Day Five: Dixieland Delights: Tennessee (Nashville to Memphis)

First, a few updates: THE SINK LIVES! HUZZAH!! (Refrigerator still under observation.) Also, ANNIE FINALLY MADE IT ONTO THE LOFT BED! HUZZAH!

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Now on to the business at hand. Yesterday, as some of you know, in addition to being the first day of spring, was also the International Day of Happiness, and coincidentally, I did two things yesterday that made me exceedingly happy. One was the culmination of a 22 year dream, the other just spontaneous serendipity.

The morning in Nashville held little of note. The old time Southern restaurant I had been dying to try, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, wasn’t open for breakfast. The lines at the Pancake Pantry had grown exponentially, and it was still too chilly for  the dog-themed coffee shop that allows pets on the patio. I took Annie for a walk down Music Row, but it really just looks like a bunch of houses from the 30s. Riverfront Park was all dug up and under construction, and historic Fort Nashboro was closed for renovations. So we hit the road jack, Memphis bound. As we were walking back to the car from our failed river walk, Nashville held one last moment of weirdness for us. This dude, upon espying Annie and I, very excitedly shouted “YOU let the dogs out! Yes you did! Why didn’t you tell me? You SURELY let the dogs out!”

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Although it spans the distance between two vibrant, cool, and culturally fascinating cities, where some of the most important American music has been made and played, the drive down I-40 couldn’t be more boring. Pine trees, pine trees, and yet more pine trees.

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But it was so worth it.

The absolute, Number One, no question, hands down, first order of business upon arriving in Memphis was heading straight to The Peabody Hotel to see THE PEABODY DUCK MARCH!!! For those of you who are woefully ignorant of this great Southern tradition; ever since a practical joke went awry in 1933, the Peabody has hosted five resident ducks. Every morning at 11am they are marched by the Duck Master from their rooftop penthouse, down the elevator, across a red carpet, and into the fountain in the middle of the lobby. Every evening at 5pm , accompanied by music and fanfare, they are rounded up out of the fountain, marched down a small staircase, back across the red carpet, into the elevator, and up to their rooftop penthouse. It may well be the coolest thing ever. And The Peabody is no fleabag slouch of a hotel. Every sitting President since Harry Truman has visited. Elvis signed his first contract with Colonel Parker in that lobby on Peabody stationery. Everyone who is anyone in the South passes through their doors.

Some of you may know, I took a mini version of this trip back in 1993. I was fresh out of college, recently out of a long relationship, and eager to prove myself an independent adult woman. Back then I wasn’t crazy enough to quit my job, so I only had ten days in which to explore the South (an area of the country I’ve always been fascinated with). It was in planning for that trip that I first learned of the Peabody Ducks, and I was dying to see them. Unfortunately, the day before, I took a wrong turn in Louisiana, and, lacking GPS or a cell phone, wasted a day figuring it out and correcting my course. Which left me no time for Memphis and the ducks. But finally, at long last, I SAW THE DUCKS!!! Alas, the Duck March just doesn’t photograph well. The place is packed so one has to view from a distance, and the lighting is a bit dim. This is the best I got-zoom in to the red carpet to see the duckies.

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BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!! The duck event got even crazier! I was standing on the mezzanine, waiting for the action to start, and I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. WHO ONLY HAPPENED TO GROW UP IN FRICKING PURCELLVILLE!!!! (For those who don’t know, this is the very small town five miles down the road from the barely even a whisper of a town where I live). HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE? AND… she is going through a major life overhaul as well. At 37, she lost her job at Cooperstown Hall of Fame, and is starting over with Teach America. She’s been posted to Memphis and is now educating underprivileged kids at a high risk school. Very inspiring to see someone else recreating their life at an “advanced” age. One of the women she was traveling with, who was roughly Step Doug’s age, told me about how when she was 23, she toured the country in a trailer for nine months with her husband, dog, and two kids. I feel even more as though I am on the right path.

One additional duck fact of note. In 1981 the General Manager decreed an edict to the Head Chef that duck would never be served  for any meal at The Peabody. You can see his letter here.

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BUT WAIT, THE FUN JUST KEEPS COMING!! Leaving The Peabody, and still on a duck high, I discovered a fleet of horse drawn carriages providing tours of the historic downtown area. And each of the drivers had a dog seated beside them. AND THEY WOULD LET ME BRING ANNIE ALONG FOR THE RIDE!! (This wasn’t all a totally random twist of fate, I had researched earlier that Memphis had such a service, but I had no idea they would be parked outside the Peabody, and NO idea that the first driver to approach us would be the one captaining the CINDERELLA PRINCESS CARRIAGE!!)

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Besides just being one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, it was pretty fascinating. Memphis is ranked Number Six in the country of cities with buildings on the Historic Register (and Number Five in terms of violent crime, but who’s counting) and I’m looking forward to going back and exploring more closely on foot.

That was about all the excitement either of us could handle for one day, so we retired to our second Air B&B rental in the Cooper Young District. More on that later, I am off to Graceland!

Day Four: Music City Meanderings: Nashville Tennessee

Warning: This one gets a little tour guidey.

My mood improved considerably yesterday. I won’t pretend a shelter that permitted me the luxury of walking around indoors, a shower, and alcohol had nothing to do with it. The potential for rain loomed heavily over the forecast, and most of my plans were in non dog-friendly locales, so my trusted companion spent the bulk of the day cuddled up on the futon in Mini Music City while I braved the mean streets of Mega Music City alone.

First stop: fuel and fortifications at Nashville’s legendary Pancake Pantry. When I arrived there were roughly 15 people waiting ahead of me, and by the time I left the line stretched around the block. But one taste of their signature sweet potato pancakes with creamy cinnamon sauce and I would have gladly camped out all night. (This pic doesn’t accurately portray the line, but the ones that do don’t want to load. Use your imagination.)

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Next stop: the fabled Ryman Auditorium! Originally built as a church for a revivalist preacher, the acoustics that were designed to carry his words to the masses now rank in the top three in the country for musicians and performers. This space is where bluegrass was literally invented one night in December 1945. It’s where Johnny Cash first saw June Carter as a schoolboy on a field trip, and where he first advised her of his intention to marry her (while they were both already wed to other people). It’s where Elvis played once, received a lukewarm reception to his “reimagining” of a bluegrass classic and vowed to never set foot on the stage again (he didn’t). And it was the home of the Grand Ol’ Opry for over 30 years.

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Fun fact: the Ryman never had dressing rooms, and the backstage area was cramped and lacking in climate control. But the stage door opened out into a back alley onto which Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge also had a door, and it was here that many of the performers found a way to “keep entertained” between the early and late shows. Some of them, like Hank Williams, never returned for their second set.  Tootsie’s is still pretty badass. On any given day you can enter to the strains of the decidedly non-country star named Alex Upegi (who looks better suited for a Pittsburgh sports bar than a Nashville jam session) leading a “Drunk on a Plane” sing-a-long, and next up be treated to a set by Jimmy Snyder-an old timer who’s performed with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Elvis.

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After drinking my lunch (Diet Coke and proper Tennessee whiskey) I ambled about the lower Broadway area taking in the sights, sounds, and, of course, souvenirs. Confidential to Karen and Toni: when you ask the sales girl if she sells commemorative underwear, she IS going to look at you funny, even if she’s a dead ringer for Jemma from Girls.

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With foolish hopes of finally realizing a two decade dream of seeing a set at The Bluebird Café, I made plans to get to the club a full two hours before show time (and an hour earlier than my prior attempt). The line was even longer. On to Plan B: I thought I would check out the huge year-round, all day Farmer’s Market I had heard so much about. Apparently year round loosely translates to “in late March you get just about bupkis.” Plan C: some cool old school “fried pies” food truck I had heard tell of. Which now appears to be a sketchy barbecue joint. Tired, still slightly tipsy, thwarted at every turn . . . well, I’m not proud of what came next, but sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I went to Chipotle.

Daily randomness: The night before, at the froo-froo restaurant, the cocktail I ordered was named “Moose”. I found it odd at the time, as Moose seems more Canadian than Nashvillian, but I shrugged it off. While driving through town yesterday morning, I saw a sign painted on the side of a building advertising Moose brand something or other (I wasn’t fully paying attention at this point). Later that afternoon, while shopping in the Opry store, a woman strolled through wearing a baseball cap with a three dimensional moose head protruding from it. Fully perplexed at this point, I asked the sales clerk if she could explain the Moose/Nashville connection. She was as dumbfounded as I. I swore if I encountered a fourth moose it would officially be a sign from the universe. Still later, at the Farmer’s Market…

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But a sign of what??

Day Three: Reality Bites: Kentucky, Tennessee (Nashville)

This morning I woke up freezing in a van in the woods of Kentucky, this afternoon I traveled 250 feet underground, and tonight I find myself sipping cocktails in a froo-froo Nashville eatery and sleeping in a tiny house in a stranger’s backyard.

Today was stressful. I am quickly realizing that living out of a camper is not entirely going to be the madcap idyll I envisioned. Nothing is ever where I need it to be, nothing stays organized for long, nothing is easy to access. I have yet to be able to make the sink in the van work, and I’m not entirely sure the mini-fridge is actually cooling things, but I’ve so overpacked my schedule I don’t have time to properly address either. Managing Annie 24/7 is a challenge. If I am out of the van she needs to be out of the van. If I tie her up on the left side where the picnic table is and then move to the right side to unload supplies she BARKBARKS. If I tie her to the right rear view mirror and then move to the back of the van to make cereal with questionable milk she BARKBARKS. If I go to the restroom or shower, I take her with me and tie her up. If I leave her in the van I have to make sure all food is secured, her water is accessible, and the climate is controlled. Every time I leave the van-even just for a rest stop, there are about ten different things I have to remember to do or bring. All while my brain is trying to process the amazing new things I am seeing and experiencing and plotting out the next day ahead. AND THE EIGHT BRAND NEW PAIRS OF UNDERWEAR I BOUGHT FOR THE TRIP ARE ALL TWO SIZES TOO BIG! It’s the time of my life, and it’s only day three, so I am sure eventually I will develop a routine, but today. . . it was a challenge.

The day began with a typical dilemma. Showers at the Mammoth Cave Campground aren’t free – to use them, you have to purchase tokens from the convenience store. Conveniently, the store closed at 5 pm and I did not arrive yesterday until almost 7 pm. The store would not reopen until 9 am and the cave tour I was planning to take began at 9:30 am. By the time the tour was over I would need to be hitting the road again. So a quick brush of the teeth in the non-functioning van sink and that was to be it for personal hygiene.

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Naturally, the tour I most wanted to take was completely booked and when I asked if they could squeeze in just one more person, the ranger informed me it was booked by 115 school kids, so perhaps I’d prefer to take a pass. I would and did. I spent the next two hours in a dark dank hole, led by a tour guide with a hearing problem. Like an actual medically diagnosed one, not just me being a wiseass. Dude was great, knew his stuff, and had a kick ass Kentucky drawl, but seriously, he missed half the questions, and some of the ones he heard he misunderstood. I gave up after three attempts. But it was still pretty fascinating down there.

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After I emerged from my trip to the bowels of the earth, I rescued a shivering Annie from the still freezing van and we took a hike along some of the trails.

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The Green River lives up to its name.

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Annie confirms that Kentucky woogling is just as satisfying as Virginia woogling.

Annie confirms that Kentucky woogling is just as satisfying as Virginia woogling.

You went down into THAT Mom??

You went down into THAT Mom??

Annie poses where the Green River flows down inside the cave, aptly named the River Styk.

Annie poses where the Green River flows down inside the cave, aptly named the River Styx.

Not long after, we put grey overcast Kentucky in our rearview mirror and were Nashville bound! First stop, the full scale replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park . . . where it promptly started to drizzle! NO! Not THAT kind of drizzle!

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Cold, tired, and increasingly filthy, we checked in to our lodging for the night-an adorable tiny house parked in someone’s backyard!

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A quick tiny shower and I was refreshed enough to attempt the equivalent of a Music City Miracle-same day tickets to The Bluebird Café. Alas, the Honkytonk Heavens showed me no favor-denied.

I drowned my sorrows the only way one truly can: rum and octopus.

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Tomorrow: exploring Music City.

Day Two: HillBilly Bone: West Virgina, Kentucky

Annie and I spent Monday night as one of only two vehicles in the entire Stonewall Lake Resort (West Virginia) campground. The other guests were an older couple who were working nearby and settled in for a long term stay in their full size RV. Consequently, I had to be the only person making use of the camp shower and restroom. And yet  the maintenance lady could not be deterred from cleaning it during the ten minutes I was spending trying to dress post-shower while simultaneously wrangling Annie (She was fine as long as I was within two feet-but if I wandered over to the sinks-still within plain sight-she BARKBARKED. Hence, I was left with no choice but to brush my teeth in the recently vacated shower stall.)

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A quick reorganization of the van and we were on our way. First stop, perhaps the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been to, and that’s counting the one with champagne in the bathroom, Hillbilly Hotdogs. The ‘Billy is decorated chock-a-block with every piece of rusted out junk and debris you can think of. The junk itself has then been thoroughly graffitied with names, romances, and other silliness to add to the ambiance. The whole effect was so overwhelming that it was hard to find the actual restaurant hidden amongst the “wedding chapel,” “outhouse,” “moonshine still,” and Marigold’s distant hillbilly cousin.

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Real hillbillies don’t let silly nonsense like health codes stop them from allowing adorable canines to dine inside along the rest of guests, so Annie was warmly welcomed and joined me at a table inside the renovated (and graffiti adorned) school bus to jam to some old skool country tunage while we awaited our orders: a deep fried hillbilly dog with homemade chili sauce, mustard, and onions for me, and a plain corn dog for her.

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The food and hospitality were so wonderful, we could have stayed all day, but we had yet miles to go before we slept. Not long after we crossed the border into Kentucky, I saw a sign and decided to make a spontaneous detour to the Kentucky Folk Art Center. The place was awesome and had a small but well put together gallery of outsider art – almost all from native Kentuckians, including a homeless dude who sketches street scenes inspired by advertising signage in magic marker, noting the time he began and ended work on each piece, and a prisoner who taught himself how to make paper mache out of materials he had on hand.

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On our way out of town, I stopped to fill up my tank, only to encounter the world’s cheeriest twenty-five-year-old gas attendant, who insisted his station was at the forefront  of bringing full-service back, and informed me he gets his weather reports the old-fashioned way . . . by listening to NPR.

At last we reached our destination and  Annie and I settled in for a surprisingly chilly night at Mammoth Cave National Park.

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Day One: And So It Begins: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia

Yesterday morning, after a hearty Pancake Wrap stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, and cheddar – courtesy of Jersey City’s own Brownstone Diner – Step Doug and I set out bright and early to pick up the campervan I intend to spend the next 67 days in. After no small amount of searching around a moderately sketchy marina area, we finally found a small sign pointing to a locked wooden gate indicating we were at the correct location. One problem: camper dude was not. After waiting about 15 minutes, I called what I thought was his cell phone but which turned out to belong to his boss in San Francisco. “Shawn” assured me camper dude was just inside the office and he would alert him. Time passed. I called Shawn again who then advised me that camper dude was “just moving some vehicles” and would be along anon. Finally, after about 15 minutes, camper dude appeared and pointed out my new vehicle:

Ladyluck.        Slutty

That’s right. They wanted a single woman traveling alone around the country for two months to be driving a vehicle emblazoned with scantily clad ladies in seductive poses. And LADY LUCK in big red letters down the side. Because it wouldn’t be at all suggestive for me to pull into a campground full of strangers, pull out my camp chair, and plant myself in front of THAT! A friend commented on my previous post that something I did was the height of badassery. Au contraire-driving around the country in the “Gettin’ Lucky Mobile” would be the height of bad assery. Alas, my ass, is not quite that bad. (Side note: I understand this is an homage to classic fighter planes from World War Two. I’m not dissing the Enola Gay. It worked for her.)

Anyhow, after assuring camper dude I would NOT be tooling around West Texas in this fine machine, there was an extended wait while he readied another. Which then had some further issues as it was not showing as available in the computer. Which could only be rectified by the big boss back in California. Two lovely young women from Dorset England showed up while we were waiting. I’m afraid they may have been gifted with Lady Luck. A better woman may have taken that bullet for them.        I am not that woman.

A mere two hours behind schedule, Annie and I took to the open road in our new home, Marigold . . .

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. . . and instantly encountered: construction, closed exits, school children flooding the streets, and potholes . . . and that was all before we could get out of Jersey City. Out on the open road we tried to make up time, and though our delayed start left us no time to stop for such intriguing wonders as World of Pigeons, America’s Largest Indoor Miniature Village, and an enormous wooden structure labeled “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here,” we loved the feeling of the rolling farmland opening out before us and the wind in our hair, err. . . ears.

Windyears

The day was long, the drive was over many rough roads, and we didn’t pull into the campground until twelve minutes to closing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Dress Rehearsal

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Every day for the past two weeks I’ve intended to sit down and update the blog. And every day for the past two weeks I’ve failed to do so. I think that’s because despite quitting my job, despite amassing two months worth of supplies in my dining room, despite countless gifts and messages of support from incredibly wonderful friends, despite everything, it just hasn’t seemed real. Well today it stopped being polite and started getting real.

Today I packed up the car, waved goodbye to my house, picked up my Step Dad to serve as chauffer, and drove four hours to a hotel in New Jersey just down the street from where I’ll pick up the campervan in the morning. Today I also neglected to double check the dog-friendly hotel recommendation the friendly van rental dude had provided and learned at the last minute they don’t, in fact, allow dogs. So there was a scramble to find alternative lodging at twice the price. Today I also didn’t do any of the driving, but still found myself bored and antsy after several hours of staring at the same scenery. Today I also struggled to take Annie out in the freezing wind for her evening constitutional. And, most challenging of all, today I also encountered . .. the general public.

After getting a little bit of a late start, Doug (my Step Dad) and I decided to push back lunch a few hours so we could get some miles under our belts. Consequently, we found ourselves pulling in to a Maryland Cracker Barrel at 3:45PM . . . and encountering a nearly full parking lot. At three forty five pm. Inside, the hallucinogenic gift shop teemed with elderly farm folk hobnobbing with restaurant employees resembling escapees from a Willy Wonka acid flashback as they passed out trays of individual jelly beans in teeny tiny paper cups. As I struggled to part the sea of red state riff-raff and find the dining room, a wizened old woman materialized by my side and spoke: “Is that your husband?,” she enquired, pointing after my quickly departing step father. Horrified, but attempting to mask it, I corrected her. It only got weirder.

“Does he drizzle a lot?”     “Pardon?”    “My husband drizzles all the time, that’s what he calls it . . . drizzling.”

She gestured toward the restroom and cackled.

OH MY GOD THIS COMPLETE STRANGER JUST APPROACHED ME IN A CRACKER BARREL TO ASK ME IF MY HUSBANDFATHER PEES A LOT!!!

I may have only been practicing the other aspects of my trip, but today I got thrown head first into crazy.

Tomorrow . . . IT BEGINS!