Memphis

I left T.O. Fuller early in the morning without much observation, but it was a nice enough place. As an aside: I’ve been using three sources to find campsites/parking places. They are freecampsites.net, the Campendium app/website, and the iOverlander app. I’ve been writing reviews, fairly faithfully, on the first two sites. I figure I may as well give back. Not that anyone will care, surely, but my handle on those sites for reviews is foxylikeaturtle.

In Memphis I headed first to the Bass Pro Shop in the Pyramid, which used to be a basketball stadium, and was suggested as a possible spot for overnight parking, although I decided against it. I was told it was an oddity not to be missed, and I suppose that’s true, although my feelings are certainly mixed. I paid $10 (plus tax) to ride an elevator to the top of the thing: the tallest freestanding elevator in the country, we are told, and its walls are floor-to-ceiling glass. Fun fact: I am scared of heights. This was possibly the most horrifying experience I’ve ever paid $10 for. At the top there’s a bar/restaurant with amazing views, including observation decks you can walk on outside; these have GLASS FLOORS, you guys, and they CREAK underfoot. Definitely the most horrifying experience of my trip to date. I do it for you, though. Here’s a picture I took from up there of the Hernando de Soto Bridge across the Mississippi.

I also wandered around the interior of the Bass Pro Shop, which is a weird shrine to commercialism and a brand of outdoorsiness that I guess is not the one I was brought up in (although I could certainly have indulged in some of the gear). There’s a swamp in the middle. It has fish in it – bass, I assume? and some truly enormous ones I’m told are sturgeon. There are ducks – live ones – as well as live ALLIGATORS, you guys. In the middle of the store. Also taxidermied deer, elk, pigs, bears, more ducks, and who knows what. It’s… a scene. There is an “old timey” store selling fresh-made fudge, and a lodge, an archery and pistol range, a museum, and an aquarium, apparently, right in there too. Very strange.

And on to the other end of the spectrum: the real reason I’m in Memphis (which was out of my way, generally speaking) was to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

This was, what, my fourth major civil rights museum/memorial in the last week; and I confess there is a diminishing return. This experience is emotionally exhausting. And I say that with apologies, because I feel the weight of guilt for not having had to live any of the horrors that I’m reading about and viewing. But it’s the simple truth, that as I take in these atrocities – murders, criminal justice and other systemic failures, disrespect, mutilations, denials of basic rights – the parts of me that feel horror get worn out. And I feel less at the fourth visit than I did at the first.

Which is not to say I feel nothing.

I am feeling more and more familiar with some of the stories told in each of these museums: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts; the Freedom Riders and the several places where they were most badly abused; lunch counter sit-ins; the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham. Slavery and Jim Crow. Partly because of my (shameful) exhaustion, and partly (in this case) because the place was mobbed by school groups, I moved quickly through those exhibits. I was glad to find some unique content, though. For one thing, the Memphis museum follows the civil rights movement out of the 1960s and into Black Power and the Black Panther Party.

I appreciated that. And, unsurprisingly, there was a focus here on the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which is what MLK was in town for when he was killed. This was not a story I’d encountered at any of the Alabama museum sites, so I was glad to slow down and take it in.

And then there is the feature of this location: the restored and maintained rooms that MLK and his associates occupied on the fateful night of April 4, 1968.

I took several pictures because, I guess, it felt so big. It also felt like voyeurism. Is it okay that we are all peering into this room, with its unmade bed, cigarette butts in the ashtray and dirty dishes, half-drunk cup of coffee sitting there as if someone will return for it at any minute? (This is a reconstructed scene, of course.) I felt a little dirty and a lot guilty, but I looked.

Across the street, the museum’s second building occupies the boarding house where the shot that killed MLK “allegedly” (they still have to say this?!) came from. We get to see the view of the balcony that the shooter saw.

the shooter’s view

I am exhausted, you guys. It’s too much. And again with my guilt: I’m exhausted just by looking? Shame on us.

leaving Muscle Shoals

On my way out of town, just let me reflect on what I’ve missed. I drove by the Helen Keller birthplace, which of course was closed,

also perhaps headed for being underwater?

and that’s a shame, because I figure there’s lots to learn in there. I remember reading about Helen Keller when I was little and being moved. There’s always more to learn… Also in Muscle Shoals I missed a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I’ve yet to visit one, and I do have some interest, but there can just be so much to choose between. One of these days.

On my way out, I crossed a few state lines

on my way to Memphis, where I’m crashing for the night at T.O. Fuller State Park. I’m a bit weary of cities, and hope after this one I can find some forests on my way to the next friend I’m heading for: see you soon, Larry!

be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 2)

After leaving FAME I was really losing my mind, you guys. I had to go park and have some quiet time before I could move on, to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and Barry Beckett started their careers as studio musicians at FAME, but left in 1969 to open their own studio, where they served as both owners and studio musicians; this is where they became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame as such). They were hailed as some of the finest studio musicians out there, with acts as big as the Rolling Stones coming into town to record in their studio. An anecdote from the documentary:

Paul Simon called Stax Records, said “Hey, man, I want those same Black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.'” They said, “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”

(The joke here is that the four of them are white.)

I first learned about the Muscle Shoals Sound from a song.

Here, the tour was $15, and presented in a style much more suited to beginners: where Spencer at FAME is a sound engineer and apt to speak a bit over our non-professional heads (though happy to explicate where asked), the unnamed young man at Muscle Shoals Sound expected much less expertise. By this time, at my third stop of the day (and having some pre-study time put in, as a fan of these bands and having watched the documentary), Spencer’s style suited me a little better. But being in the place was, again, heady and nearly overwhelming. Here we talked a lot about the Swampers (nickname for the Rhythm Section, as immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” – go listen again and you’ll hear it), as well as Cher, the Stones, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others. I was amazed to hear we’d just missed David Hood, who’d been in recording just this week.

On my way into and out of town, I saw signs for places I’ve been hearing about in Truckers and Isbell songs for years: Russellville, Tuscumbia, Seven Mile Island; Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties. Wilson Dam, immortalized in a pair of Truckers songs by Cooley (“Uncle Frank“) and Isbell (“TVA“), respectively.

I’ve seen some birds, particularly around the dam: American white pelicans, great blue herons, Canada geese, a few Eastern bluebirds, and throughout the area, lots and lots of American robins.

I am now exhausted and reeling from this brush with greatness. How will I recover? I just feel so lucky that there’s such good music in the world, and that I get to know about it.

If I have not entirely killed my audience with these two gushy posts, let me leave you with a Jason Isbell Tiny Desk Concert that you will not regret.

You’re welcome.

be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 1)

Whew. What a place for me to visit. I can scarcely say in a little ol’ blog post what this all means to me, but the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell are some of the most important artists to me in the world. And their world to a large extent begins in a little town called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Muscle Shoals is also the nexus and birthplace of a huge amount of great music – seriously, if there’s music you love in the world, I’d bet money some of it originated in this little town. And the roots of so much good music. Again, I won’t attempt to tell you the whole story myself. You should check out an excellent documentary titled, yes, Muscle Shoals to get the scoop.

I knew that I had to visit on this trip, as a paying of respects.

I started my day at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which has not yet inducted any of my most personally held favorite Alabama musicians, but boy are there some good ones in there, though: Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Lionel Richie, Tammy Wynette, Percy Sledge, Sam Phillips, Nat King Cole, Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Hinton, Spooner Oldham, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section including David Hood (father to Patterson Hood, frontman of the Truckers). And so many more.

As a destination, the Hall of Fame is a bit run-down, but full of history and artifacts and lore. If you’re a fan of even a couple of these guys, I think it’s worth a visit. The $10 entry feels a hair steep, maybe, but I’m glad this place is here so I shrug and I pay it. I got some shots.

Next I visited FAME Studio, the fabled beginning of the famous Muscle Shoals sound. Rick Hall and two partners opened FAME in 1959; by 1961 he was solo, and immediately making history. I took a $10 tour that was worth every penny and then some – don’t ask what I then spent in the gift shop on a book, an album, a couple of stickers and a t-shirt. Tour guide Spencer was entertaining and chock-full of names and stories; it was a lot to take in and I couldn’t stop grinning. I was star-struck just being in the same room where so many greats have recorded. Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Truckers, Isbell, Spooner Oldham, Band of Horses, Phish, Gregg Allman, Steven Tyler…

There’s more. But I’m going to break this post into two parts, lest I overwhelm you.

back to Montgomery

I had to make a major backtrack when I realized my grave error: I’d passed through Montgomery without visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

–Martin Luther King, Jr. (on a wall at entrance)

This was one of the very first landmarks I put on a list, before I made a map, before I bought the van, when I first started thinking about taking this trip. There was no question, when I realized my mistake, that I’d go back to Montgomery.

This is the new lynching memorial that opened last year, and naturally it is also just a few blocks away from those other monuments and landmarks I visited a few days ago. (I’m still pretty frustrated with myself.) I did find the practicalities quite a bit more daunting, though. It’s a new place; they’re still figuring some things out, like signage. Because it’s outside, I thought I could walk Hops through the memorial (we have so appreciated being able to do some of these sites together), but no. So back to the van to put Hops up. Then back to the front gate for my ticket. No, have to go back across the street (back to the van) to get the ticket at a different location (why no signage for this?). Then into a long line as a school group showed up, and metal detectors – they have metal detectors at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, too (though not at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, for whatever reason). By the time I got in, twenty minutes or so had passed. Still worth it.

The memorial consists of metal pillars for each county in which a confirmed lynching took place between 1877 and 1950, along with the dates of the lynchings and the names of the victims (sometimes, unknown). These are hung (no coincidence, I’m sure) in a grid that encircles (ensquares?) a central square space, reminiscent of the kinds of public spaces where some lynchings took place: courthouse lawns, city centers, parks. You begin by walking among the pillars, but eventually the earth drops away, the monuments elevate, and you crane your neck upward to read them. County names are also etched underneath.

A few sculptures punctuate the experience, arranged around the main monuments but inside the security perimeter. A “Monument Park,” likewise within the perimeter, lays out a duplicate of every county’s monument, in the stated hope that those counties around the country will claim their own history and display these pieces on their own ground. So far, all appear to remain here in Montgomery. We need to own this, y’all…

As you see, there’s also a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower garden, this time outside the security fencing (and accessible to Hops), presumably to refresh the senses.

Again, a somber thing, a difficult thing to contemplate. But we must!

Birmingham

Birmingham’s main draw was another landmark: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This is a newish museum dedicated to the civil rights movement generally, with an emphasis on Alabama’s role, and Birmingham’s in particular. I appreciated a number of timelines that put in perspective events in Alabama alongside national and international events – mostly within the realm of the movement, but with a few outliers, too. I recently wrote something about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to education and, well, to life. This fit what I was thinking about.

Featuring heavily were certain local events: the Children’s Crusade, in which thousands of minors marched and were arrested, and had dogs and water hoses turned on them. MLK’s arrest and subsequent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, when four little girls were killed, one lost an eye, and many more were wounded – two boys were killed that day on the streets of Birmingham, too, in the aftermath.

The museum was lovely, and nicely multimedia, with lots of audio recordings available as well as pictures and captions and artifacts and sculpture. It was a bit overwhelming, though (especially with different audio tracks going simultaneously). After nearly two hours, I was relieved to head outdoors. Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, where the Children’s Crusade marchers were attacked. This city block is filled with sculpture – a rich museum in its own right, and outdoors (so, dog-friendly).

Catty-corner from the park, and so across the street from the Institute, is the 16th Street Church. Down another street, behind the Institute, is the Gaston Motel, an early model Black-owned business and center for the local movement, where MLK took up residence for a time while strategizing. The motel, unfortunately, is boarded up and falling down; but it is part of the National Monument, and hopefully they’ll figure out how to save it.

I don’t know what words to add to these pictures. Please visit sites like these yourself when possible. If you want to do more, a decent start might be giving some money. I like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Because every day is mixed, I had to step out of my museum-goer mode at one point to sit in the van (while parked for free! at Kelly Ingram Park, with free! city! wifi!) and conduct an author interview via Skype, for work. (Check out pagesofjulia for that sort of content.) It was a delightful interview, and I’m so grateful to get to do this sort of work while on the road. I’m a lucky woman.

To book-end my day of reading about small children bombed and water-canoned and attacked by dogs, I am reading a book (also for work) about domestic violence and intimate partner homicide and familicide, and the dire state of such things in this culture. It’s an excellent book, and the civil rights monuments are terribly important. But, whew. So…

Cheers, y’all. Let’s try and do better.