Happy Trail(ers)

Airstreams and American Dreams: Just another day in the life of Tad Pierson.


For most of us, a former mechanic's garage could never be home-sweet-home. But for Tad Pierson, whose tastes are as unusual as the businesses he runs, this 7,500-square-foot building on Madison is the perfect setting for his used trailers and campers, decorated tires, and funky folk art.

A native of Kansas whose company, American Dream Safari, runs back-road tours of Route 66, Pierson came to Memphis in 1995. Here, the entrepreneur gives off-the-beaten-path tours around the Bluff City, produces Memphis Mary Bloody Mary mix, and sells wreaths crafted from vehicle tires. For a while he was operating "this empire" — as he calls it tongue-in-cheek — from a fish camp near West Memphis. Two years ago, when the old garage came available to rent, he moved his businesses here, bringing his Airstream trailers with him, to work on in his spare time. "I'd say, 'Wow, I'm tired, I'm gonna sleep in the trailer for a minute,'" recalls Pierson. "Soon it became obvious I was living here."

Parked near one wall of the interior is an Airstream he uses as his bedroom; on the opposite side are a couple of Scotty campers where guests can sleep. In between are 1950s-era metal chairs painted in bright colors, patio awnings, outdoor grills, and a weathered picnic table and benches that came from the fish camp. Beneath it all are concrete floors and overhead are eight skylights. "The other night I had a friend over, and we were eating indoors at the picnic table and I looked up and there was the moon," says Pierson. "It's kind of like camping without the wind or rain."

Near the "bedrooms" is a stand-alone bathroom that Pierson has adorned with hood ornaments — "all that tacky stuff I'm so fond of," he smiles. On the door is a curtain "tricked out" with a wooden cornice above it. The lodging also contains a small kitchen, and beyond that a warm and welcoming library set off by wooden screens. The library includes a sitting area with lamps, a pool table, book-lined shelves, and an old Frigidaire stocked with CDs.

The building — which Pierson shares with his dog Howdy Stranger — also contains his office, the Memphis Mary warehouse, and his display of tire wreaths, each priced at about $35. They're painted with such sayings as "Beer Joint — No Winos Aloud" (misspelling intentional) and "On This Moment Hangs Eternity" with its Latin translation on the opposite side. Stacked around are tires awaiting transformation. As Pierson says, "There's an endless supply of raw materials for this. People will say, 'Wow, what a way to use old tires; green is big!'" Indeed, Pierson can recycle most anything into art. He smiles and points to an exercise machine that a South Memphis flea market tossed out. He hung antlers on the handlebars and cowboy boots on the pedals.

Also parked in the building is the 1955 Cadillac Pierson uses on tours. Sometimes he'll let the visitors see where he lives. "If they say they like Americana, I tell them come on in, and they're going, 'Holy cow, can I take a picture?'"

With a bachelor's degree in industrial arts and a master's in English as a second language, Pierson has taught and traveled extensively. He calls Memphis a "perfect fit" and finds inspiration in its entrepreneurial legends, such as Sam Phillips and Clarence Saunders. Though he admits to having "too many irons in the fire," his brain simmers with ideas. "I could fill this place up with more trailers, have a cool environment, put in a [miniature] golf course. Or what about a bed-and-breakfast . . . Leap before I look, that's always been my motto.

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