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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX >Hello Mississippi!

Natchez to Clarksdale, MS   05/24/06 (Day 29)

Hello Mississippi!


Hey! Look at this! A whole new state! Even if the sign is a little worse for wear after Hurricane Katrina.We’re pretty proud of ourselves for finally breaking away from Louisiana, though we know we’ll be pulled back in before this thing is through. We kind of already want an oyster po-boy and a drive through daiquiri…

But Mississippi has cool stuff too including rolling hills. We got used to the flat, flat, flatness of Louisiana but going up and down for a change is nice. We hit the brakes in Natchez and head for the famous Natchez Trace the next morning after an early lunch of southern style tamales, which are boiled in oil instead of being steamed just in case you were feeling too healthy. We get ours at Fat Mama’s Tamales which, in addition to making delicious tamales, puts a sticker on every quarter that says “follow me back to Fat Mamas.” Genius.

The Trace is a 400 mile or so scenic byway that roughly follows the route of an ancient foot and horse path originally used by the local Indians. In many places, the trail was so trafficked that it now lies many feet lower than ground level, giving the thing the appearance of a spooky trench. We walk along a short section of it and expect Ichibad Crane to come galloping down it at any moment, all headless and menacing.

The Natchez Trace roadway, by contrast, is bucolic. Surrounded by green, the road is well paved and has very little traffic. It almost makes you want to hop on a bike and do it that way. Almost. Luckily, it’s also one stellar driving road and we learn to love our Silverado even more.

We planned to drive the entire length of the Natchez Trace, but about 100 miles in we get lonely for signs of life. There are no towns or villages along the way and we start to feel like we’re missing an opportunity to see rural Mississippi. So we duck off the Trace and zip onto Highway 1 to 61 through fields of baby cotton and adolescent corn. And thank goodness, because that’s the road that takes us straight to the Shack Up Inn

“I’m in love!” That’s us about 30 seconds after we get out of the truck in front of the Shack Up Inn and we’re not talking about each other. The sun is setting, other (lucky) guests are collected on the lawn in the kinds of chairs that seem made for a cocktail (which they are all nursing) and then we meet our host, Bill. Here before us is the kind of man we should be manufacturing more of.

Growing up near Clarksdale, Bill developed a natural love for the cotton gin. For reasons he chooses to keep to himself, he left his beloved Mississippi and spent time in Texas. “Long enough to know I hated it,” he says. What he knew that he loved was his hometown, so he returned in search of a place to settle.  He found it in the form of an abandoned out building on the defunct Hopson cotton farm, home of the first automated cotton picking machines (they worked 13 of the 16 original cotton picking machines—at least one is still rusting away on the property).

After turning the out building into the kind of home where walls are unnecessary but beds made out of branches are crucial (and very, deeply cool), Bill turned his quirky attention to other abandoned Hopson buildings and moved six tumble down shacks (lovingly referred to as the six pack) to his property. After installing modern plumbing, modern bathrooms, vintage (but working) kitchens and A/C (but, blessedly, no TVs), he got down to the real work. Then Bill programmed satellite radio to the blues channel in each shack and that’s the soundtrack that greets you when you walk in for the first time.

He also employed multiple thrift stores’ worth of Delta/music memorabilia to decorate each room (our personal favorite is the Fullilove shack). Classic LPs are nailed to the walls of the porches above the tattered sofas. Old flyers for local shows stand in for wallpaper. And it’s all either found or recycled.  It’s a dream even before your head hits the pillow. You even get a mini-moon pie on your pillow each night instead of a mint.
The result, friends, is the ultimate place for Delta Blues lovers to lay their heads given the fact that the place is located at the intersection of highways 61 and 40, where more blues legends than we have the time or energy to list here were either born, made or died. Bill humbly calls his place the first B&B in Mississippi, which is true when you realize B& B stands for Bed & Beer. “I can’t cook breakfast, but I can open a beer for you,” he rationalizes.  And he estimates he’s at about step 15 on a 20 step plan for the place.

The latest steps taken? The addition of five Bins in the adjacent Cotton Gin Inn. Now, don’t be fooled by the term “bin.” These units were added to address the needs of folks who might find the creaking floors and musty memorabilia of the shacks too much for their vacation. Each bin comes with satellite TV, handicap accessible bathrooms, blow dryers and a much sleeker/cleaner design. Though Bill does still sneak a harmonica and copy of the Preferred Hotels of the World directory into the room just to make sure your funny bone still works.

Honestly, just writing about it makes us want to be back there RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Who can arrange that?

After getting the lay of the land from Bill, we head out to Ground Zero, the Clarksdale bar/music joint owned by Morgan Freeman who grew up not far from here and continues to live in the region and support its growth by promoting education and local business.

It’s mid-week and don’t say we didn’t warn you: most food joints you want to eat at (including Abe’s Bar-B-Q) are closed by 9 if it’s not Friday or Saturday night. We grab grub where we can (don’t ask) and head over to Ground Zero for some music and a cocktail. Which bring us to this: what does the South have against ginger ale? Honestly, it’s been a challenge to get the stuff since we left Manhattan. Order a Maker’s and ginger and most bar tenders (including the one at Ground Zero) manufacture a not-so-close approximation of ginger ale by using the soda gun to mixing cola and Sprite or 7-Up. People, it has to stop.

Can’t remember the name of the band that played that night, but there was this kid of about 12 or so who sat in on guitar and he was unforgettable. Sure he was nervous and didn’t quite have the stage presence thing down yet. But when everything went his way he glowed and we couldn’t help but feel maybe we were seeing the next BB King. When the club closed around midnight (remember what we said about early week nights…), an old white Mercedes pulled up and a girl of about eight jumped out of the backseat and bounded into the club as if on cue. Two seconds later she walked out with her brother and his guitar and they jumped into the Mercedes and went home.

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