A day of three halves. This morning, after a light breakfast in the lounge of our club floor, we set out to collect Arkansas by visiting a state park and taking a long-overdue walk in the countryside. We eventually found a well-hidden but beautiful park and walked for an hour by a lake and in some woods. By this time it was after noon and, getting wiser in the ways of America at lunchtime, we found a gas station with chicken wings and cold drinks.
Returning to Memphis we went directly to Sun Studios. The tour included Elvis’s first ever recording, and his first radio broadcast as well as early work by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others. Our guide was excellent (picture below). The second half ended with a return to the Peabody for early evening canapés.
The third half, on the recommendation of our concierge, was dinner at B B King’s Blues Bar. While the food was fairly ordinary, the music – which continued outside as we strolled down Beale Street – was excellent. Returning to the hotel we were faced with three huge chocolate-coated strawberries by our bed. This partly explains the weight gain revealed by the bathroom scales.
After all this we have decided to give Graceland a miss, and plan to go to the Botanic Garden tomorrow.
Today was strange. We left Oxford, after taking a few pictures to contrast Oxford, Miss with Oxford UK, and drove to the “picturesque resort” of Holly Springs. Unfortunately Holly Springs appears to be in economic decline and, to make matters much worse, it was a Monday. After a tour of empty shopfronts and closed museums and gardens we managed to find a plastic mug of iced tea (two for $1.19) and drink it on the dusty pavement.
We then carried on towards Memphis, not wanting to arrive at our hotel too early, and decided to turn off at the first brown sign and investigate a random cultural site. The one we found was the birthplace of Ada B Wells, who we had not previously heard of. She was a very influential black rights campaigner and journalist, and we had a fascinating hour learning about her extraordinary life.
Returning to our journey, we reached Memphis at about 3 and checked in to the Peabody Hotel. This is the best known hotel in Memphis and one of its features is five ducks who parade out of the lift and swim in the fountain in the foyer twice a day. Hundreds of people throng to see this (not very) extraordinary sight. Why?
We got upgraded in the hotel to the “club floor” so we get free canapés, coffee and cookies. We are enjoying it!
The problem is Memphis is deciding what not to do. We are inclined to skip Graceland, although everyone says that since we’re here we should see it. We will let you know in a couple of days whether we succumbed.
Last night we ate heavily at Walnut Hill in Vicksburg and then watched Dallas Buyers Club from our B&B’s excellent selection of DVDs. This morning, after the usual substantial breakfast (no lunch required – luckily because it is Sunday in Mississippi) we drove gently to Oxford. This is Mississippi’s main university town, and we are staying in its campus hotel – cheap and good.
We arrived only just in time to visit the William Faulkner house, which will be closed tomorrow, a Monday. We were taken under the wing of a garrulous black student whose views on government, civil rights etc were not dissimilar to our own. Note to selves: must read at least one Faulkner book. It’s been a long time.
We then recce’d the town to see if we would be able to eat out on a Sunday night. The answer is “probably, as long as we want Italian food”. Oxford is not a typical southern US town: it has a town centre with sidewalks, boutiques, expensive clothes shops, bars and small restaurants. As much like Oxford in the UK as they can make it. The big chains are banished to the outer highway fringes, much to our delight. [But we did, once in the past ten days, succumb to a Big Mac for lunch. Honestly, there was nothing else!]
A lazy day today, based entirely on the Civil War. Yesterday evening we watched our landlady’s video about the key battle for control of the Mississippi at Vicksburg and today we spent almost the whole day in the military state park and memorial. I say a lazy day because the park, which covers much of the battlefield, has 16 miles of roads so one is expected to drive from point to point. We therefore drove a mile listening to the CD account, stopped for ten minutes to look around, found it too hot, got back into the car air conditioning and repeated another 15 times. All the while we wore trainers rather than sandals, because our landlady had warned us about fire ants, which apparently sting terribly (luckily we did not find any).
Saturated with Ulysses Grant, General Sherman and their confederate opponents, we tried to find somewhere in Vicksburg for a cup of tea – without success. We therefore retired to our wonderful verandah where I am writing this in a swinging sofa watching cardinals and other less dramatic birds, drinking an iced fruit drink of peculiar composition, alleged to be based on mango. We are idly contemplating which restaurant to grace with our presence this evening.
The trip from Natchez to Jackson was a delight: we took the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs for 450 miles to Nashville and was built to allow easy access to the South. It is now a commercial-free road through woods and meadows and we drove for almost 100 miles without seeing an advertising hoarding, a gas station, a house or a truck! It was a shock emerging into the real world to enter Jackson, the home of many civil rights workers, including – until his assassination – Medgar Evers.
In Jackson we explored three delightful places: Eudora Welty’s home, the Smith Robertson Museum, and the Mississippi Museum of Art. You will probably not be aware of any of these, as we weren’t until a couple of weeks ago. Eudora Welty is, with William Faulkner, Mississippi’s most famous author and we had just read her Golden Apples. The Smith Robertson celebrates the role of black women in the civil rights struggle, and boy were they brave. It also has a section on Medgar Evers, the most active civil rights worker in Mississipi. Very moving.
The Museum of Art is fascinating. In addition to the work of local artists its walls are covered with quotations from Faulkner, Richard Wright and, you guessed, Eudora Welty. There are also photographs by Eudora Welty.
We then retired, culturally exhausted, to our first B&B of the trip, in Vicksburg – scene of Civil War battles. I am writing this sitting on the first floor balcony/verandah gazing out over the Mississippi with the sun still fairly high in the sky. It will very soon be over the yardarm as we retire across the road to the recommended restaurant, just 50 metres away.
Evening has come. We are well fed, Gwen has discovered a taste for Jim Beam and Seagram’s 7, and the retirement party has fizzled out early. Just look at the sunset.
Wow! We drove along 60 or 70 miles of the river behind the levee catching only occasional glimpses of the Mississippi herself. Then came Natchez and the bluffs. Our hotel in on the bluffs and overlooks the river itself (see picture for an inadequate impression). Ole Man River is certainly broad and brown and carries huge barges. It also has amazing bird life and we saw, for instance, a bird with a bright orange back which we had not seen before. Nor was this the effect of a substance which we caught a whiff of while walking past an isolated smoker, and Gwen asked “what’s that funny smell?”
While parked briefly on the top of the levee watching the birds and eating our (very small) lunch a passing Sheriff pulled up and asked if we were OK. He was very friendly, just surprised to see an out-of-state car and then to hear an English accent.
The temperature is perfect for us – low 20s – and we loved this town on our walk-about. The difficulty this evening will be to choose between several tempting restaurants within a couple of blocks of the hotel.
We specifically requested a river-view room but now we look down and see below us a band setting the sound levels for a “retirement party” tonight, so sleep may be a bit late this evening.
Another strange observation is that when we stopped in the middle of nowhere at a petrol station (actually we needed their loos) the cashiers long desk was full of whiskey – there must have been 30 or more brands on sale. Not our usual Shell experience!
This is new state #3, with Missouri, Arkansas and maybe Kentucky still to come. So far it has been a great holiday.