The Big Trip, Part 12

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Clarksdale – Vicksburg, MS

I pushed hard to get us on the road as early as possible. Vicksburg was 150 miles south, and we would have only today to visit the famous Civil War Battlefield and anything else that caught our interest.

If Route 66 is the most legendary highway in America, then Highway 61, especially as it runs through Mississippi, must run a close second. Not that there is so much to see along its roadsides. As Route 66 grew famous because of a song, so does Highway 61 owe its fame to music.

The spot where highways 61 and 49 cross just on the edge of Clarksdale is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for his preternatural ability to play the guitar. Then, there is Bob Dylan’s great Highway 61 Revisited.

Today, Highway 61 is four-lane as far as the turn-off for Greenville, but even after that there wasn’t much traffic, and we made good time. As we approached Vicksburg, the flat bottom land suddenly became hilly, and we were in a different part of Mississippi.

Vicksburg Battlefield

The Vicksburg Battlefield is hallowed ground where 20,000 Americans died or were wounded.

Vicksburg Battlefield

It is a large National Park with a sixteen-mile tour road that took us past some of the 1,300 monuments and memorials where the various actions of the long battle and siege took place during the summer months of 1863.

Illinois Memorial

Some of these monuments are grandiose. The northern states – Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana – built theirs first.

It took the southern states decades to recover enough prosperity to memorialize their soldiers properly.

Vicksburg Battlefield

The terrain is extremely hilly. Confederate forces defended the highest ground with mighty earthworks that proved to be impregnable.

Vicksburg Battlefield

Despite multiple attempts by General Grant’s Union troops to take Vicksburg by force, it was starvation and disease that finally had General Pemberton surrender on July 4th, 1863.

The story of the Battle of Vicksburg is told well in a video shown in the park’s visitor’s center.

Restored Ironclad Cairo

Halfway along the tour road is a museum where the remains of a Union Ironclad, the Cairo, sunk by Confederate mines in the Yazoo River in 1862, has been salvaged and displayed in an excellent way. The story of the shallow-draft ironclads that the North put on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers to prevent the Confederate Armies from being resupplied is an interesting one.

Ironclad Cairo

These boats, 175 feet long and weighing 888 tons were formidable battleships. They were powered by steam and could move as fast as nine miles per hour. The Cairo sank in 12 minutes, and although there was no loss of life, there wasn’t time for the crew members to save their personal possessions. These artifacts have been retrieved and cleaned. They are on display in the small museum attached to the Cairo.

This sunny, warm 1st of December turned out to be an excellent day to tour the sites. Other visitors were relatively few, so it was easy to park the Beast along the route and get out to read inscriptions and take pictures.

Bridge over the Mississippi at Vicksburg

The battlefield tour was the day’s highlight. Downtown Vicksburg, even as it was preparing for its annual 5 p.m. Christmas parade, was surprisingly quiet. Few businesses were open, and we had difficulty finding a place to eat. Fortunately, there was a Mexican Restaurant open for business. We entered to find ourselves to be the only customers.

Not far outside the city is the Magnolia RV Park where we hooked up and proceeded to take two-hour naps. We awoke later and spent the rest of the evening on our computers.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Charleston, SC

Allan and Jane have been my friends since college days. We’ve stayed in touch and visited each other numerous times over the years. Their lives have taken them to many parts of our country and even to England for a few years. We once spent a wonderful two weeks staying at the top of their tall, narrow house in London’s Belgravia district.

Allan and Jane’s Home in Charleston

Now our friends have settled in historic Charleston on the peninsula South of Broad.

With Jane & the Beast

As we drove the Beast through their neighborhood’s narrow streets and managed to park it in the tight, gated enclosure adjacent to their home, we were reminded of our own Istanbul neighborhood where ‘negotiating’ is the mot juste for operating a vehicle.

After breakfast, Allan and I drove Kay to a salon to have her nails manicured. Then, he drove me to visit the campus of the Citadel, the only civilian military university in America other than Virginia Military Institute. Although we didn’t get out of the car, we had an ample view of the grounds and buildings, citadel-like with their high walls and crenelated, corner turrets. We saw plenty of cadets, too, walking purposefully, straight-backed and in uniform.

Allan is happy to be living in Charleston and has learned more than a little of its long history. Founded in the 17th century and named after King Charles II of England, Charleston was the richest city on the Atlantic Coast before the revolution.

Charleston Historic District

Many of the large, well preserved houses in the historic district attest to this. They were built by wealthy individuals who got rich in the rice trade. Growing and shipping rice was the main business in these subtropical, watery low lands prior to the Civil War.

Walking around the neighborhood and reading the many historical notices on the facades of the houses helps one imagine what life must have been like in this vibrant, early American port city.

Charleston Historic District

Most of these homes are Charleston Singles, and most possess the wide first and second floor balconies known as piazzas. The style of those built in the 18th century is Georgian while earlier homes are styled variously. As you might expect, there is deep sense of tradition in this historical district.

Charleston Historic District

Nearly all the homes here have been restored and are well preserved. Charleston obviously attracts the wealthy. And why not? It has a beautiful natural setting, distinguished past, fine dining, a rich cultural life, and the weather, except for the hottest months of the summer, is very pleasant.

At our request, Allan took us to the Gibbes Museum of Art where he happens to be Chairman of the Board. Besides its fine collection of early Southern Art, the Gibbes is hosting a temporary exhibit of large-scale, photographic portraits of blues and rock musicians. These are portraits of the finest quality and would be of great interest to many of you as they were to us.

You would recognize the beautiful, bare-chested Jim Morrison in the portrait taken by Joel Brodsky in 1968. You may also know Frank Stanko’s shot of soulful-eyed Patti Smith done on a Greenwich Village street in 1974. But you’ve probably not seen the moment when Elvis touched tongues with Charleston beauty Barbara Gray that Alfred Wertheimer captured on film in 1956. One of my favorites is a sensitive portrait of Little Richard done in 1971 by Jim Marshall, who has more than 500 album and CD covers to his credit. We were struck by the beauty and overall quality of these photos. All were in black and white except one of David Bowie and another of Janis Joplin.

Later, while Allan and I waited for Kay to have her hair tended to, we enjoyed a tasty meal in a quiet Thai restaurant. The hours spent with my friend today have given us more time to talk than we’ve had in many years. It really has been a great pleasure to reconnect without the distractions we’ve experienced at parties and class reunions in the past.

The four of us came together at the end of the afternoon at home for more talk and a simple meal of chicken noodle casserole.

Our visit with Allan and Jane here in Charleston seems too short. This has been true of all our times spent with friends on this trip. We can only hope and plan for another visit in the future.