Road to Memphis, Beale Street

When we woke up today it was a cold, dark, rainy morning, and it’s a bit unsettling to hear thunderstorms in the distance when you’re in New Orleans! On the other hand, we took a moment to acknowledge how unbelievably lucky we were to enjoy a beautiful, sunny day yesterday: if we’d had this rain instead, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the plantations the way we did. So we counted our blessings, packed up and left for Memphis, Tennessee.

The roadtrip took us about six hours total, and it couldn’t be easier: it was just a matter of taking Interstate 55 and then riding on it towards the north, all across the state of Mississippi, and then across the border to Memphis.

Because the majority of the trip was just a very long, very wide, completely straight road with only light traffic, that left plenty of opportunity to enjoy the sight. Most of the beginning of the trip, in Louisiana, we drove over roads built over the water, surrounded by marshes and swamps. We only touched firm ground when we were approaching the border with Mississippi. Slowly but surely, the swamps and the trees with Spanish moss gave way to green prairies with big, leafy trees. The few spots of human presence visible from the car could have featured on any episode of True Detective or even Justified: trailer parks, massive RV dealerships, dilapidated cabins, and Jesus signs by the road (the prize goes to the one that had a picture of Jesus saying: “Going in the wrong direction? I specialize in U-turns.”).

At about lunchtime we passed Jackson, MS, and here it was back to civilisation, where we could begin to see actual brick-and-mortar buildings from our car. Once again we thanked our lucky stars that we could find a place to have lunch that wasn’t a McDonald’s or a Subway, which is pretty much all we’d seen until then.
Finally, we reached Memphis at about 6PM, and when we got out of our car in front of our rental house the cold was shocking: we came from a balmy twenty-something temperature in New Orleans to a freezing 8°C!  It was already too late to visit any museums, so we decided instead to scout Beale Street in downtown Memphis, where all the blues clubs and touristy shops are.

When we got there, Beale Street looked exactly like it does in the pictures, with all the neon signs in every size and colour, although I expected it to be bigger. The street itself is endless, of course, the way most streets are endless in American cities, but in reality only two blocks have stuff going on (the ones between 2nd and 4th streets I believe).

As luck would have it, a marching band walked into the street at the same time we did, so we had them for a soundtrack as we explored A. Schwab, a wonderfully quirky store that has everything you can imagine, with no apparent rhyme or reason as to the stock: I expected the Sun Records/Stax Museum/Elvis memorabilia, or the blues CDs, but the antique tin toys? Shelf of hot sauces? A voodoo corner? Organic soaps? Dress hats? It’s all in there!

Next, we walked into the Peabody, an old hotel that’s an institution in Memphis. The lobby was elegant and cozy, with live music from a pianist, and it was nice even though it was full of people. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the ducklings, as it was past their bedtime. Believe it or not, what’s most popular about this hotel is a group of ducklings that live on the roof, and every morning they ride the elevator to the lobby to swim in the fountain, and every evening they ride it back to the roof. According to a plaque at the hotel this tradition started when the owner of the hotel began keeping the mallards he used for hunting at the hotel, and now when each generation of ducklings grow old they release them in the wild. Maybe we’ll be able to see them tomorrow…

Afterwards, we decided to head for dinner, and on the way we ran into a great view of the sunset over the Mississippi River. We could see the steamboats, the M Bridge, and the Pyramid all at once.

We had dinner at Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken (actual name), which is another one of those things you have to do here. It’s the most unassuming place you can imagine: even though by now it’s truly world famous and a top tourist attraction, the outside is still just one fluorescent sign, and the interior is a small box of tiled walls and ceilings, checkerboard tablecloths and plastic cutlery. The food really speaks for itself! It’s all about the fried chicken, which comes with baked beans and coleslaw, and it really is delicious (I had to eat it with my hands -the horror! the infamy!). It’s crispy on the outside but juicy on the inside, lightly spicy and flavourful.

At eight on a Thursday, we only had to wait 15 min for a table (you’ll see horror stories about queues on high season on TripAdvisor), so when we finished it was still relatively early. We were all ready to head back home, and we were walking just past the entrance of Beale Street to our parking lot when we heard a band playing 634-5789. We had to look, of course, and it turns out the sound was coming from BB King’s, the famous blues club, so we just had to peek in and stay for a few songs!

And all of that in just about three hours! Let’s see what we can do with a full day tomorrow!

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