Memphis was described to me as being a more compact New Orleans; big on the blues, but smaller on the stag dos. It has a strong claim to be the birth place of rock and roll, thanks to Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner’s band) being recorded at Sun Studio in 1951. In light of this, the place is teeming with museums to blues and rock and roll, and bars promising live music.
My first stop of the day was to visit the old Lorraine Motel, scene of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The building is now the National Civil Rights Museum and charts the struggle of African Americans from slavery to today, via Jim Crow, MLK and Obama.
Slavery was described by my Washington tour guide a few days later as being one of the three blights on the American story (the others being the genocide of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans). The slavery exhibits made clear that it is not only the southern states that should feel continuing shame for this crime: the northern states happily profited from trading the product of the southern slavery, and major UK cities like Liverpool and Bristol grew rich from the slave trade.
If the slave trade feels too historically distant to resonate today, segregation should not. Although the legal segregation of buses, theatres and public services (“separate but equal” – it was never equal) was outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s – a shockingly recent time – de facto segregation continues today across America.
Next I headed to the Rock and Soul Museum, which tells the story of – as you might guess – rock and roll music and soul music, beginning with the music sung by cotton pickers (black and white) a century ago, and progressing to the pioneers in the 1950s who began to merge black music (the blues) and white music (country). Obviously, Elvis gets a mention or two as well.
A free shuttle bus took me to Sun Studio, the recording site of Rocket 88 (the first distorted guitar sound allegedly coming from an attempt to repair a damage amplifier cone using newspaper). Sun Studio’s owner, Sam Phillips, discovered and recorded artists including Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
The same shuttle bus then took me on to Graceland, the mansion owned by Elvis Presley from the height of his fame until his death in 1977. It is now an enormous tourist destination, charging anywhere between $44 and $160 per person to visit. I bought an ice cream ($5) and took some photos over the wall (free), then boarded the shuttle bus back to downtown Memphis.
The Lyft driver who had picked me up from the station the previous evening had told me about the Peabody ducks. In the 1930s, the owner of the Peabody Hotel had gone on a hunting trip, got drunk and accidentally returned to Memphis with his live decoy ducks. As a joke, he put them into the lobby fountain. Guests loved them, so they became a permanent fixture.
From 1940 to 1991, Edward Pembroke, a bellman who had previously worked as a circus trainer, took on the role of Duckmaster. Every morning, he would ceremoniously march the ducks from their rooftop home, down the elevators and along a red carpet to the fountain, all accompanied by Sousa’s King Cotton March. In the evenings, the ritual is reversed as the ducks go off to bed.
I arrived 30 minutes before the 5pm duck march and the lobby was already packed with spectators. Bang on time, the Duckmaster gave a little speech and then marched his ducks into the lifts. Memphis has a rich history and culture, but this was my favourite thing.
In segregated Memphis, Beale Street was at the heart of the African American community and grew famous for its blues bars. Today, it is a tourist trap (though nowhere near as bad as Bourbon Street in New Orleans), with bars competing for business with their live music, BBQ ribs and cold beer.
I went to BB King’s Blues Bar, which I later discovered was part of a national chain. The music was nothing special, but they did serve me an excellent plate of pork ribs, macaroni cheese and BBQ beans.
From Memphis, the Amtrak line heads north to Chicago, but I wanted to go northeast to Washington, New York and Boston, so I headed to the airport to pickup a rental car. Car rental in Tennessee is eye-wateringly expensive – around four times more than in Texas – so I decided to upgrade to a sports car. In for a penny etc.
Hence, I drove away in a Dodge Challenger, a car apparently famous from Dukes of Hazzard and the new Fast and Furious movie. The woman in the exit booth looked at my paperwork and said “Yo’ drivin’ this mutha all the way to Washington?! Sweet!”
I pointed the Dodge in the direction of Nashville and pushed Go. Actually, I headed a little south first, across the border into Mississippi, then Alabama via Shiloh, site of a civil war battle. There is an enormous, unbridgeable gulf between the kind of people who find historic battlefields exciting and the rest of us. This one had some fake cannons to liven it up, but really it was just a field.
I then picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs for 444 miles across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, roughly following a Native American path. As I would later learn from Bill Bryson, the parkways were developed in the early 20th century as scenic driving routes with protected scenery on either side. Many have now been consumed by cities, but some – like the Natchez Trace – remain as originally intended.
After a night on the outskirts of Nashville, I began the long drive to Washington. From the horrible town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the northernmost tip of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, via the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina there is a continuous scenic road that runs for 600 miles.
This is an awfully long way – further than London to Inverness – and the views are consistently very nice. However, they are not *that* dramatic – think English countryside mixed with low Alpine meadows – and driving through them for two full days gets quickly quite tedious.
Thankfully, I had some audiobooks to divert me: On the Road by Jack Kerouc and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I struggled to get engrossed in On the Road, as exciting and fascinating as Kerouac’s tales of travel around the US in the 1940s are, his stream of consciousness can grow quite tiresome. I did enjoy hearing about San Francisco at this time; he found himself there repeatedly, always a source of distant wonder for a New Yorker.
I was reminded of A Walk in the Woods when I stumbled upon the Appalachian trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. The book describes Bryson’s attempt to hike the 2,200 mile trail from Georgia to Maine. It was particularly fascinating as he walked through many of the same places that I was now driving, although I was covering his daily distance every 15 or 20 minutes.
I emerged from the top of Shenandoah National Park and looked to see where my motel for the night was. It turned out I’d messed up and booked one at the bottom of the Shenandoah – presumably yesterday me had been less optimistic about the likelihood of me completing the second half of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah in one day.
It would take me as long to drive back to the motel as it would to drive to Washington, so I cancelled the motel and booked one just west of the Potomac.
Washington is a significant point on this trip for three reasons. Firstly, it’s on the east coast (more or less), so I’ve crossed the continent. Secondly, it is the border between the north and the south, so I was hopeful that mutually incomprehensible accents would no longer be a barrier to communication. And finally, this is the first city I’ve visited on this trip that I’ve been to before.
Because of this, I only planned to stay for one night. After checking into my AirBnb and saying goodbye to the Dodge, I walked straight onto the National Mall. The mall is huge – much bigger than I remember – so I immediately joined a Segway tour. Not only is this a faster way of getting around all the sites with a tour guide, it also gave me an excuse to finally ride on a Segway.
It was a lot of fun and they really are very easy to ride. They aren’t the future of personal transportation, as I suppose the inventor hoped they might be, but they are great for this sort of thing.
Everywhere you turn in Washington there’s a grand white building with classical pillars. The White House itself is relatively unassuming, much less impressive than the adjacent Treasury building. As the tour guide pointed out, this was a home built for a chief executive, not a king. This probably pisses off its current resident.
The architecture and the monuments also tell a story of America as a new nation founded in rebellion against the old world. The three separate but equal branches of government have their headquarters dotted around the mall, often with engraved slogans testifying to America’s founding ideals.
The journey of the USA from a loose collection of newly independent colonies to the world’s only superpower, and the resilience of the constitution on which it was founded is impressive. However, as I stood in front of the Supreme Court I was reminded of the lifelong judicial appointment stolen by Senate Republicans last year in a naked act of partisan cynicism. And the vast amounts of money that pour into campaigns and distort public opinion to support the desires of the wealthiest; a position defended by this supreme court, almost unbelievably, on grounds of free speech.
Anyway, as I type this I am riding a bus across the Hudson and into Manhattan, 200 miles north of the Washington swamp.