Saturday, March 30, 2013

Road Trip, Day Three

Our plans for the last day of our journey were pretty straightforward: visit Shiloh National Battlefield Park, then meander our way Southeast, so that Amanda could say she had set foot in every state of the Confederacy (explanation: she had lived in NC & FL; visited SC, VA & LA; KY was a border state and never officially seceded).  After a brief stop for breakfast at Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks, we set out in the rain for Shiloh, which was about an hour away.  

We took a state highway through Northwest Mississippi, which we found surprisingly hilly, covered with dogwoods and, most surprising of all, countless houses with white columns.  There were the inevitable looked-like-plantation homes, with four columns.  There were ranch-style homes, with three columns.  There were even mobile manufactured homes with columns.  We were both hollering out "look at that one and this one", occasionally interrupted with a "who lives there, the Pope?"

A left turn at Corinth took us up the road traveled 151 years ago by Albert Sidney Johnston and his rebels, when they surprised US Grant and his army at Pittsburg Landing.  We found our way to the visitor's center in a drenching rain.  The ranger who greeted us mentioned that they had a new video which was about to start.  When I added how suitable it was that we were visiting in the rain, I don't think he picked up on it right away (Johnston's advance was delayed by rain; the reinforcement of Union troops after the first day of battle was hidden from the Rebels by another downpour).  Then, I got a knowing smile, as if to say, okay, Civil War geek, I get it.  

The new video was excellent.  It gave a detailed picture of the battle and the major players (pun unintentional) within it.  Afterwards, we grabbed our guidebook and set out to view the battlefield.  Miraculously, it had stopped raining.  There were about 20 stops on the tour, each marking something of significance that had taken place on that spot during the two-day battle.  Amanda expertly navigated through each.   Among the more moving spots was early in the tour: a monument to those who fought - and died - with the Indiana militia.  

"Fame holds them dear, and with immortal pen / Inscribes their names on the enduring rock."
We also saw a restored Shiloh Church, which sits in the center of all the various areas of the battlefield.  At the end, we saw Pittsburg Landing.  The Tennessee River is visually stunning: steep, heavily wooded banks surround this wide, rushing river.  We had learned that Grant moved his army down this river from Fort Donelson, chartering nearly every steamboat in the state to do so, as it took less than a fifth of the time it would to move the army overland.  

Throughout it all, we felt this quiet, as if to mark the place that witnessed so many thousands of casualties.  Oddly enough, the name "Shiloh" means peace.  From April 1862 on, it has marked one of the bloodiest days in our history.  For those who lived through the era, it shifted public opinion to an understanding that this war to right ancient wrongs would be long and costly.  Just as we got back in the car after that last stop, it started to rain again.  Our time was up, so we headed on.

We knew we would eventually hit an Interstate in Northern Alabama.  In the interim, we followed a highway that roughly paralleled the Tennessee River, which remained beautiful each time we crossed it.  Crossing back into Mississippi (we looked at that one and at this one), we found more columns.  In the hamlet of Iuka, we stumbled upon a Sonic.  Since this was yet another restaurant that Amanda cannot find in New York City (dining capital of the world, indeed!), we stopped.  Most lasting impression: the bathroom had a sweep log on the back of the door that did not have an entry past February 13 (it was March 18); I am confident that no broom or mop (neither dust nor johnny) had touched its space since that time. I later learned, after consulting my copies of the Shelby Foote bible of the Civil War, that Iuka was the site of an engagement some time after Shiloh.  We remain convinced this skirmish took place on the precise spot that Sonic now occupies.  

Soon, we were in Alabama.  I had told Amanda prior to the trip that we should not sport Gator regalia, as we were traversing rival SEC territory.  I also said she should not mention that she is Jewish or lived in New York, as I had visions of an old episode of Andy Griffith, in which he jails the city slicker portrayed by Danny Thomas.  Sorry, more insignificant knowledge there.

Again, we drove through beautiful, mountainous terrain, still mostly following the path of that big ass river.  Noteworthy: we passed near Muscle Shoals, where the Allman Brothers Band started a frenzy of Southern rock and roll in the early 70's.  We were also near the Shoals Golf Club, the northernmost end of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, something I need to experience at another time.  I'm certain that course - among others - will break my heart.  

Finally, Birmingham and civilization, I think.  I missed the winding country highways and breathtaking vistas we had experienced all day.  We did see probably the ugliest shantytown I have ever witnessed outside of a third world country.  While the rain had splashed us intermittently since leaving Shiloh, we were smacked with it northeast of Birmingham.  There was thunder, lightning, heavy winds and all sorts of stuff flying through the air, including boxes, cans, bottles, bags and a pair of trousers.  Yes, we did wonder what happened to the rest of him.  I've driven through a fair number of storms, mostly in our Florida days, but this one capped them all.  

We were relieved to slosh our way into Georgia, finally arriving at my home, where we were met by daughter Julia and her husband Dave, who got to unload the car.  Afterwards, we all went out for barbecue, which seemed fitting enough. 

In retrospect, it was a wonderful trip, comprising over 2000 miles of driving.  We saw all sorts of funny things, such as the Stairs Store in Texas, or the business in Arkansas that advertised "Country Store, Fried Chicken, Showers".  (I'm puzzled, as I cannot make the link between the three).  We saw the very worst of American Civilization at Graceland and the very best the South has to offer at the Clinton Library (I have rarely met a person more perfectly suited for her position than the greeter there; she made every single person feel welcome.).  There was scenery of mind-numbing boredom (I-20 in Louisiana), spots of great historical significance (Vicksburg and Shiloh, to name two), roads of incomparable grandeur (US 72 in MS and AL) and another spot that will hopefully become a footnote to history (that strip of big box retail hell near the DFW airport).  We crossed a great river (Mississippi), a disappointment (Red), along with a pair that we crossed several times (Arkansas and Tennessee).  We were surprised by the landscape in South Central Oklahoma, hidden from it in Arkansas and dazzled by the road we drove on our final morning.  We had burritos, sweet tea, fried chicken and burgers, none of which surpassed the pure culinary delights at the home of our hosts in Tulsa.  

Best of all was the treat to spend this time with Amanda.  She's nearly 25; I know it is unlikely I will have another opportunity to spend three solid days with this person whom I have always found fascinating.  From the playlists, to navigating, to sharing my interests and introducing me to more of hers, I had a marvelous traveling companion.  She never complained about any of my obscure historical references, bad jokes or middling-age grumblings.  I'm not sure she will agree; after all, she is my daughter.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Road Trip, Day Two

Travels with Amanda:

Our intent was to visit the Prairie Tallgrass Preserve, outside Pawhuska, before we left Oklahoma.  I have been intrigued by it, since first learning of it some time ago.  After viewing a recent documentary on the Dust Bowl, I was more determined to see the prairie as God had intended it.  Plus, Amanda might get to see a real live buffalo (which, for some reason, are now referred to as bison?), in the flesh.  The weather, however, did not cooperate.  It was foggy and misty, with a temperature in the low 40's.  We decided not to heed the advice of my home state's most noted native son, Will Rogers, who was quoted as saying "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute."  We headed East.  All was not lost, however, as we did have a Plan B.

We endured a wet ride throughout Eastern Oklahoma and into Arkansas.  There wasn't much traffic, so that was not the problem.  I have made this drive before, and recalled the spectacular scenery of the Ozarks, a topography that my largely Florida-raised daughter has not seen often.  We were foiled in this endeavor, as it rained all the way to Little Rock.  I might add: we did cross the Arkansas River at least three more times that day.  On each occurrence, it did actually have water - lots of it - flowing.  So, I guess my mother was just looking in the wrong place for that.  

Plan B was to visit the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.  Since we're both history nerds, this seemed a good place to appeal to our natures.  Besides, Amanda had been a child in the era that would be exhibited in this museum, so I knew that the information presented would be a novelty to her.  

I confess: I had not been into Little Rock before.  Our tour took us down this charming hipster-like area adjacent to the river (yes, that one again).  We did wonder why there was no one in the streets, since it was St. Patrick's Day.  Maybe bars are closed on Sundays?  Never mind.  The Clinton Library occupies this spectacular point on the banks of the river and is fronted by a beautifully restored brick building, which now houses a School of Public Policy, named after, you guessed it.  The Library itself exhibited each year of his Presidency separately.  I was fascinated; I remembered most of the political stuff and much of the world events.  We chatted about many of them.  The building was airy and open, offering views of the various galleries and a park leading to the river.  I'm glad we stopped; it broke up the day and gave us the opportunity to talk about all sorts of interesting people, events and times.  I have now seen three such libraries: this, in addition to Kennedy's and Ford's.  The fact that I live in the same city as another one (Carter's), that I have yet to visit, makes me feel a tad chagrined.  

The land between Little Rock and Memphis, while not as flat as that stretch I hit two days before in Louisiana, is not all that interesting.  I have been to Memphis for work often.  It hardly ranks among my favored cities.  In fact, were it not for its proximity to our plans for the next day, I would have gladly driven around the place.  

For Amanda, the Big Thrill was to cross the Mississippi, something she had only done in a plane.  Yes, that is one big river.  For me, I am fascinated by this river every time I see it.  I think of Jefferson's Purchase, Mark Twain, all the times I have read about Huck & Jim, Gateway to the West, commerce, how vital it was for both sides in the Civil War, massive floods and some mediocre Tom Cruise movie, in which the climactic scene was filled on a bridge leading to one of its islands.  I cannot possibly do it justice.    

So, we got off the road, followed our maps, only to encounter a big ass detour (say that any way you like), until we arrived at our destination:

Graceland was closed.  We arrived at this spot after visiting hours.  You can scarcely imagine our disappointment.  (Forgive me for being facetious; I have been to Monticello, Biltmore and Mount Vernon and long to see Sagamore Hill and Hyde Park.  I would not spend a nickel to go to Graceland).  Next door, I was stunned to find this hotel.  In front, there was a strip mall with about eight stores, each selling memorabilia in honor of whatshisname.  The only words that came to mind were ones attributed to H.L. Mencken, long ago: "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people".  For Amanda, transplanted Southern sorority girl, hipster New Yorker, school teacher, this must have been the greatest cultural shock of her life. 

I am unkind.  I know many regard Elvis as the greatest artist of all time.  By the time I was aware of him, he was a bad actor in worse movies who cranked out an occasional 45rpm recording from these films that, inexplicably, sold millions.  Maybe I was too young to get it, but, I just never got it.  My apologies to those who do.  

We found our hotel, anchoring a mall in the wild suburbs of Collierville.  I had promised to take Amanda to a Grisanti's, which was a restaurant we frequented in the early 90's when we lived in Raleigh (kids ate free on Tuesday nights).  It was a sad day when they closed, since I lost the free meals and they lost a fun night out.  She was excited!  She texted her sister to tell her where we were going!  Oh, and they're closed on Sundays.  Since shopping malls are surrounded by a plethora of chain restaurants, we did not go hungry.  We just made an early night of it.  The next day was the one we had both been anticipating.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Road Trip, Day One

The preparations were complete; it was now time to commence our epic Road Trip.  Upon arriving at DFW, Amanda announced that everything was bigger in Texas, except for the sign indicating the location of the baggage claim where I was waiting for her.

Once we finally got into the car, Amanda had arranged playlists, apparently one for each day of our journey.  The first song was a ditty I know as "Big D, little A, double L, A S".  I confess, I thought this a tune from some obscure Republic Pictures oater from the 40's.  Instead, it was written for a musical in the 50's, but did not attain popularity until performed as a duet by Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews on television in 1961.  Now that, boys and girls, is insignificant knowledge. 

As she had left NYC quite early in the morning, our first quest was to find food for our famished own selves.  We both noticed how darned flat it was, as we sped by an interminable amount of retail boxes (mostly) large and small, until we found our grail: Freebirds, in Las Colinas.  I have had burritos in all sorts of places; this topped them all.  Thanks to Emily B, via Julia, for the tip!  (Funny thing about this restaurant: I could not remember the name of it.  I kept wanting to call it Sweet Home Alabama, or some such).  After stuffing ourselves, I determined that Amanda simply had to experience In N Out Burger, if for no other reason than to see it.  We found one less than a mile away, where we got one milkshake.  This was the second felicitous use of Google maps on this journey.  Other highlights from day one:

Shortly after beginning the trek North, I quickly dispelled the notion that I had to speak like a Texan.  We decided we would find sights of interest along the way.  One cannot spend much time in Texas without noticing the amount of water towers along the way.  Our favorite was in Lewisville, which proclaimed it the home of the Fighting Farmers, state champs in 1993 and 1996.  I could not help but wonder how many coaches have been fired since that last feat, for not winning a championship for 17 years.

I scarcely noticed the Red River, as it was not much more than a stream.  Such a stark contrast to all those John Wayne movies, where our heroes encountered all sorts of peril in driving their cattle across this raging river.  In lieu of our traditional border crossing commentary, we sang a chorus of the state song. 

There are probably more casinos in Oklahoma than in any state, save Nevada.  Whenever I see one of these, I am reminded of the unholy alliance of those who bestowed these monstrosities on us all: Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay.  Why only one of those scoundrels ended up in jail is beyond me.  These were all set up as ways for Native American tribes to make money, which they do, albeit not nearly as much as the aforementioned crooks and the companies that run these palaces.  They were also set up to fund education in the various states (most of which reside in the old Bible Belt; I guess the good Lord hath no qualms about gamblin'), many of which now contend with Mississippi for the state with the lowest SAT scores.  I reckon that has not worked out as promised either.   

Favorite billboard: Robinson's Ham, plus Real Good Beef Jerky.  We both thought this immensely amusing.  Our hosts that evening explained that Robinson's Ham is quite the delicacy.  I have since found their website, which is so appealing as to lead one to consider a mail order purchase.  I am chagrined we did not stop.  

Favorite sites: there were actually two.  South Central Oklahoma is full of rolling hills and spectacular vistas.  The first wonder was a roadside vantage point, where we looked upon what looked to be a field full of straight rows of rocks.  The historic marker explained that mountains once stood here; these rocks were all that remained of those days from several millennia in the past.  Just beyond that was Turner Falls, billed as the largest falls in the state.  Huge sandstone boulders formed small mountains, capped by these pretty cool falls.  I had no idea such a sight existed in the state where I grew up.  

My poor daughter.  I subjected her to one tale after another, about how certain rocks are indigenous to the state, how the state was settled in 1889, how it got its nickname, how we were on the path of the Chisholm Trail and on and on, ad infinitum.  She bore it well.  Crossing the mighty Arkansas River into Tulsa begat another series of stories.  My mother used to tell us to look at this river, just to see if there was any water in it, which became one of those family in-jokes.  I recall as a child being stunned to see rivers in the East that actually did have copious amounts of water; the Hudson and Susquehanna being the two that immediately come to mind.

We spent a delightful evening at the home of Rick & Kathy.  I first met Rick when we were a year old; our parents became good friends and he and I have remained so since that time.  They are as close to family as one can be without the blood ties.  Over the past several years, they were exceptionally kind to my mother, as her age advanced and her health declined.  We ate a meal there that rivaled any restaurant and enjoyed the warmth only found in great homes.  The next morning brought another round of wonderful food and company.  

We loaded up the car and headed out again.  I have been to Tulsa many times since moving away after high school, with visits becoming more frequent as my Mother's health declined.  I do not know when - or if - I will next be making the trip.  As we headed out of town, we drove by my parents' last home.  It was their dream house, the one they bought when all their children had finished college and they finally had money to spend on themselves.  Their plan was to have a big yard with a pool, so their grandchildren would have something to do when they came to visit.  Which they did.  I have many happy memories of that place, as does Amanda, who visited several times as a child.  

Stay tuned for Chapter 3.   

Saturday, March 23, 2013


To shorten a long story: I wanted to pick up some items that had belonged to my mother in Tulsa.  The easiest way to do so was in a car.  The planning began: 
  • Ideal dates: check
  • Rent small SUV: check
  • Determine length of time necessary: check
  • Get time off from work: check.
  • Invite traveling companion, aka younger daughter Amanda: check
  • Finalize details: check
We determined that the easiest place to meet up with Amanda (who lives in New York) was Dallas. That way, she could see a whole lot more of Oklahoma than just Tulsa.  So, I picked up the rental and drove to Dallas in one day.  Sights and impressions along the way:

I noted 6 Starbucks on the road from Atlanta to Dallas, if one does not count Birmingham and its immediate environs.  No, I did not stop at any of them.  

The highway widens near Talledega, Alabama, where I believe the natives indulge in some ritual around waiting for cars to crash into each other.  The highway then quickly narrows.  I understand this to be about priorities.

The first sign I saw for Philadelphia, Mississippi brought three names immediately to mind: Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman (in that order).  I wonder what they say about those three and that era in the local public schools.  Even better, what do they say in charter schools?

When my children were small and we took road trips, we made a game out of crossing state lines.  I would inform them that one was coming up.  They would lean forward from their back seats as we approached a border.  As soon as we hit the state line, they would say, quickly, "two states at once".  They have continued this tradition through the years, now sending these updates to each other (and to me) via text messages.  I added a wrinkle to this, by sending simple texts with the state nickname to the two of them, as I crossed each border.  "Magnolia" elicited a question from Julia.  Then, Pelican, finally, Lone Star.  

A brief stop in Vicksburg reinforced why it played such a crucial role in the Civil War.  A beautiful, rolling landscape led to bluffs that commanded a view of the passing Mississippi.  Grant tried everything he could, from every different direction, to seize that spot, finally settling on a siege that led to a surrender.  That it happened at precisely the same time as Gettysburg makes that battle's finale even more striking.

Gallup, New Mexico has long topped my list of the Ugliest City I Have Ever Seen.  In fairness, I have not been there for over 30 years, so things may have changed.  In that interim, I have been to countless others, including Flint, Detroit and Toledo.  The newest contender for this dubious achievement: Monroe, LA. In fact, I would wager that Louisiana, at least the parts I drove through, is about the most uninteresting stretch of 200 miles I have ever driven.

First mile marker on I-20 in East Texas: 635, which was approximately how many I had driven already that day.  That is a big ass state (readers, say those three words aloud; now, say them again, this time, place the emphasis on the middle word.  How much does that alter your intent?).  Shortly thereafter, I saw a rusting oil pump.  Yes, I am in Texas.

Best roadside sight: picnic area with tables under wooden structures that resembled oil derricks.  I regret that this was on the other side of the highway, so I could not photograph this.

Interstate 20 in Texas is vastly superior to its counterpart in the three states immediately to its East (LA, MS, AL).  I do not believe this is due to the profound executive skills of the two most recent governors of Texas.  I suppose it more likely that politicos in the Lone Star State are just smarter about their corruption by making their fortunes while making good roads.  I do not know, however, if this is by intent or not.

Only in Dallas could they build this entirely new town and call it Legacy.  Large campuses for such corporate behemoths as HP and Intuit are surrounded by pricey townhouses, cool-looking apartments and a retail strip with the inevitable national outlets (Jamba Juice, Chipotle), some boutique-like restaurants, high-end fashion shops, at least two day spas and Urban Outfitters.  Oh, yes, there was a Starbucks, plus the largest Potbelly I have seen.  Crowning touch: on the principal street (oddly enough, called Legacy) of this area, loudspeakers were blaring that loud, repetitive thumping that is played in the lobbies of Renaissance Hotels.  This was at 6:00 am.  The only thing missing from this new tradition was a BMW dealership/repair/detail shop.  That would truly be iconic.

In N Out Burger.  Divine.

President George Bush Turnpike.  It does not indicate it is named after Bush I or Shrub.  If its the latter, I wonder if the costs of construction were never defined, simply put on the proverbial credit cards of the citizens.  That is only fitting for one who told us that the cost for liberating Iraq would be less than $75 billion.  Actual costs: over $2 trillion thus far, not to mention the additional $1 trillion in interest payments for the funds borrowed to pay for it, since no taxes were raised to finance that little adventure.  I'm sure glad that mission was accomplished.  

I did stay at a lovely, freshly reinvented Courtyard in Plano.  Wonderful product, extremely friendly, engaging people and a convenient location (well, at least to In N Out and Starbucks, to name but two).  Then, it was time to meet Amanda at DFW, which is, in no uncertain terms, a big ASS airport.  Stay tuned for chapter two, The Road Trip.