America at Last – Part 13
By Parson Thru
Memphis - New Orleans (via Baton Rouge): 475 miles
We got away from Memphis thirty minutes late, at around 09:30. Nobody seemed to mind. We were aboard Delta Bus Lines. This was a slower, stopping service. A Monday morning run carrying a handful of passengers south. We passed pretty houses, but the districts were poor, with shutters down on many businesses.
We had hoped to stop off in Jackson along Highway 55, and dreamt of sweating it out in a bar at lunchtime. But the bus company had something better in store. Within a short time we were passing into Mississippi on Highway 61, "The Blues Highway" down through the Delta.
We pulled off the road into our first brief stop at Tunica Junction. The region was experiencing its worst floods since 1937. Reports had been making the news back in the UK and we’d seen the water rising in Memphis over the last few days. Our route would track the Mississippi all the way down.
It was good to be back on the road, where the view was of wide and flat empty farmland, with a smattering of small towns that we swept by. I couldn’t help but think of the Vale of York where I grew up. It, too, was flat and empty, but closely bounded by the Hambleton Hills, North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales – all of which were within sight. On a clear day, you could see the fells of the Pennines beyond. Here in Mississippi, beyond the flat farmland there was nothing but more of the same.
If the physical horizon of the Vale of York was narrow, its cultural horizon was narrower still. Thirty-odd years ago, youngsters like me were channelled into a box straight from school. You had to find a job that would pay for beer and kick-off the consumer habit with that first car or motorcycle loan. The remaining cash was handed over as house-keeping.
Inevitably, the young man found himself standing before family, friends and a priest as the assembled breathed a collective sigh of relief that he’d turned out normal. Marriage – mortgage – children. That first child got everyone off the hook. Nobody was expected to look beyond the hills. The few that did were soon forgotten.
The effect of this Mississippi space on me now was exhilarating and life-affirming. I smiled through the window as I thought of all the crap we had left behind in the UK. We were riding a bus through the heart of America with no particular place to go. I am, ultimately, a freedom junkie. This place was my fix.
The day’s stops were a name-check of blues history. We pulled into Clarksdale, then Greenville, where we pulled off the main highway and changed buses. That was the only time we put our feet on the ground in the state of Mississippi. We heard that blues jukes still open their doors in these towns. Maybe they are the beating heart of Johnson, King and Howlin' Wolf, or maybe things have moved on here, too. Maybe we should have got off and looked - stayed over. Maybe next time.
We showed our re-boarding cards to the driver and looked around us as we walked down the aisle – checking out our home for the next ten hours. We randomly picked a seat from identical rows as the big diesel fired up and the driver set the bus back on the road. We rejoined Highway 61, much of it a long straight rolling strip of tarmac stretching infinitely ahead.
We ran through endless fields of maize with nothing to see but the occasional tumbledown collection of buildings. We made a few brief halts, including Rolling Fork, which must be the smallest stop-off yet. We tried chatting to a number of people by the side of the bus but nobody wanted to speak.
A group of ladies came on at Rolling Fork, travelling down to Baton Rouge. They sat right behind the driver and began a ribbing that continued off and on all the way down. The man was probably around sixty. Until now he'd been quietly keeping himself to himself. One of the ladies asked in a strident voice “How fast is this bus goin’, Driver?”
“We’re doin’ forty-five, ma’am.”
“Are we gonna make Baton Rouge by 8.25?”
“Cain’t this bus go any faster?”
The driver stayed silent for a moment. Then he looked back in the mirror and with just a hint of exasperation said:
“Ma’am, we ain’t in no hurry.”
The ladies sat back in their seats and continued to banter between themselves. The driver sighed and went back to his own thoughts.
“We ain’t in no hurry.”
Amen to that.
Across the yellow centre-line, a steady flow of cars and lorries passed going north. The lorries were mainly Kenworths and Peterbilts. We passed yellow school-buses now and again, sitting along the side of the road waiting for home-time.
The towns we skimmed were often no more than clusters of shacks. I got into the habit of looking for the big shiny car parked around the back of each brick-constructed church. Mississippi seemed to be big on churches and casinos.
I felt as though I'd been here before. Nearly twenty years earlier, around the time my brother died, I had a period of sofa-surfing. One Saturday I was alone in a house and sitting practicing guitar. I was learning blues from a book, practicing scales, tricks and licks, as you do. Sitting there improvising, I drifted into a kind of trance. I was awake, but dreaming and holding my white Mexican Strat so gently I could barely feel it anymore.
As I played, I dreamt I was in a small cabin or shack, somewhere in the dusty South. It could have been 1992, or maybe the 1930s or ‘50s. The shack was poor – no electricity or running water – and the family had invited me in, sharing what little they had. I felt humbled.
The man had been listening to me trying to play. He told me that playing the blues wasn’t just about technique and learning cool licks. To play or sing the blues, you had to know them – to have lived them. The blues came from the soul. I don’t know how long I was in that shack – hours or days. The family was very real to me. There was a lot of love. We talked – I ate at their table. It was a genuine wrench when I had to leave.
The experience is one of the most real things that ever happened to me and left something that fills me every time I pick up a guitar. It breaks my heart that I get to play so little. Life is one long compromise. All the way down Highway 61 I kept a look out for the shack. It could have been any one of thousands.
Now and again, we caught sight of wide expanses of Mississippi floodwater. I felt for the people out there across the fields. Army engineers were posted at the levees and there had been talk on the TV news of rural areas being sacrificed to protect the cities.
At what looked like a semi-submerged bridge we turned and rolled into Vicksburg. All around us, trees and power-lines stood marooned. In some places, the road was barely above the water, which was fifteen feet above normal and still rising. Through hedges and trees, we could make out a few grand-looking buildings in the town, but we didn’t really get close. We picked up our passengers and left Vicksburg to the Mississippi.
We eventually made Baton Rouge, where we had a couple of hours lay-over before the connection to New Orleans – back onto Greyhound. On the way, we sat behind a lady called Jude and struck up a conversation. She was travelling home from visiting relatives many hundreds of miles away. She'd been on the bus for twenty-four hours already. We chatted relentlessly. Mainly about the British Royal Family – the Royal Wedding had been a couple of weeks before - and about food and cooking. Natasha and Jude swapped addresses so we could send her a recipe book.
Two hours passed in no time at all as the city of New Orleans suddenly appeared around us. We stepped down breathless and aching with laughter into the big modern bus station, where we picked up our luggage from the hold and headed off in opposite directions. A fifteen dollar cab-ride soon had Natasha and me standing with our cases on a kerb in the French Quarter.