STANDING ON THE FOOT PRINTS OF GIANTS (confessions of a tourist) By John Watts

 

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Anyone familiar with any of my travelogue commentaries knows full well that I am probably not going to captivate my readers by unveiling some thrilling escapade like rock climbing off of Galapagos Islands; nor will I create any stir by documenting my repeated, brave attempts to navigate the treacherous currents of the Chesapeake Bay in a streamlined, fancy kayak either.  To do so, after all, would require taking creative, unsubstantiated liberties from non-fiction to fiction in order to provide enough embellishment to satiate my audience.

No I am exceedingly more likely to be spotted turning off of an interstate exit or a Cracker-barrel, or, ideally, humming down a quiet country lane in search of some kind of overlooked Americana artifact to photograph.  Or perhaps the magnetic pull of some old town has gone me in its grip and threatens to compromise my driving efficiency going from point A to point B.

This recent loop drive down south with my wife was no different.  In fact she was kind enough to gamely drive the entire trip for me; which consisted of a mixture of interstate and sinewy 2 lane highways, leaving me free to record the trip and chart our direction.

It was a wonderfully fulfilling and enlightening trip too.

Full of compromise (we ended up truncating the Natchez Trace to just a few states instead of the full circuit from the Mississippi River to Nashville) and agonizing decisions over where what to skip and what to hit—ever mindful of the never ending race of time and distance for a little over a one week trip.

So please allow me to share some of my more salient reaffirmations from the past trip down south

  • Chiefly to mention–I re-discovered that I LOVE all manner of organized museum tours and the informative story telling of docents.  It is worth the extra time and cash.  Some notable examples of museum biographies on this trip consisted of A) Andrew Jackson, and his Hermitage.   B)  Elvis Presley’s Graceland and his boyhood home in Tupelo Ms. C) James K. Polk’s ancestral home in Columbia, Tennessee.

Even when I felt an initial queasiness grab a hold of me at the initial layout of Graceland, which I naively thought would be less surrounded by gift shops, ticket booths and barricades with an easier, straight forward walk up to the front gate.  Despite the garish displays of all things Elvis merchandise on the outer areas, the actual tour of the grounds of Graceland and its interior was a fascinating and revealing process worth every cent.  **As an aside on a personal level, it was my first ever guided tour exclusively led by IPAD tablets– and it went very smoothly with my head set full of the reverential voice of John Stamos and Lisa Marie Presley doing the narrations.

Truly Graceland’s ghosts and old magic eras were ripe and evocative to imagine.  It felt like belated southern hospitality, direct from the “king” himself to be invited into his favorite rooms and I half expected to sign the guest book upon entry inside all the King’s private sanctuary rooms.

On every guided tour we attended, we found it quite illuminating and instructive how powerful an effect it is to be standing on the same spot on the floor where some famous hero and celebrity made history.  For music lovers, the Historic RCA Studio B tour in Nashville provided a chance to time travel back to many legendary recording sessions with the likes of Merle Haggard, Jim Reeves and of course the King himself, Elvis Presley.  The sanctity of every classic recording was meticulously reexamined.  Our docent on the tour—who really did a great impassioned job as a music appreciation teacher, managed to stay fresh and engaging, despite all his countless lectures and repetitions.

At one point we could actually stand on the footsteps where Merle Haggard recorded one of his best songs.  At another, we were shown the record player console that Elvis damaged by kicking it in with his foot in the midst of a temper tantrum.

While on the subject of Elvis, we also saw evidence of rough housing at Graceland as there was scratch mark damage on his billiards table, reportedly from one of his entourage buddies visiting at the time.  Apparently nothing brings a chuckle for fans or docents, quite like a good natured remnant of Elvis cutting it up for posterity.  It is the stuff of legends and MUCH more significant that any accidents or bloopers we may have caused during an emotional tirade!

As I said before, my wife and I got to breath in the stately elegance of the Hermitage plantation in Tennessee where Andrew Jackson spent his formative years from 1804 until his death in 1845.

Truly an important history figures home says a lot about them; in the selection of every bit of interior decorating, from the wallpaper to the portraits and furniture as well as the discovery of which notable friends stayed overnight in the guest bedrooms.

The biggest shocker for us on the touring front was how memorable a less famous President’s family was.  We only stopped at President Polk’s museum because we literally happened to be in the neighborhood anyway (or at least the same town).  And we ended up becoming BIG, belated fans of President Polk museum home, which, thanks to the captivating lecture of our gifted docent, got the top prize of all of our paid for tours in this trip as we came away with a great outline sketch of Polk’s torturous, workaholic schedule, his distinction of keeping all of his campaign promises, and the devotion of his very able and influential wife.

In fact, thanks to that persuasive docent, we have used almost verbatim President Polk talking points gleaned from his lecture at parties and other get-togethers, probably more than any other couple in America!

All of this reminds me of how profoundly necessary the preservation of rooms and furniture can be in the recreation of history and cultural identity.  Or the exact piano used in various Elvis Presley tracks with the drum kit in the exact same position.

I mean where else but at Elvis’s boyhood home in Tupelo, Mississippi could one sit in a replica simulation of the Assembly of God Church he had attended as a child–complete with pews and side panel videos of actors playing a faithfully restored congregation from back in the 1950’s, with loving recollections from genuine INSIDERS who supposedly got to eaves drop on the heretofore, unknown boy who would be King, as he spoke prophetic words that were committed to memory by those special people that cared enough to cash in on it later.

And the most salient point to take from touring Elvis’s boyhood home and then Graceland in Memphis on the same trip is to see the stark contrast between the working class primitiveness of that tiny home in Tupelo with the “anything goes” tackiness of his dream house in Memphis afforded him after his meteoric fame.  It truly does represent 2 different worlds as surely the old 19th century features of outhouses and unadorned little rooms in Tupelo serve as quite a culture shock for most kids to witness in this far more pampered 21st century.

  • And lastly this 7 day trip down south reminded me that peace and contentment takes effort on trips (and practice). The advent for the dawning of grace in our lives is never on our own timetable.  Missing places such as all those many brown State Park signs with their tantalizing hiking symbols, all those delectable dives and drives in with their barbecues, all those “can’t miss” museums like Sun Studios and the Stax Museum in Memphis certainly can be sorely regretted.  This is to say nothing of missed opportunities like not riding on a Paddle wheel Boat on the Mississippi and not having enough time to complete the entire Natchez Trace Parkway as we sincerely intended.  And even though we did touch down at a great corner restaurant in Memphis and got to experience their sublime pork barbecue sandwiches, I knew almost instantly afterwards, that we should have stayed on Beale Street longer and soaked up more of the sacred music.

And I found it funny yet again after this trip how I can feel such acute regret and self-recrimination over some silly by-passed, squandered opportunity while driving by that we never originally expected to see in the first place.  In this case it was the “World’s Biggest Treehouse” that we heard about at a motel on the interstate from a lady at the front desk.  Turns out I misunderstood her directions and went to the wrong exit and by that time I figured that it was too late in the morning to back track and try again.  The pros and cons of departure versus staying to find the tree house led to a lively debate between me and my family.  Suddenly this novelty tree house was taking on the significance of the Taj Mahal in my guilt riddled mind.

But alas, to make a long story short, the tree house was never seen by us in person (even though it was closed for safety regulation violations) though I did find its image on the internet later on.  Eventually, like all vacation blues, the pain subsided and the lost tree house fiasco completely faded from importance.

And this is the biggest dilemma on a road trip:  It’s very hard to balance the necessity of distance when you are pressed for time while still desiring to take the time to stop at the pre-arranged attractions you plan to plus slip in any spontaneous excursions in the gaps.  This southern drive we took truly was a trip WITHOUT one destination or for that matter, a target group of friends and family to stay with.  For us it was conceivable that any upcoming exit could offer something for us to consider indulging in that might be every bit as worthwhile as the one we planned to stop and hunker down at for the night.

But once the guilt and agony are over concerning what exits to hit and what to miss, and all that self-imposed “20 days till Christmas shopping” kind of pressure eases up, I always recapture a deep satisfaction settling in over what I did see and experience.  My perspective clears and I start to give myself a break, as well as a few claps on the back for originality.

And like Christmas, traveling is at its best when expectations ease and little memories are allowed to flourish with good vibes to carry them forward.  When this happens, one can actually catch oneself in one of those classic, keenly self-aware moments that happiness, and history itself, is being made RIGHT HERE and RIGHT NOW in the present!

In this way, traveling becomes an intensified microcosm of life; sharply revealing all of our many shifting moods while negotiating our way back home.  It strips us of all of our routines and forces us to make “either”, “or” decisions in a split second while traffic clogs around us as possible parking lots and exit ramps fade from view.  We feel the consequences of our decisions very directly.

But no matter how busy or important we get, there is nothing like BEING THERE in the same room and on the same floor as all those famous people we grew up admiring and studying.  We SHARE in the legacies of musicians and politicians and complicated explorers like Meriwether Lewis and, thanks to the full sensory experience of our travels, have locked them into our LONG TERM memory for life!

And when we really see the forest from the trees, we should come to see that this same wonder and appreciation that we felt inside all these cultural icon landmarks should be applied to all of the buildings and furniture that we frequent in our own local area too.

After all, great stories and history surrounds us, and we all play a PART in its unfolding drama!

And finally, to develop the right priorities about previous trips, one needs to constantly remember and be reminded that trips are meant for learning.  And this often means just scratching the surface of possibilities due to the limits of time and money.

 

So the grand illusion goes on as it was meant to. And we should be mighty glad to be players and to be just who we are; while we continue the game of telling ourselves that our latest trip was just a dry run trial and that someday we will return some time in the future to do it right without rushing.  We pay attention to the endless circle of the journey and thank the Lord for unfinished plans and schemes.

 

 

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About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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One Response to STANDING ON THE FOOT PRINTS OF GIANTS (confessions of a tourist) By John Watts

  1. Thomas Polk says:

    You have to be my favorite author! Thanks for another fascinating essay!

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