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Memphis Urban Adventures: Get Outside Without Leaving the City

Four ways to explore the Great Outdoors within Memphis city limits.

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The road to Billboard Lake
  • The road to Billboard Lake

Benjamin Franklin thought enough of the healing powers of nature that he'd frequently take naked "air baths" in the woods. President John Quincy Adams skinny-dipped in the Potomoc. Theodore Roosevelt, well, he practically lived outdoors.   

Thanks to the many screens and other indoor diversions in our lives, scientists say we need the outdoors more than ever. But these days it can be harder than ever to cross the Shelby County line or get outside of the I-240 loop or, heck, leave the Parkways. Simply getting away to the Great Outdoors can be enough of a barrier to just stay home. 

But Memphians are lucky. Great outdoor spaces are but minutes from the Union Kroger.

A sign on the check-out counter at Outdoors Inc. Midtown reads, "Where can I get outside around here?" Ask anybody working the store, and they'll tell you. 

On a recent visit, I asked Will Frieman. For paddling, he pointed me to the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, about 20 minutes from downtown Memphis in Arkansas. The 600-acre water refuge is home to blue heron, egrets, and bald eagles. For walking or hiking, Freiman recommends folks check out the Big River Crossing — the Harahan Bridge across the Mississippi River. For camping, he said Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is the best and closest.

For our Summer Guide, The Memphis Flyer staff set off on four urban outdoor adventures — paddling, fishing, picnicking, and camping — and all of them were done within reach of the signal from WEVL. We did it just to demonstrate that getting into the outdoors doesn't require you to even leave the Memphis city limits. — Toby Sells 

Paddling the Farm

One minute I was driving down Walnut Grove, and the next I was enjoying an aquatic oasis right smack dab in the middle of urban life. And all it took to make it to this water retreat was a short drive to Shelby Farms park, a pit stop at the park's boat rental house, and 15 bucks.

Helpful park staff carry Maya's kayak to the water.
  • Helpful park staff carry Maya's kayak to the water.

I decided to rent a kayak and give it a go on Hyde Lake, the park's new 80-acre flagship lake that was known as Patriot Lake prior to the park's remodeling. After a quick rental process — paying $15 for my single kayak and scribbling a couple of signatures — I suited up (well, put on the required life vest) and was ready for my hour on the water.

Next, I took a seat in the green-and-blue Jackson Kayak, was handed a pair of paddles, and released to my aqua adventure. As I pushed off the dock, I asked the guy working there if I could tip over, and he replied with a straight face, "Possibly."

Although my kayak didn't capsize, the first thing I noticed is that you will get wet, but then again, isn't that the point? But I didn't mind the water, which, other than the pools of algae that gather on the brim of the lake, is cleaner and crisper up close. It splashed up on me as my paddles maneuvered the lake. 

Even though the hustle and bustle of Walnut Grove is only a couple hundred yards away, the vastness of Hyde Lake will make you forget you're still in the city. At least it did for me, as I paddled around with the rippling water just beneath me, blue skies above, and greenery around the water's edge.

I didn't see any fish swimming below me in the relatively clear water, but families of geese and ducks would occasionally swim near me. There were lots of people on and around the water that day. Some were gazing at it, some wading in it, and some full out swimming, despite the posted signs warning against the latter two activities. 

While I only covered a tiny portion of the lake in my hour, the possibilities are endless (of course, until you run into the patio of The Kitchen restaurant).

If kayaks aren't your thing, the boat house at Hyde Lake also rents canoes, and stand-up paddle boards, which are available at Pine Lake, near the Woodland Discovery Playground. Shelby Farm's marketing and communications manager, Angie Whitfield said paddle boards have been a favorite since they came to the park in September. 

From May until October, the park offers rentals every day of the week from  9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Whitfield said she expects the park to rent hundreds of boats each week during that time. The park even lets you take your own boat, excluding motorized ones, on Hyde Lake and any of the other bodies of water in the park.  

Even though a lot of Memphians, including myself, might take the city's gift of this huge park and its 20-something bodies of water for granted, it truly can make for a real outdoorsy adventure right in the city. — Maya Smith

Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden looks for a sign of fish at Billboard Lake. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden looks for a sign of fish at Billboard Lake.

Clandestine Honey Holes

I'd tell you where Billboard Lake is, but I only give out that information on a "need-to-know" basis. 

Let's just say it's both off the beaten path and right beside one — close enough to an interstate highway that, if you listen, you can hear the 18-wheelers roaring past. But you can't see them, which is the best part. 

The lake is hidden from view below a deeply forested ridge. To get to it, you have to drive a rutted gravel road with tall weeds in between the ruts. But the good news is you only have to drive on it for about three minutes. The better news is I can leave my Midtown home and have a line in the water at Billboard in less than half an hour.

The water of Billboard Lake is clear, especially by Mid-South standards, and mounds of submerged piles of trees give plenty of cover to the nice-sized largemouth bass that live there. It's perfect for a small boat or kayak, but fishing from the shore can also be productive.

The lake gets its name from the fact that two giant billboards are rooted right on the shore line. But, as you might have guessed, Billboard Lake is not really named Billboard Lake. In fact, as far as I know, it has no name at all. It's just one of dozens of nameless bodies of fishable water in the Memphis city limits. 

My fellow urban fishing aficionados and I give them names — Land of Lakes, the Slough, Car Lot Lake, School Board Lake, Covington Pike, Hollywood Lake, Lake Ryan, Lake Wagner (the latter two named for their discoverers). Any body of water worth returning to gets a name. I'd tell you where Lake Bruce is, but I can't remember, exactly. 

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Finding these spots on the map is half the fun. Figuring out how to get to them is the other half. Catching fish is just a bonus.

We're constantly perusing Google Earth for new possibilities. Once you start looking, it's amazing how much fishable water you can find in the city limits: old highway construction borrow pits (lots of these), hidden oxbows, swampy sloughs, suburban subdivision ponds, creeks, sand bars in the Wolf River, the Loosahatchie, or Nonconnah Creek — pretty much anywhere water gathers. 

Some lakes are distinctively urban, spots where you're likely to come upon an old couch, dumped tires, or construction site trash. Other lakes are almost pristine — little jewels, mostly untouched by the detritus of civilization. Sometimes you have to park in, say, an abandoned shopping center lot and hack your way to the water; other times, if you've got a sturdy vehicle you don't mind getting muddy or scratched (my 2005 Xterra qualifies on both counts), you can drive almost to the water's edge. And it's surprising, once you get there, how many times you'll find a path along the shoreline and another fisherman. There are more of us out there than you'd imagine — fishing junkies who want to wet a line without driving hours to do it. 

It doesn't take much to get started; just a Google map and a little determination. Or just start looking under billboards. — Bruce VanWyngarden 

A party of picnickers beneath the magnolias at Elmwood Cemetery - SUSAN ELLIS
  • Susan Ellis
  • A party of picnickers beneath the magnolias at Elmwood Cemetery

A Picnic in Elmwood

On a recent Saturday, six friends gathered for a picnic. There, too, were the Browns, the Smiths, the Shepards, and the Phillipses. The Browns, the Smiths, the Shepards, and the Phillipses were all dead, truth be told, as this picnic was at Elmwood Cemetery. 

Memphis has no shortage of ideal picnic spots. Overton Park and the Shelby Farms are two popular picnic destinations for a reason. The Greenbelt Park in Harbor Town offers a great view of the river. The grounds at the Metal Museum couldn't be prettier. But Elmwood Cemetery's 80 tree-filled acres are a particularly bucolic and serene stretch in which to unfurl your blanket. 

Such picnics have precedent. Once upon a time, folks were buried at church or in a town commons. Then came the "rural cemetery movement." 

SUSAN ELLIS
  • Susan Ellis

From the Elmwood website:   

"Elmwood was established as part of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which swept the nation in the early to mid-1800s. It is a classic example of a garden cemetery with its park-like setting, sweeping vistas, shady knolls, large stands of ancient trees, and magnificent monuments.

"During the Victorian Era, the popular view of death became romanticized; death was now represented by symbols including angels, flowers, and plants. These ideas are reflected in the many magnificent monuments, mausoleums, and life-sized figures."

The rural cemetery movement predates public parks, so folks would gather at these green spaces amid the monuments and picnic and hunt and hold carriage races, according to an article in The Atlantic.  

There are picnic tables near Elmwood's visitors center. A couple are set beneath a fine trellis covered in clematis vine. But the spot we chose for our picnic was under a gigantic, in-bloom magnolia tree — along with the Browns, the Smiths, the Shepards, and the Phillipses.

That tree is one of about 1,500 on the property, though several were recently lost and some monuments tumbled during the late-May storm. (Consider donating.) More trivia: there are at least two dogs and one horse buried on the site. A scene in The Firm was filmed there. Among the 75,000 or so "residents" are yellow fever victims, 1,000 Confederate soldiers (sans Nathan Bedford Forrest), and Shelby Foote. 

As for the spread, there was some discussion of a theme — bloody Marys, perhaps, or ghost-shaped cookies. What about a ouija board? But, ultimately, the fare was simple: roasted carrot dip, and quinoa and black bean salad, flautas, cheese dip (!), and cashew noodles. One member of the party, who is pregnant, brought cupcakes that revealed the gender of her baby. (Yes, it's weird when you think about it.) 

There was talk of food and work and Carmen Sandiego. Then, naturally, the conversation turned to death. Lots of pro-cremation folks in the group, one was into the newfangled green burial. Another of the party had some thoughts. "I don't want to be buried; I want to be cremated," she said. "But I want a statue."   

Elmwood Cemetery, 824 S. Dudley, is open every day of the year, 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. — Susan Ellis

Urban-camping enthusiast Toby Sells avoids Bigfoot by camping downtown. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Urban-camping enthusiast Toby Sells avoids Bigfoot by camping downtown.

Downtown Camping. Yes.

If only the Great Outdoors had a bar.

Getting "out there" usually means leaving behind urban comforts. But thanks to the keen eyes of a colleague, I found a camp site that's walking distance to Loflin Yard. 

My original thought for my spot in the Summer Issue was to camp at Overton Park. It'd be illegal, of course, and maybe a little dangerous with who-knows-what going on in the Old Forest after dark. (Don't even mention the copperheads.) So, I shifted gears to the wonderful Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. It's safe, comfortable, and only about 30 minutes from Midtown. 

But then I heard about this in-town AirBnB campground, and it was too perfect for this issue and too crazy to pass up.

The listing promised "Urban camping in the heart of downtown Memphis. This property has everything you need in order to have an experience of a lifetime!" It was advertised as being 1.4 miles from Beale Street and close to restaurants and bars. The Great Outdoors were getting greater still! The site was $40 per night and after a $10 cleaning fee, a $7 service fee (whatever that's for), and $1 for occupancy taxes, my total bill was $58.

I met my host Jereme Cavallo at the site, which is right across the street from Wayne's Candy Co. on Carolina. Cavallo is a co-owner of the The Cupboard restaurant on Union and runs the campground as a side hustle, just for fun. While his brother didn't think the place would work, Cavallo said the place was packed during Memphis in May. 

The site is behind a tall fence and a big black gate, invisible unless you're looking for it. There's a storage garage on the site (with a power outlet — yay!) surrounded by grass. Up a gentle slope, four tents of various sizes and a large teepee (for showers) sit in a semi circle just behind another row of comfortable camp chairs and a picnic table, also arranged in a semicircle around a massive fire pit. Trees line the boundaries (except for the Carolina side), and if you squint hard enough, you'd never know the Memphis skyline is at your back.

My tent was loaded with everything promised on the AirBnB listing. I had an inflated mattress, two sleeping bags, a cooler filled with ice (and some local beers), first aid kit, bike map, bug spray, a lantern, and more. In short, all I really needed was some clothes and a toothbrush. Oh, and the site also had the cleanest port-o-john I'd sever seen.  

Cavallo promised to meet me around dark so he could light the campfire, which, unlit, stood about chest high. Then I met my buddy, Andy Ashby, at Loflin Yard for some pre-urban-camping beers (it's totally a thing now). After a pitcher of Tiny Bomb, we headed to The Vault for a dinner of oysters, an Italian sandwich bigger than your head, and beers fresh from the frost rail. It was all better than a camp meal of a soggy sandwich and can of Vienna sausages.

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Back at camp, Ashby felt that same tickle of strange delight about seeing a campsite (complete with teepee) just a few steps from South Main. As soon as he saw it, I knew he was staying. That delighted me, as I'd worried about staying there by myself. In the woods, those sounds in the dark might be bears, Bigfoot, or the bogeyman. In a developing end of downtown, the sources of fright can get a bit too real.    

Cavallo returned as dusk fell. He found Andy and me lounging, sipping beers, and listening to the Grateful Dead. All that was missing was our Birkenstocks, tie-dye, and VW micro-bus, man.

The fire blazed orange in the darkness, eclipsing the fluorescent light from the huge USPS service center across the street. A constant, perfect breeze blew, and, looking toward the darkened tree line, I could easily trick myself into believing I was "out there." The outdoors was doing its thing on me, and my troubles melted away into the flickering shadows.

Cavallo said he plans to add, maybe, some vintage RVs to his campsite and maybe even some rental bikes. But, for now, if you're looking for a little urban outdoor excursion or just looking to spend a night or weekend downtown, the campsite on Carolina can't be beat. — Toby Sells


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