Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Visit With Elvis

Sunday, April 20

As the construction winds down on the new house, I am dispatched by the FAA to Memphis as part of a team that is to perform an audit on the local Flight Standards District Office. Since our journeys have been curtailed by this building project for so long, we decided to drive to Memphis, pulling Homer with us. Much of our expense for this trip will be covered by the taxpayers, so why not enjoy the outing to the max? We’ve found that we really despise staying in hotels now, having been spoiled by having our little rolling home with us all the time. With Homer, there’s no packing and unpacking of luggage and schlepping it around from place to place, forgetting half of what we need. All our “stuff” is always there, including our favorite food, beverages and snacks. We always have Direct TV, internet and, especially important to Sandy, a clean bathroom everywhere we go!

We left Hurst very late—around mid-afternoon— on Saturday, April 19, bound only as far as Texarkana. We had a host of last-minute tasks to perform that would enable us to leave for a week, not the least of which was to unload into the house closets a majority of our clothing wardrobe that had been jammed into Homer for months. Sandy and I were amazed how much stuff we unloaded; no wonder we couldn’t seem to find anything! We also unloaded into the house pantry a lot of foodstuffs that we had tucked away in Homer’s kitchen area. I’m sure the poor trailer gave a sigh of relief when this extra weight was removed!

After an uneventful drive, we pulled into the Shady Pines RV Park in Texarkana just before dark and, for a late dinner, opened a can of gourmet tuna we received as a gift from Gordon and Juanita upon their arrival in Oregon last month. The tuna was caught by a couple who own the F.V. Lancing, a small fishing vessel out of Charleston, Oregon and who send their catches to Chuck’s Seafood, a small local cannery for packing. This must be the finest canned tuna in the world, and we almost can’t bear the thought of having to settle for the stuff from the local grocery stores. In fact, we’re not going to settle; we’re ordering a case of the stuff! We also enjoyed a bunch of fresh green onions that Thurman had given us from his garden next door just before we left the house. After watching a little TV, we enjoyed a good night’s rest in this immaculate little park in the east Texas piney woods.

Monday, April 21

After a nice breakfast, we departed Texarkana late in the morning, needing to cover the 300 miles to Memphis by nightfall. We had lunch at a forgettable hamburger joint in Arkadelphia and, after several stops for fuel or stretching our legs, we lumbered into the Audobon Point RV Park just south of Memphis (actually in Horn Lake, Mississippi) just as they closed at 6:00 p.m. This is a very nice and newish large park with all the bells and whistles, a little pricey at $35.00 per night, but very convenient to the FAA office where I was to conduct the audit.

Tuesday, April 22

Today, as usual, Sandy cooked a wonderful breakfast, and we enjoyed a nice visit before motoring off to my auditee’s office near the airport. Perhaps to get on the audit team’s good side, the office manager took us to Neely’s Interstate Barbecue for lunch. I had a combination rib and brisket plate that was, well, fantastic. This place is definitely in the same class as Angelo’s in Fort Worth, and I can understand why it was so incredibly busy during the noon hour.

After work, Sandy and I decided to go downtown and see what Memphis had to offer. We had intended to eat dinner at the Lobster King Chinese Restaurant, which carried a good recommendation on, but found it closed, so we ate at a mediocre Vietnamese restaurant across the street. We motored around town for a good while, especially enjoying the drive along the Mississippi riverfront. Downtown Memphis is still pretty rundown, unfortunately, but there is some revitalization in progress with the building of many condominia near the city center. Beale Street was busy, but we decided not to mingle with the noisy crowd in that area. We were especially impressed with the restoration of the grand old Orpheum Theater, one of the few remaining movie palaces of a bygone era. The theater still has its pipe organ which, unfortunately, had been removed for repairs at the time of our visit.

Wednesday, April 23

After work this day, we decided to go to Olive Branch, Mississippi, to try a catfish restaurant that had been recommended by one of the locals. After about a ten-mile drive, we arrived at the Olive Branch Catfish Company, only to be bitterly disappointed in the fare. I guess we’re just spoiled by Pappy’s, our local favorite in the DFW area, but this stuff was really a poor contender.

Thursday, April 24

After work this afternoon, we motored back to downtown Memphis to dine at Gus’s, a local legendary restaurant that serves killer fried chicken. This hole-in-the-wall served really different fried chicken, which was batter-dipped and very spicy. I usually don’t care much for batter dipped fried food, but I have to admit, this stuff was delicious. The spiciness, which was perfect for me, was only able to be tolerated by Sandy with copious amounts of ice tea, but I noticed that she ate all of her serving of chicken anyway.

Gus's in Downtown Memphis

Afterward, we strolled along the bank of the river in Martyrs Park, a lovely little park dedicated to the local residents who tended their neighbors stricken by a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, knowing that they, too, would subject themselves to the deadly disease. Two-thirds of Memphis’s population had fled at the outbreak of the epidemic, but the sacrifice of the caregivers who stayed behind to their peril was memorialized with this fine little park. The weather was perfect for our stroll, and we enjoyed this little outing very much as we watched the waters of the wide Mississippi drift silently and inexorably southward toward Natchez and New Orleans.

Martyr's Park

Sandy and Ol' Man River at Martyr's Park

Friday, April 25

This was a big day—a visit with Elvis, lunch at the Rendezvous, and the first leg of our journey home—all in one day! We had to admit to being ready to leave Memphis, the charms of which were diminished somewhat by the fact that I had to work through the entire visit. Even so, we didn’t find a lot to recommend the area for a lengthy stay, and we were determined to experience quickly those attractions which were not to be missed. The locals identify those as Graceland, Beale Street and eating Memphis barbecue. We decided to skip Beale Street, which is a much tamer and scaled-down version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. We just don’t enjoy noisy, crowded places, especially involving drunken revelers, so that didn’t appeal to us at all.

Graceland was another matter. Sandy had had the good fortune to have met Elvis when he was in the Army, stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen in 1957. Sandy’s aunt lived across the street from his rented home, and Sandy visited him there on two occasions and obtained his autograph on both visits! So, it was only natural that she would be interested in touring Graceland. I have to admit to some curiosity myself as to how this guy lived when in the prime of his career. The Presley Estate has constructed a bustling visitor complex across from the mansion on highway 51. A never-ending parade of buses carry visitors across the street and up the long driveway to tour the lower story of the house and the grounds, for which they charge around $30 per person. You can also tour Elvis’s airplanes and his car museum, which we opted not to do.

It is safe to say that Sandy and I were awestruck by the interior d├ęcor. The house was left as it was when Elvis died in 1977, but even considering the unfortunate interior design fiasco that was the seventies—the avocado, gold and orange color palette and the shag carpeting—Graceland’s interior brought new meaning to “tacky.” The rooms were dark and labyrinthine, with no open spaces as is the custom today in interior design. I was also surprised to see the plainness of the kitchen area; the counter surfaces were covered with laminate, of all things! You would never see anything so ordinary in an upscale house these days. All in all, it was a very interesting tour and, I think, almost worth the price of admission.

Elvis purchased the house and the 14 acres around it in 1957 for a little over $100,000, when he was only 22 years old. It is still a beautiful setting, but the area around the mansion has certainly declined over the years. It is almost as though Graceland is woefully out of place among the used car lots, pawn shops and seedy hotels all around it. We were told that the Presley Estate, in partnership with the City of Memphis, is planning a mega-tourist complex for the area, which should, hopefully, restore a degree of dignity to this tired area.

Elvis's Back Yard

The Horse Pasture

Final Resing Place

After leaving Graceland, Sandy and I motored downtown, determined to eat at the Rendezvous, a rib 
joint that has been a tourist favorite since 1948. This place occupies a basement area of a large building in the heart of downtown, near Second and Munroe. Its entrance, incredibly, is hidden in an alley behind the building amidst the huge exhaust fans that pull the smoke from the barbecue pit room downstairs. The result of the smoky emission was the permeation of several city blocks with the wonderful aroma of barbecue ribs being cooked over charcoal—yes, charcoal—and served only with a dry rub—no sauce unless you put it on yourself. I must say that it was not needed. I don’t know what they put in their spicy rub, but the ribs were simply fabulous. The only liquid they use when cooking is a vinegar-based solution that they mop on the slabs occasionally as they smoke. The dry rub is applied the day before cooking and again just before serving. I don’t know how they managed to come up with this technique, but they definitely have it figured out. No wonder this place is so popular.

The Rendezvous

With our stomachs full, we returned to the RV park and hooked up Homer for the first leg to Texas. We headed west on I-40 toward Little Rock and drove with a nice tailwind to Carlisle, Arkansas, where we decided to stop at Nick’s—a barbecue and catfish restaurant we had seen advertised on billboards for a number of miles on I-40. The signs also advertised a truck parking area, which appealed to us, since Homer and the Hornet, hooked together, are about 40 feet long and sometimes difficult to park. Upon arriving at the modest restaurant, we saw several large trucks parked in the spacious area, and the parking lot had obviously seen much heavy use, for it was pockmarked with large potholes full of muddy water from a recent rain. We saw this as a positive sign, although we had to maneuver slowly and carefully to keep Homer’s rocking and rolling to a minimum. The restaurant was packed with customers, and we had to wait a short while for a table. We ordered catfish and onion rings, and these were positively delicious. We topped off the meal with a homemade peach fried pie a la mode. Yum!

It was during this meal that we got a call from our little group of local friends back home whom we loosely refer to as the "Friday Night Social Club." We get together most Friday nights and patronize different restaurants where we chew the rag and wind down the workweek. Sandy, tongue in cheek, long ago appointed herself "CEO" (chief eating officer) of the group, as she was the one who, sort of by accident, got it going. She appointed Brent (Bubba) Barker as "Vice" soon thereafter. While the inference that might be drawn is that Bubba is the "vice" chairperson of the club, that would be incorrect. He was given the title "vice" because he is always involved in some kind of mischief. (Sandy only gave him a title because we are fond of his family and wanted them to think he had made something of himself.)

But, I digress. The purpose of the call was for Paul Rogers, one of the club's more loyal members, to tell Sandy (tongue in cheek, again) that Bubba was orchestrating at that very moment a hostile takeover of the CEO's position while we were absent! However, Bubba was not able to gain the support of the other members, so his plan failed and Sandy suffered no loss of status. Bubba, however, was severely reprimanded upon the CEO's return and stripped of his title for a brief time. However, Sandy, always a sucker for a sad face, restored it fairly quickly. The great hostile takeover episode is now enshrined in the club's folklore and brought up frequently as a reminder of Bubba's dark side.

After dinner at Nick's, we continued west through Little Rock to Benton, Arkansas, where we overnighted at the I-30 RV Park. This was a rather basic campground with a good many permanent residents and a number of pull-through spaces, few of which were improved beyond, well, dirt. It filled the bill for an overnight stay, however, and by the time we had parked, night had fallen and it was beginning to rain. We were pretty tired, and after a bit of TV watching, we turned in for the night.

Saturday, April 26

We awoke to a sunny morning that belied the threatening skies of the previous evening. The storms that had produced the rain the night before had dissipated, and we would obviously have good weather for the final leg home. In Texarkana, we made our obligatory lunch stop at the legendary Bryce’s cafeteria, where we gobbled down fried chicken, barbecue beef tips and wonderful homestyle vegetables.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and we pulled into Homer’s new RV port in Hurst at around 5:00 p.m. The new house is virtually finished, but TXU electric is taking its good time in running the main power lines and setting the permanent meter. We can’t move in until the final inspection by the city, and that won’t happen until TXU does its thing. So, we’re still living in Homer, just a few feet from the beautiful new home that awaits us. I’m not so sure I’m fully excited, however, as this means another move is in store for us. The last one landed me in the hospital, so I’m just a little leery.