Monday, December 16, 2019

The Natchez Trace: Following History's Tracks

Little did we know about the Natchez Trace when we decided to drive it. You hear the name, Natchez Trace, and it sounds historic and interesting, but what exactly is it?

About the Natchez Trace

Before Europeans discovered the New World, native American tribes like the Chippewa, Choctaw and Natchez traveled along footpaths connecting their territories in the Mississippi Valley. Prior to that, people of the Mississippian Period (1200-1730 C.E., Current Era) used the trails broken through the wilderness by animals like buffalo, wolves and bear.

As choice land along the East Coast was claimed, settlers moved west and to the south as they explored what is now Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi.

Trade from these areas and others traveled down the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers south to ports in Natchez and New Orleans. It could be a very profitable venture. Trade is a two-way process, but before the coming of steam, the currents were too strong to return home by river. Boats were sold for their lumber, boatmen either bought horses and goods from their profits to sell in the north or walked the 450 miles from Natchez to Nashville along the series of paths that became known as the Natchez Trace.

It was a treacherous route. If robbers or Indians didn't plunder and kill travelers, disease, accidents fording deep tributaries and slogging through swamps might.

The Rev. John Johnson wrote from the Trace in 1812, "I have this day swam my horse 5 times, bridged one creek, forded several others, besides the swamp we had to wade through. At night we had a shower of rain - took up my usual lodging on the ground in company with several Indians."

No surprise that it was known as "the Devil's backbone."

Boaters weren't the only users of the Trace. More settlers and speculators did business and visited friends along the Trace. Military units of Spain and later the new United States and post riders did, too.

As traffic along the Trace increased, some of the paths were beaten down, creating long passages where the bank was so high travelers could only see what lay immediately ahead. This gave attackers a decided advantage as they could literally jump down upon their prey.

It took about 35 days to traverse the Trace by foot, 25 days on horseback, assuming all went well. In 1810, 10,000 travelers walked the Trace. Once steamboats began to ply the rivers in the mid 1820s, the Trace became obsolete. By the Civil War, it was all but forgotten though some skirmishes and battles were fought in the vicinity.

Prodded by local historians and women's groups, in 1983 the Natchez Trace Parkway became a unit of the National Park System to commemorate the historic route. The Natchez Trace Scenic Trail joined the parkway under the National Park System and the National Trail system, too. Both parallel the original as closely as possible.

We start the Trace

The Good Girls' plan was to leave Nashville and catch the beginning of the Trace to see the Double Arch Bridge, veer over to Memphis then go to Tupelo, return to the Trace Parkway and follow it to its end just north of Natchez.

After finding ourselves in a "Seinfeld" rerun - the car we reserved at Thrifty was no longer available at the Nashville airport - the Good Girls hit the road. Watching the morning traffic inching into Nashville, even slower than it moves in Atlanta, we were glad to be going in the opposite direction.

The Double Arch bridge is a lovely thing, impressive in its simplicity, but, suckers for home cooking that we are, was soon supplanted by the discovery of Loveless Cafe. I had read that any trip on the Trace should begin or end at Loveless, but assumed that was merely tourist board hyperbole.

Fortunately our stomachs were growling and we decided to detour a mile or so and try it for an early lunch.

The complex of shops and motel surrounding the deceptively small cafe spoke to its popularity and the friendly bustle of waitresses around full tables boded well. Biscuits are king here so we each ordered one with barbecue.

Then a plate of four with three different flavors of jam and preserves arrived. Delicious.

Heading to the restroom I passed a glass window behind which was a young woman elbow deep in biscuit dough. They make 10,000 a day! Large, fluffy and heavenly, mounded high with barbecue pork in a sweet sauce, it was immensely satisfying. Not so much that we didn't split a home made cobbler, though.

Satisfied, we left the Trace and headed to Memphis to visit with the memory of Elvis.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Day in Nashville, A Night at the Grand Ole Opry

The Good Girls planned an ambitious journey, including a drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway along with a side trip to Memphis and Louisiana Plantation Country. We wanted to discover history, taste southern specialties, listen to country music, and soak in the vibe of Mississippi. 
Sign marking the Nashville area entrance to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

We flew to Nashville, Tennessee, for a quick tour of Music City, but also to view the beginning or end of the Natchez Trace depending on the direction you are driving. We were met by fellow travel writer and Nashville native Tom Adkinson, who graciously offered to be our city tour guide. 

We arrived in time for lunch at Swett's Restaurant, a soul food cafeteria-style restaurant that serves a bountiful 'meat and three.' I couldn't resist the fried chicken and greens while Judy chose meatloaf. Tom recounted Nashville highlights from his book, "One Hundred Things to Do in Nashville," while we ate. 

After lunch, Tom drove us downtown and we stopped at the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery on the Fisk University campus. The school maintains a permanent collection of over 4,000 objects, and we were hoping to see a few of their famed Stieglitz photos. Nope. They were out on loan. Instead, some Gallery Ambassadors led us through the current works. 

Artwork hanging in the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery at Fisk University. 

As Nashville grew, the city acquired the nickname "Athens of the South." For Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition, a replica of the Parthenon in Greece was built. Plaster replicas of the Parthenon Marbles found in the pediment are direct casts of the original sculptures dating back to 438 B.C. The structure was so popular, it was later reinforced and remains a must-see when visiting the city. The building also serves as Nashville's art museum. 

The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.

We were in awe of what folks called the Batman building because its roof resembles the shape of the comic book hero's mask. The 617 ft, a 33-story skyscraper, completed in August 1994, officially carries the unexciting name of the owner, the AT&T Building. No wonder it dominates the skyline, the office building ranks as the tallest building in the state of Tennessee.

A sidewalk musician plays on the streets in Nashville.  The Batman building hovers in the rear. 

We drove onward to Music Row passing the historic Clock Tower, formerly a US Customs House,  and the gorgeous Union Station for the railroad. Tom parked at the Omni, which connects to the Country Music Hall of Fame. While we were dying to tour the center, we didn't have time. We browsed the concert signage from Hatch Show Print's and made our way to Broadway, the pulsating street lined with Honky Tonks. 

Signs from Hatch Show Print

Orchid painted Tootsies caught our eye as did Legends Corner and Nashville Crossroads. Live music reverberates through the windows out to the sidewalk giving off an exciting feel. Inside, drinks flow no matter what the time. Wannabe musicians get their start performing on these small-stage establishments or on street corners. 

Strolling down Broadway in Nashville. 

Entrance to Tootsies.

The Honky Tonk Grill in Nashville. 

Don't miss the Ernest Tubb's Record Shop, a music store/museum packed with countless vinyl records, CD's, songbooks, photos and memorabilia from hundreds of artists. Ernest Tubb was a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Hall of Fame and Music City Hall of Fame. He opened his first store in 1947. Loretta Lynn's dress stood out to us, as did an array of her personalized jams and jellies. 

Loretta Lynn's dress on display in Ernest Tubb's Record Shop. 

Statue of Ernest Tubb at the front of his shop. 

Again, we wanted to linger, but we had to pick up our tickets for the Grand Ole Opry and get ready for the big night. The Grand Ole Opry is to Nashville as Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes are to New York. Performances start at 7pm and we needed to arrive in time to scope out the place. 

Arriving at the Opry

The crowd milling around the grounds of the Opry seemed to span all levels of society and included all ages. We stopped by the giant guitar for a selfie, then made out way into the gift shop stocked to the ceiling with tee shirts, jackets, and all things emblazoned with Opry logos. 

We decided to treat ourselves to a drink. Two gin and tonics set us back $38. From there on, we measured expenses compared to those two drinks! With cocktails in hand, we made our way to our seats. They turned out to be on benches, resembling the pews in the Ryman Auditorium, the previous hallowed home of the show. 

The Grand Ole Opry stage loomed in the front and covered by an immense red curtain. Before the show began, the audience watched a video about the history of the Opry, the Ryman and the flood that severely damaged this new theatre back in May, 2010. We learned that on November 28, 1925, George D. Hay founded a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM. Back then, the entertainment was called mountain music. Today, it is the longest-running radio broadcast in US history. 

Then, the curtain went up, the show began and feet started tapping. The concert is a precise work of timing, a live radio show broadcast as it has been for the past 94 years. Our entertainment began with the legendary Riders in The Sky, a two-time Grammy-winning, western/comic group that has been performing on the Opry stage for more than 30 years. 

The Riders in The Sky perform at the Grand Ole Opry. 

We then heard from Bill Anderson, Jamie O'Neal, who brought down the house with her rendition of a Patsy Cline song, and Matt Stell. After intermission, we heard Carly Pearce sing her 2017 debut single Every Little Thing." The Po' Ramblin' Boys followed, a bluegrass group making their first appearance (won't be their last), and we finished the night with the star of the TV show Nashville, Charles Esten. He certainly is mighty fine looking- - and can sing, too.  

Carly Pearce singing. 

We loved this Bluegrass Band, the Po' Rambling Boys.

Charles Esten

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Nashville and night at the Opry but were ready to return to our hotel and prepare for upcoming adventures. 

Did You know? 

According to a 2015 USA Today story: The Opry has had six homes in its 90 years. The Opry started out at National Life & Accident Insurance Co. in November 1925, moved to Hillsboro Theatre in October 1934, to Dixie Tabernacle in June 1936, to War Memorial Auditorium in June 1939 and then the Ryman Auditorium in June 1943. It settled in its current Grand Ole Opry House, with seating for more than 4,000, in March 1974. The Opry has resided at The Grand Ole Opry House longer than any previous home, and the building has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. 

Preserving the Ryman's stage

When the Grand Ole Opry moved from the historic Ryman Auditorium to the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974, a 6-foot circle of oak was cut from the stage at Ryman and inserted into the new stage at the Grand Ole Opry House. By preserving a piece of the Ryman's stage, generations of country music singers can perform on the wood where the genre's legends, including Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, once stood.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Valley Life: Early innovator and unusual tram ride

Cabot Yerxa. Photo courtesy of Cabot's Pueblo Museum.
Entrepreneur, explorer, adventurer, soldier, writer, artist, architect, eco-pioneer, homesteader, raconteur, humanitarian, Father of Desert Hot Springs. Just some of the titles Cabot Yerxa qualified for during his 82 years.

He was born to a serially successful merchant and his wife - a Cabot from the less affluent side of that vaunted Boston family - at their trading post on a Lakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota in 1883. At the age of 6 he began working for his father and by 14 he was supervising 20 people in the family department store. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, he used his earnings to buy 50,000 cigars plus mining equipment which he sold to the miners. That was in addition to organizing a stage  line, living with an Inupiat family and compiling an Eskimo dictionary which he sold to the Smithsonian Institute in 1909 for 12 cents a word.

Eventually Cabot made his way to Europe where he studied art for a year at the Julian Academie in Paris. After the Spanish-American War, the Yerxas moved to Cuba where Cabot developed a mail order cigar business. He served in the Army in France during World War I.

Eagle Nest, Miracle Hill
In 1913, he homesteaded 160 acres of California desert, building a tiny house and walking 14 miles to the railroad at Grant twice a week for water. After a year of that, killing four or five rattlesnakes on each trip, he decided to seek closer water. With a pick axe and shovel he began digging, eventually discovering 132-degree mineral water, becoming the first man in modern times to find water there. Desert Hot Springs had a name. Undaunted, he selected a spot 600 feet away and began digging again. This time he discovered the water he was looking for. Cabot's homestead had a new name, "Miracle Hill." We know today that the Mission Creek branch of the San Andreas Fault runs between the two wells with the cold water aquifer on one side, the hot water aquifer on the other.

Cabot had also accumulated a wife and a son, who did not care for life in the hot, dry, lonely desert with a husband who was always away accompanied by a burro he seemed to care for more than either of them.

Cabot saw a great future for Desert Hot Springs with the health-giving hot mineral water attracting people internationally and the natural cool water spring providing the water to turn the area into a garden.

At the age of 58 he began building his castle out of what he could scavenge - bits of metal, wood, broken glass, adobe bricks, even broken tools.  The size of the rooms was limited by the length of the wood he could find, from railroad ties and telephone poles to twigs. Creativity solved many a challenge.

A work in progress until his death at 81, the result is a Hopi inspired four-story, 5,000-square-foot pueblo with 35 rooms, 150 windows, 65 doors, 18 openings to the outside and 30 different roof levels. Cabot built it on the side of a hill on an East-West axis for optimum air flow, insulating it from extremes of temperature. A series of ventilation shafts keep the interior cool, sending hot air up and out.

Cabot believed symmetry suppressed the human spirit and in the Venturi effect, that the smaller the path, the faster hot air leaves. I can't speak for the symmetry issue but the Venturi effect works. It was much cooler inside than the 110-degree temperature outside.

Still a problem.
In 1945, Cabot married the love of his life, Portia Graham, a professor of metaphysics whose beliefs mirrored many of his.

Between 1946 and '47 electricity came to the Pueblo. Now power is generated by solar panels on an adjacent hill.

Portia Graham and Cabot Yerxa. Photo courtesy of Cabot's Pueblo Museum.
When you visit Cabot's Old Indian Pueblo Museum, the name on its National Registry of Historic Places, I hope you get Lecia Augustine as your guide. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and her enthusiasm is infectious.

In the room given to Cabot's biography, "Cody," the mounted brown bear, was a gift from Nome for his museum. Cabot's favorite room was the kitchen but Portia truly loved the blue bathtub he bought and installed for her and the studio where she could paint and study in peace.

Over the years, Cabot hosted famous visitors; John Barrymore, Tennessee Williams and Clark Gable were  a few who spent time with him at the Pueblo.

Ah-Ah Ota, two-faced white man
One first floor room was built for his Native American friends. A life-time advocate of their usually trampled rights and ways, he purposely left the floor dirt. Native Americans believed one had to stand on bare earth to be in touch with Mother Earth. Now it holds a sculpture of Ah-ah Ota, the two-faced white man and a portrait Cabot painted of a local chief.

Portia left after Cabot's death and the Pueblo fell into disrepair, much of its contents looted. Just as bulldozers were about to level it, longtime friend Cole Eyaured stepped in, faced down the machines and bought it. Cabot Yerxa had been such a popular benefactor to Desert Hot Springs, much of what had been taken was returned.

A cool idea

Another Coachella Valley visionary is responsible for the Palm Springs Tramway. It began the moment in 1935 when electrical engineer Francis Crocker was on a hike, wiped his sweating brow and wished he could go "up there where it's nice and cool."

"There" was the snow capped peak of San Jacinto Mountain, at an altitude of 10,834 feet.

 O. Earl Coffman, area pioneer and co-manager of the Palm Springs Desert Inn,  thought it would be nice, too, and a plan was born for what would be called Crocker's Folly, a tramway up the steep slopes of Chino Canyon.

A governor who did not favor the enterprise and World War II put their dream on hold, but it was sparked again in 1945 when the governor agreed and established the San Jacinto Winter Park Authority, naming Coffman the first chairman and Crocker his secretary. By 1950, engineers were working to solve the challenges or road and tower construction. Private revenue bonds raised $8.5 million, but the Korean War caused another delay.

In the end, no public money was used for construction or operation and the 35-year revenue bonds were paid off in 1996. Helicopters were used to build four of the five towers in 26 months, flying 23,000 missions to haul men and materials for the tram's support and the 35,000 square-foot Mountain Station.

Francis Crocker (right) takes over narration on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which he was known to do until his death. Photo courtesy of The PalmlSprings Historical Society.
Completed in 1963, the tramway welcomed its first riders on September 12. Since 1963, over 20 million people have taken the 2.5-mile ride, going from an altitude of 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet, up where it was nice and cool.

After spending the morning at the Pueblo in the Valley at 110-degree temps, I was good and ready for some of that cool.  Tickets come with a time slot and you wait around until yours arrives. Then come the Disney-style accordion lines until it is your turn to enter the tram which is different from any other I have ever encountered.

The floor turns, making two revolutions during the journey. It is unsettling at first but it does allow riders to see the view from all sides. The trick is to let a steadying hand slide as the floor revolves.

View from the top.
It is blissfully cooler at the top and the Mountain Station includes a film, exhibits and buffet and full service restaurants.

The only problem I encountered with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was transportation. No trouble getting an Uber to the lower level, but after 45 minutes of unsuccessfully trying to get one back, I will be eternally grateful to the young hiker who let me share her prearranged cab back to Palm Springs and Desert Springs.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to delight me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hollywood houses and vintage apparel popular viewing in Palm Springs

Palm Springs was the perfect getaway for the Hollywood set. Warm and sunny in the winter, isolated from prying eyes and gossips yet within the 100-mile two-hour rule imposed by Hollywood studios: contract actors could travel no more than 100 miles (two hours) away in case scenes had to be shot or re-shot.

In the '30s, Spanish revival bungalows were the architectural style of choice. After World War II that changed drastically.

Following the leads of Le Courbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, area architects like Richard Neutra, E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, William Francis Cody and William Krisel shifted the focus to one level, on-slab getaway houses with clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass windows open to the mild, sunny weather. Practical and inexpensive, these houses and buildings came to be known as Mid-Century Modern and the Palm Springs area has the world's largest concentration of them.

The Good Girls took a Mid Mod Design tour with Lyle Boatman, who set the period and pointed out prime examples of the style as well as homes and businesses built for the stars.

Racquet Club Estates, designed by Palmer and Kisel and built between 1957 and 1964, was to consist of 1,600 three bedroom one bath houses with exactly the same 1,200 square foot floor plan. The cost was $10,000 apiece; population of Palm Springs almost doubled. There are several, like this one, you can rent.

In 1961, Wexler designed houses with steel structures. Only six were built because the price of steel rose dramatically. Originally priced at $20,000, the two bedroom one bath homes like this one with the saw tooth roof, now sell for $1 million plus.

"The House of Tomorrow," designed by William Kisel, is known today as where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon.

Edgar J. Kaufman recognized good architects. He not only hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design his "Falling Water" summer home, he selected Richard Neutra to design his winter escape, the "Desert House," in 1946. The roof top terrace is known as a "gloriette."

Chrysler would have you believe Delores and Bob Hope lived in this contemporary space ship built on a mountain, but it was only used for entertaining during the golf tournament the company sponsored.

The couple preferred the more modest 1971 mid-century modern on a golf course.

Frey and Chambers designed the striking Tramway Enco Gas Station, now Visitors Center. That jutting roof was not merely for decoration: it protected un-air-conditioned cars from the sun and temperatures that can reach into the 100s and from up to 70 mph winds that whip through the valley.

Want to live the lifestyle?

How about Frank Sinatra's former Twin Palms digs at 1148 Alejo Road? The Chairman of the Board originally wanted Georgian but was talked into a more desert-friendly style which he commissioned from E. Stewart Williams in 1947. Later he lent the four bedroom home to Joan Crawford for the film The Damned Don't Cry. It has had some updating, but our guide Lyle says there is still a crack in the master bedroom mirror where Ava Gardner threw a Champagne bottle at Sinatra. He also says that for a smashing party, there is room for 300 tables around the pool.
Cost: $2,500 a night.

Want more than a piano-shaped pool?

432 Hermosa, built for Dinah Shore in 1964 by Donald Wexler, offers 6 bedrooms, 7 1/2 baths plus a one bedroom guest house, a grand piano, pool and a tennis court on 1.3 acres with views of the San Jacinto Mountains. According to Lyle, back door neighbors Kirk and Ann Douglas's children liked playing tennis on a second court so much that in her will she deeded it to the Douglases. We hear Leonardo di Caprio is the current landlord.

Cost: $3,750 a night plus housekeeping fee.

A good source for all things mid century is

Bargains for the Body

Chanel at Gallery 24.

 A lot cheaper and easier to take home are the sometimes bargain priced vintage designer apparel and accessories in boutiques throughout the valley. Here are a few to get you started, but do NOT go on Wednesdays as most will be closed.

Dazzles, 1035 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs. Owner Mike Soules, a former Jacksonville, FL resident whose best neighborhood friend was David Hasselhoff, has amassed an amazing collection of vintage jewelry from Bakelite and snazzy sunglasses to Eisenberg Ice to Carmen Miranda worthy fruity assemblages.

Mitchells, 106S. Indian Canyon, Palm Springs, stylish clothing for men and women fine clothing. Michael Karp is known for his lush collection of Pucci, which never goes out of style in resort climes.

Gallery 24 Jewelry, 457 N. Palm Canyon Dr. #9, Palm Springs, is a gem with an irresistible motto: "Jewelry because great sex doesn't last forever."
Carlos has an inside track on Chanel beauties and the rich and famous turn to his designer jewelry when they don't want to take the real thing out of the bank. Hats, bibelots and bejeweled belts, too.

Iconic Atomic, 1103 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, is so '50s-'60s you expect to hear Desi telling Lucy she has some 'splainin' to do. From appliances and decor to accessories and women and men's wear (the largest supply for men, we hear), this is the place to find everyday mid-century artifacts.

Marga's Repeat Boutique, 73-900 El Paseo, Palm Desert, had some of the best prices on her pleasing array of women's clothes and accessories. Both Good Girls found jewelry here.

After all this looking around and shopping we were ready for some mid century culinary therapy so we followed the Rat Pack's lead and headed to Melvin's in the befabled Ingleside Hotel.

Ingleside Hotel

 You can't do justice to a scene of frequent infamous revels without an adult beverage so we began with martinis.

Found the fab shades at Dazzles.

We had lovely salads but looked with longing at the enormous chicken pot pie.

Eventually reality has to interrupt one's trip back in time.