Heart of the Delta
Discovering the back pages of John Pritchard's world.
(page 2 of 6)
Roads are important for John.
“A lot of times I’ll say this in bio-pieces: I was born in Memphis because the road was paved,” he says. “Highway 61 was put through and paved by 1937, so by January of ’38 the road was paved from Tunica to Memphis.”
“I was born in Baptist Hospital,” John says, “but I’m not a Memphian.”
John was still a child when World War II ended, and in the following years, new highways were transforming the country. Roads were how John’s small and quiet corner of the world connected with everything outside at a time when the world was changing, and bringing the Delta with it. Cities like Detroit and St. Louis boomed as millions of Americans took roads like Highway 51 to find new lives in the city.
“Highway 51 was built for the people coming up from Senatobia and Hernando,” John says. “And by the way, Highway 51 is Bellevue and Elvis Presley Boulevard, which is built right on top of Old Hernando Road.” Always mindful of the past, John is quick to point out that while these roads were paved in the 1930s, they were made much earlier.
“When DeSoto came in here,” he says, “he didn’t cut his way through the jungle — he walked on big, wide paths. All your major highways are laid on the old Indian trails, and those trails were made by buffalo. But those buffalo carved out these game trails” — like the Chickasaw trail that ran from Memphis to Birmingham — “and they became the major roads of the country.”
Memphis was by now far behind, and I realized that the place we were going was larger than I had imagined. What I knew of the Delta had come in pieces from the Yardbirds, or Elvis, Faulkner, or the Coen Brothers. But what I was about to see that day in the over-heated, deep green, and broad fields of that flat bottom-land was unexpected.
Time has a different value in the Delta. The paths down roads, through forests and fields, over bayous and rivers, somehow connect the past to the present in an uncanny way. A wrong turn seems as likely to bring a modern traveler to a Confederate cavalry camp as a house with a pick-up in the driveway; a Choctaw village as easily as a band of freedmen heading for Union lines. But I didn’t know this at eleven o’clock that morning as we followed Nail Road away from Horn Lake.
The Loess Hills
"We’re in the Loess Hills,” John says.
“L-O-E-S-S.” Horn Lake was behind us, and outside the car, Nail Road was beginning to rise and fall with shoulders of orange, sandy clay that separate the road from drainage ditches and the woodlands beyond.
“Actually, these hills are the same as the bluffs up there in Memphis,” he says. “The same geographical phenomenon that blew in from New Mexico, I don’t know, a million years ago.”
“Were these some of your old haunts?” I ask.
“Nope. I didn’t go up in here at all. I knew about it, but this is not in the Delta.”
John pauses and looks at me. “You have to say: ‘Are we in the Delta, yet?’”
“Are we in the Delta, yet?” I ask.
John becomes preoccupied the further we drive down Nail Road. His attention drags as we come to the top of each hill as though he’s looking for something.
“Are we there yet?” I ask, again.
“Nope — but we’re close.”
Soon we come to the top of one long, high climb. Nail Road suddenly plummets and the horizon leaps miles away in the distance to the west. Through a proscenium of tree trunks and the shade of full boughs, a sun-filled tableau of farmland opens in a wide valley beneath us. And meeting this flatland, just below the horizon, is the Mississippi River.
“There’s the Delta,” John says. He lets go of the steering wheel as we begin to descend, and lifts his hands into the air like a carnival-goer on a roller coaster.
“Here we go.”
And we speed between rust-colored ravines, descending from the hills, and enter the Mississippi Delta.
"See how flat you are now?” John says.
“You’re on a river bottom.” The mass of the Loess Hills recedes into the distance out of the rear window of John’s car. They stretch away from us to the south, becoming recognizable as a line of hills as they shrink — a distinct blue-green monument that would lay on the eastern horizon all day.
We drive west across this plain toward the small hamlet of Walls. We pass gas stations and churches, and shaded neighborhood streets. John pauses at a railroad crossing on the edge of town.
“This is the Illinois-Central Railroad right here,” John says. “There were 11 trains or more, probably 15 trains a day that went up and down this thing back then. People could get on it, zoom to Memphis, shop, and come back.”
Beyond the rail bed we find an immense sea of farmland spreading before us. And beyond all of this another ridge rises above the landscape. John points out the passenger window.
“That’s the levee running out over there,” John says. Here in the fields the Mississippi River levee rises above everything else — as imposing on the landscape as the line of the Loess Hills behind us. It runs along the north, west, and south of us — dominating the horizon. I wonder if there is any connection between this and the town’s name, Walls.
We follow a small county road through large fields of corn, cotton, and soy. Around one bend sits a small country church with an enormous tree in its graveyard.
“This is a monument to Memphis Minnie,” John says, pointing to the Mississippi Blues Trail marker that stands on the roadside. But as we pass, I can’t help but see beyond the churchyard, to the man-made ridge in the distance that holds back the greatest river in the world. One of Memphis Minnie’s songs, made popular by a certain English quartet, begins to play in my mind:
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’to break,
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’to break,
And when the levee breaks, got no place to stay.