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Mary Rowell flew in to Jackson Wednesday afternoon, and we stocked up on groceries and headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway Thursday morning in glorious weather, set up at Rocky Springs State Park and explored the remaining bits of the town — two safes too heavy to move, a wonderful old church (still in use), and a couple of foundations are all that remain of a once-thriving village that was destroyed by a combination of the Civil War, yellow fever, and poor agricultural practices. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal outdoors using two pots, two plates, about six pieces of silverware, and liberal amounts of aluminum foil, since most of the food got cooked in the campfire. It was totally great: one of the most fun Thanksgivings I’ve ever had!
The next day I biked down to Port Gibson while Mary drove back north to explore Vicksburg, and we met up and picnicked on leftovers in downtown Port Gibson and then wandered around checking out the town Grant called “too beautiful to burn.” Then we headed out to Grand Gulf, where there is another military park and a beautiful campground up on a bluff, and we climbed an observation tower to watch the sun set over the river. I am really enjoying biking the Trace: it’s a beautiful road, but I am so very sorry I am not paddling the river. I ache with an almost guilty longing for the dangerous lover I desire but cannot have. (hmmm, does that maybe sound a bit familiar?!)
We arrived in Natchez in time for a late lunch at a cafe looking out at the river, and then we drove down 61 to Baton Rouge, where Mary had to fly out at the crack of dawn Sunday. I had considered going to Jimmy Swaggart’s church Sunday morning, but I was already a bit cranky from getting up at 4:30 to get Mary to the airport, so I was not up for listening to gay-bashing right-wing Christianity on the first day of Advent. Instead, I drove back up to Natchez and got settled at the State Park and got out my bike and drove down the last fifteen miles of the Parkway and to the Indian Mounds outside of town.
Biking back up the Natchez Trace Parkway in the dusk was one of those perfect moments that happen sometimes: just the right balance of comfortable exertion and natural beauty and excellent light and simple joy. Even though I can feel myself beginning to wind down from the journey — there’s not that much farther to go before New Orleans, and I can feel my heart yearning more and more to give myself over to settling down for a while to write music — I really love being out here. Something serious has shifted inside me: I have emptied myself further than I ever have before. I have never taken this big a risk with my own creativity, and I am sort of amazed that I am not really afraid. I have no idea what is going to emerge from me musically, and I am really excited to find out what it’s gonna turn out to be. I feel like I’m winding down one journey and beginning another, which is going to be at least as much of an adventure as the one I’ve been traveling all these last months.
After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!
I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!
Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.
It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.
On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.
I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.
In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.
(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)
At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.
And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!
But that’s not all!
My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.
It’s been a sort of strange and unfocused few days these days: I left the river to go to Jackson to meet up with a new fellow-traveler who got laid low with asthma at the last minute and had to cancel. Somehow the combination of being far from the river, needing to re-calibrate my plans, and being in an actual city again, has put me a bit off balance.
I spent an excellent evening reading stories by Eudora Welty in the Jackson library, which has been named after her. I was given a tour of her house the next day by two lovely ladies, I stayed in a pleasant state park right in town, I hung out at an excellent cafe in a house, so there are many rooms to choose from to sit and drink your coffee and read or write, I bought some books at Lemuria Bookstore (“capitalism at its most transcendent”, David correctly describes it), I stood in Medgar Evers’ driveway where he was shot and killed in 1963.
One of the docents at the Welty House reminded me of a Southern version of my mother: she was wearing a scarf of that exact style my mother excelled at finding: artsy and unique, not something you’d ever see in the pages of Vogue or at Bergdorf’s, but probably just as expensive. And she let me know in a million small ways that she recognized me: she told me of her time in NYC as a young woman in the 60s, generously complimented me on my neat appearance for someone camping every night, commented on my handmade Irish sweater (brought home by my mother from a trip to Ireland in 1967); “each one unique so that they’ll know the drowned man by his sweater if not his face when they fish him out.” She told me about Eudora’s first love: “he lived for fifty years with another man,” she said, looking at me steadily. And when I said I was going to Medgar Evers’ house, she told me there’s a whole tour of civil rights sites around Jackson, “if you’re interested in that kind of thing.” If I were Eudora Welty, I would definitely put her in a short story.
I headed back out to the country on Thursday, to Poverty Point, an ancient Native American site in northeastern Louisiana that flourished for more than a thousand years. I was completely alone there, and wandered by foot and bike all over the place in the late-afternoon light. It is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. I made a big circle around to the main mound, where I walked up to the head of the bird and down again, and then pedaled around the mound itself and climbed up to the body. Standing there, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place.
We human beings are miraculous and pitiful creatures, all of us. And I think of a line from a novel of Penelope Fitzgerald’s, not about people building mounds, but about young actors putting on a show, but it’s all the same thing, really. It’s all the same thing. “Happy are those who can be sure that what they are doing at the moment is the most important thing on earth.”
Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.
We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.
But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.
The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.
But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.
Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.
I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.
The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.
On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)
I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.
I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.
I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.
I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.
The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!
John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.
Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.
Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.
We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.
John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.
I didn’t leave the River Museum in Tunica until long after it had officially closed, so I ended up staying in Tunica overnight, since, as in most gambling towns, the motels are super-cheap. The next morning I got in touch with John Ruskey, one of the masters of the Mississippi, a musician and painter and the proprietor of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale. Most of you probably know Clarksdale as a famous crossroads of the blues, there’s a Delta Blues Museum here, and Morgan Freeman is one of the co-owners of the Ground Zero Blues Club. For river people, John Ruskey is another huge draw for Clarksdale. When I had my adventure in Fort Madison, John — who I had not yet met — wrote to reassure me that the river code precluded theft, and he was of course right about that. I’ve been looking forward to meeting John for weeks, and when I woke up in Tunica and looked at the map, I realized it was finally time!
John was heading out to gather a log (one of his projects is to craft dugout canoes with schoolkids in Helena, how cool is that?!), and I told him I was thinking of biking to Friar’s Point, so he invited me to park my car at his shop and left me a map with directions for a good route. I rode out to Friar’s Point through fields that go on for miles with vistas of sky and clouds that make me think this, too, should be called Big Sky country, along with Montana. Friar’s Point is a tiny little town on a sort of promontory of one of the meanders of the river. David told me that Conway Twitty’s father used to pilot the ferry there, but my main reason for wanting to bike out there was the description of the girl in Robert Johnson’s Traveling Riverside Blues, one of the hotter songs ever recorded.
David had told me there was a museum in town, by appointment only, but when I got there it was open. I walked in and was greeted by a man named Sonny Pharis, who showed me various treasures among an impossibly varied array of stuff. I particularly liked this pitchfork, and these old gas pumps of a sort I had never seen (pre-electric), but there was much much more: old dentist chairs and miscellaneous medical tools, Indian artifacts, booty taken from the Nazis in WWII, a collection of very fancy hats.
Sonny told me he wished he could go with me on my journey, and I would have been happy for him to join me. He was a lovely man, and he made me remember Stephen King’s beautiful short story, Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. (For the moment, you can read it here.) As I was leaving, Sonny told me he would remember me forever and asked if I would do the same. I will remember you forever, Sonny. For sure.
On the way home, I rode past the Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up and where Alan Lomax first recorded him in 1941. I am probably just imagining things, but I begin to feel as if the music is growing right out of the ground. There’s something really powerful going on around here.
This morning I finally left dear David and Shawna, who have been so so wonderful to hang out with, and tearfully bid adieu to my fuzzy bedmate Fred, and started heading south out of Memphis on the east side of the river this time. At Tunica I saw signs for a riverpark, so I turned off and drove over to the river, where this multi-million-dollar facility sits right on the river’s edge. Clearly, casino revenues are allowing all sorts of things to flourish in Tunica! But before I could even get to the door of the museum, a gentleman on a golf cart rode up and offered to buy me lunch and show me around. I’m definitely beginning to understand what is meant by Southern hospitality! Craig, who was the Construction Supervisor of the park but is now its unofficial mayor, took me over to the Hollywood Cafe, a great place nearby, (mentioned in the song Walking in Memphis,) where he showed me pictures of his carpentry and woodworking, and told me many excellent stories about Tunica and environs. Then he took me back to the grounds of the park, where they have built miles of wooden bridges for walking through the bottomlands, although the water is high enough now that portions of the bridges are impassable. It’s a wonderful place, one of the few I’ve come across that makes it easy to explore the river side of the levees from the land. Other than boat launches, there isn’t much chance of that.
Here is one of Craig’s stories, just to give you an idea of how I might have spent the whole afternoon with him: he and two employees were building one of the bridges when a machine broke. Craig asked his workers to take a break and go away for a while, because it made him nervous to be watched while he was trying to fix something. They left, but after a moment he wondered if they’d snuck back and were spying on him, because he felt eyes on him. He looked up and there was a black panther, just along the other side of the bridge. I keep picturing Craig looking up in irritation, about to upbraid his employees for coming back too soon, and locking eyes with a black panther instead. I bet he was really grateful when his workers got back and the panther melted off into the woods.
The museum itself is really beautifully done; it turns out that John Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, one of the books that inspired this journey of mine, was an adviser for the exhibits. Along with a simulated diving bell, and many cool videos and photographs, and some fine Native American artifacts, there is also an aquarium, with some river creatures even stranger and more mythological-looking than I had known existed. Alligator gar, anyone? If that doesn’t creep you out a little bit, nothing will!