Dog on Board

My Travels with Samantha

What’s better than a road trip? A road trip with your Rhodesian Ridgeback riding shotgun. By David Jefferson.

What’s better than a spring break road trip across America? A spring break road trip with your Rhodesian Ridgeback riding shotgun, as David Jefferson recently learned. From Dollywood to the Wigwam Village Motel, the country never looked so sweet as through the eyes of a pooch.

THE EXORCIST STEPS

Washington, D.C.

Tourists love getting their pictures taken on the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. But for me, the only steps worth climbing in D.C. are the ones at the end of M Street in Georgetown, where the climactic scene of The Exorcist was filmed. Father Damien Karras tricks the demon into vacating Linda Blair’s body and possessing him, then takes a suicide leap out her bedroom window and down this flight of stairs. I love the film so much that whenever Samantha pitches a fit I call her Pazuzu: that’s the name of the demon, a fact revealed in the truly horrific Exorcist II: The Heretic.

DOLLYWOOD

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

OK, it isn’t Disney World. But Dolly Parton’s theme park has a few thrills Mickey can’t match. For starters, there’s “Doggywood” (which is really just a kennel, but I give it extra credit for the name). The park has some of the best coasters east of the Mississippi, including the just-opened “Wild Eagle,” which will make you toss your funnel cake. But the best thing about Dollywood is Dolly herself. There’s a replica of the mountain shack where she grew up, a clothing store called “Dolly’s Closet,” and my personal favorite, “Dolly’s Home-on-Wheels,” where you can hop inside Dolly’s 1994 tour bus and check out her sequin gowns and wigs. The people-watching at Dollywood can’t be beat, either: one guy had a T-shirt that read “Mess with me, and you mess with the whole trailer park!”, and another inexplicably wore shorts with his electronic prison ankle bracelet (not available in Dolly’s Closet).

HATFIELD & McCOY DINNER SHOW

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Dinner theater may be déclassé in the rest of the country (except for maybe Orlando), but it is alive and well in the Great Smoky Mountains. At the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show you can feast on fried chicken, pulled pork and mashed taters while watching the famous feud between the West Virginia and Kentucky clans. I think the show takes a few liberties with the facts. Did it actually begin when Pa Hatfield stood-up Ma McCoy on a date? Were there really three blonde Hatfield girls and three strapping McCoy boys, just like in The Brady Bunch? And did they really patch up their differences with a dueling dance-off that can only be described as Hee Haw meets Lord of the Dance? Don’t forget to grab a toothpick on your way out: they’re in an outhouse-shaped holder with a sign that reads “bring your own corncob.” Nice.

COOTER’S PLACE

Nashville, Tennessee

It sits in a forlorn strip mall near the Grand Ole Opry. But don’t be scared away. Cooter’s Place is the coolest place in Nashville. If you grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard in the early ‘80s, then you absolutely have to plunk down five-bucks and get your picture taken inside The General Lee, the 1969 Dodge Charger stock car from the show (actually, there are several General Lee’s rusting around the country, including at a sister store in Gatlinburg, Tenn., but let’s not quibble). There’s memorabilia and T-shirts galore, and the proprietors take their Daisy Dukes very seriously (the woman behind the counter seems to have named her sons “Bo” and “Luke,” after the Hazzard boys). The shop is owned by former Georgia congressman Ben Jones, who played the mechanic Cooter Davenport on the series, and his wife “Miss Alma.”

LORETTA LYNN RANCH

Hurricane Mills, Tennessee

I’m not much of a country music fan, but having watched Coal Miner’s Daughter numerous times during my Urban Cowboy phase in high school (don’t ask), I developed a soft-spot for Loretta Lynn. Born in the poor mining town of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, she was blessed with enough talent and sass to make her the first female country singer ever to have a gold album, Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind). And she hasn’t stopped since: at age 70, she recorded an album with Jack White of The White Stripes. But it wasn’t until I discovered that she lives in a haunted mansion—and has a massive doll collection—that I knew I had to visit. Sadly, I didn’t encounter any ghosts during my tour of Loretta’s plantation home, though the place is definitely haunted by some ‘70s décor: the kitchen hasn’t changed one bit since Loretta filmed a commercial here decades ago, serving cherry pie to her late husband Doolittle and crowing “Crisco’ll do you proud every time.”

WAFFLE HOUSE

Memphis, Tennessee

They call themselves “America’s Place to Eat,” but growing up in California, I didn’t know what a Waffle House was until I was in my 30s. Which is pretty amazing, given that there are more than 1,600 of them around the nation, mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line. To be honest, I’d always been skittish about trying one of these 24-hour diners: they looked like a good place to get abducted, like that woman in The Vanishing. But when I finally set foot in a Waffle House (during daylight hours) I was greeted by a disarmingly friendly waitress with sparkling blue nails and a button proclaiming “We support our troops because Freedom Isn’t Free. Waffle House.” Throwing caution to the wind, I placed my order: “Scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, and a waffle. No, wait, make that two waffles.” One for me, one for Samantha. Delicious.

GRACELAND

Memphis, Tennessee

Elvis Presley and his over-the-top home loom so large in the American imagination that by the time I made the pilgrimage, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down. I expected to be awed and appalled by what I saw inside: Elvis’s “Jungle Room,” with its waterfall, Polynesian furniture and green shag carpets; his billiard room, with couches, walls and ceiling all upholstered in the same pleated multicolor fabric (a decorating choice only an amphetamine addict could appreciate); his collection of rhinestone jumpsuits, growing wider with each Las Vegas performance. But as I was hustled through the house with dozens of other headphone-wearing tourists, listening to Lisa Marie give a pre-recorded tour, everything looked smaller and less garish than I’d expected. Without The King himself there, wolfing down a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich in front of his three side-by-side TVs, Graceland is just another tourist attraction. Elvis has left the building, folks. Well, actually, he’s just outside, buried next to the swimming pool.

CHEROKEE TRADING POST

El Reno, Oklahoma

Once you cross the Mississippi and head further west along Interstate 40, there’s not much except open prairie and the occasional billboard promising something exciting just a few miles up ahead. “Paintball Arkansas” sounded promising, though I resisted temptation. But headed out of Oklahoma City, I was seduced by billboard after billboard for the Cherokee Trading Post. Authentic Native American Arts and Crafts. Moccasins. Live Buffalo. OK, we have to stop. Sure enough, there was a buffalo, lounging in a grassy pen overlooking the interstate, with a sign reading “Our State Animal.” Across the parking lot is a giant fiberglass Indian, tomahawk in hand, beckoning motorists like myself. There’s a huge mural near the buffalo that depicts the forced relocation of the Cherokees from Georgia and Tennessee to Oklahoma in 1838, known as the “Trail of Tears.” As for the Cherokee Trading Posts (there are more than one), they arrived when a family of gift-store proprietors from Cleveland decided to set up outposts along this trail in the mid-20th century. I bought a ceramic buffalo Christmas ornament to remind me of the place which, like the Cherokee themselves and the caged buffalo overlooking the freeway, America has passed by.

CADILLAC RANCH

Amarillo, Texas

Like crop circles and Stonehenge, Cadillac Ranch looks like something beamed down to a barren landscape by E.T.’s ancestors. In a field south of I-40, ten Cadillacs are buried nose-first in the ground, their tailfins pointed skyward at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The cars, rusting junkers built from 1949 to 1963, are covered in layers of colorful graffiti, spray-painted by countless wanderers leaving their own “Kilroy Was Here” hieroglyphics. The ranch is actually an art installation, dreamed up in 1974 by several members of the San Francisco collective Ant Farm. (It was moved to its current location in 1997, to make way for progress as Amarillo grew.) For guys of my dad’s generation, hitting Route 66 in a Caddy was the height of the American dream. But Route 66 barely exists anymore—much of it was torn up when the interstate was built—and Cadillac Ranch stands testament to what happens when dreams reach the end of the road.

LA POSADA

Santa Fe, New Mexico

After a week of sleeping in franchise fleabags, we decided to splurge and stay in one of La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa’s charming adobe cottages (okay, well, every place in Santa Fe is a charming adobe cottage, but these were especially so). This is the kind of establishment where the spa doesn’t just give massages: it “honors Santa Fe’s natural treasures and rich healing heritage….integrating locally inspired treatments and indigenous products.” You get the picture. I’ve pretty much avoided Santa Fe since the late 1980s, when everyone I knew was decorating their apartments with red peppers, Native American rugs and Georgia O’Keeffe posters. But once you’ve made the journey to this adobe Disneyland, it’s impossible not to fall for its charms. I actually considered buying a turquoise bolo tie. But I thought better of it and decided on something more practical, with this outfit for Samantha.

WIGWAM VILLAGE MOTEL

Holbrook, Arizona

Just beyond Arizona’s Painted Desert, along one of the remaining stretches of Route 66, sits the famous Wigwam Village Motel. Back in the 1950s, parents would take their nuclear families to these 28-foot-tall steel-and-concrete teepees so their kids could get a feel for what it meant to be a Native American. At one time there were seven of these teepee villages, from Florida to California, but only three have survived. This one, built in 1950, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. As much as Samantha and I wanted to stay in a teepee with a toilet, we decided to drive a bit further to Winslow (as in “I’m a standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” from the Eagles song Take It Easy). There, in 1929, the Santa Fe Railway built the last of the famous Fred Harvey railroad hotels. Like the Wigwam, La Posada, which has been lovingly restored, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

FLINTSONES BEDROCK CITY

Williams, Arizona

After The Brady Bunch visited the Grand Canyon, I convinced my dad that a trip there would be a good bonding experience for our family, too. We wound up passing this place on the way to the South Rim, but my father refused to stop, even as I argued that Bedrock City was of greater geological significance, since it was from the Stone Age. Nearly four decades later, I finally got my way. This would be the last roadside stop in our travels with Samantha, and for me, stepping through that turnstile would be like stepping back in time—into the land that time forgot. A spotted brontosaurus, its green paint peeling, stands near a dilapidated volcano that seems to have been part of some ancient tram ride. Weathered statues of Fred, Wilma, Barney and Bamm-Bamm stand next to deserted stone buildings washed in faded cartoon colors, with the only sound the wind whipping over gravel and dead vegetation. Imagine Bedrock City as an abandoned nuclear test site, and you have a good sense of the place (Todd Oldham captures it brilliantly in his photo book “Bedrock City”). I wanted to linger awhile, but Samantha literally dragged me back to the car so we could get home. Funny, my dad used to do the same thing.