier and the U.S., with its malls and guns and sun-blitzed industrial optimism, wouldn’t end until many miles later.

Far From Home, the Dulce de Leche Cake I Didn't Know I Was Looking For
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Far From Home, the Dulce de Leche Cake I Didn't Know I Was Looking For

When people write about planes, they write about how flying truncates distance, but almost never about how it invests borders with meaning they don’t, or shouldn’t, have. Flying makes travel an event, as sudden and dislocating as moving to a new city or the death of a person you love.

Driving gives time physical features, makes it legible, not as a unit of currency, broken into hard, discrete coins, but as a rate of change, gradual rather than seismic. When you travel by land, arrival happens in gradients, in brands of beer and the texture of frying batter and subtle shifts in the light. Time and place, home and away, exist on continua, connected by the pulse of white lines on asphalt, not divided by borders.

Three days after leaving Laredo we reached Mexico City, driving in over the volcanoes as a heavy storm cloud opened and showered us with a spasm of unseasonable, unexpected hail—the same bad weather I’d brought from Baltimore down through New Orleans and Houston. The sun went down and the lights came up in the valley and I was surprised, as I always am, by how good it felt to be home, wherever the hell that might be.

Tags: Travel