Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Road to the Stomp Day 3: Biscuits & Gravy, Graceland and on to the Big Easy

New Orleans, La.

Well I made it in one piece to New Orleans but I left a little of my heart in Memphis. Like what Minneapolis is to Chicago, Memphis is to New Orleans: a little city with big aspirations, but unique unto itself. Despite all its recent troubles and bad press about its soaring crime rate, the people of Memphis have a dignity and graciousness that is incredibly endearing.

The day started early as usual. My motto on vacation is "Men plow deep while sluggards sleep". (I stole that one from a beat farmer friend of mine from the Red River Valley.) I scrawled a handwritten "Do Not Disturb" sign for my door handle and headed out at 7 a.m. to scout Elvis Presley Boulevard for a breakfast joint before being first in line for when Graceland opens at 9 a.m. I headed out Bellevue which turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard and did a drive-by of Graceland before making a U-turn and heading into the parking lot across the street to chat up the security guard, who seemed amused at my enthusiasm and naivete when I asked if there would be a line already formed when they opened at 9. I then headed out to a nearby Krispy Kreme and some caffeine and sugar rush. I asked the young black woman behind the counter for a recommendation for a biscuit and gravy breakfast and the only place she could come up with was I HOP. I told her I avoid that place like the plague and after consuming my coffee and donut I left.

As I was getting on my bike I chatted up the maintenance man who was sweeping the parking lot. A very dignified and friendly African American man in his late fifties or early sixties. When I asked him where I could get a real southern breakfast, his eyes lit up and he gave me directions to Brooks Ave and the Kettle where I had one of the best all you can eat southern breakfast buffets complete with pork chops, bacon, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gray and fresh fruit. Janice, my waitress got a kick out of the sun burnt Minnesotan on a motorcycle who was not afraid to try the local establishment over the chain restaurants. When I asked if it was okay to pull out my camera and take some pictures of the buffet she said sure and then asked if she could add my ugly mug to her camera phone collection which included the tourists from England who shared my sense of adventure and weren't afraid nor aware of any color line either.

After my belly bursting meal it was on to Graceland. As it was still only 8:30 a.m. I pulled up in the service lane right in front of Graceland and asked a couple of female tourists from Holland if they would take my picture in front of the gates, which they were more than happy to do. As we were doing this, a couple of heavy set sixty year old white women came sauntering down the long driveway from the mansion, dressed in garish black Elvis t-shirts. I asked if they were on a VIP tour and they said no, the memorial garden was open to the public be ween 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. as a free alternative for the faithful. Boy I wished I knew this ahead of time as I was about to drop a small fortune at one of the tightest ships in the tourists business. It was truly amazing how well run this operation is.

I soon discovered the demographics of the early morning Graceland visitors. I was by far the youngest and nearly half the visitors where from Europe, predominantly England. I had a good time chatting with some of the English tourists, like offering to take their picture next to the framed picture and letter from George Bush in the entryway to the "Trophy Room". When I asked the young black guard if they were going to replace the picture of Bush with "something more recent" she went into a rehearsed explanation how it was up there because the President had hosted the Prime Minister of Japan on a visit to Graceland.

I could not help from being struck by how small Graceland actually was as well as the fact that it isn't nearly as garish as one was led to believe. Furthermore, I commented out loud at how incredibly sad it was to which several of the English tourists nodded in agreement. On the positive side, it was very cool that the overwhelming majority of the staff were African American and I never missed an opportunity to remind them that if Elvis was alive today he would be at the Stax Museum.

After spending a small fortune on nick nacks I could fit in my saddle bags I left Graceland and headed out of Memphis with New Orleans and King Creole on my mind.

Compared with the previous two days of riding, day three was rather uneventful except for a bad stretch of road around Jackson, Mississippi and some brief showers in southern Mississippi. About 3 p.m. I stopped at an unmarked exit at a former Stuckey's for gas and what else, some chicken. The place struck me as somewhat strange as it was run by a Hindu woman and staffed by black guys. The toothless local white guy tried to chat me up about motorcycles but his heavy southern accent and lack of teeth made him almost indiscernible. Perhaps he felt a kindred spirit to me in light of my recent oral surgery. Nevertheless, the place had no other business and was giving me the willies so I got the hell out of there before I got mickey finned.

The most memorable and white knuckled part of the ride was the last 40 miles before New Orleans. Right as my fuel light started to blink the one gallon warning I started on the longest elevated bridge over Lake Pontchartrain and the spillway. Being above water there were hardly any exits and certainly no gas stations. Luckily I pulled off the first exit I came to with a gas station riding on fumes. After missing my exit to the French Quarter I wound up leaving New Orleans going over the Mississippi River bridge before doubling back and finding my hotel, the French Market in the heart of the French Quarter.

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