Headin’ Down to the Crossroads

Generally speaking, the anticipation and pleasures of a vacation compensate for the hassles involved in preparing to leave.  It can be exhausting to make those lists and check them a hundred times to ensure the cat will be fed, the newspaper stopped, the plants watered and the mail picked up.  On the other hand, every chore ticked off the list means being one step closer to a truly light-hearted leaving, and no one regrets the effort.

Coming home is another matter.  Coming home means unpacking, sorting through mail, discovering bills you forgot to pay, doing piles of laundry and being informed that the Cat from Hell, who gets truly annoyed in your absence, has run off yet another kitty-sitter.   Even worse, coming home means it’s time  to deal again with that troublesome co-worker, the boredom of school or any of the  daily irritants that never are as exciting, enjoyable or intriguing as days spent away.

On the other hand, as I think about vacations from even a decade ago, things clearly have changed.  Back in the day, vacations were separate from daily life.  No matter how greatly we enjoyed the fishing, the drive through the mountains, the concerts or the galleries, when the time came to leave, we left – and left all those vacation pleasures behind.  Oh, we remembered them, of course.  School kids wrote “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays while their parents showed photos to co-workers. Still, vacation moved very quickly into the past.  As the demands of ordinary life began to impinge on the present, “vacation” seemed no more alive and vibrant than the piles of souvenirs cluttered into a corner.

Today that’s changing.  This is the internet age, and more and more often we’re able to bring our vacations home – not in the form of postcards, rocks, souvenir mugs or refrigerator magnets tucked into a bag, but through modern connectivity – a web of pages, sites, emails and videos that allows us to continue absorbing and appreciating where we’ve been and what we’ve seen even after we return home.  It’s a Law of the Universe that there’s never enough time to see it all, learn it all, or enjoy it all, but thanks to the internet, it’s easy to keep enjoying, learning and participating as long as we wish.

When I drove away from Mississippi’s most famous crossroads just over a week ago, I’d come to regard it as Mississippi’s most famous metaphor, primarily because the highways involved – US 61 and US 49 – don’t actually cross but merge on the outskirts of town.  No one seems to mind the poetic license.  For one thing, so many historical events and mythical stories are centered on those two roads they’d deserve to be known as The Crossroads even if they ran parallel.

As the joined highways head north out of Clarksdale toward Memphis, the four-lane road is smooth and wide. Eventually, Highway 49 veers west across the Mississippi toward Helena, Arkansas.  Where it turns, the crossroads has a flashing light, and each of the lesser crossroads – Jones, Moon, Coahoma, Friar’s Point – has its own helpful sign. In 1937, when the Moon Lake Club was in its prime and today’s Blues legends were just performers on their way to another gig, it was a different story. The road was narrow, two-laned and dark.  The truck parked near the intersection of  US 61 and Friar’s Point Road would have been nearly invisible to Richard Morgan, driver of the speeding car that hit it from behind and carried Blues singer Bessie Smith to her death.

There have been innumerable stories told of what happened that night, with wild variation in details.  There were claims the ambulance chose to transport a white woman injured when another car hit Morgan’s after the initial accident.  Some insisted that Bessie Smith was taken to an all-white hospital but was refused admittance and died in the ambulance while it searched for a colored hospital.   (Edward Albee’s 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith promoted this view.)  In fact, she died in Clarksdale’s Black hospital, and lay for years in an unmarked grave until, in 1970, Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, the child of a former employee of Bessie’s, raised funds and provided a proper tombstone. 

I knew nothing of this while in Clarksdale.  I’d become lost on Friar’s Point Road while trying to find Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake and I’d seen The Riverside Hotel in town, but had no idea the hotel was the old hospital where Smith died.  Only later, as I was pulling up a map to see how I could have gone so far astray on the back roads of Coahoma County did I discover the stories of Bessie Smith and Frank Ratcliff’s hotel – yet another bit of Blues history I’d missed while in Clarksdale.  Fortunately, a more knowledgeable traveler had sought Frank out during his own trip down the Blues highway and recorded a tour of the historic hotel.

However distressing Bessie Smith’s crossroads tragedy, for sheer mystery and drama the story of  bluesman Robert Johnson cutting a  midnight deal with the devil at his own, unknown crossroad is the stuff of legend.   The story is simple enough. Obsessed with becoming a great blues musician but often shooed away by the likes of Son House because his playing was so – well, bad – he received mysterious orders to show up with his guitar at an isolated crossroad at midnight.   

As promised, the Devil appeared, tuned the guitar, played a few licks and then gave it back to Johnson, along with the technical mastery he’d been lacking and a few good songs to go with it:  my favorite Sweet Home Chicago, Come On in My Kitchen and, of course, Crossroad Blues.   His songs are classics and his influence pervasive.  During one of his Robert Johnson sessions Eric Clapton said, “My take on Robert Johnson so far is that it needs two people to play what he plays, and sing along at the same time.”   Well, yes.

I don’t believe anyone knows for certain where the Devil and Robert Johnson held their midnight meeting.  I do know wherever Robert Johnson’s crossroad might be or whatever happened to him there, I’ve yet to tire of the song that captures the experience and gives it life. Crossroad Blues is deep, pure art, and as Michael Maurer Smith notes, “All good art has more to give each time (we return) to it—ideally wiser and more experienced.” 

What is true for art can be true for vacations.   Astonished as I was by the absolute flatness of the Delta, it took some  time to remember the River hidden behind its levees and begin to appreciate how the Mississippi had shaped the land. Riding the highways, variously puzzled or bemused by things I saw, I stopped time and again to ask my touristy questions.  Sometimes I got an answer and sometime I didn’t, but by the time I left Mississippi I was seeing the landscape in an entirely new way. Now that I’m home, other mysteries have been resolved – why brick obelisques are strewn across the Louisiana delta, where the cotton has gone, why slide guitarists like open-D tuning. With more reading, listening and study, I’ll be able to plunge even more deeply into Delta life and culture when I go back – a wiser and more experienced traveler. 

Despite the counsels of cruise directors and casino marketing staffs, there’s no reason leisure time should be devoted solely to escape, indolence and unthinking ease.  Engagement and active, thoughtful participation in the world to which we’ve traveled is always appropriate.  No matter our destination or chosen activity, there always is a land, a people and a history waiting to be discovered. We may not meet death or be courted by the Devil when we head off in new directions, but every vacation is a little crossroads – a place to stand and ponder the questions life loves to pose:  shall I turn back?  or shall I go on?  Should I return home, tell a silly story or two, poke a bit of fun at the  “native customs” and then settle back into my comfortable routine? Or should I go forward, taking a turn this way or that as I journey into deeper understanding, more gracious appreciation and a willingness to be shaped by what I find over the horizon?  

The questions are not entirely rhetorical, and answers will come. In the meantime, one of the gifts of the Blues – malleable, open, receptive to improvisation and revision – is that songs expand to contain life.  Mississippi Writin’ Blues did just fine  for a start, but we’re not nearly at the end.  There’s always room for another verse or two, and I’ve found one to take me on to my own, next crossroad.

Gonna find me a crossroad,
Brand new place and time,
Gonna bet me the Devil
won’t pay me any mind,
Gonna stop movin’ backwards,
gonna’ ride that forward line…

 

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Smith is a blues legend I didn’t know about either. I really only knew about Robert Johnson after “O Brother Where Art Thou” – and then my guitarist son explained about him, that he was real. Of course now I see him everywhere in cultural references.

    You remind me of our recent dastardly deed, which still boggles my mind. We realized while in NYC for 5 days a few weeks ago – on the last day – that we had taken ever such good care of the chickens – for them to be fed by our neighbor across the road. But we had arranged nothing for our poor, dear, wonderful, elegant barn cat Bishop. She survived very well on her own, grand Diana that she is, but I look at her with guilt every day. How could we forget her!!?

    Ruth,

    If a kitty’s going to be forgotten, better an experienced, savvy barn cat than an indoor kitty with nothing to hunt! But still, you must have been beside yourself. I saw that Easter picture of Bishop and the chicks – that’s one very beloved cat.

    If you and Peter haven’t talked about it, you might let him know that you know that Robert Johnson is one of the famous musicians who died at the age of 27 – it’s quite a club, including such luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, but also Brian Jones, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and Minutemen guitarist D. Boon. It’s amazing to me that Johnson lived only to 27 years and left only 29 songs (or 30, if you believe recent reports of something newly discovered). Obviously, influence isn’t dependent upon output.

    Give Bishop a pat for me.

    Linda

  2. I love your writing, how you take time to spin your yarn and unravel it carefully so that we who follow beside you do not get tangled in the story’s thread.

    For a short space of time — the kind where no one bothers to check their watches — I became just an easy traveling companion, taking in the rich scenery, and the poignant history with no expectations of when and where our destination would take us. Those oft asked traveling questions from my own childhood road trips….”Are we there yet?” …did not once enter my mind. Your words were as lovely and airy and refreshing as that once proverbial Sunday drive…

    It’s a rainy April morning here in OKC — but at least its not Monday. Musical threads of songs also interweave into my thoughts; not in any contrived sort of fashion, but in a way that is as natural as breathing. Like any art, songs of the past breathe and expand my consciousness — and like your bluesy vacation wanderings, make me just glad to be alive and along for the ride.

    Ann,

    How kind of you to stop by. I truly appreciate your comments, and I like your yarn metaphor. It is easy to get tangled in stories, particularly after a vacation like this – it’s important to pull them out one strand at a time, so that each can be appreciated. Learning how to do that has been one of my biggest challenges. I’m one who’s more inclined to dump the whole knitting basket in the middle of the floor and say, “LOOK!” But it’s worth taking the time to untangle the skeins.

    The knowledge that you never once thought to ask, “Are we there, yet?” is a beautiful compliment. Thank you.

    There are a few more stories to be told ~ you’re welcome to come along!

    Linda

  3. Linda,

    I dropped by late last night to be entertained by your writing once again. I’m sure your cat missed you very much while you were away, but I’m glad you enjoyed your trip. Our cat, Gypsy, used to pace the floor and fuss for at least a half hour when we returned home after vacation. I know she wanted to be comforted, but she refused for that half hour. Then she would spend the rest of the night purring in my husband’s lap.

    Bella,

    It took twelve hours for Dixie to get over it this time, which is good, for her. It’s usually a full day. She is so funny – she’ll walk over to me, and then turn her back. If I walk around to face her, she turns her back again. And woe unto the person who reaches out a hand to give her a pet – trust me on that! The best news is that the same sort of coping skills seem to work for both feline and human in these situations – leave ‘em alone until they’re ready to be friends again ;-)

    I do hope the rest of your week is a little less “prickly”.

    Linda

  4. Lovely post, and especially thought provoking as I prepare to go on a four day mini-trip with my wife in a couple of weeks to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We are returning, for the fourth year in a row, to an inn in Missouri wine country that we have fallen in love with. While we definitely enjoy new and different experiences, we are also very content in finding a magical place like this that we can return to and do some of the same things year after year. We are big on tradition when it is good, heart-warming and freeing tradition…not binding, obligatory tradition.

    Your words echo where my thoughts have been in anticipation for the trip. I don’t like making the to-do lists, but I love making mental and actual lists of what I plan to take on these trips, etc. I have had the novel and nonfiction book that I plan to take ready for several weeks already. We have picked out books on CD that we want to listen to on the drive as we take in the gorgeous scenery of the back roads that we travel. It is going to be wonderful, as it always is.

    Have you ever seen the movie Elizabethtown? I always think road trips should be like the one Orlando Bloom’s character had on the way home at the end of the film, filled with great music and the good sense to stop often, take in the surroundings, celebrate a bit of history, and make the time personal. It is that kind of thing that can then be built on, as you describe, when you get back home and research further about the things you’ve discovered.

    Carl,

    For over a decade, I went regularly to a cabin on the western edge of the Texas hill country. It was relatively isolated, with no electricity or running water, but the setting was beautiful. Going there became a tradition, but it became something more as I came to know the “place” in every season and over the years. When I arrived, my first act always was to greet my waiting “friends” – the mountain laurel bush that was planted in the wrong place but still insisted on growing, the beautiful embedded fossil hidden away under the maidenhair fern, the black walnut that leaned and leaned and finally leaned itself right into the creek.

    Every time I think of that place, I think of Annie Dillard, who said there are two ways to travel – moving outward, and going deeper. I’m happiest when I get to experience both sorts of travel in the same trip – and it sounds as though that’s exactly what your journey to the inn has become.

    I haven’t seen Elizabethtown, but I like what you say of Orlando Bloom’s road trip. I’ll fly if I have to, but I drive by preference, for all the reasons you suggest. In nautical terms, I’m a gunkholer, happiest when I’m just poking about, meeting people and caring not a whit how far I get in a day. Ann referred to that famous travel question – “Are we there, yet?” My favorite travel question is, “I wonder where this road goes?”

    Linda

  5. Linda, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your travel log. What a great piece of writing, embedding history and legend, sights and sounds. As you definitely have chosen to travel intentionally, and not be an accidental tourist, you’ve collected much more meaningful momentos, albeit some of them serendipitously.

    In your next trip, probably the selections at crossroads will be determined by the GPS. But I’ve noticed you’re still using the good ole map, which makes a trip much more hands-on and personal I’d say. That’s probably what I’ll use for some more time. Besides, a look at that relaxed and contented vacationer in the picture shows there’s really no hurry at all.

    Arti,

    GPS? Hush, girl!

    I know, I know. Just like everything else that’s come along, it’s wonderful, and can provide all kinds of terrific information. But I’ve traveled with people who spend more time messing with their technology than paying attention to what’s around them, and there isn’t a GPS in the world that can give me information with as much flair and good humor as, say, the fellow living along US 61 who stopped watering his roses, answered my question, and then gave me a half-hour’s history of his grandpa helping when the levee broke at Mound Landing in 1927.

    I don’t want to mess with a machine, I want to talk to people, and wander down roads that barely look like roads and discover critters like Spud, the guinea pig mascot of the San Augustine, Texas police department. I haven’t figured out where to put Spud in the stories yet. I may have to just post his photo and let it go at that ;-)

    Do I get lost, sometimes? Well, sure. Have I ever been lost AND a little nervous? Sure, again. But a map for the big picture and the internal compass for everything else are just fine. When I went offshore in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, my sailing partner said, “If I fall overboard, just steer a compass course of 270 and you’ll hit land eventually.” When I left Clarksdale, I thought, “OK. South and west will get me home.” And it did. The specific road didn’t matter.

    Besides, as Tolkien so famously said, “Not everyone who wanders is lost.”

    Linda

  6. I have taken this journey with you three times now, and each time there is something new in it. You say so much, so simply, and so seemingly without effort (which requires a lot of effort) that your words seep into a place that is beyond language; re-reading is necessary to get the specifics back, but the essence remains. I had not known about Bessie Smith’s death–or Joplin’s efforts on her behalf–or Robert Johnson (27? Really?? How sad), and the little detour we took to the hospital-cum-hotel was fascinating. Many, many crossroads; many, many choices. Never make fun of the ‘natives’. Ever. Keep ridin’ that forward line; it clearly agrees with you!

    Two more things: why ARE there brick obelisks strewn across the Delta?

    And–Dixie is far too young and far too cute to be the Cat from Hell. That title belonged (for 22 years, mind) to my dear departed Graymalkin, Ariel. Trust me, she earned it.

    ds,

    Those brick obelisks actually are chimneys. Some are left from houses that Grant burned on his way through the territory. Others once belonged to sugar mills or other “industrial” sites along the rivers. What I found most fascinating is that there are very specific ways to identify whether a given chimney belonged to a house or business, whether it was built by slaves, and then to date them by the nature of the brick and mortar. Apparently some earlier mortar was very poor. It crumbles, just as some of the bricks seem to be dissolving. One fellow said that in about 200 years, most of them would just “melt” away under the influence of weather.

    Your comment about how the relationship between effort and simplicity reminds me of something. Carol Buchanan, a woman who writes about the American West, just won the WWA Spur Award for Best First Novel. Writing about it, she mentioned that it took seven years – five of research, two of writing. And that proportion seems about right to me. Five hours of reseach for every two hours of writing – and sometimes all that boils down to a paragraph, or a sentence. It’s an amazing process to learn. I had a Bessie Smith quotation in this piece. I just loved the quotation – but it didn’t belong. It would have headed everything off in another direction, and it had to go. Gosh, I hate when that happens! But I’m going to add the quotation on my about page. Bessie said, “I don’t want no drummer. I set the tempo”.

    As for Miss Dixie, I’m telling you… But most problems with the kitty sitters stem from the fact that they won’t let her be who she is – she’s not a lap kitty, and just wants to be left to sulk. Try and change that, and you’ll bear the scars!

    It’s always such fun to have you stop thanks for the comments and even more for the questions!

    Linda

  7. Well, I’m going to gush over the next verse AND your picture. Grand entry, this. I love your take on vacations, too, as time for expanding something more than our waistlines and lying about. And there’s much to be discovered even in one’s own “backyard.”

    You had mentioned I might write about the blues when doing my “blue” entries days ago. I just couldn’t come up with something experiential but you have done such a job telling us about the Delta so far. I do look forward to more, should you be working it into more entries.

    oh,

    Well, now you know why the blues was on my mind! I started listening to some of the musicians who were going to be in Clarksdale before I left, to familiarize myself a bit, and when I started going back in time it seemed as though everyone was singing “St. Louis Blues”!

    I was really happy with the photo. It’s interesting to me that some of my favorite photos happen when I shove a camera toward someone and say, “Take a picture”. Maybe we’re more relaxed in those situations – not worried about impressions because we know we’ll never see the photographer again. Or perhaps it’s only that it’s impulsive and quick.

    I am astonished by how many more entries may result from a five day trip. A couple will have to percolate a bit – one needs research, the other thought. But still, there’s a wealth of experience to be shared. It really was such fun, and the sharing only extends the fun.

    Linda

  8. Good morning Linda,

    Grin. It sounds like Miss Dixie takes the world on her terms.

    Like Ann mentioned above, I also went quietly along on your trip and enjoyed the scenery from your blog. I think one of the measures of an author is the ability to capture the ‘feel’ of a place. In this you are amazing. Whether you are writing about a boat on the Texas coast or Uncle Henry’s in the Delta, your descriptions bring those places to life.

    Kit,

    So – I had more people in that back seat than I realized! And not a one asked, “Are we there, yet?” :-)

    Seriously – there’s nothing I enjoy more than gaining the “feel” of a place, or of its people. I was doing some link-hopping from Fat Possum’s site the other night, and bumped up against a post about T-Model. I’ve lost it temporarily, but the author used the word “sweet” to refer to “the old tail-dragger”. It delighted me beyond words, because that’s precisely the sense of him I brought away from Clarksdale. I know, I know – there’s some “history” there, and quite a personality from what I’ve read of his early days, but still… He’s the first person I’ve bumped up against and thought, “I’d like to write his story.” We’ll see.

    It’s always a pleasure to have you stop by!

    Linda

  9. Will do.

    How very interesting about the 27 club – I had never seen all those names together, nor realized they were each 27.

    Ruth,

    There’s a book out, and an indie fillm in process, I believe. The book is called The 27s.

    Linda

  10. Ah, what fun, what fun!

    I didn’t know all that about Miss Bessie. Thanks for teaching me something! And thanks for filling us in on the brick obelisks. Chimneys, of course. There are quite a few like that here in SC, if you’ll get off the Interstate and travel those back roads. They’re my favorites, anyway. Much more interesting.

    I’m like you, in the fact that it doesn’t bother me a whit, if I make a “wrong” turn on the road. Hubby freaks out, if he doesn’t know exactly where he is and, being the typical male, then refuses to stop and ask for directions! LOL

    As long as I’m headed in the right general direction, I’ll get myself there eventually.

    You mentioned the fact that so many of us these days keep track of our travels via blogs, forums, etc. I did the same thing when we came back from our cruise in November of 2007. I didn’t blog from the ship; internet access was too expensive for my taste. I did, however, take some bare bones notes and wrote up my adventures after we returned. I’ve popped back a few times and re-read my posts. Kinda nice to be able to “F5″ your memories!

    Bug,

    I pondered those chimneys for a long time, trying to figure out why there weren’t any in the midwest. Some answers are so obvious – we were using central forms of heating rather than fireplaces. Even a pot-bellied, wood burning stove is “central” heat, and it’s not as necessary in the south where winters aren’t so severe. I love seeing the “obelisks” – they’re like memorials to a long passed time.

    I’ve always assumed that, on a trip like this, there really are no wrong turns – at least if you know the general directions, like, “Clarksdale is north”.
    Beyond that, it’s all exploration.

    I remember reading those accounts of your travel – I surely did enjoy them. I think there’s great value in taking notes, but writing afterward. The last thing I would have wanted to do was hunker down in a motel room at night to blog. If nothing else, there were stars to look at. But that’s another example of what I think is the difference between blogging, and using a blog platform for writing. The process of reflection is critical, especially if we think of writing as a way to “rework reality to show its significant side”.

    I think that’s a quotation from someone rather than my own thought, but I can’t find it. Now I know what I’ll be doing for the next hour ;-)

    Linda

  11. I nearly missed this offering!

    I love reading your WP story with my coffee in the morning. My brain, still befuddled with sleep, seems to be more receptive. What wonderful names the roads have – ‘Jones, Moon, Coahoma, Friar’s Point’. They sound romantic, almost musical, and a great improvement on our boring road names.

    While on my own vacation last summer I travelled up to the ‘borders’. So named as it is the area where history has re-drawn the border between England and Scotland so many times that it now snakes backward and forward over the terrain. As a collector of useful/less facts you will probably be interested in the story of Berwick upon Tweed, a town on the North-East coast that has been English and then Scottish and back again no fewer than 14 times in its history, depending on who won the last bloody battle.

    In 1853 when Victoria signed the declaration of war with Russia, she signed it as “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick upon Tweed”. But in 1856 at the end of the Crimean War, the Paris Treaty did not mention Berwick, so technically they are still at war with Russia.

    Just sometimes, facts are stranger than fiction!

    Sandi,

    According to some researchers, your sense of what your brain is doing in the morning is on target. In a New Yorker article entitled “The Eureka Factor”, evidence was offered that in fact we can be more creative just after waking, whiletaking a shower, and so on. Relaxation and lack of focus seems to allow right and left brains to “talk” to each other more easily. It’s on my list of things to write about… a poor little list that grows longer every day.

    I love the “accidents of history”, and the story you tell of this one is wonderful. In the first place, there’s nothing that sounds more British than “Berwick upon Tweed”. The thought that they might still be warring with Russia, technically or not, is a hoot.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and the road names!

    Linda

  12. Hi Linda,

    What a great read. The video was wonderful. What a delightful way to peruse through the hotel without leaving the comfort of my daughter’s computer chair.

    It seems the last few years we always return to Lake Tahoe to vacation. Well, with good reason. It’s beautiful there. We lived there for one short year, and that’s when I realized I’m not a good snow resident, but Lake Tahoe in the summer is just something else. I always find something new to explore, a site that outdoes the last, and I continually make new memories. Both my husband and I have commented that when we drive in into the basin and smell the pine trees, we feel we have ‘come home’.

    Since the mountains are so diversely different from the beach, that’s usually where we head. But, Lake Tahoe is large enough (72 miles around) that we don’t really feel as if we’ve left the influence of water. I’m sure you’re familiar with Lake Tahoe if you spent time in SF.

    Thanks for the good read and adventure!


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