Monday, July 13, 2009

What a Trip!

We left steaming South Florida for Branson, Missouri, camping in our used 2004 RV in its second long trip. I had gotten the potty valve replaced and a new carbeuretor on the generator, silicone-caulked the shower skylight, had a tuneup and replaced a leaky tire valve, and gotten the old lizzie really roadworthy, and we'd carefully packed and loaded up. When we left Coral Springs it was raining cats and dogs. But our spirits were high. Even with rising fuel costs replacing staying in motels, it's still cheaper to go camping when we take a summer trip, and for us, more fun. And though we'd used our "Ritz" for a spare bedroom on holidays and taken it around the state the past couple of years, this was to be a major test of whether we could still enjoy a nice out-of-state, non-Indiana-bound vacation trip living and traveling in it.

We planned our trip this year to travel to places we'd never been before and were curious about. Rather than following our usual route up through Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky to Indiana, we peeled off to Birmingham from Atlanta and enjoyed visiting Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Memphis, where we'd cross the mighty river into Arkansas and eventually head up to Branson.

But before we went west we visited Graceland. Who hasn't got a rich memory trove of associations from Elvis's life and music? And Graceland, though it has been widely publicized and filmed and featured from the beginning of his fame, was very different from what I had known of it beforehand, and much more impressive. I was especially interested in how much Elvis had done to make it a family home he could share with Priscilla, Lisa, and his parents and friends, and how proud he was to be able to share a mansion with his parents in such contrast to their humble little house where he was born in Tupelo, not far south. He was never so happy as when he was home with his family, we were told. By the looks of it, that may have been true. He built in a lavish billiard room, studio, lounge, formal dining room, several music rooms, a handball court, stables, car collection loggia and riding meadow. A large modern office for his father Vernon to later run his worldwide affairs following his death was converted from space in an adjacent garage, and the huge collection of The King's career memorabilia, trophies, gold records, famous movie outfits and other items had subsequently been displayed very efficiently in lighted-cabinet-lined halls converted from around the handball court.

What impressed me most, I think, was the very well done, even ingenious design of making it all of it available and enjoyable for the endless volume of tourists and visitors that flock to Memphis' leading landmark. We were given to understand that that is mainly thanks to Priscilla's personal hand in the planning and design. For example, there's nothing "touristy" about the estate. To look at it from the street, you'd think it was just a spacious, attractive home. But across the street is a Disney-sized parking lot, two personal full-size jet airplanes you can tour optionally, an air conditioned, modern visitor center, themed souvenir shops, photo lines, and shuttle busses whose only job is to move the throngs forty yards across the street in manageable size groups, each carrying a comfortable, personal headphones that feed comments in the ear as one moves from place to place in the mansion and grounds. Guests aren't allowed above the first floor, but there is plenty of access to all the rooms there and in the lower levels and adjacent buildings and grounds, and the tour ends at the columned family memorial garden sloping to the south of the mansion where he, his parents, and other family members are buried.

But for Graceland, the street is unremarkable on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Neighboring homes are average, and even the mansion wouldn't draw comparison to larger estate homes elsewhere. But one feels the presence of a remarkable life, a vibrant love of life, a warmth and an exuberant, generous spirit throughout. It's been very well maintained with a combination of respect, love, and memory. I was most impressed with Graceland, our first vacation attraction, and one I'll never forget. The family, to their credit, seems to have realized that their beloved and iconic leader belongs not only to them but to hundreds of millions of others worldwide, and to be eager to share what he was and what he gave with those many others.

We drove to Hot Springs, Arkansas that evening and camped at a mountainside KOA, then went in to visit the baths and spas the next day. Again, we were very unused to what we found, totally surprised at the large hotel-style bath houses in a row, with inviting Adirondack chairs reclining across wide, white-pilastered porches and cool spa chambers discretely segregated into male and female facilities by the prim morality of their heyday in the '30s and '40's. They even had separate elevators for men and women on the two halves of the buildings so the genders wouldn't accidently mingle in their spa-ready immodesty.

We had looked in vain for Hot Springs National Park until we found we were in it! The city spa area is the national park. I had always thought a national park was undeveloped, pristine woodlands and lakes, with only the occasional log building, but not so this one. I have always scoffed at buying bottled water, but in the gift shop here I bought only an empty bottle, labeled, for nearly three dollars, then took it around to the back and filled it from hot water coming straight out of the rock, clean and clear--and free. It's in our refrigerator now. We'll drink it on a special occasion.

As at Graceland, I felt the presence of many spirits here as I moved silently through the bare gray marble and porcelain baths, elaborately-fitted showers, and massage rooms. FDR had treated his polio-racked body here, and many arthritic and neuro-muscular diseased souls found healthy improvement--real or imagined--in this Lourdes-like place over the years. The theme of images and statues from ancient Egypt was frequently found on walls and stained glass--anks, Ramses and Nefertiti heads, gold and jeweled statuettes on shelves, etc. Mysticism and faith intermingled to convince the body the mineral hot spring water somehow cleansed their ills. I've never visited such a place before, like Graceland, and I'm very happy I did.

Driving up to Branson later that day took most of our time, but we found the best campground of the trip--a private one at that--and an office calico cat that we could have easily mistaken for our own Dixie, left to the care of the vet back home while we "dared to go where no man has gone before"--at least not us. That night brought the first rain of our trip, then woke us with violent wind and rain turbulence about five the next morning. We thought overhanging branches were banging against our camper, but it was our outstretched awning wrenching, flapping and twisting and threatening to rip off the supports. We ran outside to find one of the owner's sons hurriedly helping us furl the awning and secure it before it was ruined, a gesture we really appreciated. No harm done, but it was one doozy of a storm that hit. No damage, fortunately, by morning.

We saw a show that night--a pop music review variety show at the Osmonds dinner theatre. The Osmonds, as most other name stars, were not in their theatres that night--Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre, Dolly Parton's Dixie Jamboree, etc.-- but we got a taste of the over one hundred nightly shows competing for the tourist dollars of Branson. There weren't that many of us in the audience, however--perhaps 70 or 100 at most, no more than enough not to cancel the performance. I realized the shows were hurting. Too many, and not enough people. I also realized the mounds of high hills of Branson, Missouri weren't very grid-friendly as I got lost more than once in a one-street town and went the wrong way. Branson wasn't what we expected. I couldn't easily find my pickin' and grinnin' bluegrass and country music except where we paid for it, we didn't really find that many RV's, and there weren't many adjacent stores except in the malls and riverfront, with its tony shops and Hilton waterfront fountain-and-flame displays. We cruised on an old-style riverboat and invited Geoff, an accountant from Manchester, England, to chat with us, in what was to be what we best liked about Branson.
And it did fill our memory coffers with new experiences and interesting people.

But Branson wasn't what any of us expected, and that's the thing, you see: when you go somewhere new or try something different, you may not always like what you find. But that's the adventure of it. Would it have been better to retread our Indiana vacation routes of many years one more time? No. We were doing something different this year. I didn't know how different it would become.

We left Branson after three days and headed for--of all places--Gatlinburg. Maybe we'd just lost our Lewis and Clark adventurism. But we quickly got lost in the twists and turns of the Ozarks and drove through eight of the ten Mark Twain National Forests that blanket the state of Missouri in huge patches. And the highways, though good road, have nowhere to turn around and steep side ditches that make even pulling off impossible for many miles. In an RV it was torture, and went on for hours and hours. Barb said if she had drunk cream it would be butter! We dubbed that the quote of the trip.

Finally we crossed the mighty Miss again (and immediately again across a second span). I thought it was just an island in the river. It was instead the confluencing Mississippi and the Ohio. We were at the juncture of two of the great rivers of our nation! I had seen it on maps many times. Now I was there. And we were in Kentucky! We camped at a KOA when we reached I24 shortly thereafter, in the only campground where we built a campfire and had a "patio party" as we call our late night family discussions outside.

Next day we drove to Gatlinburg by way of Nashville, and from then on we were done exploring new routes. But we weren't done with having new experiences. It was a mistake on my part to think going to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, would be a good way to experience a July 4 weekend. We fought for a campsite in a Pigeon Forge loaded with camps and got the last one at Rivers Edge, one of over two hundred fifth wheels, Class A's (bus style), Class C (overhead cab on a small truck chassis), and Class B's (van conversions). It took us a half-hour to get off our exit ramp, and another hour just driving through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge while we burned up our cellphones phoning KOA's that wouldn't even answer and several campgrounds in a 2007 Woodall's, the campers' bible. But we finally got set up and stretched our newly-bought semicircle of red,white, and blue bunting across our Ford grille like a big happy smiling car character. The place was packed.

We didn't know how packed it was until Barb and Scott walked two miles at 11:00 from the Trolley stop rather than wait for another trolley that night. With so many vehicles on a one-street town, only trolleys were crawling around town and into Gatlinburg, and the service was badly overloaded and poorly managed. Schedules were way off. Scott and Barb had tried in vain to reach the Christmas Palace before it closed, only to be interminably stopped by their trolley to grab off another 50 cent fare here and there. They got to the store ten minutes before it closed. Barb was devastated. The Christmas Palace is her holy grail of Gatlinburg area shopping, as our sundry-decorated christmas tree gives testament to. Even worse, the Bob Evans next door was shut down for good--another unwelcome surprise. How could a major restaurant like that go out of business in a place like Pigeon Forge? The economy really is bad.

But the next day was far worse than even the night before. There was no way we could heft that RV of ours into Gatlinburg against the sea of cars clogging all the lanes. Why I thought we had to even go is a mystery to me now, but go we did, to the stop for the trolley to take us the other direction from what we wanted to go, the trolley central hub, where we had to board a Gatlinburg-bound, nonstop second trolley to take us to the Aquarium trolley hub in Gatlinburg. And that one wasn't air-conditioned, was packed in its 30-passenger posted maximum capacity with a standing-room-only 50-passenger overload. I've ridden some jarring New York subways, but that trolley had them all beat. I had to not only stand the whole trip but had to strain on tiptoes to grab onto too-high rails to avoid falling. But for the crowded aisle I might have ended up on another passenger or three. When we finally debarked I was nearly nauseous, and we whisked up the street to a Wendys I knew of, in the Mountain Mall.

That lunch helped a lot, but where was the pickin' and grinnin' I was sure we'd find? Nowhere! No "Rocky Top", no cloggers, no local washboard bands on the streets, no music except what the storefronts played. Not like last year at all. The economy again, we thought. Cities couldn't justify hiring entertainers with jobs at stake. Oh, it was bad, bad. We continued up and then down the street shops and Scott and I rode the aerial lift to a great overlook of the city, which we really loved. But the trolley ride back was only a little better than the trolley ride there, and overall we were really miffed. Supper was a long waiting line at the trolley stop hub nearby restaurants next to Liberty Park, where the fireworks would soon begin, if you can imagine. Another dream down the tubes. If I couldn't depend on Gatlinburg, where could I find a balm for my country soul?

The fireworks later were nominal, but at least we had good seats. As the last site in the camp, we were the first in line for viewing, it turns out--that is, at least till some pickup trucks pulled in across our bow and their viewers set up lawn chairs in the truck beds. Oh well....

Following Branson, the plan now revised had been to head for Gatlinburg, then Charleston (Scott's never been) then Savannah (same) then home. When we left Gatlinburg, however, our collective wanderlust was gone. We started for home, but got restored enough that we salvaged a quick tour of Savannah at least. And we all had a good tour trolley (we had sworn we'd never get on another, but this was an uncrowded tour trolley with points of interest map and interesting comments by the guide/drivers, on/off stops at our pleasure, and good organization and execution. It restored our faith a lot. Charleston would have been interesting also, but it required more of us and was more out of our way. We were ready, when we left Savannah about three in the afternoon, to come home. We pulled in about eleven that night. And over the next several days we began to mythologize what a wonderful time we had, as we're prone to do with the passing of time. In a few more weeks it may seem like the best time we ever had.