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Road Trip: $500 to spend, 4 days on the road, 1 more shot at Graceland
On a shoestring budget, we take off in search of Elvis, barbecue and Southern charm

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

I wasn't even supposed to be in Nashville. But here I was, on the dance floor of a honky-tonk on Broadway, being twirled around by the man who'd dressed Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

One thing I've learned about road trips: They never go the way you planned. All I'd wanted from Robert's Western World in downtown Nashville was a Diet Coke and a restroom break on my way to Memphis. But at the bar, Brian Wagner, marketing manager for the Ryman Auditorium ("the mother church of country music"), struck up a conversation.

"Do you know who Manuel is?" he asked. "He's famous."

Manuel, holding court at the other end of the bar, hopped off his stool and sashayed up to us, grinning like Jack Nicholson's Joker. He was a white-haired man in his 70s, wearing a "Flying Burrito Brothers" T-shirt beneath a brown suit with black embroidery, a kerchief tied around his neck.

"Let's dance," he said, pulling me onto the floor. I'm a Queens girl, and country-western music is hardly my forte, so the Latina in me automatically merengued to his two-step. He positioned himself behind me, swaying his hips. When the song ended, he squeezed my nose and moved on to the next girl.

I had inadvertently walked into a party. Robert's Western World had been named Nashville's No. 1 honky-tonk, and owner Jesse Lee Jones was serving free fried-bologna sandwiches, sweet-potato fries and MoonPies to celebrate. To wash them down, he was selling Pabst Blue Ribbon beers for $1 a pop. Judging by the mood of the crowd, he was selling a lot of them.

"Everybody hangs out here," Jesse told me.

"It's full of love," said Riley, a waitress standing nearby.

After driving so many hours by myself, I needed some love.

My road trip from Washington to Memphis had started the previous day. I was re-creating a trip I'd taken as a 19-year-old Georgetown University student in 1995. One Saturday night, while studying for midterms, four of us piled into my friend Doug's Ford Escort and set off for Chattanooga, Tenn., where Doug had gone to boarding school. Over the next 24 hours, we'd toured Doug's school and the underground waterfall at Ruby Falls, downed Krystal burgers and eaten breakfast at a Waffle House.

It was fantastic, but I really wanted to go to Memphis. Elvis's Memphis. "I've reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland," Paul Simon sang.

Graceland would not receive us that year because we ran out of money and time.

But now, as a travel writer, I wanted to take a road trip again and Twitter about it. Having been a personal-finance writer for two years, I also wanted to prove I could have fun on a budget. A $500 budget, to be precise.

This time, I was going to make it all the way to Memphis.

MONDAY: $500. Drive, drive, drive.

First stop: Chattanooga, again. I got there by dinnertime after filling my '91 Volkswagen Beetle with $48.44 worth of gas and driving pretty much nonstop for 10 hours except for gas and bathroom breaks.

From the road, I called a Chattanooga real estate agency to ask about a spaceship-shaped house I wanted to see. The friendly receptionist informed me that it had been closed to the public. Bummer. But I figured I could at least get a restaurant recommendation out of her. She sent me to Big River Grille and Brewing Works, where I ordered a chicken and Gorgonzola salad and a beer.

This being Tennessee, though, I was determined to find some good, affordable barbecue. I asked my waiter where I might find good barbecue the next day. I'd asked my Twitter followers for recommendations, but the only suggestion was for a chain restaurant, and I was trying to avoid chains. Go to Sugar's, the waiter said.

He brought the check: $14.91. I felt guilty for splurging (trust me, in Tennessee, this is splurging) on a mediocre meal, only half of which I'd eaten. As my penance, I stayed at the cheapest motel on my list, a Super 8. With a AAA discount, the room was $46.89 with tax and breakfast included. I dropped into bed, exhausted from the drive, and passed out.

TUESDAY: $383.63. Chattanooga to Nashville.

I've always been fascinated by unusual museums, so the next morning, I decided to visit the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. Bet you didn't know that the first twin-boom wrecker was built in Chattanooga in 1916. Admission was $8, but my AAA membership knocked off a dollar (hooray!).

Cheryl Mish, the executive director, offered to give me a tour after she finished a meeting and suggested I take the nearby Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain in the meantime. With a 72.7 percent track grade near the top, it's advertised as the steepest passenger railway in the world. I got a round-trip ticket for $14. At the summit, I stood on the observation deck and looked out at all of Chattanooga, thinking that not for nothing is it nicknamed the "Scenic City."

Back on the low ground, I was shocked to discover a $10 parking ticket on my windshield. I'd forgotten to pay the $1 parking fee. So much for the dollar savings on the museum admission.

In the museum, Cheryl led me to a small 1970 Japanese wrecker. "He's a cute little thing, isn't he?" she asked, letting me climb inside. "He" was a good fit for me, unlike the 70-ton 1953 Holmes W70 -- the "Granddaddy of Them All," as the museum dubbed it -- that we saw next.

After my tour, I chatted with gift shop cashier Jim Starry about my budget road trip. He grabbed some leftover Halloween candy from a jar and pressed it into my hands. "Take this," he said. "You might need it." It was touching -- and typical of Tennesseans, who seemed so eager to help an outsider. Even the attendant at an Exxon station ran out of the store when she saw me struggling with the pump, staying with me until I was done and then sending me off with a "God bless you, hon."

I didn't need Jim's candy, though, after my meal at Sugar's Ribs, which came to just $10.31. I ate my juicy barbecue chicken on a deck in the company of the restaurant's pet goats. The manager came back to my table to check on how I liked the okra he'd recommended. ("It's grilled, not fried, and sprinkled with kosher salt," he'd proudly told me.) It certainly tasted better than any okra I'd had before. But then, I haven't had much okra.

That night, during my driving break in Nashville, Robert's Western World owner Jesse Lee Jones couldn't tell me often enough that his place was "all about real, traditional country-western music." To make his point, he grabbed his belt. "This is the buckle," he said, thrusting his hips forward so suddenly that I had to step back, "of the Bible Belt." On that buckle was the face and name of country music legend Marty Robbins.

I turned back to Manuel, the costume designer. Eager to Google him later, I asked for his last name. "I don't use my last name," he said, pointing to the business card he'd handed me. MANUEL, it read simply, in large font. (Even so, I did find him later on Google, which informed me that he was also the creator of outfits for the Beatles -- the famous Sgt. Pepper costumes -- and the Rolling Stones.)

By the time I left Robert's, it was 11 p.m. Memphis would have to wait a few more hours. I checked into a motel ($52.05, including tax and breakfast).

WEDNESDAY: $262.94. Graceland at last.

My sister and I were big Elvis fans as kids. We loved his movies and his 1968 comeback TV special. Over the years, my ardor has cooled, but the King's legendary home still beckoned to me as a musical mecca.

I pulled into the Graceland parking lot around noon. To my surprise, there was a $10 fee. Hmm. I hadn't budgeted for that.

In the ticket office, the cashier asked whether I had a AAA membership. "Yes!" I replied, excited that I wouldn't have to pay the full $28 for the mansion tour. Trouble was, I didn't have a membership card yet, having just signed up a few days before. When the cashier insisted on seeing a card, I handed her $28 and hopped on the next bus to the mansion.

A guide let me in. To my right was a living room with white furniture and a piano. To my left was a dining room with marble floors and blue velvet curtains. I followed my audio tour through the kitchen, the TV room and the yard, then entered a small building that housed Elvis's awards and costumes. I wondered which one Manuel had designed (later I read that he'd created the black leather ensemble the King wore in his 1968 special).

Finally, there I was at Elvis's grave. It was bedecked with fresh flowers and recently written letters from fans. I stood there, thinking that I'd driven more than 15 hours for an hour-long tour that was sort of cheesy. But something about seeing that grave, I have to confess, was oddly moving.

Back at the ticket office, I bumped into an Australian who was spending three months driving through the United States. We exchanged cellphone numbers, and he told me to call him if I wanted to grab drinks later.

After so many hours alone in my car, there was nothing I wanted to do more than party with a charming Aussie. But I was down to $226.81. Staying in Memphis would mean spending money for an extra night in a hotel. As I drove back downtown, pondering my options, I was so distracted that I accidentally crossed into Arkansas. Well, at least I could say that my $500 took me all the way to the Natural State, I thought. Farther even than I'd expected to go.

I decided to start heading back home. As a personal-finance writer, I'd learned that sometimes you have to give up pleasures if you can't afford them.

But there was one pleasure I could afford. I was still looking for that special plate of barbecue.

I Twittered for recommendations. Go to Rendezvous, a few people tweeted. I'd heard about this Memphis restaurant, but it sounded like too much of a tourist trap. Coletta's has good barbecue pizza, tweeted another. But I didn't feel like pizza.

On Memphis's famous Beale Street, I ducked into the A. Schwab dry goods store to buy Motrin ($1) for my aching arms, legs and back. A. Schwab has been around for more than 100 years. It's filled with belts, nightgowns, Samurai swords, more elephant statues than I'd seen in Africa, sweet and sassy cheeseball mix, Halloween costumes, Santa hats, candy, Windex and much, much more. I found the owner, Elliott Schwab, at his desk beneath a picture of his great-grandfather, the eponymous A.

Elliott is a short, bald, chubby man in his late 40s. Ask him a question and you'll get an answer that lasts at least five minutes. I asked him about Memphis barbecue. The answer lasted at least 10 minutes.

"To me, good barbecue is the kind that is smoked and has good sauce," he explained. He opened a binder and pulled out a piece of paper that he photocopied for me. It was a hand-drawn map of his top three barbecue joints: Central BBQ, Neely's Bar-Be-Que Restaurant and Tops Bar-B-Q. Clearly Tennesseans take their barbecue seriously.

I got to Central before 7 p.m., but the line was already out the door. I ordered the pork platter with macaroni and cheese and green beans for $7.99. It was tasty, though I can't say it was the best barbecue I've ever had. But it would certainly hold me over until the next day.

THURSDAY: $99.61. Last stop, Gatlinburg.

"Want to have lunch?" Andrea Ludden asked as soon as I walked into the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, Tenn., the next day.

I was starving. I'd overslept and missed the free breakfast at my Knoxville Days Inn ($47.93, including tax and the breakfast I didn't get to enjoy).

I worried that Andrea and her father, Rolf, would choose an expensive restaurant, but they took me to their Rotary Club meeting, where I dined on turkey, potatoes and vegetables with the town librarian and several innkeepers, real estate brokers and chapel owners (Gatlinburg is second only to Las Vegas as a wedding destination). They didn't seem to mind that I was crashing their lunch, but when the collection basket was passed around (just like church), I dropped in $10.

At the museum, which sat on a hill near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I learned its back story. About 25 years ago, Andrea's mother had become fascinated with salt and pepper shakers, eventually collecting 2,000. Then seven years ago, tired of the clutter in the house, Rolf proposed opening a museum. It now houses more than 20,000 shakers of all shapes: dogs, cats, fruit, frogs, presidents, nuns, trains, planes, cars, you name it. They're made of wood, plastic, silver and gold. Andrea pointed to two little robots. "You can wind them up and they walk up and down the table," she said, excitement in her voice.

As I browsed through the gift shop (I opted not to buy anything, hoarding my money for gas), I wondered how a family from Argentina (Rolf grew up in Patagonia) had ended up in a remote town in Tennessee.

"You walk around here and you see happy faces. It's contagious," Rolf said, leaning against the counter. "You walk in D.C., and you see some sad faces."

Alas, it was time for me to return to the city of sad faces.

I hit the road about 2 p.m., a little sorry to be leaving a state so full of love. But while I had the freedom of the road, I didn't have the freedom of the wallet.

I pulled into Washington 10 hours later and tallied up my expenses. I had $46.98 left, $10 of which I would have to mail back to Tennessee to pay for the parking ticket. Now, what could I do with the remaining $36.98?

How about a massage? Even 15 minutes would be worth every penny.

And then some.

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