day 9: clarksdale, ms – st francisville, la

departure: 08.50, temp: 16c

first, fyi, i edited the entry for day 8, as i hadn’t really done justice to the day in my haste to get on the road yesterday morning – so if you’ve already read that one, go back and read it again.

now on with day 9…

clarksdale in the light of a bright morning is a completely different place than it was in the grey dismal rain when we arrived.  initially i had regretted the decision to leave memphis for this unknown entity.  but over the course of the evening, as we settled into the town and got a feel for what was going on, we were comfortable exploring the various music venues and finding our blues feet.  the downtown core is small, with signs dotted everywhere signalling the vast array of blues legends originating in this small corner of the world, including sam cooke, john lee hooker,muddy waters, and ike turner.

there were not a lot of places open for breakfast, but we found a fabulous spot called the blues berry café.  do visit, but don’t be in a hurry.  a few of the tables were already occupied, and everyone nodded greeting as we entered.  there were several scattered round tables with chairs, and some booths with ancient padded seating and formica and chrome tabletops.  a small stage was already set up – there’s live music on weekend mornings – and a tall thin elderly guy was trying to make coffee and singing, mostly to himself.  we settled in a booth.  a regular customer at the next table chatted with us a bit and brought us menus while the other fellow continued his perplexed engagement with the coffee maker. we sat for a few minutes before he finally came over to offer us some coffee.  the cook, a guy with a long grey pony tail, came and sat in the booth with us to take our order (his daughter, the waitress, was still sleeping off the night before).  i ordered the triple stack pancakes.  he said: they’re as big as hubcaps, you’ll never eat all that, i’ll bring you just one.  irene had the spanish omelet and biscuits.  as we waited for the food, we chatted with other customers: a guy from upstate michigan who spends winters in the town; two blokes from scotland; a couple from kitchener who changed travel plans to be at the weekend festival; a guy from elsewhere in mississippi who asked me about the canadian health care system – in all, an eclectic group who had found their way to this unlikely music mecca.  the coffee guy is a musician of some renown (“watermelon slim”, the couple from kitchener had seen him at a festival a couple of years ago; he has played all over north america and across europe), yet seemed so content fidgeting with coffee filters and engaging with locals and visitors.  we ate up, and waved our farewells to our new acquaintances with promises to return some day.  we had intended next to visit the delta blues museum.  the cook had explained that there are two museums:  the delta blues one presents a sanitized but accessible history of the blues in the region; the rock and blues museum is the private collection of a dutch music fan who relocated his treasures to clarksdale and made the unique holdings accessible to all.  in the end, we skipped both museums in favour of checking out all the landmarks, reading the historic signs of the blues trail in the city, and taking photos of the venues we’d visited the previous evening.  then we filled the tank, checked the oil, and slid out onto the blues highway to continue our southward journey.

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it is a long, straight, flat drive south from clarkdale across the delta to vicksburg.  the cotton fields had mostly been harvested and the land had been tilled so that it looked covered in brown corduroy.  the only sign of the crop that had been cleared was the continuous seam of cotton blown like a little snowdrift against the short grass on the shoulder of the highway.  i wanted to stop and pick a couple of branches of the downy cotton from an unharvested field, but could not carry out the theft.  i did pick up a bit of the drift cotton from the road’s margin.  all along the flat unremarkable landscape, my mind wandered into the small clapboard churches and roadside shacks that dotted the way.  this area is poor, materially poor, but holds cultural abundance.

we passed though several small towns, by-passed the larger centre of vicksburg, and at port gibson, switched from highway 61 to the natchez trace parkway.  the parkway is maintained by the national parks service (like the blue ridge parkway), and preserves the route that had historically been used by travellers moving from the southern mississippi region northeast to nashville and the ohio river valley.  the landscape changed dramatically from the delta; the parkway is forested, shaded, with gentle hills and markers for sites of interest.  we cruised along, with a brief stop at the emerald mound historic site, and rolled into downtown natchez, mississippi.

in a study of contrasts, natchez is the polar opposite to clarksdale.  it was the home of plantation owners: all big antebellum estates, wrought iron railings, and ornate architecture.  the city was heaving on this particular saturday: the mississippi balloon festival was on, there were people everywhere, and few parking spaces.  and it was hot – 30c and humid.  we drove around the downtown core and eventually found a parking space.  we walked down to the river for a few photos, but the crowds and the heat made me cranky, and i just wanted to move on.  i had expected to like natchez more – it had been our original intention to spend the night there, but by the time we were trying to book there was not a place to be had – and in the end i was happy to get out quickly.  after clarksdale, the affluence of natchez was oppressive.  it’s hard to reconcile that these places co-exist in the same state.  nearly every building in natchez boasts a sign that it is listed in the national register of historic properties.  in spite of the abundance of talent that eminated from it, clarksdale’s multitude of historic sites hold few such markers.  for me, given the opportunity to spend a weekend in one of the two cities, i’d choose clarksdale every time.  we made a quick stop for ice cream at a local malt shop on our way out of town (what is the difference between a malt and a shake?  we ordered one of each and it was hard to tell) and carried on for another hour south to st francisville.  we had booked a hotel in advance – on a saturday night, the options were already limited with the best places sold out (how were we to know that when LSU plays a football game, every hotel room in a 50 mile radius of baton rouge sells out) and landed at the hotel francis, which was not nearly as attractive as advertised.  the room was not an improvement on the one we had in clarksdale: dated and dingy, and only slightly less dirty.  oh, and no wifi in the room, only in the lobby.  but we did have a surprisingly decent meal and good local brew at the francis southern table and bar.  then back to the room for another night in the sleeping bags, clorox wipes across all surfaces, and no shower in the morning.  thank god we have a great place booked in new orleans tomorrow night…

arrived: 17.00, high temp: 30c, traveled: 475km

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