This article is something of a departure from my usual travel marketing and PR-focused blog posts. But it’s still about travel. Not aboard small expedition ships or riverboats, but rather about a 2,000-mile drive I made last week from Texas to Rhode Island.
I’ve assembled some random observations about what I saw and experienced during the six-day drive that took me through 13 states. I’m not a travel blogger, but I hope you enjoy my comments. Feel free to add your own.
The occasion for the trip was returning my wife Anne’s bright red Audi A3 from the apartment in Dallas to our home in Providence. I had time in my schedule—she didn’t—and wanted to see how her peppy little six-speed stick would navigate the back roads of Tennessee, the Smoky Mountains and the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. I’ve covered the distance several times before, but always through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and central Pennsylvania.
The southern route was decidedly more scenic, particularly once off the interstate system and into the hills. Excuse me if I temper my enthusiasm about how the car handled, as Anne will be reading this post and I wouldn’t want her to think that I in any way put the A3 through its paces. I’ll just say the car and its German engineering really allowed me to engage with the destination, if you catch my drift—certainly not four-wheel drift, mind you—and still average about 35 mpg.
As I said, Anne was busy. Volunteering for the ride and proving to be a splendid navigator was Ted Scull, New York City-based travel writer and friend of 25 years. Ted is no stranger to long car trips, having driven the family 1956 Ford station wagon from Philadelphia to Alaska and back in 1959, covering 14,597.8 miles, 500 of it without a windshield. (The ".8" gives you an idea of Ted's sense of detail as a navigator. He promised me he would write about that adventure someday.)
These days, Ted is recognized for his encyclopedic knowledge of passenger ships and trains, and the route we traversed lent itself to many stories and anecdotes about the latter that I’ve never previously had occasion to hear. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, he pointed out that the right-hand door in the old but renovated Choctaw Route Railroad Station, now part of the Clinton library complex, was very likely the entrance for black travelers during the Jim Crow days. The Choctaw, which later became part of the famed Rock Island Line, had separate waiting rooms and train cars, too.
The sheer number of churches and church signs visible from the interstates, old federal and state highways in Arkansas and Tennessee is astonishing. The church buildings themselves ranged from traditional early 20th-century frame construction and unadorned metal doublewide trailers to gigantic modern mega-churches. Driving through Arkansas on a Sunday, we didn’t see many empty church parking lots. I’m only exaggerating a little in saying that at least one church or church sign was constantly in sight during our drive through these two states. How so many churches can build and maintain their congregations effectively in a relatively sparsely populated region intrigues me.
Aside from visiting a few attractions during the first half of the trip, we were driving a good part of each day, generally from 8:30 or 9:00 am until about 7:00 or 7:30 pm. The priorities for our brief hotel stays were simple: convenience to the road and reasonable rates, plus Wi-Fi and breakfast at no additional cost. The Hampton Inn in Mount Pleasant, Texas; Comfort Inn in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee; Fairfield Inn in Cleveland, Tennessee; and the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Roanoke, Virginia all delivered the goods for between $100-$150 (but no free breakfast at the Sheraton, the plushest and most expensive of the four).
Ted and I agreed from the start that we wouldn’t eat at any chain restaurants unless absolutely necessary. Lord knows they are ubiquitous, even in the smallest communities, and their signage along the roads wears on you like Chinese water torture. Helping us in our quest were several hotel receptionists who pointed us to local establishments. For those of you who like a drink before or with dinner, you may want to check in advance if a southern hotel’s locale is dry and BYOB is necessary, as it was at Angelo’s Italian Restaurant in Mount Pleasant, Texas. As the perky waitress said to two chagrined and thirsty travelers, “You might like the root beer; it has a little bite to it.”
On my return to Providence, I filled out a generic online customer satisfaction survey for the Mount Pleasant Hampton Inn, commenting that it might be helpful to let those guests with reservations know it was situated in a dry county so they could prepare accordingly; i.e. bring booze. I was surprised to get an email back almost immediately from Shea Ingram, the property’s general manager, apologizing and promising “to have a bottle of wine waiting in [my] room” the next time I pass through. That is impressive customer service!
Late April in Arkansas and Tennessee is beautiful, with dogwoods and redbuds blooming on the hillsides and in the hollows. However, it’s also tornado season, and we spent about a day-and-a-half running ahead or sidestepping weather cells that had the potential to upset our trip. Fortunately, we were safely ensconced in our Tennessee hotels in Memphis and Cleveland, which is just north of Chattanooga, during two horrific nighttime or early morning thunderstorms and tornado watches. I expanded my weather vocabulary on the trip, tuning in to a local Athens, Mississippi radio station as we drove east along old Federal Highway 64 in southern Tennessee, learning about tornadic signatures, tornado debris fields and the like. I also learned to drive a little faster than I normally do.
Ted agreed to accompany me if we could visit a few attractions he was interested in seeing and get off the interstate, time permitting. He turned out to be an excellent road trip curator. Traveling cross country with someone as knowledgeable and curious as Ted was a good thing, as I might not have gotten around to seeing these sites otherwise.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, Dallas
My flight from Logan via O’Hare and Ted’s from LaGuardia landed within ten minutes of one another at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on a Saturday afternoon in late April. Within two hours, we had picked up Anne’s car and were standing in line at this infamous site in downtown Dallas.
For those of us who grew up in the ‘60s, many of the exhibits and photos are very familiar. But nothing prepares you to stand just a few feet away from the window, once obstructed from co-workers by stacks of wooden book crates, where Lee Harvey Oswald crouched with a mail-order Italian carbine that cost him $12.78. Peering out from a nearby window, I was struck by its closeness to the slope of Elm Street, where the presidential limousine was heading west on November 22, 1963. The considerable distance I had previously imagined from photos and television was chillingly compressed.
Reading one of the lengthy “conspiracy” exhibit placards alongside another visitor, I was asked by him if I thought Oswald alone was responsible for the assassination. I mumbled something to the effect that the Warren Commission Report seemed very thorough and none of the other theories seemed to hold up over time. “But how do you explain the fact that six fellow Book Depository employees signed affidavits that they were having lunch with Oswald at the time of the shooting?” he asked. I shook my head without an answer. These things seem to have a life of their own.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, Little Rock
Following an early lunch at Downtown Little Rock’s popular Flying Fish—where you can donate your used Big Mouth Billy Bass faux trophy plaque and get a free basket of fried catfish—we headed over to the nearby Arkansas River on an overcast Sunday. I found the main steel and glass building of the Center, designed by Polshek Partnership and set adjacent to the 30-acre Clinton Presidential Park, to be handsome and well situated to the river, with attractive landscaping and views of the surrounding parkland.
It was my first visit to a presidential library, so I’m no judge of these things. My sense in talking with people is that, except for scholars, the inclination to visit any particular presidential library is directly proportional to their political persuasion. Myself excluded, of course.
The exhibits and prominent timelines were engaging and worthy of another visit someday. They led me to think about the difficulty in finding the right balance between fact, spin, and what’s chosen for display or not in a prominent archive like this. Although Ralph Appelbaum designed the displays, he acknowledged that Clinton himself was “the editor-in-chief, the curator-in-chief and many times the art director of the exhibits.” The library's hushed tones during the early afternoon gave way to a lively dress rehearsal for an upcoming teenage fashion show, focusing on recycled clothing and other items, in one of the library's function rooms.
The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
Ted and I arrived at the old Lorraine Motel site early on a Monday morning, and managed to stay well ahead of a large primary school field trip group as we toured the exhibits. I’m naturally drawn to mid-century modern architecture, and was delighted to see those exterior elements intact and beautifully maintained, in spite of the massive renovation to the interior to create a first-class museum. What was new to me was the fact that the motel was built in the late '50s as an appendage to the older Lorraine Hotel, attracting black celebrities the likes of Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. The museum re-opened just last month following a $27 million renovation.
The exhibits briefly and engagingly cover the history of slavery, emancipation and the rise of Jim Crow laws, but focus mainly on the rise of the civil rights movement in the '60s. A mock-up of a department store lunch counter where blacks staged a sit-in featured contemporary television interviews with the store’s employees using, by today’s standards, shockingly coarse language in their exchanges with the protestors. I was engrossed, but a fellow museum visitor who was black and middle aged walked by, glancing at the exhibit without stopping. She later remarked to Ted that she found that the audio track struck a little too close to home.
The museum complex also includes an old rooming house building across the street. It was through a grimy bathroom window there that James Earl Ray targeted Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Exhibits in this building concentrate on the investigation and hunt for the killer as well as the myriad conspiracy theories for which the American public seems to have an insatiable appetite. To personally stand in the intimate vicinity of such a horrendous crime, like at Dealey Plaza, provides an uncomfortable dose of reality.
The Memphis neighborhood where the museum is located has clearly undergone considerable gentrification in recent decades, a fact not lost on Jacqueline Smith, a former employee and the last resident of the Lorraine Motel. She has maintained her own protest vigil about this and other issues on the adjacent street for more than 25 years, and is very willing to tell you her story, as she shared with me.
The Scenic Route
For half of the trip, we stuck to what the Rand McNally 2014 Road Atlas calls the “scenic route,” those highways and byways on the map with the little green dots running alongside. In Tennessee, these included old Federal Highway 64 through most of the state and then the Foothills Parkway, which traverses the western flank of the Chillhowee Mountain and runs alongside Chillhowee Lake, an impoundment of the Tennessee River.
We witnessed a strange occurrence shortly after entering the Parkway Tuesday morning. Pausing to take some photos near the southern entrance, we saw a white pickup drive by with a dog in the rear bed. As we continued into the park, the truck sped back past us with the dog, a pit bull mix, now in pursuit. We slowed down but decided not to invite too close an inspection by the canine. At our earliest opportunity, we called the local emergency authorities who indicated they would check it out. Pet desertion? Or perhaps a toughening-up exercise? It was disconcerting to us for sure.
Picking up some sandwiches at a deli in Gatlinburg, Tennessee later that morning, we headed south through the Great Smoky National Park. We followed switchbacks alongside and over rushing streams, gaining altitude to Newfound Gap, where at 5,048 feet the road bisects the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail. A cold, blustery wind forced us to eat in the car, but the views of the “smoking” valleys below and racing clouds not far overhead were memorable. We met some young and enthusiastic trail hikers (“we’re walking the whole way!”), and gave a lift to a hitchhiking video/performance artist from London on his way from upstate New York to New Orleans, dropping him off as we exited the park near Cherokee, North Carolina.
We joined the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby, the famed 469-mile scenic drive that was conceived during the Roosevelt Administration, with construction work beginning in 1935. Unfortunately, we were only able to navigate a few dozen miles before re-connecting with the interstate west of Asheville, North Carolina. We simply didn’t have enough time in the day to make it on the Parkway to Roanoke, Virginia, our intended evening destination. I guess we should have added another day. Ted was in luck, however, as we covered the only stretch that he hadn’t driven on previous trips. So, I’ll save the rest of this beautiful highway for another day, and I think Anne will be happy to join me. Maybe the weather will be better, too.
Rain, Traffic, More Rain and More Traffic
The fifth day was a brutal struggle against an expansive thunderstorm that accompanied us nearly continuously along 470 miles of interstate highway through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and into New York City. Due to the weather, we scratched our plan to drive the 105-mile length of Virginia’s Skyline Drive, which runs through the National Park Service’s Shenandoah National Park. I’ll add that to the list for a later visit, too.
Not surprisingly, the clutching and shifting that were such a pleasure on the southern parkways were anything but as we got closer to Manhattan. We crept through the Holland Tunnel and traffic in lower Manhattan, ending at Ted and Suellyn Scull’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Having been an overnight visitor there many times in the past, I don’t remember the guest room bed ever looking so inviting, along with the wonderful dinner that Suellyn had waiting for us. Best meal of the trip.
Following a short visit with a client on Long Island Thursday morning, I aimed the car across the Throgs Neck Bridge and straight up a not-very-straight Interstate 95 to Providence, hoping to avoid rush hour traffic patterns in Westchester County and Connecticut. That didn’t work out so well, but at least the skies were clear and I pulled on my sunglasses for the first time during the entire trip.
Ted and I are already talking about a future road trip – no destination chosen yet. One of criteria, though, is selecting an area that neither Anne nor Suellyn would be enthusiastic about visiting. Whether I can again use Anne’s car remains to be seen. See you on the road!