“Walking with my feet 10 feet off of Beale” that song now makes so much more sense. Beale (Memphis’s Main Street). Graceland (Elvis’s house). The Jungle Room (his over indulged lounge complete with waterfall). Quite the city for rock and roll history. As well as Elvis, this place boasts BB King and Johnny Cash as it’s notable former residents, all of whom recorded songs at Sun Studios. Not just rock and roll, Memphis is also hugely significant in the Civil Rights movement. Infamously being the city of Dr Martin Luther Kings assassination, the Lorraine Motel which was the scene of the attack has been transformed into the National Civil Rights museum. We’ve now completed our trip on the Amtrak System. Arriving in Chicago yesterday morning on the sleeper train from Memphis. The City of New Orleans Train was a double decker and took us from the south coast up to the shores of Lake Michigan in 3 stages meaning that by the time we arrived in the Windy City we’d travelled about 4000 miles in 42 day on 15 trains up,down and up the east coast again since arriving in Miami. Before Memphis we had an overnight layover in Jackson Mississippi because we decided it might be nicer to do two 5 hour journeys and see another city than travel all the way from New Orleans to Memphis in one go. We were probably wrong, the 24 hours we were there were pretty uneventful other than the mile walk from the station to the hotel over a fly over that were still not sure we were allowed to be on! By the time we lugged our rucksacks back to the station the next day we were really looking forward to getting a car and not having to drag the damn bags everywhere on our backs! Jackson is the state capitol of Mississippi and so it is mainly a city of government. We had a look at the governors house and their capitol building before our train, but were quite happy to leave for Memphis and the land of rock and roll!
Once again Airbnb came up trumps in Memphis and we found ourselves in a beautiful mid town house when we arrived late on Wednesday evening. Only a few miles from downtown it was a good spot to explore the city. Our great host, JC, even offered us a lift down to Graceland over breakfast while giving us his recommendations of things to do in the city and talking photography with Suzanne. We bit his hand off as it saved us time and money and within the hour were looking up at the immortalised mansion from Elvis Presley Bolouvard. The house, which has been preserved since the kings death in the upstairs bathroom is nuts. You’re not allowed upstairs, as these rooms were apparently private during Elvis’ life and so its kept that way out of respect now, but you are shown the windows from outside before you enter. The master bedroom is top right and the infamous rest room is directly above the front door. Inside the house is the epitome of peacock-ing flash colours on the walls, floor and ceilings. Large, luxurious over the top furniture. Life size portraits. TV’s in every room (more than one in some). A cinema, a pool room and even a jungle room: a room that spans the whole width of the house, green fuzzy carpet on both the floor and the ceiling, all sorts of animal sculptures and even a waterfall. Hey I guess if you claim to have invented rock and roll why not?! It was interesting to see how modern it was for its time, one of the first microwaves sits proudly in the kitchen, it makes you wonder what he might have done had today’s technology been available to him! The grounds of the house were just as audacious, a museum to himself called the trophy room that he kept his many awards and achievements. A horse paddock, which still has horses in today. An office for his staff. And a purpose built racket ball court as he apparently enjoyed the game so much. The place could almost be an extravagant country club. The tour finishes at the meditation garden where Elvis is buried next to his parents and his paternal grandmother (she outlived her son and her grandson!) This part of the house is actually open to the public free of charge every morning from 7.30 to 8.30 which I thought was a good gesture, al be it to early for me! We finished our exploration of Elvis’ house by adding our names to the many others on the wall of Graceland (hi if you’ve found this blog from our graffiti!) its a great way to showcase how many people from all over the world still make a pilgrammage to the site.
Our second day in Memphis was earmarked for the National Civil Rights museum. We’d been avoiding other civil rights museums as we transversed the country, holding out for Memphis as we’ve been assured by multiple sources that this was the best. And we certainly didn’t regret waiting. The museum was fantastic; starting with the slave trade it takes you right through Americas Black and civil rights history up to the modern day leading you through interactive exhibitions of the sit ins, Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, the freedom riders and Bloody Sunday at Selma before taking you to the rooms where Martin Luther King spent his last hours. You cant then go across the road and view the rooms from where the bullet that killed him was fired. In the end we spent over 5 hours there. It was truly fascinating and humbling to see the sacrifices people made to get what they should have had anyway.
On our way to the civil rights museum we popped in to the Peabody Hotel as we were told something special happens at 11 am, we arrived at 10.59 (we missed the bus so had to jog/power walk into town) to find a reception area full of people growled round a red carpet stretch from the lift to the large marble fountain in the middle of the grand room. what we were about to witness was the march of the ducks, a long standing tradition at the “south’s grandest hotel” where it’s 5 resident mallards make their daily trip from their pent house apartment to the fountain to spend the day. It was ridiculous, but very fun. Full of pomp and ceremony and perhaps something that could only happen in America. Apparently the ducks stay there until 5 in the evening when they make the reverse trip back to their digs for the evening. All this is overseen by the Duck Master, who escorts them on their travels and looks after their needs in the fountain all day as well as giving the audience a history of the ducks and the hotel. What a Job!
We were heading for Chicago on the sleeper train that didn’t leave until 10:40 pm which meant we really had a whole extra day to explore Memphis. Luckily it was a glorious day and we enjoyed simply strolling round town. Back on the banks of the Mississippi we took the opportunity to get up close and personal as there is an island in the middle (aptly named Mud Island) giving you great views of the city and the river. Once the evening started to draw in and the sun set, the neon lights of Beale Street began to shine and draw us over. We spent our last 5 hours in Memphis checking out famous bars hosting all sorts of live music, from a solo female blues singer to a 6 piece country band, drinking beer and wine and eating BBQ food. It was really fun, and similar to New Orleans, Memphis as a take out policy in their bars meaning you can by drinks from bars on the street and just enjoy the party atmosphere of a Saturday night in the birth place of rock and roll. At 10pm drew close we ambled down to the train station extremely satisfied with our trip to Memphis.So slightly hungover we enjoyed breakfast on the train, soaking up our last Amtrak experience, watching the sun rise over the cold looking Illinois plains. We were in our accommodation by 10 am. Again striking lucky with an Airbnb that let us check in very early, before heading out to see what Chicago has to offer. We saw Lake Michigan (convinced it cant be a lake, its far too big) as well as Anish Kapor’s Cloud Gate sculpture before heading up the magnificent mile to the Hancock Tower were we enjoyed some drinks on the 96th floor watching the sun set. We now have two days to see all we can in Chicago before picking up our car and heading out west on the mother road of Historic 66. On the list is deep dish pizzas, blues and speakeasys. Not a bad start to the week by any means!