Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from a book project about various travels during my life. (so far) The working title is “Road Trips.”
Winding through thick green forests in southern Missouri; heading to Arkansas’ Petit Jean State Park. A planned leisurely trip through territory visited by everyone from Rooster Cogburn to Bigfoot turned to monotonous thanks to a steady downpour for five hours. A nice mix of Blues favorites and my middle child makes it much more enjoyable; if not memorable.
Progress was as slow as molasses in the wintertime. The only highlight was a catfish dinner in Mammoth Springs, AK, just out of Missouri. The place was called Fred’s Fish House and we ate tasty, farm raised catfish in a second floor dining room looking out on Main Street. We had the place to ourselves during the late afternoon lull.
Five hours later we were the only occupants at the breezeway between the Petit Jean Mather Lodge great room and the wing where our more modest room sat. The view provided us included a notch between two Ozarkian peaks nestled with fog, and bordered by towering hardwoods.
Fresh drinks in our hands, rocking chairs under our asses; we sat there until well after midnight, doing what the two of us do best; talk aimlessly about whatever. Sometimes seriously; sometimes absurdly; sometimes facetiously, we can talk for long periods without losing the thread. Two eerily similar minds separated only by life’s experiences.
My middle child is more like me than either of his brothers. He currently reminds me of my former, younger self, much more opinionated, self assured, and content in having figured the world out. As Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn pointed out in “My Back Pages,” we mostly learn how much we don’t know as we age. I was so much older then. I could have sat there all night.
Early the next morning, we tracked down the cave paintings at Petit Jean; the reason we made this detour from the Blues highway. The open air cave did in fact include ancient drawings but they were negatively affected by mildew and humidity which rendered them nearly invisible. Soon we were on I-40 headed east toward the Crossroads, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Two weeks before this trip began, I realized we must add a destination. It seems the Hollywood Cafe is about forty-five minutes from downtown Clarksdale. Where Muriel played piano every Friday, as Marc Cohen sang in “Walking in Memphis“. It was unanimous; we had to stop.
The Hollywood featured a veritable shrine around Muriel’s piano in the corner. To her and Cohen. We landed there during Happy Hour to fried green tomatoes my aunt Dana would approve of and solid catfish strips. Jukebox wasn’t bad either. Long before we were ready, we literally dragged ourselves from the bar stools and headed south. There will be a return trip.
Clarksdale offers a local guitar store with two proprietors that will talk your head off about all the greats that have stopped by, three local blues clubs with possibilities dependent on the day one shows up, and the actual Crossroads, where Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil.
Chad and I spent the night at the Shack Up Inn, barely south of downtown Clarksdale on the old highway. A collection of ancient, mismatched structures pulled together on an old farm location, a giant bar, and funky hired help make you want to return soon.
Several rooms feature pianos, and you can pick up a loaner guitar at check in. We had brought our own: Cheap ones we bought in St. Louis and planned to donate in New Orleans to the Youth Music Association manged by Tipitina’s.
We stayed in the Robert Clay shack, brought in from a former bootlegger’s place just up the road. A shifty ceiling fan that surprised us by working the entire time, tin roofing lining the shower, and a screen porch featuring mismatched chairs and the rear seat from an old Buick made the place special.
We sat on that porch, guitars in hand, and played “House of the Rising Sun” until we got it right. Or what sounded right after several trips back inside to refill mismatched glasses. I thought the night before, sitting with my son in the quiet, was a lifetime highlight, but the second night was just magical.
Image Credits: the feature panoramic view of the Petit Jean State Park was taken by ErgoSum88 (public domain via Wikipedia.org); the catfish dinner at Fred's Fish House Mammoth Springs, AK is a promotional image from Fred's Fish House's Facebook page (fair use); the view from Mather Lodge breezeway on Petit Jean Mountain was taken by BZA99 (creative commons via Wikipedia.org); the photo of the Hollywood Cafe is screen grab from Google Street View (fair use); we have no attribution for the photo Muriel's piano – from the Hollywood Cafe's Facebook page; the sign marking Clarksdale Crossroads was taken by Paul Everett (flickr/creative commons); the lobby photo of the Shack Up Inn was taken by Steve Mays (flickr/creative commons); the wide shot showing the cabins was taken by Francesco Fraioli (flickr/creative commons); and the view from the Robert Clay cabin was taken by lauren (flickr/creative commons).