My late morning flight from Heathrow dropped me at Newark, which is not my first choice of New York airports.
Here I boarded a small plane with 2+1 seats across and about 20 rows (possibly an Embraer ERJ 135). It was dusk when we left Newark, and throughout the flight a full moon appeared to sit just above the horizon, level with the plane, its reflection moving over land and water without variation. It fascinated and mesmerised me as I sat excited at the thought my first trip across the Southern States. It was close to midnight when we landed in Charlotte and having just missed the last hotel shuttle, I grabbed a taxi.
The following morning I was wide awake at 5am, as my disoriented body-clock was still on UK time. Waking up to blue sky and sunshine, and the gentle whir of air conditioning is a wonderful experience, when you’ve left cold, wet, windy weather at home.
My renal car was booked for an airport pick-up and although I did not need to check out until 10am I decided to collect the car first. I even enjoyed the basic buffet breakfast and filter coffee with powdered milk, before catching the shuttle to collect the car. On arriving at the airport, I realised that I had left my passport in my room, and therefore stayed on the bus for the return journey.
Back on the bus for a second trip to the airport, as the only passenger, I started chatting to the driver. It turned out that for his ‘day job’ he was a bounty hunter. He described the kind of people that he would track down and when I asked if they tried to run or fight, he replied “Not when they see what I’m carrying.” He explained his various gun licences, and open carry permits, and was half-way through describing his arsenal when we arrived at the airport.
I had a brief business meeting with a company in Charlotte. This ended at 11am, after which I commenced the 400 mile drive to Winchester, Tennessee. The roads were not that busy and as, drove I scanned the various radio stations, sometimes singing to familiar songs. I tried to read the place names on the signs, trying to imagine what some of the small towns were like. Shortly after passing the last of the many turn-offs for Atlanta, the traffic started to build up with afternoon commuters, but there was no congestion. I turned off one highway onto anther, heading north past Chattanooga. I had hoped to stop there and see the famous train, but time was against me.
I did stop briefly for dinner, and it was at this point that the weather changed. The relaxed daytime drive became more of a challenge, going from the relatively flat landscape of Georgia, into the hills of Tennessee, with a constant drizzle, lower temperature, and it was dark. The road was busy and there were plenty of large trucks, struggling to get up the hills, then making up for lost time on the way down.
Constantly checking the speed and Tom Tom on a dark, wet, unfamiliar road, with fast-moving cars and trucks weaving in and out on all three lanes, and my body clock telling me that it was past midnight and that I needed to sleep, was something of a challenge, but eventually I reached Winchester, exhausted and relieved.
My plan for the following day was to take a short 20 mile drive to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, head up to Nashville, then west to Memphis, before turning south to Clarksdale, Mississippi. But the best laid plans…
Waking early again, I opened the curtains hoping for some blue sky, but instead, it was as white, as the two inch layer of snow covering the rooftops, cars, and the parking lot. That was not in the plan, but it had stopped snowing and it was a short drive to Lynchburg, so I was reasonably optimistic.
The forecast was for scattered, light snow showers, which back home was not an issue, but in the Tennessee hills it’s a different story.
After breakfast, I checked out and warmed up my midsize saloon rental car, and sat listening to a local radio station, with constant weather warnings and reports of road closures. I had no option but to risk it if I wanted to keep to my schedule, but ten minutes down the road and it started snowing again. The road next to the hotel, would take me most of the way to Lyncburg. As I started out I was reasonably confident as I followed a pick up truck hoping that he was just setting out. My heart sank when he turned off, a mile up the road, leaving me as the only vehicle on the road with the snow settling, covering up any tracks. It felt as if the car was gripping the road really well, I would have to continue until it felt unsafe.
The terrain changed and the road started to twist and wind up and down some hills, but it was still snowing and appeared to be thicker on the ground. With no other traffic to be concerned about, I kept the car in higher gears, going as slow as possible, but the incline was mainly up. The wipers were going crazy trying to complete an impossible task, and on the odd occasion I felt the tyres lose their grip.
I found myself squeezing the wheel tightly and leaning forward, trying to determine where the edges of the road were, not daring to glance down the steep drop on my right hand side. At one sharp bend I was startled by a snow plough heading towards me. The driver stared at me as though I were crazy. Why wasn’t it going in my direction? I could have followed it, instead I still had several miles to go.
After what seemed an eternity I was on the downhill incline, and the snow was lighter. Eventually the it stopped and the landscape levelled out.
I breathed an audible sigh on seeing a Lyncburg sign; the nightmare was over. I was still some distance away, and as I approached the town, it was noticeable that they had deeper snow than elsewhere.
Over a period of around twenty years, I must have read every Jack Daniels poster on the London Underground. They portrayed Lynchburg as the perfect small town, where everyone worked at Mr Jack’s establishment, and life was wonderful. Over the years, I grew more determined that one day I would get to visit this idyllic place.
Under a four inch blanket of snow the town did look pretty, but tourism based on the distillery, possibly had a short season.
The sun was out and so was my camera, I had been in the country for over 24 hour and had taken less than a half dozen shots.
Having parked the car I entered the Distillery along with three other visitors, in time for the first tour, only to be informed that due to the layer of snow, some areas would be too dangerous to walk around and we would have to wait while the roads were cleared.
A few more people joined u,s and eventually, we were escorted to a small bus, which would take us around.
The tour was very interesting with a full history of Mr Jack and the business, but it was slow going, and with an hour’s delay, it meant that I was way behind schedule.
Nashville would have been out of my way, cutting it out would make up for some of the lost time, hence my next stop would be Memphis.
It was a long drive, nearly five hours with a rest break, but I skipped dinner and only stopped in Memphis to grab a coffee, before taking the Blues Highway 61 down to Clarksdale in Mississippi.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Clarksdale was dissappointing. It was later described to me as 90% black and 90% of those are unemployed, which explained some of the strange looks that I attracted in certain parts of the town.
I reached the Riverside Hotel at around 6.30pm and stepping out of the car, I was surprised at how rapidly the temperature had dropped. I was also surprised at how shabby the area was and realised that life here was a far cry from my existence back in England.
The Riverside Hotel is basically an extended wooden shack that is now famous for lodging some of the most influential Delta Blues performers back in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
I had the privilege of meeting Frank ‘Rat’ Ratcliffe on two occasions. He was a charming man, with tales to tell of the blues musicians who stayed there.
There are a couple of well known blues bars in Clarksdale, Ground Zero, owned by Morgan Freeman, and Reds.
Frank informed me that both were closed on Tuesdays. I was out of luck, and ended up with a local supermarket and cold snacks for dinner, as the temperature was dropping, close to freezing.
Many of the ‘hotel’ rooms are preserved with the original furnishings, taking the guests back to the 1940’s in comfort as well as décor. By 8.30pm I was ready to crash, but the room was very cold and having shown me how to light the small gas fire, Frank told me that I was the only guest that night as he left to go back home.
I was too tired to think of how creepy it was, especially as the building had been a hospital where many patients had died, including the blues singer Bessie Smith.
Having made several attempts to light the gas fire in my room, I grabbed a sheet of paper and went to the gas fire in the corridor. On the third attempt, the small flame at the end of the paper, remained alight as I withdrew it from the flame, and started on my way back to the room. I had to move quickly as the paper was burning down and I needed to ignite the gas in the bedroom fire, before it burnt my fingers.
The building was all timber and probably about one hundred years old, but I didn’t consider this as I fumbled with the gas control dial with one hand, while holding the burning paper in the other, watching glowing embers floating down like snow flakes onto the wooden floor.
The gas ignited as the flames cut into my fingers, causing me to let go and immediately stamp on the flames.
I slept well that night and didn’t wake up until after 7am, looking forward to a sultry Mississippi sunrise.
Instead, the room was below freezing, and I had to scrape frost from the inside of the glass to view the unmanaged vegetation outside, which completely blocked any view that I might have had.
I quickly showered and dressed, then defrosted the car before going in search of a breakfast venue.
Apart from a Dunkin’ Donuts, the town was dead, and I ended up at the supermarket once again.
On returning to the Riverside, my Tom Tom failed to work and I drove around Clarksdale hoping to find a landmark or turning that I’d recognise, but ended up back at the supermarket.
I approached a guy in the car park and asked for directions to the street.
On hearing my accent he started asking questions and getting onto music, asking if I like blues. I nodded, to which he describe a place where a list of blues singers used to hang out and where Bessie Smith died. He offered to show it to me on the way past. I replied that I was staying there. He went on to tell me that when he was a child he lived out of town and his nearest neighbours were black. On Saturdays he would be playing over in their place with his friends, and by 6pm he would be sent home, as people would come from all around, and the place turned into a juke joint. He would listen their music from his bedroom, as he fell asleep.
I managed to get the Tom Tom working and set the destination as Vicksburg, Mississippi, although this was a longer route down to New Orleans, it followed the river and had, what I thought would be, interesting towns to travel through.
As the sun rose higher into the cloudless sky, so did the temperature, along with my expectations.
Hurricane Katrina had ripped into some of this area, and on the route I passed several demolished properties, and one particular two store home with a very large tree resting at 45 degrees in the centre of it. The state of Mississippi was no different to other southern states with shacks and trailers serving as homes, with old cars, trucks and other large, rustting domestic items littering the yards.
The two and a half hour drive to Vicksburg was on a mostly well-maintained single lane road, with long straight stretches suitable for overtaking. There were several narrow bridges over narrow stretches of river, and having followed an old truck pulling a trailer for a few miles, I had not noticed the item of farm machinery until it reached the bridge. The truck did not slow down in order to navigate the single lane, and it was only when pieces of metal and timber flew into the air, scattering debris on the road ahead of me, that I realised what had happened. I continued cautiously, glancing at the damaged railing, but the driver in front continued as if he only had one speed and damaging a bridge was no reason to slow down.
When I described my planned trip to a friend in California, he said that I was crazy, and when I asked why, he replied that I would get shot. But throughout, I found that everyone I met was courteous and friendly and not once did I feel unsafe.
Vicksburg was pleasant enough, and if I had the time I would have explored more. The town was the subject of a siege during the Civil War, and had one of the most decisive Ironclad battles.
I stopped at a gas station and noticed that there was a fast food restaurant next door.
I should explain that I was in an area of town where my pale skin colour attracted curiosity.
On entering the restaurant, I was the focus of attention, from quick glances to long studies, and at times like this I tend to speak clearly with my best English accent. It worked, and I was dismissed as a foreigner passing through.
I read off a few items on the board above the counter only to get the same reply of “I’m sorry Sir, that’s gone.” and ended up pointing to what turned out to be cheese macaroni.
Sitting down on a red plastic stool at a yellow plastic table, opened my polystyrene container and picked my way through an almost warm, flavourless pasta.
Within fifteen minutes of arriving, I was on my way, taking care to smile at the still-curios faces.
It was dark when I entered the city of New Orleans, placing all of my trust in the unreliable Tom Tom to guide me through the busy streets to my hotel.
It was a Wednesday evening, and wandering around the French Quarter I found many places closed.
I ended up with a pizza and another early night.
By 5.30am I was at the Ferry Terminal, catching the boat across the Mississippi to Algiers. It was a short journey, and not one that would carry many tourists at such an early hour. In fact, it hardly carried anyone at that hour. When the handful of passengers departed, I remained on the boat for the return trip, but felt uneasy with one guy, obviously homeless, watching me. Before the Algiers passengers joined us he approached me and asked for change. I explained that I had dressed quickly and come out without and money whatsoever. He gave me a disgusted look and turned away.
I was able to take lots of photos of the sun rising over the river. It is a wide powerful stretch of water, as muddy as its nickname, and busy with cargo boats moving slowly in both directions.
I walked for a few miles in all directions photographing anything of interest.
Some months later, when going through these images in detail, I enlarged one of a view down the railway track, with the sun rising, and only then did I notice dark shapes at the sides of the tracks. On enlarging further, you can clearly see that these are people.
Booking two nights in the hotel gave me a chance to explore the area, hence I headed east, along the coast towards Biloxi, Mississippi.
Hurricane Katrina arrived in August, 2005, taking 1,200 lives and displacing tens of thousands of people.
Driving along the coast from Gulfport to Biloxi, what remained of the buildings had been removed, but the concrete bases remained, giving the appearance of mile after mile of empty parking lots. I would return a few years later and stay in a mock plantation house in Gulfport. While on the beach photographing the sunset one evening, I spoke with a couple who had evacuated, and lost their home. They told be that the wreckage from buildings along the coast, were found two miles inland, such was the power of the storm.
The remaining stumps of trees along the road, had been carved into birds and animals. It was pleasing to see that someone had produced something good out of such a tragedy.
The beaches had been replaced and offered several miles of pristine white sand.
Several years later, on my third trip to this area, there were more buildings, with shops and restaurants breaking up the empty stretches of coastline. The ten mile stretch was being cruised by hundreds of classic cars, it was good to see the area coming back to life.
I felt saddened to leave New Orleans, vowing to return one day, not knowing that I would get back on another three occasions.
It was early morning as I began the six hour drive to Houston, Texas. The sky was clear, and with the car air conditioning blasting out, I reflected on the distance that I had travelled, driving through snow and rain to arrive in the sub tropical, humid heat of southern Texas.
I had always thought of Texas as being vast stretches of arid prairies with very few trees, but instead it was green and rich in vegetation, and although not particularly hilly, its vastness and big sky made for an impressive landscape.
I arrived in Houston late afternoon, my 1,500 mile drive had come to an end.
Having met with three school friends, it wasn’t long before we were lounging in a hotel bar.
One of them, Eamonn, lives in Houston, and we were gathered to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. It was an Irish wedding, and somehow the celebrations lasted three days, or more.