TL;DR | BBQ and history galore, we skipped Elvis and had a great few days in Memphis.
Approaching Memphis we had some mixed thoughts. On the one hand we had been told by multiple people to watch carefully where to park the car and to avoid certain areas, especially at night. We booked our first shared room AirBnb and were not sure what to expect. When we arrived our host was not home, though she had left a key and instructions on how to find our room. Turns out “room” is a bit of an over-statement; it had obviously been a closet at one time, indicated by the slanted roof, no windows, and the air mattress which had been blown up. Whatever: it was $27 per night.
Not wanting to spend more time hanging around the oddly-laid out house with the many dead cockroaches, we headed into town intending to eat at the famed Central BBQ. After parking near the restaurant, we turned a corner and quickly saw that we were right next to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. We don't do it consciously, but when we visit historic sites we mentally prepare ourselves for the destination in the time it takes for Google Maps to direct us there. Walking down the street excited for some Memphis BBQ and finding instead a beautiful wreath and realization that we were standing within a picture we'd seen so many times and knew carried such importance really shocked us. It sounds silly, but we can't overstate how meaningful it is to physically stand in the places we'd only seen in photos from 8th grade history books.
Since the museum was already closed, we spent the first night on famous Beale Street where dozens of clubs and restaurants blared the blues. The street reminded us of a subdued Bourbon Street, offering the same types of bars with doors thrown open to attract passersby. After meeting one man who gave us some tips on where to go for food and music after asking for monetary tips himself, we headed to Rendezvous for some legendary dry rub BBQ. Aside from the ambiance of walking down a back alley to find this basement joint, we picked this place since Emily remembered multiple references to its amazing food in the Grisham novel The Firm. While we're pretty sure the BBQ was worth the trip back when the book was written, we were disappointed by our meal. Since Stephen smokes his own dry-rub ribs, he quickly noticed the lack of bark (coat the rub with some oil!) and the laziness of not taking off the back membrane.
In contrast to Rendezvous, Central BBQ is AMAZING. Worth it's weight in gold with both the best pulled pork sandwich Emily's ever had and some of the best ribs Stephen's tasted (though even they leave on the membrane). Super juicy and tender with a sweet flavor to complement the delicious mustard vinegar hot sauce. We could eat there all day every day.
Since Central BBQ is so close to the Lorraine Motel, we started the next day with a visit there and then to the adjacent National Civil Rights Museum.
Actually to be completely honest we stopped first at the Peabody Hotel for the famous Duck March. It takes only 15-20 seconds and is completely ridiculous, but it's pretty darned fun to watch a badelynge (looked it up, it's the proper term for a group of ducks) waddle out of a hotel elevator down the red carpet of the lobby and into the fountain in the middle of the room.
Back to the main event: the National Civil Rights Museum. We got quite emotional. Stephen teared up. In fact we were so absorbed in the exhibits that they made us skip a couple rooms so we could visit MLK's motel room before the museum closed. We could practically reach out and touch the place MLK died. We gained unbelievable respect for now Congressman John Lewis, whose hearings Stephen attended multiple times when he interned in the Capitol. We stepped on a replica bus and listened to the driver tell us to get to the back while we looked into the eyes of Rosa Park's statue. We sat in a replica diner and watched people dump drinks on black men and women during peaceful sit-ins. We crossed a replica bridge and came to understand viscerally what it must have felt like to live in a world separate from acceptance and far from equal. Most scary, we saw the hard numbers to support the clear conclusion we'd reached ourselves while driving (now 13,000+ miles) around the US: America today is segregated.
Sadly Memphis has a depressed economy. It is sprawling, with lots of abandoned buildings. Like so many American cities, you need a car to get around. Yet the history is alive as ever and the BBQ is better than anything you'll find in New England.
Also, there are ducks!