by Joseph N Goodell
As if being led by the hand through a looking glass into this wonderland of Mississippi, Richard Grant’s masterful Dispatches from Pluto genuinely involves a reader into his story. I had no more than finished Mr. Grant’s prologue than I judged that my involvement would be better served by visiting his “discovery” before I proceeded on to Chapter 1.
The straightforward way to get there from my home in Madison would have been via I55 and MS16 through Yazoo City, north on US49E past Eden, then left on Bee Lake Road (just over the Holmes County line) to the row crop processing operation, an economic hub which is Pluto, Mississippi. But there’s no pizazz or adventure in “straightforward.” Better to risk losing my way along rural byways through protean landscape and tiny hamlets with their resident dramatis personae.
So, from MS16 I turned north on MS433 through Benton, past the school and fire station, onto a slow-w-w but scenic length of road being resurfaced, which really did not need resurfacing, (The streets of Jackson, victims of relentless traffic above and Yazoo clay below, really do. Go figure.) and, into Midway—presumably, mid-way over the pine-forested high country between the valleys of the Big Black and Yazoo Rivers.
Midway is a confluence of five roads and a congregation of nondescript, randomly arranged structures in need of a facelift. The one where I stopped—for a map check and restroom—seemed to be a sort of automobile repair enterprise. The proprietor, a Mr. Congeniality of authentic affability, was kind enough to accommodate me. “A right turn outa my place, then less ‘n a q’rter mile to a left on Eden-Midway Road an’ y’r on y’r way t’ 49E.” (For the other he cheerfully offered “that patch o’ weeds out b’hind m’ barn yonder.”)
We parted company with thanks for his time and hospitality from me, an earnest “Y’all come back” from him. The bright day was early fall, Mississippi at its finest. The road curved gently downward through the forests, under a crystal blue sky, past the two churches of Pierce Crossroad, onto the flat, unbroken expanse of Mississippi’s Delta—the “South’s South.”
One of my neighbors had claimed Eden as her childhood home… when quaint, lively, and picturesque might have described it, and when the train might have stopped there. Now, every one of the residences was in weary disrepair; a few looked deserted. Three miles north lay Bee Lake Road, marked only by a hint on my MDOT highway detail. A major project was underway to elevate 49E over the railroad, where fatalities had claimed too many who had assumed that the right of way was theirs.
People should, but may not appreciate MDOT and its myriad projects. MDOT, however, appreciates its own. With a festive spirit, the large crew was celebrating a dinner spread out on makeshift tables: fat burgers from a grill, a tub of hot corn on the cob, trays of coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and a choice of cold drinks. I was welcomed by this fraternity—but not to the feast—as the wayfarer which I was.
They confirmed that yes, I was on Bee Lake Road and that Pluto was a short drive further west along the “ox-bow” of Bee Lake, an artful, nearly enclosed series of curves, 100 times longer than it was wide, and embracing about 4,000 acres of alluvial farmland. Pluto, though smaller than Eden, was clearly more prosperous, consisting of several residences positioned around Bee Lake and sustained by corn and soybeans this year, cotton in others.
I was greeted, although guardedly and more formally than I was in Midway, by an individual of evident competence and authority. After my apology for “trespassing,” to which he nodded an acceptance, we passed some time chatting up Pluto, the prosperous farming, and Richard Grant, who had featured him in a few dispatches. He knew the family of a respected Jackson cardiologist who owned a considerable measure of rich acreage nearby to the north, and, also the lead character, resembling him in both appearance and manner, of Gerard Helferich’s documentary, High Cotton—Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta. Two native Mississippians who loved the rewards, the risks, and the hard work of raising cotton, who “couldn’t dream of doing anything else.”
During my clockwise drive around the lake, past Gum Grove and Stonewall to Thornton on 49E, I could glimpse through the woods a few houses, with the Yazoo River just beyond, and one or two appearing as mansions. Set well back from the road, beyond a wayfarer’s reach, one likely belonged to Mr. Grant. Typical of sparsely settled neighborhoods around small rural communities, such as Pluto and likely Midway.
I curved east onto MS12 through Tchula to climb out of the Delta toward the county seat of Lexington. This city of scarcely 2,000 projected an image of struggle with economic challenge. There was a baffling mix of destitute, some areas of modest means, and a sprinkling of affluence. After spending some moments of devotion in the alluring St Mary’s Church, I moved on to the courthouse. A disappointment of poor maintenance inside, but with the lofty magnolia tree off its southeast corner and its commanding clock tower, it did render a stately presence outside.
Most of those out and about were vehicle-borne at high speed around the square, as if in an effort to hurry on. Except for the policeman, who agreeably enough, assured himself that the map check which I was into across the hood of my car, was all above board, and as I relayed to him: trying, in a futile exercise of misty memory, to locate that out-a-country-road old house where I had lived briefly in the summer of 1943.
Saturday around the Lexington courthouse, circa 1939
MS12 was a sylvan and pastoral byway to Kosciusko, where a professionally crafted museum of the General and the city ushered me onto our enchanting Natchez Trace Parkway. Late afternoon bestowed an especially pleasant, even idyllic, drive along the Trace. An ideal close for any journey, return to Madison, and back to Chapter 1.
Book image from Amazon
Hiwy 12 Google images Mile by mile plan a trip in North America
Visiting in front of courthouse on Saturday afternoon, Lexington, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910- photographer. Created/Published possibly 1939. Wikimedia Commons