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 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. 

Becky says things about … an American road trip – Part 2: Savannah, Georgia

Happily, the 230 mile journey from Daytona Beach to Savannah can be considered a success, because I only ended up on the wrong side of the road once, and nobody died.

Around 2pm, we crested a wave on the freewayhighway and sank into the plush green garden of Savannah.

Savannah is a small city near the east coast of Georgia, across the Savannah River from South Carolina. At its centre is a lush green canopy of live oak trees which hides a serene underworld of dolls’ houses and secrets. The grid of streets is puckered with 22 grassy squares, gently breathing under the tangle of branches. The pavements are tickled by the braids of Spanish moss that trail from the trees.

It was immediately the most beautiful place I had ever been in my life.

Our Airbnb was a wooden Victorian treasure trove just off Forsythe Park, complete with an actual porch and an actual wooden swing seat suspended from the porch ceiling. This caused perhaps over-zealous excitement.

 

After a lazy stroll through the squares, gulping in the green-sweet air, we emerged on the cobbled riverfront where an old steamboat hissed at the bank. There, we experienced a clear sign from God: it began to drizzle just as we spotted a chalkboard offering $5 margaritas. So we ‘popped in’ to a restaurant bar called The Shrimp Factory.

Four hours later, we popped out again.

Allow me to introduce you to our new Shrimp Factory friends (who will assume the names we prescribed them the following morning when our memory of exact details was quite sketchy):

Boston Sue and Donald Sutherland, a middle-aged couple from Boston. Sue’s initial reserved seriousness was magically transformed by the shots I was palming off on her, and suddenly she was whooping and hollering and trying to set Sarah up with the bartender; Pissed Ruth, a 45-ish woman travelling alone from New York, who sank margaritas and told us she’d had a terrible day, and who ended up getting absolutely smashed and hanging off our shoulders telling us we ‘motherfucking ruled’ for doing our road trip; and finally Mr and Mrs Jim, a charming couple from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (We did know Jim’s wife’s Christian name at some point during the evening, but it is forever lost to Drunk Lost Property.) Married 45 years; ‘he still makes me laugh, and I still make him cry’. Jim happily supped beer and looked on while Mrs Jim downed cocktails at superhuman speed and clamoured over us, wanting to know our life stories.

By 7pm, we were all best friends and they all watched eagerly as the bartender gave Sarah and I two shots of Moonshine. This Moonshine was 100% proof. This could have set a dangerous precedent for when we returned to the UK.

When deep in such boozy conviviality, it is astounding how many topics you can cover. In this case: Trump (“the most retarded president we’ve ever had” according to wise old Boston Sue); the Catholic Church; youth vs age; the moral debate about legalising cannabis; the US penitentiary system, and death. All light, fluffy stuff.

By 9pm, we were all steaming drunk: Boston Sue and Pissed Ruth were dancing, Mr Jim and Donald Sutherland were swayingly discussing golf, and Mrs Jim was tearily confiding in Sarah about their gay son and about how Mr Jim was absolutely            fine          with it.

By 9.30pm we were back at our lovely Airbnb and I fell up the porch steps.

Despite a hangover the next day that was in the ‘top three worst of my life’, Sarah gallantly made it through a trolley bus tour of the city, and survived a surprisingly chirpy me dragging her round the muggy squares while I took millions of photos of millions of trees from millions of different angles.

At 4pm, an ice cream still hadn’t sorted her out, so the only thing for it was to have a drink.

It didn’t go down well.

We had an early night.


Fact: if you google ‘Savannah, Georgia’ the following picture will appear:

It’s not a mythical land, it’s not a scene from a Disney film, it is the Wormsloe Plantation, and I took the above photo the following morning whilst hanging out of the car window as we trundled slowly beneath the silent mesh of trees. Not bad for a woman in charge of a moving vehicle, eh?

We had a sweaty walk through what was essentially a tropical rainforest that screeched with peculiar insects, including forest crabs that scuttled willy-nilly across our path. This was unsettling, but I suppose it was preferable to the plethora of entirely possible alternatives.

The plantation ruins were a little underwhelming. I mean, they were only from the 1700s, and when we Brits have got castles and churches that date back to 120AD, it takes quite a lot to astonish us.

On our way back to the city, we broke a world record: the Longest Time Two Humans have Spent Trying to Fill Up a Car at a Gas Station.

28 minutes to be precise.

In our humble land, we fill up our vehicle with petrol, and we then pay for the precise amount of petrol we have used.

America likes to turn this simple process into a perverted game, whereby you have to guess how much petrol your car needs and guess how much it is going to cost. Before you so much as lift the pump from its clasp.

To make things even more fun, the little screen at the pump inexplicably needed to know our postcode, presumably so it could send us a Christmas card, and after the 17th time of being asked for this information and there was still no sign of petrol appearing from the pump, we were becoming desperate.

After what felt like three days of hopeless fannying around, an assistant finally coaxed Sarah inside, where Sarah guessed how much it would cost to fill up our little Hyundi with three quarters of a tank. Sarah’s guess was $60 off the mark.

Whilst we were delighted that it had only cost $20 to fill up the car, it meant another embarrassed trip to the assistant to get $60 put back on Sarah’s card.

Dear America:

After a fat Ruben sandwich at Clary’s Diner, and a cultured tour round the beautiful Mercer-Williams House, the muggy heat of the day got to us, so we sought refreshment in Pinkie Master’s.

Pinkie Master’s had been suggested by our Airbnb host in response to my question ‘where do the locals drink in Savannah?’, and it very quickly became the second most beautiful thing I had seen next to Savannah itself.

At 4pm on a Monday afternoon, it was just us, the bartender and the locals, and as we sipped jars of tequila and grapefruit slushies (which are gifts from the Heavens), we sank deeper into the wonderfully eccentric world of a local dive bar in an eccentric city.

As one local left, another took their place. We met Big George and Tiny George, Gregory ‘The Legend’, Irish Ian, and when the door opened and a big guy walked in to greetings of ‘Hey, Coach!’, I lost my shit.

We were told about the guy who used to come in to the bar with a tortoise on a lead (‘Fuck that tortoise’, grumbled the barman); we discovered that it was here that Jimmy Carter first announced he would run for President (apparently); we watched a good-natured argument across the bar between two locals, which ended with one happily saying to the other ‘I wish you were dead’.

When Carol and Ian from Bradford – yes, Bradford, England – came in, and we learnt that they had fallen in love with Savannah ten years ago and had actually moved here when they retired, I may have reacted strangely.

As the day darkened outside, and as the neon signs around the bar glowed ever brighter, I decided I wanted to move to this peculiar, beautiful town, and hole myself up in this dim neon-glowing room and become an eccentric local, and drink tequila and grapefruit slushies. Forever.

BEHOLD ITS BEAUTY.

Unfortunately, we had to drive to Tennessee the next day, so we dragged ourself off the bar stools, bid farewell to our 5-hour friends, stumbled home and assassinated a pizza.

Conclusion: If you go anywhere in the States, go to Savannah. It is impossible not to fall in love. And I don’t just mean with tequila and grapefruit slushies.

UP NEXT: Mountains, Dolly Parton and bears in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.