by Joe Goodell
Half an hour north of Jackson, not far from the Big Black River, the casual rolling land gives way to a succession of tall, lush hills one after another, for twelve or fifteen miles. On a quiet day, after a spring rain, this stretch of earth seems prehistoric—damp, cool, inaccessible, the moss hanging from the giant, old trees. Beyond these hills, if you follow the highway as it forks north and slightly west, the hills suddenly come to an end, and there is one long final descent. Out in the distance, as far as the eye can see, the land is flat, dark and unbroken, sweeping away in a faint misty haze to the limits of the horizon. This is the South’s South, the Great Delta.
Across this vast and flat alluvial stretch, in tune with the pervasive Blues, run slowly and circuitously the rivers and creeks, high banked, with names pleasant to hear and remember—Quiver River, the Bogue Phalia, the Tallahatchie, and the Sunflower—pouring their tawny waters into the Yazoo, which in turn loses itself just above Vicksburg in the River. When you speak of the River, though there are many, you always mean the same one, the great River, the shifting unappeasable master of the country, the feared and revered Mississippi.
And behind you, growing smaller in rear view image, but not in memory, is the one part of the world you wish was the way it used to be. Not Rome before Nero, nor London before the fire, not San Francisco nor Tokyo before the earthquakes. You would not resurrect Babylon nor Carthage; let the Leaning Tower lean, and the Hanging Gardens hang. You’d want the Mississippi Gulf Coast back the way it was before Hurricane Camille.
Along the river and the hills, there are old towns from each of which the planters with their gangs wrested from the impenetrable jungles of water, standing cane and cypress, gum and holly and oak and ash, cotton patches which as the years passed, became fields and plantations. The paths made by deer and bear became roads and then highways, with the towns springing up along them and along the rivers—the thick, slow, unsunned streams, almost without current, once a year ceased to flow at all and then reversed, spreading, drowning the fertile land and subsiding again, leaving it still richer.
And there are sweet bay and cypress and sweet gum and live oak and swamp maple closing into a wall. And like a table in the trees, the mistletoe hung up there in the zenith. Buzzards floating from one side of the swamp to the other as if choice existed for them—raggedly crossing the sky and shadowing the track and shouldering one another on the solitary limb of a moon-white sycamore.
All these became an awareness, pleasant companions along the diagonal from Gulfport to Clarksdale, US 49, across the Coast, the Heartland, the Delta. And mighty impressive companions too, company I’m privileged to keep because they are Willie Morris, and William Percy and Elizabeth Spencer and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
You probably recognized them because they’ve likely kept you company too, so I’m not introducing them to you, just reminding you of their presence and availability and companionship as you travel not only US 49 but also some “lesser routes” like MS 28, 27, 16, 14 and 8 and 7 which take you across the State through genuinely spectacular countryside and hospitable towns with curious names.
Or, better yet, maybe you’d prefer some un-numbered by-ways like Dry Grove Road and its handsome farms between Crystal Springs and Raymond…or, west of Madison, where the sun-brightened pastures and forests alternate, and where the Road and the Lake are both called Cavalier…or, east of Byrum where the short hop along Swinging Bridge Road ends at its pedestrians-only namesake, crossing the Pearl River since 1905 and one of just four suspension bridges left in the state…or, north of Vaughan, Possum Bend Road, which takes you to the bustling shop, the splendid product and the genial host of Harkins’ Chairs.
For a special treat some Thursday afternoon, plan a tour towards Flora along Cedar Hill Road or Robinson Springs Road where the forests, the hanging moss, and the expansive homesteads vie for your attention…then on to Bentonia where Railroad Avenue takes you to the Blue Front Café for their weekly special, the “BBQ and Blues Show.” Or for another kind of treat, a cup of your favorite brew, take Gilmer Road south, or Hopewell Road north; they meet at MS 532 in the celebrated community of Hot Coffee.
Of our five companions the sage of Yoknapatawpha County advises us that “understanding the world requires the understanding of a place like Mississippi.” But he and the others may be unfamiliar to some, so I will be pleased to make the necessary introductions, to whoever might ask me, “What is it that brings you here?”
Camille photos are licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.wikimedia.com
Blue Front Café photo from http://www.bentoniablues.com/
Harkin’s Chairs photo from http://www.harkinschairs.com /
Faulkner image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.wikimedia.com
Eudora Welty image courtesy Eudora Welty Foundation
All other photos by Deborah Carpenter