Day 9: The Hangover
Ash Wednesday could easily have been one of those days I just stayed in bed and slept all day. Unfortunately, checkout was at noon and I had a 350-mile drive to Oxford, Mississippi ahead of me. I made checkout with about five minutes to spare, pretty sure I was still drunk, collected my car, and proceeded to sit in stop-and-go traffic in pouring rain for 20 miles on the 10 getting out of New Orleans. I headed north on Route 55 out of Louisiana and into Mississippi, hangover beginning to wrap its cold, inevitable fingers around my throat. Needing something greasy to settle my stomach, I stopped at a McDonald’s for the first time since 2009, when I ate some chicken nuggets in Barcelona. Had my first Big Mac since probably high school. Hit the road again, stomach not especially settled, felt myself falling asleep at the wheel, stopped for gas, and pounded the largest Red Bull I could buy. I reached Oxford after dark, exhausted and really kind of wanting to die.
I checked in to the Inn at Ole Miss, a lovely hotel on the University of Mississippi campus. For some reason, I decided to splurge on the accommodations in Oxford. Poor financial decision, but it was a really nice hotel: big brick building with white columns out front, large, spacious, comfortable rooms. After putting my stuff in my room I walked to the historic Court Square at the center of Oxford. I bought a couple of novels at Square Books, one of the best independent bookstores in America, and ate dinner at the Ajax Diner. I ordered the Hot Tamale Pie. I can’t even really explain what this dish is, something with corn meal and cheese grits and peppers over slow roasted pork, but I can tell you that it was fucking delicious, probably the best thing I ate on the whole trip after the Acme Oyster House.
Unfortunately, I was still wretchedly hungover from Mardi Gras (and would remain so the whole time I was in Oxford and most of the time I was in Memphis), and not too long after I got back to my hotel, I puked my Hot Tamale Pie back up. I cried a little for that Hot Tamale Pie.
Day 10: The Past is Never Dead
I spent my only full day in Oxford indulging my book nerd side. Oxford is where William Faulkner lived for much of his life, and it provided the basis for Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of many of his most famous works. I set out from the Inn late morning, walking through the famous Grove at the center of the Ole Miss campus, the site of college football’s most famous tailgate (it was quiet on this mid-winter morning, the trees mostly leafless) and walked along a country road to Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home for 30 years.
I wouldn’t say I took too much from the experience of visiting Rowan Oak, but it felt appropriate to have made the pilgrimage. I then made my way across town to the cemetery where Faulkner is buried, and even though I really had no interest in doing any imbibing, I had to partake in the custom of sharing a dram of whiskey (Rock Hill Farms) with the maestro.
For dinner I drove a few miles south of Oxford, passing a guy riding a horse down a country road, to the Taylor Grocery, a restaurant that resembles a dilapidated general store and is renowned for serving perhaps the best fried catfish in the world.
I wasn’t all that impressed with the catfish, though I did thoroughly enjoy the okra and hushpuppies, the older waitresses with their southern smiles and Mississippi accents, and the sweet tea. (Ye gods, the sweet tea. I can’t even believe how good that stuff is).
The Taylor Grocery is known for being an incredibly hard place to get a table , and while I showed up right when it opened and had no problem, I ate my meal quickly and headed back to the hotel, cognizant that it was Valentine’s Day and wanting not to take up a table for too long.
Day 11: That’s How I Got to Memphis
I took the scenic route out of Mississippi, tacking an hour onto my drive so I could visit Clarksdale, the home of the crossroads where blues pioneer Robert Johnson claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar skills. There’s a debate about where Johnson’s crossroads actually is, but Clarksdale has the monument, so that where I went.
Instead of heading back to the interstate, I drove up Highway 61, the famous Blues Highway that Bob Dylan invoked in the title of my all-time favorite album, Highway 61 Revisited. There are a couple of historical music landmarks here and there, but mostly it’s a quiet flat highway through farmland. Still much prettier to look at than all the desert I drove through the week before.
I reached Memphis in the early afternoon, and checked into my hotel, a Days Inn across the street from Graceland that is decked out with Elvis shwag, including a guitar-shaped pool.
Now, I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Graceland; it’s expensive, kind of corny, and I’ve always been a Beatles guy more than an Elvis guy. But my sister insisted that I had to do it, so I did. And I have to say, I enjoyed the experience. The decor at Graceland features shag carpet, fake fur, strange color patterns, basically exactly how you’d expect a nouveau riche musician from the 70s to decorate. It actually could have been a lot more outlandish.
And it was cool to see all the costumes and the gold records.
After Graceland I took the tour at Sun Studios, the birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll and the studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many more recorded their early hits. Sadly, my pics from Sun didn’t really turn out, but it was a pretty neat tour.
I had dinner at Central BBQ, one of the best-known places in Memphis. I had ribs, half of them dry rubbed in the traditional Memphis-style, half of them sauced.
The ribs were good, but I have to be honest, I don’t think they were any better than what you could get at, say, Everett & Jones in Oakland. I kinda think that maybe there’s a ceiling with barbeque, that as good as good BBQ is, a good barbeque place anywhere in the country can be as good as one anywhere else. (I say this acknowledging that I did not eat barbeque in Texas, and also pointing out that the homemade barbeque potato chips I got at Central were reeeeeediculously good.)
Although it was Friday night, I elected to stay in, still feeling the effects of Mardi Gras, and save my energy for Saturday.
Next Time: Lots of music geekery, the moment I fell for Memphis, and why Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t be proud of America today.