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A Tale of Three Cities

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Decorative houses in the Bywater of New Orleans, Louisiana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

“I think I’d like to dip my toes in the Chatahoochee River.”

That’s how most of my journeys begin—a crack of the atlas, a glance at the map, and a sudden longing to reach that place on the page. Long before we smell the souk or walk on the beach, we read a name—on a map, or on our ticket—and imagine the city scene that awaits us.

Timbuktu or Tokyo or Toronto all carry this immense meaning, whether or not we’ve ever been (or will ever get) to these cities. Likewise, the name of every American state is like its own poem. Just say them out loud—“Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee”—and it’s like you’re already jiving down Frenchmen Street or picking peach blossoms out of your hair.

Then you actually go these places and find out it’s a whole lot more than what you’ve ever seen on TV—Travel means filling in all the blank places of our minds while discovering our unquenchable craving for more and more of the world.

Last month, I traveled the entire length of Old Route 66, laying down some 2,500 miles of tire tread from Chicago to Los Angeles. Though I can now claim to know more of America than I had ever known before, my most recent adventure simply showed me how little I actually know my own country—that for all of its vast and open horizons, the land is scattered with a thousand towns, each with their own presence, name, and history.

The beauty of American cities lies in their individual personalities. New York can never be Chicago, and Boise will never be Philadelphia. Every American city wields its own aesthetic, music and cuisine—so that even under the imperial dominance of Wal-Mart and McDonalds and Starbucks—no two American cities can ever be the same.

American cities are like horoscopes—which one are you? Are you more Austin, South Beach or San Francisco? Minneapolis or Milwaukee? Every American city has its own soul, and going there gives us a taste of what makes that place so special and unique.

No doubt the most unique city in America (and the Universe?) is New Orleans, which is why I’ve picked it as the starting point of my next Great American Road Trip across the South. From New Orleans, I’ll head off to the unofficial capital of the south, Atlanta, then head up to the official capital of Tennessee, the one and only Nashville!

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My upcoming road trip, from New Orleans to Atlanta to Nashville, 750 miles across the American South. (From Google Maps)

When it comes to music and art, New Orleans, Atlanta and Nashville might just be America’s three most talented cities. Together, they represent the Rhythms of the South, and that’s the rhythm I’ll be dancing (and driving, and eating, and writing) for the next three weeks.

Compared to my last journey and by American terms, this road trip is pretty short—only 750 miles (1,200 km) from start to finish. Still, that is the same distance as driving from Paris to Vienna, with a cultural landscape that’s equally thrilling and complex. I intend to kick off with the city I know best (good ol’ New Orleans) and bit by bit, explore my way to the city I know least of all (Big confession: I’ve NEVER been to Nashville).

To say that I’m excited for all that lies ahead is a polite, southern-style understatement. I’m actually chomping at the bit to get out there and gawk my way through the South, which is the one American geographical region that needs the least introduction but demands the most explanation.

As always, I look forward to discovering some of the most exotic corners of my own country right along with you all (or rather, along with y’all) and hope that you’ll join me on Twitter and Facebook and right here as I mosey on up from the Mississippi to the Chatahoochee to the Cumberland Rivers and check out everything that’s in between.

My mission? To find the real rhythm of the South—to meet New Orleanians, Atlantans, and Nashvillians (those are all real words, by the way)—to taste the best that these three cities can offer and to share every bit of it with all of you y’all.

(We leave Tuesday.)

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Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana–the starting point of my Great American Road Trip across the South. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)

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