Mississippi Half-Step: Road Trip from Oxford to Jackson
Halfway through our South-wide road trip, writer Valerie Rains makes a Delta prilgrimage en route to the state capital.
Oxford, MS, and Clarksdale, MS (96 miles)
The first 950 miles of our journey across the South have been quite a trip indeed. We've filled our days with cultural journeys and outdoorsy exploration—and our bellies with barbecue and fresh-picked peaches—all the way from Charleston, South Carolina, to North Mississippi. And now, my partner in crime, Tim, and I are both ready to put on the brakes. Today, we're only tackling an hour and a half-long drive from Oxford to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a quintessential Delta blues town with just the sleepy, sun-dazed pace we're after.
As we approach Clarksdale, the irregular patches of trees and scattered houses we left behind in Oxford are replaced with orderly, right-angled fields of cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans. And Seven Chimneys Farm (sevenchimneysfarm.com; rooms from $85), our lodging for the night, lands us square in the middle of 6,000 acres of them. The 1840s main house was the original hub of the vast Stovall plantation, but guests bunk in more modest digs—one Airstream trailer and three sharecropper-style shacks built from salvaged materials and decorated with vintage license plates, cowhide rugs, and folk art portraits of country, gospel, and blues musicians. The welcoming committee? A pack of exuberantly friendly rescue dogs race across the lawn to lick our hands and generally make a happy fuss when we pull in.
After hauling in our bags, we get the lay of the land: Guests have access to a good-size swimming pool and, for a little extra, a pottery studio and dark room. A newly constructed cypress barn with an upstairs loft also hosts artists-in-residence. Then it's a 10-mile drive into the heart of Clarksdale, with a stop on the way to read the Blues Trail marker by the patch of land where Muddy Waters' cabin (msbluestrail.org) once sat—and where Alan Lomax first captured Muddy's voice in field recordings for the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942.
If this town was built on cotton, it's survived because of the blues—every other storefront presents a guitar-repair shop, a music museum, or a live blues club. And there's been an uptick in downtown activity in the last decade
or so. Newcomers including Oxbow Restaurant (oxbowclarksdale.com), a weekends-only dinner spot run by a Clarksdale-born, New Orleans-trained husband-and-wife team, and the New Roxy (newroxy.com), an alfresco performance space, have joined an earlier wave of revitalizing spots. Take, for example, Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club (groundzerobluesclub.com) and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. (cathead.biz), a one-stop shop for folk art, blues albums, and good-hearted gossip. Owner Roger Stolle is Clarksdale's un-official ambassador, and as we browse the shelves, he gives us the lowdown on local characters and the night's live music offerings.
On his advice, we head to Red's Lounge (395 Sunflower Avenue), the one sure thing on almost any night of the week in Clarksdale—even Sundays, when many other spots shut down. Inside, a crowd of European Blues Trail tourists and a half-dozen Clarksdale residents have gathered in loose rows of chairs around the center of the wood-paneled room. All eyes are on gray-haired guitarist Watermelon Slim, who runs through a set of blues, country, and folk songs while writhing and wriggling in the crimson glow of the stage lights like a man one-third his age. When he takes a breather out front around midnight, Slim flirts in broken Italian with some foreign fans, and a receiving line of admirers begins to form. From the stage antics to the back-alley banter, it's clear this isn't Slim's first rodeo.
Getting home after the show isn't the easiest: We feel our way down the road at a near-crawl in the pitch dark, squinting for the farm's turnoff, and when we arrive, we're greeted by a booming symphony of summer insects. I'd almost forgotten bugs were capable of such a glorious and overwhelming sound, and so we collapse into the chairs on our front porch, stare up at the stars, and let nature sing us half to sleep.
Clarksdale, MS; Cleveland, MS; Jackson, MS (204 miles)
Forget Tiffany's—we're having breakfast at Woolworth's. Well, technically at Yazoo Pass (yazoopass.com), set inside a 1924 department store with one of the only sidewalk dining areas in town. We split a massive cinnamon roll topped with a goopy dollop of icing, but are careful to save room for our early lunch in Cleveland, Mississippi, 40 minutes down U.S. 61. We've targeted the antiques-filled Airport Grocery (airportgrocery.net) for our Delta-style tamale fix, as the proprietor learned his technique from the venerable Joe Pope of Rosedale, Mississippi's White Front Cafe (662/759-3842), which won't open for the day in time for us to visit. After a quick primer on proper consumption (the waitress, in her thick twang, suggests dressing the spicy meat with Ranch dressing and spreading it on a cracker), we invent our own recipe, swapping hot sauce for the Ranch and topping the mound with a crisp disk of fried jalapeño. (Some like it hot, all right?)
For the rest of our drive to Jackson, Mississippi, we opt to stay on U.S. 61 (aka the Blues Highway) rather than cutting over to the interstate, and thus have plenty of time to take in the pancake-flat landscape, desolate-looking cotton gins, and row after row of cornstalks as we chug along behind a massive, slow-moving plow there's no way we're going to attempt to pass. Once we reach the city, we're ready to pick up the pace again. And the Fondren district, an artsy area 2 miles north of downtown with good shopping and a flurry of new bars and restaurants, seems like just the place to do it.
I manage to clock a half hour at both Blithe and Vine (blitheandvine.com), a light-washed storefront stocked with tunics and Italian denim, and the vintage store Fondren Muse (601/345-1155), set in a converted house on the north edge of the district (best find: a giraffe-print old-Hollywood bathing suit with the size marked in weight), before I take pity on Tim. At Fondren Public (fondrenpublic.com), one street over, bocce and snacks await. We try fried pepper Jack cheese nuggets topped with candied bacon and hot sauce, and order a couple of spicy-sweet Mississippi mules, made with ginger beer, lime, and Mississippi's own Cathead Honeysuckle vodka (catheadvodka.com). Come dinnertime, we treat ourselves to an indulgent feast of pan-roasted Gulf grouper with crawfish-corn salad and a side of truffle fries at Walker's Drive-In (walkersdrivein.com), a Fondren mainstay since before the area was buzzy.
The dressed-up diner's low-lit, date-night vibe sets us up for after-dinner cocktails at the even-dimmer Apothecary (apothecaryjackson.com), a speakeasy-style bar at the back of the 1940s relic Brent's Drugs. Up front, it's a marvel of turquoise booths and checkered floors, which make up a fully operational lunch spot by day. But now, when the brightest light comes from a neon sign advertising "Angel Food Ice Cream," it looks like an elaborate camouflage. Behind the curtain, old-school druggists' shelves form the backdrop for the bar. The soul-music sound track and expertly prepared cocktails—like the Mortar and Pestle, made with vodka, Bénédictine, strawberry, and lemon— are, yes, just what the doctor ordered.
Jackson, MS (1 mile)
We'd been in such a hurry to explore the day before that it's not until we're packing up that we really take in the views from our room at downtown's Old Capitol Inn (oldcapitolinn.com; rooms from $139), a boutique hotel with 24 individually styled rooms, most of which are suites. Directly below us, the quiet courtyard, with its koi pond, wooden footbridge, and umbrella-topped tables, beckons for morning coffee; off to the side, you can see the imposing facade of the Mississippi state archives. True to its name, the hotel sits just a block from the state's original capitol building, the 1839 Greek Revival limestone structure that now hosts the free Old Capitol Museum (mdah.state.ms.us/oldcap). From there, it's less than a 15-minute walk to another Jackson landmark with nearly as much history—the Mayflower Cafe (mayflowercafems.com), an institution since 1935 and the city's oldest operating restaurant. Its claims to fame are many—a star turn in the 2011 movie The Help, excellent seafood (particularly the buttery redfish), and its spicy, garlicky Comeback Sauce, a now-iconic salad dressing that may have been invented in this very corner restaurant. It comes out in a little plastic container with my pot roast plate lunch and a tiny side salad (although it's used just as often as a dip for crackers as to actually douse greens). Outside, the downtown streets are quiet except for the ongoing roadwork, an attempt to bring some new life to the faded but once-vibrant area. It's almost a miracle that the Mayflower has held on this long, but it does, and will, as long as folks heed the sauce's call and come back, come back, come back.