South/Southeast Road Trip: Texas to Tennessee

50 states or bust?

In early December, we were reflecting – with as much travel as we had done, we still had not been to all 50 US states. Visiting all of the states seems to be a longtime goal for many American travelers. After the summer’s road trips, we actually weren’t too far from this magic number – we (but not the kids) had each been to 42 states.

The remaining 8 states (actually 9 because one wasn’t overlapping) were effectively all in the South/Southeast. We had thought about driving that way during the summer, but the heat in that region usually isn’t pleasant that time of the year. But it would be different in the winter.


So, Jeremy started brainstorming non-crazy ways to finish visiting our remaining 9 states during the last week and a half of the kids’ school winter break. These states were Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. That’s actually the order that we visited them in, though at first the best ordering wasn’t completely clear. Then there were other factors – can we find a one-way car rental, or do we have to do a loop? Could we visit friends along the way, and if so when? We spent a bit of time planing with Google maps directions. Note too, for instance, that West Virginia isn’t really on the direct way from Texas to Florida. But close enough.

What counts as “visiting”? I suppose people could debate this, though in each of the states we wanted to “visit” on this trip, we did do something, whether that was a meal, or a hotel stay, or a walk around.

We totally recognize that this kind of quick, blitz travel is different from savoring a place and exploring it deeply. We think there is a place for both kinds of trips – one to get a rough overview, to get a sense of whether you want to return and what the focus on in a subsequent trip, vs one to explore and enjoy a place in some detail. We do both kinds of travel at different times – many places we’ve gone back to savor have been places we initially sped through, but we make no pretense for this specific trip being deep exploration.

By the end of this road trip, the boys will still have a few states left to visit (Alaska, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, plus New Mexico for John), but they really do need a few places left to go once they are adults.

The logistics

Logistics-wise, our plan involved:

  • A one-way nonstop ticket from home to Dallas to start the trip
  • A one-way car rental from Dallas to Orlando. One-way car rental into Florida is actually relatively cheap at the beginning of the winter because rental companies try to rebalance inventory there for the winter.
  • Lots of driving!
  • A separate one-way ticket from Orlando to home. Getting an inexpensive flight from Florida to home at the end of winter break took some effort – we looked at airports all over Florida. After some searching, flying from Orlando, with an overnight layover in San Diego, made the price much better in this specific case.

Furthermore, we had goals of:

  • Front-weighting the driving to the beginning of the trip, so that we could spend several low-key days in Florida at the end, for the boys to remember.
  • Visiting a friend in Tennessee at the end of the second driving day.

So the trip was on…

With all plans made, the night before our morning flight to Dallas, we found out that our flight was cancelled. Making things worse, the airline didn’t proactively tells us – Jeremy found out when he tried to go to the online seat selector tool. We weren’t sure what to do with our well-laid plans. After looking at the alternatives offered, we saw that there was space on a non-stop from another Bay Area airport, just 3 hours later. After thinking about it, things were on again.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Our flight to Dallas was unexpectedly pleasant, especially after the initial cancellation. We weren’t excited about the plane being a 2 by 2 seat commuter jet, but the leg room was surprisingly reasonable. Furthermore, the Alaska Airlines flight attendants on this flight were super friendly with our kids and helped them set up their free wi-fi and entertainment system on their tablets, and generally gave us very good service.

For this trip, we decided that Texas to South Carolina would be done relatively speedily – where we would enjoy the scenery, try to find somewhat local restaurants, and make a couple of more meaningful stops. South Carolina to Florida would be the portion of the trip that we would take slowly. With a late arrival, and a goal of making it to my friend in Tennessee by mid-afternoon on Friday, we decided to drop our Dallas plans, and proceed relatively quickly through Texas.


On arrival at the older Dallas Love Field, we picked up our bags and made our way to our rental car. The pickup of our small SUV there went fairly quickly.

It took a little while to get out of the city, but we made a family game of looking for differences between this city and others that we have been to. The first observation is that there is much more open space. Even the skyscrapers tend to have a lot of space around them. John really liked the restaurant choices – lots of barbecue and hamburger shops. The high school football stadiums were crazy big – we drove by the new  $70 million McKinney stadium that looked like a pro field. The indoor skydiving shop cinched that deal, and John told us that this is where he should live as an adult. When he is a little older, we will recommend that he should also visit in the heat of summer, just to double-check his preferences.

Sunset while driving in Texas.

We had hoped to spend the afternoon exploring Dallas in more detail, but with a late airplane arrival, this was one thing we decided to sacrifice.


After leaving the city, we worked our way to Oklahoma.

Welcome to Oklahoma sign

Our original plan was to avoid nighttime driving so that we could see the countryside, but again, our late arrival changed that a bit and we decided to go ahead and drive until bedtime so that we could be at my friend’s place by the end of the second day.

Sunset while driving in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma had a lot of Choctaw casinos and travel plazas.

Gigantic chair in Choctaw Country at a rest stop in Oklahoma.

We spent some time talking to the boys about the Trail of Tears, pointed out the landscape, and told them to remember it for when we got further east.

Contemplating the Trail of Tears while driving through Oklah

The sunset was amazingly beautiful. There are few sunsets in my life that I have enjoyed more.

For dinner, we were hoping to try a somewhat local fast-ish food restaurant, and passed up a few small towns. Interestingly, one small town had a sign for the “Muddy Boggy River.” I guess that some people name things exactly how they see them. A little later we passed the “North Boggy River.” Maybe this part of the river wasn’t quite so muddy?

Driving through McAlester, we saw a “Steak and Shake” restaurant, and decided to try it. The burgers were surprisingly inexpensive, and on delivery to the table, we discovered that they were tasty but quite small. The shakes were a completely different beast and were what really make this place worth a stop. The selection was very extensive. My peanut butter cup shake turned out to be one of the best I have ever had. In addition to being delicious, they were huge! So large, the could be considered a meal in itself – and it was just a “regular” size. If you ever come here, definitely order both a burger and a specialty shake. That said, the waitress did dump a glass of ice-water all over us, and the timing of the food/shakes could have been better, but it was still a fun stop.

Steak and Shake milkshakes in Oklahoma.


Over dinner, looking at the maps, we booked a hotel using Jeremy’s phone that was about an hour into Arkansas. It was after dark by this point – we wanted to avoid night driving, but felt that we should get that far maintain the schedule. That said, once we got to Arkansas, it felt like the scenery of Northwest Arkansas would have been fairly interesting in the day time.

We had left the wide, flat, open plains of Oklahoma and were starting to have a few hills and many more trees. With a two-hour time change from California, we probably could have driven further, but we were a little worried about how the kids would sleep in the car, decided that we would really like our approach into Little Rock to be in the daytime, and stayed about an hour away, at the Clarion Inn in Russellville. The hotel was clean and reasonably comfortable. The heater fan was a little noisy, but nothing our stash of ear plugs wouldn’t help with.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Jeremy and I woke quite early, but the kids were sound asleep, so I enjoyed some snooze time, while Jeremy caught up on journaling and pictures. Around 6:30am, we decided to go ahead and wake the boys and get breakfast. There were some nice biscuits, and John thought the bacon was cooked to the perfect crispness, but was a bit crispier than I prefer.

After using a Safeway club card to scrape ice off our windshield, we were back on the road and headed towards downtown Little Rock.

Our first stop was the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which was closed due to government shutdowns. Sigh.

Outside the William J Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock,Arkansas

But we still enjoyed wandering a ways on the nearby bridge. The boys got their first lesson in why I made them pack multiple layers of clothing in their backpacks. Their hooded sweatshirts were not nearly warm enough. I really need to remember to check their clothing choices before walking away from the car.

After our wander, we drove through downtown Little Rock until we reached the Arkansas Capital building. The GPS took us much closer than we expected, and we ended up driving through a tunnel attached to the building. After finding a road that was a more appropriate distance, we made a quick picture stop.

Arkansas Capital Building in Little Rock, Arkansas

Continuing on to Tennessee, we noticed the effects of the recent rain that cancelled our flight and felt grateful for the beautiful blue skies that we were experiencing.



As we approached Memphis, James enjoyed catching a glimpse of a few Fed Ex planes flying in and out of one of their major hub airports. We weren’t sure how large the towns outside of Memphis were going to be, so we stopped for an early lunch at McDonalds. So much for our goal for trying to eat local, but we really wanted to get to my friend’s house while there was still daylight.

View of Memphis, Tennessee while on a family road trip.

One observation was that the boys have visited both Memphis, Tennessee, and Memphis, Egypt, in the last 6 months. Quite different places.


We had already visited Mississippi and Alabama, years ago, but the boys hadn’t. When we realized that a quick re-route through Mississippi and Alabama would only add 15 minutes to our journey, so we made a decision to make this brief detour. Mississippi was quite pretty.


Then we hit Alabama.

The GPS suggested that we get off the main highway to shave a few minutes off our trip, so we decided to go with it. Beautiful!


I’m not sure if we were still in Alabama, or if we had crossed the border back into Tennessee, but at some point we passed a sign that indicated that we were passing the Trail of Tears. We asked the boys to recall the landscapes from Oklahoma and the one we were looking at. When we asked them which land the Indians would probably prefer, it was a no-brainer and helped make the (sad) history come alive.

We followed some really scenic countryside and farms back into Tennessee, then arrived at my friend’s house about an hour before sunset. She has a lovely farm with a couple of alpacas.

Two alpacas

As well as a few other animals and a gorgeous pond. Amazing! John changed his mind about Texas and decided that this is where he should live. Too bad we didn’t have any rubber boots with us. With all the recent rain, the fields were a bit soggy, but the boys didn’t particularly care and thoroughly enjoyed their time there. And catching up with old friends is always a lot of fun.

After some extended time and dinner with them, it seemed that the best place to spend the night was in the Nashville suburbs, not more than an hour away.

We stopped at the Best Western Franklin Inn. Good choice. Again, it was a reasonable motel with clean rooms and comfortable beds. After a few showers, we put the boys’ farm clothes into a sturdy laundry bag to contain them for the rest of the trip. Good thing they should be able to switch to shorts later in the trip. I really don’t want to have to do any laundry until we return home.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Our morning started with another hotel breakfast that contained delicious buttermilk biscuits. We weren’t sure what we could do in Nashville in the early morning, but we decided to go ahead and do a driving tour through the city. The state building was quite nice.

Nashville State Building in Tennessee.

We thought about waiting for the Country Music Hall of Fame to open, but given our goals, decided to skip it and continue on to Kentucky. The views heading out of the city were quite nice.

View of Nashville

On to Kentucky!

Keep reading our travel blog for more travel ideas in the American South/Southeast:

Here are some more blog posts from this particular road trip:

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