Whilst each state I visited had its own identity and landscape, I felt that I had to bunch Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi & Louisiana into the same blog post as there are only so many times I can use the words like charming, pretty, friendly and sad to describe these places.
My drive through the Deep South started when I left Waynesville, North Carolina and headed through northwest Georgia to make my Gone with the Wind pilgrimage. In my teens and early-20’s I read this Margaret Mitchell novel at least three times and have lost count of how often I saw the movie. Something about it struck me and sparked my interest in this part of the world.
I first headed to the pretty town of Marietta, a city in its own right but considered part of the Atlanta metropolis. I heard there was a Gone with the Wind museum there so after a short walk through their Saturday market in the town square I took a wander through this museum that was jam packed with unique artifacts from the movie such as copies of the original script and even one of Scarlett’s original dresses.
From there I headed to Jonesboro which is where Tara was supposed to be in the book. There was another museum there called the Road to Tara that has an excellent exhibit about the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Atlanta and Jonesboro’s part in that. The rest of the museum is dedicated to Gone with the Wind however I felt the Marietta one was best for that whereas the Jonesboro museum was best to learn about the Civil War.
I spent the night in Newnan just because it was a good place to find a motel and early the next morning drove through rural Georgia into Alabama. Just before crossing the state line I saw signs for Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia and decided to make a stop there. This was the place Roosevelt built next to some hot springs in order to get relief from pain caused by his Polio. He opened the springs up for other Polio sufferers and ended up falling in love with the town and with Georgia.
It is called The Little White House because he spent so much time governing the country from this location during his presidency. And probably because it is in fact a little white house. Whilst having his portrait painted in the living room he collapsed and was moved to his bed where he died soon after. The original half-finished portrait can be seen at the museum. Roosevelt was an extremely popular president who was serving his fourth term when he died in 1945, never getting to see America end the war he had lead them through. In short he is a fascinating figure and this place gave great insight into his life, the Great Depression, Polio, the early civil rights struggle and World War II. Quite a feat for a small modest house in the quiet Georgia woods. Eleanor Roosevelt came and collected a few items from the house after his death but other than that everything is exactly as it was in 1945.
My drive through the South over the next few days took me mostly through rural areas on quiet roads and it was on this morning that I began to see how much poverty there was. There were houses with roofs partially caved in that families were actually living in. In fact, I saw many houses that were uninhabitable but nonetheless inhabited. Many of the rural towns were in decay and often the church was the only thing in good shape. And they were always in very good shape and there always was one, even if there was no school or store to buy food there was always a church.
Clearly there was no money in these areas to put into beautification or even basic building maintenance and whilst it made for some great photo opportunities it was heart wrenching to see. The only places I’ve seen people living in worse housing are in the slums of India and South America. My drive through these poverty stricken rural communities continued for several days until I got to Little Rock but it began on a Sunday morning and I was amazed to see that although these people had little money and drove beat-up cars, they still put on a full suit and tie or their best dress to go to church. This along with the prevalence of well-maintained churches next to houses that nobody should have to live in both perplexed and saddened me. And this isn’t just a thing that belongs to the American South. Whilst I respect that many people worship a god and follow a religion, I can only imagine how much better life would be for millions of people around the world if the same amount of time, effort and money was put into housing, education and healthcare as it is into religion.
After I crossed from Georgia into Alabama I made my way to the Tuskegee Airmen Museum. I’d seen the movie and read about them. It was an amazing feat for African Americans to be allowed flying combat roles in World War II and even now they are few and far between in pilot roles, so I wanted to go and see where they trained and learn more about African Americans in aviation.
If the Sunday morning church run was depressing then things were about to get a lot worse. The parking lot was completely empty so I assumed it must be closed. I made my way to a viewing point over the airfield and saw far below a sign that it was in fact open. This was a beautiful Sunday afternoon so where was everybody? I made my way down the path to the buildings and other than a few crow caws and a lone taxiing Cessna it was eerily silent. I read the signs posted along the way about the airfield and the airmen then tried to enter the first hangar which was supposed to be part of the museum but was locked. A sign said the other hangar was open but I didn’t bother visiting it as the place felt uncomfortable. After a short walk around the buildings I returned to the parking lot to find I was still the only one there. It upset me to think that I appeared to be the sole person that cared about these guys and this topic on that particular Sunday afternoon.
I then decided to head for the city of Troy where there were lots of motels and drove through the actual town of Tuskegee on the way. At one time this must have been a thriving and beautiful place but now the buildings were in terrible disrepair. I don’t blame those that live there for that. If a county or city is poor there is less tax being paid and therefore no money to address these kinds of projects. Anyone owning a building is probably struggling to make ends meet and simply won’t have spare cash to fix a roof or paint the walls. On the other hand, this was beautiful country so I still think it is worth a visit and make sure if you do pass through that you stop and spend your tourist dollars to help out!
The next day I made my way to Mississippi. I decided that I had to include a stop on the Gulf Coast simply because I was doing all the other coasts. So I spent the night right on the beach in Biloxi then headed across the State through a terrible rainstorm to Louisiana. I decided to not do what the guidebooks recommend which is to take the Great River Road from Natchez, Mississippi up to Vicksburg. Instead I drove up the western side of the Mississippi River in Louisiana farming country. It was a fascinating drive that started with the discovery of the incredible bridge pictured below on a quiet road. The roads stayed quiet for the whole drive and I could go half an hour or more without seeing anybody. This was not Louisiana’s prettiest face (that belongs to other parts of the State) however it was an interesting look into American farming and how life is along this part of the river.
I spent the next two nights in the charming casino town of Vicksburg, Mississippi at a motel that was right on this incredible river. If you haven’t seen the Mississippi then you should just to grasp its size. There are casinos all along this stretch of the Mississippi and this is also part of the famed Blues Highway where you can find great live music pretty much any night of the week and eat fabulous Southern food.
The next morning I headed into Northern Louisiana bayou country to make my True Blood pilgrimage. One thing I loved about that show was the cinematography that captured the swampy and sultry nature of this part of the US. I wasn’t disappointed with the landscape or the multitude of small leafy towns.
After getting my True Blood fix I headed north and crossed into Southern Arkansas, a fairly unpopulated and very scenic region dominated by forestry and agriculture. I’d been to Little Rock numerous times as I have good friends there but had never made it outside the city. I’m glad I made the effort as Arkansas tends to be the butt of many jokes so that most people don’t bother visiting but trust me, it is worth it.
Despite all I’ve said about the poverty and the tragic history of slavery, lynchings and Civil War, the Deep South is still a place everyone should visit and enjoy. And there really is much to be enjoyed here from incredibly genuine and friendly people to fabulous food, music and gorgeous landscapes. And if we didn’t visit places because of their awful pasts then there wouldn’t be many places left to visit on this planet. So I would encourage you to come here to learn about that past which is the best way to honor what people went through and ensure it doesn’t continue. You’ll get a very warm welcome and take home some very unique experiences that you just can’t get anywhere else.
My biggest regret: Not having enough time to explore this region properly. I guess I’ll have to come back.
Something I didn’t know last week: Despite 50% of Mississippi being dry (no alcohol can be purchased by law in many counties) it is jam packed with casinos.