See the USA: From Elvis to a rest stop rocket ship | Local News

Go ahead and call me a coward.

When we hit the road at the end of February and headed south, we were definitely fleeing the cold.

As much as I love our state, it does embrace winter far longer than is necessary.

After embarking on a 13-day road trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast, with a few other stops, we came home with some observations about a good, old-fashioned family car trip:

So this is what spring is like! While it was freezing in Wisconsin when we left, once we got into Tennessee, the dogwood trees were blooming.

Random Wisconsin connection: There always has to be one. This trip’s Badger state shoutout happened at the Great Southern Café in Seaside, Fla. After seeing photos we posted on Facebook from the Gulf Coast, Kevin Ervin commented, “Make sure you go to the Great Southern for breakfast.” My reply: “We’re eating there right now.” As the co-owner of Franks Diner, Ervin knows breakfast. My Great Southern recommendation? The Fried Green Tomato Benedict or the house specialty, Grits a Ya Ya.

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Random Wisconsin connection II: We enjoyed dinner one night in Destin, Fla., with Bob and Sharon Acerbi, who live just down the street and happened to be in the Sunshine State. Apparently, it’s easier to get together when you’re a thousand miles from home.

bright lights: One of the great pleasures of an American road trip is seeing neon signs — the kitschier, the better. Glad to see this cool tradition of garish neon signs carries on. My favorite from this trip: At Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs in Seaside.

Information, please: Speaking of signs, I appreciate the folks who put up informative signage — and I always read it in places like state and national parks and a park bench in Tupelo, Miss., where Elvis Presley once performed.

Speaking of Tupelo’s native son: If you’re in The King’s hometown, make sure to pose with the Elvis statue, reaching out to his fans, even from the Great Beyond.

How is this still a thing? At a hotel near Nashville, Tenn., we spent the night in a room that stunk of cigarettes. (Hadn’t encountered that in several years.) In general, smoking everywhere — bars, restaurants, sidewalks — is much more common in the South than here.

rolling along: Bicycling is a great way to explore the Gulf Coast area — made easier by the many bike lanes and state parks in the area — and my husband, Rex, and I joined in the bicycle brigade of tourists. Our cycling tour was made easier by renting ebikes, which make tackling even the toughest hills a breeze.

really? An entire museum? Summerdale, Ala., is home to The Spear Hunting Museum. That seems like a bit of a niche market. The museum houses the “hunting conquests” (dead animals) of Gene Morris, who the museum calls “the greatest spear hunter in modern history.”

Stamp collecting: We’ve been traveling across the country for almost two decades, visiting places in our National Park System and adding stamps in our National Park Passports. This trip was not designed to be a big “stamping” expedition, but we did manage to add some ink to our passports at Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Natchez Trace Parkway, a national scenic trail. That’s why you never leave home without your park passports.

The road less traveled: If you do drive on the Natchez Trace Parkway — a 444-mile route from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn. — you’ll experience a road without billboards, or any type of commercial venues. Instead, you travel through a park-like setting dotted with nature trails, overlooks, a few visitors centers and lots of historical markers.

“Road trip calories don’t count”: I read that on a billboard in Missouri once, and I hope it’s true, especially since you don’t travel to the South for the health food. No one likes to stick to a diet while on vacation, and in this region, they deep fry everything from okra to shrimp to greens. How could I resist?

rockets? in Alabama? You might look twice when you come upon a Saturn rocket at an Alabama rest stop. Trust me, it’s real. The rocket, looming over I-65, one mile south of the Tennessee border, means you’re near Huntsville, Ala., and the US Space & Rocket Center. We visited the attraction, which is the Official Visitor Center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and also home to Space Camp and lots of cool artifacts like moon rocks and the Apollo 16 Command Module. And before you ask, yes, they sell “Astronaut Ice Cream” in the gift shop.

That’s what makes this country great: You can buy hot dogs out of an Airstream trailer in Florida and freeze-dried ice cream in Alabama — all in under two weeks — and still make it home in time to Spring Forward as we grab an extra hour of daylight this weekend. Whatever horrible things are going on in the world, it’s wonderful to explore and celebrate the quirky attractions of the US of A. Now, get out there!

Have a question or a comment? Email Liz at or call her at 262-656-6271.

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