Between Alabama and Louisiana is the very special southern buffer state of Mississippi. My knowledge of Mississippi was limited to what I’d read in history books and the film Mississippi Burning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though Judson and Will had sternly warned us not to speed in Mississippi. Images of getting pulled over and then thrown into a river certainly kept us beneath the speed limit.
Judson and Will also told us that Mississippi was a boring drive boasting nothing but grass and trees. But they were wrong. It was Mississippi, not Alabama, that was home to the very south I’d been searching for in my trip.
On the way to Louisiana, Mississippi welcomed us with open, tattooed arms. Alana and I stopped for gas and Diet Coke at a McDonald’s that proudly served grits inside for one dollar. They were so proud of this that they posted a massive sign in their window. I even took a picture of this sign. Excited beyond measure – I love grits now -, I bounded inside.
We waited in line behind two sagging old men, one with “Mom” tattooed on his arm in a heart. He had leery eyes, few teeth, and a mangled beard that could’ve made some mother bird very happy. I can tell you all of this with veracity because the man stared at us with a ferocity that was frightening enough to elicit a text to Judson detailing our location and the fact that we’d stopped for grits. Somewhere overhead came the sound of a banjo. The man grinned lasciviously.
By the time I got up to the register, he had mustered enough courage to pick up a flyer advertising some water park and wave it at me.
“Oh,” I said and smiled. At this point I was looking to Alana for cues and she was being polite. He put the pamphlet back in the pile and his friend shoved him.
“Behave yo’self,” he remonstrated.
I wiped the pools of nervous sweat from my brow and approached the register, steadied only by the knowledge that my grits were just an order away. The old man hobbled back a few steps and continued to stare. Drool dangled from his bottom lip to the floor. (Or not, but it was a very real possibility.)
I happily ordered a Diet Coke and some grits, straining to hear the woman’s response. (Sidenote: The southern accent is terrible in some places. A cashier at Milo’s in Alabama asked me if I wanted “Per-uh-ckles” on my burger and it took me three times to understand. What makes this worse is that Judson, Will, and Alana all understood but instead stood around entertained by my inability to decipher the language she was speaking.)
“Grits and Diet Coke,” she typed. A moment later, her manager came out and stared at the screen with unconcealed amusement.
“Grits? We don’t serve grits here,” she said with a laugh. “Lemme see if we got some oatmeal or somethin’.”
“You don’t have grits?” I asked with a puzzled glance at the window advertisement.
“I don’t see why not,” said the cashier with sincere empathy. “We put ’em in the oatmeal, so I don’t see why we can’t just give ya grits.”
“No, we don’t have grits,” the manager repeated, reappearing. “We can put ’em in oatmeal, but yeh can’t get just grits.”
I refrained from pointing out the giant grits ad on the window, mainly because I was slowly becoming convinced that I had imagined it. After all, how can you blatantly advertise something and then assiduously stress that you don’t actually sell it?
Behind me, the old man wheezed happily.
We jetted out of there as fast as we could – but not before I snapped a picture of the grits advertisement.
By this point, I really hated Mississippi and was not looking forward to driving back through it, but New Orleans had failed me in one aspect that I hoped Mississippi could remedy.
I wanted very badly to see a bayou. When I wrote my masters thesis, I explained to my professor the strange draw that New Orleans and the bayou had for me.
“I think that people really do have this strange, inexplicable draw to some places. Maybe you had a past life there.”
It was with this thought that I sought out a bayou, in hopes that I’d be reunited with my ancestors. As we drove to Bayou St. John in New Orleans, I envisioned toothless bayou folk tumbling out of their modest homes and squinting at me, whispering, “Parrain? Maw, ain’t that Parrain?” (Parrain is Cajun for ‘godfather,’ which would be appropriate considering a psychic once told me I was a man in both of my past lives.)
Instead, Alana and I happened upon what looked like a man-made lake in front of some industrial plaza.
“This can’t be the bayou!” I cried. “This is not a bayou!”
A sign on the lawn indicated that indeed, it was Bayou St. John.
“Look,” Alana pointed out. “They’re mowing the bayou.”
“You don’t mow bayous! They’re supposed to be overgrown with weeds and reed plants and stuff.”
Distressed, I called Judson to ask if there were any bayous on the way back to Alabama. After researching quite a few, Judson found the perfect bayou just two hours into Mississippi. We could stop there and then take the three hour drive back to Birmingham, no worries.
“Bogue Chitto,” he explained, promising to text directions shortly. Alana plugged it into the GPS and we were on our way to a town we were unsure how to pronounce with hopes that perhaps this was the bayou of our dreams, the gimlet water rippling with algae and alligators.
From the moment we entered Mississippi, it was obvious that we were in the south of my dreams. Flat land sprawled out in front of us, miles of nothing unfolding with disinterest from east to west. We pulled into a rest stop to grab subs and I spotted a tow truck driver sporting a confederate flag inked on his bicep. Yes, this was the deep south.
At the register, I stood beside a man (this seems to be a recurring theme) with a skull cap on, shouting angrily into his phone. He let fly a number of obscenities, clearly disgruntled that the individual on the other end couldn’t understand him.
“Goddammit Jeb!” he yelled. “If they catch me outta my house it’s six months!”
Well hell’s bells! Boy was this exciting. I eagerly joined Alana back in the car and we sped off deeper into Mississippi in search of Bogue Chitto.
By the time we reached the Bogue Chitto sign, we were a little uncertain.
“This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d find a bayou,” Alana observed, worried.
“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.
We slowed to a crawl and passed yet another thicket of trees on the roadside. Miles of field stretched out before us.
“You have reached your destination,” the GPS announced.
“Well…shit. This isn’t right,” I muttered, comparing Judson’s directions – which we’d ignored – to the GPS.
“Maybe we can pull over an ask someone,” Alana suggested, and we both glanced hopefully out the windows at the glorious emptiness that engulfed us. The last sign of civilization had been a Family Dollar that looked like it’d been plopped down in a field and then promptly neglected.
Alana graciously turned around and headed down a long ribbon of road decorated only by a small gas station on the right side. Fortunately, the gas station was experiencing heavy traffic: a pickup idled next to a pump and three men congregated outside by the door.
“You’re getting out and asking,” she said. I glanced nervously at the men. A little albino boy sat beside them, strumming a banjo. (Or not, but it was a very real possibility.)
I clambered out of the car and nervously approached the men.
“Um, hi, we’re looking for a bayou,” I began.
And this is where the day became one of my favorite of the entire trip.
“Bayou!?” the man on my left exclaimed. “There aren’t no bayous around here. There’s bayous where I come from, in Nawlins.”
I hesitate to point out the fact that this man lacked many teeth, only because he and his comrades were the epitome of friendliness and hospitality.
“Oh,” I stammered, suppressing a laugh at the absurdity of the whole situation.
“What you wanna do at the bayou? You lookin’ to take pictures or go for a swim?”
“Well, we just wanted to see a bayou and…and my friend said there was one here in your town of…I’m not sure how to pronounce it…”
“Bo-guh-CHEE-toe,” they replied in unison. The man on the right took another bite of his corndog.
“A bayou? Here?”
“Well yeah, I mean…my friend said it was off 59…”
“59!? This here’s 55!”
“Yeah, okay, so I guess we’re very lost.”
“What’s the name of the bayou?”
“Yeah, that’d be back that way. Go up to the crossroads and turn left, all the way down.”
I thanked the men and darted back to the car near hysterics. I knew we wouldn’t find the bayou, and I was disappointed. I felt guilty for dragging Alana around for two hours. And I could only imagine how far off track we’d gotten.
“So, we should be three hours from Birmingham right now?” she asked.
“I have a feeling we’re not.”
Five hours. We’d been five hours away when we were in New Orleans, and we were still five hours away. We wouldn’t be back in town until ten thirty.
I spent the ride back alternating between apologizing and laughing to the point of tears. I called Judson to try to explain. He seemed mutually disgusted and amused at our inability to follow his directions and said he’d see us in five hours.
Would I have loved to see a bayou? Definitely. But I was equally thrilled at having found my deep southern town right there on the dusty crossroads by Mama’s Cafe in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi.
*Disclaimer: I am aware that Bayou St. John is considered the lifeblood of New Orleans, being the reason the town was built in the first place. It was once the bayou of my dreams, a great water source, and is now a preserved historic location. But I do know that the bayous of CCR fame do exist somewhere.
Categories: United States (USA)