“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”― Mark Twain

It all started last Thanksgiving, when I was a guest of friend JoRene’s family in Williams’ Bay, Wisconsin. I grew up in the Bronx and migrated to Los Angeles, and had only flown over the Midwest.

Since international travel is my usual métier, I was excited about exploring a part of the U.S. I had never touched. One day, after we meandered, hunting for Wisconsin cheese creameries (the cheese curds are addictive), we found ourselves seeking liquid refreshment at various establishments.

Feeling smug with our martinis, we noticed a most unusual Bloody Mary across the bar. It reminded me of a “fascinator” hat with all its accoutrements. I had never seen such a decorative drink, and wondered if it was a Wisconsin tradition, or a Midwest one.

For the remainder of the holiday, we began to order Bloody Marys wherever we received “leads.” Wisconsin did not disappoint. I started thinking: was this a culinary ritual of Wisconsin, or are “over-the-top garnished Bloodies” endemic to the Midwest and possibly, further south?

A trip formulated: Let’s begin at the mouth of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and follow the River Road to New Orleans, Louisiana, comparing Bloody Marys.

After weeks of planning with JoRene, we’d created an itinerary, beginning with a flourish at a Bloody Mary competition festival in Madison, Wis. The food combination designs adorning the top of the drinks were creative, and the spices were on point. Wisconsin takes this drink seriously.

Once again, we filled a suitcase with Wisconsin cheese before heading out to the Great Mall of Milwaukee, for some retail therapy. Since neither of us has a sense of direction, we enlisted mall police, a visiting Canadian youth soccer team, and others to find our way out of the never-ending shopping center. Twice.

As we traveled with our own car, we were able to meander, switch directions, meet people and follow their leads, as we progressed southward down the Mighty Mississippi.

Since we were avoiding main roads as much as possible, we were able to spot signs, such as the nostalgic Ringling Brothers Museum in Baraboo, Wis., and swing off the road, and stop. There were no plans set in stone, and nothing to prevent impromptu exploration of the center of the U.S. We had one mission: to taste Bloody Marys all the way down the river.

After awhile, our research became a “shared drink.” Two straws please.

Everywhere we traveled, people would smile, make eye contact, and want to give us leads as to where the best bloody would be. Discussing our mission was as successful a way to meet strangers, as an adorable dog companion in our possession would be. As we had tea at the Wisteria Tea House in Red Wing, Minnesota, the chef came running out to talk to us and said, “If I wasn’t allergic to alcohol, I’d jump in your car and come with you.”

As we meandered, it became apparent that the focus of our voyage was shifting from regional differences in Bloody Marys to the ubiquitous warmth and genuine openness of the Midwesterners.

From Red Wing to La Crosse in Wisconsin, past verdant pastures and farmlands of the Amish, to Galena, Illinois, where we became best friends with a wine shop proprietor. The sandwich board outside stopped us dead in our tracks as it advertised “salted caramel martinis.” A slight detour from the research, and, as was typical of all of our stops, the people became instant friends.

On to St. Charles, Missouri, where we ambled into a biker bar on the charming shopping street, where one of the tattooed “regulars” convinced the bartender to create a “super” Bloody Mary for us. Everyone got in the act; it was a community affair.

I was excited about our next major destination: Nashville, Tennessee, the home of the famous “Grand Ole Opry” stage and radio show. All my life I had watched movies, stage plays, and television series steeped in the country music from Nashville, and only experienced this culture virtually. It was thrilling to finally taste the deep-fried okra, hear the twanging music from every establishment, and be at the Opry, in the middle of the country music phenomenon.

On our way to Memphis, birthplace of the “blues,” we detoured to country singer Kix Brooks’ Arrington Vineyards, with its pastoral, undulant hills, and rockin’ wines. Our adorable young server was ready to throw in her corkscrew and join our adventure.

In the Bronx, I grew up with my nose pinned to my family’s tiny black and white TV watching Elvis Presley. How could we not visit Graceland? We scored a room at the Guesthouse at Graceland, a new, cutting-edge hotel, where we befriended the front desk staff and the bartender, who not only made us a perfect Bloody Mary, but sent us to a sketchy part of town to find irresistible, succulent, finger-licking Memphis barbeque at the place where the locals frequent. Never mind that we were lost, it was dark, and did I mention the area was a little dicey?! It didn’t matter; we were on a quest for the best Memphis had to offer.

We immersed ourselves in “a day with Elvis” from the Graceland Mansion tour (I was stunned at its modesty), all the way to the tour of the original Sun Records Studio, where we were able to sing into the original microphone held by Elvis, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and others. Unabashedly, I was grinning ear to ear, like a young schoolgirl.

On our long drive to Natchez, we detoured to Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, in Clarksdale, Miss. Guests are handed permanent markers to write messages on the walls. Add blues, excellent southern food and tasty Mary’s, with T-shirts to remember the moment. Perfect.

After arriving in Natchez, we jumped right into the fabric of local theater, and attended a hilarious “Medicine Show,” where everyone insisted on serving these crazy Californians a specially-made, creative Bloody Mary.

During dinner at the Rolling River Bistro, both owners came over, and plied us with champagne mint juleps, fried green tomatoes, deep-fried pickles and so much more.

We had definitely arrived in the South. A friendly lady at the bar overheard our conversation with the proprietors, and insisted that we detour to Fairhope, Alabama, for a special soft-shell crab Bloody Mary.

Natchez is home to the friendliest people, where strangers stop you on the street and share stories on plantation home tours, gospel shows, and most memorably, on a walking Black Heritage Tour where a young tour guide shared the history of the slave trade in Natchez.

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A total stranger stopped to help us with a flat tire late on a Sunday afternoon when everything was closing, and led us to his friend’s auto repair shop where we found four men, anxious to get home to Sunday dinner. They stopped what they were doing, removed the 4-inch nail, ran to an open store, plugged the tire, and didn’t want to take any money. Their selflessness and genuine kindness to two agitated senior women reminded me once again of the bonds that bind us all.

In West Feliciana, Louisiana, we decided to spend one night at the Greenwood Plantation, where it felt like we were in the middle of a “Gone With the Wind” movie set. We sat rocking on the porch, with views of the extensive grounds, the still pond, moss-laden weeping trees, and the white-columned mansion in the distance. The only piece missing was Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Actually, this mansion has been used to film many of the Hollywood movies over the years. (Through several plantation tours, it was painful for me to imagine how horrendous life had been for the thousands of slaves who had enabled these plantations to survive.) We made friends with a shop owner, asked her for a dining recommendation, invited her to dinner, and discovered that she was an historian, who regaled us with stories about Louisiana.

Another tip from a local sent us to New Roads, Louisiana, where the Hot Tails Restaurant, a locals’ favorite, served a mixture of Cajun/Creole cuisine, with oyster po’boy croissants, boudin balls, crawfish bread, and amazing Bloody Marys. This eatery was a find.

Finally, we arrived at the end of the Mississippi River Road, the Warehouse District of New Orleans. Our days here were filled with Cajun food walking tours, eclectic music on Frenchman Street, breakfast at the famous Mother’s Restaurant — Cajun etouffee omelette with biscuits, cheese-laden grits, and, of course, a Bloody Mary.

We made a Bayou swamp tour with requisite alligator-jumping, attended a Blues & Barbeque festival, took trolley cars to the Garden District and the Commander’s Palace, and enjoyed a scrumptious collard greens/melted cheese sandwich at the Turkey and the Wolf — so good that there was “standing room only.” We jumped into two “second line parades”, enjoying the merriment as if we belonged. New Orleanians know how to enjoy life.

Feeling adventurous, we used New Orleans as a home base, and forayed out to the charming town of Fairhope, Alabama, where the Fish River Restaurant had one of the best Bloody Marys to date: a soft-shell crab was the face above the glass, with okra for eyes. Ingenious.

The owner was thrilled with our venture and insisted that we try her own version of a beignet, with cream cheese and fruit inside. It worked! The lovely lady we met in Natchez who was responsible for this tip, met us for drinks and a competition between the two bartenders ensued as to who could make the best Bloody Mary for us. Everyone joined in the merriment.

New Orleans is such an eclectic city, where everyone and everything is accepted. It is diverse and over the top with excellent, food, music, art and culture. The pulse of the city is 24/7.

As we took one last nostalgic walk along the Mighty Mississippi River, through the beautifully-landscaped Crescent Park, we envisioned the river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles downstream. Our journey, sadly, was over.

What started out as a story about regional differences in Bloody Marys, evolved into a journey of connections, and the stunning diversity of Americans. Languages, foods, pastime differences all were all interwoven into the universal fabric of being an American. I cherish the memories, stories, and new friends made in the Midwest and South.

What took me so long?

“A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself and only herself.”—Maya Angelou

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