Yesterday's soupy clouds have dissolved in Mississippi blues. Nearby, two boys playing tag dart past, disappearing around a signal corner - one side of the shotgun shack in which Elvis Aaron Presley entered this world on January 8, 1935. As their shouting fades the sound of rustling leaves returns. Resting in the shade of the trees under that clear spring sky, I can't imagine a finer spot has ever been created for anyone about to dine on a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.
Saying that "The King of Rock and Roll" sprouted from humble roots is an overstatement. For ample evidence of this newborn's extremely straitened circumstances, you only have to look around - the tiny house that is the centerpiece of the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Park is so small it's easily outsized and contained by any number of the prefab tool sheds found in a Home Depot lot. Heck, I'm sure some litters of Great Danes have started out better. And though the Presley family moved to Memphis when Elvis was only 13, he always maintained close ties with relatives and friends in his hometown. In 1957, after playing a sold-out show at the local fairgrounds, the King-in-Waiting donated the proceeds to the City of Tupelo in order to purchase his birthplace and the surrounding property. He wanted the neighborhood children to have a safe place to play. Today, the site provides me with welcome respite from the road and shaded haven for the thousands who visit each year to reflect on all things Elvis: his early years, the timeline sparkling with fame and despair, and, yes, these raw beginnings that gave him voice.
Lunchtime with Faulkner
A cool, steady breeze spills across perfect tarmac as I guide the Victory Jackpot south out of Tupelo on Route 45. I've been looking forward to exploring the area that got the King's Blue Suede Shoes a-tappin' for some time now. Stretching so far before me, large flat fields greened with early spring crops stretch their rows to fuzzy tree lines lightly scratching the bottom of the deep blue sky. Although it's one of those easily avoidable big roads, this plain-and-simple straightaway is just the ticket for a relaxing start while the Sleep Inn's coffee gets the motors running.
At the small crossroads of Egypt, I push the bars west, onto the two-lane of Route 406, and with the exception of a few small houses here and there, I have it all to myself, almost. In the distance, a large brown dog seems to be gauging his odds in a snappy pursuit, but he reconsiders, plopping down in the gravel next to his master's dinged-up mailbox instead. With a few nonchalant wags of the tail, Old Shep gives me the OK to move on.
As the miles roll beneath Big Vic's wheels, I fall into the bluesy rhythms of Mississippi's gentle hills and flat lowlands. Straight Route 8 leads me through Vardaman, the "Sweet Potato Capital of the World." And though tempted to search around for a decent slice of sweet potato pie, I focus ahead, not wanting to spoil any of the plans I've made for lunch at my next stop.
On through Calhoun City and Bruce, on Route 9, the level disposition of the landscape begins to vacillate, increasing dramatically after a left on Route 331. And as we scoot over more prominent rises those familiar, pendulous riding motions that twists and turns bring on become the norm.
When the late-lunch bell rings, I find myself motoring through a shaded phalanx of old southern homes. Shadows of Gothic and Greek Revival homes merge with the dark forms of magnolia and oak trees stretching across Lamar Street in Oxford, the home of Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi). Luckily, I find a parking spot on the lively town square that encloses the stately, columned courthouse. Within minutes, I've succumbed to the city's intoxicating brew of collegiate and urban sophistication that's steeped in pure, old Dixie. Knowing that Oxford also proudly claims William Faulkner and John Grisham as favored sons, I wander in to browse the titles in the quintessentially hip shop called Square Books and grab an anthology of Faulkner stories in the Classics section. You know the old saying: "When in Yoknapatawpha County..."
Following the bookstore clerk's advice, I sit down for lunch, a sweating glass of sweet iced tea, and a little reading at the nearby Ajax Diner. Honest, I really do try to eat healthy on the road, but stops at places like the Ajax have a way of stabbing fat-laden skewers through all of my good intentions. My siren song of a sandwich, The Big Easy, consists of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, butter beans, shredded cabbage, and pickles - and, yes, that's just what comes between the buns. To finish it all, I'd have to address the load of fries they serve on the side.
Unceremoniously waddling out of town, I'm thankful I have the Victory's wide seat and some extra notches in my belt. The warm afternoon, the clear sky and empty roads only accentuate the post-lunch lazies - one good reason why Red Bull is so popular. And as they did on the morning ride out, the winding roads and long straightaways take their turns at courting the Jackpot as we languidly close in on Tupelo.