Thursday, May 05, 2011

Little Rock, Memphis, Shreveport

We'll shift gears into travel and leisure mode for this post.

Over the Easter weekend mi Cubana loca and I took a little road trip to the cities listed in the headline. I'd wanted to go back to LR and the Clinton presidential library ever since I made a similar trip with my mother in the fall of '07, when we ambled our way up to Fayetteville to watch my niece and her granddaughter play a weekend volleyball series with Georgia and Auburn in her senior season. (Sidebar: I don't like to write about my out-of-town traveling before it happens any more, or take photos while on vacation and post them to Facebook or Twitter. Some people will leverage information like that to your disadvantage, you know.)

We departed H-Town around 7 Thursday morning, dropped off the dogs at the kennel, and took off up US 59 north. We had lunch at Bryce's Cafeteria in Texarkana around 1 p.m. and made the Arkansas capital by 4. It's an easy 7-hour drive at slightly above posted speed limits, eight or nine depending on how many stops you make. That evening we bumped around the River Market district, ate at the Flying Fish, had a cocktail at the Underground. It was cool and rained on us a little but we had slickers on so we weren't bothered. That was the only inclement weather we experienced. Somehow we managed to dodge all the tornados in Arkansas and elsewhere that roared through about the same time we were there.

We stayed overnight at the Courtyard by Marriott, which is within both sight and walking distance of the library at the eastern edge of downtown. But one-half block away there's an executive golf cart that will pick you up in front of the Clinton Museum Store and whisk you the five blocks or so to the front door. The old train trestle in front is undergoing renovation to a walk/bike pedestrian bridge, so there's some construction to navigate.

As presidential libraries go, it's the best I have ever been in (LBJ's and GHWB's are fine archives but the architecture is stale and conservative at both). The Clinton is modern and gleaming and soars figuratively and literally. Some cattily compared it to a mobile home when it opened ... but those are mostly the same people who still think Obama was born in Kenya. The exhibits tell not just the president's and the nation's political and social history but also the world's from 1993 - 2000, and the displays seem more accessible and personal. The restaurant is amazing, both the food and the atmosphere. We toured the library on Good Friday morning and had lunch there before shopping a bit at the Museum Store and then driving the 2 1/2 hours on to Memphis.

We made a reservation at the Westin one block off Beale Street before we knew we were going on Easter weekend, and before the NBA scheduled the Grizzlies to play their first-ever home playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs right next door at Fed-Ex Center. So while at first we thought it might be a good contrarian stay (you know, when everybody else isn't) we came to realize we would be in the thick of the action (Beale plus basketball). It turned out grand, even with the Spurs checking in about the same time as us (through the back door, of course).

What is there to say about Beale that hasn't already been said? Just go. It's much the same yet totally different from Sixth in Austin. Think ribs and blues instead of Tex-Mex and rockabilly; it's all good either way. We had the babybacks -- dry rub for her, wet for me -- at Blues City Cafe before taking our ghost tour Friday night. We walked up to the Peabody and heard a scary story, then headed south on Main to the Orpheum, took note of Gus' Fried Chicken (we came back for lunch Saturday), paused at the Lorraine Motel (where MLK Jr. was assassinated) and on into the Arts District and past the Voodoo Fields, ending at Ernestine and Hazel's -- read this also from Rathbone and Tully -- before catching the trolley back uptown. Walkin' in Memphis on a cool night was just marvelous.

Saturday morning we drove out to Graceland. Again, how much could I add to the narrative? I'm not even what anyone would consider an Elvis fan. Liked him, liked his music, but that's about it ... until I arrived. His home just outside of town has been converted into both museum and shrine, and it does the job of preserving and extending the man's legacy. It's over the top in some ways just like Elvis himself, but also has a special and happy karma; at times glorious and at others vain and excessive. It holds literally everything Elvis: the charisma, the clothes, the cars, the gold records ... even him. He's of course buried there, between his mother and father and near his infant twin brother and grandmother. All together in life and death, as that generation was so fond of doing. This two-minute amateur video made me dizzy but will give you a sense of his enduring popularity. The flowers and memorials still pour in from around the world, and are all placed at his gravesite (until they start to wilt, then removed).

Besides the mansion, the Graceland park across the street sprawls across several acres and has half a dozen exhibits -- the autos, motorcycles, snowmobiles, golf carts and other toys make up one, another consists of his fleet of two airplanes which you can climb into, one is dedicated just to his impact on fashion (a video playing there has a rap artist noting that "Elvis musta had some gangsta in him because he was the first dude to do 'bling' big"), another to his comeback in 1968 ... on it goes. There's his music playing unobtrusively in the background seemingly everywhere, scenes from his movies and clips from TV shows like Ed Sullivan showing on monitors frequently. There are eleven gift shops, all full of mostly the same kitsch and junk and junk food (just as Elvis would have wanted).

The best time to go is early in the morning before the crowds and the heat arrive.  We were there with a couple of the wife's high school friends, and they were quick to agree that 9:30 a.m. Easter Saturday was much better than 4 p.m. July Fourth weekend, when they had been the last time. We saw everything and finally left -- a little bit Elvis'ed out -- around 1 p.m. and had lunch at Gus', waiting about 45 minutes to be seated. The chicken is as good as everybody says, but I wouldn't go again because of the wait ... and because I'm diabetic and shouldn't be eating fried chicken and all the starchy sides anyway.

Saturday night was spent inside the Beale zoo. We watched the Griz top the Spurs at Club 152 but hustled down to Silky's in the fourth quarter to get a good table in front of the Zydeco band before the crowds poured out to celebrate the win. It felt like Mardi Gras.

Easter Sunday we had steak and eggs for brunch with a small gathering of like-minded agnostics at Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe' before hitting the road for Shreveport -- about six hours, backtracking most of the way through Little Rock -- and the Louisiana Boardwalk in nearby Bossier City, with casinos and shops and restaurants and all that. We gambled a little and had the buffet at the El Dorado, neither of which was remarkable (we've had much better luck and grub in Kinder and Lake Charles). But our stay at the Courtyard there was terrific: brand-new, all the latest modern amenities, including a big interactive high-def TV in the lobby which let you touchscreen locations and print out directions. Very classy. We checked out and left LA around 11 Monday and drove about four hours back to Houston, hitting town just before rush hour. We passed through Crockett around 2 or so; tornadoes struck there that evening.

I would take this same trip again in a heartbeat, and stay longer in each town if I could. No, nobody paid me for all of this advertising. They should be, though ... don't you think?

Update: I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis is closed due to flooding from the Big Muddy. Mud Island and South Memphis are threatened as the water rises. Timing is everything, people.

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