The Greatest Ride of Our Lives Part 4: 1500 miles across America’s South
Hard though it seems now to believe, but on a Tuesday afternoon this past August, on our family cross-country road trip, we were still hanging at the Saint Blues guitar workshop in Memphis after spending the morning at the Stax Museum. Barely 48 hours later, we were rolling into Grand Canyon Village, almost 1500 miles and six States away. And somehow we found time to have fun in-between.
I had decided on a visit to the Saint Blues Guitar Workshop after seeing a printed advertisement inviting us to do so. After all, our budding family guitarist, 7-yr old Noel, had found the lengthy tours of Graceland and the Stax Museum a little tedious (I ended up wishing I’d taken him on the briefer Sun Studio tour instead) and was itching to play guitars rather than see them on display in museums behind glass. Fortunately for him, the people at Saint Blues, who have made high-end guitars for all manner of famous musicians and are currently working hard to expand their brand, proved perfectly enthusiastic to give Noel a complete tour of the workshop, and thoroughly charming in doing so. They in turn appeared to be charmed by his questions and his guitar-playing chops, as evidenced by the lovely picture they took of him playing a $2700 Saint Blues 61 South, which they then posted on their Facebook page. His rendition of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ remains locked away somewhere on a company camera. We hope to revisit one day when Noel is older and perhaps the owner of a decent electric guitar himself.
From Memphis, we had nothing booked until the Grand Canyon campgrounds two evenings later. This gave us the freedom to just hit the highway and eat up as many miles as possible. We got to Little Rock, Arkansas in a couple of hours and rather than push through, decided on a quick tour of the downtown waterfront and an early meal. Now, it’s easy to hear the words Little Rock and think of Arkansas’ deeply shameful segregationist past, as specifically brought to light by the case of the Little Rock Nine, whose attempted enrollment at Little Rock Central High School made international headlines and resulted in President Eisenhower sending in the 101st Airborne to protect them and federalizing the National Guard in the process. That was half a century ago, and in the years since, a white Arkansas citizen born into poverty, William Jefferson Clinton, came of age, became Governor of the State and subsequently served two terms as what some people termed the first black President of the United States of America. His continued popularity some 12 years later was self-evident by the end of our road trip, by which point he was (once more) stealing the first true black POTUS’s thunder at the DNC, but in the process hopefully helping ensure that Barack Obama, like Clinton himself, will go down in history as a two-term President.
Not surprisingly, Clinton’s imprint is all over Little Rock, the State Capital: his name (and that of his wife Hillary) is now on the airport, and on the downtown avenue we parked up at near the River Front Market, perhaps due to the presence of the Clinton Museum right there by the Arkansas River, and his substantial Presidential Library just the other side of the highway. Little Rock’s modernity was equally apparent in the lovely little Indian-flavored meal we had at 4Square Café and Gifts on President Clinton Avenue; all things considered, it was a shame we couldn’t spend more time today but allowing that we abandoned plans to check out Tulsa or Oklahoma City, our brief experience with Little Rock sufficed.
We didn’t make it another 200 miles that evening before tiredness took over and so, just inside the Oklahoma border, we pulled up at the first motel we found in the town of Sallisaw. Barely six hours later, Posie and I got up with the dawn to ensure that we could each get in an energizing jog/run before another hefty day on the road. My run through Sallisaw revealed a poor town, comprised mainly of pawn stores and cheap antique shops and otherwise empty storefronts, one dealing daily with its Indian legacy not only in the street names I photographed or the mural I’ve shared, but the presence of a Cherokee Nation Human Services office, and museums dedicated to the area’s history: one at Sequoyah’s Cabin and another, the Fourteen Flags Museum, honoring the 14 Nations that have populated the State. But though much of Sallisaw seemed somewhat sad, I got a positive vibe when passing by the impressively modern Middle and High school buildings, watching some kids play touch football on a blocked-off street before the start of the school day, and others just enjoying their friends’ company. I came back to the motel to reinforce to my own boys that they were fortunate to still be on vacation; clearly, the kids in Oklahoma are back at school long before Labour Day signifies the true end of summer.
It was our intent to avoid all distractions that travel day, but only ninety miles out of Sallisaw I saw a sign for Okemah, OK, the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, and there was no choice but to head into town and search out a monument. We drove past it twice before we finally found it, and that was only thanks to an Internet search on my new iPhone. It became quickly evident that America’s great troubadour, prolific songwriter and true man of the people had been viewed by his town elders instead as a communist, a rabble-rouser and ultimately, an embarrassment. The statue in question, tucked into a small park in-between storefronts on Broadway, was only raised in 2001, 89 years after his birth, and championed not by the town itself but the Friends of Libraries USA, who financed it by selling off sponsorship of individual bricks. Still, the statue signifies a turnaround on the part of Okemah itself, for the town has been hosting an annual Woody Guthrie Festival these last fifteen years, the most recent of which, just a month before our arrival, celebrated the Centennial of his birth. My attempt to pay further homage when we resumed our journey, playing Guthrie’s songs on the iPod, fell on deaf ears; it’s fair to say that lo-fi, scratchy vinyl political folk music of the 1940s is a tough sell for a 7-yr old.
Back on Route 40, we made it across the vast open expanses of Oklahoma and the northern handle of Texas over the course of the afternoon, and as we ate up mile after mile on the straight flat roads, I saw the possibility of getting all the way to Albuquerque in time for dinner, especially as the clocks turned back on us an hour in the process. Thanks to the wonders of the iPhone, I was able to book us into a well-priced, delightfully South-Western decorated Best Western conveniently situated only a minute off the highway and within walking distance of Albuquerque Old Town. We hadn’t fully learned from the previous day’s experience that eating early and driving late is the best way to go with a 16-yr old and a 7-yr old in the back seat, and there were some tired, angsty, hungry, tense personalities at work that evening after being cooped up in the car all day. Still, a decent Mexican meal for the whole family and a late-night drink in the hotel bar for mum and dad served to soothe the souls; Posie and I thoroughly enjoyed the New Mexico Ponderosa wines on offer at the Best Western – the Cabernet Sauvignon was surprisingly good, especially allowing that this flagship wine was sold at the same price as its entry-level whites- but were somewhat annoyed at allowing ourselves to be conned into a second glass each by the bartender under the pretense of impending closing time. We simply didn’t need to be pouring wine down our necks after such a long day on the road. (Nor did we need to be listening to the loud Brits in the hotel bar. Believe me, from Memphis to Vegas, it’s hard to escape them on the American road.)
Checking the weather the following morning, and seeing that the Grand Canyon, still some 400 miles away, was in for a series of heavy thunderstorms, we made a spot decision to spend the morning in Old Town Albuquerque rather than spending alld ay cooped up in the car again only to get drowned in a campground. It was a win for all the family; we dropped the kids off at the Museum of Natural History and Science, which was understandably heavy on the dinosaur exhibits given New Mexico’s history as such a major source of fossils, while Posie and I wandered the local art galleries and artisanal stores, admiring the distinct South-Western architecture and feeling for all the world like we had crossed the border into another country. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and inquisitive, and not just in that familiar way of playing up to the tourists; there was a genuine warmth here that extended from the upscale boutique owners to the vendors on the street. A special shout out to Bright Rain Gallery, which we thought was consistently excellent and extremely well priced, but when push came to shove, the wife and I each bought some hand-made jewelry from the licensed Old Town Vendors. The woman who sold Posie a number of inexpensive pieces had been out of commission for months due to tennis elbow brought on by her work; she said she had almost forgotten what a $20 bill looks like and was clearly ecstatic at having some cash in hand once more. It served as a reminder that Obama’s recent Health Care revisions still leave America with so far to go, for the self-employed are frequently driven into poverty, if not outright bankruptcy, by the cost of health care. We need a universal system, and soon.
The daytime drive across New Mexico and into Arizona supplied us with our first true experience of the South West and we found the vistas totally stunning. Unfortunately, photographs failed to fully do them justice, not least because the weather did indeed get cold and wet – there in the Arizona desert of all places – culminating in a rush-hour down-pour while navigating our way in and out of a vast health food store in downtown Flagstaff, having wrongly convinced ourselves that we wouldn’t able to get good food at the Grand Canyon. There was a temptation to take the long way up to the Canyon via the old Route 66, but with time now suddenly an issue, we took the straight road instead. We were rewarded by yet further beauty: an unexpected forest north of Flagstaff, the sight of Humphrey’s Peak, and a gorgeous sundown urging us to make it into the Canyon before it set completely and we’d be reduced to putting up the tents in the dark. We succeed. Just. But that’s the next story.
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