I thought I’d focus the final installment of the Riverboat Adventure on something a little more whimsical. Sometimes I have trouble remembering facts for a given place so I take photographs of informational signs. Usually this happens at historical sites. Sometimes signs provide greater explanation or context than what’s available on Internet pages. They serve as a great memory jog and starting point when I’m writing articles.
From there I branched out to images of signs less informational as amusing, or thought-provoking, or capturing memories of good times, and that’s what I decided to feature for the Riverboat wrap-up. Yes, this will be the end. Much of the 12MC audience will be grateful for the return of geo-oddities with the next article.
The Riverboat Series banner appeared faithfully at each race, reminding me daily why I’d undertaken this extended roadtrip along the Lower Mississippi in the first place. Places like Columbus, Kentucky; Millington, Tennessee; Lake Village, Arkansas; Greenville, Mississippi and Winnsboro, Louisiana probably wouldn’t have made it onto my list of personal travel destinations otherwise. I was grateful for a plausible excuse to travel through the region, and I treasured friendships we made with the rest of the traveling sideshow of runners and their supporters.
Once again I’ll note that I wasn’t a runner. I kind of felt like a poseur because all I did was drive from one small town to another, hang-out at the finish line (nibbling snacks intended for the runners), and visit geo-oddities along the way.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of "Hoodies must be removed before entering the Hotel Lobby." Did it mean that hoodie-wearers had to remove only the hood from one’s head or remove the hoodie entirely? And what set of events led the hotel to consider that it maybe needed to institute such a protocol? Did something specific happen, was it stereotyping, or maybe an overreaction to the tragic Trayvon Martin incident? I just couldn’t know. I found it unsettling.
I wanted gators! The logo of the Riverboat Series promised gators chasing runners! Alas, we encountered a rather unseasonable cold snap as we headed into alligator country. Typically, gators don’t bask in the sun until the temperature gets to around 80°f (27°c). We were far below that.
The sign may have said "Caution Gator Area," and much of the year it would have been accurate, however not in Leroy Percy State Park (map) on that day in Mississippi.
There weren’t any turtles the next day in Louisiana, either (map).
I’m not sure what possessed me to scratch FROST! into the roof of our rental car, other than my complete dismay at experiencing a hard frost in Louisiana in the middle of April. No gators, no turtles, and a hard frost; when would this winter end?
There certainly were farmers though. Everywhere. I can’t recall dodging more rolling farm equipment on highways on any of my prior roadtrips. It seemed to be the right time of year for that, with fields just under plow and platoons of highly-specialized, oddly-constructed contraptions of unusual shapes and designs. Some rolled on massive wheels, others sported extendable arms of multiple joints, still others included a driver’s cab fifteen feet above the ground, like Dr. Seuss himself switched to farming and drafted all of their designs. This was a farming economy and farmers were king.
The flatness and emptiness of the Mississippi Delta surprised me. We rolled north out of Vicksburg on Route 61, expecting to stop at the next town for lunch. We drove for nearly an hour before finding a suitable spot in a town too small for stoplights, Rolling Fork (map). It was a Mexican restaurant, I suppose a reflection of changing demographics in the Delta, and we were happy to encounter it too. There was also a Subway restaurant nearby (you can see a sign for it in the reflection along with my torso) although we’d done Subway a couple of times already so that was an easy choice.
I already mentioned Graceland in the previous installment so I won’t go into a lot of detail. The entrance sign fascinated me because it proclaimed "The Home of Elvis Presley®" Yes, with a registered trademark symbol. That amused me. Like, imagine someone living at some other house might decide to start calling his suburban rambler The Home of Elvis Presley, so the Presley estate felt it needed to mitigate that eventuality by registering the phrase for Graceland specifically. Certainly I would never say: Twelve Mile Circle — The Home of Elvis Presley because that would be a trademark violation, because you know, someone might actually confuse 12MC with Graceland.
I imagine the actual worry may have been the folks at the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
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.
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″!
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.
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.
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:
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).
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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.
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!
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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.