A DAY IN THE HOME OF THE BLUES | Darrin Henry
Mississippi delta cruises and American steamboat stories I expected on my first Memphis sightseeing visit, but the big Bass Pro shop pyramid, is definitely a surprise.
I’m also learning interesting facts about Hernando de Soto, the 16th century Spanish explorer who led the first European expedition deep into the territory of modern day United States.
Sharon and I have a tourist map of Memphis Tennessee and a full day to explore the city. The Mississippi river cruises are tempting, but it would use up precious time, so we’re going to give it a miss this time.
Founded in 1819, the city is named after ancient Memphis in Egypt, meaning “Place of Good Abode.” This city in Tennessee is a baby compared to the original. Memphis Egypt dates back 2,000 years BC and once enjoyed prestige as the country’s capital.
Famous People from Memphis
So here we are, Memphis, Tennessee! The words just roll off the tongue with the warm familiarity of a favourite song – even though this is my first time here.
A few of the famous people from Memphis include actor Morgan Freeman, singer Justin Timberlake and Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley.
Many other people, and music, are associated with Memphis but not originally from the city as it turns out. Elvis Presley, which surprises me. BB King and Johnny Cash, two others. I knew Paul Simon isn’t from here but his ‘Graceland’ plays around in my head.
Memphis Sightseeing In June
We only have one full day in the city; arrived last night, leaving tomorrow morning. Early bird parking ($10) on the ground floor of a multi-storey in Monroe Street at 8.45am on a Sunday and we’re all set.
Out on the streets the light is great for photography; early morning in June and a clear summer sky. Along Front Street we go. It feels like we have the whole city to ourselves; it’s quite deserted but something we’re fast getting used to in the US. Although, I had expected more foot traffic in a big city like Memphis.
Pyramid Arena Memphis Tennessee
On the drive in we had spotted, of all things, a silvery blue pyramid!
A little online research as we walk back in that direction reveals the structure has recently become a large Bass Pro store, specialising in fishing and outdoor goods. It was built by the city in 1991 as a 20,000+ seat arena for sport and entertainment functions. The Pyramid Arena, Memphis.
However, after local sports teams moved to other premises the building stood empty for a decade. Hopes that the Memphis Pyramid would become a major tourist attraction are still to be realised.
After some difficulty reaching the store (US infrastructure is designed for travel by car, not walking) we eventually arrive at the front door, having almost slid down an embankment and crossed some railway tracks to get here.
The gigantic, metallic pyramid looks out of place, something you’d expect to see in Las Vegas, but it’s spectacular for sure. Sweating from the heat, even at 9.45am, we go inside for some air-conditioned respite.
We had hoped to get a picture from the lookout at the pyramid, a viewing deck near the top of the 98m building, however, the $10 each charge puts us off. Travelling on a budget we’ve been searching out free excursions wherever possible.
Hernando De Soto Bridge
Out we go again on our Memphis sightseeing walk, heading along the Mississippi River bank. The city’s Hernando De Soto Bridge, affectionately called the ‘M’ bridge because of its shape, catches my eye.
We climb onto a maintenance gangway that straddles a flood wall and discover a great view of the bridge. The light is awesome and we make a note to come back in the evening to try a night shot from here.
The Hernando De Soto Bridge in Memphis is named after the 16th century Spanish explorer who led the first European expedition deep into the territory of modern day United States.
A few hundred metres along the riverfront we run into three Memphians, chilling on the walkway in the shade. They are instantly curious about who we are and comment on the ‘big’ camera.
We spend half an hour chatting; they tell us about Memphis and we tell them all about St Helena. The three of them promise to try find our blog although admit they are not internet savvy.
Elvis Presley and BB King
On the riverfront we drop into the Elvis and BB King Memphis visitor centre.
A statue of legendary blues guitarist and singer, BB King, stands inside the visitor centre. It is said BB hitched a ride to Memphis from his home state, Mississippi, in the late 1940s, just 20 years old. As his performances attracted more and more attention and success, he became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, eventually shortened to, the Blues Boy which then became, BB.
Although Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee with his family, at the age of 13. His Graceland mansion in Memphis is now a museum to the late singer, opened to the public in 1982 and attracting over 600,000 visitors a year.
Continuing our stroll along the river front it is surprising there is little development of recreation areas. Walking perhaps a mile, there is plenty of prime space but no coffee shops, refreshment stands or souvenir sellers.
No Mississippi Steamboat Cruise Today
We stop to eat our pack lunch, marvelling the whole time at how deserted the place is. In the UK, on a bright summer’s day like this, an area like this would be bustling. I can imagine rows of restaurants and cafes with parasols shading outdoor seating; the grassy slopes would be filled with sun bathers and ice cream vendors would make a killing.
Perhaps the crime rate in Memphis Tennessee has an impact. More online research reveals the city has one of the highest crime rates in the US. Violent crime figures were over 12,000 in 2008. Maybe that’s a factor here. Or maybe it’s just because it’s Sunday? I don’t know.
The tide on the river is low. We stroll along the river’s edge where floating debris has become trapped near a few steamboats. They are tied up waiting for tour customers, including, as the sign told us, the Memphis Queen II.
There’s a memorial tribute to the Sultana Disaster from 1865, when just 7 miles north of Memphis, over 1,547 people lost their lives when the steamboat exploded and burned. Built to carry 376 passengers, she was at the time carrying more than 2,300 on board. Most were Union soldiers from Tennessee and nearby states, on their way home after release from Confederate prisons.
Right, enough of the river front, time to head into the city centre. Our plan is to check out the famous Beale Street, so map in hand, off we go.
Click Here to read about Beale Street and the second part of our Memphis sightseeing day.