It was now November and Denise’s birthday was fast approaching. Denise is a major Blues fan and after very brief discussions we head south to join Highway 61, the Blues Highway in Memphis.
It is also known as the Great River Road since it closely parallels the mighty Mississippi. Our journey from Cleveland to Memphis was 800 miles.
Once joining The Blues Highway in Memphis our plan was to slowly wander south along this historic route, partake in some classic Blues, mingle with the locals and eat some typical southern food.
This post will cover the first half of this journey from Cleveland, Ohio to Clarksdale, Mississippi.
As we roam South through Ohio’s heartland we purposely follow the backroads not wanting the mundane interstate view also known as the ” the windshield view “.
Soon we find ourselves deep inside Amish Country. Carefully passing their buggies along the highway we find ourselves comparing our lives to the Amish anti-individualistic way of life that rejects labor-saving technologies.
Having lived in remote Alaska for over 30 years we are very experienced in a life without high tech. For many years we lived without electricity, had to haul our water and used an outhouse.
One can certainly appreciate what the Amish strive for in this world of unsettled situations. Unplugging and reverting back to those simpler times remains a very tantalizing notion but only for a moment.
As we age we realize living off the grid especially in remote Alaska is better suited to the younger generation, but in Ohio maybe it is still possible.
For hundreds of miles we pass through green fertile fields of corn.
It was explained to us that Ohio’s corn production consumes over 3 million acres of land on 25,000 farms. Ohio is the eighth largest corn producer in the U.S.
Outside of Lexington, Kentucky the corn fields turn into green pastures covered with huge oak trees. We pass some of the most amazing throughbred horse farms one can imagine.
There were good looking horses everywhere, not that I am capable of recognizing a good looking horse.
A steady drizzle greeted us as we roll into the Cumberland Gap National Park Visitor Center. We had arrived in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
Today Interstate 25 passes under the gap through a tunnel. We had no idea how important finding the Cumberland gap was to the early Americans and to our distant relatives.
We were amazed by how arduous and dangerous a trip it would have been for the early pioneers as they traveled west.
We spend 5 days enjoying the park and the pleasant campground. Hiking through the hardwood forests and absorbing the extraordinary history of the place.
Following in Daniel Boone’s footsteps one can only imagine what it was like to be on the constant lookout for ambushing native Indians.
Near Asheville, NC we join The Blue Ridge Parkway and slowly climb into the clouds. This narrow, well maintained winding road is situated along the backbone of the Great Smoky Mountains and provides stunning views in all directions.
We overnight at a pullout near the highest point of the parkway at 6,400 ft and are treated to a spectacular sunset.
The southern end of the parkway is in Cherokee, NC where we visit the wonderful Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky National Park. We are amazed at the number of day trippers driving up from Atlanta.
Following Hwy 19 through the Ocoee and Nantahala River canyons the spectacular scenery makes it hard to not continually stop for photos.
Touring the Prichard Distillery near Kelso, Tennessee we purchase some excellent moonshine.
Highway 61 runs 1,400 miles between Minnesota and New Orleans and we finally join it in Memphis.
Finding a campground situated right on the banks of the Mississippi in West Memphis, Arkansas, allows us to drive into the city each night to enjoy historic Beale Street and its fantastic food and live music.
Beale Street became the gathering point for blues musicians from all over Mississippi such as B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Albert King and many others including Elvis Presley.
Memphis has many historic and important places to visit but none as moving as the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The campground at the city fairgrounds is a bit rustic but is closely situated to the downtown Blues clubs.
We find Clarksdale to be a bit run down and somewhat depressed but very alive with music and friendly people. Spending a week immersing ourselves in the Blues and the local culture was a very enjoyable time.
Towards the end of our stay we become known around town as “Those folks from Alaska with the big dogs in the VW bug”.
According to legend, the junction of US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale is the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the blues.
There is also a fine BBQ joint, Abe’s at that intersection.
Visiting one of the many cotton plantations surrounding Clarksdale, the Shack Up Inn, a former cotton gin, has been converted into a lively blues club.
The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American and originated on Southern plantations in the 19th Century.
Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves—African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields.
It’s generally accepted that the Blues evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.
The Blues spread north during the Great Migration of out of work sharecroppers and eventually throughout the rest of the United States.
Denise says: “The blues is much more than just music, to come here to where it all began, read about the lives of the slaves and then sharecroppers, stand on the plantations where they lived and toiled, really listen to the words of the songs gives me a better appreciation of how their music is such a reflection of what they were going through at the time. The back breaking work of picking and chopping cotton, the great flood of 1927, the migration north to Chicago and Detroit just trying to find work and survive.”
So far our Blues Sojourn has been an eye and ear opening experience and one we will not soon forget.
Don’t miss our latest video “The Blues Trail”
Join us next post when we continue our trip south along the great river from Clarksdale to New Orleans in Part 2 of “A Blues Sojourn”, stay tuned, should be fun!
Keep you posted!