Hail Lisa Marie, Full of Graceland

The Graceland mansion tour allows visitors to gawk at garish furnishings that are fit for a king throughout the year except on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

On those two days and afterhours, Lisa Marie (as sole heir) and her family are certain to emerge from their second floor retreat (which is strictly off limits to everybody else) and romp about the downstairs–perhaps to enjoy dinner in the dining room without the roped stanchions,

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or take coffee in the living room.

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A private tour guide was overheard discussing Lisa Marie’s comings and goings, which have become more frequent now that she resides in Nashville. So it’s not uncommon that she’ll visit with her 8-year-old twin girls.

Since the kitchen is surrounded with display glass to preserve the $750 microwave oven Elvis bought in 1972, I asked if a kitchen existed on the second floor for family use during the day.

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Sources have confirmed that only a refrigerator exists in the living quarters, but if anybody is hungry–for instance when the twins requested McDonalds the other day–the Graceland staff was more than willing to bring it back, helping Lisa Marie avoid the paparazzi, and maintain anonymity.

“She could be upstairs right now,” said the VIP guide, “lookin’ down at you through that window, and you wouldn’t even know it.” That sounded creepy to me.

Lisa Marie fondly recalls the childhood years she spent in the Jungle Room while growing up in Graceland–feeling the green shag carpet under her feet, and snuggling in the plush barrel chair by the waterfall, usually while she watched TV (one of 16 on the property).

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In fact, her father, Elvis so adored TV, that like LBJ at the time, he maintained a media room in the basement so he might watch 3 side-by-side TVs at once.

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And while the house is a triumphant tribute to gaudiness, like the pool room,

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it pales in comparison to the on-site gift shop, where the public can take home an endless supply of in memoriam memorabilia.

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Because, Elvis by design, according to Lisa Marie, is all about taking care of business (TCB).

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And at the end of the tour, long after the last pre-recorded note has been sung, and the last of the 2,000 guests per day has been bussed away, there can be little doubt, regardless of what you’ve heard, that Elvis is definitely still in the building.

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Smoked Meats

Memphis is the best thing to happen to ribs since Adam’s grand gesture to Eve. As one of the four great BBQ pilgrimages (including Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City) Memphis stands out among all the others given its sheer volume of first class BBQ eateries scattered throughout the city. Whether it’s a joint, shack, restaurant or food truck, the holy trinity of meats–pork, beef and chicken–are all represented here in Memphis and consumed in biblical proportion.

With so much to choose from, we went to the internet to narrow our options. Realizing our propensity for gnawing on bones, and weighing the opinions of the millions who came before us, we settled on a full slab with 4 sides from Central BBQ, a relative new-comer who has already expanded to 3 locations in its 15-year history, and a perennial favorite at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

We arrived at 7 pm to overflow parking and a lengthy line out the door. A covered outdoor dining room with family-style seating bustled with a blend of first-timers, students, families, and business types. Eventually, we approached a counter to place our order. We exchanged money for card #23 and sat ourselves, waiting for our food to be delivered 10 minutes later.

20170328_192658.jpgOur rack-for-two was prepared as 1/2 “wet” and 1/2 “dry”. The wet half was basted periodically with a rich tomato, molasses, and vinegar sauce laced with heat, while the dry half was rubbed in brown sugar and spices, rendering a caramelized crust during it’s 12 hour slow cook.


Leah and I debated which half we liked better, and unanimously elected the dry rub as our favorite, which also gave us the value-added option of dipping our ribs in: Mild, Hot, Mustard, Vinegar, Hot Vinegar or Sweet Heat barbecue sauce.

Our sides included tasty mac ‘n cheese, coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad with 4 rolls, all washed down with a pint of Ghost River Grindhouse, a highly regarded local Memphis brew.


By 8:30 pm, the dining-in crowd had thinned, but the take-out window was still cranking out orders. It seems the local population knows exactly where to go for its smoked meat fix.

Rig or Mortis

If looking at people’s pet(s) can tell you a lot about their personality, then it stands to reason that their RV rigs are no different. RVs come in all shape and sizes–as do their owners–and it’s a challenging game matching up who belongs to which rig, because looks are deceiving.

Fortunately, there are no shortage of contestants at Two Rivers RV Campground in Nashville, TN, just down the road from the Opryland, so there’s plenty of entertainment to be had.

To call this place a campground is ironic, as nobody looks like they’re camping here (no tents are allowed). Purists would call this cheating, as there doesn’t appear to be a close connection to the great outdoors, because everyone here is parking.

But it would be inaccurate to call this place a parking lot. Two Rivers RV Campground is really a make-shift community participating in a wonderful experiment called neighboring, where people are forced to live in close quarters and in close proximity to each other.

New acquaintances are made daily, but they are fleeting. Everybody says hello, and acts friendly, but “Here today, gone tomorrow” is our casual mantra.

Nevertheless, looking around, it’s easy to see people sharing tools, detergent, stories and most importantly, lots of advice: who to consult; what to see; when to visit; where to shop; how to fix something; and why to navigate on certain roads. Know-how is the most valued currency for those of us on the road, and it’s usually free for the asking.

People from all income streams participate simply by paying $42 a night at this location, which gets you a semi-level pad equipped with electricity, water, sewage, and cable TV provided you bring your own power cord, garden hose, flexible tubing and co-axial cable. Just in case you’re unprepared, there’s always Camping World for all your accessory needs, and it’s no accident that Camping World is right next door within walking distance.

Walking through the aisles of an RV supermarket can easily rouse a variety of deadly sins. First, there’s gluttony—that insatiable feeling that everything in the store would make life much better or easier if only I could fit it all in my storage-deprived Airstream.

Next, is pride—given the unlimited combinations of cleaning and polishing products on the shelves that will bring a super shine to your tiny home. In fact, my next-door-neighbor spent half the morning wiping down his 34 ft. 5th wheel toy hauler, only to watch it pour later in the day.

Lastly, it’s difficult to ignore the many expensive and over-sized rigs crowding the campground, creating little doubt that there is an RV pecking order associated with ownership, which could easily bring about a costly disease otherwise known as RVNV (RV envy).

It seems that RV living is trending higher every year. 2016 saw record growth in RV sales with 430,000 units (trailers and motorhomes) sold, and a 2017 forecast expected to exceed 500,000 units.

It seems that the dream of traveling has become more competitive.


A Hole in the Head

What’s so special about a 379 ft. hole in the ground?

Well, it matters to a lot of folks near the bottom of Kentucky, where the National Park Service legitimized Mammoth Cave as the 26th National Park in 1941. And it matters to lots of Black Americans whose slave ancestors have recently gained recognition as some of the earliest cave explorers before the Civil War. Of course, the biggest irony is that the most qualified cave guides couldn’t get work at the cave once the U.S. government took over the concession.

Stretching more than 400 miles in all directions, Mammoth Cave is the largest subterranean cave network in the world, with geologists speculating that another 600 miles of caves have yet to be discovered. But what cave explorers have mapped thus far, has brought international tourism to this area, and turned spelunking into a regional phenomenon. Hardhats with headlights are de rigueur in Edmonson County. And children nag their parents for facsimiles in the park and hotel gift shops.

Reservations during peak season are strongly recommended by the Park Service as tickets are needed for cave access, and group sizes are limited. Upon arrival, we were disappointed to learn that spring-breakers had overwhelmed the demand, and we’d be shut out during our stay in the park. We reluctantly accepted a self-guided tour that was underwhelming, albeit we learned that the cave had once been a mine for sluicing saltpeter (an essential component of gunpowder) during the War of 1812.

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We later discovered that the park offers 16 tickets for the Frozen Niagara tour to the lucky few who are willing to wake up early and stand in line the following day when the ticket office re-opens at 8:00 am. Leah arrived at 7:45 am to find a lengthy line which didn’t bode well. With a little misdirection, she managed to cut the line, and snagged two tickets.

We boarded the bus at 9:45 am after a brief safety introduction by Ranger Jerry Bransford.

The ride to the cave gave Ranger Jerry a chance to tell the story about his great-great grandfather Materson Bransford, who along with Nicholas Bransford and Stephen Bishop became the first to guide the curious through the darkness holding candles.

His kin welcomed royalty and celebrities from around the world, including Jules Verne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Gen. George Custer. What a scene it must have been for the rich and famous to heed the commands of slaves while underground, only to be castigated as slaves when they resurfaced.

It was after a 30-year career in manufacturing, and a 55-year interruption of Bransford know-how, that Ranger Jerry accepted an invitation from the park service to continue the legacy that started four generations ago, and return as a Mammoth Cave tour guide.

Since Mammoth Cave is known to be a dry cave, there is insufficient dripping water to mix with limestone to form stalactites from the ceiling and stalagmites from the floor. However, Frozen Niagara is a rare exception for having a subterranean river that flows overhead, producing spectacular formations that continue to drip and grow, as they have for the past 250 million years.

Uncharacteristically, the bunker-like entrance to the cave yielded to a revolving door. The last one in had to volunteer to lock the door from the inside. On the way down into the tunnel through a narrow passage with low ceilings is when I yelled at Leah to “DUCK!” while she was looking for her feet in the darkness and heading towards a ceiling with no clearance.

“Owww, FUCK!” she yelled, her head bouncing off a knob of stone. It was only minutes ago that Ranger Jerry forewarned that “someone on this bus is gonna get ‘brainrock’ goin’ through the passage, so BE CAREFUL!”

I saw it happening in slow-motion, and I was powerless to stop her. I reached over to massage a knot beginning above her hairline that was fast-turning into a knob—almost a mirror-image of the stone she crashed into.

A woman yelled behind me, “Hey, thanks for the warning.”

“Look Mommy, I’m getting down on my hands and knees,” her daughter said.

“Get up, Cindy. The nice man said you can’t touch the rocks.”

The tour continued to a 200 ft. shaft of carved and decorated rock that plunged into a pool. We got to stand somewhere in the middle between top and bottom of this opening which made it hard to decide whether to look up or look down. Either way, it was breathtaking. I was delighted to learn that stainless steel railings would lead us to the bottom, providing another remarkable perspective.P1010209.JPG




At the conclusion of the tour, the passengers were directed to a gangplank lined with spongy mats soaked with Wool-Lite and water to decontaminate the soles of our shoes from possible exposure to “white nose”, an invasive fungus that has claimed more than 6 million bats in the past 5 years, and has appeared in 29 states to date. The original carrier was known to be an amateur English spelunker who brought the fungus across the ocean on his caving equipment. As a child, Ranger Jerry’s kin would tell him stories about ceilings so thick with bats, that you could feel the room quivering. But not anymore.

Ranger Jerry shook my hand at the end, and gave me his card. He wanted me to share his story. I would have liked to record Jerry’s story during our bus trip. Unfortunately, the idea occurred to me halfway through his spiel. But redemption came when I approached the exhibit area and discovered a video of Jerry’s interview playing on a small kiosk monitor. The audio portion was captured and may become available at a later date if I choose to upgrade my subscription for an additional expense.

In the meantime, the New York Times carried the following travel feature about the historic Bransford connection to Mammoth Cave:

Eat and Get Gas

Towing a silver behemoth is welcome news for the oil industry. With an average 10 mpg, I have become gasoline’s new best friend. With an extended range fuel tank capacity of 36 gallons, Leah and I have agreed to limit our truck trips to one fill-up per day when moving from one location to another. It keeps down the daily expense, and caps our driving time to approximately 6 hours.

After a day of unfulfilled scenery following the plumes of coal exhaust along the highway to White Sulphur Springs, WV, we stopped at a Shell station that was refreshing its reservoirs by a fellow who operated a Reliant Oil tanker. Given that it takes a while for both of us to fill empty tanks, we had a chance to chat. He greeted me and shook my hand.
“I just want to thank you for helping me help keep my job by you helping to buy gas here, and I really do appreciate it.”
With his Santa-esque appearance, he would make a welcome addition to the C & O Train Depot-turned-Christmas Store operated by the Greenbrier Resort down the road.

His day was almost over, with one more stop to make at an Exxon station.
“You mean to say that Shell and Exxon share the same gas?” I asked.
“That’s about right, since it’s cheaper to hire me than have both companies service their own pumps.”
“But look at the signs,” I protest. “Shell claims they sell nitrogen-enriched gas while Exxon, across the street claims they sell Synergy gas. How can that be if it comes from the same truck?”
He looked at me as if the answer was obvious. “You ever eat your grandma’s cake, an’ it’s so good. An’ then you eat your mom’s cake, an’ it tastes just as good? Well, cake is cake an’ gas is gas.”
“By the way, you’re not allowed to call us hillbillies anymore,” he continued. He lived local, about 50 miles from Lewisburg—named “The Coolest City in America” in 2011—and advised me that his kind preferred to be called “Appalachian proud”.
I asked him about the area’s high unemployment and the many unfriendly reports of poverty-level living with so many coal mines shut down.
“Don’t let these people fool ya. All them shacks with mud floors along the road without heat and electricity? They live that way ‘cause they want to. This way they ain’t beholden to no government.”
“I’ll bet the still behind the house helps to make them forget,” I added.
“Shhh…,” he whispered, pulling a grease-stained finger to his lips. “That’ll be our little secret.”

Form vs. Function

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, there is no better rock to be living under than Fallingwater, located in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania along Bear Run. Where else could you retract a glass floor to walk down a set a stairs from your living room, and soak your tired feet in running water spilling over rolling rocks? With stone quarried on site, and repeated themes of cascading concrete terraces that cantilever throughout the structure to resemble nearby rock formations, I can’t imagine another residence anywhere that is so bound by its natural habitat.

P1010122.JPGP1010127.JPGFallingwater is considered the finest piece of mid-century architecture anywhere, and it’s a treat to tour the house from the perspective of the Kaufmann family, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the retreat at the age of 70 in 1935. Completed in 1937 for $155,000, Wright frequently battled with Edgar Sr.–a Pittsburgh department store magnate–to preserve his purist design.

While the family respected Wright’s vision and artistic integrity, moreover, they wanted a house that would work for them–a house that they could live in. And so, Wright, who was at the nadir of his career, and famous for his unwillingness to compromise, held his breath and took on a client who had an equally strong idea of how his house should function. That they would survive such a contentious relationship for the sake of art and design is a testament to patron/artist symbiosis.

The sound and smell of water is omnipresent from room to room. There are no blinds or drapes that would rob the senses of scenic vistas–only walls of glass that seam at the corners, or more miraculously, windows that hinge without a trace of interruption.

Much of the furniture is built-in, and would seem uncomfortable, as if to suggest to the tenant that it’s motivation is to drive you outside, where nature is always the winner. But there are touches of warmth as well, including a massive fireplace with a swinging cauldron that could easily provide gallons of hot toddies when pulled into the fire, and bathroom walls and floors lined in cork.

The steel beams that buttress the building are colored to respect the outcroppings.


And other beams are playfully conversational and conservational.

The notion of unifying form with function is always contentious. The language of one easily dominates the other, leading to certain confusion and discord. But if both sides listen at the same time, and hear the quiet between the noise of overlapping voices, then something wonderful happens, and it’s called Fallingwater.

There’s a Bunker in the Hill, and It’s Revolutionary!

Dave was our guide for the 90-minute bunker tour below The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

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It was Dave’s 532nd tour in the two and one-half years since he retired from selling Chevys in town. His wife had begged him to go out and do something that will keep him away from her while keeping him fit. Always a fan of history and meeting people, Dave now claims he’s found the perfect job since it requires walking just over I mile per tour while he lets us in on a secret withheld from the public for thirty years.

Dave led us past the hotel indoor swimming pool, built in 1914,


and considered the largest of its kind, built at the turn of the century.

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Dave revels in the trivia.

“Do you know,” he asserts us, “that this pools has exactly 961,000 individual tiles set into the pool walls and floor, and I challenge you to tell me otherwise.”

“Exactly 961,000?” I contest.

“Exactly!” Dave reaffirms. “Don’t believe me?…Then count them yourself!”

Dave leads us through the ballroom,


and towards the newer wing.

Dave explains that Ike commissioned the clandestine bunker during the height of the Cold War so Congress could be sequestered in the event of a nuclear attack on DC. While it would not withstand a direct hit since it was only 60 ft. below ground, it could seal and protect against radioactive fall-out. The 2-level 112,00 sq. ft. bunker was built between 1958 and 1961, 720 ft. into the mountainside beneath the newly conceived West Virginia wing of the opulent hotel, so as not to attract public attention.

The bunker was readied daily–just in case–by attendants who masqueraded as TV repairmen, and remained secret until the Washington Post broke the story in 1992, calling a halt to Project Greek Island.

Dave also speaks highly of white knight, billionaire Jim Justice, who owns the hotel and also occupies the governor’s mansion in Charleston. Despite being a Democrat, Justice was elected last November with 49% of the vote in a self-funded campaign, despite Trump carrying the state by nearly 70%. Justice rescued the Greenbrier from insolvency in 2009, and spent $100s of millions on refurbishing, including a casino that required a county referendum to pass.


A final thought: While I understand the principle behind building and supplying the bunker back then to preserve and protect Congress for the continuity of our democracy, there’s no way that I could justify a safe refuge for today’s elected Representatives and Senators. There’s no way they deserve to survive us all.


The breaking story that put an end to the bunker that was hiding in plain sight:

The Greenbrier boasts about itself:


Blogger’s Preamble

This trip has been in the planning stages for the better part of two years, but it’s been a vision of mine for over 30 years. Two things I realized early on: I’d have to wait until I retired, and I’d have to find someone compatible enough to join me on this wacky adventure. I’m happy to report that both conditions have been met.

Most importantly, Leah and I have been together for nearly 12 years because we forgive each other’s most embarrassing moments and tolerate each other’s most defining idiosyncrasies. We have become formidable collaborators regardless of our separate opinions and talents. Our curiosity knows no boundaries, and our appreciation of the “great outdoors” is a driving force to explore the outer limits.

We spent four weeks together last summer romping through Alaska and Yukon in preparation for this trip. Our objective was simple: to still be talking to each other by the time we returned home. While there were some tense moments along the way, it was always the laughter that eased every crisis. By passing this test, it allowed us to set our sights on bigger goals.

Of course, all of this became possible by my retiring from the NYC Department of Education after eleven years of teaching high school to students with special needs. Teaching Special Education was not a calling; it was an assignment. By enrolling and being selected into the 2006 cohort of the Teaching Fellowship, I was introduced to an urban population of teenagers that collectively knew the struggles of academic failure, the isolation of being different, the limits of parental/guardian support, and the epic challenge to be better than everyone’s expectations.

It wasn’t easy. There were a few victories along the way, but way too many disappointments made more disappointing by a system that lost its way. Too often, colleagues of mine were reminded by administrators that “It’s all about the kids,” yet the rhetoric always exceeded the reality. I’ve seen my share of budget misappropriations, bully pulpit principals, invisible discipline accountability, and city denial. I’m sure it wasn’t always this way, because I’ve met so many great teachers during my tenure who would do anything for their students, and leverage their students’ successes in order to continue teaching. Yet, it was enough to make me weary and yearn for more.

This trip is all about yearning for more. It’s about discovery, reflection and purpose.