“Well, I’m goin’ to Jackson”

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Monday, August 13, 2012

I sailed through Mississippi to Jackson. Part of the guidelines I had set for this trip was to stay off the interstates. This was a rule I had to break. I had spent a little too much time in Austin, slept in in New Orleans, and I had to be in the tail-end of Virginia and back home within a week, with plenty of stops in between.

A note about Steinbeck’s travels through Mississippi: there’s almost nothing known. What we do know is that he sent a postcard on December 3 from Pelahatchie — a little town on the other side of Jackson — and was at his home at Sag Harbor, New York just a few days later.

One thing is certain: Steinbeck was right about interstates. In Travels, he wrote about the “great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called ‘thruways,’ or ‘superhighways'” and said with an air of prescience, “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” Continue reading

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Vicksburg, Mississippi

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Monday, August 13, 2012

I came up on Vicksburg all at once. Here was a town I had heard of all my life but had never actually visited. The Civil War plays an active role in the consciousness of the South. It is not so much that every person thinks “The South will rise again” like some sort of breathless mantra, but the history, and the stories, and the places are often still living, breathing parts of everyday life. In my hometown, there is an old inn calls Pope’s Tavern, which served as a hospital and meeting center to Confederate, and, in time, Yankee, soldiers. Same as Weslyan Hall on my college campus. And standing half-way across the Tennessee River is what we call “Train Bridge.” The story I’ve heard told is that at some point during the war, the Union troops took Florence, which stands on the north side of the Tennessee River. The Confederates who retreated south to Muscle Shoals burned the only bridge that crossed the wild Tennessee at that time. Today, half of the bridge still stands and serves as a romantic place to watch the sunset and/or shoot wedding and/or band photos. Continue reading

One Year Later…

Okay. So it’s been a year since I left this blog out to dry.

Blame it on a post-grad slump. Blame it on a failed job opportunity in China. Blame it on laziness (most accurate). But, whatever the reason, I didn’t give a damn about writing on this thing.

Until now. I’m currently living in Changchun, China, and I have an unquenchable desire to start this baby up again and finish this journey.

I hope you’ll keep reading and follow me as I pick up the scent of my own trail again.

Also, if you are interested, I’m writing on another blog about my life in China. You can check it out at South By Far East.

My next post about Vicksburg, Mississippi will be out tomorrow!

“Graduated” or “(Far) Eastbound and Down”

Well hi there. Long time, no see.

I apologize for the extreme hiatus over the past couple of months. I hope you all will continue to follow me as I get back in to the swing of writing about my adventures of following Steinbeck through the South. There’s still a long way to go, and a short time to get there (I’m eastbound, just watch ol’ Bandit run). I’ve had some great developments over the past few weeks I want to tell you about first:

  1. I graduated the University of North Alabama (applause)
  2. Upon graduation, I slipped into a period of catatonic mental paralysis during which exactly zero creative things happened  (d’awww with a tinge of failure)
  3. I was accepted for a job to teach English in Wuhan, China — to kindergarteners (d’awww because Chinese kids are freakin’ adorable)

So yes. I will be moving to China on February 23 for the next five months. I found this out last Thursday (January 24), so I’m still a little shell-shocked. I’m very much ready for a new experience, and I plan on blogging about it, so if you like this blog, stay tuned for another one about my experiences in the People’s Republic of China.

Because of the Great Chinese Firewall, my writing may become more sporadic (which would be ridiculous considering its condition right now). Many sites — including all Google sites, social media, WordPress, anything to do with freedom of speech, and other fun things — are blocked. If I am unable to post, my sister has agreed to post for me.

She’s a super-cool, awesome, plaid, fun-loving bundle of adorable, and you should most definitely check out her blog here.

ALSO, if you haven’t seen it already, check out my newest page at the top of the website. It chronicles my musical journey through the South. Some of it I have written about already. A lot of it is still to come. Either way, I hope you enjoy the tunes that carried me through this wonderful region of the U.S. The music along my trip was a road map, a cultural indicator, and a highway companion.

Now, I’m going to get refreshed on my trip and begin again. Next stop: Vicksburg, Mississippi.
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Stay Tuned…

To all readers and followers,

Thanks to all of you who have been following me on the road chasing Steinbeck through the American South.

My writing, however, will have to take a brief hiatus while I do all of the those little, necessary things to graduate from college.

I hope that you’ll stay tuned for updates and continue reading once I’m able to write more in the next couple of weeks. Until then, please check out the archives and see where I’ve been on the trip so far. I’ve still got a long way to go, a lot of food to eat, a lot of people to meet, and a lot of music to hear.

Thanks for your support!

Sincerely,

Andy Thigpen

Sepia Streets and Silent Ruins

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.

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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.

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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.

Wrong Side of the Mississippi


Monday, August 13

Last night, I knew I slept somewhere past Baton Rouge heading toward the Mississippi line. This morning, I woke up on the wrong side of the Mississippi River. I’m not sure how it happened. Even after staring at maps and retracing my steps via Google, I still can’t figure out where I went wrong. This was the first time I blatantly went the wrong way and was far off-course. Of course, it wasn’t a huge issue. The biggest problem is that from where I was, the next place to cross back over the Mississippi was in Natchez: my destination. Another, minor issue was more of a novelty. I really wanted to drive up Highway 61, if only for Bob Dylan.

There’ll be no killing done on Highway 61 this time.

But there I was up Highway 1, a good thirty minutes out of the way. I could’ve gone back and wasted an hour going on the “right” road, or I could’ve pressed forward and deviated from my plans and arrangements. I chose to go on and follow this road north. They both went to the same place anyway. And maybe there’s a bridge that has been built and the map hasn’t been updated, I thought. I was using paper maps, keep in mind.

I kept driving and pushing north through back roads. There were few, if any, road signs, and many of the communities I passed through had no names I’ve seen on any maps. In one of these intersections, I made another wrong turn. The road curved through low hills, and just when I thought This isn’t right, the road went over a hill, past a driveway and fell abruptly right into an inlet headed toward the Mississippi. An old man on a big riding lawn mower was riding by as I backed out of the watery dead end. I rolled down my window as he killed the engine.

“‘Morning. I believe I’m a little turned around,” I said.

“I b’lieve you’re right,” he said. His humor was as dry as his red, cracked hands.

“What’s the best way to get up to Natchez? I got turned around last night and ended up on the wrong side of the river.”

“Well, you could turn around and go back the way you came.” The pragmatism of old Southern men runs so deep it makes the roots of live oaks as soft as onion grass. “Otherwise the next place to cross over is right before you get to Natchez. In Vidalia.”

This is not the Vidalia of onion fame.

“Alright. I wanted to keep on this road, if possible.”

He gave me the classic road directions any local will give to city-folk, which will inevitably make almost no sense. The spiel changes depending on locale. It usually features a bridge, a barn or silo; a river in wetter places; any number of hills and/or tree lines; churches, a series of shops or business in cities; other towns and local landmarks like a water tower or an ancient, junked car. Also, any one of these things can fill the void of: “Now if you hit ________, you’ve gone too far.” This one involved a couple of barns, road signs and a barber shop with a sign in the front yard. The most defined thing to look for was the levee road, which I was to follow all the way to Vidalia.

I thanked him mightly (we thank people mightly in the South. You’ve got to really be mightily with it, because we’ll know if you don’t put your back into it) and drove on. I looked in the rearview mirror, and the old man didn’t stare or watch me drive away. He hit his ignition, turned the mower around and puttered back up his driveway. I was barely a speed bump in his day, and I’d be surprised if, when he sat down to a breakfast of biscuits, preserves, bacon and coffee, he even mentioned it to the wife.

I saw only one barn, no road signs and the barber shop with a white, plywood sign painted in red and blue letters: “Barber Shop: Call for appointment.” Somehow, I found my way to the levee road and set out for Natchez.

I can’t lie and say I took all of this in stride. I was frustrated and speeding. I didn’t want to lose time by getting lost. I only had a week to get to Virginia, and there was a lot to see between here and there. Once I got on the levee road, my frustrations slipped out my open windows. It was fifteen-past-eight in the morning, and the sun was up, but there was still dew on the grass and fog on the ponds and levees. The Great Mississippi Vein would swell up close to the highway on the right, glitter for a few miles, then curve wide and disappear behind a wall of trees that I didn’t have names for. To my left, pumpjacks were nodding in agreement with each other, but not the Earth, in fields of dirt behind fields of green that looked like cotton not ready to bloom. Some of the jacks were stopped and rusted like seesaws on a forsaken playground, or a rocking horse collecting dust in the attic.

The sun and I kept climbing perpendicular to each other. Today I was determined to make it all the way to Jackson. That meant hitting Natchez and Vicksburg today, soaking up everything along the way. I needed to rush because tomorrow I had an interview in Jackson with none other than Mrs. Jill Connor Browne, more popularly known as The Sweet Potato Queen. If you aren’t familiar, you will be. She is very familiar and very particular.

The Sweet Potato Queen (A.K.A. Jill Connor Browne)