I believe it was during a trip to Ireland or Scotland that one of my friends compared it to being kicked in the nuts by history. Perhaps the sentiment could be phrased more eloquently, but the same is true of my road trip through the Southern states back down to Baton Rouge. Only it wasn't just learning about history while visiting the sites. Some of this trip was like actually traveling back in time. Other parts of the trip involved laughing at
yahoos other cultures, of course, or just place names such as Bucksnort, Tennessee, but regular readers were probably expecting as much.
MONDAY Philadelphia to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains
I had the option of sleeping on a couch that was not underneath animal heads, but this was just something I had to do. Perhaps this is a telling fact about me. It's also telling that my good friend and co-road-tripper Leah lives among all these long-dead animals and more with her bf and many other cool vintage items. We are both goofballs from Jersey with morbid senses of humor, and we're often mistaken for sisters. We've had many a ridiculous time on camping trips, but this trip would be our biggest adventure yet.
We got a late start Monday, but if we hadn't, we would have missed the riderless runaway Amish horse cart on the loose on a highway in Lancaster County, PA, which was the funniest moment of the trip (until the next day). For the first night, we rode up up and away for 40 minutes toward a campground in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, getting more creeped out the further up we went and the longer it had been since we had seen another car. At this date in October, would there be any other humans up there? Would they be humans we wanted to be around?
As with most scary undertakings, if you're not ruled by fear, it turned out fine. Leah got my new tent set up (purchased at the Wal-Mart in Gettysburg, where most guys look like hoary old biker dudes with a long gray ponytails and eagle-emblazoned T-shirts) and I got the fire going quickly thanks to the dry conditions and high wind. Camping commenced as usual, and just when we were about to turn in, a voice came out of the darkness and we jumped out of our skins. It was just a guy from one of the other campsites, bored after his fellow campers had passed out.
We coerced him to bring over a growler of the microbrew from the brewery he worked at, which is an unheard of luxury while camping, especially at such a remote spot. We were blessed indeed. Our friend was really into music apparently and jam bands in particular, and listed for us favorite acts such as Leftover Salmon and Trout Pond. Taking into account such grandpappy jam band acts as Phish, we decided every jam band must have a name related to fishing. A new car game after that was coming up with jam band names such as "Hip Waders," "Tacklebox," and "Party Boat." (You probably had to be there.)
TUESDAY Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains to Louisville
On the second day, we packed up and headed out of the park, witnessing its spectacular views for the first time. Our soundtrack was Thurston Moore's new solo album, Trees Outside the Academy, and it proved ideal for cruising down through fall foliage-covered mountains on an overcast day (his band Sonic Youth's SY Records numbers 1 2 and 3 had proven equally perfect for driving through Death Valley years ago). Later along that day's long and winding road, the rain began and the real silliness kicked in. It was during this time that I noticed West Virginia is shaped like Slimer from Ghostbusters.
We realized we were traveling at the perfect time of year as the foliage streamed by in rich jewel tones. Photos can't do it justice. My family had velour pillows in this exact color scheme in the '70s, and I mean that as a compliment.
We listened to the only two tracks of comedy I had on my iPod (I hadn't had time to load up more) and when that was exhausted, we heard comedy in the form of selected House of Pain hits, Cypress Hill's Black Sunday, and Dr Dre's now quaintly outdated 1992 gangster opus The Chronic, which introduced the phrase "deez nuts" into our travel vernacular.
But the real and neverending entertainment was new country music. Some of the classic country music is great, but the continuing success of this new garbage is an affront to all good music. As soon as you leave the coast, it's playing on at least three or four radio stations on the dial at all times. It was playing at every gas station so you're a captive audience to its tales of Regular American-dom while you're filling up. While I was pumping gas and Leah was over there smoking, we both heard the lyric, "you're eating Happy Meals and I'm eating rice and beans," and cracked up. We didn't hear the setup of why the protagonist was in Mexico, but I'm sure he spelled it out in explicit detail earlier since these songs don't leave anything to the imagination, it's all staight-up exposition. The chorus of one Regular Guy's ode to cruising around on his tractor goes, "mah INTERNATIONAL HAAARVESTEEEEER." One fun car game is to sing what you think the chorus will be before hearing it, based on the initial verses, (we were never far off) and another is to make up your own lines to the song, bonus giggles for trading off lines with your co-tripper and rhyming them, and including references to cornholing.
We stopped for dinner somewhere in dark rainy Kentucky at a Mexican joint called Toro Loco and were shocked that it was delicious (and a local award-winner). Leah started off addressing the wait staff in Spanish and so I did too, bashfully. It was weirdo enough that we were in Kentucky, which is more like somewhere I'd hear about in a story than somewhere I'd actually be, you know, like Transylvania or Baton Rouge. But on top of that, were speaking Spanish. I don't think the servers quite knew what to make of us. This was to be a leitmotif for the trip.
We drove by signs for Simpsonville, Shelbyville, and Springfield, but none of those Simpsonsesque highway signs beat the one reading simply, "Salt Lick."
Finally after the longest day of winding roads through the rain, we made it to our second night's destination, Louisville. The locals all say it, "Low-ville." There are some extra gutteral sounds between the "low" and the "ville," but that's as close as my keyboard's letters can approximate right now. Maybe there should be a schwa in there or something.
Louisville was the next pleasant surprise of the trip: lots of Victorian homes and tree-lined streets, as well as smaller shotgun shacks (meaning you can shoot through from the front of the single-story house to the back) and old-time storefronts, but with modern conveniences like a Scientology center (?) and skate park. By the end of our first night there we were asking what the rents were, thinking it would be a cool place to live. Granted: many, many, many places seem better places to live than Baton Rouge, but our hosts said that all their guests talk about living there by the end of their visit.
The house is amazing, with ceramic fireplaces and beveled glass over the mantles in almost every room. And the young fellas of the house were great fun. Andy has this XBox game that plays every old Sega and Nintendo game from the past, and wanted to use the theme music from Ecco the Dolphin in a hip hop song, so to demonstrate, they put on the song and the dudes instantly erupted into action: beatboxing, dancing, rapping, playing the melody on the piano.
After getting off on that good foot, we hit the nearby Mag Bar, singing/beatboxing/rapping the dolphin sountrack on the way, and the boys drank Miller Genuine Draft (on purpose?). Noble was accosted by a very young girl who wanted him to "teach her to cook," and I tried fending her off by lying that Noble was strictly Kosher and also strictly vegan now, so that would greatly limit the cooking lessons. I don't think it worked, and Leah later caught the troll pawing through her purse.
WEDNESDAY Louisville to Nashville
After the late night Tuesday, we all got a very slow start Wednesday, but finally made it to delicious food, at a cafe that had a surprising wealth of healthy vegetarian choices. There we saw a local character about town known as Dancin' Steve. We were told he can usually be found in such hotspots as the middle of the dance circle at the LCD Soundsystem after party. I love Dancin' Steve.
And I love our funny hosts. They have matching tattoos referencing the strip mall near the street where they grew up, which they showed us on a tour of their home neighborhood. Aren't they cute? Ladies, I'm tellin ya: Louisville. Just watch out for that hipster kid in the too-small flasher trenchcoat.
We rolled into
Nashville Nash Vegas after dark and hit a few faux honky tonk places on lower Broadway. All of it seemed to have an arbitrary "ain't we just regular folks?" ring to it. They even have a trailer-park themed bar that'd be right at home in Williamsjerk, Brooklyn, called Paradise Park. It featured a mullet gallery, a trashed Camaro getting more trashed by the frat boys in there, Astro-turf, lawn chairs, and ice-filled bathtubs as the beer coolers.
Proper reverance is given to the old timers like Hank Williams in Nashville, but at the same time it's clear that their day is long gone.
THURSDAY Nashville to Memphis
One place in Nashville where the greats' day isn't entirely gone is the Ryman Auditorium, original home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974. All the oldschool cats played on this stage, and bluegrass was born here. It was all a little overwhelming. The energy in the place was hair-raising, or you could say it gave me "chill bumps," as one new country guy put it in the film they show there. The film also mentioned ghosts at the Ryman, and I believe it. I really felt something there.
I felt about the opposite something from that pride in American musical tradition at the Charlie Daniels Museum, although it was quite entertaining.
Don't miss the foot stool...WITH FEET! Yuk yuk!
What is this, The Flintstones? Why does Charlie Daniels hate animals so much? This chair alone probably contains about 37 animals.
Even this award is displayed atop animal skin in a dream catcher configuration. Again, Leah and I were the only ones laughing.
We got on the road again, heading west to Memphis, the destination I was most excited to see. On the way we stumbled upon a whole compound of Loretta Lynn-themed attractions in Hurricane Mills, containing a dude ranch, camping facilities, museum (closed for the day, alas) and best of all, Loretta Lynn's house! We went to Loretta Lynn's house! OMG
FRIDAY Memphis to Oxford, Missisissippi
We arrived, crashed out, and woke up in the better musical destination of the two music cities, and the one which I was most excited about: Memphis. First stop: Graceland.
This was way more exciting than learning about some ye olde king and queen at some castle in Europe, this was The King in his castle in America, and as close to a religious icon as some people get. Stepping inside the gaudy jewel, I got a little verklempt.
I want to live in Graceland.
I got more than a little verklempt at the end of the tour, in Elvis' meditation garden, where his body and his parents are laid to rest. I wasn't the only one. What helped me hold it together was hearing the German tourists next to us reading the epitaphs in hushed German--creep-ola!
The conference room of the Lisa Marie had a TV on which Elvis liked to watch Monty Python, as well as a worldwide phone and a planewide intercom. I could just picture Elvis, all pilled up, announcing on the intercom, "Attention Lisa Marie passengers: I relluh lahke that Ministry of Silluh Walks," or "Attention Lisa Marie passengers: No one expects that Spanish inquahsition."
Once again, Leah and I were the only ones laughing and I think we were drawing looks from some of the more serious Elvis fans.
For all the ladies who requested to see my two-dollah probably bootleg Prada shoes, here you go. (I imagine the real thing wouldn't use elastic?) I thought it apropos to break in my nouveau riche shoes at Graceland. I felt like my feet were bound, though, so I bequeathed them to my smaller-footed road-trip partner.
From there we went to the sparsely attended Stax Museum of Rock and Soul. The exhibits trace the roots of rock and soul all the way back from the songs slaves sung in the fields as a form of escape and therapy, through the spirituals of the old Southern churches, with an actual one-room church recreated in the museum, through gospel and all the incarnations of jazz, all the way through to the soul put out by the Stax record label in the spot where we were standing. It was a poignant reminder that a lot more came from the South or developed here than is often acknowledged. The most ridiculous display was Issac Hayes' '70s Cadillac pimpmobile presented in full 360-degree rotation so you don't miss features such as the white fur interior, the gold hubcaps, or the built-in TV and fridge. The coolest display was Tina Turner's fringed gold minidress. (No cameras allowed, unfortunately.)
From there we went to the much more attended Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded his first songs, and where he recorded alongside the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. After the tour, standing in the little office just outside the studio itself, looking at the manual typewriter on the old desk looking much as it did back then, I couldn't help thinking we had missed all the good stuff by about a generation. "I hate now," I said, and Leah knew exactly what I meant.
Then we went to a non-touristy section of town to get beer and fried pickles, or as I would come to know them, "heartburn sticks." Here I had a moment to reflect. If I hadn't sold Wolfgang, I would have run out of money by now. And Wolfgang NEVER would have made it. We had two admirers openly staring who were of course the least attractive guys in the place. Although they were an ebony and ivory pair, both of them were of a look I see a lot of in Baton Rouge, possibly indigenous to the deep South: short, pear shaped, or matronly, as Leah puts it, effeminite, balding, and sporting the biz-caszh tucked-in button-down shirt. Despite their limitations they still felt qualified to comment on my appearance as I went to get something from the car.
"Hey sweetheart, how ya doin! Like that hat... [wait for it!]...and that ass," he mumbled under his breath as I got further away. I have been known to sass back to such comments, especially after a beer or two, but these harmless pears weren't even worth it. And that was the worst harassment we encountered on the trip. Unless you count the slack-jawed yokel who turned all the way around in a pickup truck passenger seat to gape at us in Mississippi. Which I don't.
Then we were off for our final stop before Baton Rouge, Oxford Mississippi, the college-town home to Ole Miss. The fully intact town square was exactly like the square in Back to the Future, including the stopped clock on the city hall building. I'm so happy places like this still exist.
We went to some lame college kid bars (more interchangeable mostly blonde girls, some inexplicably decked out in dresses and heels, and more short guys in business caszh--really? Business casual in college?) and finally ended up at one where an older fellow at the bar latched onto us right away. I was getting ready to ask all about his country upbringing in Mississippi, but it turns out he was getting ready to try to sell us drugs. Also, he was psychic! He could tell what we liked by looking into our eyes. FYI, if you are ever talking to a drug dealer in Mississippi, "peels" = pills. I told him we were just having a wholesome evening of booze, and that he was very aggressive for a Southerner, then we shoved off.
Other than that creepatron, Oxford is highly recommended.
SATURDAY Oxford to Jackson to Baton Rouge
The next day, we visited Neilson's, which since 1839 has been the longest continuously running independent department store in the nation...or something. No one pays me to write this blog, so I don't have to research.
Neilson's is a real throwback. In an age of disposable fashion from ho-bag chain stores, this place is one of the last class acts. The front display windows showcased a frilly apron, Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms, and a chic belted wool peacoat paired with heels. The other shops on the square were similarly oldey tymey and classy, even though most were still selling younger-aimed fashion.
We had brunch, if such a thing exists in the South, at the Ajax diner on the square, where I got two meals' worth of amazing eats: cheese grits, rice and beans, blackeyed peas, an incredibly delicious and fattening hash brown casserole, jalapeno corn bread. We also found out from the lovely old tourism lady (who sent us off with a hug) that Oxford was the home of the Southern gothic writer William Faulkner, and the likely inspiration for many of his characters. So, armed with a pamphlet of Faulknerian sights, we first stopped at a home where a retarded child lived who was thought to be the inspiration for Benjy Compson from The Sound and the Fury.
Then we got to Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak. That cat knew how to live. And this wasn't a country star or a pop star estate, but one belonging to a whiskey-drinking writer. (Maybe there's hope for me after all..?)
The best part was his writing room, where he'd written the outline to his last book on the walls in pencil.
Since today is Halloween, I'll also mention that after a few of said whiskeys (we're assuming that part), Faulkner liked to tell his young guests ghost stories, one involving a Judith Sheegog, who flung herself from the front balcony when faced with being an old maid (although I don't think a single-story jump would quite do the trick...). Anyway, here's Leah [below] in front of that balcony, and look at how distorted her face came out! Also, it is this very photo that's partially responsible for this whole post disappearing back on Blogger yesterday, which is what prompted the switch over to TypePad.
On the way from town back to the highway, we stopped at a cotton field to pick a little cotton. That shit is SHARP. It's hard to express my feelings seeing this obvious signifier of slavery and feeling how sharp the plants were, and how they'd tear into your skin if you picked the cotton for any amount of time, but I think it's safe to say we both had some white guilt leaving that roadside field.
Finally we were on the last leg of the journey, back to Baton Rouge. We tried stopping in Jackson, Mississippi for dinner, but at 5:30 in the afternoon, the city was a ghost town! What is with this Night of the Comet/ zombie movies/ Omega Man business in these Southern capital cities? (The other one I've seen like this being Baton Rouge.) I did find a great abandoned motel as posted in my other blog, Abandoned Baton Rouge.
By the time we got to Baton Rouge, Leah was starving, so we stopped at Raising Cane's Chicken, a Baton Rouge original and favorite. And I mean we stopped. The women in the car ahead of us at the drive through were getting about a Thanksgiving dinner-sized order and had the car in park. Then I noticed the passenger was leaning out the door, pointing her face toward the ground. Yep, she was doing the only thing one would be doing when one is leaning out the car door with their mouth aimed so close to the ground, aka full vom posish: she was ralphing.
"Welcome to Baton Rouge, Leah."
Best Road Trip Ever.