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the Delta - A Journey along the Natchez Trace Parkway and to the
Birthplace of the Blues
flat plains of a desolate Delta. Swamps and forests once traversed
by Native Americans. A culture formed from Civil War battles and
Blues Musicians known to sell their souls to the devil for the
ability to play guitar.
Where do all of
these factions come together? The river that stretches along the Western
boundary of the state bears the name: Mississippi. Every student in
my fourth grade class can spell the word, but most college-educated
adults can scarcely tell you one interesting tidbit about the Magnolia
Not long after I became reacquainted with an old high school friend,
we realized that one particular aspect of our personalities had always
clicked: we both liked to travel. However, our versions of traveling
were not the normal plane-to-interstate-to-beach-to-tourist-trap and
so on; but rather, we enjoyed the rustic, Lonely Planet-inspired journeys
that took us to destinations at which most would scoff. Josh and I,
although on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum, had always
found common ground in our experiences on the road; in places like Omaha,
Upstate New York, the Appalachian Mountains, and now, the Deep South.
*(This journey was taken before Katrina) New Orleans would be
our starting and ending point, but other than to see some of the architecture
in the French Quarter, we spent little time in the Crescent City. The
Eastern and Southern Edges of Mississippi presented myriad trees, the
pristine Gulf of Mexico, "historic" downtowns and even some
hills (900 feet at one point), but our ultimate destinations were the
areas along the Western Side of Mississippi. Specifically, we were in
search of the serenity and geo-historical significance of the Natchez
Trace Parkway, as well as the rural mystique of the Mississippi Delta
Region affectionately known as the Birthplace of the Blues.
By the third evening of our trip, we were on the precipice of such encounters.
On this cool evening, we attended a show at a Blues Club (or Juke
Joint) in Clarksdale, called Ground Zero. The Joint
was owned by actor, Morgan Freeman. Freeman built the club on the run-down
outskirts of an equally deteriorating downtown, in order to aid his
hometowns economy and increase the long-suffering tourism industry
within the region.
I had never been inside a true Juke Joint, so I hadnt the faintest
idea what to expect. The House of Blues in Southern California is obviously
far from genuine. About half an hour into the show, Josh, who was a
tad familiar with other Juke Joints, mused that the music was very authentic,
but that the clientele seemed somewhat touristy, perhaps detracting
from some of the overall authenticity. This could be attributed to the
reasonable proximity of Clarksdale to Memphis, Tennessee, a major city
just 75 miles to the Northeast. Whatever the particulars, the bucolic
environment inside and especially outside brought me closer to a sense
of Southern Blues Culture than I had ever witnessed.
The Mississippi Delta Region is presumed to follow the geographical
restrictions of being North of Interstate 20, south of the Tennessee
border, West of I-55 and East of US-61. Clarksdale is Ground Zero, as
the Blues Clubs name indicates. It is in the center of Clarksdales
Business District that US Highways 61 and 49 merge. This is generally
considered the Blues Crossroads. For it was here that Robert
Johnson, the first great Delta Blues musician, allegedly disappeared
The story tells us that Johnson, down on his luck, sold his soul to
the Devil for the ability to play the guitar. When he returned, he made
his recrudescence as the greatest Blues Musician the region had ever
seen. Johnson (Hazlehurst, MS) was joined soon after by Muddy Waters
(Rolling Fork, MS), BB King (Indianola, MS) and a host of other Blues
artists from the Delta Region, who, during the World War II era moved
north via a movement later deemed "The Great Migration." Musicians,
hoping to find fame, fortune or simply more opportunities in larger
cities, settled mostly in Chicago, but also in Memphis and St. Louis.
The Maxwell Street Market, on the South Side of Chicago, served as the
main meeting place for transplanted Southern musicians to play music
and spend time with those who had recently chosen the same path.
Back in Clarksdale, just outside the Ground Zero Juke Joint is the Delta
Blues Museum, seemingly carved out of an abandoned warehouse. Receiving
about 25 visitors per day for a nominal fee, the museum took us about
45 minutes to stroll through on a sunny spring morning. It is very modern
and well put together. This unique exhibit serves as another outlet
to lure tourists and revenue to the Clarksdale/Delta region and impart
a better awareness of Blues significance throughout the nation. Guest
entries spanned the globe from England to New York to Los Angeles in
a single week.
On the way into Clarksdale the prior evening, and on the way out that
morning, we spent time on U.S. and State Roads, circumnavigating as
much of the Delta as possible. No one will confuse the scenery with
Malibu, the Rockies or Nantucket, but for two city kids,
we found it intriguing. It presents the sort of planar, unremitting,
bare landscape that you would see in movies about the Dust Bowl, but
never in person.
After lots of clouds and some rain over the first half of the trip,
heading farther south on the highways, the skies were becoming clearer,
and just in time for some of the most exciting, scenic parts of our
trip. We would be left with mid-70s and continuous sunshine for the
duration of our "expedition."
||Hours later, one hundred and sixty miles to the south, just outside
of Canton, Mississippi, we reconnected with the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Josh and I had seen about 100 miles of it a few days earlier, but that
was in the Northeastern part of the state on a cloudy afternoon, so
we had not digested the inner sense of The Parkway.
The highlight of
that portion had actually been a historic one though, as we had taken
a trail at dusk to the gravesite of 13 Confederate Soldiers killed in
the Battle of Shiloh as they were retreating south from Tennessee. This
point was at Milepost 269, and in the two and a half days since, we
had proceeded northwest to Oxford and Memphis, then southwest to the
Delta and Clarksdale, and now southeast to Milepost 107; therefore 162
miles away from where we last met up with The Trace.
It was also late afternoon now, but this was a brilliant March day in
Central Mississippi. We planned to drive about 15 miles north to the
Milepost 122 Swamp, and then back into Jackson, where the Parkway is
intersected by the city, before picking up a few miles Southwest of
Jackson in the morning.
Being farther south lent the Parkway to more lush pastures in the distance,
more coniferous trees and warmer, muggier temperatures. We were just
over 100 miles from the Parkways Southern Terminus in Natchez,
so higher temperatures and more tranquil conditions were to be expected.
The Natchez Trace Parkway (or, The Trace, as some call it)
collects its name from the aforementioned Southern ending (Natchez)
and the term, trace, which is used to describe the walkway
used alongside it by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. In order
to properly serve as merchants, Native Americans (mostly from the Chickasaw
and Choctaw tribes) used these paths to transport goods to the north
or south. The Parkways Northern Terminus is just outside Nashville,
The heaviest usage
of the 444-mile road was between 1785 and 1820. During these years,
the outlying Mississippi River was concurrently used by boatmen to send
cargo as far south as New Orleans and north as far as Pittsburgh, using
the adjoining Ohio River. The Parkway itself meanders through just three
states: Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. However, the majority of
the beauty and history, as well as 70% of the raw miles, are in Mississippi.
The only other National Parkway in the nation (not enclosed by a National
Park) is the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Blue Ridge, beautiful and elevated
as can be, is however, susceptible to the rough winters of the Smoky,
Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia.
Therefore, it is oftentimes closed, leaving the Natchez-Trace as the
sole Parkway in our country open throughout the entire winter, barring
a rare storm.
of the must sees on the Natchez Trace is the Cypress
Swamp at Milepost 122. There are other swamps, but this one is the
farthest south and best known for its beauty. In March, we were
able to have ideal weather and some ample signs of spring, such
as dangling tree branches, covered in moderate greenery. The moss
on the water was grown to about 30% of its summer capacity, when
it covers the entire swamp with a sensational murkiness that would
make Daniel Boone beam with pride. In the winter, the swamp is barren with little in the way of lushness
Later that night,
the most recognizable bit of culture took place as we went for Round
Two of Juke Joint attending. The 930 Blues Club is located
just under a mile from the center of downtown Jackson, a city of over
200,000. But upon entering, Josh and I were fully cognizant that tonight
would be a bona fide affair of Southern Culture.
The first to arrive, we walked into a structure that resembled a vacant
house, but were called upstairs. We paid, sat down on some battered
antebellum chairs, and were treated to about 30 minutes of fairly vapid
Blues from a man known as Ironing Board Sam. Apparently, this was an
act, so we gave him a tip and politely clapped. The music itself turned
out to also be less than stellar on the whole this evening. It was more
R & B than Down Home Blues, but we had heard quality music the prior
night, so we were not dismayed. This night was about the ambience, or
lack thereof. A menu with the only options being Catfish or Ribs, soda
and beer poured right from the bottle/can into your plastic cup by a
man we mockingly called, Mr. Congeniality, and a group of
people who, lets just say, did not look like Los Angelinos nor
New Yorkers, made for a distinctively legitimate experience. We would
have wanted it no other way.
The following mid-morning, after touring the urban Capital District
of Jackson, we escaped the hustle-bustle of Good Friday, and re-entered
the serenity of the Parkway. On a warm, sticky day, replete with brilliant
sunshine, dandelions in an incandescent yellow and weeping willows dangling
over immaculate roads, Josh and I both knew that we were a long way
from home; and we felt good about this.
The other salient areas one should visit on the Natchez Trace are those
designated as the Sunken Trace. Over centuries of walking
and trudging through, the original trace that Native Americans had used
for trading began to succumb and sink into the ground below to a depth
of about 40 feet at the lowest point. The Parkway was built after this,
but there are a couple of places to stop and take a short walk into
the woods to view the Sunken Trace.
Mile 41.5 is the most visible point to examine a piece of the chasmal
land. In the summer, much like the swamps and woods, the Sunken Trace
is far greener than when we walked through, but the trace area is also
much more laden with humidity, insects and mosquitoes then as well.
Being that the actual Sunken part of the Trace has virtually been the
same depth for over 150 years, we felt that we had viewed the area at
close to its optimal time.
Approximately 40 miles later, we exited the Natchez Trace for the last
time, being deposited in Natchez, the city from which the Parkway gets
half its name. Natchez, too far south and overly hilly to be considered
part of the Delta Region, lies perched on a hill above the Mississippi.
It has a "historic" downtown (as all cities do nowadays) and
seemed a bit upscale as compared to most Mississippi towns not named
Jackson. Outside of downtown, and east of the River, the trees lined
the roads in a quasi-New England splendor. We then drifted into Louisiana,
where Baton Rouge, the Bayou and New Orleans would culminate our week-long
trip over the next 24 hours.
By my own omission, I am a citified person; a child of Generation X,
feeling most comfortable in my own element, with a stable home life
and nearby amenities of comfort. That is not to say I travel along the
same lines as the masses, however. In the past three years, I have been
to 45 states, taken two cross country driving trips, spent two weeks
driving through the length of Texas, sat on a Greyhound for four days
in Florida, and enjoyed two July sojourns, driving to watch baseball
in six stadia over six days in the Midwest, amongst various other forays.
Furthermore, this trip was not to serve as a proclamation that bumpy
drives in a Pontiac Sunfire on dirt roads to find Civil Rights murder
sites in Philadelphia (MS), or a quarter-mile traipse into the Natchez
Trace Parkways woods is to be seen along the same lines as a hike
in the Gobi Desert, nor a trek up Mount Whitney. However for me, and
I postulate for Josh, two San Diegans sauntering through the Deep South
will always be our own little road less traveled experience.
Getting there: The nearest major airport is Louie Armstrong International
in New Orleans, Louisiana. From there, the Southern Edge of the Natchez
Trace Parkway is about a three hour drive over Interstate 10 West, then
US Highway 61 North. There are daily non-stop flights from LAX on United.
Round trip fares, depending upon time of year vary from $200-$400.
Car rentals from all major agencies are available at the airport.
Where to stay:
There are no hotels along the Natchez Trace Parkway. In order to be
close to the Parkway or the Mississippi Delta Region, Clarksdale, Jackson
and Natchez are your best choices.
Clarksdale: Comfort Inn, 818 South State Street, Clarksdale, MS, 38614;
(662) 627-5122, fax (662) 627-1668, www.choicehotels.com. The Comfort
Inn is conveniently located on Highway 61, across from the Coahoma County
Expo Center. This Clarksdale hotel is minutes from area attractions
like the Delta Blues Museum, Ground Zero Blues Club, the Crossroads
and Coahoma Community College.
Jackson: Jackson Marriott Downtown, 200 Amite StreetJackson, MS 39201;
All the amenities (health club, pool, conference room, business center),
15 floors, 300 rooms, walking distance to State Capital, museums and
parks. Fewer than 15 miles to entry point of Natchez-Trace, Southwest
Natchez: Eola Hotel, 110 Pearl Street, Natchez, MS, 39120; (601) 445-6000,
fax (601) 446-5310 or (866) 445-EOLA, www.eolahotel.com. Built in 1927,
renovated in 1998, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places,
the Natchez Eola Hotel offers its guests the ambiance and charm of the
Old South with the convenience of modern amenities.
Where to eat:
Clarksdale: Madidi, 164 Delta Avenue, (662) 627-7770, www.madidires.com.
Co-owned by Morgan Freeman, Madidi offers a variety of French technique
dishes ranging from Rack of Lamb to Hybrid Bass.
Clarksdale: Ground Zero Blues Club. www.groundzerobluesclub.com.
Blues Alley, Downtown Clarksdale.
Jackson: 930 Blues Club. www.jesdablues.com. 930 Congress
Street, Downtown Jackson. 601-948-3344. Cover charge: Free (Monday,
To learn more:
Natchez Trace Parkway: www.nps.gov/natr
Delta Blues Museum: www.deltabluesmuseum.org
State of Mississippi: www.visitmississippi.org
U.S. Department of the Interior: www.doi.gov
Chambers of Commerce:
© AJ Kaufman October 2005
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