There’s a line in Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” that goes: “My traveling companion is 9 years old / He is the child of my first marriage.” It’s an odd line that only Simon could pull off, a lyric that I’ll forever love because of the opportunity it presented to me and my son, who is from my first marriage. He was 7 when we realized that we would have the opportunity to live out the song, a road trip through “the cradle of the Civil War” on our own pilgrimage. My wife had asked if she could come, but alas, there is no mention of a third person in the car.
I didn’t know what to expect going into the trip. Tristan knew a few of the more popular Elvis songs, the ones we all hear when we’re young because of their novelty, but it’s not like he had any real love for Presley. He knew he was “The King of Rock and Roll,” but that was really the extent of it. I feared he would be bored by it all, and our planning would be for nothing. But I also knew that, if nothing else, he loved staying in hotels, with pools. The ace up my sleeve. I put a road mix together for the trip to build some kind of suspense. It had the Million Dollar Quartet, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and a few other Memphis notables, but I made sure to start the trip with a different Paul Simon song — “America.” It’s how I start all of my road trips, and it was especially important for him to know that this was more than a long drive. That it was meant to be something deeper.
I tried not to be overly sentimental when I would see him humming the choruses as he stared out the window at the passing fields, forests and hills. I took the opportunity to show him how to get a truck driver to honk his horn, which ended up keeping him occupied for most of the drive. It’s harder to get them to pull that cord than I remember, but when it would finally happen, we would both cheer like soccer fans. Then he would get set for the next big rig, while bouncing along to “Jailhouse Rock.”
We pulled into Graceland late in the afternoon, just a few hours before close, most of the crowds having already passed through. With no lines, we made our way through the mansion, taking in the retro sights, him enjoying the video guide companion of the Presley family living their lives in the spots where we stood. Even without knowing much about Elvis, Tristan was taken by all of the history, and as we ended our tour at his grave, he understood the weight of the moment, even giving a calm moment of introspection, quite a feat for a kid.
The next morning, in a last minute decision, we headed over to Sun Records for their tour. It was only after the upstairs museum that we found the building’s real magic. Ushered down into the studio, still working and recording nightly, we were shown the exact microphone and spot where Elvis recorded “That’s Alright Mama,” where Johnny sang “I Walk the Line,” where U2 recorded a part of Rattle and Hum. The very first rock and roll song, “Rocket 88,” came from there. I felt my eyes welling up and my knees a little shaky. It was only then that it dawned on me that most of my entire being, professionally and spiritually, exists the way it does because of that room, and that spot. Tristan saw the tear and asked what was wrong. I couldn’t find the words to answer, so I just smiled, motioned my hand around the room, and said he’d understand one day.
Of course, “Graceland” is not actually a song about the home of Elvis, but rather a beautifully-worded poem of metaphors. But we found the ghosts, and felt received. I was able to show my child why I do what I do, and got to watch him take in melodies made long before either of us, of which he’ll forever have. It’s one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had as a father, all from one little song. With “Homeward Bound” on the radio, we gave our thanks and found the highway again, already talking about the next adventure.