Natchez, Mississippi – Day 2
Things I should have stopped to photograph today….
Not far over the Alabama state line on Highway 41, heading north from Crestview, Florida, on a prominent roadside billboard: a generic, puffy-faced white dude in his 40s, his arm around an equally generic young blonde woman in her early 20s. Both of them smiling.
JUST GRADUATED FROM AUBURN.
NOW HELP ME FIND HER A HUSBAND AND GET MY CREDIT CARD BACK.
There was a phone number below that.
If I had stood at just the right angle, I might have been able to get the billboard in the same frame as the house beyond, decorated all along the front edge of the yard with a line of Trump-Pence banners on little wooden stakes.
Moral question: If people insist on being stereotypes, must I refrain from making fun of them?
Today I drove for a stretch on the Jefferson Davis Highway which, after some miles, turned into the Richard Wright Highway. You can’t help but be curious about what went on behind all that.
The early-in-the-day plan was to end up this afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi, about a hundred miles northeast of where I am instead, in Natchez, for a visit to the Eudora Welty house and museum, but the last tour was at 3pm, and I realized I’d never make it.
Instead, today was a day for crossing rivers, and I crossed, in particular, the Alabama River and the Tombigbee River. I had an inkling of memory, each time I crossed, whether it was on a modern highway bridge with the high concrete walls that keep you from seeing the river or the old-fashioned iron kind with the arches that leap and fall from one bank to the other, that there was something important about crossing bodies of water and rivers in particular – some spiritual significance, some way that going over water cleansed you and allowed you to emerge less burdened on the other side. Or maybe I invented that in response to other desires.
When I first heard the name of the last major river I crossed, the Tombigbee, by the way, I thought it was “Tom Bigbee” – some Alabama notable about whom I was unlikely ever to know more. But no: Like many names in these parts, “Tombigbee” is a corruption of a Choctaw word that means, or so I read, “coffin maker.”
The Choctaw, of course, haven’t been around since the Indian Removal of the 1830s, but a lot of place names of Choctaw origin (and, I presume, of Chickasaw, Creek, and others) have remained in Alabama and Mississippi, which leads one to muse, if one is inclined to muse about such things, on the pentimento of American history. The vast cotton fields that line the road in many places are another element that renders the otherwise bucolic landscape fraught – and then there was the cotton field with the house to one side where a Confederate flag waved from a pole attached to the sitting porch.
I have no idea if the residents of the house had anything to do with the cotton fields adjacent, and I’m not accusing anybody of anything. I’m just thinking about the juxtaposition of symbols, about the verticality of history, about the ways you can sometimes see America laid out so clearly, like layers of sedimentary rock in the walls of the Grand Canyon, the most recent stratum on top.