Prior to Tennessee, our route had been fairly straightforward. A straight shot to Arizona from Nebraska, then eastward along the southern border (AZ > NM > TX > LA > MS). But by the time we reached our friend in Oxford, MS, we realized we’d been racing across the country only to stick with an itinerary we had never really established. Beyond that, our work schedules were growing totally chaotic. If we spent four days in a city, nearly two of them were spent setting up and taking down our campsite, and figuring out our plans in between. So we stopped rushing ourselves, and let the trip take us, instead of the other way around.
Though we hadn’t originally planned to hit Tennessee so early, Memphis was only a few hours north of Oxford, MS, and we had it on good authority (the mighty oral historian Sara Wood), that it was exactly the sort of underdog city we get most excited about. So we headed north to the Bluff City, parking Elsie at T.O. Fuller State Park, the first state park opened to African Americans east of the Mississippi River and one of the most impeccably maintained parks on our trip. In fact, at the end of our stay, we stopped to thank the man who was cleaning the facilities. In exchange for a site at the park, he told us, he’d agreed to repaint and repair the bathrooms. He took great pride in his work, and was the first person on our trip to articulate what Mel and I have come to regard as a universal truth: despite everything else, if the bathrooms are comfortable, so is the park. T.O. Fuller is probably the most urban state park we’ve stayed in so far – the gates to the park are literally in the middle of a neighborhood – but the experience was wonderful. And despite its proximity to the city, the park still featured a great hiking trail and other nature opportunities, too.
We spent our first few days in Memphis catching up on work, which of course is not the most sexy material to discuss on a travel blog, but then again, it’s the truth. We found several suitable coffee shops in the city (Bluff City Coffee, City & State), worked the mornings away, and then – barring any deadlines or other pressing issues – we’d spend a few hours in the afternoon checking off the various items we were excited to experience in Memphis. On one particular afternoon – after weeks of neglect – we took our bikes to the nearest repair shop we could find, a place called Victory Bicycle Studio. We stopped in looking for a quick tune-up, and left with a boatload of recommendations from Clark Butcher (founder) and Nick Lewis (sales manager).
Typically, my experience at the bike shop is the same as my experience at the autobody shop. I never really understand the problem, I pay for something I probably don’t need, and I sound like an idiot the whole time. These dudes were different. Not only did they shoot us straight on what we actually needed versus what we could fix ourselves later, but they also took a sincere interest in our trip, in our lives, and what we had planned for Memphis. Among many other items, they pointed us in the direction ofCentral BBQ. Mel got the pulled pork nachos. I got the beef brisket plate. We ate it like we’d just been rescued from a deserted island. It was dirty, and it was delicious.
Two days later, after picking up our newly re-tuned bikes, we cruised up and down the Memphis Riverfront. With our bikes no longer screaming and flaking rust, we rode casually until sundown. We took in the Memphis skyline behind us, the various bridges over the Mississippi, the locals engaged in various activities up and down the park.
That night, before heading back to T.O. Fuller, we parked downtown and walked to the famous Peabody Hotel. We ordered some fancy drinks and took in the opulence of the Grand Lobby, the live ducks preening in the fountain, waiting for the official Peabody Duckmaster to march them back to the Duck Palace housed on the hotel roof. (Note: I’ve sold a story focused exclusively on the Duckmaster to Audubon magazine, which I’ll post once it goes live on the website. The story should answer all of the burning questions my previous statement may have dredged up).
A note on the Peabody Hotel from Mississippi author David Cohn, written in 1935: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepherd’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby…ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta…”
Later in the week, we toured the “Birthplace of Rock N’ Roll,” Memphis’ famous Sun Studio. To be honest with you, we don’t exactly seek out these sorts of major tourist attractions. Some are great and some aren’t, but in general, they’re usually more expensive and feel less authentic than the stuff we find on our own. That, and it sort of negates our whole “off the beaten path” philosophy. But we happened to be in the area, and we already decided we were going to skip out on Graceland, so we decided we’d compromise and shell out the $12/ticket. And guess what? We’re damn glad we did.
The tour didn’t put on airs or drag you through a bunch of footnotes before leading you to the main event. The whole show takes less than an hour, and more than half of that is spent in the same room in which Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others recorded their greatest hits. The studio looks untouched since its glory days, and both Mel and I agreed after we stepped outside again that we’d been more affected by the experience than we thought we would. There was just something about standing in the center of that pale studio as “Great Balls of Fire” played over the speaker, looking at the old microphones, the guitars, the dingy acoustic wall panels, and knowing that in this very spot spawned the beginning of a movement that irrevocably changed the cultural landscape, that inspired the musicians that would later inspire me, that would provide the soundtrack to my angsty teenage years, my college years, my eventual writing life–it gave us chills.
We hit up Beale Street, too, though to be honest, it didn’t do much for us. That being said, we didn’t visit on the most happening night. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday, not long after dinnertime, and the place felt empty. A solicitor almost coaxed us into shelling over $20. Most of the bars seemed quiet if not altogether closed. And we couldn’t help comparing it to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which we’d visited just a few weeks prior. Comparatively, Beale Street felt deserted. But who knows–on the right night, I’m sure it’s a fun place to be. We’re not throwing shade here, I promise! Next time we’ll try it again.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of our time in Memphis, however, was our tour of the National Civil Rights Museum. Without a doubt, it was the most impactful museum I have ever set foot in. I like to think I’m a fairly engaged citizen, someone who has taken pro-active steps to learn about and empathize with other cultures, other classes, other races, other flavors of human experience. The NCRM starts not during the Civil Rights Era in the United States, but at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in the 15th century. We spent nearly five hours at the museum, gradually working our way through a brutal and uninterrupted narrative of slavery and prejudice. The latter part of the narrative is housed in the original Lorraine Motel, where MLK, Jr. was assassinated. The total impact – to trace so many hundred years of persecution – is overwhelming. We both left the museum in an incredibly somber mood, feeling both more educated, but also more disturbed by everything that had been omitted in our midwestern educations. It is my sincere belief that every high school student should tour this museum.
Thus ended our journey through Memphis, but not entirely the state of Tennessee. Several weeks later, after touring Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and both Carolinas, we returned to the Volunteer State once again. To kill a week until we were set to visit our friends in Nashville, we camped out at Panther Creek State Park, roughly an hour northeast of Knoxville. Because Panther Creek isn’t located near any sizable city, we spent most of our time in the park, Mel was swamped with communications from her Tabled vendors, me slogging my way through edits for my very first piece for The New Yorker. Honestly, the week is a blur, but I do remember running with Mel up a torturously long and steep hill to reach the park’s main overlook, and the Cherokee Reservoir stretched out below. It remains one of my favorite views from our entire trip.
We spent the next week in Nashville, where our friends James and Emily Pierce were kind enough to not only let us crash at their new home (and park Elsie in their backyard), but also to show us around the city. We said we like donuts. They took us to Fox’s Donut Den. We said we like books. They took us to Parnassus Books. We said we like hot fried chicken. They took us to Prince’s Hot Chicken, “so hot you feel it twice,” some say. (Note: Prince’s is the real deal. Don’t miss it. This place currently holds my personal number one spot for best restaurant on the trip.). Simply put, the two of them made Mel and I feel at home, gave us a much needed respite from life in a trailer, and bid us adieu with gifts and hugs and the warmest wishes. Also, they had a warm shower without cob webs. BIG PLUS!
We left Nashville and headed two hours southeast to Fall Creek Falls, the largest state park in Tennessee. The next morning, we picked my parents up at the Chattanooga airport, grabbed a bite to eat in downtown Chattanooga, and headed back to the park. We’d planned ahead just far enough to reserve my parents a room in the Inn at Fall Creek Falls, which worked out really well. In the morning, they’d wake up and drive over to our campsite. We’d make them breakfast in the trailer or around the campfire. We’d then go for a hike or a drive, see the various sights at the park, and at night, they’d drive back across the lake and retire at the inn. Everyone had the space they needed, and my parents – who’d spent nearly as much time working on the trailer as we did – got plenty of time to enjoy Elsie in her element.
Our episode of Tiny House Hunters premiered on HGTV during my parent’s last night at Fall Creek Falls. After eating dinner in the lodge, we took a seat in front of the big TV in the lobby. In the middle of a forest, with a view of the lake just outside, we watched ourselves be idiots on cable TV. The juxtaposition of our first and likely only appearance on national television with our rustic, state park atmosphere seemed goofy and sort of perfect. And though of course it was embarrassing to watch ourselves on screen, it was also heartening to think about how far Elsie had come, and how far it had taken us without any major issues.
In the morning, my parents flew home, and the next day, we were off to Kentucky.