Follow me down to the cotton fields, alligator swamps and collapsing rural towns of the Mississippi Delta — the worst place in the US by some measurements, and the closest to my heart. Here you’ll find the nation’s highest rates of poverty, its most dysfunctional schools, a shocking degree of racism and segregation, and some of the warmest, funniest, most generous people you’ll ever meet, black and white.
Contradictions are like oxygen here — something fundamental in the air — and eccentricity is as natural as rain or madness. Listen to the Delta place names: Hushpuckena, Midnight, Money, and Hot Coffee. They call out for a slow, meandering, improvisational road trip, fuelled by barbecued ribs, fried chicken and bourbon, live blues, pineapple upside-down cakes, and raving mad preachers on the radio, black and white.
Driving west through the hills of central Mississippi, you reach a line of bluffs overlooking a vast oceanic plain, planted to the horizons with fields of cotton and soybeans, interspersed with woods and swamps and meandered across by muddy rivers. This is the Delta, 200 miles long and 70 across at its widest point, and technically it’s not a delta at all but the shared ancestral floodplain of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, containing some of the richest alluvial soil on Earth.
I was living in New York when I decided to buy an old plantation house in the Delta, near the shrunken rural hamlet of Pluto (population: five). Most people just naturally assumed I’d lost my mind — Mississippi? But that changes when they come here to visit. ‘Magical’ is the word they keep using, and it refers ultimately to the light. The cotton fields shine and shimmer and appear to vibrate. Rolling mists drift out of the swamps into the apricot light of dawn.
With a fire-and-brimstone preacher on the radio or a blues CD, a long flat road ahead, no plans or deadlines, you drive on through Louise, Grace, Alligator and Christmas. In the afternoons a golden light floods down out of big Delta skies, making everything look like a slightly exaggerated version of itself: a collapsing barn strangled by flowering vines, a house trailer turned into a church by nailing a home-made steeple on top, lavish plantation homes behind wrought iron gates, loose dogs, rusting agricultural equipment, swaybacked shacks that wouldn’t look out of place in Haiti.
You pass through small towns where almost nothing new has been built since the 1940s and 1950s. What businesses survive tend to be locally owned, and they often serve more than one purpose. In Indianola, BB King’s hometown, there’s a store selling sno-cones and gravestones. Further down the road are signs for ‘Meat & Furniture’, ‘Pig Ear Sandwiches and Tax Preparation’, ‘Fireworks and Deep-Fried Turkeys’. Juanita’s in Greenwood offers a trifecta of ‘Bail Bonding, Beauty Salon and Bridal Boutique’.
Greenwood is probably the Delta’s most cultured and sophisticated town, despite the scraggly slums on the other side of the tracks. It has a plush new boutique hotel, The Alluvian, a great independent bookstore, Turnrow, and a wonderfully strange and rickety old restaurant called Lusco’s. You walk into a front room full of moth-eaten taxidermy, and are then led back into a private curtained cubicle with a buzzer to summon the waitress. The food is excellent — steaks, oysters, killer fried chicken, pompano fish baked in a paper bag — and it seems like the perfect place to hatch a doomed embezzlement scheme or begin a disastrous love affair.
If you drive out of Greenwood on the road to Money, you’ll soon reach a small whitewashed country church where the Delta blues legend Robert Johnson is buried. It’s become a key stop on the Blues Trail promoted by the Mississippi tourist board, most of which consists of signs commemorating the birthplaces and graves of dead bluesmen. As a living music connected to the rural black community, the blues has been dying slowly for a long time in the Delta, but there are still a few places you can see the real thing live. In Bentonia, Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes occasionally plays his ethereal, hypnotic blues at the Blue Front Cafe, a shabby, welcoming bar his family has owned since the 1940s. A more reliable bet is Red’s in Clarksdale, featuring good live blues every weekend, and you can stay down the road at the Shack Up Inn — old sharecroppers’ cabins fixed up nicely and rented out to tourists.
I was drinking there recently with Martha Foose, a cookbook writer who grew up in the Delta and was now back, having tried out Paris and LA. She was brandishing the local newspaper. An oncologist had been arrested in a bizarre murder-for-hire scheme aimed at his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer. A 70-year-old man had been caught in a police sting while having carnal relations with a prize show hog. “I swear,” she said, weeping with laughter into her bourbon. “Living in the Delta is like being in love with a crazy person.” She stood up, lit a cigarette and yelled out, “I love you, bitch!”
Richard Grant is an English writer who has been based in the US for 15 years. His first book, Ghost Riders: Travel With American Nomads, won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. His second was Bandit Roads: Into The Lawless Heart of Mexico.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)