A few years ago, my best friend of 20+ years and her family moved to Alabama after living in the northeast for their entire lives. One day it dawned on me that I should be a good friend and go visit.
The thought of the deep south didn’t excite me (not that I actually knew anything about it). Once she moved to this self-perceived black hole, I thought, “Well, she’s in Alabama now. That’s that. Clearly, the only thing I can do is replace her.”
As I planned my trip, I couldn’t find any direct flights to Tuscaloosa. One layover location that kept popping up in my flight results was Memphis.
Didn’t I know something about Memphis? A quick Google search revealed that’s where Elvis lived. Elvis = Graceland. I had always wanted to go to Graceland but never really thought about where it was.
I looked on the map to see Memphis’ distance from Tuscaloosa and it wasn’t too far apart. Well, considering I was already traveling ~1,300 miles, what was another 200 miles, really?
Dreaming about the land of Elvis, I quickly revised and expanded my vacation plans. I’d have four solo days in Memphis before taking a bus to Tuscaloosa. (Ironically, when I tried to get a direct flight to Memphis, none were to be had.)
I arrived at the Memphis International Airport in mid-October to lovely weather. Unfortunately, the public transportation system wasn’t quite what I was used to in the northeast, so the only way I could get to my hotel downtown was via a cab, which ran me about $30-$40 for the 12-mile drive. Note: don’t just wing getting, well, from anywhere to anywhere, let alone from the airport to the hotel. Look this up in advance.
I was going to be on foot for my entire trip, so I chose to stay at the Sleep Inn at Court Square, which was in the heart of the city. With a one-track mind for Elvis, it was a treat to open the blinds of my hotel room window to discover a view of a lovely, small park and a trolley gliding by along a picture postcard tree-lined route.
It was dinner time on a Sunday evening. I walked and walked and couldn’t find food. Again, being from the northeast, not seeing ANY restaurants or fast food places open was baffling to me. BUT, this is what travel is all about – taking yourself outside of your comfort zone, and briefly living and conforming to another way of life. Not only is this the type of thing one should research before traveling, but you should always have some non-perishable food with you just in case.
So, how did my story end? After a while, I did find a hotel nearby that had a little sandwich shop open inside that was closing for the evening after my order. Crisis narrowly averted.
Soul Satisfying Southern Meal
The food slate was wiped clean the next day as I excitedly toured the city. Not only did they have food, Memphis had GOOD food. I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I ordered the meal you see to the left just for me and devoured all of it. Oh, the barbecue pulled pork, the corn bread, the macaroni and cheese! I was in food love. I repeated similar gluttony each day for my dinners, ordering large portions of food – with desserts – to go. I didn’t want to be out alone once it got dark, so a dinner-to-go-for-three as I watched local TV would suffice.
One day I stumbled upon the Greek revival style historic landmark Arcade Restaurant. This frozen-in-time 50s style diner/restaurant is located at the corner of South Main Street and G.E. Patterson, and was clearly the place to be for lunch. From the marker outside on the sidewalk, it also turns out that movies like The Firm, 21 Grams, and Walk the Line all filmed scenes inside this restaurant. Not a bad accidental find in the South Main Historic District.
My own private trolley car ride
One day I decided to take a ride on the lovely trolley I had seen from my hotel, and whose tracks I walked alongside for many of my excursions. For $1 I rode around for the longest time, getting in a nice view of the city. At one point, I was the only passenger on the trolley.
The driver asked me, “Are you in a hurry?”
I answered with a hesitant “no”. I found it odd in the funniest of ways that I was on a form of public transportation whose sole purpose was to regularly take people from point A to point B, but the driver hoped I wasn’t in a hurry to do so.
He then asked if I minded if we stopped for a little while so he could go get a sandwich. Assuming that he meant he’d run in somewhere, and grab a sandwich to go, I agreed. I sat there by myself for about 20 minutes and realized that this was a sit-down sandwich where the bread was being made fresh. Not one car, not one person passed by. I wondered if people were watching me, laughing at the fact that I was sitting there. I wondered if the driver was actually playing a joke on me, testing to see how far he could push me. And, then I wondered if something happened to me, would anyone know because I was literally on a deserted street in a deserted trolley car. I hopped out and continued walking just for the pure sake of forward motion.
A few quiet streets later, I turned to the right and saw a colorful, old-fashioned familiar sign standing high above the building behind it. Why did I know the name on the sign and why was the logo on it so familiar? I walked down and as I got closer, it all unfolded in front of my eyes. For the most part I was looking at a generic two-story building. I shivered a bit as I got closer and realized what I was looking at, where I was, and what had taken place there.
The Lorraine Motel / The National Civil Rights Museum
Those blue-green doors and huge floor-to-ceiling windows for each room… I read the plaque in front. This, the Lorraine Motel, was where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated up on the second level. Oh my God. Because of what I knew had happened, I immediately felt like I needed to look around me for danger. Silly, I know. And then my mind wandered as I turned around, wondering where behind me the shots had originated from back on that day. I suddenly felt very emotional as my thoughts swirled around trying to accept this very historically significant place that I had no idea was there before I planned my trip.
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum was the boisterous Beale Street. Boy, why hadn’t I researched beyond Elvis for this trip? What an amazing street! I was traveling by myself so, as a single woman, I made my way up and down this street a total of once during the daytime, wishing I’d had some friends with me. There was music blaring from all parts — in some restaurants, and even in an outdoor park with a live band. There were colorful characters, great shops, and lots of great southern-style food.
Another day as I walked, I saw a lovely riverboat in the water. I trekked down to check it out. It was the Memphis Riverboats, which offered Paddlewheeler cruises up and down the “mighty” Mississippi. I thought, “When will I ever get the chance to be here again, and to cruise along the Mississippi?” So, I took the 90-minute cruise for $20, and enjoyed the informative and historic commentary given by our trip’s host. I will have to admit that I thought the cruise would physically go much farther than it did. I was disappointed in how short of a distance the boat went from the dock. I would have loved to have seen more. But it was still a nice experience.
What a great place Memphis was. I’d love to get back there again someday, and hope others will find their way to the deep south as well. It’s worth the trip.