This is how the first county collecting trip of the year ended.
I'm jumping ahead, so let me start with a more cheery tale. As my travel year beings, my county collecting map spanning a few hundred miles east and west of the Mississippi River looks like this.
As a quick reminder, I’m mailing home a postcard from each county seat in the United States, and counties where I have received that postcard get colored blue. Counties colored teal, I have been in, but not visited the county seat, and green counties are where I have been to the county seat but not mailed, or in a few cases received, a postcard (see County Collecting 2014 - the Year in Review for my map of the entire country). I decided 2015 would be the year to create a contiguous stretch of blue counties reaching from Canada and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico (perhaps next year I'll work to connect the east and west coasts).
I set out from Ohio on a Sunday morning at 2:30am, knowing it would take 10-11 hours to reach the first uncollected county (just south of Birmingham, AL) The trip started out fine, and though it was cold in Ohio, by the time I reached Alabama, temperatures moderated. As the sun set, I pulled into the Prattville Marriott (hotel/conference center), and rather than venture out for dinner, the Oak Tavern in the hotel provided a tasty, if unremarkable, dinner.
I used mobile check-in, but still needed to wait at the front desk to have my keys prepared. Apparently, there had been a number of late departures, so there was some question as to which rooms were ready. This somewhat defeats the purpose of mobile check-in, though I did get a nice view of the golf course which makes me think I did get an upgrade.
The next day, as I continued south toward the Gulf, it reached almost 70º, a far cry from the single digits back home. I detoured about a half mile off US 31 in southern Alabama to take this photo for my photo album of State Welcome Signs.
Since I had previous visited Escambia County, Florida where this sign is located (interestingly the adjacent counties in both AL and FL are both named Escambia), I continued though southwest AL and southeast MS ending the day at the Courtyard in Gulfport, located across the street from the beach. By the time I arrived, the rain had started and the temperature had dropped into the low 50s (by morning is was freezing). This hotel is undergoing renovations to upgrade the front desk (and likely to add a Bistro). My ground floor room overlooked the parking lot and the ocean beyond (no way this could have been an upgrade). Dinner at the Half Shell Oyster Bar, a short drive away, consisted of char-grilled oysters (YUM!) , blackened redfish, and key lime pie, all washed down with a Lazy Magnolia Indian Summer beer (local to the area). I recommend this place if visiting Gulfport.
From Gulfport, it was into southeastern Louisiana—bayou country. At Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish (counties in LA are called parishes), the only option was to do some serious backtracking or cross the Mississippi River by ferry. Naturally, I chose the ferry.
It’s worth mentioning that I drove through the area south of New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Having already visited New Orleans and not wanting to deal with the crazy crowds, I bypassed the area (for the most part). I did see a few floats with some already drunken revelers heading toward the parades around mid-afternoon as my route headed north across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (traffic heading into the city was starting to get ugly). At almost 24 miles long the causeway is the longest bridge over water in the word. I snapped a few pictures from behind the wheel, but none are worth sharing. Nightfall found me at the Renaissance in Baton Rouge. With the weather still cold, dining at the hotel seemed a reasonable option. Another appetizer of char-grilled oysters, this time followed up by a shrimp po boy, and accompanied by a Canebrake beer by the nearby Parish Brewing Company. Not as good as dinner in Gulfport, but still quite good.
The next three days were nothing special. Cold, gray, and a lot of driving. Each day ended at a CY (Jackson, Tuscaloosa, and Tupelo). The location in Jackson/Pearl is less than a year old, and in addition to my regular Platinum arrival gifts, I received this little gift bag. Not exciting, perhaps, but a nice gesture.
The room had numerous power outlets (which some older locations are lacking) as well as USB charging ports both on the desk and the bedside table. This is the first time I've seen that in a CY. I hope it becomes the standard.
That brings me to the journey home. I completed my planned county collecting early on Saturday, and began what should have been an 8-9 hour drive back to central Ohio. Winter storm Pandora (as it was named) decided to play havoc with the roads. My intention was to follow the Natchez Trace Parkway from northern Mississippi to its terminus just south of Nashville. Rain, freezing as it hit the roadway, made this route treacherous. Every bridge was a sheet of glaze ice and the two-lane parkway was slush. Figuring the interstates would be safer, I headed north to pick up I-40. About 50 miles before reaching Nashville, I hit the granddaddy of all potholes. Both passenger tires blew out and I spent the next 6 hours waiting for a tow. I was not the only one. A line of cars and trucks littered the side of the road.
Some had one flat and were able to change the tire and move on. I was not so lucky. By the time my car was put on the back of a flatbed tow truck and I was settled in my non-Marriott “Super” motel, it was about 9pm (the blowouts happened around 12:30).
A short cab ride on Sunday morning took me back to my car (left at the Wal-Mart auto center in Dickson, TN the night before). By 11:00am, I was back on the road. I still had two slightly bent wheel rims (now on the back) because replacements were not available, and the wrong size tires (my size was out of stock). Still, I made it the last 500 miles home for which I am thankful. Some drivers on the ice and snow-covered roads in Tennessee that same weekend were not so lucky.
I managed to visit all the counties I planned and completed my north to south line of blue. Here is what this part of the country looks like now. I’m still waiting for the last 3 postcards on those green counties near the LA/MS border (hopefully they'll show up at the beginning of the week).
I suppose with all the driving I've done over the last few years, a mishap like I had was bound to happen eventually. I made it home safely a day late, so other than the inconvenience and expense, there is little to complain about, though it would have been nice had there been a FFI or CY along I-40 near Dickson. Missing out on a paid Marriott night during a MegaBonus just added insult to injury. On the plus side, I did earn both the Marriott and Renaissance badges (and 50 bonus rewards points) during this trip, bringing my total to 8 (not sure this is particularly worthy of bragging rights).
Up next is a trip to California. It’s only three days, but there’s lots of ground to cover. Look for a report in mid-March.