As I brushed my teeth next to a “Pleasure Dispenser” in a dim truck stop bathroom, I started having my first real doubts. When I had told my family that friends and I were going to Graceland, the huge mansion where Elvis Presley lived and then died in 1977, I couldn’t keep the smirk out of my voice. A mythical sort of absurdity surrounds Graceland, and I thought of it in the same way I thought of the giant Ball of Twine in Darwin (Minnesota) or the Spam Museum in Austin (Minnesota).
Twine, Spam and Elvis Presley. All three seemed to embody a certain amount of whimsy, but I was intrigued with the thought of seeing Graceland. So three friends and I packed into my battered Ford Festival with a road map and made the 12-hour drive from Appleton, Wisconsin, where I attended college, to Memphis, Tennessee, home to Elvis Presley’s dream home.
We were anticipating it more for the comedic value than any professed love for Elvis’s music. We pondered the idea that some people dreamed most of their lives of reaching Graceland, and puffed ourselves up at our intellectual superiority over those poor saps. Still, it would be a fun road trip story to tell our family and friends. It seemed less great as the endless hours rolled by. My foot felt closer and closer to falling off.
My reservations grew the next day as I checked us into a dilapidated motel.
“Are there three of you in that car?” the woman at the desk pointedly asked, ready to tack on the charges.
“No, there’s only two,” I returned. Well, there was. I wasn’t in the car.
Tuesday morning we were ready to immerse ourselves in Elvis mania, but a quick call to Graceland for directions shocked us back to reality. It was not open Tuesdays. In all our planning we really hadn’t considered the possibility that we would drive through five states to reach our destination only to find it closed.
After a quick powwow, we decided to see what else Memphis had to offer. Our first stop was Beale Street, that hive of Memphis blues and home of some of the best barbeque found in the United States.
Stores with postcards and collectibles crowding the front windows lined the famous street, and music wafted out of doorways. The sound of blues drifting through the yellow morning air and down the gritty streets created an atmosphere of age and reluctant stoicism, of history gone but not forgotten. Creased black men with hats perched comfortably on their heads watched us pass by from their doorways.
The next morning, with a reassuring phone call to an open Graceland, the time had come. We didn’t know what to expect. I had thought cynically (and almost hopefully) that Graceland was probably one big tacky gift shop where velvet Elvises abounded.
However, near the entrance we were greeted by a magnificent grand piano framed by a stained glass doorway embellished with bright peacocks. This was surprisingly tasteful, considering the garish opulence I had thought we’d find. Farther into the house, the adornments were no less extravagant but a bit dated. The Jungle Room, with green shag carpet and wild animal print furniture, complete with a waterfall on one wall, was a retro explosion of color.
Despite the museum feel and the unfamiliar extravagance in parts of the house, I had a growing realization that Graceland was once a man’s home. Walking through the different rooms reminded me that this had once been a place of solace, of brief respite from a life lived constantly in the spotlight.
There are areas in the house that are still off limits to both visitors and employees. This was a far cry from the tacky gift shop I had expected. There was a gift shop, of course, but the worst thing I found was a commemorative travel mug. I bought it.
The final room in the house, the Hall of Fame, was almost overwhelming. Elvis’s gold and platinum-selling records covered every wall in the large room. It wasn’t until that moment that I finally realized just how much music he had poured into the world — and how influential that music has been. Coming face to face with this legendary life work summed up in one room was almost overpowering.
We ended our tour with a visit to the King himself. The Graceland cemetery is a tiny one — only Elvis and his immediate family rest here. His grave is just as colorful as the rest of his house, adorned with brightly arranged flowers. His fans helped decorate the outer gates of Graceland — they are covered with devoted graffiti. Visitors from all over the world have celebrated Elvis with written verses, signatures and lipstick stains.
I felt as if my friends and I had embarked on a tremendous pilgrimage to come to Graceland, braving sub-par motels and dingy truck stops but enjoying lots of local flavor. The emotional journey I took was no less surprising. I had finally found Elvis, and he wasn’t a quiet joke to smirk at. Instead, I found myself with a newfound respect for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and what he had accomplished.
If You Go
The Official Website of Elvis Presley and Graceland
Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau
Tennessee Tourism Office
Elvis Presley and Graceland are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.