Some places belong to our deepest memories. They are the source of the sights and sounds and experiences that define us, that make us the into people we become. Because I was born in the Southeast, less than a day’s drive from Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a place my family particularly loved, Tennessee became that kind of touchstone for me. As a child I camped along Deep Creek, explored Pigeon Forge and Cade’s Cove and looked out the window, staring into the clouds, lost in my thoughts as we drove the winding roads.
When I was a teenager my friends and I drove to Nashville for the weekend and we walked to Ernest Tubb’s Music Store to hear the musicians who gathered there late at night to play for the fun of it.
One fall day when I was in my 20s, I took a single seat on a day-long excursion train to Chattanooga and started talking to a tall man who was there with a couple of friends. We spent the rest of the day together and in a few years we were back again, this time with our children.
So when I had a chance to return to Memphis recently, a place I hadn’t been since we moved to the Northwest more than a decade ago, I didn’t think twice. The first day, not long after checking into The Peabody Hotel, the grand hotel that has been the heart and center of the city for almost 100 years, I walked down to the lobby to join the crowd around the fountain and the ducks swimming in it. If you don’t know, The Peabody is famous for its ducks. What started as a practical joke has become a treasured tradition and each morning they march single-file down a red carpet to spend the next few hours swimming in the hotel lobby before marching back to the elevator at in the late afternoon.
The ducks always play to a crowd. Young children were gathered along the red carpet, anxious to have a front-row seat for the duck parade, and I realized my own children must have been about that age when we brought them to Memphis to see this particular show. I thought back on that day, wondering at the speed with which time grabs so many little moments and sweeps them into the corners of our minds, to sit there until we stumble on them again if we’re lucky.
The woman standing beside me told me she comes to the city and to the hotel at least once a year. “I’m like one of these ducks,” she said, laughing and taking a sip of her cocktail. “I keep marching back.”
After the ducks marched past me and into the elevator that would take them to their rooftop “plantation” I joined a tour of the building offered by an employee. As he led us from one beautiful room to another he talked about growing up in Memphis and how the hotel has been a vital part of the community for most of its history. And for most of his personal history.
“That’s the thing about this place,” he said, looking around him. “Everywhere you look you see a scene from your past.”
For the next few days, as I explored a part of the country that used to be so much a part of me, I said the same thing again and again.
Memphis is a vibrant city. The music never stops on Beale Street. The food is spicy and delicious. I sat down to a plate of ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous and could have spent hours just looking at the memorabilia on the walls. I joined the crowd at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and savored every bite. I toured Graceland and stood in front of the microphone at the old Sun Records studio. I walked through Soulsville, The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and listened to the music that was the soundtrack of my youth. And, just as it has forever, the river kept rolling.
That’s the thing about Memphis, I guess. It was full of the familiar but it held so many new experiences I didn't get around to everything I wanted to do and see. I should have told the woman in the Peabody lobby to save me a place next year.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org