***Viewable on any computer, tablet, or smart phone via Kindle app***
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...]
BLOGGING BY FIRELIGHT
Tonight, after three longs days of driving, I’m spending my second consecutive night in Hannibal, Missouri, having merely traveled the two miles to town and back today. Taking the day off to bask in history and walk in the footsteps of—in my opinion—America’s greatest writer feels luxurious after my whirlwind trek from Lake Itasca.
As I write these words I’m basking in a warm, orange glow: my first ever act of blogging by firelight. I’m camped just a few hundred yards from the cavern where Samuel Clemens got lost as a child, an incident that he would recreate as central plot point in his breakthrough novel: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Blogging by a campfire may seem like an odd juxtaposition of the elemental and artificial, but it feels rather romantic. I’d like to think Mark Twain would approve.
BAD LUCK=DIVINE PROVIDENCE
I’d arrived in Hannibal late in the afternoon on the Fourth of July after spending the previous night in Iowa, too rushed to relax as my idealistic visions of cooking dinner on a scenic bluff gave way to hurriedly pitching my tent while daylight faded as I munched on veggies and lunch meat. I knew I’d have the entire next day to explore Hannibal, though, so that afternoon allowed myself to relax before heading into town for the fireworks.
I’d been worried that [Read more...]
My drive through rural Wisconsin was bookended by La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, two towns that were nice enough but not as intriguing as those of southern Minnesota. I crossed into Iowa at Marquette, which was nothing more than a couple of motels and a casino with a giant buffet (per the billboard) tucked beneath a steep bluff, but just a couple of miles to the south McGregor turned out to be a comely one street town ending in a T-intersection at a large stone church.
This picturesque and abrupt termination made McGregor memorable, but there wasn’t a coffee shop or cafe to distract passers through. This trend would hold throughout much of Iowa. The towns were neat and pleasant, but they were quite chaste compared to those of slutty Minnesota, trying to seduce naïve strangers with its lurid craft boutiques and frilly cafes.
In fact, McGregor was so indifferent to outsiders that this crucial intersection—the only one in town—didn’t bother embellishing route numbers with anything as gaudy as hints about what town…state park…local attraction…or NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY… may be found by following a particular route. Your choices were 76 or County X56. Locals would know.
I figured the county route was too obscure to be The Great River Road, so I turned right and soon came to an even more confusing intersection in the middle of nowhere that correlated poorly withthe tattered road atlas from [Read more...]