Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Elvis on our mind

The highway to Memphis was an easy drive, lightened by funny signs over the roadway. Our faves:

"100 is the temperature not the speed limit" and "What's holding you up? Buckle your seat belt."

Elvis Aron Presley fascinates even those who did not care much for his music, possibly because his is a classic "poor boy makes good" story. He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, in a two-room house built by his dirt poor father, grandfather and uncle. Young Elvis dreamed of becoming a legend like his comic book hero, Captain Marvel. Getting a guitar instead of the bike or gun he wanted, was step one. Becoming a fan of Black gospel and blues music was step two.

Step three came when the family moved to Memphis in search of better work. Elvis found not only a high school graduation and work as a truck driver, he found an outlet for his music, cutting a demo record at his own expense, performing on the country circuit and recording at Sun Records. Cue the Thunderbolt, hair style and cape of Captain Marvel as Elvis signed with RCA in 1957. The rest is show biz history and just as Elvis dreamed, legend.

 We checked into The Guest House at Graceland and quickly caught a shuttle over to the Visitors Center. Our plan was to pick up our prearranged tickets and see Graceland then go into Memphis for dinner and to see the city at night. We would start the morning in Memphis then return to do the Elvis Exhibitions, cars, motorcycles and planes.

So much for plans. Our tickets were not there, so while the clerk did some checking, we did some retail therapy in the large shop. Finally, we were told our tickets would be there the next morning, upgraded to VIP for the snafu. Okay then, disappointed but undaunted, we would have an adult beverage in the Jungle Room Bar, catch a shuttle back, spiff up a bit and head downtown. Sorry, said the clerk, they changed the hours; it closed at 4. It was now 5:45, the last shuttle left at 6.

Hot and truly frustrated, we went back to the hotel and sought out an adult beverage in the lounge. It was packed and they had run out of proper glasses for what we finally managed to order. Put it in anything you have, the exhausted Good Girls replied, knowing we would not be making it to downtown Memphis.

Mirrors overhead.
This did give us an opportunity to enjoy the lovely 450-room hotel adjacent to Graceland and have a leisurely evening, a rarity on our normal hectic schedule.

Lobby chairs inspired by Elvis' capes.

We listened to the good cover band in the lobby then headed to our room, loving the tasteful and often subtle Elvis homages.

 We turned on the TV and "chose our Elvis," '50s. '60s or '70s.

Sadly missing was my favorite, the landmark return TV special, a handsome, black leather clad Elvis singing at his peak in an intimate, in-the-round setting.

Our own Elvis homage began the next afternoon, cramming a full day into a half-day. We started with Graceland, shuttling over from the Visitors Center and jumping the line in true VIP style. We had been loaned an I-pad and headset for an inform-yourself tour narrated by John Stamos and Lisa Marie Presley, but I found the wires made taking notes impossible and photos difficult and abandoned it, preferring to soak up the atmosphere unencumbered. 

I was impressed with the house and its grounds. Not grand by today's standards and very livable, it was a poor boy made good's gracious home for his beloved mother.

The living,

dining room

and kitchen are perfect for family gatherings. Visitors don't see the upstairs bedrooms, but we did see his parents' bedroom and that fun loving boy's toys:

the ridiculously dark Jungle Room,

his pool room

and music room with its three TVs (just like President Johnson's).


you continue on to his father Vernon's office filled with fans' portraits of Elvis, racquetball court, gym,

gun range, trophy room, swimming pool,

paddocks, pastures and barn for horses.

Sometimes the visitors are part of the story.

A large display area of family memorabilia, from report cards and decorators' bills to wedding attire and nursery furnishings further endeared the late performer to us.

Seeing the family burial plot beyond the pool was particularly moving, cementing the overall impression.

This was not a showplace, it was home.

The glitz, glamor and excess are shown off in The Presley Motors Automobile Museum, The Entertainer Career Museum and Elvis Discovery Exhibits.

It is, in a word, overwhelming. You could spend hours looking at cars alone including

the pink Cadillac he gave his mother, who never had a driver's license, the year after its purchase,

the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III that has been owned by Michael London and Charlie Rich since Elvis traded it in

and the 1973 Stutz Blackhawk he was driving the last time he arrived at Graceland.

One room is of metal racks filled with the minutia of an incredibly full life.

The costumes Elvis wore on stage, displayed in chronological order, are dominated by clinging jumpsuits, bejeweled belts, matching shoes and sweeping capes.

They did not forget his Army days - uniform and luggage - or the influence Elvis had on other performers who adopted elements of his style.

Transitioning through a narrow room with walls of gold and platinum records, awards, firsts and achievements, is mind-blowing.

So much achieved in such a short life.

All the while you are silently or quietly singing along to the recorded songs that underscored much of our lives. It isn't a castle but it is definitely a royal tribute to the King.

It is also exhausting. These are not small spaces and two tired, footsore Good Girls who were on visual overload skipped the two planes to catch the last shuttle back to the Guest House. Memphis at night would have to wait for another time.

Instead we fought even larger crowds for an adult beverage in the wrong glasses and pondered what to do next. The concierges are supremely helpful and told us about Marlowe's Ribs & Restaurant 15 miles farther down Elvis Presley Boulevard.

They would pick us up in a pink Cadillac limo and bring us back after dinner. With feet so sore we didn't even want to walk out to our car in the parking lot, that sounded perfect.

It was. Casual, funky with a lively bar, good local beer and decent barbecue plus an Elvis homage or three, we left re-energized. Perhaps we might even manage to stay up for the much heralded nightly peanut butter sandwiches served at the Guest House.

 It wasn't hard.The lobby was full, everyone enjoying the older, very talented piano player who sounded so much like Elvis he might have been an impersonator in his salad days. He was a consummate entertainer and eventually had all up dancing to the infectious songs of Elvis and his contemporaries.

When his sets finished, the peanut butter sandwiches and hot chocolate were brought out. We weren't hungry and the sandwiches weren't anything to write home about, but it brought a satisfying conclusion to our Elvis immersion.

We had resisted the ultimate immersive souvenir, a glittering gold lame suit, only $2,900.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Natchez Trace: Following History's Tracks

Little did we know about the Natchez Trace when we decided to drive it. You hear the name, Natchez Trace, and it sounds historic and interesting, but what exactly is it?

About the Natchez Trace

Before Europeans discovered the New World, native American tribes like the Chippewa, Choctaw and Natchez traveled along footpaths connecting their territories in the Mississippi Valley. Prior to that, people of the Mississippian Period (1200-1730 C.E., Current Era) used the trails broken through the wilderness by animals like buffalo, wolves and bear.

As choice land along the East Coast was claimed, settlers moved west and to the south as they explored what is now Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi.

Trade from these areas and others traveled down the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers south to ports in Natchez and New Orleans. It could be a very profitable venture. Trade is a two-way process, but before the coming of steam, the currents were too strong to return home by river. Boats were sold for their lumber, boatmen either bought horses and goods from their profits to sell in the north or walked the 450 miles from Natchez to Nashville along the series of paths that became known as the Natchez Trace.

It was a treacherous route. If robbers or Indians didn't plunder and kill travelers, disease, accidents fording deep tributaries and slogging through swamps might.

The Rev. John Johnson wrote from the Trace in 1812, "I have this day swam my horse 5 times, bridged one creek, forded several others, besides the swamp we had to wade through. At night we had a shower of rain - took up my usual lodging on the ground in company with several Indians."

No surprise that it was known as "the Devil's backbone."

Boaters weren't the only users of the Trace. More settlers and speculators did business and visited friends along the Trace. Military units of Spain and later the new United States and post riders did, too.

As traffic along the Trace increased, some of the paths were beaten down, creating long passages where the bank was so high travelers could only see what lay immediately ahead. This gave attackers a decided advantage as they could literally jump down upon their prey.

It took about 35 days to traverse the Trace by foot, 25 days on horseback, assuming all went well. In 1810, 10,000 travelers walked the Trace. Once steamboats began to ply the rivers in the mid 1820s, the Trace became obsolete. By the Civil War, it was all but forgotten though some skirmishes and battles were fought in the vicinity.

Prodded by local historians and women's groups, in 1983 the Natchez Trace Parkway became a unit of the National Park System to commemorate the historic route. The Natchez Trace Scenic Trail joined the parkway under the National Park System and the National Trail system, too. Both parallel the original as closely as possible.

We start the Trace

The Good Girls' plan was to leave Nashville and catch the beginning of the Trace to see the Double Arch Bridge, veer over to Memphis then go to Tupelo, return to the Trace Parkway and follow it to its end just north of Natchez.

After finding ourselves in a "Seinfeld" rerun - the car we reserved at Thrifty was no longer available at the Nashville airport - the Good Girls hit the road. Watching the morning traffic inching into Nashville, even slower than it moves in Atlanta, we were glad to be going in the opposite direction.

The Double Arch bridge is a lovely thing, impressive in its simplicity, but, suckers for home cooking that we are, was soon supplanted by the discovery of Loveless Cafe. I had read that any trip on the Trace should begin or end at Loveless, but assumed that was merely tourist board hyperbole.

Fortunately our stomachs were growling and we decided to detour a mile or so and try it for an early lunch.

The complex of shops and motel surrounding the deceptively small cafe spoke to its popularity and the friendly bustle of waitresses around full tables boded well. Biscuits are king here so we each ordered one with barbecue.

Then a plate of four with three different flavors of jam and preserves arrived. Delicious.

Heading to the restroom I passed a glass window behind which was a young woman elbow deep in biscuit dough. They make 10,000 a day! Large, fluffy and heavenly, mounded high with barbecue pork in a sweet sauce, it was immensely satisfying. Not so much that we didn't split a home made cobbler, though.

Satisfied, we left the Trace and headed to Memphis to visit with the memory of Elvis.