Cue: “Stop the World (And Let Me Off)”
Track 3 off of Patsy Cline’s Golden Hits
Patsy Cline, 1962
Alex and I pulled off Tennessee I-40 around dinnertime – it’ll be a few days before we eat alligator in Montgomery – and for now we’re camped out at a KOA in my royal blue Honda, a boxy SUV with “Turn Someone You Know on to David Allan Coe” and WALL DRUG stickers slapped on the rear bumper. At first, we sunk relaxed into matching lawn chairs, smacking mosquitoes and brushing away ticks, every so often giving in and applying poisons to our legs – spsssss… But the rain began pouring through the branches of the monster oak covering our camp site, so we escaped to the car, now drunk on a bottle of Chandon purchased for next to nothing in Lexington in anticipation of countless dry counties ahead, and a sixer of patriotic Budweisers from a gas station up the road, the aluminum cans painted in red, white and blue, dangit. We’ve made up a cozy little bed, folding the seats flat, and settled into the cramped, humid car for the night, protected from the bugs and leaves now battering our windows.
Where our car sits and where we fitfully slumber is a dozen or so miles from Hurricane Mills. We picked this exit for a reason, but don’t worry, Mom; it wasn’t because it had allured us with promises of massages, billboards dotting the freeway all the way from Nashville. Turns out this exit has a massage parlor catering to truck drivers, located in what looks to be an old Payless shoe store. Or rather, used to; recently shut down for immigration violations or illicit blowjobs or probably both it now sits empty, next to a big ol’ lot that could probably accommodate a dozen or more rigs. Poor, lonely truck drivers. And poor Alex. My boyfriend of some seventeen-to-twenty months, depending upon the math, was not tempted toward the exit by promise of sensual massage. He’d better not be looking to pay for one, anyway, and he’s not gettin’ nothin’ from me. Car’s too damned hot. But he’s a sweet guy and will cheerfully roll over as I toss and turn and cuss the bugs and humidity.
We’d exited the highway with intentions of camping in Hurricane Mills, located off a stretch of interstate between Nashville and Memphis. Hurricane Mills is home to country superstar Loretta Lynn’s ranch and family amusement park, but it was dead by the time we rolled in. A few RVs sat closed up and locked down, their inhabitants likely peeking out from behind sliding glass windows with cheery curtains, muttering “Who the fuck is that” and “Better not set up their little tent by our rig.” RV drivers are even seriouser about their travels than truck drivers. Perhaps Granny and Paw-Paw in their shiny Airstream could use a massage, loosen up.
Little did they know, we didn’t even bring a tent. We were gonna camp in the damned car, all the way from our home in Minnesota southeast to Kentucky and Tennessee, and eventually farther south to Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas before swinging back on up north. Alex and I had decided to leave our lives behind in Minneapolis for the better part of June, and take a gander at a few things down south – why not. And we’d decided we’d camp in our car.
It caught us a few glares from retirees in their souped-up pickup truck-pulled fifth-wheel rigs and stout Winnebagos, wondering what kind of hell we were lookin’ to raise next to their yanked-out awnings, bigass Igloo coolers and yippy little poodles, but hey – we couldn’t afford a camper, and the folks who make Hondas advertise that you can camp in ‘em. Granted, we couldn’t afford the various accoutrements the folks who make Hondas advertise will facilitate camping – pop-up tent-backs and pop-up picnic tables and dark window shades. Instead, we’d affixed some Velcroed mesh to the windows, and hanged some of Alex’s old t-shirts as shades – cheery blue, featuring a cat dressed as Elvis. Voila – we were camping. Two lawn chairs, a cooler, a flashlight, and um… a lighter maybe, and we sure were camping.
Save for these “real” campers and a few chickens and geese strutting around the grounds of Loretta’s re-created “Coal Miner’s Daughter” Butcher Holler cabin, the place was deserted. We expected to find teenagers in pastel polos welcoming us to the park, inviting us to return when it reopens in the morning. In lieu of that, we expected to see burly men in black polos and two-way radios, warning us with our tattoos and scraggly hair, ripped-up jeans and lack of a proper recreational vehicle to get the hell out… but please come back when the park reopens in the morning and you can find a proper place to pay a proper entrance fee.
Did this place even have an entrance fee? We saw not a soul. Maybe things pick up during one of the motocross events advertised prominently throughout the grounds. But this all felt too eerie, so we retreated to the interstate, toward the shoe store-cum-blowjob palace, and found ourselves this KOA.
But beyond blowjobs, beyond seeing the re-created Loretta cabin, we were really in this neck of the woods looking for a spot to crash for the night because in the morning, we planned to find the very spot where Patsy Cline once did the same. No, not crash as in the drunk sleepytime Alex and I are now drifting into after a long day on the road. Crash, as in engine failure, plane go down, boom.
Drive out on I-40 between Nashville and Memphis, just northwest of Hurricane Mills, take exit 126 and drive north on US Highway 641 for around fifteen miles. Cross Highway 391/1, and you’ll see a McDonald’s on the right. Just before you reach it, turn left onto Mt. Carmel Road. It’s not visibly marked – don’t miss it. Drive a little over two-point-five miles, and the memorial will be on your right.
Least, these are the instructions I’d found some place or another. On the Internet? Probably. In a guidebook or Nashville tourism pamphlet? Nope. In Hollywood, folks tour the homes of the stars, and less occasionally, stop by star-studded cemeteries containing famous bones and ashes collected en masse. But no one but me and Alex and your occasional Patsy Cline Superfan (Grandma, R.I.P.) would drive out into the middle of goddamned nowhere to peep a spot in the trees where Cline’s plane went down so long ago. At least, I assume that’s where it will be. Can you walk up to it? Does an X mark its spot? Or do you drive a few miles, look for a McDonald’s – but don’t drive past it! – venture a few more miles, look out into a random grove of trees… “Well, I know she crashed in trees – those?” “Huh. Yep. Maybe.” Then drive away, willing to settle for something less than total satisfaction, something that’s as good as it’s gonna get for now?
Alex and I imagine it’ll be something like that, but we’re game for less than total satisfaction. We dig this stuff. Totally weird mediocrity, nothing big, nothing fancy, just… something slightly out of the ordinary. Something where we can proclaim, “We did this thing!” and people will reply, “Why would you?”
So we wake early and disembark from the KOA in the Honda. It’s rained all night, and at this point we can’t tell if it’s still raining, or water’s spraying back at us from the semi up ahead, also traveling down this tree-lined highway smack dab in the middle of Nowheresville.
Driving north on 641, and furthermore when you take that left at the McDonald’s and head up that little road, you’ll think you’re lost. You’re not. You know exactly what you’re doing. You’re driving to the spot where Patsy Cline’s plane went down almost fifty years earlier. You are a perfectly sane person who knows exactly what she’s doing.
On March 3, 1963, Patsy Cline performed for the last time. She had traveled to Kansas City to play three shows as part of a benefit for the family of disc jockey Cactus Jack Call, who’d died in a car accident. Sharing the stage with her that day were George Jones, Billy Walker, Dottie West, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
West, June Carter Cash and Loretta Lynn have all since recalled Cline telling them in the months preceding this performance that she’d felt a sense of impending doom, and didn’t expect to live much longer. She began distributing her personal items to friends, making plans for her will and for the care of her children.
Cline was no stranger to grievous injury. Before her death, she’d been in two major car accidents. In one, she and her brother were involved in a head-on collision in Nashville, the second of three serious accidents she’d suffer in her lifetime. Cline was thrown into the windshield and badly injured. Her close friend Dottie West was one of the first to arrive on the scene and rode with her in the ambulance, picking glass from her hair while Cline insisted the other driver be treated first.
Cline suffered a serious cut across her forehead, which she later covered with wigs and makeup, as well as a broken wrist, dislocated hip, and injured ribs that affected her ability to hit the high notes on initial recordings of what would become one of her biggest hits, “Crazy.” Remember, this was a time before producers were quick to auto-tune bad vocals; Patsy hit all those notes right on her own.
Cline for the most part recovered from that accident, quickly returning to studio and stage. She became one of the highest-paid and most respected female musicians of her time, enjoying multiple crossover successes and rubbing elbows with movers and shakers like Elvis Presley, whom she referred to as “Big Hoss.”
Not quite three years after the accident that threatened to derail her career and which almost claimed her life, Cline took the stage at the Kansas City benefit, though she was ill with the flu. She closed the 8PM show to roaring applause, performing one of her newer songs, “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” then prepared to fly home to Nashville.
Dottie West, aware of Cline’s premonitions and wary of her flying, suggested she join her by car but Cline, anxious to be with her husband and two young children, declined. “Don’t worry about me, Hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.”
She had reportedly confessed to a Jordanaire backup singer while exiting the Grand Ole Opry just a week earlier, “Honey, I’ve had two bad ones. The third one will either be a charm or it’ll kill me.” Her third time came. Cline’s plane, piloted by her manager Randy Hughes, crashed just short of Nashville the night of March 5, claming the lives of Cline, Hughes, and co-stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Hawkins had taken the seat originally intended for singer Billy Walker, who had to leave on an earlier flight. But Walker didn’t escape fate – he died in a car accident years later. Hawkins’ wife, famous Opry singer Jean Shepard, was eight months pregnant with their second son at the time of the plane crash. Manager Randy Hughes left behind a wife, Kathy, who also lost her father in the crash – Cowboy Copas. Patsy Cline was just thirty years old.
As Alex and I travel down this Tennessee road I wonder – is this weird, visiting the places where people died? People you don’t even know? Driving in the middle of nowhere to visit the death sites of people you didn’t know, with nothing more than intuition and a superfan’s poorly constructed tribute site serving as your guide? In doing so, you fulfill some trivial need to pay homage to important people, sure. You also pay homage to your own macabre curiosity. We all have a little of that in us; my second grade teacher used to call folks “Looky Lous,” when they’d slow down to gawk at a car crash, a house burned in a fire, or the destruction left in the wake of a tornado. But when you fulfill this curiosity by gawking at the spots where famous people died, you don’t have to reckon with the melancholy that comes in facing the spot on the highway where your lover crashed his motorcycle, the place in the yard where your jealous stepfather shot your mother in the chest.
You know these people as legends, not family or friends. You stand there, looking at the Memphis balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, or the Greenwich Village bar where Dylan Thomas drank “eighteen straight whiskies,” declaring to the staff of the nearby Chelsea Hotel, “I think that’s the record!” before dying a few days later; the pillow where Abraham Lincoln bled out, the apartment building where Chapman shot Lennon, or the stretch of pavement where River Phoenix collapsed, overdosed. You gaze upon the place, you go, “Huh.” And then you walk away. If you’re a real asshole, you also snap a photo. If you’re a really huge asshole, you ask a stranger nearby to snap a photo with you in it, posing awkwardly, raising your fingers into a peaceful “V” or throwing rock horns and extending your Gene Simmons tongue.
Earlier that year, Alex and I visited the hotel room where country-rock singer Gram Parsons overdosed in 1973. We didn’t just visit the room – we slept in it, as do many superfans and fewer unsuspecting guests of California’s Joshua Tree Inn. And today we’re visiting two death sites my grandma would’ve died to see, had she not been deathly afraid of planes and were her physical condition more conducive to lengthy road trips: first Patsy Cline and later, in Memphis, Elvis.
But before Elvis – “Hoss” – we look for Patsy. We may be driving unfamiliar roads for nothing. We may find nothing but trees. This might be stupid. Yet as foolhardy as this journey may seem, I’m struck by a sadness over how close Patsy’s plane was to its Nashville destination, yet in this desolate area, so far away, the winter chill of March not yet shook off.
The road’s quiet and scattered with all the things you’d expect to see on a rural highway: modest homes and trailers, salvage yards, small grocers, rusted-out vehicles. Eventually, we find the place. Is there a sign? Does it at some point become obvious we’re “there?” I don’t today remember, but we pull off the road, park the Honda, and get out in the drizzling rain. There’s a path, and next to it, a poorly-maintained kiosk with newspaper clippings detailing the memorial’s dedication – friends Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, Jean Shepard and her son Hawkshaw Jr., and Patsy’s daughter and granddaughter were there.
The plane actually crashed into the trees in a nearby hollow, so we walk down to the spot. A frog hops across our path – I pick it up, rub its slick back, then deposit it in some plants. Alex finds a baby turtle – we name it Patsy. The six-year-old still residing in us both wonders if we could adopt Patsy as our pet, take her home with us where she can live on fish flakes and hamburger meat ‘til she grows who knows how big. But we have ten states to travel before we get home, so we set Patsy free.
We see the crash site, obscured by trees. There’s a large engraved rock memorializing the victims, and a cross decorated with objects left behind by fans denotes the actual place where Patsy’s body was found. Plastic flowers, a red handkerchief and a treble clef earring.
Thousands attended her memorial service in Nashville, but one friend couldn’t make it. Jack Anglin, best known as a member of the Anglin Brothers and later, Johnnie & Jack, died when he took a bend too quickly and crashed his car on the way to her service.
Nearly thirty years later and on the rebound after facing financial troubles, Dottie West, the friend who had rushed to Cline’s side after her near-fatal car accident and who shared the stage during her final performance, was scheduled to play the Opry. Leaving her apartment in the Chrysler New Yorker Kenny Rogers had given her – she lost most her possessions at an IRS auction – West’s car stalled. Her eighty-year-old neighbor spotted her by the side of the road, and offered a ride. West urged him to drive fast, worried she wouldn’t make it to the show in time.
Taking the Opryland exit at a speed of fifty-five miles per hour, the car left the ramp, became airborne, and hit the central division. As Cline had in her own accident, West insisted her neighbor be treated first, assuming she was unharmed. She didn’t realize she’d suffered severe and ultimately fatal internal injuries, and died within a week.
Today, the wooded plane crash area is peaceful and serene. It’s hard to imagine the sight of twisted metal and other things unimaginable, unmentionable, that searchers came upon after hearing the crash. Country singer Roger Miller searched frantically for the plane, and after finding the wreckage, led a crew to the area where they recovered his friends’ bodies. Scavengers later cleared the site of the victims’ personal affects, some of which were later turned over to museums.
We snap a photo. Maybe that makes us assholes. Maybe that makes us superfans, though I could never profess to love Patsy as much as Grandma did. I don’t think we’re assholes, because after standing in the rain, Alex and I clasp hands. We say goodbye to our Patsys, Cline and turtle. And we walk back to the Honda, appreciating the hell out of life for all its rainy days and Budweisers, rural roads and feral childhood pets released back into the wild. Oh, and for its rambling, destination-unknown road trips. We’re learning those can be pretty great, too.