Fall Color, Faux Bois and Fried Chicken

Boy howdy what a delicious breakfast we had Friday morning!  Our wonderful hostess Jenn had left us with not only orange juice and coffee fixins, but also a tray of breakfast items to heat up (including some really tasty fritatta).  I toasted the biscuit halves and fried up the bacon and we proceeded to have ourselves a feast. It was such a lovely way to start the day and linger a bit longer in the wonderful old house we had been staying in before we lurched off toward home.

There was no longer any trace of the weather system that had rained so much moisture down on us in the past couple of days - the temperature was crisp but pleasant and the sky was a vivid blue.  

Immediately upon leaving the confines of the city, we were surrounded by a sea of blazing fall color which substantially enhanced our drive along the two lane blacktop toward the old town of Bonne Terre, Missouri.  The community of Bonne Terre was originally settled by the French in 1720 after lead ore was discovered in the area.  The city’s huge lead mine (which predates the Civil War) went out of business in the 1960s, but was filled with water and has become a popular scuba diving destination that conducts underwater tours of the 5 level mine complex.

As fun as swimming around in a old lead mine sounds (and strangely, it does!), we hadn't brought our BCDs or wetsuits with us and so chose instead to visit the Space Museum.  

The Space Museum is obviously a labor of love, and in many ways it provided a perfect complement to our earlier tour of the Cosmosphere in Kansas because it dealt with many of the same topics, but in a much more eager and informal way.  Bonne Terre resident and space enthusiast Earl Mullins has amassed a respectable trove of space related treasures and generously shares them with the public in a quaint old office building at the Bonne Terre Lead Mine- much to the delight of small museum fans like me.

Mark and I were greeted at the door by our tour guide Jim, who gave us a detailed personal tour of the museum's exhibits.  A good number of the artifacts were astronaut-autographed photos and documents and there were also a number of meticulously reproduced spacecraft models.  What really got my attention, though, was the collection of space themed items like ray guns, lunch boxes, costumes - things I'd imagine were just a little too pop cultural for the Cosmosphere but were nonetheless delightful to see.  I really appreciated Jim's enthusiasm and willingness to point out so many details I might otherwise have missed.  It's volunteers like him that keep small museums alive and vital.

From Bonne Terre, we headed south on a beautiful, curvy road soaking in all the fall color we could.  We soon reached the interstate and began the trek to Memphis where we’d be stopping to see some sculpture and grab some dinner.

The Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis was one of the first cemeteries in the nation to be developed into a park like public destination by visionary E. Clovis Hinds beginning in 1925.  The artist who arguably made the single biggest contribution is someone whose work I’ve come to greatly enjoy following, Dionicio Rodriguez.

Dionicio was a master of faux bois cement work, and by that I mean taking a bucket of wet concrete and making it look very very much like a tree.  We're lucky to have a good deal of Rodriguez’s work in central Texas because the doctor that was his patron and brought him to the U.S. from Mexico lived in San Antonio.  Dionicio spent decades travelling around the U.S. working largely in secret to create incredible naturalistic benches, bridges, palapas and grottoes - all from patterned concrete.

Mark and I arrived at the cemetery around 5:00 p.m. which happily put me there at the golden light hour just before dusk to view and photograph the sculptures. glowing with slanted autumn light.

I think my favorites, as always, were the structures that resemble enormous hollowed out logs or tree trunks and whose interiors manage to twist into intimate wood patterned benches and whose knot holes and limbs intertwine to form windows and nooks.  Dionicio was a master of not only building a form and patterning the applied cement, but he was also adept at tinting his medium of choice.  The resulting finishes are both natural and artistic at the same time.  They aren't necessarily hyper-real, but they express the spirit and look of wood impeccably.

As we finished our tour of the various installations around the cemetery, I noticed that a nearby office building was reflecting the setting sun in it’s copper colored mirror exterior, and the resulting reflection had formed a death ray beam that was lighting up a tree dressed in her buttery yellow autumn finery.  To look at the the scene was blinding, but it was so compellingly beautiful that I couldn't allow myself to look completely away.

In a grand stroke of fortune, our rendezvous with the best fried chicken of the trip was less than two miles from the cemetery.  I was familiar with Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken from reading my foodie websites, and was looking very forward to sampling the chicken I'd read such rave reviews about.

When we pulled in the parking lot, the place was thrumming with activity at 6:00 on a Friday evening.  We were quickly seated by a cheerful young thing that called us "y'all" which made me smile since I hadn't heard it in a while.  We agonized over which of the delicious sounding sides to get, but our order was soon placed and in what seemed like mere moments later, found plates laden with golden brown chicken set before us.  Both of us opted for the seasoned collard greens (with bottled pepper sauce, natch), but I rounded my meal out with mac and cheese and an ice cold IBC root beer.  I guess all I need to say by way of review is there was a lot of happy grunting at our table.  I polished off four wings and put a serious dent in my sides before giving up the ghost.  Which did NOT stop me from ordering a freshly fried pie (pecan!) to take with us for a later snack.

The good news, my fellow Austinites, is that I read recently that Gus's will be opening a restaurant in Austin in the next six months.  This is my unqualified urgent recommendation that you eat there as soon as you are able.  Fabulous!

As we we walked to the car, Mark spotted this magnificent donut neon signage across the street.  I walked over to take a picture and was tickled when I looked up from my camera and realized that perched right between Gus's Fried Chicken and the doughnut shop was a humble health food establishment.  I suspect it may well be a front for some nefarious endeavor.

A short drive to Forrest City left us perfectly poised to swoop down on Miss Lena's to get some fried pies and take in the sights of Hot Springs.

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