Elvis and a bit of Lewis & Clark
I am singing along to “ A Hunk, A Hunk of Burning Love” on Elvis Radio as I enter Tupelo, MS to see the house where Elvis was born. I have been to Graceland to see his life in his glory many times but today I am exploring his humble beginnings. Tupelo is unquestioningly proud of being the birthplace of the rock ’n roll legend – as well they should be. Before arriving, I knew about the Elvis Birthplace Home Museum but am surprised to find the entire town feeds off the memory of the King and his legacy. Still, I am happy to find a seriously cool little town, prosperous, well preserved and booming.
The deep south is where blues music was born, and gospel music was buried deep in Elvis soul – that fusion of gospel and blues that Elvis came to personify was the first time the two were blended and it transformed the sound of music – Elvis embodies rock ‘n roll as we know it today and the chords he produced continue to define American music today. He recorded 710 songs, stared in 31 films – made women all around the world swoon – served in the Army and he only lived 42 years. He has been dead longer than he lived. But his legacy is so much a part of popular culture and our collective consciousness, it would be hard to avoid knowing about Elvis.
This story is a reminder that humble beginnings can produce a King. This is the mid-1930’s and times were tough for the Presley’s, as well as just about everyone else in Tupelo, MS. He was born in the poorest state in the country, during the Great Depression on the wrong side of the tracks. In 1934, Elvis’ mother, Gladys, was expecting so her husband, Vernon, built a tiny home for them with his own hands. He had help from his father and brother and borrowed the $180 for building materials from his employer. It was in this two-room shotgun shack that Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935. He was one of twins, but sadly, his brother, Jessie Garon Presley did not live. When Elvis was three, his father went to prison for eight months for adding a zero to a $4 check he received for selling a pig. The family defaulted on the loan and were evicted. The Presley family lived in other locations in Tupelo until Elvis was 13. At age 11, his mother bought him a guitar for his birthday. Elvis could be seen around town carrying that guitar, right up to the day Vernon piled his family into their 1939 Plymouth and made the move to Memphis. By age 21, he was famous. He had moved to Memphis but came back to Tupelo in 1956 to perform at the same fairgrounds where he won a prize singing “Ole Shep” at age 10. The next year, in 1957, he gave a concert in Tupelo and donated all the money to the city to build a park on the land surrounding his birthplace home. After his death in 1977, the City of Tupelo formed the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation to renovate the birthplace and create all that is here today.
On the grounds of Elvis Birthplace Museum is his original home, the little white house with the porch swing, on its original site, restored to its original state, just as it would have been on the day he was born. Here also, is the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church the Presley family worshipped in and an amazing bronze statue of Elvis at 13 years old with his guitar.
I strolled downtown, a charming mix of old and new with great old brick buildings. I stopped in Tupelo Hardware, which opened its doors in 1926 and from where Elvis got his first guitar – visited Reeds – delivering Confidence, Pride and Joy since 1905 and the former place of employment of Gladys Presley. A photo of her in a group of workers wraps the upper wall.
Back in the rig with a milkshake to go from Johnnies on East Main – where Elvis ate as often as he could during his impoverished youth – I turn up the volume on Elvis Radio and sing along to “Be My Little Good Luck Charm”.
Back on Hwy 78, with Tupelo in my rear view mirror I enter the Natchez Trace Parkway and this is where I slip a tidbit about my heroes Lewis & Clark into the Elvis story. In late 1809, Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis to begin an arduous journey to the Federal City – Washington, DC – to clear his name. This journey would lead to his death on the Natchez Trace six weeks later. Just three years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the 35 year old Lewis was no longer the hero he had once been. He was deeply in debt and accused of malfeasance by the War Department. After traveling by boat down the Mississippi, Lewis spent a lengthy stint at Fort Pickering – the site of present-day Memphis where he had weighed the risks of going to Washington by sea via New Orleans, or taking the rugged and dangerous Natchez Trace overland through the wilderness. Lewis’s decision to take the Trace may have been ill-fated, but it was not naive; one of the most experienced wilderness travelers in the world, he was also familiar with the Trace and the resident Chickasaw Indians from his days as a young officer. The route from Memphis to the main Chickasaw village, a place called Big Town, was called Pigeon Roost Road. And while the forests and their millions of passenger pigeons are long gone, you can still take a jaunt down Pigeon Roost’s successor road, today’s US 78, and meet up with the Natchez Trace Parkway at the crossroads where Big Town once stood. Today the bustling junction is known as Tupelo, Mississippi, and it just happens to be the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll.
My mother loved the dogwoods best of all and passed that pleasure on to me. Each year when the dogwoods begin to bloom I think of visiting Dogwood Canyon Nature Park to see them in all their glory but each year there are other places I need to be. This year, time on my hands, an RV to take me where I want to go and news that a rare white American bison calf was welcomed to the herd at Dogwood Canyon combine to give me the perfect excuse to make this the year. The entrance sign says, “Welcome to Paradise” and so do the dogwoods – they are heart-stopping.
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a work of art located deep in the Missouri Ozarks sprawling across the Arkansas Missouri border with stunning views of the Ozark Mountains. The 10,000-acre expanse of unspoiled Ozarks landscape, owned by renowned conservationist Johnny Morris, Founder/CEO of Bass Pro Shops and operated by the not-for-profit Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife Foundation serves as a thriving habitat for native flora and fauna. Aside from a few amenities to make the Dogwood Canyon more accessible to guests, the rugged land has been left untouched and, with just a little imagination, you travel back to a time when European settlers first entered the area or, even further, to explore the mark that Native Americans left on the Missouri hills and hollows.
When Daytripping visited Dogwood Canyon we took the tram around the park. Today, I decide to hike through the buds and blossoms, experience springtime in the canyon at my own pace. There are more than six miles of hiking pathways that weave throughout the park, winding past waterfalls, by streams and over quaint hand-made bridges – including an authentic covered bridge, gorgeously crafted by the Amish folk who live nearby. I linger by the tranquil turquoise Six Stump Spring, looking closely to see where the water comes out of the ground. The trail passes by Glory Hole, the breathtaking home to giant rainbow trout – the reflection of light and depth of the water create a perfect blue-green color – here you can see a cave in the mountain behind the waterfall – the 10 year old in me wishes I could climb up there and explore. Again at Fire Pit Cave, a sign warning me against climbing the rocks for a closer investigation – it is tempting. When discovered this cave contained rare stone beads and well-preserved charcoal samples dating back 3,000 years. Heading back, I stop to explore the Hope Wilderness Chapel – modeled after historic churches from the 1800’s the chapel was hand-crafted from local materials including native short-leaf pine logs, rough-sawn oak flooring with a red cedar ceiling – postcard-perfection.
Over the years the quality and quantity of the wildlife population at the park has increased dramatically – bison, longhorns, elk, whitetail deer. But the star of the show this spring is a new baby – a white bison called Takota, a Sioux word that means “friend for all”. According to traditional Native American teaching spanning thousands of years, the white bison is a sacred animal. Once an exceptionally rare occurrence, the birth of a white bison promotes prayerful communication between Indigenous people and the Great Spirit, and was also a sign of peace and good fortune.
Two centuries ago more than 30 million American bison roamed the plains but were hunted to near extinction. Experts estimate that by 1900, only a few hundred bison remained. Thanks to intentional efforts led by conservationists – such as Ted Turner, where thousands of the iconic beasts thrive on his 100,000 thousand acre Flying D Ranch in Montana – the enormous shaggy animals are making a comeback and now there are about 350,000 living in the United States including this new little guy at Dogwood.
It is late afternoon now and I am starving so I head to the Mill and Canyon Grill – this rustic elegant space with floor to ceiling windows overlooking a creek and cascading waterfall with it’s Ozark inspired menu is the perfect ending to a day on the trails and I wish for a minute that I could dine inside but find a nice spot outside and am content. I do hope that Takota never wanders up to the Grill – the menu here prominently features bison burger – I feel a little twinge of guilt – but I order the bison burger anyway – with bacon, crunchy onions and pepper jack cheese – oh-so-delicious – followed by blueberry cobbler – best meal ever.
I am leaving Dogwood Canyon Nature Park feeling full and happy, whether from the great meal, the hope that the good omen of the rare white bison will bear out, or the chance to commune with my Mother’s memory and enjoy the blessings of Nature. Back on the road again, headed out to find more signs of better days ahead.
Hope to see you soon!
Greetings from Moab, UT – last November the famous Canadian Rocky Mountaineer launched a new train journey in the Southwest United States –Rockies to Red Rock – the route for this will bring a new luxury train tour to explore the historic rail route between Denver and Moab. My immediate thought is that this would be a great addition to our ‘Trains Around Colorado’ tour. After poking around Glenwood Springs, I decide to follow the train route to Moab and check out the scenery along the way to determine if the addition is worth the expense. I know the Denver – Glenwood Springs leg of the journey passing the Gross Reservoir Dam and the famous Moffatt Tunnel, the six mile tunnel built in 1928, which cuts through the Continental divide, will be jaw-dropping but am not so sure about the line to Moab.
Tucked in a valley at the foot of the red-hued cliffs and the La Sal Mountains, overlooking the Colorado River, Moab was a refuge for Butch Cassidy and other outlaw gangs. Author Zane Grey made it the scene of many of his stories and it is often the location for movies. Today, it maintains that wild west atmosphere. Moab in the Spring is new to me – the temperature is pleasant enough to hike and explore the whole day and the Colorado River is filled with snowmelt. On past visits, I have found that as a city Moab can be crowded and underwhelming so have favored staying at the Red Cliffs Lodge and only venturing to town for lunch and shopping. But the times they are a changin’ – I never miss a chance to slip in Bob Dylan and the Band. New hotels are springing up at almost every turn with the very cool, very upscale Hoodoo Moab, just off the main drag, enticing me to change my mind – maybe two nights at Red Cliffs and one in town for future trips. Don’t misunderstand, Moab still has the small-town vibe but is evolving – so quickly it could be time-lapse photography.
Last Spring when the shut-down happened, I started hiking and discovered that I am really into it. So on this visit to Moab I wanted to hike up to Mesa Arch for the iconic sunrise photograph. After much discussion about the virtues of sunrise vs sunset – I was convinced Laurie was just saying sunset was better because she is not an early riser – I decided on sunrise. Since it is such a famous spot for photographers to catch amazing shots of the sun peaking over the canyons with beams streaming through the arch, I expected a crowd but nothing like what we saw when we arrived. The short hike was one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever experienced in Moab. And to say it is magical does not do it justice. The sun rises from behind Mesa Arch and, as it reaches the level of the arch, the reflections of the sun beams create a sunburst effect under the arch. It is like nothing I have ever witnessed.
Arches National Park is a treasure with 2,000 – or so I am told – natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch. The parks colors, textures and landforms highlight the extraordinary balanced rocks, fins and pinnacles. Canyonlands National Park provides a wealth of stunning landscape filled with countless canyons, mesas and buttes, carved by the Green and Colorado rivers which can be thoroughly enjoyed from a scenic drive – Island in the Sky – that follows the rim of the mesa.
You can’t enjoy the beauty of Moab on an empty stomach so I checked out the most promising restaurants for our next visit. Beginning with the towns newest dining experience, Josie Wyatts Grille at the Hoodoo Moab, a steakhouse with southwest flair. They are open for indoor dining and have a great patio as well, but I only take a quick look around to see if it is suited to group dining and check out the menu which is limited but I think you would approve. The Sunset Grill – steeped in local history – once the grand home of a millionaire and located atop a mountain with sweeping views of Moab – is exactly as I remember – the Daytripping group (always particular about restaurants) raved about the food but I can’t seem to remember anything except the views – still unlike any else in the world. The beloved Desert Bistro I learn requires appropriate attire – more appropriate than what I am wearing – and requires a reservation – which I don’t have – so this is a nose-pressed-against-the-window review – great setting and atmosphere – and they promote nightly game specials and fresh seafood flown in from the coast daily – making it a real contender. By now, I am ‘moose-goose burger, 16 pickles and purple plumb’ hungry and stumble on Moab Food Truck Park – picnic tables, outdoors and music – perfect. But, so many choices – I couldn’t decide and ended up with Mexican and Chinese – I am now thinking I have discovered a fusion food sensation – Chinexican Cusine – couldn’t moo-shu pork be a relative of the burrito – I may be on to something – Kung Pao Quesadillas, Juan Ton Tacos… okay, okay, when you have been on the road this long it’s the silly and ridiculous that keep you going.
Having said all this – we will return to Moab on a future trip and we will be doing the ‘Trains Around Colorado’ tour in 2022 but we won’t be adding the new Rocky Mountaineer to Moab train ride. At $1,250 a person for two days it seems too costly, especially when the best scenery is from Glenwood Springs to Denver – so that is what we will do – on Amtrak. I hope you will join me.
Missing you all,
I have long wanted to add Glenwood Springs, CO and the beautiful Hotel Denver to our ‘Trains Around Colorado’ tour, and today I had the opportunity to get to know this historic resort town. Before Glenwood Springs was a hot springs hot spot, it was a Wild West frontier town called Defiance. The raucous and ramshackle town was home to gamblers, gunslingers and entrepreneurs and was the last stop for Doc Holliday, the famed gunslinger, who rests in the Linwood Cemetery. His marker is strewn with playing cards and coins. The Hotel Denver was a favorite hangout of Chicago gangster Diamond Jack Alterie, who shot two men in the lobby of the hotel in 1932. The 1904 train depot across the street welcomed President William Taft in1909 and was a whistle-stop platform for President Harry S. Truman in 1948. Durand’s Opera House hosted John Phillip Sousa in the 1920’s. The years have mellowed the rough-and-tumble beginnings but a stroll through the centuries’ old streets of downtown transport you back to wilder times.
How did Defiance give way to the pleasing name of Glenwood Springs? The wife of Town Founder Isaac Cooper (Sarah) was having a hard time adjusting to the frontier life and, in an attempt to make her environment somewhat more comfortable, persuaded the founders to change the name to Glenwood Springs, after her beloved hometown of Glenwood, Iowa.
Glenwood Springs was one of the first places in the United States to have electric lights. The original lighting was installed in 1897 inside of the Fairy Caves in Iron Mountain. Later, a dam was built in Glenwood Canyon, providing water for the Shoshone power plant. The plant began producing power on May 16, 1909, and retains the largest and oldest water rights to the Colorado River, the “Shoshone Call”, now far more valuable for the protection of Colorado River water rather than the minimal electricity produced.
Steeped in history, the Hotel Colorado was designed in the style of the Villa de Medici in Italy by the same architects who created the Immigration Station at Ellis Island. The “Grand Dame” has been the center of attention since it was built in 1893 and played host to such historical figures as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. According to legend, the teddy bear was born at the Hotel Colorado – to cheer Roosevelt after an unsuccessful hunting day, hotel maids presented him with a stuffed bear pieced together with scraps of old fabric. Later, his daughter Alyce admired it saying, “I will call it Teddy.”
I am running out of words and I haven’t yet mentioned the big attraction – the geothermal hot springs which have drawn people here for centuries, from the Ute Indians to miners and explorers. In 1888, two European settlers saw the potential for wealthy spa-goers and opened the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort – today the world’s largest hot springs pool. And, I have taken for granted the stunning setting of this town in the rugged Rocky Mountains, surrounded by the vast White River National Forest. Perhaps the most majestic scenery is through Glenwood Canyon – home to Hanging Lake with its turquoise waters and waterfalls.
Another time, I will tell you about my newest discovery tucked among the red rocks and cliffs in the Crystal River Valley. Redstone, CO – once a coal town, now a hamlet of Victorian homes and shops with an actual Tudor style castle – some places are magical. If we’re going to see them all, we’ve got to keep rolling on down the road.
See you next Wednesday!
Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum
Here am I on the porch of Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Mo. – the home where author Laura Ingalls Wilder – lived from age 27 until her death at age 90. It is here on this farm that she wrote by hand the Little House on the Prairie Books between 1932 and 1943.
Following the bank meeting I was heading to one of my favorite Midwest Americana experiences; Lambert’s Café – Home of the Throwed Roll – honestly they throw your hot-out-of-the-oven-roll at you – of course, I had my meal take out this time so the rolls and molasses came in a bag – but I can remember the days of jumping out of my seat to catch my roll before it sailed over my head to someone at a nearby table. No matter what entrée you order, your meal at Lambert’s comes with what they call ‘Passed Sides’ – all you can eat servings of Fried Okra, Black Eyed Peas, Fried Potatoes & Onions, Macaroni & Tomatoes, Apple Butter, Sorghum Molasses and hot rolls. So much more amusing dining in but the food was just as tasty in my RV.
It is a sunny, bright spring day in the Missouri Ozarks and I was yearning to be out in the fresh air, stretch my legs and walk off lunch when The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum sign on the highway caught my attention – I hadn’t read the books but I did watch the TV series with Michael Landon and always liked Laura, she was a tom-boy not a goody two shoes – I remember she took on that mean Nellie Olsen and she was brave, she lived through difficult times and she loved her Pa – he was the great father, with all the music and stories – everyone wants but not everyone has. I knew Little House on the Prairie was autobiographical so I thought I knew Laura Ingles Wilder. I did not…
In honor of Women’s History Month I thought you might be interested in learning what I discovered about one of the most significant children’s authors in American history. Let’s being with this stunning fact – Mrs. Wilder was 65 years old when she began writing the Little House on the Prairie Books. She was related to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – whom she did not like. She refused to say “obey” in her wedding vows – “I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, even if I tried. He is said to have replied; “ I’d never expect you to”. Wilder had a historic highway that runs across Minnesota and South Dakota and a crater on Venus named after her. The “Little House” series has become so iconic over the years that it has prompted several spin-off novels, musicals, plays, a Japanese anime series, parades, fashion shows, festivals. Reruns of the iconic “Little House on the Prairie” that first appeared in the ’70s and ’80s are still aired in over 30 countries today. In December 2020, Paramount Television announced a one-hour dramatic reboot of that TV series. In addition to this site in Mansfield, there are Laura Ingalls Wilder museums in De Smet, SD, Walnut Grove and Spring Valley, MN, Pepin, WI and Burr Oak, Iowa. In 2018, the American Library Association removed her name from Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement Award – now ‘The Children’s Literature Legacy Award” because of the series’ racist and dehumanizing portrayals of Native and Black Americans — a reflection of attitudes shared among many white settlers during the time the books were written.
Arriving at the historic farm, the first sight you see is Laura’s and Almanzo’s beloved farmhouse. It remains as it was in 1957 and stands as an official project of the Save America’s Treasures National Trust for Historical Preservation. Laura, Almanzo and daughter, Rose, arrived in Mansfield from South Dakota, August 30, 1894. They purchased a forty-acre farm, which had a one-room log cabin near the spring and ravine. It took 17 years from the time they moved in to when the home was finished in 1913. The home was always a central theme to Laura’s life. The farmhouse held a very special place in both Laura’s and Almanzo’s hearts as they chose to live the last of their days here. Touring the home you see her study and writing desk, as well as the many treasures that remain exactly how Laura left them. A highlight of the museum is Pa’s dear old fiddle, which sits in a glass case near the entrance – it was made in Germany in 1850, and Charles played it until he died in 1902. Before getting back on the road I visited the town cemetery to pay my respects at the graves of Laura, her husband Almanzo, and their daughter Rose.
One of the best things about travel is that out on the road you often find yourself learning something about yourself, as the history you discover lets you see the Big Picture. The more roads I travel, the more I understand that the only thing that stays the same is Change!
Wish you were here,
Happy St Patty’s Day!
This week I am at the Lake Charles State Park RV Campground in Arkansas – not a great destination to write home about.
But, this is my favorite place to stay when in Arkansas for the monthly bank board meeting and as this month is also the annual shareholders meeting, I am here longer than usual. I have my RV parked right on the edge of the lake and the park is almost deserted so it is quiet, peaceful and beautiful here.
With this down time I thought it would be good opportunity to take stock of where we are. It has been far longer than we could have imagined when I cancelled our St Patrick’s Day Trip Presentation at the Vets Building, parked the bus and closed our office doors a year ago this week. I have been hearing from many of you that you have been fully vaccinated and are anxious to be back on the bus. I know that I am more than ready as well, but the truth is that is not yet possible to resume travel and we still have no definite date. I am optimistic that it will be safe for us to be back on the bus by the fall and am working hard to reschedule postponed trips for the fall and create new trips for winter and spring. I hope that those who still have reservations for a postponed trip will hang in there until I have the new dates but I stand ready to refund all payments we are holding on these trips upon request.
I am waiting for response from hotels and vendors for re-scheduling the California Missions trip September, Ashland Theater September, Catalina Island the third week of October, Yosemite and Death Valley spring of 2022 and working on a Mission Inn Christmas and Rose Parade New Year’s. When I have confirmed dates, you will be the first to know.
This pandemic has been devastating for the bus tour industry, we have been left out of the government relief grants and loan programs to help keep us afloat. The American Bus Association reported this month that over 800 small tour operators have permanently closed and many more will close before we are able to get back on the road.
I have done everything possible to keep Daytripping afloat and at the ready to begin again at a moment’s notice when we are assured it is safe. Through this year with absolutely no income I am feeling fortunate to have been able to hang on.
For now, all tours are on still hold and the office remains closed for in-person business. I am monitoring voice mail and will return calls or can be reached on my cell at 707 217 0737.
I am so grateful that thanks to your confidence and support Daytripping is still standing. I cannot express my appreciation.
Some places call you back and for me Apalachicola, Fl is one of those places. I have visited briefly before but am happy to visit again and take this place of longleaf and slash pines, stately antebellum homes and sky blue waterways dotted with shrimping boats at its own pace – slowly.
It is spring on the Forgotten Coast and the Shorebirds are everywhere. I took this picture of a striking black and white bird with a flashy red beak that the Florida Audubon Society app identified as an American Oystercatcher.
I want to say that I am becoming casual about the Blue Angels flying over head because I have seem so many of them while here in the Appalachacola/Pensacola area but, I stop in my tracks each and every time they take over the sky and gape – it will always be an awesome spectacle. I am here putting the final touches on a trip for spring 2022 but the added bonus of the Blue Angels as well as Black Hawk Helicopters and B-2 Bomber pilots practicing maneuvers is such a huge treat.
Apalachicola sits on water that looks exactly like the shrimping scenes from Forrest Gump. It is a taste of “Old Florida” with tree lined streets, coastal cottages, regal homes of past sea captains, a quaint downtown where almost every building is historic and weather- worn shrimp boats … to a boy from California it looks like a ‘stage set’. This quaint southern town’s allure is it’s authenticity, strong sense of place, vibrant history and rich maritime culture. I find in this time when everything changes in the blink of an eye a place that has retained it’s original flavor extremely comforting. With a deep-porched Gibson Inn that feels like the coolest spot to stay on the Panhandle, world class seafood restaurants and brewpubs I want to visit this tiny city again and again.
Traveling by airboat for a ride on the Apalachicola River, I feel like a lucky explorer discovering the backwater wilderness of ancient Florida – skimming across untouched waters at speeds up to 40mph. I search for wildlife native to the Estuarine Reserve – alligators, dolphins, birds, turtles, manatees, and fish, darting alongside the boat as the boat flies across the water – following my ride I learned that it is also offered at night – next time.
Just west of Apalachicola are the remarkable wild beaches of Cape San Blas and the St Joseph Peninsula, a spit of land that arcs out from the mainland and parallels the coast for miles of windswept high dunes and untamed beaches. I am in paradise.
Each spring, Bellingrath Gardens and Grand Estate Home of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath blooms with more than 250,000 vibrant azaleas in an explosion of color throughout the 65-acre garden and gives you a peek into the lifestyle of successful the Coca Cola bottler and businessman. The annual Azalea Bloom Out goes back to Bellingrath’s earliest beginnings in 1919, when Walter purchased a rustic fishing camp on Fowl River. His wife, Bessie, who loved gardening, wanted to beautify the property and relied on old-growth azaleas as a starting point. Ever since, Bellingrath Gardens has been synonymous with the Gulf Coast’s beautiful azalea season. My stroll around Mirror Lake was epic – the still water reflects pink, lavender, red and white azalea blossoms, giving a double image of the season. In addition to the azaleas I spotted tulips, Easter lilies, hydrangeas, pansies and dozens more that I can’t begin to identify for you – but they were stunning. I wish it was possible for you to enjoy the fragrance. Unfortunately, I missed the Azalea Trail Maids – a tradition dating back to 1929 – each year high school senior girls are selected to represent the finest in old-school southern charm. While dressed in the custom-made fifty pound antebellum dress and bonnet their duty is to smile, wave, pose to have their picture taken but never to speak. These ladies marched in President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration parade. They appeared at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Disney’s Easter Parade, and the Rose Bowl Parade.
This long and winding road trip has taken me down familiar roads and new roads. As we roll into March, I am hoping ‘Spring has Sprung’ at home, and wishing we were together on the bus for Bill Montgomery’s Wildflower Drive. Remember to Spring ahead for Daylight Savings this weekend.
Many of you, no doubt, remember all the times you asked me to stop at every silly roadside attraction and I never would… I apologize, and now see a certain charm in this random nonsense – possibly a sign that I am slowly becoming my parents – but I prefer to think it is because I am not on such a tight schedule and can pull over to take a gander at these fun works of ‘art’ without worrying about getting to the next stop on time. And there are some real gems – so this is only my first installment of these nostalgic, gaudy and yes, sometimes run-down paragons of off-road wonder you have to see. Having said that, I must tell you I felt a little silly taking these pictures but as it is a long-standing American tradition and I am your envoy, I did this for you – with love.
Bealeton, VA: Giant Roller Skate
Definitely a wonder of the modern world a giant 10-foot tall roller skate made entirely of wood and plaster graces the side of Highway 17 . The skate first appeared during the skating craze in the 1980s. And while the actual skating rink, Rollerworks Family Skating Center closed – the skate remains – awesome as ever! Bealeton is also home to one of the last barnstorming air shows in the US – but more about that later.
Waynesboro, VA: Cartoon Roadrunner
So cool, this 10-foot-tall version of the classic cartoon character, standing on a tree stump, with its familiar blue and purple colors and cheerful grin is my favorite. The students of Berkeley Glenn Elementary School adopted the cartoon Roadrunner as its mascot and a former alumni fiberglass artist, Mark Cline, created this masterpiece. I am told when the tarp was pulled from the statue on November 4, 2018, the crowd spontaneously shouted, “Beep Beep!”
Atlanta IL Hot Dog Man
Standing 19 feet tall and clutching a giant hot dog, this Paul Bunyon statue, not “bunyan” purposely spelled with an “o”, to avoid any copyright issues, was created in 1966 as an eye-grabbing advertisement for Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand. The Hot Dog Man was relocated here from it’s original location in Cicero, IL and I think he found a great home. This little town is a treasure, with a Route 66 Museum, a 1950’s diner and terrific murals. On our next Route 66 tour we will make a point to see as many of these “lumberman” statues as possible.
Manitowoc, WI: Bernice the Cow
Tan and white and larger than life. A giant Guernsey cow made of fiberglass, “Bernice,” the dutiful mascot of the Cedar Crest Ice Cream Parlor has been here since the 1960s.
Manistique, WI: Paul Bunyan
The axe swinging lumberjack legend of folklore welcomes visitors to this historic lumber town, the “Home of Paul Bunyan.” Maybe 15 feet tall the mountain man has watched over the community for years and in this time of Covid 19 Pandemic, Paul has donned a mask to encourage the community to stay safe. Manistique is also the site of the famous “Siphon Bridge.” Built in 1919, the 300-ft. span used a novel engineering approach that didn’t catch on. It’s the only bridge in the world below the level of the water that surrounds it.
Collinsville, IL: Worlds Largest Ketchup Bottle
I know you will be sad to hear this – the bottle isn’t actually filled with ketchup – but if it were it would contain the equivalent of 640,000 bottles of Brooks Old Original Catsup. Built in 1949 as a water tower for Brooks Catsup, the 70ft-tall tower is sitting on a 100ft platform along Highway 159. At one point this landmark was up for sale and even scheduled for demolition. But, through the efforts of a local group the bottle has been restored to its original appearance and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
They have asked me to tell you that they are standing by waiting to meet you when we can travel again.
Elkmont Ghost Town
Tucked away in the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, is a once affluent mountain retreat that time forgot. Now just an eerie ghost town – in the early 1900’s Elkmont was the premier summer destination for the upper echelons of Knoxville society, bustling with hand-crafted log cabins and plush social clubs – the community even boasted a Millionaires’ Row.
What brought me here wasn’t just the intriguing history of the town and its people but the role they played in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 1901 Colonel Wilson B. Townsend, a Pennsylvania entrepreneur, purchased 86,000 acres of land along Little River and established the Little River Lumber Company. As the valley was slowly stripped of its valuable timber, Townsend began to advertise the area as a mountain getaway. In 1909, Little River Railroad began offering the “Elkmont Special” — a non-stop train service from Knoxville to Elkmont. Day-trippers paid $1.95 to ride in open observation cars attached to the back of a logging train to escape the stifling heat of Knoxville and while away the dog days of summer in the crisp mountain air – soon an observation car was added on the logging train and later passenger coaches. In 1910 the Little River Lumber Company sold land to the Appalachian Club – a private social club of Knoxville businessmen who built a hotel and clubhouse to be used as a gathering place for members and glittering parties. The Appalachian Club sold plots of land which Knoxville’s wealthiest residents quickly snapped up to build luxury summer cabins. The rustic cottages became known as Society Hill.
But, membership in the Club was expensive so in 1912, Charles B Carter built the Wonderland Hotel (cool name, don’t you think) only two miles from the Appalachian Club. The lodge was decked out in rustic décor featuring large stone and brick fireplaces, hardwood flooring and country-style furniture, rocking chairs lined the porch and stone steps led from the station to the hotel. Rocks from the Little River were cemented at the top of the steps, spelling out ‘Wonderland’. The steps can still be seen today.
These were golden years filled with dancing to live three piece orchestra’s, the river was dammed for swimming, and, reportedly, taffy pulls were such a popular activity that prizes were awarded for the whitest taffy – cigars for men and sewing baskets for the women. Parties would end with a boisterous round of singing, “Elkmont Will Shine” – Elkmont will shine tonight, Elkmont will shine!
By 1926, they ceased logging entirely and Elkmont began to fade away. Around that same time, William P Davis, a cottage owner at Elkmont, visited Yellowstone and wanted to have a national park in Smoky Mountains. He teamed up with Colonel David Chapman, a founder of the Appalachian Club. The Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association was established by the Knoxville Automobile Club and the chamber of commerce. Federal and state governments were lobbied and Chapman hosted legislators at Elkmont to sell them on the park. The plan worked like a charm and the US government agreed to establish the national park, if Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land. The association set to work acquiring land to donate for the park. In 1927, the LRLC sold 76,507 acres for the park. More land was needed, but there were people living on it and while many people were forced to leave their land when they sold to the park, residents in Elkmont itself and the clubs were able to stay, negotiating lifetime leases. By 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park plan became official. The Civilian Conservation Corps moved into Elkmont, now a shadow of its former self. The New Deal organization worked to develop infrastructure and facilities in the new park. The CCC camp closed in 1936. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940, “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”
Relics of this long-past era and many of the historic cottages are waiting to be brought back to life by the National Park Service. To date a handful of cabins have been fully restored, lovingly preserved and are open for tours. As the centerpiece of the Elkmont Historic District, the Appalachian Clubhouse has been rehabilitated with the original charm of exposed wooden beams and massive stone fireplaces. Wonderland Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places but unfortunately the site completely burned down in 2016. There is hope on the horizon with a goal for all cabins to be restored by 2025. Even in it’s current state it is easy to see why people have always been drawn here.
After all of the miles I’ve driven through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I am grateful to the people of Elkmont, and their vision to leave us a park full of memories and spirits. When you come, make sure to go outside early in the morning to catch the smoky haze that gives these mountains their magical quality and the smokies their name. I’m grateful they are here.
Fun Fact: Each and every year in the Smoky Mountains, for a magical few nights in June, is an incredible natural phenomenon, known as “synchronous fireflies”. This breathtaking show put on by nature resembles a psychedelic combination of stars falling and fireworks exploding. Tens-of-thousands of lightening bugs gather in swarms and flash in harmony as the entire forest alternates between light and darkness. Right here, in Elkmont, is the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.
I am driving through “horsey country” Kentucky – with more than 450 horse farms in the region, Lexington is the “the horse capital of the world”. On this brilliant morning I find myself humming “the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home” as the road meanders through bucolic farmland with horses frolicking in pastures behind pristine white rail fences and elaborate gates, where they live in majestic barns that look nothing like a barn. I get a distinct feeling that these horses consider this routine instead of eye-popping. There really is nothing quite like the beauty of these rolling hills to take your breath away.
I learn that for a mere $7,300,000, I could make my mark in the Bluegrass – 365 acres, historic 1830’s main residence, magnificent formal gardens, a carriage house, 5 barns with 74 stalls, indoor arena and 3 auxiliary residences. Temptation flickers.
Back to reality, everywhere you look you see all things horse, murals of horses, horse statues, horse parks and farms. My destination is the Kentucky Horse Park – 1,200 acres of lush pastures, pristine grounds, a showcase of museums, galleries, theaters and nearly 50 breeds of horses – all dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse and the almighty attraction. The winter season slow-down combined with Covid 19 restrictions make for a quiet day at the park. I am thinking about the only horse I ever knew – a tiny pony who lived in my parents field by the old barn – he was pure evil – he would ransack your pockets for carrots or sugar cubes and if you failed to bring any he would rip open your jacket in annoyance – he once escaped his enclosure and it took approximately half the population of Cave City and all the city police cars to corner him – clearly my understanding of the bond between horse and man is antidotal. I am alone in the theater while viewing the introductory film – ‘Rein of Nobility’, which brings the story of the horse to life and serves as an introduction to the special world of the horse found at the park. The trolley isn’t operating but it is a pleasant day for walking. There are hundreds of horse stories to be found in the park and I am sure you will all have your favorite but for now I am sharing the story that touched my heart. I would like to introduce you to Sergeant Reckless. She was a war horse for the US Marines during the Korean War. Purchased for just $250, the Mongolian mare would prove to be an important addition to the Marines. During the Battle of Outpost Vegas in 1953, Sgt Reckless made 51 trips in a single day to carry ammunition from the supply camp to the front lines. The majority of these trips, Reckless completed by herself. The little mare carried close to five tons of ammunition; walking almost 35 miles while under enemy fire. She also carried wounded soldiers from the front lines on the return trip. Even after being wounded herself, Sgt. Reckless didn’t slow down or stop. She was loved and respected by the Marines she served with and her amazing performance during the Battle and throughout the war lead to her being promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Sgt. Reckless was given two Purple Hearts along with many other Military Decorations for her service. Sgt Reckless died in May of 1968 and was buried with full military honors at Camp Pendleton.
Lexington is also rich in history, so back in town I visit Mary Todd Lincoln House, the girlhood home of the First Lady. This simple two story brick building was built in 1803 as an inn called “The Sign of the Green Tree” before its purchase by the Todd family. Mary Todd was not born at this house but moved here with her family in 1832 when she was 14 years old. The elegant simplicity of Mary Todd Lincoln’s early home exemplifies the sure taste of a southern aristocracy that lived with all the grace of its eastern and European counterparts. In the Todd drawing room, Nelson, the family butler, splendid in his swallow-tailed livery, served his famous iced juleps to an aristocratic circle. It was here that Mary eventually married a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in 1842. Here in Lexington, as Mary Todd’s husband, Lincoln had access to a dazzling array of political minds, including that of his “beau ideal of a statesman,” Henry Clay, whose rhetoric and arguments against slavery resonated clearly through many of Lincoln’s speeches. The Mary Todd Lincoln house is the first historic site restored in honor of a First Lady.
A contemporary, good friend and close neighbor of Mary Todd’s father Robert S. Todd, Kentucky statesman Henry Clay built his mansion, Ashland, in 1812 in Lexington. Clay served as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and a 3-time Presidential candidate, known as the “Great Compromiser”. His estate, Ashland, which features a walled garden and walking trails is as beautiful inside as out. It sits on 20 acres that are a National Historic Landmark, the centerpiece of the famous ‘Millionaires Row’ neighborhood. The gorgeous streets of mansions on well-manicured lawns have a definite “old money” vibe. Brick walls, iron gates, grand entrances and tall well-trimmed hedges in a storybook setting makes walking this neighborhood a must for anyone who appreciates elegant older homes. Its curving lanes and mature trees are the result of thoughtful planning by the famous Olmsted brothers in the late 1800s. In fact, the entire neighborhood is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
This may seem an unlikely stop but Lexington Cemetery is worth a visit. Not only is Henry Clay buried at Lexington Cemetery, but other notables are also buried within the 160 acres. This cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the prettiest cemeteries I have seen. Not only did I find an arboretum, gardens and a small lake, but a 130-foot tall Henry Clay monument sticking up above the trees. They say that Henry Clay is looking towards his beloved Ashland estate.
My day is in the final lap but I couldn’t cross the finish line until I sample some blue ribbon Kentucky fare… the famous Brown Hotel, where the iconic Hot Brown was born, is not open to indoor dining but I was able to get take out – in case you haven’t been lucky enough to try this treat, believe me it is something special. Served open-faced this sandwich of turkey, bacon and mornay sauce is broiled to a golden perfection. So delicious… and by great good fortune my take out order came with a bag of bourbon balls – this rich candy is made with bourbon in a cream center dipped in dark chocolate with a pecan on top – it’s a good thing there were only three in the bag. If you were here I would drive to Frankfort, KY to visit Rebecca Ruth Chocolates, where two twenty-something school teachers, Rebecca Hanly and Ruth Gooch opened a chocolate shop and in 1938 invented the Bourbon Ball. My last stop of the day, Kern’s Kitchen for a Derby Pie – this beloved chocolate walnut pie is Kentucky’s most treasured dessert – with good reason, it is mouthwatering!
And, now in the words of that Country Music Super Star from Kentucky – Billy Ray Cyrus …
You know what, I’m done, done, done
I’m gonna take my horse
To the old town road
I’m gonna ride ‘til I can’t no more…