GRACELAND – Once, it was a symbol of his success; now, it has become a beacon for the faithful.
Thousands filled the street in front of Graceland Tuesday twinkling candles to the heavens as they waited to pay their respects to the King of rock 'n' roll, 29 years after his untimely death at age 42.
Bill Rowe, a 56-year-old retiree from Dayton, Ohio, who at age 5 met Elvis Presley and got his autograph in crayon, was the first fan to enter the gates of Elvis' mansion Monday night. He has made this pilgrimage every year since 1977 and he's still mourning.
"It's been 29 years and I still don't believe it. You go up there and you see those lights in the meditation garden and that eternal flame gets bigger and brighter," Rowe said with a single tear running down his cheek.
"No matter where I'm at in line, whether I'm first or heck, I've been the very last one at times, it still comes crashing in on me."
Carrying roses, Rowe entered the gates, leading a single-file procession up the winding driveway to the garden where Elvis is buried.
At least 30,000 people have come to Graceland this week to recall a performer who seemed to imbue each of his fans with a sense of generosity for their fellow man.
"Here was a guy that didn't forget where he came from," Rowe said. "He went on this magical journey of his and he took his friends along with him. That taught me a lot, so when ever I can help one of my friends out, I do."
Fans left small mementos at Elvis' tombstone on the Graceland estate in the Whitehaven section of Memphis. He bought the home in 1957 and it was a tourist attraction even before it officially opened to the public in 1983.
Today it remains a time capsule to the way it was in Elvis' final year, virtually untouched since the day he died.
On Tuesday afternoon, onlookers made their way through the front gates of Graceland to visit the Jungle Room, with its green shag carpeted ceiling and the eye-popping thunderbolts painted on the TV Room's walls.
By early evening, thousands lined up along the stone wall outside the gate. The fans wore T-shirts recalling Elvis weeks past and the TCB or "Taking Care of Business" thunderbolts once worn by the Memphis Mafia.
"He couldn't even imagine it, but even if he could comprehend it, if he could look back, if there was some type of reincarnation, he would have to love it, because his whole purpose in life was to be loved, be accepted," said Jerry Schilling, a friend of Elvis.
Dozens of memorial floral arrangements lined the driveway to the estate, sent by fan clubs all around the globe. Others left flowers with hand-scrawled wishes of love and undying devotion.
As the faithful made their way up to his tomb, the White House released a statement on the 29th anniversary of his death, the first presidential statement Elvis Presley Enterprises has received to welcome fans during Elvis Week.
It's "an opportunity for people from around the globe to come together, share memories and celebrate one of America's most beloved icons," said President George W. Bush, who visited the estate in June with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
An honor guard of Elvis fan club presidents and members brought two torches lit at his tomb's eternal flame to light the candles of the throngs waiting below.
The crowd sang along to "Can't Help Falling in Love," played over loudspeakers on the illuminated grounds.
"It's the saddest day," said Sherry Wallace, a fan club president from Plain Dealing, La. As a 9-year-old, Wallace watched a young Elvis perform at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La.
But while the occasion was marked with personal reflection, it was not all somber. Many took to Elvis Presley Boulevard setting up makeshift shrines of devotion.
"Some people get emotional about it, but mostly it's a celebration of Elvis' life," said Todd Morgan, a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises, which runs Graceland. He warned any would-be pranksters that mocking the King on this night of nights would bring swift fan retribution.
A group of friends from Wheeling, W. Va., laughed as they recounted 12 years of vigils.
Calvin Miller, 55, a distributor, didn't balk when asked if he remembered where he was the day the icon died.
"I know exactly where I was when Elvis died: I was filling a condom machine in Akron, Ohio, in a truck stop," he said, adding with a laugh, "I'm not even sure it got locked back up after I heard."
His friends, Rick and Robin Ashton, of Valley Grove, W. Va., said this Elvis Week has been different from those of years' past.
"We've noticed a lot more younger people this year than what we have in the past," Rick Ashton said. "I'm speaking of 30 and below."
"You don't want this legend to ever disappear," Robin Ashton added, nodding to her 6-year-old granddaughter, also an Elvis fan. "They've got to keep it on; it's our youth today that's going to carry it on."