A journey into America's shared history--Elvis, civil rights, and the blues
Memphis is that rare thing in twenty-first-century America: An Old South city that still feels old. With a working streetcar system, blocks of austerely proportioned stone buildings, and some of America's best postwar neon signs, it's hard to shake the sensation that King Cotton and the King of Rock and Roll still prosper on the Mississippi River. That genteel heyday is over-vanquished by the industrialization of U.S. farms-but the entire region, which includes northern Mississippi, still surprises with some lovely testaments to our collective past. Prices are retro too: Lodging is among the country's cheapest ($35), true southern meals cost less than $10, and the attractions are among the most arresting in the mid-South.
Walking in Memphis
You may not have been to Memphis, but your packages have. It's FedEx's hub and the world's busiest cargo airport. The sole upstart airline serving it is AirTran (800/247-8726, airtran.com), which regularly offers round trips for $150-$200 from many cities in the East and Midwest.
Upon landing, you might as well make your pilgrimage to Graceland, since it's a ten-minute drive west of the airport. The estate of you-know-who (800/238-2000, elvis.com) is now an eccentric mall of fame dedicated to the area's favorite son, with gift shops, ice cream stands, and four separately ticketed museums. They boil down to: his home and grave, his cars, his planes, and his knickknacks. A pass to everything costs a steep $25 ($12 for kids ages 7 to 12), but most people are satisfied with the mansion tour alone ($16, $6 kids), since only his house, frozen in 1977 down to its mirrored ceilings and shag carpeting, is essential viewing. Visitors are not permitted upstairs, where the King supposedly expired on his throne, but they can pay homage to his gold lame suit and his grave out by the pool.
Memphis's other requisite attraction is, peculiarly, also a death shrine: downtown's Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. His favorite room, 306, remains purportedly as he left it on April 4, 1968, but the rest is now the multimillion- dollar National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., 901/521-9699, civilrightsmuseum.org; closed Tuesdays), a time line of race relations embellished with dioramas of sit-ins and taped verbal abuse. Entry is free on Mondays after 3 p.m., otherwise it's $8.50 ($6.50 kids). For a rebuttal on the museum's perspective, look across Mulberry Street, where former Lorraine tenant Jacqueline Smith has protested daily since 1988 against what she deems a wasteful and negative museum (her site is fulfillthedream.net).
You can tour downtown Memphis without a car. Most attractions are near the streetcar; the scenic Riverfront Loop rumbles up Main Street and down Front Street for 60¢ a ride ($2.50 for a day pass). Mud Island River Park, linked to 125 North Front Street (closed in winter), features an annotated scale model of the Mississippi River, starting in Illinois and culminating in a million-gallon Gulf of Mexico. It's free, as is the famous Memphis Belle warplane. And at the posh Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave.), folks throng the lobby for another free attraction: At 11 a.m. daily the hotel's famous penthouse ducks emerge from the elevator to waddle the red carpet and frolic in the marble fountain. They make their return march promptly at 5 p.m.
No tourist can (or should) avoid Beale Street, once the spine of the blues culture and later truncated by wretched urban planning. One of the four original National Historic Landmark Districts designated in 1966, the surviving section hosts a spate of touristy blues clubs. Its free Police Museum (159 Beale St.) showcases odd criminal artifacts like antique guns and not-so-antique bongs. The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, by the Smithsonian, is on the surface a dispensable tourist trap but is in fact deeply thought- provoking. Through it, you realize that Memphis's proudest legacy to America is the racial harmony promoted by its music. The museum's extraordinary cache of artifacts and superlative recorded tour can easily consume a happy afternoon of browsing (145 Lt. George W. Lee Ave., 901/543-0800, memphisrocknsoul.org; $8.50 adults, $5 kids ages 5 to 17). A five-minute drive east on Union Avenue, Sam Phillips's seminal Sun Studio (706 Union, 901/521-0664) is mostly untouched since Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others got their breaks there; whether the two-room tour is worth $8.50 is a matter of taste. A free bus shuttles tourists between Graceland, Sun Studio, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, and Beale Street eight times a day; get schedules at any stop. North of downtown, Slavehaven (826 N. 2nd St., 901/527-3427; $6) is a house believed to have sheltered those embarking on the Underground Railroad. For a chill, creep into the cellar's hiding places.
Memphis: Eats and sleeps
You don't need our help finding cheap eats. But Memphis is famous for barbecue, and two places stand out: Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (behind 52 S. 2nd St., 901/522-8840) is by the Peabody, and its $6.50 pork sandwiches are plenty big. Cheaper (and some say better) is Cozy Corner, a five-minute drive east of downtown (745 N. Parkway, 901/527-9158). It's rough around the edges but serves some killer dinners starting at $5 for a slab of wet ribs, bread, and a side (try the BBQ spaghetti). Last year, the frills-free Gus's (310 S. Front St., 901/527-4877) earned a Tennessee state resolution honoring its fried chicken, which many assert is the world's best. It serves four succulent pieces with baked beans and slaw for $8. You must try it.
The best-value motels, all familiar brands, require wheels. Red Roof Inn is a two- minute drive east of downtown (210 S. Pauline St., 901/528-0650) and charges $41 per room, as does La Quinta (42 S. Camilla, 800/531-5900). The most affordable are six miles away in West Memphis, Arkansas (made notorious by the trials of the Paradise Lost documentaries), where brand-name motels on I-40 charge from $34 a night: Days Inn (870/735-8600), Econo Lodge (870/732-2830), Howard Johnson (870/732-9654). Hotels near the trolley obviate the need for a car but cost more: Ramada (1837 Union Ave., 800/333-3333; about $64 a night), Comfort Inn (100 N. Front St., 901/526-0583; $80 a night). More Memphis info: 800/873-6282, memphistravel.com, or blackmemphis.com.
Tunica and the Mississippi Delta
A half hour south of Memphis on U.S. 61, you're into northwest Mississippi and the famous Mississippi Delta, the cradle of musicians such as W.C. Handy and Muddy Waters, and once a wealthy region. It's now a dusty plain littered with ghostly towns and rotting cotton.
Between 1930 and 1969, farm populations (mostly African-American) in the region fell from 3.7 million to 965,000, and this spot was the hardest hit. In 1992, Tunica County (about 30 miles from Memphis), then one of America's poorest places, turned to casinos. By 2001, it had ten gargantuan gambling halls, more than 6,300 hotel rooms, and the third- highest gambling revenue in the nation-$1.2 billion, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City and just ahead of Biloxi, a six-hour drive south.
Since Tunica caters to a drive-in market and not jet-setters, the buys are unbeatable: Midweek rates at most casinos, particularly the 507-room Fitzgeralds (888/766-5825), are $29 per room ($14.50 for each of two persons) for luxury-level digs not even a decade old. Each casino has its own all-you-can-eat buffet, priced at $7-$9 for lunch and $9-$13 for dinner. Even the wagers are discounted: Nickel slots abound and blackjack tables offer $3 minimums. Buses shuttle between the far-flung casinos (901/577-7700; $1) every 45 minutes. Tunica information: 888/488-6422, tunicamiss.org.
Unfortunately, the levee system impedes access to the mighty Mississippi (a riverfront park, set for 2003, will change that), so cultural stimulation is limited to a few items in the Horseshoe's free blues museum and some movie props at the Hollywood Casino. If you don't mind splurging over $40 for a seat, big-name stars (Reba McEntire, Natalie Cole) play frequent gigs, but shows by lesser luminaries (Sinbad, Jethro Tull) only cost around $15. For those with open eyes, the incongruity between jangling casinos and sorghum fields is disquieting-to wit, the derelict cemetery with handwritten headstones where Casino Center Boulevard meets Old Highway 61-so head into the Delta to broaden your understanding.
Despite its role in American, and especially African-American, history, the Delta has no tourist infrastructure except a few dingy motels (mostly in Clarksdale and Cleveland, $50-$60 a night). Fortunately, hotel-laden Tunica provides a supremely equipped and laughably inexpensive base. A good day trip might begin on Old Highway 61, which runs west of the modern 61. At Casino Center, there's Robinsonville, a blip of a town where blues legend Robert Johnson grew up. The Hollywood Cafe (1130 Old Commerce Rd., 662/363-1126), an old plantation commissary, once hosted bashes immortalized in Mark Cohn's hit song "Walking in Memphis," and today it whips up cheap Mississippi favorites (you simply must try the deep-fried pickle chips, $4) all day long.
Venture beyond the ten-mile radius of the casinos and the hardscrabble hold of the real Delta reveals itself in a trove of untouched Americana. As you pass overgrown water towers, crumbling railway beds, and shuttered hardware stores still advertising Philco TVs, it'll feel like a backward course through time. Little is marked for tourists, so do a little advance reading. Start with thebluehighway. com or visitmississippi.org.
For a parade through Delta history, head south to Clarksdale on New 61, take 49 West to Highway 8 through Cleveland, and return north to Tunica via Highway 1, which traces the river. In Clarksdale, Tennessee Williams grew up in the rectory of his grandfather's church, St. George's Episcopal (106 Sharkey Ave.). Williams wrote wistfully about the dance-club-cum-casino on Moon Lake, 20 miles north off Highway 49. It's now Uncle Henry's, one of the quirkiest B&B/restaurants in the region-locals quip that the quality of your meal depends on the strength of the booze being served in the kitchen. Upstairs, in the former gambling hall, you can still see the buzzers that alerted patrons of police raids (5860 Moon Lake Road in Dundee, 662/337-2757; $70/room or $20/meal).
Also in blues-rich Clarksdale, by the train depot, hit the well-curated Delta Blues Museum (1 Blues Alley, 662/627-6820, deltabluesmuseum.org; $6 adults, $3 kids). Ask inside where to go for the best live music. Just southeast of town, the preserved Hopson Plantation shows how mechanized farming triggered the collapse of the local economy (8141 Old Hwy. 49, 662/624-5756; free by appointment). On the north side of Highway 8 between Ruleville and Cleveland, you'll still find Dockery Farms (free), where farmhands invented the blues a century ago. And returning north on Highway 1, away from the commerce of the freeways, you'll encounter hamlets like Rosedale (the last American town to get an automatic phone exchange and the entry point to the Great River Road State Park, 662/759-6762) and Friars Point (an 1836 steamboat port on the National Register of Historic Places).
The best food on a Delta road trip is from family-run diners. Try the Blue & White (1355 New 61, Tunica, 662/363-1371), a converted 1937 filling station with $4.50 clubs, $2 pie, and $2 for a pint of fresh o.j. Next to the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the popular Delta Amusements Blues Cafe (348 Delta Ave., 662/627-1467) serves $3 sandwiches and $5 burgers in unadorned linoleum glory.
East on Highway 6, the Delta's monotony gives way to the more traditional Deep South, with gentle hills, arching trees, and town squares bowing to archaic monuments to Johnny Reb.
An hour east, in Oxford, is the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss"), infamous for the riots of 1962 when James Meredith became the first black student to matriculate there. Two observers were killed, and bullet scars mark the columns of the Lyceum, built in 1848. Like many fine public universities, Ole Miss hosts much stimulation (free copies of The Daily Mississippian tell what's on) and free museums (all at Fifth St. and University Ave., 662/915-7073), including a collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and a lurid assortment of political posters from World War I. There's a noted blues archive in the special collections of the main library (662/915-7753; free), and the esteemed Center for the Study of Southern Culture holds frequent free talks (662/915-5993).
Eager to reverse its racist image, Oxford is now a progressive literary town. John Grisham lives here, as did William Faulkner, who created Yoknapatawpha County in the image of Oxford's Lafayette County. His lovely tree-sheltered home, Rowan Oak, is now a museum (Old Taylor Rd., 662/234-3284; free). The town's literary hub, and a hangout for famous scribes, is Square Books (160 Courthouse Sq., 800/648-4001), run by the mayor. For lists of public campus events and maps to Oxford's gracious homes, drop by the Tourism Council (111 Courthouse Sq., 800/758-9177, touroxfordms.com).
Ole Miss's prestige bumps prices up a notch. Ajax Diner (118 Courthouse Sq., 662/232-8880), perfect for people-watching, slings giant po'boys for $6 and chicken spaghetti for $6.75, with two sides. More atmospheric is Taylor Grocery and Restaurant, ten miles south on Highway 7. It's an 1889 dry-goods store (favored by local artists and Grisham himself) bursting with live bluegrass music and famous catfish for $9 a platter, $12 all-you-can-eat (338 Country Road, 662/236-1716; open evenings, Thursday to Sunday).
Outside of football season, when rates soar, seemingly every motel in Oxford charges $60 a night. The Downtown Inn (400 N. Lamar, 662/234-3031) is near the Square and is therefore preferable, while Comfort Inn (1808 Jackson Ave., 662/234-6000) and Days Inn (1101 Frontage Rd., 662/234-9500) are five minutes away on the highway.
U.S. 78: The oddball South
Some of America's most unforgettable homegrown museums are found in the old sharecropper land of northern Mississippi and can be visited in side trips from Oxford or Memphis. In Tupelo, at the locus of U.S. 78 from Memphis and Highway 6 from Oxford, Elvis was born in a two-room shotgun shack. He later bequeathed it as a park in his own name. Grandmotherly docents tend to the house ($2) and the obsessive museum ($5) but allow you peace to reflect in the memorial chapel where Elvis songs serenade empty pews (306 Elvis Presley Blvd., 662/841-1245).
Whatever you do, don't miss Holly Springs (an hour northwest of Tupelo on 78), if not for its Civil War leftovers, then certainly for Graceland Too-America's most magnificently bizarre museum. Twenty-four hours a day, no warning necessary, Elvis idolater Paul McLeod welcomes anyone into his overstuffed home (200 E. Gholson Ave., 662/252-2515) to peruse his welter of unbridled Presleyana. Note the cot under the bank of TVs, where he tapes every passing mention of the Pelvis. Your mind-bending $5 visit will climax with a Polaroid shot of you, wearing a leather jacket, by the electric shrine. Continue your out-of-body tourist experience at the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch (Malone Rd., Nesbit, 662/429-1290), over the border from Tennessee off I-55. "The Killer," who turns 67 this year, resides there amidst his hounds and classic cars, and he welcomes tours by appointment. At $15, it's cheaper than Graceland, but with the possible bonus of catching a living legend paddling in his famous piano-shaped pool.
Elvis, eccentrics, tiny towns-in some ways, northern Mississippi and Memphis are stubbornly stuck in the past. As long as prices are, too, thank goodness for that.