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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Down the Great River Road (aka the Blues Highway) - Memphis and Cairo IL

I have been away from my blog for a few days. I often forget about the damn thing for a while, then try to resurrect it. Since I am working from my own leaky memory, I can forget what I was going to say if I wait too long. Since Memphis is such a rockin' place, I wanted to finish up the write up of my spring road trip.
We left New Madrid, exited the Missouri "boot heel" and crossed into Arkansas. We bumbled down the road until we hit Memphis. I have several impressions of this terrific river city:

  • The Peabody Hotel (see picture of the roof-top sign above) is beyond fabulous. We hung out in the lobby to see the famous "duck march" from the fountain to the elevators (the ducks quit for the day at 5PM and head to the roof to their penthouse residence). Next time I go to Memphis, I am going to stay at the Peabody.

  • This is no place for a vegan. Memphis BBQ is a daily staple, and I did not see any restaurants offering barbecued tofu. I highly recommend Charlie Vergos' Rendevous in downtown Memphis, a rambling basement-level establishment that opened in 1948. Charlie Vergos died about a year ago at the age of 84; he was a huge civic booster in Memphis. The dry-rubbed ribs at the Rendevous are terrific and the brisket is even better. Everyone hits the Rendevous eventually - Bill Clinton, George Bush, Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Bill Cosby, Justin Timberlake, etc. etc.

  • Memphis has one of the best vintage surface rail systems in America - at least as beautiful as the St. Charles line in New Orleans. The trolley cars are meticulously restored and totally vintage - each one is a different size, shape and color. The old trolley cars were originally in service in the U.S., Australia and Portugal. Memphis dismantled its trolley system in the 1940's; the system was relaunched in 1993. The trolleys run down Main Street, which is full of trendy bars, restaurants and hotels. This downtown section of Memphis used to be pretty shabby.

  • Memphis has a terrific zoo. It was named the best zoo in the U.S. by The exhibits all look brand new, and the place is huge. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to hang out and stare at the giant pandas, up close. Those suckers eat a helluva lot of bamboo, yo.

  • Beale Street is very cool, but too dang loud. I love blues and funk music, and some of the bands I heard in the Beale Street bars were very talented. All of them had the volume knob cranked to "11." Since all the bars have their doors wide open, the sound pours into the street, creating a sonic flood that is painful to hear.

  • Confederate Park was pretty creepy. The statue of Jefferson Davis (a traitor to the United States, in my opinion) and the general concept behind the park seemed at odds with modern Memphis. Call me a liberal, but I think that the Confederates and the Nazis had pretty similar views of the world - racism and facism are not values to be celebrated via statues and parks.
  • We spent an extra day in Memphis, then we had to hot-foot it back to Chicago. We did visit Cairo IL on the way home. Cairo is the birthplace of George "Harmonica" Smith, one of my musical heroes (he was a an awesome and innovative blues harmonica player and vocalist who eventually moved to Los Angeles). I could find no reference to George in the town, and Cairo was not looking very prosperous. The place had an air of faded glory; historic buildings have sunk into disrepair. The folks on the street look like they are just getting by. We left the place feeling a bit low.

    And that is it - we raced north on the interstate to get home in time for dinner. Road trips rock.

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Down the Great River Road (aka The Blues Highway) - Missouri

    We crossed the border from Iowa into Missouri and I noticed some changes. Local accents lost some of the twang and picked up a bit of drawl. Preferred baseball headgear shifted from Chicago Cubs to St. Louis Cardinals. U.S. 61 was quite lovely in certain stretches of Missouri; we were often running right next to the Mississippi. And unusual roadside attractions did appear occassionally. The "Chopper War Memorial" is one such roadside attraction (see cell phone picture above). We passed through a very small town, and on our left was a late-1960's retired US Army helicopter on a strange pedestal. This old bird was the centerpiece of a lonely memorial to local service people that died in America's wars. We stopped and paid our respects; we were alone. There are a number war memorials like this along U.S.61 - generally neat and tidy, but devoid of visitors.

    We pulled off the highway in Hannibal MO. Hannibal is best known as the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huclkeberry Finn were set in and around Hannibal; there are several buildings that have been preserved as tourist sites - Becky Thatcher's house, the law offices of Mark Twain's father, etc. The downtown is jammed with Mark Twain-themed stores and restaurants. Hannibal prospers from all of the tourist revenue. The town is neat, but the tourist stuff gets a bit repetitive and tiresome. Hannibal had some other semi-famous residents, including Cliff Edwards, the voice on Jiminy Cricket in all the Disney Pinocchio cartoons.

    From Hannibal, we barreled south to St. Louis where we spent the night. We went to the top of the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi (nice view, but not a good trip for claustrophobic folks). The downtown of St. Louis was deserted in the middle of a work day. According to the 2010 census, St. Louis lost over 8% of its population over the past 10 years. It is still a lovely city, but it feels vacant. We had lunch at Charlie Gitto's Downtown, a wonderful Italian place in an old building near Busch Stadium. This is a classic baseball hangout - lots of pictures of the local Cardinal heroes, televisions set to the game, and all the rest.

    We left St. Louis and pointed ourselves south again on the Great River Road. We came to New Madrid (pronouned "new MAD -rid"), which is down in Missouri's "boot heel." There is a large loop in the river near New Madrid - usually called the "Kentucky Bend." The river runs north, then loops back down south. This is the section of the Mississippi that allegedly flowed backwards due to the impact of the great New Madrid earthquakes of late 1811-early 1812; those gigantic quakes rang church bells in Richmond VA. If a similar earthquake were to happen today on the New Madrid fault, Memphis would be trashed. We decided to pull off the highway and go into the town.

    New Madrid's Main Street was the commercial center of the town. I use the past tense because the little downtown strip consists mainly of vacant storefronts now. There are no restaurants and few functioning retail stores. We stopped in at the "General Store" (really a convenience market) and chatted with the folks hanging around. I asked them what happened to the downtown businesses. A sad-eyed guy in coveralls said one word - "WalMart." New Madrid may have lost its struggle. We stopped in at the local museum, which had a surprisingly good collection of artifacts. We were the only visitors. Perhaps the town does better in the summer months.

    We got back in the car and rolled south to Memphis - will tell that story tomorrow....

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Down the Great River Road (aka the Blues Highway) - Quad Cities and Iowa

    I loaded up the Volvo wagon with two teenagers, my lovely wife and the ratdog for an old-fashioned road trip vacation. We headed west from Chicago to the Quad Cities (Moline IL, Rock Island IL, Davenport IA and Bettendorf IA). These four towns hug both banks of the Mississippi. Our plan was to pick up Highway 61 in Iowa and head south. US 61 is called "The Great River Road" since it hugs the Mississippi for much of its length. It is also called "The Blues Highway" since it was the path out of the Mississippi Delta region travelled by the many blues musicians that headed north to Chicago after World War II. US 61 has been eclipsed by the major interstates nearby. The traffic levels on the historic road have dropped. It is a 2-lane highway in some stretches. It was perfect.

    We spent our first night in Moline IL, home of Deere & Company (aka John Deere). Deere's profits doubled in the first quarter of 2011 (compared to the first quarter of 2010). Big Green made about $514MM (which is indeed Big Green). Lots of folks around the world want to buy a new Deere tractor, I guess. The farm economy is doing pretty well due to the spike in crop prices. Our pain is Deere's gain. Moline seems to be booming along with Deere & Co.; the tractor maker is the largest employer in the Quad Cities.

    We stayed at the Stoney Creek Inn, located on the Illinois side of the mighty Mississippi. The hotel is owned by a regional chain that plays up the "Northwoods" motif - stone fireplaces, old wooden signs, moose heads, etc. The most remarkable part of the stay was the presence of the LPA Convention ("LPA" stands for "Little People's Association"). The hotel was full of dwarves and the people who love them. They were a fine group of folks, although dwarves like to party late into the evening, I learned. It was not a good place to sleep.

    We also hit Davenport IA, a lovely town with a great art museum on the banks for the Mississippi (the Figge Art Museum, a sizable institution with a surprisingly large permanent collection of work by Mexican, Haitian and Midwestern artists). Unfortunately, the Figge is closed on Sunday so we could only admire the beautiful building, which was completed in August 2005. Davenport is also the home of the late, great Bix Beiderbecke. Along with Louis Armstrong, Bix transformed the role of the trumpet in popular/jazz music in the 1920's. Bix was a huge alcholic and died of the disease at the ripe old age of 28. The City of Davenport celebrates this native son every year with the Bix Biederbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.

    We hit the local Quad City Botanical Center (where it was Pirate Day - I don't know why the pirates were being celebrated in a huge greenhouse next to the Mississippi River). After that odd experience, we headed south on US 61 to Burlington IA - home of the Lady Liberty facsimile pictured above. Burlington is also the home of Snake Alley, allegedly the "crookedest" street in the world (it looks like a smaller version of Lombard Street in San Francisco). There are some lovely old churches in Burlington (some are available for sale if you have a yearning to own a 19th century house of worship).

    We continued down the Great River Road into Missouri.......I will tell that story tomorrow.