Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rolling Down the Mississippi Shoreline

Terrorizing corn fields

I got ahead of myself.  We're not ready to head south to Tennessee just yet; more tales to tell.

The very first sign of Spring was our first bug splatter on the windshield for the season.  Now if this had been July, we'd be dodging grasshoppers the size of Nikes in Kentucky (I saw the biggest garden spider possible in the Pyrons' yard many years ago.  A sight like that does not leave you).  But I was not dodging bugs, rather noticing the bizarre place names that ticked by:  Pig Eye, Gassaway, Pinchgut Gulch, and Bucksnort are a few in Maryland and West Virginia (also there's the town of Accident, which should probably be avoided).  We had to get off the highway to check out Flintstone of course, since the all-seeing iPad told us there was a Stone Age Cafe there.  Disappointing, since it only looked like one of those diurnal beer joints; no Brontoburgers being skated out by carhops in fur bikinis (sigh...).  It was all good though, as we spotted -- wait for it -- a rock quarry just outside of the village.  Fred must have been out to lunch, though, since his distinctive car was not there.

A stop in Cumberland, Maryland, to check out the Puccini Restaurant proved to be a good choice.  It's in a pre-Civil War building decorated with old Harper's Weekly prints, and has a fine menu, great plate presentation and an even finer looking bar (off limits to us devil-may-care Honda drivers).  I spoke to some locals who told us the building was used as a hospital during the Maryland campaigns during The Late Unpleasantness; I asked them if they knew of their most famous resident, writer John Michael Greer, but they did not.  They did know where to find good pizza, though.

After a night in Charleston, we pushed through the aforementioned freak snow storm and enjoyed several busy days with Nancy's brother Tom and his Mrs., Cherry Pyron, who not only fed us extremely well with such delicacies as bourbon-cured bacon (even better than it sounds), but made food for a pot-luck dinner at their church, where we chatted with people who acted like we'd known them for years.  We've never found anyone in or around Clinton, Kentucky, who didn't treat everyone like an old friend. 

A curious thing popped into my head as we passed a full classroom down the hallway, though.  I had seen a map chart a week previously online which showed the dire lack of real estate tax revenue that has been stopping local progress and rebuilding:  almost half the town properties are either non-profit or vacant.  Despite being the county seat, Clinton is small and has limited prospects until this problem is addressed; however, in that classroom a good many people were looking at a slide of a map titled "Old Jerusalem."  I couldn't help thinking -- and I mean this not as a criticism -- these agreeable and intelligent people should really be looking at the one about their town and considering what to do about the looming problem.  Jerusalem, old or new, couldn't be as relevant to their lives and futures.

Tom volunteers one day a week as an outdoor guide at the new Discovery Park in nearby Union City, Tennessee.  Just opened a few months ago, it's an amazingly ambitious project to have been conceived and funded largely by one person.  The main building design is big-city bold, almost Gehry-like, while the grounds contain everything from a Japanese garden (much abused by the recent winter, but it will bounce back) to reconstructed "dog-trot" style log cabins and a fine collection of old tractors.  There are well-designed theme areas inside the main museum, of course, but one room was a charmer:  it just housed every sort of thing that didn't fit in anywhere else.  I liked that spirit.


Okay, we're just barely in Tennessee now, so let's keep on Route 51 and find Memphis!


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Motoring West

(another fine creation of Nimrod Studios, Richmond, VA)

Alright, Spring, if you are still hesitating to come here, we'll go find you!

So begins the Big Fat Southern Road Trip, a 2100-mile loop from home, through western Maryland, West Virginia, the length of Kentucky, up to Paducah and down to Memphis along the Mississippi, then to Music City, lots more of Tennessee and up the spine of western Virginia to get back to the beginning.  Despite lots of country dirt on the old Honda, empty water bottles everywhere and blowing a tire just 35 minutes from home, we're glad we went; the washing machine quivers in dread.  Blackberry the cat is glad to have us back, offering his furry belly up as a warm greeting.

WTF weather

Only an airbrush of light green is to be seen on either side of the highway, the hills still brown, until the redbuds lead the way and the grass thickens in West Virginia.  The soapy-white sycamores and the oaks are still all branch and no leaf.  A first stop in Charleston shows some flowering trees and our hopes are up before a snowstorm gathers and follows us all the way to Lexington, Kentucky.  I think we must be responsible in some way.

Lexington, with its immaculate horse estates, should be seen in its summer glory, and it did not disappoint us:  the nasty weather abruptly stopped and we cruised along the state's lovely parkways (light on traffic and especially on trucks -- love it) to find the Pyron's farmstead, and their driveway, just before we run out of southwestern Kentucky completely and fall into the the always-brown river.  Now this is no mean feat, given the lack of signage or landmarks in the spiderweb of narrow local routes, but it's not our doing, but that of the fine GPS on Nancy's new iPad.  The reassuring voice of Siri and her impeccable navigational skills deliver us with not one delay.

I hadn't been to visit in probably a dozen years, and their home and land have changed considerably.  The only animals (where once chickens and sheep roamed) in residence are Coco the lab, a mature female cat and Little Buddy, a yellow kitten who had lost his home along with some skin and fur in a neighboring house fire.  Cherry Pyron had him fixed up at the vet, and he lives in the barn.  We tried to warm him up to people, and urged him to stay very near his barn, since the plentiful coyotes are a nightly danger to small animals.

Kentuckians just like to have fun

We're eager to see Tom's current projects, a new Habitat house just starting in the old river town of Hickman, and a new church in the country outside of Fulton.  Despite having recently retired, his expertise is in more demand than ever, and he's finding out that being a project manager for the big church construction involves, primarily, being on the phone about 18 hours a day.  The foundation trench in Hickman keeps filling up with water, delaying everything there, and that's only one of his dozen problems to solve each hour. 

We all relax for lunch at Miss Martha's Cornbread and Sweet Tea, a roadside cafe in Fulton that will feed you well, and make you feel welcome.  Go on meatloaf special day.  Trust me.

Not only can you take a long slow walk on the old tree lined country road that fronts the Pyrons', but you can do so without watching for any traffic.  During our stay, one pickup truck went by (later on, while on I-81, we could hardly believe that's possible when you're imprisoned on all sides by tractor-trailers, mile after mile).  Then we took a longer route on their Scorpion go-kart, with no worries about law enforcement, other cars, or anything except staying out of the ditch.  I think Nancy is a more daring driver than me; when she was in the driver's seat, the pedal stayed all the way down and the dirt flew.

Richmond, someone's gaining on you

We headed north an hour to Paducah, a nice little city with a long history at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  The floodwall (which is tall enough to convince you they must have reason to take floods seriously) is covered end to end with a historically-themed mural, and the old downtown is a delight to the eye.  Nineteenth-century brick buildings are beautifully designed and restored, and there are a few Art Deco treasures scattered among them.  The first floors are sometimes  marred by those awful modernizations done from 1945 to the mid-60s, like everywhere else.

Our destination is a lively arts venue, nicely restored, called the Maiden Alley Cinema which tonight hosts a local band of almost ten years duration called Bawn in the Mash.  All I found out about the name is that it comes from Mark Twain somehow.  They (there are six of them) play a sort of psychedelic bluegrass, switching instruments alarmingly often, and those instruments are an object of wonder in themselves:  a strange drum kit consisting only of a tom, bass drum and two cymbals.  The lively percussionist also plays what looks like an edited version of a marimba and something I've seen in old photos of minstrel/early jazz groups.  The fiddler also played what looked like an electric mandolin, but it had five strings.  And it was on loud.  Every seat and all standing room was filled, and one could enjoy a microbrew from the concession stand.  Which we did.

The dogwoods, this week dressed in their Southern best, are plentiful in the carefully done yards of Jefferson Avenue, and were featured by spotlights.  A recent tradition in this neighborhood of outstanding residential architecture, it's a good idea that has caught on like the arts downtown because, I think, Paducah has a rare spirit among small cities -- it has managed to foster both the new, fast-growing shiny suburbs and excitement in the old established areas simultaneously.  Paducah is a place worth keeping an eye on, and we'd like to go back.

Tennessee is calling me

There are a lot of religious signs along the road in this part of the country, and one in particular speaks to us as we head further south from the sweet, quiet countryside to the higher-voltage sprawling city of Memphis:

                                          "YOUR SINS WILL COME TO LIGHT."

Well, we haven't had much chance to yet, but that could be a fair warning.

--more adventures to relate, tomorrow--



Thursday, April 10, 2014

"...they PULLED me back in"

Graphic by Nimrod Studios, Richmond, VA

Am I stuck in a nightmare?  I wake up to the alarm and go to work day after day, just like in the OldTimes when I had a real job.  I have to plan my day in advance and have information at the ready.  Yesterday Nancy even packed up my old blue and white Igloo lunchbox.  And there's more laundry to do than a man of leisure should be accumulating.

All right, it's not that bad, and it is temporary.  This seemed to be a good year to just get all the remodeling projects done on son Zach's 114-year-old house, even though the dragging-on winter slowed the start.  What prompted this scary scenario was the opening of a ReStore nearby -- the recycling outlet run by Habitat for Humanity.  They have new as well as used items, from windows to furniture to paint, so we went and found exactly what was needed to get started:  all the wall tile for the upstairs bathroom (at 10 cents each) and two unused Andersen windows at very much less than retail.  So we loaded that stuff up and called our trusty contractor and it begins.

I'm mostly painting the outside, doing some small things and finishing up the downstairs 1/2 bath, while the contractor is rebuilding the second floor bath before tackling the windows (which will involve a lot of wall rebuilding -- nothing's as simple as it should be).  Then a new kitchen floor covering* to complete the marathon.  I have nothing left to do at home, so there's time for all this. 

But a morning alarm?  Uncivilized.


*Congoleum Dura Ceramic 16"x16", sort of a vinyl tile with a ceramic floor tile surface.  Not so hard on the feet, and it comes in a hundred colors.  Good stuff.