Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 22: All-Nighter on the Freedom Road

August 5: Atlanta Day’s Inn to macy’s to West Point, Georgia to Montgomery and Selma Alabama, to Vicksburg and Nachez, Mississippi

Below us the old rails were covered by kudzu, a voracious and surreal plant that has turned most of the South into Bosch-like topiary...impressionist and ubiquitous like postmodernism.
Andre Codrescu, Hail Babylon

I remember thinking that our parents didn’t have the first idea where we were, other than that we were somewhere in the continental vastness between Des Moines and the Florida Keys...
That sort of thing did really happen down there, you know This was only five years after three freedom riders were murdered in Mississippi. They were a twenty-one-year-old black from Mississippi and two white guys from New York, Andrew Goodman twenty, and Michael Schwerner, twenty. I give their names because they deserve to be remebered. To me this was and always would be the South.
Bill Bryson, Lost Continent

The ice machine on the 14th floor overlooked the pool and both were necessities in Atlanta in August. There was a quick swim in the early heat; a couple of little girls and their mother were bouncing in the water by the time my laps were finished. With my in-room coffee and granola bar breakfast I read more Grapes of Wrath and caught Travels With Charley up to the Cheerleaders in New Orleans, where I planned to be by Monday. From the comfort of the queen-size hotel bed and the infernal convenience of my secondhand cellphone, I fulfilled a girlhood dream, booking two days at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. I never had the money to stay there during all my Mardi Gras in the 70’s. The closest I had come was trailing along with the Half-Fast Walking Club – right behind Phil Harris and Pete Fountain – as they ducked into the back door to the Carousel Bar on Mardi Gras Day, swaying through their celebratory itinerary.
Hurricane Katrina had interfered with the rates in the Quarter, even putting a damper (so to speak) on Carnival and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Word was out that hospitality had recovered in the historic core, but the rates were still around a third of the usual and this would be my opportunity to luxuriate, as well as survey the damage.
First I had to find a macy’s and pay my bill, so I followed the desk clerk’s directions, sort of, and headed across town to the Lenox Center, where I basked in civilization, found a Mexican wedding dress-style blouse to go with the skirt from New York and, after being demonstrated on by a persuasive clerk, bought the Strivectin I had intended to get for Charlie’s stretch marks three years before. Now it was for my wrinkles. The temperature in Atlanta had climbed from 80 at 9 a.m. to 94 at noon and by the the end of my shopping trip at 4:00, it was 102. Fortified with a Raspberry Freeze from the in-house Starbuck’s, I headed out on the 85 toward Alabama, out of those sunny skies and into a raging thunderstorm; the temperature dropped to 79 in a matter of minutes.
Rain came in sheets that obscured the windshield and I watched a Georgia pine struck by lightening crack open and explode at the side of the road. Radio kept me company: 97.1 The River from Atlanta, through the hulking overgrowth on the Georgia roadsides, Rooster Country 106.1, and another Eagle radio station playing classic rock out of Birmingham. It was too hard to choose cd’s and drive, so I followed radio stations through their broadcast ranges to where they merged with another agreeable frequency.
Out of the storm, I drove between humps of kudzu into blue skies at Lake West Point, took a nap at a picnic area next to another family reunion, and watched a wild black and white cat lounge and stretch on a picnic table. This, the ring of horseshoes, laughter, and boaters shouting from the lake was civilized, idyllic. At a closed Army Corps of Engineers center, planted with magenta crape myrtle that sheltered hundreds of shy birds, there was a quote from W.H. Hudson, “There is no more fascinating pasttime than to keep company with a river from its source.” This was what I looked forward to, driving toward a reunion with the Mississppi after the earlier encounter in Minnesota. At Montgomery I left the 85 and started west on a direct collision course with the River. The clouds gathered again and the sun was red, the sky gold, green, and deep gray as lightening began to flash in the distance.
This was to be one of the most dramatic drives of the trip because of the weather and the special significance of the road. As I traveled west in gathering gloom, I picked up amazing blues music on WVFG, 107.5, “The Real Thing” out of Uniontown, Demopolis, and Selma and realized I was driving the route of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, the Historic Road of the March to Montgomery. A billboard advertised 5 museums in Selma, and coaxed the weary to stay “Where Hospitality Meets History.” Along the way, markers announced the site of four encampments where the marchers spent night on the way from Selma to Montgomery in 196. When I reached Selma, commemorative signs pointed the winding way to the church where the march began, an imposing if somewhat down-at-heel two-story red church next to a newer and sleeker chapel with tall white columns. There was the ominous feeling of being at ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement, from which we had been somewhat insulated in the suburbs of Houston. Driving through Selma, a college town still a little ragged at the edges, the feeling continued down the road to Meridian, where the three boys were run off the road after being released by the police. In the dark, the ditches falling away into blackness on the roadside held a particular terror, especially as the lightening and thunder continued and a Black History Montage came on the radio from WNPR, segue to Highway 61, blues at WMRR, non-profit stations like the Pacifica of my youth. These were songs I hadn’t heard for twenty years: “Freddy’s Dead”, James Brown’s “Payback”, “Get Up. Stand Up”, The Last Poets, and a Slave Ship narrative with the sound effect of lapping water that I had never heard before. It reminded me of Lawrence Jones, a poet who was on the 3-6 a.m. shift before me at KPFT, the kind of politically-charged juxtaposition of music and spoken word he used to do. This carried me into Vicksberg at 4 in the morning and I drove around to look at ante-bellum mansions in the dark, then took the foggy Nachez Trace down the levee to the sound of gospel and Sunday Morning preaching.
Finally coming out onto the Mississippi after another all-nighter, I parked in a lot overlooking two casino riverboats, one of which had its own hotel and shuttle service a little back from the shore. Early morning joggers crossed in front of me on a path with an amazing view of the mile-wide Big Muddy and an old iron erector-set bridge spanning the river to the south. It was 6:00 and 70 degrees, perfect conditions for taking a nap, and I leaned the seat back, secure in this public lot on the edge of the Sublime.

Day 21: Carolina Smoky Mountain High

August 4: Mount Rogers State Park, Grayson Highlands to Abingdon, Virginia to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Atlanta, Georgia

Soundtrack: Bad bluegrass from the National Park store; 97.1 FM The River, Atlanta

My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia, at four-o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-bye or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

In the mists over the meadow where I parked, three children from the campground were already romping with their dachshund, trying to fly a kite in the lilting wind at six in the morning. I took out my toothbrush, towel, and washcloth and went looking for restrooms among the RV’s and campsites. When Steinbeck traveled this way he had marveled at the congenial community of trailer parks. Would he have been surprised at their evolution into this bourgeois institution?
The pickup camper lifestyle was, in a sense, his own invention; Travels With Charley so captured the imagination of the American public that it became an inspiration for thousands upon thousands of travelers, intent upon carrying a simulated home environment with them on the road. Now, as I walked among the metal behemoths with their extensions and accessories, I marveled at the mobility of these enormous homes on wheels, most of which also dragged along a rover car for quick trips off the park. The vehicles bore insignia of the ideologies of their manufacturers and sometimes the personal stamp of their owners, as well as state license plates. There was an American Star from North Carolina, A Holiday Rambler Endeavor from Florida, Weekend Warriors and Trekkers and Jamborees and Fleetwoods and a purple and taupe monster called the Flagstaff Classic Supreme, also from North Carolina.
It was Friday and some of the campers were getting the jump on the weekend, but others, looking as if they had been there awhile, had personalized their spaces with staked signs like, “Lord Help Me Be the Man My Dog Thinks I Am” and The Walters – “On the Road Again.” One campsite had multiple tarps used as tents with every activity carried out in the open: cooking, washing, tables, beds and chairs around a fire ring. Shades of The Grapes of Wrath.
The children, with Henry the dog sniffing about the meadow, had managed to snag their kite in one of the trees at the edge of the clearing by the time I smoothed the bedding over to leave. Once again I traced “Travels Without Charlie” and the broken heart in the dust on the door of the HHR and wondered if anyone would notice. I didn’t want to be noticed as, for the first time on this trip, I snuck out before the ranger came around to check for fees.
“Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law!” I chanted on the way into Abingdon. Charlie would have enjoyed the sneak retreat. In direct opposition to Steinbeck, who found his experiences in the South so disturbing that he couldn’t wait to get back to New York, my adventure was just beginning. But as I cruised through Abingdon looking for a gas station and breakfast, I could see how the picture-pretty little burgh could be a bit of a downer in its perfection. Across the street from the Barter Theater, where once anything of value would get you in to see the show, the locals had set up an an arts and crafts fair, a little heavy on the crafts side. Under fluffy clouds, the thermometers just touched 80 degrees, the flower beds bloomed and the trim hedges sang with honeybees. It was all too picturesque. I couldn’t find a coffee shop, so I got gas at a bp, took a chance on the Lotto and headed down the highway. At a Bob Evans Restaurant I ate rather pricey raspberries and whipped cream among a tasteful selection of curtains and antiques. Although the food was tasty, it seemed I could not escape the boutiquery.
Little did I know the tribulation ahead as I drove towards the Great Smoky Mountains. Gray skies threatened and made good on the threat, pouring rain as I entered the uber-tourist trap of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Bill Bryson in Lost Continent describes the situation perfectly:

The ugliness intensified to fever pitch as I rolled into Gatlinburg, a community that had evidently dedicated itself to the endless quest of trying to redefine the limits of bad taste.
There is not much more to it than a single mile-long main street, but it was packed from end to end with the most dazzling profusion of tourist clutter – the Elvis Pressley Hall of Fame, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, two haunted houses, the National Bible Museum, Hillbilly Village, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the American Historical Wax Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, something called Paradise Island, something else called World of Illusion, the Bonnie Lou and Buster Country Music Show, Carbo’s Police Museum (“See Walking Tall Sheriff Buford Pusser’s Death Car!”), Guinness Book of Records Exhibition Center, and last, but not least, Irene Mandrell Hall of Stars Museum and Shopping Mall.
In between this galaxy of entertainments were scores of parking lots and noisy, crowded restaurants, junk food stalls, ice cream parlors, and gift shops of the sort that sell Wanted posters with YOUR NAME HERE and baseball caps
with droll embellishments, like a coil of realistic-looking plastic turd on the brim.
Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on their bellies, consuming ice cream, cotton candy, and corn dogs, sometimes simultaneously...

Not much has changed in the nearly twenty years since Bryson made the trip. Add to this intermittent torrents of rain and signage contrived to deceive the unwary into sticking around this third circle of hell. The marvel is that Bryson actually enjoyed himself and, once I got off onto Nature Loop #8 north of town, so did I. But I mistook the 10-mile-an-hour one-way trail for part of the National Park and, rustic as it was, it was just another Gatlinburg ploy to keep me in the city limits. Now, if you happen to stay overnight in this hillbilly side-show of a town, Nature Trail #8 is a bucolic mini-tour just outside the Park, with the requisite settler’s cabins and burbling streams, woods and waterfalls, within biking distance of the main drag. If I hadn’t been so miffed at being fooled into staying in Gatlinburg, it would have been a pleasant diversion.
But at the end of the loop, here I was driving back past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, predominantly obese tourists, and curb-to-curb traffic; I couldn’t believe I fell for it! With a closer reading of the signs, I finally aimed the HHR toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountains really do appear to smoke, mist actually, in a most provocative way, and at the apex of the park, Clingman’s Dome, the clouds were so scuddingly close you could taste them. 6643 feet up it was 66 degrees cool, with a substantial cloud chill factor and an effort just to climb the trail to the coiled observation tower. But wonderful! Just watching the play of mist concealing and revealing the landscape was a thrill. There are benches tucked into the rocks along the way facing out over the mountains, not just for viewing but to catch your breath on the hike up. Charlie, the heartbroken romantic, who in his teens reminded me of the doomed Manfred in Beethoven's overture, would have loved this place, its air of The Sublime and the natural high of the altitude. I paused on the way down to sit in one of these niches, wet with tears and clouds, missing him.
At the Visitor Center I meant to just get a decal and accidentally bought a sterilized mountain music cd, of all the vast offerings available, because I wanted to hear “Wreck of the Old 97.” They didn’t have Roy Acuff’s or Hank Snow’s version and I paid $15 for something I could hardly stand to listen to once, let alone enjoy as a soundtrack to the park. By the time I had been to the top of the Dome and back, it was too late to get gas at the last park store, but as I swung through the turnout, past the shutoff pumps, a handsome buck deer crossed my path from the median, Charlie’s totem animal again; it looked right at me.
In gathering mists on the way down the hill, there was a band of Mountain Men playing at a roadside bar, and I was sorely tempted to stop for more than gas. But the downside of the hill had no vacancies and seemed to be the Native American version of Gatlinburg with similar, if slightly less obnoxious, exhibits. So I pressed on in the dark to Atlanta.
Then came the uneasy awareness that I was entering The Deep South, which Steinbeck had approached with such trepidation, and it didn’t help that I got off the highway and was lost in the dark in a maze of muddy dirt roads, edged with the blurred forms that kudzu made of roadside trees and hedges. At one point, rounding a sharp curve crowded with pickup trucks and milling dudes in jeans, some loud goings-on in a lit-up metallic building had me “a little uh, anxious, if you know what I mean.” But I eventually edged toward where I could see more lights and found my way onto Interstate 85.
With Atlanta as my goal, I promised myself a nice dinner, maybe music and and a hotel room. By the time I reached the outskirts of town it was around midnight and, lured by a billboard advertising a $39 motel, I took the Shallowford exit. At closer look, the discarded beds on the balcony and trashed doors on the units indicated a level of maintenance that seemed a bit iffy. Continuing down the poorly lit road, drug dealers whistling and slapping palms on streetcorners began to actually frighten me and bode ill for finding upscale accommodations. I turned around in the parking lot of a Latin dance club, where squadra of lurching borachos crossing the pavement only added to my trepidation, and escaped to the comparative safety of the freeway. What a woose I was! Oh, well...
Since the only major street I knew was Peachtree, I got off at that exit and aimed at the skyscraper profile of a Day’s Inn that radiated familiarity and a good chance for a vacancy in its hundred or so rooms with views. Luckily, there were a few left, despite the presence of a large family reunion for the weekend.
Determined to treat myself to a salad or appetizer and glass of wine, I changed into my red and black batik lounger and headed down to the bar. But it was a Sports Bar, with no entertainment but a widescreen t.v., so I had my dinner in the City Grill next door, which was completely filled with wide-awake African Americans enjoying their own late night snacks. Nervous in a crowd of mostly young blacks, I imagined they were wondering whattheheck the old white lady was doing there in the middle of the night. The concept of Caesar Salad Southern Style did not translate well; the lettuce was smothered in heavy cream dressing and the only wine they had was rose’, sweet as soda pop. So much for even modest expectations, let alone the Peak Experience. Still, it beat sleeping in the car in Georgia heat.

Day 20: A Mighty Rough Road and Fireflies

August 3: Waynesboro, Virginia to Lynchburg to Danville to the New River Trail near Glaxa, Virginia to Mount Rogers State Park

Soundtrack: Wreck of the 97 and New River Train (in my head); Zydeco Party Band, Greatest Hits; Taj Mahal; O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
Saying, “Steve, you’re way behind time
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time...

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
In a line on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
Oh you see what a jump he made

Charles Noell, Fred Lewey, Whittier/Work as recorded by Hank Snow

I woke up in Waynesboro to free granola bars and snacks and coffee in the room. After a quick swim in a cold pool, I dressed in my usual denim jacket and leggings and drove south toward the George Washington National Forest.
Passing through Lyndhurst, Virginia in the rising heat, a sign on a church challenged: “You think its hot here?” Things cooled off a bit at 4,000 foot elevations on the Appalachian Trail.
In downtown Lynchburg, Virginia I parked diagonally on an old- fashioned high curb and went looking for a pawnshop to buy an accordion. The local music store was heavy on guitars and drums, but not even the ghost of a squeezebox and no one behind the counter had any ideas. So I walked on, searching the brick storefronts (many to let) for a macy’s so I could pay my bill. Finally I asked another middle-aged lady in a respectable print dress.
“Is there a macy’s in this town?”
“I WISH!” she said simply and we both had a good laugh about it.
The quaint shops and abundant churches notwithstanding, this was a downtown in the throes of urban decay, with the wide, slow James River heading south at its edge. Before the meter could expire, I followed the signs past cemeteries and parks toward Danville and the mighty rough road I’d been hearing about since my childhood. I didn’t have a recording of the Wreck of the Old 97, but kept hearing the song in my head every time a mileage sign for one of the cities came in view. It was a song I'd learned from my mother, who was raised in the Ozarks and had brothers who played country songs on their guitars. The road was not so rough, but the train tracks paralleled it on the right and The O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack was appropriately tragic in places. Interstate 29 ran down to the Dan River sheet factory (largest in the world, who knew?) and from there the Crooked Trail led west in the opposite direction of Steinbeck’s route, past Lovers’ Leap where I pulled over and had a short nap. Dozens of cars pulled into the precarious parking area near the sheer drop, with its promise of almost certain death to the heartbroken who jumped, many of them star-crossed couples.
I got back on the winding road, looking for a suitable place to stop for the night. Just outside of Glaxa there was a section of the New River Trail with a parking lot and small visitor center, restrooms, and picnic tables. I had a nice dinner of granola bars, cashews, and some of the Luray Caverns wine and set off down the trail to walk it off before dark. Fireflies drifted in and out of the bushes along the river, where the cliffs often soared hundreds of feet high from the water’s edge and all the totem animals appeared one by one. There were deer foraging on the opposite bank, a blue heron wading in the pebbly shallows, and even a rooster, the symbol of my poetic alter ego, strutting by from a neighboring farm. Signs along the way stated that the narrow swath of riparian land linked private properties and farms that were united in their effort to restore the New River and complete the rustic trail along its banks. It was a magical place.
But it was not a campsite. I put the Taj Mahal CD on and started west in the last of the sunset. By the time I arrived at Grayson Highlands just east of Abingdon, it was late enough that I had missed the bluegrass concert on the park stage. Everyone had left except the ranger and a couple of die-hard talkers and I was sorry I had missed it. Under the light of a half moon I parked at the edge of a tree-lined field. The branches tossed in the light wind; I read a little Grapes of Wrath by flashlight, and settled into the comfort of the body pillows and Mexican blankets under the moonroof.