Since the last posts from Texarkana we’ve traveled on our last “single night” leg, a stretch of driving followed by just an overnight stay at an RV camp followed by another driving day. We only have 4 more RV camps left in our trip, and 3 of them are for 3 nights each. Much more camping, much less driving. Yay! We did make it to Duke’s truck stop for some barbeque just before departing Texas.
We are currently in West Memphis Arkansas staying right on the shores of The Mighty Mississippi River at Tom Sawyer’s RV Resort. This is perhaps the nicest place we’ve camped yet because of the spectacular views, the fabulous sunrises and sunsets, the absolute quiet at night (and even during the day), and the close proximity to downtown Memphis.
There is always something pleasant about camping on the water. The river flowing by incessantly is mesmerizing, and we are constantly entertained by the traffic of river tugs pushing barges up or down the river. I had no clue as to the workings of the “barge rafts” that the tugs push and found online that they are allowed to push up to 42 at a time. Mind you, these are large steel floats, up to 200 feet long and 50 feet wide each, loaded with liquid (frequently petroleum) or solid (frequently coal, gravel or grain) products making their way to another distribution point in the supply chain. Wikipedia tells me that about 5 million tons of these products are pushed up or down the Mississippi River in a year. The campground provides a bid of a grandstand for this parade, with campers lining up along the shore to gawk at the largest of the rafts. One guy claims to have seen a 56-barge raft (seemingly illegal) that was “7 wide and 8 deep”, spotted at dusk making its way downstream. There isn’t a lot of drinking going on here in the campground, but there’s always that one guy.
More commonly, we have seen 35 and 40 barge rafts. It’s a fun section of the river with a sharp 90 degree turn at each end of our campground “straightaway”, and watching the tugs maneuver their gigantic loads into and out of the curves is entertaining. Yesterday we saw 2 rafts, one very large and one medium sized pass each other in a bend, and I speculated through my binoculars as to whether the large one would go aground trying to swing wide around the short one, who took the inside track. The river is medium-wide here, but is very shallow on the east side, so only half the channel is available for navigation, bringing the barges close to the shore. I would think they would attempt to pass each other in the straights, but I’m not a river barge captain.
Truthfully, we stopped for 3 nights in Memphis only for 2 reasons. First, I figured we would be ready for a recharge stop with plenty of downtime to smell the roses. Second, it’s Memphis, a town we know very little about except that it is Elvis-centric. We aren’t Elvis fans, but it seemed like a good idea to check it out anyway. We decided the best way to start was one of our favorite methods, the Walking Tour. Sometimes these can be found for free online by downloading a guide map to your phone and self-directing your walk. We opted for an in-person guided tour, at about $25 a pop, so we could get a curated history lesson. It was well worth it as we learned a ton about Memphis! Our guide, Shannon, is a native local and theatrical, so her stories were colorful.
For instance, Memphis (named after the ancient capital of Egypt because the Mississippi is the fourth largest river in the world behind the Nile) was founded by 3 men who acquired the property in what has been called “the largest real estate rape of the Indians”, a tribal and US Government settlement that ceded 6 million acres of land from the Chickasaws to the Feds at $.04 an acre. In this giant chunk of land, 3 investors, John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson found the only spot on the river between Natchez Mississippi and St. Louis and known as “Fourth Bluff” that would resist annual flooding and founded Memphis on May 22, 1819. Only one of these investors, Overton, would be pivotal in the development of the city, the other two either never or rarely visited. Jackson only visited twice in his life but made one demand as an investor. The river front must have a “grand promenade” (which barely exists anymore), and 4 town squares. When the city was mapped out, 4 squares were included: Court Square, Exchange Square, Auction Square and Market Square, but these names didn’t necessarily designate the primary usage of the space: the Court is in Exchange Square; the Exchange is in Market Square; Market Square never had a market; and there were no auctions in Auction Square. Today, only one square survives, Court Square. Here’s Shannon giving us the lowdown.
Beale Street is the entertainment center of Memphis. The birth of the blues (BB “Blues Boy” King included) is here. It’s like Bourbon Street, loaded with clubs and bars. “Go Cups” are allowed, with one walk up bar proclaiming “Last cocktails for 30 feet”. We took the brief tour of Beale Street, which is only 4 blocks long, at 8:30AM waiting for our walking tour. There was only one other couple, also waiting for the same walking tour, doing the same thing. It was a little eerie, no cars, quiet, nobody but “us chickens” strolling around reading all the historical signs.
And we found an employment opportunity and some colorful sidewalk “notes” commemorating musical starts that have graced the stages locally.
Here’s a good tip for walkers in Memphis: the Memphis Main Street Trolley. $2 gets you an all day pass, and it travels the entire riverfront length of the town with trains about every 12 minutes. We rode it north to The Pyramid, which has been taken over by Bass Pro Shops (the largest in the world), then back south to the Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. The Lorraine has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum.
Adjacent to the Lorraine, we found Central BBQ, touted to us by Shannon (a local, remember?), and we stepped in for lunch. Deeeeelishous!
We were advised by many fellow travelers and a few travel blogs “not to miss the Peabody ducks!”. The old historical hotel in Memphis, the Peabody, has a tradition on display twice a day of The Duck Parade”. There are ducks kept in a pen on the rooftop that are paraded at 11AM and 5PM everyday through the lobby of the hotel and into the central fountain, where they happily swim until they are herded back to their pen for the next show. As a tradition, it’s quaint. As a show it’s a dud. Lots and lots (and lots) of front-end hype and pageantry, followed by 4 ducks waddling up some steps and jumping into a fountain. Tourists jammed shoulder-to-shoulder craning their necks to see. The lobby bar doing a land office business selling Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas before lunch. Phooey.
Here’s a quick update on the painted rock project, with some entries from Texarkana and Memphis. If you are a traveler, and you find a rock, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us where you found it!
And finally, Memphis being a huge Cotton Town, we discovered, and will share with you, the origin of the word “middling”, as in “How was it?”, “Oh, just middling”. As far as we can tell, middling was one of the terms used to describe the quality and value of a crop of cotton. You’re welcome.
Tippy has a tip for farmers (and the rest of us).