The original objective of the ride was to explore the “Natchez Trace”, a historical path extending about 400 plus miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. Early European and American explorers and traders used it in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition met his death while traveling on the Trace and his gravesite is marked about halfway down. As it turned out, the Trace was interesting for about an hour, then it turned out to be a long boring road through endless, unchanging forest much more suitable for a Miata Club rally than bikers looking for challenging terrain. It was only after we departed the Trace that things started getting interesting.
Our first diversion was the Vicksburg Civil War battlefield, a fascinating slice of history. The Confederate States outpost at Vicksburg, Mississippi was termed the Gibraltar of the Mississippi river, virtually impenetrable. The Union had tried to take it for months and had been repulsed every time. Union warships ruled the Mississippi above and below but could not penetrate the high ground. Ultimately, Grant decided to starve the city into submission be blocking both ends of the river beginning on May 25, 1863.
Holding out for more than forty days with no reinforcement and dwindling supplies, Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton finally surrendered on July 4, 1863 rather than continue to see his men literally starve to death. This action yielded command of the Mississippi River to the Union forces that would hold it for the rest of the conflict. The coincidental fall of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 in which Lee suffered over 27,000 casualties signaled the end of the South’s potential to win, although the Civil War dragged on for two more years.
The tour of the battlefield was by vehicle along an annotated road, with many stopping points showing what happened at those junctures. It was all otherwise beautiful rolling hills, with sobering statistics of the carnage that happened there. 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate boys were killed or mortally wounded. (29,495 surrendered). At one point, a section was pointed out where opponents fought to a draw literally hand to hand for 26 consecutive hours. At the surrender, Grant, not wanting to feed 30,000 hungry Confederates in Union prison camps, ordered open-ended release all dejected and starving Confederate prisoners, exhorting them to avoid similar circumstances in the future. Some actually returned to the war later.
Moving north up the famous “Route 61” to cotton country, we were reminded of this and other highway legends. Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles was immortalized in song and legend (TV series “Route 66” from the early 60’s and “Get your kicks on Route 66” (Chuck Berry, 1961). Then a legendary route from Atlanta to Macon, Ga. “I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound Bus, rollin’ down highway 41”, (Allman brothers, 1970)
Ultimately however, “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan (1965), immortalized as a top ten album of all time by Rolling Stone, leads the list. Dylan’s ability to combine driving, complex, blues-based rock with the power of his poetry made “Highway 61 Revisited” one of the most influential albums ever recorded.
Technically, U.S. Route 61 runs 1,400 miles from Minnesota to New Orleans, generally following the course of the Mississippi River. The highway has been called “The Blues Highway”, because of its course through the Mississippi Delta and the “Chitin Circuit” inhabited by black musicians in a line from Louisiana up to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Most if not all of the “Delta Fathers” blues musicians were born somewhere near this road. The intersection of US 61 and US 49 near Clarksdale, Miss is said to be the “Crossroads” where Delta bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to master the Blues at the price of his soul.
On entering Clarksdale, Miss, we had previously researched a fascinating place to stay overnight. The “Shack-Up Inn”. Virtually unchanged from when it was a working plantation post Civil War, we stayed in an authentic sharecropper shack near where the original cotton gin and seed houses were located. We wandered into town and caught some authentic “Juke Joint” music, a lone laptop guitar and blues harp player entertaining a whopping total of eight well-lubricated patrons. It was absolutely magnificent.
The entire trip covered four states, 1200 miles in four days. We saw and did as much as we had energy for in the time allotted.
See clips I have made into a YouTube movie at:
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Next ride up:
Death Valley, California (Dec 2012)