WORLDVIEW — It was 100 degrees in the early afternoon when I arrived at the Robert Johnson Museum in tiny Crystal Springs, Mississippi. Johnson is thought by many to be the best blues guitarist who ever lived. Road signs led me in off the Interstate, but the museum door was locked. A sign on the door directed me to call either of two phone numbers to get in. The first number was busy and the second led to an answering machine. For the next 15 minutes, the number remained busy while the nice lady across the street invited me into her furniture store to escape the heat. Finally, I got through and another nice lady at the Parks Department said she would be right over to let me in.
Now Crystal Springs is the size town that you can go from anywhere to anywhere else in five minutes, and when 15 more minutes went by, I was beginning to wonder. When the Parks lady drove up, she gave me the bad news that her department’s only key was in her boss’ truck 45 minutes away in Jackson. “But wait, there’s still hope,” she told me. She thought the Water Department might have a key. A call there and a few minutes later, we were inside the museum.
The museum itself was low-tech and interesting with great respect for Johnson and his music, and with a description of how the early 20th Century was a difficult time for African Americans in the South. The Parks lady and I spent some more pleasant time talking about her family and my family, and I was finally on my way to my next adventure. I thought about how many ways my stop in Crystal Springs made it clear that I was not in the DC area anymore.
I was beginning a four day road trip through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Eastern Texas before meeting up with my wife in New Orleans. She was happy I was going exploring, and especially happy that she didn’t have to come along. After some Internet research and speaking to some friends, I came up with an itinerary with more things to do than possible during the time I had. The trip confirmed that almost everywhere has something interesting to see, and like all good travel, I saw that people elsewhere don’t live life with the same priorities or at the same pace that we do in D.C.
I drove through the backwoods en route to Utica, Mississippi, and its Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. They had an exhibit about how the first Jewish residents of the area lived, and a wall map showing that most of the smaller Southern Jewish communities have ceased to exist.
I next arrived in Vicksburg just a few days ahead of the Mississippi River flood. Although most of the riverfront town was up on a hill, the old railroad station below was already under water. I visited the town’s Coca-Cola museum in the storefront where in 1894, Joseph Biedenham was the first person to bottle Coca-Cola. Before then, you could only have a Coke if you went to a soda fountain. It was just the kind of fact that I didn’t know, and would be unlikely to have learned anywhere else.
Spent the night in downtown Shreveport (“Sreveport”), Louisiana. I asked the desk clerk where people go out at night and he pointed to the four nearby casinos, which didn’t interest me so I watched an old movie in my room. Next morning’s walk around downtown showed me that the town center was really hurting, but I found a Greek diner where the big excellent breakfast was only $3.85. Another sign that I wasn’t in Washington.
Crossed into Texas and stopped at the Rose Garden in Tyler. My Dad passed away five years ago, and always loved and cultivated roses. Every time I see them, they remind me of him, and Tyler did a nice job of keeping its rose bushes healthy in the face of several months of daily temperatures rising to near 100.
Missed the Dr. Pepper museum in Waco, which closed just before I got there, and continued on to a delicious barbecue dinner in Temple, Texas. I remember the old adage that a restaurant is only as authentic as the number of local calendars it has on the wall. This was a five calendar restaurant and everything tasted as if it had been made just for me. Drove through a Texas downpour to spend the night in College Station.
Went the next morning to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library — at the top of the list of reasons why my wife was happy not to be accompanying me. Starting accidentally and now on purpose, I have visited 8 of the 12 presidential libraries. The Bush library was like most of the others in that it was really a monument rather than a museum. There was no indication in any of the exhibits that Papa Bush had ever made a mistake of any kind. Also, even though the facility is taxpayer funded, the selection of books for sale in the gift shop only covered the spectrum from Bush to Gingrich.
I’m a big baseball fan, so I left College Station and hurried to Houston where the hometown Astros were playing Cincinnati that afternoon. Another 100 degree day made me happy that Minute Maid Park was domed and air conditioned. The Astros won, something they had a hard time doing this year as they had the worst record in all baseball.
I had only been to Houston once before, in the mid-1980s and didn’t like it much then — too unplanned and sprawling. But I was ready to give it another try. Headed to the Montrose neighborhood, described as Houston’s most diverse and most walkable. I drove a couple miles along Westheimer, the area’s main drag, and found it to be as walkable as Rockville Pike so I left town.
Drove through some more rain to Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico and took a walk alongside the Gulf. Galveston is mostly rebuilt from 2008’s Hurricane Ike and has interesting architecture, good crafts shopping, and a Museum of Immigration. Learned that Galveston was the main port of immigration in the Southeast USA, bought some souvenirs, and boarded the ferry northeast to the Bolivar Peninsula. In contrast, most of the structures on the Peninsula looked like the hurricane had just hit last week; boarded up houses and stores and no sign of any rebuilding.
Next stop was Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. I had heard that Joplin was treated poorly when growing up there, but the town’s Museum of the Gulf Coast has half a floor about area musicians with the biggest display honoring Janis. They had her old psychedelically painted car, photos from her early years, and a handwritten note inviting her mom to lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria when Janis was 14. Other featured musicians with connections to Southeast Texas, include ZZ Top, Clifton Chenier, Archie Bell, Tony Jo White, and who can forget Cookie and the Cupcakes?
I had been looking forward to visiting Lake Charles, Louisiana, on the edge of Cajun Country since it’s the only place other than our area that serves whole crabs. My big surprise in this region of spicy Cajun cuisine was that the crabs were served boiled without Old Bay or any other spice. I asked for vinegar as a dip, and with sides of corn bread and a beer, still had an enjoyable meal.
A few hours later, I was in New Orleans to join my wife for a few days listening to live music, eating more great food, and getting together with an old friend we hadn’t seen in 20 years. But everybody knows that New Orleans is a great place to visit so I don’t need to tell you any more about that.