Becky says things about … an American road trip – PART 5: Memphis

Our first evening in Memphis was textbook: we went to BB King’s Blues Club.

In the bustling, low-lit club we ate yet more BBQ ribs, drank beer and listened to the utterly fabulous BB King All Stars (for the measely cover charge of $5, which, next to the $5 I spent on the Golden Girls magnetic bookmarks in Gatlinburg, was the best $5 I spent all holiday).

In the sax and guitar-pounding room, as the beer flowed, I got completely carried away by the cool-as-hell blues and decided that I could – nay, would – become a famous blues singer-songwriter, and how difficult could it be to shove together a funky baseline, an electric guitar and some devilishly saucy drums, and finally I’d worked out how I was going to make my fortune, and it was all going extremely well in my head until the All Stars did Purple Rain, complete with the 8-hour finale, so incredibly brilliantly, that I had to go to the toilet to recover, and I became so distracted by the inexplicably huge gap in the toilet cubicle that I forgot about being a blues singer.

Let us talk about this for one moment. Please can someone from the Department of American Toilet Cubicles and Urinational Privacy (DoATCUP) explain to me why  you must have colossal gaps in your toilet cubicles? Every single toilet we went in on our trip – be it a bar, restaurant, or that scarily remote gas station in Georgia – had a door that sort of hovered in an open space, attached to the frame by a uselessly massive bracket. In one toilet in a bar in Nashville, I sat on the loo and literally made eye contact with a woman’s reflection as she washed her hands at the sinks. I didn’t feel violated, as such – just confused.

Anyway.

The next morning we thought we’d go and see what the toilet cubicle gaps were like at Graceland, abiding by the little-known 178th Amendment ‘He who visits the City of Memphis must visit Graceland, irrespective of His feelings for or about The King, or He shall be considered a wierdo and a loser’.

So we entered the Graceland compound – a Hollywood set-style street of museums, diners and gift shops – and queued to buy tickets, then queued to enter a small room to watch a short film about Graceland, then queued to get on a mini bus that drove us across the road  to the house itself, where we queued to get through the front door. Whilst you Americans do like to make an industry out of what could be a relatively simple process, we Brits did appreciate an effective queuing system.

Here’s the old boy’s gaff:

Nice front room, where he did the crossword and watched the news:

Kitchen, where he cooked microwave dinners and drank tea:

And here’s the old dude himself:

If you love Elvis, go to Graceland. If you don’t love Elvis, you still have to go to Graceland because if you don’t then the people who love Elvis will stare at you like you have a watermelon for a head and celery for arms.


We now need to talk about ducks. Why? you ask, quite fairly. Because they are a Really Big Deal at the stately Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

So, legend has it that in the 1930s some cowboys smuggled in some ducks to the hotel (the crucial ‘Why?’ in this story was unclear to us), and chucked them into the fountain in the grand, palatial lobby. The next morning, the manager apologised to the guests for this unexpected mallard invasion, to discover that, actually, the guests were thoroughly enjoying watching the ducks mucking around in the fountain.

And that, my friends, is all that is required to start a 90-year tradition.

Every day at 11am and 5pm, the Peabody hosts the ‘Duck March’. Which is conducted by the Peadbody Duckmaster. I am not joking. This is the most coveted position in America next to the guy who seals up the gaps in toilet cubicles.

So there we were, at 10.50am, hanging over the balcony in the Peabody lobby, eagerly awaiting the appearance of these ruddy ducks.


Yes, that is a red carpet. For some ducks.

At 11am on the dot, the Duckmaster – clad in a red tailcoat and a top hat – grandly announced in a faux English accent that in a few minutes’ time the ducks would descend in the lift from their suite – yes, their suite, the suite for ducks on the top floor of this five star hotel, I hope you’re grasping the magnitude of the duck situation here – and they would proceed to waddle up the red carpet and hop into the fountain.

And a few minutes’ later, that is exactly what they did.

There they are.

I mean, underwhelmed is the wrong word – I have had no previous experience of this sort of duck ceremony on which to base my expectations – and there was obviously something delightfully charming about the gravity that was bestowed on this event – so I’ll just say that watching some mallards waddle up a red carpet and cock about in a fountain left me simply whelmed.

 

Later that afternoon, we spent an incredible four hours at the amazing National Civil Rights Museum, which is built around the shell of the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. If you’re in Memphis, go. It is astonishing. And, in case you spend quite a lot of time wondering why the initials ‘MLK’ are stamped on pretty much everything, I can inform you that they quite clearly stand for Martin Luther King, and are not a peculiarly mis-spelt announcement for MILK, which was the misapprehension under which my road trip-addled brain was labouring for a good two hours, until the realisation hit me like a massive and wholly justifiable fist.

We then spent an hour driving around the centre of Memphis trying to find the Hertz garage to return our trusty little car to her rightful home. It took an hour, because the Hertz garage felt that a sign the size of a thumb that was half-concealed by a window frame behind seven concrete pillars, was sufficient to alert people to its existence.

It was during this frustrating circular drive, and our subsequent walk back to our hotel, that we experienced the city of Memphis in all its bustling glory.

And when I say ‘bustling glory’, I mean absolutely silent and deserted weirdness.

I have been to many cities, and a usual characteristic is an abundance of traffic and people. You know, the things that make up a city. Life. But Memphis had none of these things. We walked a mile back to our hotel through the ‘centre’ of the city, and saw three people, one tram, and a dog.

Even when we had walked to and from the Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis – Downtown, which normally signifies the place where all the busy cool stuff happens – there had been merely a dribble of cars and the odd pedestrian looking a bit lost.

Either there is a good trade on invisibility cloaks in Memphis, or everyone was at Graceland. They are the only two feasible explanations we came up with for the spooky emptiness of the city. It did mean that there were no queues when we stocked up on provisions at Walgreens, but if anyone has any explanation as to why Memphis is so creepily deserted, I’d love to hear it.

Due to an ungodly early start the next day to catch our AmTrak to New Orleans, we had an early dinner at the famous Rendevous restaurant – more ribs; I mean, by this point we were starting to take on a shiny BBQ hue – bid farewell to the blues bars on Beale Street, and hunkered down in our hotel room to pack and watch Con Air. 

Conclusion: The blues are fabulous. The museum is fabulous. Hell, even the ducks are fabulous. But, as a city, Memphis is… peculiar. If you go, stick around Beale Street. Because apart from the ready availability of invisibility cloaks, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot else going on.

Next up: Jazz, shrimp, a very drunken evening, and a dramatic home invasion escapade in New Orleans. 

Becky says things about … an American road trip – PART 4: Nashville

Not long after leaving Gatlinburg, and winding our way out of the sultry haze of the Smokey Mountains, Mother Nature decided she’d spoilt us with all the endless clear blue skies, and unleashed hell, in the form of a solid wall of rain.

Immediately, the ability to use my eyes to see things was rendered completely useless.

With astounding collective proficiency, myself and my fellow road users all slowed from 70mph to 20mph in about four seconds, and I crawled through the grey torrent for what seemed like an age, hoping fervently that I was still on the road (I say hoping, because I could see neither the end of the car bonnet, nor any evidence of road on either side).

This devilish downfall did eventually ease, but it set the scene for our visit to Nashville. We arrived at our Best Western in the rain, and admired our room’s view of the hotel pool in the rain, and overheard a conversation in the lobby that this was the most rain the city had had in approximately five billion years.

But despite the rain, we had matters to attend to: a trip to the Bluebird Café.

The Bluebird Café is a ‘listening room’: a tiny venue the size of someone’s living room, seating only about 70 guests; in the centre of the jumble of tables is a circle of four chairs where the musicians play their music to each other and the privileged audience who have managed to get through the Glastonbury-style competitive ticket process. The novelty is you don’t know who you’re going to see until you get there. We’re not talking mega stars here, although apparently Taylor Swift turned up there recently. So you never know who you’ll end up listening to.

Due to the intimate size of the Bluebird Café, it is necessary (and delightfully peculiar) to share tables with complete strangers, so Sarah and I were ushered through the tangle of fairy lights and chair legs to a table at which four 60-somethings were already sitting.

Now, we were acutely aware throughout our entire trip in the Deep South that us Londoners stuck out like a sore thumb, and that we wore our tourist-ness like giant flowing capes whether we liked it or not. However, I can tell you that two women from London do not stick out in a bar in Tennessee nearly as much as four wealthy retirees from Bel Air.

Sarah and I were immediately seduced. The twinkly-eyed gent who looked like Liberace introduced them all (which was a total waste of time, as neither of us can remember any of their names, hence they are resigned to history simply as The Bluebird Four), and collectively they quizzed us on our trip, tossing admirations like dollar bills over our ‘braveness’ to undertake such a trip as ‘two women alone’. (It turned out both couples had been together since high school. The two lady Bluebirds had, Sarah and I judged, never done a day’s work in their lives.)

We were entranced by them: their perfectly manicured neatness, their eye-watering private-members’-club politeness, their unquestioning assurance that we didn’t mind being given the Spanish Inquisition by four complete strangers (we didn’t). It was the start of a beautiful friendship, of that I was certain. We would be invited to their Bel Air mansions for Christmas, we would be presented with Rolexes in little white boxes, we would be written into their Wills….

Then 12 minutes into the music, as the musicians strummed their compositions into the respectfully silent room, Liberace fell asleep, the other male Bluebird started composing a lengthy and tut-ridden email on his phone, Liberace’s wife looked down at the carpet with an inexplicable single tear rolling down her expensively creamed face, and Mrs Tutting Bluebird hissed loudly into the centre of the table ‘We’re leaving after this song.’ Two minutes later, during the enthusiastic applause, the Bluebird Four rose en masse like bored Royalty and bustled out of the room, without so much as a ‘We’ll pay for your flights at Christmas’.

Despite our unceremonious dumping, we had a wonderful evening of country music, beer and Nachos, and if any of the BlueBird Four are reading this: we’re still available to come to Bel Air this Christmas.

The next morning we took shelter from the rain in the Country Music Museum, which was extremely interesting, but perhaps not as interesting as the astoundingly rubbish stone effigies of notable musical figures in the Country Music Hall of Fame, not least of our mate Dolly:

Then we found Broadway.

On Nashville’s Broadway a West Side Story-style musical battle plays out: on one side of the street a row of bars flashes neon signs and shouts live music at the row of bars across the street, which retaliates by doing exactly the same. The result? The coolest, oddest, let’s-get-drunk-est cacophony of music you’ve ever heard. In each bar’s open window was a band playing various sub-genres of country music, and as we sloshed through the puddles (yes, it was still raining), one song from one bar would fade, have a brief tussle with the song from the next bar, then that song would be beaten down by the song from the next. It was brilliant.

As we walked past the bars that were brimming with the sort of frenzied energy that, in a normal boring city, doesn’t bubble up until about 10pm, we were acutely aware of the serious and unspoken dilemma that we were now facing: we would have to start drinking.

There are times in one’s life when one has to make a potentially life-saving decision. Here, at 12.30pm on a rainy Sunday in Nashville, on the coolest and most lively street in the Universe, we were faced with two choices:

1) Sprint straight into the nearest bar, tell each other we would only stay for a couple of beers and then have a sensible lunch, a lunch that would never materialise, and instead we would simply descend into a long afternoon of booziness that would inevitably result in one of us being sick in a drain by 5pm; or

2) Have a very slow and very big lunch that neither of us particularly wanted, but which would at least arm us against the onslaught of an afternoon of crapulous inevitability, and hope that it would be at least 8pm before one of us was sick in a drain.

We sensibly chose the latter, and feasted on ribs, pulled-pork baps, potato salad and macaroni cheese at Martin’s BBQ. This killed a good hour, after which we almost ran back to Broadway and tucked ourselves into the dim, purple-lit Robert’s Western World bar where we did what any sane human would do on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Nashville: drink beer and listen to country music.

Which we did with gusto and aplomb.

Here is a diagram of our afternoon in Nashville:

If you’d asked us at 7.30pm on that Sunday, as we slumped over the bar at Teqila Cowboy, what Nashville is like, you would have received this reply:

Hence why we called it a day (yes, I know it was only 7.30pm, but that’s just how we roll), demolished a Nathan’s hot dog from a street corner stall, got a cab back our hotel and collapsed in front of a true crime documentary until it was an acceptable time to pass out.

If you ask us now what Nashville is like, you will receive this reply: Nashville is pure, untamed fun. If you like country music, BBQ ribs, and a down-to-earth, no-frills, shoes-are-slightly-sticking-to-the-floor sort of time, it’s the best place ever. Especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

And especially when it turns out neither of you needed to be sick into a drain.

UP NEXT: blues, ducks, and the deserted city in Memphis.

 

 

Becky says things about … an American road trip PART 3: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

After an overnight stop in Athens, Georgia, we ploughed up through the green and red fields of rural Georgia under a crystal clear sky, briefly cutting through a thin slice of North Carolina, where we passed more churches than was surely practical. I immediately had a burning question for these churches:

WHERE DO YOUR CONGREGATIONS COME FROM?

Seriously. This is how the drive went:

Church. Church. Fields. McDonalds. House. Church. Gun outlet. McDonalds. Fields. Church. House. Church. Gun outlet. Fields. Church. Rifle range. Church. McDonalds. Church. House. Fields. Gun outlet. Church. Church. Fields. McDonalds. Church.

I can only imagine that their congregations are solely made up of gun-wielding McDonalds’ employees.

After an hour winding through the deep green veins of the Smokey Mountains, we emerged into the flat valley of Gatlinburg. I had imagined a quaint Swiss-style resort tucked humbly in the mountains, hanging baskets blooming from wooden chalets, the smell of mulled cider wafting on the fresh breeze  – the odd cow roaming pensively – instead, we got the Blackpool of Tennessee. Under the disapproving gaze of the hazy blue Smokies lay a bustling strip of arcades, amusements, hot dog and doughnut stalls, tacky bars, shops selling all the tat you could possibly wish for – and it was when I saw the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and the movie memorabilia store that I wiped a tear from my eye. It was ruddy brilliant.

Upon walking through the door of the Airbnb office, the moustacheod cowboy behind the desk drawled ‘Ah, there y’are, Becky and Sarah,’ and when I asked how he knew it was us, he replied ‘Cos there ain’t no other soul comin’ my way today.’

Three minutes later we were back out the door with the key to our condo. This relaxed process was a far cry from the Spanish Inquisition we’d had checking in to the Daytona and Athens hotels, where we had been asked for ID, credit card, date of birth, known allergies, top ten favourite album covers, mother’s maiden, and favourite sexual position.

Our Airbnb was on the fifth floor of a condo complex (block of flats to us Brits), with a view from the balcony that was reasonably acceptable.

A couple of hours later we were sailing high above the mangle of shrubs and trees as a ski lift hoisted us up the mountain, our bare feet dangling in the hot air, our knuckles whitening and our colons twitching at the beautiful yet almost-certain-death below us.

At the top of the mountain, bathed in the red evening sun, was an Alpine Disneyland: a toytown of chalet-style shops, a bar, and a complex of rope bridges clutching the tree trunks of the mountainside. All accompanied by some yodelling. When one finds oneself in a mountaintop toytown, the only thing to do is to have a pint of incredibly strong local ale and go for a stroll on the perilously high treetop walk. This we did with the alacrity of a couple of slightly tipsy mountain goats.

The next morning, we felt we should do A Walk as that’s what people do when they’re in the mountains, so we drove into the darkening, tangled heart of the Smokies to do A Walk to Grotto Falls.

At the entrance to The Walk was a sign telling us that at any one time there would be 37,000 bears watching us, and if we should come face to face with one we should firstly try this:

And if Mr Bear took umbrage to that, and if we were still alive, we should secondly try this:

That was the long and short of it, anyway.

Fortunately we didn’t get to practice our bear-survival skills, and made it to the extremely pretty waterfall with merely a few splodges of bear poo on the soles of our trainers.


Are you a die-hard supporter of the 45th president of the United States? Do you live in the Gatlinburg area? Do you enjoy a statement t-shirt? Then it’s your lucky day!

Bizarrely, neither Sarah nor I fancied any of these jolly t-shirts, but we DID fancy the movie memorabilia store, where we spent probably the happiest 20 minutes of my life.

After a hard day of not seeing any bears and avoiding being gunned down by Tennesseans as we took photos of us giving Trump t-shirts the finger, we spent the evening on our balcony playing cards (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cards – thank you, movie memorabilia store) and drinking wine, which was a delightful way to spend an evening until a bug flew into my nose and I threw my wine in Sarah’s face in shock.

Question: what do you do if you’re staying six miles from a Dolly Parton-themed theme park called Dollywood?

Answer: go to Dollywood.

It.

Was.

Brilliant.

For three solid hours we were flung about on some of the best roller coasters I’ve ever been on, and I became intimately acquainted with Sarah’s vocal chords.

In the gift shop – a veritable shrine to Dolly Parton, her plastic face beaming from every item – I had the following illuminating conversation with the pink-capped girl at the checkout:

Then came Funnel Cake-gate.

A Funnel Cake is America’s way of making a doughnut even more lethal to your arteries. Instead of a single lump of batter plopped into the fryer, the batter is piped into the hot fat so it creates an intricate nest, thereby increasing the surface area of available fat-soaked dough by approximately 23,000 times. It is then doused in icing sugar.

We demolished this arterial onslaught in around eight minutes (theme parks are hungry work) and experienced a brief moment of sugar-induced elation, during which we planned every detail of our campaign to be the first female presidential duo of the United States, and then, as though draining through the bottom of a bucket, our blood sugar levels succumbed to the greatest sugar and adrenaline crash in the history of the universe.

It was all I could do to drive us back through the mountains and crawl into a late afternoon coma. The lesson? Roller coasters + funnel cake = absolutely nothing. Forget it. You’re finished.

Conclusion: Gatlinburg is F.U.NAnd if you’re a Trump-supporting, church-going, gun-toting, bear-fighting, Funnel Cake-loving adrenaline junkie, then you should definitely go.

UP NEXT: Rain, country music, and another booze-filled afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee.