A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

A Hunk, A Hunk O' Burning Love

A rhinestone encrusted Elvis stop.

I wouldn't say I'm an Elvis fan, I didn't even think I knew many songs until I got to Memphis and our Graceland campground where Elvis FM was pumped throughout the speaker system and they got ingrained in my brain. I had arrived in Memphis, Tennessee eager to see some great music and historical sites and the first stop was of course the greatest pop culture home in history, the home of the King, Graceland.

Despite the time lapse and new generations of music icons, Graceland is evidently as popular as ever. We arrived ten minutes after opening time and got on the 7th tour already for the morning. I joined the large line that had already formed and went through the obligatory pre-entry photo stop. For only $45 you can pick up the print of that delightful snap of you looking like an idiot in front of a badly painted mural of the gates of Graceland. Hey Elvis fans, do you know what would be a better souvenir photo? A photo outside the actual gates!

Then I stood in the shuttle bus line and waited to be taken to Graceland itself. I was only in Elvis purgatory - the land of souvenir shops and 50s diners. Now I'm not exactly a fan, it was more a bucket list thing and I was far more interested in getting into Memphis itself, so I watched the clock tick by as I waited in line. I searched the queue for Elvis fans, hoping to see a look-alike or at least someone wearing an Elvis hat to entertain me while Graceland stole precious vacation minutes from me.
The line was slow moving as small mini buses came by at intervals to take away only 15 or so passengers each time. I was getting impatient. As I neared the front of the line I realised the road was just in front of us and there was a large property obscured by trees just opposite.

Elvis lived across the road from where we were standing.

His gates were some 25 metres away.

We were lining up to get a bus to take us what was possibly 50 metres, at a stretch. Across the road, in the gates and up a drive way.

Well, this is America.

Maybe it’s a long driveway I thought?… nope, the shuttle took 15 seconds. With no chance of getting any of those 45 minutes of queuing up life-minutes back I will just say, they could probably divert some of the funds from the high entrance fees to the construction of a walkway over the road and save everyone the hassle. They could add some pictures and perhaps a chronological timeline of events to jazz it up.

Within sheer seconds I was standing outside a modest, but large white home with a pillared front. Maybe something a wealthy businessman or family would own, certainly not a patch on what today’s superstars have, whole city blocks and a wing of the house for their dogs.
It is entirely as it stood when Elvis lived there, but with the addition of 100 slow-walking idiots wearing head sets milling about his personal belongings. It’s very 70s and more like a time warp of 70s design than anything grand and expensive; sleek lines, shag pile rugs, Venetian glass and white leather. Lots of orange and brown and yellow with a dash of cobalt blue every now and then.

While 20 slow moving, vacationing couples from Florida crowded the lobby trying to work their audio guides I pushed my way through the house.

The front room was where the business was conducted, a few family portraits, a piano, a couch and some odd retro furnishings.

His parents room has a bed in it to be expected and that was all there is to say on that.

Not being a super fan worked in my favour, I had no real desire to really scrutinise where he sat and where he kept his teacups. I was making good time, the audio guide couldn't keep up with me. I went back through the lobby, back passed the same vacationing couples who were speaking to each other over their headsets wondering how to skip it back to the start because they've missed a bit.

The main staircase was roped off. You cannot go upstairs at all, so you don’t even get to see where Elvis lived, you get to see where he hung out and watched TV. It is blocked off for privacy. That must be in the fine print. Really though, if you are going let people walk everywhere else, why leave a room private? Out of everything I would actually be curious what was on his bedside table and to look in his underwear drawer or see what kind of shampoo he used, instead it's, "this is where he probably talked on the phone".

I went through another lounge room and in to the kitchen. It was like a regular 70s house. I was waiting for more tacky splashes of grandeur and there wasn't any. I was speeding along the one way trail through the house waiting to see something that made this house different to half the old people’s houses I deliver medication to in my day job. I was waiting to have to look through some old bowling medals or newspaper cut outs like the oldies show me. The most extravagant and it seems the crowd favourite was the jungle room, it had green shag carpet and ceilings and all the furniture was made from tree-like unshapen wood. It was hideously cool. I will give him that.

Downstairs, along a mirror lined staircase (a bit of the flashiness I was expecting) was a TV room with three screens which is probably what I would have spent my money on too. Decorated in yellow and blue it appears it was cutting edge design at the time. His personal logo emblazoned on the wall, TCB, Taking Care of Business. Off to the other side of the stairs is a pool room that is one large curtain that everything blends in to, a camouflage of 70s colours and patterns. Like someone ate the 70s and regurgitated it on a wall; splashes of orange, brown, paisley, tassels, velvet, a matching carpet and couch.

Then it was back upstairs and out the back door.

Nothing flash at all. Where is his gold plated toilet seat? Or indoor bowling lane or room full of segways? This guy did not know how to waste his fortunes.

And to make it worse, there was also a severe lack of Elvis nuts around. My only satisfaction was a Elvis t-shirt clad lady on a mobility scooter zipping through the entrance foyer then doing a 12-point turn outside Elvis’ parents room while screeching about upstairs still being closed off.
"I agree, total bullshit", I wanted to say and hope she gave me a high five.

The rest of the Graceland property is add-ons, mostly rooms of trophies, gold records, posters and costumes etc. He did have his own racquet ball room which was pretty bad ass at the time I'm sure. Racquetball has lost a lot of its badass finesse now. He had a pool, just the size of a standard backyard pool but with a small diving board. A few horses down the back. The place certainly lacked the tacky expenditure of today, perhaps a stable and some ponies was super extravagant at the time? His memorial is in a small garden near the pool. The gravestones of his mother, father, grandmother and himself and a plaque honouring his brother.

Elvis came from a poor background, made a lot of money and although young was really quite disappointingly responsible with his fortune. He looked after his parents. He liked motorcycles and cool cars, like his ace pink Cadillac, and had a plane or two but I guess in our day and age we are used to seeing celebrity ridiculous tenfold. People probably thought he was one crazy cat but a room with three TVs now is like 'meh', where is your crack den Elvis? Where is your pool full of drunk bikini-clad whores? Where is your champagne fountain? Though I'm sure he spent a significant amount of money on rhinestones and glitter which is probably the equivalent today of some pimpin’ bling.

I did discover he had a fleet of golf carts and all his mates would cruise around on them and even take them out on the road so that gave him a little more street cred.

Given I live in a time when pop stars shave their heads, are twerking with foam fingers, wearing dresses made of meat to awards shows and are generally being all but committed by 20 years old, it all seems petty tame. Elvis thought a rhinestone jumpsuit was a bit off the hook. So by 21st century standards everything about Elvis and Graceland was all very normal and tasteful with a funky 70s flair. Maybe all the cool junk is upstairs hiding? Didn't he die on the toilet, they need to highlight that more.
Scandal is the only way to sell tickets these days.

There was no one doing their annual Elvis pilgrimage that I could tell, no impersonators, no one weeping opening at his grave or trying to steal his underwear, it was mostly white middle-aged couples paying their respects to a legend. He is still incredibly well loved and clearly hundreds of people see his home every day and all the other exhibits on his film and music career, eat in the nostalgia retro 50s diners and buy rhinestone encrusted pink Elvis t-shirts from the gift shops. His music plays everywhere, like its on a loop throughout the entire region, and videos play in every room.
I do wonder if we will ever have someone of his magnitude again, someone that people will genuinely care about many, many years after they have died. We hate our popstars within a few years, many of them will die in relative obscurity or tragically from an overdose or will retire and sell used cars and talk of the yesteryear. Even the ones who were never even that famous are suddenly on YouTube drunkenly eating a hamburger and still claiming to have single handedly torn town the Berlin Wall. They are all batshit crazy. In 50 years will we be wandering through Lady Gaga’s house and saying, “hmmm, not an overly glamorous mansion” or “a dress made of meat? Please that is so lame” oh and "look, how dumb she has her own McDonalds (that may have been Richie Rich)”

Elvis Presley did die young and tragically like a true pop star but there was only one mention of his passing at 42 from heart problems. I can only assume it’s because to most of these people off the highway outside Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis still lives.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 03:22 Archived in USA Tagged usa tennessee elvis pilgrimage graceland memphis 2013 the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (0)

Little Corn House on the Prairie

The Roadside Attractions of South Dakota.

I'm a real sucker for roadside attractions and veering out of the way for the ridiculousness is something I deem necessary to every good holiday. It is also why I could never road trip across the USA on my own, I would never get anywhere, and probably run off the road reading the abundance of billboards that line the highways.

I was heading west from Chicago towards San Francisco, venturing from dairy country in to corn country and in to cowboy country, across the great mid-west prairies and past the little houses on them. Alluring signs grabbed my attention left and right - prairie dog farms, butterfly houses, safari parks, real-sized dinosaur parks, haunted hotels and the like, all off the highway, all in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

The town of Marshall, South Dakota decided it would put itself on the map in the most logical way possible, build a giant palace out of corn. In the late 19th century everyone had already realised Marshall was a hell-hole and no one was particularly keen on calling it home, so the residents decided what was needed to attract people was not flashy houses or good jobs, it was a giant structure built of corn. In many ways they were on the money, someone, in all probability drunk, suggested this idea and instead of ridicule, he was met with positive feedback by the entire corn growing (perhaps also drunken) community. A Corn Palace? Nailed it!
So they got off to work on the palace. People were not only going to come flooding in and be astounded by the great display of local artistry but it was also going to be a showcase of just how much corn can be grown in the area. And if there is enough corn left to build stuff, there’s too much corn, in other words if you read between the lines, "Marshall is super fertile y'all need to grab your hoes".

It was also a stellar idea because people really do dig things built out of corn. It became a star attraction, a veritable sensation and people would come every year and the town would come alive with corn celebration, parades and celebrities, it was a very big deal. Each year there was a new design unveiled and everyone was quite frankly amaized at what could do with some husks and cobs.
That’s how it all started and the Corn Palace still stands in Marshall to this day. In many ways much of the grandeur of an annual event of corn design has perhaps worn off what with people having access to TV and the internet for entertainment nowadays, but each year the palace is redesigned in new folk art designs and patterns made of different corn varieties and husks. The artistry is still as equally impressive 100 years later. It still attracts millions of visitors because there’s not much happening on the lonely stretch through South Dakota and also because you get to visit a town and a building that just loves corn, a lot, a whole lot, which is amusing enough to warrant a stop.

The palace now, though decorated with corn still, is more a local community centre. There is a corn museum, lots of photos on the history of both corn growing and the palace designs over time. There's a free screening on it history playing on a loop and regular guided tours for a more hands on Corn Palace experience. You can pick up some corn related souvenirs like ‘I got Husked at the Corn Palace’ – hahah I don’t get it… and popcorn snacks from the kiosk but it also serves as an auditorium, concert venue and an award winning junior basketball stadium. Yes, the actual winner of best school basketball court in the area, is inside a palace made of corn.
You are welcome world.

The next stop along the super nutty Prairies was Wall Drug, an absolute institution for reasons we will never know. The billboards start several hundred miles away and cars sport the ‘Where the Hell is Wall Drug” bumper stickers for miles.
Wall Drug is a product of the time in US history where people thought it would be a swell idea to up and move to the middle of nowhere. A time before Google Earth could show you there was nothing there but corn fields and you should stay put. Wall Drug is a tale of one such family who decided Wall, South Dakota was precisely the change of pace they needed. Perhaps they had heard of the corn palace? They upped and moved to the middle of nowhere. They took over the local drug store and sat at the counter for years waiting for a customer. Obviously, there are no customers, so they were getting down, questioning their life choices, probably wishing he had given up the pharmaceutical dreams and become a corn farmer. Perhaps on the brink of putting their children in the poor house. Life was suitably grim. But that was all about to change.
It was a hot day when genius struck. They put up a sign on the main road offering free ice water. What! Genius! I know! Now today that wouldn't even warrant slowing down yet alone stopping, but then it did. This was a time of very little excitement. Suddenly business was booming. Build it and they will come. It brought in cheapskates of biblical proportions. And Wall Drug was born.
Obviously over time the natural progression was from small, family-owned drug store flogging you a milkshake and a packet of paracetamol or medicinal tonic with your free water to a "cowboy themed shopping centre". A mega complex full of shitty souvenir shops, cowboy memorabilia, a diner and a large Jackaloupe you can sit on AND free water. Oh, and a dinosaur for good measure. Wall Drug is essentially what the inside of a 5-year old’s brain would look like. "And then put in a water feature you can play in. Do we have enough of those face photo opportunities? Paint that blue. Put a dinosaur there. And a cowboy on every bench. We should also sell books and donuts..."
But again, for reasons we will never understand, this very strange - I suppose "shopping centre"? - is packed with people. There are grown idiots sitting atop a giant jackaloupe and posing for photos with their disposable Kodak's, buying bolo ties and cowboy hats, putting bumper stickers on their cars, buying their neighbours hideous keychains for watching their cat while they are on vacation, filling their drink bottles with free ice water and dead set loving every second of it.
It was a horrifyingly beautiful sight. And that is why Wall Drug is an institution.

As it was the Wild West my favourite South Dakota roadside attraction was a recreated 1880’s Wild West town sitting just off the highway behind a Shell service station. A collection of both movie sets, Dances with the Wolves primarily, and actual 1880s buildings saved from the wrecking ball were all relocated to a block of prairie land off the highway and set up like a town. The attraction was a living museum of sorts aptly called, 1880s town. It was probably started by the collector as a means of avoiding appearing on Hoarders and put it all in one place. There was buildings full of Wild West memorabilia, all dusty and all piled into rooms. A true curators nightmare. Relics of the past dusty and sitting underneath more relics from the past. I would not have been surprised if there was some genuine Indian scalps hiding in there. There was even an original hotel with the spur marks still on the staircase, the wall paper falling down and filled with Wild West treasures.

All around was the flat nothingness of the Prairies. The little town sat there like in a time warp, the only give away of the century was the neon Shell sign poking above the buildings at one end. While the great relics getting damaged and dusty were amazing, these beautiful old buildings provided the perfect backdrop to the best roadside attraction of all, wild west dress ups. For $5 you could hire a costume to explore the town in. Once we had chosen an outfit and discovered sepia function on our cameras, the greatest wild west fun was born. It was a morning of staged bank robberies, sundown shoot outs, mule rides, and recreated weird 1800s photos of dead eyes and stern stares outside the saloon.

I had created an entire back story by the time we needed to get back on the road (good natured, straight-talkin' brothel madam of the boudoir above the main saloon). Taking off my dress, boots, gloves, chocker and feathered madam headpiece and putting my normal clothes back on the was the worst part of my day. I picked up a sarsaparilla from the man running the saloon bar (i'm not even kidding how cool is that) and headed back towards the Shell and the 21st century. There is an old train parked out the front, which was perhaps purchased before the general theme of 1880s was decided on. We hit the road again but keep a keen eye out for any other great attractions South Dakota might have on offer along the way.

Just FYI, the 1880s town also had a large dinosaur just in case they were missing a corner of the market. Nothing attracts passers-by like the promise of an encounter with a life-size fibre glass reptile.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 04:29 Archived in USA Tagged usa corn prairies mitchell wall_drug south_dakota the_tipsy_gipsy 1880s roadside_attractions Comments (0)

Giddy Up Yippee Ki Ey

Horse Riding in the Black Hills

As I have mentioned before, horses terrify me. Spending time in their presence is not my ideal pastime but as I was firmly in cowboy territory it was time to saddle up, and once again do something I was entirely reluctant to do, but was going to do anyway.

So I rode a horse.

*Holds for applause*

A legit horse. Four legs and everything. ..

*Holds for applause*

I was making my way across the USA and was in The Black Hills of South Dakota, the spiritual homeland of the Lakota Indians. It was textbook cowboy and Indian country so it had to be done, I was about to embark on a trail ride. Oh sorry, I hope you didn't think I was doing anything dramatic that involved being on a horse going faster than walking pace at an old folks home?

If I've learned anything from trying to conquer my animal related fears, it is that I am never the only one with somewhat irrational fears of animals. At the stables, we, the scaredycats, tentatively lined up in our dorky helmets after being sure to circle and underline the circled ‘Never’ under the experience section of our waiver.

The lady gathered us around and began to rattle off countless instructions on how to drive a horse. How to stop, turn left, right, go backwards, speed up, slow down. A surge of panic washed over my whole body, I was well and truly in over my head. I thought they drove themselves, I thought I would be tied on to something and I certainly did not have any kind of license for driving a horse. I can barely drive a car.

Us novices stood like lambs to the slaughter, huddling together for safety. Regret starting to make it feel as though my chosen horse riding kerchief was tightening around my neck. Hoping they somehow ran out of horses before they got to each of us. The cowgirl looked me up and down and assigned me Rusty, my noble steed and sure-footed beast. He was a calm, good natured ginger horse and was super in to me and walked over and was up in my grill immediately. I said a formal hello and told him to give me some space, I wasn't ready to be best friends just yet but he wanted to get up close and personal asap.

I was the first to leave the safety of the huddle. With the elegance of a hippopotamus on roller skates I climbed up onto Rusty. I was high up but I was away from all the other horses and their big, steel feet so I felt safer.

I waited while everyone else got on their horses with equal trepidation and fake confidence.

I was sitting up like a pro. Rusty was just chillin' and I was feeling good. I was in the Wild West and I was atop a horse.

I was pretty sure at this point that this time I was going to be a natural. There was something a bit more comforting about having a bunch of cowgirls and cowboys around rather than a 15-year old Guatemalan boy wearing flip flops leading me. I felt more confident I would survive. (Read about that equine encounter here).

Obviously I looked like a born horse rider/athlete/horse lover atop my noble copper steed so Rusty and I were that natural choice to lead the group. "Rusty we are nailing it already. We could just call it a day already and finish it up now" I thought.

We headed out of the stables, me behind the cowgirl, and the others following my experienced lead. I rode along in the manner of Calamity Jane, horse rider extraordinaire. The combination of a saddle, tight pants and fear-clenched stomach muscles gave me the posture of an equestrian rider. I was nailing it.

Actually Rusty rode himself, we had similar temperaments, jus’ git ‘er done.

We rode up and down and along a narrow path through the bushland of The Black Hills. I was at the front so obviously used the opportunity to ask all my horse related questions (well, questions relating to the probability of horse related deaths/injuries) A storm was coming in overhead and purple clouds gathered above. The Black Hills are beautiful rolling hills that appear black from a distance. They were given to the Lakota in a treaty during early contracts of the Indian Wars because of the spiritual connection the Indians had with the hills. The white man soon found gold within its boundaries and started infiltrating the hills at record speed, despite it being rightfully Indian land. New treaty’s over time sliced off a little more and a little more and it became a catalyst for the Indians last stand in the area, the fierce Lakota battle seeing the demise of the infamous American general, minor celebrity and general scumbag General Custer. It is a magical piece of land.

We followed in a line along the trail. When the horse in front spooked four times and I panicked expecting Rusty to bolt like on It Takes Two, but soon realised I was riding one cool horse, I pulled the reins back like the lady told me and he just stopped, looked at the horse ahead like, ‘ease up bro’ I'm walking here’.

I was doing it, I was riding a horse and I wasn't terrified.

I was in safe hands and I no longer feared for my life, well I no longer constantly feared, just when approaching hills, gravel or tripping hazards. I also was able to unclench the muscles in the area between my neck and my toes which were tense with fear. The hollow stomach ache of regret also began to ease.

After two hours my ass and legs were suitably numb and we returned to the stables. It turns out I do not have the knee strength for horse riding which is perhaps hindering my career progression as I almost fell to the ground when I got off. I was thankful to put two jelly legs on the ground, thankful to have survived and super proud of myself, I was thinking I was probably ready for full-scale riding/Olympic level show jumping.

I said good bye to Rusty, who rudely just ran off to get food but then again, I pulled my sandwich out and started eating before the others had even disembarked, so kindred souls I guess.

I did it. Conquering my fears one horse ride at a time.

I was finally a cowgirl. My several day old dream to conquer the Wild West had begun.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 02:19 Archived in USA Tagged usa south_dakota sioux lakota horse_riding the_tipsy_gipsy the_black_hills Comments (0)

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