The sun floats up over the dew drenched corn fields, warming the air, pouring bright rays into the windows of our dilapidated shack.
I awoke, squinting, to the glorious sound of a beer being cracked open. My buddy Adam, sitting on the end of his cot, raised that 8am cold beer up in the air as I peeked my head out from under the covers. “Cheers,” he says.
A little dehydrated from the night before, I drag my bloodshot soul out of bed and over to the cooler. The melted ice slid off the beer can as I opened it. I took a long breakfast pull, wiped my mouth and headed to the front porch. It’s summertime in Mississippi. What a time to be alive.
Today, our aim was to drive all through the delta region of Mississippi, letting the dirt roads dirty up our faces and lead us to places we’re supposed to see. That fate thing, you know. An epic road trip for the ages.
Traveling not only makes us mentally sharper and more well-rounded, it also makes us happier. It shakes us out of our normal lives and forces us to confront the unknown. It helps to build self-confidence from situations when you have to deal with the unexpected. It helps us reflect on the present, making us more aware of our surroundings. Being somewhere far away from where we’re from helps us regain that feeling of vitality that is so often suppressed by comfort and security.
As the great Albert Camus reminds us:
For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant…
Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks, we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value.
After packing up the car, we turned the tunes up and headed out. In the words of Kerouac, “we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Our first stop was an old white church set deep in a vast field of green. This particular church appeared in the movie “The Help.” A long, narrow dirt road led us out to its location and we snapped a few photos and continued along the path, slicing through forever, in the direction of nowhere.
After driving a bit we crossed over a railroad. As we do my buddy Rod, sittin’ shotgun, says “shit, look at that.” We turn our heads in the direction that he’s pointing. Down the railroad about a hundred yards, is what looked to be an old steel covered bridge. As a photo guy, this is what I came here to shoot. This was old Americana at its finest.
“Park over there, man, we gotta walk down there,” I told my buddy, Adam, who was driving.
We’re in the middle of nowhere. No cell phone service. And we haven’t seen a soul all morning. We park on the side of the road, grab a few beers from the cooler and start our hike. It was an old railroad we were on, probably built sometime in the early 20th century. The railroad ties were gapped anywhere between 6 to 12 inches with each step. Some were missing, causing us to really stretch our stride.
Before long the ground dropped away and we were elevated 30ft above land. We focused on not falling through the gaps as we slowly walked. As we got closer to the bridge, we realized that if a train came right now, we were completely screwed. We couldn’t run that fast without the risk of falling through the ties. We could jump, I guess. Broken legs is a helluva lot better than death. We’d be in a pickle, for sure.
As we approached the bridge, Adam, who was behind Rod and I says, “who the hell is that?”
We turn around, all three of us looking down the railroad where we just came from. A man was approaching fast. He had jeans on, no shirt. Kind of looked like someone who likes to kill folks who aren’t from around these parts. As he got closer, I see something in his hand. Rod asks, “does he have a gun?”
“I think it’s a knife, shit”, I said.
The short conversation continued like this:
Where the hell did he come from? Shit he’s gettin’ closer. What the hell is he gonna do? Is he a ghost? Do we jump? Damn, we have to fight. Where…in the hell… did he come from? I don’t know, man. I’ll break his face with this beer can if I have to.
Finally, Adam hollered out to him before he got up on us. “How are you doing, man?” He flips his hand up. Was that a wave? As he finally reached us he says “how ya’ll doin?”
We eyed him. Beers in hands ready to throw.
He told us his truck broke down and he had to walk to his mama’s house for some tools. Told us it was a short cut taking this old railroad right here.
A little relieved we were still alive, we asked him if any trains come down this way. He says, “yeah, tends to only come about once a week.”
The guy out of nowhere told us he had to get going, and just like that he walked past us, under the bridge and disappeared like a ghost into the delta valley. We looked at each other still wondering if he was a ghost. Very mysterious. I managed to snap a shot of him leaving to prove to myself that he was real.
After that we kept on southbound, driftin’ through little map dot towns with cool names like Rising Sun, Midnight and Louise.
We stopped in Louise (pop. 191) at an old gas station for fuel. We ended up talkin’ to an old timer sitting out front of the place. While sippin’ on a little whiskey he tells us, “there ain’t no money in this town. Nothing here. Nothing to do except sit here and drank this old whiskey and live.” We sat with him for a bit, drank our beers and saw the hardship of poverty in his bloodshot eyes. He held on to his cane while just staring out into the dirt roads of his life. He seemed tired but content.
We continued on, dirt road driftin’, slicing through soybean fields under the ruthless sun.
With all this driving we got a little thirsty.
The beer in our veins became sluggish. We needed a little fire to push the blood flow. Something to thin it out a bit. So we stopped at what appeared to be a bar.
It was an old white brick building in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was roped off with a few cars in it. A little parched, we pull up to uncertainty. No windows. No signs. In black spray paint graffitied on the side of the building, were these inviting words–“The Palace.”
Sounded like just the place for thirsty road trippers like ourselves.
As we turn off the ignition we saw that the door was open but all you could see was darkness. Right before we got out of the car someone emerged from that darkness. Big black guy, cornrows, white tank, tattoos and a bandana in his back pocket. By far, the most authentic Delta dweller we’ve seen yet.
The man looked concerned, maybe a little angry. He approaches us. I look to my black buddy, Rod, and say “shit, go talk to him, man.” Rod pops his head out and says, “ hey man, how ya doing?” The dude nods. Rod asks, “is this by chance a bar, man?” He looks at us like we’re a bunch of idiots, “Naw man, it’s a family gathering.”
We apologized and hightailed it out of there. Dirt, like a dust storm behind us, we head on.
We drive on through Yazoo City, through its downtown with its colorful empty buildings and, with a summer rainstorm blinding us, finally arrive in Bentonia. We wanted to see the Blue Front Cafe and hopefully run into the legendary bluesman, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
According to the Mississippi blues trail website, “The Blue Front Café opened in 1948 under the ownership of Carey and Mary Holmes, an African American couple from Bentonia. In its heyday, the Blue Front was famed for its buffalo fish, blues, and moonshine whiskey. One of the couple’s sons, Jimmy Holmes, took over the café in 1970 and continued to operate it as an informal, down-home blues venue that gained international fame among blues enthusiasts.”
Luckily Jimmy “The Duck” pulled up right when we were leaving. He just finished up a tour in Europe. He’s one of the last remaining blues legends still kicking and he’s one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet.
We sat and talked with him awhile. We bought a t-shirt and his brand new album that wasn’t out yet called, “It Is What It Is.” He said “that’s the truth man, that’s life. It is what it is. If you can’t change it, roll with it. You gotta live man.”
After he signed the album cover for us, the Duck took us out to his house. He wanted to meet up with some fans that were camping out on his property waiting for next weeks blues festival. Folks were already there, lining up, waiting to hear the legend sing the truth. After awhile we told him we appreciated everything and we headed back up north to Clarksdale, it was getting late.
After a few hours, we finally arrived in Clarksdale at our new little shack at the “Shack-up Inn.” We unpacked and then headed out to find the only joint in town that served liquor that time of day on a Sunday.
We grab a seat at the bar. The bartender walks up, very friendly, cute as a button in that southern belle way, says her name is Maggie. We ordered shots and she places them in front of us and asks what we’re doing around these parts. We told her we’re blues traveling and just soaking up the history of this beautiful place.
So far, what I’ve learned traveling throughout Mississippi is that folks in the delta, at least the ones we had talked to, know little about the area they live in, its history, or even other cities in close proximity. They are planted in the soil of where they are born, and they rarely travel far from it.
Maggie, the bartender, was looking for an out. She was tired of the delta, tired of the boredom, tired of spending her youth in the land of nothing. She wanted to go to Florida, “where there’s life,” she said.
It’s funny because we left Florida to find life outside the soulless drab of shopping centers and chain restaurants. This was paradise in her mind. It was hell to mine.
As we were eating, the front door opened. The slow shuffle of feet came to the bar. He was a big white man, throwing his weight on a cane with every step. He had a full beard, purple nose (likely from years of boozing), an old fishing shirt tucked into cotton shorts and sandals on his feet. He sat on the other side of the bar, slapped his cane down on the counter and stared at us.
My friend Rod looks at him and says, “nice cane…where did you get it?”
“My brother”, he snarled. “He made it for me years back.”
We all nod. He orders a whiskey, takes it down, walks over to us with his large body and tells a joke. I can’t remember the joke, but it was pretty funny. Especially to him.
He slaps us on the back and barks, “Motherfuck”, as loud as he could.
Stunned, we look at each other.
What the hell was that?
“Fuckit”, he barks, then smiles that bearded, ornery smile. We figured we should be friendly with this guy, so we asked him his name. He looks us dead in the eyes, hair disheveled, fire in his soul and says, “Wild Fuckin Bill.” He was a Vietnam Vet and he hated every single one them “goddamn warmongering politicians.” Told us “I fuckin hate war, but I love it.”
His chaotic duplicity was quite apparent but I liked this guy.
He downed a few more whiskeys while we paid our tab.
Right when we open the door to leave the joint, there was a homeless black guy that greeted us.
He says “whatcha guys doin’ here in ole Clarksdale?” We told him we’re blues traveling. He looks at us and says, “Shiiiit, I can sing the blues like a muthafucka.”
He cleared his throat, started swerving his hands and fingers in a weird motion and started singing. He was singing everything from old R&B tunes to some blues. He was actually alright. His big eyes just stared at us while he sang. And he sang. And sang. And sang.
I asked him his name, he says “folks call me Dollar Bill.” I flipped him a five dollar bill and told “Dollar Bill” that I appreciated the tunes. That’s when the door to the restaurant slammed open, “motherfuck.” Wild Bill sits down and throws some pizza in front of Dollar Bill. They both eat.
The cute bartender, a little irritated, comes out and says something to Wild Bill. Wild Bill gets angry and yells “Fuckit, Motherfuck.”
He throws his pizza down gets in his 40-year-old truck, screams out “fuckit” while droppin’ the peddle to the floor, screeching the tires, throwing smoke up into the Mississippi sky.
Come to find out, the cute bartender banned old Wild Bill for life at that little joint. Apparently, he grabbed some left-over pizza off a table to feed homeless “Dollar Bill.” I guess it was frowned upon in that fine establishment.
I knew I liked Wild “Fucking” Bill for some reason. Underneath the whiskey breath, the wore-torn skin, and the madness, he had a heart. Bigger than most.
Later that night we drove out to Red’s, one of the last authentic juke joints still around. It sits bruised and battered right in the heart of Clarksdale. We roll up in the joint to listen to an old bluesman by the name of “Watermelon Slim.”
The bar sits raggedly to the right as we walked in. It had a few old coolers where the beer was placed. No liquor. Red, the owner of this fine establishment, was a bearded black man, masking his inner soul with dark shades. He sat like a boss behind the bar the whole night. We ordered some beers, he fetched them.
After a few, Red brought out a bottle of Crown Royal from up under the bar. He let a few of his buddies take a swig. My friend Adam, who has a constant crave for the hard stuff, asked if he could take a pull.
Red nodded. Adam asked Red to take a shot with him, but he refused. Says, “hell, I wish. Doctor done told me my liver is bad. Too many years of the whiskey.” Then he took a long pull from a beer and says, “I just stick to the beer these days, fuck it.”
As Watermelon Slim is right in the middle of his set, picking that guitar, blowing on that harp, the door opens. There he is, Wild Fuckin Bill.
As soon as ole Bill walks in, with his thunderous voice he yells out, “get the fuck out of town, Slim.” Slim stopped his song, gazed at Bill while lowering his mouth to the mic and says, “you get the fuck out of town.” They both laughed like old friends.
Wild Bill takes a seat about 10 feet from us. He looks our way, recognizes us, gives us a peace sign that evolved into the bird. “Fuckit” he roars. Then he laughs while jabbing his cane into the old wood floor, lifting his big ass up. He shuffles over to us and looks my black buddy, Rod, right in the face while pointing at some emblem on his collar and says, “do you know what this is?”
Rod shrugged his shoulders and tells Wild Bill he has no idea. Wild Bill lowered his face down to Rod’s ear and says, “it’s the Black Panthers emblem, man. I’m a fucking Black Panther.”
“But you’re a white man, Wild Bill”, Rod reminds him.
Wild Bill stands tall and shouts out, “Fuckit. Fuckit all. I’m all colors.”
The night was coming to an end. We walked out of the bar with the moonlight beaming on the empty streets and the crickets in full harmony. As soon as we hit the sidewalk outside the bar, Dollar Bill comes right up on us. With those big eyes and those rotating hand gestures, Dollar Bill starts singing to us. We told him, “hey Dollar Bill, you already sang to us today, man.” He squints his eyes, finally recognizing us and says “oh yeah.”
Whiskey bent and hell bound, Wild Fucking Bill comes out and slaps Dollar on his back and gets in his ragged old truck. With his middle finger high outside his truck window, Wild Bill screams out “motherfuck” while he puts the peddle to the floor, littering the night with smoke, and speeding out of sight into the depths of the delta.
We looked at Dollar Bill and asked him if Wild Bill is always angry. He tells us, “Naw man, Wild Bill always do them things. Shiiiit, he do that every day. He ain’t never mad, he’s just happy to be alive.”
This was the end of the trip. During this life, during this time, this experience was solely ours. It was an adventure that’d be difficult to replicate. No one else felt or seen the things we had felt or seen on this wild adventure. It was solely ours.
The next day we flew back home. But the sights and sounds and the crazy, big-hearted characters in the Mississippi Delta will stay with us forever.
God, how I love Mississippi.