Chattanooga, TN; Decatur, AL; Muscle Shoals, AL; Cherokee, AL; Oxford, MS (364 Miles)
With three states and more than 500 miles behind us, my copilot, Tim, and I are now primed to visit some landmarks of music and literary history. We leave behind Chattanooga for North Alabama and Mississippi to the west.
As we put some asphalt between ourselves and Tennessee, the ubiquitous "See Rock City" signs are replaced by Alabama-state-line warehouses touting their fireworks selections ("World's Largest!"). But they've got the real deal at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (rocketcenter.com) a bit farther on in Huntsville, Alabama, where even from the car you can see the 363-foot full-scale replica of the Saturn V rocket (which propelled every American moon mission), towering proudly like a white obelisk.
After about two hours, we reach Decatur, Alabama, home of three-time Memphis in May Grand Champion barbecue joint Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (bigbobgibson.com). And thanks to the hour we gained changing time zones, we've beat the lunch rush. As we eye the massive trophies near the front door, the manager, Ken, strikes up a conversation and proceeds to take control of our ordering; we end up, essentially, with one of everything. The pork is fall-apart tender, the white sauce-dipped chicken is perfectly spicy, and when Ken tips us off to try the vinegar sauce—the only one of Big Bob's signature slathers not sold commercially—we find that it complements the thin-sliced brisket we devour even though we're no longer hungry.
Back in the car, we queue up The Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" for the 45-mile drive to Sheffield and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where hit tracks from that album ("Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses"), along with others from the likes of Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin, were recorded in the sixties and seventies. We stop for a photo op in front of the still-operational Fame recording studios (fame2.com) and the anything-but-operational, soot-stained facade of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (3614 Jackson Highway), which is in the slow and tentative process of becoming a museum.
A yen to get off the beaten path takes us on an hour-long detour to the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard (coondogcemetery.com), a sweetly sentimental pet cemetery outside Tuscumbia, Alabama, established in 1937 and restricted to verified raccoon-hunting dogs. Once we arrive, it's hard to say who chokes up first over the heartfelt inscriptions on the tombstones, which vary in material (rough-hewn wood crosses, polished marble slabs) but never in emotion. Black Ranger (1962-1976), for one, was "as good as the best and better than the rest." Almost every stone has flowers in front of it, and one even has a full bowl of water.
An experience like that requires an infusion of comfort food, so after a few deep breaths, we set out for Oxford, Mississippi, where we'll spend the night. When we turn off U.S. 72 onto State 7 (90 miles later), the scenery shifts. Half the trees that line the road are draped with kudzu, giving them the look of some great-aunt's slipcover-swathed furniture. We arrive in time to check out a few shops on the Courthouse Square—cute paper goods and travel-ready accessories at Amelia (ameliapresents.com); signed first editions of Southern-lit classics at Square Books (squarebooks.com)—before bellying up to the license plate-adorned bar at Ajax Diner (ajaxdiner.net). There, 10 bucks buys a generous helping of cheese-stuffed Matty's Mom's Meatloaf, a square of pepper-spiked cornbread, and sides of squash casserole and green beans, which we wash down with a pint of South Mississippi-brewed Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Ale.
Oxford, MS (8 Miles)
Coming off a good night's sleep at The 5 Twelve Bed and Breakfast (the5twelve.com; rooms from $140)—a snazzily restored 1905 home with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and claw-foot tubs—we skip the in-house breakfast for a Danish made from scratch, glistening with warm local honey, at the folk art-filled Bottletree Bakery (bottletreebakery.net). It sets us up well for a quick tour of Rowan Oak (rowanoak.com), home of native son and Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner for more than 40 years. Most rooms in the Greek Revival house, on 29 wooded acres just off the Ole Miss campus, are open to the public and filled with workaday (but fascinating) artifacts—a tobacco pipe, riding boots, a mint julep cup—and you can still see the author's original working outline for A Fable sketched out on the plaster walls of his study in red grease pencil and graphite. Several groups have spread out picnics on Faulkner's lawn, but we've got other lunch plans: Creole-seasoned Mississippi redfish at Honey Bee Bakery (thehoneybeebakery.com), a family-run BYOB with a cult following in a nondescript strip mall. The food is so carefully sourced that our server can tell us which farms—and even which farm stands—the ingredients came from. Because we can't just eat all day, Tim and I head to a couple of antiques stores on North Lamar Boulevard, one spread across a trio of ancient-seeming houses and the other, The Depot Antique Mall (662/236-1979), made up of orderly rows of booths within another strip mall down the road. There, we examine a leaning pile of antique doors, racks of Civil War re-enactors' jackets, and framed cases of arrowheads. The mall shares a parking lot with Snackbar (citygroceryonline.com), one of chef John Currence's five Oxford establishments—which is reason enough for us to pop over for a Clover Club cocktail, made with gin, lemon, egg whites, and house grenadine. From there, it's only a half mile to the chef's latest, the divey-by-design Lamar Lounge (lamarlounge.com). There are a few wood-spool tables out by the smoker, but the 150-year-old mahogany bar, set off by a billiards-green floor and a subway-tiled fireplace, is the ideal place to consume hand-cut fries and the legendary burgers. And when the four-piece band follows up "Slow Boat to China" with "You've Made Me So Very Happy," we can't help but feel the very same way.
Oxford, MS, and Water Valley, MS (20 Miles)
A visit to Faulkner's grave seems a fitting way to close out our time in Oxford, so we swing by St. Peter's Cemetery (Jefferson Avenue and North 16th Street) to leave the traditional offering, a pint of bourbon, next to the author's headstone. And then we're off to Water Valley, Mississippi, a tight-knit town of roughly 3,300 that's welcoming more artists, entrepreneurs, and Ole Miss professors by the month (or at least by the year). There's a brand-new brewery, Yalobusha Brewing Company (www.yalobrew.com), which opened in a converted machine shop last fall, and murals everywhere—above the 1905 Turnage Drug Store (662/473-2442), outside the hardware store, on the wall of the church—depicting the scenes of small-town life that play out around them. A pair of Main Street galleries, Yalo Studio (yalostudio.com) and Bozarts Gallery (bozartsgallery.com), keep an eclectic art scene humming. Recent shows have featured discarded hairpieces, broken accordions (a performance piece), and an immersion show that faithfully re-created the sounds of a busy train depot—a time-travel-esque spectacle that enthralled the town's old guard and newcomers alike. We meet 82-year-old Snooky, one of the former group, at The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery (btcgrocery.com), beloved for its overstuffed sandwiches (such as the Say Dixie, with turkey, pimiento cheese, and Sriracha coleslaw), traditional plate lunches, and (baked) fried pies from Cora Ray's Mississippi Mudd Bakery (817/602-4116). He invites us to come to his office down the street to see Faulkner's father's desk, which he bought from Rowan Oak years ago when he saw that they were using it for clerical work. (We only thought we were done with Faulkner!) And after one final offer from Snooky to have his son show us around Jackson, Mississippi, on the next leg of our trek, we're off again, feeling well-fed, well-welcomed, and ready for what the rest of the trip has in store.