Her trip across America still inspires after 12 years

Alabama Living Magazine
Lou Schell, author of Revisiting America, enjoys a front porch visit with her neighbor, Jessica Ross, board member at Clarke-Washington EMC and director of the Washington County Library. Photo by Lenore Vickrey

By Lenore Vickrey

On June 10, 2011, Lou Schell celebrated her 78th birthday far from home. She was in Woodstock, Vermont, one of the 11 locations she would travel during her year-long trip across America that year, chronicled in her book, Revisiting America. 

“I knew I would age on this trip!” she wrote in the book. “I wished myself a ‘happy birthday’ and treated myself to a high-cholesterol breakfast of bacon, sausage, toast and juice.”

This month, she’ll turn 90, and the birthday celebration will be at her Chatom home, organized by her four children. She’s invited many of the friends she made on her odyssey across the country, including the photographer who took the book’s cover photo and the TV producer who produced a segment on her for “CBS Sunday Morning.” 

Although it’s been nine years since the book was published in July 2014 and 12 years since her trip, Mrs. Lou (as she is affectionately known in her hometown) still has fond memories of people she met and the places she visited on the trek that took her from Washington County, Alabama, to 11 different states. 

The famous Key Lime Pie with the 4-inch meringue that Mrs. Lou and Janie enjoyed in Key West.

“I can’t believe it’s been that long,” she says in a recent interview while making lunch for her Alabama Living visitor and Jessica Ross, director of the Washington County Public library and a longtime friend. “I just got to do so many things I know other people didn’t get to do.”

Her journey started when she and her husband, Fletcher, decided to retrace the travels of Charles Kuralt, as chronicled in his book, Charles Kuralt’s America, and featured on his CBS Sunday morning TV show, “On the Road.”

She had given the book to her husband for his birthday. Sadly, his sudden death prevented them from making the trip, but she decided to go ahead a few years later, inviting her sister, Janie, along as a companion. As she notes in the book, she advised her children she was going to make the trip and that she’d be spending their inheritance. They were all in. 

“It took a lot of planning,” she recalls. In 2011, there were no GPS programs in cars, but she relied on OnStar, the navigation system in her Buick Enclave, to route her trip. “Most of the time it routed just right, but a couple of times it made the trip longer than it should have been,” she says. “I really depended on it.” 

She put more than 13,000 miles on the car which, she says thankfully, never broke down. She also never felt afraid or threatened, “but then I never put myself in situations where I would be afraid.”

She didn’t have a fancy camera phone, just a “plain little old camera,” with which she captured hundreds of images of the places they went and friends they made. 

“We wanted to go to all the places Charles Kuralt visited,” she says, but she changed up the order of cities to accommodate the change of seasons. “He was a fly fisherman. He flew in and out of these places. He could do that, but I couldn’t go to Maine this week and Key West the next week. I just fixed the route so we would make a circle. The weather was just perfect every place we were.”

Lou Schell and her sister Janie Gass had their photo made with the plaque honoring Charles Kuralt at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC.

They stayed a month at each destination, allowing them to absorb some of the character of their location, get to know the townspeople and see more than just the touristy sites. “I did things just like I lived there,” she recalls, including cooking, doing laundry and visiting local churches on Sundays and sometimes even playing the piano at their gatherings. (After all, she’d been playing since she was 9 years old and was the pianist for her Chatom Baptist Church and in demand for local weddings and funerals.) 

Not all outsiders would have been as welcomed as she was, says Ross, who’s known and loved Mrs. Lou ever since she played the piano for students at Chatom Elementary School and taught them patriotic songs of America like “Home on the Range” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“It takes a really special personality to fold in immediately to a small town,” she says. “Mrs. Lou is so much fun.” 

Mrs. Lou entertains her visitors with an impromptu piano concert. She played piano for many years for weddings, funerals and other gatherings in Chatom, and taught music at the local elementary school.

A journey of a lifetime

Their first stop was New Orleans, Louisiana, where Mrs. Lou says she had the best meal of the trip at August, a restaurant owned by famed chef John Besh. “Everything, when they brought it to you, they explained the dish,” she says. They were even given a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen. The meal was expensive, even in 2011, but well worth it. 

From there, they headed to Key West, Florida, where she had some outstanding key lime pie topped with a 4-inch meringue. A newspaper interviewer mistakenly reported that the meringue was 14 inches high, and Mrs. Lou asked her to run a correction. “I said if someone goes there and expects to see it (the tall meringue), they would say it was in my book!” The correction was made. 

Next up was Charleston, South Carolina; Blowing Rock, North Carolina; New York City; Woodstock, Vermont; and Boothbay Harbor, Maine. There the pair visited the same location, historic Pemaquid Lighthouse, where Charles Kuralt was photographed for the cover of his book. After meeting that photographer, Robert Mitchell, Mrs. Lou returned on a second trip and was thrilled to have her own photo made there for her book cover. 

Due to health issues, Janie had to return home to Austin, Texas, when they were in Boothbay Harbor. So, Mrs. Lou soldiered on alone, driving 1,700-plus miles from Maine to their next scheduled stop, Ely, Minnesota. Without Janie, she didn’t have anyone to talk to, but instead concentrated on driving and enjoying the scenery. No audiobooks or music for the longtime piano teacher. “I don’t like noise,” she explains. “If you’re concentrating on seeing things and driving the best you know how, it would have been more of a distraction than entertainment.”

She would continue on solo to Twin Bridges, Montana (where she met Kuralt’s mistress of 30 years); Ketchikan, Alaska; and completed the journey in Taos, New Mexico in November 2011. She pulled into her long driveway, greeted by the same friends and family who had seen her off on her adventure in January. A sign across the street at the Washington County Library read, “Welcome home, Mrs. Lou! We missed you, neighbor!”

Looking back, did she have a favorite place? “Every place was so unique and so different,” she says. “It’s hard to compare.” 

Writing the book took more than a year. Along the trip, she’d kept a journal and a blog, using napkins and brochures to scribble notes along the way. “I would write, and then I would send that to Janie and she would write. I’ve got the original copies of everything. 

“I can hardly type,” she laments. “I would spend 45 minutes doing two lines and then erase them! A little on purpose but mainly by mistake. I’m not familiar with the computer, it was the most frustrating thing.” But write she did, and the book was published in July 2014.

Mrs. Lou was greeted by this sign at the library upon her return home in November 2011.

She’s spoken about her trip to church groups, civic clubs, schools and did book signings, selling so many copies that the publisher, Writerspace in Mobile, ordered a second printing. 

“It’s an inspiring story,” says Ross. “The travel story is inspiring, but it’s an inspiring lifestyle. And she’s continuing to inspire us.”

Would she do it again? “I made lifelong friends,” says Mrs. Lou. “I wish I could do it again.”

Many have told her they’d like to make a similar trip, but she warns them, “You’ve got to have the money to do it.” Nevertheless, as she writes in the conclusion of her book, “I hope you read, and enjoy, and that you are inspired to do whatever you’ve always dreamed of doing, however simple, however grand. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Revisiting America is still available at Mrs. Schell’s blog from 2011 and 2012 is at


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