Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 22: All-Nighter on the Freedom Road

August 5: Atlanta Day’s Inn to macy’s to West Point, Georgia to Montgomery and Selma Alabama, to Vicksburg and Nachez, Mississippi

Below us the old rails were covered by kudzu, a voracious and surreal plant that has turned most of the South into Bosch-like topiary...impressionist and ubiquitous like postmodernism.
Andre Codrescu, Hail Babylon

I remember thinking that our parents didn’t have the first idea where we were, other than that we were somewhere in the continental vastness between Des Moines and the Florida Keys...
That sort of thing did really happen down there, you know This was only five years after three freedom riders were murdered in Mississippi. They were a twenty-one-year-old black from Mississippi and two white guys from New York, Andrew Goodman twenty, and Michael Schwerner, twenty. I give their names because they deserve to be remebered. To me this was and always would be the South.
Bill Bryson, Lost Continent

The ice machine on the 14th floor overlooked the pool and both were necessities in Atlanta in August. There was a quick swim in the early heat; a couple of little girls and their mother were bouncing in the water by the time my laps were finished. With my in-room coffee and granola bar breakfast I read more Grapes of Wrath and caught Travels With Charley up to the Cheerleaders in New Orleans, where I planned to be by Monday. From the comfort of the queen-size hotel bed and the infernal convenience of my secondhand cellphone, I fulfilled a girlhood dream, booking two days at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. I never had the money to stay there during all my Mardi Gras in the 70’s. The closest I had come was trailing along with the Half-Fast Walking Club – right behind Phil Harris and Pete Fountain – as they ducked into the back door to the Carousel Bar on Mardi Gras Day, swaying through their celebratory itinerary.
Hurricane Katrina had interfered with the rates in the Quarter, even putting a damper (so to speak) on Carnival and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Word was out that hospitality had recovered in the historic core, but the rates were still around a third of the usual and this would be my opportunity to luxuriate, as well as survey the damage.
First I had to find a macy’s and pay my bill, so I followed the desk clerk’s directions, sort of, and headed across town to the Lenox Center, where I basked in civilization, found a Mexican wedding dress-style blouse to go with the skirt from New York and, after being demonstrated on by a persuasive clerk, bought the Strivectin I had intended to get for Charlie’s stretch marks three years before. Now it was for my wrinkles. The temperature in Atlanta had climbed from 80 at 9 a.m. to 94 at noon and by the the end of my shopping trip at 4:00, it was 102. Fortified with a Raspberry Freeze from the in-house Starbuck’s, I headed out on the 85 toward Alabama, out of those sunny skies and into a raging thunderstorm; the temperature dropped to 79 in a matter of minutes.
Rain came in sheets that obscured the windshield and I watched a Georgia pine struck by lightening crack open and explode at the side of the road. Radio kept me company: 97.1 The River from Atlanta, through the hulking overgrowth on the Georgia roadsides, Rooster Country 106.1, and another Eagle radio station playing classic rock out of Birmingham. It was too hard to choose cd’s and drive, so I followed radio stations through their broadcast ranges to where they merged with another agreeable frequency.
Out of the storm, I drove between humps of kudzu into blue skies at Lake West Point, took a nap at a picnic area next to another family reunion, and watched a wild black and white cat lounge and stretch on a picnic table. This, the ring of horseshoes, laughter, and boaters shouting from the lake was civilized, idyllic. At a closed Army Corps of Engineers center, planted with magenta crape myrtle that sheltered hundreds of shy birds, there was a quote from W.H. Hudson, “There is no more fascinating pasttime than to keep company with a river from its source.” This was what I looked forward to, driving toward a reunion with the Mississppi after the earlier encounter in Minnesota. At Montgomery I left the 85 and started west on a direct collision course with the River. The clouds gathered again and the sun was red, the sky gold, green, and deep gray as lightening began to flash in the distance.
This was to be one of the most dramatic drives of the trip because of the weather and the special significance of the road. As I traveled west in gathering gloom, I picked up amazing blues music on WVFG, 107.5, “The Real Thing” out of Uniontown, Demopolis, and Selma and realized I was driving the route of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, the Historic Road of the March to Montgomery. A billboard advertised 5 museums in Selma, and coaxed the weary to stay “Where Hospitality Meets History.” Along the way, markers announced the site of four encampments where the marchers spent night on the way from Selma to Montgomery in 196. When I reached Selma, commemorative signs pointed the winding way to the church where the march began, an imposing if somewhat down-at-heel two-story red church next to a newer and sleeker chapel with tall white columns. There was the ominous feeling of being at ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement, from which we had been somewhat insulated in the suburbs of Houston. Driving through Selma, a college town still a little ragged at the edges, the feeling continued down the road to Meridian, where the three boys were run off the road after being released by the police. In the dark, the ditches falling away into blackness on the roadside held a particular terror, especially as the lightening and thunder continued and a Black History Montage came on the radio from WNPR, segue to Highway 61, blues at WMRR, non-profit stations like the Pacifica of my youth. These were songs I hadn’t heard for twenty years: “Freddy’s Dead”, James Brown’s “Payback”, “Get Up. Stand Up”, The Last Poets, and a Slave Ship narrative with the sound effect of lapping water that I had never heard before. It reminded me of Lawrence Jones, a poet who was on the 3-6 a.m. shift before me at KPFT, the kind of politically-charged juxtaposition of music and spoken word he used to do. This carried me into Vicksberg at 4 in the morning and I drove around to look at ante-bellum mansions in the dark, then took the foggy Nachez Trace down the levee to the sound of gospel and Sunday Morning preaching.
Finally coming out onto the Mississippi after another all-nighter, I parked in a lot overlooking two casino riverboats, one of which had its own hotel and shuttle service a little back from the shore. Early morning joggers crossed in front of me on a path with an amazing view of the mile-wide Big Muddy and an old iron erector-set bridge spanning the river to the south. It was 6:00 and 70 degrees, perfect conditions for taking a nap, and I leaned the seat back, secure in this public lot on the edge of the Sublime.

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