Following the Mississippi … on Highway 61

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway

As I head up to Memphis from New Orleans, I’m getting this ominous realization that my glorious 2-week vacation is coming to an end. For that reason, I am determined to have a good time … even if getting out of Mardi Gras would be a tough act to follow.

For the rest of the trip, I am basically following only one major road … US Highway 61, as it meanders along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis. I left New Orleans today, and put in the only CD in my car that would make sense for the occasion … Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” As the opening electric guitar riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” kicks off the start of the album, I speed through the unappealing scenery … singing along to Bob’s unforgettable lyrics.

Unappealing scenery is an apt description. New Orleans to Baton Rouge along Route 61 isn’t much to brag about … picturesque bayous, sprinkled with oil refineries carry the inescapable conclusion that it’s not an environmentally sound place to be. But I’ve got Bob Dylan in the car, and I’m snacking away on the jar of cracklin I picked up in Cajun Country … so I really don’t care. When Dylan’s CD has concluded, I pop in REM’s “Automatic for the People,” as the car meanders through the inevitable traffic jam and road work around Baton Rouge, heading due north.

Now the scenery has taken a room for the better … as Highway 61 north of Baton Rouge calls itself “Scenic Blvd.” The rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley start to show their stuff, as REM’s gritty music also comes to its end. I need something idyllic … something joyful … something familiar. So I pop in a CD from the California Golden Overtones, UC Berkeley’s all-women acappella group whose songs I also know and love. It doesn’t occur to me until after I throw in the CD that my favorite song on the album is “Black Velvet” … which starts with the lyrics: Mississippi, in the middle of a dry spell; Jimmy Rogers, on the Victrola, as the car crosses the state line.

Route 61 is now called the “Great River Road,” as it follows the mighty Mississippi River. Granted, we’re a few miles east of the River and can’t see it from the road, but the picturesque view coupled with the speedy efficiency of a four-lane highway creates an almost ideal circumstance for the romantic traveler. But yet, I long for the less congested scenic route … a two-lane road with a low speed limit that allows me to fully relax, one that convinces me I am truly on vacation. When I get to Natchez, Mississippi, my wish becomes true … with the Natchez Parkway.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is the oldest highway in America, stretching 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville. A very young Abraham Lincoln, who rafted down the Mississippi to New Orleans found his way back home to Illinois via the Natchez Parkway. It’s an idyllic road in the woods … deviating off Highway 61 to be closer to the Mississippi. I take out my Paul Simon “Graceland” CD, and sing along to these very apt and appropriate lyrics for this particular journey: I’m following the River down the highway to the cradle of the Civil War … I’m going to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Yes, my final destination before flying home on Friday will be Graceland … despite its tackiness. When Paul Simon sings “for reasons I cannot explain, there’s part of me that wants to see Graceland.” Paul was inspired to write this song while following this very highway up to Memphis … now I feel a kinship with the guy besides a very common first name. As the “Graceland” album concludes, the Natchez Parkway crosses Highway 61 … which I get back on, to stay closer to the Mighty Mississippi. Night has fallen, and I’m heading to Vicksburg for the night.

I arrive in Vicksburg around 7:00 p.m. — and my first impression of the city is not good. I had reserved a cheap hotel room in the heart of Downtown, thinking that being in a historic Civil War town on the waterfront would be fun and eventful … but the town looks dead. I ask the desk clerk what’s there to do in Vicksburg tonight, and she says “gamble” … lotsa riverboat casinos on the Mississippi, which is not definitely not my thing to do.

So I figure out a place to go have dinner, and choose Walnut Hills, a charming old Southern restaurant that serves fried chicken, collard greens and mashed potatoes. The short walk to the restaurant is a bit sketchy, but when I arrive it feels safe. There are practically no other customers, save for a nice family of four … who turn out to be locals. They explain there’s nothing to do in Vicksburg tonight, because it’s Ash Wednesday. In fact, the four of them just got back from Church. Turns out the youngest at the table is my age … Seth Libbey, and he plays bass guitar and knows blues country. Seth tells me I came to Vicksburg on the wrong night … last night was Mardi Gras, and it was fun.

After dinner, Seth offers to give me a ride to a local sports bar where we grab a couple beers. He calls up a few of his music friends, and asks them what’s going on tonight. Nothing fun, apparently. So after a few beers, he takes me to another bar in the area where he offers me a drink. Everyone in the bar is friends with Seth, and we end up playing cards with the bartender for several hours. If I hadn’t met Seth at the restaurant, I would have been bored out of my minds tonight. Seth’s been playing blues gigs for years, as he tries to write the Great American Novel. On the side, he works as a tour guide for the local Civil War battlefield site … so knows a lot of the history.

When I tell him it’s getting late and I should get back to my hotel room, Seth takes me on a brief tour of the City … with its beautiful murals on the waterfront that describes Vicksburg history. He clearly loves his hometown, but told me he normally doesn’t engage with “strangers.” When I tell him I’ve never been to Mississippi, he says he’s honored to be my “first Mississippi friend.” Before dropping me off, I ask Seth where’s a good place to go eat breakfast tomorrow morning. He points out a place on Washington Street, before we call it a night.

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  5. Woody Barber Says:

    Way back before the Miss. Blues Museum left it’s location on the second floor of the library in Clarksdale, and way before Bill Fitzhugh wrote his novel “highway 61 resurfaced”,( a marvelous read),
    a friend of mine left Opp, Alabama heading for Clarksdale and the museum.We passed through Indianola (before the B.B. King museum) and Rolling Forks (another stop in blues history) and even went by Will Dockery’s plantation. After leaving the Museum in Clarksdale, we went down Hwy.61 down to hwy 84, then East back to Alabama. A great trip, and I plan to revisit Clarksdale soon.

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