Acrobats of China

That might seem like a strange headline for someone who’s just left the bright lights of Nashville in their rear view mirror but, let’s face it, Nashville, as wonderful and vibrant as it is, is a city that pulses with a younger beat. And as much as I enjoyed it, a good, slightly-more-than-a-day there was plenty for me. While in Nashville, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is currently featuring an outstanding exhibit titled Armadillos and Outlaws about the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings musical break from Nashville to Austin in the early ’70s. The previous day I visited The National Military Park in Shiloh, Tennessee. During the Civil War, Tennessee, probably more so than any other state, was deeply divided as to its loyalties: it contributed more soldiers to the Confederacy than any other state except Virginia, but also contributed a large number of Union forces to the North. The army Grant led at Shiloh was named the Tennessee volunteers. But back to China… As I drove through Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (yes, that Pigeon Forge, home to Dolly Wood), in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, I saw a sign proclaiming Acrobats of China. Earlier in the day, I clicked over 22,000 miles on my odometer since leaving Concord on May 17. The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles (yes, of course, I had to look that up), but thought, wow, that’s pretty cool. I could be in China now or, perhaps, even a little beyond. Maybe, I thought, I should just keep on going!

All because of Marion

As the story goes, the world may never have heard of a young man named Elvis Aaron Presley were it not for Marion Keisner. A secretary at Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, she greeted Presley on a day in the mid-’50s when owner Sam Phillips was not there. She liked his recording but Phillips, who listened to it later, did not. Presley returned, however, for another session, this time with Phillips. He started singing soft ballads again and Phillips, looking for something more energetic, asked him to step it up a bit. The resulting “stepped-up” version of That’s All Right produced shock waves that are still felt to this day. A tour of Sun Studio and the impact it had on our music tells the story of Rock ‘n Roll in a fun, engaging way. Go to Graceland if you must (I did), but definitely stop by Sun Studio. A different kind of shock wave shattered our country on April 4, 1968, when gun shots ripped through the Memphis air and felled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he was standing with friends on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the shadows of that motel on Mulberry St. has risen the National Civil Rights Museum. It devotes a good piece about King but goes well beyond; it’s a wonderful testament to the strength and struggles that embody what African Americans have endured over the years, and well worth a visit. The Rock ‘N Soul museum is also worth a visit, as is the beautiful Peabody Hotel. I didn’t catch the performance of the legendary ducks at the Peabody, but did enjoy a wonderful bourbon Manhattan, while reminiscing about sleeping under the stars in Utah. Memphis is an electric city, but it’s still working hard to create a better future.

The road ahead

I spent about two years or so mapping out my cross-country trip and, then, not more than 2-3 weeks into it, cast most of that planning aside. And it has worked well — with small blips on the radar screen — for the most part. But the past week has found me checking in with Hurricane Gordon. His path, as is mine, has been tracking through parts of southern and western Mississippi and, notwithstanding a few bolts and downpours here and there, our paths have not been all that confrontational. From Natchez I headed north to Vicksburg, which is mostly a drive-thru national military park and scene of one of the most important battles of the Civil War (Grant’s tenacity in Vicksburg was what probably gained him Lincoln’s confidence), then northeast to Oxford, where James Meredith fought another amazing battle on the campus of Ole Miss in 1962, walking through a hailstorm of vitriol as he proceeded on his way to attend class. The Ole Miss of today is a far cry from the school that Meredith challenged more than 50 years ago. My main reason for visiting Oxford was to go to William Faulkner’s home, where he lived and worked for more than 30 years. In a very understated way, it was more than I had hoped for. I made my way back to the Ole Miss campus and dropped by the Sigma Chi house, where I met Mary, who manages the fraternity there. She gave me a wonderful driving-in-the-rain tour of the campus with wonderful insights about the school and students, eventually dropping me off at the Graduate Hotel, where I was staying, amid a soft rain. Shortly thereafter, at the hotel bar, I met a beautiful woman, who I had the great pleasure of talking to and dining with. Lessons learned: Plan, but not too much, and a kind hello never hurts.

Always about the river

When your town or city edges down to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, you have no choice, really: it’s always about the river. And a stroll through the downtown area, or drive, or trolley car tour (be sure to get in touch with Sally for one of these), or dinner of crawfish and catfish confirms just that: It was always about the river. The wonderful film at the Natchez Visitor’s Center opens with those words and introduces viewers, through a seasonal montage, to a wonderful city that has endured numerous ups and downs, but to this day retains a vibrant pulse and buoyancy. Natchez today is a splendid mix of Spanish, French and English cultures, but was also — in the early 1800s — one of the largest slave-trading cities in the U.S., exceeded by, possibly , only New Orleans. Ironically, William Johnson, an enslaved person of color, became a successful businessman in the early 1800s in Natchez before being murdered in circumstances that sound tragically like today. His house on State St. is run by the National Parks Service and well worth a visit. As is the Longwood House, Fort Rosalie, a great photography exhibit located within the town’s Presbyterian church, and numerous other historic landmarks. And then there is the Emerald Mound, located about 10 miles northeast of town. It was built by native Americans, between 1000-600 years ago, and is the second-largest Mississippian Period ceremonial mound in the U.S. If you are fortunate, as I was on the day I visited, when you ascend to the top, you will hear nothing, not even the chirping of birds, just the soft whistling of a gentle wind.

Let’s go…

…to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon, Willie and the boys. Country music fans will recognize the town’s name and lyrics that proved to be a huge hit for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson back in the ’70s. Luckenbach, population 3, is a tiny, dirt road enclave in the beautiful hill country of central Texas, almost equidistant from Austin and San Antonio, and just off Route 290. While those two cities are wonderful, with plenty to recommend — historic and otherwise — I especially enjoyed Fredericksburg, settled by German immigrants in 1846. Luckenbach is just a three-mile turnoff from Fredericksburg but don’t blink because you will miss it if you do. What’s to do in Fredericksburg? Hmmm…there’s the War in the Pacific Museum (they give you a three-day pass because there’s more at the museum than you can absorb in one); the LBJ state park and White House “ranch” (Johnson was born in ’08 in nearby Johnson City); Enchanted Rock state park, a great granite outcropping that allows for a sharp ascent or side loop trails for the less vertically inclined; a Texas Ranger fort (a work in progress); reenactments; and a large number of vineyards that offer wine tastings. And music — lots and lots of music; if you’re a picker, bring your geetar, fiddle or banjo (Rich — !!). There are also wonderful unique shops on Fredericksburg’s Main Street. But all that said, if you are in the area, Luckenbach — where “everybody’s somebody” — is a must.

Going bats!

If you visit the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the evening you’ll be treated to an amazing site — thousands of bats winging their way out of the cave’s natural entrance en route to the nearby Pecos and Black river valleys, where they gorge on moths and other night-flying insects. If you visit during the day, which I did, you’ll find even more amazing sights inside the caverns: decorations of stalactites, stalagmites and an incredible variety of other rock formations. There are even bacteria in the caverns that survive without light or food by dissolving rocks. They are currently being studied by researchers hopeful of discovering new, more effective ways of treating cancer. Located in southeastern New Mexico, the caverns were the scene of another award-winning (?) film in 1959 — Journey to the Center of the Earth starring…Pat Boone! Heading east from there, I crossed into Texas and settled for the night in Ozona, which happens to be the home of the Crockett County Museum even though Davey Crockett apparently never visited or had any connection to the town. The reason why a statue of the frontiersman adorns the town green is best left to a story told over a couple of beers. In the morning I visited the museum. If you go to their Facebook page — Crockett County Museum — you’ll get a glimpse of a recording star in the making!

Did someone say Santa Fe?

I wanted to visit New Mexico because of the good things I had heard about Taos. And while I liked Taos, I really liked Santa Fe. And what’s not to like: friendly people, incredible history, magnificent art in wonderful museums, great food, a wide variety of outdoor sports and, oh, did I mention friendly people?!? On a hike today in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains, I took a wrong turn (yes, I know, this has happened before), but, fortunately, a hiking couple offered me a ride back to my car, saving my feet from more wear and tear than they deserved. The kindness of strangers has been a special part of this trip. But back to Santa Fe: the capital of New Mexico, at 7,000 feet it is the highest elevation capital in the U.S., one of the oldest cities dating back to the 1500s, and probably has more world-class museums per capital than anywhere else in the U.S., if not the world. I visited the Georgia O’Keefe and New Mexico History Museums today, both outstanding. And then there are the churches. At times I felt I was in 15th century Italy — or Spain. But Taos is no slouch. Highlights for me were the Taos Museum at Fechin House, Taos Pueblo, and the Kit Carson house and museum. I particularly enjoyed the latter because I was offered the opportunity to hoist a .50 caliber Hawken rifle featured in one of my favorite movies, Jeremiah Johnson. And if all that Santa Fe and Taos have to offer isn’t enough, the landscape surrounding them and trips en route are spectacular. Most important, I met — and made — some wonderful new friends while here. Almost forgot to mention: this is Day 100 of my road trip, and I wouldn’t take back a moment. Well, maybe one or two!

Where did they go?

One of the great mysteries of the Southwest is what became of the Anasazis, a people that prospered for several hundred years and then — around 1200 or so — disappeared. The question haunts historians and archaeologists to this day. Considerable information, however, can be obtained about the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the southwest and built a remarkable culture that survives to this day. The Mesa Verde National Park, a short distance from Durango, Colorado, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Pueblo people who lived there, protecting nearly 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. The park also offers wonderful vistas of the surrounding area. I spent a short time in Durango, but could easily have stayed longer; it’s a neat town with an historic past and vibrant present. At the campsite where I was staying I met a couple traveling throughout the south and southwest on a vintage Indian motorcycle. Now residing in Virginia, they originally hailed from Massachusetts. I watched them drive away yesterday with only a medium-sized bag on the back of their bike and thought well, yes, I probably had packed a little more than I needed.

Hazy days

As I’m sure you’ve heard, fires — from California to Idaho to Arizona to Utah — have hit the West very hard this year. The smoke from those fires blows eastward, and every morning and many afternoons obscure what would otherwise be clear, beautiful vistas. But their impact is most keenly felt by those whose homes have been destroyed and those who have lost loved ones. I think often of Mike McCloskey, 22, from New Jersey, who I met in Shingletown, CA, shortly before the fires broke out and started rampaging through the area just west of Shingletown. Mike’s father was a fireman back home, but Mike wanted to gain his experience in the West fighting different kinds of fires. I hope he’s okay. The following pictures are from the past few days crossing the Colorado River; hiking through Monument Valley, which straddles both Utah and Arizona; and the Four Corners. Yesterday and today strong storms and heavy rains have ripped through parts of Colorado-New Mexico. With good fortune, other western areas may also be benefiting from this soaking.

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