We went well over our $200 a day budget in Memphis—but we came in under budget on so many other days that it didn't matter.
- Breakfast: Free
- Lunch: $12.44
- Dinner: $65.76
- Gas: $38.98
- Hotel: 152.21 (Best Western Plus Gen X Inn
1) Cairo, Ill.
Cairo is the southernmost city in Illinois and sits on a skinny strip of land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Six hours down I-57 to the southernmost tip of the state, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, is yet another pocket of Illinois poverty: Alexander County and its county seat, Cairo. There, amid crumbling 19th century mansions, a history of segregationism and steady economic decline have conspired to make Cairo one of the most impoverished places in the state. The city’s population has dwindled every decade since 1920 — from a high of 15,205 to the current low of 3,632 — prompting the principal of Cairo High School to advise the 1990 graduating class to leave.
In downstate Cairo, 47 percent of children live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census. Alexander County’s poverty rate of 26.1 percent was the highest of any county in the state, and its infant mortality rate of 15.4 percent from 1998 to 2000 was the state’s second-highest.
The Elias Ace Hardware in Cairo is open, but the Shell is closed. The Washateria is open, but the CutMart has closed. There is no McDonald’s, no Burger King, no Arby’s. There is no recreation center, no bowling alley, no movie theater. The Spirit House — for liquor — is open, but the Christ Temple — for souls — is closed. Churches are for sale, prices reduced. The Martin CME Temple on Poplar Street is available, its public auction sign nailed to a dead tree stump.
—Out of Hiding, Illinois Issue, Stephanie Zimmerman and Peg Kowalczyk
More photos of this depressed downtown:
2) Steele, Missouri
The stretch of highway between Cairo and Memphis is a food desert. As my husband drove, I sat in the passenger's seat searching on my iPhone for a highly recommended greasy spoon, a hamburger stand, an old-school diner with great pie. Nothing. I kept browsing the options using my favorite restaurant-finder app Urban Spoon. Nothing.
And then at 2 p.m. my husband said he was starving and pulled off the freeway in Steele, Missouri, which looked to be absolutely nothing. I quickly looked up our options on Urban Spoon, my favorite app for finding restaurants.
Steele Family Restaurant? We're a family...why not. We parked the car and walked in.
Everyone in the restaurant, which was about 10 people, looked at us and continued to stare as we found ourselves at the soda fountain counter. I felt as if we were aliens from another planet.
A woman working behind the counter broke the ice with a big smile and said, "What can I getcha?"
And then we went onto to enjoy the most memorable meal of out trip. We enjoyed bowls of homemade steaming vegetable soup served with grilled cheese sandwiches while chatting with the woman behind the counter who was named Ms. Kim. She is originally from New Orleans but she evacuated during Katrina and drove for 17 hours with her kids and mother in search of a hotel. The only place they could find a room was Steele, Missouri. "And I've been here ever since," she told us.
By the end of the meal we were friends with everyone in the restaurant and we listened to their stories about their town that was once booming and is now dying. "We used to have clothing stories here in town on the main street," one woman told me. That woman was originally from Steele and after college she returned to become a teacher. "I wanted to give back to my community," she told me. She's now retired and helping run programs for troubled youth. "We have a lot of drugs."
The kids with Ms. Kim.
3) Peabody Hotel, Memphis
Our goal was to make it to Memphis by 5 p.m. to see the famous ducks at the Peabody Hotel. Ducks? Yes, this grand and historic hotel in the middle of Memphis is known for a family of ducks who swim around in a fountain in the downstairs lounge during the day and then at 5 p.m. the duck master leads the flock in a march down a red carpet and into an elevator, which takes the ducks to the hotel roof deck where they sleep for the night. We were in Memphis a few years ago and missed the ducks by about 10 minutes. This year we were determined to make it!
And we made it! When we arrived at 4 p.m. the ducks were swimming around in the fountain. People gathered round snapping photos and taking video.
The duck master gave the crowd an overview of the history:
Back in 1932 Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. The men had a little too much Jack Daniel's Tennessee sippin' whiskey, and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain.
Three small English call ducks were selected as "guinea pigs," and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Soon, five North American Mallard ducks would replace the original ducks.
In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody Duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.
And then the procession began! The ducks were like celebrities strutting down a Hollywood red carpet and we were the paparazzi.
On the roof deck we met up with the duck master.
Views of Memphis from the Peabody roof deck.
4) Rendezvous, Memphis
Our evening ended at the Rendezvous, tucked away in General Washburn Alley just across the street from the Peabody. Many say this institution, originally opened in 1948, serves the best ribs in town. All I can say is they're the best ribs I've ever had in my life. Dry-rubbed, hickory smoked, and falling off the bone. We were fighting over them.
Up next? Home! We've officially reached the end of our trip!