The next morning I had to drive my car onto the ferry to get back to the mainland and on my way to Jackson, Miss., a seven-hour drive. About halfway through the drive, still in Texas, I ran into a Texas-sized thunderstorm. I remembered that the only other time I had been in Louisiana, except to visit New Orleans, I experienced what seemed to me the mother of all thunderstorms. Interstate 10 (which I had started on in California the first day of my trip) was closed due to flooding, and I sat in traffic for over an hour as the lightening flashed, the thunder roared and the water cascaded like a waterfall coming down on my car. They don’t make ‘em like this in Southern California. We were diverted by the State Police to a different route to Jackson, but my GPS and I both took it in stride.
In case you don’t know, GPS devices are marvelous for road trips. Of course, with a decent map you can find your way from city to city easily, but what about finding your hotel or a restaurant or site in a strange city? Unless and until you have a map of that city, it is problematic, and even if you have a map, it isn’t always easy. GPS devices are unbeatable for that purpose. I know it saved this baby boomer hours of being lost.
Because of the delay from the storm and the new route it was 5 p.m. by the time I reached Alexandria, La., still a long way to Jackson, so I stopped in Alexandria and spent the night. Before going to bed I managed to find what is probably the best restaurant in town, Cajun Landing on MacArthur Drive. I enjoyed the best etouffee I have ever had, even better than what I had in New Orleans if my taste-bud memory can go back accurately for fifteen years. Etouffee is a classic Louisiana dish, Crawfish in a roux-based sauce seasoned with garlic, green onions, bell peppers and spices and served over rice. Otherwise, Alexandria is not an exciting place.
As I drove through the African-American neighborhoods, they didn’t look much different from the way they were described in books I had read about them during the 1960s.
I made it to Jackson the next day. The highlight of the drive was in Vicksburg, Miss., where I stopped on the bluff overlooking the mighty and muddy Mississippi River.
I could visualize the Confederate troops camped where I stood in what seemed a perfect, impenetrable defensive position on top of the bluff, while U.S. Grant’s Union troops were entrenched below for weeks trying to knock the Confederates off the bluff. The three-week siege of Vicksburg ended in the Confederate surrender when they ran out of food and ammunition because the Union army had blocked their supply routes.
I took the back roads to Jackson, and the countryside was lush and beautiful, greens that reminded me of Ireland. I stopped at the side of the road and ate the last of my food from the cooler, a tuna sandwich with pickles and olives. Business and residences dotted the roadside, all with plenty of land — no need to push the buildings close together here in southern Mississippi.
The area surrounding Jackson was the same, although the city itself is not small. The downtown area is old, some of it rundown, some picturesque. The old City Hall, especially lit up at night, is a fine old building, built in 1847. It was one of a few buildings that survived the destruction of the city by the Union Army. Oddly, one of the finest of the newer buildings downtown is the International Museum of Muslim Cultures, dedicated to Islamic history and culture.
I had another fine southern dinner at Parlor Market downtown, an upscale restaurant that was packed. They had some unusual dishes, including rabbit meatballs and roasted bone marrow. I had the sweet tea-brined chicken and my first dessert of the trip, an incredible apple tart with buttermilk ice cream.
The next day I left for Birmingham, Ala., after I wrote for this blog, but before I left I had to have some southern fried chicken. I went downtown again and ate at the restaurant that serves Jackson’s finest southern fried chicken, according to Yelp, Two Sisters’ Kitchen. It was indeed finger lickin’ good. The restaurant is in an old, large two-story house with a huge front porch. The food is served buffet style, and along with my chicken, I had some mashed potatoes with gravy and some darned good collard greens.
Jackson still harbors some of the old South in the sense of a slower, more relaxed pace than the rest of the country. The roads within the city were in bad shape. It is clearly mostly a poor city with a few rich folks. In that sense it hasn’t changed. It appeared that, like Alexandria, La., the housing remains segregated as it was in the '60s. Of course, that is true of the North to a large extent. I wondered about the schools, so I drove slowly by what appeared to be a middle school. The kids were playing outside. I estimate they were about 80 percent African American and 20 percent white. The white kids were together in one corner. There didn’t seem to be any socializing between the races. I recognize that this is one moment in time in one school, so we shouldn’t draw any conclusions or generalizations. My observation only raises questions.
Leaving Jackson I drove by the small, rundown, densely situated, clapboard houses in the African American neighborhoods, looking no different from those described in "The Help." We have made social progress in the past 200 years, but it has come very slowly and with great difficulty and conflict. Technological progress during the same period has come rapidly, changing the lives of most of us enormously and with comparatively little controversy.
I drove through the lush forest lands of Mississippi and Alabama on my way to Birmingham. Endless healthy, green trees on either side of the highway. The sun was out. The sky was blue, hardly any clouds. I felt a little slower myself after visiting Alexandria and Jackson. At the border of Alabama I stopped at a huge, elaborate rest stop with a tourist center the size of a large hotel ballroom. It was almost a museum, with displays of Alabama’s rich natural resources and dozens of brochures. A friendly lady behind the counter gave me an excellent, free map of the state.