New Jersey to Texas – So Much to See, So Little Time
By Maureen C. Bruschi
My husband and I left New Jersey with a simple plan. Drive to Harker Heights, Texas, visit my son and his wife and return home.
The only problem was that between New Jersey and Texas are way too many cities and towns with attractions, historic sites and wonderful places to eat.
We enjoyed everything from the rock and roll magic of Elvis in Memphis to remembering the Alamo in San Antonio. And sadly we saw the harsher side of life including the damage done by floods and the wreckage left in the wake of a tornado.
If you’re planning a long car trip, a little upfront preparation is essential. Plan your route and pick out key sites and events you would like to visit. Armed with reliable maps and guide books, a GPS system you can count on, and an understanding that flexibility is a key ingredient for a successful trip, you’re ready to hit the road.
The Journey Begins
We started our journey with a goal. Our first night was to make it to Knoxville, Tennessee. Off we headed to neighboring Pennsylvania where we picked up I-81 that took us through Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.
Crossing over into Tennessee we witnessed the remains of a small town hit by a tornado. Topless homes and trees swaying helplessly in all directions dotted the landscape. Television’s tornado coverage doesn’t come close to seeing the devastation first hand.
We never had a problem finding places to stay overnight. We pulled over at a Hampton Inn in Dandridge, Tennessee, about 30 miles east of Knoxville our first evening. Locals recommended dinner at Angelos’ At The Point Restaurant, overlooking the Douglas River. We dined on reasonably priced salmon and homemade soups followed by an after-dinner walk on the dock alongside the lake.
The next morning we took a quick side trip to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before heading to Alabama. We stopped in Birmingham and stretched our legs along tree-lined 20th street where we discovered gourmet soups, salads, and sandwiches on freshly baked bread at the Brick & Tin. Located in a century-old building, Brick & Tin uses locally grown organic produce.
If you want something light to nibble on, Brick & Tin offers “snacks,” including deviled eggs with shaved Tennessee country ham for $3.00.
Mudbugs and Floods
After lunch, we passed through Tuscaloosa and cautiously crossed the I-20 bridge over the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, Mississippi, into Louisiana. Recent heavy flooding in Vicksburg caused the Mississippi River to rise to within five feet of the bridge, a first according to local newspapers.
We stayed overnight in Tallulah, Louisiana where we experienced local cooking at the Red Top Grill. My husband ordered fresh Louisiana crawfish (aka mudbugs) and listened carefully as our waitress Sarah explained how to remove the tail meat and suck out the juices.
We made it to Harker Heights, Texas in three days. My son is in the army and he and his wife gave us a grand tour of Fort Hood. We visited the 1st Cavalry Division Museum which includes a gallery that traces the beginnings of the horse soldier regiments to the formation of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1921.
We also wandered through galleries that explained the 1st Cavalry Division’s role in national and world events including World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. An outdoor Historical Vehicles Exhibit displays various military vehicles used by the cavalry in its missions.
Using Harker Heights as our base, the four of us headed south to Austin. In keeping with their “keep Austin weird” theme, we decided to try Shady Grove, a local favorite, for lunch. The Shady Grove has all the trappings of the 1960s, including a “hippie trailer” where you can relax while you wait for your table.
Try their Hippie Sandwich, a delicious mix of grilled eggplant, squash, zucchini, oven-roasted bell peppers, mushrooms, arugula, tomato, and mozzarella cheese, served on Hippie Bread with pesto mayonnaise, and you’ll fit right in with the natives.
Less than a mile away from the Shady Grove, we discovered a fun way to appreciate sculpture at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum. The Umlauf displays works of 20th-century American sculptor Charles Umlauf and his contemporaries in a relaxed, natural garden setting.
We spent most of our time in the outdoor gardens listening to birds and waterfalls and strolling by unique sculptures strategically placed around ponds and bridges.
All the Way With LBJ
Before leaving Austin, we stopped off at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, located on the campus of the University of Texas. Here you’ll find historical documents, photos, and recordings of the Johnson Administration, including a replica of the Oval Office, The First Lady’s Gallery and Head of State Gifts presented to the President from around the world.
We ended a busy day with dinner at the Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill within walking distance of downtown Austin. If you visit and you’re hungry you won’t be disappointed if you try their Broiled Rainbow Trout with Corn Bread Stuffing or Buffalo Meatloaf.
The next day we relaxed in the Village of Salado, located between Waco and Austin. Salado was originally a stop for stagecoaches and was home to Salado College, the first coeducational college in Texas. Today, you’ll find historic homes and buildings as well as over 50 antique, specialty, clothing and home décor shops and 10 art galleries.
We shopped along North Main Street, enjoyed a quiet lunch at Brownings Courtyard Café, and ended the afternoon with a wine tasting treat at Salado Creek Winery and Vineyard.
Remember the Alamo
Up next were San Antonio and the Alamo. The Alamo today is far different from the Alamo in 1836. Walls, barracks and Alamo headquarters that existed over a century ago are gone. But you can visit The Shrine, dedicated to those who died at The Alamo, as well as exhibits, the Alamo Gardens, and courtyards.
Across from the Alamo, you’ll find the River Walk one story below street level. Wander past restaurants, galleries, shops, waterfalls, quiet pools and outdoor art along the downtown River Walk which winds along the San Antonio River.
If you’re visiting the River Walk at dinner time, you might want to try Michelinos Italian Restaurant. We enjoyed their Family Angel Hair Pomodoro and Farfalle Gorgonzola as we relaxed with a wonderful view of the River Walk.
The Kennedy Tragedy
After a week in central Texas, we were ready to head home. First stop was The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. What we had viewed on television and in newspapers and books over the years about that fateful day suddenly came to life.
The museum was crowded, but quiet as folks respectfully wandered through the exhibits glancing at films, photographs and artifacts of Kennedy’s life, including his presidential campaign, presidency, and events leading up to November 22, 1963.
You can examine the corner of the room on the sixth floor of the former school book depository building where Oswald hid behind a stack of books as he shot the President.
The area overlooking the President’s final motorcade route remains the same as it did on that tragic day.
After staying overnight in Sulphur Springs in northeastern Texas, we headed for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Here you’ll see everything from President Clinton’s early years to his life in the White House. One of the glass cases displays five of his favorite saxophones.
If you get a chance to visit, don’t miss replicas of the White House Cabinet Room and the Oval Office as they appeared during his years in office.
Interactive stations and videos provide visitors with extra levels of detail and information about the Clinton years. You can grab a bite to eat at “Forty-Two.” (The café is a little pricey for lunch or snacks but the food is excellent.)
The King Lives On
We switched gears from history and politics to music as we headed to Memphis, Tennessee and Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Somehow I didn’t expect to find Graceland located on a busy road dotted with souvenir shops, mini-malls and fast food chains.
However, the fenced-in mansion surpassed all my expectations. It was definitely 1950’s Elvis. Roam from room to room on the mansion tour with Elvis’ songs rockin’ in the background.
You can listen to a recording that explains the history of each of the rooms including a peek into the white leather couched living room and the music room where you’ll see a piano framed by an entryway of stained glass blue peacocks.
Elvis’ portrait hangs on the stairway wall leading up to the second floor, off-limits to visitors. Across from the living room, you’ll pass through the dining room overshadowed by a massive Italian glass chandelier towering over the ornately set dining room table. The table sits on a black marble floor surrounded by a white carpet.
The tour of the main house continues through the kitchen, a media/TV room, a billiards room, and an Elvis decorated “jungle room.” His trophy building, racquetball building, a swimming pool, and stables are just a few of the luxuries Elvis enjoyed at Graceland that you can explore.
At the end of the tour, visitors exited through The Meditation Garden, one of Elvis’ favorite places to reflect and contemplate. Today the Meditation Garden is the final resting place for Elvis, his parents, and his paternal grandmother.
For those visitors who just can’t get enough of the King, they can also tour his automobile museum; two jets; and fashion, pop culture and newsmaking story exhibits.
There are at least 6 souvenir shops in the area and Elvis Presley‘s Heartbreak Hotel beckons weary guests. We ended our tour with lunch at the Rock-N-Roll Café where you can get a Hunka Hunka Burnin” Burger or Elvis’s favorite Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich.
The Grand Ole Opry Swings
After feasting on the sounds of rock-n-roll at Graceland, we hopped back in the car and headed to Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music. The Grand Ole Opry first started out on radio station WSM. As the show’s popularity increased, the Opry outgrew a number of venues.
In 1943, the Grand Ole Opry finally settled at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville where it stayed for 31 years. In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located nine miles east of downtown Nashville.
If you’re visiting Nashville, enjoy a historic tour of Ryman Auditorium where many of the legends spent most of their Opry careers. Explore the history of Ryman Auditorium including clothing displays from the 1940s-1950s, an exhibit featuring Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and displays examining the history of Texas Swing, Bluegrass and Honky Tonk music.
When our journey was over, we had traveled over 3,800 miles in 13 days. We discovered a bit of our country’s history, listened to a little rock-n-roll and country music, and regrettably witnessed the destruction caused by tornados and floods. Makes you appreciate the simple things in life.
Angelos’ At the Point, Dandridge www.angelosatthepoint.com
Brick & Tin, Birmingham www.brickandtin.com
Red Top Grill, Tallulah, (318) 574-0789
Fort Hood www.hood.army.mil/ 1st Cavalry Division Museum www.hood.army.mil/1stcavdiv/1cdmuseum
Shady Grove Restaurant www.theshadygrove.com
Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill www.moonshinegrill.com
Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum www.umlaufsculpture.org
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum www.lbjlibrary.org
Browning Courtyard Café, 4 Salado Square, Main Street, Salado
Salado Creek Winery & Vineyard, 227 North Main Street, Salado, Texas 76571
Maureen Bruschi, a freelance travel writer, and photographer from Hunterdon County, New Jersey, has written articles for a number of publications including BootsnAll Travel, TravelLady Magazine, Offbeat Travel, 40plus Travel and Leisure, Lovin’ Life After 50, Real Travel Adventures, 50plus, Sympatico.CA Travel, Travel Post Monthly, Budget Travel.com blog, The Writer and Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing.