Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eventful Woman meets Wonder Woman

Land Rover Expedition Time: Late April 1998

One Eventful Woman can spot another at 100 paces. We cruised into Land Rover Knoxville, Tennessee, and found the only female Land Rover sales representative across the entire country. Meg Myers was as excited to see us, as I was to discover her.

New Zealand’s more recent colonial past and the strong role of pioneering women has provided more rights for women, and at an earlier stage in history than in other Western countries. I had been surprised at some of the differences between New Zealand and USA. One of them was on the career choices selected by women. Not that Land Rover USA had banned women as sales representatives. But, it was less common in USA for women to take on what was considered to be "male territory" in a career.

Maybe it was just a natural consequence of the 27 years difference between New Zealand granting women the right to vote (in 1893, as opposed to 1920 in USA)

Meanwhile, back into the more recent 20th Century, we had more trivial things on our minds. It had taken an age to dry off the tent that morning and further rain was forecast. It looked like we’d have to pay for a motel that night. It was also late in the day and Meg was disappointed she would not have much time with us before we moved on.

We said we could possibly come back in the morning. As she was a local, we asked about nearby hostels or camping cabins. She said she could do a lot better than that. If we agreed to display our Land Rover in their dealership and be interviewed by the media, she would arrange accommodation, at Land Rover’s cost, in the hotel right across the road. We were thrilled and readily agreed.

Photo: Meg of Land Rover Knoxville in her "safari" uniform that all Land Rover sales people wore in USA

In my current luxury starved mode, The Candlewood Suites Hotel in Knoxville was a place I could be tempted to hole up in for awhile. Their marketing campaign is "One look at our spacious studio and one-bedroom suites and it’s hallelujah time. " It certainly was hallelujah for trail weary travellers like us.

The hotel was trialling a new idea for travellers in USA - hotel rooms with kitchens. Of course, New Zealand motels have had these for years, as NZ travellers often like to cook, rather than eat out every single night. In a room off the main reception area was a little shop, called The Candlewood Cupboard, which sold microwave snacks and meals at very reasonable prices. After days of campfire food, I felt like a pirate who had discovered an unexpected treasure-trove. Laden with booty I scurried back to our room. I gleefully danced into our room declaring to TH that we were rich beyond our wildest dreams. TH had more good news. While I had been rubbing my hands with delight in the Candlewood Cupboard, he had discovered more bounty in the hotel guest laundry - free washing machines and dryers.

Oh, the luxury of lolling in your own spacious room, on a real bed with real sheets, scoffing snacks and meals, watching the television, while your dirty clothes are washed and dried. I chirruped with delight when it started to rain outside, as there would not be a wet tent to dry off in the morning.

Tummies bulging, we took a rest from eating and checked out a map of the area. It didn’t take long to convince ourselves that there was so much to see and do we would have to stay another night. We enquired at the reception desk. They offered a 50% room discount on the rates for our second night. I was tempted to ask what sort of discount we would get if we stayed for the rest of the year.

However, we were due in Washington DC in a week. The New Zealand Embassy would be hosting a promotional function for us. Maybe we could just drive up there and then back to Knoxville in the next day. Ha ha.

I contacted the Embassy’s Chef de Mission in the morning to confirm arrangements. Our event was scheduled for the 1st May

By 10am we were over at the Land Rover dealer, looking spruce and professional in our freshly cleaned and pressed promotional clothes. Our Series 2A Land Rover took pride of place on their showroom floor. Unlike the two slackers lolling on their bed and scoffing food across the road in the hotel, Meg and fellow sales representative, Brent, had not been idle. They had contacted the local media and also their Land Rover Head Office in Maryland. Head Office wanted all four of our expedition team, and both Land Rovers, at their 50th Anniversary of Land Rover function on the 30th April.

The 30th April was a big date in Land Rover’s golden anniversary year. On this day in 1948, the very first Land Rover available for purchase was exhibited at a Motor Show. We knew we’d be in USA for 30th April 1998 and, in an offer made via Land Rover New Zealand, we had suggested we could display our Land Rovers in USA as part of any celebrations. We hadn’t had much response with our enquiries. I’m not sure if that’s because Land Rover New Zealand’s efforts were so feeble or whether, with the exception of Land Rover Albuquerque, Land Rover North America hadn’t responded to our earlier requests.

We had decided to call on Land Rover dealers on our way through USA, anyway. While we had been greeted with universal interest, we hadn’t yet raised excitement levels at the Head Office. Of course, that was before wonder woman Meg got onto our case. In return, I invited her and also asked her to extend the invitation to representatives from the Land Rover USA Head Office to attend our embassy function in Washington DC.

Photos and media interviews completed, we set forth to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In spring this National Park was not as drop dead gorgeous as Yosemite, but it was very beautiful.

Smoky Mountains in Spring

Smoky Mountains in Autumn

We drove into Cades Cove, which is a looped road in a lovely valley nestled in the mountains. We managed to catch a glimpse of a red wolf in one part of the woods. Look at the nice doggy!! Yeah, right!

We were told at the Visitor Centre there should be around 1000 black bears now out of hibernation in the park.

But, we didn’t see any. They were either still in their beds or raiding honey somewhere else. I was thankful we were not camping in this National Park.

In 1971 the USA First Lady, Mrs Lyndon B Johnson, nominated Cades Cove as No.1 on a list of places every American woman and her family should see. The Visitor Centre confirmed that the place is bumper-to-bumper in summer and also during the colour change month in autumn. According to visitor numbers, Cades Cove puts Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the top ten of the 54 national parks in USA. In late Spring, during our visit, the traffic was very low and we enjoyed the peace and beauty.

The weather broke into heavy rain as we headed back to our favourite hotel room. By the time we were snuggled in, with more microwave snacks, thunder and lightening was crashing in the heavens. Hallelujah - no wet tent to worry about.

With the heavy rain still pouring down in the morning, we were tempted to stay another day and just slouch in our room. That’s what even modest luxury does for you. Two days of it and I wanted to stay forever. As in the past, I turned over wicked ideas in my head of staying put, pretending to drive around the world and circulating digitally manipulated images of the Land Rover at various famous locations.

We said our goodbyes to Meg and Brent and the fabulous team at Land Rover Knoxville. They presented us with a toy Land Rover Discovery model and two Land Rover badges commemorating the 50th year. In addition, they gave us cans of drink and some snacks for the road. They were all so thoughtful, generous and kind.

We felt very rested and agreed that we should incorporate more two-day stops into the expedition.

On our way out of town we stopped at Kinko’s, a photocopying and design shop. There’s a whole chain of these stores right across America. They are really handy for photocopying, label making, badge making and anything needing quick and economically priced designs.

Meg had arranged with Kinko’s to produce a key part of the 50th Anniversary branding for our Land Rover, with a spare set for the Series I when we met up with F1 and F2 again.

When we met her, Meg had asked why we were only using part of the 50th anniversary branding. We had always suspected something was missing. What we had was a big number 5 – 0, in the Land Rover green and gold colours.

We had thought it was a little odd and somewhat incomplete. Before we left New Zealand, we had posed for photos with Land Rover New Zealand's General Manager. He had seemed happy with the signs. As the official 50th Anniversary branding was still under wraps when we left New Zealand, we had nothing to compare it with. But Meg had spotted the mistake as soon as she saw our Land Rover. For some inexplicable reason, Land Rover New Zealand had given us part of the sign.

A tag line that said "years of motoring, 1948 – 1998", should have been added immediately below the big 5 - 0. With that included, the whole statement made so much better sense. Again, it made me wonder about the marketing department of Land Rover New Zealand.

When we told Meg that the 5- 0 was all we had been given, she arranged the rest of the logo for us. Because of our tight deadlines, she arranged the stickers via Kinko’s, rather than request the signs through Head Office. These were ready for us, when we arrived at Kinko's that day.

Over the years, I have often wondered what happened to Meg. I hope she is in some top marketing or management job somewhere, as she truly deserves to be.

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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Smoky Mountains National Park

Friday, February 16, 2007

The King is Dead

Land Rover Expedition Time: April 1998

Words can come back to haunt you. When F1 and F2 decided they needed to split from us, we compared notes with them on possible driving routes before we met up with them again in Washington DC. They asked us about "Graceland" (Elvis Presley’s house) in Memphis. I remember responding that I wouldn’t visit Graceland, even if I camped across the road from it.

Some weeks later we crossed the bridge over "The Big Muddy", the wide, brown Mississippi River, and cruised into Memphis, Tennessee. We found a campsite on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Two hundred yards down and across the road from guess where? Yup, you betcha, Graceland.

The campsite owners were two geriatrics. Both were a bit deaf. I wondered if they had attended too many Elvis concerts in their younger days. With my accent and their southern state dialect, we had a bit of trouble communicating. Well that, and the female proprietor not believing we wanted to camp in such cold weather, especially following on the heels of a tornado. She finally suggested we look at the campsite area and make sure we were happy with it, before we paid our deposit.

We followed her directions and found what is almost unheard of in USA - a sunny, flat sheltered grassy tenting area with some picnic tables. The tables looked like they had been there a long time and were quite dilapidated. But, the site looked nice and quiet and near to what looked like an unused back road to the camp. I returned to the camp office to confirm we were happy with our spot by the picnic tables. She then asked, "what picnic tables?" I described where our campsite was and she confirmed we were in the right area. However, she added that she and her husband had been managing the campsite for 20 years and she didn’t know they had picnic tables.

We set up camp, cooked our tucker and were happily scoffing it, when a series of cars drove past, only about a metre from our tent. Their occupants peered at us curiously. We discovered that many local workers had made their homes in the RV/caravans on site and used this back road as their private access. Some went out again that night on shopping expeditions. We sighed. So much for a quiet spot. There would certainly be another procession in the morning as they set off for work.

The campsite was in the middle of an industrial area and, as we finished dinner, the company next door fired up three refrigerated containers. These droned throughout the night, punctuated by several sirens, burglar alarms and also aircraft overhead. Just before dawn, the local birds squawked into life, followed shortly by the parade of workers leaving the site to go to work.

On the up side, at least it didn’t rain, so we had a dry tent. I had also found success that night with a new way of sleeping. To avoid the feeling of being cramped inside my sleeping bag, I had opened it up like a quilt and slept under it. This also helped when I became too hot, as I could just thrust my arms and legs out into the air to cool off. From then on, I always used my sleeping bag like that. If in a rash moment I foolishly agree to another expedition in the future, I’ll make sure I take earplugs as well.

We packed up everything while it was still dry, before heading off to Graceland. I am not a fan of Elvis, but I had decided that I couldn’t really camp across the road and not see his house.

I was not disappointed in any way. We arrived at the Elvis Presley Tour Centre, directly across the road from Graceland. It was just after opening time. This meant that we were allocated one of the early tour spots. Later in the day, people have to wait hours for a tour. However, the Tour Centre had several shops, cafes and exhibitions, which would amuse even the most bored tourist for ages.

The scale of Elvis trinkets and paraphernalia was endless. I just didn’t know how I was going to live without a Jail House Rock singing bottle opener or an Elvis black leather rubber duck for my bath tub. Almost anything that could be stamped with his name or image was available for sale. Valentine’s Day or those special wedding anniversaries would never be the same without a deluxe bouquet of a dozen roses with an Elvis face stamped on each the six white roses and "Love Me Tender" stamped on each of the six red roses. The roses come adorned with ferns and baby's breath. They apparently don’t capture some poor little nipper’s breath for this. It is a plant that New Zealanders might be more familiar with as gypsophile. The bouquet was a cool $US99, not including delivery. But, hey, how much is your loved one worth?

All this is not just for ageing Elvis fans. A new generation is hooked in with the chance to "Make your own Elvis Friend at Graceland" – at a price, of course. Kids can make their own stuffed toy Elvis and dress it in Elvis-themed clothes to take home. Interesting word that – stuffed. However, the templates available for stuffing, resulted in more svelte versions of Elvis than the over-blown carcass that was reality in Elvis’ later life.
It was marketing on a grand scale and over-the-top, like the man himself.

At the appointed time, we were lined up with around 16 others, for our shuttle bus. We were each handed a personal cassette player and tape and, once seated, instructed in its use. The little bus scooted across the road, where the famous music score gates swept open and we were driven up to the front door. Graceland is quite a small house, when compared with the mansions that some wealthy people live in today.

Our tour guide gave us some instructions outside the front door. She also advised that we could tour through the house at our own speed and using the cassette tape as commentary. We could stay in rooms as long as we wanted to, rewind our cassette tapes as much as we liked to re-hear the commentary, and we didn’t have to stay with our group. She said that groups came through in 10-minute intervals, so at times, there was a chance to be alone in a room if we wanted to. Gosh, I could hardly wait. However, she warned we’d all be on closed-circuit camera.

I was probably far more impressed by the ergonomics of how they handled so many people at once to ensure the best possible tour experience, than by Graceland itself. Once we’d stepped inside, the lounge and dining room were quite normal rooms you’d expect to see in the 1960’s/70’s of the comfortable middle classes. The colours of those decades – oranges, turquoises and peacock greens were predominant. Various voices were heard on the cassettes tape as well as the main commentator – band members, staff, Colonel Parker, Elvis himself. Priscilla cooed her words in a most sickly sweet tone, usually prefaced by the words, "Elvis and I ..."

Some rooms were more garish than the main dining and lounge, but not overly so if you remember the fashion trends from those days. The upstairs area of bathrooms and bedrooms was not open to the public and may have been more spectacular. Colonel Parker’s office in the barn was functional 1950’s with grey filing cabinets and drab desks. Nothing mahogany or flash was in there. We were allowed to visit the recreation area where Elvis spent his last evening on earth with friends, which included the upright piano he played on. Out of the windows I could see a couple of palomino horses in the nearby field. Elvis always rode a palomino and at least two were kept ready to be saddled at all times for him, just like they were now.

A new building had been built to house all the Elvis memorabilia, costumes, film props and bric-a-brac from his glory years. Biographical notes were pinned up next to each glass case, tying in whatever was enclosed with his life. As a red belt in karate, I snorted in disbelief at the exhibit enclosing Elvis’ karate gi (uniform) and black belt. This was attained in his last few years. For those who can remember the fat, sweating Elvis waddling about at this time, a black belt would have been an impossibility, let alone the time he would have had to invest to achieve such a grading.

The biographical notes glossed over the appalling drug abuse with weak little statements like: "With the on-going pressures of performing, Elvis developed an over-dependence on the prescription drugs his doctor had prescribed to help him."

And, this was my prime reason for not wanting to visit Graceland – the propaganda. I was too young to be a fan of Elvis. Apart from looking at old film clips, I had never seen or heard him in his better days.
As a teenager in the 1970’s, all I remembered was someone who killed himself with drugs - a sad, podgy has-been, who’s music held no interest and was too old-fashioned for my generation. So, I hadn't respected him at all.

But, then I came to the room where all his gold, platinum, double platinum records were displayed. Even I was humbled. Here was a poor boy from Tupelo who, without all the modern marketing trickery, managed to rise to the top of the music world and outsell anyone, before or since.

Not The Beatles, not Tina Turner, not Johnny Cash, not Michael Jackson, not - every reader to just insert the name of stupid modern singer/band in this space - and not even those with access to the internet, podcasting, MP3, free downloads, has enabled anyone or any band to surpass him.
I remembered reading one of Elvis’ attributed sayings - "Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes." Well, even I had to admit he was right. I had judged him without understanding all that he had achieved. While I still didn’t agree with his lifestyle and drug taking, how would I have fared under the same circumstances, as a young, poor girl with a good voice and sudden fame, adulation and wealth? I couldn’t even cope with a head cold, while driving across the States in a Land Rover, without falling completely to pieces.

I came out of the record display room and, with the other tourists, filed past the graveyard and headstone for Elvis. Everyone, including myself, was very subdued.

Who would have thought that Elvis could have taught me something? I still didn’t like his music much, but I did have a grudging respect for what he achieved, and against the odds.

It had started to rain by the time we got back to the campsite, where we had left the Land Rover. As we drove out of the site, the rain began to really belt down. Thank goodness we had pulled down the tent before we toured Graceland.

We chose the Interstate to get as quickly as possible out of the sprawl that is Memphis and into the countryside. The rain bucketed down on our windscreen and the old Land Rover's poor little wipers had trouble coping. Traffic roared past and huge trucks thundered along, leaving us peering frantically through the great sprays of water in their wake. As soon as we had left the city behind we ducked off onto one of the quieter highways.

The rain never stopped all day and we decided on a motel for the night in Jackson. By 5pm it certainly felt great have a roof over our heads and a comfortable, quiet bed to collapse into. We caught up on the lost sleep from the night before.

With no tent to dry out in the morning, we were up and away at a good time.

Nashville Tennessee The Parthenon We were headed for Nashville, as I wanted to see the Parthenon replica and art gallery. This is supposed to be the only full-size replica in the world and is the home of Nashville’s permanent art collection.

On the road we could see the devastation the recent tornado had left in its path. Signs ripped in half, roofs blown off and trees uprooted with their branches scattered everywhere. When we arrived in Nashville the tornado had torn up most of the trees in the Pathenon’s surrounding Centennial Park and had hurled them against the building, completing blocking it off. I was really disappointed we weren’t able to gain access.

We went to the Visitor Centre to ask about other attractions. We decided to skip the concert at the "Grand Ole Oprey". Two-and-a-half hours of country "music" would have probably killed us.

The "E. Howard Brandon’s Car Collectors Hall of Fame" sounded more like our scene. This had around 50 cars, mainly Chevrolets and around 10 vehicles, which had belonged to country music "stars" – Barbara Mandrell, Marty Robbins, Wynonna Judd, Tammy Winette, Elvis and Billy Ray Cyrus. Near each of these cars was a promotional cardboard cut-out figure of the "star", or a mannequin dressed up to look like them. The one of Tammy Winette was dressed like Barbara Bush. I am certain that this "Tammy Bimbo", with all her blond hair piled on top, would never have looked as dowdy as that in real life.

It was a well laid out, but small museum. TH likes to take his time in car museums. I usually roar on ahead in an initial burst, maybe go back to revisit something of particular interest, and then sit down for a good period of people watching. This is my favourite pastime. TH knows he will always find me somewhere in the place, quietly checking out the locals.

Today I struck the jackpot. Three overweight women in their thirties, were gathered around Billy Ray Cyrus’ somewhat tatty 1951 Chevrolet. They showed no real interest in the car, only in the cardboard cut-out of the "achy, breaky" crooner himself. They were taking photos of themselves with the cut-out. At each shot they got more bold, placing their hands in strategic points on the cut-out, pressing themselves against it and making grunting noises.

The security in the museum was quite lax, and soon they were manhandling the cut-out into the back seat, where they could all indulge in their fantasies. Their camera worked over time. Only the sheer size of the women prevented them all getting in, and having some sort of group orgy. It was like watching some obscene act with the board game "Mystery Date".

The lack of action from Billy Ray (well, he was only a cardboard cut-out) eventually bored them and they started combing the seats for a real live souvenir of their hearts’ desire. Soon there was a shriek of delight. One of them had found a strand of hair. The fact that it could have come from one of them, or some other ghastly fan, never occurred to them. I secretly hoped that Cyrus had owned a dog and these pathetic women would spend the rest of their lives treasuring the hair of some mutt.

TH finished looking around and we decided to find a campsite for the night, ending up at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park. After a couple of days on the edges of music and glamour we were back to the real world of tenting in America – shady, sloping tent sites and hard, rocky ground. No wonder they referred to this as "primitive camping".

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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