The Bass Pro Shops Pyramid
The Bass Pro Shops Pyramid
The Bass Pro Shops Pyramid (Photo: Courtesy Big Cypress Lodge)

How the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid Became a Memphis Icon

In 2015, billionaire entrepreneur Johnny Morris opened a hunting-and-fishing store that doubles as a theme park, with multiple bars and restaurants, a luxury lodge, and an entire swampland forest decorated with taxidermy—all shoved inside a replica Egyptian monument. We sent one writer on a 24-hour mission to explore this exotic modern wilderness.

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Partway up a blacktop driveway leading to a hotel called Big Cypress Lodge, you pass under an archway that says: “Welcome to Sportsman’s Paradise.” A coil of interstate on-ramps looms overhead, which, given the architecture just beyond, brings to mind a nest of mythically proportioned snakes protecting an unholy monument.

The generic-sounding name of the 103-room lodge doesn’t match the eccentric setting. The hotel exists inside a huge, black, stainless-steel pyramid that rises 321 feet above the flat landscape of Memphis, Tennessee, a city known far and wide for Elvis, Stax Records, barbecued pork—and this bold architectural statement.

For this pyramid, sheer size is not the real superlative; Vegas, after all, has its own, even larger tetrahedral hotel. What sets it apart is the fact that its cavernous interior has been converted into an outlet of Bass Pro Shops, the world’s largest hunting-and-fishing retailer, and the hotel rooms—set in the ring-shaped interior balconies that make up the pyramid’s two upper levels—overlook the store’s floor space. On the exterior of the pyramid, a 78-foot-tall re-creation of the company’s logo, featuring the eponymous fish in mid-leap, glows green above the Mississippi River at night.

The stature of this landmark is suggested by the fact that it’s a rare retail store—the only one, so far as I can tell—to appear on a U.S. driver’s license. When Tennessee officials designed a collage of iconic architecture to use as the background of state I.D. cards, they thought: What could represent Memphis better than this inexplicable shrine?

“I never thought there’d be a more famous Memphis building than Graceland,” says Ryan Hailey, a local video editor and a self-described YouTube Ambassador for the city. “And I sure never thought that building would be a pyramid-shaped tackle shop. But here we are. And for some reason, as a Memphian, that makes me very proud.”

Alex McDaniel, managing editor of the USA Today sports website For the Win, moved to Memphis in 1994, when she was seven. “I’ll never forget crossing the Mississippi River bridge into the city and seeing the pyramid for the first time,” she says. “It was gaudy and gorgeous, and I had no idea what it was used for, but to this day, when I go back for a visit and see that pyramid, I know I’m home.”

It’s not just Memphians who are allured by this building. I know a couple who live two hours south of the city, in rural Mississippi, and drive up once a month or so for the sole purpose of visiting the pyramid, because the place is a kind of Disneyland, a fine way to entertain and tucker out the kids. Stopping in to buy a discount-bin trucker hat—and taking an Instagram selfie—has become a road-trip rite of passage.

But the building’s true grandeur can only be seen once you step inside. Beyond the gabled entrance portico, a massive timber structure meant to suggest an Adirondack lodge, lies a wilderness—or at least its shopping-mall simulacrum. The decor is heavy on fake rock and flowing water and taxidermy, with an emphasis on regional fauna: bears and feral pigs and white-tailed deer, scattered amid replica cypress trees.

A mounted white-tailed deer, gazing at the merch
A mounted white-tailed deer, gazing at the merch (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

According to Michael Rinehart, the store’s assistant general manager, the pyramid boasts the world’s largest stock of duck-hunting gear. The guest rooms are outfitted with furnishings that would fit well in the backwoods manor of a Gilded Age robber baron. The rooms’ standout feature, though, are simple “back porches” (so called by the company) that overlook the ground-floor shopping expanse, which is designed to look like a swamp, complete with moss, waterways, and a host of stuffed and living creatures. With two restaurants and three bars, a bowling alley, a steamboat-themed arcade shooting gallery, and a spa—just the thing for weary spouses with little interest in hunting and fishing—a family could camp out within this 535,000-square-foot playground for days, perhaps whole seasons.

For my own expedition, I figured a single night would suffice. I’m not a hunter—just a writer who likes to spend time outside—but I’ve always felt drawn to this place.

Given my budget, I skipped the $25 valet parking. Instead, when I arrived on a Saturday morning with my fiancée, Liz, in tow, I deposited my car in the closest available parking spot, which meant hiking across several acres of sun-baked pavement. Inside the vestibule, leather settees were arranged around a hearth built from massive slabs of granite. A fire crackled inside—on June 4.

The hotel manager who checked us in said the decor was the brainchild of Johnny Morris, the multibillionaire founder of Bass Pro Shops. “He just took the idea of Branson,” she told me, referencing the famously over-the-top tourist town in the Missouri Ozarks, “and then his story, and said, ‘Let’s fit these two together and see how it works.’” She paused before adding: “Inside a pyramid.”

The shape of the building is an homage to Memphis’s namesake, the capital of an ancient Egyptian province that once stood along the Nile. Bass Pro Shops is not the first tenant of the pyramid; when it was conceived in 1984, it was supposed to house a theme park called Rakapolis—a mashup of Egyptian iconography (including reed boats that would carry visitors to a nearby river peninsula) with Memphis’s rich musical history. Soon after construction on the pyramid was completed, the lead developer filed for bankruptcy. As developers and city officials scrambled to find a use for the building, various other ideas were proposed but never amounted to much: a Dick Clark American Music Awards Hall of Fame, an aquarium called AquariuMemphis, and an inclined elevator that would have carried visitors to a lookout deck on top.

But the building’s true grandeur can only be seen once you step inside. Beyond the gabled entrance portico, a massive timber structure meant to suggest an Adirondack lodge, lies a wilderness—or at least its shopping-mall simulacrum.

When the pyramid officially opened in 1991, it served as a performance arena at the bottom of a very large and empty space. Though the acoustics were notoriously difficult, over the next decade-plus, the venue hosted big-time acts, including the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, and Public Enemy. Then, in 2004, as a part of a successful campaign to lure an NBA team to Memphis, city officials promised to build a more modern arena, FedExForum. The pyramid, rendered superfluous, was shuttered. Still, maintenance and utilities cost taxpayers half a million dollars a year.

In 2005, when word leaked that the pyramid might become a Bass Pro Shops superstore, there was a bit of civic unease. Memphis had always prided itself on being the classy cosmopolitan part of the Mississippi Delta. One local urban planner complained that the Bass Pro Shops logo to appear on the building would be “tantamount to writing ‘Hicksville, USA’ in 310-foot letters.”

Johnny Morris launched Bass Pro Shops in 1972, when he was in his mid-twenties, as an eight-square-foot counter of high-end fishing gear in the back of his father’s Springfield, Missouri, liquor store. Within two years, Morris had started a mail-order catalog; before the decade was out, he was selling his own line of fishing boats.

By 1981, Morris had moved into his own store. It grew through the years, and in 1992 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a somewhat incredulous article noting that Bass Pro Shops’ retail location, known as Outdoor World, was the state’s busiest tourist attraction. “If the guys here at Outdoor World are such devoted outdoorsmen,” the writer wondered, “what’re they doing inside watching the Incredible Sports Bloopers video on a nice day like today?”

By the late 1990s, as Morris began to expand, he found himself being courted by politicians. The mayor of Oklahoma City—who authorized the construction of a $17 million building that would be rented to Morris’s company—compared the presence of a Bass Pro Shops in one’s town to having a home baseball game every day of the year.

Feeding time in the big fish tank
Feeding time in the big fish tank (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

As for Memphis, the city is more associated with ducks than baseball. It’s home to the famous duck walk at the Peabody Hotel—in which five mallards who live on the roof take an elevator to the lobby floor, exit, and waddle to a fountain, where they quack and splash at 11 A.M. and 5 P.M daily. Memphis is located in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, and leaders soon saw Morris’s retail shrine to hunting and fishing as the perfect answer to their great architectural albatross, the pyramid.

Morris seemed ambivalent. The canonical story of the Memphis store’s construction—which I heard at least five times during my visit—involves a fishing trip on the Mississippi River. Morris was weighing whether to put a store in the pyramid, and to make the decision easier, he decided he’d do it only if he caught a 30-pound fish. When you’re touring the store, a disembodied voice tells this story, dramatically saying: “Everything you see …  would have never happened had it not been for one big old Mississippi River blue cat.”

The city picked up the nearly $100 million tab for the needed renovations; Bass Pro Shops, meanwhile, has rarely paid more than $1 million in rent per year. City officials say the arrangement has been a boon to their economy, drawing hordes of tourists and shoppers who just have to see the place. The pyramid is so large that, once its swamp ponds were dug and filled with 600,000 gallons of water, the building developed its own microclimate. Rinehart, the assistant manager, showed me a photo of wispy fog collecting above 100-foot-tall faux cypress trees. A system had to be installed to sustain a more appropriate level of humidity.

Carmen Jones, the store’s special-events coordinator, was one of several handlers who escorted Liz and me through a very complete tour of the facility. Here was a cold-water pond full of trout. There was a 100-pound catfish, which had been caught during the annual Mississippi River Monsters Catfish Tournament and deemed so impressive that it was pardoned and brought inside as a living display. Here were lake sturgeon, whose incredible size—the largest one in the store is three decades old and weighs 150 pounds—took my breath away. (Not everyone was speechless: “They’re good eatin’ if you get the caviar!” I overheard one young shopper exclaim to his dad.) There’s a 38,000-gallon aquarium tank where, twice a day, an employee in a diving suit conducts live feedings. The “aquarist” I interviewed—a self-described nerd for all things fishy—told me that his typical day starts at 6 A.M., when he prepares the food and then wades into the ponds to feed the beasts.

The pyramid is also home to a few young alligators and—the latest addition to the menagerie—an alligator snapping turtle, the only creature granted the dignity of a name: Jenny Morris, a winking tribute to Bass Pro Shops’ founder, bestowed through an online vote. Fittingly for Memphis, there are also four species of ducks. They can’t fly, because their wings have been clipped, but have free range to waddle. This explains another crucial morning task: cleaning up poop.

The pyramid’s huge retail floor
The pyramid’s huge retail floor (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

As hotel guests, we got to skip a long line of people waiting to pay $8 to ride to the top of the pyramid inside the tallest free-standing elevator in the U.S. The lookout deck up top, 300 feet above the city, offers the most stunning view of the Mississippi River anywhere along its southern reach.

At one point, I remarked on the attention to detail, and Jones noted that this level of immersion extends to the quality of light inside: “People don’t understand. They say, ‘It’s so dark in here.’ I’m like, ‘Well, have you ever been to the swamp? It’s supposed to have that feeling.’”

Jones said that sometimes she arrives before sunrise and departs after sunset; hers are full days in the swamp, with no seasons, no weather, just perpetual twilight. Yet there’s always plenty to see. “It’s a retail store,” Jones said. “It’s a restaurant. It’s a hotel. It’s a museum. It’s an aquarium. It’s… it’s, like, sensory overload.”

After three hours of touring, our senses were saturated and our bellies underfilled. Set loose at last, Liz and I headed to the final attraction: the only wilderness-themed Wahlburgers restaurant in the world.

In 2011, chef Paul Wahlberg, along with his actor brothers, Mark and Donnie, opened a casual burger joint in Hingham, Massachusetts. The restaurant has since expanded to nearly 100 locations, and it was the subject of an A&E reality series, Wahlburgers, that ran from 2014 to 2019.

I only learned these facts a year ago, when I got an email from the press team for Big Cypress Lodge, announcing the opening of Wahlburgers Wild, a revamp of the basic Wahlburgers concept that would do business inside the pyramid. I’d been meaning to check it out, and the new iteration put the urge into overdrive. I launched a tweet into the ether, imploring any willing magazine editor to send me to this jumble of confusion. Thank you, Outside, for making dreams come true.

Come and get it at Wahlburgers Wild
Come and get it at Wahlburgers Wild (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

As it happened, we ate our first meal not in Wahlburgers Wild proper—where, even though there were many empty tables, we were told to expect a 30-minute wait—but in the adjacent bar, which is known as the Fishbowl. It’s tucked between bowling lanes and lit in neon blue; oversize tropical-fish replicas hang from the ceiling. (In a tank at the center of the Wahlburgers dining floor, tropical fish swim in circles.) In contrast to the polite country music we’d heard while walking around the store, the vibe here was more nineties club: Ja Rule, Usher, and the like. It feels as if a separate and distinct fantasy has been shoved into the rear of this camouflage wonderland. Sitting there, the pyramid struck me as a kind of black hole, sucking in any and all flavors of kitsch. And yet, somehow, the result is a space so alluring that it serves as its own advertising.

A hotel manager told me that some devoted Bass Pro Shops customers were displeased with the new Wahlburgers: this spot used to be an Uncle Buck’s, the same restaurant featured in the company’s flagship Springfield store. Why switch? I never got a good explanation, though perhaps it helps to know that Mark Wahlberg is buddies with Johnny Morris. Even the “wild” designation seemed half-earned at best: Wahlburgers Wild extends the standard Wahlburgers menu only slightly, with the addition of bison and venison. (The press release advertised alligator bites, too, but these have disappeared from the offerings.) Nonetheless, I can report that after hours of trekking through make-believe swamplands, the venison-chili cheese dog was deliciously restorative.

After lunch, Liz and I quickly unpacked in our room—which featured leather couches, two species of taxidermy, and old black-and-white photos of forested mountains that are nowhere near Memphis—then embarked on a shopping excursion. You can find something for everyone on the big floor, including camouflage baby clothes, high-tech sunglasses, and magnets that read “I like big bucks and I cannot lie.” I’m an aspiring fisherman, too new to make any sense of the endless arrays of gear, so I was thankful for a kindly employee who helped me fill a tackle box—mostly with $3 lures, meticulously painted by someone in China to resemble tiny baitfish.

As we sifted through the discount bin, I thought of Aldo Leopold’s description of sporting-goods dealers as “gadgeteers.” In A Sand County Almanac, the famed writer and naturalist disparaged what he saw in the 1940s as the growing profusion of contraptions used by hunters. The essence of the sport, Leopold thought, was a return to the primitive.

The Governor’s Suite at Big Cypress Lodge
The Governor’s Suite at Big Cypress Lodge (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

When I asked Rinehart about this, he suggested that the store’s success is a good thing for conservation: by bringing customers together with nonprofits—through, for example, a checkout option to donate a few bucks after each purchase—the company is creating what Rinehart, reading off a sheet of talking points, called “North America’s largest conservation movement.”

I’m skeptical that a shopper can be so easily counted as an advocate. Still, Bass Pro Shops does undeniably good things, including donating used fishing rods to youth programs and sponsoring free “outdoors days” that introduce urban kids to sports like kayaking, fishing, and rock climbing. In recognition of Morris’s conservation work, he has received prestigious awards like the Audubon Medal, which has also gone to Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall, and Sir David Attenborough.

Hunters have played an important role in preserving U.S. wildlife, a story that’s told in what is perhaps my favorite place inside the pyramid: the Waterfowling Heritage Center, a small, quiet museum tucked away on the second floor. Curated by Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit committed to conserving waterfowl habitat, the museum features rotating collections of vintage duck calls and decoys, plus a well-written history of the role American hunters have played in conserving wildlife. In the early years of the 20th century, species we consider commonplace today—white-tailed deer and ducks, for instance—were nearly extinct. Ducks Unlimited, formed in 1937, advocated for new policies that set stricter limits on hunting. That same year, Congress passed a law that began to steer taxes on guns and ammunition into state conservation programs. The law has evolved through the years, but over eight decades it’s brought in some $20 billion and helped bring species back from the brink.

The Fishbowl
The Fishbowl (Photo: Boyce Upholt)

Over time, the shortcomings of this approach have become apparent: the beneficiaries have been creatures that hunters like to kill, and these days, there are plenty of other species staggering toward extinction. On this front, it’s worth noting that Morris was the cochair of an expert panel whose work helped produce the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act—a bill currently being considered by Congress that would overhaul conservation funding and send more money to nongame species.

No matter where you come down on hunting and fishing, more people in the field and on the water means more money for conservation, so who am I to complain? I was thrilled to walk through a pyramid aisle featuring meat grinders and vacuum sealers and spice packets, items that represent what I consider the upside of hunting: the intimate relationship with nature that develops when you know just what it takes for food to reach your plate. Not far away, though, were stacks of merchandise that I found problematic: “Don’t Tread On Me” camping mugs, along with baseball caps featuring an American flag whose stripes had been replaced by bullets.

The percentage of American citizens who hunt has been falling for decades, and it now sits at around 4 percent. Roughly 90 percent of those hunters are white; 70 percent are male. It was hard to believe that MAGA merchandise would bring more diversity to the sport. “This is a man’s Disneyland,” Rinehart said during our interview—which struck me as both the store’s selling point and its biggest flaw.

When I sat on our porch that evening, the pyramid had gone quiet; without the din of shoppers, the crash of an aquarium waterfall washed the swamp in white noise. The store’s nocturnal species had emerged: workers mopped the floor and tended to merchandise. The twilight dimness persisted. Now, at least, it matched what my body felt.

Visiting the pyramid took me back to my days as an undergrad, those trippy years of reading French philosophers who decried the world’s rush away from authenticity. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” the French philosopher Guy Debord suggested in 1967, declaring the planet completely overtaken by consumerism. If modern society had become one giant Disneyland, here in the pyramid was its version of wilderness: stuffed animals and plastic rocks, an entirely indoor Outdoor World.

Hunters have played an important role in preserving U.S. wildlife, a story that’s told in what is perhaps my favorite place inside the pyramid: the Waterfowling Heritage Center, a small, quiet museum tucked away on the second floor.

After my day inside the pyramid, though, I was less worried that spectacle will swallow the planet: few are at risk of choosing this interior over the real outdoors. That night, Liz and I had dinner at the Lookout, a dining room at the top of the pyramid that features yet another fish tank, plus a collection of fishy sculptures with a steampunk vibe. Life inside this space had made me forget that the sun was still hovering in the sky. I wanted nothing more than to bask in its blaze of photons, so we walked out onto the deck.

When we got up the next morning, we hustled down the elevator into a parking lot that was nearly empty. We identified a patch of urban forest, with actual living trees, where we could take a stroll. As we headed toward the car, I couldn’t help but pause for my trophy: a selfie, with the pyramid in the background and a camouflage Bass Pro cap on my head.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Big Cypress Lodge