The Thanksgiving weekend was excellent family time, and very busy. Sue is a great hostess and it was a good thing to have the three of us together for a while.
The Backroads tour is well under way. So far I have driven through Louisiana, traversed the Ozarks on the west through Arkansas and Missouri and on the east through Missouri, through little bits of Illinois, Kentucky, and am working my way through Tennessee. So far there have been no travel difficulties or unwanted contact with the local constabulary.
There have been a few extraordinary sections of two lane roads through parks and forests, and some other straighter, faster and less interesting sections. I have been following some of the historical trails like the Lewis and Clark route, the Trail of Tears, and the Natchez Chase. I’ve crossed the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee rivers. I even saw some deer and wild turkeys in the Chickasaw State Forest. I was beginning to think all the wildlife had moved to Alaska. The long drives are fun for the first five or six hours, and then just wearing.
The drive through Missouri to Memphis was through some familiar country, zig-zagging south and east, passing near Poplar Bluff. Some of the sections of the drive were ones I had driven on the way to Doniphan, but I skipped the detour this time. The German farm country in the north central part of the state was evocative of the Illinois farm country I grew up in, now consumed by suburbia. The barns and other buildings, the fence lines, rolling hills, big trees in the spots that were too wet for crops and the country roads were awfully fun to see, and unexpected.
I stopped at The Pig BBQ in Frederickburg. So far following the big men in overalls and muddy pickups has worked out as a restaurant guide quite well. Who needs Yelp? The menu had a “brown combo” which turned out to be some excellent heavily smoked pork smothered in Philly style cheese sauce on toasted white bread. I’m calling that good barbecue.
Cairo, Illinois, was the scariest place I drove through. There have been some poor areas and abandoned farms and major industrial buildings along the way, but Cairo looks dystopian, with no open businesses along the main drag except payday loans and liquor stores. There were people on the street, shambling along in the cold rain. This was as grim as anything I’ve seen, and I live in a poor city. I’ve been reading the economic history of the South, and the river towns were a great part of it, but I never imagined the devastation of a community like this. I suppose I ought to avoid Detroit.
I stayed at a chain hotel in downtown Memphis. It was directly across from the Peabody Hotel, one of the famous hotels of the South. The Peabody apparently keeps ducks on the rooftop garden, and walks them down the elevator and through the lobby twice a day. I missed the ducks, but the room is spectacular. It has very high ceilings with elaborately carved columns and elegant furniture. It had been decorated for Christmas, with big red bows and probably the biggest tree I have seen indoors. A very good piano player was at the grand piano playing Christmas music. I’ve seen good collections of whiskey at bars before, but this one seemed to have 20 varieties of Jack Daniels. An expensive cocktail was the price of admission, and worth it.
Beale Street seems like a sterile Bourbon Street, with lots of police presence and an open-container allowed policy for the three blocks. There a good number of venues, but it was a cold Sunday night and very few people were out. It seems like a good place to visit with kids or people not ready for the drinking from a fire hose experience of Bourbon Street or Frenchmen Street. The collective hat game was weak, with no one appearing to have dressed to come out.
Following Jimmy’s advice, I had BBQ ribs at the Blues City Cafe. If I’ve had better ribs, I don’t know when. They were hard smoked and the meat was falling off the bones. The seasoning was dry and spicy, with hot sauce available but no sweet barbecue sauce. Excellent.
I listened to a three piece band, the Memphis Stiffs, covering old bluesy rock and roll with a Memphis connection like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The bartender recommended the late show by a band called Free World. The group has had the Sunday night gig at the Blues City for 35 years, with players rotating in and out. I walked the street and didn’t hear anything that sounded better, so I returned for the late set. They played Memphis soul with a three piece horn section and an excellent guitar player. Their playlist was like that of the Blues Brothers, with a little Steely Dan and Chicago thrown in. That’s pretty challenging stuff for a bar band, but I’m not really surprised that these boys can pick. It was a little disconcerting to be in a music venue like this that did not encourage dancing, leaving tables and chairs out throughout the set.
I failed in the barbecue quest on the drive from Memphis to Nashville, with the interesting places closed Mondays or because of the weather. I’ll be seeking some music this evening, and believe I will be more successful.