Elvis Presley Boulevard
From Sea to Shining Sea, Almostby Mark Winegardener
Elvis Presley Boulevard chronicles the trip we’ve all taken — or wanted to take — into the country that confounds its admirers and delights even its critics.
Elvis Presley Boulevard chronicles the trip we’ve all taken — or wanted to take — into the country that confounds its admirers and delights even its critics.
Elvis Presley Boulevard chronicles the trip we’ve all taken — or wanted to take — into the country that confounds its admirers and delights even its critics. Mark Winegardner, a young Ohioan, spent the formative summers of his wonder years touring the States with his family in a succession of recreational vehicles. Much later, only months before his wedding, he undertakes another transcontinental odyssey, this time without benefit of license-plate games with his sister or parental warnings to get his feet out of the car window.
He arms himself with only the bare essentials: a Styrofoam cooler; a Hawaiian shirt; enough cash for gas, blue plate specials, and the occasional knickknack; a buddy; and the buddy’s ailing ’68 Chevy Impala. Determined to extract full value from every scenic overlook, these two set out to discover America. They visit Xanadu, Foam House of Tomorrow, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; the Woody the Woodpecker Museum in Los Angeles; and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the only community named after a game show. They play the Easter Island Hole at Magic Carpet Golf in Tucson. They marvel at the fourteen peacocks strolling Graceland’s lawn and at the vastness of the prairie states, “where no one speaks French or pays to park.” They collect 3-D glasses. They eat Devil Dogs. They take the amazing Miracle Photo. They discover themselves. Most amazing of a11, they discover an unbroken chain of Elvis tapestries, Elvis ashtrays, Elvis T-shirt wearers, and Elvis imitators that unites this land as surely as Route 66 divides it.
1 – If I Can Dream
About noon the sun came out and the rain on Interstate 75 south of Cincinnati began to dry. It was cool for May and still wet enough that the worn tires of Bob Wakefield’s 1968 Chevy Impala continued to hiss, although the hissing quieted by the moment; I could hear it incrementally, like the protracted fade of a rock “n” roll song. That morning we’d left Oxford, Ohio, where we’d been going to graduate school, headed south on the first leg of a two-month transcontinental trip that was my idea all along.
“Do you hear that?” Bob said. ‘do you hear that rattle? That must be the timing. It’s good that we’re not too far away yet.”
“I don’t hear anything,” I said. “Cars like this were engineered for open-road cruising.” But a part of me knew he’d welcome the excuse to go home.
“I heard it again.” Bob frowned and adjusted his glasses, which–although he’s legally blind in one eye–he’d considered a luxury until just last month, when he’d come into a modest inheritance that had bankrolled both the spectacles and this trip.
“You’re losing your mind,” I said, “or at least your hearing.” The only rattle I heard was a subdued rasp that I’d heard every time I’d been in his car. But Bob loved this Impala, much as you might love a loutish, bad-smelling and traitorous childhood friend just because he’d accompanied you through the rites of passage. A midsize car when manufactured, larger than newer vans or pickups, the Impala probably never turned a head, male or female, despite its tentative curves and silly toylike taillights: failed attempts to make the mammoth sedan look contemporary. The body was dented and rusted through, with a finish that hadn’t survived Peace with Honor and a paint job now weathered to a shade dimly evocative of blue. I’d convinced Bob to take his car because mine had no radio and wasn’t big enough to sleep in–each pretty essential for a two-month trip on a $500 budget. I couldn’t spare any more than that, not with an August honeymoon to pay for, along with the consequent real-world debts to come. “All that’s happening is that you’re burning off the carbon,” I said. I didn’t know what this meant, but I’d once heard a mechanic use the phrase.
“It’s the timing,” Bob said, “or maybe one of the valves. Do you know how much a valve job costs?”
“No.” I felt thirteen again, when a senior forced me to guess how much a sixpack cost and I said $10. “You tell me.”
“More than El Basurero’s worth. Minimum of five hundred.”
El Basurero, a lovely name for an unlovely thing. Having decided that the vehicle of any quest must have a name, Bob settled for this, which he claimed was Spanish for either “the garbage heap” or “the garbage man.”
“Look!” I shouted. “Our first Stuckey’s sign!”
In no other country on this planet can you travel so far on good roads without crossing a national border or getting roughed up by the secret police, and this alone makes American motoring mythic and unique.
Abetting this process are the roads themselves, the United States Interstate Highway System. Though it is much maligned, you’d have to go some to find an American institution that makes more sense, that imposes more order on chaos. Solely from the number of an interstate highway, you can tell where you are. Even numbers are east-west routes, with numbering beginning in the deep south and increasing as it moves north; odd numbers are north-south roads, with numbering beginning in the far west and increasing as it moves east. Therefore you can know, without needing to be told, that I-10 connects Jacksonville with Los Angeles; I-90, Providence with Seattle; I-5, San Diego with Vancouver; I-95, Miami with New York. Three-digit routes have their own code: if the first digit is even, the road circles a city; if odd, the road is a spur into the city.
Some might argue that this system was instituted less to impose order than to allow interstates to be told apart, because, after all, they all look alike. But my mother taught me to distrust people who use the phrase “they all look alike.”
Skirting the interstates at predictable intervals are a series of what snobs call tourist traps. There are three ways of looking at these. First, you can dismiss them as a glut of awful polyester, a synthetic attraction interesting only to hayseeds, simpletons and stupendous dunderheads. Second, you can consider them legitimate attractions, if you’re either unable or unwilling to distinguish between the craftsmanship that produced the Hollywood Wax Museum and that which produced the Rocky Mountains. Third, you can take it all at its own level, seeing a tourist trap as a tourist trap, enjoying a pink flamingo, an Elvis Presley ashtray or the Cadillac Ranch–a row of vintage Caddies planted nose-down, fins-up–for what they are: amusing windows on the world we inhabit.
I like to pretend I do the third, but I’m guilty of all three.
Which is why I find so many American travel books pompous and sentimental: they focus on out-of-the-way hamlets and undertake microcosmic studies of “our country,” thereby making us long for the past. That’s valid, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the macrocosm. I don’t doubt that Nameless, Tennessee, can be a splendid place to visit. But if everyone goes to Gatlinburg, Graceland and Disneyland, to Ruby Falls, the Sears Tower and the French Quarter, then it’s irrational to dismiss out of hand what can be learned in such tourist meccas. And while I like traveling the back roads as well as the next person, the road we all share–our common road–is the turnpike, with its tollbooths and off-ramps, its service plazas and truckstops, its residents and its transients.
Somewhere in central Kentucky, near Big Bone Lick State Park, we stopped at a Stuckey’s for gasoline, batteries for my tape recorder and a pecan log. ‘don’t buy any of the other candy,” Bob warned, pointing at the faded, dusty boxes. “That’s been here since the war–and I don’t mean Vietnam, which was a police action.”
“We’re on vacation,” I told the cashier. “We’re tourists.”
“Yeah, well, I get a lot of tourists in this store,” she said, taking my money. “Where you bound?”
“Gatlinburg. But that’s just for tonight. Then we’re going to zig-zag all over America. Anyplace special you think we ought to go?”
She shrugged. “I’ve never left Kentucky.”
The woman glanced toward the turtle clusters, averting my eyes, as if I’d evoked a specific memory. “I went to Cincinnati once. And to Chicago, but I was too young to remember.”
I couldn’t fathom why she never hopped in a car and drove in random fashion until the world looked substantially different from central Kentucky. But rather than ask her, I pocketed my change.
“Son!” she called as I was leaving and a bell clacked against the glass of the door. “Where all are you going in that thing?”
I couldn’t help myself; I heard our itinerary coming out of my mouth: “Florida, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Colorado, Arizona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Then back to Ohio, where we come from.”
“Don’t drink and drive,” she said.
Back in the car Bob calculated the gas mileage, writing the figures in a red leatherette account book. The first entry on the first page read: “Account book, $3.18.” He looked more pleased than when I’d gone in to pay. “Over seventeen miles per gallon,” he said. “I haven’t gotten over seventeen since high school.”
I got behind the wheel and attempted to wrestle El Basurero back onto I-75.
“No. No, no, no.” Bob waved his hands in disgust. “That’s neutral.”
“What’s neutral? It says P right there.”
“It doesn’t work anymore. Can’t you feel when it’s in drive?”
“I looked at the thing and it said D, SO I hit the gas. How was I supposed to know?”
“Okay. Now you know.” He put the account book back in the glove compartment. “Now you’re supposed to know.”
Bob Wakefield and I both grew up in small Ohio towns, and we both were in the same freshman English class at Miami University. We met near the end of the term, when we were assigned to the same workshop group, along with three others, to revise an essay about roller coasters. Bob and I were worse than worthless, as we got caught up in a discussion of Disneyland’s swirling, spinning teacups and how they were actually scarier than any roller coaster.
Thereafter we were friends, though for the next several years “friendly acquaintances’ would’ve been more accurate. We were writers of some local renown: I was a hack columnist on the student newspaper, and Bob was the darling of undergraduate poetry workshops and the editor of Dimensions, a campus literary magazine.
During finals week, second semester, senior year, I ran into Bob in the Dimensions office, hunched over a shabby wooden desk, reading The Brothers Karamazov. We were both in trouble. Bob had to read five Russian novels and write a paper; I had to write what was supposed to be a semester-long journal for a fiction class. We studied together for a while, happy to find someone else so impossibly robbed of sleep. He zipped through Dostoevsky as other people do Jackie Collins, and when I charged that he couldn’t possibly be absorbing much at that rate, he lit into an animated synopsis that could have gotten him a job with the Cliff’s Notes people. I stayed long enough to finish February and for Bob to come up with a paper title: ‘serf’s Up.”
That fall, because of a complicated series of events, most of which had everything to do with laziness, we found ourselves back at Miami, going after master’s degrees in creative writing. This had been our safety net, an if-all-else-fails option, and all else had failed.
Bob and I became close friends that year. He didn’t have a radio or a television or even any furniture, so he spent a lot of time on my sofa. We swapped hometown stories (which have since run together in my mind) and played several hundred Trivial Pursuit matches, against all levels of competition, all but one of which Bob won. This game might not be the most reliable barometer of intelligence, but it’s a good example of the kind of formidable, encyclopedic knowledge Bob had amassed. Sometimes I got the feeling that he hadn’t learned any more than I had, but where I forgot all the chemistry and geography I crammed for and parroted back on exams, Avogodro’s Number and the elevation of Lake Titicaca have stuck to Bob like flies to flypaper. He really can read Russian novels in one sitting, too, and then write the best paper in the class.
In the spring I pitched the trip to Bob as an affordable alternative to the clich’d, pretentious, summer-long pan-European treks of the rich and unimaginative. He agreed to take at least the first leg with me, after which he might get a job waiting tables at a restaurant his sister managed in Estes Park, Colorado. Eager for a companion who had a car to volunteer, I took Bob’s response as an unequivocal “yes.”
After making a list of all our friends and relatives who lived in interesting places, we subdivided it into a “C list” (people who would let us sleep on their floor), a “B list” (people who would let us sleep in a bed) and an “A list” (people who would not only let us sleep in a bed but also feed us).
When I told Laura about the trip, she accepted it, even though she’d have to handle the bulk of the wedding plans alone. Her only spoken misgiving was that she questioned my motives. I told her I didn’t even know my motives, and that I was going in order to discover them.
On Thursday, May 31, 1984–with Laura’s WATS-line at work scribbled on the back of a leftover Winegardner Mobile Homes business card in my wallet–Bob Wakefield and I packed up his Impala and hit the high road.
We finished the Stuckey’s pecan log near Daniel Boone National Forest. “We have anything else to eat,” Bob asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, still uncomfortable with the boxy, drifting feel of El Basurero. At least the road was dry now. “Go ahead and look.” Right before we left I’d thrown the contents of my refrigerator and cabinets into a Playmate cooler, but I’d already forgotten what all there was.
Bob sifted through the cooler and found snack cakes, peanut butter, soggy bread and beer.
I laughed. “The five basic food groups of travel.”
“You forgot circus peanuts.” Bob is a devotee of circus peanuts, goober-shaped marshmallow candies manufactured in my hometown. He likes to eat them and marvel that they’re considered food. “I still can’t believe the mileage we got.”
“It’s a sign,” I said. “But I don’t know of what.”
We had all the windows rolled down, and the wind slapped us silly.
The summer after I graduated, I couldn’t find a job for over a month and wound up as a part-time lifeguard and bartender at Bryan’s only country club. I spent the summer in a postadolescent, self-pitying funk, resenting how unfair it was that these superficial dentists made more money than I probably ever would. I drank too much and maintained the pose of a writer, though I didn’t write a word.
One night I was playing cards with the few hometown friends I still had when one of them suggested we take a few beers, go lie on one of the greens at the club’s golf course and look at the stars. This, I thought, was a stupid idea. But since I couldn’t bear to play the summer’s seven hundredth hand of seven-card stud, I went along.
There were about a dozen of us. Two other guys worked for the club, but I was the only one there who was not a member. We spread our blankets and sat down on the tenth green. Abruptly I decided I’d had it.
“I’m making a pilgrimage to Elvis’s grave. Who wants to go with me?”
“If we leave now,” I said, “we’ll be there by morning.”
But I couldn’t solicit a sidekick.
I had no idea what had brought on this impulse, but suddenly Elvis Presley and Graceland and everything he and it represented–though I had no concrete idea what that might be–were the most magical things in the world. If I hadn’t been afraid I’d fall asleep, I’d have driven there alone.
As it was, I nearly did anyway. At about one in the morning, I got in my car to go home, a three-mile drive. Halfway there, I spun the wheel sharply and, spitting pea gravel into the ditch, headed south down Ohio 576. Here I go, I thought, to Memphis. Going to see the King.
I had no map, but I figured I could drive south until dawn, then stop at a convenience store and write down all the directions from a Rand McNally map on their magazine rack. No money, either, but I had credit cards. I could call my parents from, say, Louisville, so they won’t call the cops.
I pulled onto the grassy shoulder of the road right before the intersection of 576 and U.S. 6 near the Defiance County line. Turning off the ignition, I leaned my head on the steering wheel and closed my eyes to think. At sunrise I woke up and drove home.
Near the Kentucky-Tennessee line, we first noticed the billboards. And a good 25 miles before we got to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the billboards took over. VISIT GATLINBURG’S WAX MUSEUM, one red-white-and-blue sign said, and a little square within it invited America’s tourists to ‘see ELVIS!!” Then came one for Silver Dollar City, featuring a grizzled prospector panning for gold in a rock-choked stream and staking a claim to “The Best Variety of Family Attractions.” And so it went, with boards for Porpoise Island, the House of Illusions, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness Book of World Records Museum and the Smoky Mountain Auto Museum, which employed 10-foot-tall letters to boast about its possession of Sheriff Buford T. Pusser’s Death Car.
“If Lady Bird Johnson goes to hell,” Bob said, “I’ll bet they make her spend every day driving down a replica of this road.”
Giant water slides and elaborate miniature golf courses lined the highway as we entered Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg’s northern suburb. On the right, beside a package liquor store and a Spur gas station, was a green, two-story motor lodge. When I saw the sign for the place, I had no choice but to pull El Basurero into the parking lot.
ELVIS MUSEUM, read the top part of the huge sign, a royal blue crown dotting the i of Elvis. And in smaller letters underneath: “world’s largest . . . COLLECTION” a collection of what, it did not say. But underneath that was the name of the place, and the reason I’d stopped. The Elvis Presley Heartbreak Motel.
There had been no billboards dispensing advance word of this.
The Heartbreak Motel was U-shaped and vaguely Alpine in its architecture, with a bush-filled courtyard in the middle and the Elvis Museum at the base of the U. Out front a wooden facsimile of a street sign read ELVIS PRESLEY BLVD., referring, as near as I could figure, to the parking lot. A 1955 yellow-and-black Cadillac was parked beside the street sign, so I gripped its fins and posed for a picture.
Just inside the door to the museum was a gift-shop full of Elvis souvenirs and a tired-looking woman behind a counter that served as motel registration desk, giftshop cash register and museum ticket booth. The ‘museum” was the room directly behind her.
Bob picked up a foot-long cylinder of hard candy that spelled, of course, “Elvis.” There was a sticker on the cellophane that covered the candy, and Bob read it aloud. ” “Elvis’s name goes all the way through the candy.”” He laughed. “Wonder if it really does.”
“It really does,” the woman said, nodding. “The other day we ate a piece just to see.” A garish painting of Elvis grinned at us over her right shoulder, a dull gold chain taped to his neck. I doubt I’d have known it was Elvis had we not been at the Heartbreak Motel.
We walked around, doing what tourists are supposed to do in giftshops: picking things up, showing them to each another, trying on silly hats, moving all the moving parts of elaborate gee-gaws, all with no intention of spending any money. This is free entertainment, and only the most insufferable highbrow could deny the pleasure to be had in running one’s hands through a box of rubber jumping frogs with Elvis tattoos on their bellies.
From what we could see in the giftshop and through a gap in the curtain to the back room, we decided the museum wasn’t worth the $4 admission. Most of the memorabilia had belonged not to Elvis but to J. D. Sumner, the guitar player during Presley’s Vegas years. There looked to be a lot of pictures of J.D. and Elvis together, J.D. in cowboy shirts and bolo ties, Elvis in tinted glasses and capes of incessant rhine-stones.
On our way out Bob turned, walked up to the desk and, pointing past the woman, asked, “I’m curious. Is that a commissioned portrait of Elvis over there, or is it just someone who admired him?”
I couldn’t tell if she noticed Bob’s patronizing tone.
“I’m not really sure,” she said. “It’s not the orig’nal oll, and we kept saying, “That can’t be Elvis Pres- ley, it doesn’t look like Elvis Presley.” But we found out it’s been done from an actual photograph.”
“An actual photograph, huh?” Bob said. “It looks a little like Robert Goulet.”
The woman smiled. “The orig’nal oll of this painting is hanging on the wall in Graceland Mansion.”
“Oh, we’re going there,” I said brightly. “But we’re going to Florida first.”
The woman smiled, but it was clear she thought we were hopelessly insane. In her book the road to Memphis took you through Nashville. In ours it meandered through marshes and bayous, then upstream against the Mississippi.