"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Jackson, MS

We've been continuing our journey southward since our stop in Memphis, passing through Tupelo, Mississippi and staying at the Campground at Barnes Crossing for a few days. It was a very nice little park with large, long sites, though ours, and perhaps others, was not very level. It pushed our level-up system to its maximum and it wasn't very happy about that. We had a couple of beautiful Fall days, with very cool nights, requiring us to fill our fresh water tanks and put away the hose, lest it freeze up. This is a typical winter routine, even this far south. 

Tupelo looks to be thriving, with lots of new development around the outskirts, like in Barnes Crossing. Tupelo is also the birthplace of Elvis Presley. His tiny clapboard home is preserved and there is a  museum next to it now.  

The Natchez Trace also passes through Tupelo, which is the main reason we stopped here. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a long skinny national park that has preserved the approximate route of the original Natchez Trace, a very old foot path dating back to its use by Native Americans. The Chocktaw and Chickasaw people built mounds in the area, some of which can be seen at stops along the Trace.  Later, "Kaintucks" or boatmen used the trail to walk back north after dropping their boats off at the mouth of the Mississippi. 

We took a day trip north along the Trace to where it crosses the Tennessee River...

...and into Alabama as far as Rock Springs, one of the pull off stops along the Trace.  We took a little walk there, crossing the stream that runs from the springs...

...and along one side of the spring, which has been dammed up by a busy beaver. 

I had been wanting to drive the Natchez Trace, as it is said to be one of the most beautiful roads in the country. We had also heard that it was not RV friendly, but found this not to be the case. The length limit for RVs is 55', and the height limit is 14'. (We're a little over that length, but under the height.) We learned from locals, and witnessed ourselves during our day trip, that RVs of all lengths travel the Trace. So, we decided to go for it from Tupelo to Jackson. 

No problem!  It's a very relaxing route, with a speed limit of 50 mph, no commercial traffic (no trucks!!), no services and very limited access. In fact, it felt so RV friendly that we decided it was a good time for me to try driving the truck while towing the RV, for the very first time! It requires more awareness and alertness than driving the car or the truck alone, but on a slow straight haul like this, it was also no problem. I drove for about an hour and then switched back to the car before we got to local roads again. I didn't want to push my luck. 

We stopped for a few days at Goshen Springs Campground on Ross Barnett Reservoir, near Jackson, MS. Above is our site. It's a very nice campground for big rigs; almost all the sites are double wide, concrete pads, plenty long, and with plenty of space between sites. Most guests seem to be hunters and fisherman, but the place is fine for anyone.  The rate can't be beat: $20/night senior rate, and much lower for extended stays. 

While here we drove over to Vicksburg, about an hour away, in the pouring rain. We weren't sure how much we would want to see in the rain, but we thought we'd give it a shot, based on the recommendations of our friends Lynn and Glenn

We started our visit to Vicksburg with lunch at the Main Street Market Cafe, a surprising treasure near downtown. It's a little two room restaurant, maybe it could be called Southern "shabby chic." Everything on the very complete, but modestly sized menu is $10. I love that!  All kinds of deep south/Cajun specialties. I had the red rice and beans. 

Anyway, after driving by the riverwall murals and the kind of depressing downtown area, we headed for the battlefield, took in the Visitors' Center where there is a very helpful map of the battlefield with moving lights describing the movement of the regiments during the battles. Then we drove around the battlefield - still in heavy rain and increasing fog. 

The highpoint was the USS Cairo (pronounced kay-ro) Museum.  
Here is a view of it from under the arched entrance to the museum.

The USS Cairo was one of the ironclad ships used by the Union Navy in the Civil War. It was sunk near Vicksburg by a Confederate mine, and was resurrected from the muddy river bottom and partially restored about 100 years afterwards. In these pictures you'll see it under its huge tent. (Nice in the rain.) The surviving wood and metal parts have been reinforced and supported to suggest what the original looked like.

These two pictures show the iron sides of the ship. 

The inside of the museum has displays of what was recovered from inside the ship. Everything was in surprisingly good shape.  After taking that all in we headed back to the campground - still raining and getting dark early, as it does this time of year.

Our next stop will be New Orleans, for Thanksgiving and some exploring around. Really looking forward to that! 

Monday, November 18, 2013

West Memphis, Arkansas: Tom Sawyer Mississippi Campground

I don't usually write too much about the campgrounds where we stay; there's just so much information out there describing and reviewing RV parks, that we don't think it's much of a contribution. (By the way, my favorite place to find campgrounds online is RV Park Reviews.)  This one is so unique though, that I thought it was worth noting.

Tom Sawyers Campground is right on the banks of the Mississippi, on the river side of the extensive levees that protect West Memphis, so it floods regularly. You can understand why the park has not developed its landscaping too much. There are three large sections, two on the river and one under the trees. The sites on the river are long and wide, many with concrete pads and all with full hook-ups. One section is for 5th wheels and the other for motorhomes, so that the hook-ups are on the correct side to have your picture window facing the river. Nice touch.

Everything in the park is set up to minimize damage when flooding occurs. Above you can see how the power box is built up on stilts. Below you'll see the laundry room, on the second floor of this little shed, with the 2011 high water mark indicated on the side.  (BTW, the laundry is brand new and FREE!)  There is a second laundry/bath house on wheels, so that it can be moved to higher ground. Smart. 

The park has a lot of open space, and since it's shoulder season, there are not many guests. That explains why there are almost no other RV's in these pictures, which were taken mid-week when we arrived to a near empty park. It did fill up a bit on the weekend, so that we had neighbors on either side. 

There is an extensive, well maintained, and wide trail system woven around the perimeter and interior of what must be at least 40 acres of property. This was my favorite part of the park. Great bird watching too. We saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers, lots of warblers and smaller woodpeckers, a clump of large white birds hanging out on the river (too far to ID, maybe swans), an American kestrel, a pair of red tail hawks, great blue herons and lots of killdeer. 

Here the trail goes up onto the nearby levee. 

There are three large ponds stocked with fish, and the river offers ever-changing scenery. Many barges and tugs of all sizes going by all day and night. The Mississippi is alive and well as a shipping corridor, for those of you from other parts of the country.

The park is just outside of West Memphis, which is not a city I'd recommend for any purpose, except that it could be a great commuting town into Memphis (if it weren't so depressed). It takes about 10 minutes to get across the river and into downtown Memphis from here. Easy-peasy for sight seeing.

Nice benches placed all along the river. Because of the great trails I was out walking or bike riding many times, and because of some great sunsets and a full moon, I was taking a lot of pictures too.

Rick says "Where the heck is she now?"

Addendum: There were many, many tornadoes in the midwest and mid south yesterday, just north of us, and it isn't even tornado season. Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who lost their homes or loved ones. It reminds us to be grateful again that we have had so few problems with the weather, as being in an RV does make one more vulnerable to extreme weather. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Memphis, TN: Graceland

"For reasons I cannot explain there's some part of me wants to see Graceland." - Paul Simon

That puts it nicely. Neither Rick nor I have ever been Elvis fans, so what are we doing here? Who knows. But we were going to be in Memphis, and thought, why not? Elvis Presley and his home are cultural phenomena, so perhaps we better witness it and see what we see. 

Admission to Graceland is not cheap. With a senior and AAA discount the basic tour for two came to $57.  We maintained hopes for the best.  We were directed to a line for the shuttle, passing the first of many souvenir shops along the way, and given our headsets for the guided audio tour.  

The shuttle bus delivered us on the front porch of the "mansion," which is only a mansion by the standards of a young man born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi.  It's about the size of a larger home in a northern suburb, maybe comparable to one of the McMansions that are going up all over the country - maybe smaller.  I believe he bought the home in 1957, when the property was out in the country south of Memphis.

We were directed into the front hallway by a guide, and then we were on our own with the audio tour.  First room - the living room - and right away we were transported back to the sixties and seventies. This house is how someone from that era, who came in to a lot of money, but had no history of privilege, power and class, would decorate their home. The rooms are of typical size and the decor is, well, how can I say this, ghastly? no, garish? no, gaudy maybe? I give up. What it triggers is a whole set of classist, judgmental descriptors that are out of place and time. It is what it is.

The staircase up to Elvis's private floor, which remains private. 
Maybe Lisa Marie, his daughter, and current owner, still lives up there? I doubt it. 

A guest bedroom...

The dining room. Very simple china, gaudy chandelier. Oops, there I go again.

When we entered the kitchen, it all hit home. Literally. This could have been my family's kitchen when I was growing up, just a little bigger. Passing through the kitchen, we began to feel like we were really in someone's home. A real person, who lived much like we did. 

Down the stairs to the basement.  Here the fantasy house begins. 
Think disco and psychedelics. The stairs are completely lined with mirrors and lights. 

The TV room is also mirrored on the ceiling, and all done in yellow and purple. 
Eek! (by today's standards.) Bold, exotic, "modern."

Funny little pool table room here. The walls and ceiling are lined with fabric that matches the sofa, and there is a small Picasso on one wall.

Now up the stairs, lined with green shag carpet as a foreshadowing of interior indulgences to come...

..in the "Jungle Room" (today I think it would qualify as a man cave). 

(Just looking at this snapshot of his life provoked so many questions. Was Elvis a typical man of his times? Was this how rock and roll culture looked in the homes of his contemporaries? It reminded me of Michael Jackson [who Elvis's daughter married! Double Eek!] - an icon of his time too, gifted, promoted, wrung out and strung out.) 

Back to the jungle room. Rick kept rolling his eyes. But I was actually feeling a little teary. It's so...so...I give up again. 

Well here's the kicker. Exit out the back, cross through the modest car port and there is Lisa Marie's swing set. Once again, it all comes home. This is just a guy, just a family home. He had enough money to do whatever he wanted with this home, probably hired big deal interior decorators to do whatever was hottest at the moment. But a swing set is a swing set. It could have been a three story tree house, or a child sized railroad, but it was just a swing set. How sweet.

We walked along the back of the house - very normal...

...and into the "Trophy" hall, which is basically a museum filled with memorabilia 
of Elvis's music and movie career.  A loooong hall with his gold records.

The final exhibit room used to be the racquetball court, but is now a display of his last years, complete with more gold and platinum records and about 8 of the very flashy outfits he was known for in the seventies.  Sequins, capes, bell-bottoms.  The best part of this room, and really most of the museum spaces is the film footage of his performances. They were absolutely stunning. It's true, he was a remarkable performer. Not doubt about it. I unfortunately did not appreciate his musical style when he was alive. I was in college, and Elvis was not cool among the "intelligentsia" of academia and the hippies like me. Rick was at sea and not so tuned in to US modern culture. So we missed most of Elvis's music.  But I get it now. 

Elvis's and his family's graves are in his meditation garden. 

I am SO glad we went. Although it's hard to find the right words to describe Elvis's home, it doesn't feel so hard to find words for him. He was clearly a gifted performer, but I also came away feeling like he was sweet. A sweet man. I guess I'm not alone in feeling that, and that's one reason why he has been so loved. 

I also came away appreciating that this amazing moment in time has been preserved for us to see now. Not so different from Andrew Jackson's Hermitage. Elvis was just from a different era, a representative of the "creative class" rather than the political gentry, but just as powerful in his own way. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Nashville, TN: LIGHT by Bruce Munro at Cheekwood Gardens

Cheekwood Gardens and Art is located southwest of Nashville in the upscale suburb of Belle Meade, which was once a single plantation of 5,400 acres. Cheekwood was the home of the Cheek family, who made their fortune with Maxwell House coffee.  Incidentally, the Maxwell House was a hotel in Nashville where they served Cheek's unique coffee blend, which Teddy Roosevelt supposedly called "good the the last drop" - thus the well known slogan.

Cheekwood is now a botanical garden and art museum housing antiques and contemporary art.  This summer and fall they were hosting an unusual kind of exhibit, LIGHT, by Bruce Munro. We arrived just before sunset, and parked very close to the Visitor's Center.  On our way out, about two hours later, we saw cars parked much, much farther away, on either side of the entry driveway all the way to the road. Our early arrival was a great idea.

We strolled through the gardens, waiting for darkness and the illumination of the exhibit.  This is what the section called "Field of Lights" looked like before dark. 

We took the Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail through the woods and saw about eight permanent large sculptures before emerging at the Japanese Garden where we saw Munro's "Candelight" against a back drop of golden gingko trees...

..."Blue Moon" in the Japanese dry lake

...and "Fireflies" in the bamboo forest.

The path led us to "Light Reservation," a grouping of about ten blinking neon tipi-like structures, 
just as the sun disappeared and the sliver of moon appeared.  I thought the natural twilight outshone this one by a long shot.

As we approached the mansion, it was finally dark enough to appreciate the "Field of Lights."

We didn't even know that the museum was going to be open, but inside there were more surprises awaiting. It was a truly elegant building. Rick was completed enamored. It's architectural style was balanced and subtle, yet finely detailed. We walked through a few rooms filled with china and silver collectibles and then came upon two glorious creations by Munro that were part of the LIGHT exhibit.  The first was "Light Shower."  The effect was created by curtains of fiber optics ending in crystals. The reflections in the windows looked like brilliant stars. 

Here's how it looked from outside.

And here's how it looked from below.

The second, and most breathtaking of the evening, was the "Bell Drop Chandelier" 
hanging in the grand central staircase. 

Each filament ended in a silver light emitting bell. Here's the view from below.

The three story staircase wound around it, allowing a 360 degree view from top to bottom. Here is the side view, looking through the shower of light at other traditional chandeliers down the hall.

After standing entranced by the "Bell Drop Chandelier" with our mouths hanging open for long enough, we exited the mansion to see yet another view of "Field of Lights."

We made our way back to the entrance of the park, to see the last segment of the exhibit, "Water-Towers." The towers were made with recycled one liter bottles filled with water and fiber optics. 

The jewel colors of each tower changed very gradually, and on top of that, beautiful music was coming from inside each tower. As we walked through and around the towers, I found the experience completely enchanting. 

It was such an unusual and inspiring evening. It felt like we had been in another world. 

Well, that's the last of our reports from the world of Music City. We always end these extended visits saying to each other that one month is just right to get to know an place, and we felt that way again, about Nashville. It's quite a town, and we're ready to move on.