Slipping a dollar bill into the fare machine inside an enchantingly historic trolley car, we began a loop around downtown Memphis.
Along with cohorts Robert Reid from Lonely Planet and Galavanting gal Courtney McGann, I set out to explore a bit of Memphis before we embarked on a carefree road trip down a part of the legendary Route 61 "Blues Highway" from Memphis, Tennessee, to Clarksdale, Mississippi.
After arriving from Chicago on the classic City of New Orleans train and having filled ourselves with grits at old Elvis hangout Arcade Diner, the goal was to see as many highlights as one morning could hold before blowing town.
Brief interludes with Beale Street (better experienced after dark), the Orpheum Theater, and the National Civil Rights Museum were followed by a discussion of whether to visit famed Sun Studio vs. Stax Museum of American Soul Music, after a local highly recommended the latter. A short stop at a large riverside park filled with cigarette butts and nice views of the Mississippi River ended with a steep climb up what seemed like 200 stairs back to the town center.
Temperate wind blew our hair around in the car as we began driving down Route 61 into the music breeding ground of the Mississippi Delta. Almost instantly, signs, rivers, and towns with familiar names sprang up all around, reminding us of lyrics from this song or that.
While rolling into the city of Clarksdale, we worried the experience had been overrated by the hype of music history. Things seemed a bit grim at first.
And then it happened.
We turned a corner and found ourselves amidst savory-smelling plumes wafting into the air from BBQ smokers stationed on various street corners. Windows rolled down, the air then filled with blues music — tunes changing from block to block. We'd luckily arrived during Clarksdale's annual Juke Joint Festival.
I couldn't seem to pull over fast enough and find a place to park.
As Big Mike's sooty BBQ smoker rested on cracked asphalt, he nonchalantly plopped a few ribs into my white Styrofoam container.
Once I sat down, the humble wrappings squeaked open to reveal a hearty helping of baked beans, coleslaw and tender meat, dripping with sauce. After scarfing down the entire pile of ribs, I knew I'd never have something like this back in Chicago.
"So how do I do this at home, how can I make BBQ like this?" I pleaded.
"Awww, I can't tell you that," Big Mike replied with a smirk.
But it didn't take much more coaxing for him to spill the beans about his recipe and the methods he'd used earlier that day to create the most delicious BBQ I've ever tasted. I'm certain I'll never re-create it, but I'll die trying. Or just go back to Clarksdale for a second helping.
A walk down Blues Alley worked off a few calories and brought us past little juke joints tucked in every corner. Many of the performing bands stood outside in true festival spirit, to draw visitors in. A fun cross between high-energy expectation and low-key humming along to ambient music in the streets was the feeling about town. Our stroll dead-ended into popular Ground Zero Blues Club — owned by Morgan Freeman — where musicians jam almost every night of the week.
Who says a big city is the only place to keep travelers entertained? Sometimes all one needs is a classic train, a mid-size rental car, a historic highway, a rural B&B, an attempted donkey ride, a tiny town's big museum, and a lineup of questions for modern-day hobos who gather each year. Sometimes it's time to get away from it all and experience things in a completely different way.