“The land was perfectly flat and level but
It shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly.
It seemed strummed, as though it were an
Instrument and something had touched it.”
Dragonflies. Ripples. Magic River. Love. A Momentary Family. Gone. Ole Miss. Little Rascals. Charlotte’s Web. Mimi. Gibraltar. Blues. A Good Pace. The Search. Mississippi Reading, Recipe. Gratitude.
I saw a few dragonflies, zooming between trees festooned with lichen. They’re good luck for me, a self-created reminder that I’m in the right place. It was morning and the growing cacophony of birds and insects drew me up. Through the unzipped portal of the tent flap, beyond the occasional dragonflies, I could see the vividness of approaching dawn, its fingers etching a snowy egret from the vapors, perched motionless on a rock. The morning light animated the waters of the marsh, pale and patterned with green lily pads, feathered by bland grasses. Behind us were the various bulks of RVs.
I crawled out to stretch, the air already redolent with coffee. Across the pond and across road, the swamp was complete. As I peered into its tangles, I saw my first butterfly of the trip, alert and buoyant. Another good sign. It fluttered into the mist and disappeared among the sparkling leaves.
The day before, we’d crossed into Mississippi, a state with many memories for me. But I’d never been this far south. I was curious to see a coast celebrated in the movies, ravaged on television by Katrina. At Biloxi, we turned onto the largest and longest man-made beach in the world. Huddled along the road were a few casinos, and fewer buildings. We pulled over, parking the Chief beneath the maw of a giant alligator, which aptly served as the entrance to a tourist trap. Inside were shells and sunscreen, towels and paper-weights, and ice-cream. Outside, the sand beckoned, and before long we were running barefoot across its soft surface as it hardened into ripples, becoming more defined and beautiful at the water’s edge.
Peace lay upon the sea, tended by the sailing wind and sun, glittering languidly on thin slivers of foam. Above, seagulls bore the water in their wings, reflecting its greens and splashes of gold, as if fanning the slow waves towards us. The water soothed our toes and melted around our feet. I took a picture of Jenny, who was traveling with me for a few weeks, slender and lovely on the water, as if she was walking on it. I welcomed the openness of sky and sea after being away from them so long; the breeze itself was a sighing of the ocean.
There was no camping, so we headed inland, and based on a tip, ended up at a place called Magic River, deep in the marsh. We passed through swamps intricate with waterways, hurricane wreckage where trees reached in splintered columns from brackish water, providing a haven for cranes and beavers and turtles, nestled among lily pads spangled with white orchids. There was peril as well; alligators prowled its byways, and venomous water moccasins. The swamp could be a place of fervid extravagance, and lurking danger.
That night, over a roaring fire at the RV camp, the locals befriended us. We stood in the darkness, redressed in flickering oranges and yellows, each listening as the others unwrapped their memories for display, sometimes vague, sometimes full from the proximity of life. They were elderly couples, and migrant retirees mostly, in luxurious homes they could drive. Some followed the gambling circuit, and depending on the weather, visited their favorite seasonal casinos, noting that the “penny-slots” weren’t really pennies anymore, they were quarters. Some toured the country to see the sights, to settle down for a few weeks or months where they felt comfortable, or where they were within reach of family and grandchildren. All of them had seen war. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf. They talked of fighting with the Gurkas, and how tough they were. They talked of Normandy, and the men who died in their parachutes, drowning in flooded fields. They talked of how on a boat during a storm, if you timed it right, the deck could propel you 40 feet or more into the air and catch you gently on the next roll. They also talked of cruising in Cadillacs, of jeans and duck-tails and leather jackets. They reminisced about drive-in movie-theaters, and told their stories of falling in love.
The couples agreed that, during the unwinding thread of life, it was love that knit them together and wove from them a single blanket of partnership and family. Spry at 88, Butch was well into his second marriage, he and his new wife were married in their 60s. When she approached, he smiled at us impishly, and said, “Here comes the most beautiful woman in the world.”
I watched the couples in the half-light and pondered. Was Love like this something I was missing? Had I missed it already? Had I become so solidified and content in my own independence that this type of fusion was becoming more and more remote? Compromise less possible? Would I die alone someday as I suspected, maybe even wanted, somewhere out in the desert, during a thunderstorm, watching the lightning flash between the shoulders of a few wet sheep-dogs? What I’d experienced of Love, and seen of it, had made me rationally shy of such heart-wrending risk. But I knew you must be willing to bet it all, and let it drop you, soul-deep. Seeing these people together, with their fading lives entwined by children, glances, thoughts, and experiences, holding each other’s hands in the soft warmth of the fire, I considered again, or at least felt the luster of possibility, of desiring a family.
It’s funny; I could envision my life, what my house would look like, and my kids. Where I wanted to live, what I’d be doing. The paintings I wanted to paint, the stories I wanted to write, the places I wanted to go. But I’ve never been able to see who I’d spend it with. I didn’t know if this was a blank to be filled in, or left as it was…an open space.
One of the great lessons for me out alone in the desert last year, was that we’re not alone, not really, not at all. We can find connection in a relationship with Existence, which has many different names for many different people; but it’s all the same thing, and naturally fills the open space, if you let it. I’d admit a relationship with someone I loved might make life’s passage better. But for me at least, happiness is not contingent on it; it’s not dependent on someone else. This can be the trap and boon of getting older. Does this make me less accessible, less susceptible to Love? Possibly. The brave or young can be desperate for it, in need of it, searching for it, heedless or unknowing of its consequences not to brush it off when the first painful ridges appear on its initially pure and wonderful surface. But I’ve learned that ridges are what give life its texture, and from them comes perspective, then meaning. Love is like life, it acquires the meaning you give it.
Alone out there on those rocky plateaus, I was reminded on a visceral level of the obvious, that we are social animals, and wired to share. There were many times, out on a boulder, witnessing a beautiful sunrise, when I glanced involuntarily over my shoulder for someone to share it with, sighing internally that it was only mine, but knowing also that this made the moment more poignant, more enduring, the memory more necessary. I knew if I lost it, it would disappear forever, with no one else to retrieve it from.
I looked up to see the moon, nearly full, reflected on the mirror-like surface of water broken at times by sluggish beaver-driven trails. One of the men threw another log on the fire; it was getting late. Before I headed back to the tent, I mined a nugget of wisdom from one of the group’s eldest members. I asked Butch what the secret to his longevity was, he said simply: A good attitude…and being with someone you love.
For a time the moon hovered alone in the cloudless sky, igniting the pond into dull silver. Beneath the shadows of the tallest trees wound narrow paths that shined argent in the moonlight. Jenny and I reclined on some old Indian blankets I brought, blankets that had felt the hard-packed soil and rocky earth of the Southwest, but now lay over a soft cushion of Southern grass. As night progressed, the moon traced shadows into strange patterns that shifted over the bayou.
Love. I loved the Earth, and reveled in the gentle breeze that carried the smell of smoke and friendship. I could still hear the couples by the fire. I thought about the strange chances that bring souls together briefly, and then spin them forth, possibly never to see each other again. This happens often.
In the tent we curled up, enveloped in a cynosure of secrets and darkness. Soon even the voices were gone, and my thoughts became part of the silence, until sleep plucked at the bottom of my mind.
In the morning they made us breakfast, sat out on their lawn chairs and held us with their stories; they didn’t want us to leave. And when we finally pulled away, our momentary family stood as a group in the road and waved until we disappeared.
We headed North through a land heavily forested. It seemed the only indications of towns were the water towers which rose above the trees like giant inverted drips, bearing their subject’s names: Wiggins, Hattiesburg, Collins. Mississippi had more tree farms than any other state. Additionally, hidden among the trees was a forest of steeples; there were more churches per person here than anywhere else in the country.
Our route for the time-being was far from the river. I was sad to miss Natchez to our west, the oldest permanent settlement on the famous waterway, home to over 500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Natchez once contained as many millionaires, over 500, more than any other city except New York. We would pick up the river north of there at Vicksburg.
Mississippi is named after the river that forms its Western border, one of the greatest rivers in the world and a defining characteristic of the North American landscape. One still hears the terms, the Tallest Mountain or the Deepest Canyon east of the Mississippi. Nearly 2/3 of our watershed pours into its giant channel; what we draw from it are lives and stories. It forms the 3rd largest drainage basin in the world. The name itself, in Ojibwe, means Great River, The Father of Waters. It could also be The Father of Air, 60% of America bird species use the basin as their migration path.
Most of the forested area around the Mississippi was cleared for cotton cultivation, and some fields were still in operation. Now there were catfish farms, also on a boom and bust cycle, which produced the majority of catfish consumed in the United States. Fried Catfish proudly adorned signs and menus along our route.
Human involvement came with early settlements by Indians, predecessors of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, who invented America’s earliest field sport, stick ball. Later on, Hernando de Soto led the first large European incursion into the region, followed shortly after by the French, interested in absorbing the territory into Louisiana next door. The Spanish grumbled to the French that the Gulf Coast was theirs, until the British stumbled on the scene and gave them both something to complain about.
A mix of increasingly marginalized indigenous people and African slaves added to the stew, eventually creating a multiracial, multicultural society that staggered under the rigors of inequality and injustice. This was not the Good in America, but unfortunately how it was, for a long time.
The British eventually took the land from the French, until it fell to the United States after the Revolution. They organized the Mississippi Territory by calving off bits of other states and acquiring land from the Indians. Many plantation families from the Upper South migrated down, and with them their culture and slaves. They established themselves along the rivers, efficient transportation networks, where steamboats eventually allowed robust exchange with distant markets. Small harbors grew into towns.
Within a few decades the Mississippi Territory became the 20th State, its capitol Jackson. That’s where we were headed, fresh from the swamps, our stomach’s filled with Leatha’s Bar-b-que, guided by the water towers. My mother’s side of the family lived in Jackson, people I had not seen, and had little contact with for nearly 20 years.
Jackson was where the cleaning product Pine-sol was invented, and in an interesting juxtaposition, it’s also one of 4 World cities, including Moscow, Helsinki, and Varna (in Bulgaria) to host the International Ballet Competition. It’s where some of the first laws protecting the property rights of women were passed, as well as those that outlawed the imprisonment of debtors. Home to the author Eudora Welty, my Aunt and Uncle, and a cousin.
We arrived at dusk, in time for dinner. Humidity pressed the last bits of wet light from the sky like a sponge. The house was the same as I remembered, although the swing-set out back was gone. More books were piled on the shelves, books that I liked. Bunched together near the bed were Catcher in the Rye, The Silmarillion, The Grapes of Wrath, and Dandelion Wine. You can tell a lot about people by what books they read.
The evening alighted between stories of Pakistan, where my aunt and uncle married as Missionaries, to pictures of my mom and uncle from the 1940s, posed in a line together, like the Little Rascals, to poems written and published by my cousin. The kids were soon tired, the evening was zipped up, and we went to bed. The next morning, my aunt and uncle led us on a walk through the city park, still wintery and leafless, carved by water and filled with birds. When it was time to say good-bye, we shook hands, gave each other hugs and that was that. Souls meeting briefly, this time bound by blood, threads now made more accessible through the power of the internet. A digital blanket. Family.
Families were torn apart by the Civil War. In fact, proportionally more citizens were killed from Mississippi than any other Confederate State. Vicksburg, our next destination, was one of its most important battlegrounds, now the location of a premier Civil War Memorial, and after Arlington, the 2nd largest cemetery in the country. During the sultry summers when my sister and I visited as a kids, we would play “capture the flag” with our cousins among the great grassy fields of this park, amid rolling abutments, trenches, and meadows where men suffered and died.
My grandmother lived in Vicksburg, and raised a family. My grandfather I never met, he passed away while visiting my parents in Albuquerque, a few months before I was born. Grandma’s name was Trixie, but we called her “Mimi”. She was thin, she had white hair. When we were teen-agers, she became ill and left Vicksburg to move in with my uncle’s family, before succumbing to cancer caused by cigarettes. My last memories of her were pushing around an oxygen tank in their living room with a tube in her nose, lamenting that she’d never have smoked if she knew the end would be that bad.
I made a point to stop by her old house, and stood at the top of her driveway where the memories rushed over me. I remembered the smell of her house, I remembered the smell of her dog and the big bald spot he had from laying on one side all the time. I remembered the rows of blue Hardy Boys books, and yellow Nancy Drew mysteries Mimi had lined up in a room by the kitchen. On the shelf below was a children’s book about an Indian hero named Hiawatha, another book called Sambo, about pancakes and a tiger, and below that, a record with the sounds of Disneyland’s Haunted House. It was on her television that I first saw the Six Million Dollar Man. She fed us pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off, and tall glasses of cranapple juice. My sister and I collected lizards and toads which would pee in our hands. We adventured in the surrounding woods, and walked the back trails to Lyda and EJ’s house for lemonade and cookies, sometimes visiting their adult children living nearby. They were amiable people who fanned away beads of perspiration, and rarely seemed to rouse themselves from the porch swing,
The first movie I remember was Charlotte’s Web when I was 3 or 4 at a Vicksburg drive-in. I crouched on the car’s roof for a better view, enveloped in the moist Mississippi night. The cicadas sung in the trees, fireflies twinkled with the stars, and the movie was magic. On the giant screen, mesmerizing animals talked and sang, redirecting my attention from the mosquito hordes feeding on my exposed skin. Back home, Mimi and my mother slavered me in pink calamine lotion, admonishing not to touch it until it dried and formed an uncomfortable shell. The bathroom’s white light made all the images sharp and colorful, I remember it vividly, and how my grandmother smelled like talcum power.
Vicksburg was also part of the Blues Highway, which paralleled the Mississippi north to the somewhat inappropriately named Delta, located several hundred miles from the coast. I mistakenly thought that a delta was at a river’s mouth. The named seemed not to be based, necessarily, on any type of topographical or geographical accuracy. No one I asked was able to explain to me why.
I should have asked Gordon Cotton, an historian I met gardening outside Vicksburg’s Old Court museum, located conspicuously on a hill overlooking the river. But I didn’t. Cotton did however, give me other interesting information. He told me Vicksburg was no longer located on the Mississippi, as it had been when Ulysses S. Grant blockaded the city. It was Grant who pummeled and starved Vicksburg into submission during the Civil War, breaking the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”. This gave the frustrated Lincoln some hope by proving that he had at least one officer willing to fight. Anyway, Cotton said the river below was actually the Yazoo River, the Mississippi had changed course leaving the downtown high and dry. So, the Army Corps of Engineers arrived and diverted the Yazoo, thus rehydrating the historic waterfront, allowing the steamboats to return, and with them the casinos, in a hopeful bid for tourists.
Vicksburg’s downtown, like many others, was revitalizing with cool coffee shops and galleries. Jenny and I visited “The Attic”, filled with local art. We also poked our noses into the store where Coca-Cola was first bottled in 1894, walking distance from where, just 10 years earlier, shoes were first sold together, in pairs at Phill Gilbert’s Shoe Parlor. I read this, but found it curious that over the entire course of human history until then, shoes had been sold as singles.
Before the Civil War, Mississippi was a very wealthy State and the country’s leading source of cotton. After the War, the Plantation Economy was ruined. Reconstruction was difficult, and intense issues arose from the realities of hundreds of thousands of freed slaves. Many of these issues continued through the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Most of these slaves became sharecroppers; and their often sad and difficult existence was channeled into a musical outlet which became known as the Blues.
The two-lane Blues Highway stretches all the way through the Delta to Memphis, which beats like its heart. At one time (and possibly still, but hard to find), the road was dotted with juke joints that turned out musicians like Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and Muddy Waters. They were famous innovators of a style, blended by emotion and guitar, that greatly affected American music to follow: Jazz, Country, and Rock and Roll.
Houses along the way were decorated with “bottle trees”, small leafless trees with bottles inserted over the branches in an effort to trap spirits. Some said they were an echo of West African beliefs carried to the New World. Colorful and cheery, the trees had a serious duty, to protect homes from evil; they were early spiritual vacuums and signs of good fortune.
A Good Pace
My van, the Chief, chugged like an exhausted lawnmower, passing corrugated fields still brown with winter. This was Eudora’s flat land which shimmered like the wings of a dragonfly. On its surface were crispy catfish restaurants, ramshackle shacks, and ostentatious houses. There was hot sun and blue skies. I noticed also, especially when we stopped to refuel, that many people were walking around in pajamas. There was something casual and refreshing in this. Things in Mississippi happen at their own pace, cars roll languidly out of green lights without a care, people talk in a slow lyric lilt, sweet like molasses. When you ask a question, there is often some distance, between discussion and several pauses for reflection, before you get an answer. If you ask for directions, expect many different options. Apparently, there’s no rush.
The people of Mississippi were some of the nicest and most giving I’d ever met. Immediately friendly, immediately welcoming, interested, and interesting. As an example, in a single day in Indianola, the owner of the Blue Biscuit Cafe gave us a cabin to stay in for free. A young man named Trey, who overheard me talking at the bar, said he liked what I was doing and suggested I contact his sister when I got up to New England. He handed me her address on a folded slip of paper, inside was a $100 bill. The next day the curator of the B.B. King museum opened early for us, and the owner of a garage where I was asking directions, offered to lead us on a back-road shortcut to the next town; it was sixty miles away.
In Cleveland, I met up with another cousin, a real small town Southern lawyer, as my uncle said. After a nice dinner with his precocious kids, his wife joined us at the local University for a lecture given by Richard Ford, a famous Southern writer. Afterwards, interested in finding some Blues, Jenny and I tried for a juke-joint called Po’ Monkeys on a dark lonely road, far from city lights. But it was closed, as had been Club Ebony in Indianola. No luck finding Blues on the Blues Highway except in museums. The only blues we had were caused by their absence.
Our last shot was in Clarksdale, the crossroads where Robert Johnson, lover of women and whisky, notoriously sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar skills. It was also the home of one of the coolest hotels around, and out of my financial reach at the time. The Shack-up Inn, located on the Hopson Plantation, was composed of refurbished share-croppers shacks arranged into a little village. These surrounded an old ware-house, a vibey venue for food and music. This was a place I planned to come back to.
Clarksdale was also home to the country’s oldest Holiday Inn; we didn’t stay there either. However, we did finally find the Blues, at Reds of all places, a juke-joint by the river where the crickets draped their own songs over the luminous water. Reds was in a building one would’ve passed or even avoided during the day, inside it oozed authenticity.
A single performer sang through his soul, as the shadows swayed in the dim light, some venturing on the dance floor to closely hold each other, their feet dragging along the ground, the music relighting their memories. We were consumed by a love of the music and the moments, as Existence vibrated over the floorboards like dragonfly wings. It was as if we were each an instrument that strummed, sultry and smoky, touched by the Blues that launched us into the night.
God Shakes Creation by David Cohn; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody; The Rising Tide by John Barry; Wicked River by Lee Sandlin
Pan Fried Catfish Filets
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 (4 ounce) fillets catfish
- 1 cup milk
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- In a mixing bowl, stir together cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika and onion powder. Mix well. Pour mixture onto a large sheet of waxed paper.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Pour milk into a medium bowl. Dip catfish filets into milk and hold up and let the milk drip off. Roll the milk-soaked filet in the cornmeal mixture until completely covered. Set aside.
- Fry the garlic in the hot skillet, but do not burn. Add the coated catfish filets and cook for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, sprinkling salt on the fish after each turn. Cook until golden brown and fish flakes easily with a fork. Drain on paper towels.
Barry and Barbara Powell, Greg and Joy Powell, Chris and Michelle (Johansen) Powell, Trey King, The friendly RV folks at Magic River, Anne Shackelford – Curator at the BB King Museum, Trish Berry- Owner of Blue Biscuit in Indianola
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