Jeff Wagg


Trip on Hiatus

I've reached the first of three major stops on this trip: Dallas, TX. However, my plans have changed, and I can't leave until February 4th. So the Land Rover is parked, and I'm typing this from an airplane headed to Las Vegas. I'm off to share a beer with my Dad, so we can toast the passing of our friend Paul, who went to Vegas every year for Superbowl.

This may be a good time to mention why I keep pushing CrisisLink. I worked there, I know for a fact this is the kind of charity that's worth supporting. Countless lives have been saved and changed because this service exists. Please consider donating. I know some of you have already, and I'm very grateful.

But perhaps more importantly, please consider calling. If things aren't going your way, and you don't know which way to turn, give them a call. It's free, it's anonymous, and they won't even ask for a donation. They'll simply listen, compassionately. I challenge you to have enough courage to make such a call when you need to. Sadly, my friend Paul didn't have that courage, and I will always regret that. I hoping you, whoever you are, can learn from his example and make the simple call. The number is right on the page, and even though it's a suicide hotline, only 5% of their calls relate to suicide. The rest are from people going through relationship crises, grief, job insecurities, and simple lonlienss. Try it. You can always hang up whenever you want.

So that's it for a few days... thanks for reading. There's much more to come.

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Texarkana with Phototour

I’m sitting in Outback, eating king crab legs as I type this. Yes, that’s right… I drove nearly 2000 miles to Texas, and I’m eating seafood in a pseudo-Australian restaurant. Ahh, America.
So, Texarkana. In 1984, I drove through Hazleton, PA with my Dad. We stopped for lunch, and couldn’t find a single restaurant still in business. Texarkana is like that, only much worse. Much.
There is a large hotel at the center of town. It dominates the city, with one of those large signs supported by a steel lattice on the roof. It reads: Hotel Grim. Grim indeed. Driving around downtown Texarkana is like haunting a ghosttown. You can see where things used to be, but nothing is newer than 40 years ago, and even less is still in business.

Am I being hyperbolic? Not really, I’m being kind.

Texarkana is what a dead America looks like. Here's the phototour, with more pictures.

But I knew from reading a couple of articles about Battle Mountain, NV, voted America’s armpit in a 2001 poll, that there was something worth seeing here.

I tapped on the GPS “attractions” button and had it display the list within 50 miles. First, was the Ace of Clubs House. Intrigued by the name, I pressed GO and headed that way.

In between two churches (they were still in business), I found the Ace of Clubs House. I instantly understood its name. The house is constructed of the octagonal towers, with a “stem” of a rectangle in the middle of them. It looks very much like a club from the air. At the time it was built, Texarkana was a dirt street, backwater burg, and this was probably the largest and most impressive mansion for hundreds of miles. And it is impressive.

I bypassed the front door as the signs demanded, and followed a narrow walkway into a dry moat, and to a door. The door had a peculiar sign. It said: PLEASE DO NOT TURN KNOB. Squeeze thumb latch, and push open. Thank you.” After snapping a picture of this conundrum, I examined the doorknob. It was dark, as I was in a moat, and it looked all the world like a normal door knob. Instead of turning it – I was determined not to – I felt a round and found a thin metal trigger. I pressed it, and pushed, and voila! I was in what we would call in Vermont, a “mud room.”

Odd electronic bells started sounding, and I knew I had triggered some sort of “Hey! We got a customer! button.” I wandered into the small gift shop, and started looking around.

And there it was. I’ve been joking this entire trip about finding “the ark in Texarkana,” and I had finally found it.

First, and explanation. My friend Jonathan and I have been rabid Clutch fans for years. On an album many years old now, they had a song called “Immortal,” which had the lyrics “who found the ark inside Texarkana?” We joked about that then, and now that I was actually here, I was determined to find one. Of course, the lyrics refer to the word “ark” inside the world “Texarkana,” but being the overly literal person that I am, I had been looking for an actual “ark” object since I’d arrived. Any definition of ark would do: if Noah sailed by, I’d count it as a win.
I stayed in Arkadelphia a few days earlier, and looked up the meaning of the name. The only entry I could find in my brief search said “Brotherly Chest.” I have no idea what that means, but the idea that “ark” meant “chest” ala Raiders of the Lost Ark stuck with me. And there, on the shelf of the gift shop was a chest.. er an ark. Yes, it was THE ark. I’d been searching for it, and I found it. I went over to take a picture of it, and the curator asked what I was doing. I utterly failed to explain it to her, and I’m sure she wrote me off as some obfuscating Yankee. And that’s just fine with me.

She charged me a modest $6 for the tour and explained that there is no photography and it is a guided tour. I decided to pen a rant about photography rules, and slung my camera behind me.
I was led into a basement room rec room. “As you’re our first guest today, we haven’t turned on the lights yet.” They had been open for two hours, so I noted that it was the slow season. “Oh, please sign the guest register.” She pointed to a book on the counter, and I went over and signed. I noticed that the date column where I put Jan 29, 2009, the last visitor had put Jan 24, 2009. Was I really the first visitor in 5 days? Given the manner in which she STRONGLY encouraged me to sign, I think I was.

She turned on an odd little historical VHS of the property, turned off the lights, and left. I watched impatiently, hearing from 6 actors portraying the 6 “matrons” of the house, and their trials and tribulations in keeping the house clean. In this official history, the first matron told the story of how her husband had won enough money in a card game to build this house. Later on, I head an embellished version, in which the card that won him that giant pot was the ace of clubs, and that’s why he built the house that way. The curator later said that these were just stories, and visitors should believe what they wanted. I’d rather believe the facts, and my best guess on the facts is that this wealthy man didn’t gamble at those high stakes, lest he’d not be a wealthy man anymore.

On with the tour! Rather than go by room and spew everything I saw and was told, I’ll now switch to summary mode. The house is a treasure. With its 14-16’ ceilings, ridiculous number of windows and mirrors, and unusual design, I was instantly taken with what a unique and well kept house this was. She lead me from room to room, on two floors, and pointed out many little touches that made the house unique. Some of the rooms had doors like roll-top desks, the ice box was specially constructed so that ice could be loaded from the outside, etc, etc. I was charmed.

We spent the next two hours wandering the home, with me imaging what it must have been like to live here, to have dined with Jay Gould in the former dining room, and how my own condo has so many more amenities in the way of bathroom and kitchen than this upper echelon abode could now offer.

I mentioned to her (we never exchanged names) that this was the only thing to do in Texarkana, and she said “Oh, that’s not true. There’s a lot to do here! In fact, take this.” She handed me a CD audio tour with a map of all the things to see in Texarkana. When I got back to the car, I looked it over. There were fewer than a doesn’t spots, most of them drive-bys, and one of them was the post office. I was thinking that if I were making a road tour for Richmond, VT (pop. 4100), I could easily spend two hours and put 50 stops on it. And they’d be interesting.

It was clear to me that she was proud of Texarkana, and I respect that, but I really do wonder why. Though I was incredibly impressed with the house and her tour, and YES they’re enough reason to visit Texarkana, I just can’t say much nice about the city itself.

I wandered up the hill and straddled the line between Texas and Arkansas at the only federal building that is on a border. I went inside (a volunteer at the Ace of Clubs House said it had been newly redone) and found an old fashioned post office in a terrible state of repair. The ceiling was collapsing, most of the lights were out… honestly, the post office of Fouke, AR was much nicer.
Looking out on the center of town… a large and confusing double-rotary with a somewhat disturbing monument to the confederacy in the middle… I saw the Texarkana Historical Museum and headed there.

It took me a few minutes to find the door. The building was a huge brick affair, with a jutting tower ala Rapunzel, and clearly had been home to some important business or other. Now, it housed the museum. I entered, hoping to find out more about the Hotel Grim at least.
The woman behind the counter greeted me, and had me sign the guest book. They closed in an hour, and I was the 5 visitor. They charged me $5, giving them a grand total of $25 in receipts, assuming everyone visiting was a full-fare adult.

The museum was, honestly, terrible. There was an interesting corner devoted to Scott Joplin and Leadbelly, with some of their original instruments and music samples. Upstairs there was a too brief introduction to the pre-Columbian tribe that settled the area, but that was it. I was out in 20 minutes, without a single picture.

And I ended the evening at Outback, listening to locals say things I’d only ever heard in Southploitation TV sitcoms.

Texarkana scared me. Not because the people were scary… they weren’t; they were by and large friendly and helpful. It was scary because this was a place completely bereft of hope. It was build to support the growing railroad, and in America, the railroad is no longer growing. And neither will be this city.

On one bright note, I had noticed a lot of Bradley fighting vehicles on flat bed trailers all the way from Kentucky. At least a dozen. In Texarkana, I saw a lot more, many with the words “Free Fall” spray painted on the back of them. Curious, I googled and found that a local company had been awarded a $100M+ contract to refit them. I can’t think of a place that needs something like that more. I’m still confused though.. if they won that contract, why were all the trucks heading north?

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Boggy Creek with Phototour

Ahh, the legend of Boggy Creek. Someone sees Bigfoot in the swamp, local guy borrows $100,000, shoots a terrible docu-drama, and earns $20,000,000.

On the advice of DrAtlantis, I stopped by Fouke, population 805, to see the monster for myself. I had a package to mail, so I started at the local post office. It turns out, that's where the monster lives. In front of the postoffice is a giant Boggy Creek monster cut out you can put your head in. I didnt put my head in it.

Inside the post office (all post offices look the same, all over the country), I talked to the lady behind the counter.

"So, where's the best place to see the monster in this lovely town?"

"This is isn't MY "lovely" town. I live in Delight."

"Sounds like a nice place."

"The lady walking in might be able to help you."

A largish woman walked through the door, and leaned on the counter.

"Can you tell me where I can find the Monster? Are there any monster tours or anything?"

"Well, for $20, I can get one of the local guys to take you to a boggy marsh. For $50, I can probably get someone run around in a gorilla suit."

"So there are no tours or a museum or anything?"

She pointed... "Monster Mart. That's it. If anyone around here could find a way to make money off that thing, they'd be doing it."

I walked over to monster mart, and they had a little case full of plastic Bigfoots(feet), an authentic plaster cast, some tee-shirts, and copies of the film "Legend of Boggy Creek." They also had a stuffed Bigfoot doll, that she was really interested in selling me. I bought a couple of postcards and a t-shirt for Dr A. and left.

There wasn't much there, and without the monster, there'd be a lot less. I saw a block of storefronts for lease on the way out... $250 a month. I wondered for a split second if I could make enough with one to pay the rent, and stepped on the gas pedal a little harder.

Take a look at my phototour of Fouke.

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Beale St Phototour

Here are some pictures from my lovely afternoon on Beale St, and a couple of bonus ones besides.

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Graceland Phototour

I uploaded about 70 photos I took at Graceland to Flikr. Have a look if you're interested.

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Upon leaving Beale St, I had to decide where to go next. Texarkana seemed a bit too far, and I was exhausted. So Arkadelphia it was. I've always loved that name, but I learned that it means "Chest of Brothers," and.. well, I just don't get it. At all.

I drove around a bit and found Toltec Mounds Park, which has mounds built by... people who lived here before Columbus... and who weren't Toltecs. Seems the guy who owned the place 100 years ago was convinced they were Toltec.

They're just big mounds of dirt, supposedly there for religious significance. And... they line up astronomically. If I make any geographic shape on the ground, isn't it going to line up with SOMETHING rising or setting on a certain day? I'm sure some of these things really were constructed to recognize the start of spring, etc., but I often wonder if archaeologists get a little to grandiose with their theories.

It seems that every petroglyph has "deep spiritual meaning" to its creator, but we know humans have created graffiti for thousands of years... how could we tell the difference?

View Larger Map

Anyway, what fascinated me was the ox bow lake the mounds were built on. Close the buble in the picture above, and look at them all? Ox bow lakes are created when a winding river on nearly flat land floods and cuts a new, shorter channel past one of the bends.

Without doing any research, I wonder if the mounds were to protect structures from flooding, or if they were simply a place for spectators to watch sporting events. Dunno.

I splurged on a Hampton Inn here, because I was tired and needed to do some laundry. I had breakfast at the local Waffle House, which was quite good. I think I understand why they're so common in the South.

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On Panhandlers..

I've had some odd panhandling experience on this trip...

1) Montreal (for the test drive)
Upon leaving McDonalds, a man came up to me and started speaking in French with his hand out. I uttered a rapid "Je ne parle pas français" and walked to my car.

2) Erie, PA
Guy comes down the corridor, looks in my car and says, "Wow, that's a nice laptop! Hey bud, my friend just locked me out of the room. Gotta a couple of bucks so I can get a hamburger." I got angry with him and said "Give me a break!" and rolled up the window, mostly because I was fighting with the webcam, and it was snowing. I then drove over the sidewalk and was amused by him walking away shaking his head.

3) Beale St, Nashville, TN
I'm walking down the street, looking at Silky's, and someone yells "Don't worry! It ain't gonna fall down." I don't really feel like talking, but he persists, and tells me the history of the buidling, and points out two "mountain goats" in the courtyard. They're actually Irish goats according to Siky's, but that's OK. We chat for awhile, and then what I knew was coming comes.. "Jeff, the shelter only lets me stay there 3 nights a week and then they want $10 a night and.." I interupt him, and hand him a $20. If you're homeless, giving free tours is a fine way to earn money, I think. I have no idea if anything he said was true, and I don't care. I was entertained.

4) Near Beale St, Nashville, TN
I'm actually typing on my laptop as I walk to the car, and holding a bag of souvenirs. A guy yells "Hey Vermont!" (He can see my plates.) I keep walking to the car. He says, "Wow, I don't know how you walk juggling like that. Oh... hey, don't worry, not all black people are bad. " This annoys me, but then he says.. "Look man, I'm not homeless, I just want 67¢ so I can get a beer, ya know?" I stare at him and explain that I just helped somoene out. He says "Look, at least I'm honest. I'm not going to lie to you like those guys down on Beale St." I hand him a dollar, he thanks me, and wanders off. I think I was more entertained by this one.

Demographically, I gave money to two black panhandlers, and didn't to two white panhandlers. Make something of that if you wish... the real motivator was entertainment.

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Graceland and Silky’s

Well, I've done it. I've fulfilled my lifetime obligation to the national religion by completing my journey to the mecca that is Graceland.

My overwhelming thought was... creepy. It's a very very creepy place. It's creepy to me personally, because it reminded me so much of a house I bought in 1997, in Leesburg, VA. Same walls, same intercoms, same fixtures, and the EXACT same swimming pool.

I was very surprised to see airplanes there. There were two (photos will be up tonight.)

So.. not to be anticlimactic, but I don't like Elvis. I don't mind him... he just never reached me. So what am I supposed to take away from this? I treated it like any other history tour. It's interesting to learn the impact he had, and how he truly shaped modern music, but I left feeling like I should worship the guy. If anything, I felt sorry for him.

He bought the house when he was 22 for $100,000. A HUGE sum in the 50's. I really got the impression that he never had a chance to really live his life. He was always being "managed" and in return, got some of his money. I dunno, maybe he was happy like that, but it made me sad for him.

I'm sitting in Silky's on Beale St. If you've been here, you know this place... it's the one with the front wall that's about to fall and kill everybody. And the goats. Yeah, this is one of THOSE places.

A couple of guys took to the stage, and as soon as I started writing this.. they started playing Elvis. What is the message? I don't know. They played some CCR too, and that was great.

I have to say I like Beale St. better than New Orleans. (Sorry Kate!). It's different... I don't think they really compete, but there's something about Beale Street that feels more welcoming and less... what's the word... menacing. I haven't spent enough time in either place to know what I'm talking about, but that's my first impression.

Gonna take some more twitpics and hit the road soon. Beale St gets a thumbs up. Graceland is... an obligation. Mine has been fulfilled.

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They’re Extra..

One of my favorite Laurie Anderson bits:

I know this English guy who was driving around in the South. And he stopped for breakfast one morning somewhere in southeast Georgia. He saw “grits” on the menu.

He’d never heard of grits so he asked the waitress, “What are grits, anyway?”

She said, “Grits are fifty.”

He said, “Yes, but what _are_ they?”

She said, “They’re extra.”

He said, “Yes, I’ll have the grits, please.”

I know what grits are, and I even know how they're made (you may not want to.) However, I was told that Memphis was THE place for BBQ, and I intended to find some. And I did, at the TASTEE-BAR-B-Q on East Brooks Road in Memphis. It was exactly what I was looking for... smokey, outdated, nothing at all fancy. However, the menu was a bit daunting. It said: BBQ. And that's about it. So I asked...

"What's BBQ?"

The scruffy young ballcap behind the counter paused, and said:

"Well, it's pork shoulder smoked for hours at low heat, and then chopped and put on a plate or a roll."

And.. that answered my question. You see, BBQ is one of those things that's completely different wherever you go. Sometimes is served already in sauce, sometimes it's dry, sometimes it's sliced or pulled instead of chopped.

As he was making my plate-o-meat, he said "Did you really not know what BBQ was?" And I explained that I was from Vermont where we don't have such things, but that I've traveled a lot and found that everyone does BBQ their own way.

I think at that point I was branded "idiot Yankee" because he told me how to get refills from the soda fountain. But I didn't mind.

It was delicious. And the hot sauce was indeed, hot.

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An Accidental Pilgrimage

Elvis. I've always preferred Elvis Costello to Elvis Presley, but there's no ignoring the man or the impact he had on music lovers and American culture at large. But... I don't really get it.  I'm quite ignorant on many levels, and Elvis culture is one of them. So today, I'm going to experience Memphis. Not a lot of driving, but certainly some walking. Though I don't think I'l be a Christian tonight, I'm sure I'll match many other lyrics as the day turns to night. So many people find magic here that I wonder if I can too.

I crossed the Mississippi (I have it on good authority that the folks in the state of that name pronounce it "missippi") last night, and will again twice today.  And I'm supposed to look for a pyramid. Not sure what that's about, but I'll let you know.
I'm still not sleeping well. Six hours is as much as I can manage, but thankfully, it seems like enough.
This is not home. This is not where I belong. This is just where I am. This is where I won't be tomorrow. But for today, I'm going to BE here.
And the Discovery will too. It looks out of place at the moment, sitting next to a ridiculously small and unkempt swimming pool in eastern Arkansas, but its aim is true. I've come to think of the car has having the same mentality as a dog. Not always smart, sometimes hard to control, but fiercely loyal and always glad to see me. I almost feel bad for tying it up at night.
Later today, I'll explain the CrisisLink connection.
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