The only problem with traveling six hours from New Orleans to see B.B.King perform his last homecoming concert is that we wound up in Indianola, MS. If you happen to look at a map (as I know my friend Marge did), you will notice that Indianola is more than halfway up the state. We had planned on starting at Natchez and traveling north on Hwy 61. This plan got snafued by the urgency to see B.B. King.
Even though we rarely backtrack, that is exactly what we do. We head back to Jackson and then take the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway south. Humidity certainly is good for something, as evidenced by the miles of highway surrounded by the most rich verdant scenery, deeper green than any painter’s hue. A motorcyclist’s dream.
One of the things that I didn’t want to miss along Hwy 61 is the Old Country Store in the tiny town of Lorman, home to Mr. D’s famous fried chicken.
Being a proponent of healthy foods —but a closet fried chicken aficionado— I rarely allow myself the very fattening dish, except when I am positive it is worth the calories. I decide to do a little research to be sure it is as good as the Mississippi Tourist guide claims. I find only rave reviews. According to a post I read, Alton Brown, food critic on the Food Network said:
“It ends in Lorman, MS. Whatever the voodoo is that makes that chicken the way it is, I don’t possess, and I would just rather not have it again. It was like Colonel Sanders pole dancing. There was something real sexy going on with that chicken. I’m gonna have that chicken or no chicken at all, no fried chicken at all.”
I was not disappointed. This had to be the best fried chicken of my entire life: tender, moist and juicy, with a crunchy, crispy skin. Am I exaggerating? Let me just say that we ate that chicken on the way down to Natchez and two days later on the way back up, even though it was 10:30 in the morning! The first to arrive, we even caught Mr. D. —who is only open from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM— with his hands in the flour, and by 11:00 AM the place started filling up. Did I mention that it is served on a buffet? Wait a minute, a buffet you say? How can chicken on a buffet be crispy? Probably because the place is always packed and that chicken doesn’t sit there more than a few minutes before it is scooped up and woofed down. Mr. D., the owner and resident character of the place, glows with pride. If you are lucky, he will serenade you with a song about his grandma, “the queen of cornbread”, enhancing one of the best meals and memories of a lifetime.
No one is a stranger at Mr. D’s, so when we see a gentleman about our age about to eat alone, we invite him to join us. Sid Dudley is reliving some boyhood memories and doing his own personal road trip while his wife Lola is off on a girl’s vacation. Sid relates a fantastic story about nearby Windsor Ruins, a 25 room Greek revival mansion on a sprawling plantation covering 2600 acres that was spared by Union soldiers in the Civil War, who used it as a field hospital, only to be burned down in 1890 by an absent minded guest who left a cigar burning on one of the balconies.
All that remains is 23 of the original pillars. Sid promises an unforgettable sight and he is so right. The sheer size of the pillars is massive, and an eerie feeling overwhelms us. We left in awe at what must have been.
On the way out to the ruins, we notice that the landscape is thick with a lush vine that seems to be everywhere and to cover everything, creating an undulating otherworldly jungle effect. Sid explains that the creeping plant is called kudzu, a fast-growing vine from Asia that was originally used as an ornamental plant but in the 1940′s became popular to stop erosion. Apparently kudzu loves the climate in the south and can grow at a rate of a foot a day, as much as sixty feet in a season. It has become unstoppable, an environmental nightmare. It is causing untold damage to crops, forests, and property. It is now known as “the vine that ate the south”, and is rapidly moving northward. According to the article in Quest Scientific, “It has even made its way into country songs, becoming a metaphor for clingy love.”
Finding a nice campgrounds near a big city like Jackson can be difficult, but LeFleurs Bluff State Park is a dream. An easy 15 minutes from downtown, this state park has lakeside sites, friendly ducks and even a resident alligator. We find out why the bathhouse sits on stilts when the ranger comes around to warn us that the weather forecast is for heavy storms. If the floodgates are opened on the neighboring reservoir, Mayes Lake bordering the state park may flood and we may have to evacuate in a hurry. We decide to take our chances. It was worth it. Little rain, no evacuation and a safe haven close to the city limits.
Jackson is one of the Mississippi cities prominent in the film The Help. We decide to have dinner at the Mayflower Cafe, a Jackson institution since 1935 and one of the locations in the movie. It is known for its fresh fish and famed comeback dressing. You can’t get fresher than redfish and snapper caught that day, grilled and served with Colbert sauce—the Mayflower’s version, a light sauce made of butter, lemon and a hint of Worchester. We would definitely “comeback” for that dressing, sort of a garlicky Thousand Island, served on everything from salads to French fries.
Our waitress is quick to inform us that it is The Mayflower Cafe’s neon sign where Skeeter and Stuart stand after their date and that the third booth on the left is where another of the Help‘s scenes was shot. Although the couple sitting there look like movie stars, they are the creative and funky Jackson designer Marilyn Trainor Storey and Ken Flynt, who had the opportunity to be an extra not once, but twice in the film. Ken, a photographer, sits proudly on the board of Jimmie Rodgers Foundation in Meridian, MS. Highland Park in Meridian is also home to the Dentzel Carousel, made in 1896 for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. It is still operational today. The hand carved carousel has special meaning to Manny and I, as Gustaf Dentzel’s Carousel came from Germantown, Pennsylvania.
Except when staying with friends, we have never slept anywhere but in our Serena. But in Clarksdale, we make an exception. The Shackup Inn has the most unique accommodations, offering its guests an opportunity to experience history by staying in a renovated sharecropper shack. You have all the amenities of a “normal hotel”, i.e, microwave, coffee maker, fridge, and air conditioning. But the shacks are authentic weathered wood with rusty metal chairs and gliders on the front porch, old tablecloths covering the windows, wooden mismatched kitchen chairs, coat hooks made of empty thread spools and a claw footed tub. The property is decorated with painted tires, bottle glass art and metal sculptures, an eccentric collection of plumbing fixtures and an old hand ringer laundry tub. Check out the perfect place to rest on the Delta Blues Trail:
Bill Talbot, one of the owners, is a character. He tells us the place was conceived with “six-pack carpentry” and “twelve-pack architecture.” They do no advertising, yet the place is almost always filled, often with European tourists who love the Blues. At the reception desk we meet Patricia, an interesting woman who lived in Mexico for years and surprises us —and Bill— with her fluent Spanish. She is a wealth of information about local happenings.
We couldn’t leave the Delta without trying the legendary barbecue ribs and hot tamales. Everywhere we turn, there are rib joints and the promise of the best hot tamales around. There’s even a tamale trail. Being from Mexico, Manny is obviously intrigued. We ask around and are told that the ONLY place to have the Mississippi delights is the Dreamboat Barbecue. TripAdvisor confirms that they serve the best barbecue and soulful sides in Clarksdale, so we head for 232 Sunflower to see for ourselves.
We enter the newly renovated replica of a Mississippi Riverboat and are greeted by Rogis Clark and Jerry McCray, two of the most welcoming entrepreneurs we have found. When Manny asks about the origin of tamales here in Mississippi, Rogis explains that in the cotton fields, when the African Americans saw the migrant Mexican plantation workers eating tamales at lunch, they duplicated the dish in their own style.
Jerry and Rogis’s version comes down from their great granddaddy. The only resemblance to Mexican tamales is the shape and the fact that they are served in corn husks. Mississippi style uses more meat, less corn meal and a different set of spices, more of a Tex-Mex flavor. Chicken tamales, common in Mexico, are unheard of here, and green tomatillo salsa, unknown.
We get the ribs to go, sauce on the side, so we can eat them back at the Shack Up Inn. Rogis advises us to cover them with a damp towel and to microwave for three minutes. The result: the best and meatiest pork ribs of our lives, one slab of 24 enough for two meals. And the sauce? Let’s just say, the leftovers are still in the fridge, waiting for an opportunity to use again.
We hadn’t planned on stopping in Oxford on our way from Clarksdale to Tupelo, but a couple friends assured us that the town is an extraordinary photo op, full of old southern history and charm, home to the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”. We pull into the beautiful downtown square, lined with trendy shops and restaurants. We are starving, and Manny is going through pizza withdrawal, so we decide to leave the photo taking for later. We have our pick of parking and easily find our favorite double spot right down the street from the Old Venice Pizza Company. After a relaxed, satisfying meal, we head back to Serena to pick up our camera and walk off the fattening lunch. Imagine our shock and horror when we see what looks like a parking ticket sticking out from under the windshield wipers.
Surprise! It isn’t A parking ticket; it is TWO parking tickets. One for “Parking with a Trailer”, which we DO NOT have. The other for “Improper Parking”. Each fine is $26.00.
We look at the parking sign posted on the pole. It pronounces simply, “3 Hour Parking”. I promptly call City Hall. The manager explains to me that only one parking space per visitor and no RVs are allowed to park in the downtown area. I argue that no where is any of that posted and it seems rather arbitrary—not to mention unfriendly— to ticket unsuspecting tourists. I inform him that it is impossible to check every local ordinance in each city we visit and that in the multitude of cities where we have parked, this has never happened before. If they don’t want RVs (which evidently take up more than one space) parking in their city, then they should post it. He explains that they don’t want to “litter up” the square with additional signage explaining the parking restrictions. He is willing to write off one ticket. I am still annoyed, but I can see this is a no win situation for us.
And to add insult to injury, we could not pay the remaining parking ticket online because their web site did not even work the way it was supposed to. Some people call Oxford the “Cultural Mecca of the South”.
We call it the “Law Enforcement Entrapment Capital of Mississippi”.
Those of you that are familiar with our blog, know that since we are fully self-contained, Manny and I often look for free places to stay. The state parks in Mississippi changed all that. All of them have been beautiful, near or on lakes with clean, well-kept restrooms and some with a laundry. And unbelievably inexpensive! Unlike most states, Mississippi recognizes senior status even for non-residents. That brings the already low price of $20.00 a night down to $14.00 for full hookups, $13.00 for water and electric alone. Why stay in a Walmart parking lot when you can stay nestled in the woods, have a view of a lake and from time to time see a deer pass your way? We have stayed at five of them: Tom Bailey outside of Meridian, Paul B. Johnson near Hattiesburg, Natchez down south, and LeFleurs Bluff on the outskirts of Jackson.
So needing a place for some rest and to catch up on our blog writing, we choose Trace State Park near Tupelo. This park gets RAVE reviews on the website We called it Home, and deservedly so. An expansive lake, level sites, a huge clean air-conditioned laundry and immaculate bathrooms with ample showers.
And as it turns out, really nice people. We make fast friends with Anna and Tim Stark, who give us countless tips about Memphis, the next stop on our music odyssey. Then, we are lucky enough to be invited to Theresa and John Livingston’s Allegro motor home to hear them play an unusual instrument we had missed along the Appalachian trail. According to Theresa, the dulcimer —an instrument like a zither— played on the lap, is easy to learn. She and John find it relaxing to strum sitting by the lake or around a campfire. What a lovely hobby to share, and what a great way to make new friends.