In Search of `The King' Behind the Kitsch

FOUR years have passd since I made a pilgrimage to Graceland. I was a junior in college and it was spring break, a time for doing something different. The idea of a pilgrimage to the home of Elvis Presley - a mecca of American hype - seemed like an experiment in dramatic irony. It was fun because it was ridiculous, highbrow because it was lowbrow.

Four other pilgrims and I packed the car and left our Minnesota college on a cold late-winter morning at 4 a.m. We left at that hour more for effect than out of neccessity. I suppose we thought there was something dramatic about driving away before dawn.

We five travelers had been friends since we had class together the year before. At first the notion of a visit to Graceland was sort of a strange joke, something we mentioned behind a smile. The deeper we got into our studies that winter, however, the more appealing the notion became. Margaret and I would discuss logistics of the trip over our morning grapefruit. A knowing glance would remind us of the journey to come when I passed the others on the way to class.

A couple of late-night study breaks became intensive planning sessions. Up in Dana's third-floor dorm room, we strategized, divided tasks, and mapped out our route. Margaret was to investigate affordable rental cars. Louise and Anna volunteered to find lodging. Dana sent away for tourist guides and campground information. Maps, routes, and travel time were my domain. We also moaned, of course, about upcoming exams and papers to write. The more intense our studies became, though, the more committed we were to our common goal.

Our anticipation fueled us on the morning of our departure, just as it had the night before, when we stayed up late preparing sushi rolls and Elvis tapes for the road. We drove 20 hours to Tennessee, passing single-mindedly through Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kentucky.

Why Elvis? Elvis Presley died when I was eight years old. His songs have always been ``oldies'' to me and his movies (debatably) ``classics.'' I do remember when the news and controversy of his death was all over TV and newspapers in 1977, though I probably did not know of him before then. So why at 21 did I dedicate my spring break to him? There was no reason, of course, and that was precisely the fun of it.

As we drove south listening to Paul Simon singing ``I'm going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee,'' I laughed and sang with my friends and felt as if I were participating in some essential American rite. I was enchanted without knowing why, except that we call him The King.

We saved Graceland for the final day of our trip, dedicating the first six to Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and the Great Smoky Mountains. But when a wet, heavy snow began to fall on the third day, we lost some of our enthusiasm for traveling and climbed back into the car. I still remember that lonely parking lot in Knoxville. We didn't go anywhere; we just sat, creating stories about Graceland.

Anna described the warm, cheap motel where we would sleep in Memphis, and Dana warned us not to sleep in the car. We joked about meeting Elvis's next-door neighbor, or his bodyguard, or his twin sister. Somebody pulled out the Tennessee State Department of Tourism magazine, letting it fall open to the page about Memphis's most famous citizen. I wondered aloud if the guides would show us his bedroom on the economy tour.

When the day finally arrived, we left early to make one of the morning tours. Heading south on Elvis Presley Boulevard, I felt connected to the streams of devoted fans who had passed that way before. It wasn't until we were there, waiting in a long line to buy our expensive tickets, that I finally began to question the implications of Elvis worship. Suddenly I forgot what had seemed so funny about this. We spent most of the half-hour wait for our tour to begin in one of three gift shops. I bought postcards, magnets, and a pen with an image of Elvis that moves up and down the barrel. I picked up an application for an Elvis MasterCard as a souvenir.

We in America love our heroes, but we don't just want ideas or ideals: We want hardware. We parade our affection and allegience on T-shirts and keychains, posters and bumperstickers. Heroes are part of our culture and, by extension, our economy. I stood in that gift shop awed and confused by that deeply American industry - the souvenir. Was it Elvis I came to see, or his image on a ballpoint pen?

They didn't show us the bedroom after all, but we did get to see the raquetball room where Elvis played shortly before his death. As we stood in a lounge with a piano and a leather couch, looking through a plastic window onto the empty court; my neck tingled with the awareness of having travelled so far for this.

They shuffled us from room to room, and by the end I knew all the important trivia: Elvis was born on the eighth day of January 1935 in Tupelo, Miss.; he recorded his first song in the summer of 1953 at Sun Records in Memphis; his mother's name was Gladys and she died in 1958. Back in the gift ship, through, my excitement and awe had turned to dull disgust.

I had found an American Product rather than an American Hero. Our guides told us a manufactured story of Elvis's life and death, full of ``facts'' and ``details,'' but hollow in comparison to the stories we had created on our own. The gift shop turned Elvis into an ugly image on the barrel of a ballpoint pen. This cannot be the Elvis I drove 1,500 miles to meet, I thought. I'd rather keep the old one.

WHEN I look back on it now, that afternoon in the parking lot was the high-point of my pilgrimage. Elvis was still a myth, an ideal, a story told on a snowy afternoon. The mystique of Elvis had pulled us to Tennessee, and I still felt enchanted by what I didn't quite understand.

I still have that pen. The ink is gone though it continues to hold memories. I will remember shivering over hot chocolate in the Smoky Mountains, resting in deep dry grass after a long hike, turning the pages of our AAA Triptik as the miles passed away, and playing with pink mascara in the restroom of the Graceland lobby. The decor of Elvis's rooms and the content of the tour will easily fade from my mind.

In the end, of course, the trip was less about Elvis than about our own imaginations, less about heroes than about good friends. The irony, of course, is that I didn't understand it until just now.

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