Once we finished with Utah (and I assume Utah was quite finished with us), we began the trip east, and ultimately North. Our goal: Chicago, where we have doc and dentist appointments. This post will be unlike any for the past year – lots of places and lots of stuff and lots of stops!!!
We are not going ANYWHERE that tire chains are required
Escaping Utah involved some coordination of weather and altitude. Since we ultimately wanted to get to Chicago, we considered I-70 through Colorado, but rejected that BECAUSE of weather potential, altitude and the requirement for tire chains to be on board until MAY 31! We are not going ANYWHERE that tire chains are required, even if the weather is likely to be amenable!
That meant diving a little south, towards I-40, and THAT was made an even better choice because of an interim stop to which we were lucky enuf to have an invitation: Memphis, to see my nephew (Chet Holmgren…top of “Team Wallace”) play in the Allen Iverson Invitational High School Allstar Basketball game. More on that a bit, but first, about our trip!
First non-Utah stop was Albuquerque, where we stayed overnight in a brewery parking lot. To earn the right, we had a couple beers, and a pretty nice samich. This route passed over the southern edge of the Rockies – one more chance for our mighty-mighty normally aspirated diesel engine to gasp for breath and produce black smoke in quantities visible from space until we reached the flatlands.
Then we headed east across Texas – the Short part. I-40 passes through the panhandle, where you can traverse the state in hours, not days.
We stopped one night, near Amarillo. Unfortunately, only after leaving Amarillo did we become aware of a highlight we missed (more like a highlight to bring us back). It seems that Amarillo has a minor league baseball team, whose moniker is the “Sod Poodles” and whose mascot is a creepy larger-than-life prairie dog (which is what a “Sod Poodle” is, apparently) wearing a “G”string. You cannot make this sh*t up – so much so that I went online to get me a Sod Poodle shirt!
Next, after Amarillo (henceforth forever known to us as Sod Poodleton), we managed Weatherford, Oklahoma, where there is an Air and Space Museum, home as it is to astronaut Tom Stafford. Stafford went up on Gemini and Apollo – on the latter, Apollo 10, performed every single aspect of the moon landing EXCEPT the moon landing…a proof of concept.
We stayed overnight in their lot, which gave us ample opportunity to see some really interesting exhibits. Perhaps the most unusual: a display of various US rocket motors and several of their Soviet Counterparts.
Not sure where else you’d be able to see such an exhibit, but one of astronaut Stafford’s missions was the historic meeting of Apollo and Soyuz, and so he “knew a guy” who could provide both borscht and rocket engines, apparently.
We then spent a very forgettable night near Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, before having a SPECTACULAR appointment with Destiny, and in particular with Lynn and Dave Gray.
The Grays had in their WHOLE LIFE done NOT MUCH in a Walmart parking lot…
We have had regular ZOOMs with the Grays and several other folks throughout the Pandemic. As we were passing thru their neck of the woods, we invited them to jointly beam into this regular Zoomtail session. And we determined, after careful deliberation, that this MUST BE in the parking lot of the Ft. Smith, Arkansas Walmart. All of us were vaccinated, but the Grays only recently, so we decided that would be safe, and VERY educational with regard to our lifestyle. I mean, the Grays had in their WHOLE LIFE done NOT MUCH in a Walmart parking lot; the Harrises almost everything! We felt like we OWED IT to our friends to expand their universe, Walmart-wise.
For dinner, we walked to the Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburger’s place and carried out a massive, gourmet feast!! Then we sat around the iPad for Zoomtails, and wished for a fire to stay warm (IT was NOT).
Arkansas had MUCH in store for us besides Freddy’s and Grays…we decided to follow the Arkansas river all the way to the Mississippi, stopping at any city that looked large enough to have some civilization. First stop was in Russellville, on Lake Dardanelle, which is a pretty large reservoir, and one of the best fishing lakes anywhere according to the residents and the participants in the many professional fishing tournaments. It also had a State Park Campground that quite honestly was one of the best we have stayed at ANYWHERE (and that is saying Something).
Near Lake Dardanelle was the town of Conway, apparently well known (but not to us – Steve Florer was the source of THAT, if not all wisdom) for Duck Hunting; the migrating ducks being attracted by the huge fields of rice all around. We were more impressed with a little community just off the highway between Lake Dardanelle and Conway – TOAD SUCK, Arkansas. Yes. That is the official name – you cannot make this shit up! They have a local festival, called “Toad Suck Daze,” which, we wondered, could be descriptive of one’s state of mind after sucking toads? We left before we could find out, Toads being the gateway drug to who knows what sort of debauchery!
Little Rock was next – And we have been there before. LR has a GREAT RV Park right across the river from the Clinton Library and Downtown. Great for walking and biking, and eating and drinking. Unfortunately, the season hadn’t started yet, because it is also right next to the LR Travellers Minor League Baseball club’s stadium (been there on our previous pass through Little Rock) . We are SOOOO looking forward to a more-or-less normal sports season in the coming year!
Next, following the river, we chose Pine Bluff, Ar. WHY?? Excellent question. On a map it LOOKED big enuf to be worth stopping. This town apparently WAS something once upon a time, but it surely is no longer. It has lost 30% of its population since 2000, and the remaining folks have few economic options. There is a Armory there, which is apparently responsible for decommissioning chemical weapons. There WAS a paper plant, there still is a cardboard plant, and not much else. One night there was advertised a “Music Festival with Food Trucks…” We went, only to find the ENTIRE downtown boarded up. The festival was one block long, barricaded in the unlikely event of a car trying to go through, and ONE food truck, not yet serving at 6:00pm. We left Pine Bluff after only 2 nights.
Next was Greenville, MS. We had been here before, also. The ONE music club remaining…a club we visited on our last transit, was now closed by order of the Fire Marshall.
Next was Vicksburg. We have also been there before, and on that trip did enjoy the Civil War History that is rampant throughout the town. If you haven’t been there, it is DEFINITELY worth a visit. This time, we did some other things.
For example, we walked through the older Downtown Area, where we stumbled upon THIS Sign (in the category of “You Cannot Make this Shit up…). The sign is wrong on so many levels, but most of all because it made me wonder exactly what behavior occurred to cause the sign/policy in the first place.
Inquiring Minds DEFINITELY do NOT want to know!!
Vicksburg DID offer a very nice Brewery, which offered possibly the best Patty Melt I have ever experienced, and which, having been warned I paid for out of my wallet, not undergarment(s).
We learned that the Mississippi Blues Trail is Coextant with the Mississippi Tamale Trail, and Vicksburg had two establishments of note of that type. Apparently, the Tamale is not only Mexican, but a staple food of poor-folk more broadly. The Mississippi version LOOKS like a Mexican tamale, but has more of a Chili-con-Carne (without much Carne) flavor.
AT one of the establishments, Solly’s Tamales, we not only had EXCELLENT Tamales, but we learned the answer to some signs we had seen along the road: “FINISH THE PUMPS.” AT the same time, we learned more background on the South’s enduring distrust of Yankees, and ESPECIALLY Yankees from California (which fortunately we are not).
It seems that in the 1940s, the Army Corp of Engineers began a HUGE project intended for Flood Control and stabilization of Commercial navigation on the lower Mississippi River (and associated tributaries, such as Mississippi’s Yazoo River). This was to consist of a whole bunch of levees, flood control gates at those tributaries and a series of massive pumps. Here is how it was all supposed to work:
- The levees contain and direct the Mississippi River as the water rises; keeping the Mississippi as a whole inside its banks (in theory, anyway).
- At a certain level, the various Gates would close to prevent flooding from the now-high Mississippi River, which would back up the tributaries.
- Once the gates are closed, pumps would be required to evacuate water from the tributaries (which would otherwise back up BEHIND the gates) into the higher Mississippi.
It seems that the ENTIRE project was completed long ago…EXCEPT the PUMPS!!! Thus, when the Mississippi is high, the gates close, and the Yazoo and other rivers back up – exactly as planned and expected without the pumps. But because of no pumps, this floods a very large portion of the Southern Delta – in fact 9 of the last 10 years. Decimating the Cotton and other crops, and crippling the area’s already weak economy.
Why no pumps after all these years? The pumps were blocked by the EPA pursuant to Lawsuits filed by the Sierra Club and Audubon Society and others about the impact on Wetlands. Never mind many of those wetlands were actually created (or at a minimum exacerbated) by the ACE’s partially complete flood control system, at least according to folks down there.
And, for the record, this is not about people who repeatedly rebuild in Flood Zones, using Federal Flood Insurance to do so. It is FAR more nuanced. This is about vast swaths of land which have had 100-year floods multiple times since the Levees (but not the pumps) were finished. And, also for the record, the EPA has announced approval of a modified pump system that they say CAN go forward, but which has again been challenged by the Sierra Club and Audubon Society.
All of this simply adds to the South’s distrust of Yankees. I cannot speak to the merits of the Sierra Club’s intervention OR the impact of the Levee’s without the pumps. But I can surely understand the bad blood that occurs when distant folks’ protests so severely impact local life. From Mississippi’s point of view, the actions to block the pumps is another in a series of efforts, beginning with the so-called-in-the-South “War of Northern Aggression,” to keep the South down, and is doing so very effectively.
Again, I AM NOT WEIGHING IN on the merits of the Civil War or the pump situation. Just trying to understand and appreciate the news from multiple points of view. It seems to me, our society would be a little less discordant if we would all do that more often?!
Our Last stop en route to our Journey’s Memphis Basketball midpoint was the city of Clarksdale, Ms. This is a city of major import for Blue Music – at the Crossroads where artists from the Delta paused to hone their craft before eventually leaving for Chicago. Muddy Waters was born nearby and started here. Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson, — every one who is anyone in the genre went north on Highway 61 out of Clarksdale. Heck, Keith Richards even visited once !!
And, this was a place that offered sumthin we have not experienced for over a year – LIVE MUSIC. Basically, there are two OPEN options in town. (we just missed the “Juke Joint Festival”).
The first was the “Ground Zero” Blues Club. This is owned by Morgan Freeman, and has a fairly traditional stage and feel. We saw a pretty polished band headed by a guy named “Mississippi Marshall,” who apologized more than once for being a bit rusty (they haven’t been playing much, just as we haven’t been watching much, this past year). Ground Zero had the requisite autographed photos of the Rolling Stones, as well as lots of other “A” list players. You can actually rent for the night Morgan Freeman’s apartment upstairs, if you are so inclined.
The Second was “Red’s,” which is a traditional Delta Juke Joint. It had the feel of someone’s basement. We drove by earlier in the day, and assumed it was closed forever (barely standing, in fact). Someone told us it was DEFINITELY open…so we had to go!!!
There was a circle of chairs and a few tables. There was Budweiser in Cans, served from a cooler. The Bass player sat in the chair next to me. The drummer when we got there, though quite competent, was obviously a guy from up north who was living his fantasy of playing the Blues in a Delta Juke Joint. The musicians switched around a bit – trading instruments, rotating in folks from the “crowd” (about 20 people).
At one point, the brother of the “ringmaster” was asked to sing a song – and was SOOOOO impaired on said Budweiser that at several times I assumed he would collapse in my lap. When we ultimately left Red’s, this guy was holding the building up (or vice versa) just outside by our car. All the while, the proprietor was making an effort to dance with every woman in the house!
I think you can guess where the music was better, and also where we had the most fun (not the same place, both of those!).
We also attended the Delta Blues Museum, which was excellent. I recommend Clarksdale as a place that, while CLEARLY not the Crossroads anymore, is definitely worth visiting. It’s a place we have on our “stop on the way” list.
From Clarksdale, we made the SHORT TRIP to a place with TALL PEOPLE. You’ll find out more about that in our next post!!