Sunday, November 15, 2009
Today I'm starting from DeSoto Park, in Memphis, high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. My destination is Horn Lake, Mississippi. I’ll be making a sort of arc through the city, first going north, then east, and finally south down U.S. 51.
It’s a sunny day and warm already, with a few high clouds. It’s supposed to get up to 77 this afternoon.
Next to DeSoto Park is an abandoned U.S. Army Reserve Center, consisting of a compound of old buildings, empty and for sale. At one end of the compound is the National Ornamental Metals Museum, which I visited yesterday afternoon after my arrival across the bridge. An interesting collection of sculpture and small ornamental pieces made of iron and bronze, mostly. They have a working blacksmith shop in the back, and the grounds are covered with metal sculptures. The museum collection is a bit too small, however.
On plaques set in a large stone in the park it says that in this area Hernando DeSoto viewed the Mississippi River in 1541. What is now the park was at that time a fortress of Chicsa, chief of the local Indians. But it was also the site of a mound built by earlier inhabitants at some time in the distant past. During the Civil War the Confederates dug a hole in the mound and used it to store artillery ammunition. I climb up on the mound and have a look around. There’s a depression about ten or fifteen feet deep and maybe fifty feet in diameter at the top of the mound.
I won’t get to see everything there is to see in Memphis, but I do plan to see two more tourist sites tomorrow, my next day off--Graceland and the Cotton Exchange Museum. Today I’ll try to get a flavor of the city, from downtown to the outskirts.
This will be my most urban walk. The last time I was in a city of over 100,000 was back in September, on the second or third day, when I walked through Grand Rapids, Michigan. Memphis is much larger, of course. The population is 670,000, in a metropolitan area of about 1.3 million. It’s great to be in a city.
I take McLemore east to Kansas Street. I’m in the warehouse and light industrial district of the city here. It’s all weed-choked sidewalks, strewn with broken glass and garbage. This is the stuff I love. Nature reasserting itself up through the cracked infrastructure, side by side with things cast off by humans. Not that it’s all that way here. There are a few thriving businesses, including the Memphis plant of the Hershey Corporation. If today were a weekday, I’d probably be smelling something delicious right now.
I cut over to Florida Street, which will turn into Georgia and then Front Street, which I can take up into the center of town. At the corner of Florida and Georgia the warehouses give way to some new luxury condos, evidently part of a gentrification project. I pass the site of the Memphis farmer’s market.
I realize I’m only a block away from the Arcade Restaurant, where I ate a few days ago, and also from the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. So I swing over to Main Street and walk up through that neighborhood. A few people are sitting out on the sidewalk in front of cafes that are open for breakfast, sipping coffee and reading newspapers. Nice to see that there’s a place to do that in Memphis.
A few blocks up from that neighborhood I pass the bookstore of the Church of God in Christ. The C.O.G.I.C. was organized in 1907 and is headquartered here in Memphis. I see the acronym all over the place in this part of the south. It’s a predominantly African American group. Serious bible-thumpers.
I walk down Beale Street for a couple of blocks. It’s packed with restaurants and clubs and souvenir shops, including B.B. King’s Restaurant. Blues music plays from loudspeakers in front of buildings. Most of the colorful places are closed this morning, but I get the idea.
From here I head north up past Peabody Place, a sports and entertainment venue. A couple of blocks up from Peabody I turn east on Union Avenue and pass the studios of WDIA, the first radio station to have an all-black music format, back in 1948. Past that is a minor league ballpark, the home of the Memphis Redbirds, the triple-A farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Another half mile down Union is the Sun Records Studio, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and others made their early recordings. I pop in and take a look around, but don’t take the tour. Maybe tomorrow. Gotta keep moving.
At the corner of Union and Manassas there's a park dedicated to the memory of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man after whom Forrest Gump, the smartest white guy in Alabama, was named. The park was set aside by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Forrest and Confederate veterans in general. What the marker out front fails to mention is that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader before the war, and was particularly virulent in his hatred of blacks. After the war he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Old Nate and the Mrs. are buried right there under the statue of him on his horse. With great pleasure I go up to his gravestone and spit on it.
Across the street is the Cathedral of the Scottish Rite of the Masons. Over on another corner is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, behind which looms a huge medical complex, combined somehow with the Baptist Hospital medical center. Not long after that I come to the Methodist Hospital medical complex, at the corner of Union and Bellevue Avenues. I turn south onto Bellevue, which is also Highway 51. it would seem that besides competing for the salvation of the sinner, the Baptists and Methodists compete to take care of him when he's sick.
The first few blocks south on Bellevue are shady and filled with large houses. There’s the Annesdale neighborhood, established in 1903 as Memphis’s first exclusive subdivision. For a few more blocks the houses on either side of Bellevue remain handsome and well-kept-up. Gradually I start to see an occasional empty one, and a few in need of paint. The alleyways become choked with weeds.
I go through a filthy underpass decorated with really nice murals of Stax and Atlantic Records recording artists, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and Sam and Dave. The sign says that I am heading toward Soulville. Not too promising, somehow.
I visit Calvary Cemetery, which is the main Catholic graveyard in Memphis, to see what ethnicity the surnames of the city’s Catholics are, here in this predominantly Protestant city. They’re English, mostly, just like everybody else's, with a few Irish names thrown in. I sit down under a statue of St. Paul to take a rest.
At Parkway, Bellevue Avenue becomes Elvis Presley Boulevard. I walk through a barren stretch of crummy motels, storefront churches, empty gas stations, and fried chicken places. The sidewalk ends. Then after a few miles things start looking a little better. The name Graceland starts to appear here and there, on used car lots and dingy little shopping centers. I must be getting closer to the home of the King. Here’s a sign for Graceland Inn, no longer in business. There’s a Day’s Inn that offers free 24 hour Elvis movies and a guitar-shaped pool.
Finally I walk by Graceland, set way back from the east side of the boulevard. The parking and the ticket office and the souvenirs and Elvis’s two private airplanes are across the street, on the west side. This part of Memphis is called Whitehaven. I guess that figures.
Elvis Presley Boulevard south of Graceland is a great improvement over the area north of the mansion. It looks comparatively prosperous and sort of like a normal suburban commercial strip, with name brand stores and fast food joints.
Weatherwise, it’s warmer than at any time since September. If it weren't for the thin quality of the light and the sun being so low in the southern sky, it would seem like spring or summer.
At about 15.5 miles, I leave Memphis and Tennessee, and enter Mississippi. I'm in DeSoto County and the City of Southaven. Southaven is a city of about 44,000, started only in the 1960s, as a suburb of Memphis.
I close the books on Tennessee, as a walker. I found three pennies on the street and one dead bird. No one offered me a ride, although I would have been amazed if someone had. I walked 16.2 miles in Tennessee altogether.
Almost immediately after entering Mississippi I come to a bronze plaque on a stone, honoring Jefferson Davis, put up by the Mississippi Daughters of the Confederacy. I read it and spit on it. That’s two Confederate icons I’ve spit on today.
I think Mississippi is going to be full of surprises and contradictions. For a state that has consistently remained isolated from the rest of the nation, Mississippi has an odd tendency to view itself with respect to other states. For instance, this place where I am now is probably the northernmost city in Mississippi, but it’s called Southaven. Similarly, there’s a city called West Point (where Howlin’ Wolf came from) that isn't in the western part of the state at all, but over on the east side. It’s west with respect to Alabama, just like Southaven is south with respect to Tennessee. There’s an old saying in the south that the three biggest cities in Mississippi are New Orleans, Memphis, and Birmingham, meaning that there aren’t any really big cities in the state, and that Mississippi looks outside itself for its cultural bearings.
I could take U.S. 51 all the way to Jackson. That would make sense. But I've decided to cut west over to Highway 61, because it goes through places in the Delta where some of my blues heroes lived. So I’ll take 61 to Clarksdale, then Highway 49 down to Jackson.
In a couple of miles I enter the city limits of Horn Lake and head west on Mississippi Route 302. This road looks like 28th Street in Grand Rapids. Horn Lake appears to be middle class, neat, well-maintained, and bi-racial. The city hall is pretty new, and it sits on the corner of Tulane Road and 302, looking prosperous. I don’t know where Horn Lake is getting its money, but it’s doing okay. These are city folks, oriented to Memphis.
At last the motor home comes into view in the parking lot of Schnuck’s grocery store.