This Kansas native came to Memphis in 1995, bringing his touring company with him. Since then Tad Pierson, who once ran back-road tours of Route 66, has been driving visitors around town in a 1955 Cadillac that’s clocked about half-a-million miles in the past two decades. His American Dream Safari tours include standard landmarks along with off-the-wall funky sites that lots of folks never see. We met at Pierson’s 7,500-square-foot garage apartment — furnished with Airstream trailers and decor fashioned from discarded tires — and talked of entrepreneurship, his dog, Howdy Stranger, “leaping before you look,” and what he loves about Memphis.
How’d you get into this business? And how did the name originate?
When I was 21, I was a rambler and gambler. I saved some money and got a chance to go hitchhike through the world. Years later I was teaching English in Indonesia and a French couple wanted to take a tour of America and they said, “Can we rent a Cadillac like we see in the movies?” I had my grandfather’s 1950 Buick and a trailer and I set up a tour company like Jack Kerouac would do. And this buddy and I decided on the name American Dream Safari. Just as quick as that.
Ever been asked any questions you can’t answer?
I had somebody who wanted to shop for voodoo stuff. We’re not New Orleans, but we have one shop, Ebbo’s Spiritual Supplies, that sorta fit the bill. And you kinda get a running pattern of questions as a tour guide. [If I can’t answer a question] I say I don’t know but I’ll find out. These days, the kid in the backseat’s got his smartphone and he punches it in and finds out. But that keeps me fresh, having questions I don’t know the answer to.
Tell me about this sweet dog gnawing on my arm.
Get down, Howdy! They’ve got a little fish camp over in Mound City, Arkansas, first exit before West Memphis. One day I was driving by there and this stray dog was sticking his nose out of an abandoned building. His tail was down and I said, “Howdy, Stranger,” and he perked up and looked at my truck and said, “Mind if I hitch a ride?”
What are your favorite Memphis areas?
The beauty that I see in Memphis doesn’t match what the Chamber of Commerce wants to promote. I like to just cruise around, let off steam in so-called crummy parts of town. I make a tire chair out of a La-Z-Boy frame. I needed a few more, so Howdy and I headed out in my pickup and found some on curbs in North Memphis. I get tired of people saying Memphis is so racially divided. That’s not true in my experience. I’ve never been bothered by anybody at all.
You’re inventive. Just more ways to make a living?
That’s the beauty about getting older — you have a collection of skills. I’m 62 and I’ve always liked working with my hands. Something comes your way, and with your skills developed you can make it happen, you pounce on it. Like at a meeting the other day [about a festival], somebody said we need trash cans. I came home and started stacking the tires for the trash cans. If somebody places an order, I can do it.
How well does your tire art sell?
Flying off the shelves! Really, they sell but I haven’t quite got my head around a way to market them. But I figure what better way to spend my time on earth than do something with these tires that would wind up in a landfill.
You once you said you like to leap before you look. I take it that’s still true.
Yeah, it’s kinda my business motto. I can carry an idea into fruition and make it happen. The trash-can thing is sort of a small version of that. A solid businessman would step back and say, “Is there a window of opportunity here? How would I manufacture it?” I don’t think I could operate in a corporate climate.
Never have. I get lonesome going it alone. I’m a very uncompromising person. I really think my lifestyle is such that it would take a unique woman to kinda mesh with what I’ve got going. But I’m interviewing candidates [laughs].
Back to dreams, and women aside, have your dreams come true here?
Yes. I would say that, uh, my destiny has met its fate. Or something like that. I didn’t sit back from afar and think Memphis is my kinda town. It just took me along for the ride. Everything about it from a tour guide perspective interested me deeply — music, history, etc. It suits my personality because it’s beautifully fractured, quirky. Memphis isn’t pretty and neat. It splashes up on you and gets your pants dirty. Dallas, Nashville, they’re kinda prim and proper. That’s not Memphis and that’s part of its charm.