Civil Rights, long stretches of beach and a whole lot of writing

Sometimes that "what should I write about?" falls right into your lap.

While travelling, we got a heads up through a work email that January 15 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) was to be the launch of the brand new United States Civil Rights Trail. Took us about five seconds to make a decision, tap the new coordinates into our GPS and follow the two-hour detour to Greensboro, North Carolina.

                            Greensboro was home to the first student lunch counter sit-ins, an action that (according to MLK) gave the Civil Rights movement "a much needed shot in the arm." That very first lunch counter sit in was held on February 1, 1960 by four young students from A&T University (Jesse Jackson's alma mater). The stop on the new Civil Rights Trail is at the original F.W. Woolworth's building, the site of the lunch counter sit-in. Now it is the home of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The museum is a worthwhile stop on its own, but the highlight is definitely the completely restored lunch counter. It's a sombre, but inspiring sight.

Craving some ocean waves, we drove southeast to our first week of camping at Huntington Beach State Park, about 20 miles south of Myrtle Beach. Great park (surprisingly, about 80% full), nice long stretch of beach, wonderful marshland boardwalks. We did detour into MB for an excellent lunch at Croissant's Bistro & Bakery (shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, with a shared slice of key lime pie).

It turned out to be almost a full week of catching up on writing assignments at the lovely Waccamaw Neck Public Library. Can't end this update without a thank you to Luke from Georgetown Auto Glass whose mobile service came and quickly stopped two windshield chips. Thanks Luke!

Weather chilly? Not to worry.

Cold weather RVing tips

We’ve just spent a night in -9C (16F) temperatures boondocking inside our Roadtrek 210 and could not have had a snugger and cosier sleep. This year, we’ve made a few basic modifications that we think save energy and make cold weather camping an easier venture.

We added Reflectix insulating panels to our windows to help keep heat it. It’s available by the roll at Home Depot in Canada but is much cheaper at similar stores south of the border. We easily cut panels for each window and just push them into place at night.

We switched out almost all of our interior lights to LED bulbs. Installation was simple. We bought ours at a local RV dealership but they are also available for less through the Internet.

We’d already winterized our RV back in October so did not want to undo that, just to have to re-winterize after we return in six weeks. So, we decided to stick to bottled water for intake (i.e. not running water through any intake tanks or lines) and to use our grey and black tanks with some antifreeze since we’ll be able to access dump stations. When we return we’ll just have to winterize those two tanks and the toilet (add antifreeze).

Our Roadtrek came with a large carpeted runner down the main galley but we always found it difficult to keep clean. This year we decided to ditch the carpet, install a custom-cut foam pad, waterproof flooring and then top it with some colourful, washer-friendly throw rugs in nice colours and patterns. We found what we wanted at Canadian Tire – a long roll of foam “impact” flooring – spongy, about a quarter-inch thick and easily wipeable. We used the old carpet runner as a pattern and cut the new piece to size. It fits beautifully, keeps the cold off our feet and seems much more durable.

Even though it was quite “bracing” when we turned out the lights last night, we found we were warm enough under our queen-size goose down duvet. The warmth stayed in when we topped it with a colourful throw blanket (cuddling helps). Neither of us woke through the night and in the morning we just popped on the propane furnace to banish the chill. It was the perfect RVing experience.

Our next Big Trip has begun!

Well, after a slight delay due to Mother Nature, we're off! The house sitters are in place, the driveway has been shovelled (sure to be "topped up" again after we return), the van is running beautifully and we had clear sailing as we steered due south.

"South" ... supposed to be warmer down here, right? We made great time on day one and stopped for the night just south of Washington, DC. We are still amazed at how flawlessly this Roadtrek 210 runs - it has been the complete opposite of a "lemon." It was a chilly -9C when we pulled in to boondock at a Walmart parking lot (*in RV parlance, "boondocking" is camping without cost and hookups). We were snug and warm under our duvet and just turned on the propane furnace to warm things up in the morning (believe it or not, this 21' van has a KING size bed in the back!). Craig is chomping at the bit to wash all the salt and grit off the van!

We are debating whether to detour via a wintertime drive down the Outer Banks of North Carolina (one of our favourite parts of the US) but it looks like all the national parks campgrounds are closed (wonder why ...? Perhaps the close-to-freezing temperatures!). If we can find somewhere we can boondock again, we'll head that way. If not, we'll continue to our ultimate destination for the next week - Huntington Beach State Park, SC.

“Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers” …

The very last blues-research stop for us was at Muscle Shoals, Alabama – that small Southern town with a history of musical magic. This was our third visit to The Shoals – the goal being to fill in any research gaps and update the info we’d collected in the past – but we were (almost) overwhelmed by the warm welcome, being ushered into the local musical fold, the information we gathered and the people we met.

The local tourism people shepherded us around to all the sites: the studio tour at FAME, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the tour of the newly renovated studios of the Muscle Shoals Sound at 3614 Jackson Highway, the local guitar boutique (left Craig salivating), wonderful meals at Odette downtown and Champy’s for their “world famous” fried chicken.

A highlight for us were two concerts – one honouring local musicians at Cypress Moon Studios and the other an amazing evening of music at The Nutt House Studios, featuring many accomplished and long time Shoals studio musicians. It was amazing.

But the biggest thrill for us was a long lunch with David Hood, bass guitarist as one of the original Swampers, the studio band at FAME and the 3614 Jackson Highway who played with everyone from Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin to Wilson Pickett and Paul Simon (yes, that’s him on Kodachrome). He and Craig talked music and guitars for a good hour. He was personable, gracious and unassuming and it was the perfect way to top off what has been an incredible trip for us.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this blues voyage happen. We’ve met such wonderful people, heard great music, learned volumes about the history of the blues and the South. We’ll be bringing it all out in our blues travel book!

Thanks y’all!  

Finding more blues outside the Mississippi Delta

If ever there was a pretty Southern town, it has to be Natchez, Mississippi. So, we parked ourselves there for three days, worked in the library, walked the streets and stopped in for coffee often at the excellent Steampunk Coffee Roasters. Next door is the historic blues club the historic blues club named Smoot’s Grocery. Smoot’s has received a top-to-bottom renovation and is a beautiful space for parties, get-togethers or live music. Well worth checking out if you find yourself in Natchez.

Our schedule included a “break week” when we were taking some down time on the Mississippi Gulf Cost, catching up on blues-related reading, working on the book structure and starting some chapter work. All accomplished while we stayed at Gulf Islands National Seashore near the pretty town of Ocean Springs. While there we crossed paths with a get together of about two-dozen Roadtreks and we were quickly welcomed into the fold. Thanks y’all! Looking forward to the next time.

Back to work and starting the drive northward. Our first stop was in historic Meridian (the home of The Father of Country Music, Jimmy Rogers) where we had a fascinating hour interviewing Hartley Peavey, the founder of Peavey Electronics. As a teenager he started building amps at his parents place and he is now head of a worldwide corporation producing quality musical sound systems and instruments.

On to the small town of West Point, considered the home of Howlin’ Wolf. There’s a blues marker, a small but very good museum and a very cool downtown mural.

Just a bit further into the northeast corner of Mississippi – we stopped at Tupelo. Tupelo is the hometown of Elvis Presley. He was born there and lived in East Tupelo with his parents until he was 13 years old and they moved to Memphis. They’ve done a beautiful job at the Elvis Birthplace Museum, the self-guided driving tour, at Johnnie’s Drive-In (where they have preserved an Elvis booth where he’d hang out with friends and order an RC cola and burger) and at the Tupelo Hardware, the spot his mother bought him his first guitar. Probably the best $7.75 she ever spent!

More blues than one can reasonably pack into a week!

  Here's one of the biggest things to know about the blues and the Mississippi Delta ... in this part of the state, the blues are everywhere. Many people only associate Clarksdale with the blues but there are actually many other communities with at least as rich and deep a blues pedigree as the town where Highways 49 and 61 cross.

We camped overnight at The Blue Biscuit - an Indianola restaurant and blues bar right across the road from the B.B. King Museum. Thanks to Trish - the Blue Biscuit's friendly and welcoming owner! Then, the next morning, we drove east to Greenwood, a town with a complicated blues and civil rights history. On the way we drove into the countryside near Blue Lake to look for the birthplace marker for B.B. King, stopped at Holly Ridge to pay our respects at the grave marker for Charley Patton and detoured slightly to find the marker in Moorhead for "Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog" (*look that one up for a real slice of blues authenticity!).

One of the highlights of our travels has been the half-day tour of Greenwood and the blues with the personable and very knowledgeable Sylvester Hoover who runs Delta Blues Legend Tours. Sylvester took us through Baptist Town, to all three claimed gravesites of Robert Johnson (including the one accepted as the actual site at Little Zion MB Church in the countryside) and Three Forks (the site where Robert Johnson was - supposedly - poisoned). We also crossed the Tallahatchie River, the site of the Bobbie Gentry song.

In a non-blues related side trip, Sylvester took us to Bryant's Grocery in Money, MS, to the remains of the grocery store related to the Emmett Till  story - the event they say helped spark the entire civil rights movement. It was sobering.

Overnight we camped at the quirky, unique Tallahatchie Flats - old sharecropper shacks on the outside, renovated on the inside.

The next day we attended the Sunday morning service at Little Zion MB Church and soaked up the emotional and powerful music of the gospel church choir. We'd been invited by Sylvester and his lovely wife Mary, who is one of the choir directors.

After Greenwood, we spent several days hopping to more blues sites -- Bentonia (home to the Blue Front Cafe), Jackson (where we went to Hal and Mal's to hear King Edward - Craig subbed in on bass with the pre-show band), Hazlehurst (Robert Johnson's birthplace and home to the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame), across the Mississippi River to Ferriday, LA and the Delta Music Museum.

We settled for several days in beautiful Natchez, MS - at the height of the cotton era, this small town was home to half the millionaires in America. We'll write more about Natchez in the next post, as there is lots to talk about there. We made new friends, drank some of the best coffee ever (Steampunk Coffee Roasters), went to a community literary talk, dined by the Mississippi River and walked the streets of this lovely town. More on all that next time.

Been busy crisscrossing the Delta

We've been busy.

Digging deep into the noteworthy spots that tell the story of the Delta blues. We stood by the tracks in Tutwiler where W.C. Handy first heard the strains of that "new" strange form of music called the blues - the seminal event that took the blues from porch front and field songs to something that was written and marketed. At the excellent Railroad Heritage Museum in the pretty town of Cleveland we learned how the railroad up and down the Mississippi spread the blues outward from the Delta.

At Dockery Farms we interviewed the director (a genuinely nice fellow), toured the property and really came to appreciate why this spot was where first generation bluesmen like Charley Patton birthed a new music form (the next day we took a bumpy dirt road to the rural cemetery at Holly Ridge where Patton is buried). We toured the new Grammy Museum | Mississippi - the celebrity angle does not interest us much but there is a great display on the blues of the Delta and Mississippi musicians. In Greenville, we walked the levee, spent time at the small, but fascinating, 1927 Flood Museum to bone up on what was one of the defining events that shaped America - the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. If you don't know about it, read up - it's an amazing, heartbreaking history and will be a big part of our book. Finally, in Indianola it was B.B. King and all B.B. King - one of the best blues museums around, his gravesite onsite and a guided visit to Club Ebony, a local nightclub associated with B.B. that specialized in the blues of the Delta.

Clarksdale: At The Crossroads of the blues

Almost three days exploring Clarksdale, the Mississippi town that is home to the legendary Crossroads, the spot where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for mastering the guitar.

We've been in juke joints, standing in cotton fields, walked the streets of Clarksdale (a very historic town that has been hard hit by economic and social downturns) and eaten in local BBQ places. The local blues book store has invited us back to do a book signing in spring 2018!

We've spent time with a lot of very cool people - passionate and knowledgeable about Mississippi and the blues - listened to music and, of course, Craig got to take to the stage to play blues with Josh "Razorblade" Stewart (Living Blues magazine has profiled him). They call him "Razorblade" because he dresses sharp as a razor.

It's been a whirlwind of interviews, juke joints, local museums and a slew of historic markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Hopping states (in search of blues sites)

Today we woke up in Clarksdale - the town in the Delta most associated with the blues.

Yesterday we hopped across three states - from Memphis, Tennessee south into Mississippi with a stop at the excellent Gateway to the Blues Museum in Tunica (thanks Webster for giving us the tour!). More stops at blues markers along the way - including the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation where Robert Johnson spent his childhood and barbecue at the Hollywood Cafe, immortalized in Marc Cohn's song Walking in Memphis. Then across the bridge over the Mississippi River into Helena, Arkansas, a small town that has seen hard times but in the 1930s and 1040s was a hotbed of blues music and culture. Robert Johnson lived and played there, as did Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin' Wolf. In Helena (home of The King Biscuit Blues Festival - considered one of the world's best) we toured the Delta Cultural Center, from which KFFA 1360 broadcasts a noontime blues show ("the longest running blues show in the world" - since 1941). Then, back over the Mississippi River and the short drive to Clarksdale, MS.