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We pick up Robert's travelogue in Tennessee, 
one of the most scenic states in the US

Moving On:
Seniors on the Road in the SW
Part 2: Heading West

by Robert Demaree
(illustrated with postcards from the Phantom's collection)

In April 2005, my wife and I set out from central North Carolina, two 67-year-olds in a 2000 Buick, bound for Arizona, armed with what the poet Donald Hall calls “a pleasure of place,” and disposed to enjoy what lay between here and there just as much as what we found at our destination, to go places we had not gone and see things we had not seen. Part 1 gave an overview of the entire 5,000 mile trip. This second of three installments covers the first half of the journey, from southeast to southwest.

The route from Greensboro to Little Rock was familiar to us from years ago when we had traveled often between Louisiana and our parents’ homes in North Carolina . Heading west on I-40 now, we notice cars with plates from western states stopped to take their first look at the Great Smokies. In Kingston , Tenn. , the antique mall is closed as is the lobby of McDonald’s. At Hardee’s a senior citizen bingo game is in progress, suggesting that you do not have to get too far off the interstate to catch the local color. Across the Cumberland Plateau dogwood and redbud in bloom, first night in Nashville . Have been here before and so have seen the Parthenon, Vanderbilt University and Ryman Auditorium—we hope visitors from the west checked them out. 

In Nashville , eating out was not convenient because of the congested traffic and so we opted for a salad-to-go from the Waffle House. At the motel breakfast, no bagels, but biscuits with white gravy.


Across the

We cross the Mississippi at Memphis , with the Pyramid sports center in view but no sign of the outlet mall our daughters had enjoyed as teenagers. We make good time across the flat soybean bottomlands of the eastern Arkansas Delta. At lunch in Lonoke, a friendly stranger in leather motorcycle chaps sees me studying a map and asks if he can give us any information. Later, in Hot Springs , a volunteer in a motorized wheelchair approaches us and offers directions to the visitor center. It seems to us that the farther west we go, the more open and friendly the people seem, and that where we come from in Piedmont North Carolina may be more east than south.

The Fordyce Bathhouse is both the National Park Service’s visitor center and their main attraction in Hot Springs . We are drawn to NPS installations and always stop by the visitor center first: informative displays and maps, and usually a walk that seniors can negotiate with ease. The baths recall a colorful American era—Al Capone visited here, along with wealthy folk from all over, taking the vapors for relaxation and a possibly spurious medical cure. At the Fordyce one sees the whole process—the hot packs, frigid cabinets, electric baths, etc.—as well as an odd beauty conveyed in the terra cotta detailing, tile mosaics, marble, stained glass and brass fixtures. Don’t miss the Music Room.

Most of the eight old bathhouses along Bathhouse Row are closed or in a process of restoration. One, the Buckstaff, is still operating, and you can also get the vapors at the Arlington , now a fully diversified resort hotel. Across Central Avenue are the souvenir and craft shops in handsome old Victorian buildings. One can drive up Hot Springs Mountain Drive, behind Bathhouse Row, for a panorama of the entire Hot Springs National Park, which comprises most of the town and was the nation’s first federally-protected land reserve. 

From Hot Springs we head north along Arkansas Route 7, one of the state’s two designated scenic byways, through the Ouachita Mountains to Russellville. The Ouachitas make for pleasant but not spectacular views, along a road that is like the Blue Ridge Parkway in its calmer places, but without any pull-outs for contemplative gazing. Staying on Route 7 north of the Arkansas River would take you to the Ozark Mountains (the word is an Americanization of the French aux arc --“curved bow”), another set of gentler, older mountains. 

Back on I-40 west of Russellville, a nuclear power plant sitting beside the Arkansas River . Near Alma, the “Spinach Capital of the World,” a sign advertising, oxymoronically, an “affordable golfing community.” In Oklahoma , where tribal boundaries are marked along I-40 like county lines, we had expected the landscape to change abruptly, as it does going from north Louisiana into Texas , piney woods suddenly into plains. Instead, the hardwoods thin out gradually, and there is more rise and fall to the land than we expected. The trees are dry—not beautiful but certainly not unpleasant. Oklahoma State Police lurk noticeably in SUV’s (on our trip, highway patrols were not egregiously evident in most states). Oklahoma City is preparing for the tenth anniversary observance of the Murrah Building tragedy. West of there the land flattens out and there is the beginning of the sense of wide open spaces.

A familiar Texas symbol!

Panhandle Passage

We pass up the Roger Miller Museum in Erick , Okla. , and the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, choosing instead the Old Town Museum Complex at Elk City . In the Texas panhandle we note a couple of items we had seen described in Jamie Jensen’s Roadtrip books: the tilting water tower near Groom and the “largest cross in the Western Hemisphere ,” sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. It is 190 feet high, but we are told there is in fact a larger one in Effingham , Ill. The next day, near Amarillo, we look for but, sadly, do not find the Cadillac Ranch, a group of old cars upended in the sand, a kind of Stonehenge in the desert. These all may be manifestations of the Route 66 mentality, or may just be a Texas thing.

Also on this stretch of road a wind farm is under construction, with No Parking signs along the right-of-way to discourage the curious. In Oklahoma the McDonald’s franchises were sponsoring a tornado-awareness program called McReady. Wind and water are things taken seriously by people in the West and not yet fully grasped by those from back East.

We drive into McLean , Texas , one of many good suggestions we got from Jensen’s books. We concur with an Internet assessment of McLean as “a town where time stands still,” and we stop to photograph a restored vintage Phillips 66 station.

At Palo Duro Canyon State Park , off I-35, 27 miles southeast of Amarillo , we drive to the canyon bottom (800 feet down) and enjoy an early spring walk along the Paseo del Rio path, the dull green of the mesquite not yet evident. We have the place pretty much to ourselves except for three wild turkeys. The canyon runs about 120 miles long and is thought to be the second longest in the country. Considered the one “must-see” site in the Panhandle, it is a nice preview of canyons to come.

New Mexico
The most familiar bird in New Mexico. They cannot help but make you smile
as they dash across the highway.

At the welcome center at the New Mexico state line, a fellow tourist asks the hostess for a list of “all the casinos between here and Albuquerque .” Indeed, there are casinos everywhere (but not, we learn later, on the Hopi reservation). There is some irony and justice in the fact that the native peoples are granted a concession to reap profit from one of the weaknesses of the European interlopers.

On the recommendation of friends we take New Mexico Route 14 from I-40 to Santa Fe , noting the polka dots of pinion and juniper against the buff-colored hills and mountainsides, which we will remember as a characteristic western landscape. Madrid is a funky old town that has undergone a series of metamorphoses, first as a center for mining turquoise, then gold and silver, then coal, and now as a New Age arts and crafts mecca, described in Frommer’s New Mexico as “seemingly stuck in the 1960s.” Not a bad place to be stuck.

Santa Fe is always explained as a town best appreciated on foot, and we devise our own walking tour of the area around the Plaza, the Santa Fe River and the Palace of the Governors. There is public parking on Marcy Street , near a visitor center which seems more geared to dealing with conventioneers than with odd pairs of tourists. It is a crystalline low-humidity day, and we enjoy the sights of a city that is both relaxed and cosmopolitan: the Plaza itself, which reminds us of Jackson Square in New Orleans, the famous La Fonda Hotel, and especially the churches—St. Francis Xavier, the Loretto Chapel, and, best of all, the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church building in the United States still in use. The architecture is consistent in Santa Fe , and expensive new subdivisions have the adobe look; you will have a hard time finding a split-level with white vinyl siding.

Overnight in Albuquerque . Judging from a real estate show on TV, residential property looks reasonable: “fenced area for your horses or llamas” and “Southwest landscaping” which we take to mean maintenance-free. Before getting off the interstate we stop in a Wal-Mart to pick up some sun screen. We know: Wal-Mart and the fast food places are responsible for the homogenization of the American landscape, or worse; still, it is some comfort to seniors to know that the same brands available on Battleground Ave. in Greensboro can be purchased reasonably in Grants, N.M., and Cortez , Colo.

After four days in the spectacular Four Corners country (described in Part 1, Clever Magazine, June 2006), we head home through Nebraska, Missouri and Kentucky, places with their own romance and palpable sense of the American road.

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