Thursday, August 2, 2007

For the first time in a few days we slept in, taking advantage of our motel's liberal check-out policy. Then we planned our journey to Dreamland. I presumed that the next BBQ restaurant on our list would be located in downtown Tuscaloosa or on the other side of town. But as we headed out, Jenny exclaimed, "I think it's back that way!" Soon we recognized that the next stop was mere blocks from where we'd stayed the night, conveniently near the interstate. We turned off onto a windy road that climbed a hill, a place that gave no hint of what was to follow. Then we saw the spot where history would soon recall that the Wood family enjoyed the best ribs it had ever eaten: Dreamland Bar-B-Que Ribs.

We entered just before 11 and by the time our ribs arrived, the place is hopping with loud chatting happy folks. At Dreamland, the only option is ribs. Sure, you'll also get a heaping plate of white bread and a cup filled with murky sauce, but don't expect side items. Even coleslaw is only served on Sundays. But, oh, those ribs. Ours were blackened near the bone, delightfully brittle, yet the meat was tender, juicy, and smoky. Each rib was worth its own moment of contemplation, a sense that "this is one heck of a rib," but the platter that sat before us served as a reminder, "that one might be even better!" These ribs made even Jenny gnaw the bone like a junkyard dog. And then there's the sauce, which may be explained in one word: drinkable. Talking with the pit boss, we heard of people who'd order a cup of sauce and a beer as a chaser, taking a swig of each at a time. The sauce is burnt-orange colored and peppery, and it forms a tasty soup under your rib pile. Jenny reminds me that she and Vienna also shared some banana pudding, which they claim was also amazing, but we agreed that Dreamland is all about the ribs. When you come to a place like this, dark walls covered floor to ceiling with photos of famous visitors, bumper stickers from local politicians, and framed laudatory reviews from all over the country -- and when you chat with the owners who delight upon hearing your traveler's stories and gawk with amazement at your digital camera even after they offer to take your picture near the pit -- you question your grasp of reality. Could this place be that good, or is Dreamland some sort of Disney-esque fantasy? But this place is the real deal: A pork-fueled celebration of delectable simplicity. Indeed, in the high pantheon of the church of barbecue, Dreamland proves the existence of a god.

Our next stop was Memphis, about three to four hours away. We surveyed the map and recognized that we would pass through Tupelo. I suggested that we visit Elvis's birthplace, since we were headed for Memphis anyway. Jenny and Vienna were game so we checked it out. The birthplace complex contains a small chapel, museum, some written stories about the performer as a youth, and statue of Elvis at thirteen, wearing oversized overalls and possessing a rough charm that could hardly preview the talents within. But the purpose of our stop was a tour of that shotgun shack. Tickets were $2.50 each, garnering us entrance to the two-room house. With its period correct furnishings and rough construction, the place did manage to convey a sense of Elvis's humble background. And unlike the Dan Rather birthplace we'd seen in Wharton, this was a real shotgun shack. We heard tales of a family keeping one step ahead of the rent collector, hopping from house to house leaving Tupelo for better opportunities in the big city. Outside nearby, we viewed a reproduction of the car the Presley family took on that drive for better times. It's parked facing Memphis, our next stop. We'd already seen Graceland during a previous visit, but I hummed that wonderful Paul Simon song anyway, "Poor boys and pilgrims with families, and we're all going to Graceland."

During that last leg of our drive, we passed through more scary thunderstorms, slowing to a crawl as rain smacked against our windshield. I'll stifle my desire to engage once more in the narrative trope of awful weather that magically improves upon arrival to a pilgrimage site and simply say, that's how it happened. We've really been that lucky during this trip. Along the way, I reminded Vienna that she'd promised to perform a monologue for us: Jack Webb's "What is a Cop" speech, that beloved and gritty overview of a police officer's thankless job that so many real cops have taken as a personal credo. It's goofy and dated, and any recitation of Webb's peculiar speech patterns is bound to sound silly. But hearing Vienna's depiction of a gruff but proud police officer was stirring anyway. Jenny and I applauded our daughter's oratorical skills when Vienna finished the speech, proud to have raised such a cool person. You know, the next time Vienna gets pulled over, she might whip out this speech and get off with a warning!

By about five, as the clouds were clearing and blue sky peeked through the gloom we found our motel. As you know, we prefer smaller, quirkier Mom-and-Pop types, but this close to downtown Memphis, we sought a more familiar brand. So we pulled into Motel 6. The sheets are paper-thin and the television sets are retro-tiny, but the price is almost always reasonable for the surrounding area. When I entered the office to get our key, the manager was chatting on the phone, obviously involved in a personal call. I waited with increasingly undisguised impatience and even shot her an "are you kidding me?" look, though I don't think she noticed. At length she ended the call and turned to me. While I was prepared to maintain my annoyance about this person, when she spoke to me I found myself forgiving all. She smiled, she joked, and she looked at me with real interest in answering my questions. I suppose I recognized that she was pretty cool when I prepared to ask where our motel was on a map she'd given me, saying, "I'll bet you know what I'm about to ask." She grinned and replied, "Where's Beale Street, right?" To be honest, I hadn't even gotten to that stage of planning yet. But I laughed in response and said, "Sure! Where's Beale Street?" Well, it turns out that the famed Blues-road was only a mile away.

Beale Street is an essential stop for blues lovers craving a sense of Memphis's musical heritage. Lining both sides of a closed-off pedestrian friendly walk are gorgeous neon signs, old advertisements painted onto walls, and dozens of shops and restaurants spilling out with Elvis, B.B. King, and others who melded gospel sounds with brooding soul and smoldering sexuality. The street's current manifestation is mostly fake, catering to convention visitors and tourists like us, but the music is indisputably good. Things started off nicely when we exited the parking garage and found our way to an outdoor pavilion, passing through a gate that was closed behind us. Within, we spotted a group whose music dripped with pathos, regret, and even some humor. Afterward, we wandered up and down the street, peering into cranky looking bars and supposedly ancient juke joints, listening to the slow, repetitious rhythms. Eventually a fellow convinced us to enter Club 152 to hear an Elvis impersonator. Given the simulacra-nature of Beale Street and the fact that we'd visited Tupelo just hours before, it seemed appropriate to end the day with a performer who clearly evoked the singer's "later years." We snarfed down some tasty meals and listened to a fellow who continually affirmed his ethos as a performer who had actually worked with Elvis in his youth, even showing off a ring that Elvis had given him and noting stories they'd shared that were "too personal to retell." I had no idea of the authenticity of these inter-song recollections, but I had to admit: Radford Ellis's "E-Factor Show" was really good. Vienna received a special treat that evening magic when "Elvis" sang a few moments "just for her."

Once we'd gotten our fill of "the King," we returned to Beale Street and enjoyed the outside performances, even though one fellow who invited Vienna to dance freaked Jenny out a little. Ah, the joys of parenting a teenager. After a while we felt that Beale Street had entertained us enough, and we began to head back. I mused that the really good blues singers were probably just now getting out of bed, but we all agreed that the Wood Family could benefit from a good night's sleep. Before too long, we returned to our nearby motel and hit the sack, dreaming of Dreamland barbeque and scorching blues that melt right down to the bone.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood