Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Back Home

Dhar was up long before the rest of us. He took the time to wander around the neighbourhood, spooking my neighbours. Then he took the time to tell my father what mechanical difficulties we had. At around 09:00, Stefan, Rebecca, and I crawled out of the van and started to the mission of cleaning up the mess 10,000 kilometres had left.

Our first problem was with our pressure sprayer — it was broken. This meant about an hour of strenuous scrubbing to try and get as many of the bug splats off as possible. We also plugged in the vacuum and went over every last scrap of carpet and fabric inside. The sink and burners were cleaned, any possessions removed, and Dhar’s car packed. By noon the mission was complete.

Showers were not the order of the day, those came only after the van was washed. Even then Dhar opted to wait until he was home himself. Thus Dhar, Rebecca, and Stefan filed into Dhar’s Probe and vanished down the street. I immediately jumped in the shower. I was home.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960503.23

Day 13

It has finally ended. The Behemoth was washed this morning, Rebecca and Stef had showers (alone – a rarity in the last while), and then Dhar took them on their last leg home. I proceeded to get my pictures developed, and recant the trip to my family and friends.

Tomorrow I must return to reality, something I’m not looking too forward to. But life must go on. Another road trip to P.E.I. may come up this summer, but that’ll be another story…

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio

By morning the rain had stopped, leaving cool damp weather in its wake. We stirred shortly after 08:30, all of us awake in a relatively short period of time. Our first surprise was to open the curtains and find that we were the only ones left in the entire campground. We didn’t know what time the others had left, but we had slept through all of them. It was fortuitous on our side — no waiting for showers, and it allowed Stefan to sneak into the women’s washroom with Rebecca.

Horse Cave was the only KOA office I didn’t go into. Thus the last postcards I had sent were from Memphis the day before. Stefan cleared up the charges with the KOA while we packed away our gear and prepared for the morning trip. Once we had the financial portions squared away, all we had to do was pull up to the pumping station and dump the grey water tank.

I must have been extremely irritating that morning, my incessant suggestions to go to Mammoth Cave must have severely worn away the levels of patience in my companions. But I won. Exiting the campground, we turned south on I-65 for about 12 miles until we reached the exit for Mammoth Cave National Park, for a lengthy drive westward.

I had this odd preconception that the cave entrance would be somewhere near the Interstate, or at least the road into the park would be a fairly major one. I came to the conclusion after driving for 15 minutes that spelunking wasn’t as high on most tourists’ lists as it was on mine. Impatience soon gave away to anticipation as we pulled into the large (and mostly deserted) parking lot.

We grabbed what gear we thought necessary, and changed into clothes more suitable for the environment we were to experience. If nothing else, our visit to the Cave of the Winds had taught us that caves are cool places, and sandals aren’t the most appropriate footwear. Oddly enough, our lessons were learned differently by each of us: I wore shoes, a long sleeved shirt, and shorts; Rebecca and Stefan wore jeans, t-shirts, and sandals; Dhar wore jeans, t-shirt, and shoes. Each of us would complain about our choice of clothes during our voyage beneath the surface of the Earth.

We walked across the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center to buy a tour ticket. Just outside the stone and wood building were a series of wood and plastic signs listing the tour options. There were four options available to us: a short 45-minute tour, two 2-hour tours, and a six hour extravaganza. We opted for one of the two tours, one that would give us the greatest view of the underground cave system.

Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world, with over 336 miles (560 kilometres) of charted passageways. The route we decided on barely scratched the surface of massive cavern, only a measly couple of miles. It was the longest distance covered in a two-hour tour. I had read a great deal about Mammoth Cave, mostly about the local stories about it and surrounding caves, such as Crystal Cave and Onyx Cave. But today’s tour would be about the largest, Mammoth Cave.

We walked in through the main entrance and walked over to the ticket booths. Only two of the half-dozen wickets were open, a sure sign of the pre-tourist season. We were two minutes too late, or so I thought. We very hastily bought our tickets, got very rudimentary instructions from the wicket clerk, then darted out the doors, hung a right, and charged down a path until we saw a large group of people with two National Park guides leading the way. We quietly joined at the end of the group.

We seemed to have not missed anything, the guide at the front of the group was starting to tell the story of how the cave was formed, pointing to the geological structure of the area (mostly limestone, almost a prerequisite for forming a cave), the type of climate in south-central Kentucky, and the cave’s location to larger bodies of water. The guide also introduced himself (alas, I cannot remember his name) and his partner whom I believe was named Bill.

Upon finding the group, we had started to walk into a ravine. The ravine had a path built in the middle of the floor for tour groups to gain easier access to the cave entrances. Our destination was called the Historic Entrance, and was the nearest to the Visitor’s Center. There were a few other entrances to the cave (probably because accessing those areas would require a several hour round-trip trek through the cave’s winding passages to get there), which appeared to be mostly elevators.

We arrived at a large depression in the ground (possibly a shallow sinkhole), with a staircase running down the edge of the depression to the floor. Just before we started to descend, our more talkative guide (in fact, he was the only one who spoke during the entire two hours — I think Bill was there only so our primary guide never had to stop talking to turn the lights on and off, or keep an eye on the people in the rear) told everyone to “give your tickets to the most responsible person in your group, and then have her give them to me”. Unlike others in the tour group, we already knew who the most responsible person was.

There were also a couple basic rules: stay with the group, and don’t remove anything from the cave. This included dirt, rocks, cave crickets, bats, fish, and retired Park Rangers. (Another dose of dry wit from our guide.)

And so we started down the stairs, slippery with wear and water, which continually dripped from the upper lip of the hole. At the bottom we encountered a large steel bar gate covering the entrance. This was assumedly to keep unguided visitors from getting hopelessly lost inside (which was not an impossibility). The floor inside was dirt, but very tightly packed from millions of feet walking over it. Along the right side of the passageway was a tube of some kind, buried partly in the floor. About halfway down the 300 foot hall was scientific equipment, measuring the speed of the wind and its temperature.

Like most large caves, Mammoth Cave “breathed” with the seasons. During the summer it exhaled and during the winter it inhaled. Winter having ended, the cave was beginning to exhale. The breeze was surprisingly stiff, about 10 km/h. It was also fairly cool. The inside of the cave was 54 degrees Fahrenheit (about 12 degrees Celsius), which almost immediately started my leg hairs to stand on end. I should have worn my jeans.

We arrived at the first room on the tour, which I believe was called Grand Central Station or The Rotunda. Either way, the room was huge: at least 500 feet in diametre and 50 feet tall. Small lights (compared to the rest of the structure) gave off a slight glow which illuminated enough of the cave to see without flashlights or other extra lighting. The room was almost circular, with two large hallways extending further into the rock. The ceiling was domed in steps, formed when parts of the ceiling collapsed. The floor of the room was mostly dirt, but had several holes dug into it, like those of an archeological site.

There was good reason for the holes. Our guide (I’ll leave Bill out of the picture, since he really didn’t do much) started into the history of the cave, covering the first few million years in about thirty seconds. The human history started with the Native Indians, who used to come into the cave to collect minerals such as gypsum. Then with the arrival of the Revolutionary War, the cave came into use again because it could provide the one thing the American colonies needed to defeat the British: salt peter.

Long, straight trees were cut down and bored out with a long drill to form tubes. One end of the tubes was tapered, then butted with the flat end of another tube. This process was repeated over and over again until a long wooden pipe ran from outside the Historic Entrance to the middle of the room we were standing in. (This was the tube that we saw walking into the cave, still preserved in its location even after 200 years.) The water was used to leech the sodium nitrate from the soil, which was then dried out, collected, and hauled by cart to the surface. The sodium nitrate was then converted to potassium nitrate, which when mixed with charcoal and sulfur, became gunpowder.

Our guide then told us that many historians believe that a huge amount of minerals were extracted from the cave during the Revolutionary War, something on the order of several thousand tons. I simply couldn’t fathom that amount of material being removed, and still seeing so much matter remaining. Our guide however, had his own theory — that amount was significantly lower.

He explained that the mine (as it was referred to) existed for seven years from 1776 to 1783. During that time, it was possible to have extract the amount of material that the historians claimed was removed. The guide’s theory was based on accounts of several cave-ins, and massive tremors that kept just about everyone out for nearly four years. The amount of nitrates that could have been removed was therefore significantly lower.

At that time, he indicated the holes in the floor of the room. The were remnants of the original mines left behind by the slaves and their overseers. The water tank that had once stood over them had since been destroyed. An iron railing around the holes kept people from walking into the pits.

Finishing his speech, the guide then led us down the left hallway. The tunnel was about 50 feet in diametre, and dimly lit. The geologic history of the cave was covered in substantially more detail, including the past three cave-ins. I suddenly wondered just how stable the cave was, not wanting to be crushed under 20 tons of falling rock. But I wasn’t too keen on frightening anyone and kept my thoughts to myself.

After a couple of stops and a long winding walk, we came to a small set of displays showing a few of the artifacts found in the cave. These included sandals and reed torches the Native Indians had used to explore the cave. Sadly, the original specimens were no longer available, due to theft which either led to the items being stolen or put away for safe keeping.

It was then to pass around the Giant’s Coffin and into the cave requisite Fat Man’s Misery / Tall Man’s Agony. A short, narrow passageway that only a kid could love. This was a long one too, winding around until we entered into a keyhole-shaped tunnel, eventually landing us in another largish room. We were told that the restrooms we would see were mirages. Either lack of funding or broken equipment led to the toilets being taken out of service.

This room was a crossroads for the cave. Here we could go up into the “upper” regions of that area of the cave, or go down to the lower areas where the cave fish and cave crickets lived. (Dhar had caught a brief glimpse of one in the dim light as we staggered through the previous passageway.) The room had been discovered about a century earlier by a black slave, who was a professional tour guide in the cave. He had entered the room from the same route as us, but the bottom of the keyhole had been filled in with rocks and debris at the time. The same slave had mapped most of the cave within an hour’s walk of the Historic Entrance.

Another requisite of cave visitation soon arrived upon us: the lights were turned off. Urban dwellers can never know the feeling of having two of your senses shut off completely. When the lights go out, there is total blackness. An unlit night sky in the middle of the densest forest doesn’t even come close to the darkness achieved at 300 feet below the surface. It’s chillingly silent too, no-one spoke … I don’t think many breathed. For a full minute we were left in the isolation, and it’s a feeling not soon forgotten.

With the lights back on a moment later, we continued into the upper regions of the cave. Up there it was much wetter than the other areas of the cave we had been in. Small streams flowed along the sides of the tunnels, heavy dripping echoed from all around, even the air felt damp.

After a while we found ourselves in one of the showcase areas of the cave. Here was Bottomless Pit (in reality only a couple hundred feet, but with the lights off you’d never know), which we walked over on a catwalk. It was a long way to the bottom, at which we could see a light green pool of water. I tried to take a picture, but didn’t leave the exposure on long enough.

We then entered Mammoth Dome, a room so tall it couldn’t have fit lengthwise in The Rotunda. Water fell constantly from the ceiling — everyone got a little wet regardless of where they stood. Flowstone coated the walls and created a few large formations at the rear of the room. From there we climbed a huge steel tower (erected when the cave came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service), and exited through a tunnel at the top of the room.

From there we walked through a few passageways until we entered another large tunnel, about the same size as the one we had gone down near the beginning of the tour. To our left was intense darkness, and a sign warning visitors not to wander down the tunnel without a guide. The path was rigged with motion sensors, used either to turn on the lights or warn Security.

We headed right and continued along a long bend until we found ourselves in the right tunnel leading from The Rotunda. Here our guide thanked us for following the rules, and leaving the Park Rangers where we found them. We crossed the dirt floor of the immense room and went out through the entrance tunnel. I attempted to take an exposure picture of The Rotunda, but my lack of a tripod didn’t make for a clear picture.

As we reached the cave entrance, a small bat joined the exodus. No bigger than a baseball glove (wingspan and all), the little fledermaus couldn’t get out through the steel bars without veering away and into the exiting group. A few people yelped in fright and tried to back away. I tried to get a good look at it without interrupting its flight plan. But soon we were in the warmth of the sun, and heading back to the ravine path.

Once again our guide thanked us for the tour, we thanked him and Bill for their time. The guide suggested that he and Bill would be glad to share some stories of the cave if someone bought them lunch. I considered it for a moment, thinking of all the interesting information we could dig out of them. Instead the four of us returned to the Behemoth.

It was time for lunch, and we were starving. We were out of breakfast food, and were about to polish off the last of all the food we had. We circled around the parking lot until we found one of the park roadways, then drove along until we found an open picnic site. Only two other vehicles were in the vicinity: one other family having lunch, and a few workmen renovating the washrooms nearby.

It was lunch time. The barbeque came out to cook hot dogs, and the stove inside the van was turned on to cook the macaroni and cheese. It would be a fairly simple meal: President’s Choice White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, and a few hot dogs to go along. It wasn’t quite as basic as Kraft Dinner and wieners, but came reasonably close to being typical student fare.

That was assuming of course, that one recognized it as such. But Dhar wasn’t a typical student. Dhar had never had anything like Kraft Dinner before. I stood there in silent awe. I had met a person who had never eaten something I would eat for weeks on end because it was the cheapest thing I knew of.

Our lunch was nothing special, and we treated it no different than any other. The pot of macaroni and cheese quickly vanished, and the last of the hot dogs were eaten. When we were finished, the last of our food was gone. From then on, we would have to buy the rest of our meals. We cleaned the area up, disposing of the waste, packed up the barbeque, cleaned the dishes, and hit the road.

Returning to the I-65, we entered the northbound lanes with Dhar behind the wheel. Next stop: we didn’t know. After Graceland, we had started to play the trip more by ear. Mammoth Cave had never been a suggestion until we had entered Mississippi State. Having left our last destination, we had no formal idea of where we were going, only that it was in the general direction of home.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960502.145

Day 12

The KOA was deserted when we woke up this morning. We then ventured to Mammoth Cave. Much more “natural” than Cave of the Winds – where the floors were cement, you couldn’t tell. It was cold inside, only 54 degrees F at best.

Last night we had a long chat about a great many things, mostly about sex and relationships.

We’re currently on our way north towards home. Don’t know where we’re stopping next. Forgot to send Kathryn a postcard from Horse Cave / Mammoth Cave. Oh well…

Hard to believe this trip is ending so soon. I don’t want to go back to life. I want to stay here where I don’t have responsibility except for myself.

A sure sign of a good vacation is how much you don’t want to go home. None of us really wanted to. If we had the choice, I think we would’ve kept rolling as far as our credit limits would’ve allowed. Nevertheless, deep inside we were responsible and we knew that as much as we didn’t want to go, home was were we had to be. Maybe not so much with Dhar and I, but Eric and Thea were expecting their parents to return home from their trek across America.

Around 16:00 we arrived in the Louisville area. Here we had to switch Interstates so we could continue in the proper direction. This necessitated a shift from I-65 to I-265, then to I-71. We stayed on I-71 for almost another two hours before arriving at I-75, which took us due north into Cincinnati, Ohio at around 18:00.

I am a child of the 70’s — I grew up watching WKRP In Cincinnati. I remembered the opening theme, where the camera pans through the downtown core along one of the highways. It looked a little too urbanized, but it was my only impression of Cincinnati. I always had a desire to one day see the city, and try to spot the building that broadcasted Doctor Johnny Fever to the world (or at least the Greater Cincinnati area).

Alas, it was not to be. The I-75 crossed to what looked like the west side of the city, and revealed nothing. We continued up I-75 until we reached I-275. By this point we’d figured out that we needed to be on I-71 again, which took us in a more northeasterly direction, more appropriate for our triumphant return to the Great White North. We traveled east on I-275 for six miles until joining up with I-71 to head northeast.

About an hour after leaving the Greater Cincinnati area, our stomachs began to growl profusely again. It seemed time to feed the monsters within. Luckily for us, we were in a 30 mile stretch in the middle of southern Ohio that had no places to stop and buy dinner. We came across our salvation at a Shoney’s in Jeffersonville.

Americans seemed to be obsessed with restaurant chains that mimic home cooking. I’ve been to several, and for some strange reason they all have pluralized names. We pulled up, tried to make ourselves look as presentable as possible, then sauntered in for our repast. Just inside the door awaited luscious desserts all waiting to be sampled. But sugar wasn’t high on my priority list at the time, I was more interested in something solid.

We were led to a table by the hostess, and greeted by our waitress Christina a few moments later. It was now 19:30, and if nothing else the sounds emanating from our abdomens indicated that if we didn’t receive sustenance soon, we would start eating the table.

Dhar seemed to have his head stuck in New Orleans, he ordered the seafood trio to calm his nerves. Likewise with Rebecca, who didn’t seem to get enough blackened red fish at Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon, she opted for the blackened cod. Stefan went for the charbroiled chicken, and I for an eight ounce sirloin steak. All of us took the salad bar option, we knew that no matter what we would get our money’s worth there.

For the next 10 minutes we gorged ourselves on salads of all kinds. Then our entrees appeared. I couldn’t believe the speed at which our meals had arrived. I hadn’t had enough time to eat the second salad! I’ll tell you something: Shoney’s doesn’t sacrifice quality for their speed — our meals were delicious. (Mind you, if the last meal was macaroni and cheese, nearly anything from a restaurant will be delicious.)

It took less time to eat our entrees than it took us to park, make sure we weren’t disgusting, climb out of the van, and come into the restaurant. When Christina returned to ask what we thought of our meals, I caught the look of stifled astonishment to the speed our eating habits. Dessert went substantially slower, and only Rebecca and I indulged ourselves in that.

Rebecca wanted coffee. I don’t think she’d had coffee since the Perkins we went to in Kansas. She actually shook a little when she started drinking it, but soon the look of a devoted caffeine addict crossed her face and she slipped into her own little coffee coma. My kick at the cat came with an Oreo Cookie Sundae. This manifestation of evil was so loaded with sugar, I was wired until we reached Cleveland.

At 20:00, we were back on board the Behemoth and heading northeast towards New York State. We could’ve saved some time and money by taking I-75 through Toledo and around the west end of Lake Erie. That would have not only returned us to Canada (and ultimately, home) much sooner, but avoided the toll booths in New York. But Niagara Falls was now on the agenda, no matter what time we got there. And so we drove.

Sometime around 23:00 to 00:00 (and deep inside Ohio), we had to stop for gas … the Behemoth was running low. Wherever we were, it wasn’t heavily populated — we hadn’t seen much other than tree silhouettes for the past hour. We pulled into the cheapest station on the off-ramp and promptly set about refilling our tanks. I made a quick escape into the station to get some snack foods.

Dhar was having a conversation with some of the local teens when I returned, two men and a slightly younger woman. They were at least 16 years old (looked closer to 18), as they were driving a Jeep pickup truck. I ignored the initial banter and climbed in through the side door to put my loot in the fridge to keep cool.

The two men disappeared into the station store a moment later, and the woman came over to view the Behemoth. I quickly became interested in the conversation again. We invited her in, and asked her to excuse the general mess we had inside. She was just short of amazed at the vehicle we had in our possession. She was even more amazed when she found out whereabouts we had been in the last 11 days. She commented that she and her friends had similar aspirations, but didn’t know how they were going to go about doing it.

Soon the two men returned to the truck, and the woman bounced out after them. Almost immediately Stefan and Rebecca jumped into the back, declaring that it was someone else’s turn to drive. Still wired from the Oreo Sundae, I volunteered and climbed behind the wheel. A moment later we were back on the I-71 heading for home.

We had come to the realization that we were only five hours from home, and there wasn’t really anything along the way that we just had to see. It was a quick decision to make a last push for home. Even then, we still wouldn’t arrive until almost daybreak.

About 30 miles outside Cleveland we broke from I-71 to I-271 to skirt around the outer edges of the city, eventually picking up I-90 on the eastern side. This took us along the south shore of Lake Erie through the rest of Ohio, into the 47 mile stretch of I-90 as it went through Pennsylvania, finally turning into the New York State Thruway once we crossed the state line.

Despite the short distance we had to cover, Pennsylvania was a long state, due entirely to the conversation I had with Rebecca. I have no recollection how we got onto the topic, but we entered into a heated debate about definition. For those of you just joining us, Rebecca is an educated expert in women’s studies and sexuality. I’m an English major. Differences were bound to exist.

We got onto a discussion of Freud (as in Dr. Sigmund, obsessed with possessing his mother). I personally don’t think very highly of Freud, I think he spent too much time relating everything to sex. (I don’t think he got laid very often.) Rebecca told me of one of Freud’s theories that said children are very sexual beings. At first I thought she said “sensual”, which I partly agreed to. “Sexual” on the other hand, I completely objected to that.

Again, I repeat that I’m an English major. Hence, I know and follow dictionary meanings. I have this kooky perception that keeps me from inventing new definitions for words — otherwise our language gets too unwieldy and difficult to use (as if it already isn’t). “Sensual” I can understand because the word applies to the senses: kids touch and eat everything in sight, regardless of what it is. “Sexual” I disagree with because according to my dictionaries (mental and Random House) give no indication of definition outside of that pertaining to sex. In my opinion, children do not have, nor should participate in, sex.

But I remind you, this is solely my opinion. Rebecca was all for using “sexual” as an adjective for children, comparing it with “sensual”. This she got from Freud. Again, I don’t think too highly of Freud. I think he needed to use a dictionary more often.

New York was long and boring. The I-90 through New York is much like several Interstates that run through the middle of other states: there’s nothing on either side but trees. A little over an hour after entering the state, the Buffalo city limits sign whipped by our windows. What little exhaustion had started to creep into my system suddenly fled as the goal of our day rapidly appeared. It was after 03:00 and I’d been driving for over seven hours … the sight of home only made me want to drive all the more.

We hit our first toll just after seeing the city limits sign. I griped about it silently, tossed in the toll, then sped on to the interchange for the I-190. Less than a quarter-mile into the I-190, another toll and another gripe. We headed due west until the I-190 curved north again to the Peace Bridge off-ramp. We entered the bridge toll area and drove up to one of the non-truck gates. All but the truck gate were closed for the night. We hastily backed up, crossed a few lanes, and scooted up to the truck booth. We paid our toll, and crossed the bridge to freedom.

Upon entering New York State, we had taken the precaution of figuring out exactly how much stuff we had bought while on the trip. Dhar had won by a landslide, easily bringing back more stuff than the rest of us combined. But we were all under our personal limits. When we reached customs on the Canada side of the bridge, we were ready for any question.

“Good evening,” said the Customs clerk. He was a man in his 30’s, with a black mustache and hair.

“‘Evening!” I replied, a little too cheerily.

“Where are you folks coming from?” he asked.

“All over the United States. Just finishing a 12 day tour.”

“I see. Everyone in there Canadian?”

“Yessir!”

“Who’s all in there?”

“Uh, me, her, him, and him!”

(Okay, so we were ready for all the questions except who we were. Let’s face it, after that long together, I think just about anyone would have a tough time figuring out who they were.)

“Names?” The clerk wasn’t amused at my blunder. We quickly dug out our birth certificates and drivers licenses.

“Anything to declare?”

“Nope!”

“Welcome home.”

We were home. Almost immediately I felt like someone had just put a warm wool Hudson’s Bay blanket around me and handed me a cup of hot maple syrup. We drove onto the QEW and started towards Oakville. We drove to Highway 420, which we then took to downtown Niagara Falls so we could get a look at the Falls, even though it was 04:00 in the morning. Along the way we stopped at a Country Time donut shop to grab a quick snack. It was such a relief to taste a Canadian donut again (even if it wasn’t from Tim Horton’s).

Downtown Niagara Falls was utterly dead. The entire time we were there, I only saw one other car on the road (not counting the two cop cars, those were expected). The night lights on the Falls were off, I had assumed they stayed on all night. Much to my disappointment, they didn’t. All we could see was a dark wall, the mist in the air, and water on the road where the mist fell. We made two passes and headed back out to the QEW.

This part I could nearly do in my sleep. I hadn’t driven it too many times, but the route was very familiar to me. We passed over the Welland Canal, through St. Catherines, through Grimsby (which many of my friends testify that it’s a gateway to another dimension), past Hamilton, over the Burlington Skyway, through Burlington, and into Oakville.

As we neared the off-ramp for Trafalgar Road, I suddenly came to the shocking realization that I didn’t have a house key. We would have to sleep in the Behemoth one more night. I pulled onto Trafalgar Road, and headed south to Cornwall Road. I took this east to Maplegrove Road, then south again to Devon Road. East briefly to Pinehurst Road, south to Gatestone Avenue, and parked right behind my father’s van at 05:45. We quickly unpacked the sleeping bags and passed out.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Arriving at a quarter to five in the morning, we have finally ended our tour around the continent. Unfortunately we must still camp a night as I do not have the house keys.The border crossing was interesting – when asked who was in the van, I replied: “Me, her, him, and him.” But we had no other problems. We even saw some of the Falls. It’s good to be home.

Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, Kentucky

Little kids sounded the morning knell, much like how an air raid siren warns of impending disaster. I’m not suggesting that we had a bad day, but it’s not exactly the way I’d wanted to start it off. Our waking patterns were reestablished that morning: Dhar first, soon followed by me, then Rebecca, and Stefan some time later. The morning was not nearly as cool as the night had been, the sun had come out and started warming the air.

In the daylight we got our first good look at the camp. It was similar to the one we had stayed at in Colorado Springs: no attempts to spruce it up at all. But this particular KOA didn’t even have the beauty of nature to fall back on. There was no creek, no view of mountains, no feeling of isolation. A Days Inn lay between us and Elvis Presley Boulevard, and a high wooden fence was erected behind us.

The morning shower ritual was enacted, our regular runs to the KOA office for postcard duties and post-registration performed, all pretty much to schedule and rhythm. Except the post-registration. That particular KOA wasn’t a very well-managed one. The esthetics of the camp were obviously not of any concern, nor was the fair treatment of the guests. We had parked in a site that had no hook-ups of any kind, thus we were supposed to pay only for a site of that type. However, so the staff claimed, we had an RV, which automatically meant we had to pay for a hook-up site. Stefan did not give into that kind of logic, and argued with them for at fifteen minutes before they finally caved in and charged us only for a basic site. It became brutally obvious that the KOA had only been built to service visitors to Graceland, with no concern for anything other than profit.

Our breakfast was the last of the donuts. Still cold, still sticky-sweet, they were still good. The plan of the day was simple: visit Graceland, and cover more distance heading home. Stefan and I had originally not wanted to be home too early, but Stefan had also said he wanted to be home on the Saturday (it was a Wednesday on that date) so we also wanted to make sure that we were within striking distance of home.

Hitting the road took only a few minutes that morning — not having to unhook the Behemoth from the utilities takes a great deal of time off your clock. We turned right to head further south on Elvis Presley Boulevard. In only a few moments we had arrived at the Home of the King. On our left was the legendary estate, on our right the visitor’s parking and other museums that were parts of the Graceland tour.

The parking lot had only a quarter of the 300+ spots filled. For us, this was a good sign because it meant that once again we had skirted the crowds — a big plus for Dhar. As we headed to what we assumed was the main entrance, we passed a few people wearing Elvis t-shirts heading towards their vehicle. We were entering a dimension beyond sight and sound … just around that bend: The Elvis Zone.

The ticket lobby was almost deserted. In the middle of “tourist season”, this room would probably be packed with avid Elvis fans (the kind whom I wanted to avoid). Immediately on the left of the doors was a bank machine. Realizing that my $100 from Las Vegas had almost run out, I opted to make another $100 withdrawal before doing anything else.

By the time I got to the ticket wicket with my newly acquired cash, the others had already bought their tickets. When I bought mine, not only did I get a second ticket (explained in a moment), but I ended up on a different tour number! Mildly annoyed at this, I was told that the tour number really didn’t matter. I assumed that the numbering system only really came into play during the heavier visitor days.

Now for the second ticket business. We bought access to all the exhibits available, a total of five venues: the Graceland mansion, the Automobile museum, an personal items collection, a 15 minute movie about Elvis, and the Lisa Marie. Normally all these are printed on the same ticket, which has five tear-off portions. The ticket clerk made a mistake however and had to print me two tickets.

While I was purchasing my tickets, Dhar was trying to withdraw $100 from the bank machine in the lobby … without success. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t going to have any luck no matter where we went, but I figured he didn’t want to hear it. Besides, he still had a fair bit of Canadian money he could exchange at a bank.

We exited through the “front doors” (we had come in through the “side doors”) to the departure station, where a tour guide tore off the mansion ticket and handed us a pair of headphones and a small black box about the size and weight of a small car. I had thought the tour would be guided by the Graceland staff. But things were done a bit differently there — the black box was a rudimentary cassette player that took visitors on a 45 minute tour of the Graceland mansion. The idea was fairly simple: follow the cues and you’ll hear things in sync with the voices.

We boarded the small bus that would ferry us across Elvis Presley Boulevard and up to the front doors of the mansion. Just before leaving, the guide told us to turn the cassette players on. I did so, and started listening to the calming male voice that welcomed us to Graceland. I made a judgment mistake though, believing the voice asked us to keep the players off until we were inside Graceland. This put me five minutes behind everyone else for a while.

Reaching the top of the hill upon which the mansion sat, we disembarked and followed the tour guides’ directions into the house. To say the least, I wasn’t prepared for what lay within the doors. The first thing we saw upon entering was a staircase about 15 feet from the doorway. This ran up to the second level of the house, closed to visitors. (I know, “Oooooh! A staircase!” But that’s the point — it wasn’t some grand balustrade, it was just an ordinary set of stairs.)

The Voice directed us to our right, towards the Piano Room. It was so called because of the piano at the far end. (He may have been the King, but that doesn’t mean he was terribly original.) The room was about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, divided partially in the middle with a pair of brightly coloured stained glass peacock windows. The colour scheme in the room was mostly white, with several gold accents on the walls, ceiling, piano, and on the couches.

The Voice then directed us to the stairway that we had seen on our way in. We were told that Elvis used to give karate demonstrations there for his guests. For a brief flash, I honestly thought I could see Elvis doing just that. It was then that I came to know the reason why so many people return to Graceland: it’s real. Not a museum piece, not a recreation … this was how Elvis had lived, this was where his life was lived out for two decades. The decorations, the carpet, the design of the grounds … everything came from his mind, undiluted with time or renovations.

Again The Voice turned us to the left to see the Dining Room, opposite to the Piano Room. It wasn’t a very large room, maybe 20 feet square. The table had places for about half a dozen people. Two large televisions were in opposite corners of the room. The Voice suddenly gave way to Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ widow. She began to tell us about some of her memories of her life at Graceland, living with the King. She would do so several times during the tour.

I had a problem with Priscilla, but it wasn’t anything to do with her marriage to Elvis, or her current life. It was her little speeches … they were all fake. I will be one of the first to say that Priscilla isn’t the world’s foremost actress. She does wonderful dead-pan comedy, particularly next to the King of Dead-pan (Leslie Nielsen), but drama isn’t her forte. I could tell within seconds that she was reading off a script:

The Voice: Priscilla Presley tells us of her life at Graceland… (The Voice and music fades out)

Priscilla: Elvis loved having people over for dinner, usually with the guys. (Speaks reminiscently) He’d sit at the head of the table and tell some of the funniest stories you ever heard. (Laughs slightly) (Slight pause) He was kind, caring man…

This annoyed the hell out of me. I don’t know if it was Priscilla who wrote the script, or Graceland Enterprises for the purposes of the tour. Either way, it was not they method I would have used to illicit a portion of the tour from the widow of the King. The best method, in my humble opinion, would have been to take Ms. Presley on a tour of the house in the same order as visitors, and have her tell unprompted stories as she went. Edit the voice cuts later on and splice into the tour tape. The scripting of the stories nearly ruined the tour for me.

From the Dining Room we passed into the kitchen, added to the tour only after Elvis’ aunt had died a year earlier — she used to spend all her time in the kitchen. Although I had never truly thought about it before, I had an expectation of a huge kitchen with a huge fridge, giant counters for use by a team of expert chefs, coloured completely stark white and gleaming chrome.

If there is any room that speaks more about a person than any other, it’s got to be the kitchen. It was small, 10 feet wide about 20 feet long. Wooden cabinets, deep brown carpeting, and standard appliances. It was the same kitchen you could expect to see in just about anyone’s home, there wasn’t anything special about it. Stepping into this man’s kitchen, all my views of this eclectic, mysterious, phenomenal man all came crashing to the ground — Elvis was no different than anyone else, he just led a more extraordinary life than most.

Around a corner and down the stairs, we arrived in the TV Room, so named for the three televisions set into the far wall. The colour scheme was mostly yellow (my sister swore upon seeing the pictures that Elvis was colourblind), with two couches, a glass table, a wet bar, and a small ceramic monkey in the centre of the table. The TVs were the result of Elvis hearing that then-President Johnson watched two at a time.

Walking back out of the door, we crossed the staircase hall into the Pool Room. About 15 feet square, the room had only one purpose, the pool table that sat proudly in the middle. But the table wasn’t what caught my eye — it was the 2,000 feet of multi-coloured fabric that was pleated all over the walls. Gaudy to some, I actually rather liked the idea (though cleaning it must be a big problem). The Voice mentioned that a tear on the table (which I hadn’t noticed until The Voice drew my attention to it) was caused by one of the “Memphis Mafia” (how Elvis’ entourage was often referred to) .

We then exited the Pool Room through another door, passing through a small non-descript room, and up a flight of stairs into the Jungle Room. The name came from the decor of the room, which included a fountain on the left wall, deep pile green carpeting on the floor and the ceiling (oh, the styles of the 60’s and 70’s), and the most hideous-looking furniture I have ever seen in my life.

The Voice told the story of how Elvis purchased the furniture. He was apparently walking through downtown Memphis one day, and happened to see the chair and a couple of couches sitting in the display window of a furniture store. He loved them so much, he bought the entire set and had it shipped to Graceland immediately. The couch was so big the windows had to be removed to move it inside. Why he bought the set, I don’t know: the fabric alone is reason enough to worry about Elvis’ decorating sense — it’s brown and beige zebra-striped fake fur. It’s ghastly.

The Jungle Room has the fame of being the site of Elvis’ last recording session. His last album was recorded in the Jungle Room, and was released just before he died on August 16, 1977. I was five years and one month old on that day, and I remember my mother being rather shocked at the news. Being so young, the event passed by me without notice.

We then progressed out the back door into the back yard of the mansion. We walked under a large roof (where I assume Elvis parked his cars, since I couldn’t see a garage anywhere) to an office building about 100 feet away from the house. As we crossed the short expanse, The Voice told us of Elvis’ passion of driving his converted snowmobiles (becoming grass-mobiles during the spring and summer months) around the yard, which often scared his daughter Lisa-Marie half to death. Elvis also enjoyed games of firecracker tag with the Memphis Mafia, shooting roman candles at each other.

In the office (on prompting from The Voice) we watched a short news reel that had been taken in the office when Elvis had returned from his stint in the Army. The office had been his father’s, and was left almost in the same manner that it had been in when Elvis died. Adjacent to the office was a small shooting range Elvis used from time to time.

We then proceeded along another concrete path towards another building. The Voice told us of the Presley’s love of horses. Several horses were on the Graceland grounds, but no-one mentioned whether or not they were the original residents. The Graceland grounds were suitable for horses, the back yard was at least the length of a football field, and possibly the same distance in width.

The next building was a small museum, carrying visitors from The King’s humble start, right to his last performance. The first room was the beginning of it all, Elvis’ start in the early 50’s and all the trouble he got himself into with that dynamic pelvis. Misunderstanding a cue, I turned my tour cassette off and ended up having to wander about in the room much longer than I wanted to just so I could catch up (there was no “fast forward” button).

The next room was known as the “Hall of Gold”, and contained every award Elvis had ever won. Ten feet wide and 50 or 60 feet long, the blue passage glittered with gold records on both sides. At the very end of the hall was an enormous plaque Elvis had received for all the money and time he had donated to various charities in the Memphis area. Elvis was one of the last great performers who regularly gave back to his community. Today’s Gen-X musicians would never consider such deeds — they’re either too absorbed in themselves or too desperate to die.

At the end of the “Hall of Gold”, I (now separated from Dhar and from Stefan and Rebecca) entered another portion of the museum, which picked up where the first room had left off. More history of Elvis, starting with his Army uniform. Various pieces of fan mail, posters and costumes from his movies, a huge painting, the one and only Gold Lamay suit, the black leather outfit from his televised comeback special, the Eagle suit from his Hawaii concert, his karate jumpsuit and his black belt, and his police badge collection. All around was his famous “TCB” logo, stylized with a lightning bolt. It stood for: “Taking care of business in a flash.”

Then it was out the door and across another concrete pathway to another building in the yard. This was originally a racquetball / squash court, but was now another museum to his many album sales records. But the focal point of the building wasn’t the glittering wall at the far end, it was the piano that sat behind the protective glass wall. It was there that Elvis played his last song, on the evening of August 15, 1977. Feeling a little tired, he rested awhile before going to bed. The next morning Elvis was found dead, the morning he was supposed to start his next tour.

By this point I had caught up with Dhar, who had stopped his tape a while ago in hopes the rest of us would catch up. Dhar had become rather bored with the tour and had flipped the cassette tape over and rewound part of the tape (there was a “review” button), in effect fast forwarding through part of the tape. The two of us then exited through the side door and walked over to the Meditation Garden.

The Meditation Garden is the final resting place of Elvis Aaron Presley … for those who believe he’s dead. Elvis’ mother, father, and grandmother all rest there as well. There’s even a memorial plaque to Elvis’ stillborn twin brother. According to The Voice, flowers arrive continually all year long (with significant increases on Elvis’ birthday and on the anniversary of his death), and are left until the real flowers wilt and the fake ones look weather-beaten.

The tour ended at that point, and Dhar and I shared a quiet moment staring at the quiet grave. But for me, there was something more to the mansion — there was a spirit there. I don’t know if it was Elvis, or just the essence of who and what he was. But you could feel there was something there, watching you, welcoming you, wanting to tell you all there was to know, saying good-bye as you left. In the Memorial Gardens, that spirit is most strongly felt.

Rounding the swimming pool at the side of the mansion, we walked around to the front to pick up our bus back to the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. There we finally got our first good look at the house. Despite all that we had seen, it didn’t look all that different than many of the houses in my home town. It wasn’t huge, but sat on a very large lot. It looked comfortable, and undoubtedly was. It was a home someone was proud to have owned.

The bus ferried us back to the rest of the Graceland attractions. There we returned our tour cassette players, and started to view the rest of the museums. The first in our list was Elvis’ automobile collection. Elvis loved his cars — he had a lot of them.

Entering the museum (and having another ticket torn off), we walked around a corner to the first part of the collection: a series of motorcycles and tricycles Elvis once drove. While I was taking a picture, one of the other visitors decided that he would try his luck at touching a piece of Elvis … and set of the security alarm. It seemed that all the vehicles in the exhibits had a grounded security system, the slightest touch set it off. The man jerked upright, slightly shocked, and hastily walked away. A security guard rounded a corner a moment later, looked around, then went back out front.

In front of a large wall of lights that curved over-top was an Astin-Martin, the kind of car that James Bond used to drive (before he switched to a BMW). The lights bounced beautifully off the shiny black car, making an interesting view.

In the middle of the main portion of the museum was a replica drive-in theatre (complete with removed front seats from cars) where a 15 minute looping movie of the cars in Elvis’ movies played. I caught glimpses of it, but never watched the whole thing.

One of the vehicles from Elvis’ movies was the pink jeep from Blue Hawaii. It’s tacky, it’s pink, and it’s the kind of thing that seemed to prevail though many movies of that period. It was also, sadly, a fake. According to a plaque in front of it, a previous visitor had pointed out that the original jeep was either destroyed or bought by someone else, Elvis had bought a replica.

One of the most ugly cars in his collection was a Stutz Blackman, built by the Stutz Motor Company. It’s striking lines and very angled shape leads to a very displeasing car to look at — as my friend Scott put it, a very 70’s look. Like it’s name, the car was black … so black you couldn’t tell where the edges of the car were.

I think Elvis had a penchant for pink vehicles — a pink Cadillac was also on display. But not his pearl and gold Cadillac. A sign put on one side indicated that the well-known limousine was on permanent display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Then it was into a small gift shop, the theme centering around the automobile collection.

The next museum contained more items from Elvis, mostly of a more personal nature. These included Lisa Marie’s crib and baby clothes, Elvis’ desk and pens, a couple chairs, some clothes, and one of the lamps from the 70’s redecoration. According to an accompanying sign, the lamp was all that remained of the last redecoration before Elvis died: red shag carpets on the floors, walls, and ceiling; the gaudy gold lamps; essentially outrageous things that most sane people wouldn’t be caught dead with today. When Graceland had been set up for a tourist attraction, the decor was reverted to one that had been in place in the 60’s. Then it was through another gift shop.

Outside the temperature was warm, without being uncomfortable. We were all a little tired from all the walking and viewing, and above all we were hungry. But we also wanted to get through the rest of the attractions and hit the road so we could go to a bank and get Dhar some American funds.

The next stop was the movie, which was a brief history of Elvis’ early years and the philosophy of life he had. Then it was through another gift shop.

Our final stop was at the Lisa Marie, one of Elvis’ two private planes. Northwest Airlines had their grubby little fingers in this affair, setting up a mock check-in counter. You also had to pass through an Elvis Fan Detector (in the style of a normal airport metal detector). On the walls of the “pre-flight lounge” were various bits of trivia about the use of the Lisa Marie, including the details on Elvis’ notorious middle-of-the-night flight to Denver for peanut butter sandwiches.

The Lisa Marie was a Convair 880 built in 1958 by General Dynamics. Elvis bought the plane in 1975 and gave it an $800,000 dollar makeover to suit his needs. (Elvis’ second plane, a Lockheed JetStar, cost him nearly $900,000 and was less than half the size of the Convair.) Elvis named the plane after his daughter, and designated it 880EP.

Both planes are permanently grounded, the engines removed and the avionics disabled. One of the Lisa Marie’s engines sat over to one side for visitors to view. The others were donated to high schools and technical institutes to assist students in learning to build jet engines.

Dhar and I looked at the JetStar first, which Elvis called “Hound Dog Two” (the Lisa Marie was “Hound Dog One”). Compared to its much larger companion, it wasn’t worth the look. Stefan and Rebecca however, had to see for themselves. Dhar and I waited at the foot of the Lisa Marie’s stairs for Stefan and Rebecca to join us.

We climbed the steps and stepped through the forward hatch. To our left was the cockpit, shielded by a sheet of Plexiglas. To our immediate right was the forward bathroom (similarly shielded), complete with brass taps and a gold-flecked sink. Just beyond that was the first compartment. This was primarily chairs with a single coffee table on the left hand side. A TV at the side of the room repeated stories and information about that compartment of the plane. All the furniture was leather, but covered in plastic.

The next room was the conference room. This had a long conference table, surrounded by ten leather chairs. Here too all the items had plastic covers … assumedly so visitors wouldn’t destroy the valuable museum piece. Lisa Marie Presley held her seventh birthday party at that table. Just beyond the table was one of the first air-phones, which Elvis had installed for his use.

The conference room, like the other two rooms, had a large TV in it. The plane also had a videocassette player, which Elvis used to watch movies. I was really surprised (and oddly proud) to discover that Elvis and I shared a common liking of certain movies. Among his favourites were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The last compartment of the plane was Elvis’ bedroom. A queen-sized bed occupied most of the space (also covered in plastic), complete with an FAA-standard seat belt across the middle of the bed. The tail section bore the bathroom, similar but larger to the forward bathroom, and included a shower. Then it was out through the rear hatch and down the stairs to the tarmac.

We entered our last gift shop a moment later, on our way out of the Graceland attractions. As we entered into the shop from the Lisa Marie, we saw a desk to one side with a collection of cookbooks on display. They were written by Elvis’ uncle Vester. A mannequin sat behind the desk, a likeness of Uncle Vester. At least I thought it was a mannequin … until I saw it move.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. So did Dhar. For a moment, I had to stare at the sickly-looking old man to make sure that he was in fact human, and alive. Sure enough, ol’ Uncle Vester was sitting behind the desk, peddling his cookbooks to anyone who cared enough to step forward and pick up a copy. I say “cared” because you couldn’t help feel sorry for the man — you really had to wonder if he wanted to be there. I’ve seen dogs with their tails between their legs look more chipper than this poor man. He just sat there, looking blanking forward not noticing a soul, looking like he was waiting for death.

After a few minutes, we finally returned to the Behemoth and prepared to move out. As we passed by Graceland, I waved a mental good-bye, knowing that one day I would return. It was time for us to turn our view to the next task at hand. Rebecca had gone to the trouble of asking for the nearest bank so we could get Dhar’s Canadian funds changed into American. That required a further trip south to a local Savings and Loan. Dhar ran in while the rest of us waited. A few minutes later he ran back out, shaking his head.

The bank wouldn’t exchange it … rather, couldn’t exchange it. Apparently, Canadian funds were treated like funny money that far south, and your average bank couldn’t handle the transfer. (Stupid banks.) But the First National Bank of Tennessee was supposedly capable. So on the directions Dhar gave me, given to him by one of the bank clerks, we headed still further south on Elvis Presley Boulevard in search of greenbacks.

But even the First National Bank of Tennessee couldn’t do it. I couldn’t believe that we were so far from home that everyone was completely incompetent at such a simple task. But when you deal with a hundred small banks instead of a few large ones, problems happen.

Fortunately one of us was thinking that afternoon, and struck upon the idea that the airport might be able to do the exchange. We had reached the point where any idea was worth trying, so made our way north on Elvis Presley Boulevard to Winchester Road. We headed east until we found signs to point us towards Memphis International Airport’s terminal.

After enough loops and turns to get anyone hopelessly lost, I pulled up in front of the terminal, and Dhar took off to find the exchange counter. Rebecca and Stefan followed suit, although I’m not sure if they went for the same reasons as Dhar. I sat there, hoping that some ticket-happy airport cop wouldn’t decide to fulfill his quota that afternoon.

After five minutes, any fears I had were squashed when the three of them emerged from the terminal, all smiles and sunshine. It was mission accomplished, and time for us to hit the Interstate. Following more signs, more turns and bends, I eventually found our way to I-240, which would take us out to I-40, our roadway to Nashville so we could take I-65 north.

But like so many well-laid plans, we had problems … traffic. No, not rush hour traffic, construction traffic. And was it heavy! A dead snail could move faster than we did. We only needed to cover two to three miles until the traffic cleared up, but that alone took nearly 45 minutes. When the traffic did finally clear up, we gunned the engine and made some distance between us and the traffic, even though the construction zone extended nearly all the way to the I-40 turn-off.

Once we were on I-40, everything became smooth sailing. But we were hungry. All our touring that morning and into the afternoon had left us rather famished. The great discussion of what to eat engaged again, and for nearly 15 minutes we pulled for our personal choices. Finally, Rebecca’s craving for chicken won out, and we stopped just outside Jackson for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I am convinced KFC was not discovered by Colonel Sanders, but by the Devil himself. It’s the only theory that makes some sense to me. Think about it: how else can something taste so good, yet be so disgustingly greasy. Everyone I know readily admits that KFC is greasy — you can almost wring it out with your hands, if it was possible to get a grip on it. Yet everyone gets cravings for it every so often. I do, but I try not to eat the stuff because the thought of all that grease makes me sick to my stomach.

It had been nearly three years since the last time I had eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken, and my memories of that experience were none too pleasant. Yet when I stepped inside the restaurant doors, the craving started. And it got worse with every microsecond I stood waiting for someone to buy the chicken. The next thing I knew, I had bought into the bucket of chicken, and was anxiously awaiting our meal. But first we had to find a rest stop.

Just our luck: we had nearly 30 miles until the next rest stop came up. We found a nice picnic table (complete with a small roof), took out our bucket of greasy chicken, a pile of paper towels, and promptly started messily masticating our meal. I started feeling kind of ill after a while, the grease was overwhelming. I had it all over my hands and on a good portion of my face. I don’t know how I did that, but it always seemed to happen when eating KFC.

All but four pieces were eaten. I swore then and there never to eat KFC again, for fear of turning into a giant zit. We threw out the remains of our chicken saving the last four pieces for a later date. Then it was back onto the van to continue our push north.

Our plans had pretty much broken down by this point, we really didn’t have any idea where we were going. I wanted to see Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, since the route we were planning to take (the only thing we knew for certain) went right by the National Park. But what we hadn’t planned was where (if anywhere) we were going to stop. Nashville was ruled out about two minutes before we entered the city limits, we couldn’t think of any reason to stop that interested us. There we left I-40 for I-65.

After enough goading on my part, I convinced someone to stop at Horse Cave, which had the nearest KOA to Mammoth Cave National Park. This, unfortunately, meant that our next (and last, as it turned out) KOA stop would be a late check-in, which Stefan absolutely hated doing by that time. I couldn’t blame him. Trying to figure out those wretched forms at that time of night was never a good thing.

Just outside of Nashville, Rebecca got into another one of her talkative moods, and tried to strike up conversation by asking questions. Now remember what Rebecca is like. She doesn’t ask normal questions. No, she has to ask things like: “Do you love you parents?” “Who would your ideals parents be?” These were the questions that I responded to, because the earlier ones were ones I tried to avoid.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960501.175

Day 11

“I’ve been to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve been to Graceland …”

All my illusions of Elvis have been shattered. Walking through a person’s home tells a lot about a person. We didn’t get to see the red shag and gold lamp decor, but what we did see spoke volumes. I actually thought I could see him wandering about as I walked his halls. There’s a spirit there, and it’s oddly welcoming.

We traveled through the mansion listening to a pre-recorded audio tour, then onto the car museum, personal effects, a short movie, and his airplanes. I found it interesting that he and I shared a similar taste in movies.

After a rather nasty traffic jam (following a run to the airport), we stopped for KFC (a bad idea, if you ask me). Rebecca’s currently asking us questions like: “If you could be born to different parents, would you?”, and “What one thing in your life would you say defines who you are?” Next step – who knows?

Almost forgot – Elvis’ uncle Vester was waiting for us when we returned from the tour of the Lisa Marie. He was selling cook books. Never before have I seen such a sullen man.

Also discussed relationships – why is it so hard to have a simple relationship? Why do I always reach comfortable friendship so fast?

Neither Dhar, nor Stefan, nor myself had any complaints about our parents. The three of us had led childhoods we were proud of, with many fond memories and nothing we truly regretted. Rebecca’s childhood, on the other hand, wasn’t all fun and games. Her parents divorced, her father isn’t exactly what she (or I, for that matter) would call “role model material”, and she had a less-than-loving environment. This brought up the next round of questions: ideal parents.

This was a question I honestly didn’t know how to answer. All along I believed that my parents would have been an ideal choice, assuming I had the luxury of choosing the ones I wanted. They gave me freedoms most of my friends didn’t have, taught me the ways of life, tried to get me to do extracurricular activities so that I wouldn’t be socially inept. (Okay, so they went about it a little half-assed, but I still think I turned out okay … ‘course, I’m still single … I’m a geek … hmm, maybe I need to think about this a little more.)

Rebecca’s ideal parents would be Cher or Madonna, and Donald Trump. Although Rebecca didn’t have those people as her parents, in a strange way you could see it as being true. Rebecca has Cher’s independence and strength to keep going on (not to mention a healthy dose of sex appeal), but also Trump’s tenacity to get things done and not give a damn what someone else says about what she does.

I couldn’t answer Rebecca’s question about defining moments, though I did think long and hard about it. My last couple years of high school were probably the most formative for me, at least in respects to the person I am now, but no one single point took me in the ultimate direction I’m headed now. My defining points have all been like course corrections, steering me through the straits of depression, the mountains of joy, the rivers of success, and the sandy beaches full of women I’m too shy to approach.

If anything, Rebecca makes you think, whether you like it or not. Rebecca also strayed into the subject of relationships. We spent a lot of time there. Most of it was Dhar, Stefan, and I arguing the point that women are aloof, and men are stupid.

Allow me to explain: we (the men) have this perception that women send “signals” to indicate their intentions. Even I have had this happen to me, and I’ll tell you something right now: I never saw it. When men are interested in women, we become the most goofy things on the planet … but we’re obvious, kind of like tossing a cat into a dog show. But when a woman finds a man attractive, she wants the man to say something first and goes about sending these “signals” to him.

Every roommate I have ever had, and most of my male friends (who’ve had girlfriends and discussed the matter with me) have all confessed to not knowing that his girlfriend liked him until upwards of four months later. Most men would try for about two hours before giving up, then go home and jerk off. Women believe they’re easy to understand. As a man, I will testify that I will never understand women … they’re too confusing. And girls, if you want a blunt piece of advise when trying to hook that illusive man — beat him over the head with it. Men are dense, we will not notice your advances unless you make us look for them. It’s like walking into a room blindfolded and being told there’s a contact lens to be found. You need to show us where you dropped it.

Rebecca disagreed with us. From her point of view, it was women who were easy to understand, and men who were complicated. From her point of view, I could see this happening. But as a man, I can safely say there are only three things that a guy needs to keep him happy: sleep, sustenance, and sex … the 3 S’s. (The “sustenance” category comprises food, drink (including all alcoholic beverages), violent computer games, a large screen TV, and a sports car that needs constant work.) Believe me, men are not complicated. No assembly required. Batteries not needed.

Next thing I knew, I was floored with the nearly subliminal announcement that Rebecca was bisexual. I’m not sure what exactly brought that subject around, but I did have to ask a carefully worded question to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. I did.

Now don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against Rebecca, I have no different a view of her now than I did before she told me of her bisexuality … although I think I do respect her a little more now. She was very frank about it — neither positive nor negative, just another aspect of her colourful life.

With that turn of events, I dropped out of the conversation for a while, to ponder on a few things. Bisexuality has always been a topic of interest for me, although I really don’t know why. Over the years I’ve developed a few theories about it — not about blame, or why “sexually deviant” practices are “bad”, but why they occur. Most of my theories are as of yet incomplete, but I have one that I think about regularly: women are more likely to engage in homosexual situations than men.

This is not an accusation, nor is this truth … it is a theory. But it’s one I’ve based on experience and observation. (No, I have not been renting porno flicks.) Women are more in touch with themselves and their emotions. Women are raised to be caring and tender with themselves, their friends, and their families. Men, on the other hand, have historically been raised in a very aloof manner, where the only accepted form of contact has been the handshake.

It is this very reason that led me to my theory. But over the past couple of years, that theory has become more and more clouded, as new evidence begins to tarnish my well polished idea. If my theory were true, and men were aloof to one another, I wouldn’t be wondering if I’m bisexual. This is yet another theory that I have yet to put to the test. (On a similar note, I could also say that I may not be heterosexual, since I haven’t put that to the test either.)

For nearly the remainder of the distance to Bucksnort, Kentucky, I sat there debating the issues with myself. Was I what I thought I was? Could I do what I thought I might? Could I think tongue twisters and not screw them up? These were the questions that occupied me until we saw the road sign for Bucksnort.

Dhar, who was driving, and I, who was riding shotgun, nearly laughed ourselves to death. For nearly ten miles after seeing the sign we giggled, laughed, snorted, howled, and guffawed. I so desperately wanted to turn around and drive back to take a picture of the sign, just to prove that someone had the guts to name a town “Bucksnort”.

Somewhere between 21:00 and 22:00, we arrived in Horse Cave, Kentucky. It was a small, desolate looking place, the only feature that seemed noteworthy was the KOA we were looking for. It was buried about 1,000 feet from I-65 in a grove of tall pine trees. It looked rather picturesque, even though we couldn’t see the campground for the RVs — the trees were too dense.

Stefan did his thing and signed us into a spot that was right next to the KOA office, a convenience for using the bathroom. I jumped out and hooked us up, and we proceeded to make our dinner. Digging into the last of the food meant salsa and chips, and the last of the KFC (from which I abstained). The salsa jar fell over while we were eating, staining the carpet in the depressed section of the floor. A quick hosing down prevented a major disaster, but still required a hefty dose of carpet cleaner when we got home.

One of the camper spots across the driving path from us contained a couple whom we though were the campground managers. We assumed this from the woman’s vigil, staring at us to see what we were up to. After a while we drew the front curtains so we didn’t have to worry about her any longer. (Though I almost expected that action to prompt the woman to walk over to our van and start asking really stupid questions.)

We almost seemed to know what the next day would bring, and we didn’t stay up late. It was the first night since Colorado Springs that we turned in early. As we lay there, a slight rumbling of thunder rolled across the sky, quickly followed by a spring rain. I fell asleep listening to the light pattering of falling water.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Aside from a good laugh at Bucksnort (who the hell names a town Bucksnort?), we arrived at Horse Cave without incident. Tomorrow we’ll probably hit Mammoth Cave and head again towards home.

More and more I believe Dhar leads a very sheltered life. Sex is just a topic he doesn’t want to talk about … that and the letter ‘Y’ for some strange reason.

Found out Rebecca’s bisexual. Still wonder if I am – won’t know for sure for a while, but either way, [I] really don’t care. Sex is still one of those annoyingly illusive things.

More and more I think women are like the unasked question: you know there’s a solution to the question, but you’re afraid to ask because then you look stupid. Men on the other hand are like an old truth -Why? Because.