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: USA Travel Experience - Archives

Tracing the Delta - A Journey along the Natchez Trace Parkway and to the Birthplace of the Blues
Ari J. Kaufman

The 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 State.

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 hometown’s economy and increase the long-suffering tourism industry within the region.

I had never been inside a true Juke Joint, so I hadn’t 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 Club’s name indicates. It is in the center of Clarksdale’s 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 one day.

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."

Natchez Trace 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 Parkway’s 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 Parkway’s Northern Terminus is just outside Nashville, Tennessee.

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.

One 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 nor verdancy.

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, let’s 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 Parkway’s 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, 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 of Jackson.

Natchez: Eola Hotel, 110 Pearl Street, Natchez, MS, 39120; (601) 445-6000, fax (601) 446-5310 or (866) 445-EOLA, 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, 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.” Blues Alley, Downtown Clarksdale.
Jackson: “930 Blues Club.” 930 Congress Street, Downtown Jackson. 601-948-3344. Cover charge: Free (Monday, Tuesday)
To learn more:
Natchez Trace Parkway:
Delta Blues Museum:
State of Mississippi:
U.S. Department of the Interior:
Chambers of Commerce:
© AJ Kaufman October 2005


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