As we headed over the vibrant green flatlands of the American South to Memphis, Tennessee, some of the United States’ undercurrent of social and political issues seemed to follow us on the road, like the dark undertow of the grey-brown Mississippi River.
Cars with Florida number plates towing trailers were often in the hotel parking lots as displaced families made their way home after Hurricane Irma. One was a middle-aged white man in a truck with a sign in the window which read: ‘Scientists for Trump’. I couldn’t help wondering whether he had second thoughts. Controversy over the varied hurricane responses in Texas/Florida versus Puerto Rico was in full force.
At a one-night stop in Jackson, Mississippi (site of civil rights demonstrations and Ku Klux Klan murders in the 1960s) I picked up a local paper. An op-ed by a white journalist decried a state takeover of a predominately black school board. “The state has a long history of white folk running when too many people of color move too close and start owning and running stuff and enrolling kids in “our” schools.” Evidently the struggle continues.
This was the time when football players (mostly black) were ‘taking the knee’ before, during or after the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner to protest police brutality and discrimination against blacks in the US. Americans love their sports, and often cafes will have huge screens on the walls showing the big games. We were eating once when I noticed at the next table six white people, probably in their 40s, all staring at the screen with their mouths gaped open in astonishment. They simply could not believe that the whole Dallas Cowboys team was kneeling.
But we were following the music, much pleasanter. We were going to Graceland. We were getting tuned in to the deep South accent, where ‘Christmas’ comes out as ‘Chri-ma’ and ‘Mississippi’ sounds like a sneeze. Inevitably, I had a string of ‘ear worms’ as we drove along. Songs I couldn’t get out of my head included:
- Walking in Memphis – Marc Cohn
- Graceland – Paul Simon
- Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
- Three O’clock Blues – BB King
Now you will have ear worms, my apologies.
For the next few days, we immersed ourselves in the blues, jazz, soul and the surreal world of Elvis Presley as we hung out on Beale Street, the Overton District and in Graceland. The live music was wonderful and everywhere. So were the slow cooked ribs.
Going to Elvis Presley’s home Graceland was like entering a time-warp. Yellow Formica, wood panelling, shag carpeting on the ceiling. Most of the cultural references missed MLH and me, not having grown up in North America. However, I am a fan of Elvis’ music, though I am too young to have been a raving fan of him (yes, too young!) We did get a sense of how young and full of energy Elvis was when he became famous, and Graceland and the excellent Smithsonian Rock ‘n Soul Museum filled in some of the story of how the uniquely American music genres of soul, blues, country and rock ‘n roll music developed. Two other interesting aspects of Memphis: it is the Federal Express hub: and it is where Clarence Saunders invented modern self-serve supermarkets in his Piggly Wiggly stores.
Down on the banks of the Mississippi, another glimpse of social tension in America. Hunting and fishing are taken very seriously here. We were chatting with two sports fishermen about to launch their boat in the evening. They were carpenters by day. When we said we had spent a month in California, this is what one of them said. Imagine the heavy Southern accent:
“Now California. There’s a state which, if the entire place fell off the edge of the world into the sea, I would not be sorry.”
And these are the United States of America!
Nashville, or ‘Music City’ was lively, and again the live music on Broadway was world class. Many aspiring stars cut their teeth playing in the bars and restaurants. We are not country music fans but bought tickets for The Grand Ole Oprey for the experience. The parking lot licence plates read like a road map. People (mostly boomers and older) come from all over the US and Canada to come to this live radio show. There were many people celebrating golden and diamond wedding anniversaries. There were varied acts, not all country music, and an announcer read ads from the sponsors in between songs. It was fun, but we will remember it with sadness because the next day a gunman killed 59 and injured over 500 at a country music concert in Las Vegas.
We had a conversation with the ticket agent when buying our tickets for the show. She told us guns were forbidden in the hall; and envied us that this was a non-issue in Canada. We then had a conversation about gun control, which she was in favour of, mostly because of the 2,000 plus children who are killed or injured every year in the US by unsecured firearms. We were travelling through ‘open carry’ states where the NRA (National Rifle Association) is strong. I hoped the massive number of security guards were well trained. I saw a female security guard in a crisp uniform walking to walk one morning, handbag over shoulder, latte in one hand, cell phone in the other, and gun on her hip. I wondered what she would drop if she had to.
We have seen glimpses of all the major political and social issues in the US on this trip. Time to escape West out of cities and the Mississippi, to the Great Smokey Mountain and a bit of the South Carolina coast at Myrtle Beach. The temperature change was a shock as we got up in the morning in the mountains, after the sweltering heat in the river basin. Even more of a shock had been the little tourist town we stayed in the night before, Gatlinburg. I chose it because it was just before the National Park on the Tennessee side and pictured an Alpine village a la Canmore or Whistler in Canada. Instead, when we went looking for dinner that evening we walked into a gaudy wonderland of arcades, three Ripley’s Believe it or Nots, souvenir shops, candy stores and whiskey tasting bars. The main street was lit up with neon lights. Many of the tourists seemed to be in town for a car convention, and the closest they got to nature was a drive through the park on the way home. We found one hiking equipment store in the whole town, and fortunately one pub serving home-made food, where we ate roast beef and mashed potato and MLH looked glum: that is ‘winter’ food for him.
We explored the mountains the next day, though the traffic was heavy on the only road. They really do look ‘smokey’ (a phenomenon to do with moisture from the trees), and the leaves were just beginning to turn colour higher up. After our near encounter with a bear in the Rockies, I thought that I didn’t really want to see a bear. If I saw one while hiking I would be terrified, and if I saw one while driving I would probably be sad to see an animal habituated to humans. Hence, I was not as excited as I should have been when we saw a huge, beautiful bear in a parking lot in the Mountains, surrounded by photographers and Appalachian Trail hikers, scrummaging for food.
Myrtle Beach was home for a week, to get sun, sand and sea in and stretch our backs out after long days in the car. Nothing much to report, though the beaches are beautiful and much less crowded than Florida. On Saturday we watched four weddings take place on the beach. Three were with groups of family and friends, but one was the saddest I’ve ever seen. There were no witnesses or photographers. The officiant, in a white shirt and pants, arrived with a little fold-up table and a backpack. The bride wore a full-length fluffy dress and resembled an ostrich. She carefully removed her flip flops before stepping onto the sand. She had no one to pass the bouquet to, so she stuck it in the sand when it came time to exchange rings. The groom wore a dark suit. The ceremony took perhaps two minutes. The officiant shook their hands, held the papers down as they signed their names, then folded the table with a snap, shrugged the backpack on, and left. Two days later the bouquet was still there, being battered by the first rain we had experienced in two months.