- 020211 Hi-Di-Ho! Cab, House, and a Stormy Start
- 020311 The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
- 020411 Louisville and Nashville; Ali, the Bluebird, and Honky-Tonkin’
- 020511 Riding That Train: Nashville By Day, Memphis By Night
- 020611 Sun Records (and Graceland and Highway 61 and the Crossroads and…)
- 020711 Dockery Plantation, the Gravesites of Robert Johnson, the Birthplace of the King, and the Home of the Frog
- 020811 Discovering The Shoals and Finding Lost Luggage
- 020911 Macon, Tombstones, and The Allman Brother’s Band
- 021011 A Killer Ending to the Rock & Roll Field Trip
- 021111 The Everglades
- 021211 Sleeping With the Fishes; Jules’ Undersea Lodge
- 021311 Cruising the Keys
- 021411 Leaving the Keys for the House of the Mouse
- 021511 A Cynic Succumbs to the Magical Mouse
- 021611 Pool Day
- 0217/1811 The Prince of Darkness
- 021911 Daytona Beach
- 022011 The Daytona 500
020211 Hi-Di-Ho! Cab, House, and a Stormy Start
Hard to believe, but the day finally came. Of all the trips I’ve taken never had I researched one as well as this. The rough outline had been drawn up more than six months before and the basic itinerary had been set since well before Christmas. I spent the week before departure frantically finalizing a schedule that would encompass three weeks and cross fourteen states. Then I tried to ready the car, my luggage, and all of our gear in between near-constant internet weather checks with an eye towards what they were starting the call the Blizzard Of The Year.
Despite all the pre-planning, when I asked m’lady to give me a rundown on what she thought I should have packed I found that I was missing the first three things she mentioned. Heck, it was less than an hour before departure when I remembered (okay, was reminded) to pack our tickets. And now Mother Nature was attempting to lay aside the best laid plans of this mousey man with a storm that was stretching from Texas to Toronto and beyond.
Snow bedamned, we got our Mitsubishi Outlander loaded up, popped it into four-wheel drive and slid out onto the road, careening slowly through five inches of thick powder.
The highway through Ottawa was treacherous but by the time we got out of the city things weren’t so bad. Our biggest slowdowns came from getting stuck behind the plow parade, which wasn’t such a bad thing. We got to the border and cruised our way through and by the time we headed west out of Syracuse the storm had pretty much passed us by.
Luckily we weren’t headed too far and didn’t have too much on the itinerary for our first day. We arrived at our target city of Rochester perhaps an hour behind schedule, all-in-all not so bad considering all the hype the storm had been receiving.
It’s a bit ironic that our first stop wasn’t even there anymore. We snaked our way through a snowy rush hour to find Grieg Street, specifically the house that is – or rather, was – 61 Grieg Street. This nondescript and obscure address is where the great Son House was rediscovered way back in the early ’60s, and it seemed a very fitting start for our journey.
Aside from a more than respectable career of his own (in a roundabout fashion, anyway), Son House was the man who taught the great Robert Johnson how to play slide guitar, and it was also Son House who eventually spread the myth to eager white audiences that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in return for his uncanny musical abilities. House had recorded an album of his own in the ’30’s and recorded later again with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, but like virtually all of the bluesmen from his era he was unable to eke out any sort of career or notable fame and he ended up in Rochester working odd jobs before eventually finding permanent work with the railroad company. When interest in original blues artists heated up decades later Son House was the first of the old bluesmen to be rediscovered, when a young white man knocked on his door at 61 Grieg Street and explained to the shocked Son House that he was in fact a world-famous guitarist and should be on the road sharing his music with a new, young audience. Curiously, when it came to light that thirty-five years away from the music scene had caused Son House to forget how to play any of his own songs it was the guitarist from Canned Heat who retaught Mr. House how to play all his old stuff again.
House went on to spend years on the road enjoying the resurgence in popularity of old-school blues guitar, discounting modern blues as “monkey junk.” He left Rochester behind him, dying in Detroit in 1988. And for this musical explorer standing on a snowy Grieg Street in 2011 he seemed to have returned to obscurity. No plaque, no marker, and the house that was numbered 61 long gone.
Back to maneuvering the wintry roads we made our way next to a small park on Sycamore Street. I got out of the car and found a snow-capped pedestal. Brushing the snow aside with the sleeve of my jacket I was happy to see that it was indeed a plaque, honouring Rochester resident Cabell “Cab” Calloway. The first jazz musician to record a million seller, the King of Hi-Di-Ho once lived at 14 Sycamore Street, and while like Son’s the house isn’t there anymore, it’s nice to see that the neighbourhood was proud enough to honour Cab with this small monument. Heck, he taught the blues to the Blues Brothers and that alone seems almost plaque-worthy.
With the beginning of our Rock & Roll Field Trip behind us we headed to a friend’s place for the night where pizza and beer and an early bedtime was at hand. Alarm set for an early start, my spent body could barely sleep as I looked forward to day two with giddy excitement. As far as I was concerned 7:30am couldn’t come soon enough.
020311 The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
It turns out that after staying up late writing logs 7:30 comes pretty fast after all. No matter, this was a vacation after all, albeit one with a pretty tight schedule. Got up and showered and enjoyed a relaxing hour with our hosts to start the day. We got on the road around 9am and found a beautiful day waiting for us, which was good news as we had quite a lot of driving to do.
We spotted an American Tim Hortons and stopped in for back some coffees and an early lunch and before too long (it didn’t seem like it took almost five hours) we were in Cleveland. We had only one stop to make in the city and it sure wasn’t hard to find. It’s a given that our Rock & Roll Field Trip had to include a stop at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and we found Pei’s building in no time.
Alan Freed hosted the first ever rock & roll shows in Cleveland. Heck he even gave the musical style it’s name. “Rock & roll” was initially a term used by the black community to describe intimate relations and Freed’s brilliant co-opting of the phrase stuck, big time. And just under a half-century later a museum was built.
This was my second time visiting the amazing museum; it was m’lady’s first. We scored street parking directly out front and booted it inside. I was hoping we would have more time as I remember being here from opening to close last time I visited, but with just four hours to go before closing time that was going to have to do it. The first thing we noticed was that that Phish’s flying rideable hot dog had been returned. Hardly a month earlier m’lady and I had seen the very same hot dog flying through Madison Square Garden carrying the band to the stage and now here it was again, suspended from the ceiling looking tattered and rather unmajestic in the brightly lit room. Also available for viewing in the lobby without even purchasing a ticket was a round cabinet displaying all of Jerry Garcia’s guitars and ZZTop’s famous Eliminator coupe.
We dropped $22 each on tickets and went in. Of the 25,000 artifacts the museum possesses they only display about 4,000 at a time, so I discovered several things I hadn’t seen before. The collection is teeming with astounding bits of history; there’s Janis Joplin’s signature eyeglasses, around the corner are the remains of Otis Redding’s crashed plane, you can almost reach out and touch the couch where Hendrix sat as a kid learning how to play the guitar. Jim Morrison’s grade school report cards, Michael Jackson’s glove, Townsend’s beat up Marshall stack…around every corner was another item that I could just gape at for hours.
Some of my favourite artifacts are the handwritten lyrics and letters. You can see a whole verse scratched out from the original lyric sheet to The Grateful Dead’s Truckin’, the same thing with Oh Carol, scrawled on unlined paper in Chuck Berry’s own handwriting. There’s a letter written by Pete Townsend where he claims that Eddie Van Halen can play really fast but with that grin of his he could make it without playing a single note, and one from Kurt Cobain to David Geffen apologizing for things he had said in the press. It was like seeing pages ripped from the original copy of the Bible, fer crying out loud. They had some great Elvis stuff and a nice area dedicated to the Allman Brothers Band. M’lady surprised me by finding a poster behind glass featuring her cousin’s old band, Alice Donut.
The second floor was closed for renovations as was part of the main area, and though that was a little disappointing it just means my next visit will be even better. The museum reserves the top two floors for special exhibits and this time The Boss was the focus. They had tons of Springsteen stuff up there and though I’m not the hugest fan, I loved it (don’t get me wrong: I think Bruce is one of the best rock and rollers out there and he is one of the greatest performers alive. But he has some very rabid fans, among which I should not be counted). I listened with surprise to a recording of a gig the teenaged musician played in late’60’s when he covered Jimi Hendrix songs and other hits of the day. Most notably they had Springsteen’s awesome and iconic Fender Telecaster hanging on the wall (you know, the one that’s usually hanging on his back). Amazingly, the now-priceless instrument cost Bruce a total of $180 and it turns out it has an Esquire neck. He bought it with money from the first advance check he received for signing his first recording contract.
Back downstairs we watched the highlight reel from Hall of Fame induction ceremonies gone by and I actually got a bit choked up seeing some of my musical heroes being honoured. At the end of the tour I showed astounding restraint in the extensive gift shop, and surprisingly we were back in the car a half-hour before the doors closed.
If you are EVER in Cleveland, check out the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Anxious for warmer climes we hopped in the car and headed south. Six hours later we pulled into Louisville, Kentucky, with nary a drop of snow on the ground. We circled around looking for our hotel until we found it by a teeth-grinding process of elimination. The fact that the hotel clearly didn’t advertise and wasn’t actually on the street the address indicated made it a tad frustrating, but that much more rewarding when we finally got there.
We were tired enough to pass on having a nightcap at the bar next door, which was pretty uncharacteristic of us and scored rather low on the rock & roll meter. I was pretty confident that we’d make up for it somehow.
020411 Louisville and Nashville; Ali, the Bluebird, and Honky-Tonkin’
We were up and out of the hotel pretty early, with a big day ahead. We headed straight downtown, parked and did a walkabout. We found a great little bakery where we had two coffees and two enormous breakfast-eliminating donuts for just $3, or about what a single tall latte would have cost at Starbucks. The streets of Louisville teem with art installations with full-sized painted horses (home of the Kentucky Derby), baseball bats cast in iron (the Louisville Slugger museum/factory is just around the corner), and every sidewalk tree encased in it’s own unique ironwork sculpture.
Our destination was a beautifully architectured building near the waterfront, home of the Muhammad Ali museum. Here’s something most people don’t know about me: boxing is my favourite sport and I even took boxing lessons for a short time as a kid. Until Wayne Gretzky came along Muhammad Ali was my dad’s favourite athlete and his respect for the late, great pugilist rubbed off on me big time. In short, Ali is a planetary icon and a hero to millions, and with regard to our Rock & Roll Field Trip one had to acknowledge that the Louisville native achieved rock star status and beyond.
We paid our fee and rode the escalator up to the fifth floor to start the self-guided tour. It soon became apparent that we had the whole place to ourselves; save for seeing another couple pay their admission when we were on our way out the door we didn’t see another soul in the place. The tour begins with a fifteen-minute film on Ali and when it was done both m’lady and I were wiping away tears. We learned that early in his life a young Cassius Clay read the poem If by Rudyard Kipling and he based his entire life and career on these inspiring words:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
The museum was certainly focused more on information than artifacts. Sure there was Ali’s shorts from the Rumble In The Jungle and the robe Elvis gave him in Vegas in ’73, but most of the space was taken up by informative displays following the different aspects of the fighter’s life. After getting his bike stolen as a kid Cassius started training in the ring specifically so he could whup the butt of whoever had stolen it and with unflinching determination, well-earned confidence, and a brash arrogance that the media ate up like candy he traveled the world and walked with kings. I got chills around every corner.
I was excited for the lounge full of couches, each playing a different Ali fight on an endless loop, but most fun was the interactive section where we could don boxing gloves and play with equipment like a heavy bag and a speed bag. You could even shadow box against a video projection of the man himself! Being all alone in there m’lady and I took advantage and spent a long leisurely time working out and playing in the ring.
Back on the street we found a post office, hit White Castle (again) and got on the highway pointed south. I bit the bullet and somehow drove right by the bourbon trail, the very historic Talbott’s Tavern, and the National Corvette Museum (will I ever forgive myself?). Three hours later we pulled into Music City: Nashville, Tennessee.
We had booked into the city’s only music-themed hotel, the Millennium Maxwell House. The entranceway was embossed with guitars and sheet music, the lobby lined with instruments autographed by the greats of country music, and a display case next to the elevators housed a bass signed by Mick Jagger and Ron Wood, one of Bob Dylan’s harmonicas, and several hand-written lyrics among other treasures.
Our room was decorated with Hatch Show Print gig posters and we spent an hour pounding beers in there before setting out for the early show at the famous Bluebird Cafe. Established in 1981, the small unassuming pub sits in a strip mall away from the main Nashville strip and is the place for up-and-coming singer/songwriters. The early show charged no cover, requiring just an easily-attainable $7 per person table minimum. We sat along the wall a few feet from the musicians who were set up in-the-round in the centre of the small room.
There were four singer/songwriters with an extra guitar player doing the song-circle thing. The host wrote good generic new country stuff, the only guy in the group was like a young James Taylor, and one young singer with a big voice wrote and sang songs that could easily be on every country station in the world. That said, neither m’lady or I were overly impressed with any of them. No slag against any of them, it just wasn’t our cup o’ tea, though I gotta say the fourth performer – a lady from Texas named Mimms – wrote really, really great songs. She had one called Gettin’ There that I wish I had written and I can still remember all these years later. I was shocked to find that none of the performers were over-the-top great pickers, even (especially?) the extra guitarist. At one point the host told him to play a solo in her next song (a standard I-IV-V progression in the key of A) and he couldn’t do it. I was astounded, and not just a little buoyed somewhat. Maybe if I landed in this town with starry eyes and a guitar I could get a little work after all!
After the show we went back to our hotel for more Budweisers before hopping the free shuttle down to Legend’s Corner, Nashville’s main strip along Broadway. We bar-hopped from one honky-tonk to another for the rest of the night and I got re-humbled in a bloody hurry. Every single bar featured astoundingly good live music. We saw standard classic rock, a couple of really good rockabilly bands, a wonderful straight up old-time country band with a devastatingly good guitar player, a metal-ish band that was playing an all-request setlist, and, well things get a little hard to remember by then. I do recall that we were about to flag a cab and decided to stop into just one more bar when we happened upon the best musician of the night, a guitarist who was just flying through astounding solo after astounding solo. It was another rockabilly band and their bass player was pretty hot too, taking more solos than a bass player is generally allowed with every one tastier than the last.
And to think: the whole strip plays for tips. I suspect it’s a tough town for musicians, this Music City.
After a long day and a longer night we stumbled out onto the rainy street and finally flagged that cab back to the hotel, where the wind whipping against the windows battled with the uber-comfy beds to keep us in a roiling state of sleep/wake/sleep again until morning came, bringing with it namesake coffees and more musical adventures.
020511 Riding That Train: Nashville By Day, Memphis By Night
I awoke with a little Music City hangover which served as a steady reminder that the night before I spent way too much money in way too many bars. I tried to appease the brute inside my head with the in-room Maxwell House coffee, which was okay ’til the last drop and named after the very hotel I was sitting in. I showered and we checked out, finding a positively blustery day waiting for us outside. The day’s itinerary had us driving to Memphis but I wanted to make a quick dash back to the Nashville strip to check out the legendary Hatch Show Prints poster shop.
As we circled around looking for a parking spot we found ourselves in front of the nearby Country Music Hall Of Fame, which sported a banner out front advertising “Museum Free – Today Only.” We had initially decided to skip the Country Hall but c’mon now; we couldn’t resist rushing through it for free and I’m glad we did. We didn’t give the museum the time it deserved but it was a rewarding experience all the same. Their collection holds some amazing artifacts including Elvis’ gold-plated Cadillac, which was layered with a paint mixed with diamonds and fish scales to make it glean. Nearby sat had his gold-plated grand piano.
The real treasures are of course the instruments. The museum had some serious pieces of history on display, from Jimmy Rodger’s iconic Martin guitar to Bill Monroe’s mandolin. Of course there was lots of Chet Atkins’ stuff too and it just went on and on. Their collection of gold records was absolutely massive as was their compleat gathering of Hatch Show Prints Nashville show posters, and the whole shebang was housed in an artistically designed yet utilitarian architectural feat that was shaped like a giant bass clef with windows arranged to mimic piano keys.
Our next stop was the Hatch Show Print print shop, the oldest continually running shop of its kind in the country. These guys have done posters for absolutely everyone, and each one in an instantly distinguishable style since their first print job well over a century ago. I held myself to purchasing just one poster (for Bob Dylan’s radio show) and a postcard, obtaining in the transaction a sorely-needed tube in which to store my recently-acquired Muhammad Ali poster.
After a little lunch we made a quick stop at Gruhn’s Guitars where I played some absolutely delicious 1940’s Martin guitars that gave me shivers. They had an entire wall of pre-war Martins…I told m’lady to get us out of there before I sold the car.
M’lady took the wheel for our next leg, a journey through Tennessee along the Music Highway between Nashville and Memphis. We stopped briefly in Jackson to visit the home of Casey Jones. The story of Casey Jones is well known, how his train ended up running along the wrong track and how he bravely held the brakes while his colleagues jumped to safety, Casey being the only fatality in the famous train crash. Lesser known is how the folk song of the same name became so popular. I had visited this spot ten years earlier and at that time there was an elderly man working at the small and well-ignored info booth and in a long, rambling monologue he told me the story.
When this man was young he used to attend barn dances every weekend, but whenever dance was short on live musicians the kids had to rely on dancing along to Edison cylinders (which pre-dated records). In those early days of recording most of the music that was released was hymnal, posing a problem for the kids as it was a sin to dance to holy music. This man told me that way back then there was but one secular tune that had been recorded to cylinder, and that was the song Casey Jones. So when there were no musicians available the kids would dance to Casey Jones, playing it over and over all night, which led to it becoming one of he best-known songs of the era. Funny how consistently religion influences popular music.
M’lady and I arrived in Memphis too late in the day to see any of the main sites so we went straight to our hotel and started into a drink or few. Once we got started we strolled up the street in unseasonably cold weather and found a barbecue place for dinner. Eventually made our way to Beale Street.
We walked up and down the semi-secluded main drag and poked our heads into a bar just in time for the band’s “Thank-you, goodnight,” so we moseyed to another. Again we walked in and were greeted with “Thank-you, goodnight!” We were amazed; it was barely 11pm on a Saturday night.
Third one’s a charm! On our next try we found a place with a cooking band. We grabbed a table up front, ordered some Budweisers (when in Rome…) and were treated to just as much good, live blues as we wanted. It was the Shane Starski Band from Nashville, and they were quite excellent. They had a supplementary female vocalist who sang maybe half the songs. She alternated between channeling Janis Joplin and a Tibetan throat singing sort of thing, closing out the set with a killer version of Ruth Brown’s Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean. They were followed by a family blues trio from Kansas City, and while they were well worth sticking around for we didn’t. With another big day coming we left a few songs into their set.
Out on the streets things were starting to jump a little more, with big lineups outside the bars that were offering dj’s spinning hip hop. That’s what the kids are into these days I suppose. A quick cab ride and we were back at the hotel, ready to turn in for the night.
Hard to believe it’s only been four days!
020611 Sun Records (and Graceland and Highway 61 and the Crossroads and…)
I was so excited for the coming day I that I woke up needlessly at 6:30am with only about five hours of sleep under my belt. I enjoyed a pretty excellent free breakfast and tip-toed back to the room. Eventually m’lady got up and after some more breakfast (one must take advantage when one can) we checked out. We packed our bags into the car and then left it in the hotel parking lot while we walked the short mile up the road to Mecca.
706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee is the home of Sun Records: birthplace of Rock & Roll. Opened in 1950 as a recording studio (not yet a label), this is where Rocket 88 (featuring Ike Turner) was recorded. Generally considered the first rock song ever released, Rocket 88 included the first example of distorted electric guitar ever recorded, the result of a minor traffic accident on the way to the studio when speaker cone in the guitarist’s amp fell out of the vehicle. Studio owner Sam Phillips’ instincts told him to use the amp as-is, beginning a track record that would unquestionably change the world.
The tour of Sun Records started on the second floor, where pieces of recording equipment and other memorabilia sit behind glass. The centrepiece (for me, at least) was the original master copy of Rocket 88, the very unit from which every copy of the song in existence has been copied, the circle that started it all. I stood gaping at the historic piece with my nose pressed up against the pane of glass before I realized I was all alone, the rest of the tour had moved on without me. I joined the group downstairs in the recording room.
The Room. The room where BB King first laid down tracks. The room where The Howlin’ Wolf was discovered. The room where Johnny Cash proved he had something new to offer by singing Folsom Prison Blues to Sam Phillips. The room where Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison recorded some of the biggest tunes of all time. The room where an 18-year-old Elvis Presley went from driving a truck to being crowned King, buying his home Graceland a mere four years later.
My Mecca. Your Mecca. The Mecca of music lovers everywhere.
Little had changed since those historic moments. The room still sported the original flooring, the original ceiling tiles, the original everything. Still prominent was an X of tape on the floor marking where Elvis had stood when he recorded. Our guide told us that one day Bob Dylan walked through the front door, he knelt down and kissed that piece of tape and turned around and walked back out. I parked myself on the piece of tape that indicated Scotty Moore’s spot (I’m no singer) and was loath to move. At the end of the tour the guide pulled out the studio mic that Elvis and a legion of others sang into and we all took turns monkeying with it, posing for pictures.
What a privilege it was to stand in that room. It was the absolute and utter highlight of the Field Trip…so far.
We hopped a free shuttle bus to Graceland where we intended to walk a mile and-a-half to the Full Gospel Tabernacle where the Reverend Al Green preaches every Sunday, but we were surprised to find that we were already running late. The shuttle driver mentioned that Reverend Green’s sermons tended to last several hours and we debated how uncool it would be to arrive at the church late only to leave the service early. We concluded that it would in fact be quite uncool so we let the worshipers worship without us and made our way through the pearly gates of Graceland instead.
I had visited Elvis Day (August 16) ten years before, along with about 25,000 members of the imperial cult. Now that it was the off season – and Superbowl Sunday no less – things were much, much quieter. M’lady and I were free to meander through Elvis’ decadent kingdom at our leisure. We lingered at the Jungle Room and the meditation garden, where we had Elvis’ grave all to ourselves. We had purchased Platinum Pass tickets which gained us entry to the car museum, the ’68 Comeback Special museum, the wardrobe museum, the airplane museum, and the movie museum – each of which came replete with its own extensive gift shop – all of which kept us busy for most of the afternoon.
(Of course the car museum was my favourite of them all but the airplanes were pretty cool too. One of his planes featured a double bed complete with an oversized seatbelt and another had a rotary-dial telephone onboard, from which Elvis would impress his guests by making casual calls from 20,000 feet. Impressive indeed, especially back in the early ’70’s.)
Hungry and weary after a long leisurely tour, we caught the free shuttle back to Sun Records and walked to our hotel from there. When we got back we piled into the car, hit a drive-thru to keep the growlies at bay, popped the appropriate Dylan album into the cd player and started our drive south along Highway 61, the Blues Highway. We immediately crossed the state line into Mississippi and stopped to buy a case of beer.
Just as dusk started to settle in we pulled into Clarksdale. We found the Delta Blues Museum – which we knew would be closed as it was a Sunday – and after a bit of driving around we arrived at the Crossroads. The corner of Highway 61 (though at this juncture it’s actually the 161) and highway 49 tries it’s best to look important with its big sign sporting four guitars. I got out and stared for a minute, but only because I felt I had to, having driven there. It’s generally accepted that this crossroads isn’t the crossroads that Robert Johnson sung about nearly a century before, and as such the place was of no significance whatsoever.
We got back in the car and continued on down Highway 61 to our second Cleveland of the journey thus far (Cleveland, Mississippi of course), where we stopped for the night and scoured the hotel situation. We found a place in time to catch the last half of the Superbowl commercials. I’m much more into advertising than I am into football.
Even after two visits to Memphis I still have the Gibson factory and Stax Records to visit, both of which would have fit perfectly into the Rock & Roll Field Trip if only we had enough time. Though I know if I ever find myself back in Memphis they’ll both have to wait, because I’ll definitely go straight to Sun Studios again.
Mecca. Anything that comes afterwards can only strive for second place.
020711 Dockery Plantation, the Gravesites of Robert Johnson, the Birthplace of the King, and the Home of the Frog
With visions of the wonderful hotel breakfast from Memphis floating in my head I had set the alarm early enough to catch this morning’s free breakfast before it ended at 9am. Let’s just say I should’ve slept in. That said, with lots on the schedule an early start to the day was a good thing.
Our first stop was probably the most significant of the whole Rock & Roll Field Trip, though perhaps one of the more obscure. We drove five miles east off of Highway 61 on the 8 until we arrived at the Dockery Plantation.
The story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil down at the crossroads is common lore, but I’ve found no reference to where he made this claim himself. One thing he did do, however, was spend time at the Dockery, a huge plantation that employed up to 2,000 workers at a time and even minted it’s own money. A veritable who’s who of Delta Blues musicians lived and worked there including Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Son House, The Howlin’ Wolf, and many others. Back in the day the plantation became known as a musical centre, and while legend has it that the original crossroads are actually somewhere near Dockery it seems pretty obvious that Robert Johnson probably spent his time learning and practicing with these musicians rather than hanging out on some dark corner at midnight waiting for Satan to come and tune his guitar for him. One way or the other, Dockery Plantation is nothing short of Ground Zero for the blues.
It’s not much to look at anymore – just a few old buildings and a sign – but there was unquestionably a feeling seeping up through the ground. It wasn’t necessarily a good feeling nor was it really a bad feeling, but it was something and it was real.
I found a chair on an old creaky wooden platform and sat down and played a little guitar while m’lady wandered around snapping pictures. Beelzebub didn’t come by. Perhaps he figured my soul would be a poor return on investment.
Heck, nobody came along. From the time we pulled in until we pulled out we didn’t see another soul. It was a cold, grey morning so we didn’t stay too long. I stooped down and picked up a stone as a souvenir before we pulled away – my little Dockery Rock – and off we went.
Though it wasn’t at all in keeping with the Rock & Roll Field Trip for our next stop I couldn’t resist driving a further twenty miles south on the 61 to Leland, Mississippi: Birthplace Of The Frog.
If you know me you know I love the Muppets. As a child Sesame Street was my babysitter and as such the show’s style, wit, and characters played a big part in shaping my early life and my sense of humour. When I went to university to study music my goal was to one day work for Sesame Street, but with the passing of Jim Henson my interest in all things Muppet began to fade. Jim had lived in Leland until he was in the 6th grade and he always considered it his home town. It was Henson who designated the small town as “Birthplace Of The Frog” and he claimed that the tiny creek that runs through Leland inspired him to create Kermit.
They have a small, can we call it a museum? on the banks above Deer Creek that holds lots of pictures and articles on Jim and the Muppets and they even had some original Henson creations behind glass. The place was manned by an overly-informative elderly lady who was very eager and quite difficult to shake, so we ended up staying longer than even I felt was necessary. I’m glad I went but with a thousand apologies to Mr. Henson this was the first thing on the trip that seemed skippable.
With this detour behind us we pulled out our map and hit the road, for it was treasure hunt time.
I have always been interested in graveyards and I visit them as much as I can when I travel, so it was with eager anticipation that we set out in search of the final resting place of Robert Johnson. The trick lay in the fact that three different sites quietly lay claim to this honour, all of them in Mississippi and all within a few miles of each other: Greenwood, Quito, and Morgan City. Sure, if you google it you’ll learn that there are in fact two graves for guitar legend Robert Johnson. But I’m here to tell you that there are three. Not only that, I’ll tell you how to find them all:
Head east on Highway 82 until you come to County Road 514 (careful, it’s very easy to miss) and turn right. You’ll soon find yourself in Itta Bena (birthplace of BB King) and right next to the Itta Bena school runs the 7 south. Turn down the 7 and you’ll cross three small bridges, the first two are together and the third about a half mile further. After the third bridge take your next right and you’ll see the Payne Chapel church with it’s small steeple and scattered graveyard. Here lies Robert Johnson Gravesite #1.
Johnson’s diminutive marker had been placed there just twenty years before and was decorated with a guitar, a treble clef, and the bluesman’s dates: born on May 8th a century before my visit and died forty-nine years to the day before the passing of Elvis, on August 16th, 1938. I noticed a few guitar picks scattered about the gravesite so I added one of my own before we moved on.
A few miles further south on the 7 just as the road curves to the right you’ll see a road jutting out to the left. Turn down this road and you’ll soon find a small shack that serves as the Mount Zion Church, which is home to Robert Johnson Gravesite #2. Here Johnson’s marker is much more prominent. Though like the first, as I stood there it was also about twenty years old, this one also lists each one of his song titles and contains a short biography, and the area around it was entirely devoid of picks. There’s one there now.
Robert Johnson Gravesite #3 is in Greenwood and is much easier to find as it’s part of the official Mississippi Blues Trail and is accompanied by a plaque. This one seems to be where most people stop to pay their respects, and in addition to dozens of guitar picks scattered about people also leave money at this one. When I visited I noted several dollar bills and lots of coins. Again I left a pick and this time went back to the car to get a Canadian penny. M’lady was being a real trooper, clicking pictures and patiently wandering amongst the dead on a cold, blustery afternoon.
The real gravesite is unquestionably Robert Johnson Gravesite #1. I could feel it in my bones.
Our next destination was the tiny village of Avalon, about thirty miles north of Greenwood and so small that the folks I talked to at the nearest gas station had never heard of it. We pulled off the highway and found ourselves on a narrow, winding dirt road. Now this was rural Mississippi, from the roadside armadillo with it’s legs stuck stiffly up in the air to the school bus half-buried in an overgrown field.
I was in search of the grave of Mississippi John Hurt which was supposed to be somewhere in his hometown of Avalon, but as hard as we tried it eluded us. We did come across a boarded up, falling down shack that formerly held the Avalon General Store and was now the former Mississippi John Hurt museum – as indicated by a hand-scrawled sign inside a cracked, dirt-encrusted window – but that was as close as we got to the remains of the celebrated musician.
Back on solid asphalt we found our way to the I-55, the first time we’d been on an interstate highway for several days. On m’lady’s request we conducted a last-minute search for the home of William Faulkner which proved fruitless. Accepting a second straight failure we gave up and headed eastward, arriving in Tupelo right around 5pm.
I had expected Tupelo to be a small town but it turned out being fairly large. We drove and drove before finally reaching Elvis Presley Street which contains Elvis’ childhood home. It was a tiny shotgun shack, maybe 12′ by 20′, just a plain rectangular building with a small front porch. We had arrived too late to go inside but no matter, we did a walkabout to get a feel for the place and enjoyed reading signs featuring testimonials from the King’s boyhood friends and early schoolteachers. One anecdote related how Elvis desperately wanted either a gun or a bicycle for his birthday one year, but thinking they were too dangerous his mother Gladys dropped $7.95 on a guitar instead.
“You just take that home with you and learn to play it,” she told her disappointed son, “You might be famous one day.” Talk about return on investment!
The day had gotten pretty short so we got back on the road and pulled onto the pretty Natchez Trace Parkway, an hour later we crossed the border into Alabama. A little further on we stopped at a cheap motel on the outskirts of Muscle Shoals before topping out day with a delicious country meal of chicken-fried steak with cornbread in a nearby diner.
It had been a lot of driving and another big day! We were falling a bit behind my rigorous schedule and I figured I would have to do a little rewrite of the next few days but I wasn’t too concerned. The United States of America is a big country with much too much to see, and we’ll be back.
020811 Discovering The Shoals and Finding Lost Luggage
The Shoals is a small area in northern Alabama that is made up of four municipalities that run into one another: Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals. For an area with a population of less than 150,000 the four corners of the Shoals have vastly more than their share of things to be proud of.
Once again I woke up early enough that you’d think it was Christmas morning, and once again I puttered around the motel room making just enough noise to lull m’lady awake so we could start another day of adventure. The first stop on our itinerary was Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, better known as FAME Studios.
We pulled into their small parking lot at about 9:30am and I walked through the front door. “Can I help you?” asked a fellow sitting at a desk near the door. Now this isn’t a museum, it’s a working recording studio so I explained to the guy that I was down from Canada on a Rock & Roll Field Trip and could I please take a quick look around? Being so early there was nobody in there recording yet – in fact I think we were the only people in the place – so the fellah was happy to tell me the ins and outs of the place and show me around.
FAME was the beginning of what basically became Motown South, a small independent studio that pumped out hits from acts as varied as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett. Duane Allman worked there in the early days, and as the guy walked me back to Studio B he explained that it was in this very studio that the members of The Allman Brothers first met and began playing together before moving to Macon. In the 1970’s the studio branched out into pop and country, launching the careers of The Osmonds and Mac Davis, Jerry Reed and the Gatlin Brothers among many, many others. It was exciting to get my own private tour and as there wasn’t much going on I had as much time to linger as I liked (for some reason m’lady was outside in the car the whole time).
There were plenty of autographed 8×10’s on the walls, a glass case stacked full of cool memorabilia, and a hallway lined with albums that had been recorded there, many of which I own, and so do you. It was here that The Swampers started, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section that created the southern sound that the rock world is so intimately familiar with. The Swampers eventually branched off and started their own studio, a little place down the road called Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with the famous address of 3614 Jackson Highway, which was our next stop.
We did some driving around before finding the place, a building so famous I spotted it from blocks away. No longer a working studio and locked up tight, we had to settle for walking around outside the small square structure and taking our pictures in front of the place like we were Cher.
A little context in case you aren’t familiar with the place: After recording still more hits with such artists as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, the unmistakeable sound of The Swampers coming out of their new little Muscle Shoals studio started attracting the biggest names in the music business (name-dropped in Lynyrd Skynyd’s Sweet Home Alabama in a line that most people miss: “In Muscle Shoals they got The Swampers…”). The Rolling Stones recorded a couple of their biggest hits in that little building, as did Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Dr. Hook, Bob Seger and a legion of others. George Michaels recorded Careless Whisper there. It amazes me to ponder the number of celebrities that have walked the streets of the little area, and further astounds me to think of all the great music made there. There must be something in the water.
If so, the water’s been that way for well over a century. Want proof? The Shoals is the home of W.C. Handy, recognized as the Father Of The Blues. It is also also the birthplace of one of America’s great symbols of bravery and overcoming adversity, Helen Keller. As a matter of fact the place was basically founded on her fortuitousness; Keller’s family home was just the second house to be built in Tuscumbia.
With all of this progeny it’s no wonder the Alabama Music Hall of Fame made it’s home in the Shoals. We spent about an hour touring the collection and we learned a lot along the way. One-time Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux is an inductee and her display included the dress she wore at the Dead’s famed concerts in Egypt and a picture of her with Elvis from the session when she sang backup vocals on Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto. There was an exhibit dedicated to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and one of Hank Williams’ four remaining suits (the third we’d seen on this trip). We did a walk-through of Alabama’s first tour bus – which was a pretty sweet ride for an up-and-coming band – as well as exhibits honouring Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie, The Temptations and tons more. Surprisingly there was no mention of Jimmy Buffett (who was born in Mobile) or the Drive-By Truckers, who are from the immediate area (not to mention member Patterson Hood is the son of one of The Swampers). But as extensive as the Museum’s collection was the size of the building was even bigger, and the place definitely had room for growth.
We got out of there around 1pm and stopped at Subway for a cheap and mobile lunch before heading east for a couple of hours. I had a bit of a different stop planned for the rest of the afternoon, in Scottsboro.
Have you ever lost luggage whilst flying to or from the USA? If so your luggage unquestionably ended up at Unclaimed Baggage in northeast Alabama, it’s contents for sale at a bargain. Since 1970 Unclaimed Baggage has been contracted by every major airline in the States to purchase and resell everything the airlines get stuck with. Apparently tons of stuff gets thrown out with just as much being donated to charities. The rest ends up for sale in one of two large, adjacent buildings in Scottsboro, Alabama.
Books, suitcases, cameras, iPods, souvenirs, video cameras, camping gear, and clothes, clothes, clothes. Newly tagged and sorted items hit the shelves constantly as people rifled through other people’s lost treasures. The prices were good, but not truly astounding. I went straight to the music section and came close to pulling the trigger on an Ibanez electric 7-string guitar for $149, but in the end I decided I have problem enough with six strings so I saved my money. One area was reserved for signed memorabilia and the collection was vast, to say the least. It pained me to think of the poor fans who had lost these items…I even knew their names.
They had a room containing a mini-museum, where the stranger and more notable discoveries were kept under glass and not for sale. They had a part from the Space Shuttle that had been lost en route to NASA, a suitcase containing a couple of Jim Henson’s original Muppets that clearly went missing, and a host of other things that one could hardly imagine someone would trust to a luggage handler in the first place.
It boggles the mind to think how much drugs they must find, though I saw none for sale. I wonder how many Unclaimed Baggage customers arrive home with their new clock radio or camera and find an unexpected illicit surprise inside?
In the end I walked out with just a couple of Kurt Vonnegut books while m’lady bought herself some jeans and a few jackets. All were surprise-free.
Daylight was getting short by the time we finished our shopping tour so we decided to call it a day as far as attractions went. We drove a couple of pretty hours along secondary highways until we reached Atlanta, where pizza and beers were on the menu as we tuned into Rocky II on the motel tv set.
This was m’lady’s first trip to Alabama and we both liked it a whole lot. The people were friendly as hell and we loved their accents. And of course the music is fantastic.
020911 Macon, Tombstones, and The Allman Brother’s Band
When I woke up I knew it was too late to take advantage of the free continental breakfast but went down to the lobby for a coffee and a look around anyway. As I poked around a man from Tennessee was checking in. He and the lady behind the counter were having just the friendliest of conversations, each in their own thick-as-country-gravy southern accents. At one point the man drawled to the lady that she was gonna hafta be speakin’ jus a wee bit slowa on accounta thu fact that he couldn’t unnerstan’ half a word she was tryin’ tuh say, which I found quite funny. Then they started talking about immigrants and how they were so hard to understand too.
“They’s don’t like to be called ‘Indians’ neither,” she said, “but I don’t cares if youse Hindu, Pakistani, or Indian…they all come from India anyhows so they’s all Indians as fars I’m concerned!”
The guy turned to me standing behind him and actually reached out and crooked his arm around my neck, giving me a little hug. “If they don’t talk American,” he laughed in my ear, “I don’t wanna hear from ’em ‘tall!” The constant drawl made the absurdity of the conversation especially pointed.
The customer then said he was going down the road to McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich and the lady immediately piped up, “Oh, would y’all grab me up a breakfass sanmmich too? Just one of whatever y’all are havin’?” He readily agreed to pick her up something and out the door he went with a wave to both of us. Then the lady turned her attention to me and she asked what she could do to help me.
“I guess breakfast is done?” I asked.
“Y’all juss tells me what you’s needin’ sugar,” she said, smiling and pulling the breakfast tray from below the counter so I could make myself some toast. She even went so far as to explain to me how to operate the toaster. “Y’all juss push down that there lever and the toast, well it’ll juss pop up all by isself!”
They were both so very friendly and so obviously racist, and at a glance they assumed I was in their ugly club. Such is the duality of the Southern thing, as the Drive-By Truckers say.
In the end we didn’t get going until about 11:30, making this the latest start to the day of our trip thus far. We stopped for a pair of coffees (we hadn’t seen a Dunkin’ Donuts for days) and made it to Macon, Georgia in about an hour.
We drove straight to The Big House, even though we knew it would be closed on a Wednesday. The house that the Allman Brothers Band collectively rented and used as a rehearsal spot when they first started out was easy to spot, with its beautiful Graceland-style gates decorated with a huge mushroom garishly adorning the curb appeal. The gates were closed up tight of course, but there was room for us to pull in so we did, with the intention of poking around outside the gate for a spell. A lady came up and asked if she could help us. I explained the Rock & Roll Field Trip to her and added that though we knew the place would be closed we were such fans of the band that we just had to make the stop anyway.
“Well, you wanna come in then?” she asked, rather rhetorically.
Peggy introduced herself as the curator of the museum told us that we had been lucky to catch her there. Despite it being her day off she and her friend Wes were onsite doing some work and letting their dogs run around the grounds. We walked up the steps of the century-old Tudor house and admired the lovely mushroom-themed stained glass entranceway while we waited for Peggy to open the door.
We didn’t get the whole tour, but Peggy talked us through the front few rooms, which were covered top-to-bottom with incredible Allman Brothers Band memorabilia of all stripes. She explained that the foundation held an astounding 300,000 artifacts related to the band and their offshoots, though only about 10% of their collection was on display at any one time. She was just so nice and we were so appreciative of her letting us in for a little private tour that m’lady and I both made a point of spending some money on a couple of t-shirts in the gift shop.
Peggy told us the story about when the Brothers first came to town they had gone to a local restaurant called H&H to eat. Though there were six of them they could only afford to order three plates of food to share, but when the owner came out and saw those poor skinny hippies waiting on their food she brought out six plates anyway.
“When y’all get some money together,” said Mama Louise, “you can come on back and pay me then.” Well, that act of kindness created a bond, and when the Allman’s embarked on their first major tour they brought “Vittles” Louise along with them as their tour cook. The bond remained strong; every surviving member of the band had recently made a point of coming to town to attend Louise’s 80th birthday.
Of course as soon as we left The Big House we bee-lined it to H&H for some lunch and found the place just as the band would have found it forty years earlier, except for all the ABB paraphernalia that now lined the walls, much of it signed with much love from the band. When our food came we were treated to heaping piles of fantastic authentic southern soul food; fried chicken, collared greens, okra and tomato, rice and gravy, mac and cheese, and even some sweet potato pie for dessert.
After lunch we went to the stunningly beautiful Rose Hill cemetery, located in the heart of Macon. Peggy had given us a marked map of Rose Hill so we could find our way around. Our first stop was the grave of Elizabeth Jones Reed Napier, where legend claims that Dickey Betts had an ‘encounter’ with a lady-friend that inspired his tactfully instrumental composition, In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.
Next we found the graves of both Duane Allman and Berry Oakley resting side by side. Such monstrous talent taken so early. It’s amazing to imagine that Duane Allman had played on so many sessions with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, provided such masterful slide work all over Eric Clapton’s Layla album, and helped to propel his own band to legendary stardom and helping developing an entire genre along the way, and he didn’t even live to see his 25th birthday. What a tragedy.
We found the pretty statue of Martha Ellis, a little girl who passed in the late 19th century at the age of twelve. I sat on the grass beside her marker and played Duane’s Little Martha for her. As the final harmonics slowly faded into oblivion I was struck by how peaceful of a place it was. I could have sat there all afternoon.
Macon is another city with more than its share of musical history and once we got back on the street we drove around checking it all out. The bus station on Spring Street was where a young ‘Little’ Richard Penniman wrote Tutti-Frutti while he was washing dishes in the station’s restaurant. Around the corner on Mulberry Street was where an as-yet-unknown James Brown was busily writing and rehearsing preparing himself for Godfather status. Macon was also hometown to the great Otis Redding and we found a nice statue of him down by the river.
Our last stop in the city was the Georgia Music Hall of Fame which housed a modest collection dedicated to the greatest musicians of the state, which includes The B-52’s, Widespread Panic, Ludicris, Ray Charles, and many others. Most impressive was a special exhibit featuring the work of Steve Penley, an artist who created huge musical portraits with thick swaths of colour. Every piece was worthy of praise.
When we finished with the museum the afternoon was nearly gone so we hit the highway headed south, leaving Macon behind us. Macon had so much to offer we promised that next time we’d have to make a point of staying longer.
As one who enjoys driving so much it was rare for me to hand the wheel over to m’lady, but It was she who piloted us across the Suwannee River (“how I love ya!”) with its highway sign sporting the famous song’s sheet music, which was written by a man who had even never been there. We were heading next to my mother’s winter spot north of Tampa for the night. The temperature started to rise as we made our way further south despite the rain that started to fall, though the temperature remained chilly at a mere dozen degrees Celsius. That said, it was a lot warmer than the consistently unseasonable cold weather that had been chasing us on our journey, so in a relative sense it was nice to finally get a touch of warm-ish weather. For the entire trip we had experienced significantly lower than usual temperatures, staying just a day ahead of actual, real snow everywhere we’ve stopped – even in places like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi…We had only once experienced temperatures above five degrees and we were certainly looking forward to some nicer weather once we got to the bottom of the Florida boot.
021011 A Killer Ending to the Rock & Roll Field Trip
When I started planning the Rock & Roll Field Trip so many months before I had come across what would be the perfect coda to our journey. I figured that if we worked everything just right we could be in Naples, Florida to catch one of the pioneers of rock & roll, the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis live in concert. Tickets had already long been on sale when I discovered the show online but at the time I felt that it was too soon in the planning stages to commit to buying a pair. As I planned and replanned the Rock & Roll Field Trip I was careful to keep an eye on the ticket availability and noted that sales were going pretty slowly. By late January our plans were getting pretty finalized and there were still plenty of tickets available; there was clearly no need to panic.
When m’lady was finally able to confirm her vacation days once and for all she gave me the go ahead to start booking everything. My second call was to the Naples Philharmonic Center, only to discover to my horror that the Jerry Lee Lewis concert had sold out just an hour before! I was crestfallen, but the person on the phone told me that they kept a waiting list as tickets were often returned, and with my semi-timely call our names would be first in line should any seats come up. We were still a good three weeks from showtime so I figured it was a lock.
Long story short: when I awoke on this day – the morning of the concert – we still had no tickets. A call to the theater informed us that the waiting list became null and void on the day of the performance, so if any tickets were to be returned they would be now distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
My mom made us a delicious breakfast and we were on our way well before noon. We had it in mind to stop in to check out the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg but as we made our way south we decided it was more crucial to be first-comers and decided to give it a pass. I had been before, though the museum had recently relocated to a new building that had been designed specifically to house the collection, and m’lady had previously visited Dali’s home and museum in Spain. The tipping point was deciding that we’d feel too rushed to truly enjoy the master’s art, and with my mother having her place so close by we would have ample opportunities to visit another time, and so we pressed on.
In Naples we pulled off the highway towards the Philharmonic, passing a steady stream of hoity-toity retirement compounds along the way. We found the venue smack dab in the middle of Geriatric Central and discovered there were still no tickets available, so we took a number (1), sat on a nearby bench and waited. M’lady pulled out a book and I grabbed my guitar to while away the time on a sunny afternoon and in less than a half hour badda-bing badda-boom we had a pair of premium tickets in hand. Walking on air with a sweet feeling of victory we drove to our hotel and warmed up for the show.
We made it back to the venue just before 8pm which was fortuitous as the show surprised us by starting precisely on time. There was an opening act: two-time Grammy award winner Frankie Ford, an aging original rock & roller who was semi-famous for his hit Sea Cruise. Looking around the crowd I noted that m’lady and I were easily the youngest people in the room with the average age of the audience probably landing somewhere around the mid-seventies or so, no kidding. These were Frankie’s people, and he spent much of his set telling jokes older than Moses and the crowd ate it up like Viagra. Ford was used a pickup band of local musicians who did a great job of covering his extremely sloppy piano playing, but when he opened his mouth to sing he still had the pipes.
After a very short intermission Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister Linda Gail Lewis warmed up the crowd a little more, pounding the ivories in a very-Jerry style. After a few songs too many she left the stage and let the band take over the stage for a couple more songs until finally the crowd started getting belligerent. It was a refreshing dose of rebellious rock and roll to hear such an aged crowd croak for Jerry Lee Lewis to hit the stage. Everyone’s bedtime was looming, let’s get the show on the road!
Finally The Killer took to the stage looking every bit his age, clocking in at just over three-quarters of a century. He shuffled over to the piano, sat down and with the first chord transformed into a man less than half his age. He still had it and he still had it all; that unmistakeable voice and those world-famous piano chops.
As he rollicked through his short set it occurred to me how perfect of a cap this was for our Rock & Roll Field Trip. With the most subtle of turns Lewis illustrated perfectly how closely the blues and country music became rock & roll. One minute Lewis played us to Nashville, the next he took us to Clarksdale, but in the end it was really all Memphis. With covers ranging from Ma Rainey and Gene Autrey to his one-time rival Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee led us on an audio tour of where his sound had come from, and when he closed the show with the two biggest hits by any artist to ever come from Sun Records (Elvis tracks included), Great Balls Of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’, well, the cronies in the crowd that had lasted to the end of the concert cheered as wildly as a hall-full room of octogenarians could. When Lewis finished the concert by executing his signature move of standing up and kicking his piano bench away while his right hand pounded out chords like a machine gun I thought the ladies were going throw their Depends onto the stage.
After back-to-back closers like that there could be no encore, and as he bowed slightly and ambled off the stage Jerry Lee Lewis transformed back into the man he truly was: aged with very high mileage. I stood and cheered as loud as I could, thrilled to have seen a walking, talking piece of history, $250,000 of the Million Dollar Quartet and the last man standing from the Sun Studios revolution.
And thus ended the Rock & Roll Field Trip element of our journey. Though we saw so much there was so much left to see and as I meander through this world I will continue to chase these ghosts of three-chord glory, but for the moment we would be switching gears. This vacation still had several twists to go, so even with our musical treasure hunt over my excitement for the coming days had little cause to wane.
021111 The Everglades
This was a free day, the first one of the trip. For every day of this overtly pre-planned journey I had written up an itinerary page rife with directions, suggestions, and possible rejections. On this morning I reached into the binder and pulled out a completely blank page. A glance out of our hotel window showed a rainy day but as we loaded our bags into the car we were happy to find our second 20C+ day in a row. Finally we were getting vacation temperatures, even if the sun refused to shine.
We started the day with a nice slow drive east through the Everglades. We were a ways south of the famous Alligator Alley on Highway 41, a smaller, two-lane swath through the marshy preserve. Soon enough the rain stopped, the sunroof was opened for the first time in months, and we were cruising through absolutely glorious Florida weather.
Halfway along we stopped for a short roadside nature hike where we had opportunity to see plenty of alligators swimming around, and big ones too. That most resilient survivor of the dinosaur era, it was all I could do to not reach out and touch one, in the same way that I get tempted to lick fenceposts in cold weather. Though ‘gators are basically born with their own built-in “Do Not Touch” sign there is something so placid about the antique creatures that I just want to feel what that bumpy skin of theirs feels like. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten; looks like I was able to resist after all.
I was surprised to see that when a ‘gator approaches, other seemingly bite-sized wildlife tend to sit by utterly unperturbed. I expected these guys to be King of the Swamp scattering all in their path, but not so. I suspect they eat rarely enough to keep their prey complacent, which is probably a pretty solid long-term hunting strategy.
We eventually made it over to Homestead where we hit up a barbecue place for lunch and stocked up on supplies. Though the afternoon was quickly slipping away we decided to try the campgrounds in Everglade State Park.
Shortly after paying our $10 entrance fee (good for seven days) we pulled over to enjoy a couple of short walking trails. One was all flora, the other was all about the fauna. Oh, the critters we saw! Aside from the obligatory alligators (or were they crocodiles? The Everglades is the only place in the world where the two co-exist) there were at least a zillion birds. Vultures were omnipresent but the most photogenic were the tall beaky birds with flamingo-style leggings (an ornithologist I am not), of which there were many varieties. I noticed one bird perched on a pole that was unquestionably a patron of Rod Stewart’s hair stylist. As we walked along the wooden pathway past information kiosks that warned of all the different poisonous snakes in the area I got a real feeling of Ray Bradbury’s short story Sound Of Thunder; whatever you do, don’t veer off the path!
Everywhere we looked we saw an absolute wealth of wildlife. Our scope of vision could take in so many critters in a single glance that everywhere we looked was akin to staring at a diorama in the Museum of Nature. Fortunately we didn’t see any snakes nor any panthers. Soon the sun started to dip and with a tent still to pitch we were off.
We returned to find our car unharmed from the circling vultures (much signage warned that the large birds would often damage vehicles and we saw evidence of that in the parking lot), and just down the road we found the first of two state park campgrounds. Undeterred by our day of carnivore-spotting we put up the tent, grabbed a beer and the guitar, and hunkered down for a night of strumming and swatting at mosquitoes. I found it refreshing to have to worry about bugs in February. M’lady found it significantly less refreshing so were were soon in the tent for the night.
As the moon rose I was concerned that my excitement for the coming day wouldn’t let me sleep. This was the day we’d been looking forward to most of all, though truth be told I also harboured a bit of fear about the whole thing. Beer, as always, was the cure.
021211 Sleeping With the Fishes; Jules’ Undersea Lodge
I awoke after a fitful sleep, at best. Whether my lack of sleep was due to the wind that whipped our tent around all night or anticipation of the day ahead matters not, either way m’lady and I got up around 8:30 and packed up our gear in the rain. By 9:30 we were on the road, by ten o’clock we were in a Starbucks drive-thru back in Homestead, and by 10:30 we were on the long bridge that arced over the salt water and delivered us onto the Florida keys.
Key Largo was our destination, making this the shortest daily drive of the journey thus far. We found the scuba shop where I had pre-arranged rental of a prescription diving mask (you can’t dive while wearing glasses), and we drove up the road to check out our digs for the night.
It was still three hours to check-in, but we walked around the lagoon we would be staying in and watched a giant manatee (is there any other kind of manatee?) idling about in the water just a few metres from where we stood, occasionally lifting his nostrils out of the sea to drink in the air as his huge beaver-like tail propelled him slowly about.
With a few hours to kill we stopped at a cheesy flea market, hit the post office to mail some postcards, and found another Starbucks for some wi-fi. The lady at our hotel had recommended a spot for lunch so we hit that up and finally it was time for our big adventure.
M’lady has been a certified diver for some time and she has scuba’d in some of the world’s most envious diving spots. At the time I was not a certified diver, and as such I had skipped out on diving some of the world’s most envious diving spots, partly out of being a cheap tourist but mostly out of fear. What scared me was the chance that I’d get spooked by something underwater that would make me do something stupid. It’s not that I was afraid of getting eaten; I was more afraid that I might panic underwater and needlessly cause my own demise.
That said, we decided that this adventure was too cool to resist, plus it would provide me with a great opportunity to test my apprehensions.
I met Andy, the man who would be walking me through everything I needed to know and basically holding my hand as I completed my mini ‘resort’ dive course. After filling out a bunch of forms and waivers we began my dry training, which consisted of him telling me all I’d need to know once we got in the water. A half-hour later I was ready to suit up.
I suppose it goes without saying that m’lady looks a lot cuter than I do in a wetsuit. My fears were at least partially validated because I’m sure I looked more like a tasty walrus than an icky human in the black squishy tights. Into the water I went, where Andy ran me through my skills training. Basically he showed me how to retrieve my regulator should it pop out of my mouth and how to clear my mask should it get flooded with water, and not much more. When my head initially went underwater my fears started to pique, but by the time I had gone through my little tests with Andy I was feeling fine, so off we went.
Andy led us on a tour of the small lagoon, past their submerged research facility, over a Spanish galleon with its cannons and anchor, and around the rock pile that was usually home to a nurse shark, though she wasn’t there. I did see my share of fish and a funny little lobster running around but soon it was time for the featured attraction. Following Andy over to a large, barnacled structure in the middle of the lagoon we swam underneath it and poked our heads up through a hole in the bottom – the moon pool they called it – and surfaced inside Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the world’s only underwater hotel.
Sporting a wet room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen/living room, Jules’ Undersea Lodge was built as an underwater research facility that was initially stationed a hundred feet below the surface in Puerto Rico. At the end of its service one of the researchers purchased the airtight research station and anchored it five fathoms deep in Key Largo. As we showered and changed Andy pulled a plate of fruit and a pile of jumbo shrimp out of the fridge for us, and then proceeded to give us a tour. There was a tv and a bunch of dvd’s (The Abyss, anyone?), snacks aplenty, tv’s and radios in each of the two bedrooms, and of course telephones with which we could contact the surface in case of emergencies (though whenever people are inside the Undersea Lodge someone monitors them from a control van on the surface. They have access to live video of the wet room and streaming audio of the rest). Most fun were the big round windows that looked out into the water like a reverse fishbowl.
Andy left us by diving through the hole in the floor of the wet room, only to return an hour later with our dinner in his waterproof suitcase. He reappeared with salad, chicken, baked potato with sour cream and chives, broccoli, and of course key lime pie for dessert. The food was mostly prepared when he arrived but Andy had a little cooking to do in the little underwater kitchen so our dinner would be hot and fresh for us.
While he cooked he told us a lot about the place. Notable guests that had spent the night in Jules Undersea Lodge included Pierre Trudeau, Jon Fishman, Joe Perry, Robin Leach, and now us. Playboy once did a photo shoot down there, as did National Geographic, and The Amazing Race filmed one of their season finales in the lagoon. There were registers we could flip through filled with glowing reviews from past guests including several NASA officials, as the facility had been used to help condition astronauts through isolation training.
Once dinner was served Andy bid us farewell until the morning and then we had the place to ourselves. M’lady popped a Jimmy Buffett into the cd player and sat gazing out the big round windows until they turned pitch black.
Then we slept with the fishes.
021311 Cruising the Keys
When m’lady and I woke up we were officially aquanauts. At 6:00am I rolled out of bed, leaving m’lady to slumber in the sleeping chambers alone. I crawled through the large portal through the wet room and continued into the living area. I quietly made myself a coffee and munched some crackers while I eased myself awake. I sat in front of the blackened window perusing yesterday’s newspaper and waiting for the sun to rise. Soon the windows began to light up oh so gradually revealing a parade of marine life just outside, though it was certainly a case of who’s watching who. Some of the fish were as curious about me as I was about them, pressing their little wet noses up against the glass and checking me out. It was a remarkably calm, serene, and surreal experience to say the least.
M’lady and I had stayed in Quebec’s Ice Hotel once and I have often described it as the world’s quietest place to sleep, devoid as it is of any sort of plumbing or ductwork, not to mention the natural sound buffering of the thick walls of snow. Jules’ Undersea Lodge is quite the opposite. Sleeping down there was like sleeping in a busy laundromat with all the air compressors and water sounds emanating from, well, everywhere. But really, it was just white noise behind what was a wholly fantastic and unforgettable experience.
After about an hour m’lady got up and enjoyed a coffee and some fresh fruit while I made myself a bowl of cereal. Around 8am the phone rang. It was our host Andy asking us to pack up and suit up, he would be joining us in ten minutes. He arrived and took our waterproof suitcases to the surface before coming back for us. On our way out Andy showed us around the outside of Jules’ Undersea Lodge. We swam all around the structure, peering into the wide windows that we had spent most of our time peering out of. Above the hotel we found tons of fish and a drum kit. Yes, a drum kit; it had been installed on the roof of the underwater hotel as part of a recent filming for The Amazing Race. M’lady and I had a little undersea jam up there and too soon it was time to make our way up to solid ground.
I was having so much fun I was reluctant to surface. Clearly my stay beneath the waves had cured my scuba diving apprehensions. Now that I saw what all the hubbub (blub-blub?) was about I tried not to think of all the amazing places where I had passed up the chance to dive and instead focus on all the adventures to come when I became certified, which happened four years later in The Bahamas.
Back onshore we showered and hopped in the car. We stopped for a snack at Wendy’s and did some wi-fi, then we window shopped through a couple of cheesy souvenir shops in Key Largo before setting off in earnest down the keys. The day was gorgeous; there was not a single cloud in the sky and the temperature was in the mid-20’s Celsius. Sunroof open and cd’s loaded up, we enjoyed a beautiful drive with the bluest of water on either side of us the whole time. The keys are a series of islands (well, keys, cays, quays, whatever you want to call them) connected by bridge after bridge after bridge, and it all makes for some darn fine scenery. The only thing in Canada I could compare it to was the Magdalen Islands, but way more tropical.
In less than an hour we arrived at Long Key State Park where we had a reservation for the night (reservations were absolutely necessary, every campsite on the whole of the keys had been booked for weeks). We arrived before checkin so we changed into bona fide summer clothes for the first time on the trip and went for a nice little nature walk through the park. Shortly after 1pm we returned to the booth and were assigned a camping spot on the beach. We pitched our tent and immediately got back in the car, aimed at Key West.
The ride just kept getting prettier and prettier, and sixty miles later we were at the end of the keys. We turned onto highway A1A and circumnavigated Key West, cruising right past Mile 0 before finding a parking spot on Duval Street, Key West’s main drag. We fed the meter and meandered up the strip. The area was uber-touristy, mostly bars, restaurants, and souvenir hawkers with a smattering of old majestic homes that somehow survived the t-shirt shop onslaught scattered in between. One can only imagine what Key West must have been like before the tourist onslaught. My guess is it might have resembled Havana.
Soon hunger started to settle in, and near the top of Duval Street we decided on a patio restaurant called Fogarty’s.
Fogarty’s. Remember that name my friends.
With local legend Jimmy Buffett’s Cheeseburger In Paradise ringing in my head I ordered one of my standard faves, the blue cheeseburger. When the waiter set the plate in front of me I immediately gasped.
“You just made my dreams come true,” I muttered through my drool. He seemed a bit put off but it could have been worse; I almost told him that I loved him. The cheeseburger was a thing of unholy beauty. It looked too good – and too big – to eat. The burger must have been two-thirds of a pound and it was completely smothered with a combination of crumbled blue cheese and grated bacon, accompanied by a side of fries so hot they were steaming. I jstared at my quarry for a few moments and relished it with my eyes, and when I finally dug in the first bite gave me goosebumps. In my lifelong non-competitive search for the world’s greatest cheeseburger this was certainly a contender. I ate the whole thing in mere minutes and wiped my plate clean.
Fogarty’s. On Duval Street, in Key West. Dear lord.
While m’lady waited for her key lime pie dessert (her third slice in two days – when in Rome…) I ran about a dozen blocks to re-feed our parking meter. It was much farther than I had estimated and by the time I had returned m’lady had paid the tab and was standing on the sidewalk sipping her beer (Key West is one of several cities in America with the sense to allow open liquor). We weaved lackadaisically through the streets until we reached Mallory Square where we joined at least ten thousand other out-of-towners to watch the sunset. It’s funny, ‘cuz over dinner the idea had struck me that with Key West being the furthest west of the keys it would probably be a good place to watch the sun go down. In other words, I thought we’d be the only ones there. In reality the place was an absolute madhouse of tourists (of course) and touts (also of course). The sun went down, the whole crowd applauded this mirage caused by our spinning world, and m’lady and I booted it out of there. We did a slow walk back to the car where the meter had run out again, but luckily there was no ticket. We turned around and hit the slow-moving highway, joining a parade of vehicles that were headed north out of town towards cheaper hotel rooms.
Ninety minutes later we had arrived back at our camp site where we sipped beers under a beautiful starry sky. Night had fallen and yet the temperature still hovered around twenty degrees. The sand was like powder between our toes and the wind was blowing just enough to keep the bugs at bay.
Overall, the change in latitude felt absolutely wonderful.
021411 Leaving the Keys for the House of the Mouse
Long Key State Park was pretty, well kept, and very clean. It was also very close to the highway. With the camping spots situated just fifty metres from the road the park maintains a pretty steady drone of traffic. Of course the traffic gets dronier as the morning starts to progress so we were up and out of bed early once again.
M’lady and I sat on our picnic table for an hour or more staring at the water and watching the sun make its way up into the sky. Just in front of us a small flock of birds played in the sand while one of those long-leggers slowly waded along the shore from as far as we could see left to as far as we could see right. It was a great way to ring in Valentine’s Day, Or any day for that matter. For what it’s worth neither m’lady nor I puts any more stock into Valentine’s Day than we do Bastille Day.
Nice hot showers were available in a building just a few dozen metres away, after which we packed up our gear and got out of there. Even after all that we were on the road well before 9am, and after a stop for breakfast and some more lovely oceanic views we left the Florida Keys behind us, headed back north towards Homestead.
We were lucky to find another lovely day, so we kept the sunroof open for the entire long drive. We opted to stay on secondary highways and avoided the Interstate all the way to Celebration.
That’s right, the third stage of our epic vacation would be that most American of institutions: Disney. I had last visited way back in the early 70’s when Disney World was made up of just the Magic Kingdom. My most vivid memory from that trip was the Dumbo ride so I anticipated big changes. The first thing I noticed was how dirt cheap the hotels leading up to Disney World are. We’re talking name-brand hotels advertising rates as low as $21 a night. For the last ten or so miles of the strip every hotel was under $30. This vacation was to contain no proletariat off-site stay for us though. No, we had booked the last three nights of the off-season at Disney’s onsite budget hotel – the All-Star resort – at $89 a night. The All-Star contained three themed hotels and of course we chose the music one.
We checked in and were assigned a ground floor room in the Country Music building. Driving to our room we passed the Calypso, Jazz, and Rock buildings, three-storey hotels adorned with huge maracas and conga drums, giant Les Pauls and Strats, until we reached our place, replete with monstrous banjos, fiddles, and cowboy boots (size 210). There were two swimming pools; one piano-shaped and the other guitar-shaped, a lobby lined with photos of stars from Charlie Parker and Johnny Cash to The Beatles and Elton John, and a huge diner/food court decorated with murals of famous musicians of all stripes.
Our room had the ever-so-clever Mickey Mouse logo on everything: the carpet, the curtains, the tables, the soap…everything! The maid had left three towels on the bed wound into one big circle and two little ones, that remarkably simple design that is recognized at a glance worldwide.
I filled our beer cooler with lobby ice and brought a large pepperoni pizza from the food court back to our room where we spent the night relaxing and leafing through info on all the Disney parks. It was an exercise in futility as we had planned our stay to coincide with the end of m’lady’s sister’s annual family pilgrimage. With their two young children solidly in the ideal Disney age bracket, the in-laws really knew their way around Disney and would prove to be excellent guides.
When we turned in for the night we had a few slices of pizza left for our petit dejeuner. I can’t speak for the beers.
021511 A Cynic Succumbs to the Magical Mouse
In the morning we got the call from m’lady’s family; we were to meet them at Animal Kingdom at 10am. The Disney folks are loath to have you spend time in your room so there was no coffee maker. As I strolled past the Rock Building towards the cafeteria for java I noticed Frankie Ford’s Sea Cruise emanating from the omnipresent speakers. Had it really been just five days since our Rock & Roll Field Trip had ended with Frankie opening for Jerry Lee Lewis? Sigh.
The diner was packed but bless those Disney people, somehow it took no time at all to get a pair of coffees.
Drank up, cleaned up, paid for our theme park day passes at the concierge desk in our hotel lobby (our room keys doubled as our tickets and tripled as park-wide charge cards for food, souvenirs, and everything else), and boarded the free shuttle bus to Animal Kingdom.
I’ll admit I approached the day with a touch of cynicism, Disney being the international poster child for American capitalist entertainment gluttony. After all, isn’t Disney basically an evil empire masquerading as a bunch of cute cartoon characters? I noticed extensive security on the way in, which culminated in a fingerprint scan that linked each individual to their admission tickets. That got my hair up on end. M’lady suggested I just let it go but I needed a minute to let the indignation dissipate. Doing all I could to suppress my cynicism I braced myself and had my thumbprint scanned. Silenced and in danger of losing my cool, I grudgingly clunked my increasingly unwilling torso through the turnstile.
As we made our way to our familial meeting point we passed an enclosure – or was it even that? – containing a giant anteater. I was amazed by the wacky looking critter, especially how he was just walking around a few metres away, with no glass nor bars between us. Okay…I had to admit that was pretty cool.
We found the family in short order and under their tutelage we all immediately got fastpass tickets for the African Safari ride. Fastpass was available to all ticket holders and it allowed you to go check out other stuff and return to a ride in a certain time window in order to avoid big lineups at the more popular rides. Well now, that was a pretty good tip. We killed our wait time doing the African nature walk which brought us past plenty of crazy critters, and not a one of them in cages.
I was stunned by the gorillas. They were active and seemingly quite content and for the life of me I could not figure out what kept them from being able to get to us or to the other animals. Those Disney folks were pretty good at the whole smoke-and-mirrors thing, and they weren’t just fooling the kids.
As soon as we finished the nature walk it was time for our Safari fastpass, so we entered and walked right by hundreds and hundreds of people that were waiting in the prodigious line. In less than five minutes we were sitting in our big safari car with about thirty others. Our driver set off and together we careened along passing a wealth of animals, most of which appeared to be free-roaming. We saw crocodiles, elephants, okapis, giraffes, gazelles, watusi cattle, wildebeest, lions, hippos, white and black rhinos…it was incredible. We were beside three amazing cheetahs when we were forced to stop for several minutes. The driver explained that as the animals were free to go where they wanted, quite often they would end up in front of one of the tour vehicles and when that happened the whole shebang had to stop and wait. I thought that was pretty cool.
While we waited the cheetahs got up and started roaming around. The driver told us this was quite rare as they usually spent the daylight hours laying around. When we started up again we soon found ourselves behind a couple of slow-moving ostriches so we ambled along slowly behind until they decided to veer off the path.
It was a really impressive, um, I guess they call it a ride, so I was happy that we had picked up a second fastpass for the Safari just before we boarded, which allowing us to take the safari again right away. This was a pro tip from m’lady’s family. As the animals in the safari are free to roam about you never get the same trek twice, and I thoroughly enjoyed it again the second time through.
I had long heard a rumour that Disney employees weren’t allowed to grow moustaches, and that the company got away with this discrimination infringement because each and every one of their employees were considered actors. I kept my eye out and soon debunked this myth…I saw at least three “cast members” with facial hair. I had also heard that Disney Co. had analyzed how many steps the average person would take before they finished a candy bar and then they placed garbage cans that many steps from their candy bar shops. I can’t say one way or another for sure, but when I finished my walkabout coffee I looked around for a garbage and discovered that I was standing right next to one.
I was surprised that Disney was relatively low key when it came to the gift shops. Sure, every section had its own unique stores, but unlike a lot of touristy places Disney generally didn’t force patrons to walk through a maze of capitalism to enter and/or exit every single ride or area. Just two of the attractions we took in dumped us straight into their shops. More often they were tucked away on the sidelines.
By the time we sat down for lunch and a beer my cynicism had completely disappeared. Before we ate m’lady’s brother-in-law grabbed us some fastpasses for the Experience Everest roller coaster, and right after lunch we left the kids with their mom and once again we strolled past a zillion people waiting in the regular line and walked right onto the ride. It boggled my mind to imagine why most people don’t utilize the fastpass option, but as m’lady has told me more than once: some people just love to stand in line.
The Experience Everest coaster was downright awesome and we rode it twice in a row, which left me a bit legless. We calmed down with another nature walk where we saw gorgeous tigers and fascinating flying-fox bats, huge komodo dragons and a crazy assortment of exotic birds. We watched as a bunch of monkeys monkeyed around looking happy as clams, and again there was not a cage in sight. Amazing.
M’lady and I broke off from the group to try the white water raft ride and later met up with the family over in Dino-Land. The kids played in the playground while we adults tried the Dinosaur ride in shifts. Part simulator, part coaster, I found this the least of the day’s rides, but I still rode it twice. By then the park was closing for the day but we had dinner reservations at the Rainforest Cafe – which remained open after hours – and when we were done with dinner was a shuttle bus outside that seemed to be waiting just for us. I mean, there was nobody else around at all and as soon as we stepped on the idling bus the driver closed the door and took us directly to our hotel. I would have been weirded out by it, but I decided this was probably the upside of being fingerprinted and just enjoyed the (creepy, Big Brother-like) convenience. In no time at all we were back at the Music Hotel mixing drinks and watching Wall-E on the Disney-leaning television.
I was really quite surprised at how much fun I had. Like they always say, Disney have thought of pretty much everything. I wouldn’t say the day was necessarily “magical” (except maybe that waiting bus) but Canada’s Wonderland et al can’t touch their kind of entertainment. They got me.
021611 Pool Day
With nary a day in the previous two weeks to just sit down and be on regular ole vacation, m’lady and I suggested that we skip out on hitting a park today and her familial counterparts agreed, so we settled on pool day.
The two of us lazed around for most of the morning with coffees and newspapers until 11am when we boarded a shuttle bus out front of our hotel. Throughout our stay the free shuttle service worked really well and one of the things I liked the most was how often they would just go from point A to point B; rarely was it a milk run to get where you were going. That said, there was no way to get directly from one hotel to another. To do so we had to pivot at one of the theme parks so we boarded the bus to Magic Kingdom and waited there for the ferry service and smooth as butter it carried us across a lake and delivered us to Wilderness Lodge where m’lady’s family was staying.
The difference between the budget resort where we were staying and the more upscale Wilderness Lodge was immediately apparent. Exposed wooden beams appointed the entire hotel like a log cabin on steroids. The lobby was the size of a football field and with a ceiling that extended up up up, creating a huge open space. Inside hotel rooms every available piece of wood was carved into the shape of a sparrow, a rabbit, or some other endearing creature and the headboard of the beds featured elaborately etched nature scenes.
The main pool was really nice, with decorative rocks jutting out of the centre in the form of a water slide. The water was warm and clean and the six of us splashed around with tons of space to ourselves. Soon we went around to the other pool area which was smaller and had a hot tub. We killed the whole afternoon there, jumping back and forth between the warm pool and the warmer hot tub while the sun battled the clouds providing us an intermittently beautiful day.
Around 5pm we bid the family farewell with hugs and handshakes and well wishes for a good flight home in the morning. For our part, m’lady and I opted decided to hop a bus to Downtown Disney for a look around.
Downtown Disney was not ticketed, but then again it’s not like they had rides or standard theme park offerings there. I guess you could call it pay-what-you-can: it was primarily shops, restaurants, shops, Cirque du Soliel, shops, House Of Blues and Planet Hollywood, and lots more shops. They had a sock store and another shop that sold only collector pins and nothing more. This is where the world’s largest Disney Store was, plus a Lego store and other toy stores aplenty; it was a credit card fiesta. The products were rather unique and generally pricey, though between m’lady and I we only spent $4, walking out of there with a single unique and pricey postcard.
The food at Disney was expensive – about double or more what you’d pay elsewhere but it was plentiful and generally pretty good. For lunch I had a roast beef sandwich with blue cheese and chips, no drink. It was delicious and it cost $10.01 (I pulled out a ten and handed it to her with a smile and a shrug, she pointed to the register and demanded the missing penny. I jumped back in line and asked m’lady for a buck and handed it to the cashier who fished my 99¢ change out of her till. I was pretty shocked. I had ordered one of only eight or so options from the lunch counter menu which meant that this girl probably had to dig out 99¢ in change quite often, an act that the meticulous folks at Disney must have known costs them more than that penny in human resources). A single banana would put you back a buck and a half, they sold single bagels for $2.39 while bread was sold by the slice: thirty-nine cents each and you toasted it yourself. The prices didn’t look to be slowing people down very much, as the growing obesity problem (more noticeable the farther south one travels) was unmissable.
I’ll include a tiny rant: Disney parks are full of people driving those little handicap carts all over the place, and as far as I could tell they were all being driven by overweight people. Of course I can’t say for sure, but it appeared that these people were confining themselves to these transportation devices solely because of overeating. Now I’m no skinny rail, but I find it hard to comprehend that so many people would eat themselves into disability status, and it seems to me that as soon as these people decide to hop on a cart instead of walking they’ve basically given up. I tried to ignore it and was pretty successful in not letting it bother me too much, but two things really got my goat: First, as soon as a VIP (Voluntary Intermittent Paraplegic) arrived at a ride or anything else with a lineup they and their party were ushered straight to the front, motoring past anyone who hadn’t eaten themselves to oblivion. Secondly and vastly more offensive is to think of people with bona fide, nonreversible reasons for being unable to walk. Earlier on this day I was waiting behind a family that was boarding a shuttle bus with two little kids, one that was bound to a wheelchair and the other in leg braces who had significant mobility restrictions, though I watched as he struggled his way onto the bus unassisted. I’d bet dollars to donuts that either of those kids would do just about anything if it meant they would be able to move around unencumbered by their physical restrictions, and to think that others joined their ranks because they wouldn’t (or couldn’t, I suppose) stop eating way too much fatty foods was just mind-boggling.
Bidding Downtown Disney farewell m’lady and I shuttled back to our hotel and decided to save a few bucks and drive offsite for dinner. I was absolutely starved and needed a huge American-sized portion of something before I went batty. Back on the strip with all the discounted hotels we passed a thousand restaurant chains and pulled into Olive Garden; I figured an endless train of buttered bread would fill the hole, plus m’lady had always wanted to try Olive Garden. I was utterly unable to wait the thirty to forty minutes required to get a table so we ended up at Macaroni Grill instead. m’lady and I spent the next hour devouring reasonably priced semi-Italian food and quietly debating whether our server was a man or a woman. We eventually decided that Mel was female and upon receiving our bill found we were right. We paid Melissa and were on our way.
The days being long as they’d been I had one beer back at the room and couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to have another, conking out well before 11pm. At $90 per person for a single-day visit to one of the Disney parks our pool day was a great and inexpensive alternative.
0217/1811 The Prince of Darkness
Forgive me for I have sinned: It had been twenty-seven years since my last Ozzy Osbourne concert.
After two days of blissful nothingness aside from sunning by the pool at my mom’s place near Tampa m’lady and I drove into town for a shredfest at the Tampa hockey rink; Slash opening for Ozzy.
We arrived a little after the scheduled start time of 8pm and were surprised to find Slash well into his set. I guess all those notorious late starts at Guns ‘n Roses shows must have been Axl’s doing. We managed to catch the last three songs of his set, which included Sweet Child ‘O Mine and Paradise City, and while they were pretty well played and very likely the best songs of the set, the singer was close enough to Axl to be a tad annoying yet far enough from rock’s biggest dink to be even more annoying. And while Slash on a bad day is still a damn good guitar player I think we might have caught him on a bad day. The hat, the attitude, and that magical Les Paul tone were all there, but it felt like he was sleepwalking through it. Perhaps coming off a spot in the half-time show at the Superbowl a going straight to an opening slot in an arena awash in empty seats took the wind out of his sails, but that said hearing Slash play was probably a lot better than seeing some no-name opener fight for the audiences attention.
After a short turnover the room went dark and the audience was treated to a hilarious video montage that placed Ozzy in episodes of Jersey Shore, The Hangover, and Willow, among others. One clip even had the man dancing around in drag; it’s obvious Ozzy doesn’t take himself too seriously. In short order our macabre Master Of Ceremonies took the stage and immediately commanded the attention of the ten thousand dark worshipers in attendance at the St. Petes Times Forum. Ozzy kicked things off with fan fave Bark At The Moon which may have been a tip of the hat to the glorious full moon that was rising outside. Sounding every ounce as good as when I saw him on the Bark At The Moon tour back in 1984 Ozzy implored the crowd to go crazy and have a “f***ing good time!”, leaping up and down clapping his hands anytime he didn’t have to sing.
Next up was Hear You Scream followed by the delicious Mr. Crowley as the stage was showered with a pyrotechnic barrage from above. The band was wailing, even if guitarist Gus G. had the audacity to change Randy Rhoads’ immaculate modal guitar solos from the amazing pipe organ inflected piece. At the end of the song Ozzy leaned over and picked up the business end of a fireman’s hose, gleefully drenching the first twenty rows of the floor section in water and foam.
Sticking close to his best solo album Blizzard Of Ozz, Osbourne then led us through brilliant album’s opening track I Don’t Know, a song that proves that heavy metal can actually approach poignancy when in the right hands. Not to ignore his days with Black Sabbath the band then burned through Fairies Wear Boots while Ozzy kept up his water hose shenanigans, a gag that soon became a staple of the evening.
With continued urging to “Go F***ing Crazy!” and more jumping jack-style clapalongs, Ozzy kept up with the hits…er…non-hits. Suicide Solution, Iron Man, and War Pigs were highlights separated by the better-than-a-setbreak-I-guess truly solo guitar solo (which owed so much to Van Halen’s Eruption that I really hope the guy paid royalties) and drum solo. Now the drum solo was something else, a display so laughable that it was pathetic. Seriously and honestly, the guy simply started hitting his drums low and slow – thump…thump…thump… – that gradually sped up until it was a fast drumroll and then he’d stop, stand in the air with both arms raised, and after a minute of applause he would sit back down and hit his drums low and slow…I mean he must have done this six times, and he did nothing else. And the audience just ate it up man.
Fortunately immediately following this percussive travesty our short-stepping host Ozzy came out and shook my bones back into place, closing the set with his obligatory classic, Crazy Train.
Real-live lighters actually came close to competing with the glow of cell phones for the encore of Mama I’m Coming Home while we all got our Sabbath yayas out one more time when the performance ended exactly as it had way back in 1984, with Ozzy’s signature closer Paranoid. It was a heck of a good show – for a $25 ticket (plus fees) you really couldn’t go wrong. While his mobility lent him an air of frailty, Ozzy’s still had “it”, no question about it, though after seeing this show I became convinced he plays up his mumbling character on his reality show to the point of self-parody.
We walked out into the balmy evening to the parking garage next door and experienced a virtual absence of traffic getting out of the lot and back onto the highway to my mom’s place, proving that done right a downtown stadium can work (I’m looking at you, Ottawa Senators). Back home it was a quick beer and off to bed in anticipation of our earliest wakeup time of the trip.
021911 Daytona Beach
My mother’s knock on the door came shortly after 6am and our two-car caravan was on the road by seven, m’lady and I following my mom, her two cats and her friend Mary across the state to Deland, a suburb of Daytona where my dad had his winter place.
Aside from a slightly disastrous Dunkin’ Donuts stop that resulted in a burned thumb for m’lady and a lap full of coffee for myself the ride was fairly uneventful. Before too long we arrived at my dad’s winter house where Mary’s cat and husband were waiting, and the whole crew of us (minus the cats) drove to Daytona where my dad was keeping his awesome motor home parked in a densely packed RV park.
My father showed us around the park a bit and before you knew it they were all off to the races (literally), leaving m’lady and I alone in the lap of redneck luxury. We wasted little time in the RV, opting instead to spend the afternoon tooling around the Daytona Beach area.
Our first stop was a flea market near the RV park. Dad had recommended it so we took his word and checked it out. We were met with a few dozen booths selling mainly NASCAR merchandise and I quickly started to think that we were wasting our time. The booths were outside of a building so we popped our heads in and noticed a few dozen more tables with more varied wares. As we meandered towards the back of the big room it soon became apparent that the building was in fact rather massive. Turning a corner, rows of merchandise booths shot off in all directions and went on as far as the eye could see. We found ourselves in a virtual labyrinth of bargain basement shopping, passing tables that stretched off into the horizon laden with everything from plumbing parts to knives and ammo. There were bongs and pipes, toys and games, sweatshirts, beach towels…everything. You could get Thai food or get your hair cut. One could spend all day and not see it all.
As we delved deeper and deeper into the maze of merch we stumbled upon a used record shop. The first thing I looked for was Lenny Breau and I found his first two albums in mint condition, $25 tax-in for the pair. M’lady paid the same price for a Jerry Garcia album and a double LP by The Allman Brothers. We had to get away from the place before we spent the rest of our vacation budget! My internal compass led us back to the car where we loaded the records in like they were made of gold and pulled out of the lot looking for lunch.
My dad had been raving about something called Five Guys, a burger joint that I had never heard of before. Burger sommelier that I am I was happy to try it.
Every burger is a double burger, the amount of fries they give you is mountainous, there is less than a dozen items on the menu, total (no chicken!), toppings are unlimited and they offer such delicacies as fried mushroom and fried onions, and they even have barrels of free peanuts to munch on while you wait. Talk about checking all the boxes! Oh, and as I’m sure you know, their burgers are absolutely delicious.
For weeks I was swooning and swearing to anyone that would listen that Five Guys was the best chain burger that this connoisseur had ever tried, worldwide (except maybe Lick’s Homeburgers, but with just a single restaurant remaining at the time of writing Lick’s can hardly be considered a chain anymore). As we were leaving I lingered by the door; I honestly couldn’t bring myself to just walk out. I drank in the place one more time and with a heavy sigh and an elongated stomach I followed m’lady back to the parking lot.
Next on our list was the beach. We paid our dues ($5 a day reduced to only $3 as it was after 3:30pm) and spent an hour driving up and down what is billed as The World’s Most Famous Beach. Though there are some car-free areas, miles and miles of Daytona Beach is drivable, with a cement-like strip down the middle of the sand that had been tamped down from a century of back-and-forth traffic. Back in the day racecars used to set world speed records on this strip of beach, taking advantage of the long, flat natural straightaway. This was where NASCAR began, with its annual Daytona race running right there on the beach until the Daytona Speedway was built back in the ’50’s.
We stopped and had some ice cream, sifting powdery sand between our toes while we watched the frolicking beach bums. Though the temperature had dipped a little on the beach it was still near twenty degrees with the sun blazing down through the cloudless sky. With our cones devoured and our fingers licked clean we got back in the car and continued our 10mph crawl along the packed sand. It was after 5pm when we made it back to actual pavement.
Back to Deland my brother had arrived at Dad’s place, marking the first time my whole family had been in Florida together since 1975, quite a feat considering how often we each get down there individually. Despite m’lady and I still nursing bellies full of Five Guys burgers my dad insisted we all go to a buffet and off we went. Shortly after dinner m’lady and I left the rest of the crowd at dad’s place and went back to his RV to spend the night. We arrived, mixed a drink and started looking for a party.
Here we were in a packed campground two and a half miles from the Speedway on the eve of the Daytona 500 (the Superbowl of NASCAR), it was ten o’clock on a Saturday night, and the place was dead. Trailers and RV’s were lined up by the hundreds on a beautiful warm night and hardly a soul stirred. We did a walkabout and found a half-dozen folks having a few beers near the office, and around the corner from our lot we found a group of young’uns – whose entire camp consisted of one single two-man pup tent – lining up for a round of beer pong. Given the options we opted to hang with the beer pongers for a few drinks and a couple shots of Jim Beam while they played their drinking game and belted out the occasional “whoop!” (the “redneck mating call”, they called it). Eventually we went back to the other…um…party? back at the camp office and found it had just been shut down, with just one man left standing, it being past 11pm and all. No worries, we gathered up the lone redneck and took him back over to the beer pong court, stopping at dad’s RV along the way to pour him (and us) a healthy rum and coke.
Maybe it was around 1am when some other young’uns across the way piled out of a taxi so we strolled over and joined them for a bit until their campsite neighbour came over and tried to shut them down. One of the young’uns decided to be a right jerk about it and a standoff ensued. When the older fellah broke off to return to his trailer I heard some talk of guns so we quickly decided that we were drunk enough to call it a night.
Back at our huge and elegant RV I guess we went to bed, but by then it was much too late for me to remember much about that.
022011 The Daytona 500
My hangover suggested we had done rather well party-wise the night before despite finding very little in the way of material to work with in our walk through the park. I awoke to the voice of our neighbour telling someone that the highway in front of the RV park was already a parking lot of snarled traffic. I got up and saw it was 10:30am and my brother Al and family friend Fred were already a half hour late in arriving.
I shook some of the cobwebs free from my brain and stumbled to the park office for some coffee. Back at the RV m’lady and I were lust getting started on our day when Fred and Al showed up after spending ninety minutes crawling through traffic to get there. “C’mon, let’s go!” my brother yelled. Huh, wha? We hadn’t had breakfast or showers or anything yet! Of course Al was having none of that so quick as we could we packed our cooler, grabbed our tickets, and headed to the park office where we missed the shuttle to the speedway by about thirty seconds.
With twenty minutes before the next bus was due to arrive I ran back to the RV and threw together some sandwiches which proved a lifesaver for m’lady and I. The bus arrived and by 12:30pm we were on our way to the biggest race in NASCAR, the Daytona 500.
The shuttle bus people had hired (I suppose the legal term would be “bribed”) a cop to ride along at the front of the bus. His job was to poke his head out at certain intervals and convince other cops to move pylons so our bus could drive down closed-off streets, a feature which got us to the track in a mere fifteen minutes. My mother had told us that the race started at 2pm so we were surprised when we examined our tickets and found we had arrived just half hour before race time, which was in fact at 1pm. We hustled through the crowds and made it to our excellent seats just in time to grab a burger at concessions and crack a Budweiser for the opening prayer.
Those unfamiliar with NASCAR may find it curious that the biggest race of the season is the opening race, one which always happens in Daytona. Daytone International Speedway is two and-a-half miles long and the stands seat over 150,000, if you can imagine that. The size of the crowd was really quite staggering; it looked like we’re about to watch a pod race from Star Wars I.
The sport is decidedly southern; the announcers all had a drawl, the vernacular all around us was straight out of Lil’ Abner, and every race starts with a massive group prayer imploring Jesus to keep all the drivers safe, a chore the Anointed One sometimes falls down on. I made a point of pounding a beer during prayer-time but showed enough respect to stand quietly with hat in hand for their national anthem, sung on this day by country superstar Martina McBride. Timed to the second, just as Ms. McBride’s last note started to fade seven jet fighters flew overhead in perfect formation.
A positive aspect to the Southerness of NASCAR is the freedom to bring your own beer into the track, though each person is limited to a maximum of thirty-two cans of beer per person, in soft-sided coolers only. I kid you not; every single 21+ member of that 150,000-strong crowd of racing fans were allowed to bring thirty-two of their own beers through the gate, and the security people were counting them too! It was glorious, and you know I brought my quota.
In an inexplicable breach of American-style over-the-top security and avoidance of anything that could trigger a potential lawsuit, fans were allowed to wander freely about the huge track right up to race time. Finally the track was cleared and the cars were lined up and ready to go. The cry “Gentlemen, start your engines!” went up and forty-three thunder makers turned over their starters and began revving up for the race. The pace car led the powerful machines around the track a few times while the whole crowd stood in anticipation. Finally the pace car pitted and the cars zoomed around to the start/finish line and blasted past the waving green flag. Race on!
As the cars roared past us for the first of what would be more than two hundred times the sound was simply staggering. Many in the crowd (Al and Fred included) were wearing headphones attached to radio trackers that allowed them to dial in the driver/crew conversations of any driver on the track at any time. The rest of us revelled in the massive sound that continually whipped by. As the cars zoomed around for lap number two all the cars had hit their stride and we in the crowd got a solid feel for what 200+mph really looked like.
And what it looked like was a smeared blur of colours followed by a thunderous roar that rivalled any Ozzy Osbourne concert.
Dale Earnhardt means to NASCAR what Bob Marley means to Jamaica. Racing’s favourite son died on turn four of the Daytona International Speedway ten years earlier on the final lap of the race. They say he was blocking so that his son Dale Jr. and thier teammate would be clear to battle for first and second place, which they did. Dale’s name and his iconic number 3 are revered by race fans as religious relics, and as a tribute to mark this anniversary of his passing during the third lap of the race all the scanners went silent and the entire crowd, 150,000 strong, stood and quietly raised three fingers in the air. It was a moving sight for most, and for many it was enough to bring tears.
By lap four it was back to drinkin’ and yellin’ as everyone cheered for their favourite driver and jeered at the ones they hated the most. Like any sport, NASCAR is way more fun if you have someone to root for, so m’lady hitched our wagon to the driver my family followed, Kyle Busch in his #18 M&M’s car.
During the fifth lap #18 became the first car to leave the track, spinning out at 200mph to the raucous glee of his haters. Miraculously missing every car that zipped by at equal velocity, Busch’s car avoided any real damage but did require numerous and extensive pit stops to adjust the alignment and get the car back up to snuff.
It goes without saying with a track as big as the Daytona Speedway that you can’t see the race in person nearly as well as you can see it on television, but when you’re actually there you can smell the race and you can feel it rumble all the way to your diaphragm. Watching the race in person provides a special oomph, adrenalin. and appreciation for raw power and real speed that you just can’t grasp through your flat-screen tv.
Growing up in a family of racers (my mom and my uncle raced stock cars for several years while my brother raced for much of his adult life) I had attended countless races at local quarter-mile tracks, but this was my first time experiencing the Big Show. Everything was so much grander; the excitement, the fevered pitch of the crowd, the speed and the wrecks, it was all so big. To my surprise this comparison even applied to the bathrooms. I remember as a kid going to the can at the Riverglade Speedway outside of Moncton and standing shoulder to shoulder with drunken race fans peeing into an eaves trough that ran along the back wall of the men’s bathroom and poured straight out onto the ground behind the shack. Not a word of a lie, the washrooms at the enormous Daytona International Speedway were the same, only bigger. Instead of an eaves trough dozens of men took aim at a large, square, slightly angled receptacle that ran out of the room and I suspect into a giant vat in the concession area marked “Bud Light.”
Back on the track we were treated to wrecks aplenty as drivers vied for position amongst the field. Somewhere around lap fifty a couple of cars went into the wall and careened into a phalanx of other racers, ultimately putting about fifteen cars into the pits for speedy repairs. The pits were right in front of us and we could easily watch the high-energy mechanic ballet that cleaned the windshields, filled the tanks, adjusted the alignment, and changed all the tires tires in 12.9 seconds flat.
A hundred and fifty laps along our #18 had battled his way back to the front of the pack, even leading for a few laps on a day that would set a NASCAR record for the most leader changes in a race, at nearly seventy. The crowd got rowdier as the coolers got lighter, the bathroom troughs got busier and the cars started racing harder and harder. With every crash the cars were re-bunched up which made for plenty of excitement.
Once the race was down to the final few laps the cars started taking more and more chances which inevitably led to more and more wrecks. NASCAR rules dictated that laps completed under caution were counted, but if an accident caused a slowdown with just two laps to go the drivers would be given two laps of high speed racing following the caution so the contest wouldn’t end while the cars cruised slowly behind the pace car. We were treated to two extra restarts at the end, with Kyle Busch racing anywhere between second place and eighth. While it seemed that in the end the winner was nobody’s favourite driver, everyone seemed happy enough that it was #21 that crossed the line first, an unsponsored car driven by a kid who was making only his second-ever start in a NASCAR race. The driver had just turned twenty years old the day before making him the youngest ever winner of the Daytona 500. I suspect he didn’t lack a sponsor for long after that. But what do I know? I don’t follow the sport.
The jubilant winner celebrated by kicking up plenty of smoke and melting his tires performing a series of doughnuts at the start/finish line, as is the custom. Happily the crowd began to disperse under sunny skies with a great race behind them. Al seemed like he was in a hurry to get out of there so he and Fred left ahead of us while m’lady and I were happy to linger amongst the massive crowd.
With my beer cooler empty we grabbed a cold one or two somewhere, checked out some merch stands outside and ultimately found our way to the shuttle pickup and got ourselves back to the RV park where we rendezvous’d with Al and Fred. Al drove us back to Deland where my mother was waiting with yummy margaritas and barbecued burgers and we enjoyed an excellent parting feast with the family. After an hour or two of chit-chat m’lady and I got a drive back to dad’s motor home where we hunkered down for the final night of our fabulous vacation.
In the morning we immediately hit the road for the two-day journey home. The trip had taken us 8,867 kilometres and given us just as many memories. Fourteen states over three weeks and we still didn’t want to stop – if not for our travel-averse cat at home we might not have.
But for all the memories of the snowy drive to Rochester, of visiting Cleveland and Tennessee and carrying on through Mississippi to Robert Johnson’s graves, the Dockery Plantation, Muscle Shoals, further to Macon and then the Jerry Lee Lewis concert, the Home of the Frog, the land of Mickey, the amazing Undersea Lodge, driving the length of the Florida keys, Ozzy, Slash, and now the biggest car race in America, well…
…I couldn’t believe it was over.