John Colson: Diving into the Delta on two wheels
Hit & Run
I’m taking a break this week and next, hoping that by ignoring national and regional politics for a while I can restore some version of sanity to my overheated mind.
As I write this, I am headed for the belly of the American Blues beast — the Mississippi Delta region north of New Orleans, most generally described as between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Memphis.
Specifically, I’m bound for the small city of Clarksdale, Mississippi, set like a tarnished pearl in the northeast corner of the state, not far from the Mighty Mississippi itself.
As you read this, I will have arrived, spent the night in a renovated sharecropper’s shack, and be firmly ensconced in the glory of the Delta country.
Clarksdale, for those who are wondering, is said by some to be the locale of the famous Crossroads, a junction of highways 61 and 49 where blues legend Robert Leroy Johnson met the devil (another candidate for the Crossroads site is nearby Rosedale, but that’s another story).
Anyway, in return for lessons in how to play a wicked blues guitar, Robert Johnson reportedly gave up his soul and locked himself into eternity in Hell after he died in 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi (just down the road from Clarksdale, by the way).
But boy howdy, while he was on the Earth, he sure put out a masterful, though relatively small, collection of blues classics which influenced innumerable blues and rock legends in the succeeding decades.
I’ve always wanted to check out the Crossroads, but wasn’t until a longtime buddy from Carbondale relocated to Mississippi, where he had some family ties, that it became possible.
My buddy got back into his roots and, with some partners, scooped up a dilapidated old cotton plantation and got to work fixing it up.
It wasn’t long before the news began to spread that the ShackUp Inn, my buddy’s place, was open and gathering fans from all over the region.
After he and his partners started an annual spring blues festival, the regional attraction went international, and I’m here to check out the scene.
Anyway, here I sit on a seat at the back of a United Airlines (groan!) A320 made by Airbus (I made sure to check that I wasn’t going to be flying a Boeing 737 Max), flying to New Orleans to hook up with another old friend for a motorcycle tour of the landscape between NOLA (as many call it down here) and Clarksdale.
My old friend, Kent, has a 1996 BMW motorcycle, and under normal circumstance I would be riding my trusty Moto Guzzi, an Italian machine of about the same vintage that is much like a Beemer, but different.
But it’s still winter on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies (contrary to locals’ perception, driven by rising temperatures in the valleys) and riding my bike eastward to the plains would involve considerable risk of a blizzard or some other unfortunate weather phenomenon.
Instead, I’m renting a Harley Davidson at a place in NOLA, and riding that machine around Louisiana and Mississippi, in a kind of non-tragic tribute to Wyatt and Billy of “Easy Rider” fame.
I’ve never ridden a Harley, but always wanted to give it a try, so this is kind of a “bucket list” thing.
Friends who have been riding Harleys for years, of course, have warned me that I’m doomed, and once I’ve tried a Hog I’ll never go back to the old Italian Stallion.
They’re wrong for so many reasons I can’t even begin listing them, but they insist on holding on to their dreams.
With Kent and my nephew from San Francisco, we’ll hang at Clarksdale for several days and nights until the nephew departs for Natches, Mississippi, and Kent and I wander southeastward to find the fabled white sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle, or perhaps not. At least, that’s the nugget of our plan at this point, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
At some point, we’ll all end up back in NOLA — the nephew for a bachelor party (he’s getting married in June), and Kent and I for, uh, whatever.
Among other things, I hope to check out the regional governments’ current plans for dealing with monstrous flows of water from the skies and from the riverine delta country.
Even before leaving Colorado, I had been hearing stories about deluge-like conditions throughout the Delta thanks to a series of monstrous rain and thunderstorms pulling moisture up from the Gulf and spawning floods and other woes.
As attentive readers will recall, it was not quite 15 years ago that a pair of storms — Katrina and Rita — delivered a deadly blow to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area, made even worse by a combination of human error, institutional racism and corrupt government policies.
This year, the region is once again the target of storms and flooding that very well might have made old Noah decide there was no use building an Ark, after all.
Not the best time to pick for a motorcycle tour of the region, I know, but the plans were made long ago and we had no idea what the weather might ultimately throw at us.
What all this means is that I’m once again on a quest to acquaint myself with bits of Americana I’ve never encountered before, in places I’ve never seen, and in the company of a rolling caravan of friends and strangers alike.
It feels like a homecoming to me.
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“If I was moving through the herd, the others would begin walking away, some of them at a jog, taking their calves with them, but the big brown ungulate would face me sideways, reluctant to move, not wanting to give any ground,” writes Tony Vagneur.