Monday, May 30, 2011

Along the Roads We Travel

Pierre, Jon & Daren
Our hopes were high as we headed north out of New Orleans, crossing the waters of lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. Today’s road would lead to Memphis, 400 miles up the Mississippi River, a short enough trip to allow for a sojourn along Route 51 instead of spending the day on the Interstate. Images of small unvisited towns - humble environments and electric communities - filled our imaginations.

Route 51, we would soon learn, is lined with lots of forest and farm and not much else. It’s a beautiful drive, from Vicksburg to Clarksdale (the flooding around Redwood and Long Lake notwithstanding). Sadly the bits of life we saw resembled more of life that once was – closed businesses, gutted-out school buildings, collapsed barns and homes wearing nothing but the signs of destitution. Lending contrast were well-tended farm houses floating in wide, neat fields and the occasional shined-up Subway shop.

Across Panola and into Lafayette County we pulled off into Oxford, a quaint college town with attractive houses resting on lush, trimmed lawns. The central square holds plenty of charm, though just like the road we’d traveled to that point the sidewalks and balcony cafes were scarcely populated on this Memorial Day. The general consensus was that we wished we had more time to get to know the funky, lively Mississippi we all knew was out there somewhere.

In Cordova, Tennessee, just east of Memphis, the world’s tallest Three Crosses of Calvary look down over Bellevue Baptist Church, Interstate 40 and Memphis and the Mississippi River and the western horizon beyond. As the sun goes down the atmosphere is infinitely more serene than at BBQ rib joint you might find yourself patronizing thirty minutes later. Nakesha our waitress was a true professional, utterly confident that we wanted Memphis-style dry ribs not the dripping-with-spicy-sauce kind so popular with ‘people who don’t know what real ribs are’. By the way, Nakesha, can we get three more beers? ‘Oh I already ordered them for y’all, they’re on the way, hold on…’

Stuffed to the tonsils with fatty meat and cornbread we waddled out to the parking lot, inviting the staff of Corky’s to step outside with us. ‘What a wonderful thing,’ said waitress Evelyn Perkins, visibly moved as she spoke. ‘People forget so easily how many people lost their lives, how detrimental (9-11) was to the country.’ Ashunta McCray shared the message she wrote and placed inside: ‘America, look to the highest power. Love each other, save the world.’ Andrew ‘Lattie’ Latimer, a DJ who just happened by, couldn’t get enough of the project. ‘The whole world’s gonna end up seeing this thing,’ he said, adding the Grateful dead quote going through his head. You get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Southern culture is imbued with Christianity, and we saw it, heard it, felt it around every corner. Late that night outside the Motel 6 we met Daren Howell, known as Church Boy within the motorcycle club he’d just joined, and his friend Pierre, also a motorcycle rider. ‘It’s good if you’ve got no family around,’ Daren said of being a part of such a club. ‘Whatever happens you have someone who will help you out.’ He and Pierre both wore a 'P' on their backs, a sign that they were probationary motorcycle club members. ‘9-11 is history we’ll all remember,’ Daren wrote on a piece of paper to put inside the cross. ‘All people lost, loved and lived, may Jesus be with them.’ Before they took off Daren asked us to stand with them as he said a prayer for the safety of all of us as we continued on down our respective roads.