Hello from the final stop on our now nearly-completed cross-country journey, Atlanta, Georgia. We’ve been back in the south in earnest for a few weeks now, in some ways since Rogers. But our most recent stop before this one made it clear – Memphis, Tennessee.
I’m going to start with one thing we did not do while in Memphis, just to get this out of the way. It may be one of the city’s most famous attractions, drawing people quite literally from all over the world, but we did not go to Graceland. I’m sorry, but $77 is an unconscionable amount to charge for anything short of Disneyworld. That’s practically an entire year of national park access, or a moderately rowdy night out on Beale Street. I’d been to Graceland once before (and don’t get me wrong, it was interesting), but Morgan was ambivalent at best, so we skipped it.
We did, quite accidentally, visit during the tail end of Elvis Week, a yearly pilgrimage of The King’s fans from all over the world for a variety of events, concerts, and other exhibitions, including a candlelight vigil overnight on the anniversary of his death. This was something I planned to go to initially. It seems like it would be pretty cool, and great blog content, as Morgan repeatedly reminded me. However, I reconsidered when I caught the local news giving weather updates for 5 or 6 a.m. the next morning when they said they expected the vigil to be wrapping up. No thank you.
Now, on to what we did get up to in our two weeks in the Bluff City.
There would simply be no Memphis without the Mississippi River. And unlike a disturbingly large number of waterfront cities, Memphis makes the most of its location along Old Man River. One of the coolest things the area offers is the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian bridge that stretches from Arkansas across the river to southern Memphis. I parked on the Arkansas side (in the scenic casino town of West Memphis), and started the two-mile round trip walk.
The pedestrian bridge runs alongside the Harahan Bridge, a century-old structure that used to be the main river crossing in the area before the current I-40 bridge was built. It still carries trains, which cause some rather concerning rumbling every time they pass through. With only a passing thought of the bridge tumbling down into the Mississippi, I made the walk across, and the views are hard to beat. Initially, I’d wondered why Memphis was so developed on the river’s east side, but there was nothing for miles on the west. It’s pretty apparent once you get up on the bridge; Memphis is elevated on a hill (hence the nickname Bluff City), while the western side of the river is about as flat as can be and essentially floods anytime the Mississippi rises.
For the third time on our now nearly yearlong ramble, we were lucky enough to have my parents visit us. They had a road trip odyssey of their own getting here, driving first from southwest Florida to our old stomping grounds on the Forgotten Coast, then to Oxford, Mississippi, and finally to us here in Memphis. All in all, it was a drive of nearly 2,200 miles round trip – an impressive feat even for seasoned road warriors like Morgan and myself. The pace of their visit was similarly high-speed, but looking back, we saw and did an impressive amount of what I had planned for two weeks in Memphis in just about two and a half days.
As always seems to be the case, I’m terrible at taking pictures when we have visitors or are showing people around, so apologies in advance if these don’t live up to the high, high standards we’ve set in the past.
One of our first visits once they arrived was to Memphis’ Rock N’ Soul Museum, one of the half-dozen or more music museums, hall of fame, and other music-related societies in the city. We picked this one since it’s part of the Smithsonian, which hasn’t let us down before – and didn’t this time, either.
The museum was set up as a bunch of audio exhibits you could listen to at your own pace, with items to showcase the topics being discussed. Alongside the exhibits were various jukeboxes from the eras, which also had musical stops you could listen to. I thought the museum was pretty fascinating, showing how country, blues, rock, and soul all emerged from the same basic set of influences right here in Memphis. My parents enjoyed it a lot too – although my mom admitted she switched from exhibits to music from the jukeboxes at some point along the way.
If you’ve ever been to Memphis, you’ve probably seen the enormous, extremely out-of-place pyramid down by the river. I will admit it took me a longer time than it maybe should have to make the connection between Memphis, Tennessee, and its namesake Memphis, Egypt – hence the reason for the pyramid.
At one point, it was a sports and music venue, seating more than 20,000 people. These days, it’s a Bass Pro Shop, but that doesn’t even begin to describe the pure retail insanity that this place is. I understand big stores are kind of Bass Pro Shop’s “thing” – Morgan insisted she’d seen some big ones in the past. But when we first crossed the bridge and saw this one, she was basically this emoji: 🤯
To refer to this thing simply as a Bass Pro Shop is a fairly significant understatement. It’s more like a Vegas casino, including the hunting lodge-themed hotel that operates on the upper floors, complete with balconies where guests can sit in rocking chairs and survey the shoppers below. There’s also a bird hunting heritage museum, at least two restaurants, and a huge aquarium and taxidermy exhibit. It’s the kind of place where they make you go through turnstiles to make sure no one’s hiding in the store overnight – not that I didn’t think about the idea a bit.
I probably could have spent hours wandering this place, considering buying dozens of things I objectively don’t need and can’t afford. But after a few minutes of shopping, Morgan, my parents, and I headed for the main reason for our visit.
Square in the center of the pyramid is the enormous elevator you see below. In fact, it’s the tallest freestanding elevator in the country, stretching 28 stories above the retail floor. I didn’t think this would bother me. But once you look out about halfway up and see the floor receding away at an alarming speed and nothing around you, I’ll admit my knees got a little wobbly. For the sake of my elevator companions’ pride, I won’t disclose anyone else’s reactions.
Of course, the ride was very worth it once we reached the top, where two observation decks provide some of the best city views we’ve seen in a long while. You could easily see three states from these somewhat unsettlingly clear glass decks, and we even grabbed one of the best lunches I’ve ever had 30 stories up.
Speaking of food, there was certainly no shortage of amazing meals while my parents were visiting. But there are two Memphis institutions that deserve a special mention. The first was, coincidentally, right down the alley from my parents’ hotel. And yes, it was an alley. Charlie Vergos Rendezvous is quite literally located down a working alley, in the basement of a building that looks like it would have been knocked down decades ago if not for the basement tenant. It’s hard to miss – unlike most alleys, instead of smelling like trash and urine, it was filled with the smell of broiling pork, literally so thick you could see it belching out of the restaurant’s vents.
They’re definitely iconic Memphis food – broiled instead of smoked, dry rubbed instead of sauced, and covered with a thick coating of spices. They’re definitely not for everyone, but I appreciated getting some ultra-authentic regional flavor. Plus, I’ve rarely had food come out this fast. I guess this make sense, considering they’re broiling ribs from the moment they open until they serve their final customer.
The other spot was located a bit further south, an old-school, historic Greek diner known as The Arcade Restaurant. I’m not overhyping when I say historic – Elvis had his own special booth! Regrettably, they didn’t have gluten-free buns so no banana and peanut butter burgers for me; perhaps next time.
Morgan and I skipped the riverboat in New Orleans, so there was no way we could miss out on a trip along the Mighty Mississippi while my parents were in Memphis. So we booked a guided steamboat ride for one afternoon. These boats were docked at the bottom of a very long, steep, cobblestone hill that I was fairly sure might kill either Morgan or my mother. Thankfully, we all made it down and up safely. The trip was a fun and relaxing one between Memphis’ two bridges, with half tour narration and half music from Memphis-related artists.
Of course, we also couldn’t miss one of Memphis’ longest-running and most famous attractions, the Peabody Ducks. For more than 90 years now, a rotating group of ducks has lived in a luxury suite on the top floor of the hotel, which is among the highest-class in Memphis. Every day at 11am, the official “Duckmaster” leads them to the elevator, down to the lobby, and across a red carpet to the hotel’s lobby fountain. Here, they hang out all day in luxury before the process repeats in reverse at 5pm.
There was even a kid who acted as “honorary duckmaster,” a job Morgan said she wanted before I unfortunately had to break it to her that she may have aged out of the program. I have to say, the ducks are pretty adorable.
After a few days of entertaining my parents, eating and drinking, and generally going nonstop, I needed a bit of a break from the hustle and bustle of Memphis. Luckily, the area has one of the nicer and more remote-feeling urban parks we’ve found, known as Shelby Farms Park. It’s located about 20 minutes outside of Memphis, but feels much further.
There’s also no shortage of animal friends to meet along the trail – including honest-to-goodness bison. When I saw the sign on the fence, I initially wasn’t sure whether it was a joke. But sure enough, the park has a bison herd. Supposedly, there are more than a dozen at most times, but even keeping my eyes peeled, I didn’t spot any. We’ll just have to take their word for it, I suppose.
My Memphis book was “The Firm,” the best-selling John Grisham legal thriller perhaps best known for the Tom Cruise movie it spawned. This book was actually much more Memphis-y than I expected, and I found myself routinely consulting Google Maps to look up streets and cities. After watching the movie with Morgan (ask me why it’s way worse than the book!), I figured I had to dedicate a day to exploring some of the locations from both.
My first task was to try to locate where The Firm itself would have been. Based on clues from the book, it would be a five-story building on Front Street, likely between Gayoso Avenue and Beale Street. It was not surprising to find nothing like this quite existed. This was the closest I found.
Just imagine Wilford Brimley up on the top floor spying on people and plotting all sorts of weird shit. What I did find just down the street, quite by accident, was the filming location used in the movie. The building has seen some better days, so perhaps Mitch did get them after all.
This is all just a few blocks down from the Cotton Exchange building, where Tammy sets up her office space. There are still offices there today, along with what looks like a very nice but very dull “cotton museum.” It’s right across the street from the Front Street Deli, where Mitch first meets with the FBI. There does appear to be an actual Front Street Deli, but I couldn’t get close due to construction.
One of the most easily recognizable locations from the movie (though not the book) is from when (spoiler alert) Tom Cruise has to make a getaway from some bad guys chasing him through Memphis. In what must be an all-time dumb escape decision, he gets on the very slow and also 100% predictable tramway from downtown to Mud Island, a large residential and commercial development between the city and the Mississippi River. This tram is unfortunately no longer in operation, but still sits there, providing a great hiding spot for homeless guys who delight in startling tourists. Not that I’d know anything about that that. I ended up taking the pedestrian bridge over instead, which offered some pretty great views.
From here, my Firm-centric tour took a major detour, mostly because of how incredible one of Mud Island’s attractions is to geography nerds like yours truly. The area is home to a scale model of the entire Mississippi River system (including tributaries) that stretches nearly a half mile long from a mini Lake Itasca to a swimming pool-sized Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the water system wasn’t running, so you’ll have to use your imagination a bit.
Along the way, metal plaques represent river communities, including, of course, Memphis. If you like history, geography, or science, this is an easy place to get lost in for an hour or more.
Memphis is located essentially as far south and west in Tennessee as you can get, so I naturally couldn’t pass up a chance for a little trip to nearby Mississippi. We spent a day in the sort of odd gulf coast casino town of Biloxi back in January, and I was eager to see what the northern part of the state had to offer. My destination was Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss, for college sports fans.) My parents had overnighted here on the way up to visit Morgan and I earlier in this visit, and had nothing but good things to say, so I figured I’d find out for myself. Out of all the towns with colleges that we’ve visited on this trip, Oxford without a doubt had the highest ratio of town to college. It wouldn’t be a leap to believe there just wouldn’t be anything here at all (much like the rest of the area) if not for the school.
Before heading into town, I made a stop on the outskirts at the home of legendary southern writer William Faulkner, known as Rowan Oak. I love southern and western fiction, and I still regret missing Flannery O’Connor’s home in Savannah, so this was a must-do. I’m generally trusting of my GPS, but I had some doubts as it led me down a dirt road into the forest with no house in sight. After a while, it did appear, set behind a row of cedars like something out of a southern gothic novel.
The house and the grounds were beautiful and interesting in the way a lot of big, old southern properties are, with layers and layers of history, updates, and improvements on top of one another. I thought it was particularly cool getting to see his writing room, which still had the outline of his 1954 book, “A Fable.”
Oxford itself is an extremely nice little town centered around one of those lovely old-timey town squares, surrounded by city hall, lots of local restaurants, and some of the honest-to-god preppiest clothing stores I could have imagined.
I’d also like to tip my hat to Square Books, which seems like a veritable local bookselling empire in Oxford, with at least four locations within walking distance, including Off-Square Books, Rare Square Books, and Square Books Jr. Naturally, this was a little confusing for someone navigating the town for the first time (didn’t I just walk past you?), but it was easily one of the best bookstores I’ve seen on our trip. And we go to a LOT of bookstores. There was even, appropriately, an entire Faulkner section.
Of course, the real attraction in Oxford is the University of Mississippi, an absolutely ridiculously sprawling campus that once again makes me both disappointed and glad I went to little old 6,000-student American University. They certainly put our quad and frat houses to shame.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Ole Miss, strictly because one of my all-time favorite athletes, Eli Manning (no, seriously) along with his father Archie, went there. There’s even a Manning Way!
Back in town later that evening, I was even able to catch a Muscadine Bloodline show a block off the square, at a very nice theater for a very cheap ticket. I’ll admit it was a bit odd being in a crowd otherwise exclusively filled with 20-year-old frat bros and their cowboy boot-wearing dates and country music junkies in their mid-50s.
Overall, Oxford is a very cool, albeit very small, town that certainly would provide a different kind of college experience than either Morgan or I had.
There’s a saying I heard somewhere in Memphis that it’s a city that’s torn down more history than most other cities will ever have. This is something I absolutely buy, especially after my visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. I was excited to see Stax, which was home to artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, and more. What I didn’t know was that the real Stax was actually demolished in the 1980s, with an exact replica rebuilt for the museum.
They even reconstructed the famous Stax studio itself, right down to its weirdly sloping floor. The building had been a movie theater before being converted into a recording studio, which left the strange slope in what had been the seating area. A lot of music people are convinced this is responsible for the unusually distinct sound that Stax was able to get from their artists.
In reviews I’d read online, I’d been warned there was a lot of reading at this museum. And if you look at the first picture below, you can see they weren’t kidding. There were probably a few dozen of these, and as much as I love reading, I didn’t feel like finishing an entire novel while standing. I mostly skimmed and checked out the exhibits, which included Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac.
Stax was located in a particularly rough neighborhood, even for Memphis and even as someone who lived in some not-so-savory places in DC. I was not quite aware of just how rough, however, until I drove a few blocks out of my way afterward looking for the birth home of Aretha Franklin, which Google Maps told me was nearby.
Forgive the mediocre picture, but this was not the kind of area where you want to get out of or even stop your car. Down the street, two homeless guys were brawling, and a junkie was passed out on the sidewalk. All of the nearby homes had either been demolished or were leaning to the point where they were about to fall over. Aretha’s house didn’t look far behind, despite the fence and plaque marking the site. Torn down more history than most cities have? Yes, that sounds about right.
Unfortunately, Memphis is also home to some of America’s darker history – particularly the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in April 1968. The city has made the most out of this dark distinction by building the National Civil Rights Museum, with the Lorraine included as part of it. I went to the museum on my first visit to Memphis back in 2013, but after a major overhaul a few years later, it felt like a completely new experience.
It’s a linear museum that tells the story of slavery and civil rights in America as you walk through what feels like endless exhibits. This longness is at least partly by design – it’s easy to see just how long and deep the struggle was on a real-life scale. It even included some exhibits on Oxford that explored issues that were, uh, let’s say “downplayed” when I visited a few days earlier. Also, I’m decidedly not one of those museum scolds who expects utter silence and awed respect, but some of the reactions from our fellow visitors were…weird, including the person next to Morgan who saw the exhibit in the first photo below and went, “OOOH, a slave ship!”
The museum built to a conclusion that took us inside the Lorraine Motel, with a look into the room King spent his last hours, and out onto the balcony where he was killed. It’s a pretty heavy place, and it’s hard not to leave feeling a little contemplative. This is short-lived, as you’re ejected almost immediately into the gift shop.
Instead of ending on a down note, I’ll wrap up with a look at one of our most frequent destinations in Memphis – Beale Street. If you’ve never been, think of it as a slightly less insane, slightly better-smelling version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. You’re less likely to see intimate body parts and more likely to have to pay a cover charge, but there are still plenty of live music-filled bars and restaurants, slightly dangerous acrobatic street performers, and, naturally, grown men casually projectile vomiting as they walked down the street (It wasn’t even 9 pm!)
Unlike New Orleans, weekend nights had security checkpoints at every entrance to the nightlife section of the street – something I found both reassuring that they were occurring but also concerning that they apparently needed to. We spent a few nights out here and hit what I’d consider nearly all the bars. This is actually not that many, and we skipped Coyote Ugly (did it in Austin) and a surprising Wet Willies outpost (of course, did it to death in Tybee). I’d give special recognition to Silky O’Sullivan’s, our destination on our first night out on Beale. I mean, how do you go wrong with a Cajun-Irish pub with live music and real goats?
Yes, goats. In the outdoor section of this massive, sprawling complex is a nice little enclosure for the bar’s famous climbing goats. This little fella screamed at me for a little while before he got bored and wandered off. This was also where we encountered the first of several Elvis impersonators, a disturbing phenomenon I thought we left behind in Vegas. Fortunately, this was the low point of our musical experiences in Memphis, which is truly packed with talented musicians.
We certainly didn’t party as hard as we did on Bourbon Street, although we still had some pretty great nights out – including at the bar owned by former wrestler and wrestling announcing Jerry “The King” Lawler.
Altogether, Memphis was a good time and a truly one-of-a-kind city. But for whatever reason, it didn’t quite make an impact as much as some of our other recent destinations, at least for me. Perhaps because it was the first city in a while where I’d been before, or perhaps because it’s also the generally seediest and most dangerous city we’ve been to in quite a while. I’d recommend a long weekend here since Tennessee is cool, although one of my biggest regrets of this trip is our inability to get to Nashville.
As I publish this, we’ve got less than one full week left in our travels – something that feels surprising both because it’s actually here, and because it took so long to get here. What’s next? We’ve got some ideas. But first, we’ll tell you about Atlanta in our final blog, two weeks from now.
Seeing most of you soon,
Nick and Morgan