Deep South, USA
Itinerary: New Orleans – Natchez – Vicksburg – Greenville – Memphis – Nashville
It’s just before 4 p.m. local time, and I’m at Atlanta International Airport waiting for my flight to New Orleans. My biological clock is at 10 p.m. and I’m already tired. It’s a typical first day of a journey: getting up way too early, taking the train to Amsterdam Airport, checking in, going through customs and bagage control, a lot of waiting and then a long time in a not too comfortable airplane seat. My stomach is protesting the food the airline company has served me. During the flight, I’ve been reading about the history of the Deep South and New Orleans. I’m curious what I’m about to find there, a year after hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city.
The flight from Atlanta to New Orleans only takes an hour and a half and the plane is less than a quarter full. The baggage handling is quick and then I pick up my rental car, a bigger one than I had booked: a comfy Hyundai Sonata V6. Soon I find myself on Interstate 10 East heading toward New Orleans. The first stretch looks like any highway near a city in the USA. At one point, the skyline of downtown New Orleans looms up in front of me. To the right of the skyscrapers is the Superdome, the city’s sports stadium. But which exit should I take? I miss the right ones and end up in the outskirts of the city. Luckily I’m in a car, because I wouldn’t like to walk through the neighborhoods I drive through on my own. A little later I arrive at Canal Street via Broad Street, the wide road that cuts through New Orleans from one to the other.
My hostel is on a side street off Canal Street. After a good night’s sleep, I walk down Canal Street in the direction of the French Quarter. The hostel is not in the touristic part of the city, but in what they call Midcity here. It all looks a bit run down. The neighborhood was completely flooded a year ago after hurricane Katrina passed and the levees near New Orleans collapsed. The hostel has been renovated (in the lobby you can see exactly how high the water has been), but many houses in the area have not yet. Many vacant and/or boarded up buildings, where until last year shops were that had to close their doors as a result of Katrina. On some buildings and on the street lights you can see how high the water has been. A strange sight, knowing it’s only been a year.
It’s Sunday morning, so it’s still quiet in the streets. It’s also very hot, clammy weather. The southern USA is subtropical and that’s how it feels. When I get to the French Quarter, the streets and buildings suddenly look a lot better. This part of the city was (fortunately) less affected by Katrina and has also recovered faster. Life on the street is slowly starting to get going. In Royal Street I pass Café Beignet, a small coffee shop, where I have breakfast with coffee and fresh croissants. Slowly I wake up to the jazz music in the background.
A little while later I walk over to Jackson Square, the main square of the French Quarter. In the middle of the square, which has been turned into a park, is a statue of Andrew Jackson, Civil War hero and later president of the USA. The northwest side of the square is dominated by the Presbyterian Church, on the other side is the Mississippi river. On the wharf along the river is the Natchez, a classic steamer with a large radar wheel at the back. A beautiful boat.
Next I walk about the French Quarter, where the street signs are all bilingual: English and French. The French Quarter is an extremely picturesque neighborhood, although there’s not much French about the French Quarter: almost all buildings from the French era are gone as a result of fires or floods. Most of the buildings date from the time when Louisiana was a Spanish colony. What makes the French Quarter so special are the cast iron balconies. The gracefully decorated balconies, often with lots of greenery, give the buildings a very particular character and the streetscape a very nice look.
I walk down Royal Street, past many art and antique shops, a shop that sells masks for Mardi Grass and a single voodoo shop. Bourbon Street, on the other hand, is a series of cafes, bars and sex shops. This is nightlife central, in other words: lots of neon, loud music and lots of beer. There’s no shortage of restaurants in the French Quarter either, especially Cajun cuisine and Creole cuisine are well represented. At a Creole restaurant on the corner of Jackson Square I order Jambalaya for lunch. After lunch I walk to the Moonwalk, the promenade along the river, because I read on a sign that the Natchez returns at 1:30 p.m. from a cruise through the harbor. The sound of the steam horn and the wheel sloshing through the water is quite cool to see.
During the day I haven’t heard any live music anywhere on my tour of the French Quarter, but late afternoon that changes. At the Famous Doors Café on Bourbon Street I hear some nice music blasting through the open windows and doors. At the House of Blues there is (oddly enough) a rock band playing. At Krazy Korner I find a band playing zydeco, which can best be described as uptempo folk music with lots of accordion. A bit further I pass a patio, where three men are playing for a small group. I am immediately welcomed and decide to take a seat. The band turns out to be called Steamboat Charlie & his New Orleans Jazzband. They play cheerful tunes on trumpet, banjo and bass. Very nice. It’s now early evening and Bourbon Street is filling with nightlife crowds, especially many teenagers. In the course of the evening Bourbon becomes one big party zone, not really my thing, so I don’t stay till late.
Fo the next day I have booked a swamp tour, a boat trip down the swamps of southern Louisiana. I am picked up at the hostel with eight other travelers we head for Honey Island Swamp. Along the way we pass the eastern suburbs of New Orleans. This part of the city has been hit hard by the floods following hurricane Katrina. We pass many destroyed houses, boats that have ended up along the road and in fields, and heaps of car wrecks. The houses that are still standing have been badly damaged, often there is a mobile home in front of the door where the residents live temporarily. Many others have left the city never to return. A year later, Katrina is still very much a daily reality here. There’s no escaping I think it’s impressive to see what Katrina has done.
Then: the swamp tour. The weather is beautiful and we sail with a flat boat through the swamp. As fans of the Muppets may know, this is the area where Kermit the Frog hails from. On our way we see a lot of alligators, really cool to see them in their natural habitat. The guide feeds the alligators marshmellows, which they apparently like very much and makes them come close to the boat. Thanks to the guide I learn a lot; not only that alligators love marshmellows, but also what the difference is between an alligator and a crocodile and that it is a myth that swamps are smelly and full of mosquitoes. Because of the flowing water, there is no mosquito to be found. It’s a beautiful, quiet area, absolutely recommended!
Back in town I walk down Frenchmen Street, slightly outside the French Quarter, but with a few nice places with live music. In The Spotted Cat (small and dark) a band is playing nice jazz music and Snug Harbor across the street also has live jazz. Nice places to enjoy New Orleans in style.
Natchez and Vicksburg
I leave New Orleans the next day via the River Road, which runs on both sides of the Mississippi and closely follows the course of the river. The first part I drive over the east bank of the Mississippi. This is Plantation Country, named after the sugar cane plantations that used to be here. But those plantations have all disappeared and have been replaced by oil refineries and chemical industry. Not exactly a nice route. Between the factories are small villages, with street names such as Tip Top Street and Big Boy Street. There are also several plantation houses, which were owned by the wealthy plantation owners. The houses here are called ‘antebellum houses’, referring to the fact that they predate the Civil War.
After visiting San Francisco Plantation, I cross the gigantic Veterans Memorial Bridge and end up on the west bank of the Mississippi. No industry on this stretch, but mile after mile vast sugar cane plantations on my left and the levee (or dike) on my right. The levee by the way obscuring the view of the river for the entire stretch. I visit Oak Alley Plantation, a stately home beautifully situated at the end of a long driveway lined with ancient oak trees, and stop by Houmas House Plantation. Across the Sunrise Bridge I come to the other side of the river again. I keep following the River Road until Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. I have no reason to stop here and continue my way north to Natchez. A roadside sign tells me I’m entering the state of Mississippi. I still have a long, rather boring stretch to Natchez to go. The landscape is hilly and green, but not really exciting. Until I suddenly pass cotton fields. I’ve never actually seen cotton grow, so I park the car at the side of the road and clamber over the fence into the field. Really nice to see a cotton field up close.
Late afternoon I arrive in Natchez. This turns out to be a pretty dull town, but beautifully situated on a high point along the Mississippi river. Along Broadway Street you have a panoramic view over the river. Thanks to a little wind (it’s still more than thirty degrees) it’s nice to enjoy the view over the river.
The next morning it turns out to be cloudy and gray outside. I leave Natchez behind me and drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway. This parkway is a beautiful, quiet two-lane highway through the hilly countryside of central Mississippi. The road follows the route of an old Native American trail, and General Jackson returned north down this road after the victory over the south. Lots of forest, here and there a cotton field and the occasional car, that’s all I come across. Around noon I arrive in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. Here I want to visit the State Historic Museum, but a large canvas on the facade of the historic building tells me that the museum is closed due to Katrina. Too bad. So I continue and drive to Vicksburg. Interstate 20 West, just keep going straight.
After checking in at my motel, I go check out the Vicksburg National Military Park. This park is located on the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, which took place during the Civil War. This long, bloody battle was essential for the north to win the war, as Vicksburg is strategically located along the Mississippi. By car you can drive across the battlefield, which is now dotted with monuments to the heroes and the fallen. There are also old cannons along the former battle lines and there is a large cemetery where 17,000 soldiers are buried.
At the motel, it turns out that all of Vicksburg is without water. There is a leak in the main supply line from Jackson and the entire water supply to Vicksburg hase therefore been shut down. They hope to fix the leak within 24 hours. I hope so, because you can do very little without water (don’t shower, don’t brush your teeth, don’t flush the toilet, don’t make coffee…) and there’s not a bottle of water left in the supermarket. The weather is great though and I park my car in a street in the old part of Vicksburg, next to the Biedenharm Museum. This small building once housed the original Coca-Cola factory. Long before Coca-Cola would become a world famous brand, the first cola was bottled here.
Historic Vicksburg has a number of beautiful old houses and buildings dating from the time before the Civil War. The most beautiful, in my opinion, is the Old Court House, located on a hill. Furthermore, Vicksburg is actually just as sleepy a town as Natchez. The few tourists who come here don’t stand out (okay, I do, with my camera at hand). Vicksburg has taken its history seriously, with the Military Park and a scenic drive around the town itself, but it’s all on a small, perhaps quintessentially Southern, scale. Nothing big, no crowds, no pretensions, just a down to earth place keeping its history alive, that’s perhaps the best way to describe the character of southern towns like Natchez and Vicksburg.
Vicksburg sits at a point where the Mississippi used to run a little further straight ahead, but now it curves to the west. The smaller river that now runs straight ahead is the Yazoo River. Here no industry along the river, but a green wooded bank across the water. The waters of the Mississippi are mud brown (hence its nickname ‘muddy waters’) and the river is widely used for freight transportation. Huge tugboat combinations sail by. With the view over the river, I spend the afternoonralaxing and reading in the Riverfront Park.
Vicksburg has water again, and I leave the town behind me, taking Highway 61 north, towards Greenville. The road leads right through the agricultural heart of the state of Mississippi. Cotton fields dominates the area. Many fields have already been harvested and large, compressed bales of cotton sit beside the road, ready to be transported. On the way I pass through small hamlets, often no more than a few houses, a school and a church. People have plenty of space here, so they don’t live packed together like in the Netherlands, where every square meter of land is precious.
As everywhere in the small and medium towns in the USA, the shops are on the outskirts. It is fairly predictable: before you enter a town, you first pass one or two miles with billboards, supermarkets, gas stations, car dealers, and so on. The larger supermarkets are equipped with indoor McDonalds, toilets and a children’s paradise. If you’re driving on the highway, the food exits, lodging exits and gas exits are very convenient. At the food exits you will find chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s and Subway, the lodging exits take you to cheap motel chains such as Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Motel 6. Like it or not, but convenient it is.
When arrive in Greenville, the same picture: first two miles of fast food chains, gas stations and car dealers. At the Mississippi Welcome Center, which is housed in a fake radar boat, I get a map of the town. I drive around a bit, but there’s not much to see in Greenville. It’s a relatively poor town with a mostly black population, a few churches and a few cafes. The town is symbolic of this part of the USA. Although part of the same country, it is a completely different world than New York City or California. Here you won’t find any skyscrapers or six-lane highways. This is the Mississippi Delta, the agrarian, poor South, where nearly half of the population is black, and unemployment is as high as 20%. It’s the land of the cotton fields and the birthplace of the blues (which is called that for a reason). Mississippi is the second poorest state in the USA (after Alabama). It’s a special place to be traveling.
Each September, Greenville hosts the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival. Since it’s widely recommended, I made sure to be in Greenville exactly on the day of the festival. The festival site turns out to be a few miles south of Greenville. I park my car in the field like everybody else and pick up my reserved ticket. The festival is held on an open patch of grassland, where a stage, toilets and a number of food stalls have been set up. I’m guessing a few hundred people have already settled in when I arrive. On stage is a blues singer from a neighboring town. Other visitors are only now arriving and entering the festival site with cool boxes, camping chairs and umbrellas against the bright sun. The latter is certainly not a luxury, because the sun is high in the sky.
I walk about a bit and take some pictures. Since I am one of the few white people around and carrying a bif camera, some people think I’m a reporter. They are delighted to hear that I’m a tourist from the Netherlands. The vast majority of the visitors at the festival is black. The people sit in a kind of semi-circle in front of the stage, almost all of them with umbrellas on, which is a weird sight. A bit later I see two large coaches arrive. One has “Denise LaSalle” on the side, the other “Steve Azar on tour”. Apparently those are the big names for the evening program. Until the beginning of the evening more people arrive. The setting sun makes it less hot. I enjoy the music and watch the people around me. It’s not a world-class festival, but it’s fun.
The day after the festival I arrive in Clarksdale, a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The local Delta Blues Museum is unfortunately closed on Sundays and otherwise Clarksdale is a small, quintessential Delta town. Quiet (especially on Sunday mornings, when everyone in the strongly religious South is in church), poor, with many boarded up buildings and a single juke joint (a small, often wooden bar, where the locals come for blues and beer). I had planned to stay in Clarksdale for a day and then travel on to Memphis, but because there is little else to do, I decide to leave Clarksdale for what it is and go to Memphis straightaway.
This area is called Tunica County. Here, on the cotton plantations, the blues originated. It’s one of the poorest parts of the USA and all the more cynical is the fact that there are a number of major casinos along the highway between Clarksdale and Memphis, advertised extensively along the way. In the afternoon I cross the Mississippi-Tennessee border via Highway 61. Compared to the small towns I’ve been to the last few days, Memphis is a big city. I accidentally end up right in the center of the city, but manage to get out again and get to my motel for the next few nights.
My first day in Memphis is a rainy day and therefore a good day to visit two museums: the National Civil Rights Museum and the Rock & Soul Museum. I start with the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is located in the former Lorraine Motel. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of his room at this motel. From the outside, the building is still in the exact same state as it was then. Even King’s car is still parked in front. Inside the hotel is a nice exhibition, which give you a quite comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement. Very worthwhile.
After the Civil Rights Museum I have lunch at Peabody Place, a modern shopping center in the heart of downtown Memphis. Amidst the shops is a covered courtyard with a Starbucks and a number of eateries. A mediocre blues singer competes on stage with the Dixie Chicks sounding from the speakers. Peabody Place is in stark contrast to the authentic, agricultural south I’ve been to for the past few days. Located midway between the Deep South and the more developed North of the USA, halfway between New Orleans and Chicago, Memphis has some of both cultures.
After lunch I visit the Rock & Soul Museum. This museum is also worth a visit. It starts with cotton farming in the Mississippi Delta countryside and then takes you through the history of blues, country and rock & roll. The history of the southern USA is closely intertwined with the history of these types of music and the Rock & Soul Museum is an excellent place to experience that.
I wouln’t say downtown Memphis is buzzing during the day. Beale Street only comes alive at night. Then people take to the streets to eat and music is played in all the cafes and restaurants. During the day though, a bizarre ritual takes place at the Peabody Hotel. In the middle of the hotel’s classical hall with large chandeliers is a small pond, in which five ducks swim. The story goes that these ducks live in a suite at the top of the hotel. Every day, these five ducks are ceremoniously escorted from their suite to their pond in the hall. At exactly 11 a.m. music is played, the arrival of the Peabody ducks is announced and the ducks walk perky down a red carpet from the elevator to their pond, admired and photographed by dozens of visitors. And every day at 5 p.m. the ducks are escorted back to their suite. And it has been that way since the 1930s.
After a rainy day, the sun is shining bright again. In the park along Riverside Drive I enjoy the tranquility and the view over the Mississippi river. Modern Memphis isn’t really an attractive city. Memphis is Memphis because of the blues and rock & roll and because Elvis Presley had his Graceland here. That’s why people come to Memphis. After a few hours at the river I walk down Beale Street again. The street is now closed to traffic and it is slowly getting busier. I have dinner at King’s Palace Café, a fine restaurant, where they serve excellent food.
When in Memphis, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley. For fans of the king of rock & roll it is probably holy ground, for a down-to-earth Dutchie like me it’s an over-hyped commercial tourist trap. But a visit to Graceland also gives a nice glimpse into the life of Elvis. With an audio tour you are shown around the house, that is to say: the ground floor, because the first floor was private and will remain so. You will not see the bedroom and bathroom where Elvis was found dead. You do get to see an extravagantly decorated house, Elvis’ gold and platinum records and a series of display cases with memorabilia highlighting Elvis’ career. It is a one-sided story: that Elvis’ film career actually failed is not mentioned and there is also not a word about his drinking problem and medicine addiction. At the end of the tour you pass the grave of Elvis and that of his parents. It’s a ‘must see’, but impressive? Not to me.
I leave Memphis heading northeast. First I drive past a number of beautiful suburbs and then along a series of shopping malls. It takes me half an hour to actually get out of Memphis and onto Highway 40 towards Nashville. Highway 40 is called the Music Highway, but they should have called it Truck Highway; there’s so many trucks. Other than that it’s just a long, boring highway.
Early afternoon I arrive in Nashville. I park the car on the edge of downtown (just outside the paid parking parking zone) and walk through downtown Nashville. The city center is compact and a mix of late nineteenth-century buildings with saloons and honky tonks, and ultramodern office buildings that dominate the Nashville skyline. Coming from the Deep South Nashville is like entering a different world. In contrast to the South, people in downtown Nashville are mainly white, the juke joints have given way to honky tonks, the blues has given way to country. While Memphis really feels like the South, Nashville is obviously part of the North.
In the afternoon I walk past the State Capitol, the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the cafes on Broadway. After checking in at my hostel, I go have a look around the Broadway entertainment district. The honky tonks on both sides of Broadway are not classic saloons with swing doors (although those probably once stood here), but bars with a simple yet effective design: an open door, a bar with a few tables and a stage where live music is played seven days a week. Legends Corner, Second Fiddle, Full Moon Saloon and The Stage, there is music everywhere and there’s a nice, buzzing atmosphere.
The next morning I visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. The 1996 building alone is impressive, especially the huge hall. Inside is a comprehensive exhibition of the history of country music. From Hank Williams and Ray Price, to Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson, to Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw. At the far end of the museum is the actual Hall of Fame, with bronze plaques of the big names of country music.
Strolling down Broadway, the place to be seems to be the Wildhorse Saloon. A bit big for a saloon, it has a large dance floor a large stage, where live performances take place every night. It’s also a good place to have dinner. While I am, a part of the audience is given a crash course in line dancing. A little later many people take to the dance floor to dance to the current hits from the Billboard Country Chart. Even the teenagers, who you’d think would be more likely to be found in a disco, know the hits by heart and go dance to them. Most of them wil be on their way to the Gaylord Entertainment Center later, where the Rascal Flats are playing tonight.
Just outside Nashville, seven miles northeast of the city, is Music Valley. Music Valley is less idyllic than it sounds. It’s a huge shopping and entertainment area. In the 1970s, the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s famous country music venue, moved here from downtown. All the big names of country music have performed in the large concert hall (4,400 seats). Next to the Grand Ole Opry is Opry Mills, a huge shopping mall with over 200 shops and eateries.
The next day marks the end of my interesting two week trip in the Deep South of the USA. I return my car and report to the airline counter. My flight to Atlanta doesn’t actually leave until 2 p.m., but because the weather is going to be quite bad in Atlanta at that time, I am put on an earlier flight, so that I have more time in Atlanta to catch my connecting flight to Amsterdam. It’s already the next morning, local time, when I arrive back in the Netherlands.