Tulsa, Tahlequah, Tupelo
Greeting a Dead Horse
My cousin dispenses wisdom, as usual.
I become the stupidest person in Oxford, Mississippi
My cousin David had to leave early, and when I got up he was gone. I was only riding to Tahlequah, a little over an hour east. I had another cousin out there to visit.
Before I left the Tulsa area I rode to my mom’s hometown, Sapulpa, a smallish town southwest of Tulsa. As a kid I spent lots of Christmases there. I wanted to see my grandparents’ house.
Sapulpa boomed as an oil town in the early 1900’s, and missed becoming a big city when the Frisco Railroad chose Tulsa as its hub. My grandparents lived in their Sapulpa home from the mid 1930’s until 1993, when my grandfather died and my grandmother moved into assisted living. His furniture store on Dewey Street thrived over the decades, closing when he retired in his late eighties. I played there as a kid, jumping on the display beds, reclining in the La-Z-Boy chairs and watching football with my uncles on the Magnavox display models.
It’s now a Hallmark store. I wanted to have a look inside, but a sign taped to the door said “closed for lunch”, so I rode over to the old house.
The Old House Looks the Same
It looked unchanged, except for a toddler-fence along the driveway and kiddie toys scattered around the back yard. I knocked on the front door. No one answered, so I walked around back to photograph the pecan tree my grandmother planted from a single pecan sometime in the 1930s. When I lived in Japan she sent me a coffee can full of pecans from this tree – small, sweet ones, cracked and picked by hand. The brick barbecue pit my grandfather built still stood, the site of many family gatherings.
I imagined my 6-year-old self climbing the garden wall, and eating barbecued chicken and potato salad at the picnic table. I didn’t want to leave, but the people who made the home truly special live in my memory, which I can visit any time I please.
On to Tahlequah
I hit the road and headed east. My cousin Debbie, David’s sister, lives in a heavily forested area near Tahlequah, and I planned to hang out with her and her husband for a couple of days. One day we discussed my dad asking me to leave the hospital in Tucson, and my sisters’ strange reaction to my leaving Tucson completely. I still hadn’t heard from them. Apparently they believed my dad’s silly story that I “exploded for no reason” and left Tucson. Whatever. Debbie is retired, but logged decades as a social worker and counselor. She has seen and heard it all, and knows what works and what doesn’t. She had lots of wise words for me, and left me feeling much better and clear-headed about the whole needless episode.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Horses
On a previous visit, Debbie and I had visited the graves of our many ancestors in the area. I had researched the family tree in the 2000s, and I enjoyed seeing some of the people whose lives I had read about. But I had missed one non-family grave, and this time around I resolved to pay my respects.
That was the grave of Mister Ed.
Mister Ed was the equine star of the 1960s television show that bore his name. The show chronicled the everyday life of Ed and his owner, Wilbur Post. Ed could talk, but only to Wilbur. The show lasted for five years and 143 episodes, ending in 1966 but running eternally in syndication. Ed died in 1970, and his grave lies just outside of Tahlequah. We poked around in the tall grass and found his stone, which had fallen over. Someone had left an apple for Ed.
As we left a pickup truck pulled up. It was the landowner, and we talked for a bit. Apparently Mr. Ed’s top-heavy headstone keeps falling over. Needs some bigger rebar to stabilize it, he said between discreet spits into a bottle/spittoon on the seat next to him. He told us about the various people who wander in looking for the grave, and his plans to demarcate it and spruce it up. His friendliness, concern for Ed and respect for the people who come to see him reminded me why I like coming to this part of the country.
Rain kept me in Tahlequah an extra day. This threw my schedule off and meant I probably wouldn’t be able to stop and see my other cousins in Knoxville. Once again I would have to hurry across the Southern tier. I’m glad it’s reasonably close to Philadelphia, I definitely want to go back and enjoy the roads, the food and the people.
The night before I left I had a spot of luck at the Cherokee casino. I fed the slot machine a $20 bill, ran it up to $200 in about 10 minutes and cashed out. Gas money for the rest of the way home! It’s all about knowing when to stop.
If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You Can't Get Lost
I picked up US 64 toward Arkansas, and from Tahlequah to the Arkansas border that road kept me well entertained. Great scenery too. It’s unfair to compare it to Utah and other points west, but in the categories of scenery, roads and people, Arkansas is a triple winner.
Later that day I jumped into the happy tangle of state roads east and southeast of Fayetteville – 16, 21, 23, 74, 27 and all the rest. I didn’t care if I got lost. With I-40 south of me and I-49 to the west, how lost could I get? I met a group of Triumph riders on their way to the Ozark Rat Raid, a big Triumph gathering in Marble Falls. They encouraged me to come along, but time would not permit. I had been on the road for nearly three weeks -- that’s three weeks of my wife doing everything by herself. Besides, tagging along with people you don’t know isn’t much fun, especially if you don’t drink alcohol.
I continued on my solitary path, which had served me well backpacking in Asia. I felt the same now.
I didn’t have a specific stopping point in mind, but I wanted to make Mississippi for the night. I don’t remember where I entered I-40, but I took it to Brinkley and went south on US 49, planning to cross the Mississippi at Helena-West Helena, which, as I mentioned on the way out, Mark Knopfler mentions in his great song “Stand Up Guy”.
He reared, unfurled his majestic wings and flew into a shimmering cascade of other-worldly light. I swear.
Crossing the Mississippi at West Helena is better than crossing at Memphis. It’s less commercial, less frantic. More Southern. I'd do it again for sure.
My grandparents' backyard. My grandmother planted this tree in the 1930s, having sprouted it from a single pecan. It still bears plenty every year -- the small sweet ones that are hard to find.
Arkansas was one of my favorite parts of the trip. People, food and roads were all tops.
Mr. Ed's gravestone had fallen over, but his spirit stands tall in syndication.
Crossing at West Helena is better than crossing at Memphis. It’s less commercial, less frantic. More Southern. That Mississippi has little money for road construction is immediately apparent. I think I lost a few more fillings to the constant bumps on this route. US 49 bends south toward Clarksdale, where I picked up US 278 east to Oxford.
What Are Ya, ignorant? Actually, Yes.
I should have stopped at Batesville, but I thought Oxford would be a good ending for the day. Faulkner and all that. Once there I found the hotel strip and picked one. Holiday Inn or something. I pushed the door open and walked over to the front desk.
Me: Do you have any rooms tonight?
Clerk: You must be joking.
Me: No, I’m not. Is something going on?
Clerk: The Double Decker Festival! This week has been booked up since February!
She looked at me with pity. Who didn’t know the Double Decker Festival was this weekend? It’s a big music and arts festival Oxford has every year. She said it would be a waste of time to look for a room in town. I put my gear back on and headed east toward Tupelo, the setting sun throwing my ever-lengthening shadow ahead of me.
Where's the King?
Like all true Americans, I know Tupelo is the birthplace of The King. I envisioned a tourist-trap schlockfest of Elvis-related souvenir shops, and restaurants serving deep fried peanut butter sandwiches with burnt bacon and gravy on the side.
By the time I got there though, night had fallen and someone had rolled up the sidewalks. Where was the Elvis stuff? Northeast of the town center, it appears as I look at the map while I write this. I rode around a little. Tupelo had all the marks of a nice smaller city with better things to do than ride the Elvis gravy train. I stuffed myself for cheap at the Waffle House, found a hotel on I-45 and hit the hay. I should have been more adventurous, but my homing instinct strengthened the closer I got to Philly.