Week in Review

We left Atlanta last Monday after spending four nights with R's cousins. We were getting too comfortable with the air conditioning and pillow top mattress and I am sure they were getting tired of us using their laundry detergent to wash our clothes - I actually changed my shirt every day because I knew it would not be weeks before it saw the inside of a washing machine. We have have driven almost 800 miles in the week since then through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas to camp on the White River in Arkansas with my cousin Anthony who drove from Tulsa to meet us. He must think we look thin in pictures because he was accompanied on the trip by twenty brautwurst sausages which met their fate on the grill. Cousin Anthony grilling dinner at our White River camp

Despite what you all may know about me, it has not been aimless travels. Although Coconut and J will not be forcibly schooled through the Alexandria public school system, thus missing out on recess, standardized testing, and half-day screenings of Frozen, they will be educated. R came up with a very ambitious curriculum that includes learning Spanish, studying the migration patterns of animals (including humans), dancing under the stars (also known as astronomy), learning how man has ruined various ecosystems, and of course, auto mechanics.

Although their "school year" won't formally start until September 1, R and I could not drive through the South without planning a civil rights lesson for the kids - mostly because we don't know anything else about the South that we think they should know. The learning started in Atlanta at Martin Luther King's birthplace, which area now is also home to the national civil rights museum, the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where the King family ruled the pulpit, as well as MLK and Coretta King's graves. There is also a nearby playground where R completed an obstacle course in a family record 46 seconds.

From Atlanta we drove to Birmingham, Alabama, where we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church. The religious leaders that organized many of the protest marches used this church as a meeting place and it was the site of the murder of four young girls in a dynamite blast for which the perpetrators were only recently tried and convicted. There were a number of walking tours originating in the Kelly Ingram Park across the street from the church that led off here and there and documented different events that people undertook to protest the white supremacist attitude of the time. J was very affected by the snarling dog and water cannon replica statues showing how Birmingham police combated the non-violent demonstrations and he asked an appropriate number of questions about this and that to demonstrate he was actually absorbing some of the learning. Coconut was more affected by the heat, but apparently paid attention in her own way because she also made some comments after we had left that indicated she knew what was going on.

After eating lunch in the street by our van like the homeless people we are, we drove an hour or so northwest out of Birmingham and camped at Clear Creek on the Lewis Smith Lake. We were the only campers in our loop and had our pick of sites so of course we grabbed one right on the river. J always comes up with some game or contest to play so we compared fancy tricks we performed on the boogie boards in the river until thunder and lightning chased us out. We ended up with a wicked storm that washed out any hopes of a campfire and soaked all the gear in Coconut's tent - she slept in the van that night. In the morning we had another swim while things dried out and then drove into Mississippi.

While we were gassing up I noticed a puddle under Wesley that I was hoping was pre-existing. No such luck, as a quick look revealed a hose near the front drivers side tire that was saturated and dripping gasoline - which is weird since the gas tank is on the passenger side and the fuel line runs down that side to the engine in the rear of the vehicle. Since there was nothing I could do about it at the moment and likely nothing I could do about it even if I had ten moments, I said nothing, started the engine and kept an eye on the gas gauge as we drove along. I figured if it was going to be a real problem, our gas tank would soon be empty.

We ended up driving for about twenty miles and then pulled off to visit Natural Bridge, which is the longest natural land bridge east of Colorado. There's probably a more geologic way to describe a natural bridge, but basically it's when soft stone - in this case, sandstone - is eroded by running water - in this case, the sea - but a portion of the stone is not eroded so Point A and Point B remain connected. Arches National Park in Utah is full of this kind of stuff.

Natural Bridge near the Mississippi - Alabama border. We stopped while driving along State Route 195 for a short hike and picnic lunch

As a testament to how old I am getting, when Coconut and J went scrambling over rocks and climbing up walls to get to the top of the cliff and walk the bridge, I wasn't interested in that path to the top so went looking for the trail the woman we purchased the tickets from described. I could not find it so turned around and waited for the kids to come back. I was perfectly content to do that though now I am somewhat regretful that I didn't climb with the kids because I've never been on top of a natural bridge before that I can remember. As we were leaving the woman we purchased the tickets from asked us to come back and visit again but I see that as an unlikely occurrence so now I'm not sure if I'll ever get to the top of a natural bridge. It's a lesson to take advantage of the chances we have when they present themselves.

R at the natural bridge in Alabama with Wesley in the background

After we got back to the van, I checked the leaky hose and it wasn't leaking. There was no pool of gasoline in the parking lot. We've filled Wesley with gas a few times since then and there has been no leak. It's a lesson that sometimes, if you do nothing, it will all work out alright. So now I don't know whether to act when presented a situation or do nothing.

The camp in Mississippi where we spent Tuesday night wasn't great, but we did have a good time there. We swam and J made up a game where he went underwater and I tried to push the boogie board so when he surfaced it would be directly over his head. R and I had a nice chat with Todd from the Army Corps of Engineers. The sunset was also nice and we grilled some chicken on the campfire that was pretty tasty. We picked this campground on the Tennessee River/Tombigbee Waterway because it was going to make for a short drive to Memphis on Wednesday, and it did.

On the way to Memphis we stopped in Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit Elvis' birthplace; a one room building with a porch swing that may or may not have been there in January 1939 when Elvis came into this world. Did you know Elvis was a twin? His older brother was stillborn. We didn't pay to go into the museum, a trend you will notice over and over if you stick with reading this blog, but there were some testimonials about how nice a kid Elvis was stuck onto the outside of the museum from people who knew him from that time.

Me, J and R on Elvis' front porch in Tupelo, MS

One memory was from a kid who let Elvis borrow his bicycle when they were about ten. After riding, Elvis offered to trade the kid his guitar for the bike - an offer which was obviously refused. How different the world might have been.

Speaking of how different the world might have been, in Memphis we visited the Lorraine Motel where MLK was murdered on the balcony outside room 306. MLK was in Memphis to support a strike by the city's black sanitation workers for better working conditions. The motel is closed for business but open for tours as part of the National Civil Rights Museum, as is the boarding house across the street where the killer took aim from a second floor bathroom.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN

We did not pay to go into the museum but read the free exhibits in the street outside the motel. Coconut and J have both learned about MLK, Rosa Parks, slavery, and civil rights in school, but what we read and saw during our own civil rights unit provided more concrete examples of the discrimination faced and it gave them some context to visit places that were relevant to that time. It also gave R and me a chance to impress upon Coconut and J that the struggle for equal standing is one that continues not just for African Americans, think Ferguson, Missouri, but for other groups as well, think gay marriage. I think it is a theme we will revisit during this year as we thread our way through Mexico, and Central and South America, places which certainly have seen their share of use and abuse.

One of the things that crystalized for me as we visited these sites is the role that religion played in the civil rights movement. I guess I knew on some level that MLK was a reverend, but now I know that he really was. To me, many of his speeches are essentially homilies on finding that promised land that God created for all races, creeds, species, and folks. Many of the other organizers of the movement were also religious leaders - it's not something I'd focused on before. In one of the gift shops we visited but where we didn't purchase anything, I was leafing through a book containing great speeches of the 20th century and came across one by Cesar Chavez, who championed the rights of Mexican migrant workers. J was in a dual language program at school and during one unit learned about Chavez and came home talking about him - that's the only reason I knew the name and read his speech in this book. The speech was a call to the Catholic Church to be more active in supporting the migrant worker in his struggles, those workers being generally God-fearing and tithing believers in the church. It was an interesting contrast to what I had just learned about the civil rights movement for African Americans who were lead by their religious leaders in their struggle for fair treatment.

Because Memphis is a city, it did not have a lot of attractive camping options. We decided we would shorten the next day's 4-hour drive to our camp on the White River in Arkansas by starting the drive that evening - which meant that we had started the day in Mississippi, lunched in Tennessee, and would be having the evening meal in Arkansas; three states in one day.

Rather than camping though, Coconut and J also decided that we should stay in a hotel with air conditioning, free Wifi, and a pool. I agreed that if the place also offered free breakfast, we had a deal. We ended up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where some kind of baseball tournament was going on, which meant all the bargain hotels in town were booked so we had to take a room at one of the fanciest places in town for $110 for the night. Coconut figured out that we only needed to each have $28 of fun to get our money's worth and we all agreed that our swim, downloading books, watching television, and taking an extra yogurt and cream cheese from the free continental breakfast added up to our money's worth.

The rest of our drive through Arkansas on the windy country road was nice. We drove past groomed yards, storefronts with businesses behind them, and another half-dozen or so armadillo road kill. I'm hoping that before this trip ends we see an actual live armadillo, not these crushed, rigor mortis, road specimens.

We ended up Thursday afternoon by pulling into Bull Shoals-White River State Park, where my cousin Anthony met us. He has been lobbying to become Vanamos' marketing and public relations director and spent a lot of time chatting with our fellow campers about our upcoming trip and encouraging them to read the blog. If we had room in our Thule storage box, we might bring him along. Instead, we are hoping he and his family can visit us along the way.

View of the White River from our camp

We spent our weekend at camp exclaiming to each other about how cold the river water was, watching trout eat worms and minnows at the visitor center, throwing wiffle balls and baseballs, and attending park ranger discussions about bears and the summer sky. We also rented a rectangular boat called a Jon boat which is the preferred mode of transport on the river because of its shallow draft. Most folks use these boats for fishing on the White River, which is one of the best trout fishing rivers in North America due to the constant cold water temperature - 50 degrees. We must have made quite a sight in our swimsuits and carrying towels and boogie boards into the boat like we were going to the pool. We cruised downriver a few miles and beached on a shoal to stretch or legs, but only J and I were hearty enough to get wet. Afterwards we made the short drive to the much warmer Bull Shoals Lake at the top of the dam that feeds the river. Because of high rainfall, parts of the picnic area on the lake are underwater and we all got a kick out of standing on top of the pavilions and swimming under them to sit at the picnic tables.


Family dinner

It's Monday now, and we are in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the day to run a few errands, drink my cousin's beer, and get a final night's sleep in the air conditioning before we push on through Texas to Mexico.