by Eileen Pedersen, Trail, BC
My fantasy trip, ‘Dancing Down the Mississippi’, becomes a reality in the fall of 2000. Eleonor retires from teaching in the Northwest Territories, as I do, and loves my idea of following the Mississippi River from its source all the way to New Orleans to experience the rich music culture along the way. Our hit list includes Graceland/Beale Street, Grand Ole Opry, Helena AR/ King Biscuit Blues Festival, Tupelo and Clarksdale/Crossroads MS, Baton Rouge LA, and a fantastic finish in New Orleans on Halloween night! I create T-shirts for the trip. My cousin Jeannie lives in Tunica, MS and opens her arms to us. She offers her home as base camp. Tunica is half an hour south of Memphis!!
It’s about a 70 hour drive from Northern Canada in Eleonor’s extended cab truck, which doubles as our sleeping quarters—me in the box, with a canopy; and she in the back seat—it’s what she’s used to. It makes the trip affordable and more memorable. We cross Canada’s prairie provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and turn south into Minnesota. First stop: Bemidji. I had to. I recall my grade 5 artistic rendition of Paul Bunyan’s face, brushing his big teeth with an evergreen tree. We pay homage. Two hours later we soak our feet in Lake Itasca, toasting our arrival at the Mississippi headwaters. I fish out two shot glasses and a bottle of Baileys from my backpack. We are beside ourselves with excitement and officially begin our great musical adventure.
We cross all the bridges leading into the states west of the river and buy fridge magnets to prove ‘we were there’.
First major stop: Graceland, where, among so many other things, I learn about the poems that writer Janelle McComb, friend of the Presley family, wrote for Elvis. We carry on to Tupelo, his birthplace, and I see the poem that he gifted to his young daughter Lisa Marie. It’s in the museum next to the Presley’s first home. I’m exploring the museum, poem in hand, and I hear, “I wrote that poem” over my right shoulder. I turn and come face to face with a friendly looking woman: “Are you JANELLE?!!” I AM she says and we chat about her friendship with Elvis and her poetry. She is the Executive Director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. I’m DYING to tell her how I met a bare-footed Elvis clothed in a blue bath robe in the wee hours of the morning and how I got his autograph and shook hands almost 30 years previous. I say NOTHING. I convince myself she’s heard a zillion stories of Elvis encounters and I don’t want to be one of “those” annoying fans. She goes into her office.
I wander around the shop, obsessed about missing this opportunity. After some agonizing moments I talk myself into sharing this pretty unique story. Her office door is open. Janelle is at her desk. I tap lightly on the door. She looks up, smiles. “You’ve probably heard tons of stories of people meeting Elvis but I wanted to tell you about mine. May I?” Yes! Come in! she says. I tell her the whole story…the waiting in line, the incident with Linda, the show, the autographs, and searching for and finally meeting Elvis after 3 attempts to leave the 19th floor of the International Hotel (as it was called back in 1971). “He was standing there in a BLUE BATH ROBE AND BARE FEET!!!!” Her eyes light up and she says, I HAVE THAT BLUE BATH ROBE! I CANNOT believe what I’m hearing. “You DO?!!!!” She ended up with it, along with other things belonging to Elvis, after he died. I WANT to ask if there’s ANY WAY she’d be willing to part with it, somehow. I feel embarrassed even THINKING that thought and I do not ask.
I revisit this scenario more than a few times during the rest of the trip. Once home in Trail BC, I will write to her and see if it’s a possibility.
We resume our most excellent adventure. We drive over most of the 29 historic bayou bridges of SE Louisiana. Catfish, pecans, squash pie, bread pudding, grits, beignets, and even chitlins…and of COURSE the festivals, The BLUES, zydeco, cormorants, armadillos, and camping on the Gulf Coast. And the people. And the stories. And Bourbon Street, Tipitina’s, the Jazz Parade, Hugh Masekela, the Neville Brothers. Oh my oh my oh my. I stay in New Orleans for a week until… A Red-Head Convention (no joke) fills the Guest Houses and there’s nowhere left to sleep!
Twenty years have passed since Dancing Down the Mississippi, almost to the day. I never did write that letter. Though I have my very precious memories.
Eileen Truant Pedersen is an adult educator, writer, and retired school teacher who loves kids, music, dancing, and photography. She is the author of “Set in Stone~A History of Trail’s Rock Walls”, about the 100s of rock walls and their builders, mostly Italian stone masons. Her son and grandsons are based in the Northwest Territories. She returned to her home town of Trail BC 20 years ago.