MEMPHIS, Tenn. — "Elvis is dead," says our Graceland tour guide, Sheila. "We don't know why people keep saying he is alive. He is dead."
"But what about all those photographs and Bill Bixby's 'Elvis Files'? " we ask. "Enquiring tourists want to know!"
Sheila pauses, considers the question and answers quite seriously. "The people in those photographs are probably impersonators," she says.
This, our arrival on the hallowed grounds of Graceland, ends the mid-South leg of our three-month-long journey through America. From Texas to Tennessee in 10 days: Toto, this is definitely not California.
Here, in the South, it seems that just about everyone drives a pickup truck. There are no joggers or power walkers. Canning and pickling gear is a supermarket staple. Women wear pink curlers out in public. We pay for gas after we pump it, and grocery boys carry bags to our car and won't take a tip.
But best of all is the Southern hospitality, as finger-lickin' good as the all-you-can-eat biscuits and gravy at the Rainbow Diner on Kickapoo Spur in Shawnee, Okla.
Back in Texas, grassy plains, small farmhouses and truck stops were our companions along Interstate 40 as our little sedan streaked east, past a "ranch" of Cadillacs.
What was that? Our heads turn.
Sprouting out of a wheat field a few miles before Amarillo are 10 aqua-blue Cadillacs, spray-painted with graffiti and buried in dirt up to their windshields.
We stop and take a short walk into the field along a well-worn path.
"Did they crash?" asks our 5-year-old, Henri.
"No, this is art," we explain.
We find a great little wilderness campground 40 miles east of Amarillo at Lake McLellan National Grasslands. Owls serenade us to sleep and the \o7 rat-tat-tat\f7 of woodpeckers wakes us up.
But camping in a strange place can leave the nerves on edge.
Forest noises sound like footsteps, a bird's cry is like the sharpening of a knife. And then before you know it, your imagination is running wild into another "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" sequel.
We wake up safe and sound in Texas, but our next night in Oklahoma becomes the Paget's version of a B-rated horror film.
To set the scene: The humidity rises, smiles widen and just about everyone we meet makes us feel like we are part of their family. There is so much friendliness, it prompts a strange reaction from city people like us. It makes us nervous.
We listen as accents twang like rubber bands pulled tight. Our AM radio picks up country tunes such as "All My Old Flames Have New Names" and "She Took It Just Like a Man."
At our lakeside campsite in Roman Nose State Park (seriously) east of Oklahoma City, we meet and fish with local angler Glen Richardson and his extended family of about a dozen relatives and friends.
It is after 10 o'clock when we say good night to the Richardsons and prepare for bed.
The comforting trill of 100 singing crickets under a full moon is broken by the sound of a van pulling up about 300 yards away, near a street light and a closed bait shop.
We watch through our tent window as a car parks next to it and a truck drives up.
What are they up to out here in the forest, late at night?
We contemplate taking turns to stand lookout.
"Why are they waiting there?" we ask ourselves.
We are thinking the worst. Is it some strange Oklahoma cult planning to rob and leave us for dead?
We make sure the carving knife is handy, and slowly fall into an uneasy sleep.
The noise and bright lights of an approaching car wakes us. The brakes squeal outside our tent and our minds rush to the horror movie scenario in which we are victims. The killers have come for us!
Bursting out of the tent in our underwear, ready to take on the intruders on open ground, we see fisherman Glen Richardson standing in front of his car, holding a flat pink object, perched on aluminum.
"We brought you a cake, Dale," he says. "Heard it was your 30th birthday."
The cake is still warm and we are the most relieved tourists in America.
We eat the cake and pose for a birthday photograph: "Smile and say 'ax murderer.' " We all laugh.
Glen takes a drive by the bait shop and finds that there is a public telephone around the corner, the reason for the parked cars and commotion. After constantly offering the hospitality of their home, as a substitute for more nights of nervousness, our Oklahoma friends say goodby.
A little embarrassed, we--the brave American explorers--make a mental note to stay in more populated campgrounds in the future.
In the middle of a highway on-ramp near our next scenic campground at Oklahoma's Fountain Head State Park, we stop and pick up a hitchhiking turtle.
"Can I keep him?" Henri asks.
Henri and Matilda take turns holding the plastic bowl, home to their new companion. But laughter and delight changes quickly to terror as the turtle escapes onto their laps.
"Ahhh!" screams Henri.
"Ahhh!" yells Matilda.
"Mommy!" they both shout, prudently asking for the parent best at dealing with crises.