Monday, 25 November 2013

Journey's End: Up the Mississippi to Memphis and Nashville

The Milky Way above Mississippi.
After leaving New Orleans and driving above the southern swamps at sunset, with the branchless trees silhouetted like totem poles against the burning sky, we headed north to the state of Mississippi. It was dark before we crossed the state border, and it was a couple of hours drive to Natchez, our rest destination for the night. It seemed much of the drive was forested, we barely passed anything resembling a city, and when I stopped the car for a piss in some pitch black woodland the stars glistened so bright I had to pull out my tripod to take a picture. As I finished taking the frame, I let out a mock horror-film shriek to joke with Mark and Matt sat in the car; and as I grinned at them something heavy snapped a branch twenty feet away in the darkness. I flung my camera gear in the boot and floored the car into the night; I didn't want to try and get a photo of Bigfoot, or whatever was out there.

We reached Natchez and after checking into a motel right next to a cool bridge that spanned the Mississippi River, went off in search of food. It seems a lot of restaurants in the States close at 9pm which is a bit annoying and seems like they miss out on a bit of trade: I like to eat late. Anyway, we found one that would serve us but not let us sit inside, so we took hot pork rolls as take out, and ate them on a bandstand in a chilly park sat right above the Mississippi, and looking onto the impressive bridge. I felt a little bit like a hobo and I loved it. After our night time picnic we wandered into a bar we were alerted to by some warbling karaoke drifting out of a window. It was quite busy for a Wednesday night, but we were tired and hungover from New Orleans, so just had the one before leaving for bed.

The Natchez-Vidalia bridge which spans the Mississippi.
The next morning we followed the Natchez Trace Parkway north through ancient woodland. It's a slow road, limited to 50mph, and snakes through forests and historic sites, and runs for 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville; though we wouldn't be riding it all the way. The autumn colours were awesome, though two weeks past their peak; and the sun was hidden behind clouds that morning and so the fall hues didn't shine to their potential. We stopped the car a few times, the first to see a type of earthen pyramid built by local Indian tribes about 500 years ago, it was some type of big ritual platform. The second stop was for the abandoned town of Rocky Springs. It was no longer a town, all that remained was the church which was still maintained by funds, everything else – barring a heavy safe from the Post Office and a brick well – was gone. We walked the trail through the woodland, hand-sized leaves whipped around in the wind like rain and fell at our feet, and we popped into the unlocked church. It had a nice piano which I played for five minutes; I don't know any songs but I can repeat a few chord shapes in different rhythms. Rocky Springs once had a population of over 2,000, but a number of events including the Civil War, disease and crop failure meant the town was now only marked by a small graveyard around an unused church.

The church in Rocky Springs.
The autumn colours needed to be lit by the sun.
A little marsh we passed.
We left the Natchez Trace Parkway at Vicksburg, a town famous for a big Civil War battle. I wanted to go to a battle site museum, but the others wanted to push on to Leland to the home of Jim Henson to see a Muppet museum; a green cloth frog won over American history. We passed Redwood, Valley Park, Rolling Fork and signs for the magnificently named Yazoo City. Just outside the town of Anguilla, which was more a collection of rusted caravan trailers and neglected wooden bungalows, we stopped the car for a piss break once more. We purposefully stopped by an abandoned and overgrown house, so we could have a look. We'd driven past countless properties like these on our trip so far, but hand't been in one for a nose around; this was our opportunity. I tentatively climbed up on to the rotten porch, unsure if it would hold my weight or if there were gun-toting crackheads inside. There was no path through the weeds to the house though, so I assumed it didn't get many visitors. Inside was dust and dry decay. There was a rotten settee and bed mattress, and a few clothes clotted with time on the floor, it looked like the house of African Americans from the 1960s if I used historical racial profiling from the discarded material culture left inside. After a short explore, we got back on the road for Leland. We didn't find the Jim Henson museum, which was little bigger than a shed until just gone 4pm, a few minutes after it closed for the day, so we never did get to meet that green cloth frog or his pink slag. We had a little walk anyway along the river to stretch our legs, before settling back in the car: we had a four hour or more drive to reach Memphis, our target for the night. 

After leaving Leland we headed West towards Greenville, which felt like a small-town version of The Wire. The town was poor and run down, and seemed to be almost exclusively black. Men sat about on corners, at derelict gas stations, on porches of boarded up houses, doing nothing but sitting, and then staring when we made eye contact. It was odd, it felt a little dangerous and I didn't want to hang around; but I think it was the poverty I was afraid of, rather than any subconscious racism. At least I hope so. Anyway, the reason we headed West was to cross the Mississippi and drive through Arkansas, to tick another State off on the trip. We didn't see much of Arkansas as it was dark before we crossed the border. Visibility was reduced further by heavy rain and a hail storm, which made driving a bit more difficult. Ahead in the distance were a few flashes of brilliant purple lightning, which lit up the sky temporarily as if it were for sale, but we didn't get the close thunder storm we were hoping for. We drove through the dark, only passing Dumas, before reaching Pine Bluff, where we stopped for dinner. We went for a Chinese buffet, which was cheap and ok. A couple at a neighbouring table who'd heard our conversation, asked where we were from. We asked them to guess, and they said 'Sweden'. The fact our private conversation had been in English wasn't enough of a clue to suggest we were from one of a few English speaking countries, Sweden not being one of them. Their guess wasn't unusual however. All along the way when we asked people to guess, English wasn't the winning answer. Australian was the most popular guess from the Americans we encountered, but we also had people suggesting Germany or Finland. We're speaking the Queen's English, God's language, you fucking cretins. Anyway, the lady suggested we finished our lunch and get out of Arkansas, which I think was advice on account of there being little to do here, though it came across as more of a threat. We only stopped to eat twice in Arkansas, and both times we were given the same menacing advice: eat up, and get out. After our cheap Chinese dinner we left Pine Bluff and headed towards Little Rock, of which I only saw its night lights reflected in the low clouds, before continuing along Interstate 40 to arrive in Memphis sometime after 10pm. 

The view from the backseat.
The old house outside Anguilla.
A rotten settee.
No one lives here anymore.
Sasquatch spotted. 
The sun goes down in Leland.
The river behind the Jim Henson museum. 
At the wheel.
In the morning in Memphis we went for breakfast at a Waffle House, a chain I had seen along the way and had also been recommended by my friend Mike. Waffle House was great, the food was a top diner breakfast; bacon, hashbrowns which is more like fried grated potato than our version, and waffles with syrup, as well as unlimited coffee. The staff were so much fun and we bantered around with them, they were full of evangelical enthusiasm and energy. They gave us silly paper hats to wear, and some other customers wanted to take a picture of us, such an anomaly we were. After the delights of the Waffle House, we went to the Martin Luther King museum, which is morbidly housed in both the motel he was staying at when he died, and the building from which the fatal shot was fired. I didn't know much about his death, so fed my brain with some information, though I still hungered for more. It didn't come in the museum – they never said what happened to the killer after he was caught and convicted – but I'm sure Wikipedia has the answer.

Quick phone pic of the Waffle House staff.
The balcony where Dr Martin Luther King died.
We then headed over to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Upon arriving we ummed and ahhed whether we wanted to pay the $33 entry, as none of us gave two shits about Elvis, but decided we should as we'd unlikely be here again. We took the audio tour around his house, which was awfully gaudy and not that big considering how rich he was. I know people with bigger houses, and more tastefully decorated; they don't have the title of King though. The house was full of mirrors, which I guess only speaks of his vanity. It was quite interesting though, they had a corridor of all his gold discs – records which had sold over a million copies – remarkable really. We weren't allowed upstairs 'out of respect', but I could buy a pair of pants with his face on it in the gift shop. I only wanted to see the shitter on which he died, and do a trousers-round-the-ankles selfie. No such luck. After finishing the tour I drove us to a gun range, as I wanted to have a go with a handgun. When the guy asked me of my experience, I was honest and my lack of it meant I couldn't be unsupervised, and there was no one there who could supervise me. I should've lied to get the gun, so I didn't get to shoot.

Elvis' living room. 
A second Christmas tree – now that's just showing off. I don't know who the presents are for; Elvis is dead.
Elvis' pool room gave hints of psychedelic abuse.
Halfway along the gold disc corridor.
Our final night was spent in Nashville. We'd checked into a Scottish Inn motel as the Best Western was about $250. Don't ever stay in a Scottish Inn. The clue should've been in the name but it wasn't much better than a crack den. We took a cab into town and hit up the bars on Broadway. In the first bar we went in, Matt bumped into his old boss, from when he used to work in California. Small world, hey. We went to a couple of bars with his old boss, Eric, and his brother-in-law, Joe; who was well in his 50s but was pacing around every bar with excitement. They were decent company, and they showed us a few of the main bars, all of which had live music, a cross between country and rock, but it was all good. We met one old bloke in a bar who wondered where we were from. His best guess was Finland, as he'd once seen a programme about a guy who went on a motorbike from Finland to Alaska. Since that was possible, he reasoned we must've done the same thing. We told him we weren't from Finland, but a good distance away, and actually lived not far from London. He said he had heard of London, but  admitted he didn't know where it was or what country it was in. Fuck me. "Aaahhm fruum Mis'ippi" he kept saying, as a line of defence. Actually, perhaps being from Mississippi is a valid excuse for ignorance. Anyway, the night was drunk and fun. We chatted to quite a few locals, some enthusiastic about us being English, others couldn't care less, and rightly so. The girls in Nashville were probably the prettiest of everywhere we'd been. They had that country-rock chick vibe going on, with red lipstick and curves like 1940s Hollywood stars. The kind of girls that make you say 'oh my God' out loud as they go by, a wonderful assembly of DNA. I had some good conversations with a few, but that was as far as it went, and come closing time we were ready for a taxi back to our shit-hole motel and a drunken pass-out after throwing up in a stained toilet.

Robert's on Broadway, Nashville.
Busy bar.
Music city.
Live music everywhere.
Some of the girls of Nashville.
From a balcony in Honky Tonk looking towards some bars.
Matt and Mark with Eric and Joe, our buddies for a bit.
Inside The Stage, a popular country venue.
Oi Matt, that's not our car, mate.
The next morning we slept in a bit, and decided to delay taking the car back and take the financial hit, or else we'd have to sit around at the airport doing nothing for hours. We went to brunch at Logan's Roadhouse. I had an enormous rack of ribs, which I almost finished. Afterwards we went for a walk around a nice but chilly park, and looked at some Parthenon, a full scale replica of the one in ancient Greece, except this was built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial ExpositionCome mid-afternoon it was time to head to the airport and return the car, which was incredibly easy and bureaucracy free. We'd clocked up 3396 miles while driving in 10 states, more than the distance from New York to LA; and I'd taken 3974 photographs along the way. Driving across America had been a dream of mine for a while. Now that I've done it, I just want to do it again.

Taking the car back to the airport, the last few miles of a 3396 mile road trip.

1 comment:

  1. Class man! sweet blog again. U get many pictures of the derelict towns and outposts, that would make for a great wee collection on its own?

    BTW my girl bought me DSLR for my bday/going away, D3200 and have a 18-55mm lens. I got a bayonet lens hood to stop the glare of sun in hotter countries and was thinking of getting some filters as well but tbh I don't really know what they do...just heard people banging on about them so thought I shud get some! haha. Are they worth getting for a complete amateur pisstaker like me and any tips on how to get started in general buddy (any good advice books/guides etc)?? Good man.