Five-State Roadtrip, Part II: Walking in Memphis

The most appropriate thing to do on one’s first morning in Memphis is to head directly to its most popular attraction: Graceland, of course! Luckily as part of the TravelCon registration fee, we were entitled to several “familiarization trips,” or FAMs for short. These are free entrances to museums, parks, or tours; special events just for our group; or discounts at bars or venues. Shockingly there were no limitations, so I loaded up my schedule with as many options as humanly possible.

I still had no sense of place with Memphis, having only arrived and walked to the Crosstown Concourse the night before. Knowing that I’d be spending a lot more time downtown later in the week, I plugged in the address on my phone and drove to the gates of Graceland.

Walkway to the main entrance of Graceland, featuring a sign on the side of the building and gardens in front.
Welcome to Graceland!

After the initial sticker shock of having to pay $10 for parking, I realized that was still quite a bargain considering the entrance was covered and tickets would typically go for $77. I was the first of the conference attendees to arrive, according to the ticket counter agent. There was no set time for this tour, so attendees could come at any time during the designated days. I had packed my schedule, so I arrived shortly after they opened at 9am.

The line was not too long, but there were at least 30 people in front of me. We were all handed headphones and a special tablet that would serve as our guide during the tour of the mansion. We boarded a small bus in groups of 20 or so and headed a short drive across the street through the mansion gates and up to the front door. A guide explained how all of it would work, and then we proceeded through the various rooms at a steady but comfortable pace.

Graceland Mansion living room and music room
Living room and music room at the mansion

Graceland was Elvis’s actual home, and he spared no expense for flair. Granted, the appliances were antiquities and the decor was dated, but at the time it was an outrageously high-tech custom-made interior. Whether you are an Elvis fan or not, there is a lot to appreciate at the mansion. Most people prefer the Jungle Room, which is noteworthy no doubt. However, my personal favorite was the pool room or what I’m sure was more likely the party room. The custom fabric on all the walls and ceilings and the pool table as the centerpiece made the room feel both cozy and fun.

Graceland Mansion pool room, with fabric-covered walls and ceiling and stained glass billiard lamp above the pool table.
My favorite room at Graceland

The entertainment room, which was adjacent to the party room and one that we saw first, really spoke to the personal taste of Elvis and the timeframe. Bedecked in yellow and black bubble patterns, featuring six televisions, and a white ceramic monkey, the visuals themselves were like a soundtrack to the late 60s. A mirrored wet bar between the two rooms transported me to a time before I was even born. I could imagine myself drinking a Blue Hawaiian and laughing as Elvis told jokes while Priscilla smoked a long-tipped cigarette.

Yellow, black, and white TV room at the Graceland Mansion. The mirror-plated coffee table has a white ceramic monkey.
Fabulous! This TV room screams of another era

Behind the house we ventured past a small garage, recording studio, equestrian field, racquetball court, and trophy room that was filled with memorabilia of the entire family. Throughout the tour it became more evident just how fond Elvis was of his family, in particular his mother. They lived with him everywhere.

The last stop, past the kidney-shaped swimming pool, was the memorial garden where Elvis, his parents, his grandmother Minnie, and now his grandson Benjamin Keogh are all buried. Elvis and his mother had been relocated from their original burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. I hadn’t known until this tour that Elvis was a twin, but his 35-minute older brother Jesse died at birth. He is still buried in Mississippi in an unmarked grave.

Tomb of Elvis Aaron Presley, in the meditation garden behind Graceland mansion. The grave is bedecked with flowers, stuffed animals, and other trinkets left by his admirers.
Elvis’s final resting place at his home

After the mansion tour, we waited for another shuttle bus to take us back to the main complex near where I’d parked. The place is somewhat like an outlet mall, with several museum rooms devoted to various aspects of Elvis’s life. There were also some shops and cafes, but I didn’t see anything opened. They might wait until the summer season.

The remainder of the visit is self-guided through the exhibition rooms. The first room near where the shuttle dropped us off was filled with various vehicles that Elvis owned or otherwise was connected to. It’s no secret that he loved cars and motorcycles, but I’d say any type of vehicle. Included in the showrooms were trikes, racecars, golf carts, boats, and even a John Deere tractor.

Pink 1955 Fleetwood Cadillac on display at the Graceland Museum automobile exhibit
My personal favorite car from Elvis’s vast collection: the 1955 Fleetwood Cadillac

I’m no automobile aficionado, but cars from the 1950s have an undeniable aesthetic. I do enjoy seeing the distinct features like the sharp fins, whitewall tires, and sleek grills. These cars obviously have been taken care of and restored.

My personal favorites were his iconic Pink Cadillac (1955 Fleetwood), the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, and his 1956 Purple Cadillac. I guess I like Cadillacs! Some honorable mentions would be the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, white 1962 Lincoln Continental, and black 1960 Rolls-Royce.

Rear detail of the fin on the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible in the Graceland Museum automobile showroom
Fin detail from the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible

The next exhibit hall featured archives and an extensive stories about Elvis’s military life. I had somehow forgotten he served the country as an actor, which is something that would seem bizarre to me in today’s world. Not that Elvis lived meagerly with other soldiers but while he lived off-base in decent quarters with his family, he did report for duty and fulfilled his obligations.

Display case of the Army fatigues Elvis wore during his service
Elvis’s official Army fatigues

After serving the Army in Germany for 18 months, he was transferred to Fort Dix and received an honorable discharge a few days later. Several of his fatigues, uniforms, and duffel bags were on display. The exhibit gave me a perspective of Elvis as a serviceman, which added a facet to his life beyond being the rock n’ roller movie star that I tended to think of him as.

The “ICONS” hall was all about how far and wide Elvis’s influence reached. There probably isn’t a musical genre that hasn’t been impacted in some way by him. The displays illustrated how many artists incorporated elements of their stage presence on his colorful and flashy outfits.

Display case featuring a jumpsuit worn by Dwayne Johnson, which was inspired by Elvis's flashy wardrobe.
This Elvis-inspired jumpsuit was worn by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Some of the stars depicted were The Rock, Blake Shelton, Elton John, KISS, Shawn Mendes, Post Malone, Dolly Parton, Kristin Chenoweth, Buddy Holly, Trisha Yearwood, Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood, Bruce Springsteen, and Reba McEntire.

A series of rooms was devoted to all of Elvis’s movies and hits. Many of his outfits from concerts or movies were prominently displayed. Most impressive was the massive wall lined with all of his gold and silver records that were hits around the world. The centerpiece there was his Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was bestowed posthumously on November 16, 2018.

Wall of framed certified hit records (gold, silver) from around the world
This was only a portion of Elvis’s certified hit records on display

Lisa Marie Presley got her own room, which is fitting considering how evident it was how much Elvis loved his little girl. That, and she now owns Graceland and everything in the museum. There were a few more rooms, including a TV-studio like replica as well as a Tupelo room. The hangar where Elvis’s planes were kept was also part of the admission, but it was time for me to be moving along.

Portion of the Lisa Marie Presley exhibit at the Graceland Museum
Daddy’s little girl…Lisa Marie Presley is also featured at the Graceland Museum

By the time I arrived at the registration desk to check in for TravelCon, it was much later than I thought. That midday walk from my Airbnb through the medical district to the convention center was probably ill-advised, especially in the Memphis heat. I barely had time to get my badge, grab a pastry at a nearby cafe, and then walk down to the meeting point for the next FAM tour at the Tennessee Welcome Center by the Mississippi River.

A Tour of Possibilities” took a handful of us in a shuttle bus and away we went zigzagging throughout Memphis, stopping at a number of points of interest. Some were lesser known, but at each stop we learned more about the bigger historical impact and the un-whitewashed versions. The tour focuses on African-American history and digs deeper into the backstories of these significant Memphian sites.

The first stop was to the newly built “Equality Trailblazers” Memphis Suffrage Monument, behind the University of Memphis School of Law and facing the river. There are 13 honored here, including 6 busts of some of the most prominent suffragists such as Ida B. Wells, Lois M. Deberry, and Mary Church Terrell.

Equality Trailblazers Memphis Suffrage Monument. Bust of Lois M. DeBerry and bronze plaques featuring  other leaders in the suffrage movement: Frances Grant Loring, Maxine Atkins Smith (obscured by bust), Dorothy "Happy" Snowden Jones, Minerva J. Johnican, and Lois M. DeBerry.
Equality Trailblazers at the Memphis Suffrage Monument

I would never be able to re-create the experience of this tour, but it was one of the most impactful ones I’ve been on. Our tour guide, Queen, was lovely and made us feel like we were on a personalized tour. Since it was such a small group, it really was! We were able to ask many questions and linger as long as we wanted at the various stops to take photos and absorb the history.

Many of the stories we heard were horrific and uncomfortable, but history is not always good, especially when it comes to how African-Americans have been treated and depicted. Memphis is brimming with all sorts of history, from music to Civil Rights to food, and I feel like this just scratched the surface. I appreciated hearing about the backstories of some of the people, buildings, monuments, and even local citizens’ initiatives underway.

Colorful mural depicting Soulsville USA, a neighborhood centered around soul music
Mural in the “Soulsville” neighborhood

Some of the highlights of the tour for me were learning about various historical events and accuracies that I either never had heard of or had heard incorrect versions. Below are just a few examples.

  • Lynching sites and learning the true definition of “lynching,” which is a public killing (through any means, not just hanging) of someone who has not had due process of law.
  • Magnolia trees were often used as landmarks for safe haven houses because they were evergreen, such as the one in the front yard of the Burkle Estate on North 2nd & Bickford Avenue, which is now the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation was not valid in Memphis, as Tennessee had seceded and was part of the Union. It was not until October 24, 1864–almost two years later–that then-governor Andrew Johnson freed all slaves in the state.
  • W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues” was the first to publish blues in sheet music format with the song “Memphis Blues,” which was followed two years later in 1914 with “The St. Louis Blues,” a huge hit at the time.
Front yard of the Burkle Estate, which is now the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum at the former Burkle Estate
  • Robert Reed Church was a wealthy African-American who owned land, a hotel, and even a bank in 1899, and became the first black millionaire.
  • The Pinch District, originally named derisively for immigrants from Ireland who were emaciated, is considered Memphis’s first neighborhood and is now becoming a vibrant area, located between the iconic Bass Pro Pyramid and St. Jude’s Hospital.
  • I Am A Man Plaza, named from the placards used during the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968–an event that was to occur on April 5th, but postponed for 12 days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel the night before. Adjacent Clayborn Temple is being renovated to house a future museum.
  • LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black college, dates back to 1862 when it was founded as the LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School. It merged with S.A. Owen Junior College in 1968 to become its present incarnation.
"I Am A Man" Monument
I Am A Man Plaza monument, an homage to the 1968 Sanitation Workers

Queen dropped us off on Main Street near the convention center and gave each of us a warm, southern hug. My mind was buzzing with so much information and a sense of humility and respect to all the pioneers, martyrs, and trailblazers we’d learned about on the tour. It was a great introduction to this city, and I highly recommend it.

I ambled down Main Street along the trolley lines, passing by some notable buildings and the legendary Beale Street where I would spend some time later. The same weekend of our travel conference was also the famous Beale Street Music Festival, which is part of a month-long celebration called Memphis in May. We’d been forewarned that the city would become crowded and possibly a bit rowdy, although it was far enough away that I didn’t feel the impact other than a shortage of food vendors.

Brightly colorful mural along the sidewalk on Main Street
So much color here in Memphis!

I entered the Old Dominick Distillery on Front Street where our FAM group assembled for a tour that included some samples of their products. This iteration of the distillery was opened in 2017 by great-great-grandsons of the original founder, Domenico Canale, who first opened a grocery store that sold liquor in 1866.

We were guided through the building, stopping at places that represented different points in the distilling process. In one of the rooms, we were warned to walk slowly so as to avoid creating static electricity that could cause a spark, which could in turn result in an explosion. Being surrounded by barrels of highly flammable liquid got everyone’s attention quickly.

Kegs of whiskey at Old Dominick Distillery
Whiskey kegs or tinder barrels? You decide!

In the fermentation room, we were invited to try the mash at two stages: newly added (i.e., unfermented) and fermented. Several of us literally reached in the tanks and grabbed a sample with our bare fingers. The tour guide was accustomed to alarm at this suggestion, especially as we were still in the throes of the pandemic. He explained that there is no concern for germs, as the grist mixture would be heated multiple times to temperatures high enough to kill anything.

The two samples definitely had distinct flavors, the latter being clearly alcoholic. The taste reminded me of spent grain bread that breweries often make with their leftover draff. We were told that local farmers receive the unused portions to feed their animals. Thus far, not much differentiated this process from brewing beer.

Mash tun of warm grain getting fermented
Grain starting to become fermented

At this point I was just ready to sample the whiskeys, so much of the process that was explained was lost on me. I get the idea that the resulting alcohol is turned into vapor, which is then turned back into liquid and that essentially makes the booze we know and love. The degrees to which the liquids are heated, for how long, and for how many times are what distinguish different calibers and styles of whiskey and other spirits for that matter.

Each of the tour participants received a wooden sampler paddle with six different glasses filled liquids of varying shades from clear to amber to chestnut brown. This included two vodkas, a gin, two whiskeys, and the signature Memphis toddy, which was the inspiration for the entire operation.

We tasted in order from light to dark (left to right on the paddle), with taste gradually improving. I thought the gin was a little astringent, and was expecting more citrus pop from the Honeybell Citrus Vodka, but it was still much smoother than some Central Asian vodkas I have consumed. The wheat whiskey was also a little bitter, but the bourbon was smooth. The toddy was sweet and delicious. I could have settled for a glass of that, but alas I was late for my next FAM trip: a brewery tour!

Paddle of six samples at Old Dominick Distillery
Spirit sampler at Old Dominick Distillery

I huffed it several blocks to Wiseacre Brewing Company as it started to sprinkle. Luckily, people were still gathering their two free beer samples even though I was nearly 20 minutes late. I like whiskey, but beer has a much stronger appeal for me. I’d been on several brewery tours before, but I liked the vibe of the woman who gave us the tour. It was a bonus to go into the deep freezer (-30 degrees) for a few seconds.

I’d been told that Wiseacre was the best brewery in Memphis, so I was pleased that this tour was included. After it was over, a group of us just stayed and had more beers and grabbed dinner from the separate kitchen. I tried a few more beers, but it was a respectable evening. There were some 20 beers on tap, so there was no way I could try them all.

Wiseacre Brewing Company cold storage room with stacked kegs and crates of canned beer
Kegs and cans ready for shipment

This taproom had just opened in 2020, but the original brewery location remains on Broad Avenue. If it hadn’t been for the rain, we could have migrated outside to the spacious patio or backyard seating area. Anyone who is a beer connoisseur should plan on stopping at one of Wiseacre’s locations if they are in the Memphis area. Their flagship beer Tiny Bomb can be found at most local watering holes.

The next morning was our first official day of TravelCon. I met the other guest at my Airbnb, who happened to be an attendee as well. He had already organized a taxi to get us to the convention center since public transportation and ride-sharing weren’t as reliable post-COVID. After our continental breakfast at the house, we were delivered with plenty of time to get a decent seat and mingle.

Memphis Tourism welcomes TravelCon sign
Welcome to Memphis TravelCon 2022

I won’t get into the technical details of each session I attended, but having attended in 2018 I can wholeheartedly exclaim that the 2022 event was exceptionally organized. The topics, speakers, and flow of keynotes were purposeful and relevant. There were overall themes that tied together more than the first one.

The highlight of my day was attending a YouTube presentation given by Mike Corey of Fearless & Far. It was an honor to meet him in person after following him for over three years. His message here as well as on his channel is consistent: lean into your fears instead of avoiding them. You can build your dreams, but it requires a sacrifice of your comfort to get to the other side where your best live resides. He lives his message.

Mike Corey of Fearless & Far answering questions from attendees after his session
Mike’s presentation was “The Secrets to YouTube”

Pauline Frommer kicked off the first keynote of the conference on the first day, discussing recent trends in the travel industry, suggestions for better writing, and how we all might be better poised to move ahead in the post-pandemic travel space. Legendary travel writer Pico Iyer delivered the day’s closing keynote, packed full of personal stories and anecdotes. He stressed the importance of overall travel content being that of people.

Travel is an exercise in curiosity, not consumerism.

Pico Iyer, TravelCon keynote, April 29, 2022

The evening’s opening party was held at the Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe & Honky Tonk in the heart of Beale Street. This included a Memphis style marching band playing the length of Beale Street to the multi-level bar and back patio. A buffet barbecue dinner and a selection from a drink menu were provided. Most of us spent the entire evening here, even after they reopened the bar to non-conference attendees.

For me it was a great opportunity to reunite with friends, greet in person some people I’d only ever seen on Zoom, and meet new people in the industry. It was the largest gathering I’d been to since pre-COVID days, and it felt both surreal and amazing to be with people even though I don’t always enjoy crowds or loud music.

The band plays at the opening party for TravelCon 2022 in Memphis at the Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe & Honky Tonk on Beale Street.
The party’s just getting started!

It was a fun night, except for waiting over an hour for an Uber in front of the basketball stadium, which had just let out from a Grizzlies triumph over the Timberwolves. Not the best choice for a pick-up location! At least my Airbnb-mate was there to chat with, as well as an occasional drunk fan stumbling by.

Day Two kicked off with Jeff Goins encouraging us to tap into our sense of childlike dreams, never back down from a challenge, and not waiting to do the thing that we have to do. He told a story about Michelangelo, who preferred to sculpt but took on the project of the Sistine Chapel because he wanted to be liked and known. And it made him the equivalent of a multimillionaire.

Travel helps you see parts of yourself

Jeff Goins, TravelCon keynote, April 30, 2022

The rest of the day I attended sessions dealing with being a post-pandemic digital nomad, growing your client base, and solidifying social media strategies. The late afternoon was for the niche meetups, and I hopped aboard the free weekend trolley down to the Central Station, and the hotel bar where the points and miles meetup was being held.

While trying to find dinner, I happened to walk past BarWare where I saw lots of people with the TravelCon badges on. Naturally, I made a stop and had a wonderful conversation with Mike Corey as well as several other attendees. It was also an open bar, so my dinner would be liquid for a little longer. That stop turned out to be one of the best serendipitous moments.

The final party of the night was another sponsored event at the Silly Goose near Beale Street. I must have spent an hour there before I realized there were several pizzas at the back. There must have been eight different kinds! They also had innovative drinks with unusual ingredient combinations, such as the Break Up Music with rum, naranja, peppercorn, orange, lime, and prosecco or the Handsome Devil with mezcal, ancho verde, turmeric, and lime.

Black and white image of the Arcade Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Memphis
Walking around Memphis often felt like a bit of time travel

It was a rough awakening on the final day, but keynote speaker Nicole Walters kept our rapt attention. Right off the bat, she said “no one is coming to save you,” urging us to take action towards those things we want to do “one day.” She stressed that choice is the real American dream. She spoke of three main tenets she called the “ROI method”: restructure, optimize, and implement. Use this formula to analyze your situation so you can adjust and make money.

One of the best and most interactive sessions was led by Cal Fussman, an experienced interviewer and journalist who has had breakthrough interviews with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Branson, and Robert DeNiro to name just a few. We had several role-playing scenarios and situations that we didn’t realize what we were about to do. It was very effective.

Matt Kepnes delivered the final keynote with the sad news that TravelCon will be no more. The disruption caused by COVID-19, cancellation of the New Orleans conference, and other related losses proved to be too devastating to continue. It was a depressing note to end on, but it was also a high one. The event in comparison to its inaugural one in 2018 was so much more impactful, perhaps even more so due to the repercussions of the pandemic.

Some lyrics from Marc Cohn's 1991 hit song "Walking in Memphis," naturally displayed on South Main Street.
I was singing this song the whole time I was there

There was a little down time between the end and the closing party, so I took the time to decompress and talk to my mom while walking to the part of the convention center that faced the Mississippi River. There was an outdoor deck that was completely empty. Glints of sunlight illuminated the Bass Pro Pyramid and the M-shaped bridge to Arkansas. It was somehow pleasantly melancholic.

Soon the mood brightened with the night’s fun-filled party at Carolina Watershed. Tucked away on a side street a few blocks south of the main train station where I’d been the evening before, this event venue featured streams of outdoor lighting, multiple levels of gardens, and two surround bars, as well as a stage where a local band was cranking out bluesy cover and original songs.

Closing party scene at Carolina Watershed in Memphis
A bittersweet but fun ending to TravelCon

And then it was all over.

Actually, not quite. I had another full day of FAM trips lined up, and one last museum the following day before heading to Mississippi. The conference, however, was officially complete.

One of many colorful murals that can be found on the walls of downtown Memphis buildings
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