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…