That single little county had been glaring
at me, taunting me, ever since I discovered I had missed it on
the Alabama County Safari of March '96. Finally I could take the
abuse no longer, and I plotted a course for Greene County and
points west and south, for the middle of Xgiving weekend, 1998.
I could not afford a long trip, and wanted to save my vacation days anyway. Reasonable tickets to Nashville were easy to come by for Thanksgiving day, but the return Sunday was already out, and Saturday was already iffy 5 weeks in advance. I managed to work out a plan which would give me exactly 48 hours' driving time, minus stops for gas and perhaps food and lodging.
Plan A had been to also make an attempt at all the Mississippi counties I still needed. While theoretically possible, I was not sure what the back-roads would be like, especially in the crucial southern third of the state. It had also been months since my last long-haul drive, and being late November the weather was too questionable to plan for much in advance...except for my first drive in Mississippi, in June of 1990, every visit there was met with some form of nasty weather, including my deepest snow of the 1991-92 winter season. It did not help my mind-set to read the book Mississippi, by Chicago-area writer Anthony Walton, a history of the state told from the perspective of his sharecropping relatives living and from there. So, I pretty much had myself psyched for just doing my best to fill in all the holes in northern MS, and to try to at least nip two or three other states to build up my disgustingly low 1998 state-count.
Thursday would be just fine...60 and sunny in Chicago, no traffic near O'Hare airport, on-time takeoff, and early landing at Nashville. Got my rental right away and headed straight for Alabama on I-65. I had targeted the Athens-Decatur area for some sort of dinner, most likely at a Waffle House, to also get a good tape of ez-listening WRSA while I was eating. That station was still doing the ez thing, and there was a Waffle House at the Athens exit, so I got off there, only to also spot a Shoney's, and with an Xgiving Buffet. They had turkey AND ham on the buffet, the latter cooked with raisins and apples, yum.
On most of these long-haul trips, if I have a big meal it's either lunch, an early dinner while still daylight, or I'm already near my overnight destination. Still had a long drive ahead of me, having the fight off the post-dinner sleepies much of the way. Got back on I-65, turned right at I-20/59, past all the maquilladora-type factories around Tuscaloosa, and on 'till I reached Greene county. Oh well, perhaps I'll get back down there some year for a daytime county-line photo? Stayed on the interstate until mid-county, then turned northwest to take a few 2-laners up to Columbus, MS for a much-needed zonk-off. This at what appeared to be a freshly-remodelled Motel 6, just off US-45. Hmmm, when my wanderlust illness flares up, I look at routes I'm on or near and think things like, "I oughta just stay on I-80 until Boston, or go back the other way until I reach San Francisco!" US-45 goes right through downtown Des Plaines.
Early Friday morning, I stopped ever so
briefly at the Columbus tourist propaganda office, which doubles
as Tennessee Williams' first home. The official state highway map
would prove much more useful than the AAA or Rand McNallys I
had...the latter two would show roads which may or may not have
existed, as they would not be numbered or signed in any way. The
map from the state, if it looked simpler, also did not
disappoint. Anyway, from there I drove north and then west to
I-55 at Grenada, and south to my planned luch stop in
Jackson...by way of a rare Stuckey's to pick up Xmas stocking
stuffing stuff for the family.
I had been hearing some good talk about CiCi's pizza buffets, but oddly enough I had never heard even one peep about them until a few days after I was last anywhere near one. One would be delusional to be expecting great pizza at $2.99, especially all-you-can-eat, but hey it was not bad. Plus there were a couple unusual pizzas out...I suppose one could find a ham and pineapple pizza in a true Pizza Town like Chicago, but those are a lot more common where they don't know any better, like say Toronto or Vancouver. And I found another I have seen no where else to date, BBQ beef! The dessert "pizzas" were actually excellent, especially the thin-crust apple and the deep-dish chocolate-caramel. For the second straight day, a big buffet would be my only real meal. I really noticed how warm it was when I got back outside...mid-to-upper 70s, and the sun felt like August intensity.
Headed west on I-20, a road too rough to do the 70mph limit. The paving LOOKED flat, but the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa was rhythmic and constant enough where I had to cut my speed to 60-65, much as I was in a hurry to get to Vicksburg and be done with it. Well, really first I stayed on I-20 until it crossed the Mississippi river so I could claim a new Louisiana parish. I had been to 48 states since I last poked my nose in this state, and my parish (equivalent of county) count there is still pathetic! U'ied at the first available exit and doubled back to Vicksburg, more to find a post office at which to mail a couple tape-letter packages than anything else. I could be persuaded to eventually come back to visit the military park, but the mess of plantation homes in the surrounding area alas bring out the civil rights advocate in me, aaaaargh!
North on US-61 is a pretty fast track. While it's not as flat as one is led to believe, until after crossing the Yazoo river anyway, it does let you zip along at 65mph quite a ways up. Even with a couple side-trips to pick off stray counties, I made good time up to Greenville. Where I again crossed the mighty Mississippi, this time in heavy traffic on the narrow US-82 bridge, all to collect a new Arkansas county. More traffic into and out of Greenville, until relief came around Leland, where the "Birthplace of the Frog" commemorates where Jim Hensen grew up. Took US-49W and Highway 3 north for a couple more counties, up to the town of Marks (easy to remember that name, ha). Hwy. 3 up that way is Charley Pride Drive. All this is near Clarksdale, but it was too late to check out the blues museum. Yep, yet another thing to save for another time. I headed east to I-55, intending to take it up to Memphis. However, the road was as bad as the I-20 stretch I noted earlier! When traffic allowed, I studied the maps and books for a Plan B, winding up instead with Hwy. 4 east the Hwy 7.
Despite many curves and hills, Hwy. 4 was an amazingly pleasant drive. Probably thanks to lack of traffic...Hwy 7 north from Holly Springs was straighter and flatter, but also more heavily used especially by the chronically impatient. 7 became 18 when it entered Tennessee, and I even got a new county out of this! As Memphis was too out of the way for staying overnight, I checked the books and found a couple possible motels in Bolivar. Which thanks to Cruise Night were hard to find. Double pisser being when I did find them, neither made their "No Vacancy" signs easy to spot!!
Must be a regional Stupid Quirk, as I ran into the same trouble up to road in Jackson. Either the "no" would be a small piece of paper invisible more than a foot away, or you had to get the word live from the night manager. The Days Inn on the US-45 Bypass (no getting away from 45!) has a big, flashy sign plugging low room rates...wonder what they charge when they have rooms? Fortunately, amongst all the chain signs in that stretch, I spotted a "vacancy" sign at a no-name place across the street. Double-amazing, the price posted outside was the same as what they charged me! And as tired as I was, the full cable service was an amusing distraction...it included multi-channel HBO and Showtime, though as usual there was too much boxing and silicone-enhanced T&A, yawn.
If the radio in Jackson was a step or two below Memphis, this did put me closer enough to Nashville to make possible a semi-elaborate side-trek into Kentucky on the way to the airport Saturday. Passed through Paris, TN, where a big gas war had most of the stations down to 79.9! The champ, however, would be the dueling truck stops on I-24 somewhere around Cadiz, 77.9.
Murray, Kentucky I only knew about from tape trades a dozen years ago. A contact in southern Illinois could, when the wind was blowing the right direction, pick up some fine programs on Murray State U. station WKMS. It was still good for my first live hearing, with a nice bluegrass/folk show going as I pulled into town. A billboard on the way in was touting a local Italian restaurant which sounded worthy, but the only directions were "6th light, turn right". Traffic got a bit heavy nearing downtown, so I lost count of lights, drats. A couple blocks north of the main intersection, I saw a southern rarity...a direction sign to the post office! I had a letter to mail, so what the heck. Fate was on my side, as Pagliai's (or however it is spelled) was just down the street, huzzah! Turned out to be pizza buffet for lunch, though they also had some good pasta and a more elaborate salad bar, so was still a good meal.
To get from Murray to I-24 meant driving through Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. One of those massive Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority projects involved plugging up both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers just before they could escape into the Ohio river, and the land between the two resultant lakes was turned into a scenic park. Like I needed one more thing to come back to see at a more leisurely pace?
Got back into Nashville with a little time to spare, so I tracked down a Krystal near the airport for a quick snack and to catch some 4pm station IDs. Krystal, as I've noted in past southeast travel essays, is that region's answer to White Castle, and the small square burgers pack just as much burp action. Krystal, however, also still has the tiny "Pup" hot dogs, also available as chili dogs and as corn dogs.
The return flight was closer to what one would expect on a heavy travel weekend...crowded gates, full flights, mobs of families seemingly not used to flying as a group, etc.
Alabama, 1 (for 67 of 67...completed!); Arkansas, 1 (for 37 of 75); Kentucky, 5 (for 55 of 120); Louisiana, 1 (for 18 of 64); Mississippi, 15 (for 55 of 82); Tennessee, 5 (for 70 of 95). Total, 28 (for 2,200 of 3,134).
WKMS, Murray KY and WSGI, Springfield TN (live in-studio country show).
Honorable Mention to "PRM" (Public Radio Mississippi?) network, whose offerings included the BBC Radio word-play program My Word, which has been running for years on Chicago station WFMT. Typically, guests take turns telling a story, which ends in a take-off on a famous phrase. Alas, the only example I have handy is a very brief one I made up myself whilst doing laundry the other evening....
"A lady-friend had years ago received a fancy party dress, but had worn it so often since then, she felt it was OK to just toss it into the washer and dryer to clean. During one such evening washing, she forgot to remove a 10-cent piece from a hidden pocket, and also kept the dress in the dryer a bit too long. When finally removing the dress, her hand touched the metal coin, causing her to let out a shriek, and then exclaimed, 'There's a hot dime in the old gown tonight!'" Trust me, the show is better.
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