Friday, May 23, 2014

But Do I Really Feel the Way I Feel?

It’s strange how things work sometimes. The day involving the least walking is the day when I end up the most tired. Granted, my tiredness during a given day isn’t determined by the amount of aggregate exercise done that day, unless my tiredness sensors can somehow predict how much exercise I’ll be getting throughout the rest of the day – in which case, they need to be applying that ability to the useful parts of my brain. In any event, it’s probably the cumulative effect of several long days and of staying up too late to write. So thanks, guys. This is all your fault.

None of that prevented us from having a full busy day as we journeyed from the Midwest through the heart of the South. Tonight we’re in Memphis (and yes, every time I say, hear, or think the name of this city, that song gets stuck in my head. There are definitely worse songs for that to happen with, though). Getting here took us through this trip’s first first-time state – Arkansas. 

I have no pictures of the other 75 miles of Arkansas we traversed today, mainly because the farms there look pretty much the same as the farms in Missouri or Indiana – large and flat. There were some oddly shaped irrigation ditches on some plots, and we had a flyover from a crop duster, but that was about all Arkansas had to offer. Not even a travel center to stop and buy a refrigerator magnet. So on to Tennessee it was.

I’ve been to Tennessee before, but I’ve never crossed the Mississippi to get here. The state sign on this side definitely trumps the tiny one in Bristol on the east side.

Our first stop was to find the ghost of Elvis and follow him up to the gates of Graceland. I was expecting the place to be the most kitschy, over-the-top tourist trap I’d ever seen. But I was pleasantly surprised. 

The mansion, itself, is much smaller than I expected, and the rooms were the same size as you’d find in a typical small suburban house today. Sure, the décor was straight out of the darkest recesses of the 1970’s, but it felt authentic (because it was). 

Even the famous jungle room wasn’t as shocking and gaudy as I had expected. In fact, because I was doing a terrible job managing my audio tour headphone device, I was standing in the jungle room for at least a minute before I realized that’s what it was. 

I think without the green shag carpeting, this room might actually look decent. Of course, because it was the 70’s and most interior decorating from the 70’s deserves to be reclassified as a Class 4 felony, Elvis went in the complete opposite direction and installed the stuff not only on the floor, but on the walls and the ceiling. As someone ahead of me pointed out, that meant that it became someone’s job to vacuum those ridiculous surfaces.

Despite it’s surprisingly small size, Graceland packs a lot of stuff, largely due to the multiple separate buildings surrounding the mansion. Because this is Elvis we’re talking about, a trophy room would not suffice, and instead he had a trophy building. Beginning with an exhibit chronicling his career timeline, the audio tour then leads visitors into a long hallway full of gold records. This was another opportunity for things to turn cheesy, since I’m sure he was given many cheesy and meaningless awards, but the tone here was spot on. There’s no need to display his “world’s best dad” award when he had so many legitimate accomplishments to show off. I’d never realized before just how many hits this man had produced (at least 20 Number 1 albums, at least 36 Number 1 singles, and even more gold records). 

The tour ends with guests huddled ‘round his tomb (which isn’t really a tomb). Here, too, the tone that the décor and the audio tour set was appropriate and befitting of a grave. To get to the gift shops (of which there were 5 on the property), we had to go back across the street. Thankfully, you can’t buy anything at the actual house.

From there, it was time for more BBQ. National Geographic Traveler had published an article a few months ago about the best local places in Memphis, so we chose the best-sounding one of them and headed off. If we hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was an abandoned run-down building in a somewhat-sketchy part of town. But the guy behind the counter was so friendly that by the time we each walked away with a half slab of ribs, any residual awkwardness was gone (even though the dining room was a dim windowless room with a smattering of tables, no decorations, and a lot of empty space). I was surprised when he asked what kind of sauce I wanted, since Memphis is known for dry ribs – more like yesterday’s than the dripping 15-napkin experience here. They were good, of course, but if I had to choose, I’d probably prefer yesterday’s.

Finally, after a nap, it was off to Beale Street. I guess a bunch of cities have something like it (New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.) but this one I actually liked. Despite the copious alcohol flowing through the street, people weren’t aggressive or embarrassing themselves. Although the famous section of the street, closed to traffic, is only 2 blocks long there were at least a dozen places playing live music of some kind. Only a little way off the street (I’d say I had my feet about 10 feet off of Beale) there was an outdoor concert going on, too.

We sampled a few places, including a hole-in-the-wall blues bar that only sat about 25 people, another place that didn’t play music but was next to a place that did, and B.B. King’s Blues Club (which I assume only the most promising – or maybe sellout – acts perform). 

So that’s our adventure in the land of the Delta Blues. Memphis is a gritty working-class city that pulls no punches – very much the opposite of Chicago. It’s also the most racially diverse place we’ve visited this week (and maybe one of the most racially diverse places I’ve ever been, outside of New York or Los Angeles). Although it suffers from that same fatal flaw as Chicago – that it’s full of strangers – I could see myself eventually growing to like this place. Maybe.

But tomorrow it’ll be back up to Indianapolis, via Nashville. Although, being only 5 miles from Mississippi, we may need to take a detour there first, just to say we’ve been there.

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