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One for the Road: Living the blues

By Shadow

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I had some vacation time coming and couldn’t figure out what to do or where to go. A “staycation” was out of the question. I’ve tried that several times and, despite my best intentions, I’d either end up trying to organize my office or just lay around the house watching Law & Order reruns.

Then on Facebook, I saw a photo posted by my friend Bean’re, a.k.a. the Mayor of Fun. He was sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch of a funky tin shack. That’s it! That’s where I want to go! That burst of enthusiasm lasted all of a minute and a half until I realized that the Shack Up Inn was in Clarksdale, Mississippi, more than 1,000 miles away. Too far, I told myself. But wait—what better way to burn two weeks than a road trip into the heart of the Mississippi Delta? So I started planning—sort of. I had a general idea of the roads I might want to take, and when I wanted to arrive in Clarksdale, and that was good enough for me.

While telling an acquaintance, Katie, about my trip, she asked, “Would you like some company?” We’d only known each other for a short time, but I blurted out, “Sure!” Then we went our separate ways, each of us privately freaking out about spending every minute of the two-week trip with a near-stranger.

Finally, our departure date arrived. On our way to the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, we found ourselves fueling up near the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, so we made an impromptu detour to see the museum’s exhibits of vintage two- and four-wheeled vehicles.

We scored a room at a North Carolina motorcycle resort just off the BRP where a 4th of July party was taking place, complete with live music and fireworks. The BRP itself was wonderfully curvy with sweeping mountain vistas, but after exactly 382.5 miles, we’d had enough of the pokey cars in front of us, so we exited near Asheville, North Carolina, and shot over to the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley. What a fabulous place!

Where to next? Memphis! Neither of us had been there before. We splurged and stayed at the tony Peabody Memphis, toured Graceland and some local attractions, but the best part of our visit was dinner at Blues City Café followed by a romp through all the blues bars on Beale Street.

Next morning was the ride to Clarksdale—but not before we dined at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q on our way out of town. We arrived at the Shack Up Inn late in the afternoon where a three-room shotgun shack was our home for the next three days. And those three days were positively magical. My friend Gordon, a New Jersey-based blues musician, had given us some suggestions of roads to ride and places to visit. And my friend Dave’s buddy Blue Mike, a Clarksdale resident, took us to the best blues spots in the Delta region. We went to Helena, Arkansas, where Blue Mike scored us a guest stint with the iconic “Sunshine” Sonny Payne on the venerable King Biscuit Time radio program. We visited Red’s Lounge, one of the last real juke joints in the area. We did our laundry at the Crossroads, the same place where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a successful musical career. We visited museums, record stores, barbecue joints and blues bars. From 77-year-old Robert “Bilbo” Walker to 15-year-old Kingfish, we saw some of the best blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta.

Leaving Clarksdale, we rode the leisurely MS-1, following the Mississippi River as it winds its way south, passing through places so far from the beaten path that in one town when we stopped to refuel, the Bolivar County Sheriff walked across the street from the courthouse to find out just what those two biker chicks were doing in her town.

One evening was spent in the lovely city of Natchez where we stayed at the Wensel House Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful Victorian mansion high on a bluff above the Mississippi. The next morning, we started our ride north on the Natchez Trace Parkway. All 444 miles were absolutely delightful—gentle curves through forests and farmlands provided ever-changing scenery, and traffic was near nonexistent.

Before arriving in Nashville, we stayed at Fall Hollow Bed and Breakfast where owners Bill and Kathy Roper had kept the kitchen open to feed us a bountiful dinner. Bill gave us a tour of their expansive and picturesque property just off the Parkway and along Swan Creek. And the next morning’s breakfast filled us up for the rest of the day. What gracious hosts!

Our early-afternoon arrival in Nashville gave us plenty of time to visit the Johnny Cash Museum and wander in and out of every country-western bar on Broadway. At Robert’s Western World, watching the Don Kelley Band perform, was one of the most talented guitar players we’ve ever heard. Porter McClister, we promise—we’re coming to Nashville to see you play again.

Eventually, regretfully, it was time to head home. We could have stayed on the road forever… “If you’re here one more night, you can see this great band play,” or, “Tomorrow afternoon there’s a festival up the road.” After 3,096 miles that included copious quantities of Southern cooking and countless locations on the Mississippi Blues Trail, I gained five pounds and heard some of the best music on earth. But I also acquired the perfect riding partner and a jones to return to some of the places we passed through, see the ones we missed and experience that wonderful Southern hospitality again. Wait! The King Biscuit Blues Festival is this October. And Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival comes around in April. We will be back.

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