Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Travel Lessons

Riverfront Park in Memphis

The motivation for this trip to the south was family driven.  A 50th wedding anniversary in California and a wedding in New Orleans six days later called for a trip with some exploring in between. Tom said he wanted to see the Mississippi Delta for himself, to see if it was like it has been portrayed in books and movies. 

Tom is a geography major.  We both like history.  We both enjoy agriculture, seeing what people grow and how they grow it.  And of course, wherever we go, we want to know about the indigenous plants.  We also like to "collect" state capitols, to visit the buildings that are the seats of government in each state, and pick up a bit of history along the way.  

It was for these reasons that we chose our itinerary: Fly to San Jose for the anniversary reception, and then on to Memphis to begin our road trip down the Mississippi River. For us, travel is about learning as much as it is for pleasure.  So what did we learn?
Fields of soybeans and wood lots

1. Tennessee is beautiful, so green and verdant, with hardwood forests inland and vast agricultural fields on the floodplain of the river. 
Shop window on Beale street, Memphis

2. You can visit Memphis for a half day and not go to Graceland, but you can not escape Elvis. 

On the levee at Greenville, MS

3.  From Memphis to New Orleans, the river is wide and the levees are high.  You can walk, and sometimes drive, on the levees. 

4.  I always think of Mississippi as a poor state.  I shouldn't.  The part we saw was beautiful, so green and well tended. We drove the Blues Highway, Hwy 61, and the Great River Road, Hwy 1, passing green fields and green woodlots and small towns with white steepled brick churches, with Black-eyed Susans along the roadsides,  and never any litter.
Miles and miles of corn fields

5.  It was clear that small towns had fallen on  hard times, with shuttered stores and almost no new construction.  
But the farms were huge, the tractors enormous, and all fitted with chemical sprayers.  There were also crop dusters working.  Agribusiness depends on chemicals. 

6. It appears there is no cotton to be found in Mississippi.  Where cotton used to be king, now almost every field is planted in corn or soybeans, just as we saw in our recent trips to New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio. We did see one rice field. 

7. Mississippi is lovely unless you are poor.  Farm workers homes were often small and old, wood construction or older mobile homes with one air condition unit in one window. 

Shrimp and grits - yum.
8.  You learn to slow down in the south in the summer.  The air is heavy with humidity and heat.  We saw very few people out and about.  It would be easy to put on pounds living here.  It's too hot to exercise and the food is often heavy and fried. 

Vicksburg National Historical Park

9. Visiting the Mississippi capitol in Jackson, with the display in the history museum, and seeing civil war battlefields in Vicksburg and antebellum plantation houses in Natchez, I began to understand the struggle that Mississippians must have had with the end of slavery and the struggle for desegregation and civil rights. 

State capitol in Jackson, MS

Slavery was cruel, inhumane and wrong, but it was the basis of southern economy. I learned that with the invention of the cotton gin, the demand for slaves increased dramatically.  Cotton could be processed much more quickly, so the demand for more cotton rose, which meant more workers were needed to plant and tend and harvest the cotton crop.
Melrose Plantation in Natchez, MS

Cotton was the basis of wealth for the plantation owners and the bankers and the tradesmen and the businessmen. Wealth was tied up in property and slaves. It was easy to see why white property owners chose to look at black slaves as sub-humans.  It made it possible to own them as work animals so that they could sustain their way of life. Ending slavery meant ending that flow of wealth. That and the destruction of so many lives and so much infrastructure during the Civil War caused hard times and long lasting bitterness. There was much to overcome. 

Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge

10. The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge is a monumental building, with a central tower 40 stories tall. It is, in fact, a monument to Gov. and Sen. Huey Long, who commissioned its construction as a public works project during the great depression.  He said he wanted it to be the tallest capitol in the land.  It is. It was also the place where he was assassinated. 

11.  This trip was all about the river, the Mississippi. We learned that in Vicksburg, scene of Civil War battles and the siege that ended in the Union controlling the river, the river eventually changed course and left Vicksburg with only a man made channel. 
South of New Orleans, we drove out into the delta an hour's distance, where the river was still confined between levees and a steady flow of ships steamed in and out of the docks of refineries and chemical plants and grain elevators.  Commerce is huge on the river. 
A container ship coming up river in New Orleans, as seen from the Riverwalk. 

We learned that it wasn't the river that flooded New Orleans during Katrina.  It was the levees from Lake Pontchartrain that failed. But with the storm surge and the rain, there was just too much water.  Out where we had driven into the delta, a local man we talked to said that area was under 27 feet of water during the surge. New Orleans has made an amazing recovery in ten years. 
The levee way out in the delta where the Katrina storm surge covered everything.

12.  Finally, we learned that if you are not acclimated to heat and humidity, summer is not the time to travel in the south. But if you do, be forever grateful for air conditioned cars and hotels and restaurants. And give a thought to all those who came before who settled this land when there were no such luxuries, and to those who persevere even today without much more than hope. 

We live in a vast and varied country.  Given that, it's quite amazing that we get along as well as we do. For the most part we are all good people who want the best for ourselves and our families and our neighbors. 


  1. This is a wonderful and thoughtful post, Linda. And I smiled big when I saw your new header picture. I know that there are plenty of reasons for the way that people feel about the south and the Civil War. I knew that it was levees that failed in New Orleans that caused the destruction. I couldn't help but think about how much can change in a decade, for better or worse. Thanks for this very interesting and informative post. :-)

  2. A wonderful and very informative post, maybe one day... You certainly gave us a great tour.

  3. This was such an interesting post, Linda. Wow! 27 feet of water? That's incredible! Slavery... what can I say? Why can't the south get past this and accept that it was so wrong and to get rid of the flag? I'm glad we went to New Orleans during our winter break. Heat and humidity would be no fun for me. I'm suffering through it now in Hawaii.

  4. Slavery is such a tragic scar on our country. The wealthy now feel that labor is a liability and want to pay as little as they can and automate everything else. It is their right to automate, not their right to not pay a living wage. A human being is a human being whether black or white, rich or poor should be paid a wage that gives them dignity.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It is very touching. I love that tree in your header. It's hard to stop looking at it.

  6. Wonderful post. Your pictures are beautiful but obviously not all of our country's history has been all that pretty. Unfortunately, the profit motive has not changed much, I fear.

  7. thanks for the history lesson and great photos!

  8. Excellent post. I wish I liked traveling more, because I love history and learning too. And that shot of shrimp and grits is making me hungry -- another Southern dish that I love. Thanks for posting so many photos from your trip.

  9. The river certainly ties things together so basing your trip on the river lead you to much of the history. Yes, next time go in the winter!

  10. Your header with the tree covered with resurrection fern made me homesick What an amazing plant. I use to love bringing it to life.
    That is one part of the country you can't, rather don't want to, live with out A/C.

  11. I often have the habit of clicking on commenters of other blogs. I read your comment on Tabor's blog. So I clicked on this blog. I was so surprised to see the first picture of my town...the bridge and then the pyramid. I hope you enjoyed Memphis. There is more than Elvis, but, happy you visited our city..... I was in Seattle this May.... Small world, right?

  12. I have never understood why people chose to take on a nation of people as slaves. It is an old concept going back to pre biblical times and it was always done for profit. These days we still make use of putting to work less educated and noe we give them so low wages. The idea of robots doing thr work is evolving faster. That chemicals are part of farming is as sad as slavery because again it's all about propfit. That we are killing all life with no concern is also no accident. We are taught it's good to live bug free. Chemicals are fine. Not true!!!
    But your trip to learn did so much more since you shared it here and we all get to see pics and read your commentary leaving us with food for thought. Thanks.


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