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Country and Blues Ride: Deep in the Delta

By Thundercloud

Clarksdale, Miss.—Here were two women, Shadow and me, who had never ridden together and, in fact, hardly knew each other, having met only a few times at biker events. At one of these events, Shadow mentioned that she was planning to ride to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in July, and before we knew it, we’d agreed to ride together. The only thing Shadow and I knew about each other is that we would come back as good friends or never speak to each other again. I am happy to report the former.

Country and Blues Ride

Country and Blues Ride

More detailed plans for this ride were made through text and Facebook messages and we met for dinner once with Shadow’s friend Gordon, a blues musician, to discuss our route. Gordon had some great suggestions for places to visit and roads to ride, as neither of us had ever traveled to Mississippi before and we knew very little about the area, other than it was rooted deeply in the blues.

It rained the day we left, the 4th of July, all the way from New Jersey to Virginia. When we stopped in Hershey, Pennsylvania, for gas to fill up our Harley-Davidson Dynas, we realized that the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) museum was just down the road. So we spent some time checking out the vintage cars and motorcycles, and to get out of the rain for a while. After our visit, we both agreed to press on to complete our first leg to Staunton, Virginia, just off the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The sun came out as we neared the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border, revealing expansive farms, rolling hills, and mountains. I was impressed by how well Shadow handled herself in the rain without one complaint. Rain is best done in as few words as possible.

Country and Blues Ride

Country and Blues Ride

At the hotel in Staunton, Shadow needed to adjust the idle on her bike and I had to make a trip to Walmart because I forgot my reading glasses. And then we were off the next morning to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was becoming more at ease with my not only new, but, first long-distance riding buddy. It was a comfort to watch her whip out the screw driver and tame that beast. I liked her interpretation of stops, speed limits and passing; our riding philosophies seemed to be in sync even though we were both previously long-distance loners.

I had never been on the Blue Ridge Parkway before and was looking forward to the majestic scenery I’d read and heard about. It was cool up in the mountains, even in July, and I was glad I had packed my jacket. We were over a mile high in the sky and enjoying some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. The speed limit is never more than 45 mph with few passing lanes and it would have taken weeks to stop at every outlook.

Blue Mike strumming a tune on his cigar-box guitar

Blue Mike strumming a tune
on his cigar-box guitar

We stopped at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, right on the Parkway, for lunch against a background of a beautiful lake and the mountains beyond. Late that afternoon, we pulled off the Parkway at Laurel Springs, North Carolina, to find gas and rode around for quite a while before we found a general store and gas station that was actually closed. Fortunately, the proprietor was kind enough to activate the pumps again or we would have run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. As we were searching we’d seen a lot of motorcycles parked at a motel, so we rode back and found Freeborne’s Eatery and Lodge. The lodge was full, but by another stroke of luck, the just-opened Station’s Inn across the road had one room still available. Better yet, Freeborne’s was hosting their annual Freedom Fest that night, with a barbecue, band, and fireworks. What a fabulous Independence Day weekend!

After a night of fun with the extended family of bikers that had come from near and far, we got back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed toward the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The museum is located to the west of Asheville, North Carolina, not far from the Parkway. This all-American motorcycle museum houses over 300 of America’s rarest and most historic classic motorcycles, with over 24 marques on display, including Harley-Davidson, Indian, Excelsior, Crocker, Henderson and much more. All but two of the motorcycles in this extensive collection run. Owner Dale Walksler welcomed us, talked with us about his life’s work, and saw us off as we left the parking lot.

Dale Walksler riding one of his bikes on display at the Wheels Through Time Museum

Dale Walksler riding one of his bikes
on display at the Wheels Through Time
Museum

We were headed to Memphis, Tennessee, but after the 382.5 very slow and often traffic-congested Parkway miles we’d ridden over the past two days, we decided to take I-40 so we could get to Memphis that night. After spending four hours in a horrendous traffic jam outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 101-degree heat, we decided to treat ourselves to the five-star luxury Peabody Hotel in Memphis. It was only a few quick blocks from the famed and acclaimed Beale Street, so that night we went out to try gumbo fries at the Blues City Café, then roamed from club to club to watch one outstanding musician after another perform. It was impossible not to tap my feet and rock along with the downbeat rhythms and blues.

 

Everyone kept telling us about the march of the Peabody ducks so we stayed the next morning for the parade. I am not kidding; this hotel has a duck parade complete with a duck master. The lobby was jam packed with spectators waiting to watch the Peabody ducks march from the roof and ride down the elevator to swim in the lobby fountain. We spent the rest of the day at the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum and we just had to pay our respects at Graceland because Elvis was a biker.

 

The Electric Blue Shack, our home at the Shack Up Inn during the three nights we spent in Clarksdale, Mississippi

The Electric Blue Shack, our
home at the Shack Up Inn during
the three nights we spent in
Clarksdale, Mississippi

On our way out of town we stopped at the famous Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que for a delicious lunch. Then we headed down the Blues Trail on Highway 61 to the Devil’s Crossroads at the intersection of Highways 61 and 46 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Devil’s Crossroads is so-named after the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil for success in the music business. The plan must have backfired because Johnson didn’t live past the age of 27; the story has it that he was poisoned by a lover’s jealous husband.

We stayed at the Shack Up Inn on the old Hopson Plantation just three miles from the Crossroads. The Shack Up Inn is a collection of variously-sized restored sharecropper shacks with some modern amenities the original occupants did not possess. We stayed there for three days enjoying all the local juke joints, notably Red’s Lounge, along with the Delta Blues and the Rock and Blues Museums, cool stores like Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, street shows, and delicious Southern cuisine thanks entirely to Blue Mike, a buddy of Shadow’s friend Dave, who became our personal tour guide and ended up being a dear friend.

The Wheels Through Time Museum features over 300 vintage motorcycles and an abundance of memorabilia

The Wheels Through Time Museum features over
300 vintage motorcycles and an abundance of memorabilia

Blue Mike also took us to the studios of radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, where he’d arranged for Shadow and me to be guests on the King Biscuit Time radio program with “Sunshine” Sonny Payne who has been hosting the show since 1951. And we went to an amazing record store, Bubba’s Blues Corner, where you could find all kinds of obscure blues records. Shadow and I were both treated like celebrities for the entire visit by just about everyone in the Delta. Or, perhaps, it is that for me, coming from New Jersey, I find Southern hospitality extraordinarily shocking. People smiled, waved, chatted with us, and welcomed us with open arms everywhere. Many people remarked what a pleasant sight we were: two ladies riding together through the Mississippi Delta. After three days in Clarksdale, I left reluctantly with a tear in my eye and a silent vow to return.

Freeborne’s Eatery & Lodge hosted a fabulous 4th of July party that included fireworks, a band and a barbecue

Freeborne’s Eatery & Lodge hosted a fabulous
4th of July party that included fireworks,
a band and a barbecue

The route that Blue Mike recommended us to follow to Natchez, Mississippi, took us south on MS-1 as it followed the windy Mississippi River merging with US-61. We skirted what looked like a tornado on our right and made it to Natchez just as the sun was going down. This is the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life. I learned from our host at the Victorian-era Wensel House Bed and Breakfast that David O. Selznick filmed part of the movie Gone With The Wind in Natchez because it was pristine Old South, untouched by the Civil War. Beautifully crafted brick-lined streets, well-maintained plantation and Victorian homes, flowering shrubs and trees, quaint shops, restaurants and hotels all overlooked a gorgeous suspension bridge across the mighty Mississippi over to Louisiana. It was impossible to take a bad picture. I wish we could have stayed longer than one night but we were off in the morning, after a traditional extra-large Southern breakfast provided by our hostess, to explore the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Shadow with “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, host of the King Biscuit Time program that airs from radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas

Shadow with “Sunshine” Sonny Payne,
host of the King Biscuit Time program that
airs from radio station KFFA in Helena,
Arkansas

We rode most of the 444-mile Parkway in one day. It is a very relaxing and scenic ride with lots of passing lanes and little traffic. This Parkway was just free and easy riding through rolling hills and over waterways. It was motorcycle Zen for me. We used the Natchez Trace B&B Reservation Service, at no charge, to find places to stay such as the Wensel House in Natchez and the Fall Hollow Bed & Breakfast in Hohenwald, Tennessee, about 50 miles south of Nashville. Owners Bill and Kathy kept the kitchen open until our late arrival and made sure we had plenty to eat, and then gave us a grand four-wheeler tour of the entire property where we watched the fireflies light the night. They served us another big Southern breakfast the next morning, and suggested some of their favorite clubs and musicians in Nashville. We weren’t sorry we took them up on those recommendations.

Thundercloud, Bubba Sullivan and Blue Mike peruse some albums at Bubba’s Blues Corner in Helena, Arkansas

Thundercloud, Bubba Sullivan and Blue
Mike peruse some albums at Bubba’s Blues
Corner in Helena, Arkansas

Nashville is the country music capital, hands down. These are top-shelf musicians playing all kinds of country music; two-step, toe-tapping jams. Stores and museums were open at night so we visited the Johnny Cash Museum and checked out the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Most surprisingly, on Lower Broadway where we spent the evening, it was a cost-reasonable night out. We had some fabulous barbeque at an agreeable cost. Very few of the clubs on Lower Broadway charge a cover, although the musicians do ask for donations. It is the first city I have ever left after having a good time without feeling robbed.

Porter McClister (left) with the Don Kelley Band knocked our socks off with his guitar playing at Robert’s Western World in Nashville

Porter McClister (left) with the Don Kelley Band knocked our socks off with
his guitar playing at Robert’s Western World in Nashville

The next morning we rode north from Nashville, stopping at Boswell’s Harley-Davidson in Madison, Tennessee, to buy motor oil before taking the Cumberland Parkway across Kentucky. Shadow was great about selecting good places to stay, which to me is anywhere near steaks and a swimming pool. Other than the three-day stay at the Shack Up Inn, we made no advance reservations, stayed in a different place in a different town every night, and just hoped they would take us in. We weren’t turned away anywhere. We made our way to Maryland where we stayed the night and then headed home to Northern New Jersey.

15-year-old Kingfish (left) plays some mean blues in front of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art

15-year-old Kingfish (left) plays some mean
blues in front of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art

Good friends don’t say good-bye. So instead of bidding each other farewell, we talked about doing this ride again in 2016 with some modifications, like extending our ride south to New Orleans. And before that, we pledged to ride together again sooner rather than later. Until then, it was 3,096 miles of smiles with a great friend!

Resources

Antique Automobile Club of America Museum

aacamuseum.org

Blue Ridge Parkway

blueridgeparkway.org

Peaks of Otter Lodge

peaksofotter.com

Freeborne’s Eatery & Lodge

freebornes.com

Station’s Inn

thestationsinn.com

Wheels Through Time Museum

wheelsthroughtime.com

The Peabody Memphis

peabodymemphis.com

Blues City Cafe

bluescitycafe.com

Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que

Interstatebarbecue.com

Shack Up Inn

shackupinn.com

Clarksdale, Mississippi

visitclarksdale.com

Mississippi Blues Trail

msbluelstrail.org

Natchez Trace Parkway

scenictrace.com

Natchez Trace B&B Reservation Service

natcheztracetravel.com

Nashville, Tennessee

visitmusiccity.com

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