Happy New Year! We enjoyed a visit to Memphis and New Orleans last week, including a road trip through Mississippi. We introduced our son to the South on his Christmas break. It was an excellent adventure. Most of our vacations are also “field trips” because we like to expose our son to lots of other places (a prerequisite to living in a quaint but provincial town like ours).
Joan Didion has been one of my favorite authors since college. (She is an extraordinary writer and spoke at my graduation at Cal). I have most of her books, and the one she wrote called “South by West” was a good primer for our trip.
“Joan Didion has always kept notebooks, and in this case she traces a road trip she took with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June 1970, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama,” as one reviewer explains. “She interviews prominent local figures, describes motels, diners, a deserted reptile farm, a visit with Walker Percy, a ladies’ brunch at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention. She writes about the stifling heat, the almost vicous pace of life, the sulfurous light, and the preoccupation with race, class, and heritage she finds in the small towns they pass through.”
For us the weather was unseasonably frigid, thanks to an Arctic blast. We celebrated my wife’s birthday and New Year’s at the iconic Peabody Hotel in Memphis — a Grand Dame of the South — and witnessed the famous duck march firsthand.
We enjoyed Central BBQ and down-home hospitality of Folk’s Folly steakhouse, and we sampled fried green tomatoes and okra. We walked along the Mississippi River, visited Elvis’ Graceland mansion and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The exhibits were educational for our son — and ourselves.
Memphis is preparing for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in April. The theme: “MLK 50: Where do we go from here?” The two-day event includes an “evening of storytelling with icons of the civil rights movement.”
From Memphis, we rented a car and headed south to New Orleans. We spent time in Oxford, a quintessential Southern college town. We toured the University of Mississippi (affectionately known as Ole Miss), including a monument dedicated to a riot there in 1962. Segregationists were protesting the enrollment of James Meredith, a black US military veteran.
We also visited Rowan Oak, the home of novelist William Faulker. “Rowan Oak was William Faulkner’s private world, in reality and imagination, and he was fascinated with its history,” according to its caretakers. “His writings were inspired by local stories of Indians, runaway slaves, old colonels and spinsters who gave china-painting lessons and are interwoven with his own memories of coming of age in a South torn between traditional ways and modern development.”
Further south, we visited Vicksburg, the site of a famous civil war battle. We’ve also been to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, but Vicksburg had a more authentic feel to it, including the trenches where the soldiers fought. We also drove down to the Mississippi River.
Along the way, we took some side roads, where we saw endless fields dedicated to cotton production and old cotton gins. It was a poverty-stricken area: dotted with wooden shacks. Some had folding chairs in the front yard for outdoor living. The landscape look more harsh in winter.
We dropped the rental car in New Orleans, where we’ve been before. We stayed at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, another Grand Dame hotel (like the Peabody in Memphis) thanks to an ambitious $145 million renovation. “It was during The Roosevelt years that (the hotel) became known as the beacon of luxury in the South. As a revolving door of the time’s most famous faces – Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Jack Benny, to name a few,” according to its history. The hotel’s Sazerac bar is famous, and its artwork was fabulous, including a big linocut portrait of Louis Armstrong in one of the restaurants. I also like to sit in the lobby of historic hotels like this and read The New York Times.
We toured the “Big Easy,” including sights such as Jackson Square, the French Quarter and Tulane University, on foot and via streetcar. We walked along the Mississippi River one more time. We ate at one of my favorite restaurants, Commander’s Palace, as well as Galatoires.
We talked about the trip when we got home and our son, born and raised in California, said he had a better understanding about the South. As the introduction to Didion’s book put it: those regions “represent the poles of American experience — the South drowning in its past, the West looking ahead to distant frontiers.”