Characters on the American Road

We met a variety of humans in our travels; I wasn’t always on top of my job as documentarian, or I would have collected more portraits, since they were all interesting people.

You already met Janet Saad Cook, the Richmond, VA light artist and Claire, lady of the lovely NC farmhouse. They were already in our stable of friends, so don’t count as ‘found’ characters (although they ‘count’ big-time as lovely friends).

The first time we met new folks was when we stopped in Monterey, TN. The hotel clerk sent us to the awesome barbeque joint across the street known as Rocky Pops.

Our dinner on the fire at Rocky Pop’s

Rocky Pop himself was out back smoking up the mountains with a delicious fragrance, and his daughter waited on our table. Her daughter, peppered us with questions and decided she wanted to go to California with us. Her mother nixed the plan before we could tell her that we had no room. The amazing ribs were large and meaty and smoked to tenderness on that big cooker out back. There’s no sign on the place, but it’s right across from the Super 8.


The next time I met some local characters was at the cafe in Bentonville, AR. Crystal Bridges Museum of American art has a lovely cafe called Eleven (why? whatever – it was cool) and it was so crowded when we arrived, tired and hungry, that I asked a couple if we could share their table. Elmer and Estelle have been married for 57 years. They live in eastern Arkansas on a farm where rice is their primary crop. They had come to the museum with a church group and were really enjoying it, since, as Elmer told me emphatically “we never go to them big city places.” I asked them if the Walton family of Walmart fame had done other philanthropic projects for their state. They changed the subject.

Elmer did satisfy my curiosity about the miles of flooded fields in eastern Arkansas. Once we crossed the Mississippi at Memphis it seemed the flood plain went on forever. Rice farmers use this to their advantage: allowing the river to flood fields after planting then draining before harvest. Unfortunately, the river doesnt provide all the water needed for this. They draw millions of acre feet from the Middle Clairborne aquifer.

With all that water I asked Elmer if he ever ran into snapping turtles. Oh, yes, he replied, and we swapped snapping turtle stories. Both of us were warned as kids to avoid the creatures. Elmer told me a wonderful yarn about a giant turtle whose bite was so fierce and strong that if he bit you, he wouldn’t let go until it thundered!


People-watching along the highway isn’t always a happy thing. At one lonely rural gas stop, I watched a woman exit the convenience store with fried chicken, snacks, two coffees and a black eye. There was no one in the car with her. I made up a story, and it was sad.

Later on in Oklahoma we stopped for gas (again! there was alot of that) at this place. For a long while we had been seeing signs for Indian food (not the Native American kind). This was the source:

if you look closely at the sign to the right, it’s in Hindi characters. The woman who waited on us was clearly of east Indian heritage. We heard her speaking to her children in a language we didn’t know. When asked about the OK Jailbirds newspaper, she assured us it was no joke. I loved the sign: “please purchase before reading”!

There was one more sign at this place, miles from anywhere. We believe she is protecting the giant tire from any OK Jailbirds that might try to steel a 12′ high tire.

could this be Kali?

I have more tales for you, but that’s enough for today.

What have you found along the road that surprised you lately?


Day 3: Stepping Off

from Josephine:


Today, Day Three, was the actual moment I stepped out into the mystery, into adventure, into the uncertainties and surprises of my new California life.

Our first two stops, a brief visit with artist Janet Saad Cook in Richmond, and then two nights with dear friends Claire and John Lamiman in Wentworth NC, felt like visits home, embracing the familiar and comfortable. I shared with John as I was leaving, that terror and joy were all tangled up inside me. He smiled impishly and said he loved that state. Yes. And so I asked Claire and Patrise to ceremonially step off the front porch with me, arm in arm, moving forward into my new life.

And we did step off together, with a lovely visit to two local artists’ studios*, then we hit the road west. We drove into warmer and greener spring in middle North Carolina, then climbing steadily after Hickory we went back in time to early buds and even bare trees at the summit.

Lake Tomahawk Park in Black Mountain

Lunch break was at a favorite place: Black Mountain NC, where I enjoyed heavenly Dripolator coffee and picnicked at Lake Tomahawk, with its nice view of the Seven Sisters.

My greatest regret today is not being able to show you the zooming, curving thrill of our drive through the Great Smokies. Route 40 may be an interstate, but it curves and winds and climbs and climbs and finally dives through the earth in a tunnel and pops over the eastern divide. I had my hands full driving. Besides, any time I pointed the camera at a mountain, it seemed to shrink dramatically. Hmmm.

Finally, we farted around in shopping centers in Knoxville and zeroed in on Monterey, TN as our destination for today. Comfy Super 8, dog happily snoring on the bed, a swimming pool 15′ square (but still, a pool) and, at the reccomendation of the desk clerk, scrumptious BBQ across the street.

Rocky Pop’s BBQ in Monterey, TN

You can see the smoker and woodpile out back in the pic; our ribs were huge and meaty and smoked to a brown polish, not sauced at all, just excellent meat. A family affair, Rocky Pops BBQ gets 4 stars for delicious, friendly, comfy and bargain eats.

Don’t forget, if you Tweet, follow us with #coast2coast at @patriseart.
And if you want more pics, see Flickr link at the right =>

* More on artists along the way, coming soon