Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Search is Over

In Search of Elvis Etcetera: Day 7
Wednesday, August 19, 2012
Dalton to Savannah
We drive the rest of the way home today, with just one planned stop --at IKEA just outside Atlanta.  We spend a couple hours wandering though, picking out a work bench for my studio and lots of nifty Scandinavian house wares.  Joyce and Fred manage to fill a big blue Ikea bag with stuff, too.  Come to think of it, this is our first recreational shopping of the trip (not counting the token souvenirs we picked up at Graceland).

 We grab a quick Swedish lunch at the IKEA cafeteria (love those meatballs with loganberry sauce and gravy, the fishy fish not so much), and are on our way home.

Country Paradise

In Search of Elvis Etcetera: Day 6
Wednesday, August 19, 2012
Nashville to Dalton, GA

The Gaylord Opryland Hotel is an amazing 2,881-room fantasyland under glass.  Our rooms are in the “Cascades” wing, where a massive multi-acre atrium is filled the with sound of water splashing from waterfalls and fountains, koi swim in tranquil ponds, and delicate orchids and colorful bromeliads hang from trees and are tucked in the faux rocks. We eat breakfast in an “open air” restaurant beside a pool in the middle of the tropical garden.


After breakfast, we wander through the other recreated wonderlands within the hotel--a garden conservatory and a New Orleans style riverfront town, both beneath vast expanses of glass, and lined with hotel rooms.  Walkways meander through the atria at ground level and in the tree-tops, offering seemingly endless beautiful views-- grand architectural details, tropical paradise vistas, artful container garden arrangements, unusual flowers.  We are in photo safari paradise.   


There are lots of shopping opportunities, but we just ogle the window displays of the very upscale shops.  There are over ten different restaurant and snack food options around the hotel.  We could spend another day here and not run out of things to see and do (and eat), but we need to start wending out way home, so we check out mid-morning.


But, we aren’t heading home quite yet.  This is a road trip dedicated to music greats, so we can’t leave Nashville without visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame.  We spend a couple hours listening to music, watching early film and television coverage of country music greats, and enjoying artifacts on display (love all the rhinestone and fringe bedecked country music attire, find all the instruments very interesting after our recent Gibson guitar factory tour).

photo by Fred Langley
This is our final, and unexpected, Elvis sighting.  We think of him as the King of Rock and Roll, but he was also a King of Country, elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame over 20 years after his passing.  His plaque in the Hall of Fame acknowledges that, “Sales of hundreds of millions of records around the world sealed his place as a musical icon who helped forge new territory for country music and forever changed its course.”

Photo by Fred Langley
 After a very cosmopolitan revisionist Southern lunch near the Hall of Fame, we start our drive toward home, getting as far as Dalton, Georgia, when we decide it is time to stop for the night. 

Lured by 15% off coupons from our hotel, we go to the Dalton Depot for dinner.  The restaurant is housed in a well-preserved old railroad depot, and trains frequently pass on the tracks outside, adding to the authentic atmosphere.  The food is good, and they offer smaller portion options, which we welcome after all our hearty road food dining on this trip. Wednesday is half price wine night, so we get a bottle, of course.  All told, we spend just a little over $40 for dinner for four, including a bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay--a perfect ending to another perfect day.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Night at the Opry

In Search of Elvis Etcetera: Day 5
Tuesday, August 20, 2012
Memphis to Nashville
210 miles
Since we only have to drive from Memphis to Nashville today, a trip of a little over three hours as we figure it, we think we have plenty of time this morning to do a little more sight-seeing around Memphis.


Joyce has a quilt magazine with an article about an installation of aluminum quilts at City Hall here.  It sounds like a must-see, and it turns out to be spectacular.  The artist, Greely Myatt, designed this installation, known as “Quiltsurround,” to hide unsightly utility equipment on the City Hall concourse.  Her artistic medium is scrapped aluminum signs from a city roadwork shop--signs that had been damaged by storms, accidents or vandalism.  She cut the signs up, just as other quilters cut up fabric, then used pop rivets to assemble her aluminum scraps into brilliant interpretations of traditional quilt patterns.

An old-fashioned trolley runs on tracks through a plaza nearby, and Dick suggests we hop a ride on the riverfront line.  For just $1, we enjoy a scenic ride around town.

Then we zip right back to where we began the day, just in time to catch the noontime tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory across the street from our hotel. As the release we signed before entering warned us, the factory is very loud and dusty, and no photos are allowed.  We are amazed to find that there are very few robots here--almost everything is done by human beings operating wood working machines or hand tools.  As expected, our avid woodworkers Dick and Fred are entranced, but Joyce and I find it pretty interesting, too. The plant turns out fifty guitars per day, and each guitar takes about three weeks to complete (including hand-painting the body and applying fourteen coats of lacquer).

 It is after 1 p.m., and time to hit the road for Nashville, where we have tickets for the Grand Ole Opry tonight.

 By the time we stop for a quick lunch, crawl through rush hour Nashville traffic, and make our way through the line-up of cars waiting to check in at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, it is close to 6 p.m., and our Grand Ole Opry show starts at 7.   A glass of wine, a little snack and we are off to the Opry. 

The entertainment tonight is legendary.  Because Elvis week celebrations just finished up the road, some past members of Elvis’ band are in town and in playing form, including his good friend James Burton who drops in to jam with another band on the official line-up. Our big surprise is Lisa Marie Presley, who is making her Grand Ole Opry debut.  Once she starts singing, we understand why this is her debut, and we predict she won’t be back again soon.  Alas, her daddy did not pass on his music genes to Lisa Marie.

For country music fans, here are the performers we saw: Larry Gatlin, Casey James (an American Idol winner), Jimmy Dickens (a 93-year-old who doesn’t have much of a singing voice left, but is a terrific stand-up comic), Del McCoury Band, Steve Wariner, Lisa Marie, and Rascal Flatts (who rocked the place crazy).

 We finally sit down to dinner at 10 p.m.!   We can’t remember the last time we dined at such a late hour, and we don’t anticipate doing it again anytime soon, but we actually enjoy it at the time.  Country music energy coursing through us kept us awake just long enough to get through dinner and back to our rooms.


Elvis is in the House!

In Search of Elvis Etcetera: Day 4
Monday, August 19, 2012
Memphis TN
The inspiration for our trip, the acme of our tour, the day we have anticipated for many miles now has finally arrived--we are at Graceland, the Mecca of all Elvis fans.  The hard core fans left yesterday, the end of Elvis Week, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the King’s passing, and the grounds are strewn with countless wreaths, posters, and sentimental mementoes of undying world-wide devotion.  From Japan to Ireland, to Bolivia, to Czechoslovakia, to Wisconsin, love of Elvis springs eternal, and after our visit, we have more appreciation for why this is so.

Elvis sold over a billion records world-wide, and had 149 singles on the Billboard top 100.  We watch films of his performances and realize Michael Jackson stole his dance moves, including his moonwalk, from Elvis. The Elvis Tribute Exhibit is filled with signature items from rock and roll greats who recognize Elvis as their inspiration. 

 Given all that success, Elvis had lots of disposable income, and he loved to spend it on showy stuff.

We tour a car museum filled with his custom luxury cars--the pink Cadillac, of course, but also a much more luxurious Cadillac with diamond-dusted exterior paint and 24 karat gold-plated interior amenities, including the television.  He also had some more “tasteful” cars--a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, and a six-door custom Mercedes limo to name just a few.  And he had a lot of motorized toys, including snowmobiles that he converted for lawn use, since Graceland didn’t get much snow.

 We tour his private jet, the Lisa Marie, which is a lot like the Air Force One we toured at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum, only Elvis’s plane is more luxuriously appointed.

But, of course the highlight of our visit is our tour of Graceland, his big kitschy play house decorated in flamboyant seventies style.  We can take all the non-flash photos we want, so we will let them tell the tale.

mirror-lined rec room with 3 tvs
exotic fabric-covered billiards room
After we thoroughly tour Graceland, we head down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Marlowe’s, a classy burger and barbecue joint featuring  a lots of Elvis memorabilia in its eclectic d├ęcor. Out in the parking lot, we search for a geocache that involves finding the combination to the cache’s lock on this little piggy’s nose. Joyce finds the combination, Fred finds the cache, we sign the log and count it as ours, and we are on our way.

We get back to downtown Memphis just in time for the Mojo Tour--an hour and a half bus ride around Memphis highlights with narration provided by a singing tour guide. We learn lots of interesting facts about the birthplace of the blues and rock and roll as we accompany our guide’s songs with our little gravel filled plastic egg rhythm instruments, and stop by the first apartment where Elvis’ parents moved when they came here from Tupelo (not far from where B. B. King lived at the same time), Stax Records, Sun Studio, the Lorraine Motel--where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and lots more.   

The bus drops us off at Beale Street at the end of our tour, and it is an easy walk to the Peabody Hotel, where the famous Peabody ducks march through the lobby from the elevator to the fountain every morning at 11 a.m., and march back to the elevator every evening at 5 p.m.  We grab a table near the fountain in the lobby bar, and wait for the spectacle to begin, as huge crowds start gathering at the edges of the ducks’ red carpet.  The Duck Master (this is a real job!) provides a ten minute speech about the proud history of the Peabody Hotel and its over 70-year-old duck march tradition, then the actual duck march takes about fifteen seconds. 
Afterward, we ride the elevator up to the roof to see the ducks in their penthouse and take in panoramic views of Memphis. 

 Then, finally, we all trudge the couple blocks back to our hotel. We can’t stuff another activity into this very busy day.  We are too worn out for another loud and lively night on Beale Street.  We decide to just head down to dinner at the restaurant in our hotel, Bleu. We eat out on the patio, where the music from Beale Street wafts over at a perfect background volume, and our food is beautifully prepared and presented--a welcome contrast to the beverages in plastic cups and food in plastic baskets being served over on Beale Street.  

We turn in early--and it’s a good thing we do, because tomorrow will be an even fuller day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

From Birmingham to Beale Street

In Search of Elvis Etcetera: Day 3
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Birmingham, AL to Memphis TN
240 miles

There is no better place to spend Sunday morning than in Joe Minter’s African Village in America, especially if Joe is around to offer some spiritual perspective about the sacred ground he calls “a church of the heart.”

Joe has been building his African Village art park in the yard around his house since 1989, using found objects to create shrines, totems, sculptures and plaques to tell stories of the African-American experience, and to share messages from the Bible and from his personal relationship with God.  His yard is tucked between two African American cemeteries, and the spirits of over 100,000 Africans around him make this sacred ground.

He came to greet us shortly after we arrived in the Village, and told us about how God,” the first artist,” guided him in its creation.  He left us to wander, but came back frequently to offer small sermons about art, religion, and how we ought to live together in harmony.  He showed us his talking stick, which is also a musical instrument, adorned with many found objects that jangle and ring as he carries and shakes it.  (Even without the stick, he jangles when he walks--a little cow bell hangs from his belt.)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s prison cell, the twin towers, African natives dancing and slaves in chains, segregated living, lynchings, civil rights heros and Jesus as redeemer--all are subjects of art pieces in the Village, and Joe would be glad to tell us more of their stories, but we have miles to go today, so we manage to tear ourselves away after an hour or so of exploring (though we will keep talking about him and his art long after we leave).

Our next stop is Sloss Furnaces, a now defunct iron foundry which has gained national historic site status.  We get there hours before it officially opens to the public, but the gates are open to allow vendors from a big event the day before to pull up stakes and get their RVs off the grounds.  We take advantage of the situation, and wander around the deserted plant taking pictures of the beautifully rusting old machinery.   

The morning is almost behind us by the time we set off for Memphis.  We are eager to get there, but we have one more stop--our first official Elvis pilgrimage of the trip.

We stop in Tupelo, Mississippi to see Elvis’s childhood home, a very humble little shotgun shack.  We watch a short movie in the Visitor Center, where we learn that Elvis had an identical twin brother who was stillborn about a half hour before Elvis was born, and we also learn that his father was in prison for a year (we don’t know why) before the family moved out of their little shack in the middle of the night and high-tailed it to Memphis when Elvis was 13.  The movie also emphasizes that Elvis had an unusual interest in music from a very young age.  

 This is the perfect lead-in to our visit to Memphis, where a visit to Graceland is the keynote activity on tomorrow’s agenda.  

We get to Memphis late in the afternoon.  Our hotel, the Memphis Westin, is perfectly located around the corner from Beale Street, the lively entertainment district of Memphis.  We stroll up and down the street, savoring the live music coming from every the courtyard and open doorway.  The street is closed to traffic, and there are people dancing in the street, an artist is gathering an audience watching him do a portrait, a park is full of vendors.  The music is too loud inside anywhere we pass, but we find a rooftop restaurant, where we can enjoy the sound of music wafting up to us from below, and watch the action on Beale Street as the sun goes down and the neon lights brighten up.  The beer and barbecue are nothing special, but the atmosphere more than makes up for the food.

As we are about to leave, a young girl at the table next to us starts wielding a professional grade camera to take about 40 strobe fast pictures of her parents.  The mother apologizes for disturbing our meal, we are of course not at all disturbed, and as we get talking she tells us that she and her husband just got married yesterday in the wedding chapel at Graceland.  Then we learn that this was their second marriage--they were married to each other for sixteen years, divorced for one year, and then remarried.  And, they came all the way from Sweden to tie the knot.

 That charming little quirky exchange was the perfect ending for a wonderfully eclectic day.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

In Search of Elvis Etcetera:Day 2

August 18, 2012
Anniston, AL to Birmingham
65 miles

Now that we have finished our complimentary big southern breakfast and paid our $59 bill at the Victoria, it’s official--this is the best lodging value we can remember any time in our travel history.  We sort of hate to leave, but, really, there is not much to do in Anniston, so we hit the highway for a quick drive to Birmingham. 

We begin at the city’s highest point, the summit of Red Mountain, where a 56-foot tall statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and forging, stands atop a twelve story tower pointing a spear to the heavens.  Made from ore mined from Red Mountain and smelted in the local foundry, the statue was made for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, a symbol of Birmingham’s booming iron industry.  He was then--and he still remains--the world’s largest cast iron statue, although the iron industry he symbolizes no longer thrives in Birmingham.  

Back in the valley, we spend the rest of the morning at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where dramatic multi-media displays trace Birmingham’s reluctant progress from being the largest segregated city in the country to electing its first black mayor in 1979, and reelecting him for the next twenty years.  The dogs, the fire hoses, the Klan members (some of them children) in their white robes and hoods, the police strangely absent when Freedom Riders were beaten, the justice system lenient or slow in prosecuting beaters and bombers--the city’s shameful history was laid bare, with the hope for a brighter tomorrow.  

Across the street is the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls lost their lives in a racially motivated terrorist bombing in 1963 (when bombings were so common that the city earned its nickname of “Bombingham”).  Justice was not swift for the bombers--one of them was just tried relatively recently, over forty years after the act.   

It’s time for lunch--and everyone agrees if you have just one lunch in Birmingham, that lunch should be ribs at Dreamland BBQ.  We could smell the hickory smoke from blocks away, and truth be told, it is nearly nine hours later and the smell of smoky ribs still clings to us as an olfactory souvenir of Dreamland.   The ribs are served with very soft white bread and spunky hot BBQ sauce for dipping.  They are tasty, although we aren’t entirely certain that they live up to Dreamland’s motto--“ain’t nothing like ‘em nowhere.”  

Another unique Birmingham attraction is Jim Reed Books and Museum of Fond Memories, where Jim presides over what is purported to be a quarter million books and other collectible items overflowing off the bookshelves onto piles in the aisles of the store.  Books that are well over a hundred years old share space with flea market paperbacks, and Jim knows where everything is, it seems.  Although it sounds really eclectic and offbeat, I think I am the only one in our group who finds it enchanting. (I think this because when I found a really cool book I wanted to share, none of my travel companions were still in the store--they had all snuck out to the cars to wait for me to come to my senses.)

The day is wearing on and we have no hotel reservations, so we head for a big generic clump of chain hotels off the highway at the edge of Birmingham, and book rooms in a Hampton Inn which hasxfs a tenth of the atmosphere at almost twice the price of our now beloved Victoria Inn. But really, all we need is a place to shower away the aroma of Dreamland BBQ smoke, to drink a glass or two of wine, and to get a good night’s sleep, and for that the Hampton Inn suits us just fine.

Friday, August 17, 2012

In Search of
Elvis Etcetera: Day 1
August 17, 2012
Savannah to Anniston, AL
360 miles
We are overdue for another road trip, yesterday was the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and we haven’t seen Graceland yet.  It must be time to head for Memphis.  So, here we go, with our music loving travel companions, Joyce and Fred.  

We stop for lunch in Forsyth, Georgia, where an impressive county courthouse dominates the town square. After lunch at Jonah’s on Johnston, as bistro and bakery in the shadow of the courthouse, we introduce Joyce and Fred to geocaching, locating a cache near the Civil War hero statue on courthouse lawn, then we are on our way to Anniston, Alabama. 

We are staying at the Victoria Inn, a gracious 1888 Queen Anne home with an annex of Southern style rooms, terraces and gardens out back around the pool.   

Across the parking lot, in the Victoria’s Carriage House is Larry K. Martin’s Wren’s Nest Gallery, where we peruse Larry’s famous wildlife art for quite a while.  Larry’s art is in the collections of George Bush Sr., Dick Cheney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, so we can pretty much assume that we are not on the same wavelength politically.  But, the guys all hit it off artistically--Joyce and I excuse ourselves to enjoy a glass of wine in the poolside gazebo, while Larry takes Fred and Dick to his inner sanctum studio, where they talk about technical art production stuff, and the small group African safaris Larry leads yearly.  Is a safari with Larry on our travel horizon?  

The Anniston Firehouse is just a five minute walk from our hotel, and there is a “Dalmatian Station” geocache nearby, so we hand the I-pad over to our fire fighter friend Fred to lead the way, and he is a geocaching natural, walking right to the cache, which is filled with fire safety stickers, coloring books, and little toys.  Of course, we end up meeting some of the local firemen, and they give Fred the insider’s tour of their fancy equipment, including two brand new high tech engines just being put into service this week.  

We enjoy a gourmet dinner at the Inn, surely the finest restaurant in town, even though we and one other couple have the elegant dining room to ourselves this evening. 

Then it’s time to turn in early--tomorrow promises to be an action-packed day in Birmingham.