Monday, August 13
Natchez, Mississippi is one of the most pleasant towns I had experienced so far on my trip. I’m not sure if my early morning drive through the Louisiana and Mississippi borderlands had put me in a mood to appreciate small town aesthetics, or if the town was genuinely that pleasant, but I relished it regardless. I felt like the whole down town area should be shrouded by faded, washed-out sepia — as many small Southern towns should be.
I parked close to the river next to a pretty, white gazebo and cleaned myself up before finding breakfast. It was a little after 9 a.m., and the air promised me a warm, sunny day. The sun bounced off of the river — and the River. So many words have been written about the Mississippi River, I’m still not sure what to say. Nothing I write seems to fully grasp the feeling, the knowing, that America is embodied in this river. The unassuming power masked by a slow, dark gait. The opportunity for adventure. The great jugular of middle America. The boundary of East and West that is more tangible than the Great Divide. See? Nothing I say will do it justice. Go read Mark Twain.
A couple of ladies out walking suggested I try the Natchez Coffee Co. for breakfast. The interior of the place was done in Southern Chic style. There were a few chairs hung on the warm-colored walls. Sheer fabric draped over head off-set by faint Christmas lights strung above it. All Southern, cutesy and possibly from Etsy.
I had a meal named the “Little Richard.” I asked the waitress why the name, and she said she couldn’t figure it out either. I suppose Little Richard has eaten his share of omelets and grits. Just to mention: the omelette was delicious and huge, the grits were alright, and the coffee was great.
After breakfast, I strolled around down town, checked out some book shops and just soaked in the morning. It felt strange to be in Mississippi. There’s not usually a sudden change in psyche from one state to the next, but it felt weird to be in the Mississippi. I’ve grown up in north Alabama, less than an hour from the Miss. and Ala. state line, but this far south was a different vibe and a different context. I mentioned the streets should be shrouded in sepia, and that’s true, but with the old-timey vision comes old-timey memories. And in the South, our memories have long, dark shadows.
There’s a reason why Natchez native, Richard Wright, author of Native Son, said in his autobiography, Black Boy, that “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled.” The fact is, mid-20th century Mississippi — or anywhere in the South, for that matter — wasn’t cast in sepia. It was cast in black and white. Our history is steeped in the distinction between the two.
I don’t mean to say that we have nothing to be proud of, and that we should live in the shadow of our faults forever. We’ve got a lot of beauty and art and culture here. And every nation, every region and every individual has their own faults, shortcomings and crimes. To live in the past would be to deny the future. And while we frequently fall on our faces, there are those in the South who actively try to embrace the future. To do so, we must acknowledge the memory, take responsibility and offer no excuses. We must pick up and move on.
That said, I found myself following historical marker signs to a place called “Forks in the Road.” To be fair to my Mississippi readers: I had no clue what this place was. I wasn’t going to seek out racial history so that I could beat your state over the head with it. Forks of the Road was Mississippi’s biggest slave market prior to the civil war. Where there is now a line of trees, an information booth about the site and an open, grassy area, thousands of slaves would be auctioned off to landowners each year. The roads that intersect there would carry slaves from nearby towns, all the way east to Georgia, and all the way north-east to Alabama and Tennessee via the Natchez Trace.
I was particularly impacted a memorial next to the information booth. There was no marker for it. It was simply a concrete square with iron shackles and chains emerging from it. All open and broken. Something about the barrenness of it, the way it just lay there with nothing to call attention to it, left an impression on me. It said all it needed to say.
I drove on, and I was sad to leave Natchez behind. For as dark as I depicted it, it really was a pleasant town that I would’ve loved to explore more. It had charm and novelty, and if it were to be embodied in a person, it would be in a rocking chair on a front porch, knitting and softly humming a hymn.
While I regretted leaving so soon, I was anxious to press forward. I needed to be in Jackson that night, and I still had to hit Vicksburg. It wasn’t Jackson or Vicksburg I was excited about, though. Somewhere about halfway to Vicksburg on Highway 61, a small county road turns left and wanders off into the woods. From that little rivulet of asphalt, a dirt road delves deeper into the pines and empties out in front of the Windsor Ruins.
The Windsor Plantation was built in 1861 and cost $175,000 at the time (that’s the equivalent to approximately $4,797,515 in today’s economy). The plantation home was occupied by Confederate and Yankee troops during the Civil War, as well as Mark Twain after the fact. It’s life was cut short in 1890 when it burned to the ground after a party guest allegedly dropped a cigarette. The state now owns the ruins, and they have been used in several films.
What stands now are the massive columns which are characteristic of antebellum Greek revival architecture. It was eerie walking between the columns. They stood black, silhouetted by the sun, and there was no sound. No sound. I walked over to a column that had wandered out a little distance into the woods somehow, and my feet self-consciously crushed the leaves under them. No sound. Any birds that chirped did so sparingly. I heard no squirrels, and the wind never shook the leaves. I sat down on the column with ruins standing through the trees in front of me. And I sat. I had been moving so fast that it was good to sit in silence for a little while and feel everything sit still with me. Here was a place where history stopped, and I was happy to stop with it.
When I got back on the road, I felt cleansed. Call it prayer, call it meditation, call it sanctuary, call it hippie-talk: there is nothing better for the soul than a few moments of silence, alone, on a sunny day in August in the heart of the Delta.