Brushes with Rock and Roll Legends

Saturday, September 08, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Highways and Byways, Days 24-25: West Plains, MO to HOME

Our day began at Grand Gulf State Park near Thayer, Missouri.  Called "Missouri's Little Grand Canyon" by locals, the landform is actually a collapsed cave system from a prehistoric gulf.  The chasm stretches for nearly a mile with a depth of 130 feet.  Trails, boardwalks, and overlooks offer views of the canyon and take visitors into the depths.  Grand Gulf is an impressive natural wonder and offered the perfect place to hide our Missouri letterbox, which was welcome news since we were only three miles from entering Arkansas.

Grand Gulf State Park
Our mission accomplished, we drove into Arkansas on US-63, a highway we would follow as we swept across the state's northeast corner, winding our way back toward Georgia.  Since we had radically shortened our Arkansas itinerary, all we were hoping for was a spot to hide our Arkansas letterbox in this two-hour leap from Missouri to Memphis.  We found a lot more.

Near the Missouri border, a large bird near the roadside caught our attention.  When the town of Ravenden (pop. 511) was established along the Spring River in 1883, the founders named their hamlet Ravenden Junction (later the junction was dropped).  No one is certain why that name was selected, especially since the state of Arkansas is not in the natural range of any raven.  (Nor do ravens live in any of the cities Edgar Allan Poe inhabited, for that matter.)  However, we did see one raven in Ravenden today—the town's 12-ft mascot, though there is some justification for identifying this fellow as a phoenix.  First erected in 1991 by the town's volunteer fire department, the initial big bird was constructed of fiberglass, a material which the town learned five years later would burn.  After the first raven was torched by vandals, its fiberglass replacement met a similar fate within two weeks.  "Nevermore!" said Ravenden's leaders, and the third and current bird, built with stucco and cement and coated with fire retardant paint, has guarded over the town for 16 years.

Fifteen miles south of Ravenden, we arrived in Powhatan (pop. 50) on the Black River, home of Powhatan Historic State Park, a potential location for our letterbox hide.  A thriving riverport in the late 1800s, the town dwindled as it was bypassed by the railroad and roads overtook river passage as the preferred transportation for the populace.  The county seat moved to nearby Walnut Ridge in 1962, but the state park preserves and interprets the old Powhatan courthouse and a few other 19th century structures, one of which now shelters a letterbox.

Powhatan Courthouse and Park Visitor Center
Like the county government, we moved on down the road to Walnut Ridge (pop. 4,925), a town we expected to breeze through on our way south.  As we drove through town on US-63, we noticed lots of local businesses had their windows decorated with images related to the sixties and the Beatles.  When we stopped to take photos of the decorations, we found ourselves in front of a shop called Imagine.  Was it just a coincidence?


Of course, we couldn't leave Walnut Ridge without learning more.  The Imagine gallery seemed like a good place to start, so we entered and asked, "What's up with all the Beatles decorations?"  As we were soon to learn, we had chanced upon the epicenter of the town's Beatlemania.  Shop owner and retired art teacher Carrie Mae Snapp, a gregarious town native, spent the next fifteen minutes regaling us with the story of the 1964 incident that sparked the current British fever.  She should know; she was there.

On a fateful Friday night in September, 1964, Carrie's teenage neighbor and a couple of friends were at the local town hangout when they heard a large airplane circling the old World War II training field after midnight.  Concerned that the aircraft might be experiencing difficulty, the boys went to the airfield where they spied the private jet that had just landed.  Much to their surprise, the passengers who exited the plane and headed for a small aircraft were the Beatles, who had just played in Dallas near the end of their first American tour.  After a grueling three weeks of performances, the musicians planned to rest up at a nearby Missouri ranch before ending their tour in New York.

As it will, word spread fast in the small town and by the time the Beatles returned to Walnut Ridge's small airport on Sunday morning to board the charter, a crowd of 300, including Carrie Mae, was waiting to greet them.  Carrie gave us all the details of how she had touched George Harrison's arm and her father snapped photos of the Fab Four with his Brownie camera.  From the local newspaper, here's the story in Carrie's own words.

L to R:  Ringo, George, John, & Paul (Photos courtesy of Carrie Mae Snapp)
Although the famous musicians from Liverpool probably never gave another thought to this momentary stopover in the course of their blockbuster career, the encounter meant much more to the community.  Indelible memories of this providential event have remained an important part of Walnut Ridge history.  Last year, Carrie's brother Charles, a member of the local tourism committee,  spearheaded the very successful first annual 'Beatles at the Ridge' festival on the anniversary of the Beatles' stopover, complete with craft vendors, local talent, a beauty pageant and live music, headlined by Liverpool Legends, a Beatles impersonator band managed by George Harrison's sister.

Beatles tribute sculpture
At the festival, a local metal artist unveiled his sculptural rendition of the Beatles' iconic Abbey Road album cover.  The sculpture features life-size steel plate silhouettes of the Beatles in front of a 10' x 20' aluminum backdrop of Abbey Road.  The street scene incorporates hidden references to Beatles song titles and album names, as well as specific allusions to Walnut Ridge and the 1964 encounter.  Executed with a Dremel engraver, the tribute is located at Beatles Park on Abbey Road (formerly 2nd Street).

Leaving Walnut Ridge after disentangling ourselves from the Beatlemania web, we drove on to Tupelo, stopping only briefly to find our only Arkansas letterbox on this trip in Caraway (pop. 1,279), a lovely memorial to the letterbox planter's mother located near her grave in the town cemetery.

The following morning, we planted a letterbox at the location of Elvis's birthplace in Tupelo.  The site has expanded since we visited it a few years ago and now includes Elvis's childhood home and church, a museum with memorabilia, a memorial chapel funded by Elvis himself, and other new structures under construction.
  
Elvis's childhood church, where he first began singing
After securing a spot for our letterbox, we hit the highway toward home.  We again found ourselves monitoring the XM weather radio in an attempt to stay ahead of a weather system.  When it caught up with us east of Birmingham, we stopped for lunch to allow it to take the lead, following along until we caught up with it again near Atlanta.

As we entered the metro Atlanta area with its impenetrable traffic, careless drivers and crime-centered local news reports, we asked ourselves why we continue to live in the area.  We've certainly seen many alternatives.  It certainly sets the mind wandering...


More Photos
This squirrel near Grand Gulf State Park was determined to own the road.
Grand Gulf State Park
Courtroom at Powhatan, AR
Triple layer of security in old Powhatan Courthouse safe
Wooden gutters and downspout at Powhatan log cabin
Walnut Ridge's most famous street
Local businesses went all out to celebrate this year's festival.
Detail from Beatles sculpture
Rice harvesting near Bono, Arkansas
Elvis had an identical twin.  Imagine if he had lived.