Southern Belles & The Blues

Changing US States and driving through Alabama and Mississippi was a different experience to the states further north. Neither states are particularly touristy, there are some small towns and of course The Natchez Trace Parkway is a well trodden route from Natchez up to Memphis then across to Nashville. It struck us both that it felt very sparsely populated and incredibly run down, to the point that some small towns were on the verge of being ghost towns. In the main it was farming country, plenty of cotton and corn being grown and harvested. It was shocking to see to be honest, people living in such run down conditions and in contrast to the States beforehand. It’s a wonder how a country with so much wealth has, and accepts, such extremes. This became a theme as we travelled on.

An incredible place on the route was Providence Canyon State Park. Only 100 years ago it was fields with manmade irrigation channels. Within 20 years those channels had eroded the earth below by 2m meaning the land wasn’t farmable and it has continued ever since. It’s now a myriad of canyons, colourful and spectacular. A hike down to the valley floor, we were able to wander between the canyons, through the running water from the underground streams. It’s a great example of not considering the environment in advance and the impact of making poor decisions for the short term gain.

A nondescript stop at a place called Prattville, Montgomery threw up an interesting find. One of my favourite films, Big Fish, was filmed around there. On a small island, with a ghostly feel, Spanish moss everywhere and lots of noisy birds, is what remains of the town of Spectre, a set built for some of the biggest parts of the film. Very atmospheric in the early morning mists, it was fun to wander the shells of buildings, avoid the marauding goats and make a note to oneself to watch it again!

Laurel, Mississippi was an overnight stop, a town on the up thanks to a TV programme called ‘Home Town’ which features two locals doing up historic homes. There is a lovely feel to the place although other than the gorgeous historic district and a fabulous Museum of Art it lacks the infrastructure for ‘folks like us’ but it will get there. Chatting to locals it’s friendly and big on ambition!

Driving across the Pontchartrain Lake we hit the outskirts of New Orleans and from the elevated roads we could see more devastation. Hurricane Ida in late August, was the second most destructive hurricane to hit Louisiana (after Katrina). If you could imagine a Google Earth image with thousands of blue pins in it, this is what the view resembled. Thousands of the familiar FEMA blue tarpaulins still attached to roofs and sidings were testament to the impact. Hard to comprehend but these properties were still being lived in, like Katrina, the choice is leave altogether or stay put and hope help will come. Talking to a few people, for all the rhetoric, it’s a very slow process and many don’t have insurance as they can’t afford it or can’t afford the excess if they do. There’s too much to say about this experience for a blog. We saw this everywhere, Ida didn’t discriminate about the style of house, wealthy or not, but the system sure does when it comes to rebuilding.

Having been to N’Awlins as they say, a couple of times for Mardis Gras, it was interesting to see it without its face on. We spent a few days wandering the streets as we do, seeing things we’ve not seen before, going into places normally shut during the party season and getting a different feel for it. Being able to walk down Bourbon Street in The French Qtr without slipping on beads, getting drink spilled and being able to hear ourselves above music was a first! Nor did we need fancy dress 😀 A usual haunt, ‘The Spotted Cat Music Club’ in Faubourg Marigny, was nowhere near as rammed as usual and we could enjoy the live Jazz in relative comfort. We were also able to set foot in others that we’d not have tried before. We found some fun shops for next time we need a party outfit and some great festive characters on the balconies!

The St Louis Cathedral was open, with its iconic shell shaped pulpit, such a beautiful building inside and pretty lovely outside too. It overlooks the manicured Jackson Square. We took the Trolley to the ‘Garden District’ with its grand houses and Christmas lights (a 2 bed here is $500k) Even though this area is wealthy, they still rely on the state for infrastructure so the roads and pavements were shocking. They resemble farm tracks in terms of condition, everywhere. The states have to partly fund themselves and not being a prosperous state, there’s a real issue. We both wondered where it’s going, hurricanes haven’t helped but everything seems to be in decline. It’s an upside down kind of world, massive wealth on show in the properties but decay and un cared for and homeless everywhere. Mardis Gras may be a cash cow for a short period of time but it’s not enough. Seeing this, you wouldn’t believe this is a 1st World country, we’ve nothing like this is the UK and we should think ourselves lucky more often.

On a lighter note, we found the Banksy ‘Girl with an Umbrella’ which unlike everywhere else in the world, hadn’t been removed and sold. We also came across another old Woolworth store, masquerading as a record shop ‘Peaches Records’. A time warp of a place it was stacked with stock which probably had no value other than perhaps the ‘on trend’ vinyl. It still had the old soda counter and the headphones along a wall for a pre listen to albums. If it’s still around in a couple of years time it will be a miracle so great to see it now.

Before heading away, we drove out to The Great River Road to see if the old plantation houses had survived Ida. It’s quite a route out as along the banks of the Mississippi are several refineries, chemical works and power stations, all kicking out goodness knows what into the atmosphere. The aromas at times were strong and again we saw the disparity, no doubt wealthy corporations interspersed with people living in blue shacks and trailers. Extremes beyond words. Thankfully, many of the plantation houses survived, lots of trees down all around but superficial property damage. The famous Oak Alley Plantation House remains glorious with its alleyway of ancient Oaks from the road to the house. Naturally these properties come with their stories and to be fair, they depict life from the times in a very honest way.

We left NO to start to head East along the coastline managing 4 states in one day, Louisiana Mississippi Alabama and Florida! Obviously covering a lot of ground so far, we have noticed a disturbing new trend, to us at least… buzz driving…. in effect people driving while smoking weed. The aroma from cars passing by is unmistakable. It’s scary really, a bit like knowing that the car in front is being driven by someone over the drink drive limit. It’s everywhere too and blatant.

This part of the trip is very different again, driving through ‘Resort Towns’ that need no descriptive introduction, to get to the State Parks that thankfully mean the towns won’t all blur into each other like the Costa del Sol! One of the carefully planned communities was ‘Seaside’ where the outdoor scenes in The Truman Show were filmed. If you’ve seen it you’ll recall the idealised conservative American vision of wealth, manicured surroundings, densely packed in second homes, boutique shops and cafes and white sand beaches. There are several of these to drive through and all pretty dull to be honest. Escaping is easy though, there are several state parks with plenty of trails, no other people, lots of wildlife and birds to see. Neither of us thought we’d see so much fungi growing in sand either.

The coastline here was also devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and there are parts that haven’t recovered. The best driving route for interest generally, is the coast but it means also seeing the concrete and wooden posts on which houses once stood and the empty lots with faded for sale signs. It’s a really beautiful stretch of coast, beaches spaced out by nature reserves full of life (the US does do State Park and Reserves very well) but sadly some places will no doubt not recover. Maybe being left to the elements is a good thing though. The monied places will be fine, they’ll look after each other.

Anyhow, off to explore more State Parks and find Manatee, it’s the season! Love to you all.

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