Wednesday, July 11, 2007
For some, a vacation just isn't a vacation unless they get on a plane, take a cab to a resort and spend their days baking at the pool. Putting aside the fact that I am the whitest human being on the planet—I turn a brilliant shade of cooked-crab red after 30 minutes in the sun—and bathing suits are my mortal enemies, that just sounds boring. Give me a good car, a good map and a convivial, adventurous traveling companion any time.
Road trips are just better than one-spot vacations. First, you get to choose your traveling companions. If you've ever been on a tour with a whiner, a hypochondriac or a general idiot, you fully understand this. There's nothing worse than listening to someone else's loud, obnoxious laugh or having to change your plans or pace because someone can't keep up (or slow down)—especially when you're stuck with them for the next seven days.
And speaking of pace, another reason that road trips are better is that you can change yours if your itinerary is too ambitious. On a road trip, it's much easier to take off earlier or stay longer when you want to make a spontaneous change. Try that when you're dealing with airlines and group tours.
Road trips, even with gas at $3 a gallon, are generally cheaper than other modes of travel, especially if you're flexible. Pack a cooler and find a roadside park instead of eating out. Pitch a tent instead of staying another night in a motel. In a pinch, sleeping in your car is a better option than falling asleep at the wheel. Just make sure you park somewhere safe. And speaking of flexibility, road trips always give you the option of exploring those out-of-the-way places and attractions that you'd never visit otherwise.
Of course, a great road trip is worth planning. You want to make sure your car is road-worthy. If it isn't, consider renting— and spending the extra money to add extra drivers. At the very least, check your oil, windshield wiper fluid and the air in your tires. You'll want a good map that shows as much detail as possible. Also, if you're as mechanically challenged as I am, a roadside assistance plan will pay for itself the first time you need it. And make sure to pack a basic first-aid kit and plenty of water.
Last but not least, road trips are better because I can do them by myself. I can just get in the car, point it in any direction and crank up the tunes. Or, I can turn off my phone and just enjoy the silence.
My car; my choice.
— Ronni Mott
Outlandos de 1982
by Andi Agnew
Photo by Darren Schwindaman
My inner 6-year-old was jumping up and down for joy as I purchased tickets to see The Police in New Orleans. Finally, years after my ferocious crush on Sting had mellowed out, and I had all but given up on him and his band ever getting back together, it happened. I couldn't believe they got together to play for the Grammys back in January, but going on tour? And stopping within a 500-mile radius of me? Get out of town, indeed!
My 40-ish boyfriend wasn't interested in going with me, citing the fact that he saw them the first time around on the "Ghost in the Machine" tour. "But I wasn't old enough then!" I protested.
Thankfully, my younger sister loves The Police as much as me and is also chronologically challenged, so she was all about it. We loaded up the car, she kissed her new baby girl goodbye, and we took off down I-55 for the Crescent City. I made a CD of Police tunes for the trip, and we sang along to "Roxanne" and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" as we drove across Lake Pontchartrain.
Downtown New Orleans seemed just as it was before Hurricane Katrina—bustling with people and full of unusual sights, sounds and smells. My sister and I had po-boys and fried oysters before heading to the show. The arena was packed with people when we arrived. Unfortunately, we could only afford the nosebleed section, and when we got to our seats and turned around, the effect was dizzying. The opening act was FictionPlane, a young group that was actually very good and well suited to open for The Police, considering that they, too, were a three-piece band with a pop-reggae sensibility.
Finally, the three guys I had been waiting to see appeared: Sting looked svelte as always, Andy Summers looked like a high school history teacher, and Stewart Copeland looked a bit like Christopher Lloyd with his mop of gray hair and wild-eyed expressions. The group immediately launched into "Message In A Bottle," and it was 1982 all over again.
As the show went on, The Police played each and every song I wanted to hear. Copeland is my new hero—he played with such vigor and jumped back and forth between his drum set and an assortment of percussion instruments behind him with just seconds to spare. Andy Summers made his playing look effortless, even throwing in a few jumps and kicks for fun. Sting's voice was just as amazing as ever, and as he played his well worn bass I realized that I had forgotten he was such a talented bassist.
My sister's need to go to the ladies' room near the end of the show was trumped by the fact that The Police came back for not one, not two, but three encores. It was as if they could not stay off the stage, and I really hated to see them go when they finally did. It was definitely one of the best rock shows I have ever been to, and that is saying something. Sis and I are total Police groupies now, and if we ever get the chance to see them again we will be there. That inner 6-year-old is now trying to convince me to quit my job and follow them around on tour, but she forgets we have bills to pay. I'll give her some Kool-Aid and cookies; she'll be all right.
Andi's (Quite Random) Road Trip Mix
"Get Right With God" Lucinda Williams
"A Minha Menina" A Band of Bees
"Danga Stranga" Leslie and the Lys
"Middle of the Road" The Pretenders
"Scarlet Begonias" Grateful Dead
"Trains to Brazil" Guillemots
"Afterglow 61" Son Volt
"Driven to Tears" The Police
"Black Mirror" Arcade Fire
"Lookin' Out My Back Door" Creedence Clearwater Revival
To New Orleans, With Love
by Caroline Lacy
Photo by Caroline Lacy
To commemorate a wonderful year of friendship and unconditional love, my boyfriend, Ray, and I decided to go to New Orleans to celebrate. We left Friday afternoon with my car full of boxes of shoes and a suitcase stuffed with an outfit for any occasion (because I never know what I will feel like wearing). Even the ride was relaxing. My car does not have a working radio so we talked instead, which suits me just fine because Ray never ceases to make me laugh.
My sister called when we were about halfway there. "Are you there, yet?" she asked in a strange tone, "I just wanted to give you a heads-up that your father is in New Orleans. I just got off the phone with him, so be careful and don't wear any bondage gear or anything crazy down Bourbon Street."
I have not seen my father in many years because of a sadly dwindling relationship that started the instant my parents were divorced when I was 19. Now, at age 31, I have realized how tremendously I need him in my life. The minute my sister told me he was in New Orleans, my heart stopped. I was excited and nervous. I called my father to let him know Ray and I were on our way there, and he seemed pleased. We decided to make plans the next morning to meet somewhere. My palms got sweaty as I stammered a few sentences to my father over the phone.
All I could think about as the city's skyline came into view was feeling my father's arms around me and feeling like everything was past us and that I was someone's daughter again.
It was so good to be heading somewhere different. Ray and I had separate ideas of what to do first. Ray wanted beignets, which sounded fine to me. He has tried several times to make the pastries at home, in a pan that he also uses to fry fish. Fish-flavored beignets are just not my idea of scrumptious. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to shopping. Needless to say, we went shopping first, but it was an easy compromise since the first store we walked by was the Hustler store. We then walked all over the French Quarter looking for beignets but couldn't find them, though we could smell them. Strange. We gave up, settled for McDonald's and went back to the hotel to get ready for a very long night of dancing and debauchery.
Ray and I are not fans of the whole lugubrious Emo scene that has swept Jackson away under its tsunami of angsty teenagers with skinny jeans and the commercialized, high-priced salon version of punk, so we were more than elated when we walked into The Dungeon, a punk/goth club with décor and atmosphere to perfectly correspond with its name. A wall made of human skulls surrounded a small window with access to a bartender behind steel black bars. There were two cages, one in which we observed a spirited couple exceeding the limits of tasteful erotic dancing. It was refreshing to hear The Cure, Danzig, Sisters of Mercy, Souxsie and the Banshees, and all the other bands we love but never hear anywhere in Jackson. We felt right at home. We made it an early night to preserve our energy for the next night, but coming home early in New Orleans means around 2 a.m.
I woke up the next morning with Ray in the sinfully cozy Hampton Inn bed with thoughts of meeting my father even more dominating than my instinctual first morning thoughts of coffee. I picked out a Dad-please-be-proud-of-me outfit and walked outside the hotel to see a gloomy gray morning sky. As we walked around in an attempt to find beignets again, it began to sprinkle. I called my Father while walking under the umbrella with Ray.
"So, when can we meet up? Maybe lunch or something?" I asked, trying not to sound 12 years old.
"Well," he said with a tone that foreshadowed a huge disappointment, "I am kind of on a tight schedule this time with friends coming in from out of town and such."
I felt my legs get weak as tears started to cloud my vision.
"We're going to be at Rudy Giuliani's party half the night so I just don't think I will have time."
I think my heart actually broke. I grabbed onto Ray tighter and tighter to hold back tears until I hung up the phone and broke down into a sob, wetting Ray's shirt more with tears than the rain. Ray said that it was the saddest thing he had ever seen: a sad girl crying in the rain in the middle of a New Orleans street. It was a moment that could have ruined my entire day had I not realized that I could trust my emotions with Ray, that he comforts me like no one else. That is one reason I love him. That realization, along with an entire day of shopping ahead of me, cheered me up.
After shopping until we literally wanted to drop, we got all dressed up for another night in New Orleans. The moon that night was absolutely incredible. It looked as if you could drive down the street and crash into the full, glowing orb with your car. This time we headed to The Whirling Dervish, another punk club off the touristy path of Bourbon Street. The bartender there was a transvestite in combat boots and dangly disco ball earrings who explained that the bandage on his head was from a very hard hit to the headboard the night before. He also enjoyed lifting up his skirt and flashing us. I congratulated him on his God-given blessing. We stayed out until 4 a.m., dancing and drinking and laughing.
New Orleans is a sensory city. The aesthetics are enough to appeal to every eye, from intricately detailed architecture to smatterings of graffiti on the bathroom door of the Café du Monde. You can take 10 steps in any direction and inhale a different aroma. Step past a bakery emanating the warm sugary smell of freshly made beignets and pralines, or a park full of the sweetest-smelling magnolias, and suddenly you are taken aback by a stench from a dark alley that smells something like a piss-covered dead fish with beer breath.
The daytime streets are filled mostly with the sounds of the city, along with an occasional trumpet or saxophone player. Walking down St. Charles at 10 a.m., you can hear the sound of newspapers rustling in one hand of a café patron while he holds the jingling leash of a panting pit bull.
When evening comes, people seem to come out of nowhere, and the noise they make grows increasingly louder until dawn. You can hear a different song playing from every door of every bar, tourist gift shop and restaurant. There are people up in the balconies shouting at the weaving pedestrians to flash for beads. A group of young black girls tapping until their feet are sore will yell at anyone who stops to watch and doesn't leave a dollar. As you pass by the locals, you can hear talk of the end of the world and stories of Katrina. It is hard to imagine meeting New Orleanians like our beloved transvestite bartender anywhere else.
Sunday morning came way too fast. We were exhausted and dreaded the drive back to Jackson, but we were definitely ready to be home. It's nice to have a city like New Orleans to visit and allow a little bit of irresponsibility and craziness, but I would much rather be at home eating Ray's perfected cinnamon toast in bed watching "South Park."
All Shook Up
by Tiffany Fitch
Photo by Tiffany Fitch
"I thought Graceland was supposed to be like Disneyland, only funner," Henry, age 6, said at the top of his lungs last August, in a packed trolley that had broken down near Beale Street in Memphis. "It was boring and stupid."
Tourists decked out in Elvis shirts and caps turned to stare at us, and I wished I could drown in the sweat puddle forming under my rear.
"I hate Elvis. He hates me. Let's hang Elvis from a tree. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you. Elvis can't say I love you. Cause he's dead. Dead, dead, dead," Henry sung to his audience, his entire face a grin, eyes glowing like the King's gold lamé jumpsuit.
"You don't really mean that, honey," I said loud enough for everyone to hear, lest they think I, too, was a traitor to the Elvis cause, and hang us both up as examples from the trolley handrails.
"Nope, I really do. He stinks! The only ride that place had was Lisa Marie's crappy swing set, and they wouldn't even let me play on it."
Georgie, 9, having recently decided she was too cool for our entire family, scooted down the bench away from us, flipping her hair behind her shoulder.
"That is sooooooooooooo rude! Pretend you don't know me."
I ignored them both, daydreaming about running away to Blue Hawaii in a pair of white go-go boots and a mini skirt with a Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love.
"Mama," Nicholas, 10, said, interrupting my reverie by poking me numerous times in the shoulder with his finger. "Isn't it just a little strange that the two U.S. cities with major fault lines both have trolleys? I find that suspicious."
"As if dirty looks from Elvis fans wasn't bad enough," I thought, looking up at the huge, old buildings destined to tumble down around us at any moment when the Big One hit.
Just the morning before, on our way to Memphis, Nicholas had informed me of the potential for catastrophe.
"Memphis is a time bomb waiting to happen," he said.
I spent the rest of the day planning our funerals while waiting for the ground to shake beneath us. That night, Nicholas woke me up at least 11 times by screaming "Earthquake!" every single time a guest on our floor shut their door. Finally, I realized we were more likely to crash to our death in the elevator of the Heartbreak Hotel—which stopped a good six inches from its destination and trembled and shook with a quick drop before the doors creaked open—than for the earth to swallow us whole a block away from Graceland. I also decided that if Nicholas woke me up one more time, I would personally kill him with my own two hands.
I guess he'd forgotten my ban on natural--disaster talk as time passed in the trolley. He proceeded to tell me every detail of each earthquake in the past 20 years.
"Mama, I'm hot," Henry interrupted us. "Can we go to Disneyland next year?"
I didn't think Memphis was so bad myself. We'd arrived the morning before, meeting up with my mom, grandma and brother Oliver at the Scottish Inn on Elvis Presley Boulevard. We dropped my grandma (who hates Elvis as much as Henry does) off at the Heartbreak Hotel and headed off to Graceland, four kids in tow.
Elvis' music assaulted us from all sides. People were everywhere, accents and languages spanning the globe, temperature only 447 degrees. I thought the fact that we'd escaped our first gift shop without making a purchase was a good sign, and we moved toward the bus line to the mansion.
"I wanted a picture of myself by the gates," Georgie whined, as the line crept slowly ahead. My mom and brother caught the bus before us, inducing another round of screams from the children left behind. I was tempted, briefly, to flee.
I didn't, though, and we squeezed in the next bus traveling across the street to the palace of the King. Mom had already disappeared inside. Two of the children bustled ahead, and the third trailed behind, listening to every moment of the recorded tour. I stayed with the slowpoke and prayed I wouldn't find Hannah hiding in the Jungle Room or Nick lounging on the yellow sofa in the TV room.
Five-hundred hours later we emerged, skipping the memorabilia entirely. The children surged forward, a bulging mass of giggling, skipping, pushing and arguing children moving toward the grave site. It was a solemn affair, full of quiet tears and millions of camera flashes, until we arrived.
"Which one is Elvis, Mama?"
"Is that a baby grave?"
"Whose baby is that?"
I made the mistake of answering.
"Poor Elvis, his brother died, and he died on the potty from taking too many pills."
I scrunched between two offended Germans, snapped a picture, grabbed the children and ran like hell to the bus line.
I sighed as the trolley shuddered to life. "Maybe it was a little bad," I thought.
Thirty minutes later we passed the pyramid and approached our stop. I pulled the cord to signal the driver but instead of slowing, the trolley seemed to gain speed. I yanked again as she went past our stop, and another and another, halting six long, treeless blocks from where we were parked.
"Disneyland, indeed," she huffed under her breath as we trooped past her. And I wished I had one of Elvis' scarves to choke her with.
Drinking at the Fountain of Faulkner
by Nick Judin
Photo by Nick Judin
Oxford is known, above all else, as the home of William Faulkner and other literary greats. As a young writer, I've heard that there's "something in the water" in Oxford that makes great writers.
Having no talent of my own, I decided to give the local tap a try.
I left Jackson on July 3 (my 17th birthday) and made the long drive north with my girlfriend, Wi, a photographer and Russian translator. We arrived late at night, and accomplished little more than picking up hamburgers and falling asleep watching "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Criss Angel." After waking up from strange dreams about supernatural bail-jumpers, we hurried to the Square. Despite the holiday, Square Books was open, so we sat on the balcony with coffee and did what you do in Oxford—we read. Specifically, "The Sound and the Fury."
Finding Faulkner's writing a little too hard to digest, we opted for the next most authentic thing—his gravestone. We took a moment to clean up the smashed beer bottles (for literary shame, people, it's supposed to be whiskey) and then recreated Kay Holloway's well-known photograph of Willie Morris. I actually look as tired as Willie did, and that kind of scares me.
After the graveyard we spent a couple hours in town and then headed to the Grove for the 4th of July celebration. It was a heartwarming sight: liberal-arts students and soccer moms mingling with country folk, the kind of guys with American flag shirts and Confederate flag tattoos. It was only while waiting in line so Wi could get on the Moon Jump that I pulled myself away.
Later that night, we found a parking lot on the campus where we could watch the fireworks. Wi and I sat on a hill and watched the show with about a dozen other people. The night was perfect for fireworks, and the sparkling lights, distant cheers and ringing clap of the explosions made for a very romantic night.
That was, until the show ended, and we realized we were two out of a couple thousand people about to get into a car and leave the campus. We hurried home, noted the party next to us being broken up by the cops, and had a candlelit dinner, starving-artist style (mini-bottles of "non-alcoholic" wine and leftover pasta).
The next day we had something special planned. We were told to head south down the highway and turn left at a red brick church. These directions turned out to be insufficient, we discovered, since in the South there are lots of churches, and apparently red brick is a favorite building material.
Once we found the place, "Old South Carriage of Oxford," we introduced ourselves to a Mr. Bubba Traylor and his father, Doyle. Next to us was a carriage, drawn by two tall mares. Bubba took us out on a carriage ride and told us a little bit about the horses and himself. It didn't look completely out of place in rural Oxford, but it definitely turned heads.
"I've been working with horses ever since I was born," he told me. "I started this buggy thing about a year ago." We rode across the countryside for about an hour, both Wi and I getting a chance to drive the carriage. If you know how hard it is to get one horse to listen to you, try two at the same time. For 15 minutes, I managed to avoid driving the cart off a cliff . We passed by some cars that decided it'd be a great idea to honk at the horses (note: it's really, really not), but thanks to our driver, we kept the wagon under control. Back at the ranch house, we said goodbye to Bubba and Doyle, and headed back into town.
All that was left to do was pack everything and head back to Jackson. It may be a little trite to say, but the best part of my road trip to Oxford were the people I met there. Whether it's one of the writers that put the town on the map, a college student trying to find his pants after a long night out or a friendly cowboy with an authentic Amish carriage, the people of Oxford make the town worthy of its literature.
To contact Old South Carriage for weddings, tours or special occasions, call 662-346-1682.
Wayfaring Preacher Man
by Robert Connolly
Photo by Christi Vivar
I experience road trips as pilgrimages into the Kingdom of God. Like any good theological venture, there are rules and regulations: Thou shalt avoid the Interstate Highway system at all costs. Thou shalt stop at any and all points of interest, or at the inclination of any of the vehicle's occupants. Thou shalt be mindful and intentional of everything in your field of senses. Thou shalt be in community with all that you encounter on the road. Thou shalt just stop and set a good bit. Thou shalt travel 250 miles per day, or less. And so on.
Emma and I began our married life with an 18-day run from Jackson to New Mexico with the mantra, "I got a tank full of gas and an open mind." At the end of each day, we played the "What was your favorite part of the day?" game. Consistently our responses were seemingly mundane. My favorite part of the entire trip was watching Emma in her deep-blue flannel shirt, her golden hair flowing in the wind, gathering seeds from shoulder-high sunflower fields in western Kansas. (The photo is on my desk today.) We pulled into our home in Jackson after 18 days on the road, agreeing that with a couple loads of laundry and a thermos of coffee we would be ready to hit the road again.
The next year we took Highway 84—"The Road to Nowhere"—from Abilene to the Canadian border. My favorite part of that trip was driving through some 50 misty miles on rutted gravel roads, in a nature preserve north of Thedford, Neb.—totally isolated in the stark beauty, interrupted only by hawks, eagles and other winged creatures.
For the eight years I lived in Jackson, my annual treks up North became routine. I drove up the Natchez Trace to Tupelo in the evening dusk. The next morning, I would be on the road by 6 a.m., completing the parkway west of Nashville, snaking into Kentucky through the limestone-stacked fences and rolling hills where Thomas Merton came to rest. I know every pullover on that Trace.
In north Alabama, I sat patiently in the cold on a tree stump at mile marker 330 to see the ripples in the water as the beaver swam from their lodge checking the sturdiness of their construction. Beyond the Trace, I recognize the green pasture land and the rises where those seemingly out-of-place Roman Catholic convents and churches dot the Kentucky hills around Gethsemane.
I just returned from my annual trip up North. The problem is that I now live in Memphis and the ritual of driving along the Trace from Jackson doesn't work. The thought of driving I-40 to Nashville and then north on I-65 to Louisville is too much. So, I got out my Kentucky/Tennessee map, pen and ruler. I lined up Memphis, Tennessee with Newport, Ky., and drew a straight line. Hmm … Blue Highway 79 snaked a circuitous path 3/4 of the way through towns like Bells, Humboldt, Milan, Paris, India, Bethlehem, Cave Spring and Brandenburg. Then, Highway 42 just kind of winds along the Ohio River.
A new ritual is sanctified. The Kingdom of God is like a Blue Highway.
Stumbling Upon the Blues
by Cheree Franco
Photo by Cheree Franco
It all started when I met Jody. I was randomly taking pictures in Yazoo County, when this wiry older man caught my eye. Something in his stride reminded me of my grandfather, so I joined the group outside Jody's Snack Shop. Jody and I struck up a conversation, and he pointed out the Blue Front Café, well-known from Bentonia Blues lore. The shack sat unobtrusively between the railroad tracks and a rusted cotton gin.
"Come back June 16," Jody said. "Come back. That'll be a day."
June 16 arrives, and none of my friends can come with. So I guess it'll just be me and my camera-crutch. If I can hide behind my stealthy black-box, I have validation.
I put on my mom's vintage peasant skirt and roll down the car windows. The summer evening smells sickly-sweet. There's nothing but corn for miles, but I feel connected, like my body can recall my family's history on some genetic level. Before they moved to yuppie-burb, my family lived in Warren and Neshoba counties. Before they were executives, they were sharecroppers.
I turn off the highway and follow the tracks. Downtown Bentonia is a single block: a grocery store and combination police station/city hall. I had expected a shack full of country bluesmen. Whatever's going on here tonight, it's bigger than that.
At the sight of a stage and milling people, my artistic ambition pulses. Confidently, I stroll to the front, where some old-timer soulfully moans. I ask who he is, and am quickly informed that these guys have been at it since noon. The Bentonia Blues Festival, I learn, is an annual event, and the Blue Front's proprietor, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, has just taken the stage. I frame my shot, focus the lens and—nothing. I slide open a piece of plastic to reveal an empty cavity. I forgot to bring the battery—of course. Time to plop the camera in my car and survey the situation from afar.
It seems as if the whole town has turned out. One man's got a barbeque cooker, and ladies are selling homemade snacks off card tables. Back at the stage, I hesitantly begin to dance. Suddenly, there is a small, smiling girl at my side. As she shyly pantomimes my moves, the smile breaks into a full-fledged grin. I grin back, and together we dance. Then she is making up her own moves, and I am pantomiming her. By the end of the set, we are sweaty and giggly, the bottom of my skirt dragging and dusty.
Waiting in line for tropical ices, I learn that my new friend is named Andrill. We link hands walking back, and some guy winks and calls, "Can I hold your hand, too?"
"Gotta be under 10," I say, glibly. For the first time all day, I am happy.
Then, suddenly worried, I turn to Andrill. "How old are you?"
She grins. "You're good. I'm only 9."
For the rest of the evening, it's Andrill and me. Sometimes other kids join us for the dancing; sometimes it's just us. We're a team, and I feel blessed, knowing I need this, to remember that living's about the living, not about later writing about it. Andrill teaches me moves I've never attempted, moves involving quick hip-flicks and strange contortions, and I teach her the remnants of seventh-grade cotillion. I spin her in, she spins me out, and then she gets the bright idea to dip me, and people actually clap. Then I scoop her up behind the knees and dip her back, river-baptism-style, so that she gets a head rush and squeals.
In between sets, we teach each other hand claps, make up secret handshakes and test for ticklish-ness. She grabs my arm, loops it nonchalantly over her shoulder, and we stroll the grounds.
Eventually the music ends, but there are still people picking up trash and packing up tables. Andrill finds an unopened bag of chips. We get a group together and invent a game.
The big kids look out, going easy on the little ones. Passers-by are haphazardly thudded with wayward chips. And then Andrill's grandma comes to collect her, and she is gone.
The last of the families leave, and the party relocates to the Blue Front. Someone starts up a jukebox. By the time I leave Bentonia, it's 3 a.m. Even the trains have stopped running. The town feels perfect, like an unbroken set.
Back in my car, I turn off the music to make room for my thoughts. The early morning still smells of cornfields. I feel sticky and satisfied. It's a feeling of knowing that, despite my nomadic tendencies, Mississippi is home.
A New Chattanooga
by Candy Manning Hagwood
Photo by Darren Schwindaman
The trees seemed to sway like a church choir as our car crossed their path. I sat in the passenger seat daring myself to jump out of the window as Carly, my 5-year-old daughter, asked, "How much longer?" for the 26th time during the five-hour trip. Ten more miles to Chattanooga.
My 8-year-old son Spencer, thanks to his Nintendo DS Lite, no longer realized that he was on the same planet as the rest of us. For once, I was glad.
I hadn't been to Chattanooga since I was a kid in the 70s. The only memory I had was from a family photo of me standing in my favorite navy, terrycloth jumper pointing to the Ruby Fall's sign with my pre-braces bucktoothed grin.
I didn't have any expectations. We simply wanted to take the kids somewhere they had never been before, and it needed to be fairly close to Jackson since we only had a few days left before their spring break was over.
The sun was starting to set and as we drove down Market Street toward downtown to find our hotel, and I started to get a little nervous. "Are you sure that we're going the right way?" I asked my husband. "Downtown" was not the right direction for a "family" affair, in my experience. But this was not to be my usual experience.
As we drove further north, closing in on the Tennessee River, little white lights twinkled, outlining the tops of buildings. Horse-drawn carriages rode up and down the streets as pedestrians filled the sidewalks lined with patio dining for the local restaurants.
There were museums, an art deco-style movie theater, a bookstore, a Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream shop and the gigantic Tennessee museum. We had entered a hidden wonderland.
Like a pack of greyhounds, the four of us raced toward our hotel lobby to check in once we'd found a parking place. The clock was ticking! The thought of unloading our bags never crossed our minds.
We all agreed that it was the perfect night for a carriage ride. Not only were the skies clear and the temperature in the mid-60s, we knew that a tour of the city at a comfortable pace was exactly what we needed to come up with our agenda for the next few days.
Dressed in creased black pants, a white, button-down shirt and a red bow tie, our tour guide introduced himself as Dave. Then he introduced us to his beautiful, dark brown Clydesdale, June Bug, and his Dalmatian, Ivan.
With Ivan's spotted rear-end facing us, Dave had my kids in stitches when he placed a pair of sunglasses on the top of Ivan's tail, making his tail a "nose." As we meandered south down Broad Street, cuddled up in complimentary blankets, Dave shared some of the city's history with us.
Until 1988, he told us, most of downtown was deserted. Old, empty warehouses and decaying buildings covered most of the area. The only people that lived in the area were homeless. The city had been working for years against their "dirty" reputation given to them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 1969 had ranked Chattanooga "the dirtiest city in America," due to air pollution.
The people of Chattanooga decided that it was time for a rebirth of their city. In November 1988, at the intersection of Broad Street and Riverfront Parkway, bulldozers started tearing down the old and ground-breaking for the new. The Tennessee Aquarium was the first of the "new" Chattanooga. It opened in 1992 and is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. Everything else bloomed from there.
My husband and I sat silently enjoying our history lesson and observing the random lights watching over the city from the surrounding foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It was magical. For my kids, well … they were still obsessed with Ivan's tail.
After breakfast the following morning, my kids bounced up and down begging to go to the Creative Discovery Museum. It sat next to our hotel, and we had a bird's-eye view into the front windows. My children felt teased while eating their chocolate chip waffles as they watched other children already inside soaking one another with water spray jets.
Once in the museum, my daughter sang a few of her favorite tunes in the sound room/recording studio, fancying herself as the next Hilary Duff. My son, a self-proclaimed science lover, was mesmerized with the energy that his own body made while watching the lightning-rod lines as they followed his hands during the various kid-friendly experiments.
"To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak" was the Hopi quote covering one large wall. The words of Albert Einstein, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," covered another.
"This is the bestest children's museum that I've ever been to, Mom," said my little girl, smiling. I had to agree with her.
There was more to do than we could fit into our two-day visit, but we tried our best. We made our way up Lookout Mountain to explore Ruby Falls. My children loved the rock formations, which resembled bacon and cacti. They giggled when my husband and I had to turn sideways to make it through the narrowing tunnels. Further up the mountain, we checked out Rock City. My son was amazed when we reached the top and he read that he could see seven U.S. states from where he stood.
It was here that I was finally flooded with my real childhood memories of Chattanooga. I posed as my husband took a picture of me pointing to the Ruby Fall's sign—minus the navy, terrycloth jumper of course.
That evening, we headed back downtown. We sat on the patio of the Big River Grille & Brewing Works, filling our stomachs with hazelnut-encrusted chicken and juicy steak as we watched other people pass by us, searching for their next adventure. Afterwards we walked a few blocks south to the Rock Point Book Store.
Inside, a fresh pot of coffee sat brewing on a side table under the exposed-beam ceilings, supported by red-brick walls. There were multiple places to sit and read, including an antique sofa, wingback chairs and several old church pews. My son ran toward an old truck parked in the children's section. The sign read "Joad's Truck from The Grapes of Wrath." Standing beside the truck was a bottle tree covered with bookmarks. As my husband sat on the sofa reading an article from Newsweek, my daughter made herself comfortable in an old school desk and thumbed through a picture book.
It was a Hallmark moment if ever I've seen one.
The last day of our trip arrived too soon. We checked out of our hotel and loaded our car before dedicating our morning to one last site—the 12-story Tennessee Aquarium awaited us.
Making our way down Broad Street, we could see the Aquarium's pyramid-shaped roof with its glass skylight towering above the other buildings. It was beautiful, all 56,975 square feet of it. Escalators led us through the corridors as we watched the sharks and giant sea turtles swim gracefully across the walls of glass. I watched Carly take gentle steps across the path of the butterfly garden, quietly begging a monarch to choose her for its landing site. "Mom! Look!" Spencer called to me from another room, knowing that I would be excited to see him pet a baby shark. I looked around, amazed. It was easy to understand how this was where the "new" Chattanooga began.
Later that evening, shortly before arriving back in Jackson, I turned toward the back seat and asked my children if they had enjoyed their trip. All smiles, my son said, "Yes! When can we go back?"
Yawning, with a look of "blah" across her face, my daughter asked (for the 27th time), "How much longer?"
- Just reading the articles relaxed me and for many of the stories, I got into some real visualization and imagery. -can't wait to get out there with my favorite riding buddy!
- I took a road trip today down to the Gulf Coast. I hadn't been there since a year before Katrina struck. It's sad knowing that a lot of the beautiful, stately homes and the numerous hotels and restaurants that lined the beachfront along Hwy. 90 are gone. About a decade ago, I was thinking of buying a condo in Gulfport. Now, that's nothing but concrete slab. But all is not bad. There are signs of rebuilding, particularly with the rebuilt casinos, high-rise condos that have sprung up and seeing people on the beach. Overall, things didn't look as bad as I had feared. There's still a long way to go, but I know things will get even better as each day goes by.
- golden eagle