It's gotten so that when I set out on a long driving trip, the first day is necessarily spent escaping from Texas - long, long hours on familiar roads that have been picked clean of interesting stops during previous expeditions. The inaugural day of this particular journey took me from Austin to Little Rock in a little over 10 uneventful hours. Mission accomplished.
But when I rose this morning, I found the irksome feeling of trying to hurry up and get somewhere (which had been dogging me from the end of my driveway all the way to the Arkansas border) had conveniently slunk away during the night and the joy and wonder of this thing I'm about to do had finally caught up with me in its stead. Bright and early then, fresh from my budget bower at the Motel 6, I hit the road with visions of golden fried chicken dancing in my head. A short 2 hour trek eastwards delivered me to the front doorstep of Memphis, and to be precise, the downtown area that is nestled along the eastern shore of the mighty, mighty Mississippi river.
I was in search of a place called Alcenia's that I'd read about, renowned for its delicious soul food (that's Alcenia, the owner's mom, at left). As soon as I walked in and saw the vibrantly colorful and glittery decor, I knew I was going to be right at home - crispy fried chicken would merely be icing on the cake. Er...so to speak.
After I plopped down in the Alice-in-Wonderland setting I chose as my table (every table featured a different style) I was greeted warmly by a succession of gracious employees, including the proprietress and head cook herself, B. J. Chester-Tamayo. B.J. is the kind of gal that is so bursting with love that she makes sure to thank and hug every single diner - and I mean EVERYONE. She's proclaimed in print that she'll chase you down the street to give you a squeeze if she needs to! What a wonderful group of folks.
After lots of amiable chatting, the time arrived for me to make my choices. With my waitress's sage advice, I settled on fried chicken with grits, hash browns and fried green tomatoes. B.J. came around shortly before my meal was served, and asked if I'd like some tomato gravy to go with my meal. Now I've eaten a wide variety of gravies in my day, but I'd never even heard of tomato gravy, much less tasted it. It was out of the question not to get some (that's it in the blue bowl on the right).
B.J. makes the gravy herself from her mom's recipe and it is spectacularly delicious - I found myself dipping every single food on my plate in the delectable stuff. It's a black pepper flecked drippings-based gravy with streaks of fresh red tomato stewed right in with just the right amount of spicy kick to it. Surprisingly, it was exceedingly good on the best specimen of a fried green tomato (left) I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Such a difficult balance to achieve - salty, tangy, crispy and sweet - a true Southern delicacy when prepared in such an expert fashion.
I think I'm probably exhausting those of you who aren't quite as exuberant about food as I am, so I'll move on, but what a fantastic meal!
Before departing Memphis, I ducked into a fire museum I spotted as I searched for the freeway on-ramp. The museum is in the process of renovating their collection, so only a portion of it was on display, but I enjoyed seeing the old fire trucks immensely. I also enjoyed rounding up a kid from the gift shop to come and model the fireman front drop. I love how his little peak makes him look like a Kewpie firefighter.
After leaving the Fire Museum, I chose an older highway that traverses a large swath of Memphis, which allowed me to deeply inhale some of the real character of the place. It wasn't long before I'd left the massive churches, car dealerships and barbecue stands behind, snaked through the verdant lanes of the ancient two lane black top leading east and pulled into the driveway of Bill Tripp's spectacular art environment, The Mind Field, in Brownsville, Tennessee.
I had so admired Billy (above) and so enjoyed my previous visit (click here to read the blog entry from 2008), that I had anchored a return visit to my itinerary early on in the planning process. When I arrived, I found Billy hard at work in the blazing heat, chipping scale off of a long pipe, dressed in crisp summer whites with a bandanna festooned hat to protect him from the unrelenting sun. He remembered a great deal about Brooke's and my previous visit, much to my amazement. We compared notes on what we'd both been up to in the intervening 6 years and then he showed me a few of the new projects he's been working on.
I've always envied Billy's amazing ability to get things accomplished. He talks about dismantling and remantling a water tower in his backyard like it was dropping off a couple of shirts at the cleaners. He had just finished installing the bones of an old drive-in movie screen in an area near the shop (at right above), and was in the midst of reassembling a four banger chute contraption that was formerly used to fill trucks with cotton seed. That's one of the chute collars at left, about 8 or 10 feet tall for your reference.
I soon let Billy get back to his chipping and set off on a long, meandering tour of the Mind Field.
I enjoyed discovering the new elements and structures that Billy had added since my last visit and spent some time renewing the deep deep admiration I have for what Billy is making and doing. I've seen a great many art environments made by a wide assortment of individuals, but there is happily no other like Billy Tripp and his Mind Field.
As I left, I saw Billy hunched over a pile of rusty beams and everything felt right with the world. I was so glad I'd simply found Billy in progress rather than declining in output or finished altogether. I should have known it would take a force far more powerful than boredom to deter Billy Tripp from building.
I stopped on my way out of town to visit the other friend I'd made in Brownsville previously, Doris Wells. I felt the same relief I had at Billy's - pleasure at seeing things progress but not disappear. I sat and talked Doris's ear off for nearly an hour, full of gratitude that there are people out there as open and warm and generous as Doris and her husband Jerry. They even invited me to stay the night at their place! Can you imagine offering a place to stay to someone who once stopped by to buy purple hull peas and who has now returned six years later for peaches? Amazing! It sure goes a long way toward healing my constant frustration with humans.
I bid the Wellses a fond farewell and scurried out to the interstate and on to my next budget bower, the Motel 6 Brownsville Bells. Sounds sort of like a flower strewn horse pasture, doesn't it? When I stopped for gas, I noticed that the setting sun had edged the clouds in gold. Despite the Exxon sign it was glorious to witness the beauty of it all on this, the official first day of my new journey.