Find out how Ed Leahy got on road-tripping across America.
The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar; the window-seat providing flawless views of the sun bouncing off the sparkling water below as our flight meandered with the great river descending into New Orleans.
Four days of uninterrupted, Big Easy-style holidaying followed before I bid adieu to New Orleans and started ‘following the river down the highway through the cradle of the civil war’.
New Orleans and the Mississippi River.
Yes, like Paul Simon, I was going to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, but this particular voyage was not about the final destination but rather the journey. I was taking a road trip through the heart of America and time, thankfully, was not of the essence.
There was no denying that song and its mesmeric rhythms were chugging through my subconscious throughout my stay in New Orleans, yet as we passed the last of the city’s landmarks, the Superdome, and hit the outskirts of the city, that all changed.
The haunting tones of Liam O Maonlai were evoked as the highway took us out and over the magnificent Lakes of Ponchartrain, which border many of New Orleans’ suburban parishes including St John the Baptist and Tammany.
The road would remain pretty much straight for the next couple of hundred miles and while the views were nothing special when compared to driving through the Arizona desert or California’s Pacific Coast Highway, the concept stayed the same.
Every exit along Route 55 offered options, whether taking a few hours to wander one of the many national parks or forests, or venturing out through the Choctaw territory to the native American city of Natchez, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi; that two-hour flight could never offer such scenarios.
The more time you can allocate, the better the detours and adventures you can take, as well as allowing for the odd cul de sac that you are sure to meet when taking random roads in any direction.
Turning off 55 into Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, would turn out to be one such dead end, the soundtrack now switched to Johnny Cash as we breezed into that city.
And half an hour later we breezed right out and back onto the highway, as the alleged biggest city in the state took on the guise of a ghost town with neither an open shop nor café to be found as we worked our way around the town centre’s empty streets.
Perhaps the Sunday visit through bible-belt America was not the best time to see what the city had to offer, but it was a one-time opportunity and it will be a while before I take another such punt on a town once known for its illegal casinos.
There is also the strong possibility that Johnny Cash’s Jackson was written about the town with the same name on the road from Memphis to Nashville.
A hungry driver can turn into a narky one quickly enough, so the next exit that offered any signs of existence was taken in search of a sandwich.
I don’t think the Americans are as fussy as the Irish when it comes to awarding metropolitan status, as the city of Canton appeared to have just the one main street, which ran for about a mile and a half before I doubled back having eye-balled a petrol station/Subway combo on arrival.
The deep south was in full effect throughout that twenty-minute stop for petrol, coffee and a sandwich, from the odd-ball petrol-pump attendant telling tales of previous out-of-towners who were an hour ahead of us on the road, to the sandwich maker with that Madison County drawl getting disrespected by local youths on BMX bikes – yet it was my accent that appeared alien.
A Madison County bridge.
As it happened, Canton is an official stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail and was a location for the filming of O Brother, Where Art Thou. Perhaps this is where the city status derives from.
Many more such one-horse towns exist along Route 55 en route to Memphis, and I’m sure similar stories would be unearthed throughout Winona, Grenada, Batesville and Hernando, but they would be left to the next traveller in need of sustenance or petrol.
Memphis was reached, Graceland visited, Sun Studios toured and Beale Street’s famous night-life was sampled throughout a two-night break, back on the banks of the Mississippi.
My Memphis sojourn also alerted me to the fact that the Mississippi Delta was not the same thing as the delta of the Mississippi River, but rather the north-west section of the state, which lies between the great river and the adjacent Yazoo River. The cotton-growing region is renowned to have played a big part in the birth of delta blues and rock 'n' roll.
Leaving Memphis, the road across the Mississippi takes you into Arkansas, the homeland of former US president Bill Clinton, while if you want to continue with the musical experience, head west to the country music mecca of Nashville.
After Nashville, the northern route back towards Chicago takes you through the state of Kentucky to the city of Louisville.
From Louisville, the northern Route 65 will take you towards Columbus and Indianapolis, while the north-western Route 71 takes you to the banks of the Ohio River to the city of Cincinnati.
The alternative route from Memphis to Chicago takes you through Arkansas back along the banks of the Mississippi to the Missouri city of St Louis.
If you are struggling with time constraints, there is no harm avoiding some of these cities as they will rarely have the same aesthetic quality or cultural significance of their European counterparts and it could prove more rewarding taking your time on the great open roads.
There was still endless miles of prairies and farmlands of Illinois to traverse before reaching Chicago and the plethora of random radio stations will certainly help pass the time.
The hire car was equipped with a digital radio, offering a huge range of everything including all the hits of the 1950s on Channel 5, the 60s on 6, 70s on 7, and so on.
Eventually though the classic hits had to be retired and the iPhone adapter was again sourced.
As a nod to the surroundings, Sufjan Stevens’ fantastic arrangement Come On Feel The Illinoise took us on the last hour before traffic trebled on the approach to the mean streets of Chicago.
For more information about taking a road trip through the USA, visit www.DiscoverAmerica.com.