The Mississippi Delta
The Civil War is a recent memory and blues legends loom large in the cotton fields and swamp towns of the lower Mississippi Delta.
"Sunshine" Sonny Payne has been the host since 1951, opening each show with the same catchphrase--"Pass the biscuits, 'cause it's King Biscuit Time!"--in honor of the first sponsor, King Biscuit Flour. In a studio at theDelta Cultural Center, we sit several feet from Payne, 82, as he spins records on the 15,243rd broadcast.
From Helena, we head back to Mississippi and turn south on Highway 1, the Great River Road. Driving past old plantations, we can smell the crop burns even before we see smoke rising over the cotton fields. East of Beulah, Miss., I follow my guidebook's directions down back roads to the dirt and asphalt intersection of Frazier and Walton roads, a more likely candidate for the Robert Johnson crossroads than the one from yesterday. Crop dusters buzz low overhead as I climb a gate to photograph the spot.
We cross the Mississippi River again to drive a section of the levee north of Arkansas's Lake Chicot State Park. It's one of the world's longest levees (640 miles), rebuilt after the 1927 flood immortalized in early blues songs and re-created in the filmO Brother, Where Art Thou?The road is one of the scenic highlights of our trip. Cattle and horses graze on the levee's grassy slopes, while closer to the river, the landscape flattens and turns to swamp--the water flecked white with egrets. On the other side, cotton fields stretch to the horizon.
- Cedar Grove Mansion Inn & Restaurant 2200 Oak St., Vicksburg, Miss., 800/862-1300, cedargroveinn.com, from $100
- Delta Cultural Center 141 Cherry St., Helena, Ark., 800/358-0972, deltaculturalcenter.com, free
Built atop a 300-foot-high bluff, Vicksburg occupies perhaps the most strategic location on the Mississippi River. In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ordered Ulysses S. Grant to seize Vicksburg from the Confederacy. After nine months of fighting and a 47-day siege, Confederate forces surrendered the city on July 4, 1863.
Vicksburg's role as a turning point in the war makes theOld Court House Museumfar more interesting than I expected. My favorite exhibit is a .58-caliber lead bullet that was said to have impregnated a woman when it passed through her womb. The soldier who fired the shot reputedly did the honorable thing and proposed.
It's hard to escape the echoes of the Civil War in Vicksburg. The gorgeous 1840Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, where we spent the night, is proud of the apple-size Union cannonball still embedded in a parlor wall. The shelves in theCorner Drug Store, more homespun museum than pharmacy, are stocked with an armory's worth of cannonballs, shells, and bullets, along with 19th-century quack-medicine bottles, glazed moonshine jugs, and a still with a cardboard sign outlining a recipe for whiskey.
We have just enough time before lunch to make a quick circuit ofVicksburg National Military Park, home to the largest Civil War cemetery in the country--more than 17,000 white markers are laid out across rolling grasslands. Also at the park is the U.S.S.Cairo, the country's only surviving Civil War river gunboat, sunk off Vicksburg by a Confederate "torpedo" (an early version of a sea mine) and preserved in the river mud. In 1964, its timber skeleton, armor plating, cannons, and engines were raised and then reassembled.
AtWalnut Hills, an 1880 home that's been converted into a restaurant, Dad and I share a big round table with a family from Dallas. The massive lazy Susan is laden with platters of fried chicken, okra, lima beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits, and corn bread. We swap travel stories until it's time for the bill: a bargain at $15 apiece.
From Vicksburg we pick up theNatchez Trace Parkway, which follows what was once an ancient Indian trail through the dense Delta forests. Along the way, we stop to walk the Sunken Trace, a rutted section of the original trail cocooned in trees, and to climb Emerald Mound, the country's second-largest ceremonial Indian mound.
- Walnut Hills 1214 Adams St., Vicksburg, Miss., 601/638-4910, walnuthillsms.net, lunch $15
- Old Court House Museum 1008 Cherry St., Vicksburg, Miss., 601/636-0741, oldcourthouse.org, $5
- Corner Drug Store 1123 Washington St., Vicksburg, Miss., 601/636-2756, vicksburgcornerdrug.com, free
- Vicksburg National Military Park 3201 Clay St., Vicksburg, Miss., 601/636-0583, nps.gov/vick, $8
- Natchez Trace Parkway 800/305-7417, nps.gov/natr, free
I knew thatBayou Cabins in Breaux Bridge, La., would be a perfect place to spend the night when I called for a reservation and couldn't understand a word the owner said. Rocky Sonnier speaks with a swamp-thick Cajun accent, punctuating each sentence with a deep chuckle. When he finally passed the phone to his wife, Lisa, I managed to book a cabin overlooking Bayou Teche.