I’ve always been a fan of summer vacation. Lazy, hazy days of freedom are my jam. Give me an early sunrise, swimming pools, walking shoes or sandals, outdoor concerts, ice cold tonic and watermelon, late sunsets, and destinations. When I imagine my dream vacation, it includes places I’ve visited before, places you might like too if you’re interested in history, nature, and art. This is where I would go.
I would travel first to Memphis in Tennessee to visit Graceland and the Lorraine Motel, home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Graceland, Elvis’ former estate, is fascinating if you’re interested in what was luxurious and elegant in the 1970s; it’s vintage hardcore down to the living room’s custom upholstered furniture and the Nutone Intercom System. I was shocked by the lack of security on the grounds. Maybe celebrities had fewer stalkers and psychopathic fans back in the day. A ticket for the tour also incudes a tour of Elvis’ private plane, downright swanky with art deco seating and a full master suite.
After leaving Graceland, I’d head downtown to the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum. The Lorraine has a rich collection of artifacts, documents, and installations that witness the history of resistance and activism in the U.S. for civil rights and social justice. It was a sobering moment to view the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and to see the bedroom he stepped out of minutes before, left arranged as it was on that day. The Lorraine is a generative archive for triumphs and advances in the quest for equality, and the truth of the costs of the struggle.
If I had more time to spend in Memphis, I’d swing by the Peabody Hotel to see the duck procession and spend an evening on Beale Street for the music scene.
Next, I’d travel to Texas, where I grew up in the blazing shade. Even though Dallas can be hot as hell, my dream vacation includes a stop at the Texas School Book Depository Museum. Its galleries rise upward until you reach the sixth floor, which is staged like a warehouse with stacked cardboard boxes. You can maneuver through the space to gaze from the window where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim. There’s an X painted in the middle of the street, and the distance is closer than I imagined. Dealey Plaza is, of course, much different now. Its grassy knoll has been flattened and built over and is now a sprawling memorial with sculptures and shaded sitting areas, where summertime visitors rest and contemplate the past and the present in triple-digit temperatures.
After all that inland heat, I’d travel east to the Atlantic coast and the beaches of Saint Augustine in Florida. St. Augustine is billed as the oldest city in America. Sailors and pirates once walked its shores. The city’s Spanish Quarter is a treasure chest of shops, restaurants, taverns, art galleries, and even a port and cigar bar. Costuming in St. Augustine is a year-round habit, so you’ll probably run into a few seamen and fancy dames. From the Quarter, it’s a short walk to Flagler College, an amazing late-19th century edifice that first opened as a luxury resort, then became an art colony before serving as a Coast Guard training center, and then finally as a college. The unparalleled architecture will make your eyes happy.
Leaving St. Augustine, I’d travel north along the coast and stop at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. If you’ve ever wanted to get up close and personal with ships and submarines, the Maritime Museum is the place to do it. I’d never realized how claustrophobic I would feel on a vessel built specifically for military purpose. Every square of the spaces had a function. The tiny bunk beds on the submarine were hardly larger than lipstick tubes. Also, Charleston Harbor is home to Fort Sumter, where the first military conflict of the Civil War took place.
After touring the USS Yorktown one final time, I’d travel hard north and west to the Bristol Renaissance Fair in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Open weekends from July through September, the Fair spreads over what seems like twenty acres and is a fantasy of medieval costuming with strolling minstrels, fairies, and woodsmen, amid stages for singing and comedy troops, booths of tarot readers, booths serving food and ale, and even a jousting arena. The forested grounds provide plenty of shade and opportunities for people watching.
Another place where nature and art cohabit like neighbors is the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louise, Missouri. Open fields and wooded trails are galleries for immense abstract sculptures and very small objet d’arts. Coming over a slight hill, the towering figure of Bomibus stares down at me, and rounding a curve on a path through the woods reveals the large blue egg called Ada’s Will. I could spend a lifetime wandering in sculpture parks like Laumeier’s, with side trips to smaller sculpture gardens like the one next to NOMA in Louisiana.
My vacation wouldn’t be complete without a stop in the west at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in California. The Huntington’s offerings are astounding and diverse, from the Japanese gardens winding around bamboo tea shops to displays of letters and scraps of notes and speeches written by Abraham Lincoln. I’ve often felt a spiritual affinity with Lincoln because his birthday is one day before mine; seeing his actual handwriting gave me a chill. At the Huntington, there are acres of fauna, exhibits, and galleries to explore. I also discovered there are a slew of fellowships available to live on the Huntington’s grounds and engage in research if your subject intersects with their archives and collections.
I haven’t been everywhere I want to go yet, so I’d end at a place on my wish list: Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. I visited the park once as a kid traveling with a friend’s family, but the parents deemed the admission price too expensive and the park too crowded, so we got back in the car and skidded away downhill with the brake pads smoking in protest. Walker Percy would say I didn’t really “see” the Grand Canyon, and I would have to agree with him. On my fantasy vacation, I’ll pretend I’m Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas coming upon it for the first time.