By Mike Tapscott
Highway 63 ran straight as an arrow between the cotton and rice fields of the Arkansas Delta. I drove and my wife, Marsha, manned her smartphone, searching for attractions worth a side trip during our return from a fishing trip in the Ozarks.
“OK, here’s one,” she reported. “A man and his horse were killed by a train and they were buried in the same grave in Walnut Ridge. Be on the lookout for the Walnut Ridge exit and the grave is on the edge of town.”
I did as directed and we tooled around the town of 5,000 or so. We failed to find the human/equine burial site but we did discover a consolation prize — a downtown park dedicated to the Beatles. An airplane carrying the Fab Four made an improbable landing at the local airport during their 1964 American tour and the good folks of Walnut Ridge remain grateful.
The detour through Walnut Ridge reflects our approach to travel: No destination is too remote, quirky, minor, tacky, trivial or obscure to visit.
We suffer from wanderlust. It worsened when our two sons left for college and became incurable when they chose to live in the far-away cities of Denver and Brooklyn. Rather than fight it, we leave town most weekends and have the weedy flower beds to prove it. Time and finances dictate that many of our destinations are nearby and often modest or even kitschy, the kind of places that other motorists hardly notice.
We drove to the crest of Woodall Mountain in Tishomingo County, snapped a picture of the historic marker for legendary bluesman Robert Johnson in the south Mississippi town of Hazlehurst, and slipped into a pavilion that shelters a carousel with a whimsical menagerie of tigers and giraffes ridden by Meridian children since Taft lived in the White House.
Who else concludes a Memorial Day weekend trip to Asheville, North Carolina, by wandering through a cemetery in nearby Hendersonville hunting a granite angel with her right arm pointing heavenward? We wanted to glimpse the statue that inspired Thomas Wolfe to name his semi-autobiographical novel “Look Homeward, Angel.”
Much of our sightseeing occurs during trips to and from typical destinations. Marsha attended a business conference in Natchez late last fall. We zig-zagged our way back home to explore the obscure. We walked in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps when he pardoned a bear cub during his famous hunt in Onward. We traveled a country road outside Anguilla until we found Mount Helena – a surreal Victorian home sitting atop an Indian mound surrounded by flat Delta farmland. The two of us completed the tour in Leland at dusk by joining the locals lining the banks of Deer Creek to watch Santa arrive by boat as a high school band played Christmas carols.
After dropping one of our sons at the Birmingham airport, we didn’t drive straight to Highway 78 for the direct route back to Tupelo. Instead, GPS led us to venerable Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball stadium. The next stop was the Coon Dog Cemetery in the undulating hardwood forests outside Red Bay, Alabama, where some of the finest and most beloved blueticks and redbones spend eternity.
Marsha and I have been fortunate to visit some of the nation’s iconic tourist sites, from the Grand Canyon, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to New York’s Central Park. We sipped drinks in a sidewalk café on a cobblestone street in Vienna during a two-week European jaunt that took us to the Austrian capital, Munich, Bratislava and London.
But we haven’t lost our appetite for the minor and modest in our own backyard. A healthy dose of curiosity can turn the seemingly mundane into entertainment. That’s why we’ll take that Walnut Ridge exit again to resume our quest for the burial site for the man and his horse. That’s just too weird to miss.