Richard and Suzanne's Big 1999 Road Trip
Stage 3: In the Land of Pedros and Elvises
Orlando, FL to Memphis, TN

Day 17 - Tuesday, June 29th, 1999
Orlando, FL to South of the Border, SC
(exactly 500 miles!)

We loaded up and were finally back on the road again. We set course northeastward to Daytona Beach, then up the east coast of Florida. After many years, we finally found the other (non-Santa Monica) end of Interstate 10 in downtown Jacksonville, only to find the legendary eastern "END I-10" sign almost covered by a construction sign! We then continued northward into Georgia, where we proceeded carefully through some very heavy rainstorms. We chose to bypass Savannah due to the weather, which may have been a good thing after we later heard of flash flooding in the city. We then ventured onward into South Carolina, where we saw even more rain, green forests stretching to the horizon, and many many (many!) billboards for a place called "South of the Border". Eventually, we ended up on I-95 at the northeast end of South Carolina at that astounding place - the legendary "South of the Border" (aka "S.O.B."). This Mexican-themed destination, which truly defies description in normal human terms, could be roughly described as a tourist trap / indoor mini-golf / amusement center / museum of fine colorful fiberglass statuary / observation tower site / souvenir store complex (we lost count at 8 separate stores) / conclave of eclectic restaurants ... and a motel, where we spent the evening surrounded by this neon, fluorescent, and fiberglass experience. Our experience was made complete, when, in the parking lot, we spotted a Rhode Island license plate, meaning we had successfully found at least one plate from all 50 states, DC, and a bunch of provinces and Mexican states as well. Time to start over again with a new count!

Alien and antenna cactus say, "It's only 2,459 miles to Santa Monica!"

Day 18 - Wednesday, June 30th, 1999
South of the Border, SC to Clinton, SC
(exactly 200 miles - coincidence or conspiracy?)

Slept in late in our luxurio-economy room at South of the Border, and as soon as we were packed up and conscious we began experiencing all the delights that this tourist mecca had to offer. First a generic Mexican lunch at the Hot Tamale, followed by soothing scoops of ice cream at the stand next door. We then wandered through the myriad shops, stands, and emporia, all offering thousands of useful and useless things with which to make our lives complete. Then it was up to the top of the 200-foot Giant Sombrero observation tower, offering a view of 2 states, then back down for more shopping and photo opportunities with the dozens of giant fiberglass artworks strewn about the property. We continued with a complimentary round of golf at the indoor "Golf of Mexico" (Suzanne won by 3 strokes). We then topped off our experience with bumper cars, a train ride, and a ride on their "Sombrero" thrill ride, where we had the pleasant experience of being the only two people on the rides! It was a nice romantic honeymoon experience - just like having our own amusement park, only without the carny employment issues. As happy as we were, we then realized it was 5 PM, and we hadn't even begun the day's traveling yet! After a quick loop into North Carolina for reorientation, we finally swung the truck's nose westward for the long trip home. We cruised down to Florence, then westward on I-20 (didn't we see the other end of this freeway near Van Horn, TX?). Just north of Columbia, we veered off onto US 76 to find some local grub. At the Back Porch, a great little restaurant in Prosperity, we had a very tasty Southern chicken dinner, and met some of the friendly local folks, with whom we shared our tales of travel. Then further up US 76 to Clinton, where after some searching we found a very low-priced room at Gala's Welcome Lodge - and no extra charge for the mirrored ceiling!

The many amazing wonders of SOB

Day 19 - Thursday, July 1st, 1999
Clinton, SC to Pigeon Forge, TN
(yet another exact 200 mile day!)

We pulled out of Clinton into the northwest end of South Carolina, passing a large number of establishments advertising "video games". However, these video games don't look like the ones at the local arcade, and all seem to play something called "video poker". Rumor has it they actually give money back once in a while, but we didn't see much of that. Onward into the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where just west of Asheville we turned along US 19 toward the Great Smoky Mountains. While rolling along near Maggie Valley, we saw a place that had pottery, old traffic signals, and enough dishes for a small continent displayed outside for sale - an irresistible combination for us. We stopped in this place, named the Original Dish Barn, and loaded up an interesting set of fired clay pots and a reasonably priced double span wire signal assembly. After this, we continued into Cherokee, one of the most interesting tourist-trap places we've seen yet. Here we had some great home cooking at Granny's Buffet, and drove past dozens of places selling Native American wares, folksy stuff, and countless varieties of t-shirts. A dramatic change ensued as we entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with its greenery, scenic vistas, and soothing serenity (away from the endless traffic of US 441, that is). Then boom, we exited the park right back into tourist trap mania in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which boast more go-karts, mini-golf, and bungee-jump opportunities in one place than most other locations on Earth. We found a room in Pigeon Forge (after considerable negotiation about the discrepancy between the price on the big sign out front vs. the price offered by the desk clerk), and settled in to relax and check the e-mail.

And the e-mail news was rather unpleasant.

Suzanne found out that Computing Information Services, her place of employment for the past 4+ years, had ceased to exist as of Wednesday, leaving her and all her co-workers without any job, salary, insurance, or other benefits. We made some phone calls to start dealing with the situation, and then made the best of the moment by deciding to "deal with all that later - let's enjoy our honeymoon now!" We drove back and caught the trolley to Gatlinburg, and spent the evening savoring giant corn dogs (no more haute cuisine for the unemployed! ;), shopping for more souvenirs for special people, and enjoying one of the best Tilt-A-Whirl rides we have experienced anywhere at Fun Mountain, the local amusement park. We appreciate professionalism, and that ride operator was one of the best. We closed out the night cruising down the parkway in Pigeon Forge, enjoying ice cream and examining the remarkable selection of hillbilly souvenirs at the many roadside stores.

Yellow signs in the Blue Ridge

Day 20 - Friday, July 2nd, 1999
Pigeon Forge, TN to Rugby, TN

This morning's adventures began with a slightly wild idea. We knew we had 2 days to get to Memphis, and we were looking at the map, when we thought - "let's go to Virginia and Kentucky!" "Why?" "Why not?" So off we went up the winding roads of the Appalachians to the Cumberland Gap, the historic point where settlers made their way westward into the heart of the continent. Here we could also visit 3 states at once (VA, KY, TN) and easily pad the total number of states we've visited on the trip. After a quick stop in Middlesboro for our obligatory Kentucky postcard, we explored the twisting back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee. Here we saw coal mines, farms, settlements, and many many signs and billboards lining the roads, most dealing with two topics - religion and auto racing. The Southeast US has two very strong belief systems - Christianity and NASCAR. Needless to say, the folks here take both very seriously. Since it was now getting late, we stopped for a very tasty dinner at Flonnie's Drive-In in Huntsville, TN, then found a listing in the local phone book for the "Central Avenue Motor Lodge" in nearby historic Rugby. With a name like that, we were expecting a typical neon-and-Formica motel. What we found instead was a charming little hideaway, with small wooden cabins surrounded by trees, meadows, horses, and rather playful goats. In keeping with the rustic character of the place, the rooms had no phones. However, they did have one concession to "civilization" - 300 channels of satellite TV. We spent a very relaxing evening strolling by the meadows, watching the animals, and then plopping down to watch as much satellite TV as our eyes could take.

"OK... now what direction are we going?"

Day 21 - Saturday, July 3rd, 1999
Rugby, TN to Memphis, TN

We watched the morning sun filter through the trees as we began our day in Rugby, then off again we went curving along the byways of Tennessee. In Monterey, we contributed to the local high school kids (wish they wouldn't stand in the middle of the street, though!), found more cute concrete ducks and pigs, and also found Interstate 40. We continued westward to Nashville, where we drove by the Grand Ole Opry complex (Opryland is becoming a giant outlet mall - how all-American) and then made our way through the local neighborhoods. The Flying J truck stop in Fairview yielded a remarkably good lunch, and then we proceeded onward to Memphis. We found the Days Inn Graceland, and after some minor discussion (what do you mean you cancelled the reservation we made months ago??) we settled in to enjoy the guitar-shaped swimming pool, 24-hour Elvis movies, rock & roll-themed decor, and all the other amenities of this Presleyesque lodging experience. Once darkness fell, we strolled out onto Elvis Presley Blvd. to research the extent of Elvis infestation of the area, and to enjoy a late dinner.

In tune with the guitar-shaped pool at Days Inn Graceland

Day 22 - Sunday, July 4th, 1999
in Memphis, TN

What better way to spend this all-American holiday than at the home of one the most legendary icons in United States history? Yup, we went to Graceland! We saw the mirrors and shag carpeting (and that was just the ceilings!), and viewed firsthand the combination of opulence and down-hominess that exemplified Elvis' long-time residence. We then toured his two jet aircraft, viewed collections of vehicles and memorabilia, and immersed ourselves in all things Elvis from morning well into the afternoon. After we left the building, we went back next door to the motel, rested through the hottest hours (OK, just a mild 93 degrees, but 50% humidity), and watched more Elvis movies. We also picked up some Elvisenirs, of course, but were mildly disappointed by the lack of variety (and number of vendors) at Graceland and along Elvis Presley Blvd. This was more than made up for, though, when in the evening we visited Beale St. in downtown Memphis, the "home of the blues". Here we found a rollicking 4th of July celebration, complete with many rock and blues bands, happy crowds, and lots of cool places with Memphis and blues-related stuff. The evening finished with a bang, as we watched a spectacular half hour fireworks display over the Mississippi River and the I-40 bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas.

He'll always be your teddy bear

Next Stage: Wandering Westward - Memphis, TN to Phoenix, AZ

Previous Stage: Playing in Traffic - Orlando, FL

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