Home Travelogues Local Travel Logs Riding the great divide on the Hills Highway

Riding the great divide on the Hills Highway

I55A competition? Hills versus Delta. Or a merger? Delta meets Hills.  Signs of the times on Interstate-55.  You've got your map, and now you're on the lookout for the road signs. Something that will tell you Divided Loyalties Up Ahead. Or Sympathies Merged ½ Mile. But the truth is, I-55, the unofficial demarcation between the Mississippi Delta and the Mississippi Hills, is long division that needs no solution. It's a fault line that won't crack-although once you fall into the rhythm of this easy-going road, with your gaze and your thoughts roaming across the verdant landscape, the timelessness may envelop you, with your everyday concerns swallowed against the vanishing point of the horizon.

I-55 is a straight shot between two cultures, two landscapes-the flat sheet of Delta, so flat there's not even a wrinkle, meeting the gently rolling hills of northeastern Mississippi. Cotton meets cow. Ag meets industry. Which isn't to say there aren't detours, complications: for example, cotton farming and cotton fortunes were plentiful in the Mississippi Hills on the wedge of Black Prairie, just as there is industry today in the Mississippi Delta. And if you cast the situation in terms of Old South versus New South, it is the Hills that could be argued take the senior position. Large portions of the Delta remained wilderness long after fine plantation homes in Aberdeen and Columbus were holding court.

The twentieth century was ready to dawn when much of lands around the Divide were domesticated, a fact that Faulkner wrote about, often with dismay.

Battle over Bucksnort.

At first there had been only the old towns along the River and the old towns along the hills, from each of which the planters with their gangs of slaves and then of hired laborers advanced to wrest from the cane and gum and cypress and holly and oak, the cotton patches which as the years passed became fields and then plantations; the very paths made by bear and deer and panther become the roads and highways linking the little towns still bearing the names of the old hunting stands: Panther Burn, Bucksnort, Bear Gun.

--William Faulkner, Big Woods

You won't see Panther Burn or Bucksnort on your trip along I-55, but you'll see enough scenic landscape to understand the bone-deep connection between the people here and the land. Those who live along this divide have always shared Faulkner's concern for the earth, his ambivalence toward modern life. It's a delicate balance between man and nature, between Old South and New. And sometimes there have been conflicts. Faulkner said that all great literature comes from the human heart in conflict with itself. Maybe that's why so many great writers and artists have arisen from this route.

Ace CannonFor you, however, a trip on I-55 will have no conflicts, just unadulterated pleasure, because you've got the best seat in this house divided, cruising along a well-maintained route. Construction for I-55 was begun in the 1950s; twenty years before, the sight of mules and wagons was not uncommon along Mississippi roadways. Those folks who wanted tunes back then had to sing or hum their own. You, on the other hand, may want to pop in the music of Ace Cannon, as you head out from Winona and start for Grenada.

Cannon, born in Grenada in 1934, became one of America's favorite saxophonists almost from the start of his phenomenally successful career. Joining the Bill Black Combo in 1959, he played lead saxophone on their original recordings and in their appearances on national television, on shows ranging from Ed Sullivan to American Bandstand. In 1962, he recorded his smash Tuff, and 35 years later, Cannon and the Bill Black Combo were still going strong, nominated for a Grammy for their contribution to Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana's Elvis tribute album, All The King's Men.

As you're rocking along, you'll see that I-55 takes you through the tip edges of Carroll County, where divided loyalties for one man took him to great wealth and high position yet ended in a version of Great Balls of Fire.

A man divided, a house majestic.

Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty MarkerThe son of a French-Canadian trader named Louis Lefleur and a woman who was one-quarter Choctaw, Greenwood Leflore was 12 when his family established a rustic log tavern on the Natchez Trace at the edge of the Mississippi Hills. From those modest circumstances, Leflore would rise first to become a powerful Choctaw chief and then to assume a prominent role in Mississippi white society; his home, Malmaison, was one of the most magnificent in the state. Yet there were many who believed that Leflore's wealth and position in white society were purchased at great cost to the Choctaw people.

As an important tribal chief (despite his being only one-eighth Choctaw), Leflore was instrumental in convincing the Choctaw to accept the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. While the treaty called for most of the tribe's removal to Oklahoma, it also provided a thousand acres for Leflore in Carroll County so that he could stay behind in wealth and comfort. Not surprisingly, his standing among the remaining Choctaw declined, yet he quickly rose to prominence in the area's white planter society as a state legislator and personal friend of Jefferson Davis. Malmaison, his palatial home, was the equal to any in Mississippi, and when he died in 1865, he was buried near it. Leflore hoped to be remembered as the leader who negotiated well on behalf of the Choctaws, yet many felt he had negotiated better for himself, and even his beloved Malmaison was set on fire in 1942 and burned to the ground.

Choosing sides was also a problem in the city up ahead, when two sides refused to give up competing claims, and life turned into a real tug of war. It was Grenada that made the peace.

A peaceful settlement, a Tartt response.

In the later 1830s, with the coming of white settlers and the railroad, two cities arose side by side in this particular spot, Tullahoma and Pittsburgh, with a neutral zone called Rabbittrack that ran between them. When Pittsburgh was granted the first post office, furious residents of Tullahoma made a midnight raid over the border to haul the building to their side of Rabbittracks. In the morning, indignant (and armed) residents of Tullahoma stormed Pittsburgh to reclaim their building.

The resulting melee was stopped only when a local minister stepped in to suggest a union of the two towns; he even arranged a real wedding between an agreeable couple to symbolize the union. "Grenada," a Native American word meaning "united" or "married" was chosen as the new town's name. Today, you can still travel Rabbittrack, only it is now known as "Line Street," where many of the city's most beautiful homes are a highlight of the city's walking/motor tour.

Donna TarttTwo female novelists of note were born and brought up here in Grenada: Gloria Norris, a well-regarded fiction writer who also served as editor of Book of the Month; and Donna Tartt. Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, a thriller set in a small northeastern college, was a publishing sensation, and her reputation was assured with a second novel, The Little Friend, a murder mystery set in a small Mississippi town.

Real-life death and mayhem came to Grenada during the Civil War and afterwards in the yellow fever epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly 90% of the town's population. Today, you can still see the sites where Confederate fortifications, at least for a time, kept Grant out of Vicksburg. You'll also want to take a walk through the city's historic cemetery, where Civil War dead lie side by side with yellow fever victims in a setting as evocative as a Tartt ghost in The Little Friend:

"the moping bird dog, puzzled for several weeks by her master's death, recast as the grief-stricken Queenie of family legend, who searched relentlessly for her beloved throughout the house and howled, inconsolable, in the pen all night; who barked in joyous welcome whenever the dear ghost approached in the yard, a ghost that only she could perceive."

There have been many ghosts in Mississippi laid to rest in recent years, but the conflict between man and nature-and man against government-was accorded an early reconciliation along this route all the way back in the 1940s. It was then that the U.S. Corps of Engineers realized that the recipe for flood control of the Mississippi River included one simple step: add more water.

Floating new ideas for living.

When construction first began on the Tri-Lakes--Grenada, Enid and Sardis Lakes--the idea was initially greeted with some skepticism as valuable farmlands had to be flooded in order to make way for the projects' completion. But today, the Tri-Lakes bring millions of visitors to the area every year, and function as peaceful havens for both man and nature alike. Thousands of acres of beautiful blue water, hundreds of miles of shoreline and acre upon acre of prime opportunity for hunting, camping, boating, skiing, swimming and picnicking.

Even Faulkner, with all his reservations about the encroachment of "progress," appreciated the man-made wonder of Sardis Lake. On the houseboat that he and friends Hugh Evans and Ross Brown built for trawling Sardis, here is what the future Nobel laureate inscribed:

"Out of Confusion by Boundless Hope: Conceived in a Canadian Club bottle She was born A.D. 15th August 1947 by uproarious Caesarian Section in prone position with her bottom upward in Evan's back yard"

Faulkner once spent an afternoon with his friend Eudora Welty sailing Sardis in the sailboat he christened The Ring Dove. You may want to spend an afternoon sailing these lakes-or you may want to spend a few days or more. In any case, after you've had your fill of water fun, start north again, toward a place that has been a haven of a different sort, in Como, where a dying breed of blues artists made joyful noise before their departure.

So red the rose, so rich the blues.

MS Fred McDowellStark Young, the novelist whose antebellum epic So Red the Rose was a smash hit only a few years before Gone With the Wind, was born and buried in Como; he spent the years in between in Oxford (Mississippi) and Manhattan, where he served as drama critic for the New Republic and made a significant contribution to American letters when he took his stand as one of the 12 Southern Agrarians.

Young isn't Como's only significant alumnus: it may be a tiny town, but Como has encompassed a broad swath of cultural territory, as the home base of some of the most important Hill Country blues artists in the nation. Mississippi Fred McDowell settled here in the 1940s, working as a farmer but playing blues on the side at parties and picnics, with a slide guitar and a pocket knife. Later he fashioned a slide from a rib bone that he wore on his ring finger. McDowell famously declared "I do not play no rock and roll," but that didn't prevent the Rolling Stones from performing a cover of his work.

Otha TurnerOtha Turner, one of the last great fife and drum artists, lived and played around this area as well. While the term "fife and drum" may conjure a vision of George Washington in a tri-corned hat, the fife and drum music championed by Otha Turner was a richer, less militaristic, more multicultural strain of music, borrowing as much from African heritage as it did from Colonial history. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese recognized both influences, tapping Turner to provide music for his soundtrack for the movie Gangs of New York, while also including him in his landmark PBS series entitled The Blues.

Although Turner and McDowell have both passed away, their descendents are keeping their traditions alive. When Turner died in 2003, only weeks before he was scheduled to record an album, his 13-year old granddaughter and protégé, Sharde Thomas, took his place.

John GrishamOld or new, traditional or stubbornly individual, one or the other-the choices along the great divide are never a simple either-or. Instead, here where the Hills meet the Delta, the choices seem to multiply, divide, and sometimes merge, as in the case of the most famous resident of the town of Southaven, a writer who understood how hard a choice can be.

Like what's a young lawyer to do when he finds out his firm is tied to the mob?

Thrilling effects.

Located just south of Memphis attractions and just east of Delta gaming, with plenty of shopping and recreation right at home, the gateway community of Southaven bills itself as the "Top of Mississippi."

Former Southaven resident John Grisham also sits at the top of his game, having published an unceasing string of blockbuster hits since The Firm was issued in 1991. Grisham grew up in Southaven, came back here to practice law after graduating Mississippi State and University of Mississippi, and was eventually elected the Mississippi legislature from this district before his writing career took flight.

Grisham's heroes, flawed Everymen, always face difficult choices, and it is always in their choosing that his characters-and their stories-reach dramatic climaxes. Could it be Grisham learned about the power of choice growing up here, along the great divide? Possibly.

But one thing's certain: It's always good thinking to take a little time to drive the great divide here in the Mississippi Hills.

 

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