Tuesday, July 10, 2018

2018 vacation: St. Louis and Memphis

With the kids getting older and working, we didn't do a family vacation in 2017. This year, although we didn't have Zach with us, the other five of us took a modest excursion to St. Louis and Memphis. In terms of length, difficulty, and pleasure, it was similar to our vacas to Michigan in 2014 and 2015. In terms of complexity, cost, and length, it did not rival our big trips to NC in 2010 (sorry, not much detail in this blog post), to NY in 2011, to NC/SC in 2013-- and esp. to our huge trips to SD/CO in 2012 and from SF to Glacier in 2016. Still, it was a really nice trip-- and easier to pull off if you're looking for a great little vacation in the Midwest. 

We left Louisville on Sunday afternoon and got to St. Louis in time for dinner in Chesterfield (a bit west of St. Louis), a look at The Awakening (a sculpture of a giant emerging from the ground), and Incredibles II. The trip to Chesterfield was driven mostly by my desire to see The Awakening and show it to the kids. I used to visit it often with friends when I was in HS/College in No. VA. And it is cool, but I'm not sure it'd be worth the extra driving for the average person. 

On Monday, we saw the Gateway Arch. Of course, it was excellent. And I would definitely recommend the movie ($4). Then we went to the Cathedral Basilica which was amazing-- as good or better than any I've seen in Europe. It has a staggering amount of art-- most of it is the form of mosaics-- twice as much as the closest comparison. It was also cool/fun to see an American (and St. Louis) twist on the art/decor. I hadn't really thought of the European cathedrals as European per se, but instead imagined them as universal. (We didn't take time to see the Old Cathedral near the Arch. I'm guessing that would be worth a look too.)

I hadn't originally planned on visiting the Museum of Economy, but we walked right past it-- and since it was free, we checked it out. It was ok-- and probably better for reasonably-interested non-economists. After lunch, we hit the Science Center just outside of Forest Park. It was also ok, but would have been (much) better for younger kids or for kids who hadn't already spent so much time in Louisville's similar effort. Monday evening we walked through the three blocks of Citygarden (a few cool statues, incl. Eros Bendato's head) and Union Station's Grand Hall light show (somewhere between ok and cheesy in a classy building).

We spent Tuesday at Forest Park-- St. Louis' amazing city park with tons of attractions to boot-- most of which were free. Definitely visit its renowned zoo and its strong art museum. Optional: the Jewel Box (beautiful place for a wedding, but not worth a visit even for its $1 charge), the World Fair Pavilion, and a nice little sculpture park (behind the art museum). The zoo was good, esp. the close proximity to the hippos, elephants, and penguins. But it was not as awesome as I expected, given its reputation. (Or again, maybe I've already been to the zoo too often!) 

Wednesday was City Museum-- an awe-inspiring, must-see combination of fun house, museum, and industrial reclamation project. It's filled with slides-- and giant slinky-like metal tubes and solid places to crawl through (wear jeans)-- some of which were too tight for me and Tonia. Outside, you can crawl through more slinkys that are eight stories above the ground! They had shells of old airplanes poised on towers, a bus hanging off the side of the building-- and then there was the roof, with more of the same (and worth the additional $5 cost). City Museum and the Arch make St. Louis a must-see destination for those in the Midwest with school-aged children. I can't imagine a better combination of things for a family to visit. 

On the way out of town, we saw Ready Player One at Keller Plaza (their version of Village 8) and then dropped by the Laumeier Sculpture Park-- the best park and the best sculpture park we visited (highly recommended: bring a meal, a soccer ball and a frisbee).

We did have a lot of scheduling and parking snafus in St. Louis-- which was somewhere between funny and irritating. We missed the opening of the refurbished museum at the Arch by one day. I missed two restaurants that were not open on the days we visited. (I really wanted to get the BBQ Brisket nachos at Big Baby Q, but they're only open Thurs-Sat. We tried Failoni's on a Monday, the only day they're closed. Also on Monday, we missed Bahn Mi So, but returned on Wednesday to get some excellent spring rolls and some really-flavorful but really-low-meat Bahn Mi sandwiches. Then, we headed to Ted Drewes, just down the street.) Parking was a bit strange too: I missed the small print at Hotels.com that the Marriott Airport was going to charge us $13/day. And a local garage had a posted special on the entrance sign, but it required you to stay until mid-afternoon. A few oops, but the family thought it was all very amusing, so that's something! 

One more funny parking story (where I might save you some money): When we went to City Museum, there were workers wearing safety vests and vigorously waving flags to direct you to their lot. The first lot was charging $15; the next lot was charging $10; the next lot was charging $5. (As it turns out, there was one right around the corner that would have been free.) They're preying on low-info tourists, so take your time, use your head, and check out your options! (Likewise, you can park for $15 next to the zoo or head down the street to park and walk.)

We ate well in St. Louis. We had Byrd and Barrel for lunch-- great sandwiches and chicken "nuggz". Ted Drewes' frozen custard was excellent. I had initially heard great things about it, but then was counseled to lower my expectations. But it was as good as I had heard at first-- a solid notch better than the DQ Blizzard, richer and more flavorful. We got three flavors of "Gooey Butter Cake" from Park Avenue Coffee-- good but not great. I wanted to get to Seoul Taco for a bulgogi burrito, Half and Half for breakfast (if just me and T), the Balkan Treat Box for cevapi (couldn't find the food truck), and Failoni's (a restaurant recommended by Hugh Halter in Flesh)-- but they didn't work out. (Update: Jason Karlen recommends Gus' Pretzels too.) On our way to Memphis, we tried some of St. Louis' semi-famous Provel thin pizza at Imo's-- good but not great. The highlight of our eating was Fitz's-- big portions of good food and huge ice cream floats with a variety of home-brewed sodas to finish things off.

We spent Wed PM in St. Genevieve-- the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi. We saw a decent fireworks show there before heading to the hotel. The town was a back-up plan in case we finished early in St. Louis. So, for us, it was mostly a stop-over. Thursday was our travel day to Memphis. We hiked at Trail of Tears SP (ok) and saw its good little museum on the history of the Trail, particularly the role of the Cherokees. (UPDATE: In my trip research, I missed the Little Grand Canyon in Pomona, IL. It would have added an hour of driving, but the pictures look good-- if you can handle a moderate, wet hike. And apparently you should bring good shoes!) 

Next up was lunch: we tried Lambert's (seemed like a cross between Golden Corral and Cracker Barrel with them throwing rolls to you), but the line was too long, so we settled for Imo's pizza in the car. We stopped by the New Madrid Earthquake museum-- a solid account of earthquakes in general and the big New Madrid quake in particular. (Strangely, we later saw better pictures of the earthquake's aftermath, recorded a century later, in the Pink Palace's museum in Memphis.) 

Our last stop pre-Memphis was the Art Deco Greyhound Station in Blytheville, AR. It was cool enough to look at from the outside, with a brief detour. But one of the board members happened to stop by and give us some history/explanation as we looked in the windows. (He tried to call the caretaker to let us inside, but got no response.) He also mentioned a little museum at the Kress Five-and-Dime (also apparently of architectural interest), so maybe doing both of those would make it doubly worth your while. 

We got to Memphis on Thursday evening, grabbed dinner at Gus' Famous Fried Chicken, and sat on a blanket to watch Jonny P in concert at the Levitt-Shell amphitheater. Good times! But not good enough for the kids to do it again the next night. ;-)

Friday was Graceland. It was immense in cataloguing Elvis' impact and his possessions. It was also strange for reasons I did not anticipate. It was professionally done in terms of presentation, impressive logistics (earphones and IPads to communicate info; shuttle buses to get people to Graceland and the museum exhibits), and pricing (expensive but probably profit-maxing). But the staff ranged from average to impersonal; it was difficult to know where to go; and we didn't get a map from anyone. 

We never saw a brief overview of the productive/prolific aspects of his life. The timeline became obvious after awhile but it would have been helpful to see it on the front end. In a word, it was music, military, movies, and his semi-comeback in music.The history of Elvis they presented was thorough where it spoke, but left out all of the nasty or off-putting stuff-- e.g., the early courtship of Priscilla starting at age 14, distance and then infidelities in their marriages, separation after 4.5 years and then divorce 18 months later, the damage of his movie career to his musical career, his substance abuse for at least five years, and the reasons for his untimely death-- or other key aspects (that distract from Elvis' glory?) like the immense role of Colonel Tom Parker (who is credited with revolutionizing music mgmt). 

It was also odd in that I had little idea how prolific he had been, especially in terms of movies (33 films [mostly low-budget, formulaic B-movies], beginning at age 21), despite the year and a half of military service, and his early death. I plan to research his life a bit more-- both because I understood so little and because I wonder how much they left out! (Researching Elvis, I found a significant connection to The Imperials-- the first musical group I saw in concert!)

The rest of the day, we did a few miscellaneous things available to us in the later afternoon and evening: the pavilion at the St. Jude Research Hospital (lovely with some cool history, esp. Danny Thomas' insistence on serving all races in the Deep South, his leveraging of Lebanese and Syrian Americans to support America, and the first leader-doctor's insistence on trying to cure vs. treat cancer); the pomp and ceremony of the duck march at the classic Peabody Hotel; a walk on a segment of Beale Street (including a quick stop at Schwab's); and the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid (spectacular for both the Bass Pro Shops and the Pyramid). We tried to find the Mud Island River Park, but with its $10 cost and marginal value, we decided to skip it-- apparently a wise decision, according to the locals. 

Saturday started with the National Civil Rights Museum-- located at the Lorraine Motel where MLK Jr. was shot and the boarding house from where he was shot. Again, this was an immense museum-- somewhere between impressive and trying too hard. For me, it was an odd combination of overkill on stuff I already knew (from my reading and our visits to Selma and Atlanta) and tons of info on conspiracies about King's murder by James Earl Ray that I had somehow not heard much about (related PBS video here-- h/t: Chris Lang). Again, the attendees were left with tons of questions: were the conspiracies real, pseudo, or imagined? Was the perspective of the museum curators biased or unbiased? After lunch, we toured the Gibson Guitar Factory. None of us are big guitar people, but it was very interesting, as plant tours usually are. Rodney works in the plant and did a terrific job giving the tour. 

Then, we headed back to the Pink Palace where, thankfully, we had received free tickets when we tried to go on Friday and the electricity had been knocked out. The first problem was that the mansion and the Piggly Wiggly display were closed until the Fall (advertised as closed until the Summer, so pooh on that). Why didn't they have lower prices while half the museum was unavailable? This may be the ultimate dork econ move, but I was geeked to see the PW display since it was the first large grocery store. The big tech advance that made it possible: the invention of the bas-kart, which allowed stores to evolve from carry your own small basket to cruising around with a huge basket on wheels. (How do I know this?! My old buddy/roomie wrote about PW in his dissertation in the field of Industrial Organization.)

The second problem was that the bulk of it was a solid natural history museum. Not a problem exactly, except, again, I've seen this sort of thing a bunch of times-- and often, done better. And this one was really aggressive and dogmatic about evolution-- at least when it was convenient. The presentation chastised opponents; it provided a self-righteous statement of beliefs; and then it got really vague when the narrative was obviously narrative-- and not an impressive narrative at that. Hilarious. How did language evolve? Oh we're not sure how that happened but we're sure that it did. Vital organs like the eye? Oh, that was easy; evolution could have-- and must have-- accomplished that. God of the gaps and hand-waving, anyone? The soul, the conscience, the vast gap between apes and men? Not a word. Sure, present the science and assert the narrative, but leave the dogmatism, the not-so-natural selectivity, and the self-righteousness behind. At $14, without Piggly Wiggly, the Pink Palace would have been a big ripoff. 

All that said, the most memorable thing about Memphis was that we ate so WELL! I already mentioned Gus' Chicken-- the kids' favorite meal of the trip. We tried to go to Rendezvous which has dry-rubbed ribs and service with attitude, but the lines were too long. Instead, we ended up at the midtown version of Central BBQ-- apparently preferred by the locals-- and it was excellent. We had a terrific, cheap lunch buffet at Pho Binh. We had a great dinner at the Arcade-- a diner-style establishment that is the oldest restaurant in Memphis at 99 years old! Make sure to order the syrup and sweet potato pancakes which were both the best I've ever had. 

Our third dessert highlight of the trip was Jerry's Sno Cones. Life-changing stuff-- the best sno-cone I've had by far (great consistency in the ice and a huge variety of rich flavors for the ice) PLUS soft-serve ice cream in layers. For $4, you get the coolest dessert ever. It was good enough that we're wondering why it isn't a craze across the nation. And we're trying to figure out if we can start a business to sell them or something like them. Wow!

If I had to sum up our time in Memphis, it would be great food in a poor man's New Orleans with two important, strange, overwhelming museums that left us with tons of knowledge but tons of questions. Maybe those are the best sort of museums after all?

I had intended to stop for dinner in Brownsville at Helen's Bar-B-Q and to see Billy Tripp's Mindfield. But the sno-cones came too late to have dinner so soon. So, we skipped Brownsville and headed home. Five hours later, we had completed a wonderful little vacation in 14 hours less than a full week. If you're looking for a weeklong vacation, I'd edit ours slightly and duplicate it!


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