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On the Road!

Five great getaways to break up the summer without breaking the bank.

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Oxford Town
by Chris Davis

Oxford slows down considerably when temperatures rise and Ole Miss students head home for summer vacation. It's a leisurely hour-and-a-half drive from Memphis and the perfect quick getaway for foodies, bibliophiles, music fans, or anyone else who has only a little spare time but wants to trade the noise and congestion of the city for something more bucolic but with nightlife. My latest trip was a theater-nerd adventure to visit the Lyric, a converted century-old opera house and movie palace, where I took in a performance by the Amazing Kreskin, the world's foremost mentalist who, at 77 years old, is still pretty amazing.

I arrived in Oxford early enough to peruse the stock at bibliophile paradise, Square Books. I left prematurely after opening a biography of Buck Owens to a wince-inducing passage about the Hee Haw star's affinity for having his "knob polished." I'm a fan, but not that big of a fan, and didn't want to lose my appetite before reading every word on every menu posted in the windows along Courthouse Square.

I wound up at the Ajax Diner, a funky eatery where the walls are papered with paintings of musicians by Memphis folk artist Lamar Sorrento. But it wasn't the decor that attracted me. It was the hot jerk pork steak, marinated in scotch bonnet pepper and blackberry sauce with grilled pineapple, black eyed peas, and sweet potato casserole. It was Pop's shrimp salad, fried catfish po' boys, and egg rolls stuffed with red beans and rice, green onions, and pepper jack cheese. Nothing disappointed.

The Lyric theater, a full minute's walk from the Ajax, is housed in a mostly nondescript 19th-century brick structure that originally served as the Faulkner family stables. In the 1920s, the building was adapted to accommodate live performance and silent films, and the Lyric continued to function as a movie house through the 1960s. In more recent decades, it has been an eyesore, an office building, and a health center. In 2007, it was renovated and turned into a bare-bones performance space, accented with beautiful old Fresnel theater lights and other clear fixtures designed to show off the warm orange glow of old Edison bulbs.

"It can be pretty slow around here in the summer," said Bradley Bishop, an Oxford native who oversaw the theater's renovation and now manages the family-owned space. The Kreskin appearance had attracted only a modest crowd, and 200 tickets were still available for the Flaming Lips, who are stopping by the Lyric on Wednesday, June 27th, as a part of the band's otherwise sold-out attempt to break Jay-Z's world record for most concerts performed in a 24-hour period.

"Now that you no longer need an expensive movie projector, we'd like to show more films here," Bishop said.

In 1949, literary giant William Faulkner walked to the Lyric from his family home, Rowan Oak, to attend the world premiere of MGM's adaptation of Intruder in the Dust. He'll return, in spirit, July 6th, when a program marking the 50th anniversary of Faulkner's death concludes with a free screening of another adapted novel, The Reivers.

Seeing the Amazing Kreskin at the Lyric was like going back in time to the period when visitors to a regional opera house might take in a musician, a lecturer, and a magician, all for the price of a single ticket. Although he eschews the word "magician," Kreskin is a little of all three. From a bare stage he railed against lawyers and lobbyists, played a seemingly truncated Chopin nocturne on the piano, and astonished the crowd first with card tricks then by telling them things about their lives and families that no ordinary stranger could possibly know. After the performance, Johnny Carson's favorite guest sat in the lobby and chatted amiably with fans, autographing glossy photographs and vintage copies of Kreskin's ESP, a board game originally published by Milton Bradley in 1967.

Instead of catching a post-theater band at Two Stick or Proud Larry's, my night in Oxford ended at Ya Ya's, a self-serve frozen yogurt joint across a still-busy Square from the Lyric. Ya Ya's stays open until 11 p.m. on the weekends, and a chocolate/espresso swirl seemed like the perfect cap to a family-friendly night out of town.

Down on the Farm
by Bianca Phillips

In Middle Tennessee, just an hour or so south of Nashville, lies a bucolic community of vegetarian hippies living among blueberry bushes, community gardens, and the occasional broken-down antique school bus.

Welcome to the Farm, a 40-plus-year-old intentional community founded by proponents of the free-lovin' culture of the 1960s.

Way back in 1971, a group of hippies — led by former San Francisco State University English professor Stephen Gaskin — painted 60 old school buses with images of peace signs and flower power and drove them on a nationwide speaking tour in which Gaskin spoke to various gatherings about hippie culture.

After the tour, the group decided not to go back to San Francisco's city life, so they purchased a 1,000-acre farm in the quaint Middle Tennessee community of Summertown. Simply known as the Farm, the commune became a hippie mecca, where like-minded folks from across the country flocked for a piece of the counterculture dream.

They grew their own food, consumed no meat, and delivered their own babies. They made their own tofu and soy ice cream and published books on midwifery and cooking. Thanks to Gaskin's wife Ina May, a well-known midwife, the Farm developed a reputation as a place where pregnant women from the world over could go to be treated by midwives rather than traditional obstetricians.

In its heyday, the Farm boasted a population of 1,200, with up to 10,000 visitors each year. Today, only a couple hundred of the old Farmies are still there, along with some of their children and grandchildren, who have stuck around. Some residents are newbies seeking a peaceful, vegetarian community.

The Farm still hosts visitors, and while there's not much to do any given weekend, they do host special Farm Experience Weekends and Green Life Retreats on a regular basis. These include tours of the Farm's gardens, tofu factory, the community's green homes, and the Eco-Village Training Center (a sustainable village that hosts classes on green living). The events may also include vegan dinner parties, concerts by local Farm bands, vegan cooking classes, midwifery classes, group meditations, and yoga.

"Depending on the kids who attend, I can sponsor lunches with the Farm moms and kids as a mixer," said longtime Farm resident Douglas Stevenson.

The next scheduled retreats are from July 25th through the 29th (the long version) and July 27th through 29th (for people who can only stay for the weekend). There's also an open-to-the-public Buffalo River canoe trip scheduled for July 21st.

"If you stay in someone's home, they can let you know about things that are happening that are not necessarily publicized, like parties or dinners," Stevenson said. "There's always hiking and swimming throughout the summer."

Many of the Farm's residents open their homes to overnight guests if you make reservations. Prices range from $15 to $80 per night, depending on the homeowner, and many of those include complimentary meals. There's also a Farm campsite with picnic tables, a water spigot, and an outhouse, where visitors may pitch a tent for $14 per night. Or guests can stay at an Eco-Village Training Center dorm with solar showers and a composting toilet.

For information on accommodations and activities at the Farm, go to www.thefarmcommunity.com.

Nashville Getaway
by John Branston

Nashville certainly isn't a cheap place to live, but it's reasonably priced for a getaway weekend of live music, good restaurants, and a walkable downtown that has outpaced Memphis in many ways.

Go downtown, park your car for $10 in one of the lots off Broadway, and you have a day's worth of sights and sounds within walking distance. The Convention Center, scheduled to open in 2013, is simply stunning in size and architecture. It's far enough along to give you a good idea of the finished product. Next door are the Country Music Hall of Fame and Bridgestone Arena.

From there, it's a couple blocks to the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway. Most of them are no-cover and the bands are first-rate, so you wind up spending a fair amount anyway on drinks and tips. Roberts Western World, with an active dance floor, is always a winner, especially if you catch "Ghost Riders in the Sky." A pedestrian bridge two blocks south of Broadway crosses the Cumberland River and leads to a park next the football stadium where the Tennessee Titans play. The Gerst House German restaurant has good meals for under $15.

The Megabus goes from downtown Memphis to downtown Nashville for as little as $10 round trip, depending on when you book. If you're meeting someone with a car, that's a cheap option. Otherwise, you will have to spend $150 or more to stay in the heart of downtown or the Vanderbilt area where there are a couple of Hampton Inns and a Courtyard Marriott. There are free outdoor concerts at Centennial Park on Saturday nights in June and resuming in September. The Centennial Park Sportsplex has indoor swimming and ice-skating for $7. The Bluebird Cafe in Green Hills has some no-cover shows and some with a $20 cover. It can be crowded.

But not as crowded as the Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village, which always seems to have a line extending a block or more to get in. For a big breakfast, try the Noshville deli instead or, for a scenic drive, Loveless Cafe on Highway 100 near the entrance to the Natchez Trace Parkway. In Sylvan Park, a couple miles west of Vanderbilt University, there is a good Italian restaurant called Cafe Nonna and the Sylvan Park Restaurant, which is a little like the Little Tea Shop in Memphis. For barbecue, Jim and Nick's on the west side off Interstate 40 has good sandwiches, rolls, and riblets.

I like to go to Nashville for the hills and the change of scenery and usually wind up driving or walking around and rarely spend more than $250 for a one-night, two-day weekend trip.

Get Wild at Wapanocca
by Bruce VanWyngarden

If you've got a hankering to journey to the bayou country of Louisiana but don't have the time for a seven-hour drive, there's a nice alternative just across the Mississippi River in Crittenden County, Arkansas: Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge.

Take Highway 77 north from Marion for about five miles. You'll drive through flat Delta farmlands and the tiny town of Jericho, where the only business is a funky little liquor store. A couple miles farther, after you pass through the equally tiny hamlet of Clarkdale, look for the boat launch entrance for Wapanocca on the right. It's a nondescript drive that goes up over the railroad tracks and down into another world. There is a small launch area that leads into a watery channel through a cypress swamp. It's almost jungle-like.

You're likely to see a few johnboats being put in on weekends. Wapanocca has become something of a bream-fishing honey hole in recent years. You're also likely to see a canoe or two being launched by folks just interested in paddling around through the cypress swamp to look at the wildlife. It's a huge lake, with open water and vast stretches of enormous lily pads as well as shady swamp-water passages.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains and administers Wapanocca and states in its brochure that the area's primary purpose is to provide habitat for migratory birds. And birdlife and other wildlife is plentiful and diverse.

But one of the great things about Wapanocca is that you don't need a boat to enjoy the place. If you drive another half-mile north on Highway 77 and take the main entrance into the refuge, you'll find miles of gravel roads that split the swampy sloughs and fields and a number of walking trails. Roll down your windows and savor the sound of tires on gravel, bird songs, frog calls, and the smell of boggy black water covered in lily pads and duckweed. There's a great fishing/observation dock on the east side of the lake. During the fall, when the migratory flocks are here, the numbers of waterfowl are mind-blowing and well worth the drive to see.

But abundant wildlife is here all year round. During a recent drive, I spotted indigo buntings, a bright orange warbler(?) of some sort, hawks, an osprey, a huge snapping turtle, snakes, owls, alligator gar, and the ubiquitous great blue herons that seem to be standing in every pool.

Pick up a park brochure when you enter. It has a handy map that will help ensure you find your way out.

Vintage South: Holly Springs
by Hannah Sayle

Steer yourself southeast from Memphis and in 45 minutes you'll be in a little slice of small-town heaven. Holly Springs, Mississippi, boasts a variety of attractions — from strange to quaint — befitting a Southern town. Perhaps best known for its well-preserved plantation homes and the annual Holly Springs Pilgrimage, complete with historic tours and Civil War reenactors, Holly Springs is also a perfectly lovely day trip destination — without the hoop skirts and cemetery tours.

You'll find the charm of a classic town square, with an old-fashioned drug store, Tyson Drug Co., where you can get a real malted milkshake and lemon drops and horehound candy. But you need only turn the corner and walk a block to find Graceland Too, a shrine to Elvis Presley like nothing you've ever seen. Indeed, this old house-turned-museum is not for the faint of heart or the unadventurous. Owner and obsessed Elvis fan, Paul McLeod, has operated the house full of floor-to-ceiling Elvis memorabilia 24 hours a day, year-round for nearly 50 years.

So, if David Lynch is your style, head to Graceland Too. But if you're looking for more of a Fannie Flagg experience, venture due east instead. There, on East Van Dorn, you'll find Phillips Grocery, a stand-alone two-story wood-frame restaurant near an old train line and railroad station. Inside, under the whir of ceiling fans and surrounded by old Coca-Cola signs and other vintage keepsakes, you can sidle up to the wooden counter and order from their quintessentially Southern menu. You'll find the prices are as vintage as the décor: Among the most popular items, the Phil-Up Burger comes with a 1/3-pound patty, mayo, lettuce, tomato, two kinds of cheese, bacon, and ham — all for $4.05. And don't forget to add an order of fried okra, one of the fried pies, and a glass bottle of IBC root beer. It's an easy, laid-back way to sneak in a one-day vacation.

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