Walking in Memphis

A tornado chased our plane to Memphis. When we landed, tornado sirens screamed through the downtown area as the sky darkened and turned a bruised yellow. We headed right for the nearest bar.

The bartender told us not to worry. She said tornadoes usually skipped over Memphis because of a nearby hill. We didn’t know whether or not to fully believe it, but decided to stay in the bar a little longer just in case. The hotel room was on something like the 10th floor.

Memphis doesn’t need tornadoes for excitement. Memphis already has goats in bars and ducks marching in and out of elevators. Just wandering down Beale Street is exciting enough. Blues bands play in the park or in bars and different rhythms trickle out onto the street. Street vendors sell huge cups of beer and people sit out on the curb and watch other people. On most days, kids even do flips all the way down the middle of the street.

But walking in Memphis isn’t just about Beale Street. It’s possible to wander down to the river for a steamboat ride, to Mud Island for a tour through river valley history, or to the Civil Rights Museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 44 years ago today. A wreath now hangs outside the balcony area where he stood. His motel room, complete with snuffed out cigarettes in ashtrays, hasn’t changed since that day. Inside the museum, newsreels of speeches and protest marches echo through the halls. One newsreel shows Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers training for verbal and physical abuse at lunch counter sit-ins. Nearby, a ceiling-to-floor film brings visitors into the Birmingham, Alabama demonstration when attack dogs and fire  hoses were used against protesters.

The Mississippi River Museum explores a different kind of history as it celebrates music, steamboats, and the people who lived in the Mississippi River Valley. Outside the museum, the Mud Island River Park offers shady spots to rest as well as an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico 954 miles later. Twenty cities are mapped out along the way. Children splash and play in all the twists and turns of the river as it flows on to the Gulf of Mexico.

For music history, Sun Studio offers memorabilia from the days when Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins recorded there. Sam Phillips opened the studio in 1950 and began creating legends in this place that’s been called the birthplace of rock-n-roll. The original studio hasn’t changed since those days and visitors can get their pictures taken with one of the microphones during a tour filled with music trivia.

After all the walking, the Peabody Hotel lobby is the place to sit and relax. If you’re there at either 11 AM or 5 PM, you’ll get to see the famous Peabody Duck March. In the morning, the ducks leave their rooftop palace, travel down to the lobby in the elevator, then march across the red carpet to the water fountain. They swim at the ornate marble fountain until 5 PM, when it’s time to walk across the red carpet again and back into the elevator. The tradition began about 72 years ago, but ducks weren’t the first fountain residents. Legend has it that turtles and baby alligators briefly stayed at the hotel fountain back in the 1920s.

There are lots of things to do in Memphis, from enjoying blues bands to walking through history or Beale Street. While out on Beale Street, be sure to stop and people watch. People, after all, can be pretty funny.

Next Week: Graceland and the reason Elvis is buried there.

Have you been to Memphis? What did you like most about it?