Ah, the pleasures of sleeping on a train! The wail of the whistle in the night, the rhythm of the rails, the motion gently rocking you to sleep …
All true — if you’e in a comfortable bed in a pricey Amtrak room. In a more economical but cramped “roomette,” it’s another story. The lower bunk is the width of a sleeping bag. The upper bunk is narrower. You reach it by climbing ledges built into a wall, and the porter makes the bed so that once you get there you have to turn 180 degrees or your feet are on the pillow. If you have to get up to use the bathroom, you’d better be a contortionist.
We arrived in Memphis feeling like we’d slept on racks in a submarine. It was early morning, and we couldn’t check into our hotel until mid-afternoon. But one of the good things about Memphis is that something interesting is never far away.
A short walk from the station was the National Museum of Civil Rights. They have the bus where Rosa Parks made history. The actual bus — with a statue of Parks in the seat she famously refused to vacate. The museum is built onto the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. You see the room where he spent his last night, the balcony where he collapsed. You can’t go there without gaining a better understanding of our history, particularly what it was like to be a black American living in a culture that could rob you of your dignity and possibly your life.
Memphis and Boise have at least one thing in common. It takes forever to get where you want to go on a city bus. Tourists, however, have the advantage of using free shuttles that go to all of the city’s attractions. We’d been to Graceland on a previous visit, so our top priority this time was Sun Studio, the birthplace of rock and roll.
In the summer of 1953, an 18-year-old Mississippi native paid $3.98 to record two songs there, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” as a birthday present for his mother. Sam Phillips, the studio’s owner, didn’t think much of them. It took him a year to invite the kid back.
When one of the resulting songs was requested 14 times in two hours on a local radio show, Phillips figured that this Elvis Presley fellow might be on to something. He offered him a contract, and the music business was never the same again.
With business acumen rivaling Napoleon’s on the Louisiana Purchase, Phillips later sold the contract to RCA for $35,000. In fairness, however, that was a lot of money in those days. And things worked out for Phillips. Other artists who graced his studio in the early days included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. A picture of them with Elvis, the so-called “million dollar band,” hangs on one of the walls. Visitors are treated to an out-take of them joking around and experimenting with a then unknown song, “Don’t Be Cruel.”
The oddest Sun Studio story may be that of the Prisonaires, a group that recorded while incarcerated in a Tennessee prison. The governor liked them so much that he repeatedly had them perform at the governor’s mansion. Their song, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” became a hit. But the Prisonaires never got to enjoy their status as teen idols, being stuck in the slammer and all.
The thing that struck me most about the place where so much history happened is that it’s just a humble little studio, with ancient acoustical paneling and a worn tile floor. Nothing fancy or pretentious about it, yet artists from B.B. King to Jeff Beck to U-2 have recorded there. People have kissed the floor. It’s literally hallowed ground.
The same can be said of the Gibson Guitar Factory in downtown Memphis. It covers an entire block. The lobby is a showroom and sales area, but the real action happens in a gymnasium-sized room dripping with sawdust and filled with hundreds of guitars in various stages of construction. Instruments made there have been played by everyone from the kid next door to Eric Clapton. Guitars, on everything from stages to neon signs, seem to be everywhere in Memphis. It would be a challenge to live there and not play the guitar.
An even greater challenge would be to live in Memphis and not clog your arteries with barbecue. The locals recommended a place called Corky’s, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The place is barbecue nirvana. I wanted to buy a house across the street, but my wife ruined everything by reminding me that we already had a house in Boise. It was a 90-minute wait for a table, so we had dinner at the bar.
“Where are you from?” the bartender asked.
“Boise,” we replied.
“Ah, the Broncos. I don’t know what you guys are putting in the water up there, but whatever it is it’s working. That Chris Peterson pulls rabbits out of the hat every year.”
I could have hugged him. As a lifelong Idahoan, I can’t tell you what a relief it finally is for our state to be known in other parts of the country for something besides potatoes, white supremacists and loony politicians.
Speaking of other parts of the country, our time in Memphis was coming to an end. After a last night on Beale Street (Bourbon Street without the sleaze), we rose early and caught the City of New Orleans to the place that gave the storied train its name.
I’ve written about New Orleans in previous columns so except to say that it still has some of the country’s best food and music, its most exotic blend of cultures and is still the most decadently charming city this side of Paris, I won’t repeat myself. Besides, we explored some new (for us) parts of Louisiana on this trip — the island home of Tabasco Sauce, and a bayou swamp.
I’d wanted to visit Avery Island ever since a Navy buddy who lived a few miles from there told me it was one of the prettiest places in the country. And in a way, he was right. There’s nothing the least bit industrial about it. Tabasco Sauce is made in old brick buildings in a steamy, green seclusion amid fields of pepper plants, flocks of egrets and trees heavy with Spanish moss. It’s ridiculously pastoral, so quiet that even the tourists seem to speak in muted voices.
There’s nothing muted, however, about the sauce that’s produced there. Made from a family recipe dating to 1868, its trademark Tabasco peppers are crushed, the seeds and skins are removed and salt is added. The salt comes from the island’s salt mine, which is as deep as Mt. Everest is high. The resulting mash is aged for three years in oak barrels previously used by Jack Daniels. Vinegar is added, the brew is stirred for a month, and some 700,000 bottles a day of it are shipped all over the world. Locals are so gaga over the stuff that they wear bottles of it in holsters.
Captain Joey has downed gallons of it. The guide on our swamp tour, Captain Joey Hatty is equal parts bayou-encyclopedia and comedian. Time and again, he surprised us with information that made us look at the swamps in a new way. The pretty, lavender-colored flowers we’d been admiring, for example, are invasive hyacinths that are taking over parts of the bayous.
“We spray them, but they keep coming back,” he said as he guided the boat through a channel all but choked with them. “This channel was so blocked last week that you couldn’t get a boat through it.”
And the Spanish moss that looks so picturesque on postcards?
“Don’t touch it. It can have snakes, spiders, all sorts of nasty things in it.”
The French, he said, modified the word “bayou” from its original, less appealing version.
“Can you imagine Linda Ronstadt singing Blue Bay-yuck?”
In his years as a guide, Hatty has rescued dozens of orphaned baby alligators. He mother-hens them until they’re big enough to defend themselves against predators and returns them to the wild. One was on the boat the day of our tour.
“Here,” he said, handing it to a guest. “Make friends with it and pass it on to the next person.”
This wasn’t a six-inch alligator like those you sometimes see in “pet” shops. It was nearly three feet long and looked more than capable of living up to its billing as a carnivore. Pass it on to the next person? No problem.
“Sometimes we have snakes fall into the boat,” Hatty told us. “It happened one day with a group of senior citizens. It was 45 minutes before I could catch the snake and toss it overboard. People were running, screaming, climbing up on the benches … The snake didn’t hurt any of them, but it definitely cleared their arteries. It looked like the Senior Olympics.”
Captain Joey could be a poster boy for Cajun cooking:
“My daughters eat health food, and they’re miserable. They never smile. They’ll need closed coffins for their funerals. I only eat greens because they’re good for soaking up the grease. My cholesterol’s 1,400. I’m 62, and if I make it another ten years I’ll be happy. I’ll die with a full belly and a smile on my face.”
Hatty was just one of the colorful characters we met. On trains, you meet them all the time. More about them next time.