And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel
And, mothers with their babes asleep rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
For Randi’s birthday surprise gift thing, I decided to book tickets on an Amtrak sleeper train. Not only would this fulfil one of her stated life goals, but – conveniently! – would also speed me to another freshly visited state. With timetable options on Amtrak rather limited, the most sensible destination ended up being Memphis, Tennessee. I’m stressing that the destination started out as a bit of an afterthought, because I really didn’t know much about Memphis itself… but it turned out to be a wonderful place for a sunny weekend getaway.
But first, let’s talk about the magic of trains: taking dinner in the dining car opposite a stranger, folding down the upper bunk, shuffling down the carriage to brush your teeth, curling up to sleep under a blanket as the night landscape rushes by outside and the double-decker bumps and sways along the rail. Since I had just read The Mask of Dimitrios (as recommended by Simon, King of the Railways) it really wouldn’t have surprised me to find a communist spy in the next room. And while there’s a certain sadness to Amtrak – the feeling you’re just catching a faint echo of glory days long past – the staff on-board our train were phenomenal and fun. I generally avoid the notion that trains are romantic curiosities, because they’re not: trains are the future, not the past. But I make a bit of an exception for sleeper trains, because a little romance never went amiss.
We arrived in Memphis early in the morning and checked in to the Peabody Hotel, a fancy-shmancy kind of place famous for having ducks swimming around the fountain in the lobby. Each morning the ducks are led down from their rooftop penthouse, and then every afternoon – with much ceremony – they march back out of the fountain, along the red carpet and into the waiting lift. It’s all very cute, and naturally everything else in the hotel is now duck-themed too. (Weirdly, this even cropped up in the novel I was reading this weekend too.)
After a much-needed southern breakfast at Brother Juniper’s, we walked off our train legs through a nearby park and then Memphis’s Botanic Garden. Not only was it beautiful and warm, but – in conformity with southern stereotypes – most people we passed actually smiled and said hello. (This was basically true everywhere we went in Memphis.)
Next stop: Graceland, the ‘home of Elvis Presley’ (his death proving no hindrance). I wouldn’t exactly call myself an Elvis fan, so this wasn’t quite a pilgrimage of rock ‘n’ roll, more an irresistible scoop of Americana. (Although talking of scoops: try ordering a milkshake there and you’ll be treated to what felt like an entire tub of ice cream.) The tour of his mansion was interesting, though, if a little bit confusing because the relentlessly positive chronology doesn’t provide any context leading up to his death, so he just sort of… dies, suddenly, for no reason. It did make me want to listen to a few Elvis songs afterwards, though.
(I don’t mean to sideline Elvis, but actually the most memorable thing which happened at Graceland was in the queue, when the couple in front of us suddenly turned round and, in southern accents, complimented my TARDIS phone case. Turns out their entire family are big Doctor Who fans, with children who dress up as Daleks for Halloween and walk around shouting ‘EXTERMINATE!’ at things. We’re everywhere.)
The most famous part of Memphis is probably Beale Street, and while we ended up ditching its big Saturday night crowds for the comfort and cocktails of the Peabody’s lobby instead, we’d already got our live blues fix earlier in the day over lunch. (Fried chicken and catfish, since you ask.)
After lunch we took the monorail to the Mississippi River Park on Mud Island. The chief attraction here is their giant, geographically-faithful scale model of the Mississippi River, which you are encouraged to paddle in until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico and becomes a fully-fledged swimming pool. It’s really, really wonderful.
The next morning, while Randi worked, I took a more sombre trip to the National Civil Rights Museum built around the former Lorraine Motel. It was here, in 1968 on the balcony outside room 306, that Martin Luther King was assassinated: a good place to stop and reflect on what has and has not changed since then. Inside, the museum does a good job telling the story of the civil rights movement, but was all the more meaningful when I could overhear a member of the group ahead of me talk about his own life and memories in response to the exhibits: yes, he remembered Brown v. Board of Education, he remembered the Little Rock Nine and Massive Resistance and the lunch counter sit-ins and the slow toppling of formal, de jure segregation across the South.
The final spot on our Memphis itinerary was Shelby Farms Park: a huge park, about a 30 minute drive from the centre of Memphis with hiking and biking trails, lakes for pedal boats and kayaks, zip-lining through the trees and – allegedly – a herd of buffalo. We did not see the buffalo. But we did walk through the woods and fields to our hearts’ content, before flying home to Chicago.
I can’t quite wrap my head around Memphis. We had, of course, a very touristy experience. If you read up on the city, you’ll soon hear about violent crime, poverty and brutal racism. The same is true, of course, of Chicago. And it doesn’t stop being true just because it’s possible to visit and have a wonderful weekend. But I would recommend visiting Memphis enormously: for the people, the music, the food, the history and the green spaces. And if you really want to make it special, roll up on the overnight train.
Helen Hudspith, Simon T Abernethy, Randi Lawrence liked this post.