Gallup, NM – late night

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now, wouldn’t you?

Heading out the 40 I am, feeling pretty good about life (Santa Rosa provided me with two of the best meals I’ve had on this trip.  A spanish omelette for breakfast, cheese enchiladas for dinner, both in family-type restaurants where the staff knew just enough English to take your order, as long as you didn’t get too fancy ab-libbing off the menu.  Both buried in green chilies, not the canned stuff, but brightly colored and crisp like they might have been attached to stems as recently as that morning.  Green chilies are _so_ much better than the harsh, sharp tasting bell peppers you get at home.  But I digress…), when I notice a billboard for a Chevy Truck dealership and service center in the next little town (by the way, remind me to tell you about the billboards out here).  Now, I’d already come to terms with the idea that I was going to be driving all the way to San Diego while alternating between 45 and 60 miles an hour, depending on whether or not the engine fans were running.  But it crossed my mind that a small town place like this might have a quick opening for me, and I had already discovered that no one uses I-40 except to get their RVs and semis to the West Coast, so I could safely bet someone there had seen these things before…

By the time I’d decided that the billboard was a sign, in the higher sense, I realized that this upcoming town must be at least three times bigger than any New Mexican town I’d yet come across… because it had three exits leading to it.  Being used to one exit per town, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the billboard to know where to turn.

Well, apparently that particular shop wasn’t my destiny.  Because if I was truly meant to turn off, surely I would have noticed where…  Have you ever heard the voice in your head actually trail off? As I was thinking this, there was the Chevy place, big as life just off the next exit.  So what the hell.

The service manager did someting that no one else had yet taken the time to do: actually come out to the RV and listen to it.  A good sign.  He said he had someone who knew these things (another good sign), but they had started their lunch breaks.  I said fine, where should I go eat, and he told me.

I had my third excellent Mexican meal in a row.  Freshly rolled blue corn enchiladas with cheese (the taco may be more popular, but the enchilada is the true Mona Lisa of Mexican cooking).  And the one woman there, who appeared to be hostess, waitress, cook, busser, and cashier, didn’t seem to mind that I kept asking for more iced tea while I read my magazine until time to head back to the service shop.

Everything sounded plausible.  His best RV guy worked on it a while, it was a bitch to figure out what it was (which fit with the fact that the problem had stumped the best mechanical minds in the Mid-West, who for some reason now appear in my head looking like the “See No Evil…” monkeys), but it seemed to be the air compressor (which fit with a known problem that Sue and Bill tried to get fixed before the RV ever left North Carolina).  Parts couldn’t be had for a couple to several days, which we both knew meant I was just going to head to San Diego with it the way it was.  Cool, he’d have them close it up.  I asked if I was doing the right thing by backing off the gas when I heard the squeal.  He said actually, let it squeal, it’s not going to hurt anything any more.  A minute later he was back, with the suggestion that they just cut that one belt off.  I wouldn’t be able to use the air conditioner (which I haven’t been, out of sheer fear, anyway), but the squeal would go away.  I reiterated what he told me, to make sure I heard right: no AC, and no squealing, and I can make it to San Diego.  Bingo bango bongo, seventy bucks later it’s a done deal.

Hopefully, by now you’ve all made your side bets on how many miles up the interstate I got before it started again.  Well, you all lose.

I was still on the on-ramp.

I made those noises that sound fakey in movies, where someone is doing something that’s not quite a guffaw-type laugh, but not quite an out-and-out sobbing cry.  I got myself under some kind of control by the next exit (hell, I had almost 30 miles to do it.  I had to use 1 and the area code to call the place from one exit up the interstate), and called and asked for Freddy, the nice service manager who’d been so helpful.  I politely told him “It’s doing it again,” and even more politely refrained from adding “YOU FUCKING JERKOFF FROM HELL.”  I mean, that wouldn’t have helped anything, right?

Guess what he said.

“Son of a bitch.”

I haven’t laughed that hard in quite a while.  He, apparently having missed my last update, probably thought I was nuts.  Boy, is he gonna laugh when he reads it…  After talking with his RV guy again, he concluded that it was those belts (and here he went into some gobbledegook that could have been a valid point concerning belts and air compressors or might possibly have been the original recipe for my enchilada lunch, for all I knew) and that I could just not worry about the squealing.  Again, I reiterated to ensure I heard correctly (because this process had served me so well, only minutes before, no?), “I can just drive as fast as I want, even with the squealing, and it’ll be okay… I’ll make it to San Diego?”  “No problem,” sez he.

So, here’s where I’m at.  I have done everything I could find a way to do.  I have left a trail of credit card vouchers winding through the heartland (you know why they call it the “heartland?”  Because the brain isn’t there…) as I did my best to buy Susie and Bill a new RV, piece by greasy, icky piece.  I’ve hit the wall.

At this point, I’m just driving.  If I explode in a huge fireball that scatters debris for miles and miles, well, Susie and Bill, you’ll just have to get reimbursed from my estate.  If my ashes end up randomly scattered across the desert states, well, Jonathan and Suzy, I hope you find vacation pastimes aplenty in the fine international airports of San Diego and Reno, respectively.

Sigh.  You would have thought I would have learned by now.

What’s that?  Oh, yeah, the billboards.  I’ve already alluded to the fact that the majority of square mileage in this time zone serves no other purpose than to keep RVs and tractor trailers away from the West Coast for another several days, although I’m not at all sure that the West Coast is using this extra time wisely.  Back home, I’m used to seeing the same kind of billboards over and over, because every couple miles there’s another exit that has a BP station, a Cracker Barrel, a fireworks stand, and a Tanger Factory Outlet Stores mall.  Out here you get similar billboards, for hundreds of miles, advertising the ONE McDonalds in the state, located at some remote exit number that looks more like it might be a zip code (the exceptions to this are the fireworks stands, which seem to occur every fourteen feet on every interstate everywhere except North Carolina.  And, oddly, each one is the largest one in the world).  I’ve seen stuff advertised as far as two hundred and ninety-five miles away (it was a campground in Arizona, lest you think I’m making this stuff up).  Groups of hotels and restaurants have banded together to sell you on Exit 236, the Greatest Exit Anywhere!  And as far as I can tell, the exits only exist so they’d have a place to build their hotels and restaurants.

Okay.  I can tell when it’s time to go to bed when my paragraphs start looking like, well, like that last one there…

Santa Rosa, NM – afternoon

First of all, two apologies.

The first goes to everyone looking for an update when there wasn’t one here.  I made two abortive attempts to write one yesterday, but hated them.  We’ll talk more about this later.

Secondly, I’d like to publicly apologize to New Mexico for callously clumping it with Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas as “those big useless square states” (although to be honest, Texas had some good points and Oklahoma wasn’t _too_ bad; I guess it’s really just Kansas I’m pissed off at).  New Mexico is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Now, I’d seen pictures of mesas and buttes in National Geographic and stuff; big old two page fold-out pictures of some natural wonder caliber butte.  Somehow I ended up with the idea that there’s, like, six of these things holed up in national parks throughout the southwest.  Not so.  Turns out they’re all over the place: you can’t swing a dead armadillo without hitting mesas and buttes (yes, I’m now acquainted with roadkill on the half shell).  And they’re just… really pretty.

See, this is why I keep throwing away updates.  I cannot communicate.  I have several fantastic things I want to tell you about (I watched a lightning storm for more than a hundred miles, I looked down into the “Blue Hole,” a natural spring so clear you can see the bottom, 81 feet below, I saw jagged sandstone rock faces with more reds, browns, and pinks than I knew existed, and I have an SVGA graphics adapter…), things that will stick with me forever, and what do I come up with for the update?  How do I express the awe and wonder, the feeling of being larger than life in the face of graphic evidence of just how insignificant I really am?

“Really pretty.”

A girlfriend or two ago, I was asked why I tended only to write songs just after I’d broken up with someone.  I answered that it was because the language of happiness and joy was so under-developed when compared to the language of misery and loathing.  I wondered at the time, and still do, if I really meant _the_ language or just _my_ language.

Whichever, looking over my updates, it appears little has gotten better.  I seem able to describe the things I hated so much more vividly than the things that changed me for the better.

For eample, the thunderstorm.  I first saw it shortly after I left Amarillo.  Now, this might sound strange, but I’d never seen a thunderstorm before.  Obviously, I’d been _in_ them, but you can’t see them from underneath, it’s like looking at the back of the Mona Lisa.  And even if you could, it’s all wet and noisy out there, so you’d just go indoors, anyway.  But this time, I saw the whole thing in the distance; thunderhead, lightning bolts, hazy, foggy sheets of rain.  It’s kinda flat out here, and I figured that it must have been ten or twenty miles away.

Turns out I was off by, oh, an order of magnitude. I drove for almost one hundred miles watching this storm take up more and more of the sky in front of me.  Lightning changed from tiny flashbulbs to incredible pillars than looked tangible enough to actually support the thunderhead.  And if you’ve never seen a thunderhead, I’m not going to be able to describe it.  A huge black anvil that goes all the way up to God.

And as I kept driving, and it kept consuming more and more of the world that existed for me at that point, it became obvious that I was heading directly through the middle of it.  From Texas, it was just this little thing, you could hold it in your hand, a perfectly formed, tiny little model of weather that a particularly ingenious earth science teacher might have whipped up in a beaker somewhere.  Almost two hours later, it was on me, over me, around me… blotting out the sky and collapsing all my horizons on top of me.

Part way there, I had pulled over in a rest area and wasted some film trying to get pictures of lightning (clearly, this Ansel Adams fellow is a charlatan using whiteout in the developing room, but that’s not important right now).  The storm now looked about the size of a large painting, as viewed from the middle of an average room.  It was approaching sunset, and the thunderhead had already thrown us into shadow, from fifty or more miles away.  It had gotten noticeably colder, and the wind had picked up.  The only sounds were engines going by on the Interstate, but even those seemed eerily swallowed up by the air.

Presented with this spectacle, offered the chance to gain some kind of perspective on a larger level than I ever had before, what words of wonder, awe, appreciation, and terror came to my mind?

“Son of a bitch.”

That was it, the sum total of my feeble brain’s reaction to this living natural wonder.  I got back in the RV and continued helplessly towards the thing, and my brain repeated, at intervals, “Son… of a _bitch_.”

Fast forward, the next day (today, as it turns out) and I’m standing on a rock that juts out over the face of the Blue Hole, an artesian spring sixty feet across and eighty one feet deep, with water so clear you can make out details all the way down.  Scuba divers come from all over to be certified here.

So I’m staring down, through who knows how many ages of geological time in the rock walls, into a deep blue pool that looks like it could be the body of either life or death, take your pick, and what am I thinking?

“Son of a bitch.”

It was a slightly different “son of a bitch,” a lighter, more matter-of-fact one than the confronting-mortal-insignificance “son of a bitch” from the night before.  But still, there it was.  I’m reminded of at least two different comedians who had routines about the multiple uses of the word “dude,” depending on inflection. Matter of fact, there’s a scene in the movie _BaseketBall_ where the entire conversation (except the punchline) consists of various phrasings of the word “dude.”

But I’m disappointed in myself.  I expect better than that from me.  Of course, this is the United States in the ’90s, so I could probably just blame my parents and the public school system.  Too bad I didn’t go to private school, I could probably get pretty litigious about the whole affair.

Ah, well, trying to move forward I realize, that, however it started, I _did_ tell you about the Blue Hole and the storm, didn’t I?

Well, son of a bitch.

El Reno, OK – late night

In what seems to be shaping up as a trend, I gave a mechanic a fistful of money today and he failed to actually fix the problem.

I mean, it’s nominally better than it was.  Now the roaring and being limited to 45mph is interspersed with short stretches where I can go as fast as I want (for instance, the first several miles out of the service center’s parking lot).  But it’s still not right.

I don’t know what the deal is.  Maybe I’ve got “dickweed” written all over me, and they know I haven’t clue one about things automotive (or maybe they read the last couple updates, and were just waiting for me to come through town while eyeing expensive catalog merchandise).  Maybe they see the NC license plates, and know I’m on a trip and will therefore be miles away before I discover their treachery.

Or maybe everything went to hell all at once and each of these guys is fixing the next most obviously busted item going down the line (or, he just realized in horror, maybe something still broken is _causing_ all this other stuff, meaning I might have to replace some of them _again_…).

So the beautiful sights I saw today?  I-135, the inside of a Wichita RV repair shop (amazingly, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’ve made it sound…), I-35, and I-40.

On I-40, about 10 miles before the exit just off of which I’m camped, there was a sign that said: “HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES.”  I got worried only after I stopped being curious whether they meant the hitchhikers may be inmates who are escaping, or that hitchhikers may be escaping from inmates attempting to take them hostage.  Either way, there was now good reason to believe that there were inmates about, and, whether they were escaping or taking hostages at the moment, I wanted no part of them.

There was a young kid at the desk when I checked in at the campground, he asked for the typical name and address.  When I told him the town he said “Simpsonville?  That sounds scary.  Lots of crime there?”  I’m thinking, right, in South Carolina we taxi our criminals to the suburbs, rather than forcing them to thumb a ride.  I managed to complete the check-in procedure without issuing him the beating he so richly deserved, that should count for something.

And by the way, where’s all my email?  Oh, sure, everybody’s my pal when it’s all laughy-pants time, I hit a few rough spots and all of a sudden all I’m getting is notes from my mom and pornography advertisements (not in the same letter, typically, mercifully).

Tomorrow looks like today, only perhaps hotter and with more humidity.  Seeing as how the overworked engine has me frightened of what what might happen if I do something foolish like turn on the air conditioner, my joy at this outlook is no doubt clear to you all.  I hope to make it to the Albuquerque area, hitting Arizona they day after.

And another by the way, do we really need all these big square states out here?  Did you know there’s almost four hundred miles of Kansas?  And I’d had my fill after about seven of them, thank you very much.  Now I look at maps of New Mexico and Arizona, and my mind cries “why?”  If you discount such chilling road signs as “Next Services 183 Miles,” the only thing these states have shown me that I can’t get at home is roadkill the size of my sofa.  That’s why you only drive west in an RV or a semi: buffalo just shrug off Toyotas.

Okay, I think I’m babbling at this point (although there _are_ buffalo here.  The same sign that proudly proclaims it as the state animal also advertises the restaurant where you can eat some of it on a bun with fries.  Rather a carnivorous lot, here in the Plains states).

Salina, KS – afternoon

Roberta Verona’s (RV, get it?  Hey, don’t blame me, Susie and Bill did it.  Susie mostly, I’m betting) health status is still unknown, and that has caused some serious changes in my plans.

First of all, my main goal is now to get to San Diego on time, because I’m meeting Jonathan’s plane out there and I’m his hotel for the Comic-Con International.  Also, the San Diego show was one of the big reasons I took this trip when I did, it’s a place I want to be and it’s something I’ve already paid for.

From where I am, there’s really nothing on the map until Denver, which is a solid eight hour drive under the best of circumstances.  Getting help between here and there is not something I want to have to count on.  The situation west of Denver is equally bleak until you get to Las Vegas.

So I’m throwing away the itinerary and heading South to Wichita, about two hours away, then south to Oklahoma City, another three hours beyond.  Then west on 40 where I’ll have Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, then down to the 10 at Phoenix.  Every one of those places should have some resources for me, should I need them.  I’m no longer going to even try to estimate where I’m going to be on a particular night.  I actually wish I hadn’t paid in advance for tonight here in Salina, I’d rather be on my way to Wichita right now.

Hell with it, spilled milk.  I’m not in a real great mood right now, either.  The frustration has pretty much given way to anger, and I don’t have a good place to direct it.  Susie and Bill had the RV checked out before I ever picked it up, it’s not their fault.  And the backward-assed yokels around here, have, to a person, been extraordinarily kind and have at least appeared to do everything they could to help, it’s not their fault.  It’s damn sure not _my_ fault.

Some of you know I’ve been trying to grow my spiritual side here recently, and have heard me say things like “everything happens for a reason,” and “we can’t control situations, but we can control our response to them.”

Yeah, well, the reason this happened is that life sucks, Mother Nature’s a bitch, and American engines aren’t worth a crap.  And I would be controlling my response to this much better if I had tequila and firearms, big-assed, high-caliber firearms.

I’ll be okay.

I guess.

St. Louis, MO – evening

I’m tired.

I didn’t get a particular lot of sleep last night.  Kind of a stressful drive, too.  The longest one I’ve had yet (but read on for dire tidings in that department), and out in the middle of it, as far from anything as I was all day, the RV starts acting strange.

It got loud.  I thought the gas pedal had gotten stuck to the floor.  But I wasn’t going faster, it was just louder.  I know there are fans that kick in and make the engine a bit louder, but I’m used to that.  It was more than that.  I decided to pull over, but no exits.

I slowed down a lot, because a really loud 45mph sounds nominally better than a really loud 65mph.  After what seemed like forever, with me knowing the engine was going to explode in a huge fireball that scatters debris for miles and miles, with me wondering every 12 feet if I should just pull over here on the side of road and call AAA, finally there’s an exit.  I pulled off, stopped the engine, and popped the hood.

No, I have no idea why I popped the hood.  I know nothing about cars.  Hell, if someone told it needed it’s tonsils out, well, I really couldn’t argue the point with them.  Maybe, just maybe, there was something obvious, a Tab B hanging half out of a Slot A (preferably with the legend: insert Tab B into Slot A if engine gets really loud).

What to do.  I decided not knowing what to do while moving in the general direction of St. Louis had slightly more appeal than not knowing what to do sitting still in Off-Ramp, USA.

So off I go, noisy as all hell.  I’m going the highway minimum speed, wondering what’s wrong, wondering should I stop, wondering how much this is going to cost me, wondering how many pieces my sister was going to chew me into for burning her RV to the ground.

Suddenly, it went away.  I would love to have seen the look on my face.  It just plain went away. And I started feeling so relieved and no no NO there it goes AGAIN!  I pulled over again at the next Rest Area.

What did I do first?  Pop the hood, why not?  I’m sitting there thinking “I don’t know anything about cars (I reach down and pop the hood), there’s nothing under there I can even recognize, let alone fix (I get out of the RV and walk around front), why I am even wasting my time (reach under the hood and pop the latch) a monkey poking at the engine with an umbrella in his tail has a better shot at mechanical success here (prop the hood open with the hood-standy-up thing. [See what I mean?  You see? “Hood-standy-up thing.”  Dear Lord, I shouldn’t be allowed to drive Barbie’s Dream Corvette without an adult present]).

To no one’s great surprise, I find myself baffled at the array of dirty, greasy, and OW, son-of-a-bitch, quite warm parts (yes, I really did touch the just shut-off engine.  I know, I told you so myself.  Just stay clear of me, my car’s bound to go off like a roman candle someday, and you don’t want to be around for it).  Not being humbled enough with the existing evidence of my ignorance, I get back in the RV.  I don’t know if you’ve been in a motor home before, but certain ones (like the ones built on the Chevrolet 454 chassis.  Did we all pay attention to Wednesday’s chassis lesson?) have a console between the two front seat that allows access to the engine

Oh, yes I did, too.

Without going into overly much detail, my trouble-shooting was just precisely as successful from this angle as from the other.  I did manage to re-attach the console without hurting myself, though.

So I did the only thing I had left to do.  I went up to the Rest Area building and took a whiz.  My confidence bolstered by a completely error-free urination procedure, I sat down to decide what to do next.  I obviously wanted to just drive on ahead (It really shouldn’t be making that noise), after all, if something happened, I had my AAA card (seriously, that noise is not a good sign), and, besides, except for the obvious, there were absolutely no symptoms, the thing was running just fine (STRANGE NOISE BAD!  BAD, BAD!).

Just at that moment, I felt an ant on my arm and went to flick him off of it.  Not an ant.  Red and black spider (I know what a black widow looks like, this wasn’t one.  But bright reds and yellows are warning signs for Mother Nature.  Like if you ever see that bright yellow frog RUN!).  I accepted this as a perfectly appropriate sign that I was to get out of there as quickly as possible, and I started up the RV.

The noise was gone.  The RV ran as well as it has since I’ve been in it, all the way into St. Louis.  I have no explanation for what happened or why it stopped happening.  It’s almost frustrating, I can’t even take it in someplace now (“It was making this noise that it doesn’t make anymore…”).

Well, that story took longer than I intended.  I had just wanted to explain that I’d had a stressful day and didn’t feel like writing an update tonight.  But now that we’ve come this far, it doesn’t seem as though that’s at issue anymore.  So I’m going to do some thinking out loud, or on paper, or whatever this is.

When I made the rough cut itinerary, I used a bunch of AAA maps, partly because they gave them to me free, and partly because they all have these little sub-maps with driving distances and times between major cities and Interstate junctions.  So I apparently knew right up front what I was doing, I just can’t for the life of me recall why I did it.

Most of my eastern trips had driving times of three to four hours.  Most of my western legs are eight and nine hours.  Like I say, I have _no_ clue why I thought this was a good idea.  So here’s what I’m thinking now.

I’m going to blow off my second day in St. Louis (I think mostly what I was going to do here was go to comic stores, and with San Diego coming up, that seems less of a priority at the moment) and spend two days driving to Denver.  I was intending to do St. Louis to Denver in two days, so it’s not that much of a change.  What that should do is get me back to my original schedule upon arrival in Denver.  Then I’m going to spend only two nights in Denver, rather than the alloted three.  That should give me a day to play with between Denver and San Diego, which I’ll probably need considering the distances I was looking to cover on some of those days.

One thing this means is that there won’t be any updates until Denver.  I plan on staying over in Salinas, Kansas tomorrow night, and even if they _do_ have a modem outlet, the office will be closed by the time I roll in.  So it might very well be Monday morning in Denver before I get another update published.  There’s a peculiar kind of time warp that happens on these trips, and “Monday morning in Denver” seems eternally far away from here.  But you might see multiple updates that I wrote on the road appearing at the same time.  Or you might not.  Okay, I’m officially babbling at this point.  What do you want from me, I told you I was tired when I started this thing…

Memphis, TN – morning

Well, I’m in Memphis doing a little laundry before I leave town, and you can’t leave the machines unattended.  Well, I mean, you _can_, but the signs are written in a manner that suggests possible gunplay if you try it.  So I brought along the laptop and I’m getting updates done.

Late late late last night I ended up writing about Graceland, I guess it was something that just wouldn’t wait until morning.  I’m kind of interested to see how people react to it.  It’s easy to be funny (and this is what most people have said they enjoy about the updates) when situations are existentially meaningless, but I just couldn’t make light of what happened at Graceland.  So we’ll see if anybody thinks I can write about serious stuff.

The rest of the day was great, too.  I went downtown, despite the warnings of the the folks who run the KOA here to keep my doors locked and windows rolled up the entire trip (yeah, right.  I’ve got no AC in the Tracker.  If I kept the windows rolled up my head would have exploded) and be sure to park in a guarded garage if I hoped to ever see my car again (well, my bike is on top, and the first three garage parking areas were too low-ceilinged for me to get in.  So I just parked on the road.  Everybody’s still alive and well).

First stop, Beale St.  Pleah.  It might have been hot stuff at one point, but now it’s all overpriced bar/restaurants and more of the snow-globe ashtray variety gift shops (what does a “gift” like that say to someone?  “I have no taste and I thought you wouldn’t either?”  “I was on my way home, and remembered at the last minute that I’d better get you something?”  “I really shouldn’t be allowed to spend money without supervision?”).  To be fair, I was there in the middle of the afternoon, and some of the bar/restaurants were presumably overpriced because they had live music at night.  So perhaps Beale jumps, jives, and wails at night.  But it was doodley-squat during the day.

Union Ave was next on my list.  The Peabody Hotel is there, and I stopped in to see the famous ducks.  There they were, in the fountain in the lobby bar, which was, by the way, packed with people having cocktails.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, because I’d done my share of hotel lobby boozing it up on the company’s dime while business traveling, but thinking about it now, it was only about 1:30 in the afternoon.  Do these people ever work?  Of course, look who’s asking _that_ question…  I mentally noted that the duck procession was scheduled to head upstairs at five.

I walked down Main St. for awhile.  Nothing.  Truly, it was mostly buildings for lease.  I saw maybe five people.  Well, actually, I did see one cool store, a vintage guitar shop.  They did, in fact have a reverse-body Firebird, but they wanted $3250 for it.  I rarely see those guitars, but that still seemed high.  My suspicion was confirmed when I noticed several Fender Mustangs priced between $800 and $1000.  They were more like $400 to $600 guitars.  And besides, none of the three people working there so much as condescended to say hello to me.  Guess I’ll take my $3250 elsewhere.

I wanted to see Sun Studio, but I didn’t know where it was.  I thought it was supposed to be right there on Union Ave.  Luckily, I noticed a sign: “Memphis Tourism Office.”  Bingo, they had maps and booklets of all variety.

Turns out Sun _is_ on Union Ave, just way way _down_ Union Ave.  I decided to make the pilgrimage and get some exercise in the process.

A half hour of walking and about four gallons of sweating later, I was there, and just five minutes before the next tour was supposed to start.  In I went.

Sun Studio is three rooms.  There’s an entry room, the studio itself, and the control room.  And the tour didn’t go into the control room (All the equipment in there had been updated, the tour guide said, and so was not historically significant).  That brought the cost of the tour to a grand total of 4 dollars per room.

NOTE: between last paragraph and next, many hours and miles went by, and we’re now coming to you live from St. Louis.  Really, I can see the arch… But now back to our regularly scheduled update.

They tried to make up for the lack of area on the tour with audio:  the guide would point to a picture of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, or whoever, then play some of the recording session, one tape generation away from the original master, right there on the studio monitors.  It was pretty neat, but in order to get to everything in the half-hour “tour,” you sure didn’t get to hear much of any given song.

I probably would have given them eight bucks to just go stand in the studio awhile, so I wasn’t particularly unhappy that that, essentially, is what happened.  But as we were leaving, I got the feeling that not everyone there shared my viewpoint on this.

Another half-hour walk, back into the city.  I had about an hour and fifteen minutes until the duck march, so I thought I’d do the RiverWalk on Mud Island.  Mud Island is a long skinny bit of business about two good Frisbee throws into the Mississippi from Memphis.  The Memphis Belle sits in retirement there, along with the RiverWalk, a few shops, and a museum.

At this point in my journey and my day, I was about museumed out.  Add to that only just over an hour in the future, I wanted to check out those ducks.  Add to that I was beginning to do some math in my head and I realized what I’d spent so far today, so I decided on asking for the four dollar ticket that just got you onto the island, rather than the eight dollar ticket that allowed museum access as well.  I stated this as simply as I could: “One adult, no museum,”  and handed her a ten.  After I turned around, I realized she’d given me the eight dollar ticket and two singles, rather than the four dollar ticket, a one and a five (I must have hallucinating at this point in the day, I swear I saw a five when she was handing me change).  So she screwed up a full 25 percent of my four word request.  From where I was standing, it was pretty much the important part, too.  I was pretty worn down, and decided not to fight about it.

I went upstairs and got on the “monorail.”  I have no idea who thought this gondola hanging on a wire could be accurately described as a monorail.  More of a no,norail.  If that bothered me, you could tell I was getting a little tired and cranky at that point.

I did the museum first, figuring to get some value for the extra four bucks.  The first room was yada yada yada.  The plaque on the wall leading to the next room said something like enjoy our re-creation of an 1800s side-wheeler.  Through the door was maybe 20 by 30 foot room, with a piano at one end, a little stateroom with two bunk beds, and a little bar with vintage bottles.  “How swell,” I smirked to myself as I walked out the other side of the “re-creation”…

And onto the bow of the boat.  The room I’d come from was the second of three stories of a huge indoor steamboat.  Well, the front end of the steamboat, anyway.  But still, they did some nice work on that.  I was impressed.  I went up to the pilot’s room, and down to the engine room.  Nifty.

Later, not having learned my lesson, I was rather blase about their “through the next door is our Union Gunship re-creation,” which was actually just a low-ceilinged room with big wooden cannon pointed out the windows.  “Phhh,” I phhhed, until turning the corner to realize it was another multi-story roomful, the gunboat was almost complete on the outside, and there were Rebel cannon on a section of fort across the way.  Again, most nifty.

Nothing else in the museum compared to those displays, unless you count the turn-of-the-century Gibson Archtop guitar, the first vintage guitar I’d actually seen (Graceland had a reproduction displayed, but at least it was in the original leather, personalized guitar cover Elvis often used.  Sun had nothing but repros.  And they were all for sale, which sat rather ill with me for some reason).  That was pretty cool.

By now I’d realized that I was going to miss the duck procession, so I took my time around the Memphis Belle and the RiverWalk.  The RiverWalk is actually pretty cool, too: it’s a half-mile long scale model of the upper Mississippi, with real running water, geographically accurate contours, and maps of the cities alongside.

I took a bunch of pictures and headed back to RV sweet home.  Cleaned up, had some decent ribs, and got out a guitar.

Memphis, TN – late night

Graceland.  How do I start with Graceland?

Elvis was always on the periphery of my musical tastes.  I was more likely to enjoy an album by someone who was influenced by Elvis then by the real thing.  Then again, he was responsible for songs like Suspicious Minds and His Latest Flame and Kentucky Rain and In The Ghetto (Mac Davis wrote that song, did you know that?).  CDs may have their downsides, but one definite plus has been the surge of rereleased songs, often remastered from original tapes, occasionally with alternate versions of songs or outtakes, or partial takes (The Beatles Anthologies are probably the highest profile of these efforts).  And I’d actually been kicking around which of the Elvis sets to get (there are three, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  And I think I might just have to splurge and get the 50’s _and_ the 60’s first), even before I knew I was coming to Graceland.

So when I realized I was going to be camping near Graceland (remember the Opryland/RV campground connection?  Well, Graceland is the next stop on this particular tour, please keep your hands and arms inside the bus at all times), I knew I had to go.

After Nashville, where the attractions in the Opryland suburbs had truly frightened me, and The Hermitage had left me rather flat, I wasn’t on very solid ground here.  Also, I had mixed emotions as to how I “should” react.  As a snob and a smart-ass, I am required by law to textually pounce upon any perceived weakness, oddity, or abnormality in any group that can be described stereotypically.  But as a singer and guitar player, in all seriousness, there’s a certain amount of reverence going on here.

So I what-the-helled it, and got the platinum ticket to see his cars and his planes and his mansion and his socks and underwear.

The mansion itself was not nearly so stand-offish as The Hermitage.  Perhaps Andrew Jackson would have been a more inviting host had he penchants for TVs, firearms, and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.  They didn’t fix the tear in the felt on the pool table, instead they told a story about it.  They told you not to touch anything, but they tended to turn the other direction a lot (Velour bedspread on the bed on the plane.  And a _really_ long seatbelt).  I won’t go so far as to say Elvis decorated as I would have, but I felt a kindred spirit: I could tell _he_ felt it was comfortable.  And I was comfortable with that.

The tour wound through the living room, music room, media room, the famous Jungle Room, then out back to Vernon’s office, the horse pastures, then into the trophy room.

The trophy room was where it started.  I began to sense what it was all about.  The effect one guy could have just singing a song, just doing something he loved to do.  I went down a hall lined with gold records. They meant something.  I went through display cases filled with jewelled jumpsuits of leather and seude and God-only-knows-what, alongside pictures of the concerts where he wore them, concerts in front of thousands of people.  That meant something.

Outside the trophy room, I stopped my little tape player (the tour was on tape, we were all issued a walkman at the tour bus) and struggled with this for a few minutes.  It meant something, but I couldn’t tell what.

I started the tape again, and walked toward the racquetball court, the next stop.  There were a lot of people there, and my walking was actually a little bit behind what the tape was telling me.  The tape was talking about a ceremony that had been held in the racquetball court on the fifteenth, maybe twentieth anniversary of Elvis’ death.  Apparently, Elvis had never recieved all the gold record awards he was entitled to.  And many records had sold enough to go platinum, or multi-platinum, but had only been recognized as gold.  This was just one of those things that sometimes happens to big artists.  At any rate RCA had researched all the sales records and determined what gold and platinum records Elvis really deserved, and presented them en masse, posthumously.

Right about then I walked into the racquetball court.

From where I was standing, it looked fifty feet wide and a hundred feet high.  Covered with gold records, with platinum records.  One hundred and ten, the tape said from somewhere that seemed far away.  Some as much as quintuple platinum.  Millions of records.  Millions and millions of records, of songs, of…

I just stood there.  I began to feel the extent, to understand the enormity of what this meant.  I was blinking as fast as I could because I knew everyone was going to be looking at that idiot over there, crying at a bunch of sales awards.

But they aren’t sales awards.  Those are people.  Those are lives he touched

Those are differences he made.

Those are people.

I was kind of foggy walking away.  The only remaining stop was the meditation garden, where Elvis and those closest to him rest.  This seemed to be one the most popular areas of the mansion and grounds, there were dozens of people lined up several deep stopping around the grave.

I just walked around it.

There’s nothing there, Elvis isn’t there.  Elvis is with those people.  All those people, reflected in the records on that wall, they all have pieces.  Elvis gave them pieces.  Elvis gave me a piece.

I got my piece a little late, or at least understood its value a little late.

In recognition, I respectfully offer this piece of me, for what it may be worth to you.

Memphis, TN – late night

I’m talking _really_ late night.  I’m talking well into tomorrow morning late night.

Today was a wonderful but exhausting day, and tomorrow I’ve got the longest single-day drive of my trip so far.  And I don’t know if it’s just me (my size makes an awful lot of life physically uncomfortable for me) or if they purposely design the driver’s seat in these things to be almost exactly the opposite of what you might consider comfortable.  The steering wheel is precisely the wrong distance and angle from the seat.  The gas pedal is diabolically positioned so as to place maximum stress on at least two major muscle groups in the right leg.  The height of the arm rests ensures an awkward carpal tunnel situation.  And the best air conditioning vent is located such that anything in the cup holder will deflect the cool air everywhere away from you.

The gist of all this is that I’m not really up to writing an update tonight.  On top of wanting sleep, I’m rather creatived-out at the moment.  Perhaps Elvis himself was smiling on me, but after dinner (Marlowe’s, supposed to be the best ribs in Memphis.  They were good, but if these were the best in Memphis, you should really go to Cincinnati for ribs) I got out my guitar and my notebooks.  I wrote one completely new song, got a chorus and the verse melody for another new one, and finished one that I haven’t been able to write a final verse for over the past several months (second time that’s happened this week).

So when I get back, I’ll play you all the tape, and perhaps you can forgive me for this lapse.

But tomorrow’s a travelling day, and travelling days have been good for update writing so far.  So I owe you for Graceland, Sun Studios, The Peabody Hotel, and Mud Island (which is _much_ better than the name implies).  Don’t worry, I’m good for it.

Memphis, TN – afternoon

Just a quick note before the office shuts down.

Graceland and Memphis today.  Great day.  I’ll be writing more tonight, but it won’t go in until tomorrow morning.

Thanks to everyone who’s been reading, and particularly to those who’ve been emailing me, it’s wonderful to hear from you.

By the way, it’s hotter than hell in August here.  I’m scared of what it’ll be like when it gets to _be_ August here…

Memphis, TN – evening

What a generally excellent day.

I mean, considering I had to get up at six in the morning (did anyone catch that I was completed screwed up with regard to the time change when I complained about having to get up at 5 “my time?”  I left my watch set to EDT, but set the clock in the RV to local time (since I have to reset it every time I’ve unhooked).  I was in bed reading and had a panic attack when I realized I must have set the alarm wrong, because the hours of sleep the clock suggested I had left differed from the suggestion my watch had.  Still, 7am “my time” is too damn early, any way you slice it…) and drop seven bills at a Chevy repair shop, the day had a ways to go to make up for it.

I mentioned breakfast, after that they told me I had about four hours until the RV would be ready.  So I hopped in the Tracker to see what Nashville had to offer.

At first, I was a little disappointed.  I drove directly towards downtown on the road where the Chevy place was located, and turned down a couple streets in the downtown area.  It looked pretty much like every other downtown area in the US (that homogenization issue rears its ugly but familiar head), and, besides, it was only eight-thirty in the morning at this point: everything was still closed.

After realizing I was approximately two turns away from not being able to find my way back to the Chevy place, I retraced my steps and drove back towards Opryland: there was a lot of associated tourist crap around there…

Several of the museums along Music Valley Road (and here I use the term “museum” in it’s loosest possible sense) opened at nine, so I had a few minutes to select which might best pass some time.  Cars of the Stars?  The Willie Nelson and Friends Wax Musuem (What, you think I’m making these up?  You can’t make up crap like this)?  Luckily (only considering the circumstances was it lucky), each and every one of these museums had a gift shop out front.  Now, these aren’t your typical museum gift shops (and why would they be, at this point?) where you could buy items associated with the subject of the museum.  No, this was like being in some land-locked Gay Dolphin where all the snow globe ashtrays have “Myrtle Beach” scratched out and a cowboy hat and “Nashville” penned in, many times spelled correctly.  And no, that’s not the part I consider “lucky.”

The lucky part was that the security was not what you’d call air-tight, and you could see into the museums and check out an exhibit or two before ponying up the admittance fee.  Now, I think we all know that I eliminated The Willie Nelson and Friends Wax Musuem from contention at the outset, and, further, I think we all know why.  So I snuck a peek into the Cars of the Stars museum.

You know the stories that you hear about celebrities with too much money who buy the stretch limosines with TVs and bars and bowling alleys in them?  Well, them’s not the cars what are in here.

What we’ve got here is the burned out husk of a ’50 Ford that Elvis once traded for his first train ticket anywhere the hell out of Tupelo.

Get yourself a couple sheets of cardboard, write things like “Dolly Parton’s Chevrolet” and “Loretta Lynn’s Buick” and “Billy Ray Cyrus’ Yugo” on them, then go to any used car lot and set the signs on the hoods, and you’ve got a reasonable facsimile of the Cars of the Stars Museum experience.

So I chose the one remaining option, the as-yet-unmentioned-in-this-account Toy and Train Museum.  Inside the obligatory gift shop offering hilarious gee-gaws like the plaque picturing two naked youngsters from behind, the little boy uttering to the little girl that boffo punchline: “No, you can’t touch it, you already broke yours off,” were two halls, of a total area a bit less than that of my rather spartan house.  Now that I think about it, I think there are probably several more toys _in_ my house than in this museum…

Now, they did have some interesting stuff that I would have liked to have known more about.  But the organization was like a rough cut of cleaning up your room as a child: first pile all the toy soldiers here, all the windup cars here, all the toy boats here.  The only difference is these people put up windows and started charging other folks for a look.  The documentation, when there was any, was hand printed in large letters on narrow paper, with what I’ll generously refer to as creative hyphenation, and tended towards the general: “The tin cars in this display were made from 1890 to 1950, in the US, England, Germany, and Japan.”  I’d have a better chance of learning about the history of a particular car with a calendar, a globe, and two darts.

And I don’t know much about the preservation of wood, metal, and plastic, but they also had original boxes for some of the toys, and even one comic book.  And I _do_ know something about the preservation of paper.  And you could learn a lot about how to properly preserve paper by simply doing the opposite of everything that they had done: bare paper (it was one of those give-away books with no glossy cover) laying under flourescent lights, surrounded by items made of cheap plastic (most plastics are constantly breaking down and releasing dangerous gases.  Just another example of better living through chemistry).  I stood there and watched the book decay for a few minutes, just for a larf.

The train section was a little more interesting, but tended towards wind-up English trains, rather than the Lionel O gauge stuff I’ve learned a bit about through osmosis.  They had a reasonably impressive electric layout going; my Dad would have loved that little steam engine careening through the pressboard town at about 274 scale miles an hour.

After that little adventure (which I actually rather enjoyed, despite my overly-syllabic evisceration of the experience), I stopped at the neighborhood outlet mall.  There’s that homogenization thing again.  No lie, on this trip I’ve now driven past five, FIVE, sets of Tanger Outlet Stores (ever since I saw my first set in Commerce, GA, years ago, I’ve wanted to vandalize the “T” in their sign, so they’d be the ANGER OUTLET MALL.  I feel this more accurately represents what is typically going on there, anyway).  Anyway, this time it worked in my favor, because I knew there’d be a Totes outlet there (there was) and I could buy a cheap umbrella (I did).  The umbrella had a tag that showed the $5.99 price was an excellent bargain, as the umbrella had a suggested retail value of $22.  Kind of disillusioning that the umbrella’s slip case was clearly labelled “Suggested Retail: $12.”

This had not yet filled up my alloted time.  I started driving back towards the Chevy place, not knowing where things might be that were fun yet close enough and easy enough to get to.  On the way in, I saw a sign for the Hermitage, and thought that might be cool.

I suppose it was.  I guess that sort of thing is simply lost on me.  Bygone opulence, restored, rebuilt, and repainted to hold at arms length for nine bucks a head.  Some of you know my comic collecting tends to be lower-grade stuff.  There are several reasons for this (it’s more affordable and available, so I might actually complete runs I start, and I can read them with my own oily fingers without worrying about damaging them further), but one is that low-grade (the more beat-up stuff) lends a sense of history for me:  I can _feel_ the time that’s passed, I gain perspective on what the object has gone through to get here.  High grade items, and particularly restored items, whether comic books or the homes of dead presidents, offer me no texture, no struggle, no sense of survival.  The Hermitage looked to me like a great big dollhouse, with which I was not allowed to play.

Man, rereading that last paragraph, it looks like I had a crappy time.  I really didn’t, I enjoyed it while I was there, and I’m glad I went.  Perhaps the value in those kinds of things is not what we see in the object, but what the object shows us in ourselves.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, I then went and wrote a fat check for RV repair, ran across a fantastic comic book store (did I mention my newly-acquired Amazing Adventures #1? Oh, yeah, I did…), found a KOA Kampground next door to Graceland (for true, _next_ _door_ to Graceland.  I’m walking there tomorrow morning.  For some reason that’s a little unreal to me.  Walking to Graceland…), drove there, made myself some sammiches, and sat down to write.  Thanks for reading what I’m certain is the longest update yet.  It was a lot of fun to write, I hope that comes through when you read it.

And please keep the email coming.  I know my replies are kind of short (because I typically have to run my email there at the counter while people are checking in or buying biodegradable toilet paper for chemical toilets), but email is the only human contact I get that goes beyond “Are you ready to order,” “Will that be cash or charge,” or “And please remember, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY.”