Saturday, 6th October
The 200 plus mile drive from Nashville to Memphis was an absolute delight. How so? Well, with responsibility for driving and navigation in someone else’s hands, I slipped on my headphones and enjoyed a Simon and Garfunkel songfest all along the I-40.
Passing fields of lazy, waving corn and white fluffy cotton, I sang along that I was ‘Homeward Bound’ and “…gone to look for America”. I was back in my twenties, not a care in the world.
Just as the journey was becoming a bit tedious I had a lovely surprise. Our ‘lunch’ stop was at the ‘Casey Jones Home and Museum.’ Now when I was a child one of my favourite t.v. shows was ‘Casey Jones’. This series was set in the late 19th century, featuring the adventures of a well-known railroad engineer and the crew of the Cannonball Express steam locomotive. The t.v. show didn’t mention the true story – one that turned him into a folk hero.
Jones was indeed an engineer working for the Illinois Central railroad with a reputation for keeping strictly to the timetable. On April 30, 1900, he volunteered to work a double shift to cover for a fellow engineer who was ill. He had just completed a run from Canton, Mississippi, preparing to return on board Engine No. 1 heading south. The train was originally running more than an hour and a half late and Jones, determined to arrive on time, ran the steam locomotive at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour in an effort to make up the time.
As he took a turn into Vaughan, Mississippi, he was warned that there was another train parked on the tracks ahead. As quickly as he could, Jones grabbed the brake with one hand and pulled the whistle with the other in an attempt to warn those around the train. He instructed his fireman to jump to safety, all the while still trying to slow the train. The collision was brutal. All passengers on the train survived, with the exception of Casey Jones, who was struck in the throat while still holding one hand on the brake and one on the whistle.
Our journey continued on to Memphis but instead of singing along with Simon and Garfunkel, the Casey Jones theme was running around in circles in my head. By early afternoon we had arrived in Memphis and our first stop instantly brought me up short. We arrived at the Lorraine Motel, a place I’d seen so often, it felt like I’d been there before but, of course, I hadn’t. For this was the place where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by James Earl Ray in April 1964. Dr King was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage collectors and had given a speech before returning to his motel to change for dinner.
The Lorraine was one of the few motels in Memphis known as friendly to African-Americans. As he emerged from Room 306 a bullet hit him in the cheek shattering his jaw, several vertebrae and severing his spinal cord. Ironically just hours before he had delivered his famous ‘Mountain Top’ speech in which he spoke about his own mortality: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Just across from the motel I noticed a middle-aged African-American woman clearly protesting about something. I went to talk to her. Jacqueline Smith has lived on the pavement outside the motel since she was evicted from her room there to make way for the National Civil Right’s Museum, 30 years ago. She believes the museum dishonours Dr King’s legacy. “I have no problem whatsoever with a National Civil Rights Museum, but I truly believe that the Lorraine Motel is capable of being so much more than an empty space.”
She’s a smart, funny woman, as keen to talk about British television sitcoms as she is to discuss why she has slept rough for 30 years but I get her back on track. “The Lorraine demonstrates the best and worst of what Memphis can offer. It could so easily be a testament to the spirit and teachings of Dr. King… offering support for the homeless and disadvantaged, health care and help for the old and infirm, job training and development to increase self-worth while reducing unemployment.” As I leave her she presses a flyer into my hands, “Read that dear and think of me when you next watch Hyacinth Bucket – just love that woman.”
And so from the sublime to the ridiculous – we are whisked away to Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first record.
I could do no other than to have a go myself. Since no-one came rushing out after me waving a recording contract, I can only assume they don’t know a great voice when they hear one.
Checked into our Memphis Hotel and had a deliciously refreshing shower just in time to join friends for a ten minute walk down to Beale Street, “the home of the Blues”. We found a great place – the Rum Boogie cafe – to eat, drink and boogie to live music but I loved that I kept being asked for ID to prove I was old enough to drink. They take it very seriously here and if you’re under 21 you won’t be admitted to the street after 11pm. After my third Voodoo Love Child cocktail I decided that Beale Street was the real deal.
When we emerged late into the steamy night air, the street was packed with performers, protesters, police and tourists. On Saturday nights, after 10pm it’s cordoned off and there’s a $10 cover charge to get in. This charge pays for the extra policing implemented to deal with the serious crime problem that seems, mostly to have melted away.
There was just time to do some souvenir shopping before we left Beale Street, I found some tasteful toilet seats I could imagine my friends being delighted with but sadly they were too large for my luggage.
Sunday, 7th October – Memphis
First off, I should admit that I haven’t really liked Elvis since I was in his fan club at 6 years of age. But time’s passed and he’s good enough for the nostalgia value to merit a visit to Graceland. So I did. Yet I’m struggling to find a way to describe how I feel about the interior design of the mansion. Maybe back in the 70’s it was considered elegant but I doubt it. Green shag pile carpet on the walls of the ‘jungle room’, a yellow room with three televisions and a billiard room with pleated walls. All I can do is show my photographs and let them speak for themselves.
In the garden, near the surprisingly small kidney shaped swimming pool is a meditation garden and the place where Elvis and his parents are buried. There is a Disney-like warehouse-sized building away from the house which is the museum, housing Elvis’ outfits, cars, a cinema showing his movies and the inevitable gift shops, cafes and restaurants. Outside also are his two private aircraft. It was all a bit of a vulgar display of excess especially in view of my talk with Jacqueline Smith about the poverty and want in the city.
Our hotel in Memphis was almost next door to the famous Peabody. This is a lovely old hotel which is known not just for its elegant old-style grandeur but for its famous march of the Peabody ducks. Twice a day, five North American Mallards, escorted by a gentleman in a red coat and carrying a black cane (the Duckmaster), march down a red carpet to swim in the fountain in the centre of the hotel. They are watched by a large crowd of paying onlookers. Why? Tradition. It’s been going on since 1930. I’m pleased to say the hotel never have duck on the menu.
Monday, 8th October – Memphis-New Orleans
The Amtrak train was two hours late. Annoyingly we’d had a very early start only to discover something was wrong with the Panoramic car but it did mean we could have breakfast so we went back to Main Street to The Arcade, the oldest restaurant in Memphis. The diner was short staffed as there’d been an accident on the freeway and only one cook had made it in, so it took a while. Over my coffee and eggs over-easy, I admired the photographs plastered liberally around the walls showing the music legends that had also enjoyed their breakfasts there.
It was worth the wait. Travelling on an Amtrak train had been a long-held ambition. The sound of the train’s horn is so very particular that wherever I am when I hear it, travelling across the vast expanse of this heterogeneous country is brought immediately to mind.
It took most of the day to get to New Orleans but the experience was memorable. The views from the train were fantastic with the vast sweep of the deep south passing in front of me as I sat in comfort eating my Hebrew National hot dog. Well, getting that was an experience in itself. The restaurant car was two carriages along and as the train jerked and swayed it was necessary to grab onto the seat backs as I passed through, apologising for pulling hair or crushing feet en route. Eventually I found my rhythm and it became easier until I found myself between carriages trying to estimate a good time to jump between one and the other. (Yes, of course they were joined together but the sway was so marked you had to ensure you chose your moment!) Coming back from the restaurant car carrying a cardboard tray laden with coffee and food was an even greater challenge. (Did I mention that I limp quite a bit at the moment as I’m waiting for a new knee? Well you’d be surprised how hard it is to synchronise a limp with the motion of the carriage.)
Arriving on the outskirts of the Big Easy was slightly unnerving as we passed over murky green swampland alive with alligators. I wasn’t too keen on the site of rotted wooden pilings which had clearly supported previous roads or rail tracks.
Soon either side of us was water – the huge Lake Pontchartrain to our left and and Lake Maurepas on the right.
But all was well as we soon pulled into New Orleans station. I was surprised by a huge welcoming committee until I realised there was a big football match on. The Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints is right next to the station – it took some time to get away to our hotel which was nice and central, right next to the French Quarter.
It had started to rain, the first bad weather of the trip and it was a bit of a shock. Dodging puddles and roadworks, we made our way into the heart of the French Quarter at night, sure of our destination but not really knowing how to get there.
We made it eventually and were rewarded with a wonderful meal at Arnaud’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the city. Opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman named Arnaud Cazenave it is today owned by only the second family of proprietors the restaurant has known. While we ate, a small band played exuberant Dixieland jazz creating just the atmosphere I had hoped I would find in New Orleans.
Tuesday, 9th October – New Orleans
Sadly, by day I wasn’t so impressed. Not having visited the city before Hurricane Katrina ripped out its heart, I have no idea what it was like then. But today it seems rather tacky – as if it has somehow lost its mojo. I went on a walking tour – the rain didn’t help to be fair – and admired the architecture, listened to the history but felt something was definitely missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
What I did enjoy was my visit to the Voodoo Museum. I expected the place to be very touristy; there are many voodoo shops in New Orleans all offering readings and selling dolls, talismans and charms. The museum was tiny and as I do-si-do’d around the other visitors in the museum shop, the atmosphere settled around me.
Greeting me at the ticket desk was Madame Cinnamon Black – who informed me she was a high priestess – now there’s a woman who could tell some tales. She gave me some paper and I discovered this was for writing a wish which you then place in an old tree stump having wrapped the paper around an offering of money. As I made my way past relics, paintings and sculptures I read some of the history of voodoo in the city. I realised this is a religion that is taken very seriously but the place could do with a good dust and I wasn’t sorry to get out into the fresh air.
The rain had stopped so I went shopping for creole seasoning and gumbo mix. Back in my hotel room I watched the Weather Channel, Hurricane Michael was swerving to the east of us. Tomorrow would be a better day.
Wednesday, 10th October – Oak Valley Plantation / Louisiana swamp
About an hour’s drive from New Orleans is Oak Valley Plantation at Vacherie on the west bank of the Mississippi. On the drive there we saw the levees were very full. With the hurricane about to make landfall in Florida there was some flooding en route to the plantation.
When we arrived we toured the house, it wasn’t huge but you got an idea about the people who lived there, the slave owners, a family called Roman.
The house was originally called Bon Séjour (I doubt the slaves had a good stay) and the plantation was established for the growing of sugarcane. The most noted slave listed in the inventory of 1848, after Jacques Roman died was “Antoine, 38, Creole Negro gardener/expert grafter of pecan trees”. He succeeded in producing a variety of pecan that could be cracked with your bare hands. His value was listed as $1,000.
After the house tour I thought it a good idea to try a mint julep; it always sounded like such a delicate, ladylike drink. If I’d known that the main constituent was whiskey, after my experience at Jack Daniel’s distillery I wouldn’t have bothered. It was ten o’clock in the morning and I have only myself to blame for the feeling of nausea that followed me around Oak Valley, beautiful though the grounds were. We listened to a talk about the slaves, brought to life by an excellent docent. Yet I was struck by the difference in emphasis given on my last tour of a plantation (near Charleston, South Carolina) about twenty years ago, where the slaves were merely mentioned in passing.
Sugarcane was a labour-intensive crop, more so than tobacco or cotton. Numbers of the enslaved community at Oak Alley fluctuated between roughly 110 and 120 men, women, and children. For field slaves, life on a sugar plantation was hard, often violent and short. There were no pesticides back then and the crop needed constant attention with weeding and irrigating. When harvested, the exhausted slaves often worked up to 18 hours at a time wielding machetes and operating dangerous machinery to turn the sweet cane juice into sugar and molasses. The lives of the house slaves were no easier, they were always on duty and at Oak Alley, women performed the majority of the heavy maintenance work such as mending roads and levees.
From Oak Valley we threaded our way back to New Orleans, passing other plantations on the way. Before we reached the city, we made a detour to the swamp. Here the flooding was very obvious.
When we arrived we discovered the public toilets were underwater which made for quite an uncomfortable trip in a swamp boat. However, the upside was that we saw plenty of wildlife: deer, raccoons and alligators.
Our Captain Brandon kept us amused with stories of his life on the swamp and he was very accommodating, helping me to get some wonderful close up video of an alligator.
Returning to New Orleans for our last night we ate at a popular restaurant, Brennan’s. I wasn’t impressed, the banana daiquiri tasted like floor cleaner and the service was annoying. (Our glasses of water were regularly removed and exchanged for fresh ones – seriously?)
Tomorrow we would be leaving Louisiana and moving on – to Texas.