Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fredericksburg and Beyond (by Vicki)

Roger is getting behind on his blogging so I volunteered to do this one. We were faced with grey weather all week so despite the cloud cover we decided to take a scenic drive just to get a feel for the Texas Hill Country. I had read a fair amount about it so I was curious. We headed up US 281 and then Texas hwy 46 from our campground near San Antonio.

After almost an hour Roger suggested we try a more scenic route to Fredericksburg. So we turned left on to a county road. We were in for a treat. It was a tortuous little road that paralleled a small river. There was hardly another car on the road. The area reminded me of California’s middle coast, an area our whole extended family loves to frequent. However, the Hill Country is greener and the vegetation
19th century jailhouse
a little more dense. Ever since we entered Minnesota we have seen mostly tall woods or lush green grass on either side of the roads. Now there was less vegetation but it was still greener than California most of the year. It looked kind of like Southern California a month after the “rainy season” was over. For those of you who don’t know Southern California, the rainy season is the third week in February. Well, most if it anyway. There are many oak trees, but like those in California, they are much shorter that those up north or east of here. Another difference is that in Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Mississippi, they are compulsive about keeping the grass along the highways mowed. Not in Texas. The grass beside the road was about a foot and a half tall and turning yellow and brown with the change of season.

Town if white limestone
Fredericksburg is a lovely little tourist town, founded in 1846 by German immigrants. It doesn’t look like the villages we saw in Germany. It looks much more like you would expect from an old west town, except, not made of wood. Most of the buildings are made of limestone blocks. Many of the buildings had Victorian facades which initially seemed discordant with the white limestone. After a while we realized it gave the town its own unique charm. What remains of its German immigrant ancestry are German street names and places and German food served in many of the local restaurants. Some of the immigrant families even still speak an old German dialect around
Fredericksburg Brewing Co.
town, as Roger noticed walking the downtown streets. We learned recently that many of the German immigrant families left the area during Prohibition, at least the beer making ones did.
After eating lunch and drinking the award winning Enchanted Rock amber beer at the Fredericksburg Brewery, we set out for a scenic drive south and then back to our campground in Schertz. The Hill Country is touted to be like the hills of Tuscany. I’ve never been to Tuscany so I can only compare it to California. Our return drive was even more lovely than our drive up to Fredericksburg. We went south to KerrvilleIt and then down a steep canyon road to Medina. This road turned out to have the best display of fall colors that we have seen so far.
Leaves changing in Texas
However, don’t expect a lot of pictures because the weather was so grey. Some parts of the road reminded me of driving around Fallbrook, CA. Other parts were like Santa Ynez, except there weren’t so many dying Oak trees in the Hill Country.
There is much more to see and do in the Hill Country (e.g. the LBJ ranch and library) and even in Fredericksburg, the home of Admiral Nimitz of WWII fame. This trip was just to whet our appetites for a return trip. Most of our time here we will be concentrating on San Antonio.

Fredericksburg German church.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Budget (by Vicki)

I just thought I would write on a couple of topics that Roger isn’t as interested in.  The first is Budgets.  We put ourselves on a budget for the first time in about 15 years.  For those last few years we were both busy physicians bringing in much more than we spent but we never had much free time.  This is what I think lead to our burn out with medicine.  It can demand all of you and we were trained long ago to give it.

Most discussions regarding full timing have found that it costs about the same to full time as it did living in a house.  We are the exception but that is because of our particular situation, living in a 6 bedroom house on 0.8 acres with a pool.  We worked too many hours so we needed a personal assistant to handle what we never had time to do.  We had a housekeeper, dog groomer, pool man, gardener, handy man, hairdresser, etc.  We still had a house payment.  We are now spending $3000 - $4000 less per month.

Many of the budgets posted on the internet are from people who must be quite thrifty in what they spend.  I am fascinated at how ingenious some RV’ers are at managing their money and have picked up some of their ideas.  I love the topic of RVing on a Budget on the Escapees Forum, rvnetwork.com.  Assuming we do get locum tenens positions for 3 months this winter we do not need to be that thrifty, however the recent recession where the value of some of our investments dropped precipitously has made us think twice about future spending.  Who knows if we will have enough money to cover the rest of our lives?  It depends on how long we live, how many more recessions occur, how much money we make doing temporary work, whether we develop serious health problems and how much our health care costs.  Currently health insurance is our greatest expense at $1500/mo. on COBRA.  COBRA ends at the end of November and then we have to go bare during December due to pre-existing medical problems.  Mine is migraines.  As a physician I certainly didn’t know that migraines qualify as a pre-existing medical condition.  Hypertension doesn’t, so I could have had my doctor just write that as the diagnosis for one of my medications.  Oh well, too late now.

The other thing related to the health budget is the cost of medications.  Our current health insurance covers medications with a copay.  However the only way we can get medications at 3 month intervals is through their pharmacy through the mail.  That doesn’t work well for us so we joined the Walgreens generic prescription benefit plan and pick the medications up every 3 months where ever we happen to be.  They have honored prescription from Roger everywhere we have tried so far.  We paid about $220 last month for 3 months worth of medications, which was about the same as the copays back when we were getting our prescriptions "paid for" by the insurance.

Back to the budget, our next biggest expense is campground fees.  Our budget calls for spending $25/night.  However, this has been very hard to achieve.  We discovered we don’t care much for boondocking (dry camping with no hookups).  One has to be very careful about conserving water.  I can’t do a load of laundry.  I need to use wipes rather than water to wash my hands.  Doing it for one night is OK, but I would just rather have water and electricity, and if we are staying a week, sewer hookups.  One way to reduce costs is to go to campgrounds that have weekly rates.  We stayed for a week at a campground near San Antonio for approximately $33/night, rather than the $42 one day rate.  Unfortunately the rates near big cities and in tourist areas are quite high.  The rate near Rapid City, SD increased by about $10/day this past summer compared to what we were paying when we stayed there in the fall of 2012.  This increase and more has occurred across the country, especially during the summer so we weren’t able to meet our budget of $25/night.  $30/night is probably a more reasonable goal.  Another way we decrease our campground fees is to stay in Escapees campgrounds.  They are somewhat out of the way, which we like because we are tired of being citified (traffic, noise, etc.).  Escapees is the third largest RV club in the country and has its own set of campgrounds, mostly in the southern part of the country with 1 in Oregon and 1 in Washington.  Their rates are generally just under $20/night.  They also offer discounts at parks throughout the country. 

There is a tendency for those RV’ers who have been full timers for, say, longer than 2 or 3 years, to stay more than a week or two as they travel.  Monthly rates are even better than weekly rates.  But we are in our first year so we still like to get out and travel.  That is referred to as "hitch itch".  The recruiting company shoulp pay our camping fees if we are able to get a locum tenens position for 3 months.  That will help us stay within our budget.

The next big item is fuel costs.  We are very fortunate this year because fuel costs have fallen as we travelled east and now south.  We started in California at $3.89/gallon and recently paid $2.89 in Texas.  We do most of our site seeing in the Subaru Forester. If I am driving the Forester, I drive at 50 to 60 mph and get about 27 miles/gallon.  Roger just hasn’t completely slowed down in retirement and he drives at about 62 mph.  As mentioned, I follow the Escapees forum and multiple discussions suggest that the best mileage is obtained between 55 to 60 mph.  We haven’t calculated our mpg on the RV, I guess because we don’t want to know.  Discussions on the Forum suggest mpg at the 7-8 range.  Roger says we spent $405 on gasoline last month.  We do follow the recommendation to travel about 200 miles at a time.  Then we’re supposed to stay a week, but I realized that we wouldn’t make it back to California by December if we traveled that slowly so we are staying about 3 nights each place at an Escapees park.

Next is food costs.  We aren’t very good at that.  In fact it belongs above fuel because we eat out a lot, probably about 4-5 times a week for either lunch or dinner.  We also tend to buy items that have some processing such as already made salad, cut up vegetables for soups, etc.  We do now have a food card for every major market chain in the parts of the country we have traveled.  That saves some money.  We no longer have a Costco card because we can’t buy anything in bulk as there is no room to store it and we don’t need any excess weight to carry.  That eats up the mpg.  Roger says we spent $395 on groceries last month and $934 eating out.

The next biggest expense is to Verizon for cell and internet service.  We were spending about $300/month for 4 cell phones and 12gigabytes of data per month.  We use the campground’s wifi whenever we can, but that is often very limited.  We found that just wasn’t enough so we increased the gigabytes to 20 per month and will be spending about $343/month.  The biggest use of the net is streaming video, which we can’t do much of, but there are times such as watching certain YouTube videos and occasional TV shows.

Roger and I had a lot of clothes so we haven’t needed any in the last 6 months.  We have clothes stored in SD so I don’t think we will need much in the next 6 months.  We did find that we had to buy shoes.  For some reason our feet are just bigger and some of our shoes didn’t fit anymore.  I know that when we lived in Hawaii with greater humidity our shoe size was larger so maybe that explains the change.

We aren’t spending much on sundries because I used to buy at Costco.  We had so much left over, like deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and hairspray.  We took that with us.  We spent $646 on entertainment last month.  It’s not what you think.  We didn’t sign up for satellite TV or radio even though we are “wired” for both.  We aren’t watching any TV.  We do occasionally listen to our recorded music on CDs.  The money was for museum fees, an annual national parks pass, state park entrance fees, the Grand Ole Opry, etc.  It’s what we do in retirement.  We mostly travel and site see.  We probably buy about $200/mo. from Amazon.

So now back to the $934 spent on eating out.  I’ve decided that we qualify as foodies.  I know that Roger’s brother and wife are foodies but I hadn’t realized that we now also qualify.  If you Google “foodie” you come up with multiple similar definitions such as, “a person with a particular interest in food; a gourmet.” or Wikipedia says “Foodies are a distinct hobbyist group. Typical foodie interests and activities include the food industry, wineries and wine tasting, breweries and beer sampling, food science, following restaurant openings and closings and occasionally reopenings, food distribution, food fads, health and nutrition, cooking classes, culinary tourism, and restaurant management. A foodie might develop a particular interest in a specific item, such as the best egg cream or burrito…” 
Roger and I like to try the local microbreweries when we travel.  We find microbreweries have beer that tastes similar to the wonderful beer we drank when we were in Germany.  Roger loves smoking meats so we have been sampling the local fare in places we are traveling.  We recently sampled what Trip Advisor indicated was the best barbecue in San Antonio.  We also love Mexican food but I finally got Roger to understand that we are only safe trying it in the Southwest.  He learned that the hard way when we tried a Mexican restaurant in Kentucky.  We did find a good restaurant in Spearfish, SD.  We had good Mexican food in Livingston, TX, as expected.  When we eat out it is to sample the local food.  We now have eaten fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, crawfish, catfish, whitefish, Mississippi tamales, Texas tamales, beer cheese, Kentucky Bourbon, Mint Julips, Scotch Eggs, mustard greens, etc.  Often we have to try these more than once to see how they differ in different places.  So let us know if you agree that we are foodies.  Oh, and we also like to try Triple D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) restaurants and those that Alton Brown found on his motorcycle trips.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


For years, everything I knew about Natchez I learned from James Garner.

    Natchez to New Orleans
    Livin' on jacks and queens
    Maverick is a legend of the West

The Rosalee Mansion
That's it, just a name in a TV Western theme song. I'm not sure I could have even told you what state it was in. I probably would have guessed Texas or Colorado, you know, some place out in the wild West. After all, the show was a western and the name sounds vaguely Mexicanish. (It's not. It was named after the local Indians by Frenchmen, who founded the town in the 18th century.)  Well, it turns out Natchez is in Mississippi. Who knew? In the early days of the Mississippi River trade it was an important landing point for goods coming down the river. The Delta area around Natchez was also where the cotton agricultural boom started. The stuff would not grow farther east until the farmers in southern Mississippi created some hybrids that were more tolerant. Then South Carolina and Alabama and Georgia became the cotton Kings. In the meantime, cotton grown with slave labor made many a fortune in the Delta and a lot of those wealthy planters chose to have
St. Mary's Basilica
managers work their slaves while they built their primary residences in Natchez. In the early 19th century Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. And that's back when a million bucks was real money.

Early on in the Civil War, after Adm. Farragut took New Orleans, the city fathers in Natchez had the good sense to surrender without a fight, so many of those old mansions remain intact. People still live in a lot of them. Having seen our share of old houses in the last few months, we chose to just admire them from the outside. The city also has a very nice former Cathedral. After over 150 years of service, St. Mary's Basilica got demoted when the diocese put up a new Cathedral in Jackson in 1977.

The Natchez Trace - 444 miles of this.
Natchez is the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace, a trail that was originally blazed by bison traveling north to the salt licks in Tennessee. The Indians followed the buffalo trails and the Europeans followed the Indians and by the early 19th century the trail had been widened out into a wagon track and was the primary north-south road up the Mississippi (mostly north.. all you had to do was float a few logs to get south). After the invention of the steamboat made upstream river travel more practical, the Natchez trace became much less used and fell into disrepair except for short stretches that still functioned as local roads. One of the projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s was to build a parkway that more or less follows the course of the old Natchez Trace for 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville. It is a limited access road with no commercial traffic allowed and the speed limit is only 50 miles an hour the whole way. We had originally intended to drive the whole thing but after talking to some people who had actually done it, we decided it might get boring after the first 100 or 200 miles, so we took the US Highway 61 instead. Then from Natchez, we drove the parkway back north a ways just to get a feel for it.

Emerald Mound
The road is mostly forested but not nearly as dense and claustrophobic as the Edge of the Wilderness Road we talked about back in Minnesota. Periodically there are pullouts to see various creeks and bayous and other local sites. For example, we walked around the Emerald Mound, an old Indian temple site that now looks mostly like a big grassy hill. After a number of stops and about 70 miles of road, we turned around and went back to Natchez.

Old Country Store
About 30 miles north of Natchez on Highway 61 is the tiny town of Lorman. By tiny I mean the visible extent of the town is only about four or five buildings. But one of those buildings is the Lorman Old Country Store which isn't really a general store anymore, it is a restaurant. Alton Brown visited the Old Country Store while filming "Feasting on Asphalt" several years ago and declared that they made, you guessed it, the best fried chicken on the planet. According to Alton "Whatever the voodoo is, that makes that chicken the way it is, I don't possess. It was like Colonel Sanders pole dancing. There was something real sexy going on with that chicken. I don't want to have any more chicken. I'm gonna have that chicken or no chicken at all, no fried chicken at all."

Dining room with the old store shelves still stocked
The restaurant is owned and operated by a gentleman named Arthur Davis who insists that everyone call him Mister D. The restaurant is actually an all-you-can-eat buffet. In addition to the fried chicken, which he makes daily by popular demand, there will also be, on any given day, a variety of other meats, side dishes and salads. I don't know that Mister D does all of the cooking but he is most certainly personally in charge of the kitchen. The day we were there he had ribs and sausages and some kind of chicken in a sauce that I bypassed in favor
Meet Mister D
of the fried stuff. In addition to managing all the food, Mister D strolls through the dining room about every 10 min. telling people to eat as much as they want. "Now yall bring yuh best appetite and don' feel sorry for the cook."  He also apparently frequently sings about biscuits but we did not get serenaded while we were there. The Lorman Old Country Store is open from 10 AM to 5 PM seven days per week. If you are anywhere within 100 miles of this place, make it a point to have a meal there and meet Mister D. I guarantee you will not regret it. Just be careful not to blink or you'll miss the whole town.

So this is now the fourth place that we have had "the best fried chicken on the planet". Which is really the best? Well, for my money it would be Gus's fried chicken in Memphis because they're chicken has just a touch of cayenne kick to it, but Mr. D would certainly run a very close second and at the Old Country Store I got spare ribs and some really superior coleslaw and potato salad as well, which puts them pretty much neck and neck. You won't go wrong either way.
Don't feel sorry for the cook.

Remains of the Windsor mansion
After we shook hands and parted from Mister D, we drove out and visited the ruins of the old Windsor mansion. This was a huge plantation house that survived the Civil War only to be reduced to ashes fifteen years later due to the careless disposal of a cigar. You see, it's true. Smoking is bad for you. Like many of the mansions of that era, the house had Corinthian columns but instead of just the front façade, they went all the way around the house supporting a completely circumferential balcony. Instead of making faux columns of wood, they made the columns out of brick and then covered them with plaster, the result being that after the rest of the house was gone, the columns remained giving the impression that you are visiting the ruins of an old Greek temple. The columns sit basically out in the middle of nowhere and it frankly astonishes me that they haven't suffered more vandalism over the past hundred years. They make for a pleasant 15 min. stroll and can give you some interesting photographs.

On the way out to the ruins we went through a fair amount of landscape that looks like this. Trees and bushes and fences all covered with what looks like ivy. This is kudzu, the shrub that ate the South. Throughout much of the southeastern United States this plant has been gradually taking over for 100 years. In ideal conditions, it can grow several centimeters a day and just covers everything. Competing plants eventually die for lack of sunlight. I first heard about kudzu when I was in college and knew that it was imported from Asia. What I did not know is that it was intentionally planted all over the South to help with soil conservation. Much of the current problem stems from tens of thousands of acres planted by Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. They didn't get everything right.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Entering the Military Park
It was obvious to both sides early on in the Civil War that control of the Mississippi River was going to be essential. And controlling the Mississippi River largely meant controlling New Orleans and Vicksburg. The union was able to send the Navy in to take New Orleans in 1861 but Vicksburg was a somewhat tougher nut to crack. Several frontal assaults failed as the city was located at the top of several sets of bluffs and held superior position against any attackers. A hairpin turn in the Mississippi River right in front of the city gave the Confederate artillery lots of time to site in on any river traffic so the cannons on the heights could pretty easily blow apart any ships coming up or down the river. This problem was lessened by the production of ironclad gunboats specifically designed for river warfare. Then, in late 1862, the task of taking Vicksburg was given to a fiery young general named Ulysses S Grant.

The campaign for Vicksburg took over six months and is much too long a story to go through here, but the short (and not particularly accurate) version is that after throwing his troops against the Vicksburg fortifications
US Grant
a few times to no avail, Grant finally surrounded the city, cut off all of its supply lines and waited them out. The siege lasted for 47 days with daily pounding of the city from both gunboats and land-based artillery platforms. Grant was losing patience and had prepared for another all-out assault on July 6, but on July 4 Confederate Gen. Pemberton, realizing that no help was going to be forthcoming and with the city's population reduced to bidding for rats to put in the dinner pot, preempted Grant's attack and surrendered. On the previous day, Robert E Lee had suffered a significant setback in a little Pennsylvania town known as Gettysburg. The rest of the war would just be mop up operations.

The Vicksburg Battlefield National Military Park is a 6 mile arc around the city where the two armies faced each other for six weeks. Civil War units were recruited locally from specific states and counties and each little patch of ground around Vicksburg was the responsibility of a specific unit from a specific area. After the war, every town in Indiana and Ohio and Illinois had to put up a monument to the bravery of their local boys. States put up bigger monuments and many individual families paid to plant some marble for their individual fallen heros. The result was that at one time there were over 1800 stone monuments at Vicksburg. Over the years, about a quarter of them have disappeared through theft, neglect and vandalism leaving around 1300 at this stage. That is a lot of monuments. When you take the driving tour, they seem pretty cool for the first couple miles. They become less interesting as you proceed and by the end of the tour you never want to see another piece of marble as long as you live. In between the monuments there is a lot of woodland and you can imagine soldiers crouching behind trees taking potshots at each other. But the fact is that every tree within a 10 mile radius had been stripped to make fortifications and to burn for fuel. In 1863 the two armies were facing each other across a completely barren wasteland.

In December of 1862, one of the Union's ironclad gunboats, the USS Cairo, patrolling the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg struck a mine and settled to the bottom where it was eventually covered in silt and thereby preserved. After a diligent search with metal detectors, the gunboat was rediscovered in 1956.
Remains of the USS Cairo
The plan was to raise the ship intact however the wooden hull was so soft that the cables they were trying to lift it with cut through the wood and the ship eventually had to be recovered in three sections. These were carefully restored and in the 1970s transported to the Vicksburg Military Park where the remains of the Cairo are currently displayed under a tensioned fabric covering to try and protect it from the miserable southern weather. During the recovery, they were able to salvage a (excuse the expression) boatload of artifacts, many of which are displayed in the associated USS Cairo Museum. The armor plating and cannon are very well preserved, the wooden parts of the structure less so and significantly deteriorating after being exposed for 40 years. It is certainly one of the most interesting parts of visiting the park.
A boatload of artifacts
While in Vicksburg we took the opportunity to eat at the world-famous Walnut Hills Restaurant (you know that they are world-famous because they tell you so right on their website) where they make the best fried chicken on the planet. This is actually the third place that we have eaten the best fried chicken on the planet. The first, you will recall, was at the Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown Kentucky. In Memphis we ate at Gus's World-Famous Fried Chicken on Front Street which is also reputed to have the world's best. It was quite a bit spicier than the Bardstown chicken and I really liked it. Gus's is a real dive where they only do one thing, but they do it really well. If you don't want fried chicken, you gotta find another place to eat.

On the porch of the Walnut Hills Restaurant
The Walnut Hills restaurant is quite a bit more upscale. It is situated in a 100-year-old house in the downtown area where you sit at a nice table with a white tablecloth and choose from a relatively extensive menu. But if you are just passing through and are only going to eat there once, forget the menu, have the fried chicken. It is not as hot as Gus's but is well seasoned, juicy and delicious. The restaurant is supposed to be very busy in the evenings but we happened to be there in the midafternoon and essentially had the place to ourselves. If you're ever in Vicksburg, don't miss it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mud Island

Just along the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River at Memphis is Mud Island, one of the many small islands that have traditionally formed and then disappeared as the Mississippi River erodes its banks and changes its shape over the decades. Mud Island has become somewhat more permanent in the last half of the 20th century through efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers in their attempts to control the river for commerce,  providing a more or less stable platform for a community park and civic area. A monorail system takes you from the west end of Beale Street across a small channel to the island upon which is located the Mississippi River Museum.

This is a rather large Museum covering two floors telling the story of the river from pre-Columbian times up until the modern era. The first Europeans to see the Mississippi River were in the expedition of Hernandez De Soto in 1541. He was so excited at the prospect that he died right on the spot. Well, actually he died of a tropical fever. In order to make it easier to deal with the locals, Hernandez had kind of let on that he was a god and the remaining members of his party had some difficulty figuring out how to explain his inconvenient demise to the natives. Remembering what happened to Sean Connery in "The Man Who Would Be King", they decided the best course was to wrap his body up in a blanket with a bunch of rocks and sink it in the Mississippi in the middle of the night when nobody was looking. Then they made up some excuse and hot footed it back to Mexico, but not before claiming the river and all of its tributaries in the name of Spain.

As Mark Twain pointed out in "Life on the Mississippi", the significance of a major waterway in the middle of the North American continent so impressed the Europeans that nobody bothered to go peek at it again for well over 100 years. Finally Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette led an expedition from the western Great Lakes region which stumbled onto the Mississippi River again in 1673 . They explored the river  in canoes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico, desperately hoping that it would lead them to the Pacific Ocean but, alas, such was not to be the case. While the French explorers were disappointed that they had not found the elusive Northwest passage, free land is free land and, figuring the Spanish claim had long since exceded the statute of limitations, they turned around and claimed the whole area for France. The French and the Spanish wrangled over the river for 100 years without either side ever actually doing much with it. The only people that actually settled along the river were Americans. By the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon was gearing up to take over Europe and needed funds way more urgently than some backwater bayou in the Americas, so after once again winning the Louisiana territory back from Spain in 1800, he turned around in 1803 and offered the whole kebab to Thomas Jefferson for the bargain sale price of three cents per acre. Jefferson accepted, although the only part he was really interested in was New Orleans.  The rest was just gravey, though it ended up being the smartest real estate deal since the Dutch bought Manhatten.

Raft, flat bottom and keel boat
If you'll recall, the Americans had finally started moving west of the Appalachian Mountains at about this time and were busy growing crops and wiping out the Buffalo and inventing Bourbon and whatnot and wanted to get their goods out to exchange them for hard cash along the Eastern seaboard. Carting everything by pack mule back over the Appalachians wasn't that appealing but the Mississippi River allowed them to transport their goods downstream to New Orleans and then back up to the eastern cities by boat. Initially this was done on rafts and barges. They would build these along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, load them up with goods and float them down to the Gulf where they would sell the goods, break up the rafts and sell the lumbar and then walk back north along the Natchez trace. Finally, the cost of throwing away the boats got to be prohibitive and they begin using keelboats which could be turned around and hauled back upriver to be reused. Pushing or pulling a keelboat upstream for 1000 miles was no piece of cake, so the boatmen were happy when Robert Fulton solved the problem by inventing the steamboat and creating work for Mark Twain.

The museum devotes a fair amount of space to paddlewheel steamboats as the iconic representation of Mississippi history. There are a lot of small models and a full-size mockup of the front half of a steamer along with a full-size mockup of Mark Twain himself, mostly for atmosphere. This brings
Ironclad gunboat
you to the Civil War era when the union managed to control the River using ironclad steam powered gunboats which they also had a full-size replica of. This being Memphis, they moved directly from the Civil War to the birth of the Mississippi blues in the early 1900s. No one really cares what happened in Mississippi between 1865 and 1910 anyway. The museum tour ends with a tiny segment covering modern-day river traffic just for completeness sake. Overall we found the museum interesting and reasonably priced and if you're going to spend a few days in Memphis, one of them should probably be spent here.

The River Walk from the second floor of the museum
Outside the museum running up and down the rest of Mud Island is the Mississippi River Walk. This is essentially a relief map, a 2112:1 scale model of  the Lower Mississippi River, covering 1,000 miles from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans. It's hard to make out much detail about the River but it's a great place for kids to jump back and forth across the Mississippi for an afternoon. Strolling the River Walk park we also enjoyed the view of one of the few remaining paddlewheel boats taking tourists up the river. Not a steam vessel, they've all been converted to diesel engines which have significantly less tendency to blow up unexpectedly. We took a dinner cruise on one of these boats but didn't think it through very well. It's gotten so late in the year that the whole cruise was in the dark. But the dinner was pretty good and, what the heck, here's a picture of Memphis in the dark.
Memphis in the dark
Balcony of the Lorraine Motel
While we were in Memphis, we also went through the National Civil Rights Museum which is spread out in several buildings around the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. We have been through a lot of museums in the last few months but there is usually a comfortable buffer of one or two centuries shielding us from the implications of our history. It's an odd feeling going through a Museum dedicated to events that took place during your own lifetime. I realize there are still racial issues in this country but it's astonishing to realize how things have changed since I was in high school.  I wonder if Dr. King would be more impressed with how far we have come or with how far we have yet to go?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making the Music

In Memphis we stayed at the Tom Sawyer RV Park which is on the Arkansas side in West Memphis and sits right on the Mississippi. I mean Right On. This is the view out our windshield. That water in front of you is the Mississippi River, about a half-mile across at this point. We were supposed to have a back-in camp site in the woods a couple of hundred yards away from the river, but when Vicki signed in she could not control herself and upgraded us to a riverfront slot for an extra five bucks a day. It was nice. Barge traffic moseys past at a leisurely pace at all hours of the day and night. Generally the barges are spaced out at about 20-30 min. intervals but occasionally we would have them pass each other going opposite directions just outside our front window. We would take our chairs down to the river bank and read and relax in the evenings with the puppies, who seemed to enjoy it though I doubt it had the same aesthetic effect on them as it did on us.
Schnoodles lazily lounging at the river's edge.
Beale Street
Our first day in town we wandered down to Beale Street, which is the Memphis equivalent of Broadway in Nashville. But in Memphis, the musical style is the southern blues. Instead of honky-tonk bars, they have blues bars, cafés and restaurants and the music doesn't usually start until about 6 PM. We wandered around the area to get a feel for the place but the truth is, neither of us is particularly enthralled with southern blues. I can appreciate Beale Street from a music history standpoint but as far as actually going in and listening, neither of us was that interested.

There was something nearby, however, that I was quite interested in. A large Gibson guitar factory sits just a block over from Beale Street. Gibson currently has five or six guitar factories scattered around the country. The big acoustic dreadnought style guitars are all made in Montana. What they make in Memphis are hollow body and semi-solid body electric guitars. The solid body electrics, like the standard Les Pauls, are made at several sites, the main one being in Nashville. But the Memphis factory is the only one you can get a tour of so I took what I could get.

No photographs are allowed inside the factory. In fact, they make you put your camera in an opaque plastic bag and if you take it out they will escort you off the premises. I couldn't really understand this given that they not only show you the entire process but explain it in great detail and will happily answer any questions you may have about how the guitars are made, so it can hardly be a proprietary information issue. Maybe it is an issue of privacy for their workers, I don't know. In any event, we saw the complete assembly line from the arrival of the wood at the factory door to the polishing and testing of the completed instruments at the far end of the line. There is no robotic equipment involved, nor a mechanized assembly-line like you would see an auto plant. The guitars are hand carried from station to station and the most interesting thing about the whole process is what a huge percentage of it is still done free hand by people who simply know what they are doing. The tour takes about an hour but making a guitar takes 2-3 weeks. The factory covers about 1.5-2 acres and looked like it had 50 or 60 people working which resulted in a production rate of about 50-60 guitars a day.

The last station in the production process is where they install the electrical pickups, string the instrument and take it for a test drive. This is the only place in the factory where you have to actually be able to play guitar in order to work there. The guy that puts the strings on plays the instrument for five or 10 min., then it goes to a second level of inspection in some quieter room where they can get a better feel for the guitar's performance. If either of these guys is not completely happy with the instrument, it gets tossed. They said this applies to about 8% of the guitars that they produce. The problem may be fairly minor but if a guitar is not up to their standards, they don't want it appearing on the street where it may damage their reputation. So they don't sell "seconds". A guitar that doesn't come up to snuff goes into the shredder.

Pretty maids all in a row
I don't know if there is anywhere else in the country you can take this kind of tour, so if you have $10 to spare, any interest at all in guitars and you are anywhere in the area then by all means go by the Gibson factory. And if you have another $3000 burning a hole in your pocket, they will happily sell you a guitar while you are there. Reservations are recommended and we had called and gotten a reservation a couple days ahead of time. But we got stuck in traffic trying to get across the Mississippi had to call and reschedule for the next tour which turned out to be a non-issue so I would say that, at least in October, signing up at the last minute is not a huge problem.

Officially a dive
After the tour, we went to eat at another "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" place, a BBQ joint just outside of the downtown area. It was not a diner, nor was it a drive in but it definitely qualified in the dive category. This is a place where, just driving by, you would not even consider stopping to eat. In fact, once you get inside there is still a fairly strong temptation to turn around and walk out again. But the food was pretty good. I had a half a rack of ribs and they were delicious. The side items were good too. Vicki had a Cornish game hen but complained that it was a little dry. I took her word for it.
Good ribs on paper plates

Then it was back to Tom Sawyer's to relax by the riverside and enjoy the stately progression of commerce. I ordered Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" for my Kindle since the copyright is expired and it's free. Christopher didn't particularly like it when he read it for school but I have rather enjoyed it and it's fun to read about the places that we are visiting from the vantage point of 140 years ago. So while there are no stern wheelers to be seen, we did sit out and watch the river traffic while I read my book and had a nice cold beer. Life is good.
Moonlight on the Mississippi

Friday, October 25, 2013

Music City

We packed up in Gatlinburg, David and Jamie turned in their "fun" Jeep and we all piled into the motorhome to drive to Nashville for the last part of the week. David and Jamie had booked a room at Gaylord's Grand Ole Opry Hotel while we were staying a few blocks down at the Two Rivers RV campground, which was not cheap but was way cheaper than staying at Gaylord's Grand Ole Opry Hotel. That night, we had dinner at the hotel. It was an excellent dinner but we did pay what, on normal rations, would have been enough to keep us comfortably fed for 4-5 days. Part of that cost is attributable to the consumption of "Tennessee Tea", an alcoholic beverage built around Johnny Walker whiskey that raised our spirits significantly but also left us incapable of tracking how much money we were lavashing on dinner.

Broadway at night.  We never saw this.
Now I have to admit to a somewhat distressing truth. We finished dinner shortly after nine o'clock at which time Jamie and David, as they did every night while we were in Nashville, headed downtown to Broadway to party the night away listening to music. At the same time Vicki and I, as we did every night while we were in Nashville, went back to our motorhome and sat in our chairs like slugs. It is disturbing to realize what old fuddy-duddies we have become, but no matter how good the music is we are no longer capable of barhopping and drinking and listening until the wee small hours of the morning. (To be totally honest, I would've been willing to bar hop for an hour or two. Vicki is a bigger fuddy-duddy than I am.)

Vickie and Jamie on Broadway
After closing the bars down, Jamie and David did not crawl, bleary-eyed, out of bed until about lunchtime, at which point their dearest desire for the day was to go back to Broadway and bar hop some more. With the sun directly overhead, Vicki was willing to go along and so we went off to Broadway for lunch. Broadway in Nashville is an amazing place.  The relevant section is about three blocks long and has, I don't know, maybe a dozen honky-tonk type bars, most of which also serve some form of solid calories. And they have live music. Some of them are three stories high and have a different band or performer on each floor. The music starts at 10 o'clock the morning and doesn't stop until 3 AM. There is no cover charge, all you have to do is sit there and enjoy the music and order an occasional drink or a sandwich or something. And these musicians are good.

Think about it. Nashville is the Mecca of country music. If you live in Huntsville, Kentucky, or Athens, Tennessee or Martinez, Georgia and you are the best damn musician in
Rippey's on the corner
town, you probably think you have a future in the country music business and the way you pursue that is to go to Nashville. So the place is absolutely packed full of the best damn musician in town from every town between the Rocky Mountains and the southeastern coast, all of them looking for someplace to perform and be discovered.  The publicans along Broadway have their pick of
Live entertainment
these lost souls who range from being merely really good to positively brilliant musicians and are willing to work for audience tips and no benefits, keeping down the establishment's expenditures on personnel and providing the customers with an experience difficult to replicate anywhere else on the planet. The downside, of course, is that after six months or a year the vast majority of these performers probably end up going back to Tyler, Texas or wherever to find paying jobs.

We had lunch at Rippey's and listened to about an hour or 90 min. of pretty good music. One of the performers rattled off a list of things that you must do while in Nashville and one of them was to tour the Ryman Auditorium, which we could actually see out the front window of the bar from where we were sitting. So after a while, we all got up, threw a few bucks in the tip jar and headed up the block to do the Ryman tour.
The Ryman Auditorium, photo by Aubry Haynes
Now I am a California boy and in my formative years my musical tastes ran towards folk rock and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne. I have never been a big fan of country western music or any of its cousins. So the term "Ryman Auditorium" meant absolutely nothing to
Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff greet visitors
me. If you are a country fan, this is probably old news to you and you should skip down and read about Andrew Jackson's house. For those who are ignorant, like me, this is the story. The Ryman Auditorium was built by steamboat captain Thomas Ryman and originally christened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. He built it in 1892 specifically as a venue for revival meetings presented by a preacher named Samuel Porter Jones, who was the Billy Graham of his era. After Capt. Ryman died, the building was renamed the Ryman Auditorium in his honor.

The Grand Ole Opry was and is a weekly radio show on NBC affiliate WSM in Nashville, that began in 1925 and is widely credited with putting country music on the national map. It was initially broadcast from the radio station with a small live audience but as its popularity grew they had to find a larger space for the growing local fan base. As the show continued to climb in popularity they went through a half a dozen different locations, each larger than the last, before finally landing at the Ryman in June of 1943. There the show was broadcast until 1974 when they built the current Grand Ole Opry House along with a hotel and theme park on what was then the outskirts of town. During that 30 years the show hosted all of the biggest names in country music and in turn was hosted by the likes of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Martha Carson, Minnie Pearl, and many others. The theater witnessed the birth of bluegrass music when Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs became regulars. Elvis Presley performed there one time in 1954. The manager of the theater advised him to go back to truck driving.

The next big country duo
Those 31 years as home to the classic broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry have transformed the Ryman Auditorium into hallowed ground for country music performers and their fans. The auditorium itself holds about 3000, the seating being in the form of church pews as one might expect from the building's original purpose. We got there too late for a guided tour so we guided ourselves through the building and read about the country music artifacts on display. Vicki and I paid 10 bucks to go up and have our picture taken on the stage. Then we walked the block back down to Broadway and spent another hour drinking beer and listening to music in a
Bar and performer I don't recall the names of
little bar whose name I don't even remember. The female singer and her band of three were again really good and I would have happily stayed longer but the parking tab on my car was about to run out and I did not want to have it towed away. So Jamie and David stayed behind and closed up the town again while Vicki and I walked the three blocks back to the car and drove back to our fuddy-duddy motorhome lifestyle for the rest of the evening.

The following morning (well, afternoon actually) David wanted to go visit the battlefield at Murfreesboro but, guess what, it's run by the National Park Service and was all locked up. Instead of doing that, Vicki wanted to go see the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's antebellum plantation and we dragged David and Jamie along. Andrew Jackson's political career was built upon his status as a military hero during the war of 1812
The Hermitage
after winning the Battle of New Orleans. He was a populist and unrepentant slave owner with a large plantation on the outskirts of Nashville. He is the reason Henry Clay gave his electoral college votes to John Quincy Adams in 1824 to prevent Jackson from reaching the White House. By 1828 however Jackson had the votes cold and served as our seventh president for eight years. His home has been
Back yard and former killing field
preserved as a museum since the late 1800s and has been kept in remarkably good shape (although it was narrowly missed by a tornado in 1998). The surrounding area is all ornamental trees and grassy lanes but we were told that during Jackson's lifetime this was a working farm and this whole area would have been dedicated to crops. There is also a lovely, large fenced backyard to the house which looks like a great place for kids to play but, in fact, was where they slaughtered the hogs and was apparently a bloody mess much of the time. It was a nice house with many preserved furnishings but this is the fifth antebellum estate we have toured since we entered Kentucky and the experience is frankly losing its luster. I think we will give it a rest for the remainder of the year at least.

Current Grand Ole Opry House
That night we attended the Grand Ole Opry, another item on the lists of things you have to do when you go to Nashville. It is a two-hour show, kept rigidly on schedule by the requirements of the radio broadcast. Each performer does exactly two songs before they move on. It seems a shame to have a performer travel from Austin or Atlanta just to do two numbers, but the status of the show apparently makes it worthwhile. The new Opry House continued the tradition of pew seating. Unfortunately, our pew had a couple of occupants only slightly smaller than I am resulting in their not really being enough room for all of us, so I eventually relocated to another seat and we enjoyed the show separately. Oh well.
The old custom house in Nashville, circa 1877
We said goodbye to David and Jamie in the parking lot after the show. They weren't scheduled to fly out until the following afternoon but after the Opry they were headed downtown again. We needed to be out of our motorhome Park by 11 AM and they did not expect to be up and around any earlier than that so we left them to enjoy their last half-day in Nashville on their own and headed on towards Memphis.