Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River

Getting from New York to Nashville had really taken it out of me. It was 24 hours of travelling, waiting, starving and pockets of sleep that can be measured in minutes. It was a Sunday evening, and the area surrounding the hostel looked as if it had taken what I wanted, and had been asleep all day. Not long after my check in Max arrived from Los Angeles and we headed for the downtown area. It was only a block or two before we encountered the first of many panhandlers in the area. A hotel only around the corner from this was housing a live band despite having the roof above them crumbling onto the glass alcove that went out to the footpath. It hadn’t been long, but half of Nashville was summarised in a matter of metres.

That was never going to be a deterrent though, and we marched the rest of the way through Tennessee’s humidity towards the lower part of Broadway. The city began to turn it on for a few blocks and no doubt the bright lights, loud music and the Cumberland River at night that we were witnessing has featured on countless Nashville jukeboxs.

The rest of the city felt empty, but save for 5 or 6 blocks a few people were out listening to twangy tunes and drinking terrible tasting light beer. Max and I found a bar, ordered a few beers and watched the Chicago Bulls lose to Miami. Exhausted from the last few days and no doubt helped by a few nightcaps, we called it an early night in the country music capital. Still, we’d seen enough to give us some hope for Tennessee.

The last time I rode a pushbike was over a year ago when a guy from Barcelona said I could have a go of his late one night/early one morning in Crown Street, Wollongong. Before that was nearly two years ago on a ride with Rowan through Puckies. By the time we made it from the Lagoon to the beach at the other end I’d almost thrown myself in the trees after losing control in a small ditch. When I recovered and tried to ride off it became apparent that during the miraculous stunt the chain had shaken itself off. Needless to say, grabbing some bikes and riding around Nashville was hardly the most sensible idea of my life.


There was no selection criteria when it came to divvying up the bikes, but it became apparent fairly early that I had made a poor choice. Sure, I’d put on weight in America, but I felt like I had the braking capacity of an overloaded freight train. To get to a halt I had to grind a shoe across the ground and grip as hard as possible (I still have a blister on my right hand from trying to brake). None of this was really helped by the situations we put ourselves into; ignoring bike paths, any common sense at highway crossings and/or pedestrians.

Still, we made it back to Broadway during the day, where it was still twanging, and bouncing with buskers, panhandlers and tourists. We explored the side streets, with the bars, music studios and pita shops that would make downtowns seem perfect. We even grabbed a break on the banks of the Cumberland River while some of the local loonies busked, told stories about a princess’ daughter and just generally weirded up the place. Max and I agreed; America is the most prolific nutcase place we’ve come across, and this small patch of grass was really helping our argument.

Avoiding the cars and pedestrians had proved to be fairly easy – even without brakes. However, our stop at the State Capital took us up our first real hill, and before too long we’d stopped for a breather, even though we were a bit short on the destination. Sure Nashville tries to market itself as a country music haven, but in the middle of downtown among the skyscrapers is some classical architecture that hints at something greater. Yeah, the fountains outside the war memorial were scattered with homeless people, but the statue and columns of the building look like they belong somewhere in ancient Greece.

Spot the hobo

Onwards we rode, to a place where I had no idea what was actually there. I was told it was more music history, with studios and labels being scattered around a particular part of town, but with directions courtesy of Google, all we found was sweaty shirts from riding up and down streets.

Well, we found that, and a whole heap of cicadas. Max yelled and screamed as we rode through swarms of the only thing louder than country music in this city. They had just left their last shells, and were clearly new to this flying business as I one hitchhiked on my clothing for a few blocks. When we did regain our sense of direction we wanted to head to Nashville’s replica of the Parthenon, because such a structure existing in Nashville makes as much sense as the mutterings from those loonies down by the river.

It was all going well, and throughout the day we’d covered a lot of ground without any real incident. Only, we were about two or three blocks from the park when Max started yelling out “Lewis! Lewis! I’ve got a problem!” As I heard the words I grabbed my brakes, and though I stopped about 10ft ahead of him on the other side of a drive-way, by the time I’d turned around he was holding a pedal and arm in his hand.

That was that, the bike dream was over. When we realised we couldn’t kick the apparatus back on, Max had to do his best to glide back to the hostel so that none of the staff would notice. We got both bikes back to the shed, cleaned up and headed out to dinner almost immediately. A burrito had never felt so well deserved. It was washed down by a beer, a cheap cigar and in a bid to outdo all the good the bikes had done, we headed back to Broadway.

That’s when Nashville started to get weird again. We’d picked up a randy Croat during our stay at the hostel, and he directed us to a bar with some live bands. The band wasn’t great, and the crowd was full of punters who could easily pass as disguised lizard-people. It was that type of weird. It also became apparent why the randy Croat wanted to go, as the bartender he had seen the night before was working again – complete with blonde hair, blue eyes and the biggest pair of fake tits this side of the Mississippi. Christ it was distracting.

Not being shallow guys, that wasn’t enough to make is stay, and the randy Croat directed us to another bar he’d been to the night before. It should have come as no surprise when we saw a stuffed deer above the bar with its antlers adorned with discarded bras. Up the back some girl was joylessly dancing on another bar, and before too long, her companions at the other end of the building were doing the same thing.

One of the girls stared at herself in the mirror while waving her arse in front of a customer in the hope for a dollar. Another was not doing enough to garner such reward. It wasn’t enough for the randy Croat though, as he took great joy in trying to get as many pictures as possible – much to the embarrassment of Max and I. He loved every second that revolved around placing a dollar in the girl’s Daisy Dukes, and once he’d had his moment Max and I directed him to a place that was a bit more discrete. The band played covers, and the bar was almost cleared by the time we got there, but at least we could save some face.

We moved to a table with some girls, and when we got talking about why we were in America one of them added that “I already have one kid in college”, indicating that she didn’t want anymore. A panhandler came into the bar as a nice distraction, and when Max gave him a dollar towards a beer, he wouldn’t leave and managed to haggle his way to another – only this time it was for a bus home.

A gentleman’s club around the corner from the hostel piqued our interest on the walk back, but our enquiries about entry were enough to deter us. The trucks in the carpark and strict byo policy were of little value to us at 2AM, despite the convincing of our Croatian friend. All of the lizard-people became too much.

When we all rose the next morning, it was to finally visit the Tennessee Parthenon. It didn’t save me a trip to Greece, but for something built in the late 19th century in Tennessee, it’s pretty intriguing. Culturally, it’s about as far from a banjo or lap-steel  as you can get – but despite its pleasantness in a green park, I know what part of town I’d prefer to spend my time in.
Huh? Right.

The randy Croat was driving to Memphis, and Max and I joined him on the trip that included a stop at IHOP for a beautiful heart-clogging American breakfast. The rain and sun interchanged places throughout the drive and both tried to outdo each other at various intervals. At one stage we were getting drenched while simultaneously being slightly lost at a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Tennessee.
The weather did eventually clear, and as we entered Memphis we were greeted by a number of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of downtown. Sun Studios, home of early Elvis and Johnny Cash recordings stands out like a lighthouse in the dark in what is now a rundown area of town. It’s also an immediate insight into what Memphis is – a city that is trying to move forward by hanging onto its history. The abandoned buildings give a clue to how this is working, and in concentrated areas, the sounds of the city are like a candle that is almost burned out. It’s still shining brightly, but with the area getting smaller and smaller; it won’t be long until that light has burned out.
Mississippi River looking to Arkansas

Our luxury one star motel was located on the upper levels of a multistory carpark. The neighbouring Sterick Building is one of the tallest in Memphis, and easily one of the most beautiful, however, it has been abandoned since the late 1980s. The pool up top was a classy addition to the stay, and after a quick swim we walked a few blocks from our destitute region towards the neon signs of Beale Street.

Up and down we wandered, looking for a good place to eat and drink. The sound of the blues played out from some venues, even if the crowd could be counted on one hand. We stopped by a few places, watching the Bulls lose again and grabbing a plate of greasy southern food along the way. We were told to check out Alfred’s, as it was normally a place where young people hang out – only by the time we got there around 11 it was empty. During our stay that included a few more cans of PBR and a round of “is he dead?” the bar did not pick up at all. The Tuesday night Memphis nightlife had stayed in to watch television.
Emptier than a Hick's skull

I was disappointed to sleep through State of Origin in Australia as well as getting an early start in Memphis. Though I wasn’t that upset at missing a New South Wales defeat, anytime I had for the Gibson guitar showroom or Sun Studios had been eaten up as I lay beneath the sheets of my double bed listening to the air conditioner hum.

When the call to get out of bed did come, the rain began to pour on and off. Bracing ourselves for a downpour with a solitary umbrella, Max and I walked to the Mississippi River and looked out at neighbouring Arkansas. The rain halted any plans to walk across the border, and instead we walked around more of downtown’s empty streets. Clearly, in another age Memphis was a beautiful place, and there is still a lot of evidence of this when treading the pavement, it’s just that all the empty and derelict buildings make it feel more like a ghost town than metropolis. It’s a dream project for rejuvenation, but I imagine for a long time, it will only remain a dream.

The tour of Memphis’ musical significance is highlighted in Elvis’ Graceland mansion. Max and I took a trip down Elvis Presley Boulevard into the compound of the world’s most popular singer. If anything, it was supposed to explain why a man of such wealth and influence would want to live in Memphis, and in fairness it did elucidate the positives of how the city once was.

The tour doesn’t take you to the bathroom where he died, or into any of the upstairs areas, but it does give you highlights on what a bit of money and a healthy bit of insanity can get you. No expense was spared on vanity, with paintings, sculptures and other Elvis artefacts displayed around his living quarters. It felt like every room has a bar, and when he wasn’t watching 3 televisions in a mirrored dungeon, he was busy covering his floor and roof in shagpile carpet. Sure, it was the 70s, but half the house was filled with nutbag ideas that only money could buy.
Named after a Paul Simon album

There was very little of fat Elvis, and no one was singing three-part harmonies at his grave, but it’s another American institution ticked off. While we waited to get back downtown we stopped for a grilled (fried) peanut butter and banana sandwich and felt the seat sink deeper into the ground as we took each bite. I wouldn’t be surprised if the South is the heart-attack capital of the world, they have enough songs about heartbreak in Tennessee alone.
1 star luxury

Even as the sun became obscured dark clouds in the evening, I went for another swim, doing laps of the upper level outdoor pool and staring at the ghostly tower next to the building while lightning cracked above. An employee yelled out from one of the windows that a thunderstorm was coming, and I replied that I was already soaked before he finished with a line about electrocution. I stayed out a bit longer, doing some more laps before heading back to the room with eyes stinging from the chlorine.

My vision had a fog about it from the pool, but there was no mistaking the ominous clouds outside. The local news had been taken over by weather experts and tornado alerts had been put out for the downtown area. Crap. Time to tell Mum I love her and go from there.

The storm moved around Memphis, and with more lightning than I had ever seen in my whole life we waited for the storm to arrive. Outside, warning sirens were blaring all over the city, not settling any of the raised nerves from the television. The wind picked up and eventual a huge deluge came over us. It poured and poured for 20 or so minutes before moving on to a new area. All the warnings came to that, and though there were still sirens blaring outside, our hunger outweighed our common-sense, and we went out into the streets in search of dinner.

Not long after the black clouds moved away the sun reemerged, lighting up downtown in what was like natural sepia. The clouds remained over another part of town, and continued to light up with the regularity of a heartbeat, but our area reveled in a picturesque dusk.

It was back to Beale Street for more food and disappointment. If Tuesday in Memphis felt quiet, Wednesday was almost silent. Aside from a redneck and his son telling us a story about how they saw a lady’s dress blow up in the storm, the night never really took off. The storm and American Idol final kept people indoors, and that was enough for Max and I to call an early end to our Tennessee stay. I could have spent more time in both Memphis and Nashville as the musical history and scene of the places absolutely fascinates me. But that’s the exact same problem with the two cities; there is nothing else to really offer aside from that. They’re not far from being great again, but at the current rate of change and improvement it will still take some time to get there.

Through a bit of Max’s genius, we’re able to get on a train towards New Orleans. It was sold out to New Orleans, but there were still tickets to the stop before, Hammond Louisiana. Despite the 6AM start, we made the train – Max in his inside out shirt and me in a pair of trousers that are on their seventh straight day. Out the window are innumerable abandoned small town buildings, flooded lakes dusty paths as we travel through the state of Mississippi. A runaway train carriage followed us for a while and no one seemed to bat an eyelash.

New York, Massachusetts and the East Coast have hardly felt further away yet I can say with a bit of pride that I’ve travelled this far overland. I’ve only got five more weeks here, and I hope that’s enough to see more as I trade the East Coast sunset for the West Coast sunrise before flying over the horizon back home. 

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros - Home
Max keeps playing this song and I have no urge to stop him

No comments:

Post a Comment