In Title: A couple admires the ruins of an antebellum mansion at Windsor.
Above: Ground Zero blues club in Clarksdale is next to the blues museum. Mississippi Development Authority /Tourism Division photos
Below: The simple, two-room birth home of Elvis Presley draws visitors to Tupelo.
I entered Mississippi on state Route 35 just north of Bogalusa, La. I had just ended a long weekend of fun and food in New Orleans and wanted to see some genuine rural South, and, indeed, Route 35 seems as far away from New Orleans as one could be.
Driving north through towns such as Columbia, Mount Olive and a hamlet called Hot Coffee, I picked up this gorgeous road at a small town called Ofahoma, south of Kosciusko, and used the Trace–plus a collection of highways connecting to the storied parkway–to make my way around the state.
Searching for the burial mound, I clambered down and up a sunken trail that reminded me of the coppiced trails of my English birthplace of Kent. So intent was I to see the mound that it did not occur to me what the path was that I had just crossed. It was the original Natchez Trace road, which in that section was only a little wider than one of today’s SUVs.
It was along here that Kaintucks–19th-century traders, boatmen and farmers–moved their goods down the Mississippi River from states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, and returned home using the old Natchez Trace road. They likely visited Natchez-under-the-hill, which was the nation’s frontier at the time, and was a bawdy part of the port city of Natchez.
Mark Twain visited Natchez-under-the-hill in 1880 and writes in his travel journal, “Life on the Mississippi,” of “…hordes of rough and hardy men; rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sties.”
Today, Natchez is a quaint town of shops, paddle steamers and antebellum mansions paid for by cotton. The red double-decker sightseeing buses also reminded me of home.
Of Elvis and Authors
I reluctantly turned off the Natchez Trace when the sun started to dip and headed east to Starkville, located on U.S. Highway 82. A woman in a convenience store was fascinated that I had come there from New York City and asked if I had walked. Breakfast was taken north of Starkville in a diner where the only other two customers breaking fast had tied their horses up to a length of wood set up for that very purpose. The casinos of the state’s Mississippi Gulf Coast seemed a very long way away.
Heading farther north, I stopped by the small city of Tupelo, where Elvis Presley was born on Jan. 8, 1935. The two-room house is original, although the furniture inside is not. The adjacent museum was originally opened in 1992, renovated in 2006, and features the personal collection of Janelle McComb, a Tupelo resident and long-time family friend of Elvis and the Presley's.
Living in more opulent Mississippi digs was novelist William Faulkner. After first stopping by Oxford’s well-known Square Books bookstore and inspecting the tidy city hall that sits in the town’s main square, I drove south to his home of Rowan Oak, which has a majestic approach path of oak trees and a tattered look that has not changed much since July 6, 1962, the day on which he died at the age of 64.
Take a diversion to Holly Springs, northwest of Tupelo off U.S. Highway 78, to find Graceland Too, a labor-of-love homage to the better-known Graceland across the border in Tennessee. This collection of Elvis paraphernalia is the love and life’s work of Paul McLeod who saw Elvis more than 100 times.
Blues in the Delta
The scenery changes dramatically when nearing the small city of Clarksdale, located west of Oxford via state Route 6 at U.S. Highway 61. This is the state’s agricultural region. From here all the way south to Vicksburg constitutes some of the poorest places in the United States. Long, thin lines of poplar trees border flat fields.
This region is also significant for music fans who love the blues, and Clarksdale is best known as being the home of the Delta Blues Museum. Its permanent collection contains such gems as one of B.B. King’s guitars and parts of the boyhood shack, originally in Rolling Fork, Miss., that Muddy Waters called home. The museum also can provide the Mississippi adventurer with a blues map of important sites. I followed the story of Robert Johnson, who many consider to be the best blues guitarist–perhaps just the best guitarist, period–of all time. Travelers can find a gravesite in Quito along state Route 7 that is believed to be Johnson’s. In Morgan City, another site with a larger gravestone reads in part “ Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues singers.”
I delighted when I found Belzoni, south of Clarksdale at the intersection of state Routes 12 and 7. This small town bills itself as the world’s catfish capital, and also is the home of Pinetop Perkins, who played piano for Muddy Waters’ band. He is the oldest person ever to have received a Grammy Award, which came in 2007 when he was 94.
I continued south on Highway 61 to Port Gibson, where the First Presbyterian Church has its steeple crowned by a large golden hand, its finger pointing heavenward. Nearby Alcorn is home to the Windsor Ruins, the impressively columned remnants of an 1859 mansion.
I was nearing the end of my long loop through Mississippi, but I did not want to leave. The last diversion possible was a circuit on state Route 24 off Highway 61 that leads to Lessley, Fort Adams and Pinckneyville. Fort Adams practically touches the Mississippi River. The jewel here is the Pond General Store, which is either in Pond, Fort Adams or Woodville, depending on who you ask. This store has not changed in 100 years, and it is a treasure trove of antique tools, bottles, tins and posters set on a small hill above–inevitably–a pond.
After Pinckneyville, Route 24 becomes state Route 66 and enters Louisiana.
Terence Baker is travel editor of AAA New York’s Car & Travel magazine.