Just outside Memphis Tennessee is a tiny town with a population that fluctuates with employment opportunities and the seasonal reaping of cotton. While the plant itself stands no more than waist high; cotton is huge in Covington. Fields that used to stretch as far as the eye can see, and spring blossoms in pastel colors of pink, blue and yellow carpet the land in a mosaic pattern that is a feast for the senses.
I suspect that farming towns everywhere have a similar blueprint; city hall and a few essential businesses downtown, and sprawling country roads that connect farms to the rest of the county. Covington is one tiny town of many in Tennessee, but it’s my favorite.
What began as a tour of the area with a Memphis finale, became a series of memories and a couple of recipes that I drag out for special occasions.
All memories of this road trip stem from one individual, the towns oldest bachelor and surrogate grandfather image, Charley O’Grigsby.
Our tour began with the red light district, or the Memphis equivalent, dinner at a Chinese restaurant where they served iced tea instead of the more common black or green hot tea, and a trip across the Mississippi river. We didn’t bother with Graceland, home of Elvis, or Beale Street with it’s phenomenal blues venues. Nope. None of the typical sights were in store for us, we came to see Charley and he was our tour operator for the duration.
Charley chose to show us his town, the old dilapidated Memphis. As we drove through a poorer part of town, he’d point out a beaten down house with a weather stained door barely hanging on it’s two remaining hinges and say, “the girl who lived there was a real looker back in the day, and for….oh,.. maybe I shouldn’t tell you girls that story. ”
The “day” must have been sometime in the early fifties, and this trip down memory lane must have originated in his youth, somewhere after joining the military and going to war, but before being a hobo on the railroad and touring the country from the viewpoint of a rail car. The details were a little fuzzy for Charley, and certainly gain no clarity with my retelling. The fine details aren’t terribly important anyway. I mean, really do I care that he had fond memories of a prostitute from the south side of town? To hear Charley tell it, his life read like a Jack Kerouac novel, all high adventure and stupid exploits with no responsibility to anyone except himself. Maybe that’s the truth of it, but there was likely some fictitious details thrown in to keep it interesting and to keep the story moving.
After dinner, we drove across the bridge to the far side of the Mississippi river only to arrive on the far side with instructions to turn around.
“I thought we were going somewhere, why are we turning around?” I asked
“We did go somewhere. Now you can say you’ve been across the Mississippi river. Lets go home, it’s getting dark. ” Charley replied.
I didn’t understand the concept then, and I don’t now. Merely saying I’ve been to a particular place is a bit of a rip off on actually having the experience of that place. It’s a bit like flying through Chicago with an hour layover, and saying, “yes, I’ve been to Chicago.”
For Charley it was a checklist kind of thing. Yep, been there, cross it off. Next.
On my first trip I didn’t get to do the Elvis lip snarl while saying “thank you! thank you very much” or an over the top hip swiggle at the gates of Graceland. I did get lost on the way to Covington and bumble into Nutbush, Tennessee; a wide place on a dirt road made famous in the song Nutbush city limits, and home of Tina Turner. I know this because there was a big billboard announcing that fact, “Home of Tina Turner” right in front of the wood floor convenience store, which for the life of me I could not locate on a map.
So, Memphis? Yep, I’ve been there. But I’d really like to go back for a beer on Beale St.
Note: Checked wikipedia for Nutbush– looks like they’ve paved the road but the population in 2000 was 259. As you can see some things in rural America don’t ever really change.