We rolled out of New Orleans with a bouncy jazz tune in our hearts after a sumptuous gumbo of southern victuals and family time.
Life is good.
We drifted up the Mississippi River through Baton Rouge toward the Mississippi Delta humming a Robert Johnson blues ballad. The landscape changed from low country swamp to rolling hills and pine trees over a couple hundred miles. The Big Muddy is a seminal piece of our history as a nation. Long before trains and trucks, the Mississippi was the highway that ferried people and goods through the middle of the continent. At 2,340 miles long, it drains rivers and streams from 32 U.S. states, creating some of the richest farmland in the world in the process. Long before Europeans ventured up the river, native peoples lived along its banks for thousands of years. Some of these people such as the Mound Builders enjoyed (or suffered, if their pols were like ours) complex hierarchical societies.
Our port of call was Natchez, MS which was under Union control during the Civil War and was consequently spared the ravages of war. And, unlike many of the other cities along the river, Natchez sits on a high bluff and has never been deluged by floods. Just across the river, Vidalia, LA had to be moved inland after the great 1927 flood destroyed it. Those factors account for Natchez boasting over a hundred comely mansions and plantations from the Antebellum period.
Natchez is sleepy and quiet these days. We walked Main Street at 5PM one night and it was as if the town had already turned in for the night. But that made our wander through their famous 200-year-old city cemetery all the more ethereal. It may be the most beautiful graveyard that I’ve ever seen. It is home to the Turning Angel who keeps watch over 5 young souls that died too young in tragic circumstances.
In the tall cotton (and slave owning) years, genteel Natchez was up on the hill. “Under the Hill,” down on the banks of the river, was an entirely different and considerably more colorful Natchez; full of bars, brothels and gambling dens. We visited the Under the Hill Saloon which claims to be the oldest continuously operated saloon on the entire Mississippi river (congratulations!). It thrived in the days of the steamboat, fell into ghost-town ruin when the railroad and a bridge across the river rendered it irrelevant, and was revived by romantic riverboat cruises in the 1990s, never closing during that entire 200-year period. Best of all, we got happy hour Buds for just $2.75 a piece!
Back in Louisiana, we headed west toward Texas and spent the night on a deer farm. I didn’t know you could farm deer. Usually at these Harvest Hosts, there is something you need to buy for your free stay. I figured Venison? But Chip, our deer farmer, doesn't do that; this is breeding stock that he sells to other breeders and hunting ranches apparently. But maybe you have a little homemade honey or soap to sell? Nope, it seems all Chip and his wife wanted was our company. We readily obliged.
Two summers ago, on our first Grand Tour, we spent close to a month journeying across the Republic of Texas. It’s a big place Texas; further from Dallas to El Paso than El Paso is to Los Angeles. Hence, it’s prudent to pay the distance some mind. And there is lots to enjoy in the Lone Star State.
Yet, heavy on our minds was that two years ago, after hiking in the hill country west of San Antonio, we stopped in a tiny little central Texas town to do our laundry. While the clothes spun, I sampled my first Whataburger and chatted with a friendly guy who fervently believed in spirits (he had seen them). It was nice.
Afterward, we thought no more about Uvalde, TX. That is until, a little more than a year after our brief visit, a boy bought two AR rifles a day after his 18th birthday, as was his legal right in Texas. He was a disturbed kid. He had been known to carry a dead cat around town in a bag. His nickname was “school shooter” because he so frequently made threats about committing extreme violence. But, back then, it was still legal in Texas for a bat-shit crazy young man to buy military rifles, even while holding a bag of dead cat.
The next day, he gunned down 19 elementary school kids and 2 of their teachers in cold blood (after shooting his grandmother as a special touch). They were just little kids.
So, Texas had to finally step back and take a good hard look at their gun laws.
And, to no one's surprise, Texas actually expanded access to military grade firearms after Uvalde. Because... obviously that will help avoid similar tragedies in the future. While we’re at it let’s allow people purchase hand grenades and Stinger missiles at Walmart too, because hey – those are also “arms” and that’s guaranteed in the 2nd Amendment, bitches.
Texas does not have a monopoly on craven political expediency at the expense of innocent lives – but they do seem to take a particular pride in it. The tally for 2023 so far: Cleveland, TX. 5 dead. Allen, TX. 11 dead. Texarkana. 4 dead. And it’s only May! Maybe they can set a personal best this year?
Shame on you Lone Star State. No more of our tourist dollars for you outside of the tanks of gas we’ll need as we cross your vast armed expanse to the relative sanity of New Mexico.
Life is Good. But sometimes it’s really really sad.