Riverboat Adventure, Part 5 (Americana)

On April 29, 2014 · 1 Comments

One of the reasons I enjoyed the various marathon series offered by Mainly Marathons — other than the fact that I didn’t have to run them — was that they provided an opportunity to see parts of the country not normally encountered by casual tourists. I’ve done this twice now, first with the Dustbowl Series and now with the Riverboat Series. I chauffeured a runner from one obscure locale to another, and in return I could tweak the path to count new counties, capture geo-oddities, and experience undiluted Americana. I called that a fair bargain.


Graceland, well Graceland, certainly wasn’t an obscure destination lacking for tourism. I would have gone out of my way to visit Graceland eventually anyway so maybe it wasn’t the best example to begin this article. However it was the complete embodiment of Americana so it had to rise to the top of my list. The Cult of Elvis always fascinated me so Graceland (map) required my careful, respectful attention.

How could I possible choose a single photograph to represent such an astonishing cultural touchstone? Every single item, from the house itself to its outlandish furnishings of the Jungle Room, to the walls of platinum records, to the customized jet airplane with gold bathroom fixtures, simply everything shouted Elvis Presley. I selected the jumpsuits although feel free to scroll back-and-forth for other images. One exhibit included an entire series of jumpsuits and it was fascinating to observe when they first appeared in the early 1970’s as very simple designs, and progressed over the years with Elvis adding ever-increasing amounts of elaborate decorative elements including capes, rhinestones, embroidery and cowboy-sized belt buckles.

Travel Tip: arrive at Graceland just as it opens for the day and purchase Platinum tickets instead of VIP, then board the shuttle for the mansion grounds as the very first activity. This costs about half the price of VIP and an early arrival practically guaranteeing "front of the line" access offered by the VIP tour.

Low Clearance

Of course I consulted 12MC’s Complete Index map before I left on my grand adventure. Doesn’t everyone? I wanted to see if I’d written about oddities along my expected path and whether they might merit a personal visit. I noticed a reference to Low Clearance, an article posted in February 2011. The story was all about extremely low overpasses, the kind that might rip the top off of a box truck like a can opener. One such example happened to be found in Henning, Tennessee and I would be driving directly past it (map). Typically I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see an 8’0″ (2.44 m) railroad trestle underpass, however this one involved a measly 30-second detour so why not?

I tweeted the photograph later that day as a victory salute, prompting an even more impressive return tweet from @mapman85 of a better example near Greenfield, Ohio: 7’5″!

Tire Man

I titled this photo, "Random creature made from tires outside of Dumas, Arkansas" (street view) and that pretty much described it. This wasn’t the best of photos although not so bad considering that it was captured from a moving automobile with a mobile phone; notice the side-view mirror in the lower left corner.

I never could understand what an oversized rubber humanoid had to do with a TV Repair business although that didn’t really matter either. That was the kind of whacky non sequitur I’d come to expect in these out-of-the-way places. Some guy wanted a giant tire sculpture in his front yard, and darn it, that’s what he was going to build right there.

Do people still get TV’s repaired anymore? Maybe he had a lot of time on his hands.

Devil’s Crossroads

Two legendary highways intersected in Clarksdale, Mississippi (map). US Highway 61 ran north-south. We drove it from Vicksburg to Memphis through the heart of the flat, empty floodplain of the Mississippi Delta. This was the storied "Blues Highway," probably second only to Route 66 for its revered place in American nostalgia and culture (e.g., Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited).

US Highway 49 — while not as well known culturally as US 61 — also ran through the Delta. It would have crossed familiar territory to classic Blues musicians such as Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf who sang about it.

The Clarksdale, Mississippi intersection of these two storied highways came to be known as the Crossroads, and sometimes the Devil’s Crossroads. Legends pointed here as the place where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical skills, as supposedly referenced in his 1936 recording of "Cross Roads Blues." Of course that assumed one believed in such things, and if so, understanding that there were multiple Delta locations all laying claim to the actual Devil’s Crossroads. Tourism, you know.

Giant Mailbox

Like the Tire Man, this Giant Mailbox didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than standing by the roadside whimsically and entertain passersby. One can appreciate the sense of scale by comparing it to the flagpole and the stop sign. We stumbled upon it unexpectedly as we drove up US Highway 65 in northeastern Louisiana. Well done Ben Burnside of Franklin Plantation, Newellton, Louisiana (street view).

Rest Stop Sundial

I suppose I became sensitized to sundials when I wrote Remarkable Sundials last year. We stopped at an otherwise unremarkable wayside along Interstate 40 in Tennessee as we returned home. I spotted a sculpture with a familiar shape from the corner of my eye, walked over to investigate it, and figured it to be a sundial of a sort (satellite view). I searched for it on the Intertubes when I returned home. It was a work called "Marking Time" by Preston Farabow installed in 2007.

A press release from the Tennessee Arts Commission provided all of the particulars, and noted that it "incorporates markers representing all 95 counties of the state." A county-counting sundial? That practically defined perfection in the Twelve Mile Circle universe.

The Riverboat Adventure articles:


On August 13, 2013 · 1 Comments

What do Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Battle of Vicksburg and the Yellow River all have in common? Loess.

Loess comes from the German löß, and has a common root with the English word, loose. It’s a geological term for a light silty dust blown by the wind that accumulated into thick layers and hills. These deposits, often taking on a pale yellowish-brown or buff color, are capable of covering huge territories with a blanket of dust hundreds of feet thick, formed over numerous repeated cycles of water and wind.

I first became aware of loess at the appropriately named Loess Hills of western Iowa, a remarkable example of this type of formation. My in-laws lived in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska at the time, on the Iowa side of the river. Their home was located atop one of the hills. This was near the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the "bluffs" of the city’s name were comprised of loess (they even hold an annual Loessfest each year).

View Larger Map

Notice the terrain east of the Missouri River floodplain. These are part of Iowa’s classic Loess Hills area. Anyone driving along Interstate 29 through here can look to the east and glimpse these unusual sedimentary hills at pretty much any random place. They may not seem terribly remarkable until one ponders their interesting geological history and compares them to the flatness of much of the rest of this part of North America.

Loess Hills Ridge
SOURCE: Loess Hills Ridge by FordRanger, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

As the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explained,

The Loess Hills of western Iowa were formed from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago of finely ground windblown silt from the glacial deposits. As the Pleistocene glaciers melted, the Missouri Valley became a major channel for tremendous amounts of water. Each winter season, as the quantity of melt water was reduced, large areas of flood-deposited sediments were left exposed to the wind. Silt, clay and fine sand were lifted by the wind, carried to the east and deposited.

Particles of loess display some interesting and unusual properties. Their angular structure combined with a propensity for extreme crumbliness and quick erosion results in characteristic bluffs with steep ridges and and rapid drop offs, as displayed in the photograph. Yet, loess is extremely stable when dry and held in place by prairie grasses. The Loess Hills of western Iowa tower up to 250 feet (75 metres) above the Missouri River floodplain quite contently until people cut into the hills for their own purposes. Any soil exposed directly to the elements quickly crumbles away.

I would hear residents remark about the uniqueness of their Loess Hills whenever I visited the area, although "unique" isn’t completely correct. They’d always append a qualifier to their description, "except for some place in China." The place in China was never named, however to their credit they understood that loess formations were unusual.

They were on the right track. The two most significant deposits of loess happen in western Iowa and in China, although the phenomenon can be found to lesser degrees in many other parts of the world. The whole reason it’s called loess rather than loose (or some variation in a Chinese dialect) is because the term derived from deposits found in Germany’s Rhine River Valley, as just one example.

There are even other places with loess in the United States, for instance the eastern bank of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi. An vital element of the 1863 Battle of Vicksburg during the U.S. Civil War — the siege of Vicksburg — took place when Union troops could not dislodge Confederate forces dug-in securely atop the steep loess bluffs along the river. The siege lasted more than a month until Confederate troops exhausted their supplies and had to surrender.

What about China, though?

China’s equivalent of the Loess Hills is called the Loess Plateau. As noted by Wikipedia, it covers 640,000 square kilometres (250,000 square miles)… "almost all of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, as well as parts of Gansu province, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region." That’s about the same size as the U.S. state of Texas, or the Canadian Provinces of Alberta or Saskatchewan!

View Larger Map

It’s particularly prevalent along the upper and middle Yellow River watershed. It is loess that contributes the characteristic yellow color to the Yellow River.

Jeff Davis

On April 14, 2013 · 11 Comments

I received an interesting query from loyal reader "Katy" via the 12MC Google+(1) account the other day. She was looking for examples of towns that were named after people that included the namesakes’ first and last names.(2) Several possibilities came to mind and one name in particular, Jefferson Davis, kept recurring.

Jefferson Davis — which I’ll mention primarily for the international audience less familiar with United States history — was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865). His name still invokes a wide spectrum of reactions based upon specific points of view about the Civil War, the Confederacy, Reconstruction and the evolution of the New South. I won’t wade into that topic except to note that different parts of my family fell onto both sides of that conflict so I’m abundantly aware of the range of considerations. I’ll take the cowardly exit and focus solely on the use of Jefferson Davis as a geographic identifier.

The largest territorial expressions of Jeff or Jefferson Davis occur at the U.S. county level: Jeff Davis Counties in Texas and Georgia; Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana; and Jefferson Davis County in Mississippi. Additionally there is a Jeff Davis Township that is a part of Little River County, Arkansas. Their formations tend to cluster chronologically at either side of the flip between the 19th and 20th Centuries; far enough removed from the Civil War to not seem treasonous while close enough to be a part of the emotional fabric of people directly involved.

View Jeff Davis in a larger map

Jeff Davis County, Texas

Texas was part of the Confederacy, however it seemed odd to find a county named for Davis so far out along the western edge of this immense state. It actually hearkens back to an earlier history, though.

The direct association between Jefferson Davis and the Civil War is so strong that his earlier life often goes unnoticed. Davis graduated from the prestigious U.S. military academy at West Point, fought as a Colonel in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Congress, and completed a term as Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration (1853-1857). The county in Texas drew indirectly from Davis’ term as Secretary of War.

Fort Davis was established in west Texas in 1854 to protect travelers along the San Antonio-El Paso Road who were being attacked by Native American tribes including the Mescalero Apache (defending their homeland). The fort was named for the Secretary at the time, Jeff Davis. That was nothing unusual. Nobody could predict how his role would change.

Confederate forces captured Fort Davis without firing a shot in 1861 in what would certainly be an important symbolic victory albeit the Union Army wasn’t much of a threat in this remote corner. The Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association noted that the real threat were actually the Mescalero Apache who were described as "unimpressed" by the change of leadership at the fort. Confederate forces abandoned the fort a year later after ongoing harassment and ambushes led by the Apache.

McDonald Observatory; Jeff Davis Co., TX — View Larger Map

Jeff Davis County is notable for a couple of other reasons:

  • It shares a border with Mexico at a single point; a nearly impossible capture for county counters who adhere to every border variation.
  • It’s home to the Davis Mountains which the handbook of Texas called the "highest mountain range located entirely within the state of Texas," and also named for Jeff Davis. McDonald Observatory was built in the dark skies of the Mount Locke summit at 6,791 feet (2,070 metres) and is accessible by the "highest state maintained road in Texas."

Jeff Davis County was established in 1887. One could argue whether the name truly referenced the antebellum Jeff Davis or reflected lingering Confederacy nostalgia, however, it’s undeniable that a prior connection existed.

Jeff Davis County, Georgia

I wish every state had its own version of the Handbook of Texas. It would make research a lot easier. My problem with Texas was culling and summarizing (a nice problem to have); with Jeff Davis, Georgia I had a deficit of information. What little I found confirmed that the county was named for the former Confederate president in 1905.

View Larger Map

Jeff Davis Co. was an outgrowth of Appling and Coffee Counties. It was necessitated by the growth of the town of Hazlehurst which became the seat of government for the new county. Hazlehurst started as a rail town during the Reconstruction era and grew from there. The town’s history page noted: "Georgia’s 142nd county would have been named Cromartie County if not for a custom to name counties only after deceased citizens." John Cromartie was Appling County’s state legislative representative, and very much alive at the time, while Davis had passed away in 1889.

Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana

Birthplace of Louisiana Oil Industry – View Larger Map

Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana came into creation within the same basic time period, 1912. It was one of five parishes carved from what was known as "Imperial" Calcasieu Parish, a behemoth of more than 3,600 square miles. I couldn’t find much more information about the circumstances of its naming, although I will note that I’m fascinated by a couple of completely unrelated bits of trivia:

  • This is part of Acadiana – Cajun Country – so it’s interesting to see a departure from French to a Confederacy theme.
  • Jennings, a town in Jefferson Davis Parish, is credited as the birthplace of Louisiana’s oil and gas industry based upon the first oil well placed on the Mamou Prairie near Evangeline in 1901. "To date, over 220,000 wells have been drilled in Louisiana." Here’s a slightly less known fact: that first well, the Heywood #1 Jules Clement well, was actually over the border in neighboring Acadia Parish (map). Just sayin’.

Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi

Jefferson Davis represented Mississippi both as a member of the House of Representatives and as a United States Senator. It’s not unexpected that Mississippi created a Jefferson Davis County in 1906. The African American population of said county was 57.38% in the 2000 Census, though. I’m a little puzzled that the name hasn’t been changed.

View Larger Map

Beyond the borders of Jefferson Davis County and farther south along Mississippi’s Gulf coast in Biloxi stands Beauvoir, the home where Jefferson Davis spent his final years. It is also the site of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. Both properties were damaged extensively in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the library is scheduled for its grand re-opening in June 2013 after extensive renovation.

I don’t have the ability to discuss all 115 geographic features named either Jeff Davis or Jefferson Davis in the US Geological Survey database, although they include mountains, valleys, streams, reservoirs, buildings and schools. A surprising number of them are located outside of the traditional Southern states, too.

(1)12MC is pretty active on Google+ and Twitter; consider joining up if you enjoy Twelve Mile Circle. Those outlets allow me to share items that don’t make it onto the pages here. Links are available at the top of the page and in the column to the right.
(2)Katy offered Maxbass, ND and Carol Stream, IL. I’m still exploring possibilities and will likely feature this in a future article. Feel free to add other examples in the comments and you may find yourself mentioned on 12MC!

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