TUESDAY 22nd SEPTEMBER 2015
It is hot again. We leave "Historic" Fort Stockton at 08.30 with the temperature climbing. We pass the entrance to the Fort as we drive out of town but are not tempted to investigate.
We find Interstate 10 and drive east. We pass small sandy hills with stunted trees. The countryside is mostly flat and green, with the occasional hillock, the road smooth. The miles are eaten up and by 2.15 we are in San Antonio finding our way - trying to find our way - around the centre and looking for somewhere decent to stay. The place we stayed at last night in Fort Stockton was basic to say the least. "We can afford better." I say.
San Antonio - "The cradle of Texas independence." This is where the 'Battle of the Alamo' was fought by Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and 185 other rebels, against the Mexicans, and lost. But it paved the way to eventual Texas independence with the battle cry: "Remember the Alamo!
"Let's try here." Says C and we stop by the entrance to the 'Riverside Hilton.'
The place is crowded. People scurrying about, with urgent looks on their faces, others standing in groups studying pieces of paper, men in suits, ties, polished shoes; women in smart business suits. I feel scruffy in comparison, wearing just a tee shirt and denim shorts. I am dressed for the searing heat outside, they for high-powered air-conditioned conferences where M.D.s make stirring speeches.
I walk through to the desk. A black girl is talking to the white receptionist but as I approach she moves away looking disappointed. The receptionist smiles at me, her teeth so white I'm tempted to put my sun-glasses back on. "Yes sir?" She is immaculately dressed, dark suit, white blouse, her dark hair, not one out of position, framing a perfectly made-up face. I already feel inadequate.
I ask if she has a twin bedded room. "How many nights do you want to stay with us?" She asks. "One, maybe two." I say. How much? I want to ask but don't. Her fingers dance across the computer keyboard.
"Yes sir, we do have a twin." Lucky you, she doesn't say, nor does she say how much.
"Can you give me an idea of the price?" I ask.
She looks down at the computer again, fingers hitting the keys. Surely she must know how much a room for the night is, I think, but wait patiently.
I walk out of the hotel, back into the heat, and quickly into the cool interior of the car. "Well?" Says Cyril.
"No." I say.
"They are full?"
"No," I say. "The girl offered me a room. Two hundred and ninety dollars a night."
"It would be better than last night."
"We'll find somewhere else."
We find somewhere else. The Marriott Fairfield Motel, they offer a decent room, with a small study, two televisions, queen sized beds, for just over a $140 for the night with an option to stay two nights. Okay, it's not in the centre of the town as the Hilton was, but it's just a ten minute walk away. After settling in we decide to explore the town centre, River Walk and The Alamo.
It is still hot - in the high eighties. It takes 12 to 13 minutes to walk to the town centre. We walk down steps and find ourselves on the "River Walk." It is very attractive. Trees overhang the paved walkways that run along both sides of the river, there are tropical plants and flowers, The trees creating cool shady areas.
There are pleasing pedestrian bridges and steps; there are all sorts of shops, clothes shops, souvenir shops, boutiques, hotels and many restaurants and bars. River barges chug past full of tourists, the helmsman talking to his passengers with the aid of a mike.
I take some photographs including one of C sitting by a water feature. A father and son walk by and offer to take a snap of the two of us, which they do. We get talking. The father, sixty something, lives in San Antonio, the son, in his early thirties maybe. He is ex army, he tells us, lives in Pennsylvania and is visiting his dad for a few days. We chat for a while. "You come from England? Welcome to San Antonio!"
After the river disastrously flooded in 1921 causing destruction to property and loss of life it was proposed it should be paved over and converted in to a storm drain. Fortunately many spirited citizens were against this idea and the proposal was abandoned. Then a brilliant architect, Robert HH Hugman (terrific name!) stepped in and the result of his talent is here for us to see and enjoy today. Three miles of winding river walk, rather touristy but a very attractive and pleasant area to visit.
We spend an hour or so in one of the restaurant/bars, have a drink, something to eat and about ten o'clock start to walk back to the hotel. It hasn't been decided whether to stop here a second night and we discuss it as we walk along. It is a lovely evening, warm, balmy. We walk in to a large square where there are people sitting on benches and chairs staring up at the front of a church on which a film has been projected, We stop and watch. The film is a narrated history of "The Battle Of The Alamo" and as we watch I look at the street map of the city and realise we are standing in Alamo Square and the Mexican style building in front of us - the church - is, in fact The Alamo.
Both of us are surprised and vaguely disappointed. It's just a church, rather a small church. Remember the Alamo? It would be easy to forget. We watch to the end of the film. There is a smattering of applause as it concludes; we walk on and as we do decide not to stay a second night but to start out for our next destination first thing in the morning: Memphis, Tennessee.
WEDNESDAY 23rd SEPTEMBER 2015
After breakfast at the hotel we are on the road again - Interstate 35 - and now travelling north. We pass Waco, a big shoot-out there some years ago involving the FBI and a cult-community of some sorts, holed up in a place they had taken over just outside of town. Women and children were killed. The FBI were accused of mishandling the whole thing.
The roads get busier, more lanes open up, we drive past Dallas, turn east still on Interstate 35. A big sign on the side of the road: "God Loves." Then another one for a motel ahead: "Texas sized rooms." Above us an oh-so-blue sky with cotton wool clouds, the temperature in to the nineties. The landscape is green, flat. We pass large ranches, each of them looking like 'South Fork' in the soap-opera 'Dallas.' Healthy well groomed and high priced horses peer at us as we speed by, white picket fences leading up to the large ranch-house. We stop for petrol and a cold drink. I drive for a while.
As the sun is setting we reach Texarkarna on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Hence the name, I suppose. We find rooms available at a Days Inn, check in and then drive to 'The Texas Road House' a few minutes from the motel and just across the interstate.
We are met by a young girl who looks no more than sixteen, she shows us to a table and a young waiter, he looks no more than fifteen, appears. We order coffee while we study the extensive menu. The place is crowded and noisy. There is a mixture of people. Old, young, middle aged, some of the men wearing cowboy hats. Every few minutes there are bursts of cheering and "Yipp-ees!" and "Yee-haw's! And clapping. We speculate what it's all about. Maybe Texans like noise when they eat, and cheering and yipp-eeing and yee-hawing is part of it. But more likely, we decide, they are just celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and such.
We both order steak. We are in Texas. You have to have a steak in Texas. But tomorrow we are out of here. Down the road a piece. To Memphis.
THURSDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER 2015
We leave Texarkarna just after 8 am. the temperature is already 74 degrees. We are back on Interstate 30 going north east. We crossed in to Arkansas just after leaving the motel. The road is straight, the landscape flat, green, farm country. Above us wispy clouds, the temperature is climbing.
I have some burn sores on my chin - too much sun at the pool in Las Vegas - and they are not healing. We decide to pull off the Interstate and find a chemist. We pass a town, 'Hope,' though little more than a village, really, where Bill Clinton was born, and a few minutes later turn off and find ourselves in another village. It's sleepy, there is nobody about. Cars are parked at an angle in the main street. We follow suit and step out in to the heat. It is very quiet, just the ticking of the engine as it cools. It must be ninety degrees now, maybe more. There is not a soul to be seen. We look around. There is a boutique, a barber's; across the road a small supermarket. No chemist. Nobody. Maybe we are being spied on from behind curtains: Strangers in town! I cross the road and enter the supermarket. C follows. There are no customers, just the girl at the till. She glances at me as I enter, nods a 'hello' with a half smile and a puzzled look. Strangers!
Maybe I have seen too many films.
I find some ointment on the 'clearance' shelf. One dollar. "Have a nice day!" The girl at the till says, with a big smile.
We are soon back on Interstate 30. A sign flashes past: "Medicare is fraud, don't be a victim." Then we are passing Little Rock and turn on to Interstate 40 and are now travelling east and before I realise it we are crossing the Mississippi (for the second time) and we are in Memphis, Tennessee. We flounder around in the centre for a while, where it doesn't seem very busy, stop by Overton Park, near the city centre, and study the street map. Eventually we find our way to the eastern end of Beale Street and Sun Studio where Elvis made his first record and where his musical career was launched. Here too Sam Phillips helped to launch Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins.
Cyril parks the car by the curb and I pick up my camera. The building is old, old for the United States, I mean. Must be1930? Red brick. A large guitar hangs over the pavement. A green plaque gives a short history of 'Elvis Presley and Sun Records.' Green sunshades hang above the large windows. The place looks… not ramshackle, nor neglected, but it hasn't been "done up" or glamourised. It looks much like I imagine it looked when Elvis first walked, nervously, through the door wanting to make a record for his mum's birthday. A man sees me taking photographs and and asks where my car is, I point down the street. C is sitting in it waiting for me. The man tells me we should move it to the back of the studio as there are restrictions where we have parked. We take his advice and move the car to the small car park behind the studio. We both walk to the front again and take more photographs.
Then we go in, through the corner door. Inside is a kind of snack bar, there are four or five people standing around looking at posters on the wall, a couple sitting by the counter drinking coffee, there are tables with bench seats by the window. A black woman, in her sixties, is sitting by the door, "The next tour of the studio in fifteen minutes, get your tickets here." She shouts. We give her $26. She makes jokes and laughs as she hands the tickets out. The interior is a little ramshackle and I'm already having doubts about it all. What do we get for our $26?
A late middle aged woman, english, with a cut glass accent, asks me to take a photograph of her and her husband, which I do. More people come in, so now there are 12 or 15 of us. All in our sixties and seventies apart from one young couple who are in their twenties.
Then it is time for the tour. We are led up some narrow creaky stairs to an area with various exhibits behind glass cases like you see in museums. A young girl steps forward. "Good afternoon," she says, "my name is Jane and it is my pleasure to take you on this tour of the famous Sun Studio." She is very American, late twenties, Tennessee accent, she speaks confidently and clearly, like so many Americans do. When God hands out confidence he (or she) must ensure Americans get an extra helping. It's not fair.
Jane tells us about Sam Phillips, how he was never 'mainstream' always experimenting with the music he produced. Always looking for that 'different' sound. She tells us about the various artists who started the musical careers at these studios: Elvis, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison… Elvis made "That's Alright Mama" for his mum's birthday, Jane tells us, but it wasn't until a year later that he was back in the studios and, after Sam Phillips secretary, Marion Keisker, urged him to listen again to Elvis's recording that Sam arranged for it to be played on one of the local radio stations. We all know what happened after that. Previously, Sam had said he didn't want ballad singers.
The room has various artefacts, old pieces of recording equipment, photographs. She plays various tracks to illustrate what she is telling us. Her talk is interesting, absorbing, her style is attractive, her subject fascinating. We move through other rooms, stare at posters, look at newspaper cuttings, listen closely to Jane's anecdotes. Now we go down another set of stairs and we are in the actual recording area. Sun Studios is still a live recording studio and artists come from all over to record here.
The young couple in their twenties leave. They wouldn't have been born until well after Elvis died so it's not surprising their interest is not so keen as us ancients. But they missed, perhaps, the best bit of the tour. Jane talks about a Johnny Cash recording and how he inserted a dollar note under the strings to deaden the sound. "I'll show you." She says, picks up a guitar, grins, says, "This is the bit I like the most!"
'I Walk The line' comes on over the speakers. There is a rhythmic beat at the forefront made by guitar strings with a dollar note inserted under them. Jane inserts a dollar note in her guitar and without hesitation begins to play. She accompanies the guitar on the record exactly, her timing is perfect. She smiles as she plays; she has clearly done this many times before; It is an impressive performance. We clap her as she fades the record out. She deserves the applause.
Jane next points to a white cross on the floor and lifts an old fashioned microphone out and places it on the cross. "This is where Elvis Presley recorded "That's Alright Mama" she says. "This exact spot. If you want to take photographs in the same place as Elvis made his first recording, feel free."
I get Cyril to stand there and take a photo. The tour ends in the studio area. Jane hands out a booklet, "Birthplace Of Rock 'N' Roll." A short history and Sun Studio's involvement in it. "If music were a religion then Memphis would be Jerusalem and Sun Studio its most sacred shrine." It tells us.
The tour of Sun Studio was good. Worth the $13 each, The girl who took us round, Jane, was excellent. We asked her how to get to "Graceland" and she explained. We didn't leave her a tip. I don't know why. We should have.
Now we are back in the car, air-conditioning on at full blast to combat the heat outside. "Graceland' is no more than a ten minute drive. Signs take us in to the car-park off Elvis Presley Boulevard. We have to pay $10. Then through the entrance, along a footpath and in to the ticketing area. We walk up to the box-office. The tickets are $35 plus tax. There are a lot if people about, souvenir shops: "Elvis Hawaii Shop," "Everything Elvis," Souvenirs of Elvis," Heartbreak Hotel Gift Shop,"there are fast food outlets: "Rockabilly's Burger Shop," "Shake Split and Dip," "Rock 'n' Roll Cafe."
We make our way to the boarding area for the shuttle that will take us to the Mansion. We queue. It is very hot and already my legs are aching. We are given I-pads and earphones which will show a picture and sound commentary on the tour. Shuttle bus's come in in two's and threes. A woman attendant waves us on to one of them. Cyril speaks to a couple of young girls, no more than twenty or so. "You are fans of Elvis Presley?" One of them answers, "Not really, but my Mom is, so I've come for her."
We board the bus with about thirty other people and are driven across Elvis Presley Boulevard and up to the mansion along what looks like a newly built concrete road. We all alight and stand at the side of the road in front of the house. Several of us dodge about taking photographs as we wait. Across the road, gathered around a black woman at the top of the steps by the front door, is the group in front of us listening to her. The door opens and they go in and now it's our turn. The black woman greets us, chats for a couple of minutes, tells us to start the i-pad video and commentary, we may take photographs, she tells us, but no flash photography, no video, no smoking: we must keep moving and not hold up people behind us.
We enter the mansion. It soon becomes clear there are too many people here at once. We are not able to walk through the various rooms leisurely, attendants hurry us up, wave us forward, keep us moving. The i-pad keeps stopping and slipping out of sequence so that it is telling me about one area when I'm in another. I give up with it.
To describe the furnishings, the decoration the whole look of the place, various words jump in to my head: Bizarre, tasteless, ostentatious, pretentious. But what's that saying? One man's meat is another man's poison? Elvis must have liked the way he decorated his home and it was his home so I imagine that was all that mattered to him.
The upstairs to the house is not open to the public so we don't see the whole of Graceland just part of it. We keep moving - we are kept moving - through the 'Jungle Room,' in to areas that have been tacked on. There is a room full of gold records, an area where the "King's" costume's are on display. Clips of his films run, stills decorate the walls.
After his early rock 'n' roll hits he went steadily down hill in my book. Those stupid films he made - he was ashamed of them himself in later years. Justifiably so I think.
Anyway, I'm hot and my legs ache and I'm feeling tired. We move out of the house (Gerald has left the building!) and walk past the swimming pool (roped off) and down to the burial area where he now rests, next to his mother, and his father, too, is here. I find it quite tasteless. People - hundreds of thousands of people, (600,000 a year) moving past the graves, staring, taking photographs (as I do myself.) But that doesn't matter, for each one represents $35 (plus $10 for parking) so in any one day that is an awful lot of money. And that's what this place is all about. Making money.
Colonel Parker would have approved.
If you are interested in the history of Rock 'n' Roll and you go to Memphis, visit the Sun Studio, take the tour. I recommend it . If you are a real devoted Presley fan, you don't mind being herded around like cattle and you don't mind paying over the odds, then go to Graceland. You won't learn much about the history of Rock 'n' Roll, but you will be helping to make the Presley family even richer than they are already.
After we have ogled the graves and taken photographs, we walk up to the queue for the shuttle-bus which will take us back to where we started from. The queue is long and it seems ever hotter and all I want to do is sit down but there are no seats so I grit my teeth and eventually we are herded on to a 'bus and as we ride back I wonder if Elvis himself would have approved of all this. Somehow I don't think he would have.
Within a couple of minutes we are back on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, amidst the souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Ten minutes are spent looking at the two rather old aircraft parked in a nearby compound. One of them an odd looking Boeing 707, the other a small twin engined executive jet, both used in years gone by, apparently, by the Presley's, though neither of them look airworthy now; the interiors rather sad looking and oddly cramped.
Back in the car we get the air conditioning going at full blast and study the map. There is still a couple of hours of daylight left so we decide to leave Memphis and drive south. Soon Memphis, Tennessee, is behind us and we cross the State Line in to Mississippi. We pull off the interstate for petrol and get talking to the chap serving in the shop. He asks where we are from and we tell him; he has a foreign accent, though his english is excellent and I ask where he comes from. "Nepal." He says.
"Nepal?' I repeat, I've never met anyone from Nepal before. He mistakes my repeating 'Nepal' for not understanding him.
"Nepal." He says, "It's in the Himalayas, you know? Mount Everest?"
"Yes, I know," I say, "I'm just surprised, what brings you here?" He is tall, about thirty, not a little bit like the Nepalese Sherpa's you see when ever there is an item about climbing Everest on TV.
"Work." He says. "There is more work here." He points to us both. "But Europe, that is the place to be."
"What makes you say that?" Asks Cyril.
"Europe, Britain, has culture." He says. Good architecture, art, history, it is more…" He looks around to make sure nobody is nearby, lowers his voice and says: "Sophisticated."
We both laugh. "Why don't you go to Britain and live, or Germany, or France?" I ask.
"Too difficult." He says. "It's very hard to get a visa and work permit." He shakes his head. "I wish I could."
He takes the money for the petrol, smiles and says, "Have a nice day." I think he was being parodic.
We get as far south as Batesville, Mississippi, and stop for the night at a Quality Inn.