Homage to the River City

Sadly, our time in Memphis has come to an end. We have packed up, departed and are en route back to our Seattle homeland. I have devoted several posts to Memphis thus far, but have mostly framed them from the perspective of how it differs from the Northwest. This post will focus on the River City in and of itself: novel things to do and see. I apologize if there is some redundancy from previous posts but I’m sure there are several things on this list that I have not blogged about before. 

So let’s start with the big one: I say Memphis, You say… (if you’re not from Memphis, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?) You say… Graceland (or Elvis, close enough)! Jeff and I waited to see this famous tourist attraction until the spring when my parents came into town. We figured we didn’t need to pay the (borderline outrageous) admission more than once apiece. Locals seem to view Graceland akin to how Seattleites think of the Space Needle (pre recent remodel): it’s what tourists flock to and the most iconic thing in our city but we rarely, if ever, go there. 

Graceland is located in, shall we say, not the greatest part of the city. It’s south of downtown and due west of the airport. I’m sure it was a lovely spot when Elvis purchased it, but things change over time… Anyways, we arrived in early afternoon on a rainy day. One cannot simply drive directly up to Graceland. We were ushered into a pay lot across the street by the visitor’s center where we purchased our tickets for the day’s experience. There were several expensive options. We opted for the tour that included a trip to the mansion along with access to additional exhibits of his automobiles, outfits, records, and memorabilia. We excluded the tour of his airplanes, mainly because they were outside and it was pouring rain, and we did not upgrade to any of the expertly guided VIP tours.  

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After a short intro video at the visitor’s center, we waited to catch a shuttle to drive us across the street to the mansion and were each handed a tablet and headphones for our self-guided tour. I spent the first several minutes of the tour pondering why B-list actor John Stamos was my not-so-personal-guide directing me though Graceland. I then recalled his character Uncle Jesse from Full House doing a decent Elvis impersonation and thought perhaps the actor’s ties to Elvis were deeper than I knew. Turns out Elvis had an identical twin brother named Jesse who was stillborn, and John Stamos’ character on Full House was named in his honor. There’s some interesting trivia for you…

Anyways, I did not find the outside of the mansion and property itself to be particularly noteworthy. But once you ventured inside, Elvis’ personality and unique stylistic choices became evident. The decorations between rooms varied widely and several rooms had themes, like the famous jungle room, which due to the carpeted ceilings was known to have great acoustics.

The tour included a walkthrough of the main and lower levels but excluded the upper private bedrooms. From the outside, the home does not look particularly large, but once inside and upon discovering the generously sized finished basement, it feels much larger. I enjoyed descending the stairs to the lower level which, for reasons known only to Elvis, were surrounded on all sides by mirrors. 

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Here are a couple other photos I took of some of my favorite rooms. Elvis really seemed to have a subtle, elegant sense of style… haha.

The tour then went out the backside of the building to show his carports, admin office, a small building for memorabilia, his private racquetball room, and his outdoor pool. The mansion tour ended with his headstone, and those of other family members who remain buried on the grounds. 

We then caught the shuttle which carried us back across the street towards the visitors center where we could now tour the new(ish) Elvis Entertainment Complex which included many of his cars, outfits, records, and more information about his personal life, history, and influence. It was an extra $20 to include this in addition to the Mansion Tour, but I would say it was well worth it. Especially if you’re only planning to hit Graceland once, as we were. 

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My dad in front of Elvis’ pink Cadillac

Graceland may be the most well known Memphis attraction but the city has a deep musical heritage outside of Elvis as well. From the blues legends that performed on Beale Street to the birth of Rock and Roll at Sun Studios, many musical greats, including the likes of Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, have ties to Memphis. 

One of the first tourist attractions that Jeff and I visited after moving to Memphis last year was traveling downtown to walk Beale Street and tour the Rock n Soul Museum. I enjoyed the museum as it included a rich audio tour that delved into the cultural influences of the music as well as provided samples of music pointing out the differences in genres and its evolution over time. 

We did not tour Sun Studios but I’m pretty sure I captured its complete essence and history by taking a photo of its outside.

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We also further absorbed the music culture by snapping these completely unposed photos beside other musical motifs along Beale Street.

Though Memphis is known for its musical history, it experienced some of its largest growth and prosperity in the post Civil War era due to its position along the Mississippi River and becoming one of the world’s largest cotton markets. Prior to moving to the South my knowledge of this crop was practically nil. I remember driving past blooming fields of cotton for the first time in the fall and doing a double-take trying to figure out what all those white fluffy things were (I’m happy to say that I used my high-level deduction skills and figured it out).

An elderly neighbor alerted me to the historical significance of cotton in the area as I was attempting a quick run to the store one evening. That quick trip ended up with me hovering awkwardly besides my car for about 30-minutes as said neighbor educated me in the growth, harvesting, and history of cotton trading in the area. The one-sided conversation ended with a vast increase in my knowledge of cotton, as well as a few newly acquired mosquito bites around my ankles.

Several months later, Jeff and I visited the Cotton Museum at the site of the old Memphis Cotton Exchange and learned more about its historic role in this area (though honestly, much of the information was review of what my neighbor friend had told me). The museum was small but informative and had some nice displays and firsthand accounts from people involved in each aspect of the cotton industry.    

Due to its location in the South, trade destination along the river, and involvement with cash crops, Memphis has long been a site of civil rights violations and issues. I discussed this history and current issues more in a previous post (Ruminations on Race: Learning more about our Nation’s injustices) so won’t go into detail again. But, since this is an overview of things to do, see, and learn, in the city, I thought it remiss to not mention it. Also, I’d like to remind everyone of the well-worth-seeing Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination.

A common moniker for Memphis is the River City (though I don’t think it’s alone in claiming that nickname). The very first thing we did in Memphis, over a year ago, before we even moved here and were still en route to Virginia, was stop at a park along the Mississippi River. Before this, I had never actually stood beside and seen this great river. I remember my giddiness as we crossed over the I-40 bridge from Arkansas to Tennessee and pulled over to a park on Mud Island. 

I have since had the pleasure of viewing this impressive river as far north as Minneapolis and as far south as New Orleans. We have also enjoyed the opportunity to view it throughout different seasons. We made a point of visiting it after heavy rains when it was at flood levels this past March and were in awe of how such a large river can still fluctuate so significantly over time. Although, not taken from the exact same spot, hopefully the below photos can help illustrate this. The first, I took at the end of June last year, the second, the beginning of March.  

Impressive, in a much different way, is the large pyramid that is evident on the Memphis skyline as soon as you pass into town. As we approached the city for the first time I remember discussing with Jeff what was actually inside the pyramid. About this time we passed a billboard, which Jeff read, I merely scanned, and he responded, “It’s a Bass Pro Shop.” Then I remember going, “No, it can’t be… that must just be a sponsor or something.” Yeah, turns out the giant pyramid is, in fact, one of the world’s largest Bass Pro Shops. Also, turns out, my husband is better at reading than me, though this was not a new revelation. 

Unsurprisingly, the pyramid was not initially built to be a Bass Pro Shop. It was built in the early 90’s, playing into Memphis’ Egyptian namesake, and was intended for use as a sports and entertainment venue. It was used as such for over a decade but encountered several problems and would have required a pricey remodel to continue serving in this area. Instead the city built a new arena, the FedEx Forum, and the pyramid went dark. It sat vacant for over another decade, with some believing it was cursed, before plans were made to renovate it into the outdoors shop. 

We visited this unique building on a few occasions while in Memphis. Not that we buy or use many of the products from Bass Pro, but the store has live fish, waterfowl, and alligators inside, an indoor hotel, bowling alley, restaurant, and America’s tallest freestanding elevator in the center of the pyramid that leads to a lookout patio at the top. Once inside the elevator you get to hear a recorded voice with an unabashed Southern twang that recounts the bizarre story of turning the pyramid into a Bass Pro Shop. Turns out catching a 30-pound fish was the deciding factor.  

Another, distinctly odd Memphis edifice is the Peabody Hotel. Well, okay, the building itself isn’t that odd. It’s an old luxury hotel in downtown Memphis that opened in 1925. The odd thing about it is the ducks. Yes, ducks. At some point in the history of the hotel, the general manager, who was fairly inebriated at the time, thought it would be funny to place some ducks in the fountain of the hotel lobby. Turns out the guests loved it and it has since become an elaborate tradition. Five mallard ducks (one drake and four hens) live in a carefully constructed “duck palace” on the rooftop of the hotel. Then, in the mornings, they are escorted down the elevators, given the red carpet treatment (literally, there’s a red carpet), and waddle into the fountain in the hotel lobby. In the evenings they are then escorted back to the rooftop. So twice a day, everyday, for decades, hundreds of onlookers gather to watch a handful of normal, everyday ducks, walk through this hotel. Ridiculous… or marketing genius? A little from column A, a little from column B?

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Less of a tourist destination and more of a local hotspot for outdoor enthusiasts, is Shelby Farms. Shelby Farms is one of the largest urban parks in the country, five times the size of Central Park in New York City. It is it filled with multi-use trails, lakes, forests, and fields. We made multiple trips there during our stay, including participating in the 10k run in the Memphis Road Race Series last fall. 

On the south side of the park are several unpaved trails that I chose to explore one morning. My sense of direction in the woods is not great but I read the guide at the trailhead and saw that the different colored routes ranged from 2-4 miles. Unfortunately, I falsely assumed that these routes were loops. After 35-40 minutes on my jog I was thinking, I should be just about back to my car now… but instead the trail stopped. I pulled out my cell phone, reviewed my GPS, and realized I was pretty much as far away from my car as possible. Apparently the distances were marked point-to-point. Live and learn.

There were also several other amenities in the park that, had we stayed here longer we would have loved to enjoy. These included paddle boat rentals, a zip-line course, and horseback rides. The park is also home to a small herd of bison. No, bison are not native to the area. They imported them so they can live here in the park. I do not know exactly why. But I guess it’s less odd than ducks living in a hotel lobby, or a Bass Pro Shop in a giant Egyptian Pyramid…

It seems fitting that I end this homage with a review of some BBQ and food items. Besides music and Elvis, Memphis may be most well known for their wonderful BBQ. I, mind you, am not a huge BBQ fan. I’m not a vegetarian but I rarely crave meat and could go several days happily without it. I’m a bit picky with my meat as well, especially red meats, I don’t care for them when they’re grisly or tough, regardless of the flavor. That’s why tripe and I will never get along… I can’t get past the texture.

Anyways, prior to coming to Memphis I’ve been somewhat indifferent to the BBQ I’ve had in the past. But then again, I had never tried Memphis BBQ – the pork that has been slow-cooked for days whose meat is moist and delicious and basically falls of the bone and into your awaiting mouth. I quickly realized that I liked this kind of BBQ.

Of course, there are different types of BBQ. If you go to Texas and say BBQ they’ll think beef. But in Memphis, it’s all about the pork. Sure, they have everything on the menu, but the specialty is pork. There are numerous delicious local BBQ joints here. When I first moved here I asked several people their favorite spot and got almost as many different answers. Super helpful (I heard that Tennesseans disagree on just about everything except that they all love Dolly Parton).

One of the more famous local spots is Central BBQ, so we tried that one first. Jeff got the pork ribs and I got some pulled pork plate. I generally don’t like eating things off the bone, and certainly enjoyed my plate, but after tasting Jeff’s ribs I was like, man, I wish I got that. We went to Central’s a couple more times during our stay and I ordered the ribs from then on. So delicious!

We also tried the famous Rendezvous downtown. Now, this one stood out for a couple reasons. One, it was a famous tourist spot and has great ambiance. Two, almost all the locals I asked said that this was not their favorite place for BBQ. Nevertheless, we felt compelled to try it. It’s located downtown in a back alley and is surrounded by festive murals. You descend underground to eat and the walls are decorated with fun knick-knacks. 

Rendezvous is known more for their dry rub, whereas I tend to like my meat doused with sauce. We both ordered the pork ribs, to compared with Central’s, and though I did find their rub quite flavorful, found the quality of their ribs to be more tough, and their sides not as great. Turns out I agreed with the locals: not bad, but not the best. Below is a pic of Central’s pork ribs on the left, Rendezvous’ on the right:

Rendezvous does do a great job with marketing though, and they have some killer BBQ nachos that they serve as local sports arenas. Yes, BBQ nachos. I did not realize this was a thing. But in Memphis, it most definitely is, and it’s about what it sounds like: nacho chips covered in melted cheese, topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, and optionally jalapenos. Fork and napkin are required. But they are delicious. Take note Seattle, they may not have the same intoxicating aroma, but these are way better than garlic fries.

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I did not take a photo of Rendezvous’ BBQ nachos but found this pic online at: http://blog.goldbelly.com/blog/2017/7/25/memphis-bbq-nachos-go-nationwide

And finally, something I didn’t realize is a Memphis treasure, but apparently is: Jerry’s Sno Cones. I remember the first time someone asked if I had been there yet and I responded somewhat dismissively like, “Wait, a whole place that specializes in snow cones? Like the type you get from the pop-up stands at a festival with the cheap shaved ice and neon flavors?” I had difficulty fathoming why a permanent business would specialize in this and how it could be that amazing. She looked at me as if I had just spoken blasphemy. Oh, I thought, I better find out more about this Jerry’s place…

So I started asking around, and basically every local has frequented Jerry’s, especially in the warmer months, and had their own favorite flavor (again, like the BBQ spots, there was absolutely no consensus on what was the best). There were now two locations, that served exactly the same menu, but most people said we should go to the original spot, for the full cultural experience. Unfortunately, for various reasons, we ended up on both of our visits, dining at the newer location.

For the uninitiated, let me describe Jerry’s, as no, it is no ordinary snow cone experience. First off, there are like a gajillion flavor options. Not an exaggeration. Many of the flavors are combos of syrups and have silly completely non-self-evident names. The first time I went I got a Napoleon Dynamite, Jeff got a Fuzzy Navel, and the second time I got a My Tie while Jeff got a Pink Cadillac. It can take awhile to decipher the menu and figure out your flavor combo, it is not great for the indecisive. Fortunately, there is usually a long enough line that you have ample time to run through multiple options in your head. Secondly, you can order each snow cone as a Supreme which means… wait for it… that there is a swirl of vanilla ice cream in the snow cone. I know, I wasn’t sure about this combo either. I mean, shaved ice… with ice cream. Turns out, it works.

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I think it works because the shaved ice is super fine and smooth. It’s not that chunky, carnival ice that crunches as you chew it. It’s super smooth, and super flavorful as it’s fully saturated in whatever syrup(s) you selected and it blends somewhat seamlessly with the simple vanilla ice cream. Now to you Seattleites, let me clarify, just because there are a gazillion fruity flavors this is not by any means a healthy dessert. There may be some actual fruit extracts in the flavors (maybe?) but it’s mostly syrup and dye. Yes, perhaps the concept is disappointing. But the product is delicious. It can’t be good for you blood sugar levels. But it is good for the soul. 

On that sweet note, I’ll end this little tribute of things to do and see in Memphis. I’m sure I’ve missed some staples but we were only here for a short while. We’ve enjoyed our experiences here in the River City. We’ll miss some of the unique attributes and offerings of this part of the country, and definitely miss seeing the friends and connections we’ve made here. But we are also looking forward to our return to Seattle. 

I will probably have at least one more post on this site about lessons or things I learned from living cross-country for a year. So if you like reflective entries, the next one will be for you. Shortly though, I will no longer be a Seattleite in the South, so this blog is nearing an end. It’s been a great year! 

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