In need of a shave and an eyebrow trim, yes. But happy. Though the stubble is only a week old, I hadn’t updated this blog since the beginning of the year. A most incredible time in my life but I am safe, uproariously happy and filled with wonder at what revolves around me in my life on The Hill.
This is the somewhat grizzled visage of the Author. As seen by the wrinkles on his evolving turkey neck, gravity has not been kind. A mishap with a beard trimmer–putting in the wrong size blade guard–resulted in the close shave after he had decimated one side of the moustache initially. He had to hack down the rest of it to a #2 length to match it.
The beanie reads, “Sin, Repent, Repeat”. This is what he looked like having arrived back home March 24 from AMERIKKKA where he had escaped from Texas and Louisiana just before the Australian border was closed and Qantas Airlines ceased flying internationally. He had flown over a month earlier into Dallas/Fort Worth for a few days and then jetted to Miami for a week in the Florida Keys, hanging in Key West before heading back to DFW for the Great Southern Viral RoadTripp. The tie dye shirt of course is from that saloon of disrepute known as Margaritaville where he made short work of the signature cocktail. But back to the flight…
Upgraded to First Class on the 17 hour jaunt over to the US, fuelled on 2002 Dom Perignon Millissime Champagne and fine flight food by Neil Perry onboard followed by an Endone Nightcap, it was sweet dreams for 14 hours. As it turned out it was The Big Sleep before the nightmare unfolded at the destination. Who would have known?
My plans were to have a foodie’s holiday in likely my last trip to the US (due to travel insurance premiums soaring when you hit 70 as I will later this year. Last year it was an oyster fantasy trip as well as BBQ and boudin with my dear neighbours Tony and Jen. This year I was going to zero in downmarket on BBQ again as well as the Holy Grail of Mississippi Tamales and iterations of fried chicken.
I headed to Fearing’s Southwest Restaurant in the Dallas St. Regis for my traditional first meal curated personally by the wonderful chef Dean. A finer ‘Last Supper’ could not be imagined. Then off to the Warwick Melrose Hotel, an old style 800 room palace that ended up having fewer than 30 guests that night. It felt like something out of “The Shining” the halls were so quiet and eerily empty. And I was the only client in the vast restaurant the next morning being fussed over by a lovely waiter and steered to the steel cut oatmeal brûlée with fresh berries, charred banana slices in maple syrup crusted atop it. But here are highlights from Dean’s place.
After getting upgraded at DFW’s Alamo car rental to a Super SUV (since there were virtually no other customers), it was like driving a tank into the near deserted city. As it turned out, that car became my mobile COVID-safe environment for the next few weeks through the Texas Hill Country, Cajun Prairies, up the Mississippi Blues Trail to Memphis and Nashville. A mounted iPad for GPS and the WAZE app (which shows police activity, accidents, road conditions ahead and speed traps), an Amazon Alexa music device for tunes and internet interface, iPhone also window mounted and a Yeti Cooler loaded with drinks–it was a mean machine for the drive. But first a traditional lunch at the Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum in Dallas.
My choice was beef brisket of course, a small burnt end, pork ribs, okra, mac and cheese, with a side of onions and pickles and a huge unsweetened ice tea. Heading out from Dallas on the near deserted byways after a hearty lunch, I cruised the two lane blacktop rather than interstate 10 through a mid-arvo top up of BBQ in Tyler Texas and then ending up just across the border night in a swish suite of a black casino in Shreveport LA. I had opted for casino stays because I don’t gamble nor eat at buffets and room rates for fancy digs are usually under US$50 and I got upgraded to a suite every time..
My destinations were Vicksburg MI which was a Civil War battle town on the Mississippi River and Natchez where I ended up at another casino for the night, an actual riverboat. The next morning was warm but foggy and I decided to take the glorious Natchez Trace roadway halfway up Mississippi before turning into the delightful Yazoo City. From there it was on to Greenville for yet another casino hotel, a tidy place on the riverbanks. But lunch was devoted to searching out the best beef and chicken tamales and I was sated at Hot Tamale Heaven.
Back on the road to The Crossroads where guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in Clarkesdale MS, my third trip there in three years preceding the obligatory Sunday service at Al Green’s church in Memphis. I had a four day sojourn to immerse myself in local blues clubs, two excellent Australian run restaurants run by a divorced couple–Levons plus Hookers Grocery and Eatery–and took a run out to Oxford, a college town about an hour out of town with the stereo blasting blues the whole time.
You are greeted in a vintage way at the front of Shack Up Inn’s Compound of sharecropper cottages with a main building that looks like it’s outta Mad Max.
The stage at The Shack Up Inn’s house of blues n rhythm.
And if you feel like playing, there are about 40 guitars to ‘borrow’ back to your shack, a few of which also have pianos.
But back to The Tamale Trail in Clarkesdale…
All things blues have to come to a close and a weekend in Memphis before heading onto Nahville and Atlanta beckoned. This is where shit got real COVID wise. After driving out early morning to a deserted church where Al Green was scheduled to hold a service, I turned back around for the city and the comfort of my downtown fortress. Back to the Peabody Hotel for the Duck Walk to the fountain in the lobby but this time there were no crowds. The town was closing up tighter than a tick and the last thing I could do before dodging the takedown was find myself at Gus’s World Famous fried Chicken, the last bird I had in the US.
I hightailed it outta town for the safe haven of the Nashville home of Mary Ellen Jones–an artist I managed in Atlanta back in the late 70s–and her hubby producer Rick Chapman. It was a raucous reunion but destined to only be for one day as it was certain that Qantas would stop rolling the tires and lighting the fires of their jets as well as Australia’s borders closing. A midnight call to my trusty travel agent Brad Thomas and we were able to secure a First Class seat from my previous April departure to three days hence, giving me two days to drive back to Dallas overnighting in Little Rock. Luckily, there was no penalty and I got back all my hotel deposits as well as a couple of weeks of car rental credited. I just squeaked by and the last view of Hot Chook was this one.
A last night in the haunted Warwick Melrose (only 13 clients out of 800 rooms) and a day shopping for chile peppers, tequila, pinot noir, spices, Louisiana specialties and Texas treats. I had accumulated a three bag limit of over 200 pounds to schlep onto the flight back to Sydney. But once I boarded, there was a last minute drama that threatened to remove me from the plane and dump me back in ghostly, ghastly Dallas.
The view from the Qantas FC lounge at the flyway ghost town of DFW.
As I boarded the plane and was taken to the front row of nearly deserted First Class, I thought it courteous to let the passenger services manager know that an allergy I had to the Texas juniper called Cedar Fever might cause me to cough in flight though it was not a viral or bacterial cause and to not be alarmed. I should have shut up because immediately she had to confer with captain and Qantas’ medical team in Nebraska as to whether I was ‘fit to fly’. She told me a new protocol that day had forbidden anyone with a cough, sneeze, fever or runny nose to be flown back so I should be prepared to round up my gear and be left behind at DFW. This delayed the flight for 30 minutes while they conferred in the cockpit by phone with the medicos as I showed her my medical records which confirmed the allergy. But I had to up the ante as I stood outside the flight deck, so I asked to use the bathroom and returned in two minutes. I was then told that the med team had one more question for me to determine if I would fly that night. I handed her and the captain my business card which indicated I was a travel writer (which she knew) and told her had called my editor at News Ltd in Sydney who thought a story on whether I was tossed off the plane or allowed to proceed would make a great story–either way it went–for Sunday’s paper. Now what was the question?
The bluff worked and within five minutes, I was informed to strap in and I would be uplifted. Desperate times require precision tactics and actions. Here’s me about to hand back the champagne glass and take off. 14 hours sleep later, landing in Sydney I was informed that I was to be met at the plane doors by a Qantas ‘team’ and was to be the first passenger let off with the others to follow five minutes later. No it wasn’t Customs querying the ten pounds of scarlet, brown and orange powders packed in my luggage nor Border Force having spied this sign for my property secreted in one large case, nor even a HAZMAT clad group of medicos. It was the Qantas airport GM and a PR chick with clipboard waiting to feed me the party line on my intended article to take away the rough edges. I thanked them for meeting me and taking me off privately but let them know that I was in a hurry to get out onto the street and head home to Coffs. Besides, News LTD had all the PR contacts they needed to fact check a story or blow away fluff. 10 minutes later I was wheeling my overstacked luggage into a maxi cab to retrieve my car from friend Greg Bright’s care and was on the road again. The bluff had worked…
I was ready for 14 days of self quarantine at the hilltop idyll instead of a hotel in Sydney and with a stop at Costco and my favourite fruiterer on the way home, I was loaded up with supplies to last the fortnight. If I had come back one day later, I would I would have been forced to billet in a Hilton (roughing it) or worse so I was ecstatic to be rolling up the driveway six hours later to replace my dear parrot-carer Uncle Keven Oxford and be greeted by this view from the front for out over the Tasman.
After taking the swab a couple of weeks later just in case, I was declared clear and was allowed out into the new masked and gloved, sanitiser-lubed world. Meanwhile Jacko was unperturbed and acted if the globe hadn’t been tossed around with his favourite perch above the solar air heater overlooking his feather fiefdom. Happy to snack on branches of coriander seeds and cardamom pods as well as fresh chilis off the vine, he was as smoochy, clinging and loving as ever. And we’ve just ticked over the clock into 21 years together, longer than any of my wives.
Though I had a stash of toilet paper in these trying times from months back, it was time to get the gadget I had been wanting for years but never had the time to source, acquire and have installed. As you can see Jacko took to the constantly heated seat of the Toto bidet and the warmth made him relax his bowels enough to have a parrot poot right in the bowl. Thankfully he can’t reach the remote control on the wall that controls front and rear heated water streams to No.1 and No.2 orifices nor can he hit the dryer button for the ass warming vortex of hot air that completes the transaction before the self cleaning. The Squatty Potty seen below the bowl was a welcome accessory for a knees-up.
But hey, in order to feed the bidet, you have to produce some content and mine came in the form of greens–chard, spinach, kale and silverbeet–which were steamed alongside my crafted artisanal boudin sausage that I missed having in Cajun country. Pork, liver, onions, garlic, celery, peppers and rice in a spicy mix forced into tubes and then steamed to perfection. The first batch I had my butcher stuff into natural skins looked like this and the 5 kilo of snags allowed me to deliver some to my friends hot out of my quarantine.
That was the before shot. The one below my mate Darren took of his perfectly pricked and poached tube steaks that left the lips tingling as the goodnesses was sucked out of the skins. Ahhhh boudin…Heaven!
Another piece of heaven was being able to nap in my own bed with Jacko on his bedroom perches overlooking the grey day. It’s really his bedroom, I just get to sleep there.
But when the sun comes out, the banana plantation shakes and rustles in the breezes, the purple lavender and royal basil bow down to the light weight of native bees and the flitting little birds. The peppers in the middle finish their season with a wave of red pods and the papaya trees to the right let loose their fruit with mighty thumps as the bats fly in to try to snatch the bounty from me at sunset.
Spot the bees in the Royal Basil trees.