Memphis to Nashville: Blues, Bikes, & BBQ
Memphis has always been toward the top of my travel list but for no particular reason. I'm not an Elvis fan, I hate humidity (yet I visited in August!) and I don't eat barbecue. Apparently I can't even spell "barbecue" properly without spellcheck. Clearly, I knew very little about a place I have wanted to travel to for at least a decade. Memphis is about the same size as Seattle or Denver with a friendly population eager to say hello or give directions.
Beale Street is a must, where you can dine, grab a drink, shop for souvenirs, and enjoy top-notch blues and jazz. According to USA Today, it's the most iconic street in America! A new and unexpected attraction is the Bass Pro Shop, a massive "outdoor" store containing everything from an indoor cypress tree swamp and bowling alley to the world's highest freestanding elevator that rises to an observation deck and restaurant. The Pro Shop is housed within the world's 6th largest pyramid, a gigantic glass structure originally built as a sports arena in the 90s.
At the Peabody Hotel, huge crowds of tourists gather daily at 11am and 5pm for the "Duck March". Every morning since 1940, a family of ducks has ridden the elevator down from their rooftop coop and walked a red carpet to the marble fountain in the Grand Lobby, where they spend the day before marching back down the red carpet in the evening. I visited on a Friday evening and the crowds of tourists were so thick that I couldn't even see the ducks. Fortunately, it was the last Friday of the month so I headed over to the South Main Arts District, where shops stay open late as shoppers enjoy live music, food, and free trolley rides through the area.
On one of many 100 degree days, I walked to Mud Island River Park, a small island accessible by pedestrian bridge or tram, offering an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River, including 20 large cities mapped along the river, watershed walls mapping river drainage, and an acre-size pool serving as the Gulf of Mexico. Adults waded barefoot through the "river", which doubled as a swimming hole for dozens of summer camp children. The island park also features a charming Mississippi River Museum that appears to have been built in the 80s and not updated since then. A few museums & attractions I hope to visit next time include: the Gibson Guitar Factory, Railroad and Trolley Museum, Cotton Museum, and the Fire Museum.
Biking in Memphis was fantastic. While there weren't as many on-street bike lanes as I'm accustomed to, drivers were friendly and there were enough well-maintained, protected lanes connecting parks to various neighborhoods. My favorite bike route was easily Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500 acre urban park that contains countless park trails and a 6.5 mile urban trail and protected Greenline that links to the heart of downtown Memphis. During my stay, I saw the city promoting its new bike share program which would launch in fall. Fall 2016 will also mark the opening of The Big River Crossing, between Memphis, TN and West Memphis, Arkansas, the longest pedestrian and cyclist bridge across the Mississippi River, nearly a mile in length!
The highlight of my visit was the National Civil Rights Museum, located within the Lorainne Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 when he visited the city to support the sanitation workers' strike. In fact, the room that Dr. King stayed in has been preserved, as has the room of his assassin, who rented a room in a boarding house across the street, now the Legacy Building, which re-constructs the hunt for Dr. King's assassin and details modern civil rights movement. The museum was phenomenal and though I spent 5 hours there, I found myself being shuffled out at close without having sufficiently explored everything. The museum offers hundreds of artifacts and dozens of films, oral histories, and listening posts that cover slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and current civil rights challenges.
Memphis has no shortage of museums and many focus on the city's impressive music history. The Museum of Rock & Soul is about the birth of rock and soul music, created by musical pioneers who overcame countless racial and socio-economic obstacles. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a state-of-the-art museum paying tribute to soul musicians with 2000 artifacts, including Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac! I rode my bike along the long, bumpy Elvis Presley Blvd, which better resembled a highway, to Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and current #1 attraction in Memphis (and Elvis' final resting place!). Self-guided mansion tours start at $43 and each additional on-site musuem/attraction (Elvis's car museum, Elvis's private planes, "Elvis in Hawaii!" exhibit, etc) will cost another $10-20 each. This was my first time inside a custom jet and it was impressive, particularly being from the 70s' but the spectacle of thousands of fans and half a dozen gift shops selling Elvis pajamas and oven mitts was enough for me, I was happy to go without the mansion and museum tours.
By the time I arrived in Nashville, I was museumed-out and barely had the energy to make it through the Country Music Hall of Fame. I'm not a country music fan so I was content breezing through the museum, which was very well designed and interesting even for a non-country fan. I listened to original recordings of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and snapped shots of Elvis's "Solid Gold" Cadillac limousine. My Saturday afternoon was spent wandering along bustling Broadway, where bar after bar, each prominently displaying a "no guns allowed" sign, offered live blues, country, and rock. Every 20 minutes or so, a bacheloretteparty on a "pedal tavern" would ride by, casually pedaling as they sipped beer and belted out songs like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".
Friends suggested I visit the Belle Meade Plantation, a mansion and thoroughbred horse breeding operation once run by one of the largest slaveholders in Nashville. The plantation allows guests to visit the dairy, horse stable, carriage house, mausoleum, gardens, and a log cabin. It also highlights the everyday lives of enslaved people on the plantation and tells some stories through their eyes. That afternoon, I headed to the gorgeous, 132-acre Centennial Park, featuring walking trails, a lake, gardens, and the Parthenon, a full scale replica of the original Greek masterpiece in Athens. The re-creation also includes a 42-foot statue of Athena, just as it was in ancient Greece, and several art and historical galleries.
Local friends were very proud of Nashville's strong musical history and explained that the bar is so high in Nashville that even the diviest hole-in-the-wall bar will have an amazing live band. Per the suggestion of my hosts, I headed to The Station Inn, regarded by many (including Frommers Travel Guides) as having the best bluegrass around. Each Sunday, The Station Inn hosts a free Bluegrass Jam from 7-11pm. On the night I visited, a dozen intensely talented musicians took the stage, including a couple young ladies that looked middle-school and high-school aged. On Tuesday night, I tried to go line dancing at the Wildhorse Saloon but it was closed for a private event so I headed to Hotel Indigo, which hosts a free "Bluesday Tuesday" artist in their bar and restaurant. On the night I visited a tall, young man with blonde hair and a deeply soulful voice belted out classic blues hits and modern pop songs remixed in the blues style.
I had planned to rent a car to visit the Jack Daniels Distillery (located in a dry county!), the Grand Ole Opry, "The Show That Made Country Famous" and the Cumberland Caverns, 32 miles of caves, underground waterfalls, and Bluegrass Underground, a concert recorded 333 feet underground inside the caves! Unfortunately, I had forgotten my drivers license in NYC and couldn't find a travel buddy on Craigslist so I spent four days biking to just about every neighborhood in Nashville. I hit 145 miles ridden that week and was grateful to refuel with excellent vegan food at The Wild Cow and Sunflower Cafe. Nashville has a beautiful waterfront bike path and good signage along the "Music City Bikeway" that goes around the city, through public parks, and across the winding Cumberland River. I rode through the gorgeous Shelby Park and trendy East Nashville, and through beautiful but massively hilly Percy Warner Park, which completely lacked maps and signage. Have GPS with you unless you want to find yourself climbing up a series of 500 feet hills!