Saturday, 1 December 2012

Down the River Road Without a Paddle

Earlier this year, ITV broadcast a documentary showing Sir Trevor McDonald (one of my guilty crushes) voyaging up the great Mississippi, absorbing the history of this diverse slice of America. Hillbillies, ghostly plantations, fishermen, funnel boats and Huckleberry Finn, they were all here, somewhere. 

I watched avidly during my 4am lunch break at work, wishing I was with Trev, delighting in the weird and wonderful. The river trail looked particularly enticing.

When planning Operation U S of Heeyyy!, Leah and I were in agreement that the Mississippi would feature prominently. We hoped to pick up a car in Memphis and take it down to New Orleans, stopping at towns along the way. 

Our first port of call was Holly Springs, MS, about an hour south east of Memphis, to the home of an Elvis SuperFan who turned his house into an insane, ridiculous shrine to the King himself. 

Graceland Too was at the bottom of a quiet street, rubbing shoulders with otherwise normal looking residential properties. We spotted it instantly - you'd have to have a severe fungal eye infection not to. From the gate to lion stone statues to the roof and Christmas trees on the lawn, everything was a searing shade of cobalt blue. It was like that scene from Mr Bean when he redecorates his living room by igniting a stick of dynamite attached to an open can of paint. 

 We parked up and walked over to 200 East Gholson Avenue, leaves crunching loudly under our All Stars as we tried to set our cameras to the right instagram filter to capture the madness that lay just metres from us. Unfortunately, SuperFan didn't appear to be home - his driveway, filled with rusting old iconic automobiles that no doubt would have gotten the nod from the King in their heyday, was devoid of a normal everyday vehicle. 

I rapped on the metal door until my knuckles turned bright pink but no cigar. We decided to break for tea and came back in a half hour. There was no way we could leave without trying our hardest to breach the Graceland Too barriers. 

I scouted the perimetre, looking for a point of entry, spotting a glint of light near one of the barricaded up back windows. All of the windows were nailed shut with planks of wood. From the inside. 

We were either about to enter a world of sweet Elvis drenched madness or on the precipice of a brutal and horrific butchering to death by a manic fan dressed in a white, diamante-festooned jumpsuit. 

Even so, I was still desperate to see the inside. The website claimed the house was open 24/7. So what the hell? 

Was it rude to knock on the window, hinting at someone home? Would SuperFan be irked at two girls hammering on his door or would he be charmed by our Queen's English? 

I clawed at the door one final time, pushing open the letter box and shouting 'PAAAAUL! PAUL. OPEN THE DOOR, PAUL!' on his front step before admitting defeat and shuffling mournfully back to the car.

I sulked for about ten minutes then got on with the business of navigating us to Clarksdale, MS, the original home of the blues and Ground Zero Blues club, owned by none other than gravelly-voiced actor extrordinaire Morgan Freeman. We dropped our stuff off at a motel on the edge of town and parked up, walking cautiously around the windswept empty streets in a mission to find the watering hole of the local townsfolk. There wasn't a soul to be seen. It was eerie. 

Clarksdale had all the usual landmarks of an everyday town - petrol station, local craft store, Greyhound stop, post office. Just no people. The odd car would go by, slowing in amazement to watch these two out-of-towners actually using their lower limbs and WALKING along the pavement. I had a feeling we'd find an unassuming shack somewhere, push the door open and discover a wild and hedonistic party thriving inside. It hid from us for a good half hour, like an expert hide and seeker, until the wind carried over a snatch of music and we raced towards it, desperate for a drink and shelter from the chilly Mississippi night. 

The neon sign in the middle distance of Delta Avenue told us we'd found Ground Zero. And when I pushed opened the heavy wood door, I'd found what I'd hoped to - every man and his dog having a wild old time inside. 

Saturday evening in Clarksdale was held at this one spot. I ordered a Southern Pecan beer at the bar which was scrawled with sharpie messages from previous patrons and clambered into a stool, smiling at the barflys next to me. 

A father from Alabama, on his way back from a music festival with his son, caught my accent and once again, we were off, discussing what I was doing here so far away from home in this quiet corner of Mississippi. He told me to have some catfish - fried in a sandwich and bought from a roadside garage - and to keep my wits about me when we got to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. We failed to spot the Freeman, but it was a superb night all in all. I managed to beat a brother-sister team at a game of billiards and drank enough Pecans to sink a Mississippi steam boat.

The next morning, we headed south to the state capital, Jackson. But before doing so, I indulged in a hearty Sunday meal at Abe's BBQ where the sauce changed every view I'd previously held on barbecue sauce. Instead of a treacle-like suffocatingly sweet sauce, the condiment was watery with a greater spice to sugar ratio. The 'comeback' sauce (because once you try it, you're guaranteed to come back for more) was perfect on its own or thickened with hot sauce and Offish Delish smothered over chicken tenders. It was the best breakfast I've had. No, okay, in the top three at least.

Seltbelt fastened and sat nav programmed, we headed south to the state capital, Jackson. We'd heard from various people from night before that Jackson was a bit sketchy, advised not to go out at night and, 'be careful girls!' so we headed straight to a motel and settled in for the evening, entertaining ourselves with the excellent selection of reality TV on offer. Extreme Couponing USA is my favourite, while Leah is partial to a bit of Teen Mom 2. We both love Jersey Shore with a depth that rivals a toddler's affection for her first Cabbage Patch Doll. 

We left Jackson to be explored the next day and headed out bright and early to the town centre. On the advice of two rotund visitor centre ladies, one of whom failed spectacularly in polite social conduct by reaching out a padded little paw and stroking my hair mid-conversation, we headed to Fondren, a hipster neighbourhood on the edges of the downtown area. 

Here was Brent's Drug Store, the set of a scene from the motion picture The Help starring the lovely Emma Stone. I's interior stays true to the film's era - the civil right heavy 1960s - and still offers thirsty customers fountain sodas, malts, grilled cheese sandwiches and birthday cake ice cream. 

I gorged on a retro burger and fries before taking a quick turn around the block. Dotted with pastel coloured charity shops and craft boutiques, its a cute little slice of town that reminded me of pony-tailed cheerleaders and slick haired, letter jacket wearing quarterbacks of yesteryear. 

We left Jackson and 1965 behind as we continued our drive south, this time heading to the town of Natchez, slap bang on the Ol' Mississippi. It's shameful to say, but until now we still hadn't laid actual eyes on the famous river. Memphis had kept us occupied with her history of musical legends and delicious chicken, and Clarksdale and Jackson veered away from it's banks. But Natchez clung to the river like this charmer suckling at this cow's teet.

After getting the balance between cheap and clean motel room right, we directed our GPS to Under-The-Hill saloon. This is another bar recommended by my America Addict chumbawumba back in the UK. It is run by a professional leprechaun. He wasn't as cheery or as charmed by our English accents as his Southern fellows. This threw me. 

I expected genial conversation, followed by hearty laughter and an offer of adoption by last orders. What actually happened was me shouting my head off at the deaf, and incredibly drunk, old fella for a Pecan Beer, an offer of homemade gumbo from a Louisiana visitor (this disappointingly never materialised), playing darts with a girl called Britney and her manfriend Kelly and being bought rounds and shots by the Drunkest Man in Existence, Pat. 
oh Pat. He meant well.

Pat had been stumbling around in our direction for a good hour, mumbling about his miserable 35-year marriage and telling us he was a 'good guy, really, have a drink on me'. Once his invitation had been accepted, he clearly felt so emboldened by our hesitant friendship that he felt comfortable enough to stroke Kelly's muscles - 'Ah'm nat gay man, but you got amazin' arms!' and tangling his grubby fingers in Leah's and my hair. I am, apparently, good-looking for a Mexican. 

Cheers, Patrick.

The next day marked our exploration of Natchez. We high-tailed it to the visitor's centre after perusing the antique shops (antique in America means barely 200 years old. She's still a young pup) which pointed us in the direction of antebelleum houses (much like mama Gump's house, but each cost $15 to visit. Just to have a look around. Jog on) dotted about the town, an old Indian village and a burnt out nightclub. 

The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians turned out to be pretty cool. It was free and also educational - the best type of daytime activity. I learned that Indian males once sacrificed a child from their clan to move up the social order in the hope of one day becoming Chief. A bit severe perhaps, but I feel this tradition could be exported and enforced on council estates and Chicken Cottages throughout England. Boost your CV, sacrifice a chav today! 
Farewell Broken Britain.

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