Red-Hot Fat Gator Dixie Gumbo Ya-Ya
March 11, 2004
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It was quite the winter tour; Madison, Sioux City, Erie, New Orleans, Hot Springs, Spartanburg and Boston. The Tuesday morning before we left for Madison I went out for breakfast into a knifing wind which could have killed me in ten minutes if I hadn't as a precaution put on my Ford pickup, which really makes a difference, especially to an old geezer. We were bailing at the right time. The day before we had our first daytime below-zero reading in the Twin Cities in five years. Of course when I was a kid it was below zero most every day of every winter, but that's because I was a kid in North Dakota. Dang near in Manitoba, we were, and that weather of theirs was always oozing across the line.
Cold seems to bring on bureaucracy. It could be coincidence. But when I think of Russia, Scandinavia and Canada I get images of serious officials standing there in fur hats with their breath coming out like steam, going through my paperwork, and when someone says Jamaica or New Orleans I get pictures of babes in bathing suits and people dancing. That aside, my mission was to survey the eastern half of our nation in winter vis-à-vis road conditions and cultural phenomena, from a shallow perspective. And of course to get the gear where it needed to go.
Madison we go to nearly every year so it's like our back porch. It is the quintessential college town into which - it seems almost as an afterthought - a state capitol has been thrown. It has been described as 23 square miles surrounded by reality. Or perhaps surrounded by the reality of cheeseheads.
Drove home from there Saturday night and on Thursday headed for Sioux City, a crossroads metropolis with a rowdy frontier history, some great old Chicago style buildings and a good steak house. They also had a real bar with a real bar band, at Rhonda's Speak Easy; musicians who, unlike what you see on your television, actually had talent, made you smile, got ordinary people to get up and dance. They had a good formula, which was to put youth out front. The electric guitar, bass and drummer were all mature adults and the singers were kids, a guy and a young lady in their twenties. Kids compared to the music they were doing, which was the Allmans, Skynyrd, the Who, Waylon, ZZ Top, Credence and so forth. You get some young wailers in front and some seasoned talent cranking on the back line and you can jam a honky-tonk with dancers, like these folks did. We need more of that these days. Revitalize the American music scene.
Pennsylvania's access to the Great Lakes, Erie, has a blues club right smack downtown on the main street and a most righteous place it is, as well. They also have a most interesting history, not the least part of which is the fact that directly to the north of town, on the bottom of Lake Erie, lies the greatest concentration of shipwrecks in the world, more even than in the Bermuda Triangle. Seems unfair that they don't get a little more credit. They also have the only remaining Warner Theater of the lavish four that were built by Warner Brothers, back in the great days of theaters just before the depression. It's been redone and they're proud of it and they should be, and it was an honor to load a truck into such a beautiful place.
On the trip to New Orleans I headed south on I-77, keeping as far east as practical with a winter storm coming in from the west. Stayed on dry pavement most of the way until the mountains of West Virginia, where it began to ice up. Turned west at Charleston onto I-64 and it stayed frozen into Kentucky. I turned in early somewhere around Olive Hill. Had a late breakfast next morning and let other folks clear the highway. When I made my stately appearance around ten o’clock things were well under control and I had an easy time of it from there.
We expected New Orleans to be fifty degrees warmer than St. Paul and it was better than that, about eighty degrees warmer, but the trouble was that it was 30 below at home. So it felt kinda chilly in the low 50s there in the Big Easy, and with a zero chance to get any phone sympathy from home. It didn’t help that the well pump there was frozen.
Our venue was the Saenger Theater, the inside of which is an Italian plaza complete with stone arches, colonnades, balconies, balustrades, life-size statues, all capped with stuffed pigeons along the pediments. Another memorable piece of New Orleans and I never get around enough when we go there so I'm planning to go back when we get some time off in March. And this next time, once and for all, I’ll take that trolley to the end of the line and back, and stay out late in the French Quarter and all the rest of it. Check out that Cajun Creole zydeco voodoo crawdad boogaloo and that red-hot fat gator Dixie gumbo ya-ya. I’m not sure if you eat it or drink it or dance it, but I expect to find out.
Left there early Super Sunday morning, bent on getting to the hotel in Hot Springs to see the game. Drove up the west side of Lake Ponchartrain, past old piers sitting out there in the shallows from an earlier roadway. There was a long string of them and each had a white bird perched on top, as if put there for holiday decoration. Went north into Mississippi on I-55 and saw a billboard advertising the World’s Largest Display of Tubs, Showers and Whirlpools at Luter’s Supply. Passed the exit to Tickfaw State Park and into a long forest where a small white sign with red letters, neatly done in block lettering, said: GIDEON. SHERIFF. It was the only political sign I saw all the way to Arkansas. Sheriff Gideon has a ring of biblical inevitability to it that might serve a lawman well. I wondered if he won.
Crossed the Tangipahoa River, past Lake Dixie Springs, crossed the Bogue Chitto River, the Big Black River, the Yazoo and the Tallahatchie. Ate at Tillatoba, crossed Hickahala Creek, passed the Arkabutla Lake exit, turned west at Memphis into Arkansas and got to a television in time for kickoff. The now-famous lame stupidity ending the halftime show masked the wretched stupidity of the rest of it, and, unfortunately, overshadowed a most excellent Super Bowl game.
Hot Springs is a geologically favored medium sized city surrounded by forest, with a moderate climate and hot water running right out of the hillside. Not warm but hot, 140 degrees, and enough of it to draw thousands of visitors, so that the main street is lined with hotels and elegant bathouses. It was Babe Ruth’s favorite vacation spot, and what more does one have to say except that it also has one of the primo convention centers in the country, a beautiful new structure with eight(!) spots at its loading dock. A gun show was on the other side of the wall from our show, maybe by coincidence or perhaps for the balance. A few of us went there and one bought a 50s-vintage Borg-Warner marine speedometer for five dollars. Now they need to find a wooden speedboat. Billy Joe Shaver was on our show there, for me the musical highlight of the tour. His voice has a reality to it that sits a person back in their seat.
At Spartanburg we found another vigorous community with another very fine theater, the recently remodeled Memorial Auditorium. They put the word ‘renaissance’ to good use around the town, with a big new hotel and a couple of corporate headquarters. They’ve also lured a German auto factory there: domestically BMW now stands for Bubba Makes Wheels.
And from there it was up to Boston, and what can one say about the city we haven’t all heard before, many times over. But I can’t help mentioning the lavish old theater in the Wang Center, where when you walk into the huge ornate lobby you are nearly knocked over by opulent grandeur. People emit small one-word reactions, like ‘Wow...’ and ‘Shee’ and ‘Holy...’
One of the high points of any tour is when they close the trailer doors at the last theater, put the padlock on and give the wave. The truck pulls into traffic at an idle, eases up to the red light, gets the green, takes a couple of left turns and then a right onto the freeway, winds up through the gears and it’s on the big road and aimed towards home.