Dallas to Chicago via Memphis


I landed in Dallas late afternoon, and checked into a conveniently situated hotel, a few miles outside the city center.

Having researched the area, I chose somewhere conveniently close to a DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) station, and offering a courtesy bus for short journeys. Hence I had no need of a rental car while in Dallas.

The following morning, the hotel bus dropped be below the elevated DART station. I figured out the ticket machine and walked upstairs to the platform, just missing a train. I had expected to be among commuters, but I was the station was empty. There was a bag on one of the benches, containing a gift box, with a loose lid. After staring at it for a while I was curious and opened it up. Inside was a neatly folded item of clothing, a hand written note and a twenty dollar bill. The note was a birthday message from a lady to her granddaughter. With the train approaching,, I decided to hopefully find a way of returning the gift to the grandmother.

The DART train was surprisingly empty for 9am on a weekday, and the center of Dallas was equally as deserted when I arrived there. However, it was a hot, sunny day, and within thirty minutes of walking around taking photos and exploring the city, I was sweating.

I called into a hotel and asked about the address on the note, but received blank stares. After a while I stopped at a coffee kiosk and buying a drink, I initiated a conversation with the owner. and asking him about the address, he replied that it was a few stops from where he lived. On explaining the reason, without mentioning the money, he volunteered to find the grandmother, and offered  that I could leav the parcel with him.
I called back the following day and he explained that it was a block of apartments with a security entrance, that would not allow him access without knowing the residents name, but would try another way.
On arriving back in the UK, I found the kiosk on Google Maps and called the number shown. However, his wife answered explaining that he did not live there and not at all happy that her number was being used. Hence, I never did find out what happened.

Dallas is famous for many things, but it will be forever remembered as the site of a Presidential assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot and killed President John F Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository building, which is now called the Sixth Floor Museum, dedicated to that event. The museum is full of the official truth, while outside, there are people selling videos and books with their version of the events, officially regarded as conspiracy theories.

Having researched and written about the assassination, I explored the area in detail, imagining the open top limos driving slowly down the streets, unaware of what lay ahead.

On entering the building, you are taken straight up to the 6th floor. It was strange to look out of the exact window where Oswald was supposed to have fired his rifle, and afterwards, to walk across the exact spot in the road, marked by an X, where JFK was shot, while in the back seat of the limousine. I wandered around by the rail yard and along the grassy knoll, both places reportedly had other assassins, but the Warren Commission never brought anyone to face judgement.

I left Dallas the following afternoon. My flight was from Dallas Love Field, which was a large modern airport. I had chosen to fly with a small airline called Seaport, which ran a small fleet of Cessna air planes. I joined four other passengers and boarded a nine seater plane.

I sat behind the co-pilot, with a clear view of the controls and both front and side windows.

The flight to Memphis was an amazing experience; noisy but smooth. It took several hours and the sky was clear with a beautiful sunset. We stopped once to drop off one of the passengers and a second time, as the sun was setting, for refueling. It was close to 9pm when we dropped altitude on the approach into Memphis Airport. Sitting directly behind the cockpit, I had a great view of the approaching runway, which was clearly marked with strips of lights.

I had arranged to meet with my friend, but I was still having phone problems and couldn’t call him.

In order to connect the airport Wi-Fi, I needed to receive a pin by text, but having no network, I could not receive the pin. A ridiculous system for foreign travelers.

After waiting around I joined the queue outside the terminal took a taxi to the hotel, which was further away than I had expected, and the ride cost around $50.

At the hotel, I was able to get Wi-Fi and communicated with Eamonn, who was still at the airport waiting for me. We finally met, close to midnight, exchanged a few words then went to our rooms. It had been a very long day.

Graceland sits on one side of Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandise stores, Heartbreak Hotel and coach stop on the other

I was never a huge Elvis fan and the queue for the Graceland tour was long, so we settled for exploring the shops and having coffee.

We had chosen to visit on the Barbecue festival weekend, when thousands of visitors descend upon the city. One of the nearby parks hosts the barbecue competitions and festivities, hence we decided to stay in town and look around. We had a tour of the Gibson guitar factory and entered a couple of small music museums.

Beale Street is to Memphis, like Times Square is to New York. It was packed with tourists and with good reason. The center is a short strip where every building is either a bar or restaurant, almost every one has live music, with variations of the blues, from rock to country.

It was Friday night and people were out for a good time. We found a bar with some good music, food, and available seating. Having eaten we tried a few more bars, staying longer if we liked the music.

It was noticeable that more visitors were arriving on the Saturday, and we would part company that evening as I had to catch a train to Chicago. Eamonn would fly home to Houston.

This was my first experience of a the American ‘music cities’, and would be the first of many, which would include New Orleans, Nashville, St Louis, Chicago and Austin.

We spent our last morning visiting the sites of Sun Studio and Stax Records, and later we dropped off my case at the luggage office in Memphis Railway Station.

By late afternoon Beale Street was being prepared for monster street party. Huge speakers were placed every 100 yards on both sides of the street, over a half mile stretch. In between these were cold beer stalls. Police cars were everywhere, and at the upper end of Beale Street, they were preparing a cherry picker for crown observation.

I left that area at around 6pm and walked up to the station, hoping to find a quiet bar or restaurant to eat in, which I did.

On the way I passed the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It is now a Civil Rights museum.

I had a few hours to kill at the station, but it was not boring. The entrance to the local Police Precinct was on the platform concourse, and it was very busy. For a good couple of hours, police were entering the building and walking out with rifles. Until the following day in Chicago, I had never seen so much police presence on the streets.

I’ve always enjoyed the friendly nature of Americans, and hanging around on a station waiting for the only train due in, which was the 10pm overnight to Chicago, with a journey time of 9 hours, was a good place to start. The first conversation was with a guy who obviously lived alone and dedicated his life to Elvis. The train stopped at several small towns en-route and he lived in one of them. His reason for visiting Memphis was to get a glimpse of Priscilla Presley, who was rumored to be at Graceland, and to buy merchandise for what he described as a house full. He showed me a commemorative Elvis style leather jacked which he removed from an elaborate box and put it on, just for my benefit.

There was a chart song back in the 1960’s called I’m the Train They Call the “City of New Orleans”, which at the time of its release, made very little sense to anyone in the UK.

This is actually the name of a very impressive locomotive which travels from Chicago down to New Orleans during the day, and back up to Chicago at night on a single track.

I had booked a single sleeper, which meant privacy and a bed, as opposed to sitting in a carriage, waking up with every stop.

Compared to English trains in both size and speed, this was an elephant compared to a horse.
The journey would take all night.

The City of New Orleans arrived into Memphis, slowly and majestically, and when stationary, the train manager walked down the line of passengers checking tickets and positioning us in front of specific carriages and doors.

Each carriage had a manager, and stepping down they placed blocks on the platform for us to use.

They then welcomed each of us onto the train, leading us to our seats or sleepers and explaining the facilities, breakfast arrangements and timing.

My room was amazingly narrow, with just enough room to move, and a fold down bed stretching the length of the window. The rest room was almost opposite, and there was a bar in the next carriage.

Having booked the 7am sitting for breakfast, I crashed out sometime around 11pm.
It was a most amazing journey. I lay there with a sheet over me and the blind up.

Thin moonlit cloud on a dark sky served as a constant backdrop, as we moved across open prairies, farmland, and sleepy towns woken by the cry of the train as we passed through. There were several stops, and no doubt the Elvis fan returned safely to his private palace of Presley memorabilia.

I awoke as the sun was rising, casting a beautiful orange glow over the passing landscape, and lay there for a while appreciating this one-off experience.

The carriage manager knocked on my door at 6.45 to remind me that breakfast would be served at 7am.

I was shown to a small four-seater table, and joined a few minutes later by two men and a lady.

They lived on the edge of Lake Michigan and had spent ten days in New Orleans. They were not particularly engaging, and although they were friendly and holding polite conversation, I realized that they had not been expecting a stranger to be joining them for breakfast.

The train pulled into Chicago at around 9am.

It was my first time in Chicago, and the City of New Orleans had slowed from a running pace to a crawl as it navigated the criss cross of lines, offering views of the less attractive side of the city.

Union Station was busy with commuters and tourists, and I was far too early to check into my room.

Having dropped off my suitcase, I had complete freedom to go exploring. I walked for miles and took hundreds of photos. It was a more photogenic city than New York, although not as varied. The amazing modern architecture reflecting in the river made it impossible to take a bad shot.

By mid afternoon, I was ready to check-in my room, have a short rest and a much needed shower.

After that I walked along the lake shore and around the fun fair. I even had a ride on the big wheel and got some great shots of the city from the top.

Needless to say, I had an early night and slept until 6am, after which I went out to take more photos.

After an early breakfast in a nearby diner, I was first in line for the John Hancock Tower, which offered excellent 360 degree views from the Observation Deck. The elevators rise 1,000 feet in 40 seconds, claiming to be the fastest in America.

I walked down to the Art Institute to find it was closed, but I spent the afternoon wandering around Millennium Park, which is a vast area, and popular with tourists.

On retuning to my room, I noticed a build-up of police vehicles, which I learned was in preparation for a United Nations convention, taking place the next day. President Obama and lots of heads of state would be there, hence all roads were closed and at least two police vehicles with lights flashing were positioned at every junction.

That evening was humid and the sky was clouding over as I walked down to the River Walk area of the city, with the intention of having a pizza in a small Pizzeria that I had discovered earlier. How could I come to Chicago and not have a pizza? The owner was friendly and on his own, not expecting much business because of the high security and partial lock-down. The pizza was okay, but not as good as some that I’d enjoyed in New York or parts of Italy, but I complemented the owner/chef.

It was lucky enough to get some nice evening shots, with a stormy sunset.

It rained heavily for a while and I sheltered by one of the buildings, with a dozen or more police.

By that time there were hardly any other civilians around, and once the storm passed I set up my tripod and wandered around taking long exposure shot of the area. There were at least a half-dozen police officers at every intersection. I could easily count over a hundred from any place that I stood.

I had just positioned the tripod for some more shots when two police officers were walking across the street towards me. I continued to take pictures, but looked up to acknowledge them when they were just a few feet away. The female took the lead, saying hello.

“You’ve come to check me out.” I said, but she said “No, were were just getting a bite to eat.” indicating a shop behind me.

She said that I was Ralph Fiennes, the actor. (Which was obviously a ploy).

“He’s English.” I replied.

“And so are you, she said.”

It all appeared very false, but she asked about the camera, then my reason for being in Chicago. Where I was staying etc., then wished me a pleasant evening and walked back to where they had come from, without going to the shop for a bite to eat. I figured they were simply bored.

The following day was bright and warm, and I spent it in the Millennium Park area and that section of the city, before heading out to O’Hare airport and flying back to Heathrow.

Outside the airport there were lots of black cars and security guys in suits with ear pieces. The convention had ended, and so had a most enjoyable trip.

Looking back, I had driven a few thousand miles across four States, with a few miles of walking in the fifth.

Memphis photos