Middletown, New York to Memphis and back again in one week! Whew! Click on any hot pink text to see pictures...
Day One: Middletown to Pittsburgh
We hit the road at 7:00, planning to hit Pittsburgh in time for lunch at the famous Primanti Brothers, where they put your entire meal on your sandwich, including fries and slaw. We'd planned to leave earlier, but it turns out getting there at about 3:00 was a good thing, because it was relatively uncrowded. We took seats at the counter and I had the cheesesteak and Paul had the pastrami. Both were excellent and the fries were great, too. We washed them down with Iron City beers, then set out for Jerry's Records, the destination of all record collectors when in Pittsburgh. The last time we were there I never made it out of the $1 room. He doesn't seem to have a $1 room anymore, but the good news is that I didn't even see a record in the entire store that was more than $7 and most that we got were $3 or $4, plus everything was 16% off. I picked out the LP of Martin Denny's "Quiet Village," which we already had on CD, but which needs to be framed and added to our exotica record gallery. We also nabbed four Arthur Lymans and a few things Paul had been looking for, which he assures me were real scores. I would have picked up more, but Jerry's doesn't take credit cards, which is probably for the best. After that we headed for Tiki Lounge, a tiki bar that opened in 2002 and is on a funky strip I'd probably visit a lot if I lived there. We'd read on Critiki that it turns into a hip hop club on weekend nights, so we got there really early to avoid that. The place was almost empty at 5:30, so we were able to score a prime table and the friendly bartender made us four yummy drinks. We bought all four tiki mugs for our collection. The decor was really great. They did a good job.
After all that we headed for our campground, which was about a half hour south of the city. This was our first camping night and I would have preferred to get there while it was still light, but it turned out to be okay. The nice guy camping next to us lent us his powerful lantern while Paul wrestled to get the batteries for our lantern out of their blister pack. We soon realized that the air mattress we'd picked up wouldn't fit through the opening of the tiny tent we'd borrowed from Julie, so Paul partially inflated it so that it would fit inside and, wow, that was one miserable night of sleep! Paul described it as being like a bad waterbed. Fortunately by the next night we'd figured out that we could drag the entire tent close to the car (where the pump got plugged in) and inflate the mattress all the way with it already inside the tent. The little things mean so much. The camp stove we'd purchased worked great and Paul made full breakfasts for us every day that we camped.
Day Two: Pittsburgh to Louisville
Our drive to Louisville was most notable for our lunch stop, which was Tropical Bistro, in Hilliard, Ohio. The owners of Tropical Bistro are the former general manager and chef of the late lamented Kahiki Supper Club, which closed in 2000 in Columbus, to the dismay of tikiphiles everywhere. Having never been to Kahiki we had nothing to compare Tropical Bistro to and we loved it. A review we saw on their wall called it "Kahiki lite," so we felt like we were getting the experience on some level. I loved the decor, which was a combination of great tiki stuff and Chinese restaurant. It also cracked me up that it was wedged in between Lowe's and Tuesday Morning. We arrived at 2:30, which meant we still had a half hour in which to avail ourselves of the all-you-can-eat brunch (it was Sunday). It was a great way to try a variety of their offerings and, boy, was the food good. They had a luau pig with maraschino cherries in the eye sockets and which I'd swear was smiling. We had great roast pork, BBQ pork, crab puffs, shrimp rolls, Malagasy chicken, General Tso's chicken, California roll, bacon (it was brunch, after all) and truly amazing drinks. Paul ordered the Smoking Eruption, which, due to the magic of dry ice, came with fabulous smoking special effects. I had a mai tai, which was the best I've ever had aside from the ones Paul makes directly from Trader Vic's original recipe. They gave us leis, which are now in our tiki room and we bought a drink menu from them. It was heavenly.
We needed a few supplies, so we stopped at Kroger's after lunch. Call us dorks if you like, but one thing we love to do in strange lands (like Ohio) is visit the local supermarkets for products we can't get at home. We spent a lot of time in Kroger's, since it turned out they had THREE liquor sections. Ass-backward New York doesn't allow supermarket liquor sales, to our endless chagrin, so we love scoping out store brand booze when we get the chance. Ohio liquor prices are a lot better than New York, but the only cocktail-related thing we bought was this powder stuff you add to your drink for instant lime juice. It reminded us of the powdered cocktails that were big in the '60s. It later came in handy when we made shortcut mai tais at our campsite in Louisville.
The Louisville Metro KOA campsite (I really should say "kampground," since everything kamping-related that starts with a "k" sound starts with a "k" at KOA Kampgrounds.) was a howl. It was technically not in Louisville (or even Kentucky--it was across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana), but it was right in the middle of the city. I'd never heard of such a thing--a campground right off the freeway, wedged in between the Holiday Inn and some tract houses. It was great, though--very convenient and clean. None of the dirt that typically comes with camping touched us that night, since we were just on a patch of grass in the middle of pavement on all sides. We had some friendly bikers next to us.
The biggest revelation to me about camping was the fact that "tenters," as they called us people in tents, are the real minority these days. Most folks had motor homes and trailers, many gigantic. The ones that really fascinated us were the motor homes whose square footage was approximately equal to that of our house and cost approximately three times as much. They were typically towing another vehicle, often an SUV or pickup. We whiled away, if not hours, at least several minutes speculating about what their gas mileage must look like.
Day Three: Louisville to Memphis
I already knew I loved Louisville, having played there on tour in 1996 and it didn't disappoint this time. It has that "southern charm," even though it's technically a northern state. After breaking camp we went in search of Colonel Sanders' grave, which is at the Cave Hill National Cemetery. He's a bit of a role model around the Velveteen Lounge. I call him the "patron saint of late bloomers" in our "you're nobody unless you're a millionaire by age 30" society, since he didn't found his chicken empire until well into middle age. The people at Cave Hill made it very easy for you to find him--you follow the yellow line in the road, which ends at his grave. His wife is buried there, too, and his bust sits atop the headstone. After paying our respects we headed for the Brown-Forman Distillery to see the world's largest bourbon bottle, which is really a water tower and contains no bourbon. That, however, doesn't decrease its fabulousness. After the bourbon bottle we hit the road.
We ended up stopping in Nashville for lunch, which was a happy accident of planning. We drove aimlessly through the city until we came to Broadway, a hip-looking street with many fun looking places to eat and, more to the point, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. It turns out we were right by the Country Music Hall of Fame. We ate lunch at Jack's Bar-B-Que, which was really yummy. We both had pulled pork sandwiches and we each got two sides, which we shared, so we got to try the mac-n-cheese, green beans, baked beans and stewed apples. All amazing. This was washed down with Pabst Blue Ribbon, the most appealing beer in their case. I expected it to be really bland, but, to my amazement, it was pretty good beer. I'm always excited to discover I like something cheap!
After lunch we made our way across the street to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. We really knew we weren't in New York anymore, since the guys who worked there were actually personable and not antisocial record geeks. I loved the fact that the sale bin was called the "Bargain Tubb." They had a great display of memorabilia at the back of the store, including suits of Mr. Tubb and other music legends, plus we were in the historic theater from which the Midnight Jamboree broadcast for many years. The show, apparently, still goes on today, although from another location. We picked up the DVD of 1947's "Hollywood Barn Dance," starring Ernest Tubb, Lyle Talbot and Helen Boyce.
It turns out that I-40 is called the "Music Highway" between Nashville and Memphis. Along the way we stopped at the "Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner and Booker T. & the M.G.s Rest Area," which also featured the "Rufus Thomas 'Walkin' the Dog'" dog trail.
We got to our motel in Memphis just before sundown, which was nice timing. Due to the last-minute nature of this trip we were only able to book one night at Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel, so we spent the first night at the Days Inn at Graceland, which was one of the nicer Days Inns I've stayed at (and I've stayed at many). It is, of course, all Elvis-themed, with Elvis films showing continuously on two channels and a fabulous guitar-shaped pool.
After checking in we were ready for dinner. One of Roadfood's recommended Memphis restaurants was Payne's BBQ, which was conveniently located on Elvis Presley Blvd., so we headed over. I'm glad we'd seen a recommendation for it, because otherwise it's a place we never would have chosen from seeing the outside. It's in a pretty run-down section of town, next to a dive bar. There were some plants with Christmas lights strung between them in the window and some funky paintings on the walls of a giant pig in a chef's hat and overalls destroying all the other BBQ joints in Memphis. Otherwise the place has, um, seen better days. This was illustrated perfectly by the way bits of the ceiling fell near the pit master as he prepared our ribs sandwiches. He looked slightly startled, but not overly so. After picking up some PBR we headed back to the motel to watch Elvis films and eat heavenly BBQ.
Day Four: Graceland
Where to start? We checked out of Days Inn and headed over to Heartbreak Hotel to pick up our Graceland vouchers and check in, then we were off! The Graceland tour is a self-guided audio tour, which was great for us, since we needed A LOT more time in certain rooms than the other folks who arrived on our shuttle bus. Every room was fabulous, but we were particularly enthralled with the TV Room, which had three TVs so that Elvis could watch all three networks at once and vintage stereo equipment, so you know Paul was happy. We also loved the Living Room, Pool Room and Racquetball Court, but the highlight was the Jungle Room, complete with green shag carpeting, leopard print Witco tiki furniture and waterfall wall. For tikiphiles like us it was awe-inspiring.
Paul brought along his 8-track of "Aloha from Hawaii," which he had great fun pretending to stick into Elvis's many 8-track players.
My favorite part of the Trophy Room was the case of vintage collectibles from the '50s and early '60s, including Teddy Bear Cologne, the Elvis scrapbook, jewelry. purses and many more things I desperately wish I could buy today. It was truly amazing to see the long hallway of gold records and awards. The man achieved a great deal in his tragically short life. It was so incredible to see the things I'd seen in photos for years, like his army uniforms and suits, including the white suits in display cases in the Racquetball Court. I was on an Elvis high from the time I walked in the front door, but I didn't get choked up until I saw the flag which had been presented to his family by the VA when he died.
The Meditation Garden, where he's buried, along with his mother, father and grandmother, beside a memorial for his twin brother who died at birth, is really beautiful, with an eternal flame burning at the head of his grave and floral tributes from fans everywhere. I was struck by the fact that his grandmother outlived all of them. That must have been so hard.
After the mansion we took the shuttle bus back across the street and checked out Elvis's planes and cars. Naturally I loved the pink and purple Cadillacs, but I think my favorite was the white Lincoln with the shiny gold roof. It just said "Vegas in the '60s" to me.
We then grabbed the shuttle to Sun Studio for more amazement. The short-ish tour includes lots of memorabilia, including Elvis's social security card and vintage recording equipment, but the highlight is when they take you into the actual studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf and many others recorded their first hits. It's a time capsule, complete with original instruments, microphone and floor and ceiling tiles. Being surrounded by all that history makes it very real. We missed the shuttle bus back to Graceland so we had an hour to kill, and we killed it at their soda fountain. I had a vanilla Coke and Paul had a cherry Coke, which they refilled for free. It also gave us time to do some shopping. Among other things Paul got a great vintage reproduction work shirt with "Memphis Home Appliance Company" embroidered on it and a name patch that says "Cash," referring to Johnny Cash's early joe job selling appliances. One funny thing was that the tour guide was enthralled with my Elvis shirt, which I'd made myself. She wants me to make one for her!
The shuttle bus back to Graceland was hilarious because the driver took the scenic route. We enjoyed his unofficial tour. but sort of wondered what prompted it. Turns out he needed to stop for gas! We were rolling on the floor at the fact that the guy made his gas stop with a bus full of passengers. That would NOT have flown in the uptight northeast.
After a brief stop at the hotel to write postcards and chill we took yet another shuttle to Beale Street, where we had dinner at the Blues City Cafe. I had seafood gumbo, which was really great. We shopped a little, then headed back to the Heartbreak Hotel, which is literally down at the end of Lonely Street. I loved it and would definitely stay there again. There are, of course, constant Elvis films available on your bedroom TV, but they also show them on a vintage TV in the lobby and on a big screen in the Jungle Room Lounge, where we had biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast while watching the '68 "Comeback Special" the next morning.
Day Five: Memphis to Dayton
I really would have liked to have spent another day at Graceland, but we hit the road late in the morning, after doing A LOT of Elvis shopping. I could have bought a lot more if the old credit card hadn't been groaning. Good thing there's shopelvis.com.
The Rand McNally website told me that the drive from Memphis to Dayton would be 8.5 hours. Okay, that's in a perfect world, with no stops. In reality the drive took about 12 hours, owing to several stops along the way and rush hour traffic in Nashville. Our first stop was at Hobby Lobby in Jackson, TN. We don't have Hobby Lobby in the northeast, so I was really excited to see one. I was looking for glass fishing floats for our tiki room and I was rewarded, not only by finding some, but by the fact that they were two for one, so I got two! We also stopped for lunch at Loretta Lynn's Country Kitchen. There's a sign at the highway exit that indicates that it's also the exit for Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch. I overheard the waitress telling another customer that it's her vacation home! Most stars just wouldn't let you stay at their vacation home. I was struck, having just left Graceland, where you can buy just about anything with Elvis's likeness, by the fact that stars in the south are not shy about marketing themselves. The gift shop at Loretta Lynn's Country Kitchen is as big as the restaurant and you can buy anything from CDs to Loretta Lynn Spring Water. I think that's great. They know fans want merchandise and they provide. The lunch was $7.99 for all you could eat and there was a lot to eat, including fried chicken, ham and a host of sides, salads and desserts.
I was impressed with Paul's appetite the entire trip. He usually isn't a big eater, but he put away a lot of food everywhere we went. We joked that the constant nausea of living in New York had subsided when we crossed the state line into Pennsylvania.
When it became apparent that we'd be pulling into our campground fairly late at night Paul called ahead and asked if we could upgrade to a "kamping kabin." In theory this was a great idea. We wouldn't have to pitch the tent or inflate the mattress (which is kind of loud) and we'd have electricity. Well, we pulled in about 11:30 or so, found our reservation on the night board where they leave information for late check-ins and found our cabin...which had a pot of dead flowers outside, a screen door in the middle of the floor and, most importantly, no power. Being the resourceful guy he is, Paul went around to the back and found the breaker box and, voila, power. Unfortunately that allowed us to see that the kabin hadn't been kleaned in a while. I was kranky, since we'd paid $30 extra for the upgrade. We sucked it up and made a late-night supper on that particularly cold night. The next morning a woman from the campground caught Paul outside and apologized. It turned out the cabins were closed for the season and the woman at the desk wasn't supposed to have rented us one! Unfortunately their embarrassment didn't result in a rebate, but things did look better after getting some sleep and I no longer felt like reading them the riot act.
Day Six: Dayton to Pittsburgh
We'd chosen Dayton as a stop on this trip because the fabulous Roadside America website had highly recommended the National Museum of the United States Air Force, located at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It did not disappoint. It is incredible and, most amazingly, it's free. After breakfast at Waffle House we headed over and immediately made reservations to see the hangars with the presidential and experimental planes. You need a reservation because they take you onto the actual base in a shuttle bus. There you can walk through planes used by FDR, Truman, Eisenhower and, most impressively, the Air Force One used by Kennedy, which carried his body back from Dallas and on which LBJ was sworn into office with Jacqueline Kennedy by his side. You can really feel the ghosts on that one. I also especially liked Columbine, Ike's plane, which had a 16mm film projector, Danish modern furniture and boomerang formica in the galley.
There was way too much to see in one day, but some of my favorite things were the parachute made for Vittles, the dog whose master flew during the Berlin Airlift, the underwear and leather jacket of Ham, the astrochimp who was sent into space, the Bob Hope exhibit, chronicling his many years of entertaining the troops and the exhibit on Celebrities Who Served, featuring the jackets and ephemera of Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Gene Raymond, Jackie Coogan and Ronald Reagan. That was near the exhibit on Glenn Miller, also very cool. Some other memorable things were some remains of the Lady Be Good, which landed in Libya in 1943 after drifting off course after a bombing raid in Naples. They weren't found until 1958, by a group of British oil surveyors. There was also a door from another plane that met a similar fate. One of the guys kept a diary on it from the time they landed until, presumably, he died, with such entries as "More rain," "Six shopping days left" (this was in December), "Johnnie Died Today," "Christmas," and "New Year's." There were also exhibits on the Holocaust, POWs, the Tuskegee Airmen, and many more, not to mention the Cold War and Space Galleries (complete with missiles) and planes, planes, planes. We also saw Bockscar, the plane that dropped the bomb (Fat Man, a copy of which we also saw) on Nagasaki and Little Boy, which the Enola Gay dropped on Hiroshima. Pretty overwhelming stuff.
We stayed at the museum later than we'd intended (almost until closing), so we didn't get on the road to Pittsburgh until about 5:00. Fortunately it's only a bit over four hours. We got into our campground at about 10:00, but that was okay. Being a weeknight there was nobody camping near us, so we weren't shy about pumping up the air mattress or making noise.
I had mentally prepared myself before we left home for the fact that I'd probably see some animals I wasn't used to seeing while camping. Right. It turns out the scariest animal we saw the entire time was an adorable little kitten, who visited our campsite while we were preparing dinner. It was very chatty and didn't seem interested in our food at all, wanting only conversation. It was sweet.
Day Seven: Pittsburgh to Middletown
Not too much to report about the drive home, other than I-80 in Pennsylvania feels ENDLESS, but we already knew that. One thing we learned on this trip is that, no joke, gas is about 35 cents a gallon less in Pennsylvania than it is in New York. Since we live about 15 minutes from the border we filled up at the last exit in PA and, yes, just about every car there had NY plates. The cheapest gas we saw on our trip was $2.09 a gallon, in Memphis. Quite a culture shock after the $2.71 a gallon it is here.
We made it home in time for our sacred Friday night tradition of Happy Hour. We sat in our tiki room and listened to Elvis's '68 "Comeback Special" while swilling tropical drinks, admiring our new tiki mugs and other purchases and dreaming of our next road trip.