In a way I feel sorry for Amtrak. Their service isn’t very good, and it’s something which is difficult to improve in a country where cheap air travel is the first choice for most people to get around. They don’t own most of the tracks they operate on, making it an unreliable service, and low passenger numbers means little opportunity to really invest and improve. Yet train travel can be the most satisfying mode of transport.
After multiple long train journeys from Belarus, through Russia, Mongolia and China, an eight-hour trip from New Orleans to Memphis is an easy one. Train travel is generally relaxing; a chance to watch the world fly by, kick back with a drink, have a snooze, and there’s no need to turn up hours before departure or deal with security queues. It’s my favourite way to travel.
I arrived in Memphis late at night – 11pm, with the train arriving an hour or so later than expected. South Main was entirely deserted and I didn’t see any people until I was almost at Beale. This was on a Saturday night. Beale was, of course, utterly mobbed, rowdy, loud; it looked great fun.
Memphis during the day seems like an entirely different city. Expectations had been lowered by various people I had met over the past couple of weeks.
“You’ll hate it.”
“There’s nothing to do unless you drive.”
And with expectations sufficiently lowered, Memphis was better than I had been expecting. But there is something really odd about it: Memphis feels like a city which is waiting for people to move there. Like a film set where everyone has gone home for the evening. Along Main, there are businesses, shops, cafes – not many but a few – and hardly any people. I know Memphis has plenty away from downtown but it still seems so odd to have a downtown that’s so quiet.
Deja Vu, on South Main, was an excellent stop for food; really delicious, southern food and desserts. Further down South Main, South of Beale is a gastropub with decent food and a reasonable beer list. I had a night in the Flying Saucer Emporium, which had the best beer selection in the area, and which ended up being a fun night. Then, of course, there’s Beale. It’s dive bars and guitars all the way. The live music is pouring out of them all, and there are dive bars which truly live up to the name. If you know what you’re getting then it’s immense fun and a great crowd.
The live music in Memphis really makes it. What else would you expect from the home of rock and roll? And just steps from Beale is the Gibson factory, which offers tours. The solid-body Gibson Les Pauls are made in Nashville, and the acoustics in Montana, neither of which offer tours. But in Gibson Memphis you can see the full production line of the hollow-body ES range. Everything from the effort going into the necks, spraying the bursts, through to the end testing (what a great job!) It’s fascinating to see it all.
Not far from the Gibson factory, back to South Main, is the Blues Hall of Fame, and it is an absolute gem. I had the place to myself, which meant I could choose all of the music and the videos playing. Perfect!
I had expected Memphis to be quite different. Busier, certainly, a city that made more of the Mississippi, busy riverboat trips, that sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with a quiet town or city but, as I mentioned earlier, Memphis had the feel of a big city where the people haven’t yet turned up.
There’s a lot to do there. I only picked a couple of personal highlights – the best being the Gibson factory. I avoided Graceland, purely because I’m not that big a fan of Elvis. I was also very conscious that this was a flying visit – two full days – and I was limited with what I could see and do there. Overall, even with expectations (unfairly, I feel) lowered, Memphis was really enjoyable.