We hit the road out of New Orleans and entered Mississippi.
We kind of decided on a whim to make a detour to historic Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. It boasts more antebellum homes than anywhere in the country, and half of America’s millionaires resided there pre-Civil War. But the ugly truth is that their wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Natchez was the site of the second-largest slave market in the States (New Orleans was #1, which we weren’t aware of, and many slaves would be sold up the river to Natchez from there, hence that saying). In the wake of George Floyd, the town finally in the last year started making steps towards confronting its horrific past. There are now lots of plaques around town that detail this history, as well as new exhibits that tell the full story. Many of Natchez’s majority-African American population are the direct descendants of slaves who were sold here, so this a reckoning that was long in the making.
We parked at the visitors center upon arrival into town, where a friendly lady gave us some brochures and directed us to an educational exhibit about the history of slavery. It was really detailed and comprehensive, also an eye-opener. For instance, reading the literal definition of plantation sent some chills down our spines: “to select, alter and domesticate plants/humans to the point of controlling them to grow/develop in a particular and desired way.” It’s also crazy to think about how these poor humans were made to work as hard as they were in this region’s stifling heat. (Slaveowners themselves couldn’t even take the heat; they’d typically escape it by relocating up north for the summers while the slaves stayed behind and suffered.) I mean, this was early May and we were already finding the heat to be too intense. When we took a walk later, Shane even commented to security at one of the mansions we passed that it was hot. The man replied in a slow drawl, “We’re just getting started, we’re not even there yet.” So that gives you an idea.
After we were done with the exhibit, we left KKBB in the parking lot and took a walk into town to check out some of the old buildings and the downtown core.
We also took in some absolutely flawless BBQ at the Pig Out Inn.
And we afterwards walked up to the bluff to admire the Mississippi, which truly is a mighty river. We stuck around until dusk; watching sunset over the Mississippi is something we’ll never forget.
We decided to just stay parked for the night in the visitors center lot, since no one seemed to care. Unfortunately, our overnight spot at the visitors center was under a tree with low-hanging branches and we had an ant Infestation by morning. The ants were attracted to the dead bugs covering our box from our drive thru Louisiana, so cannibalistic ants invaded our home sweet home, good times. Yet somehow so fitting for the first day of Mercury retrograde. The funny part about that was that I woke up in the dead of night with a feeling of dread. Shane shared that he had been having nightmares about being chased by an angry mob. And then we woke up to this, go figure.
We moved our truck pretty quickly and found street parking so that we could stay for one more night. We visited the Under-the-Hill Saloon, a 200-year-old bar located in Lower Natchez that, according to Atlas Obscura, is the last living remnant of “Nasty Natchez.” One 1816 traveler described it as, “without a single exception the most licentious spot that I ever saw.” That whole area is called under-the-hill because it sits on the river, at the base of the bluff, and used to be the port they’d use to ship out the cotton to the textile mills. Consequently, it was a mecca for gamblers, sailors, prostitutes, and thieves. Mark Twain slept in a guesthouse there as well, so there’s lots of history. The bar wasn’t crowded when we were there, but there was a man playing guitar and singing. We ordered some beers and enjoyed the music, in between poking around the different rooms to admire the kitschy decor. It really felt like we were inhabiting another time and place altogether, we loved it.
The next morning we woke up to walk along the river just after sunrise, and back down the hill to the saloon. The bar may have been closed, but the resident cat was there to greet us.
We wanted to tour one of the mansions before we left town. There are a number of tours on offer, usually for a $20-25 per person entry fee. The historic Melrose mansion, however, is operated by the Natchez National Park Service and offers free tours. We opted for that one. So apparently, these mansion tours have only recently changed their MO. There’s an event called the Spring Pilgrimage, which started in 1932 and was the one time of year when many wealthy families would open up their homes and gardens to the public for tours. But the homeowners would just talk about their pretty gardens and family backgrounds, glossing over the crucial part of history that involved slavery. This approach carried over into present time, until things finally had to change in the wake of current events. Tour guides are now required to speak about the lives of slaves and their living and working conditions, and to make crystal clear that all of the wealth on display was amassed at their expense.
The Melrose mansion is famous for its Greek Revival design and pre-Civil War furnishings. It wasn’t a plantation, but rather a suburban home for a wealthy lawyer/cotton planter, his family, and their slaves. The house was pretty much a way for its owner to flaunt his wealth and status, and impress all his friends. In addition to the main house, you’ll find the original outbuildings, including the slaves quarters, kitchen and dairy, carriage house, stable, and smokehouse.
The backside, which faces the slaves quarters:
And the front, where guests would enter:
This mahogany fan would be operated by pulling a rope. A young slave boy was typically assigned the job, and he’d have to stand throughout the whole meal pulling the rope and cooling off the dinner guests.
Gold leaf details on the wallpaper:
These bells were part of a servant call system that alerted slaves that they were being summoned to somewhere else in the house.
The dairy and kitchen:
Our final stop was at The Forks of the Road, the site of the old slave market. Slave trading used to happen on pretty much every street corner in Natchez, but that changed in 1832 due to a cholera outbreak that forced slave traders to do business on the outskirts of town. The Forks became their hub as a result, and operated as a slave market between 1833-1863. Locals organized and fought for twenty years to make this spot a historical landmark, and they finally succeeded a couple of years ago. The city donated three acres of land and they held a ceremony in June 2021 to unveil a National Park Service sign. There’s now an outdoor exhibit with panels that detail the domestic slave trade and Natchez’s role in it. It was a really sobering experience, to say the least, especially when we saw the installation at the end that consisted of some of the shackles cemented into the ground. Being there in person gives an even fuller picture of this time than any history lesson or movie could ever convey.
We hopped on the Natchez Trace Parkway after that and headed east. The Natchez Trace is a 444-mile historic forest trail that runs from Nashville to Natchez. The trail was first carved out by Native Americans, and eventually European settlers and traders took it over for trade as it was the one route that linked eastern states to the southern trade ports. The drive itself is so lush and green.
We found this amazing free campsite along the way and decided to camp out for a couple of nights so that we could tend to our ant problem. We bought traps and cornmeal but the lil buggers steered clear. It was peppermint oil-soaked cotton balls and spray + white vinegar that helped ward them off. That, and a whole lot of vacuuming. We deep cleaned until we were soaked in sweat, then passed out under the trees and woke up to birds chirping. It was a reset that both humans and cat desperately needed, and we all felt a whole lot better by the next day.
We moved along towards Jackson, but first we wanted to find a truck wash to get rid of those dead bugs that drew the ants in. We went to Blue Beacon Truck Wash just outside of Jackson and they not only did that, they treated our girl with a buffer for her aluminum and she was shining like the Chrysler Building by the time they were done. Literal silver linings, and we were so grateful for the KKBB glow up.
We spent the night at the nearby Bass Pro Shop parking lot without any hassle, then made a quick detour to downtown Jackson to walk around with our morning coffees and see what it looks like.
We hit the Mississippi Blues Trail from there, and drove an hour and a half to Indianola, B.B .King’s hometown. We checked out the B.B. King Museum, which was such a wonderful experience that takes you on a complete journey of his life and career and has some cool interactive parts of the exhibit as well. What a life he had! His final resting place is on the premises and it’s just the most perfect tribute. We’re glad to walk out knowing a whole lot more about B.B. King and the history of both the blues and the Memphis scene. We highly recommend putting this on your itinerary.
We followed the Blues Trail from Indianola to Clarksdale, aka the birthplace of the Blues. Located at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, Clarksdale is the crossroads where—legend has it—Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and disappeared, only to mysteriously re-emerge as a guitar virtuoso and “King of the Delta Blues”. We listened to live music at the legendary Red Lounge, a place we’ve been told is one of two remaining original juke joints in the state. I don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone give harmonica like the gentleman on stage.
We stayed parked on the street for the night, no issues, and then spent the next morning checking out the town a bit.
We caught the Crossroads monument on our way out of town:
From there, we headed to Tunica to the Gateway of the Blues Visitors Center and Blues Museum, and those ladies in there couldn’t have been lovelier. They pointed us in the direction of the famous Hollywood Cafe for fried catfish, where again the people there were some of the loveliest we’ve ever met. Everyone we met was just so genuine and kind.
We also camped out at the Riverpark by the casinos, where we had a whole great big lot to ourselves for the afternoon. We finished deep cleaning our truck and watched the barges go by.
Traveling Mississippi was a pure joy. We had no idea what we were in for before we got there. What we found was a state that’s rich with culture and history and beautiful music, not to mention plenty of kind souls with soft-spoken voices. It was a depth of experience, and we’ll forever cherish these memories.
But we weren’t done just yet; you can’t do the Blues Trail without winding up in Memphis, after all. So that’s where we headed. On our way in, we of course had to pop by Graceland to pay our respects to Elvis. Tickets are pretty pricey (starting at $77 pp for the mansion and $49 for the planes and museum), but we were able to get a good feel for free by pulling up to the gate and peeking at the outside while reading the graffiti. (Sorry, not sorry Elvis.)
We parked the first night at the Bass Pro Shop big pyramid, where they gladly allow overnight parking and even have police security patrolling. That place is insane inside, it’s like a mini amusement park and seems to be a weekend destination for a lot of folks.
We moved over the next day to a gated lot downtown that’s right by Beale Street. We parked and then set out on foot to explore the city. Our first stop was the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and now the home of the Civil Rights Museum. It was another sobering and moving moment in our travels.
From there, we walked around town and took in the sights.
We eventually made our way over to the mile-long Big River Crossing, the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi. You even get to cross the state line into Arkansas, which is cool, and get great views of the Memphis skyline.
We hit up Central BBQ for an amazing lunch.
And then it was time to head to Beale Street, Memphis’ version of Bourbon St. There’s great people-watching, and you can just grab a to-go beer and walk up and down the street.
We ended up wandering back through town and into Ernestine and Hazel’s, a dive bar/burger joint with a whole lot of history. This place was a former church that eventually became a brothel and a jazz cafe. It’s said that legends like B.B. King, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin all sought solace there. The place has a big bar and dance floor downstairs, but the real action is on the second level.
This bar honestly had the same feel as the run-down West Coast mansion from back in the day where some party friends squatted and threw infamous weekend-long ragers in. It has that ramshackle, Trainspotting feel with a Southern twist, and it did feel more like we were at a house party than a bar. We also met some of the most cool and interesting people there. And yes, they’re cooking up Soul Burgers right behind the main bar.
The real Memphis highlight, however, was going to the Peabody Hotel the next morning to watch the famous duck parade. This all started back in the 1930s, when the hotel GM and a friend got back from a hunting trip. They got drunk and thought it’d be a hoot if they put their duck decoys in the lobby’s fountain. The hotel guests loved it, though, and ducks in the fountain quickly became a thing. In 1940, a circus trainer offered to train real ducks to march to the fountain. The rest, as they say, is history. Every day at 11am the ducks march down from their Rooftop Duck Palace as the red carpet gets rolled out from the elevator to the hotel lobby. The Duck Master first spends 10 minutes telling the story of how the tradition came to be, then leads them all to the fountain. He even has a silver platter for their food. They repeat daily at 5pm to march the ducks back upstairs. Be sure to get there 30-40 min ahead of time to secure a spot. It’s easily the most ridiculous, wonderful thing we’ve seen in a while, and it was the perfect ending to our time in Memphis.
Thank you Memphis, we had such a blast!
And now we were Nashville-bound…