Tuesday, May 16th, 2006 – Distance Travelled 631 miles
I woke very early. The sun was not even up, but I got up anyway as I felt pretty restless. As I dressed, I realised that although not exactly tight, my biking trousers did seem to be fitting a little closely. It was clear I was eating too much for the amount of exercise I was getting, which was, of course, none. I doubted it would help but, as it was still early, I decided to take a walk. I opened the door to a blustery morning that showed all the signs of being the pre-cursor to a blustery day. In the dim, pre-dawn light, I could see all the F100 trucks parked in a long line. As I walked out of the courtyard, all I could see to the east was the bright line of the approaching dawn against a dark grey sky.
I remembered, on my way west, passing a sign in Elk City for a Route 66 Museum, I thought I might amble along the old Route 66, which was right outside of the motel and take a look at it, at least from the outside. I set off without remembering a Cardinal Rule of transport that, even in a town, one minute on a motorcycle is a dozen on foot. I eventually found the museum, it was not open, but what is at 7:30 in the morning ? Of course, it had taken me over an hour to walk there. As I stood in front of it, I was actually sad I could not go in, because it looked big enough to be interesting. I snapped the sign and turned to walk back.
Across the park from where the museum was, I saw an odd shape. It was a huge doll, called, according to the sign, Myrtle. The sun had just broken through the clouds and it looked great in the sunshine, so I snapped that too.
I walked back to the motel, which took another hour and, by the time I got there, I regretted putting on my leather jacket, because I was sweating. I snapped the F100s by my door, which were better illuminated by then and took a shower. Then I checked out, drank a couple of cups of complementary coffee and hit the road.
It was still quite blustery, but not as bad as the previous day. I had mentally resolved that, as I had quite a way to go if I wanted to get to Memphis, I needed to press on a bit. I decided there was no way I was going to stop before I got to Oklahoma City which was over one hundred miles away. I rode on, still through half familiar territory and, about an hour and a half after I started, a Ford F100 appeared in my mirrors. It was the red and white one that I had been parked next to all the previous night.
He obviously must have recognised the Harley, because he passed by with a toot and a wave, followed by an almost endless line of similar vehicles. There were far more than had been in the Motel 8, by a factor of three or four at least. There were so many, in fact, that I had time to fumble the camera out of my jacket and snap them whilst still on the move before they finished their long, interlinked, overtaking manoeuvre. Slowly, they pulled away and my last sight of them was as they all branched left onto the I-35 to the east of Oklahoma City as I carried on along the I-40. Maybe they were also on some Route 66 thing. Of course, that same point was the end of my association with Route 66 on that trip until the final morning of it. I was then to the east of it and that is where I stayed until that final day.
Alone on the road again, I stopped and filled up the Harley and then continued onwards. After about another fifty miles, my lack of forward research manifested itself yet again when I suddenly came upon a sign for, of all places, Prague. I was, in truth, vaguely aware there was a place called Prague in Oklahoma. But the chances of “just happening” on Prague in the 30,000 square mile (79,000 square kilometre) Czech Republic are quite small, so the chances of “just happening” on its far smaller namesake in the 70,000 square mile (181,000 square kilometre) State of Oklahoma must have been minimal, or at least 42% of quite small. But happen upon it I did.
What could I do but go there ? It was not far, only about six or seven miles and, in truth, there was not much to see. Like their counterparts in Texas and Nebraska, the Czech exiles that presumably founded the place have been totally assimilated. Almost everything was pre-fixed with the word Prague and I did pass a “Bohemian Hall” but it was all very American. What I did spot was a rather drab church dubbed as the “National Shrine Of The Infant Jesus Of Prague”.
In the Golden City we have a church which contains a small statue of baby Jesus called, locally, the Jezulátka. Ironically, I had never heard of it until I walked past a “Church of the Child of Prague” whilst in New Orleans, but it is a very famous object in the Roman Catholic world. It is in a small glass case and every morning the nuns dress it in special little outfits. People travel to Prague just to see it. ……
So, I more or less had to stop and look and it appears there is a similar little statue inside that church. But, outside, there is a far larger, alabaster Jezulátka standing astride a representation of the globe. So American, so completely over the top.
No devotions, or donations, from me. I left and had soon resumed my eastward journey on the I-40. With only a stop for petrol and an iced-coffee, I just kept going, keen to make up the time I had unexpectedly spent dithering in counter-Prague and a bit over two hours later, near Fort Smith, I passed into a new State, Arkansas, my eleventh on the trip.
The way seemed to be climbing a bit and the scenery was quite green with trees, There were half distant mountains on either side of the road. According to roadside signs, the ones to my right, the south, were the Ouachitas and the ones to my left, the north, were the Ozarks. The town of Ozark was actually signposted but no mountain daredevils, however, could be seen.
The road then dipped slightly south of east towards Little Rock, the State Capital which it neatly bypassed and began to climb slightly north of east again. Memphis appeared on the signposts.
Not long after leaving Little Rock, somewhere near the town of Lonoke, I encountered Perry’s Motel and Restaurant, which claimed to be owned and operated by “Hill Billys” (their spelling !) but I was not sleepy and I was still trying to evince concern for my waistline, so I passed on by. Judging from the sign, it probably served “road-kill” anyway !
But, as ever, thinking about deliberately not having food makes you want it more. I tried to resist and did so for quite a while. But it was a long time since my pizza, the night before and, in the end, if battle it was, I lost it. Ahead of me I spotted what I can only describe as an archetypal “Diner” with a few tattered pick-ups parked at angles outside. I was feeling pretty hungry and, although Memphis was, by then, under fifty miles away, I decided that a late lunch was in order.
Although it was right beside a fairly main road, the diner had a real “backwoods” feel about it. At either end of the car park, faded flags of the Confederacy fluttered on poles and a few of the pickups bore stickers with the same design. Since that time, there has been a lot of debate regarding that flag, with many ill-informed people claiming it is purely a racist motif. Those people should read a few books. The causes of the American Civil War were many and complex and, while nobody should defend slavery, many of the other principles behind the conflict remain as pertinent today as they did then. Lecture over.
Inside, it was again just like stepping straight back into the 1950s, even the tablecloths were of a pink checked design. It may be worth noting, in view of the previous paragraph, that although the bulk of the clientele was lean, hard looking white guys in overalls, the remainder was both of mixed gender and multicultural. I could not help myself. Bacon, eggs “sunny-side up” and hash browns were duly ordered together with “grits” which I had heard about but not previously seen on a menu. It appears to be a corn dish, sort of a white polenta. Once was definitely enough.
The great thing about travelling on your own is that people do feel more comfortable approaching you. As I tucked into my food, an old guy detached himself from his seat at the counter and walked over. If you have ever seen the cheesy tv series “The Dukes of Hazzard”, you would have recognised him immediately as “Uncle Jesse”. He wore faded, bib and brace overalls, a check shirt and work boots. Above his grizzled beard, the top of his head was even adorned by a cap with a “Penzoil” badge. “It’s my guess, son” he said, “that you are a fella from England”. I had a moment of dread, given away by using my knife and fork as a pair ! Maybe his great, great, great, great, great, grandfather had be killed by the British in the War of Independence and he was about to exact revenge. They have long memories in the Ouachitas. His next words, therefore “I love (which sounded like l-u-r-v-e) you English,” were considerably reassuring. He then asked if he might “visit a while” and, when I nodded, he sat down.
And so I got his tale, which I think was curious enough to relate here.
He was born nearby in 1925 and had lived in the same house all of his life (this was in 2006, so he was 81). In 1943, he had joined the army and, after basic training “somewhere in Jor-ja” (his pronunciation), had been shipped to England for a few months of final training. Then, in June 1944, he found himself in a landing craft, approaching Omaha Beach. The front went down, the troops started to run down the ramp and, as he put his foot on it, a bullet hit him straight in the left shoulder. He fell back into the craft, the rest of his platoon ran over him and into the water and the craft backed out again with him still in it. It was quite a bad wound, he showed me the scar and he spent the whole summer in rehabilitation in Oxfordshire (he thought) before being repatriated in early 1945. Several of his platoon died on that beach, he said, so he felt fairly lucky and his “real war” lasted under two seconds. Since he had returned to Arkansas, more than sixty one years previously, he had never again left the State. To him, it appeared, the unmarked State Lines, Tennessee’s was only forty miles away after all, were impassable barriers. He was quite bemused to hear that I had been in ten States in a fortnight and had crossed around twice that number of State Lines during my convoluted progress. I did not even try to blow his mind with the possibilities offered by the Four Corners monument and it was clear that California might as well have been on another planet to his way of thinking.
What really got me though, was his loving, almost lyrical, description of England. We have a sentimental, mildly patriotic song which contains the lyric “There’ll always be an England, while there’s a country lane. Wherever there’s a cottage small, beside a field of grain”. This was the England he remembered so fondly and was enthusing about. I did not have the heart to tell him it really no longer existed.
We talked for a while further before he thanked me, shook my hand and left. As I watched him drive away in in the direction of Memphis in his ancient Ford pickup, I half wondered if I had inspired him to visit that city, but, in my heart, I knew I had not.
My intuition was correct because, soon afterwards I left the diner myself and although I was not exactly burning up the blacktop, I did not see the old pickup again. I cruised in a leisurely way for the remaining forty or so miles to the edge West Memphis, which is actually in Arkansas. The light was starting to fade quite quickly and, as I left that city, I swapped the I-40 for the I-55. I knew that Graceland, my initial destination for the following day, was to the south of the city, quite near its airport and both were clearly signposted. I crossed both the Arkansas to Tennessee State Line and the Mississippi river simultaneously on the aptly named and impressively substantial “Memphis-Arkansas Bridge” and plunged into the urban expressway system of Memphis proper. This involved brief trips on the I-69 and then Route 3 which seemed also to be Route 51 and which also proudly proclaimed itself to be the “Elvis Presley Boulevard”. It was quite dark, by that time, but Graceland itself was lit up like a Christmas tree and impossible to miss. I drove past, that was for tomorrow and, almost opposite the mansion, I spotted a Day’s Inn (3839 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116). I pulled in and, against expectations, secured a room. That would do nicely.
When I got to my room, I was overcome by tiredness. I had, after all, ridden the Harley almost two thousand thee hundred miles in four days. That included over six hundred miles (and a 10 mile walk) that day. I took a shower and found I simply could not be bothered to go out at all. I got into bed, pulled up the sheet and that was it.