Well, it’s been quite a busy trip so far and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. My travel plans have changed considerably in fact. My grandfather, who had been suffering with a weak heart for sometime, passed away on Friday night. I’m currently flying back to Oklahoma City for the funeral on Tuesday. However, I’m not giving up. I’ll be flying back out on Wednesday to pick up my car and to continue the journey.
Despite this rather somber note, the trip so far has been spectacular. I know many have enjoyed my not quite so sober video post which I think speaks volumes to the good time I’ve been having. So here’s the big recap so far . . .
After arriving in Memphis and getting my car’s oil changed, I made my way to Graceland, Mecca for mullets and mutton chops everywhere. The place where shag carpeting went to die a slow and painful death. The land where every rhinestone for a decade ended up. In other words, a place not to be missed.
Graceland is actually a museum complex that threatens to overtake the Smithsonian in size in just a few years. Besides the house, you can also tour his cars, his planes, his nightlife even a virtual reality simulation of his lower intestine. Well, maybe not that last part, but it is a huge place. I decided to take it easy and just do the mansion tour for which I was very grateful.
I expected a short tour of his house where I could snap pictures of bad 70’s interior design maybe see a jumpsuit or two and be on my merry way. I was shocked to discover the vast amount of detail they have poured into the exhibit. Not only do you get a tour of the bad 70’s interior design and jumpsuits, you get audio commentary from his ex-wife and daughter. Not only that, you get to explore what I suspect is every little memento the man ever had. You’ve got the clothes he was married in, his daughter’s crib, books he read, his gun collection even a few of the rounds he popped off in his shooting range. It’s really a museum designed entirely to spurn on obsessives the world over.
However, after touring the grounds in excruciating detail, you then get a trip to the piece de’ résistance, the grave site where you can pay your last respects to the King. You think I’m kidding, but no, you end up standing in line and slowly walking past the graves of Elvis, Vernon, etc. Presley all surrounded by flowers, which as the friendly plaque explains, arrive everyday from all parts of the world. At the end of this little trek (almost 2 hours), I wasn’t quite sure whether to be disturbed, moved or just amused at what a great and varied place this world is. So I just did all three at once.
After Graceland, I had to hurry to my hotel to check in, get cleaned up and get to the pre-Tom Waits festivities with my own set of obsessives. It was one of those rather odd experiences that you only truly get in this modern network connected world. I’m speaking of that experience of gathering with a bunch of people with whom you’ve corresponded with for years and yet have never met before. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have been able to pick a single one of them out from my mental image of them. However, they were all a great bunch of folks and it was nice to meet them, if, only a bit, disorienting.
The show itself was like returning to place long forgotten. I’d been a Tom Waits fan before I first saw him in concert back in 99’ but my true admiration of his talent began after that first show. Well, seven years later, I was reaffirmed of my belief in all things Tom.
For those who have never been to a show, it is much like a trip back to a much earlier time of stage performance. There are no big light productions, no lasers, and no multi-platform stages. Props, if any, are usually made out of plywood and held together with duct tape. This is a simple show which requires a master entertainer to pull off. In many ways, it’s like watching an old vaudeville act, except there is only one performer. Of course he sings his songs, but there is a whole lot of storytelling, jokes, dances and plenty of just plain weirdness. Hard to imagine, but worth a look see. Well, enough of my fawning.
Well, there was an after party, whose sole claim to fame, was that it got me lubricated me enough to make my now infamous, “Look, Nathan’s drunk and recording it” video. So, I don’t think any further detail is needed.
The next morning, late morning, I made my way down to Sun Records to complete my rock n’ roll tour of Memphis. While, or maybe because, it is a much smaller tour, it is certainly much more enjoyable that my previous foray into rock history. It’s amazing to think that one small studio run by man who could be accurately described as a borderline con-man, could put out such a volume of great recordings. If you are in Memphis, I strongly recommend making this part of your tour.
From Memphis, it was more interstate driving on into Nashville. Because of my late start, I didn’t make it into Nashville until late afternoon which didn’t give me anytime to see the sights. Basically, just enough time to change clothes and head to the Ryman Auditorium to see my second Tom Waits show. For those that don’t know the history of the Ryman, it was the stage for the Grand Ol’ Opry for 31 years. The who’s who of country music has played here including Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins. Of any place to see my favorite performer, this was the place to see him.
To begin with, the Ryman is an old church built before the time electronic sound amplification. When the place was converted into more secular purposes, they didn’t remove the pews. To this day, to see a show at the Ryman, is to sit in communal church pews. Then when you enter the place you are hit with this amazing smell. Old wood, dust, ancient tobacco smoke and popcorn. Probably sounds unpleasant, but truly it’s like having history pushed through your olfactory senses. You just feel like you’re in someplace special.
And for the show itself, all I can say is simply amazing. While the Memphis show was good, this just blew the doors off of it. Tom Waits at the Ryman now ranks as my all time favorite live performance I’ve ever seen and I don’t know how it would be topped.
The next morning, I finally got started on my back road trip. From Nashville, I wound my way through increasingly beautiful hill country to Deals Gap just on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Just up the road is Cheoah Dam which you might know as the dam Harrison Ford jumped off of in The Fugitive. However, my reason for being there was a little less daring, but certainly not without its risk.
Deals Gap is also famous for it’s proximity to a piece of roadway known as the “Tail of the Dragon”. Officially it’s a part of state highway 129, but it’s much more famous as one of the greatest pieces of roadway for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts. In 11 miles, there are no less than 318 curves, many hairpins, with an amazing amount of elevation change. I took a run at it on my way in, but since it was raining and I had never seen the road before, I took it very slow just to check the thing out. I can say that after a slow run, I was salivating to get my chance to put Dominique through her paces the next morning.
For the night, I camped right under Fontana Dam in a beautiful private campsite. Though it was raining when I arrived, the weather cleared after awhile and I made myself dinner. The dam puts out quite a bit of cold water into the river bed which combined with the day’s high heat made for some amazing fog banks in the river bed. However, the most spectacular display was yet to come. Right around 8:00, the sky turned a red I’ve never quite seen before, and this is from an Oklahoma boy who is used to spectacular sunsets. It was an almost blood red light that seemed to coat everything in its rich hue. I tried to take some pictures of it, which captures the light to a degree, but it was certainly doesn’t really do it justice. It was just an amazing display. However, I have to say its particular color did kind of worry me a bit before my day of performance driving.
The next morning, I awoke early and made my way to the beginning of the dragon. Already bikers were collecting (the road is principally driven by motorcycles) at the gas station at the start. After waiting for a few minivans and big Harleys to get a bit down the road, I made my own start. What fun! Dominique handled like a dream. I got a small amount of rear end slide in one curve, however the curve had a sign recommending 10 miles an hour and I hit it about 45. (Sorry mom, I won’t do it again). Minis truly are a unique driving experience which border on the sublime when pushed to their limits.
After my bit of exciting driving, it was off for some scenic beauty touring the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokey Mountains. This is my first visit to this area of the country and it truly is beautiful to see. It seems like every quarter mile there is a view of scenery more amazing than the last. The road winds through the mountains with grand curves and amazing tunnels blasted through hundreds of feet of rock.
I made my way into Ashville, NC that way enjoying myself aplenty. From Ashville, I hopped onto an airplane which is, as I write, descending into Oklahoma City. I probably won’t write anymore until I hit the road again on Wednesday and besides this is probably more detail than any of you are prepared to read anyway. However, until next time, keep on truckin’