Shiny Metal Tiger

Experiences in Baltimore, MD

Road Trip Days 10-11: Mississippi

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Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way, down on Highway 61

Ah, fabled highway 61, blues highway. Rolling down through the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta,  tracing the eponymous river all the way down to New Orleans. Revisited by Bob Dylan, artery of the Deep South, cradle of the delta blues; was there ever any doubt as to which route we’d take from Memphis to Louisiana?

OK, so I’m glorifying it a bit. If anything is the artery of the Deep South it’s probably the Mississippi river, and it’s not like delta blues has much to do with cruising down a highway. In reality, the most striking feature of the route was its utter flatness. Dead flat and dead straight. During my planning I’d been attracted to the world’s longest stretch of highway with no vertical or horizontal curvature whatever, which runs 30 miles from Tunica to Clarksdale, but in the end this particular stretch wasn’t very different from all the other unbelievably straight drives in Mississippi. Miles and miles of bleak cotton fields on either side, with the occasional cluster of houses. No turns, no stop lights, no (practical) speed limits. Add a thunderstorm and it’d be about as sublime as it gets.

30 miles of dead straight highway.

The first stop on this journey through flatness was Clarksdale, one of the hot spots for delta blues. They have a big old sign at what they claim are the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil, in return for mastery of the guitar. Although I’d originally wanted to go there, in the end we ended up passing it over; probably just as well, I bet it’s mostly a marker for where to set up a souvenir shop.

Of course, that’s not the only (or primary) attractions, blues-wise. There’s a museum and some blues clubs, but I guess the real significance is harder to pin down. There’s history, intermingled with the ‘real’ history, permeating the boards of houses, the the minds of the people. Clarksdale is pretty run down, but I guess that’s how it had to be to produce something called “blues”.

Dey got dem blues

In fact, run down doesn’t really do justice to the derelict feel of the place. We got there just before two o’clock in the afternoon, and after visiting the Delta Blues Museum found that the rest of the town had just closed. Even the visitor’s center was closed. At the o’clock in the afternoon. We’d wanted to visit the Ground Zero blues club co-owned by Morgan Freeman, but it was predictably closed (to be fair most blues clubs are closed on Mondays). We did go to have a look, though, and this is what we saw:

Dey got dem blues, except on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Ground zero seems like an appropriate moniker. It is operational, though, and looked like quite a cool place on the inside.

After Clarksdale we went to Vicksburg. To be honest I can’t remember why we did so, but it wasn’t a waste of time. Coming from Clarksdale, impression #1 was that Vicksburg was a much nicer town. Little promenades, boutiques, a proper waterfront. It’s not like it was a gentrified haven (see below, for instance), but it was far more animated, even at night. I got the impression that it had a lot of history as well (Wikipedia tells me that Coca-cola was first bottled there), though we didn’t have time to explore that aspect during the single evening we spent there.

Vicksburg by night

As we continued southward on the next day, it certainly seemed like we were in a different – older – place. Everything was covered in vegetation, even the trees themselves were overgrown. Verdant. Primeval. On a whim, we made a turn for the ‘Windsor Ruins’, which turned out to be the remains of what was once the grandest mansion in the area. Consumed by fire, the only thing left standing were the neoclassical pillars that had once lined the perimeter. Monumental. Impressive.

Once upon a time...

Eventually we reached Natchez, our last stop in Mississippi. Although it’s (supposedly) not the equal of Savannah, the town is nonetheless renowned for its antebellum homes. These pre-war neoclassical mansions are scattered across Natchez, with several offering guided tours. Although we cruised around to all the main ones, two of them received more attention than the others. First of these was Rosalie, a lovely home situation right on the riverbank. Aside from the gorgeous view, Rosalie naturally made a strong impression because it was the one we took a tour of. A lovely old lady led us from room to room, explaining the history of the mansion, of the family that lived there, of the times. As she was very happy to point out (repeatedly), “[Rosalie is the] best home in Natchez. All the furniture here belonged to the original family, been here since 1823. No other home can say that.” It was fascinating to see, and even though our guide’s accounts were rather too detailed for me to follow she did do a swell job showing us around.

The other mansion that stood out was Longwood. The largest octagonal mansion in American (or so I hear), it stands a bit outside of Natchez, and thus has an expansive estate surrounding it. We arrived there a bit after closing time and found the gate closed, but we decided to check it out anyway. How did we manage this, you ask? Well, it seems that they had only given thought to keeping out Americans: while the gate barred access by car, the pedestrian path was wide open. And so we hiked through the enchanting grounds of Longwood. Sunshine falling through the Spanish moss hanging from every massive oak, glistening in the misty lake. Not silent, but devoid of the ubiquitous sounds of civilization. Crickets instead of engines, birds instead of radios. It was damn near magical, and so it seemed rather incongruous when we finally reached Longwood, and found it covered in Halloween decorations:

Longwood Mansion: Now with 100% more cat eyes.

Normally I completely condone the urge Americans have to decorate their houses to summon the holiday spirit, but this might be overdoing it…


Written by Martin

2010/12/05 at 22:55

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Vicksburg is the site of the important Civil War battle the Siege of Vicksburg.

    Ugo Barzini

    2010/12/06 at 12:25

  2. There you go. Now that you mention it, I do recall seeing a plaque or two about the Siege of Vicksburg.


    2010/12/06 at 12:42

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