Texas was as far west as we were going to go on this leg of our American adventure. The time was ticking and since there was still a lot to see before returning to Florida we decided to start making our way back. The return route to Orlando led through Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. We only stayed one night in Arkansas, in the spa town of Hot Springs. Not that there’s nothing to see in Arkansas. It may not be the most visited state, but nature lovers would find a lot of interesting places. The state tourist brochure looked promising anyway. But mid March wasn’t quite the time for the outdoors.
Scott, our couchsurfing host, despite having some nasty cold, turned out to be a great companion. His young neighbour Kyle, who came over to do some washing, joined us as well and the four of us, plus a cat on my lap, spent the evening chatting and making fun observations on various differences between living in the United States and Europe, with a focus on American love of HUGE things.
In the morning we went to see what Hot Springs was all about. It turned out to be a pretty interesting place. Apart from the hot springs themselves, for which it’s known as a spa resort, it owes its fame to the fact that here, president Bill Clinton, spent his childhood years. Undeniably the golden period of Hot Springs falls at the beginning of the twentieth century, when many baseball teams chose Hot Springs as their training ground, while Hotel Arlington used to be a favourite spot of gangster Al Capone. Not bad for such a small town.
As I already mentioned, from Arkansas we drove to Tennessee. Certainly, one of the smaller states (36th by total area to be precise), but still full of American icons. Our first stop in Tennessee was a place well known around the world – Memphis, the city where Elvis Presley, BB King and Johnny Cash recorded their first hits. Aretha Franklin was born here, and Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. It’s also a city in which John Grisham places the action of many of his great crime novels. Simply put, there’s a lot going on in Memphis.
We started as usual – in tourist information centre (there’s a huge statute of Elvis and BB King right in the middle of it!) where we picked up a pile of maps and leaflets. From there we took a walk along the Mississippi river, admiring the Hernando de Soto bridge and the new-ish Memphis landmark – the Pyramid. Next we visited the famous Beale Street – a place full of quaint cafes and blues clubs. And once we walked the street up and down and took in all the atmosphere of the place, it was time to head to our next couchsurfing hosts. We were their first travelling guests ever and despite that they trusted us enough, to leave us alone in their house in the morning when they left for work. They really were an awesome couple and we had a great time together. When it came out in the conversation that Geoff was a big NASCAR fan, Philly, the hostess, rushed to search for a souvenir Matchbox set from a race sponsored by FedEx, for which she worked as a marketing manager. FedEx has its global super hub at Memphis Airport, making it the second busiest (right after Hong Kong) cargo airport in the world. Apparently they take up most of the air slots in the area, making commercial flights more expensive than from any other airport in USA. Jason on the other hand gave us some discount coupons for Memphis attractions, so adding to The NASCAR souvenir, the delicious coffee we were served, pizza for dinner and a very comfortable bed for the night, we really were rather spoiled with this hospitality.
Out of so many places worth seeing, we decided to visit Graceland – home of Elvis. But because we only like him and are not quite mad about him, we chose not to take a tour of the house. The whole place is so steeped in all things ‘king of rock n’roll’, that for us, having a quick peek at his planes, browsing through shops with Elvis memorabilia and signing the wall outside his house was more than enough.
After a morning visit to Graceland we drove to National Museum of Civil Rights – highly recommended by Jason. It is situated right outside Motel Lorraine – place of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Apparently it is really interesting and quite emotional, but we did not get to check it for ourselves because we were trying to visit it on the only day of the week (Tuesday!), when it was closed…
As a consolation we went to Sun Studio – a recording studio, where Sam Phillips discovered the great Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Every nook and cranny of this small and run-down building was full of equipment and memorabilia of the great stars of rock and roll from the fifties: a microphone quite probably used by Elvis (someone has already licked it so be aware), a guitar, on which Johnny Cash played his magic sounds and all the equipment used to record hit tracks we’re still listening to today. And even Bono and U2 came to this studio over twenty years ago to record some of their own hits.
Apart from Memphis, in Tennessee there’s one more place where music plays an important role – Nashville. For Americans, Nashville is probably even more important than Memphis, for a simple reason – it is a place where country music, not all that popular outside of US, reigns. And because the big names of country music meant little to us, we weren’t too keen on Nashville tourist attractions, such as Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum or Grand Ole Opry House. We will remember the city for its full size replica of the Greek Parthenon (in our opinion, even without the scaffolding it doesn’t come even close to the original) and our host Martin, who is an absolute enthusiast of old vinyl records – he has over 7,500 titles in his collection and it’s constantly growing!
While in Tennessee you cannot miss a visit to the famous Jack Daniels distillery. Although Lynchburg is not on any main road, it is well worth to add on a few miles to see where every single bottle of Jack, in the world originates. There are two tour options: one completely free, the other, for a small fee ($10 per head) with tasting. For me, Jack is all about a well designed bottle, I am not a huge fan of the gold liquor, nor is Geoff, so quite happily we joined the non-drinking group. And the tour really exceeded our expectations – it was really interesting and fun!
Did you know that Moore county, where Lynchburg is situated, is a dry county, which means that sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited and that the distillery only recently received permission to offer whiskey tasting? And that every drop of Jack comes from a spring flowing right through distillery’s grounds? That Jack himself was a short man and died because one morning he could not remember the combination to open his safe? Frustrated he kicked it and broke his toe. Eventually gangrene set in and killed him. Apparently the famous black label was introduced in honour of his passing. So even though now you know it all, we still highly recommend visiting this place, if you ever are in the area.
Next time we will be in CNN and Coca Cola HQs!