Road to Memphis Graceland Clarksdale Distillation Nashville

Tuesday, 3 April

At first glance, Atlanta seems an odd place to start our Tennessee tour. There were two reasons for this. One, it was way way cheaper to fly to Atlanta than to either Memphis or Nashville. Two, it was an interesting drive. Okay, there was only one reason: it was cheap. But having said that, it provided the opportunity (I'm still going to call it that) to drive across Alabama and Mississippi and check off those states as well.

Just one of the things I like about these boys is that if you are leaving at 8:00am, and you roll up at 8:01am, you are absolutely guaranteed to be the last one there. As a result, we were rolling out of the parking lot at 8:00am sharp. First stop: back to the airport and the rental center to add signatures to the rental agreement. Rob was the only one licensed to drive at this point, so he was pilot and I rode shot-gun, and helped him prevent the van from heading straight back to its barn. Instead we found the visitor's lot right next to the office, went in to do our business, then finally we were officially on our way. Several of us firmly wanted NOT to drive, so we immediately settled into a pattern that worked well (at least I thought it did). Adam and RT in the cockpit, Robin promoted to "secretary" in charge of looking up points of interest, suggesting route deviations, and reading snippets from the interweb, everyone else adding color commentary. Lovely.

We hit Interstate 20, and made an all-out dash to get the hell out of Georgia. Except we had to stop for breakfast. Diners seemed in thin supply, so McDonalds was our sad opening gambit. In an effort to at least not step inside the building, while the others went in to investigate I went next door to the gas station to see if I could buy a map. "A what, now?" "A map." "Sorry, a what?" "A mah-puh" I aspirated hard, trying to enunciate. Blank stare. "Maybe I could find one in the store?" I said, pointing at the supermarket directly behind the gas station. "Ya, try the store, they might have one." Of course they did not, but at least they had a bathroom. Back on the road, the breakfast sandwich with sufficient sriracha sauce was eatable, but the fried potato thing that Adam had added to everyone's order was way better than it should have been. We waved at the Welcome to (Sweet Home) Alabama state sign, and once again declared the trip truly started.

We tried to convince ourselves that we could tell the difference between the two states. Different types of trees, different density of trees, more open space between the trees, but there was no getting away from the fact that taking the highway can never give you a flavor of the countryside you are travelling through. We needed to take the low road. As navigator at that time, I suggested we get through Birmingham and then slow down. Birmingham is sadly most famous for the 1963 act of white supremacist terrorism at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps located on the east side of the church on Sunday, September 15 of that year. The explosion killed four girls and injured 22 others and was described by Martin Luther King Jr. as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity". I felt a little guilty that we did not have time to stop and pay our respects.

So we crept quietly around the outside of Birmingham trying not to be noticed, and as the Interstate veered north west to head straight at Memphis, we veered further north on Highway 5 towards Jasper. I explained the rule that Wayne and I had perfected in our adventures: "if you see something, say something" but what you say is "STOP" you can explain later, but first the driver needs instruction. Also, to make it clear that it doesn't matter how long it is between stops, I told the team that the current record for lack of distance between stops was 50 yards. I had no sooner finished pontificating when someone yelled "STOP!" For a moment I thought they were joking. "Cigar shop!" Okay then.

The guy leaning on the door post (good sign they will be open soon) turned out to be the owner Shawn Doss, and as we started to pour out of the van, he hastily unlocked the door and ushered us in. It was not a very big shop, but it was full of interesting things, and as our only serious smoker started to accumulate a small stash of goodies on the countertop, everyone started getting in on the conversation—and the pile. I only understood a portion of it, and I remember none of it, but by the time we were done, Shawn insisted that we all needed t-shirts ("for advertizing purposes"). I confessed it would be wasted on me, because I never wore collarless shirts. "Then you need a hat!" I nearly chose a pink one, but tried to imagine Claudia sporting a hat with The Cigar Box blazoned across it and moved on. The only one I could imagine wearing Nick had already picked for himself. "No problem! Patty can make one for you!" He led me through the back of the store which was also the back of his wife's shirt and hat printing store. I kid you not. So we got to stand and watch while Patty set up her machine and then it buzzed and chattered away creating my hat, perhaps setting some sort of record for production-to-use time.

Shawn Doss shows Nick some of his toys ... ... and his wife Patty with RT and the hat she just made him.

We walked out with cigars, cutters, lighters (thanks Nick!) and became walking bill boards for the rest of the trip. Oh and let us not forget that on learning that we were headed for Memphis, Shawn recommended his favorite place to eat. Challenge #1 on hitting town sorted (or so we thought).

Texas longhorn. Heard of 'em, but never seem one. I see what they mean.

We set off again, taking smaller and smaller back roads until I couldn't look down anymore and Adam and I had to switch jobs. We stopped at one of many railroad crossings to take some photos, and I counted roosters crowing from three of the four quadrants formed by the crossing. I used to call tornados trailer (mobile home) magnets, because whenever you saw the destruction on TV, it was always of a(n ex) trailer park now reduced to a low-lying garbage dump. But now I realize why. You could barely throw a stick without hitting one, let alone touch down a tornado. It was mile after mile of lots with a trailer in the middle of them. Sometimes there was an upgrade to bricks and mortar, but they were still the dimensions of a double-wide. Perhaps the furniture fits better. A pasture full of Texas Longhorns was another "STOP!" moment.

Even passing through little towns, the difference in income level compared to the north east was palpable. It was as if the age and condition of the vehicles started where Massachusetts left off, as if when they are declared dead in the north east, they are resurrected in the south east. We putzed along for several hours, enjoying having the windows down, just absorbing the atmosphere as we drifted through it. Eventually, realizing we still had a hundred miles to go, we picked up the highway again and stepped on the gas.

The less said about the actual Challenge #1 the better, but it happened so I need to note it. We found our hotel on the outskirts of Memphis just as the traffic suddenly swelled to log-jam status. The hotel manager admitted that he could see the reservation, but that didn't change the fact that he didn't have any rooms. Back in the van, Adam searched the interweb while I called By the time I got a live person, Adam had already managed to make one new reservation, and was struggling with another. My live person was a pretty switched on live person. She saw Adam's reservation, somehow connected it to my new one, and promised to refund the difference in price (we are still working on that part). The new hotel was much closer to town, but was otherwise a classic shit-hole. We loved it. I was soooo glad Claudia was not there to sample our smoke-impregnated non-smoking room, or the sink that took an hour to drain, or the trains rumbling by all night.

From the grounds of the hotel, a barge passes under the railroad bridge as it inches its way upstream only just beating the current flowing swiftly in the opposite direction.

But no time to dawdle. We needed to hire an Uber to take us to The Bar-B-Q Shop, Shawn's recommendation for dinner. Our driver had not heard of it. "But I make the best bar-b-q in Memphis so I don't eat out much." You put 'em up and I'll nod them in: "So when the best bar-b-q chef in Memphis does eat out, where does he go?" "The Germantown Commissary, clear across town." I like the sound of that already. Duly noted. I don't remember how we got on to the subject, but the other thing I recorded was a remark he made during a discussion about global warming, and the fact that the armadillos he was used to in Texas are becoming increasing common in Tennessee. "Armadillo: possum on the half-shell." I laughed out loud, but at the same time his backyard bar-b-q suddenly seemed much less appetizing.

Challenge #2 then, The Bar-B-Q Shop was everything we had wished for. Packed to the gills when we arrived, we were dispatched to the bar for a while. The bar had local brews. When we finally got our table, the maître d' obviously sensed how fabulously important we were because she fussed around making sure everything was just right while the waitress waited. "Now, what can we get you?" "Well, to be frank, what we'd really like is if you just fed us. We are not fussy, just bring it on." "Ohh, we can definitely do that." She and the waitress discussed the order, told us what they'd decided but noone was listening. It would be great. There was brisket, dry rub and wet ribs, pulled pork, beans, greens, the house speciality Bar-B-Q Spaghetti. Someone to my left was caught not complying with protocol. Matron was back. "You can’t eat those with a fork and knife!" Irons were duly cast aside. It was great. Just the right amount of food (we finished most of the plates), all of it OMG delicious, with the possible exception of the collard greens which were not to everyone's liking. But we were all stuffed.

There is a (highly recommended) Netflix show called Ugly Delicious, the premise of which is that not all food can be turned into a work of art, and in fact some great foods are just messy looking and that needs to be okay. Bar-b-q and fried chicken are two of the episodes. I learned long ago that such meals make terrible photos, but I'm going to have to make an exception on this trip because the food was so good, and it was such an important part of the trip. Apologies in advance. The waitress returned to try to clear the decks a little. "How about dessert?" You must be kidding. No takers. "If it’s the dessert I think it is, you all need to try it." My kind of gal. Of course. Bring it on. It was some sort of banana cream pie thing. It disappeared in a small flurry of forks.

I forgot to mention that all the while the cockpit was wrangling the hotel logistics, Robin "the secretary" had been plotting. Starting with a) music was a requirement, b) we were eating at a known location, he had figured out that while downtown was a cab ride away, there was a promising-looking location walking distance from dinner, someone was playing, and he could book tickets, which he did. So now we just strolled up the road to Lafayette's Music Room where The Amber McCain Band awaited. Amusingly I notice that her facebook page currently features a live picture of them at Lafayette's that we could easily have taken ourselves, because our reserved seats were a table right in front of the stage.

The band was great. We had a couple of rounds, some of us switching to whiskey because it seemed right and because we were too full for beer. It was hard to talk because well, it was loud and because when you are sitting right in front it doesn't seem right to appear to be paying no attention whatsoever. But Andy leaned in and said "It doesn't get any better than this." We banged glasses in agreement. I said it was true, and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the band, and I was thoroughly enjoying it, but that I would be disappointed if whoever we saw the following night at B. B. Kings didn't blow this band away. But meanwhile, indeed this was everything we had hoped for.

After a while they took a break, and I bumped into the bass player in the men's room. I asked him if they were a full time band or whether he needed a day job to support his music habit. Sadly he definitely needed the day job, which ironically was as a machinist making racing car parts. Neither he nor my relatives seemed the least bit interested in this coincidence. Oh well. Meanwhile, Nick had bumped into Amber McCain herself (presumably in a different venue) because when the band returned for their second set she asked Robin to identify himself and told the rest of the audience about these folks who had come all the way from the UK. Then she said that the song Nick had requested on his behalf was actually part of their first set, and we'd missed it. But they'd play it again just for him, and hopefully everyone else could live with that. There was general approval, especially from the table behind us which comprised what appeared to be a bachelorette party that had already been considerably over-served. To our amusement and delight they proceeded to put on a wobbling dance show in the small gap between us and the stage.

All too soon the show (both scheduled and impromptu) was over, and it was time to head home. A huge Suburban with tinted windows pulled up to take us there. The driver reminded me of Mr T though he was wearing considerably less jewellery. "Nice wheels!" "Ah yes, that's how we ride" he retorted, with one elbow on the center console, and the other wrist flopped casually over the top of the steering wheel. When I mentioned that the music he had on reminded me of Prince he agreed "that's the Prince beat." We persuaded him to stop if we could find an open liquor store, then we clearly impressed him by telling him exactly where we thought it was. We were low on beer, and needed to get whiskey to set the proper scene for the cigars that we'd bought so much earlier in the day. He waited patiently then drove us and our loot home where he somehow made it clear that the stop was definitely a tippable action, above and beyond what Uber thought was right. We had planned to tip him anyway, but it was amusing to hear how easily and inoffensively he made his position clear. All sides honored and satisfied, we retired to the balcony/walkway that connected all the rooms on our floor, where we broke out the shot glasses I had brought along in case of just such an emergency, the cigars Grimmy had bought, the lighter Nick had bought for me, and the cutter he had bought for himself, and we broke out the night cap. Rob lasted long enough to take a couple of terrific candids, and then practically crash-landed on his bed, out like a light.

The balcony afforded a view of the Mississippi, and closer to, of a railway bridge across it. On any other occassion it would have been a disaster, but we loved it. There was something so quintessentially American, and so ultimately down-to-earth about the growl of what Nick dubbed "the De-troit diesels" along with the wail of their horns, followed by several minutes of squeaking and moaning from the endless line of wagons they were slowly dragging west across the river. I don't know why, but four out of five that we watched over our time there were west-bound. We calculated the trains had to be at least half a mile long, and some were closer to a mile. It never got old, watching them rumble by, and it never kept us awake.