American Road Trip: Elvis & Tennessee

For most of my trip through America I’m pretty determined to stay out of the main cities as I’ve already visited many of them on business and because frankly city breaks are something I prefer to do drunkenly with friends.  But there was one key exception I had to make on the first day of my Southern Odyssey…Memphis.

There was no getting around it.  I couldn’t drive right past without visiting the home of Elvis Presley at Graceland and it was totally worth it.  You don’t have to be a diehard fan to make the visit worthwhile.  Once you get there it only takes a few hours to do the whole thing and whilst it is run very much like a big tacky theme park in terms of how you get to the actual mansion whilst dodging merchandising and enough fast food to give you instant heart disease, once you are in there it is very authentic.

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My first thought when I disembarked the shuttle bus in front of the mansion was ‘This is the Eifel Tower all over again’.  In other words, it was a lot smaller than I was expecting.  It has however been perfectly preserved as it was when he lived there with a surprising amount of detail covered.  You are given an iPad and headphones so that you can take a self-guided tour at your own pace with a commentary.  Bizarrely John Stamos did the commentary – am I missing some connection there?  It didn’t take long to tour the mansion which was nowhere near as weird as I’d been led to believe.  The famous Jungle Room wasn’t all that outlandish compared to the tacky stuff some people with more money than taste put in their houses today.  I’d definitely seen worse and in fact it was pretty much in keeping with the era in terms of all the shag carpet.  What did surprise me was how warm and cosy it was.  That comes back to the size; it definitely isn’t a huge sprawling mansion yet it surely is a family home that was well used and enjoyed.

After touring the mansion and taking a quick look around the modest grounds I entered the Trophy Room which was a real highlight.  It is difficult to describe and even harder to photograph but this is basically a huge museum containing hundreds of platinum records he was awarded, outfits from shows and movies, his army uniform, photographs and even Pricilla Presley’s wedding dress.  I like a bit of Elvis as much as the next person but I wouldn’t call myself a fan, yet this was still a fairly awe inspiring place to see.  He died almost a year after I was born and I thought I understood the Elvis phenomena but the truth is that I didn’t really truly appreciate just how huge and impactful he was until I saw this collection.  It also helped to understand the man and his life.

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I then headed over to experience the real reason I was there; Elvis’s private jet the Lisa Marie.  My whole life I’ve wanted my own private jet (ideally a fleet if I’m honest) and have spent many hours designing interior layouts in my head when I should have been answering e-mails or working on spreadsheets.  I’ve already told all my friends that I would live on the street if it meant I could own, kit out and operate my own aircraft.  Who needs a house or a car when you can live on and travel by your own lovely plane?  So to say I was excited to see how he had laid out his own personal flying house is an understatement.

Considering the era and the age of the Lisa Marie I wasn’t disappointed with the size or the layout of this Convair 880, however in order to preserve the interior they have covered most of it in heavy plastic and have to keep the light out so it is a little hard to get a sense of what it must have been like to fly on this beauty during her heyday.  It was also sad to see that the aircraft is not kept in a hangar so it is already suffering from the elements and generally looks a bit shabby from the outside.   Personally I think that is a major oversight and that much more could be made of this display along with his smaller jet. Although you pay a small supplement to visit the aircraft I was still surprised to see how few people had made the effort.  For me this was a highlight of visiting Graceland but both the way the aircraft are kept and the amount of people visiting makes it feel like an afterthought.

After a few hours of Elvis immersion it was time to hit the road and make a decision about where to head next.  I was pretty adamant that I was going to do the Blue Ridge Parkway during this trip which was a few days drive away all the way over in Virginia, so I decided to forgo part of the Mississippi River road and Nashville to head northeast into Tennessee and get as close to the Kentucky border as I could in order to do some scenic byways there the next day.  I looked at the map and randomly chose Paris, Tennessee as my destination.  After a brief stint on what is a fairly boring Interstate I saw a sign for US-70.  Now this Highway also runs right by where I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico and I used to drive it a lot through White Sands to Alamogordo so I thought why not drive it through Tennessee?

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My GPS got mad at me for diverting but as soon as I got off the freeway I knew I’d made a good decision.  I was in rural Tennessee with its lush green pastures, forests and endless churches.  I stopped at a bizarre crossroads gas station, only bizarre because there wasn’t anything but it and a Motel 6 for miles that I could see so it seemed to be an excellent setting for a murder or something.  After paying a whole $11 for half a tank of gas (clearly nobody has heard of climate change and running out of fossil fuel in these parts) I programmed my GPS to take me to Paris via the country roads.

I made it a few hours later and it definitely was nothing like the French Paris but it was a nice friendly town where I got to rest up before heading to Kentucky early the next morning.  Because I am useless I didn’t realise how close I was to the state line (which is becoming a recurring theme BTW) so I only spent maybe another hour or so that morning driving through Tennessee but it was beautiful and peaceful.  I was accidentally following a Tennessee River Scenic Byway through more lush green farmland, forest and American Civil War history.  After yet another depressing visit to Walmart, this time in Clarksville, it was time to head over the state line to the Bluegrass State that I’ll talk about in my next post.  For now Carolyn has left the building ladies & gentlemen.

Highlights:  Graceland  |  Tennessee River Trail Scenic Byway

Biggest regret: That song Graceland by Paul Simon was stuck in my head all day.  I loathe and detest that song.  Also that Paris, Tennessee has its own Eifel Tower but I didn’t find that out until I was long gone so never saw it.

Something interesting I heard:  One day Elvis realised Lisa Marie had never seen the snow so he got the plane all ready and flew her to Colorado where she played in the snow for maybe an hour before flying back to Memphis.

Something I didn’t know last week:  This probably goes back to me being terrible about researching things before I do them but…Graceland is not in the countryside.  You may laugh and wonder how I didn’t know that but I honestly thought it would be in some kind of Memphis greenbelt or stately Southern suburb.  Instead it is on Elvis Presley Boulevard which is fairly grim and very built up.  If I remember correctly the turn before Graceland is a Wendy’s or some other fast food chain or gas station.   I guess it was pretty countryside at one point but it definitely isn’t now however the grounds around Graceland are well preserved so you don’t see any of that once you are in there.

Tennessee Photos

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