Jul22

Memphis - Clarksdale - Vicksburg

(And finally: We’re back with a new post…)

At Sunday May 6th, we got up as usual and checked out. Our plan for the day was to see some more of Memphis, and then head south through Mississippi on the Blues Highway.

The first stop was Sun studios, the recording birthplace of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and others. As we’d already experienced several times during the trip, it was weird to stand in front of such a well known fa├žade and feel the spirit of times passed. We went inside and had a look around, but decided we didn’t have time to join the tour of the studio (despite the hilarious portrayal of the tour guide in Mystery Train. But we did, of course, take a lot of pictures:

Sun Studio, Memphis
Brad posing in front of Sun Studio, Memphis

Next up was a visit to the old Lorraine Motel, now housing the National Civil Rights Museum. This is where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, the day after he gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address. The hotel (or at least MLK’s room) is kept more or less as it was that day, with the Dodge and Cadillac parked outside like they were in the photographs taken shortly after the murder. Also parked outside is a female protester, who’s been protesting against the museum for more than 19 years (she’d rather see the old motel, and the money spent on the museum, used for public housing). We snapped the mandatory photos and continued our express Memphis sightseeing.

.. we as a people will get to the promised land - King quote at the Lorraine Motel
King quote at the Lorraine Motel

On our way to the last official stop in Memphis, we decided to drive by Beale Street to see it in a more “normal” state. But like the day before, it was crowded with people. It’s probably never deserted, but with the Beale Street Music Festival going on, the entire downtown area is rather chaotic. And even as much fun as the festival was, it somewhat bereft us of the true Memphis experience. But never mind. There’s one rock solid experience in Memphis, and we were on our way to it: Graceland.

Neither of us are huge Elvis fans, but Graceland is a must-see, also because of the whole lollapalooza built around it. And really, it must be one of the best most effective organized tours in the world. From the minute you park the car, you are guided around - first into the ticket office, then into a trolley line where headphones and audio guides are handed out. The trolley took us across the Elvis Presley Boulevard and through the gates of the Graceland mansion. Well inside, we were lead on a fast speed tour through the different rooms and houses, with the audio guide steering our attention left and right - leaving us with a feeling of seeing a lot without really seeing anything. But we’re not complaining, they really catered to our expectations, and running around with other gawking tourists is part of the experience. Besides, we did manage to take in a few details - like the fact that a huge amount of the gold- and platinum records on display were from Norway!

The grave of Elvis Presley
The grave of Elvis Presleyl

After paying our respect at the graves of the King and his family (by not stepping at the tombs for better photo shots) and adding our tags to the brick wall surrounding Graceland, we got into the car and aimed for Mississippi - whistling along to the tunes of “Walking in Memphis“, which was playing on the radio….

We went down the Highway 61, also known as the (Delta) Blues highway, and drove through flat fields of green along the Mississippi river (but alas, we didn’t see much of the river itself). A detour onto a narrow road in the corn fields to check out an old shack (for a possible photo session) resulted in a near-emergency as we almost got stuck in the mud. But fortunately, Louis managed to get us back on the highway with no other damage done than a ton of mud covering the lower parts of our car. And for once, we were very satisfied with the Volvo Cross Country - Swedish and boring as it may be, it sure is able to get you out of deep shit. Literally.

Our car was covered in mud after a detour into the corn fields
Our car was covered in mud after a detour into the corn fields

Clarksdale, Mississippi

After a while, we reached the small town of Clarksdale, where, according to the myth, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The “official” crossroad itself is just a tiny triangle of grass, a tree or two, a light pole - and a sign with three crossing blue guitars and markers for the highways 61 and 49.

Then we drove around for a while, trying to find the Delta Blues Museum and the Ground Zero blues club (owned by the actor Morgan Freeman) - two of the other tourist attractions in this small town. They were supposedly right next to each other, and we had the addresses and a fairly bad map from the cached homepage (we weren’t able to get online) - but Kitty couldn’t find the street in her system. So we went up and down streets, looking left and right. And that was an interesting sightseeing in and of itself. It’s easy to accept that the Blues originated from this area, by looking at the poverty and the general decay.

Crossroads. And that's about it.
Crossroads. And that’s about it.

We finally found the Delta Blues Museum. It was closed. We thought Monday was the typical day of closed museums, but in Mississippi, Sunday is obviously the sabbatical day. We walked across a tiny grass field over to a run down building housing the Ground Zero blues club. Which was also closed. These were two of Louis’ most anticipated visits, and now both got spoiled by an unfortunate choice of days. Disappointed and pouting we drove over to a nearby Wal-Mart and had a boring late lunch at the parking lot.

Selma’s traveling friends (who were a few days ahead of us on this part of the trip) had warned us about the sad state of Clarksdale, and suggested that we continued down to Leland, one hour further south. So we did. There’s a blues museum there as well. Closed. There’s a Muppet museum (a big success with my friends). Also closed. So we resigned in our attempt to get any stimulation from the Delta, and sat course for Vicksburg further down the blues highway.

Sunset along the Mississippi river
Sunset along the Mississippi river

Vicksburg, Mississippi

It started to get late as we drove into Vicksburg. And the place seemed totally deserted. No people, no cars, no sign of life. We saw a motel sign, but as we got closer, all we found was a huge, empty parking lot. We turned to our Rough guide, and found a list of B&Bs in the area. The first one was obviously closed. But at the second one we finally met some people. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any suitable rooms available, but they were very helpful and friendly! Obviously we were getting close to the Southern hospitality again! First they called around to the other B&Bs in the area to see if they had any rooms for the night, but without any luck. Then they gave us a pamphlet with a map and facts about Vicksburg, and told us to go to the end of Clay Street - the main road that we’d been driving up and down earlier.

As we drove all the way to the end of Clay Street, we came to a familiar place. A place we’d been many times before. We arrived at the “Freeway village” - the typical clutter of hotels, motels and fast food joints scattered along the freeways all over the US, and that look almost the same everywhere you go. If we weren’t so bummed out about all the “closed” signs we’d seen all day, we probably would have thought of looking for the freeway. So that’s a tip for those of you reading this and planning to go on a trip across the US for yourselves: If you’re following some of the smaller highways and need a room for the night, head over to the nearest freeway and look for the villages around the exits!

We ended up at a Comfort Inn, with reasonable prices, a friendly staff and a clean room. It was very hot and humid outside, even though it was starting to get late. They had a swimming pool next to the parking lot, and Louis was eager to take a dive into it to cool off. Unfortunately, we just missed the opening hours for the pool, so we had to settle for the air conditioned room instead. And it sure got cold! The air conditioner was so effective that we had to turn it off as we went to sleep. But it would probably have been smarter to just turn it down a notch or two, ’cause as we woke up the next day, our room was boiling hot!

(The pictures have been up for a while over at Flickr…)

Got tips? Comments? Do tell!