The last thing I placed in my suitcase was a ragged copy of my Rand McNally Road Atlas. I shook my head. 2010. I should have upgraded. I had a brief vision of our rental car on a narrowing blacktop that peters out in dirt on a deserted road in rural Louisiana, beneath the gaze of toothless inbred Cajun renegades ready to rob us and take our car, leaving us stranded there in Acafaluka. I made that name up, Acafaluka, yet it sounds believable, has a ring to it. In fact, the whole thing sounds believable. I close the suitcase, vowing to purchase a new atlas soon.
I apologize if you are from Louisiana.
Our flight brings us into Baton Rouge which, I know, sounds French, which, I know, makes me think wine and lax morals and Napoleon and guillotines and a certain book I reviewed a couple of years ago about a Frenchman who tried to make sense of the tragic tsunami in Asia but lacked the moral categories to know the questions to ask.
I apologize if you are from France.
Our route today, just a red line on Rand McNally as yet, meanders north, through St. Francisville, where Ruthie Leming (of the book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming) lived and died too soon, where her family still lives. We'll stop there, at least briefly, so I can soak up littleness, which, lived to God's glory, is huge, rippling out across space and time, like Ruthie.
And then it's back to the red line, the highway north, Mississippi in our sights, Natchez on the horizon, which makes me think of racism and civil rights and the third-grade spelling bee and a certain town called Petal, my friend Josh's hometown, which is too far from Rand McNally's course to visit but which seems like a whisp of a place in my mind, not a flower but a mere Petal, slight but beautiful, perhaps. . . A name dropped on a crossroads, perhaps, as an expression of hope?
I'm 56, and I have never been to Mississippi. But when Mavis Staples sings, I dream it.
I like walking out of an airport and onto the tarmac to board a plane. Loading bridges mask reality, assuage fear even. But out here you can touch the skin of the plane, smell the jet fuel, hear the airflow in jet engines. I see the stairs leading to the door, and I think of Presidents waving to admirers, or the Beatles arriving in New York for a concert at Shea Stadium, seeing Gerald Ford at a whistle stop in Greensboro in the early 70s.
I consider pausing on the stairs, looking back, nodding to my one admirer, smiling.
Before hotels and motels there were motor lodges and, even earlier, motor courts which sprang up alongside the first modern highways. In my childhood in the early 60s, the motor courts were largely gone, replaced by the motels, the Howard Johnson's and Holiday Inns or, for our family's budget, the mom and pop brands like the old Vicky Villa, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, or the Skyline Motor Lodge, in Asheville, North Carolina (a truncated version of which still exists). You could drive right off the highway and sail up to your door in your Olds Jetstar 77 (our car) or Ford Fairlane. We'd open the door on air-conditioned air, jump up and down on the bed a few times, get some ice from the ice machine for our parents, and run around the premises and check out the pool while our somnolent elders, inexplicably, took a nap.
In St. Francisville, the motor court still exists, detached motel rooms, if you like, cottages, quaint, with the addition here of massages (unheard of in polite quarters in the 60's, but now a nod to the urbane). The Magnolia Motor Court is tucked back off the main road, right across from the bustling Magnolia Cafe. We sat by the door, where you can watch people come and go, mainly locals. "Look, that lady has a Chinelle pocketbook," said my wife, surprising here, we thought, in rural Louisiana. "She's wearing Tory Burch shoes." Ok, so the world has come even here, fashion piled on top of cows and deer blinds and hay.
I look over at the table in the next room and see a man I recognize. It's Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, not ten feet from me, surrounded by a gaggle of fawning women. I prefer to think they are relatives. Or maybe aspiring writers. I fight the urge to go speak to him, to do something grand, like buy a bottle of wine for the table, anonymously, just because I like his book, just because it make me laugh and cry. But I don't. I had lunch with him, I'll say, passed his home in Star Hill, saw the Orthodox church he attends. That's enough. No, enough is the bread pudding, the best we have ever had, like someone melted down four Krispy Kreme doughnuts and poured it into a pudding mold.
Crossing over into Mississippi, I realize that the land is not flat, as I imagined, but swells and falls, like the Piedmont, like Chatham County, with cows and hayfields and houses set back off the road with long drives lined by live oaks that must make you feel like royalty, arriving at your home. On the way, we had two conversations with Palo Alto and one with Wichita, and I have the surreal feel of being here, there and maybe everywhere, all at once. I'm thankful for technology but feel like I need to get out and walk, to be on solid ground, in one place.
In Natchez (pronounced like "matches"), we checked into the Monmouth Historic Inn. The cover of Travel and Leisure magazine, in the gift shop, claims it as one of the 500 best small hotels in the country. And it's fine. All I know is our room looks like Grandma's house - old and a bit musty. I prefer the motor court. I like the ice machine and outdoor pool and driving right up to your door that opens not on some hallway but on the great outdoors of the parking lot. I like eating at Shoneys and Bucks and Rays and all those family-owned restaurants. I like the feeling of ice cold motel room on a hot and humid summer day, even the smell of the room. I particularly liked that one motel where you could have the bed vibrate for five minutes if you inserted a quarter. (My Dad let us do it once, and my sister and I laughed and laughed.)
I even miss jumping up and down on the bed. Which is probably not going to happen at The Monmouth Historic Inn in Natchez, Mississippi. I might hurt something. Grandma might be upset.