12 hours in Clarksdale

This is how travel should happen.

I arrived in the Mississippi Delta with only the loosest of plans. I had to interview a woman sometime in the next day or so. Or at least I hoped to. “Call me when you get into town, and we’ll see what we can do,” she said.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay or exactly where we’d meet, so I hadn’t made any lodging plans. I had my tent and sleeping bag in the back just in case.

An 11 am phone call lead to an appointment for the following morning and I had some time on my hands. I wound up at the Dockery Farms Plantation which may or may not have been the home of the blues…but it was certainly part of the creative stew that lead to it. Actually, there’s a quote from B.B. King about Dockery Farms…”You might say it all started right here.” And that’s good enough for me.

Dockery Farms was deserted. I drove to the back and stopped at a locked gate. I parked the car, opened the door and waited for the thick air to squeeze me. As a roaming photographer, there’s nothing more tempting than to turn that air up high when you get in the car…but step out of a cold car and into the steamy South with your cameras, and you’ll spend the next 20 minutes waiting for your foggy lens to clear. In my vehicle, I travel in moderately lukewarm air.

As I tried to suck oxygen back in my lungs, a car slowly pulled up. I expected it to be a landowner telling me I was somewhere I didn’t belong, so I prepared my best earnest face and “oops, sorry” speech, but it was just another traveler. He was excited about this place and clearly knew more about the blues that I do. (My knowledge can be summed up in just a few words…”Hey, I like this stuff.” Press me for more details and I might add “a lot!”) He rattled off a few names of who begat whom in blues lineage and slowed down when he saw the blank look on my face. He shifted gears. “Where are you staying tonight?”

Having just revealed how little I really knew about the Blues, I was reluctant to tip my hand as to how little I also knew about my own immediate future.

“I stayed in Clarksdale last night,” he said. “And if you go there, you GOTTA stay at the Shack Up Inn.” Jerry (we had squeezed in introductions) was excited. He retrieved his iPad to show me photos of the place, and the fact that the glaring sun made the screen completely indiscernible didn’t slow him down at all.

He went on to offer where to eat, and hear the best music in town. He built me an itinerary right there in that Southern sauna and I barely had to say a word.

Jerry drove off, I thought for a spell and figured he was right. I made a phone call, snagged the last room at the Shack Up Inn, and aimed for Clarksdale.

It was just 12 hours until I needed to leave, and I planned to make good use of my time.

The Shack Up Inn is every cliché of rural Mississippi done well. The hotel rooms and sharecropper-style cabins are built from worn wood and weathered metal. The grounds are littered with rusty trucks and faded gas pumps. Crotchety, hand-written signs give you the lay of the land and if you like where you’re at, they have food and sometimes music right on site.

At Jerry’s suggestion, I headed to Abe’s Bar-B-Q for the magic sauce and then on to Red’s Lounge for music. Red himself took my cover at the door and I settled in with a $3 Budweiser magnum to hear the rich sounds of Terry “Harmonica” Bean.

I’m told that at Red’s they play music til the last person leaves. With an early morning, I couldn’t linger. But halfway through the first set, there were 20 people in the place…from 7 different countries. Spain, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, USA, and Portugal. People around the world love the blues and when they want to see the real deal, apparently they follow the same itinerary Jerry laid out for me.

The final stop I found all by myself.

Delta Donut is right next to Abe’s. It’s in an old gas station. Pat runs it, and every morning, they make some deep fried goodness, put a little glaze over it, and send you down the road with a smile.

Y’all want to pass through here sometime.

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