I Ran Away from My Shitty Life to Visit Elvis's Graceland

I wanted to forget the student loans, soul-sucking jobs, and mindless repetition of adulthood and step into the King's fantasy world.

Tess Barker

Tess Barker

I was 19 years old the first time I made plans to go to Graceland. It was midnight at the tail end of a Boston winter, and my friends and I lay wet and dirty on a dorm-room floor, thawing out from hours of romping through the sludgy city snow. We passed a joint and let the shrooms we'd taken earlier slowly float through our bodies. Napster music played from my friend Meghan's laptop, and we quietly watched the shadows on the ceiling grow still. The song changed to Paul Simon's "Graceland":

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar.

My friend Sarah sat up and pushed back the bandana that contained her springy, curled hair. "We have to go on a road trip to Graceland," she said as she took a drag off of the joint.

"I'll go right now," I concurred, with more confidence than someone without a car or all of her mental faculties should have.

"It should be a surprise," Meghan said. "If any of us ever comes knocking on the other's door and says, 'We're going to Graceland,' we all have to stop what we're doing, get in the car, and just go." Yes, we all agreed. Yes, a thousand times, yes. It was a pinky-sworn plan that we rehashed during empty stomached all-nighters and drunken Chinatown nights. We kept it in our pockets: a penny for a rainy day—through graduation, cross-country moves, and the chasm of uncertainty that is being autonomous for the first time in your life—an emergency option that sat behind glass for more than a decade.

And when the glass was broken, it wasn't a knock on the door but a call. Meghan had ended her engagement. A week before her wedding. Holy shit. We were going to fucking Graceland.

Losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
I'm going to Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee

Graceland is in an unremarkable neighborhood. It's laid bare beside a gas station and a fried-chicken joint, and as we rolled up in our budget rental car, these humble surroundings were the first things that made me fall in love with our phantom host.

We parked in the half-full lot and stepped out into the biting cold air. There it was, the sign we had pressed through defaulted loans and disappointing jobs to see: "Graceland, the Home of Elvis Presley ."

Poorboys and Pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

We passed through a covered bridge that led us into the changeless time-fold that is Elvis's estate. There were relatively few pilgrims in attendance on this gray winter day, and "Welcome to My World" echoed through the empty space. Those who came before us had paid their respects by defacing the wooden slats below our feet with Sharpies and Wite-Out pens.

We gladly overpaid for our audio tours. We hopped into a shuttle with our fellow Elvis obsessives. We pulled up to the King's front door.

I don't believe in ghosts, so I'm not sure what it is that's lurking on the flawless white couches, at the piano bench, and in every corner of the Graceland mansion, but it's haunting and comforting as hell.

The entire house has been preserved exactly as Elvis had it. It's a vacuum, where the same sweet and human memories of a superhuman icon have been dancing with one another for the past 40 years. Here, Elvis is still alive and 9/11 never happened.

The audio tour describes him walking down the steps to the landing, and you can hear the soft whoosh of his tassels, sense the weight of his feet on the steps as he made his way to greet his callers.

Apparently he was always dressed to the tens, even in his own home. As someone who frequently changes into what I like to call "Pajamas B," I was more impressed by this than his countless gold records and timeless position in American pop culture.

The kitchen is tacky and perfect. Aside from the fact that, as with all of the rooms in the house, there is a TV in it, it is unpretentious and functional-seeming. It's the kind of kitchen where a party's best degenerates gather for stories and easy access to beer. It has a familiar dinginess to it that suggests at any moment you may be served a fried peanut butter sandwich with an Ovaltine-back. Here is a place to be fed. Here, you are safe from the flash bulbs and the demanding public and the distance that time cleaves between friends and that nagging feeling that adulthood must be something more than this.

I've reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

His den is so bright and garish and wonderful that it hurts. There are side-by-side televisions that he used to simultaneously watch different programs at all hours of the day, under a giant "Taking Care of Business" lightning bolt. Sarah and I have always prided ourselves on our ability to watch television for hours on end, and as we lingered in the room it seemed entirely feasible that we could cross the security barriers and the walls of time and just plop down and vegetate with him in the flesh.

The game room is windowless and covered in exotic fabric. There is a scratch on the pool table. There are seats to sink into. It's a place where spilled drinks could easily go unnoticed, where night could bleed into day, where you could get stoned enough to purposely read William S. Burroughs.

We took the stairs back upstairs to the Jungle Room, and by now, I had forgotten that Elvis was maybe the most famous artist of all time or that millions before me had stood where I was. It felt like I was in the home of a relative I had always known but never met. We listened to a song he had recorded here, enveloped in green shag carpeting, and 1976 fastened itself snugly into the present. We were slow to exit, because this was the last room in the house, and we tacitly fought the reality that we couldn't stay forever, not even here.

Outside, we walked by Lisa Marie's swing set, which is shitty and precious.

Then, we popped into his plane, which has a gold sink and a blue suede bed and a bar stocked with his friends' favorite drinks, and is thus an interactive lesson on how to be a bad motherfucker.

The gift shops in Graceland are overpriced and full of poorly made crap. It was hard to choose which 43 things to buy. We threw down for golf balls, socks, and sunglasses for my niece, as well as shirts for Sarah's kids. All three of us got matching TCB shirts. On the way out, we added our names to the wood slats on the bridge.

I came back to Graceland 11 months later. My sister had lost someone dear to her, and I was accompanying her on an emergency cross-country road trip. We were driving her to California from New York because trying to escape grief while wandering the frigid streets of Brooklyn is like attempting to tread water with weights attached to your feet. Faced with the frustrating impotence that is being adjacent to a person in mourning, all I could offer her was a trip to the Heartbreak Hotel. Elvis's house is America's church: a reminder that the world is a playground upon which go-karts should be ridden and bejeweled jumpsuits should be worn; a tribute to the man who proved that being elegant and trashy are not mutually exclusive, and that with enough commitment and Taking Care of Business, you can build an empire off of your pelvis, you can reside in the hillbilly palace of your dreams, and you can even live forever.

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