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

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.

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