Outside magazine, June 1999
MY DELTA, MYSELF
You can go home again–so long as home is the blacktop along the mighty Mississippi
My Delta, Myself | A Little Good, Clean Lust in Utah | Wave Good-bye to the Fiberglass Moose |
Montana, the Dry Run | Birch Bark in Excelsis! | I Brake for Spelunkers |
Borne-Back Blues | Honk If You’re Irrational
Sure, Point A to Point B is the most expeditious route. But expeditious is a word that has no business in the road tripper’s vocabulary. (Hell, it hardly has any business in the dictionary.) What you’re after, after all, are those ephemeral things that make your travels worthwhile: warped points of view,
quixotic grails, plain old belly laughs. But don’t just take our word for it—see for yourself the guilty pleasures of Point C.
Driving in the Mississippi Delta in the early-morning fog, pale yellow light, skies of clear blue above a thousand shades of green. Or, driving in the late afternoon, the sun spreading red beams across the land; or, in November, when the picked cotton plants are rows of black crosses.
My Delta is the floodplain of three rivers–the Yazoo, the Sunflower, and the Mississippi. It is a flat alluvial plain that stretches from Greenville, Mississippi, to Yazoo City. I spent childhood summers here, on a plantation near the tiny town of Grace. I love to drive in this country, with its empty roads.
I have a 300-mile drive before I reach the Delta, from my home in the north Arkansas hills to the Arkansas delta and across the Mississippi River on the Greenville Bridge. As soon as I cross the bridge, I take a winding two-lane road past a house built on top of an Indian mound. The mound is 50 feet high. It is a thousand years old and filled with pottery shards and
arrowheads and pieces of stone jewelry. It is still fat and strong after many years of carrying the house and withstanding the rain. I continue on to Mississippi 1, which is part of the Great River Road that follows the Mississippi River from Canada to New Orleans. Next to the road are fields, then thick stands of trees, then the levee. Behind the levee is the
Mississippi River, bringing rain and melted snow from Minnesota.
I love to drive beside the river. I was taught to think I was the richest girl in Christendom because I lived so near the river. My uncle lost an eye when he fell into it from a barge. My grandfather’s plantation was deluged in the 1927 flood. My fa- ther and great-uncles helped build the le-vee in the 1930s. Even a little, fat, redheaded girl like me was part of
the majesty of the river, simply from proximity.
When I have gone 14 miles on Mississippi 1, I turn east and leave the Mississippi behind. There will be very few cars or houses from now until I reach Yazoo City. For the next 34 miles I can drive a hundred miles an hour without endangering a soul, myself included. Many bugs will pay with their lives and I will use a tank of window-washing fluid, but the worst thing
that can happen is I’ll have to slow down for a combine or veer off into a cotton field. This land is as flat as a tabletop. The road is a straight line to Hollandale and then Belzoni. I always stop in Belzoni for gasoline even if I don’t need any, to listen to the thick Delta accents and to talk to people about the weather. So much depends on weather in the Delta, but
good weather is more usual than floods or drought in this blessed land. There used to be only cotton fields here, bordered by stands of hickory and oak, cypress and gum and holly and ash and elm, reminders that the Delta was dense woods until white and black men cleared it. Now there are also rice and soybean fields and catfish ponds, rectangles of brown water
surrounded by flocks of egrets like white tulips. A man I know who works for the fish and game department has been trapping beavers in the Delta. He caught a beaver last year that weighed 90 pounds from feeding on rice and soybeans. I wonder how big the egrets will become now that they don’t have to do a thing but catch fish in catfish ponds.
Just because I can drive a hundred miles an hour doesn’t mean I always do. Sometimes I slow down to 80 and enjoy the view. Sometimes I stop at Leroy Percy State Park and walk in the woods. It’s an old park that is well kept but nearly always deserted.
One warning about this country: Don’t get out of the car unless you are covered with insect repellent. Delta mosquitoes will bite you anywhere. I have been bitten on the legs through thick tights.
I used to tell my publisher I thought the reason people in New York City were depressed was because they only got to drive in heavy traffic, with cursing and bad air. “We could make a million dollars,” I told him, “by flying people to the Delta to drive on the flat, straight roads.” This is not a journey for listening to the radio or thinking about your troubles.
This is a drive for pretending you are Master of the World.—ELLEN GILCHRIST
|ACCESS & RESOURCES
|You can rocket from Greenville to Yazoo City through Belzoni, 76 miles total. Or take a detour: Continue on Mississippi 1 past the Belzoni turnoff to Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge for alligator-spotting on swampy Swan Lake.
|DON’T MISS: Getting the lowdown on the catfish life cycle—from fingerlinghood to the plate—at the world’s Catfish Capitol in Belzoni.
|BEST EATS: Juicy porterhouse steak at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville.
|TOP DIGS: Belzoni’s Cypress Inn (601-247-3633) has turn-of-the-century southern trappings; doubles, $35.
|INFORMATION: Washington County Visitors’ Bureau, 800-467-3582.