Road Trip to Horn Lake, Mississippi

It was a Sunday morning. I woke up early, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then took off in my car for Mississippi. It was so cold that I had to find the damn ice scraper in my rental car and go to town on the frost covering my car. I loved the cold. It was dark and quiet. My gentle GPS lady led the way. I was headed to Tupelo first, to see Elvis’ birthplace and I wanted to find the old fairgrounds too, where 1. Elvis sang in a talent show when he was 10 years old and came in 5th and 2. Elvis returned triumphant in 1956 to perform at the big fair, and it was a “welcome home, Elvis” type of day. He wore the blue velvet shirt given to him by Natalie Wood. His parents joined him. There was a parade in his honor. Nick Adams, his slightly sketchy friend from Hollywood, accompanied him. So that was my Tupelo agenda. I knew nothing would be open. I didn’t care. Like a lot of my trip, I wanted to sneak up on these places, and spy on them when no one else was around.

Then I was going to find Horn Lake, Mississippi. In the mid-60s, Elvis was driving around in that area, saw a huge cross in a field, was drawn to it, started up a conversation with the man who owned the property, and asked him if he could buy the whole damn ranch. Elvis paid cash. It was a spontaneous decision. He fell in love with the place. Graceland was great, but this place was really out of the way, a ranch surrounded by farmland, in the middle of nowhere. It would be great to have another getaway where he could get privacy. He called the ranch the Circle G. He then began a spending spree that was extreme even for him. He met with horse traders, bought horses, bought cows, bought tractors and trucks, he bought a bunch of trailers so that he and his buddies and their wives could stay there (the house on the property was very small). Elvis’ spending got him in trouble with his father, who managed the accounts, and there was a lot of tension. Elvis kept saying, “I’m HAPPY, though. I’m HAPPY right now. Please don’t ruin that.” He bought saddles and cowboy gear, he had a vision of having a real cattle ranch for himself. When Elvis did anything, he did it 100%. He married Priscilla in 1967 and they had their honeymoon at the Circle G. Everyone remembers it as a very happy time, and the most “normal” of any of the times with Elvis. Elvis and Priscilla, Jerry Schilling and his girlfriend, Elvis’ cousins and their wives, would hang out in their respective trailers, get together for breakfast, ride horses, hang out, and it was all very normal. Except for the hundreds of thousands of dollars Elvis spent in a one-year period.

It was like Elvis went into a fugue state. He was unhappy with his career at that point, he was deeply embedded in Hollywood and still had a couple of years on his contract. He was doing no live performing. Going on a spending spree made him happy. In 1968 some changes came. Lisa Marie was born. And negotiations began for his “Christmas special” on NBC, and it would be that special that would resurrect Elvis from the dead, and get him hungry and ferocious again. The Circle G lessened in importance once his career started picking up again. He kept the property (and, as a matter of fact, Vernon died there). But the spending spree stopped abruptly, he sold off a lot of the equipment and animals, and turned his focus to other things.

I know that the Circle G is not on any tourist map. You have to know where to find it. There is no plaque, nothing that says “Elvis lived here”. It’s for sale, and there are definitely some campaigns to have it made into a memorial of some kind, because of the importance it had in Elvis’ life. I didn’t know what I would find when I got there. Were people living there?

I was surprised at how close Horn Lake was to Memphis. It’s right over the state line, and really only about 20 miles from downtown Memphis. For some reason, I had pictured it much further away. Elvis could get there from Graceland in 15 minutes. That gave me some perspective. I drove through Horn Lake on a road that was dominated by McDonalds, Wal Marts, Home Depots, and a couple of mega-churches. Services were getting out and the post-church traffic was so bad that cops had to direct it. I’m Catholic. This is a whole other world to me, Southerners and their giant giant churches. The road that supposedly took me to the Circle G was a long one, and very very built up in the worst way. But I imagine back in the 60s it was all farmland down there. You can feel the farmland pushing up against the development. Eventually, the “strip” ended, and the road cleared out a bit. There were little houses and mailboxes along the road, and bit patches of forest, and I felt I was getting close, to whatever it was. Finally, I saw what I recognized as the small brick house that was “the house” on the Circle G, and the nice GPS lady told me that the “destination was on the left”. The house is right on the road. Next to it is some abandoned building with a big empty parking lot. There’s an intersection there. I pulled into the parking lot. No other cars. At this spot of road, the traffic was sparse. Nobody bothered me. I had the place to myself.

It was only 10 in the morning or so. I had already been to Tupelo. I had already had a full day. It was still cold out. One of the things I loved best about Mississippi, or what I saw of it at least, was that the frost was on the grass, turning it white. Even with the sun in the sky, that frost wasn’t melting. It gave the farmland a shimmer, a beauty. It was a crisp cold morning. Mississippi also has great radio stations. It was a wealth of choices.

There were signs saying NO TRESPASSING in front of the little Circle G house. I ignored the signs. No one was around. It was just a derelict little house on a patch of land, with fields launching off into the distance. It was beautiful. There was a little shed behind the house. There was a barn off at the end of one of the fields. The back porch of the little house had workers’ equipment out there, buckets and ladders and cement bricks. Clearly some work is being done there. But it was Sunday morning. Nobody working there now.

It was beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. I had the time and space to tramp around on the property, looking at everything. When you have that space, when you are not surrounded by a crush of tourists, it is easier to picture the old inhabitants, who used to live there, the bustle of activity, the horses, the trailers, the clotheslines. It was rustic. Elvis loved it because it was rustic. No frills. He and Priscilla “played house”, and she remembers it as one of the happiest times in their marriage because she had him to herself (almost). She could cook for him, clean his socks, put out his clothes. He had a staff at Graceland, cooks and everything, so she never could DO anything for him there. And he didn’t want her to do anything at Graceland. She loved being a housewife, and the Circle G gave her that opportunity. Lisa Marie was probably conceived at the Circle G. She was born 9 months to the day of Elvis and Priscilla’s marriage. (I am in the same boat.) So the Circle G is soaked in good memories. It was a happy place.

It’s falling apart now, but it retains the charm and peace that I am sure was the main draw for Elvis, splitting his time between Memphis and Hollywood. Life could feel real here.

I spent about an hour wandering around the property. The frosty grass crunched under my boots. I was happy. It was a good day.

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4 Responses to Road Trip to Horn Lake, Mississippi

  1. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Sheila….I have always wondered about the “Circle G” Ranch. I love horses…(though a city girl) . One of my all time favorite pictures of Elvis is of him ……on his dark, brown horse named Bear……Elvis is in a black leather jacket, lean and looking extremely happy. I think he may have been at the ranch when this photo was taken!! His hair is a bit long, and wind-blown. He seemed as one…..with the elements…even a little chilled……….but loving it! Now because you have shared your incredible journey to the Circle G……everytime I walk by that picture…..I can almost feel like I was there! You have a gift……….and a special way with words…..and you share them ……….so easily! TYVM!

    • sheila says:

      Yes, it really seems like the place set him free – and Priscilla loved it too. Life felt more normal there. I think I know the picture you mean!!

  2. Stephannie says:

    I’ve come across your blog and I love it. Thanks for sharing your perspectives, your photos. I wanted to comment and let you know that I am an ambassador for the Circle G Foundation, a non profit organization promoting saving the ranch. I agree with you wholeheartedly that Elvis’ time at the Circle G was probably the most relaxing period for him. We are working at getting the word out to as many Elvis fans, groups, prospective donors, even prospective buyers that are interested in preserving the Ranch and restoring it to a useful property in respectful memory of Elvis. For any readers interested, please feel free to check out our Facebook page, “Friends of Elvis-Save the Circle G Campaign”. THANKS!

  3. sheila says:

    Stephannie – thanks so much for the heads up! I will definitely check out your page – and good luck. I love that it’s been preserved at all – that it’s not covered by Wal Marts and McDonalds like the land is a mile down the road. So there’s certainly hope, yes?

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