Thursday, December 27, 2012

DAY 124- St. Louis, MO...

My hotel was situated right near the base of the St. Louis Arch which was rather neat to be so close to, but my room happened to be facing the downtown area.  It was a very nice view especially at night with the lights of the city.  I woke up to the same basic view only with the sun starting to reflect on some of the buildings and I could see a bit of the shadow of the arch falling on some of the buildings.  I walked across the street from my hotel in the morning to get a good photo of the arch.   Then, I walked a bit of the park area around it but the wind had picked up overnight and it was very chilly out.
Photos- St. Louis from my hotel window at night and in the morning.

Photo- The St. Louis Arch.
Next, I found myself on my way to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis on the west side of downtown.  I had been told that I had to visit this Basilica if I ever went through St. Louis.  It looked HUGE from the outside but I was not prepared for how amazing it was on the inside.  I walked in the door and was greeting by a gentleman at the visitor’s stand just inside the front foyer.  I was told that I could take pictures, where the gift shop was, and that there was a museum downstairs. 
Photo- The outside of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Walking down the main aisle of the church I was in awe as the music from the choir floated down around me in the surrounding beauty of the Basilica.   The choir was practicing for the Christmas midnight mass.  I could almost feel like I was in the presence of God amid all of this beauty and sounds of harmony floating around the HUGE open areas of the Basilica.  I sat at a pew to just take it all in and I was almost to the point of tears.  I felt full of emotions.  It was just all so much beauty to take in at once.  Wow! 
Photos- The wonderful interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

The interior was full of marbled columns, arches with mosaic tiles, and painted frescos.  At the center above the alter there was a large dome area that went at least 30 ft. above the main floor area.  Everywhere I turned was a new beauty that I took my breathe away.  Off of the main pew church seating area there’s several hallways where there are chapel areas with smaller statues of Mary and a baby Jesus, and among others.  Off on onside there was a row of Christmas trees along with a smaller Christmas manger which almost seemed out of place in a majestic place such as this Basilica.
Photo- Forest Park in St. Louis, MO.

Next on my way to find the Interstate heading west then north out of St. Louis, I wandered into Forrest Park.  Forest Park is a large city park in St. Louis that has a city zoo in one corner of the area and surrounds the St. Louis Art Museum.  There’s a large pond like area in the middle of it.  Out on the pond there are several fountains sprouting up and out.  There were walking/running trail paths.  People were out on them; some of them even with their dogs.  I imagine on a warmer day this park would have been packed.  There also was a large statue of Saint Louis riding on a horse.  I got out and walked around for a short bit around the park.  The whole park took up what would have been several city blocks.  It was a very large space with trees and grassy areas.  Right now, it was mostly barren trees and yellowed grassy areas but in the height of the late Spring time I would guess that this would be an amazing place to just come spend some time.

Next, I was off on the interstate heading north towards eastern Iowa.  The plan was to spend the holidays in Iowa with family.  That is something I will admit that I have not done in years.  Quite often, the driving conditions between Salt Lake City and eastern Iowa are not ideal in the winter time.  This year so far had been a mild winter and I thought it would be an easy ride into Iowa coming from the south.  I didn’t see a hint of snow until I reached the northern portion of Missouri. 
Photo- The Iowa scene as I drove north towards my hometown of Cedar Rapids, IA.

The roads were still clear with a bit of snow of new snow off to the side as I got into Iowa.  There was a bit of patches of ice under the over passes here and there but for the most part it was wonderfully clear sailing on the interstate.  The only real touchy driving conditions came when I ventured off of the main roads and onto side roads as I got close to my old neighborhood in Cedar Rapids; slow and steady was the key here.  But my front wheel drive always makes it easier to drive in these conditions.  But there is also the added benefit that I learned to drive in Iowa’s winter.  I feel very comfortable on winter roads driving but please don’t ever ask me to parallel park.  I made such good time I was there about 40 minutes earlier than what Mom was expecting me.   She didn’t complain about my showing up early.  She was very happy to see me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

DAY 123- From Wal-Mart to the St. Louis Arch...

The Crystal Bridges Art Museum didn’t open until 11AM, so I went instead to the Wal-Mart Museum which is housed in the original 5 And Dime in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.  Downtown Bentonville is centered on a square where there is a Confederate statue in the middle of it.  It was covered with lines of light which in the middle of the evening turns into a large Christmas tree.  I parked, walked across the street, and through the front doors of the Walton’s old 5 and Dime Store.  It was a bit like walking back in time.  There were all the old candies and misc. other items that you would’ve found in an old neighborhood candy/toy like store.  There was also a whole new section where you could purchase souvenirs, postcards, and etc.  Unfortunately, there weren’t any bumper stickers but there was the Wal-Mart Spark.
Photo- The outside of the Waltons 5 and Dime Store which is now a WalMart Museum.

I went through the door and down a short hallway.  Off to the right was a continuously running minute movie that told a bit about the Sam Walton and the success of Wal-Mart.  After watching that film, I wandered into the actual museum and it was very interesting reading about how Wal-Mart in its current state came into being.  There were pictures of Sam, his brother, and mother.  Sam didn’t have an easy start to life.  They had a dairy and eventually worked towards having a shop that they ran with their mother.  A landlord didn’t allow them to renew a lease and they relocated to Bentonville.  It was here that they found Walton’s 5 And Dime that then eventually turned into a chain of Wal-Mart Stores around the world.  Of course, that’s the VERY shortened version of the story and it was very interesting reading about how it all evolved.
Photo- The little fountain shop at the end of the WalMart Museum.

The museum also went into some of the philosophies of Wal-Mart.  I was getting a kick out of the display concerning Wal-Mart’s return policy.  They will accept any return for any reason.  In this section, they had a hand mixer that was returned because the woman said that it was possessed.  There was a pencil sharpener that was returned because it failed to sharpen ball point pens.  There were six or seven other examples that were almost as funny but those were the ones that really stood out.  
Photos- The inside and outside of Crystal Bridges Art Museum.

Next, I was on the edge of Bentonville and driving down a wooded lane to the Crystal Bridges Art Museum.  It is an amazing place to visit for an artist and it’s all currently free which made that all the more amazing.  The museum is focused on American Artists and it was wonderful to see some originals by very well-known artists.  Some of the pieces are not the well-known pieces from some of the artist.  There’s a Georgia O’Keeffe but it is not one of her well known pieces.  Probably, the most famous original piece that they have on the premise is Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell.  But there are several other fascinating pieces too.  In fact, one of the most interesting pieces to me was a playoff of a famous piece of artwork.  It was a hanging of string spools on a wall that at first just looked like a blob.  But then you would look through a glass sphere and it was the famous American Gothic by Grant Wood where you have the farmer couple with the pitch fork standing. 
Photo- Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell.

I easily spent a couple hours in the art museum and they periodically change out parts of the collection as I was told as I was putting on my coat.  There’s security in every room but you are allowed to take photos as long as you don’t use your flash and you don’t touch the artwork.  They even venture in the literature to invite you to sit and enjoy and draw the art.  However, an easel is not allowed. 
Photos- Spools of threads that when you look through a glass sphere turn into American Gothic.

It was a fascinating place to visit and it’s even more interesting in how the building looks.  It’s a great deal of glass, wood, concrete and steel.  The compound of the museum centers on a pond like area where periodically you can look out on the pond either from a room with couches/chairs or a balcony that you can walk out to look upon it.  At the end of the museum there’s a large dining room hall area where you can eat.  Across from the entrance’s courtyard is a small wonderful little gift shop that has local Arkansas artist goods is available for purchase.  There’s also the fair amount of other items that you would find in any art museum gift shop too.

Next, I was on the road and through some back road like areas of northern Arkansas on my way to a little town called Eureka Springs.  Up through hills, valleys, and winding roads I went.  Quite often, I had to slow to 15mph for steep turning curves.  I arrived into this little town where there are Victorian houses built into the hillsides.  It very picturesque and there’s more bed and breakfasts per captia that I had ever witnessed in my life.  I visited one road side natural springs which I guess that there is several in the area that are within a short hike of the town area.  I wish I had more time to visit the area but unfortunately, I had already made reservations for the night in St. Louis and needed to be on my way.
Photos- Some of the Victorian houses in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

It was about 8PM when I finally found my way to my hotel in St. Louis.  My hotel was downtown and was almost literally at the base of the St. Louis Arch.  I had a wonderful view of the downtown area from my hotel room.  I ended up doing a bit of walking in the downtown area.  I walked to a nearby bar and grill in the area called Calico’s.  I had a very late dinner and then walked back by where I could see the arch.  I didn’t venture into the park area itself because it was dark but it was a wonderful view but unfortunately it didn’t show up well when I tried to take a photo of it at night.  I would have to get a photo in the morning.

DAY 122- Little Rock…Clinton Library & Heifer International

The night before I had arrived just as the sun was starting to set, I got checked into my cute little bed and breakfast which was located in North Little Rock.  It was just barely across the river from the heart of the downtown River District of Little Rock.  The manager of the bed and breakfast gave me a complimentary trolley ticket pass and suggested I just ride the trolley for the sightseeing factor alone.  He said that the trolley gave a running commentary along the route and that I would be able to ride it on that pass until 10PM that night.  I changed quickly and was on the next trolley which had a stop ½ block away.

Photo- The Little Rock Skyline as I crossed the bridge on a trolley car.

Off I went through part of the North Little Rock downtown area and then across the bridge to the River District of Little Rock.  It was a beautiful view with the city lights as we crossed the bridge.  There were a ton of restaurants and shops along the River area; among other things that the trolley operator announced as he went along.  I ended up having dinner at a place called Big Whiskeys which was a nice wooden sports bar that had a wonderful grilled salmon.  Next, I headed back across the river and ended up going to an Improv Show.  It was a wonderful fun hanging out and watching the show.  There was quite a bit of local humor that was intermixed throughout the show.  After the show a lot of the people went over to a wine bar called Crush across the way.  I enjoyed some wonderful wine and met some local people.  I ended up closing down the place with the owner, the bartender, and a new friend called Cheddy.
Photo- A night of FUN Improv in downtown North Little Rock, Arkansas.

The wind had picked up overnight and the temperature that had been in the mid-60’s the day before was going to be 20 degrees colder.  I drove across the river to the Clinton Presidential Library.   The Clinton Library building is a long skinny building that almost appears to be reaching out toward the Arkansas River; the inside of it almost feels like a bridge with large angled metal bracing along a large open long area.  I started my tour of the Library with a 12 minute orientation film that focused on Clinton’s life and political career.  Then, I went upstairs and into a cabinet room which is a full scale replica of the White House Cabinet Room.  It was an interesting place to start a tour but I took away from it that the Clinton Presidency’s success was only as successful as those that are involved in the decision process. 
Photo- A large timeline down the middle of the Clinton Presidential Library.
From there, I went into a long open area where there was a HUGE oversized timeline of the Clinton Presidency down the middle of a long open area.  Off to the sides were smaller partial room areas where it covered different aspects of his presidency.  It was a very interesting way of setting up a presidential library.   I went up the stairs where there was a wonderful view of the Arkansas River.  On the second floor there was a section about Clinton’s early years of life and also another area about life during his presidency.  There also was a replica of the White House Oval Office which a very nice security guard offered to take a photo of me in front of it.
Photo- In the replicated Oval Office in the Clinton Presidential Library. 

Next, it was outside in the windy and colder weather where I walked around the Clinton Library and down the road a bit to the Heifer International building.  I was very familiar with Heifer International which is a wonderful charity that I have donated some of my art project proceeds to in the past.  Heifer is based more on a philosophy of sustainable agriculture through training participants using livestock to fulfill their needs and becoming self-reliant.  Also key to this their success is the importance of passing on the gift.  The charity is also very concerned in about being green and protecting the earth for future generations. 
Photo- Heifer International Building a VERY green building.
The company headquarters based in Little Rock is a platinum level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification which is the highest honor a green building can receive.  I HAD to see this building which they do a free tour of it.  The tour of the building started at the front door area where my tour guide explained the strict requirements of a LEED building.  I guess that the Clinton Library started out as a Gold LEED buidling and has recently been upgraded to be a platinum, which fascinated me that two platinum buildings were within a few hundred yards of each other in one city.  I think that said quite a bit about the City of Little Rock, Arkansas.  I thought it was rather impressive. 
Photo- Elevated floors to allow room for the heating and cooling.

My tour guide went through and explained that 90% of the building materials came from within 500 miles of the site of the building.  That sounds like a lot but not really when you start looking at the building materials used in most buildings.  Part of the reason they tried to use local materials was to cut down on the transportation costs and the fossil fuel use.  There’s Arkansas limestone, Mississippi Delta pine, old bricks from the previous building that were recycled, locally grown cotton, soybeans and even cornhusks are used in the building.  There’s recycled material used in the carpeting and the counter tops.  Also, recycled steel is used throughout the structure too.
Photo- Inside the Heifer building which is only 60ft. wide so sunlight can supply a good amount of the light needed.

On top of all of the recycled and local building materials, the actual design of the building was very well thought through.  The building is curved and situated in an east-west direction to optimize natural daylight.  The floor plans area open light and most of the building is no more than 60 feet across to also optimize daylight.  Generally, daylight will travel 30 feet into a building’s interior that way this building is fully taking the opportunity of the daylight.  There’s raised flooring on each level which improves the ventilation and makes the heating and cooling more efficient, saving both energy and money.  The roof of the building is designed to collect and save rain water which is used in the heating and cooling system; as well as, for the toilets to flush.  I was amazed at all the different little things that were done in the building that all added up to help make it SO energy efficient.  It was wonderful to see so much thought and reflection put into a building; and what was more amazing is that it was a charity that was doing this.  If you get the chance please check out this very worthy charity.

Next I was on down the road towards Fayetteville, Arkansas.  I was planning on stopping in nearby Betonville, Arkansas which is the home of Walmart.  There's a museum there and the original Walton 5 And Dime.  There's also an art museum called Crystal Bridges that is funded by Mrs. Walton (the wife of Sam Walton who is the founder of Walmart).  I have heard that this museum was something to see and that it rivaled some of the best museums in the country.  Unfortunately, it was getting late by the time I drove to the area and had already closed for the night.  I decided to stay in a nearby hotel.

Monday, December 24, 2012

DAY 120, 121- Memphis…

Memphis has been called the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock’n’Roll.  But I knew of two places there that I wanted to visit; one of course, was Graceland and the other was Lorraine Motel.  Past that I really had no plans and I would play it by ear.

DAY 120- Lorraine Motel, Belz AND Popeye’s…
Photo- Lorraine Motel

Lorraine Motel-
Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot was first on my list.  I went to the Lorraine Motel only to find it blocked off and renovations being done.  The whole place was on lock down.  I guess they found black mold and needed to take care of it before it did some real damage.  Unfortunately, all I could do was take pictures from the outside of the Motel.  There’s a Civil Rights Museum that is attached to it but it also was not open.  I guess during this time of year it is only open during the weekends.  But I got a picture and walked as close as I could to the railing area where Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.  There were several others there taking pictures.  I talked with a black lady from that had come all the way from North Carolina only to discover it was closed.  She was very disappointed and also complained that they had been here for two days and there wasn’t anything to do.  I’m not sure what she was looking to do but I had a whole list of possibilities and knew I couldn’t see it all.  I guess it just all dependent upon your point of view.
Photo- The balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art-
Photo- Inside the front hallway of the Belz Museum.

I had found this museum on-line the night before and it got very good reviews.  Since I couldn’t do much with the Lorraine Motel/Civil Rights Museum and Graceland was closed for the day, I figured it would be a good place to spend some time.  It was a bit of a maze to find this gem of a museum in the heart of downtown Memphis but well worth the effort.  The Belz Museum contains a great deal of artifacts and art from the Quing Chinese Dynasty.  It was amazing just to look at all of the level of intricate jade sculptural art alone.  This museum also features Jewish, Judaic, and natural history specimens from several time periods.  I had only put 90 minutes into the parking meter and before I knew it I went out to put more change in the meter.  It was until I was leaving the museum that I found out I could have gotten validated parking at the nearby hotel parking ramp.  Live and learn!

Lunch at Ernest and Hazel’s-
Photo- Inside Ernest and Hazel's.

I had driven by this place while I was trying to find the Lorraine Motel earlier and I decided I would swing by possibly for a late lunch.  After the Belz Museum, I went by.  I had seen this place in part of a movie called Elizabethtown.  This corner restaurant had been several places in the past; at one point it had even been a brothel.  But probably the most famous part of its history occurred in the 1950’s when it was Ernest and Hazel’s restaurant.  Hazel was the well-known mistress of a blues musician and this place had served as a meeting place for quite a few of blues greats in the area.  There’s currently quite a bit of records and photo memorabilia up on the walls of this place which I have to say is a bit of a dive.  But the seafood chowder was pretty good and I talked with Dave who’s a chef for the establishment.  It was interesting talking with him and learning about the Memphis area.  Meanwhile, we talked the “possessed” juke box up front would pop on with music every now and then.  Dave said it was supposed to auto-play every half hour but it played a couple times where it was only 5 minutes and then 10 minutes the next time.  He go over, turn the volume down, and then it would play again just as loud the next time it started to play.  He said that it was possessed and that the whole place was probably full of ghosts.  It looked like it definitely needed a remodel and like the place was falling apart.

My Popeye’s Experience-
I had never been to a Popeye’s before and yes, I knew it was a southern fast food chain but I figured that it was time to give it a try.  I went through the drive through figuring I would take it back to the hotel for a night in and catch a movie on TV.  I drove up and proceeded to attempt to order a “Holiday Platter”.  I couldn’t understand what the girl was saying here accent was a heavy southern drawl and she talked fast.  I said pardon a couple of times.  Then, figured she was asking if I wanted it hot or mild.  I said hot.  Then I think that she asked if I wanted light or dark meat for the chicken I had ordered.  I told her white.  So the next thing I know is there’s a guy talking to me over the intercom asking me in much clearing English what side I wanted and what beverage too.  I got to a window and was getting a terribly awful glaring look from a large black girl.  Ooopps!  I said hot and white.  I think she was just a bit pissed off with me.  Meanwhile, the guy who had talked to me arrived at the window.  He was a black clean cut man and he apologized looking at the black girl like she should know better.  Oh my!  I think I may have started an inter-racial incident and here I was just a Yankee trying to order dinner through drive through.

DAY 121- Graceland to Little Rock…
Photo- See! I was actually there!

Graceland is the famous home of Elvis Presley, the King, and is one of the most visited sites in the US.  I was visiting it during the slow season.  I could just walk up to the window and purchase a ticket but this is not always the case.   Shortly after Graceland opened at 10am, I pulled my car into the parking lot across the street.  I paid the $10 parking lot fee and then went to a booth to pay another $28 for a tour of the Mansion.  There’s a VIP tour that’s more and takes you through the mansion and all of the museums from cars to planes to extra museums but I figured that the mansion was enough for me.  We were given audio tour devices as almost 25 of us walked onto the bus that took us across the street to the mansion. 
Photo- Elvis' Livingroom.

The bus left us off right at the front door.  As you went into Graceland, they directed you to input a number in the audio device and the tour of the house began.  It was the height of luxury when Elvis lived in it and was very like stepping into the mid-1960’s home.  It was rather fun because they had all of the Christmas decorations up; most of which were original from Elvis’ time at Graceland.  We went around the first floor in a carpeted roped off area and listened and looked as directed by the audio device.  We went down the stairs, through a “jungle” room and out to the back carport.  Then, it was off through some of the other buildings on the property.  There was an office building, a trophy hall, and a racquetball building.  All around the buildings you could see horse pastures where horses were grazing on grass.  I could imagine that it would have been a relaxing environment for someone of Elvis’ caliber.  I was really amazed at all of the gold records he had in the Hall of Gold.  It just made you realize how much of a talent he was.  Then, you went out to the back area where there’s a garden like area where Elvis’ grave is.  He is laid to rest next to the graves of his mom and dad.  There are flowers and other items near his grave and that of his parents.  This is the most visited grave site of anywhere in the US.
Photo- The room with 3 TV's in Elvis' House.

After the mansion tour, you got back on a bus to cross the street where you are directed to a place where you can look at your souvenir photos that were taken before you got loaded on the bus.  I skipped this all together but I still was directed into a gift shop.  I had a ticket for an additional museum visit which was at the north end of a row of gift shops.  Every little museum or area that you could visit on Elvis led you through a gift shop right afterwards.  There was definitely some marketing going on here.  But I will say this was an amazing experience in all because it was all about Elvis.  After Graceland, I found myself driving on my way to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

DAY 119- Nashville- Music, Parthenon, & Hee Haw!

As I’m finishing up writing this and going through for my poor grammar errors; I’m watching the bells being rung out for the children of Newtown and I can’t help but shed tears.  The TV first shows bells being run in Newtown, then Miami, FL, and then Washington, D.C.  For the last week as I’ve been driving, I’ve been seeing all of the flags hanging at half-mast.  I haven’t felt like this since 9-11; a change has happened to our country and it will never be the same.  I almost can’t help but mourn a little for the safety and security that I had in childhood.  But I will say that there is hope out there for all of us and I can say that from my experience while I’ve been out on the road.  I have met the nicest helpful people on the road and it really has given me hope for our wonderful country.
Photo- The Nashville skyline from the river area with flags hanging at half-mast.

DAY 119- Nashville…
Photo- Inside of the Ryman Auditorium.

From the current Opryland area, I headed to downtown Nashville where the old Opryland used to be the Ryman Auditorium.  I took a day time tour of the Ryman and was amazed at all of the talent that started out on this stage.  The Ryman is second only to the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle as far as sound acoustics in any building and has been referred to as the “Carnegie Hall of the South”.  I found myself fondly reliving through some memories as I watched Minnie Pearl videos when she appeared on Hee Haw.  “HowdEE!”
Photo- Cases of wonderful memorabilia from costumes (like Minnie Pearl's dress) to instruments.

Next, I walked over Printer’s Alley which is known as the Blues and Jazz section of Nashville.  I went down the alley and there wasn’t much going on. It looked like it was mainly open during the night time.  In fact, the only place that seemed to be open was a bar that looked like it was a topless bar if the photos outside was any indication.  Hmmm… that would explain the looks I was getting as I was walking down the alley.  I took the next turn and escaped from that alley.
Photos- Printer's Alley which is more of a night spot than day.

I walked down by the river and got a view of the city with the flags all flying at half-mast for the children of Newtown.  I also enjoyed the view of the bridge going across the river and the little park areas that run by the river.  There were tons of bicycle stands where you could pay to rent a cruiser bicycle and go around the city.  Though, watching some of the drivers and the pedestrian interactions I would question the safety of bringing one more into this mix.
Photo- All kinds of places that have LIVE music along Broadway in Nashville.

I then walked along the famous Broadway Street of Nashville.  There was all kinds of restaurants and bars where there was live music being played most of it was country.  I stopped here and there outside the doors; looking in doors to see who it was that was singing out of curiosity.  There were quite a few instruments being carried by people walking along on the sidewalk; most of them guitars in cases.  I looked like the total tourist as I went along snapping my pictures.  I even went by a place called Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville which had a guy playing what sounded like honky tonk.
Photo- Here's Jimmy's Place!

As it started to pour rain, I ducked into a souvenir shop and found a bumper sticker along with a couple of postcards.  When it stopped raining for a bit, I quickly walked back to my car.  It was time to head on to the city park area to see the Parthenon.  Yes, the one and only full scale copy of it is in Nashville.  Don’t ask me why but in 1897 it was built as an exposition piece for a fair.  It was the only piece that remained standing.  In 1921, it was refurbished.  Warning, it is not made of marble like the original.  This is fortified concrete.  I guess there’s an amazing golden Athena statue that is inside but it was closed on Mondays.  But it was rather impressive just going around the outside of it.
Photo- A full size copy of the original in Nashville!

Next, the clouds were starting to get very, very dark.  I had considered visiting a southern plantation nearby but looking at these clouds I thought it might be a better idea to forgo that and drive to Memphis.  I was hoping to drive through the storm before it got into full force.  I also heard that there was a ball game and a couple other events in the area that were supposed to make traffic in the area almost unbearable.  I wanted to be out of here before that happened.  Well, I must have caught the beginnings of that because it took me almost 10 minutes to move 1 block at one point.  Thankfully, shortly after that I was able to take a left turn and head out of town.  I could see the long lines of traffic going into town. Whew! Good call on that one; and off to Memphis I was…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

DAY 118- Knoxville to Nashville…

The rain had continued all night long.  It was still coming down pretty good when I left my hotel.  I drove to downtown Knoxville, TN to explore what I could in the rain.  I first parked in the Old City area which is being renovated and there’s a host of new businesses opening soon.  There wasn’t much going on during a Sunday morning except for some brunch at some of the restaurants.  Some of the menus looked pretty good but I had a free breakfast at my hotel.  There were some rather neat old buildings in the area.
Photo- Some really neat old buildings in the Old City part of downtown Knoxville, TN.

I wandered over to the Market Square area of Knoxville next.  There was a plaque that explained that the Market Square started out in the 1940’s as an area for farmers would pull up the back of their trucks and sell goods out of the back of their trucks.  It now has a series of restaurants with patios and other business around the edges of the square.  There was a large tented area in the center that is currently being used as an ice skating rink.  I could imagine on any other day than Sunday it would have been a place of activity. 
Photos- Market Square area of Knoxville.

I wandered south through Market Square and across the street into Krutch Park which was a lovely city park area with large sculptures on display and some of them were even available for purchase.  I walked south some more on a main city road through the area, turned a corner and there was a HUGE sculpture coming out of the sidewalk.  I will say there was a great deal of artwork in the downtown area which was rather nice.  I walked by a theater in the downtown area that had lines waiting to buy tickets.  I also walked by a café that had outdoor seating behind a clear vinyl hanging barrier that was different.  It was like looking at people through a shower curtain.
Photo- Krutch Park a city park south of Market Square in Knoxville.

Photo- A VERY large sculpture in Knoxville's downtown area.

Next I drove over to the World’s Fair Park but there wasn’t much going on because of the weather other than one runner getting soaked in the rain.  I admired the tall tower with the sphere a little closer but the rain clouds were dropping and I couldn’t see much.  I decided I would go ahead and drive on to Nashville which was my next stop.
Photo- World's Fair Park in downtown Knoxville, TN.

About 10 miles out of Knoxville, I was white knuckle driving through thick fog where I could barely see the car tail lights of the car that was maybe 20 ft. in front of me.  I slowed down to 50mph but didn’t want to slow down too much for fear of getting rear ended.  This went on for almost 20 miles where there were patches of thick fog and then patches where it was very hazy.  The whole time it was still rainy too.  The radio station faded from an alternative rock to a twangy country station (which I HATE) and I just let it go because I was concentrating on driving. 

Finally, the clouds picked up off the road way but it was still raining pretty good.  I decided I needed a break and I turned into a truck stop.  I filled up the still half-filled tank and cleaned out the front passenger side seat of garbage.  A little while later, I was back driving on the interstate through rain but no fog.  As I got closer to Nashville, TN the rainy weather started to clear up but a cross wind had started to blow hard out of the north.  As I passed a truck, I had to be ready for a gust of wind to hit the car.  As I got even closer to Nashville, the traffic picked up. 

I took the exit to head over towards the Opryland area where my hotel was near.  On one exit there was a long line of cars almost ½ mile long.  It was the exit before the one I needed to take and it looked like there was a huge shopping mall off of it.  I think last minute Christmas shopping was in full swing!  The next exit was pretty busy too but not quite as much.  It still took about 8 minutes to get off the interstate.  Thankfully, I managed to get into the right lane to make a turn I needed to.  I took a quick right after going left over the overpass and then I was on an almost empty road to the hotel.  Yeah!

I got checked in and settled into the hotel.  It would soon be dark and I went down to the front desk.  There was information about a free shuttle service over to the Gaylord’s Opry Grand Hotel which I guess is a HUGE resort hotel.  In fact, the guy at the desk said that you could easily fit 10 of this hotel which had 150 rooms into that place.  He went on to tell me that there were restaurants, shopping, shows and Christmas lights too.  I signed up for a shuttle time and went upstairs to get cleaned up.
Photo- In side the large Gaylord Resort.

It was like a three block drive in the shuttle to the Gaylord Resort but then it was about a block and a half drive around to a loading-drop off zone in the back.  The busy mall was adjacent to the back of the Gaylord Resort and there were people walking back and forth between both locations.  The guy in the hotel shuttle van gave out the hotel business cards for us to call when we needed to head back to the hotel.  I walked into the Gaylord Resort through a foyer area, down a hall, and into a HUGE atrium area.  It was packed full of people and there was a map of the layout.  I looked at it and discovered there were three floors of restaurants and shops in the atrium area.  There were four ballroom areas and it looked like there were about 10 floors of hotel rooms on the outside areas.  It was HUGE!
Photo- The Giant Panda that kids can visit and have their picture taken with.

I proceeded to wonder around.  There were Christmas lights on trees, draped from the ceiling in some areas, balloons with lights, and towers of poinsettias.  I walked by displays where there were characters of Shrek and the Panda where kids could visit and get their pictures taken with them.  There were restaurants both high end and middle range serving all types of food.  There were all kinds of stores.  It was very much like a shopping mall within a hotel area.  It was rather confusing and I ended up backtracking to a map to figure out where I was quite often.  I ended up having dinner at a Jack Daniels Restaurant and watching the football game from near the bar.  I opted for just a bowl of chili and corn bread.  The steaks sounded good but they only had a 12oz. portion which was more than I could handle.  I was able to see out to the “mall” area through some barrels and also did some people watching.  There was a great deal of families with young kids wandering around.
Photo- Outside in front of the Gaylord Opryland Resort.

After dinner, I wandered out front of the Resort and there was a row of carriages lined up for people to take rides in.  There also was a great deal of the landscaping with trees that were filled with Christmas lights.  It reminded me a bit of the Temple Square in Salt Lake only quite a bit more down scale but it was a nice display.  There was a manger area and a very large tree with huge light holly formations at the bottom of it.  There were sitting areas and a little fire pit area where people could stand and warm their hands.  It was a fun festive air.  I walked around and just enjoyed.  But soon I was ready to head back to the hotel for the night.  I called the hotel and caught the next shuttle.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

DAY 117- Ashville & Great Smokey Mountains…

After getting settled in my hotel in Asheville, NC, I opted to stay close for dinner.  I went to a place nearby called Fatz.  It’s a local chain restaurant that was started in a renovated peach shed in 1988 by some friends and now is a southern chain that has 48 restaurants.  It was packed as it should be on a Friday night.  I sat at an open spot at the bar between two guys. 

It ended up being three guys and myself chatting and hanging out; one worked at a tire store, another worked for a utility company, and another was retired, I think.  The tire store guy was a regular and it was funny because I had a roll and silverware while he was being ignored.  The utility guy who we ended up calling Mr. Glitters, because he came in with glitter on his face from being in the toy section of Kmart (ahh-haa!), and myself were giving the tire guy all kinds of a hard time about the pitfalls and pluses of being a regular.  Meanwhile, the retired guy was talking about feeding his kids and grandkids, which happen to be living with him.  The retired guy was buying all of us rounds of drinks and they were all telling me about the Asheville area and North Carolina.  They were also all razing me about if Utah would allowed plural husbands for me because they wouldn’t mind be a candidate.  It was a fun time.  Mr. Tire guy told me to come back and spend more than just one day.  He would be here for me to find when I came back this way.
Photo- Biltmore Village.

The next morning, I was on my way to the Biltmore Village and hoping to take a peek at the Biltmore.  The Biltmore was the largest privately owned home and was built by the George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895.  It’s still owned by the Vanderbilt family and is quite the tourist attraction in the area.  It’s also about a $50 fee just to walk in the door and then you can shop or walk through parts of the gilded house and HUGE garden area.  It sounded like it could take hours and sounded very expensive which wasn’t on my agenda for the day.  I put this on my list of come back and see later.

I did however take a bit of time to visit the nearby Biltmore Village which is a quaint little shopping upscale shopping village near the Biltmore.  In fact, the village was built by the Vanderbilt’s for the employees of the Biltmore Estate.  The village covers about a five block city area.  There’s little cottage like houses which contain various shops and restaurants.  There are cute little street lamps, brick sidewalks, trolley tourist cars, and horse drawn carriages too.  There’s also a Catholic Church that takes up a large corner area.  I wandered around the area with plenty of free parking (something Helen, GA could learn here).  The place was packed with all kinds of holiday shoppers. 
Photo- The outside of the glass art shop in Biltmore Village.

There were some wonderful shops.  My favorite was a shop that had blown glass art.  Some of the round glass balls looked like they had flower blossoms inside.  Another shop that I thought was fun was a Christmas Store with all kinds of thing Christmas.  In fact, I got a kick out of a tree that was self-flocking  with little white pebble-like beads that would shoot out from the top of the tree and be caught on the tree or by a round green saucer at the bottom of the tree.  Sorry, I didn’t venture a look on the price tag on this one.  I know all of you want one of these for Christmas. J     
Photo- In the River Arts Area of Asheville, NC.

Next, I drove over to the River Arts area in Asheville and on the way I tried to take a peek at the Biltmore but the trees surrounding it are like a full forest.  I drove along the river and down by the railroad tracks for a bit.  Then off to the side there is an area that has old brick warehouse buildings.  This is the river Arts area of Asheville.  I guess I was hoping for more.  It was just one large warehouse row with artists’ studios inside and a large graveled parking lot out front.  I explored a few studio areas and there was some wonderful art but there wasn’t much else out that way.  They needed a restaurant or a coffee shop or something out there.  At one end of the warehouse row, there was a large antique store.  I drove back to the interstate and headed west towards the Great Smokey Mountains National Park which I had planned to visit for most of the day.
Photo- The Blue Ridge Parkway.

From Asheville I headed west and then south to Maggie Valley.  I stopped for a quick lunch at a fast food chain restaurant called Bojangles which is a bit like a KFC but very southern type touches.  You could order dirty rice as a side and it appeared that everything on the menu had a Cajun version to it.  Next, I headed west to Soco Gap and turned onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the spine of the Smokey Mountains and there are some amazing views but I will warn you there are some steep and curvy areas of road.  But with these views it very worth it.  Thankfully, there was no snow yet or this section would have been closed.  The elevation of the road runs between 5000 to 6000 ft. and closes in the winter quite often.
Photo- One of several views along the Blue Ridge Highway.

Next, I took a right hand turn onto Hwy 441 and was at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center for the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  I turned in and went into the center.  It was packed and there were tons of people sitting listening to some live Christmas music being played by local people.  People were singing along with the music.  I talked to a parks employee and every Saturday before Christmas they have this event.  All of the musicians are locals and it’s like what they call a “front porch” session.  They all just show up and they go around and have each musician pick a Christmas song that they would like to play.  One of the guys on a banjo played “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” which had everyone laughing by the end of the tune.  I sat down and enjoyed singing along for a while.  It was a very festive atmosphere.  People and musicians would come and go. 
Photo- Some southern Christmas FUN at the visitor's center.

After a while, I got up to go see the park but first I went through the museum part of the visitor’s center.  It told the history of the park and how it was finally made a national park in 1934.  The museum told the story of how the roads were built for the park with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp.) during the Great Depression.  The museum talked about the culture and the life in the area but what got me most was there was a HUGE fake pig hanging in an area.  It was a strange site to see at a National Park Visitor’s Center.   
Photos- The Great Smokey Mountains!

Next, I drove through the park and stopped here and there to take pictures.  It was rather cold and very windy day.  I was a bit disappointed that the road to Clingman’s Dome was closed for the season. At 6643 ft., Clingman’s Dome is the highest point east of the Mississippi.  There were quite a few roads to trail heads that were closed in the park.  I just stopped here and there; deciding not to do any hiking today.  Eventually, I got to the other side of the park and the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center where I stopped to use the restrooms.  I also got a bumper sticker and a couple of postcards too.

Then, I was off heading north through the crowded town of Gatlinburg.  It was stop and go traffic coming out of the park and I was so glad that I decided to drive into the park from the south.  From there, I took some back roads and worked my way up to I-40.  On I-40, I headed west to Knoxville, TN where I would stay the night.  The sun was going down and it was starting to rain so I slowed down and took my time.  It was dark when I finally got checked into my hotel for the night.