09 October 2007

Traces of roads, long ago

Last week, during my Birmingham junket (or, to be more precise, east Walker County), I made a daylong trip over to the tortured wilds of Tupelo, Miss., and from there I went over to Madison, Ala. before dropping southward back to the motel. I called this trip "the triangle", as my path kinda resembled one.

With a new and better camera, I wanted to take some improved shots of what I previously had in low-fi digital form. I also longed to take a nice, leisurely joyride ... so that's what I did.

As much as I love making roadtrips with Luvuhmylife Seraphim, I just as much enjoy making the occasional trip by myself. Driving and reflecting. Or "D&R" for short.

It was one for the surreal book, that's for sure. From Tupelo to Madison on the same day. That's like visiting Satan and then going immediately upstairs to break bread with Yahweh.

Yes, Satan. Because only the Devil would've caused an awesome roast beef sandwich to become nearly extinct. Tupelo is home to one of the few remaining Danver's locations.

Tupelo, Mississippi is also the headquarters for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a two-lane 'national parkway' of some 443 miles. Or thereabouts. (Amazingly enough, the other NPS roadway - the Blue Ridge Parkway - is longer than "The Trace"; I only learned this fact the other day!!)

The Natchez Trace visitor center is located north of the city nearby where the parkway intersects with Miss. 145 (a/k/a Old US 45). During my years in Tupelo, this roadway was as much a part of the area's culture as a certain jelly doughnut-swilling favorite son. Plenty of memories arose from the Chickasaw Village site, along the parkway ... there's a cool hiking and "interpretive nature" trail, with plenty of trees. And that's where I learned how Tupelo got its name.

I hadn't done very much traveling of this parkway through my driving years. At least until last week. After leaving Tupelo -- and still wolfing down the last of my Danver's booty -- I drove north on Miss. 145 and picked up the Trace, heading northeastward toward Alabama, where I'd get off on US-72 going east toward Tuscumbia, Decatur and Madison.

When I was little, I found the NTP to be a mite boring. Nothing but trees to look at. As much fun for a roadgeek as watching paint dry.

At age 42, it was different. After, ohhhhh, a handful of miles, I quickly found my groove on the Trace. It's a long National Park ... complete with the brown guide signs, in distinctive "clarendon" font, a speed limit of 50 MPH, and trucks and commercial vehicles of any kind are verboten from traveling the parkway. Billboards are also contraband. Ditto for any roadside commerce. It's a 'limited access' roadway, with overpasses and access ramps to get to and from "civilian" roads.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 100% commercial-free zone. It's a nice alternative to the clutter, hustle and bustle of interstates and regular highways. The speed limit might be lower, but you're enjoying the slower pace.

The radio was tuned to AM 580 out of Tupelo, WELO. The Music of Your Life. Sinatra, Clooney and other 'pop standards' made a splendid soundtrack. And being a weekday, I damn near had this roadway to myself. I don't think I saw more than half a dozen cars.

I loved it. And I was so disappointed when I reached US-72, where I had to exit the parkway. I almost changed my plans and kept northward to the Trace's north terminus outside of Nashville.

Even such roadside drama as state lines are incredibly subdued on the Natchez Trace. No big green "Welcome To Alabama The Beautiful ... Bob Riley, Governor", or gigantic signs screaming "Mississippi Welcomes You." Here it's just a simple "Entering [state]."

In the above picture, I'm straddling the line. I'm Alasippi-ing. Or is that Missi-bama?

The dominant motif along the parkway is the arrowhead. It's the shape used for all the historical marker approaches, and for the entrance signs for the various pull-offs.

One should not press their luck while driving this slab -- speeding on this, or any NPS roadway, is a Federal offense. Me, I set the cruise control for exactly 50 M.P.H. and just enjoyed the ride.

And I found out something really cool:

Driving at that rate of speed does wonders for the ol' gas mileage! Check out the 'trip computer' -- when is the last time anyone achieved 30 MPG in a friggin SUV??!!

Seriously, I filled up in Tupelo and the needle didn't budge from "F" until I was past the Alabama line.

I realized something else, too.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a thoroughfare maintained by government interests, without any commercial traffic, businesses, billboards or anything resembling the conduct of free enterprise.

In addition to its purpose honoring an early pioneer trail, the Trace also serves as an alternative route to get from Tupelo to Nashville or to Jackson.

It's very low-key. It's dignified. It's scenic. It's full of substance in a world where other highways are cluttered and bottlenecked eyesores.

I dare say the Natchez Trace Parkway is the Public Radio of highways.

And I so much want to drive this thing from beginning to end. Seraphim and I shall do just that one of these days.

Isn't it nice to know that roads like this exist?

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Proud to have his tax dollars funding it" Gleck

Circles of life.....

"Take your time, it wont be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down."
--Joni Mitchell

I'm back from my annual retreat to Birmingham. All told, a fun time -- as usual -- but these trips are always full of deep introspection, wistful reflection and a process of "mental defragging."

I wish I could make more frequent visits up there. Perhaps after my son enters college and starts a life of his own, I can. Meanwhile I enjoy it there whenever I'm able. There's a profound comfort I feel whenever I first see all the TV towers along Red Mountain, overlooking the city, and then the city's iconic Vulcan statue.

It's rooted, I'm certain, in all the change that's been part of my life over the years. In the middle of it all, there has always been Birmingham. Some things in the city have stayed constant over the many years, such as the giant red neon "WBRC" sign behind their studios atop Red Mountain, a landmark for more than 50 years.

And next-door neighbor Channel 13 - an NBC affiliate - has recently put up a giant backlit peacock behind its building to add to the mountaintop decor.

I was born in a hospital on the north side of Red Mountain. From its parking lot, one can look upward for a good view of the WBRC sign.

For years I've said the same joke: Ask me what sign I was born under, and I'll tell you "WBRC."

Last Wednesday, after I got into town, I made a beeline for my great aunt's house, where we had a nice visit. From there it was to see "Miz Eve", a woman whom I've always considered "kinfolk", although she was merely a close neighbor to my grandparents. Her husband, "Mr. Jim", who passed away in the early '80s, was an audiophile's audiophile, and had the most awesome audio system one could ever want. His circa-1970 Sony tuner/amp is still set up in her house, along with his Garrard turntable, although they're hardly used anymore. They still work, though. I'd give so much to have it all someday. So much.

You see, it was this gentleman who got me started on the road toward appreciating the fine art of music and a lot of his audiophilic tendencies rubbed off on me. I can still remember the day as if it were last week. I was nine years old, visiting my grandparents for Spring break, and we were eating dinner at their house. That afternoon we were at Eastwood Mall, and I'd bought a 45 at Newberry's. I wanted to play that record on his [pause to catch my breath] AUDIO SYSTEM. Mr. Jim said I could, and what happened after I took the record out of its sleeve became a major event in my life.

You see, I committed the ultimate cardinal sin.

I had my fingers on the grooves of that record as I was taking it out, eager to hear the opening notes of Steve Miller Band's "The Joker."

And Mr. Jim was horrified. He didn't love my peaches, but boy did he shake my tree. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was never again to touch the grooves of a vinyl record. Did I understand??

Yes sir, Mr. Jim. Never again.

From him I learned proper record care. I also learned what it was like to hear music on good equipment. And my life was forever altered. I might not have been able to ride a bike at age nine, but by golly the records I bought after that fateful dinner were as immaculate as Jesus' conception.

[Of course Mr. Jim would've been horrified if he saw me at home -- I didn't touch the grooves of the records I bought, but after seeing what DJs did to 'em at radio stations, I started imitating 'em. I was, I'm sure, the only ten-year-old who CUED his records before playing them.]

I always think about that evening each time I lay eyes on The Audio System, still set up as it was 25 years ago. And I got another gander last Wednesday when I paid a visit to Miz Eve. It was the first time I'd seen her since 2004. It was a bit strange and unsettling looking next door at my grandparents' old house on Saulter Road, but it was looking good. The people who bought it from my family have kept it up faithfully.

In 2004, Miz Eve was as peppy and upbeat and full of life as I'd always remembered her. Given that she was 88 years old at the time, that's no small feat. Today, she's 91. And my aunt gave me a heads-up that she was now having trouble with walking. Still, Miz Eve gave word to my aunt that she wanted to see me. So I did.

I almost wish I hadn't. What my aunt didn't know was that it was more than walking Miz Eve was having trouble with; the grand lady's mind was beginning to give out, too. I think Alzheimer's, or some form of dementia, has taken root. Evidently Miz Eve was far more 'lucid' the day she talked with my aunt. My grandfather was the same way -- some days the brain was operating on more cylinders than others. Good days, and bad days.

My luck, I caught her on a bad day. She didn't even know who I was. Her 'caretaker' -- who did some work with my grandmother in her final days -- reminded her of who I was. "He's 'Agatha's' grandson." Her reply still gives me chills: "How is she?"

It was, suffice to say, the most awkward ten minutes I've ever had as a houseguest, and I cut the visit short, and walked down the hill toward the backyard of my grandparents' old house.

I saw the broken remains of an old steel rod mounted between two trees which for years held a swing. It wasn't broken the last time I saw it.

I got the hell out of there, post haste, because I was fixin' to lose it.

The familiar -- oh, so familiar -- landmarks along Saulter Road closed in on me. Something as ephemeral as the steel towers of the power lines paralleling a part of the street unleashed so much pent up inside me. Miz Eve ..... holy shit, this was Big John all over again!!!!!

I thought back to when my grandfather was alive. And back to when I was five years old. Those power lines meant one thing once upon a time: We were getting near Kmart!! Suddenly my mind morphed the street into 1969. The way the houses looked, the street signs, even the dashboard of Big John's car. I felt him with me. I heard him call me "Buddy."

Seraphim said something about "the circle of life." Well, I don't have a whole helluvalot of 'middle circles', and the outer ones -- the familiar, the relatively few loved ones who were major parts of my life -- are going fast. When those rings fall away, my circle is going to get tiny in a big hurry.

It's the familiar refrain of everything dying around me. Now my aunt ... she's doing well. Of course, she's far from pushing 90 (she's in her late 60s). My uncle is in good health as well, but he's always in Florida and Birmingham to him now is little more than a maildrop.

I have cousins on both sides of the family, but I'm in little contact with them. Just one, if you wanna know the truth. And he's in Australia!!

Some day, and last Wednesday I was reminded that it's coming up sooner than I think, some day I'm afraid I might have little around me except for Seraphim and Tiger.

But maybe not. I've recently reestablished contact with my Aunt Cindy outside of Augusta and hopefully we can make a day trip in that direction before long. I haven't seen her in many years. There's a lot to say about her, and I'll save that for after the visit.

I was, shall we say, more than a little bothered as I drove around Birmingham, killing time before I was to meet a friend of mine for supper. I knew I'd bounce back over the BBQ and his comraderie, but that was still a couple of hours away.

Things indeed looked up later that evening. And ditto for the rest of the trip. But that afternoon was a cruel reminder that I am getting close to my mid 40s. Youth was a long time ago.

If you have an older relative in your life, especially one who is into their 80s -- i.e. past standard life expectancy -- and they're in good health, count your blessings. Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy them every minute, because you're not guaranteed another one like it.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Dizzy from all dem circles" Gleck