I was so excited about touring Graceland.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons to visit Memphis that really drew me in.

My friend had given me a Buddy Pass on Southwest Airlines to visit her in Florida, but since she had a bundle of them that was expiring, I ended up with an extra that I needed to use within two weeks.

I thought to myself, “Where can I go alone that’s a direct flight from Houston?” When I thought of touring Graceland, the glorious home of Elvis Presley, as well as paying my respects at the National Civil Rights Museum, I knew I wanted to visit Memphis.

But when I arrived at Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116, I didn’t expect to feel so sad. But I did anyway. Here’s why:

Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

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Why Touring Graceland Made Me Sad

I’m not an Elvis super fan.

He died 15 years, 364 days before I was born, so I grew up seeing him as a cultural moment, rather than a musician to invest time and interest in. Sure, I like his songs and know his general story, but my parents were born a little too late to appreciate him, and my grandmothers didn’t have the time to be fangirls, so I didn’t know much more than Jail House Rock.

Before touring Graceland, I only knew of Elvis the phenomenon, not Elvis the person, so I was excited to learn more about his brand of rock n’ roll and the impact he had on a generation.

Seeing his home really shifted my perspective.

Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

From Phenom to Friend

Before visiting, I didn’t know Elvis’ life started in tragedy; that his twin brother Jessie Garon Presley was stillborn in a tiny shotgun home in Tupelo, Mississippi, an event that caused the Presley family to cling together and love each other more fiercely than before.

I knew vaguely of Elvis’ religious background, but the exhibits throughout Graceland painted the picture of a man of great faith with a heart for the nations.

I heard mention after mention of Elvis’ generosity towards his community and fellow man, coupled with his intense desire that his philanthropy be anonymous.

As much as Elvis was “the voice of a generation” or “the king of rock n’ roll,” it really just seemed like he was boy with a voice trying to do a little good. It made me sad to think he was ever portrayed otherwise.

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Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

Too Much Too Fast

It was the little things at Graceland that made the biggest impact.

Like when I learned that Elvis, nervous for his first day on set of his first motion picture, memorized everyone’s lines instead of just his own, just in case, indicating how naive about, and yet wholeheartedly committed to, Hollywood he was. Elvis went on to star in 27 films in the 1960’s. 27. And that’s in addition to all his singing.

It made me sad to hear that his non “teen beach movies” failed, as he wanted to do serious work. The public just didn’t want to buy “off brand Elvis,” so he had to stick to the formula…27 times.

His pompadoured black hair. His guitar. His bedazzled jumpsuits. Even his “thank ya, thank ya very much.” Those weren’t Elvis. Those were his brand; trademarks assigned to him, then taken from him, and exaggerated into something that would sell.

Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

When I went to Guest Services at Graceland to ask a question, there were two women ahead of me in line, both in their late 60s. They were little girls when Elvis was at the top of his game, but they still loooooved him. One of them was even wearing blue suede shoes.

Their enthusiasm was infectious and reminded me of how I speak about literally ever boyband member ever, but it also reminded me of the voyeuristic relationship that the public often has with our favorite celebrities.  We feel like we know them, but we only know their persona. It’s totally one-sided.

While we (the public) were giddy in love with Elvis, he was working himself to death, turning to substances in the process to comfort himself.

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Gone Too Soon

The Meditation Garden at Graceland is what really got to me.

I had to sit down for a moment I was so overwhelmed. Elvis is resting there, along with the family he loved so dearly. His parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, as well as his grandmother, Minnie Mae. There’s even a memorial for his twin brother, Aaron.

Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

I say resting emphatically, because while touring Graceland, I learned resting is something Elvis never really got to while living. 42 years. 27 movies. 19 albums. Countless concerts.

He was tired.

We, the public, took from Elvis. A once poor boy with an extraordinary voice and charismatic smile. A generous man who was overwhelmed by the needs of the world. We could never get enough of him. And eventually we took too much.

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Visiting Graceland Elvis Presley Home

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Looking for things to do in Nashville with kids?

Music City can be very drinking and dancing oriented, so if you are looking for a more family-friendly (or sober!) day in Tennessee’s Capital, here’s what you can do:

3 Things To Do in Nashville with Kids

things to do in nashville with kids squad

My students and I at the Parthenon in Nashville. We’re starting a girl band.

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Take a Tour of the Grand Ole Opry

things to do in nashville with kids opry tour

The Grand Ole’ Opry, the show that made country famous! Even if you aren’t a big country music fan, it’s one of the top things to do in Nashville with kids, even if you are just passing through, because of the immense cultural mark it’s left on the city.

The Opry is also the place to work for those looking to break into the country music scene. Think about it: does your day job give you access to your creative industry’s greats?

Be sure to share a smile with everyone: the ticket sellers, the tour guides, and even the security guards, because you never know, you might be singing along to their music soon.

things to do in nashville with kids opry stage

The security guard who checked my purse had the smoothest, radio-perfect DJ voice I’ve ever heard. Turns out, he spins for a local station at night! Dierks Bentley also used to work on the grounds, but got kicked out for crashing too many parties! He got the last laugh though, when he was inducted into the Opry in 2005.

Your best bet is to take the daytime tour, which begins with a video introduction from Opry-member and hitmaker Blake Shelton. The video started when I was still around the corner, so I definitly felt disappointed when I saw that it wasn’t really him.

things to do in nashville with kids opry dressing room

One of the dressing rooms at the Opry.

Our tour lasted just under an hour and took us through the ornate dressing rooms, the loading docks, recording studios, and even onto the stage itself. As we walked around the corner and out onto the Famous Ryman Circle, I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to imagine what it would be like as an artist experiencing this hallowed stage for the very first time.

I teared up as I stood where Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and even Carrie Underwood have performed…and I can’t even sing! I imagine it to be an even more special experience for aspiring musicians.

things to do in nashville with kids opry stage

Singing in the famous circle.

Essential Info:

  • You can reserve tours up four weeks in advance. Book ASAP as they tend to sell out — especially during the summer.
  • The website for Grand Ole Opry Tour Reservations is here.
  • Tickets are $27 for 12+ and $22 for 4-11. Children under 4 are free.

Explore the Parthenon and Centennial Park

Can’t make it to Greece? No problem! Nashville has a full-size model of the Parthenon. Having been to both, I can confidently say that the one in Nashville is actually quite a bit cooler because it’s not in ruins.

things to do in nashville with kids park

While the Parthenon in Athens is cool because it’s where the history actually happened, the Parthenon in Nashville is one of the best things to do in Nashville with kids because it allows you to step into history and really get an idea of just how amazing the original was in all of its glory.

In addition to all the splendor of the Greek temple, the Parthenon in Nashville offers visitors a look into the history of Nashville and the 1897 Centennial Exposition for which it was constructed. The building also serves as Nashville’s art museum.

things to do in nashville with kids the pharmacy

After you visit, be sure to wander around Centennial Park, as there’s great landscaping and places to sit and relax. You also never know who you might meet! My group ran into WWII vet. When one of my students noticed the man’s Air Force cap and thanked him for his service, he told us the riveting story of how he cheated death.

He had been working around the clock training pilots on an aircraft carrier and was essentially a dead man walking due to exhaustion. His commander broke protocol and had mercy on him, sending him to rest instead of fly the next drill. The plane he would have been on was shot down. He was so emotional when he told the story that I cried, my student cried, and pretty much everyone standing in the lobby of the Parthenon cried.

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Essential Info:

  • Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9AM to 4:30PM, Sunday, 12:30PM to 4:30PM, Closed Monday.
  • Tickets are $4 for 4 – 17 & 62+ and $6 for 18-61. Children under 4 are free.
  • Plan to spend about 60 – 90 minutes exploring the Parthenon and the park.

Relax with an Orange Soda at the Pharmacy

things to do in nashville with kids the pharmacy

I honestly still dream about the orange soda I got at the Pharmacy. It was like drinking a creamsicle cloud.

If you want to grab a tasty burger, sausage, or sandwich at a cute shop with a fun outdoor eating area, don’t miss the Pharmacy while you’re in Nashville!

Essential Info:

  • Located at 731 McFerrin Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37206
  • Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11AM to 10PM and Friday through Saturday, 11AM to 11PM.

Bonus: Spend the Day Volunteering

Volunteering in Nashville Habitat for Humanity

Some of my team at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Nashville.

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The reason for my trip to Nashville was on a week-long service trip with some teenagers from my church. We spent a week pouring love and acts of service into the city of Nashville.

Although Nashville is a fun, upbeat place, there are still overwhelming amounts of unmeet needs throughout the city. Volunteering as a family is great one of the best things to do in Nashville with kids because it’s a way to make a small impact in the lives of Nashville’s vulnerable populations as well as your own.

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This post is a part of my Black Hills Road Trip Series 

Devils Tower National Monument is a geographic and historic wonder nestled in the Bear Lodge Mountains of northeastern Wyoming, an extension of the Black Hills. It makes a great day trip from Rapid City, South Dakota and many who choose to visit the region for Mount Rushmore also explore Devils Tower.

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How To Get to Devils Tower

Things To Do Near Mount Rushmore Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument is located in northeastern Wyoming. The entrance to the park is 33 miles northeast of Moorcroft, Wyoming and 27 miles northwest of Sundance, Wyoming.

Most navigation apps will pick up the location by simply typing in the monument’s name, but if you are having trouble, you can enter

149 State Highway 110
Devils Tower, WY 82714

It’s only about a 90 minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota to Devils Tower, making it an excellent day trip option.

Quick tip: make sure to stop in Belle Fourche, South Dakota on the drive over. It’s the geographic center of the United States! 

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Quick Tips for Devils Tower

how to get to devils tower national monument wyoming

It’s best to visit in the spring or fall, when the weather is cooler and the crowds aren’t as large. If you visit during the summer, get there early, as parking is often completely full for a few hours a day.

The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the visitor’s center has more restricted hours. It is open daily from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, with the exception of being closed December 24th, 25th, 31st and January 1st.

It is currently $20.00 per vehicle to enter the park.

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Why Is Devils Tower Important?

how to get to devils tower national monument Wyoming

Devils Tower National Monument was the very first National Monument in the United States, designated as such by President Teddy Roosevelt on September 24, 1906.

The name “Devil’s Tower” originated from an 1875 expedition when an interpreter misunderstood a Native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower.” However, it’s now referred to as simply “Devils Tower” because apparently the geographic naming standard indicates that all apostrophes should be eliminated. 

So as much as it’s killing me to write it without one, “Devils Tower” is the correct name.

But many don’t think so.

Long before it was a National Monument, the mountain and surrounding area was sacred to many Native Americans. For 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, there was a campaign to rename the monument Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark in recognition of its original discovery and meaning. Unfortunately, unlike the campaign that changed Mount McKinley’s name to Denali, this one failed…so far.

Why Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark, you may ask? Well, for the name of the mountains surrounding it. But there’s history behind that, too…

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The Legend of Devils Tower

how to get to devils tower national monument Wyoming

There are a few variations on the legend of how Devils Tower came to be.

The Kiowa and the Lakota tribes say the one day, when a group of little girls were playing on the plains, a group of giant bears began to chase them. The girls were terrified and climbed on top of a rock to try and get away from the bears, but the rock was not high enough to keep them safe. So, they cried out to the gods for protection.

The Great Spirit heard them and made the rock grow into a tall mountain, whisking the girls away from the bears, who didn’t give up and tried to climb the new mountain, their claws leaving deep gashes in the sides. The mountain eventually grew to touch the sky and the girls became the Pleiades constellation.

The Sioux believe that when two small boys wandered away from the village, Mato, a huge bear, began to chase them because he wanted to eat them for breakfast. His claws were the size of tipi poles, so the boys were terrified and prayed to Wakan Tanka the Creator for help. He heard them, raising them on a rock for protection.

But Mato was very hungry, so he persisted, his huge claws leaving scratches on every side of the mountain. He eventually gave up, and the wise eagle, Wanblee, helped the boys back to their village.

Bottom line: Children in distress. Pursued by a giant bear. Saved by the gods.

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Things To Do at Devils Tower

how to get to devils tower national monument Wyoming

Devils Tower is all about nature: hiking, camping, and climbing. Of the 400,000 visitors a year, only 1% choose to climb to the top. If that’s you, congratulations! If not, there’s still plenty to see and do.

Stop by the visitor’s center for more information on the geographic, cultural, and historic context of Devils Tower before hiking the one-mile loop around the base of the monument.

There are plenty of places to stop, rest, and enjoy the view of Devils Tower and surrounding valleys, so plan to take at least an hour, if not 90 minutes for the hike.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also filmed in the area, so keep an eye out for aliens as well.

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The 4K for Cancer is as intense as it sounds: 4,000 miles, coast to coast, to raise money for a cure.

Riley (from theBikeDyke) and I met our first year at Mount Holyoke College through Project: Theatre, a student-run organization. We were in multiple plays together during our time there, but my favorite memory of her is from our rehearsals for 12 Angry Men. 

We were supposed to be building character rapport by looking into each other’s eyes without talking — but we couldn’t do it without laughing. I think we derailed the whole rehearsal.

Mount Holyoke College Class of 2015 4k for cancer

Riley also has the travel bug and has biked across America twice on a 4K for Cancer with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

I’ve always been so impressed by this (repeat!) feat, so I had to talk to her about it.

Here’s the deets on the 4K for Cancer:

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What made you decide to ride your bike from coast to coast?

There were a number of reasons I wanted to bicycle across the country with the 4k for cancer The first was just plain old desire for an adventure, which bicycling from Baltimore to Seattle (and then Baltimore to San Francisco) inevitably would be.

I spent the summer before my ride living in a cabin in beautiful Acadia National Park, teaching outdoor education to children, and I wanted to spend another summer primarily outdoors.

4k for Cancer Mount Rushmore

The previous year, my childhood best friend’s father had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, and I was looking for the most fitting way to honor his life. He loved being out in nature, and I think he would have loved the idea of bicycling 4,500 miles in one summer so I did the 4K for Cancer.

 The second bike trip was because I had caught the travel by bike bug and needed to do another trip or risk someday selling all my possessions and bicycling from city to city. I’m not sure it was the perfect remedy, as I wish I was on a bicycling trip right now.

How do you train for a cross-country bike ride like the 4K for Cancer?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Ideally, you’d train with bike shoes and clip-in pedals so you can get accustomed to clipping in and out (and clipping out BEFORE you hit the brakes). You’d do a few 50-60 mile rides to prepare you for the days on the 4k for cancer that we bicycle up to 115+ miles.

You’d get used to drinking water while on the bicycle, become comfortable cruising 40+ miles an hour downhill, and try your hand at not fishtailing on messy gravel roads. I didn’t do any of that. I rode ~8 miles on two flat tires and bought my clips the day before I took off.

How many hours / miles did you cover on a typical day?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

It definitely varied day to day. On average, we would cover around 60-70 miles, but could go as high as 120. Somedays, we’d get lucky and only have to cover 30-40 miles. The amount of time really depended on weather, terrain, and luck. One of those 35 miles day was up the steepest mountain I’ve ever bicycled up.

That took a lot longer than going 80 miles through flat Nebraska with no headwind. Typically, we’d wake up at 5 or 6 and try to be on the road by 8 to maximize on daylight. We’d bike until it started to get dark, but we never bicycled when it was actually dark out.

How many states did you get to explore on the 4K for Cancer?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

On my last trip, I believe I went through around 13 states. Some states, you just pass through and others, it feels like you spend lifetimes in. There was a day where we bicycled through four states in total!

On my previous trip, I believe I hit 15 states. It’s a great way to really get to know a place.

What was your favorite state to ride through? Why?

There were so many states on the 4k for cancer that I fell in love with!

On my first trip, I was obsessed with Minnesota and Montana. Minnesota has such a friendly atmosphere, it’s just like how people describe, and lots of great coffee. Montana is the most beautiful state I’ve biked through. Bicycling to the top of the Sun Road in Glacier National Park is still one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

On my last trip, I loved bicycling through Colorado, even though the terrain wasn’t the easiest and the weather wasn’t the nicest. There are so many bicyclists in Colorado, it felt like we were at home. One of my teammates from my first bicycling trip lived in Boulder at the time, so seeing him during my second trip was a really comforting and encouraging thing.

Was there a particular state or area that was difficult to bike through?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

I think all states have pluses and negatives, but hands down, Tennessee and Missouri were the hardest states to bicycle through. I’ve never had someone point a shotgun at my head while I was bicycling, and now I’ve had it happen twice!

Let’s just say that a lot of people in those states are not fan of bicyclists, even though we were literally biking in a straight line on public roads. They seemed to really value their solitude in those places.

Can you tell us about a time when you felt overwhelmed or exhausted? What made you keep going?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Sure! I would say that every single day I was exhausted and at one point or another (even though overall it was a blast!), but one day where I was really having a difficult time was bicycling up Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest paved road in the U.S. We had “climbing buddies” because the ride was so steep, which just means a teammate who sticks with you and makes sure you’re doing ok.

My climbing buddy had broken her thumb really badly the night before and was in a crazy amount of pain going up the mountain. We started to get really dizzy because of the giant altitude shift. I’m severely asthmatic, so I had to keep meeting up with the van and plugging in my nebulizer so I didn’t have a giant asthma attack. Then, a huge thunderstorm hit and we had no shelter to hide from it.

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4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

My number one fear is lightning, so I was petrified, but also really frustrated that we couldn’t finish the climb, because it was such a notoriously difficult ride and I really wanted to finish it. In that moment, my teammates and the people we met along the way battling cancer or who had lost loved ones to cancer kept me going on this 4k for Cancer.

My team immediately sprang into action and began loading bicycles on top of the van and cramming 20+ people and all of our gear into a 15 passenger van. Some of my other teammates had hitched a ride with a park ranger, and I was impressed that they had beaten us up the mountain.

The view from the top of Trail Ridge Road was incredible – it looked like we were in a fairytale of some sort. It just didn’t seem real. It was a nice reminder that I was safe, I was surrounded by my teammates who were family. Everything was going to be ok.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Was there ever a moment on the 4k for Cancer course when you felt totally at peace?

There were so many moments that felt like I was totally at peace.

One day, it was down-pouring and freezing and my climbing buddy Krista and I were for some reason totally in sync. The ride was really hard and a lot of my other teammates were having a difficult time, but for some reason, Krista and I were almost in a meditative state!

The road we were on was super dangerous, and Krista’s back tire kept flinging mud up in my face. I ended up looking like I was covered in a million freckles, but they were all made from mud.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Near the end of the day, we reached the peak of the mountain and just coasted crazy fast down. It was one of those really rewarding days where you have steadily climbed for hours and you get to reap the full benefit by having this amazing downhill. At the bottom, we were absolutely freezing, but so happy.

We took these photos on my phone of us just being so happy with how the ride went. We must have looked absolutely bonkers.

What kinds of places do you sleep on these rides?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

We would sleep on the floors of churches, schools, YMCA’s, etc. I was one of the people on my team who coordinated housing ahead of time, which meant contacting previous hosts and asking if they’d be willing to let us crash again or cold-calling all of the potential hosts in a random town in the middle of America.

Sometimes, we’d get really lucky and a church or organization would coordinate homestays for us! That was like Disneyland, because we’d get a hot meal and a hot shower and maybe even a bed and a chance to do laundry. The strangest places I slept on the 4k for Cancer were a firehouse (in the garage, next to the firetruck!), the Utah Jazz basketball stadium, and the barn of a rodeo.

How does a “bike road trip” differ from that in car?

It’s so different! When you’re in a vehicle, you don’t have to constantly be looking out for every piece of glass or vent in the road, you don’t have to expend an incredible amount of energy on big mountains, and you aren’t completely exposed to the elements.

But, you have a much easier time stopping and talking to locals, going into shops and businesses, meeting other folks on the road, and you have a deeper understanding of the places you bicycled through, because you saw them at 15 miles per hour from sunup to sundown.

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Even though it can be exhausting, you might be battling heat stroke or freezing because your clothing is soaked, or you might be caught in a headwind that makes you feel like you’re moving through molasses, I strongly prefer the latter. After bicycling 9,000+ miles, my executive opinion is that it makes for better adventures.

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What advice would you give someone going on a 4k for Cancer or similar trip?

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

4k for cancer thebikedyke riley smith

Do it! Seriously, do it. Even if you think that you can’t physically do it, even if you are scared or anxious, do it. Your body will adjust to the miles, and you will become so accustomed to life on the road that you’ll be comfortable sleeping just about anywhere and wonder why you ever had more than three outfits to begin with.

Even better, you’ll make true lifelong friends, because they will literally have been in the trenches with you. You’ll have a deeper understanding of who you are as a person and just how dang resilient you are. And you’ll have memories that will make you so glad to be alive.

You can find Riley on Instagram and Youtube. 

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