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A TEMPERMENTAL TEMPTRESS
My last post explored the Top Ten Things I’ve Missed Since Leaving New Orleans, concluding with a promise to follow up with Ten Things I Don’t Miss At All. As I compiled this second list, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be best delivered in two parts. I know that sounds bad, but it’s not that I enjoy complaining but rather that it’s much simpler to gush about the good times; the complications involve nuance and caveat that require more thoughtful deliberation.
Just as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wouldn’t be Rolling Stones without their wild and reckless tendencies, New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without its untamed nature; however, NOLA doesn’t have so-called ‘white people’ problems (Starbucks messed up my double soy decaf sugar-free vanilla latte) or ‘First World’ problems (my boss flubbed the TPS reports and made me late for Taylor Swift) but deep-seeded struggles involving race, culture, decaying infrastructure, and environmental fragility. Therefore, I don’t want to be flippant and make it sound like everything would be fine if everyone would just stop drinking sazeracs at lunch and dancing in the streets.
I also decided to process this in chunks because it was emotionally taxing. I moved to New Orleans full of hope and optimism but found the transition tougher than expected. Initially I felt guilty writing about my struggles, but was surprised to find that people who lived or had lived in New Orleans responded most enthusiastically to these confessions. If you’ve spent significant time there you realize that the city is like a brash and beautiful woman who is as temperamental as she is tempting: she’ll make you fall head over heels only to immediately begin testing your love. Nevertheless, I don’t regret the move and want to recall my adventure in a mostly a positive light. That being said, New Orleans is inspiring and infuriating in equal measure, so here’s Part 1 of my glimpse at the other side:
10) POTHOLE FOXHOLES
Comparing NOLA potholes to foxholes is no exaggeration. Several streets in my Uptown/Carrollton neighborhood had craters that spanned both lanes, were longer than my truck, and a couple of feet deep. This is particularly dangerous when they’re obscured from view during frequent and sudden torrential downpours. NOLA is one of the few cities where it makes sense to own a 4WD truck (until it’s time to park.) Then there’s the post-Katrina Ninth Ward, which makes Uptown look like pristine open highway.
Complaining about road conditions is a favorite local pastime, and a few months before I moved an area media outlet even started a “Pimp My Pothole” contest to shame the city into action. It didn’t work. (Though it says something that you can fill the road with paraphernalia and drivers will drive around it while the city ignores it.)
I worked summers in college filling potholes for the WV State Road, so I dreamed up a fantasy for promoting the blog where (if I had the money) I’d buy a truck full of asphalt and travel around like some road repairing Johnny Appleseed. This fantasy always ended with me getting arrested for tampering with public property, for that is totally New Orleans: too inept to fix the problem but swift to thwart perceived intrusions on the malaise! (More on that later.)
9) THE UNSMART GRID
The layout of the roads in New Orleans is even more frustrating than their condition, though this largely can’t be helped. New Orleans is an old city that organically expanded by incorporating the plantations or ‘faubourgs’ that radiated from the French Quarter like spokes. Having been founded at an odd angle on a river bend (i.e. The Crescent City), NOLA has a unique and peculiar geographic orientation that is largely (though not always) triangular. To get a sense of the street grid, visualize a Salvador Dali rendition of a Trivial Pursuit piece after it’s been dissected and reassembled by Dr. Frankenstein. Even after a year I was often disoriented when two turns led me back from whence I came. This was particularly challenging when I was doing home health visits, for either Google Maps can’t even figure out this mess or my GPS was trying to murder me, for I was constantly told in a calm, robotic voice to turn right off the top of a bridge or drive straight into a concrete highway barrier that inexplicably cut off a main artery.
It is only five miles from Carrollton (the western edge of the city) to the French Quarter, and all the dense neighborhoods therein would fit into one sprawling Jacksonville gated community. Jax is the largest city in the nation by acreage, and the local joke is that no matter where you’re heading (even to the kitchen for a beer) it will be twenty miles and thirty minutes away. In New Orleans, I quickly realized every destination was two miles and yet still thirty minutes away.
Like I said, some of this in unavoidable and part of the city’s history and charm. But some of it is just typical local lack of planning. Through-ways are suddenly cut off by poorly placed barriers, the main arteries suddenly shift to another road several blocks away without warning or signage, and some one-way streets suddenly switch direction only to switch back to the original direction four or five blocks later. Seriously. WTF?!?
8) DIRT & DIN
Because it was built on a swamp, New Orleans has always struggled with dirt and disease. Fortunately, Yellow Jack no longer makes its annual summer visits but that veneer of dirt is still omnipresent. It’s weird, because it’s a beautiful city and I don’t know if I’d want a sanitized New Orleans, but there was more dirt and pollution in the air than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Even in the house, the furniture gets covered with a thick layer of gray every couple of days, like living in a West Virginia mining town where black dust rains down daily. I’m not enough of a clean freak for it to consciously bother me too much, but I could feel myself relax a little when I escaped to cleaner pastures. In fact, this is so prevalent that while I volunteering with a native during Jazz Fest last year, she admitted she was disgusted visiting her grandparents in ‘clean’ Tampa. “The roads are all clean, and orderly, and planted with flowers,” she said with wrinkled nose and no trace of irony.
The noise, though, was a very conscious irritant. Because summer heat was a concern and most buildings were constructed before the invention of A/C insulation wasn’t a concern. On the other hand, space was a premium so these non-insulated homes were built close together. In the first room I rented near Freret Street it sounded like I was sharing a bedroom with my neighbors. I could hear everything, and they weren’t the most attractive couple so those were mental images I could have lived without. Then I moved to the French Quarter, which was actually relatively quiet at night because the walls were thick and my room backed up to the Convent. But two or three times a night something loud enough to penetrate those walls roll through, scaring the crap out of me, and when outside my room the Quarter was, as you can guess, always rocking. I knew this going in, but had to regularly bike to City Park for some tranquility.
Even in my third home in a sleepy Uptown neighborhood, if the neighbors decided to have friends over late to hang on the patio it sounded like they were sipping drinks and laughing at the foot of my bed. New Orleans is a city of music and parties, and that’s awesome when you’re feeling spry and lively. Not so much when you need to recuperate.
7) ALL THIS WATER & NOTHING TO SEA
I may have a Creole soul, but my heart belongs to the ocean. New Orleans was built on a swamp so there’s water everywhere and its very existence hinges on its proximity to the sea, but it still felt a long way from open water. Even though there were beaches nearby in Biloxi or Pascagoula, I don’t ‘feel’ the coast until crossing into Florida at Pensacola.
New Orleans is the most visually alluring city in the U.S. and I never tire of gazing at its architectural brilliance. But, for my tastes, Mother Nature hardly did her best work deep in the delta. Yes, there is a certain beauty in the bayous, but it is a harsh and foreboding aesthetic. There is a reason the fugitive French Acadians who weren’t welcomed anywhere else south of Nova Scotia stopped when they reached this swampland (eventually becoming ‘Cajuns’): No one else wanted it.
I’m sure this will be greeted by some with incredulity, for I know people who believe that exploring these molasses streams on an airboat armed with rod or rifle is damn near paradise. It’s just not my version of it. When I drive back to the green rolling mountains of West Virginia and Virginia my demeanor changes and my soul cries, “I’m home.” Paradoxically, when I return to the saline shores and swaying sawgrass marshes of North Florida I sigh and again think, “I’m home.” But though I always feel a thrill at the sight of the New Orleans skyline, I never lose myself in the surrounding swamps.
6) CAJUN CLAUSTROPHOPIA
Again, this is a matter of preference and temperament. New Orleans is a very European city, which means it is close quartered and cramped. I grew up in rural West Virginia yet have gradually migrated to increasingly urban locales. I may have hit my ceiling in New Orleans.
New Orleans is small in both population and acreage, but it is densely settled and built to the smaller dimensions of days gone by. Granted, high ceilings were a must to trap the summer heat, but overall I always felt ‘enclosed.’ I loved basking in history and culture all so compactly presented, but felt the need to escape town at least once of month, experiencing a sense of relief like slipping off that Easter outfit you were so proud to squeeze into. I always felt a rush upon returning to the energy and proxmimity, but I always needed that break as well.
Well, that wasn’t too bad, but the biggies are yet to come!
To be continued…
When last I signed off I’d just finished following the Mississippi River from its Lake Itasca source to New Orleans. It was my grand farewell to both the city and my year (and a half) of living like a working writer. I’ve since moved back to Jacksonville where I’ve been scrambling to reenter the professional realm—a much rockier and time-consuming transition than expected. I never expected to fall silent for so long but I was carrying an overdue balance of delayed reality and the ‘real world’ always demands its due.
Successful writers seem to steal a minute here or there while the coffee brews or the washer runs that extra spin cycle, but I typically require blocks of unbroken time to focus and access my brain’s creative center. Perhaps this trait will sentence me to a life of stifled ambition, but I have not been able to write while restructuring and reestablishing my life as a Floridian and occupational therapist.
The Christmas season, however, left me wistfully dreaming of New Orleans. In December of 2012 (while preparing to move) I visited and was surprised by the beauty and festivity of a Crescent City Christmas. I have always associated holiday mystique with snowbound northern destinations, yet found a New Orleans holiday utterly enchanting. Thus, spending the season away spurred me back to the keyboard to reflect upon the Top Ten Things I’ve Missed Since Leaving New Orleans.
10) A CRESCENT CITY CHRISTMAS
I visited New York in 2011 expecting to rekindle my waning Christmas cheer yet was a victim of my own expectations. I came to New Orleans in 2012 sans expectation and stumbled upon what I’d missed in the Big Apple. If I miss Mardi Gras (which I won’t, barring tragedy) or Jazz Fest (50/50 chance) then these two favorites will surely crack my list; however, for now I’ll include my third favorite NOLA season, having blessed to experience the entire season last year.
When I arrived in 2013 I believed Halloween—my favorite holiday as an adult—would easily assume the #3 position in my NOLA hierarchy, yet what tugs at my heart and fires my imagination are memories of Christmas tree lights cutting through a French Quarter fog in Jackson Square; the elegantly twinkling tree in Antoine’s plush dining room; Kermit Ruffins standing before a tree topped with his signature red hat while playing a jazzy Peanuts style “O Tannenbaum; ordering the special Reveillon menu at The Gumbo Shop after a free Christmas concert at St. Louis Cathedral; and….sigh.
9) PROCESSIONS, BOTH PLANNED & SPONTANEOUS
Whether an organized second-line, a Happy Thursday bicycle group, or just a mix of tourists and locals falling in behind a brass band on Frenchmen Street, part of the magic of New Orleans is everyone’s willingness to drop everything to follow a Pied Piper to no particular destination—folks here realize it’s all about the journey. This phenomenon is so interwoven into local DNA that when our weekly bike parades blocked an intersection, drivers waited patiently and often honked in appreciation or offered a friendly wave. In any other city such an inconvenienced motorist would lay on the horn and a middle finger, furious at your impertinence.
I also miss, of course, the friends I made during such treks. Upon compiling this list I considered including the peeps I left behind, but quickly realized that all those folks were already imbedded throughout.
8) A WORLD OF WEIRD
Before moving to New Orleans I was collaborating with a photographer friend on articles for a Jacksonville publication. We’d eagerly scour other magazines and websites looking for weird or unusual happenings to cover. Upon moving to New Orleans, though, I joked: “In Jacksonville I had to work to find weirdness, but in New Orleans I just walk out my front door and watch the crazy parade pass by.”
It’s common to claim that there are ‘two types of people in the world,’ but on this point I’m thinking in triplets. One type of person (a majority) fears or reviles odd or unusual behavior. A smaller second type tends to tolerate or ignore it—live & let live. Then there are those—a minority for sure—that revel in weirdness. I definitely fall into this third category. I love the strange, novel, and unusual. Although I admittedly can get uncomfortable when someone pushes boundaries too far, I generally admire people who don’t mind going out on a limb and happy live outside the expectations of polite society. And many of those people find an accepting home in New Orleans.
7) DIVE BAR DISCOVERY
There are thousands of unique and interesting watering holes in New Orleans filled with unique and interesting people, covering the full spectrum from grime to grandeur; thus, a night out always held the thrill of possibility. Some of this is admittedly self-perpetrating myth, and my dive bar explorations were dampened by a lack of company (I made tons of friends, but few whom I could just call on a whim), but, still, every trip out the door felt like a trip of discovery (especially when close friends came to visit), and I miss that constant sense of possibility.
6) CREATING/VEGETATING IN COFFEE SHOPS
I was in New Orleans to write, so spent more time in the coffee shops than bars. Fortunately there is a funky and unique java joint nearby in every corner of the city. One thing about Jacksonville (and most cities) that drives me nuts is how quickly the local coffee shop fad was obliterated by Starbucks and Panera, so I even devoted a section of my Geaux Local guide to coffee shops.
And this warrants another shout out, for owner Eugene and the rest of the Krewe Du Brew staff became good friends and always made me feel at home. I felt like Norm in a caffeinated NOLA version of Cheers and wish I were typing these words in that stately columned St. Charles café while the streetcars rumble past….
5) MARINATING IN HISTORY
I was recently discussing my only trip to the U.K. with an Irish friend, noting that this thrilling trip held a constant melancholy undertone because I was deeply affected by the constant weight of ancient history that surrounded me. In America everything is new, creating the illusion that the world is still in a state of creation; in England there is a five hundred or thousand-year-old castle in every town to remind you of the brevity of human life. It was both exhilarating and daunting.
Regardless, I love immersing myself in history and New Orleans is the most European city in the U.S. Every nook and cranny of New Orleans is drenched in history, if not quite so ancient. Perhaps this is why so much of My Year of Mardi Gras was tinged in melancholy, but good or bad, every corner of New Orleans seems significant so simply being there made me feel relevant by default.
4) INTIMATE MUSICAL PERFORMANCES
When it comes to national touring acts, North Florida has come into its own in recent years. In 2014 alone I saw four all-time favorites (Paul McCartney, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and The Allman Brothers Band), and another, Wilco, is coming in May. I find myself with more options than expendable income these days.
Nevertheless, few if any cities can compare to New Orleans when it comes to a local organic music scene, and Jacksonville is particularly deficient in this area. It is no secret that music is woven into the very fabric of daily life there, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend so many intimate shows in small but iconic venues. Along the way, I befriended a few amazingly talented musicians such as Robin Barnes and her band and Vince Marini and they often visited for Red Beans on Monday. Even though I was burning through savings and barely earning a dime, it was a thrill to feed a few starving musicians and play the role of patron to the arts if even on the smallest scale. And it was a thrill to head out on any random night and support so many unheralded artists making exceptional music.
3) THE LITERARY LIFE
If the music scene in Jacksonville is on life support, the literary scene is DOA. I may have not achieved the foothold I desired in NOLA, but while living there I interviewed nationally known writers, became close friends with several other writers and professors, and could rest assured that even those friends who weren’t writers still read veraciously. (Most of my Florida friends don’t read at all—including this blog—so I can tease them freely!)
New Orleans is a literary city to its very core. Although it was hard to stand out in such a sea of talent, it was easy to join in, such as with the monthly book group at the sadly defunct McKeown’s Books & Difficult Music. Owner Maggie was one of the first people to show genuine kindness to this frazzled outsider when I stumbled into her shop looking for a way to connect with the local literary scene, and I still miss those meandering and sometimes unruly discussions with a lively cast of characters at the monthly non-fiction book club.
2) CONSCRIPTIVE COMMUNITY CONNECTION
Okay, perhaps no one is forcibly drafted into community life in New Orleans, but there is a strong affirmational social pressure to participate. If you’re a native, it’s bred into you. If you’re a transplant, you probably didn’t matriculate because you wanted to sit in your basement and play X-box (besides, there are no basements below sea level!) Whether it’s a Mardi Gras Krewe (and I miss my Morpheus and Chewbacchus peeps and those crafting sessions assembling bandoliers and Wookie merkin panties!) or a bike club or a an ironic dance troop or an amateur brass band or a social aide & pleasure society or whatever else floats your eccentric boat, there is something for everyone.
It doesn’t matter what the outlet, nearly everyone plugs in somewhere. People in NOLA are proud of their city and, more importantly, are part of their city. In a world of gated communities and Facebook friends and hyper individualism bordering on social disconnect, it was refreshing to experience a place where people still value connecting on a human level and working towards a common goal—no matter how absurd or frivolous.
1) HOPE & PURPOSE
This is the biggie. When I decided to get a second Master’s in Occupational Therapy rather than pursue my Ph.D. in literature I quietly admonished myself for giving up on my dream. And for half a decade I did. But over time I gradually sought out more and more writing outlets until I finally pushed all my chips onto the table and moved to New Orleans to devote my full attention to figure something out. Over a year and a half I experienced a ton but made little visible headway towards practical goals, so was faced with a difficult decision. I never realistically believed (we all dream) I could ‘make it’ in a year, but hoped for signs of progress or visible markers along the road. Instead I was financially floundering, having seen my early inroads (published in Offbeat, connecting with a couple of nationally known authors) quickly fade. My closest friends were far away and the sacrifices I would make in staying just didn’t seem warranted.
Still, as long as I was in town I felt like I was in the game, much like the NFL team belonging to the city I’d left. Although the Jaguars have been the laughing stock of the NFL for years, at least they can say they’re in the league, and that means there’s always a chance. Only 30 U.S. cities—and cities in the world—can say that. Similarly, as long as I was in New Orleans I was striving for something more—paying my dream due respect—no matter how futile the endeavor. I was losing but in the game. Since moving back I have been necessarily focusing on more immediate financial and personal goals, but I miss that grander if hyperbolic sense of hope and purpose.
Of course, everything wasn’t always rosy in New Orleans. ‘The Big Easy’ is a despised nicknamed coined by outsiders with no idea what daily life is truly like in the nation’s most quirky and challenging city. If everything had been Big & Easy I’d still be there. So my next post will surely be the one to irk the friends I left behind (for residents tend to take NOLA criticisms quite personally): Top Ten Things I Don’t Miss About New Orleans One Bit!
BIG MUDDY PEEK-A-BOO
As I headed south on Highway 61 out of Vicksburg the Mississippi River reappeared, glistening in the late afternoon sun through a frame of pink flowering shrubs. It was a stirring sight, but the road soon turned inland so I hopped on the Natchez-Trace Parkway hoping for even a faint echo of the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead, a monotonous sentry of towering pines dominated the flat landscape.
I arrived in Natchez at 4:00 and made an unplanned stop at a historic park on the outskirts of town. It too was not quite noteworthy—a plantation home of dubious beauty, preservation, or significance. I declined to pay for the final ranger’s tour of the day and instead briskly walked the overgrown ‘gardens’ before heading into town seeking a smaller version of Vicksburg.
Whereas Vicksburg rose from the river on a steep but sloping hill, Natchez was perched atop a plummeting bluff that provided dramatic views of the Mississippi. A small park along the cliff formed a lovely centerpiece to town, but there was little else to see in this tiny river community.
Natchez once was a thriving riverboat stop between Vicksburg and New Orleans segregated into two distinct sectors. Atop the bluff set ‘Natchez On The Hill’ where wealthy, God-fearing merchants and plantation owners stood removed (at least outwardly) from sin and vice. Along the narrow strip of land at the bottom of the cliff lay ‘Natchez Under The Hill,’ a bustling and rowdy wharf lined with bars, gambling dens, and whorehouses. Multiple attempts from on high to tame Natchez Under The Hill had failed during its frontier days, but now the entire town appears sleepy and reserved—tamed by the sands of time.
It was brutally hot, so after walking down to the river I spread my tent out (I’d left it out overnight to dry but it had rained again) and fled into the lone public establishment within sight for a drink and bite to eat. The food and atmosphere were pleasant if unremarkable. I relished the chance to jot down some thoughts and reflections but found little other reason to linger.
As I drove out of town, however, I passed a sign pointing to Natchez Under the Hill. Kicking myself for missing a chance to hang out there instead, I drove down the bluff only to find a couple of empty bars and cheesy t-shirt shops. My disappointment quickly waned, though I did feel a growing melancholy. This was the last stop of my epic journey.
FROM SHACKS & STRIP MALLS TO SILT & RECECDING SOIL
Dusk fell as I crossed into Louisiana and passed a steady line of strip malls and country shacks that lead into Baton Rouge. (While New Orleans is a cultural jewel, you’ll never hear many folks raving about the rural Louisiana landscape!) As for Baton Rouge, I’d visited friends who teach at LSU throughout My Year of Mardi Gras and felt little need to return–they were all out of town and beyond the university and a few government buildings deserted on evenings and weekends there was little to see.
I-10 between NOLA and Baton Rouge cuts through large, unpopulated stretches of river and marsh, and as I drove over the receding silt and soil on an endless succession of bridges I reflected on my journey. I had started thousands of miles away at the river’s meager trickle from Lake Itasca and traversed the heart of the country witnessing spectacular changes both geographically and culturally. Though my journey ended as the lights of the Crescent City rose to embrace me, the river itself meandered on another hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. (And I’d already documented this final stretch on a frigid February day.)
I had been invited to crash at the home of a writer friend, and it was past 9:00 when I arrived. She was in the throes of revision and I was exhausted, so after minimal obligatory small talk I crawled into bed and sunk into restless sleep, overwhelmed by a swirl of emotions. Over the past year and a half I’d seen and done so much, yet now it was all over. There were no more dreams of grandeur, no more tricks to try. Tomorrow I’d quietly pack up and head back to Florida without stirring a wrinkle on the surface of this deep cultural pond. I came. I saw. I hadn’t conquered. Not by a long shot.
The next morning I awoke early with little time to say goodbye (for now) to the city that had lured me and captivated my imagination yet never quite felt like home. After a farewell breakfast at Slim Goodies, I picked up a U-Haul trailer, hurriedly loaded my belongings in storage, and set out the nine-hour drive back to Jacksonville where I would recoup, regroup, and decide how to move on from My Year+ of Mardi Gras. I had hoped to launch at least a part-time writing career in New Orleans, but continued to struggle to grow an audience or figure out how to turn warm, fluffy sentiment into cold hard cash. Deep down I know I’ll type away until the day I day, yet part of my feared I was giving up. I was desperate for closure a sign of some sort, so was grateful when the universe offered a sly wink.
During my farewell trip along the Mississippi my favorite destination and fondest memory had been Hannibal, Missouri—home of literary hero Mark Twain. To my surprise and delight the U-Haul trailer I was assigned boasted a picture of a leaping frog illustrating Twain’s most famous short story: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Every U-Haul illustrates a different location, yet out of thousands of American destinations I’d drawn Mark Twain’s hometown.
Perhaps it was just coincidence, but maybe—just maybe—the universe was giving me a little nudge to keep on hauling….
MOTHER NATURE-1, GENERAL GRANT-0
By the mid 19th Century, Vicksburg was a flourishing antebellum cotton exchange with surprisingly cosmopolitan amenities. Located atop the highest bluff on the southern Mississippi, it was both an important river and railroad junction, so when the Civil War broke out it became arguably the most fiercely contested position of the conflict, its fortress-like perch a defensive blessing that lingered into a curse. Instead of falling quickly to the Union like other river communities, Vicksburg easily frustrated all attempts at capture for over a year, but this would only prolong its suffering.
Up-and-coming Union general Ulysses S. Grant (who inherited the failure of the previous command) was so frustrated by Vicksburg that he tried to dig a bypass canal through the horseshoe bend where the city lay at the apex—a colossal failure. Out of desperation, he finally sent his troops on a risky overland maneuver through swampy wilderness in enemy territory cut off from supply lines to lay siege from the city’s rear. The gamble paid off, and over the next few months he starved out the city’s genteel residents while forcing them to live underground like rodents to avoid the ceaseless shelling.
Aware of Vicksburg historically prominent perch, I rolled into town anticipating spectacular views of the mighty Mississippi, but instead discovered I could barely glimpse a narrow, stagnant channel through the trees below.
Vicksburg’s prosperity was fueled by its founding at the Mississippi’s confluence with the Yazoo River, but—in an ironic twist of fate—a dozen years after Grant’s failed detour [Read more...]
HIGHWAY 61: RELEVANCE OVER RHYME
Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on!”
God says, “No?”
Abe says, “What?”
God says, “You can do what you want, Abe,
But next time you see me you better run.”
Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
Highway 61, paralleling the Mississippi River throughout the state bearing its name, was the road pre-civil rights era field workers followed north seeking a better life and more tolerant culture with guitars strapped to their backs. Memphis was the first stop of this gradual cultural dispersion that crept on to St. Louis before finding a home in Chicago. In this Midwestern Mecca the blues went electric and flourished into an artistic movement that swept the world; thus, many folks—even old blues songwriters—assume that Highway 61 runs to Chicago when in actuality it ends in northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s childhood home (which is appropriate since that’s where the river and my journey began). In fact, one of Dylan’s greatest and most influential albums was titled Highway 61 Revisited, containing a song thus titled.
While Route 66 is better known because of a catchy rhyme (Get your kicks…), Highway 61 is the most storied route in American music. As I penetrated the Mississippi delta along this fabled corridor I relished this extension of my reverse journey through music history (Cargo flowed south with the current but culture swam upstream!), looking for stops along ‘The Mississippi blues Trail’. The Blues Trail is not a trail at all, but rather a collection of historical markers, museums, and birth sites of famous musicians spanning the entire state. The official map displays hundreds of sites in every corner of the state, leaving little area uncovered; therefore I decided to hit a few highlights.
While glancing down the list of birth sites, however, I was surprised to learn that truly every blues great I could think of from the twenties through the seventies was born in Mississippi except for Buddy Guy, who was born just across the border in Louisiana: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Freddie King, Son House, Elmore James, W.C. Handy, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lighting Hopkin’, and on and on and on. When Mississippi claims to be the birthplace of the blues, it is being quite literal. There isn’t even a second pace contender!
NOT ENOUGH MEAT ON THE BONE (THE DELTA BLUES MUSEUM)
The first noteworthy site I passed was in Tunica, which brands itself ‘The Gateway to the Blues.’ The town has converted an old trains depot into a visitor’s center which makes a rustically appealing photo backdrop. One of the friendly staff even came out and snapped a picture for me, though, inside the depot was more a really cool gift shop than educational center so I continued on to an intersection just outside of Clarksdale which is one of several claiming to be the crossroads where, according to blues lore, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar. It is a great—if ridiculous—story and I had fun taking a great but ridiculous photo before driving into town to visit the Delta Blues Museum.
Clarksdale isn’t much to look at and the museum is a difficult to find and unremarkable in appearance. The entrance fee is reasonable, though I was a little miffed when they informed me they forbid photography. I requested some stock photos for the blog per their sign addressing the media, but they brushed me off (so I snuck a few pictures when no one was looking!)
Not that there was too much to photograph besides Muddy Water’s salvaged cabin. Waters’ story was told in some—if not elaborate–detail, but he was the only artist who received significant treatment. Displays on other artists were flimsy and revealed little that a moderately informed blues fan wouldn’t already know. More disappointing, the collection made little attempt to build a narrative to explain the birth and evolution of delta blues from a field hand’s diversion to a worldwide cultural institution. Instead, it was a random and spotty collection of artifacts and bios. Perhaps after my incredible Memphis musical ménage à trios of the previous day anything would have trouble measuring up, but I left feeling like the museum barely scraped the surface.
It was after lunchtime so I stuck my head in Morgan Freeman’s eclectically cluttered Ground Zero Blues Club across the road, but the place was empty and I decided to move on. The club featured live local music every night from ground zero of the blues, but there was little else in Clarksdale to hold me through the afternoon.
DISPERSED COTTON & FANTASTIC CLAIMS
It was too late to divert east of Highway 61 to B.B. King’s Birthplace and Museum in Indianola (for which I’d make a special trip), so I stopped for lunch at another famous barbecue joint located at the crossroads—Abe’s. It still couldn’t compete with my beloved Mojo’s in Jacksonville, though, so I continued south, stopping for a few historical markers along the way.
It was thrilling to drive through such cultural significant fertile countryside as the afternoon sun began to fall in the sky, but the fields where the blues were born are too dispersed to conjure the same sense of history as the condensed confines of Memphis. My next planned stop was The Dockery Plantation which claims to be the spot where cotton workers first gathered to develop their new form of music, but the signage directing the way was poor so I kept driving—I had enough photos at spots making fantastic claims and didn’t want to drive late into the night again after another disappointing detour. Besides, I was eager to reach Vicksburg where I had decided to pamper myself on the last night of my journey at a Bed & Breakfast after spending two soggy nights in a leaking tent!
MOTEL IN MEMPHIS
Where you there when the man from Atlanta was murdered in Memphis?
Did you see him laying at the Lorraine Motel?
Did you hear them say that the CIA is witness
To the murder of a man at motel in Memphis
Motel in Memphis, Motel in Memphis
Run and tell somebody there’s blood on the riverside
Oh, muddy water / Roll into Memphis
If you were there you would swear it was more than a man who died
The wispy summer sky was turning a dark purple and a gentle breeze was blowing off the Mississippi as I strolled east through a decaying stretch of downtown. My soul was still buoyant from its dip in the fountains of Memphis music history but was slowing waxing with a melancholy tide. I was nearing the American Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where on April 4, 1968 a great man was gunned down for the crime of demanding human dignity. Although it was after hours I felt compelled to pay my respects, particularly after hearing the recorded testimonials at Stax Records—whose artists often stayed at the Lorraine—of the stark and immediate repercussions of this hateful day.
The song “Motel In Memphis” by Old Crow Medicine Show was on endless loop in my head as I approached, the Stax Museum having provided affirmation of the song’s claim “it was more than a man who died.” As I write these words several weeks after my visit, racial tension is spilling over in Ferguson, Missouri outside of St. Louis where I had just left.
Regardless of what we learn about the incident at the core of this turmoil, such frustration doesn’t boil over without antecedent. Yet where is a Martin Luther King, Jr. to channel violent backlash into peaceful and effective protest? Nearly fifty years later his shoes have yet to be filled—his dream of a post-racial America still not fully realized. A black man is no more likely than a white man to use drugs, but is ten times more likely to go to jail for it, and we jail more citizens (not per capita–literally more) than China with its repressive government and population topping a billion. Our for-profit prison system has become the new Jim Crow.
More than a man, indeed.
PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE)
Early morning, April 4
A shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
In the name of love
One more in the name of love
The scene outside the Lorraine Motel is frozen to April 4, 1968, including the same model cars that were in the parking lot that evening (not morning). The lobby, though, has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and a huge brick extension sits across the road in place of the dilapidated building where the assassin hid.
As I stood outside room 306–a reef on the door just like the one placed April 5th–my eyes welled up and a lump rose in my throat. I’d spent the day luxuriating in the heights our people can soar when white and black harmoniously collaborate—the sublime emerging from subjugation. Yet here lay a stark reminder of the unseemly flip side—a nation’s deepest shame played out upon the same soil that gave birth to so much splendor.
I don’t necessarily buy into the concept of white guilt, but suddenly felt embarrassed standing amidst black families who had come to pay tribute, as though I were intruding. Part of me wanted to apologize for every idiotic thing ever done in the name of racial hate, though I knew that would be patronizing (and just plain awkward!) Besides, King’s dream was of peaceful coexistence.
The U2 song “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” now dominated my thoughts, and I choked on the line “They took your life, they could not take your pride.” King had come to town in support of a sanitation workers strike and was gunned for standing up for basic human dignity. It boggles the mind how a man of love could inspire so much hate. He was aware of the threats on his life, but would not be bullied or marginalized. So they took his life.
They could not take his pride.
FROM UNBEARABLE PAIN, TRANSCENDENT BEAUTY
I was unprepared for how deeply that moment outside a motel in Memphis would affect me through mere proximity. As I walked back to Beale Street along the Memphis shoreline a gentle rain began to fall. It felt as though God himself were mourning our capacity to wrench pain and discord from an already indifferent universe.
The next morning I packed my soggy camping gear and headed south down legendary Highway 61 which cuts through the Mississippi cotton fields where slaves once coped with backbreaking labor (their compessation: degradation, humiliation, brutality, rape, and death) through the only means available—music. From these fields of nightmare emerged America’s one indigenous art form and greatest cultural gift to the world: the blues/jazz/rock-n-roll continuum. How ironic that from unbearable pain came such transcendent beauty.
A MOST EPIC MUSICAL DAY
The Elvis themed dive just outside of Graceland informed me they were no longer serving breakfast. What kind of diner quits serving breakfast after 10:00!? Considering I’d spent a soggy night curled up in the middle of a leaky tent I’d pitched by headlights after driving a half hour from Memphis and then wandering lost for a half hour in a sprawling state park, I didn’t accept the news with grace. The king would not approve.
After swallowing an unsatisfying hamburger I scurried away, but upon learning they wanted $10 just to park next door I returned to my parking spot and walked–the cheapest admission package to see a dead man’s house ($34) seemed stiff enough. Despite the rocky start, passing the gates of Graceland via shuttle from the visitor center marked the start of what would be one of the most epic musical days of my life. In Hannibal I’d walked in the footsteps of Mark Twain, but today I would [Read more...]
A SECOND CHANCE FOR A NATIONAL DISGRACE
Cairo, Illinois has always seemed mythic to me. Founded on the peninsula where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers join, it marks the most important intersection of the nation’s original superhighway, connecting the interior of the original states to the Gulf of Mexico and world beyond. I most envision Cairo, though, as the gateway to the abolitionist north that Huckleberry Finn and his runaway companion, Jim, tragically drifted past in a heavy fog. Yet while the Mississippi’s intersection with the Missouri gave birth to mighty St. Louis, Cairo is a small town of little note outside of Mississippi River literature.
For good reason.
From the moment I crossed back into Illinois I was confronted by more decay and neglect. I hoped Cairo would be an appealing little hamlet like those of southern Minnesota, embracing its historical significance, but this rundown town on the state’s southern tip was hardly worth a second glance. I continued on the Great River Road to the confluence, but the wayside was overgrown, littered with trash, and abandoned like all the others; the placard was faded and barely readable. It took a minute to get my bearings since there were no markers to make sense of the landscape, only a dilapidated concrete landing that looked like an abandoned military bunker. I assumed it was meant to provide a view (or something for bored [Read more...]
FOLLOWING THE RIVER AGAIN (THEORETICALLY)
Although I stayed up late chatting with my neighbor, I was up early the next morning to meet an old friend, Matt Gregg, for the 1:00 Cardinals game in St. Louis. So after heading back to the Java Jive to book a room via their internet (any excuse for great coffee) I headed south along the river.
At least theoretically.
As I left town it was immediately clear that flooding had worsened overnight. After the second major detour around a flooded small town I steered away from the rising waters.
CASINO QUEEN: A MUSICAL LANDMARK (OR NOT)
Casino Queen / My God you’re mean
I’ve been gambling like a fiend / On your tables so green
On their debut album, Wilco—a band with Midwestern roots— [Read more...]
WE’RE NOT IN DISNEYLAND ANYMORE
“[My parent's] first crop of children was born [in Tennessee]. I was postponed–postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown state and needed new attractions.”
The Fourth of July had been beautiful, but I exited my tent on the 5th to gray, foreboding skies. (Side note: After a lifetime of camping I’ve concluded there is no graceful way to dismount a tent!) The forecast had promised no rain until Sunday, so I clung to hope as I cooked breakfast and headed into town.
I drove up Lover’s Leap on my way in to view Hannibal from opposite my perch last night. The widening river snaked between the rolling hills below—shrouded in a gray haze—and faded into the horizon. It was readily apparent that the minor flooding of the previous day had worsened overnight.
Once downtown I headed straight for the Mark Twain Museum, a half dozen preserved buildings along a cobblestone block on the north end of Main Street and a modern facility further downtown. The tour starts at Mark Twain’s childhood home, complete with a white picket fence that claimed to be the very one Tom Sawyer rented out. I’d been incredulous the previous evening, but the museum did a good job of [Read more...]