Brushes with Rock and Roll LegendsHighways 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|
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|
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)|
|Beatles tribute sculpture|
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|
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...
|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.|