26 October 2009

Rolling Up the River Road

Thursday, Sept 24, 2009

We weren't in a big rush this morning, since we didn't have far to go today.  On the agenda - breakfast, a visit to Graceland Too in Holly Springs (allegedly open 24/7, in the home of an eccentric Elvis-loving man), a stop at Kim's house in Memphis, and ending up in Paducah in time to eat at Doe's (we were already craving chocolate cobbler...)  It was a little drizzly and foggy - the perfect weather for dawdling.  We weren't sure where to eat, but since Oxford is a college town, we knew there would be some great breakfast places nearby.  Sure enough, a little research on the iphone took us straight to Big Bad Breakfast, which was tucked away in a little strip shopping center.  I was pretty sure I would like it just from the name, but when we walked through the front door, which was clearly recycled from a college classroom and bore the label "Organic Chemistry" I knew we had come to the right place!

The menu looked great - obviously lots of dishes were prepared with locally grown and/or fresh ingredients, although you can probably guess that there weren't many 'heart-healthy' items on the list.  Kim chose the Big Bad Breakfast, which was scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries, and toast.  I got the Secret History, which was fantastic!  It was a huge omelet, made with shallots, fresh herbs, tomatoes, and Swiss cheese, and it was served with home fries and a big biscuit.  Best part about the biscuit (which I couldn't finish) was the homemade raspberry jam.  Great way to start the day!  Read more about this yummy place at www.bigbadbreakfast.com - oh, and another thing we loved about it was the light fixtures over each booth.  All different and all made from recycled items - see for yourself!

Holly Springs and Graceland Too are just up the road from Oxford, so off we went.  Kim's daughter, Kerry, has visited GT many times, so we had an idea what to expect.  It would be a little hard to describe, and many others have tried, so let me give you this website so you can be prepared -  http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/11097  Sadly, there were two things that we weren't prepared for - first, the house is not pink and second, contrary to ALL published accounts and first-hand reports, NO ONE CAME TO THE DOOR!  We rang the bell, we knocked, we honked, we yelled, we circled the property, we attempted to agitate the dog, we stood around for much longer than we should have, and we DIDN'T GET IN!!  Bummer.

Spurned by the host who is always home, we dejectedly got back in the car and headed for Memphis.  We arrived just about the time we knew that Jim would be on his lunch break, and sure enough, we tracked him down.  Since we were still stuffed from breakfast and Jim had finished lunch, we just settled for hugs in the parking lot.  We stopped by Kim's house just long enough for her to gather up some things she needed, clean out the car a little bit, off-load some things we wouldn't need any more, and to give Kim some time to take care of a little business since she'd been gone for a couple of weeks.

In one of our less than stellar moves, we decided to take the "scenic" route to Paducah, and rather than taking the normal, albeit boring route up the parkway from Fulton, we got back on the Great River Road and toured rural (very rural) western Kentucky.  There had been so much rain lately that the road itself looked like a river in places!  There was not much to see, although we did see a magnificent heron taking flight.
We had some fond memories of family outings and picnics at Columbus-Belmont State Park, so we set our sights for it.  To give you a little background - Columbus Belmont is right on the Mississippi River, and it's where Confederate troops got the bright idea to stretch a giant chain across the river in an attempt to stop the advancing Union troops.  You get a gold star if you figured out that the plan didn't work.  But here's a piece of the chain and a look at the river!

Columbus was called the "Gibraltar of the West" by the Confederates, and was considered by them the key to their defense of the upper Mississippi River valley.  The anchor weighs six tons...

It was dreary and raining a little bit while we were here, and it probably goes without saying that we were the only ones visiting this out of the way state park today.  I'm not even sure if the rangers were there!  We are impressed by the Kentucky State Park system, though.  Many of the parks have gorgeous and challenging golf courses, and most of them have pretty decent lodging and camping facilities.  Much better than the NC state parks I've seen!  As we left the park, we just decided to make a beeline for Paducah (not that there is a very direct route from here to anywhere...) but we got stopped by a commotion in the middle of the road.

It was almost dark by the time we got to town, so we checked into our new home away from home (it's really strange to stay in a hotel room in the town you grew up in) and then we went straight downtown to Doe's.  The Barbeque on the River fest was in full swing, although given the lateness of the hour and the rain that was starting to fall, we were able to get a parking place without too much trouble.  The lower blocks of Broadway and Jefferson were closed to vehicles, and there were still LOTS of people downtown.  Thankfully, most of them were eating barbeque, so we got a great table right in front of the Ole Miss - South Carolina football game on the big screen.  Gotta love Thursday night football!  Doe's was worth the wait - man, is their food good!  Kim opted for their famous tamales and chili, but I splurged on a nice big rare filet and a perfect baked potato.  Good eats!  But the best was yet to come - the main reason we came was for the chocolate cobbler, and we were not disappointed!  Don't miss Doe's when you come to Paducah!

 We were excited to be back in our hometown and were looking forward to reconnecting with our high school classmates over the next few days.  But for now, stuffed and sated and sleepy, it was dreamtime!

Dreaming of chocolate...


12 October 2009

Delta Dawn

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Morning comes earlier every day...it was sort of sprinkling on us by the time we finally got going, but it stopped before we even got to downtown Vicksburg.  Although our Hampton was right across the street from the National Military Park, I had learned my lesson when I was here with my daughter Kim last summer.  Just so you know, anytime something is called a "National Military" cemetery, even if it's in the South, it's a Union graveyard - so if you're looking for confederate memorials, you won't find them here.  This particular cemetery is a loop drive of over 20 miles, and at a 20 mph speed limit, you're gonna be there for a while...  We passed, although we did learn something about the Illinois memorial later on.  I'll fill you in shortly.

We decided to skip breakfast this morning and have an early lunch at Rusty's (recommended by Kim's friend Christy, who grew up here - thanks!!) so our first stop was the Coca-Cola museum.  In the summer of 1894, Vicksburg businessman Joseph Biedenharn put Coca-Cola in bottles and delivered it to rural areas near Vicksburg.  This was the first time Coke was served in bottles rather than from a soda fountain.  You already know the rest of the story - but the first Coca-Cola bottling franchise started right here in Mississippi!  The museum provides a great timeline and description of the bottling process and how it has evolved.  Best of all, it has LOTS of coke memorabilia and some really wonderful old advertisements.  We loved it!  It took all we had not to order a coke float at 10:30 AM, but we restrained ourselves.

From the Coke Museum, we walked down the street and decided not to go into the Doll and Toy Museum, so we headed down to the riverfront and the floodwall.  The same muralist who has painted murals on the floodwall in our hometown of Paducah, Kentucky,  has also painted historic scenes on the floodwall here.  The above photos are both panels from the Vicksburg floodwall.  I just love these murals and we always learn things while looking at them - and I love it when learning is fun!  For example, I'll bet you had no idea that 36,325 soldiers from Illinois participated in the Vicksburg campaign or that there are 1300 (!) monuments in the 1800 acre National Military Park here.  The Illinois monument is considered the grandest, and it was dedicated in 1906 after being built for just under $200,000.  Here are a few of my favorite murals by Robert Dafford (a native of Lafayette, LA) and his talented team, and you can see them all at http://www.riverfrontmurals.com if you're so inclined.

We took our time wandering around the waterfront, and we were a little perplexed about the width of the river here - it's not nearly as wide as we expected the Mississippi to be.  Then after seeing the mural of the two bridges over the river, one of which I had crossed last year, I remembered that this section of the river is only a canal now.  The river carved a new channel in 1876, leaving Vicksburg without a port until 1903 when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Yazoo River into the old bed.  The city has built a nice little park down at the waterfront, too, but it's still not nearly as nice as Paducah's riverfront!
We had finally killed enough time - it was time for our next meal!!  Up the hill we went to Rusty's Waterfront Grill, which was already starting to fill up by the time we got there, well before noon.  The place was packed long before we left!  I decided to eat "light" so I ordered a side salad and an appetizer portion of crawfish tails, and look what I got.  YUM!!  Kim had a chicken sandwich, and we both drank about a gallon of tea.  Now we were ready to start our ride up the Delta on the Great River Road!
 While we were leaving town, I read in one of our books about a little place we might want to stop, so we set the Garmin for Margaret's Castle.  Boy, were we in for a surprise.  For just a small sample of what we saw and heard, go to http://ucmmuseum.com/rev_dennis.htm We actually got to meet Rev. Dennis, but sadly, Margaret was in the hospital and is at the end of her life.  Rev. Dennis is 93 years old, but that didn't stop him from preaching to us!  He was being visited by him home health nurse when we were there (that didn't stop him either) but he seemed glad to have company.  We learned a whole new version of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel story, and we all recited the 23rd Psalm.  You'll get a general idea of Rev. Dennis's philosophy from looking at some of the pictures of the 'castle' he has built.  You have to admire his single-minded devotion and persistence!

Once we got on the GRR, the scenery didn't change much.  We passed cotton fields and rode along the banks of the Mississippi.  The land is flat, the soil is dark, and the weather was hot.  No wonder the Blues got their start down here!  We just drove on, talking and singing along with the radio, until we hit Greenville, MS, and the home of the original Doe's Eat Place.  We know about Doe's because there's one in Paducah, but it's likely that many of you have never heard of it.  Doe's is famous for their tamales and chili, their spaghetti sauce, awesome steaks, and our personal favorite, chocolate cobbler.  Doe's is some mighty good eating, but if you saw the original (and still open) Eat Place you might not believe me!  Read all about it at http://www.doeseatplace.com/ and then get to one at your earliest convenience!  But remember to get there in the evening, when it's open!!  Good thing we weren't counting on having a meal here today...

From Greenville, we turned east and took off on the Blues Highway, headed for Greenwood and the Crystal Grill.  Of course, we had to stop in at the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland (http://www.highway61blues.com/), and we were glad we did.  Even though the museum is just in a storefront and the signage is straight off the copy machine, the material in the exhibits and the history in the rooms are incredible!  It's amazing how so many talented Blues musicians came from this poverty-stricken, education-poor Mississippi Delta area.  We had several conversations about how and why this came about, but the proof of it all was right there in front of us, and gosh, is the music ever good!  And even though Leland is also the hometown of Jim Henson (of Muppet fame), we missed the visitor's center dedicated to him, but not for lack of trying.  We drove all through the streets of Leland (there are not that many, and we have seen them all) and I narrowly escaped an attack by a Cujo-like dog (really!), and then just as we gave up and got back on the highway, we saw a giant Kermit sitting on top of a building not anywhere near where the Garmin thought it was...  We didn't go back, but you can read about it at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4176/is_20070722/ai_n19388321/

It was a short, flat ride from Leland to Greenwood, whose most recent claim to fame is the arrival of the Viking Corporation (you know, upscale kitchen appliances) and the appropriately upscale Alluvian Hotel.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but what we saw wasn't it.  This classy looking boutique hotel has little in common with the Delta country we'd spent the day driving through.  See what you think - http://www.thealluvian.com/

We were looking forward to our meal at the Crystal Grill, which Kim's buddy Jim had told us not to miss.  We were not steered wrong!  Read the review that made us hungry before we got there at http://www.roadfood.com/Restaurant/Review/2851-3194/crystal-grill  We loved the dinner special - we got a salad, meat and two sides, pie, and iced tea for an impossibly low price.  We both had fish and mac & cheese; I had green beans with mine, and the breads were yummy.  Even though we're not huge fans of meringue, the chocolate pie was delicious!

From Greenwood, we decided we'd make it a fairly early night and just go as far as Oxford, home of Ole Miss (hotty toddy!) so that we could stop by Graceland Too in Holly Springs on our way to Memphis and Paducah tomorrow.

We're not singing the Blues - we're loving it!!


06 October 2009

Graveyards, Ghosts, and Gullywashers

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

No rush this morning, except to get to breakfast at the inn by ten o’clock, as we thought we’d just be going to Natchez tonight.  It was nice to wake up slowly!  We looked around the inn now that we could see it in the daylight – I had stuck my toes in what I had hoped was the hot tub part of the pool last night, but since it felt the same as the rest of the pool…Kim watched a big ole frog hop right in the pool this morning – made me feel right at home!  We eventually wandered over to the dining room for breakfast, which was a nice buffet.  I had an egg roll (not the Chinese variety), a bite of sausage, some bacon, fried potatoes, some really yummy little apple treats, and cheese blintzes with blueberries.  Nice way to start the day!

As you may have noticed, we’ve been indulging in some mighty good food on this trip, so we thought we might take a little walk this morning in hopes of getting rid of a fried something or two.  Armed with Laurie’s map, we headed off for the visitor center/museum.  Before we had even gone a few blocks, we were glowing.  Seriously.  Like with sweat dripping off of us – it was just a bit humid!  We passed several houses with official-looking plaques and descriptions on them, but according to our map, we were not officially on the walking tour yet.  Where was that visitor center?? 

We found it!  And it was air-conditioned!!  We took our time examining the exhibits, and seriously, they had done a good job giving us a taste of what life was like in antebellum St. Francisville.  When we were ready to face the heat again, we started our tour.  There are a lot of old homes here, most of which appear to have been restored and are being lived in today.  We passed the Methodist Episcopal Church, which is now the Methodist Church, several houses with lovely gingerbread trim and wrought iron balconies, the old bank building, the courthouse, and the Episcopal Church.  There was a wonderful old graveyard next to the Episcopal Church, and since it was full of huge old live oaks covered with Spanish moss, it was shady and several degrees cooler, so we took our time exploring it.

We finished our walking tour and made it back to the inn to collect our car, and we went straight to George’s for some cold tea!  They weren’t quite open yet, but we must have looked really hot and thirsty, because they let us have our liquid refreshment!  Now we were off to tour one of the plantation houses in this area, and we had chosen Rosedown, the home of Jefferson Davis’s mother and named for the flowers she loved.  It wasn’t far away, and we got there shortly after eleven, with the sky looking fairly threatening.  Bad news for us – a tour was just underway, and the next one didn’t start until noon.  We decided to pass, and then the lady asked us if we didn’t want to tour the gardens between now and then.  We were going to just have a short stroll through the rose gardens and then leave, until she wanted to charge us half price just for that.  And mind you, it’s late September – there was not all that much in bloom!  So we just said thanks, but no thanks and went on in search of a plantation that suited our schedule.  You can see Rosedown at http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/irosedown.aspx if you’re interested.

That led us to The Myrtles, which was built in 1796 by General David Bradford, who led the Whisky Rebellion.  Guess he decided to come South after that worked out so well…  Anyway, The Myrtles is haunted, or so the story goes.  We were only allowed to take pictures in one area of the interior of the house, and that was this huge mirror in the entryway.  Even though the glass in the frame has been replaced on multiple occasions, the same markings always appear back on it in the same places.  We were told a story about a slave girl who supposedly haunts the house, but after reading the accounts at http://www.prairieghosts.com/myrtles.html I have decided not to relay what we heard.  Check it out and decide for yourselves!  After our tour, we walked around the grounds for a while, then got some gas and took off for Angola and the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

You know how sometimes you just know you should follow your intuition rather than doing what someone or something else is telling you to do?  Well, this afternoon was one of those times.  Once again, Kim was led astray by her navigator, and we soon found ourselves deep in the woods, first on a road, then a gravel road, then a dirt road, and then on a one-lane dirt road, all going nowhere fast!  We saw few signs of life, other than the “Posted: No Trespassing” signs, so after a while, Kim performed a lovely seven or eight point turn and we went back to the highway we never should have turned off of, and before too long we were at the prison gates.

Just outside the gates of the prison was a museum, http://angolamuseum.org about the history of the Louisiana Penitentiary, which was known as one of the bloodiest and most awful prisons in this country.  I found it interesting that the current warden was willing to share that history, although it’s hard to see how far you’ve come unless you’re willing to admit where you were.  This is the prison where “Dead Man Walking” was filmed as well as the place it was written about, and many other prison movies have been filmed here. 

We were the only visitors, and soon we were joined by a nice-looking man, all dressed in white.  He proceeded to give us a guided tour of the museum, and it soon became evident that his knowledge was first-hand.  He was the nicest guy, very gentle and soft-spoken, and he will be turning 50 soon.  He’s been incarcerated for 25 years, serving 60 years for aggravated burglary.  Seemed a shame to us – such a heavy sentence – don’t think they pass those out much these days.  He’s coming up for parole, but he’s been turned down twice already…  Anyway, his name is Edrick and we liked him!  He showed us his ‘crafts’ – remember those chains we used to make out of chewing gum wrappers?  He makes all kinds of things using that same technique and cigarette packages.  The museum was really interesting and well worth the out-of-the-way stop.  Later, when we learned there had been an escapee last week, we were glad we had found our way off of the back roads and back onto the highway…

The rain started falling about the time we got back on the road, but it just drizzled on us as we made our way back to Natchez.  Our original plans were to make it there in time for lunch at Mammy’s Cupboard (it was really good!!) but we missed that, so we decided to stop for a treat at The Malt Shop.  We both got chocolate malts and split a shrimp po’boy and enjoyed them on the picnic table out front.  The sky was really gray and threatening, and it was very hot and humid, but  at least it wasn’t raining!  We went back to the Basilica, which we were able to see this time.  Wow – more beautiful stained glass!  There are some gorgeous photos on the website, http://www.stmarybasilica.org and if you make it to Natchez (we highly recommend it!) be sure to stop at see for yourself.

It started raining in earnest as we drove out of Natchez, so that put a damper on our plans to stop in at the places on the Trace that we missed in the dark on our way down.  We did stop at the Emerald Indian Mound, which is huge and centuries old, but then it started pouring.  Kim gamely drove on to Vicksburg through the driving rain, and we were done for the day.  We ordered pizza and did laundry and called it a night.  We were really sorry to have missed getting to spend more time in Natchez on the flip side – we enjoyed it a lot!  FYI, they do ‘pilgrimages’ in the fall (this year it’s now – Sept 26 – Oct 10) and for four weeks in the spring where the plantation homes are on tour with guides in antebellum attire.  It would be a fun time to be there!

A little soggy but overall, I can’t complain about the rain!