Visiting Italy and The Blissful Adventurer

When The Blissful Adventurer announced he would be going off to Italy, his excitement became contagious and soon I began reliving everything all over again: rows of vineyards and golden green fields, distant mountains and shimmering lakes, the relaxed feel of a culture that turns wine and pasta into an art form.

I may not be the greatest tour guide since I tend to get lost easily, but if you’re up for an adventure, follow me on over to The Blissful Adventurer’s site for my guest post on The Invasion of Radicofani. The town’s winding stone paths lead up and up to amazing views and a few surprises. I’m going to close comments here and will hope to see you over there for some Italiano fun and adventure.

Up, Up and Away: Hot Air Ballooning as an Extreme Sport

Our hot air balloon pilot looked young enough to be at home watching cartoons. He probably didn’t have a driver’s license. Yet, he busied himself preparing a balloon and a rickety basket for an ascent thousands of feet into the sky.

Hot air balloon companies fly in the early morning calm. No wind could be felt on the morning of our scheduled ride so we figured it would be a peaceful one, maybe even boring. Little did we know that our pilot craved extreme sports.

You can’t really steer a hot air balloon. Altitude is controlled through the propane burner below the balloon opening. Since hot air rises, when the air inside the balloon is heated, the balloon goes up. Any sideways traveling depends on air currents.

When we first took off, we headed sideways and then somehow down into a canyon. The balloon wouldn’t go up fast enough but it did travel sideways pretty quickly. The wicker basket headed right for a canyon wall. Our pilot was in training so after some expert advice from another pilot who looked like he might have a driver’s license, the balloon finally moved up and away from the canyon wall just in time. The basket practically scraped the wall. We could have collected rock samples.

After that, we went up to about 3,000 feet. At least there were no obstacles up there that we could see, just clouds and a few birds. The sensation is more like floating than flying and when you’re that high up, you become very much aware that you’re really just in a basket. There’s not much else between you and the sky.

We floated over desert canyons and a shiny new neighborhood. When it was time to descend by letting air out of the balloon, the pilots figured the neighborhood would be the best place for a landing. We ended up flying in at a steep angle and almost landed on someone’s roof. When we did land, we bounced off a front yard bush and eventually came to rest in the middle of the street. The expert pilot turned to the trainee and said, “Nice use of the bush.”

Luckily, it was a quiet enough residential street and the people who lived there were used to this sort of thing.

Graceland and the Spirit of Elvis 35 Years Later

The surprising thing about Graceland is that it’s more of a home than a mansion. I thought it might be a Versailles of sorts, a personal palace befitting the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly it just felt like a home. That made me like Elvis even more.

The decor it’s known for is a bit on the outrageous side, but it doesn’t feel overly decadent or opulent. The kitchen looks like a regular 1970s kitchen, complete with carpeted floors and laminate counters. According to the tour tape, Elvis spent most of his time in the kitchen. It’s a cozy place, remarkable only because of its homey feel.

In Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley, David Adler mentions that Elvis wrote out lists of items to be kept in the Graceland kitchen at all times, including peanut butter, pickles, banana pudding, brownies, and three packs each of Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit gum.

Graceland is one of the most visited private homes in the United States, after the White House, with more than 600,000 visitors a year. The home has been left as it was at the time of Elvis’ death. It’s a peek into his personal life as well as a museum dedicated to his music and public persona.

In the Jungle Room, a teddy bear sits on the couch near a guitar. It’s easy to imagine Elvis relaxing and joking around there. A television room in the basement gave him the chance to relax some more while watching three television sets at once.

It’s estimated that Elvis has sold more than one billion records worldwide. His gold and platinum records line the hallways, but even more impressive is a room covered with personal checks of $1,000 or more written to local charities.

His car collection is kept across the street and includes his famous pink Cadillac. At the car museum, a home movie plays showing Elvis and his daughter zooming around the Graceland grounds on a snowmobile. Since they didn’t get much snow in Memphis, he added wheels to the snowmobile. The movie shows the kid in Elvis since he uses small hills as ramps to launch the snowmobile into the air.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death. If he had lived, he would be 77 years old. Every day, fans bring flowers, wreaths, and pictures to the Graceland meditation garden where Elvis is buried along with his parents and grandmother. A memorial gravestone for Elvis’ twin brother, who died at birth, is also in the garden.

According to a tour guide, Elvis was originally buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery but soon after his death people actually tried to dig him up, which is why his body was moved to the Graceland meditation garden. With all the rumors surrounding the death of Elvis and the possibility that he might still be alive, perhaps the gravediggers were hoping to find an empty coffin.

Elvis still lives through his music. His spirit can be felt at Graceland, at Sun Studio, and in the streets of Memphis. For evidence that he is still alive, all anyone has to do is listen to one of his songs.

Walking in Memphis

A tornado chased our plane to Memphis. When we landed, tornado sirens screamed through the downtown area as the sky darkened and turned a bruised yellow. We headed right for the nearest bar.

The bartender told us not to worry. She said tornadoes usually skipped over Memphis because of a nearby hill. We didn’t know whether or not to fully believe it, but decided to stay in the bar a little longer just in case. The hotel room was on something like the 10th floor.

Memphis doesn’t need tornadoes for excitement. Memphis already has goats in bars and ducks marching in and out of elevators. Just wandering down Beale Street is exciting enough. Blues bands play in the park or in bars and different rhythms trickle out onto the street. Street vendors sell huge cups of beer and people sit out on the curb and watch other people. On most days, kids even do flips all the way down the middle of the street.

But walking in Memphis isn’t just about Beale Street. It’s possible to wander down to the river for a steamboat ride, to Mud Island for a tour through river valley history, or to the Civil Rights Museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 44 years ago today. A wreath now hangs outside the balcony area where he stood. His motel room, complete with snuffed out cigarettes in ashtrays, hasn’t changed since that day. Inside the museum, newsreels of speeches and protest marches echo through the halls. One newsreel shows Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers training for verbal and physical abuse at lunch counter sit-ins. Nearby, a ceiling-to-floor film brings visitors into the Birmingham, Alabama demonstration when attack dogs and fire  hoses were used against protesters.

The Mississippi River Museum explores a different kind of history as it celebrates music, steamboats, and the people who lived in the Mississippi River Valley. Outside the museum, the Mud Island River Park offers shady spots to rest as well as an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico 954 miles later. Twenty cities are mapped out along the way. Children splash and play in all the twists and turns of the river as it flows on to the Gulf of Mexico.

For music history, Sun Studio offers memorabilia from the days when Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins recorded there. Sam Phillips opened the studio in 1950 and began creating legends in this place that’s been called the birthplace of rock-n-roll. The original studio hasn’t changed since those days and visitors can get their pictures taken with one of the microphones during a tour filled with music trivia.

After all the walking, the Peabody Hotel lobby is the place to sit and relax. If you’re there at either 11 AM or 5 PM, you’ll get to see the famous Peabody Duck March. In the morning, the ducks leave their rooftop palace, travel down to the lobby in the elevator, then march across the red carpet to the water fountain. They swim at the ornate marble fountain until 5 PM, when it’s time to walk across the red carpet again and back into the elevator. The tradition began about 72 years ago, but ducks weren’t the first fountain residents. Legend has it that turtles and baby alligators briefly stayed at the hotel fountain back in the 1920s.

There are lots of things to do in Memphis, from enjoying blues bands to walking through history or Beale Street. While out on Beale Street, be sure to stop and people watch. People, after all, can be pretty funny.

Next Week: Graceland and the reason Elvis is buried there.

Have you been to Memphis? What did you like most about it?

My Trip to Mars

Before traveling to Utah, I told everyone we’d be going to Mars. No one really believed me. But soon after arriving, it did feel as if we had landed on the Red Planet. Luckily, we didn’t have to leave this planet to get there. The colors in the high desert region are the complete opposite from the usual tree, field or mountain colors. Mesas and cliffs with streaks of rust and orange crouch through the landscape. Any vegetation shows up as tufts of frosty green. At times the desert looks like someone smeared rainbow sherbet all over the ground. And these colors change depending on the slant of sunlight.

The outside deck at the Red Cliffs Lodge restaurant in Moab offers the above view of the Colorado River and desert hills. While sitting there, it’s possible to watch the cliff colors change from rust to pink to rose as the sun descends and the moon rises into the glowing blue dusk.Movies like Rio Grande, Geronimo, City Slickers, and Thelma and Louise have all been filmed in the surrounding desert. John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Rock Hudson, Henry Fonda, and other Hollywood stars worked there on location. A movie museum at the lodge displays film memorabilia and is open to the public at no charge. The lodge is also a working ranch that offers horseback rides through the Old West movie terrain.

Moab is close to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches pop up all over Arches National Park. Other rock formations appear as skyscrapers or statues. The Three Gossips could be a statue chiseled by hand but it was designed by wind, water, and time. Balanced Rock looks like a boulder somehow balancing and staying on top of a thinner tower. The rock is the size of three school buses. It looks like it could topple over at any minute but it hasn’t yet.

The park’s landscape is haunting, with wide open desert and sky, hazy purple mountains far in the background, and strange orange hills everywhere. These hills swirl up like ice cream cones with what looks like lava surrounding them, almost as if the ice cream froze in time while melting. Some show darker streaks through the orange, making it look like chocolate sauce has been added by nature.

The park stretches out over an underground salt bed, which is responsible for the arches, spires, balanced rocks, fins and eroded monoliths that fill the park. The underground salt bed was created more than 300 million years ago when seas flowed into the region and eventually evaporated. The oceans returned and evaporated again and again, petrifying sand dunes and cementing the area into rock.

Salt under pressure is unstable and the Arches National Park web site states that the salt bed below the park began to flow under the weight of the overlying sandstone. This movement caused the surface rock to buckle and shift, thrusting some sections upward while dropping others down and causing vertical cracks, which would later contribute to the development of arches.

Erosion stripped away rock layers. Water seeped in, washing away loose debris and eroding the rock that held the sandstone together. Ice formed during colder periods and put pressure on the rock, breaking off bits and pieces, at times creating openings that eventually turned into arches.

The result is thousands of breathtaking and fragile-looking arches that aren’t as fragile as they appear. The largest one, Landscape Arch, is 306 feet from base to base and becomes incredibly thin as it stretches into a ribbon of rock. Dramatic pictures can also be taken of Delicate Arch since it sits alone on a barren rise.

The arches in the park are still changing. On a night in 1940, a large chunk fell out of Skyline Arch and doubled the size of its opening. More recently in 2008, Wall Arch collapsed leaving a space between two rock bases that resembles a missing tooth. Wall Arch was more than three stories high and spanned about 70 feet. Broken Arch, while still standing for now, gets its name from a large crack in the middle of its formation.

The Park Avenue trail is a good way to get a look at the fins many of these arches once were before chunks started falling out to form the arches. The trail dips down into a canyon and the fins and other rock formations look like skyscrapers made by nature.

It’s easy to imagine the red hills and cliffs of Arches National Park and the surrounding area as Martian territory. The terrain is just as desolate and windswept, glowing red, orange and pink. But the best part is that wonders like these can be found on this planet. No spaceship required.

“View from Paradise” Short Story Published

I’m excited to announce that Independent Ink’s online journal just published my short story “View from Paradise.” This story was a Glimmer Train finalist and was rejected about 20 times (and revised many more times) before finding a home at Independent Ink. I’m grateful for the rejections because I think the story is better now, but I’m also very thankful that Independent Ink’s editors selected it for publication before the apocalypse.

Here’s the link to the story: View from Paradise

To celebrate, here are some pictures of the place that inspired the story, the Riviera Maya: