Day 4 – Albuquerque to Oklahoma City
Day 4 would be our longest and most boring day on the road. We leave the land of painted landscapes and dramatic rock formations and enter the Dust Bowl region, flat and scarred, and barren. We’d traverse the “hat” part of Texas in a few hours passing through Amarillo and avoiding the three day horror that is passing through Texas on Interstate 10. This segment of the trip brought us into some of the areas of the U.S. most heavily populated by Native American communities and a million and one sad gift shops all screaming on billboards that they sell the cheapest authentic Native American gifts.
The somewhat famous Cadillac Graveyard is just off the highway just east of Amarillo, nine cars half buried face down in the middle of what looks like farm land. Visitors are encouraged to bring spray paint and leave their marks. The cars probably have an inch of paint or more of some of the most unoriginal and unskilled graffiti in the world. Most seemed content to state they were there or that their initials love someone else’s, which honestly doesn’t matter because that spray paint won’t get a chance to dry, despite the incredible heat, because so many come to make their own mundane marks. Lisa and I both painted a car with someone’s discarded cans of black and yellow paint. Kielo pooped.
We found an Old Navy in Amarillo and bought some reasonable jeans and few pairs of shorts for good measure. Newly comfortable, we continued the arduous drive to Oklahoma City. Leaving Texas was like leaving a Hollywood sound stage. Things immediately got greener after the Oklahoma state line, waterways quickly began snaking the plains, and changes in elevation (however small) started to give us some reprieve from the dinner platter terrain of Texas.
Cross-country Trip Truth #4 – there are a lot of cows in Oklahoma. In 2005, the calf and cattle population of Oklahoma was 5.4 million. The 2006 census estimate puts the human population at about 3.6 million. Imagine living in a place where cows out number people 3 to 2. We must of a seen at least 1,000 of those cows, maybe more, but barely any people until we reached OKC, and frankly the first few people we encountered weren’t worth meeting. The hotel clerk at the Days Inn OKC South was an ass of the special variety, lucky for him our room was surprisingly nice with a little sofa that didn’t offer a good view of the television, access to the desk, and seemed to be the doldrums of the free wireless internet. The three of us sat on it because it was there and were glad.
It’s strange what some remember and what some don’t. We were in Oklahoma City for a long while before I remembered the bombings, but that’s all Lisa could think about. And though the city was far more metropolitan than I expected, it hardly seemed worth bombing. The Dominos pizza man was nice, made a little joke that I forgot a few minutes after he told it, but gave me the impression that people in that city are pretty down to earth at heart and that if I had to be in Oklahoma, OKC wouldn’t be too shabby a place to end up.
Day 5 – Oklahoma City to Memphis
Captain’s log – star date 06182007.
The crew appears to be growing weary after a long day of travel into the OKC galaxy. Ensign Kielo has taken up new quarters, abandoning the temporary facility at “Mommy’s Lap” and relocating to the starship’s aft section, “On Top of the Stuff”. Though his health appears to be holding, moral appears to be getting low. Chew toys appear to ameliorate some of his negative condition, but I fear his interest in continuing this mission is quickly waning.
– Beckham out –
On the way out of OKC, Lisa, being the amazing sport she is, indulged me with a visit to the Softball Hall of Fame and Hall of Fame stadium complex, where the women’s NCAA college world series is held every year. The woman at the desk seemed truly glad to see people at the museum and fished out a coupon so that Lisa and I both got admission for $6 (take that Grand Canyon!). I thoroughly enjoyed the random sports learning, which is as far as I’m concerned some of the best learning available, and it appeared to hold Lisa’s interest as well. I suspect there may be an adult league in our future.
By evening we approached Mississippi River, proof that we’d officially returned to the eastern half of the nation. It was nice, lit up with with the bustle of an urban city on the banks. Though I’d never been to Memphis it felt like a homecoming.
It’s easy to get lost in nostalgia when crossing the Mississippi – thinking back to that story I read once in school by that one famous writer about those two kids – and just as soon as I realized that I had no idea exactly what it was I was feeling nostalgic about, I saw it. On the Tennessee side of the river, right on the water, just north of the bridge, an enormous pyramid. At the time I saw it, I was just annoyed that some random Tennesseean thought it logical to build a huge glass and steel pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi. Since then, I have consulted the interweb and discovered that the structure does have a purpose. The Pyramid Arena, as it was so cleverly named, is 32 stories tall, making it the third largest pyramid in the world. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal and is home to the NBA’s Grizzlies. Still, outside of Egypt, large pyramids seem all wrong.
I was still mulling over the audacity of the pyramid’s presence, when we pulled into the swankiest Days Inn of our trip. It was a little far from downtown Memphis, but literally feet from Graceland. Our room had the most delicious looking bed, which unfortunately sat within eye-shot of not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 framed images of Elvis. The hotel sported a heated guitar-shaped pool, which we swam in for exactly 37 seconds before it began to rain. And though I didn’t check them out, there were apparently three channels that played nothing but Elvis movies.
Day 6 -Memphis to Nashville
Now, the issue of Elvis is an interesting one. With almost Pavlovian immediacy, I began to shrink from the absolute landslide of Elvis memorabilia in the hotel and around the Graceland area, from the Heartbreak Hotel up the street to the myriad of giftshops with poorly painted Elvis statues rotting in their lawns. This I understand to be a cultural issue summed in one simple statement, Cross-country trip Truth #5 – Caucasians love Elvis. Of course this is a terribly stereotypical and generally racist thing to write, but the evidence of our visit and my general life experience confirms this assertion. I’ve never meet a Black person with a positive opinion of Elvis and among the hoards of people descending on Graceland while we were there, I can’t say I saw even a hint of brown among them.
Strangely, when I get into conversations with friends, particularly my friends of European decent, they seem completely shocked that any single person, much less and entire cultural group could have feelings about Elvis that range from ambivalence to hatred. I thought it was particularly put well put when the Helen Kolawole wrote, “the enduring image of Elvis is a constant reflection of society’s then refusal to accept anything other than the non-threatening and subservient negro: Sammy Davies Jr. and Nat King Cole. The Elvis myth to this day clouds the true picture of rock’n’roll and leaves its many originators without due recognition. So what is [there] for black people to celebrate? How he admirably borrowed [stole] our songs, attitude and dance moves?” Though I wont get into it here, I could spend hours thinking about the cultural distance between white and black contemporary communities that allow some to religiously idolize a man that was once quoted as saying, “The only thing n*ggers can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music” and others to characterize the single biggest conduit of black music into mainstream culture as nothing but a ruthless cultural pirate and thief. Either way, it was far too expensive to actually enter Graceland so Lisa hopped out and took a few photos while I scouted the area for breakfast. Nashville was just a few short hours from Memphis and all of us were happy for a quick drive.
Being able to book hotels online is generally a wonderful asset to the cross-country traveler, but sometimes you just don’t know what you are going to get when you arrive. The Days Inn in Nashville, just a few blocks from Vanderbilt University and across the street from a lovely Marriott Hotel, was a bigger crap hole than the Sou-pear Huit Las Vegas, complete with funny smell. “Seriously,” I thought, “this is a place where people get murdered in the night.” We put down out stuff and immediately looked for a place to eat out. Fortunately, we were in a college area and there was plenty of food and a nice walking to be had.
Day 7 – Nashville to Asheville
We both slept like hell and unsurprisingly checked out of the murder hotel as soon as we committed to being fully awake. The morning proved lovely, however, as we drove aimlessly around downtown Nashville to take in some local architecture before we left.
Tennesseeans must have a penchant for exotic, anachronistic buildings. In the middle of a park, just across the street from the Vanderbilt campus is a scale replica of the Parthenon in Greece. Again, it’s something that escapes logical description. It doesn’t seem to belong there or really serve much of a purpose, but I really liked walking the grounds of the park. The dog got to get some actual exercise and we took some truly nice pictures.
We passed through Knoxville on the way to North Carolina, leaving I-40 for a little while and taking a local road into town. The University of Tennessee seems like the kind of college community that I would connect with. The locals have a rabidness that could seriously rival Blacksburg. And while I joked about running into Pat Summit, coach of the Lady Volunteers basketball team and unquestionably the greatest thing that ever happened to women’s basketball, I was silently praying to Jesus, Buddha, Alla, Pepsi, Time-Warner, Microsoft and anyone else who might have the power to make the indelible Ms. Summit cross our path.
Fittingly the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is in Knoxville, which is a far grander and more spectacular building than the Softball Hall of Fame, complete with a gigantic basketball. Which, lead me to wonder if I would ever do anything significant enough to be considered for any hall of fame, anywhere. Perhaps if there were a Random and Useless Skill hall of fame or a Cynicism Hall of Fame, however, chances are these do not and will not exist… unless. Cross-country Trip Truth #7 – If I ever want to be inducted into a hall of fame during my life time, I will have to build said hall of fame, or at least initiate the effort to have professional contractors build it. We didn’t actually make it inside the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, as they don’t allow non-working dogs and it was far too hot to leave Kielo in the car. I can’t help but wonder if Pat Summit may have been in there.
Within a few short hours, we crossed the state line into North Carolina, my new home, irrefutably in the American south. We stopped for our last night in Asheville, home of Vanderbilt’s ostentatious Biltmore Estate and reputably one of the coolest towns in North Carolina. We checked into the hotel and headed downtown to discover the “Urban Trail” in Asheville and find somewhere to eat. We happened onto a little downtown area. Three restaurants, all with outside seating, looking onto a little brick cobbled pedestrian area. Two street performers had set up shop there. While, I can’t say these were the two most talented men on earth it was nice to sit outside at the restaurant, dog at our feet, and wait to be served delicious vegetarian foods – which seemed to be available in excess in this eclectic little down.
After dinner we decided to take a stroll, abandoning the formal urban trail and blazing one of our own. Literally through an alley and down a hill, among a group of little shops and bistros, we found a tattoo shop set back from the street in what seemed to be a really organic balance between alley and garden. We stayed for a while and by the time we left we both had a pair of new earrings. We’ll be back as soon as I have some cash so that Rachel, the new gal at the shop, can do my next tattoo.
Day 8 – Asheville to Home!
Though we’d been there less than a few hours, I woke knowing Asheville was somewhere I could really love. It’s funky and arty and cosmopolitan enough to cover all my bases. And though it could easily be a place that gets lost in the haze of misdirected hippie living, reeking in the summer of retched patchouli oils, I would hang out with a hippie over a Californian any day of the week. In fact, Cross-country Trip Truth #7 – Hippies are good people and I am happy to be seeing proper hippies again, rather than the hemp necklace wearing, SUV driving, sushi eaters in Cali.
We started with a heavenly plate of greasy eggs and the excellent service of a woman who called the name of Jesus like he was a close cousin at the Waffle House across the street from the hotel. Satiated and thoroughly delighted, we spent the morning driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway, maybe the most familiar and most beautiful thing I saw on the trip. The roads wind ruthlessly, forcing you to slow down and chill out, whether you want to or not. Lisa took me high into the mountains to Little Switzerland, a place she’d come as a child. There’s a working mine there than allows visitors to purchase a bucket of rubble and sift rocks at a wooden flume. Of course the buckets are seeded and the experience is admittedly not 100% authentic, but I don’t think anyone there, including myself could have cared less. Lisa and I found a hoard of wonderful rocks, including some topaz, garnet, and emeralds. We ordered two stones cut and set into rings before we piled back into the car will a sack of damp stones and week’s worth of of dust.
I have to say as we traversed the last stretch of I-40, the parts I know, I was sad to see the trip coming to a close. Familiar cities and roadways, though signaling the destination we’ve been looking forward to for months, can’t hold a candle to all the oddities and usual suspects we’d encountered along the way. All in all, the trip was fantastic. I’d do it again and that’s saying a lot because I’m easily bored. I learned a good deal about this big monstrosity we call the U.S. Namely:
- Las Vegas is hot.
- People are amazing and dangerous.
- The Grand Canyon is big.
- There are a lot of cows in Oklahoma.
- Caucasians love Elvis.
- If you want to be in a hall of fame, build one.
- Hippies are good people (despite their patchouli stink)
And most importantly…. The East Coast rules! I’m so stoked to be back.