Pluff Mud Chronicles: Road trips of youth and other adventures
By Prioleau Alexander and Charles W. Waring III
Participating in the proverbial “road trip” has long been a tradition of both high school and college students and serves as a wellspring of endless stories which grow bigger with each passing year. It is possible the tradition goes back to the earliest of days, when young Ugh and Grunt would leave the cave each spring and embark on a journey filled with chewing loco weed, saber-tooth tiger tag, and Wooley Mammoth tipping.
My first big road trip was just John Walters and myself. Spring break arrived, and we walked directly to my pre-packed Toyota Corolla, and drove to the grocery store at South Windermere to load up on supplies. The girl’s PE coach, Cherry Daniel, saw our selection of supplies, and barked at the cashier, “Don’t sell them that. They aren’t old enough.”
To the great disappointment of Coach Daniel, we were both 18, and had the IDs to prove it.
Our destination was Key Largo for a few days of SCUBA diving in the crystal-clear waters of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. For those unaware, Key Largo is a very, very long way from Charleston, especially in a 4-speed compact car with no air-conditioning. Based on the vehicles available to us, we agreed the Corolla was the option mostly likely to get us there alive.
After 12 hours on the road, we arrived in Key Largo and found a fleabag motel. The following morning, we arrived at the closest dive shop, and advised them of our intentions to utilize their dive boat services. The owner looked at us like we were insane.
“Look out the window,” he said. “You see those palm trees swaying? That would indicate the wind is blowing about 20 knots, which stirs up the ocean, which spins up the sand, which means the visibility will be about two feet. There won’t be any diving for a week.”
We advised him this was not possible, because we’d just driven 12 hours from Charleston.
“Who the hell drives 12 hours to the Keys without checking the weather?” he asked.
Who, indeed? John and I seethed at each other, sure it was the other one’s fault.
No matter what, we still had six days of spring break, and there was no way we were going to drive home without breathing some compressed air. After a short discussion, during which we both agreed we hated each other, we decided to drive up Florida’s west coast to Crystal River. I remember the drive well, because it was the day President Reagan was shot, and we switched radio channels endlessly to hear the latest news.
We enjoyed multiple dives in multiple springs, and a victorious road trip was snatched from the jaws of defeat.
My next road trip of significance occurred a year later, when as a freshman at Auburn I received a call from Al Phillips, who informed me he was driving from Clemson to UGA to pick our up our mutual friend, the Lowcountry legend Richard Coen. After that extraction, he was headed to Auburn, where he’d pick me up … and we were headed to Mardi Gras.
This sounded like the worst idea in the 19-years of my life, so I told him to hurry up. I asked my roommate Rob Adams if he wanted to come, and he agreed immediately. I asked a frat brother, David Toomey, if he was interested, and he said not only yes, but he had a place we could stay.
It goes without saying we hadn’t considered where we might stay.
With the five of us packed into Al’s station wagon, we headed south, into a place no responsible adult should go. Yes, 19-year-old idiots should go there, but not sane adults.
With the exception of the Running of the Bulls in Spain, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the most debaucherousplace on earth. If you look down through the manhole covers, you can see hell. Ground Zero of the insanity is Bourbon Street, so that’s obviously where we spent our time. Pat O’Brian’s is the most infamous spot in Ground Zero, known for their horribly sugary Hurricane cocktails. The price for a Hurricane was outrageous for a college student, but you got to keep the really cool Hurricane glass it was served in. We decided this would be a great way to accumulate stemware for our dorms and left with … plenty.
The glasses were all lost or broken within 10 minutes of departing.
We survived Mardi Gras, although during the drive home we felt a little “road hard and put up wet.” Arriving back at Auburn, we all agreed it would be best to hold off on road trips together until, well, the next great idea came along.
The last road trip I’ll recollect on was of a much tamer nature. A Marine ROTC buddy, Eric Britt, and I decided to spend spring break in Key West, as we were Jimmy Buffett fans long before the whole “Mr. Margaritaville” and “Parrothead” stupidity began. It was a trek to see the stomping grounds of this yet-to-be discovered lyrical genius.
On the way we drove through Fort Lauderdale to make sure we weren’t making a mistake. Upon arriving on the famed “Lauderdale strip,” we saw guys wearing Ohio State jerseys carrying hockey sticks, and a couple of tank-top-type dudes in a fistfight. Now confident of the brilliance of our decision, we headed all the way south … to the virtual end of the line in America, where the final power poles were anchored to the ground, with no place further to pass along their electricity.
If you recall Charleston in the early 80s, you’ll understand the vibe of Key West at the same time. It was nothing more than a sleepy tropical paradise. The industries that fueled the island were fishing, drug smuggling and trust fund checks, delivered to ne'er-do-well heirs the parents were thrilled to have tucked away, safe from the gaze of judgmental neighbors.
As we both possessed military IDs, we were about to stay in the Navy’s Bachelor Officer Quarters for a few dollars, and fresh seafood/beer were all within easy reach of a broke college student. It was a place — as Mr. Buffett described it — where “days drift by, they don’t have names.” We frequented the famous bars, Captain Tony’s and Sloppy Joe’s, where Ernest Hemingway drank and picked fights, and we ate at sidewalk cafes. It should be noted as well that many young ladies — unimpressed by hockey sticks and fistfights — were in town.
It was one of those rare vacations where we didn’t need a vacation to recover from the vacation.
Today, I’m sad to report, Key West I knew is no more. The last time I went, I couldn’t even find my way around. As the band The Eagles once wrote of California, “You call someplace paradise, you can kiss it goodbye.” You’ve been warned: Don’t go.
These early trips are perhaps the source of my love of no-budget travel. In this month’s magazine you’ll read of another travel adventure with Gus Smythe, this time with our wives along. No, it’s not no-budget travel … but did our best to behave as if it was.
The expression “road trip” makes me smile. I have touched on it in the past, so I will stick to new material. The essence of this travel notion is that one is going to have an adventure. More than 30 years ago, the late Ambassador Smith Hempstone responded to someone who asked him why he wanted to be ambassador to Kenya; he said that he always believed that “something might happen to him” when he was in Africa. He had every reason to appreciate that because in the late 50s and early 60s he went by Land Rover with his wife to more than 40 nations that were turning from colonial status to being independent. Based on the adventures and his observations, he wrote a book called Africa: Angry Young Giant and it became a textbook for many serious students of the African continent during the late 60s and early 70s. Ambassador Hempstone went on one of the most epic road trips of all time and followed up three decades later in the nation of Kenya with regular expeditions to remote spots.
Many admirable authors and deep thinkers have commented throughout the ages about the benefits of travel. Readers will notice that I write up many trips in these pages, and this is because I choose places that might have some interest to all of you. Many of my earlier adventures are more cloaked in mischief, and I am absolutely sure that you have heard about some of them in these pages; further discussion is not necessary.
Two years before Paul Simon was headed to Graceland, I was going that direction with my roommate, Richard Parvey. Actually, we were going to see his family in Germantown and so forth, but we were in the greater Memphis that once belonged to the land Elvis called home. We went there three to four times, and I’ll summarize them as I explain one of the touchstones of any trip out there: eating ribs. Before you dive into ribs, you better work up an appetite and enjoy some bourbon at the Peabody Hotel. This is the famous spot where the ducks swim in the fountain during the day and live on the roof at night. A chap in livery rolls out a red carpet to lead the tame mallards to and from the fountain, which has been a tradition since 1933. This was the first year of the Roosevelt administration and the time of the end of Prohibition; the booze has been flowing by the gurgling fountain for 91 years.
After our ducky smiles became perfection, we walked a short stretch to The Rendezvous, which was founded in 1948. When we were there, all the waiters were tall black gentlemen who went straight to business and nodded at the patrons: “Ribs, ribs, Budweiser, Budweiser.” I have been a fan of dry pork ribs ever since that trip nearly 40 years ago. We followed this dining experience with a visit to a night club on the famed Beale Street to hear jazz and have some night caps.
Upon my second trip to Memphis, we drove out to the countryside and found a pawn shop where we decided Richard needed to buy a Fox Sterlingworth so that we could hunt doves together outside of the Sewanee Domain. This was my pal’s first shotgun, and I was delighted to assist in the acquisition. We have been hunting together ever since that time. It was also on that trip that we stopped at a place called Bucksnort, Tennessee where I purchased a koozie with the town’s name on it and a haulin’ ass trucker hat that I gave to Roger Hanahan.
I did go on two “youngish” (mid 30s) road trips in the mid fall of 1996 and 1997 with my late father. We went to a place called Wolf Island in southern Ontario, and Dad wanted me to drive us in my Explorer. We stopped near Gettysburg and called my mother to check in and advised that we arrived at the battlefield too late to help. We landed at a hotel in Kingston the next day; we were interested in a place that was founded the same year as Charleston and was the first capital of Canada until 1844; instead of bricks and clapboard, the city was built of nearly all stone construction.
The stone theme continued as we hunted out of stone blinds that faced the St. Lawrence Seaway, and we had to back out briefly when waves were coming from the containerships passing far in the distance. We had fairly good hunting and then the skies went very blue and fair, and it was time to fish. The small mouth and walleye fishing was excellent, and live minnows did the trick. Our cook in the old lodge fried them up for us, and it was awesome. We also had peameal bacon, which is the original Canadian bacon and quite a delicious breakfast meat.
Our guide was Bruce Black who was a tough guy who had worked on oil rigs and liked to talk and have a drink. He liked Dad’s martini mix of two parts vodka and one part gin and a small splash of Vermouth with double olives and a capful of olive juice. It is known as the Carlito’s Way in his honor. As we talked, I learned about deer eating from nearby abandoned apple orchards and then seeing and holding the rack from a 17-point buck where the beam of the antlers was nearly as big around as a beer can. The buck had dressed out better than 250 pounds, and I knew then that I would return one day to chase the deer.
During our next trip, we went from fishing to watching the snow fall while we were hunting diving ducks by the thousands. There is nothing quite like a wall of weather to stir up the waterfowl, and the whole show turned on in the biggest way. Dad’s back was hurting him, but he continued to hunt as best he could. He hunkered down in the stone blind one afternoon and, for what seemed like 20 minutes, he conversed with a wily black duck that was circling us. It eventually landed outside of the decoys and would swim closer and then away and this went on for five minutes.
He insisted that I shoot it, but I strongly suggested that he should because he had called it like a champ. Before long, the duck started to swim away, so I stood up and yelled and watched the duck take flight. I tried to convince Dad to pull the trigger, but he would not. When the duck was just about out of range, I fired, and it fell. I retrieved the duck and pulled a blue feather from each wing. I stuck one in his hat and another in mine and gave him a bear hug and did my best to hold back the flood of emotions behind my eye sockets.
If we had space, we’d tell more, but there will be more space and more stories in the 31st month of the Charleston Mercury Newsletter, available only by subscription by going to our website. The wise participants will receive the feature “Crab Pot” — where the liveliest parts of a “Pluff Mud” bubble over to tantalize all. To make sure you don’t miss out on all the action, subscribe today to the digital Charleston Mercury Newsletter.
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