Travels November 2007

In Twain’s Wake

Mint juleps and Magic Fingers on the Mississippi

The first morning, I emerged from my refrigerated burrow to find the air thick and heavy and sweet smelling. From the third deck, I could see over the grassy levee to Oak Alley, a Louisiana sugar plantation at the end of a corridor of 300-year-old live oaks, whose limbs could span a sports arena. I wandered over and joined an early tour, led by a hoopskirted guide who spoke in that singsong monotone used to hypnotize tourists and make them think that tarnished table settings are interesting. The house was grand, but not nearly as grand as the oaks. Near the back door I found a mint-julep stand, where a very service­able cocktail could be bought, even at that early hour, and enjoyed under the oaks. (One advantage of a stateroom with no window is that it’s much easier to recalibrate your biological clock.)

The subsequent days unfolded pretty much in this manner: Mornings were given to the exploration of one town or another; then the whistle would blow, the calliope would begin its fiendish racket, and the ship would resume its slow churn up the river. Afternoons and evenings were spent eating, attending history lectures, and sitting in deck chairs, where the vibration from the engine created a Magic Fingers effect; inevitably, I would find myself in a row of dozing passengers, our heads secured to our chests with great hawsers of drool.

The second morning, still in Louisiana, I walked a mile from the river into St. Francisville, an unsettlingly bucolic village of shops selling antiques and new things that looked antique, and tidy homes, many of which had statues of Saint Francis tucked into their yards. Another day, in Natchez, Mississippi, I watched a Memorial Day parade that consisted almost exclusively of African American veterans and spectators—someone onboard later explained that this holiday, formerly called Decoration Day to commemorate the Union dead, is still considered an impolite reminder of times past, and not everyone participates. In stately Vicksburg, Mississippi, I took a historical walking tour and heard about life in the intricate caves dug during the 47-day Union siege, when the town was dubbed “Prairie Dog Village.” At the antebellum courthouse, now a local history museum, I learned that the Union flag was run up the flagpole on July 4, 1863, signaling the town’s surrender and ruining another perfectly good holiday: The Fourth of July hasn’t really been celebrated in Vicksburg since.

After one full day spent chugging up the river, which triggered a fiercer-than-usual competition for deck chairs, we put in at Helena, Arkansas. Twain wrote that he’d heard it was a “hell of a place,” adding that this description “was photographic for exactness.” But this turned out to be my favorite stop. Helena is like a 45-rpm record with something predictable and uninteresting on one side, and unexpected and fascinating on the other. The predictable part is the town itself—a long main street lined with vacant and underused storefronts displaying the weary ennui of a place that commerce long ago passed by. Even the mortar between the bricks seems to be giving up and heading elsewhere.

On the flip side is Helena’s historical role as a hub of Mississippi Delta blues. I stopped by the Delta Cultural Center and chatted with “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who’s been hosting the King Biscuit Time blues radio show for 56 years. At the Malco Theater, I heard James “Super Chikan” Johnson put on a terrific show using handmade guitars. At Bubba’s Blues Corner record shop, I rooted through acres of vintage vinyl, and the owner, Bubba Sullivan, took me outside to point out the curtained windows of a former nightclub where Robert Johnson used to play and an auditorium where Elvis once set local teenagers swooning. This moribund town is happily occupied by a host of spirits.

Back on the ship for our last night on the river, I headed to the Front Porch, a covered deck that dominated the bow and was arrayed with an arc of white porch rockers. The best time here was around eight each evening, when half the passengers were seated for dinner and the other half were in the rococo Grand Saloon watching a revue of popular song, staged amid flouncy petticoats and rakishly angled top hats.

As usual, I had the porch to myself and could just sit and watch the riverbank unspool. The single biggest surprise of the trip, for me, was how utterly empty the landscape is north of Baton Rouge. At times, the shores felt lonely enough that we might have been ascending a river in the Canadian wilds.

The night grew darker, and the captain fired up a massive spotlight, sending upriver a great silver cylinder that glittered with the confetti of confused insects. From the dark void ahead of us, rubies and emeralds came sparkling back off the reflectors on the navigational buoys. A full moon had risen over the east bank, and it moved slowly from one bracketed porch column to another, the ship serving as a sort of Victorian Stonehenge to mark the loopy curves of the river.

Around midnight, an apricot-colored dome of light over Memphis came into view. New Orleans was historically the center of the river’s trade, but no longer. Today, Memphis—about a third of the way from the river’s mouth to its source—has at least twice the population of New Orleans. It’s also the home of FedEx, whose purple-and-orange cargo jets have arguably replaced the steamship as the keystone of modern commerce.

Off on the northern horizon, arriving and departing planes circled the urban glow like fireflies around a campfire. The view was perhaps not as romantic as that of the ornate crowns of steamship smokestacks bobbing along the wharves of old New Orleans. But it was lovely all the same.

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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