Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 5: Memphis TN to Dallas TX via Arkansas

Today was mainly a travel day. We left our hotel around 9 am, ran a couple of quick errands in Memphis (post office and Starbucks), then headed over the bridge into Arkansas.

We drove I-40 South to Little Rock, then caught I-30 South toward Texas. We stopped for lunch at Wendy’s at a small town off the highway.

The high temperature for today was literally 110 degrees (with a feels-like temperature of 120), so it was a good day to be in an air conditioned automobile.

We arrived in Dallas around 5:30 pm and met up with our friends who are spending the summer there. One of our friends is doing an internship with Texas Instruments, and his co-workers had planned a happy hour, so we went along.

The happy hour was at Sherlock’s Baker St. Pub and Grill, which was a basic sports bar with British theme worked in here and there. After we had been there for an hour or so, it was announced that there would be a jenga tournament. Dave and our friend entered the contest, and won! The other competitors protested once they found out that Dave was a structural engineer – as they were all electrical engineers, they felt Dave’s team had an advantage. Of course, the real advantage was that Dave’s team competed last, and had more time to strategize.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Beale Street

Beale StreetWe couldn’t leave Memphis without experiencing the nightlife on Beale Street, and taking in some live music. Fortunately, even on a Wednesday, Beale Street did not disappoint.

Just off Beale Street is a little state called Pepsi Pavilion. When we walked past it, there was live music there, but not – oddly – actually on the stage. Along the edge of the seating area, there were street vendors set up, selling sundresses, sunglasses, and the like (though keep in mind it was about 9 o’clock at night). These vendors were facing away from the Pavilion toward the small stage that had been set up. A band was playing cover songs, and an adjacent stand was selling frozen alcoholic drinks.

We emerged onto Beale Street to find that Wednesday is “Bikes on Beale” night. There were scores of motorcycles parked along Beale Street, and people milling around in all directions. We wandered first toward the quieter end of the street, to see what was in that direction.

We found a photo gallery featuring the work of Ernest Withers from the 1950s and ’60s. His photos were amazing, and provided a first-hand look into the civil rights movement – including photos from the night MLK Jr. was assassinated – as well as the early Memphis blues scene. It was a fitting footnote to our earlier visit to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Rum Boogie CafeAfter that, we moseyed past the various bars and frozen beverage stands, in search of a place to sit and listen to some live music. We ended up at a place called Rum Boogie Cafe, where a blues-rock band called Patrick Dodd Band was playing. They were good – mostly played original songs, especially in the first set. The second set included a few tributes to classic blues tunes such as “Red House”. We got some drinks, found a table not too far from the stage, and chilled and enjoyed the tunes.

Our waiter was really cool. During the band’s set, he communicated with us entirely with gestures and head-nods. When he actually addressed us verbally during the intermission, Dave commented that the mystique was all gone.

We really liked the place. Hanging from the rafters were dozens of guitars, all of which were labeled with (presumably) the name of the musician or other celebrity to whom the guitar had belonged. I say “other celebrity” because some of the guitars indicated athletes from the Memphis Grizzlies or random other famous people.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous

Inside Charles Vergos' RendezvousApparently there are 2-3 restaurants debated to be the “best BBQ in Memphis“. We ate at Central BBQ last night, as that was the favorite of the friend we were dining with. However, we were shortly thereafter informed by another friend, who had previously lived in Memphis, that Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous is “infinity times better”. So we decided we had better check it out as well, to compare.

First, the location. Rendezvous is right in the heart of downtown Memphis, off a little alleyway, giving it a speakeasy kind of feel. Central BBQ is a few miles out of downtown on a relatively busy street, so it doesn’t have the same mystique. Fortunately there is free parking at Central; not sure where you would park at Rendezvous if you had to (we walked from our hotel, which was 2 blocks away).

Second, Rendezvous was packed. We had a 30-45 minute wait, and there was even a special overflow-bar area to allow people who are waiting to buy a drink, sit, and watch sports on TVs while waiting. (Beer and wine only, unfortunately, and the wine I had was not tasty.) Whereas, at Central BBQ we walked right in. It’s much smaller, and it was relatively full, but it wasn’t overflowing. Also, Central has an outdoor deck, if you want to brave the heat.

Third, the ambiance. Rendezvous is… fascinating. The decor is eclectic. Any type of wall decor you might select can be found on the walls at Rendezvous – from antique-y diner menu signs to UPS promotional posters to impressionist paintings. There’s also an entire display case full of various kinds of kitsch. There was even, in the room we dined in, a bronze bust of a young woman who could have been an antebellum debutante. In contrast, the decor at Central BBQ is more typical of a walk-up window BBQ place. That is to say, nondescript.

Lastly, before comparing the food, I should mention that Rendezvous has full table service. At Central, they’ll bring you your food after you order it at the window, but beyond that, you’re on your own.

Now for my controversial call regarding the food: Central BBQ has better pork ribs. I thought the beans at Rendezvous were much tastier (the ones at Central have too much pepper and are therefore unduly spicy). Central had better options for sides.

My recommendation? It depends what kind of experience you’re looking for. If your priority is tasty, falling-off-the-bone pork ribs and you don’t care about the rest of the experience, then go to Central. On the other hand, if you want to go out for a fun dinner, check out Rendezvous. There are other things besides ribs… I guess.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Graceland

It would be possible to visit Memphis without going to Graceland, but that would be silly.

It’s a short drive out of downtown, out I-240 and then on to Elvis Presley Boulevard. I am not making this up; in fact, I think it was named that while he actually lived there. On our way there, we listened to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”… ’cause, well, it was just necessary.

We bought the Platinum Tour tickets, and fortunately got both the AAA discount as well as the student discount for Dave’s ticket (he’s still a UofI student until mid-August!). It’s not cheap, but we were expecting that.

Graceland mansionThe first thing we did was board the shuttle bus to take us to Graceland Mansion for the mansion tour. When boarding, we were given our audio tour headphones. The entire tour is self-guided via audio tour, so you can basically go at a pace convenient to you. It’s nice to not have to be bunched up with the entire group the whole time.

When we had dinner with our friend the night before, she commented that the charming thing about Graceland Mansion is that you could actually picture people people living in it. She was totally right. Although it’s ridiculously tacky in that over-the-top, I’ve-got-more-money-than-I-know-how-to-spend way, it’s still a relatively human-sized home with relatively normal furnishings. (The best contrast is Hearst Castle, in which it’s really hard to imagine people actually spending time, much less in comfort.)

Jungle Room in Graceland mansionThe most delightfully tacky thing was the “grass green” shag carpet in the Jungle Room, on both the floor and the ceiling.

The tour of the Mansion is very informative, and gives visitors a good sense of the life and career of Elvis Presley. We enjoyed it immensely.

The end of the tour took us to the “Meditation Garden” in which Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried. The audio tour and the crowds didn’t leave much opportunity for meditation, but it was touching in its own way.

We boarded the shuttle and returned to the Visitor’s Center. The Platinum Tour included tickets to some of the additional exhibits. We started with the car tour (which was mercifully air conditioned), where we were able to see a dozen or so of the flashy cars that Elvis had owned at various points in his career. It also included motorcycles and other more recreational vehicles (such as the golf carts he and his buddies used to race around the back yard of the mansion).

The Lisa Marie - Elvis' planeThen we headed over to the tarmac and visited Elvis’ two custom airplanes. The Lisa Marie is the larger of the two, and was used by Elvis when he was on tour. It included a blue suede bedroom for the King. The other was primarily for Elvis’ advance team, and featured an interior decor of bright lemon and lime colors.

We were starting to tire of the Disneyesque atmosphere and the myriad gift shops (all of which miraculously managed to have different merchandise), but we soldiered on and visited one more exhibit, which was actually quite interesting. It was an exhibit called “Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story”, developed by the Newseum in Washington DC. It focused on the various ways in which Elvis interacted with, and was covered by, the media. It was worthwhile.

We spent several hours there and could certainly have seen more if we’d had the inclination. Definitely a worthwhile trip.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken

Gus's Fried ChickenA friend tipped us off to Gus’s Fried Chicken, and fortunately it was within walking distance of both the Gibson factory and our hotel, so we went there for lunch.

It was quite tasty.

We sucked down sweet tea while we were waiting for our food (the service wasn’t the quickest – but granted, it was the lunch rush). We started with fried green tomatoes, which were served with ranch dressing – yummy!

For lunch we each had the “hot and spicy” chicken. The waitress assured me it was “flavorful” but not spicy. I would say it was somewhere in between those two things. It was spicy enough that I ate my second piece of chicken without the battered skin (but I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food). The chicken itself was still quite tasty.

When we went back to hotel and told the doorman where we had been that day, he approved of our lunch choice, telling us that we had experienced true Memphis food. *smile*

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ Gibson guitar factory

Gibson guitar factory lobbyWe had reservations for the 11 o’clock tour of the Gibson guitar factory. It seems that the large room off the lobby is a venue space. The doors were wide open, but it was roped off so visitors couldn’t enter.

Gibson guitar factory facadeThe guided tour lasted about an hour, and we got to see all aspects of how the guitars are made. The craftspersons were on their lunch break when we started the tour. The upside is that we could actually hear the tour guide as she explained various aspects of the guitar-making process. The downside was that we didn’t get to see much action until the second half of the tour.

We did get to actually watch people paint guitars, which might have been the coolest part anyway.

I’m not sure this tour is worth $10 a person, but it was definitely cool.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 4: Memphis ~ National Civil Rights Museum

Lorraine Motel / National Civil Rights MuseumNo trip to Memphis should be complete without at least stopping by the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.

The motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991.

We walked there from our hotel first thing in the morning, and paused to reflect on the outside of the building. Then we went inside from the brutal heat and bought our museum tickets.

There’s a 30-minute film when you first enter, which we decided to skip. To the left of the movie theater is an exhibit room that primarily focuses on the history of the motel, and the history of the museum. If we had known how much else there was to see, we wouldn’t have spent so much time in this room.

We finally moseyed down to the right of the theater entrance, and we found that the National Civil Rights Museum’s exhibits span pretty much the history of America, and covers the history of African Americans’ struggle for civil rights in great detail. There’s a lot of great information, and very interesting displays. We found ourselves a bit rushed toward the end, which was very unfortunate.

MLK Memorial at the Lorraine MotelOne of the last exhibit rooms is a restoration of the actual room in which MLK was staying when he was shot. It is a worthwhile experience.

There are additional exhibit spaces across the street. It’s too bad that we missed out on seeing those, because it seems they focus on the assassination itself, James Earl Ray, the investigation, etc.

It would be worth planning to spend about three hours here, but unfortunately we only had an hour and a half.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 3: Kentucky to Tennessee

Not much to share about today… we broke camp early in the morning after a quick breakfast, then drove south out of Kentucky, down I-65 into Tennessee.

Outside of Nashville we stopped in the suburbs to do some shopping (birthday gifts for our niece Madison) and have lunch. Suburbs are so similar almost anywhere you go in this country… Barnes & Noble, Children’s Place, Red Robin… it could have been in Maryland, Chicagoland, California, or anywhere else.

Then we hauled across Tennessee on I-40 from Nashville to Memphis, our planned destination.

Courtesy of my hotels.com rewards, we’re staying at a rather swanky hotel in downtown Memphis called The Madison Hotel. Before dinner, we grabbed drinks at the bar and took them up to the rooftop patio, where we admired the sunset over the Mississippi River.

We had dinner at Central BBQ with a GU alum friend. It was pretty tasty, but we’ve been informed that Rendezvous is “infinity times better”, so we’ll have to try that tomorrow.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 2: Houchin Ferry Campground, Kentucky

A quick word about our campsite in Kentucky. We camped at the Houchin Ferry Campground, which is one of three campgrounds belonging to the NPS at Mammoth Cave National Park.

This campground is pleasantly small – only 12 sites, and all for tent / car camping (the sites are way too small for RVs). It’s right on the banks of the Green River, next to a little ferry that takes cars across the river during set hours of the day. There aren’t many amenities – just porta-potties and a water spigot – but it’s a nice spot, and it’s quiet.

The campsites are first-come, first-serve, and we were pleased to show up late morning on a Monday to find that we had our pick of the dozen. We selected one, set up our tent near the river, and paid the $12 for the site.

When we returned in the evening, a group of 10 or so people had taken over a few spots at the end of the campground, and there was another couple in addition to the group. Not too bad.

It was a very warm night. In the morning before dawn there was an amazing fog that made the whole place look surreal and beautiful. After the sun came up, it didn’t take long for things to really heat up. We were glad that we woke up and broke camp early.

I really recommend the Houchin Ferry Campground to anyone camping in this part of Kentucky, even aside from a visit to Mammoth Cave itself. There’s plenty of hiking and fishing in this area as well.

Cross Country Trip

Cross-Country Trip V, Day 2: Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center signThe feature for Day 2 of our road trip was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

We arrived mid-day, set up camp, ate a quick lunch, and headed to the Visitor Center to check out the tour options.

Mammoth Cave has over 390 miles of cave – the longest known cave system in the world – so there are numerous tours for visitors to enjoy. These tours still only cover about 12 miles of the caves.

We bought tickets for the Historical Tour as well as the Frozen Niagara tour. We had a bit of a wait before our first tour, though, so we caught half of an above-ground ranger talk about the pivotal role that enslaved persons played in the cave’s history. It was very interesting and informative, and turned out to be good background for the Historical Tour.

Mammoth Cave is like the Grand Canyon of caves. It’s just really huge. As we learned on our tours, there really aren’t a lot of cool formations (stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, etc), except in one small section of the cave. But the history is pretty interesting – from gypsum mining by early Native Americans, to saltpeter mining during the War of 1812, to the tourist industry starting after that war ended.

Plus, it’s a pretty neat place for a hike. Especially when it’s 94 degrees on the surface, and nobody in their right mind should be hiking. It’s always a cool 54 degrees inside the cave, so there’s little risk for heat stroke.

Historic Entrance to Mammoth CaveThe Historical Tour was about 2 hours and 20 minutes long. The tour group was ridiculously huge, and full of families with small children. That made it a little less fun. It’s challenging enough to walk through a cave – taking care to simultaneously refrain from hitting your head and from tripping or slipping on the rough yet slippery ground – without also having to be sure not to run over a munchkin. The most unfortunate part was toward the end when the park ranger shut off the lights to give everyone a sense of just how dark it is, and also tried to get the crowd to be completely silent for just 5 seconds to hear cave silence. That didn’t work out so well.

But the tour was still really cool, and we even made it through the sections called “Fat Man’s Misery” and “Tall Man’s Misery”.

Frozen Niagara cave formationWe were really glad that we did the Frozen Niagara tour after that. This featured the section of the cave that actually does have formations, so we got to see a few cool things. Plus the group was MUCH smaller, so we did have our darkness-and-silence experience.

Overall, we were really glad we finally got a chance to visit Mammoth Cave National Park. If I were to recommend only ONE cave experience, I would suggest Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico over this one. But, this was still worth doing.