At the start of our nine-day road trip, we said goodbye to Texas at the oil refinery town of Port Arthur. The view of the intra-coastal waterway was stunning from the Rainbow Bridge, the tallest in Texas, which Mike said was like driving up the side of a barn. Soon, we were skirting Louisiana’s sandy beaches. Golden rod filled the roadside and hawks and egrets the blue November skies. Out at sea an offshore rig loomed.
At the Calcasieu River, I asked a fisherwoman with a wide smiley face how often the ferry ran. In her southern Louisiana drawl she explained, “There is no schedule, they go by Louisiana time.” Several formations of brown pelicans in V formation had flown over by the time the small, rusting ferry turned up. As it was getting dark when we arrived in the tiny oil refinery town of Cameron on the other side, we decided to spend the night there.
At the only accommodation in Cameron, a bright orange motel, we were greeted by three kittens, a faint smell of gasoline and the Indian owner, who told us we could get dinner in the town of Creole, just over a mile away (it turned out to be five). Though the meal in the ramshackle restaurant was uneventful, the sunset on the way was spectacular – huge criss-cross shapes of deep orange with gunpowder-grey clouds – and I enjoyed the magazine on the table that commemorated the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival and was filled with drawings of duck and deer hunts by local children and recipes like Speckled Trout in Shrimp Sauce and Cajun Black Bottoms.
Setting off the next morning, the motel owner’s father, a spry, trim man in his late seventies, noted the bicycle rack on the back of our car and told us he cycled, too, and that he practised yoga every day. How incongruous the distinguished-looking gentleman seemed in this tiny oil town that had been largely destroyed by hurricanes Rita and Ike. We then drove for miles along marshland with moorhen swimming amongst the rushes. There were rice and sugar plantations, and in the sky above pelicans and egrets and the occasional pink wings of a roseate spoonbill. Houses were built on very high stilts or manmade mounds. An above-ground cemetery contained all shapes and sizes of concrete tombs. Then just as Mike was commenting on the number of young dead raccoons on the road, a huge black pig came out of the rushes straight for our car. I gasped as Mike quickly swerved out of the pig’s way but it kept coming towards us, forcing us into the opposite lane – luckily the road was empty and we missed it by inches.
Inland later, majestic cypress trees floated surreally in a pea-grey bog; the knobbly-knee roots were taller, and spikier, than those I’d seen in Texas. And then blue mistflower and yellow sneezeweed dotted the wayside as we drove eastwards, past the town of White Castle with its sumptuous plantation mansion, Nottoway, on the banks of the Mississippi, and Donaldsville with its perfectly preserved, deserted downtown and gorgeous old department store, like a film set from the 1950s. Only a street away black families sat outside their tiny clapboard houses.
It was dusk when we arrived in the parish of Plaquemines (Creole for persimmon), a narrow peninsular through which the last 70 miles of the Mississippi runs. As we drove down it we could see, above the levee, the tops of ships floating by. After driving for a while with no sign of accommodation, a gas station employee told us he thought there was one about ten miles further south. Luckily he was right, though it was set so far back from the road and was dark due to an electricity fault that we very nearly missed it.
The next morning, we had a walk around the grounds of Woodland plantation house, which is now a B&B but was once a bootlegger haven during prohibition. A doctor exiting the house told us there was a conference on the opioid crisis taking place inside. Out the back, near a sign alerting visitors to Gators and Snakes, two alligators dozed. The rest of the peninsular was dotted with small communities, ubiquitous Dollar Stores, above-ground graves, Terry’s Oysters shop, the remains of Fort Jackson, and fishing boats in various states of disrepair. Leafless chinaberry trees were full of clusters of ochre berries and there also banana trees, date palms and a satsuma orchard where we stopped to buy a bag. Tiny Venice, the southernmost point of the peninsular, turned out to be a popular fishing spot and marina with many fishing cabins. From almost leafless trees came the cries of cormorants and pelicans. Behind them loomed the oil refineries. As Craw Gator’s Bar and Grill unfortunately was not yet open we drove back up the peninsular to where we could catch a car ferry to cross the Mississippi. On it we got chatting to a smartly dressed African American gentleman in an orange patterned tie and brown suit who turned out to be the parish’s prison chaplain. He said he crossed the river to get there every day. It was from him we learned that most of the residents of Plaquemines never returned after Katrina.
We soon crossed into the state of Mississippi and found ourselves driving along the coastal road that runs by the lovely beaches and elegant coastal towns – towns like Bay St Louis, Cape Christian and Long Beach that look over nearly white sands dotted with herons and terns and, out at sea, a string of barrier islands. Empty lots interspersed with beautiful southern homes were a reminder of the hurricanes that had swept through this area, too. The only blight on the horizon was a large casino further down the coast. In the town of Biloxi we visited Beauvoir, the final residence of Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy during the Civil War. (Mike was sure that the female guide, who was dressed in period dress, had a fake southern accent!) I had also wanted to see the Biloxi visitors’ centre, which was portrayed in my old Smithsonian guide book as an unusual Victorian cottage with ornamental woodwork, but it had been swept away by Katrina. We were told that by the lady at the new visitors’ centre. This was located opposite the beach where ‘wade ins’ by local African Americans took place in the 1960s, protesting racial segregation of the beaches.
The beaches ended as we crossed the border into Alabama. Mike had particularly wanted to show me Bellingrath Gardens which were designed in the 1930s by wealthy Walter Bellingrath, the first Coca-Cola bottler in the south, and his wife. The gardens reminded me a little of Sheffield Gardens in Sussex, except here the azaleas were 30-foot trees and the enormous camellias bore hundreds of buds. Nearby, the small town of Bayou La Batre was where Forrest Gump opened the fictional Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory. The town looked poor, as did much of the area. In contrast, the city of Mobile, once the capital of French territory, reminded me a bit of New Orleans with its exterior decorative ironwork, catholic churches, neighbourhoods full of antebellum mansions, and the jazz band that burst into sudden melody at a downtown pavement café.
We took to the interstate and drove northwards, crossing rivers and thickly forested areas as far as the eye could see, finally turning off on the road that would lead us to Monroeville, Harper Lee’s home town. This was lined alternately with pine forests and cotton fields which were being harvested and all the way tufts of cotton spotted the roadside. According to the motel owner in Monroeville, AJ’s was the best place for dinner. As we sat in the simple but convivial restaurant, Mike joked at the contrast to the elegant steakhouse in Mobile where we had dined the previous night. Here, a buffet consisted of spaghetti bolognaise, fried catfish, macaroni cheese, carrots, creamed corn, cabbage and cornbread. Prints of Tuscan landscapes hung on the walls and a photo of a rocket launch hung by the cash till. But mainly, I was struck by all the families and friends, black and white, sitting and chatting harmoniously together – so unlike the period depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The courthouse that featured so dramatically in the novel was in the centre of the town square. Opposite it, the only place open for breakfast was the Sweet Tooth Café, which only sold cakes, enormous ones freshly baked by the cash till assistant’s husband. “This is a good town,” she told me, proudly, and as we chatted she cut me a square of Georgia cake which I hadn’t heard of before. It was full of chopped pecans and vanilla, and delicious.
The courtroom (now a museum) had a gorgeous tin-pressed roof, church pews for seats and a tiny balcony which was the only place back in the old days where blacks could sit. Press cuttings and photos were of both Harper Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote, who spent his summers there. The small, busy post office opposite the courthouse had a mural on one wall of a harvest scene, dating back to the 1930s New Deal era.
More cotton fields, pine forests, clapboard houses, trailer homes and whitewashed Baptist churches of all shapes and sizes lined the route to Montgomery. Trucks drove by laden with long, skinny pine trunks that used to be made into newsprint and now were made into pulp. Long vanished towns like Snow Hill which still appeared on the map had not a brick left to show for them.
Arriving in Montgomery we had just enough time to visit the new Memorial for Peace and Justice before it closed. Built on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were once imprisoned, the outdoors sculpture consisted of 800 suspended steel blocks, each representing a county in the US where African Americans had been lynched. As Mike and I walked around, I noticed that the sky had become spotted with small pink clouds and the occasional swirl of blackbirds.
That evening the hotel café was noisy with the chatter of many African American families; most of the women wore striking African fabrics and elaborate hairstyles. Directly opposite the hotel was the elegant train station where thousands of slaves used to be trafficked. Now a visitor centre, a freight train was trundling through the next morning as Mike and I collected information. We had a peaceful stroll around the capitol, the old confederacy white house and the church where Martin Luther King used to preach. There was also a Rosa Parkes museum, and at the greyhound station another commemorated the freedom riders.
We then drove back west, through Selma, where we crossed over the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, scene of the 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery. During a brief drive around Selma’s downtown I was slightly shocked by the state of decay of this once wealthy cotton town, which had also built ships during the Civil War and boasts more historic antebellum mansions than New Orleans.
Back in Mississippi, in Jackson, we visited Eudora Welty’s home, a 1920s Tudor revival house that would not have looked out of place in Worthing. It was a contented house, barely altered from the days when the writer was still alive, with thousands of books still in their original piles and her favourite paintings on the walls. Outside, purple Mexican bush sage and tall, pink coneflowers brightened a wintry, undulating back garden sheltered by tall camellia shrubs.
Further south, the streets of the lovely town of Natchez on the Mississippi were lined with elegant antebellum houses and mansions, old banks and stores. But it was chilly, a cold front was coming in, and in the yard of one mansion precious shrubs were covered in red-and-white checked cloth. Mike and I were the only ones on the tour of a Longwood, a huge, octagonally-shaped mansion with a red onion dome and white Moorish columns and arches that stood on the edge of town. The original owners, wealthy plantation growers who lost their fortune during the Civil War, lived in the basement with their family heirlooms as it was the only part finished, the remaining five floors remaining forever a shell, containing only the odd dusty trunk. At the open windows live oaks dripped with Spanish moss.
Back over the border in Louisiana, piney bogs led all the way back to Texas. The leaves, which had been green the day we began our trip, were now orange, peach and gold.