I’m tired and aching for our bed at home, exactly how you hope to feel at the end of any trip. Waving so long to Roz, I nose the little Mazda out into the mighty river of Atlanta’s notorious morning traffic, and fight my way upstream, as twenty lanes narrow gradually to four, and that harrowing tangle of interchanges gives way to arrow-straight highway bordered by the piney woods and lakes of eastern Georgia. Three hours in, I stop in Greenville, South Carolina for a quick burger at Five Guys with my longtime colleague and friend Jeff, semi-retired from occupational therapy professoring. He’s made lemonade from the Covid lemon, launching an online startup that offers fill-in zoom teaching for OT programs around the country. As always, we happily grouse about the current state of academia (we should have our own MAGA caps: Make Academia Great Again), proudly review the careers of our sons (we each have two – all grown), and promise to catch each other on the flip-flop.
At sunset, signs for Butner appear (just north of Durham), and I smile at how the six-hour roundtrip to visit Corey in prison there used to seem so arduous. When I pull into our driveway in Bon Air after dark, our pup Buddy spins in giddy circles to see me (Is it true, as they say, that dogs have no sense of time? That to them your disappearance for a 5-minute trip to the grocery store is just as painful as a 5-day trip out of town? Maybe one way to measure that would be in the number of circles they spin on your return?), and my wife Chris, who has been tracking my phone, sets out dinner. How sweet it is to be home, to swap tales about our past few days, and yes, to fall back on my own pillow again!
Thus ends my 5-day, 2,000 mile journey, mission accomplished! If I go back before Corey’s release, I’d like to broaden the scope of my travels, perhaps visiting the Blues Museum north of Yazoo and some of the storefront civil rights memorials scattered around the Deep South, maybe even daring that pig ear sandwich. This whole drive I’ve been wrestling with the “Cold Civil War” we seem to be fighting in our dear old USA, while at the same time feeling grateful for the kindness shown by the young woman at the bookstore, who pulled out a map and showed me how to get the most from my battlefield tour, by the prison guard who (I’m pretty sure) came in early to work (after celebrating her son’s birthday) to make sure I could get in to see my friend on that second day, by the waitress who brought me a free Coke for my travels. No, I’m not suggesting that random acts of kindness will get us out of this mess. General Grant did not “nice” himself to victory in the War Between the States. But empathy is the core of community. Isn’t this how we bridge our divide?
This is my first fall season in twenty years not wrapped up in teaching. Instead, October will be book-ended by poem readings at Celebrations of Life for two longtime friends who didn’t live long enough to retire. In between, I’ll do my Meals on Wheels runs, volunteer at this weekend’s Folk Festival, set up a smart home for a friend who uses a wheelchair, and plant a Little Free Library box in a corner of our yard. Will even tie on my professoring necktie again and lecture at WVU (a trip cleverly planned for the heart of leaf-peeping season). I’m meeting with my friend Ed Turner on Zoom, helping him write his memoir and deep into drafting a new novel. This travelogue has been a homework assignment in my writing life, practice in composing a personal essay. Thank you for coming along for the ride. As Roz counseled, in retirement, you have to give yourself a reason to get up in the morning. At least for this month, that’s covered.
Ruminative musings and detours aside, the main point of this Deep South journey, of course, was to visit my friend Corey in prison. It was so good to see him again, especially since his mom just phoned to say that the Delta variant has hit the penitentiary, his unit is in lockdown, and who knows when anyone else will be allowed to visit?
Post-script: Have been throwing in quotes from Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” across this travelogue. Here’s a superstar version of the song, from The Band’s Last Waltz concert movie.
I pack and slip out of the Steele Cottage at 7, having finished every crumb of that hummingbird cake, and head back to Yazoo. Hurricane Nicholas has dissolved, and yesterday’s foreboding drive with it. The morning dawns bright upon expansive cotton fields and what had seemed looming, shaggy monsters reveal themselves to be only overgrown swamp oak copses. I stop to admire a delightfully whimsical folk art construction north of Vicksburg, and find myself singing that perfectly appropriate Dylan line, “Yes I think it can be easily done, take it on down to Highway 61.”
This is fun. After a year and a half of masking up and staying home, zooming my final courses, retiring without celebration, and constantly fretting over the death rate, it feels so liberating to hit the road, even if my destination has been a fortress prison in the Mississippi Delta. Having figured out the game, all goes well at Yazoo. The same kind guard is on duty and processes me into the visitors’ room without a hitch. For three hours, Corey and I jabber at each other with never an awkward pause, always more to say. Today we share the room with other visitors, too: a young woman who drives in from Atlanta once a month to visit her fiancé and a spry elderly fellow and two well-behaved youngsters who have come down from Memphis to see his son, their dad. Atlanta is seven hours away; Memphis three. It’s clear, for all of us, that the drive is worth it. It dawns on me that the rules here — sit six feet apart, no touching, everyone in masks – are the rules we all live under now, more or less. Covid itself is a kind of prison, and with the Delta variant running wild, who knows when we’ll be released?
I plan to drive straight back to Atlanta, stopping only for gas and gnawing on a leftover piece of fried chicken for lunch. When I start the car, the radio blares – wouldn’t you know it? – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Freebird” and it’s shouted claim, bleakly ironic in this setting, “I’m as free as a bird, babe, and this bird you cannot ca-a-a-a-age!” Don’t you love these sneaky correspondences, when the one-armed bandit turns up all lemons and the world seems briefly a little less random? I’ve been force-feeding the model this whole trip, testing my Apple Music subscription by calling up obscure tunes by Son House or Blind Lemon Jefferson on a whim, their mournful blues a soundtrack to the movie beyond my windshield. Mississippi has been all Delta blues, but crossing into Alabama I switch to the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams, passing through Birmingham Randy Newman’s essential Good Old Boys album, and hitting the Georgia line R.E.M. and Ray Charles. Navigating the multi-lane freeways in Atlanta, though, the best music always is Outkast, and – back aching, eyes bleary – played loud.
The whole trip, though, I’ve been returning to a Bob Dylan playlist, songs across his 60-years-plus career pouring out in a jumble that somehow fits together. I’d scratched my head at old Bob’s Nobel Prize, but the idea has slowly grown on me. Driving through the Deep South for the past four days, I can’t think of any artist who has so bountifully articulated the tortured psyche of America, and delineated how the lies we (who identify as white) tell ourselves (most glaringly about race) are the keys to our culture’s troubles. Nobody listens to albums any more, but having followed Dylan my whole life (yea, even unto these latter years), I still think of his work in album-sized chunks. From one album to another, his bands, his musical stylings, even the timbre of his voice, change. But jumbled together on a playlist, there’s a consistency to his effort, anchored I think, by his masterpiece Highway 61, Revisited. That tune — surreal, careening, hilarious and dark — exemplifies Dylan’s mission, which seems to me – and though a lifelong fan, forgive my presumption here – to be holding a funhouse mirror to the American carnival, that mirror pieced together from shards of our strangely prophetic folk music, the primary sources that no one else seems to grok as he does. Asked about this, Dylan has said, “The main body [of folk music] is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs.” (In Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America.) That’s the well Dylan’s been drawing from in his career-long reflection on our flag-bedecked Midway and its back alleys. Anyway, that’s how I see it on this drive, bookended by the bracing horrors of the Legacy Museum and their current incarnation at Yazoo Penitentiary. Throw in the Civil War glorification at Vicksburg battlefield for good measure, Alabama’s governor diverting covid relief money to build more prisons, hospital ICU’s overflowing with anti-vaxxers…. We’re in a bad place, but Dylan’s music implies that you could jump in your time-traveling DeLorean, pick any era in American history, drive eight hours in any direction on any road, and what you come across would be just as gob-smacking as this trip. Play our Nobel Laureate for instruction on the way. As the elderly gentleman at the Legacy Museum said, “Oh my.”
Living in New Orleans back in the day taught me that the tastiest (and most affordable) cuisine can be found in dives, Mom and Pop shacks treasured (and taken for granted) by locals. The foodie movement is all about such places, of course, and it was Chowhound.com that pointed me towards my best meal of the trip – Ubon’s – a shabby storefront on Yazoo’s outskirts that specializes in pulled pork sandwiches and cornhusk-wrapped tamales. Will spare you the long treatise I’d intended, about how this Mexican delicacy became a classic Delta soul food (here’s a website explanation), let me just say that my half dozen hot sauce-sprinkled tamales, plump with steamed corn meal and morsels of pork, make my day. The enormous “small” pulled pork barbecue sandwich ain’t bad either.
Ubon’s is closed to indoor dining, but has picnic tables scattered out front, so I sit down across from the only other customer, a B.B. King lookalike who easily takes up half the picnic table on his side (come to think of it, he might well be kin to the great bluesman, since King grew up just an hour north of where we sit). He’s waiting for his daughter to get off her shift cooking, grins at my relish over the tamales she’s made, and tells me how sweet life is managing the nearby game preserve owned by a conglomerate that paves roads, runs tugboats, and builds bridges all over the Delta. I tell him my brother used to run a game preserve in Virginia, a job that brought the whole family freezers full of venison. He marvels at that, the notion that other people in faraway places may also live his rustic life, agrees that sharing the game shot by bankers feeds his community, too, then pulls out his phone to show me a photo he’d taken that morning of a spotted fawn peeking out from foliage. “More deer than anybody could eat in them woods,” he says. “Ain’t she pretty, though?”
The whole time we’re talking, I’m swatting away a horde of flies. He says, “Flies love tamales!” When I move on to my sandwich, he takes the greasy wax paper the tamales had come in and spreads them out at the opposite end of the table. The flies swarm there, leaving me alone with my sandwich, problem solved! At last his daughter comes out. I thank her for her delicious tamales. She shrugs as if to say, ain’t no thing, then they hop in his truck and drive off. I’m finished, too, but before I leave the little grandma who’d served me at the takeout window steps out in her apron and mask with a cold can of Coke. She’d heard me talking about visiting a friend in prison, about my drive home to Virginia. She says, “Take this son; you got a long drive ahead of you.” I want to hug her for her kindness.
Back in Vicksburg, the heavy sky has given way to billowing cumulus and even a welcome breeze. I walk down towards the river past the columned courthouse and antebellum mansions to Washington Street, Old Town’s ten block main drag, and a quaint but well-stocked bookstore called Lorelei Books. I’m the only customer, so the young woman behind the register pulls down her mask, suggests I do the same, if I want. I thank her and for some reason add, “I’m vaccinated.” She nods and replies, “My mama is a nurse and she does her own research.” I’ve heard that phrase before. Isn’t that the universal code for “We’re not vaccinated”? I let it go, but seriously, people, a nurse who isn’t vaccinated? Why isn’t that considered malpractice?
The cashier is a sweetheart, though, points me to the local author’s section, and when I tell her I’m only in town today, pulls out a map of the battlefield and marks highlights of the 13-mile figure-8 loop inside its borders. I buy a book on the Delta blues and wander back to my room, checking out historical markers along the way. It seems that half the homes in Old Town proudly bear indentations from cannon balls thrown up during the Union siege.
I get to the visitor’s center just as the park ranger is about to close the gate, but he says I’m welcome to take a run or walk in there. “This is when all the bicyclists and joggers come.” I’m so glad to have the opportunity to stretch my legs, after sitting for three days. For the next two hours I dawdle along six miles of the park loop, jogging up and down the grassy ramparts and hillocks where, 158 years ago, Vicksburg’s Confederate defenders lined up in trenches within earshot of their Union opponents, at a stalemate, waiting out three months of Mississippi heat until their food ran out. It’s a beautiful park, broad rolling hills (the remains of forts and redans) giving way to steep forested ravines. General Grant sent his men up those ravines just twice, on successive days, and both times they retreated, heavily entrenched graybacks firing directly down on hapless blue coats as they climbed. Standing beside an old cannon atop one of the park’s hills, I wince at how suicidal it must have been to attempt those assaults.
After that, Grant wisely chose the siege route. Both sides dug in, firing cannonades over the ramparts at each other. The little city of Vicksburg took an almost daily bombardment from more than 400 Union artillery pieces, both from the Army’s guns and those fired up from ironclads parked in the river. Yet casualties were surprisingly few. Supposedly, there’s a cave behind the cottage where I’m staying. It’s where the family repaired each day when the bombardment started. Apparently that’s how the civilians in the city survived. (Union soldiers called Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Town.”) The furthest point of my run is a tall oak, marking the spot where General Grant accepted General Pemberton’s surrender, on July 4, 1863. Far away in Pennsylvania, a day earlier, a major general named Pickett had led his men up a ridge at Gettysburg to slaughter. Though the war would drag on for nearly two more years, the tide had turned decisively in the Union’s favor. The surrender of Vicksburg, which has been described as the nail holding the Eastern and Western halves of the Confederacy together, and the defeat of the rebels at Gettysburg the previous day, launched a retreat that would drag on all the way down the face of Virginia to Richmond, Petersburg, and finally Appomattox.
Jogging across the Vicksburg battlefield revives a longtime debate between my ears. Over the past decade or so, culminating with the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue last week in Richmond, we middle-aged white Southerners have undergone a re-education of sorts. I was raised to see Lee as a hero, to understand the Civil War as a battle over the vague notion of “states rights”, to think of the Union Armies (especially General Sherman’s in his destructive “march to the sea”, which began right here in Vicksburg), as the bad guys. Ken Burns’ famous PBS series on the war, narrated by Mississippi historian Shelby Foote, glorified the warriors on both sides. Yet yesterday I walked through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A year ago, I marched with protestors down Richmond’s Monument Avenue in the wake of the Floyd and Taylor police murders. It’s clear, of course, that the Civil War that tore our nation apart was all about slavery. And it’s clear, too, that the war continues by other means, a sizeable chunk of white America unable to see people of color as fully human, insistent on maintaining the entitlements that white supremacy affirms. It’s what MAGA is all about. We came thisclose to a coup over that just months ago. As Mississippi’s Nobel winner William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I leave the park sweated out and wondering, what is the purpose of all these Civil War battlefields now? Is it possible to still admire Confederate warriors who fought in the name of slavery and treason? Or are they necessarily understood as pariahs? I’m grateful for Montgomery’s museum, for the marchers who brought down the bronze figures on Monument Avenue, for the historians who have more truthfully revised the stories I was raised on. I’m glad to wrestle with these questions, and thankful that I’m not alone in doing so. But I’m worried.
Do you remember the Y2K panic, how we’d been warned of the collapse of the Internet when clocks ticked over to a new century? That New Year’s night, after champagne and kisses, I turned on the tv to some obscure channel that showed the Nation of Islam’s Reverend Louis Farrakhan delivering a speech. I’m no Farrakhan fan. Among other things, I’m convinced he played a key role in the assassination of Malcolm X. But something he said caught my tipsy ear. He noted that around mid-Century the ethnic makeup of the U.S. would tip to minority white, and he doubted that white folks would accept that gracefully. Rather bombastically, I thought, he predicted trouble over the coming decades, culminating in a second Civil War. Over a meagerly stuffed oyster poorboy (and purchase of a slice of hummingbird cake for tomorrow’s breakfast), I fret over our former President, who sits fuming at Mar-a-Lago, at the ugly passions he stirs, and fear that things are about to get worse in our country, for exactly the reasons Farrakhan predicted. A new poll shows the majority of Trump voters (and 41% of Biden voters) support splitting the country in two. What are we going to do?
Forty years ago, my pal John Wahl and I drove up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis on a blues pilgrimage of sorts. John was my only literature loving friend at the time, and agreed to a detour to Jackson, where we thought we’d drive past Eudora Welty’s home. We stopped at the visitors center and asked where that might be. The two blue haired ladies staffing the center looked up from their crocheting. One sneered, “Clodhopper.” The other snickered, then stood and squinted at us, asking, “Do you boys know what a clodhopper is?” John and I shot each other amazed glances. Were these ladies, in charge of the capital city of Mississippi’s visitors center, calling the most important living writer of their state, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a derogatory name? Yep, they were. We said we’d still like to drive by her house. The lady who was still sitting shook her head dismissively, “She will no more let you in her house….” She let the thought drop, pointedly.
Maybe that’s what gave me the idea, why I committed that rude, unconscionable intrusion. We drove up to the city park and easily found the stately two-story brick house where Ms. Welty had lived her whole life. I parked the car out front and said, “Dare me to knock on her door.” John laughed, sank down in his seat, and whispered, “Whoo boy – dare.”
So we did it, rang the doorbell, in our t-shirts and jeans, and oh my, yes, she opened the door, the great writer herself, in a house dress and slippers, her white hair pinned back, those bulging eyes that saw everything there was to see (so much like James Baldwin’s, come to think of it) sizing us up instantly. I blathered something about admiring her writing, young writers, etc., and to our surprise, she said, “Well come in then. We can chat.”
For the next hour, we sat on her living room sofa, while she in an arm chair asked thoughtful questions about our silly lives, seeming interested, nodding from time to time, her large spotted hands in her lap. I can’t remember a thing she said about herself. But every horizontal surface of her elegant home was stacked with books, and just past her head, at a window, there it was, her spare writing table, a sturdy, manual typewriter in the center, a sheet of paper rolled into the platen. We’d interrupted her work.
At last another young man came to the door, clearly a close friend, perhaps arriving on some signal from Ms. Welty or having noticed our car on the street. He chatted briefly, asked if we knew of her recently published memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that had won rave reviews everywhere. We had no idea. Soon he made it clear that it was time for us to head on our way. She walked us to the door, thanked us for our visit.
What asses we were, how gracious she was. Thrilled, abashed, unable to speak a word, we headed on to Oxford and our next pilgrimage site, Faulkner’s home. Of course, dead twenty years, we did not expect a reply to our knock at Rowan Oak.
Btw, the late Ms. Welty’s home is now a full-time pilgrimage site, a National Historic Landmark. Here’s a photograph of her writing desk, as I remember it, from the foundation website: