Two summers ago, a trek across America and back landed me in the deep South, on the Natchez Trace Parkway at mile marker 270, the turnoff for Tupelo, Mississippi. Like many turnoffs along this graceful, wooded road, exit 270 offers a detour to historic battlefield sites. The previous day's drive had taken me to Shiloh National Battlefield in Tennessee, a haunting memorial to some 20,000 men who died in battle there during the Civil War.
But the Tupelo turnoff is a pilgrimage site for another kind of traveler. Turn on the radio and you immediately know where you are -- every other song is followed by a DJ's hushed homage to Elvis Presley, America's best -- known self-invention and Tupelo homeboy.
The King's birthplace is a tiny white-frame house of two rooms which sits on a carefully tended lot in the middle of a quiet Tupelo neighborhood. As we approach the house, tourists awaiting the opening of the museum out back sit on the brick steps, musing aloud about Jesse, Elvis' twin brother who died shortly after his birth. The ghost of Jesse looms large at this location, where theories abound as to whether Elvis may have spent his life grieving the absence of his other half.
"Wonder if Jesse would have been as great a singer as Elvis?" a woman asks no one in particular." Naw, there couldn't have been another one as great as Elvis," reflects a young girl sitting nearby.
We walk slowly through the tiny house, pausing to sit on the front porch swing, apparently the most popular photo spot. I snap a shot of a couple from Indiana, wrapped in each other's arms.
The front room is tidy and simple. The iron bed on which Elvis and Jesse were born is covered with a patchwork quilt. The second room is the kitchen, and on the wall are photos of many visiting dignitaries from the entertainment world who sat at the table and drank iced tea with one of Elvis' relatives, once upon a time.
Across the backyard, the museum houses the personal memorabilia collection of a local woman, Janelle McComb, a lifelong friend of Elvis, and various other artifacts donated by the family. Spangled suits with stiff bell bottoms are displayed on faceless mannequins in a glass case. Alongside familiar album covers and photos are candid shots and school pics that have not been widely published, if at all.
A picture of Gladys, Elvis' mother, as a young woman, reveals the source of his dark good looks, and stands in stark contrast to the later photos in which she always looked sad, her eyes ringed with black circles. Wandering through the Presley family place in Tupelo, it's difficult to imagine the transition from small town to big city, from two-room shotgun shack to Graceland.
As we file through, a man in overalls asks the tour guide: "Now, when was it he died, or, you know, they say he died?" Supermarket tabloid covers pop to mind, but that remark in this place seems perfectly natural.
Here's Elvis holding baby Lisa Marie. Here's Elvis with Richard Nixon, hoping for credentials as a Drug Enforcement Agent. Here's Elvis splayed across an outdoor stage, his baggy pants sweeping the plank floor as he falls to his knees. Here are the faces of hundreds of young girls, screaming, mascara dripping down their wet cheeks. Behind them, boys with greased pompadours sport snarling pouts.
Is there anyone in America who doesn't remember where they were the day Elvis died? I was in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, on a summer vacation with my husband and little girl. The 14-year-old brother of our host had done his Elvis impression for us the night before, and was crushed when he heard the news, feeling he had somehow committed a sacrilege.
We peruse the gift shop. I purchase an Elvis Presley Birthplace mouse pad, a refrigerator magnet for my daughter, and a handful of postcards. I stop for a chili dog at the sandwich stand just up the road from Elvis' house, where the walls are covered with autographed photos of the King, eating hotdogs, sipping milkshakes and shooting the bull with the good ole boys who run the place.
I turn back on to the Natchez Trace Parkway, shaded by dense piney woods, so quiet you can hear bees buzzing in the tall grass and Queen Anne's Lace that line the side of the road. I don't need a radio now; the sounds of remembered Elvis songs will turn over and over in my head, all the way to Natchez.
-- A version of this piece first appeared in the Independent in September of 1997.