The weather for our drive back to Texas was a bit daunting. Temperatures topped out only in the low teens for several days - wicked cold for Mark and I, unaccustomed as we both are to real winter weather. We bundled up and drove along curving rural blacktops, passing through western Virginia and occasionally crossing into the corner of the aptly named West Virginia on our way to Kentucky. The rain peppered us with intermittent showers as we followed a path that snaked along the base of a series of steep wooded hills. We weren’t all that far from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokey Mountains, but we had apparently signed on for the Coal Miner’s Daughter tour because we encountered only tiny, sparsely populated hamlets with little in the way of local cafes or points of interest. As a consolation prize, Mark was kind enough to stop at a coal processing plant we encountered, electing to stay in the car while I got out to gawk excitedly at a continuous stream of coal tumbling off the end of a steep conveyor belt into waiting rail cars below. The biting wind made me hop rhythmically from one foot to the other to keep from freezing solid. I can’t imagine why Mark wasn’t as fascinated with the coal processing machinery as I was!
We had only one itinerary stop planned for Kentucky – a visit to Big Mike’s Rock Shop in the strange little town of Cave City. Cave City serves as the gateway to one of the world’s largest show caverns, Mammoth Cave. In the 50s, Cave City began to market itself as a family tourist destination, complete with attractions like a Wigwam Motel, putt putt golf courses and plentiful rock shops. Today, (especially in the off season when we were there) it’s mostly a ghost town, depopulated by the likes of more modern and glamorous entertainment marvels like Branson, Missouri. As a result, many of the once whimsical and hokey attractions are either closed or in a sad state of repair, lending a post apocalyptic amusement park feel to the area.
Mark and I were there on a pilgrimage of sorts, the completion of a strange and wonderful circle 17 years in diameter. In 1991, to relieve our deep sadness at spending the first holiday season without our dear friend John-David (he had died of AIDS in April that year), we set out to distract ourselves with a road trip. We spent a pleasant week meandering along the roads of the southern U.S., but by the time Christmas Eve rolled around we'd put a fair number of miles on the car, including a mad dash a long distance to Mammoth caves in hopes they hadn't closed early on Christmas eve (which they had). As the dark descended, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of nothing ahead of us - a bit bleak. We continued along the curvy roads of rural Kentucky, looking for a place to stop and have some dinner when suddenly we came upon the shining penumbra of Big Mike's Rock Shop, its neon light blazing in the night "OPEN! OPEN! OPEN!". More than eager for a diversion, we stopped to examine the massive mounds of colorful slag that were piled on tables in front. We of course found several choice specimens that absolutely had to come home with us and so entered the nice toasty shop to settle up. We were greeted by a convivial employee who I now know is named Cora. Cora was an absolute hoot and showered us with gracious, friendly attention as though she had nothing better in the world to do than barter with us over chunks of colored minerals. We left that night with a whole box full of treasures, many of which Cora insisted we have as her gifts to us on that blustery Christmas eve night, but it was her generosity of spirit that left the most cherished and indelible impression - one that has stayed with me to this day, seventeen years later.
Well - since we happened to find ourselves passing through the very same region almost 17 years to the DAY (less than 24 hours, in fact), I felt strongly compelled to stop by and see if that amazing woman was still tending the till. Cora was indeed still employed at Big Mike's but was busy enjoying her day off. I left her a note thanking her for her gracious hospitality all those many years ago and then Mark and I resumed our journey, feeling the satisfaction of completing an imaginary circle. For me it registered with an almost audible click.
As we neared Memphis (our evening's destination) from the east, I couldn’t resist spearheading a quick detour to nearby Brownsville to share Billy Tripp’s amazing and wonderful Mindfield with Mark, even though the viewing conditions were less than ideal (it was shortly before dark and drizzling-identical to my summer visit). As I led Mark down the muddy path that runs along one side of the Mindfield, I listened with great satisfaction as he articulated his appreciation, discovering the beauty of the place for himself. Here's a link to some pictures of the Mind Field from my trip earlier in the summer if you'd care to have a look: http://schade.spaceship.com/gallery/Shiree-2008-Summer-Road-Trip?page=6
As we left the Mindfield and headed toward Memphis, the rain that had been dogging us steadily intensified into a crashing downpour, prompting us to go ahead and stop for the night since we had a pretty long drive ahead of us the next day. We'd have just a little over 14 hours of driving to get to Austin, but we'd wisely scheduled in several promising stops along the way to help break up the tedium of an entire day of driving.
The first place we meant to visit was a placed called “Graceland Too” nestled just south of Memphis in the tiny town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. It's an over the top obsessive shrine to Elvis assembled by super-fan Paul McLeod, and from what I'd read, it's right up my alley. Reports on the Internet were also consistent in assuring me that admittance could easily be gained, at any hour, 7 days a week. So pervasive is Paul's passion, that he's reputed to open the door with a smile that is just as eager at 3 a.m. as it is at 3 p.m. So it was with flagrant disbelief and grave disappointment that I failed to raise an answer after knocking on the vault-like front door loudly and repeatedly.
From the outside, the place appeared to be part fortress, part sideshow - impossible to see inside. Obvious gestures toward elevated security were in evidence all around the property and seemed to be strangely out of place in a town so tiny that most people probably don't bother to lock their doors. I can only guess that the marvelous Elvis treasures harbored within Graceland Too merit such extreme measures.
DAMN it! I couldn’t BELIEVE there was no answer at the door! My long run of roadside luck had been interrupted and I found it hard to accept such a fate. I suggested, and Mark graciously agreed, that we should pause and have breakfast at the interesting looking café we had spotted on the town square, and then we could swing back by after breakfast to see if by chance our host had returned.
The café was a good call - my breakfast was delicious and included home made biscuits and a huge slab of the super salty “country style” ham that's served in that region. As we ate, an older woman crowned with a magnificent cone of white cotton candy hair entered, swathed from head to toe in an ensemble of tenderest elephant pink. Her insistent and incredulous eyes betrayed her pink envy as she passed by our table. My covetness took a different form and resulted in my stealing a series of quick glances at her as she sat by herself in a smallish booth, smoking one cigarette after another with one hand and lifting a white crockery mug full of coffee to her lips with the other. I made her into a pretty pink amalgam of several cigarette-smoking, coffee-swilling, beehive-toting gals I've known and loved and made it feel a bit like being at home for a moment.
After Mark and I had broken our fast and concluded our people watching safari, we returned to Graceland Too to find that sadly, the door did not yield an answer this time, either. Ah well - something exciting for next time.
We resumed our journey over the quiet country back roads of Mississippi, blanketed by persistent rain on our asphalt beeline toward the outskirts of Vicksburg. It had rained so much and so long in that area that water had begun to stand in sheets and ponds on the two lane blacktops, hammering the undercarriage of the car when we plunged into the deeper puddles that lay along our path.
By the time we arrived at Margaret's Grocery just outside of Vicksburg, the rain had graciously subsided. As soon as I emerged from the car I was instantly in love with the vivid colors and unabashed sentiment of the place and had a ball walking around taking pictures of every little nook and cranny. My insistent poking around didn't manage to turn up any signs of life, but since it was late in the afternoon on Xmas eve, that hardly seemed surprising. I'd just about finished taking all the pictures I wanted when a car pulled up carrying a gentlemen who made his way directly to the front door of the grocery. He greeted us warmly as he passed and proceeded to knock on the door loudly. After several failed attempts at raising an answer, he whipped out his cell phone and called the inhabitants to let them know he was standing there. “I came to bring you a present - I'm on the front porch!” he told them. Not long afterwards, the door creaked open and the nice gentleman disappeared inside. I could hear him engaged in quiet conversation with someone whom I guessed was probably the Margaret of Grocery fame. After another short while, the door opened quietly and out sidled the Reverend H.D. Dennis. As he walked up to me, he grasped my hand warmly, elbow and bicep, and cried out in the loud clear calculated voice of a preacher “Welcome my white sister!” I responded enthusiastically, in kind, whereupon the good Reverend sat himself down on the porch (only after indicating I should do the same) and proceeded to work to enroll me in the fable of his amazing life. His complicated narrative marched slowly and steadily forward, with the progress interrupted from time to time by giant narrative backward loop de loops that would land the listener some years prior to the point where the story had last left off. This prompted multiple retellings of the same incident, each iteration varying only slightly but distinctly. After a while, I figured out that you could listen to it like a symphony, the same melody repeating over and over again, progressing toward an end, but measured with repetition of the theme in slight variations. Mark, meantime, was not nearly so amused by all this as I, but he had already starting poking around the yard to entertain himself and seemed to be perfectly content.
After the Reverend and I had chatted quite a while, I was offered a much coveted invitation to come inside and see the interior of the place. I was almost overcome with excitement and joy. If it isn't obvious, this is the precise moment of experience I live for: the act of sharing with people who they are. There is no greater joy for me and I'm never happier. When we entered, the inside of the Grocery was about the size of a trailer, festively lit with holiday lights and heavily decorated with mementos, found objects, gifts, Mardi Gras beads and gee gaws. The Reverend made sure to show me his walker so I could see that it was decorated with strands of Mardi Gras beads, which he was careful to explain added visibility when crossing the highway. I met Margaret, much to my delight, who was golden sweet and complex like ribbon cane syrup. I was also formally introduced to the guest who had arrived earlier, who it turned out lives less than 10 miles from me in Austin! We all chatted amiably for a bit until that time arrived when suddenly everyone knows it's time to go without having to articulate it. The Reverend sent Margaret to the back of the store to fetch me a gift before I departed. She emerged with a beautiful and mysterious photo print of a well worn portrait of the Virgin Mary in her hand. As it passed from her hand to mine, it had the feel of a sacred object, completely unrelated to it's subject matter. The Reverend cautioned me, "Now take good care of that - it's important." Back at the car, I honored the Reverend's request without question, placing the image of Mary on the dashboard facing forward , much like a 2D masthead.
After many heartfelt goodbyes with the Reverend and Mrs. Dennis, Mark and I got back in the car and drove. And drove and drove and drove. We whisked on out of Mississippi and trudged across Louisiana, more than ready to be home but still a fur piece away. Shortly before midnight, we crossed the border into Texas - a boundary made painfully distinct by the disparity in highway budgets in the two states. We hadn't been driving long when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a sudden profusion of lights - all colors, zillions of them! I shouted out, "Whoa, whoa, WHOA!!!!" Mark, accustomed to these sorts of outbursts, calmly and expertly pulled to the side of the road so we could make our way back to the wonderland of lights. It turned out we had stumbled upon the best holiday trail of lights I've ever seen. The trail snaked a long way through a gorgeous grove of pines, weaving back and forth through the trees, zigzagging past spectacular displays covered with thousands and thousands of tiny lights. It was soothingly silent since it was nearly midnight on Christmas eve and few other people were about. The only sound besides an occasional hidden speaker droning holiday tunes along the trail was the frosty wind gusting through the pine boughs overhead. It felt like a a dream, really.
We emerged from the trail and glided smoothly onto the interstate, deeply satisfied by our fortune and experience. The glow of those beautiful lights lasted us the last several hundred miles home and served as the perfect finale for a fine voyage full of surprises and beauty. And boy did it feel good to be home.