If you draw a vertical line directly due South from Forrest City in Arkansas you will pretty-much trace the route I’ve done today. I’m currently sat in a hotel on the edge of New Orleans having driven down through Mississippi and western Louisiana. I am now very much in ‘the south’.
This morning I made a point of avoiding the interstate, primarily because of the experience I had last night but also because you experience a lot more of America if you stick to the old highway and byway network. It may take a bit longer to get to places but it certainly gives you a feel for the state you’re travelling through. Some of the most enlightening moments I’ve had in the US have occurred through stop-offs at places I didn’t know existed but happened to drive by on some out-of-the-way road. The entirety of my drive through Mississippi today was on these types of road but by the time you get down into Louisiana you don’t have any choice but to go onto the interstate to get across to New Orleans.
I didn’t know what to expect from Mississippi. Like a number of the southern states it’s somewhere that I don’t really know that much about either from a historical or geographic point of view. Everyone knows the river of the same name, of course, but in terms of the state itself I was coming in with a blank piece of paper.
As a starting point it reminds me more of one of the states ‘out west’ than any of the others I’ve travelled through on this trip because there seems to be that bit more room and an element of ‘big sky’ going on. (Much of what I’ve driven through in the past few days has been quite heavily forested in one way or another). I think this is because much of the state was cleared to allow the construction of huge plantations, which are everywhere you look and immense in their size, even by US standards. Apart from the obvious (lots of fields) the plantations are characterised by their grand boundary walls, gates and entranceways and, of course, large mansions. It is clear that there used to be a degree of competition between the different plantation owners as to who could have the grandest house but, to be honest, it all looked a bit tasteless to me. The mansions are all generally made of white stone and are surrounded by reams of white columns supporting porches, verandas and walkways. In contrast the surrounding plantations and supporting buildings are very basic, and in some cases falling into a state of considerable disrepair.
‘Disrepair’ is a word that could be used to describe fair chunks of the state, if you were being uncharitable. As I headed south today there was a notable drop-off in the quality of the roads and abandoned buildings (and indeed whole towns) on the roadside became more common. Because the US is geographically huge, you often see examples of buildings or infrastructure simply being replaced rather than repaired, with the old example being left to the weeds. In pretty much every town I went through there were at least three abandoned gas stations quietly decaying. These hadn’t been abandoned because there wasn’t a need for them anymore but simply because they got too old. In some towns you’d see four generations of gas station all sitting next to each other. The first would be from the sixties, and basically a ruin. Next to it would be a slightly-less-decayed version from the seventies, then one from the nineties and finally the modern, functioning incarnation. It’s interesting from a historical point of view but I’m not sure how I’d feel about it if I lived in the town. This phenomenon isn’t only limited to gas stations either. There were examples of grocery stores, garages, post offices and houses where this also seemed to have happened. Over time you can kind of imagine the whole town moving slowly down the road.
The same thing happens with the infrastructure. There was was a particular instance today where a ten-mile stretch of the highway had been upgraded. Rather than modify and repair the existing road however the new road was built next to it, bridges and all, and the traffic transferred over. The old road was then abandoned and left to nature, complete with its supporting buildings, traffic lights and signage. You end up driving along the new road spending most of your time glancing over to your right at this post-apocalyptic scene of miles of abandoned infrastructure. I suppose if you’ve got the space then you might as well use it.
As soon as I entered Louisiana there seemed to be water everywhere. To be fair I’ve only seen the western tip of the state so far but lakes, rivers and flooded forests definitely seem to be the theme. The water was a muddy brown colour, rather than the regular blue, and the Mississippi River also put in an appearance. The interstate into New Orleans is suspended on concrete stilts over this wetland for well-over ten miles and the parallel railway line was sat for a similar distance on a very old and rickety-looking wooden trellis structure. Coming into New Orleans by this route you start to get an appreciation of how isolated by the water the city is, and how exposed it must be when a severe storm does occur.
Tonight I had Gumbo for dinner, the first time I’ve tired this chicken and sausage spicy broth that is synonymous with New Orleans (it’s very nice!), but I decided not to indulge in the fried alligator meat which was also on the menu. Firstly it was very expensive but secondly I was somewhat concerned that if I happen to run into an alligator in the next few days, having eaten one of its relatives might not the best starting point for a constructive relationship. Alligators are not known for their forgiving nature. And they have quite a few teeth. And armour.
Tomorrow I’m heading through the city of New Orleans and then along the coast towards Florida. I’m hoping that the tropical storm that is forming in the gulf holds off.