From the headwaters in Minnesota, south almost to where the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi opens and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico are blue-line roads along the banks of the river. This collection of roads, referred to as the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, is found in all the states along the Mississippi River. Beginning in the northeast corner of Arkansas, 100 miles above west Memphis, and running all the way down to the Louisiana line are pockets of regional history and delta culture that are rich slices of the American scene. They beg to be discovered, and it was our mission to do exactly that: poke around and explore what all too often falls below the radar. Slipping the automatic transmission into Drive on the Chevy Silverado 2500 HD that had been waiting for us at the Memphis airport and then listening to make sure the 6.6-liter V-8 Duramax turbodiesel was actually running (this puppy is so quiet), for the next several days we meandered along the Arkansas side of the Big Muddy, finding our way around and through the nooks and crannies that folks down here call the Arkansas Delta.
This eastern Delta region of the Razorback State goes largely unpublicized, which further adds to the charm found around every bend in the River Road and on the miles of dirt byways that crown the tops of the levies the locals use as their own personal Interstate. Poking into and around these backwater eddies, we discovered nothing less than a bonanza. For example, in the city of Piggott is the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum. This city is where Ernest Hemingway spent 13 years (on and off) from the mid-1920s to the end of the '30s honing his craft. In the studio/barn built for him by his second wife Pauline, he would plunk away on the old typewriter that still sits there, play poker with his buddies, and drink whiskey. It was here he completed his classic novel "A Farewell to Arms" and several short stories. Pauline, who wooed Hemingway away from his first wife while they were in Paris, would later pay a similar price when Ernest left her in Spain for wife number three.
Working our way south to the town of Dyess, we came upon the boyhood home of Johnny Cash, which is currently undergoing restoration. Arkansas State University, along with Roseanne Cash (Johnny's daughter), has taken on this monumental project that has a price tag of about $3 million. It was here in 1935 that the Cash family joined several hundred other Arkansas farm families who like themselves had gone bankrupt because of the Great Depression. Participating in this special government WPA agricultural program, each farmer (after he was vetted) was given 20 acres of timber-covered land he would have to clear to farm, plus a new house (without plumbing or electricity). At the end of three years, those still in the program had to begin paying the government back. While many did not succeed because times were tough, the Cash family did. Called the Dyess Colony, it was here, between 1935 and 1950 (when he joined the Air Force), that Johnny was shaped by the experiences that can be heard in many of the songs he wrote, like "I'm Busted" (about the Great Depression) and "Five Feet High and Rising" (based on the horrific floods the Mississippi is capable of).
When the restoration is complete, the Cash home will look as it did circa 1950, furnished with period pieces and the original Cash family piano where Johnny's creative musical genius flowed as a young man. Restoring other WPA buildings that were cornerstones in the Dyess Colony is also part of the restoration project. To raise funds for this, the Johnny Cash Music Festival has been held on the Arkansas State University campus for the last three years.
Many good eateries line the sides of the Delta roads, with several that demand individual recognition. These include the Feed Lot in nearby Caraway, where chef and owner Elise is on a mission to feed everyone who walks through her front door with good country fixin's. Another is Ray's Dairy Maid in Barton, a roadside stop Alton Brown featured in "Feasting on Asphalt -- Great River Run" on the Food Network's "On the Road" TV series. In the southeastern corner of the state near the Louisiana border in Lake Village is Rhoda's Famous Tamales. The place isn't fancy, but it features mega amounts of character and Old South ambience and is where a steady stream of hungry folks beat a path to her front door all day long. In the town of Marianna is Jones' BBQ, one of this country's unique barbecue places. Housed in a rustic setting, its pulled pork sandwiches are served on Wonder Bread and they are to die for. Try them plain or with coleslaw, or, better yet, try one of each. In Jonesboro (the home of Arkansas State University), the awesome Skinny J's is exactly what a place that serves suds, meat, potatoes, and custom-built sandwiches in a college town should be.
The Mississippi River Delta is known far and wide as the birthplace of the blues, and the river town of Helena, Arkansas, is at the epicenter of this universe. Here each year, the King Biscuit Blues Festival hosts a stream of blues artists from all over -- the industrial north, the Mississippi Delta, from Texas to the Georgia coast, to experience this unique sound that tugs at the soul. All blues legends dating back to the turn of the 20th century have at one time or another called Helena home, including icons like Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King, Robert Nighthawk, and James Cotton. During the festival, several thousand descend on Helena to celebrate and enjoy the music. Gospel, Cajun, Delta, and rhythm & blues artists arrive at the banks along the Mississippi each autumn, once again reconnecting with their roots and yesteryear.
The Arkansas side of the Mississippi yields some truly unique visuals that merit investigation, such as the Tire Man on U.S. Hwy 165, between Arkansas Post Museum State Park and Dumas. Here, huge old truck and tractor tires have been used as the medium to create a giant human sculpture. Near the town of Rohwer is one of the many internment camps or relocation centers where Japanese-American citizens were confined during WWII. It's a monument both to those who suffered this humiliation and to the strength of the human spirit. It is so worth stopping to read the list of names of the Japanese-American soldiers who came from this internment camp and lost their lives fighting tyranny in Europe.
At a minimum, there are at least two other stops that must be made. One is the all-new Delta Resort, just north of McGehee. The Delta Resort includes two luxury lodges offering excellent restaurants, a spa, ATV and horseback riding, and fishing (both on the property and on the Mississippi River). During the season, the outdoor sportsman will find ducks and deer galore. The Delta Resort makes an excellent basecamp from which to visit the Rohwer Relocation Center and Lakeport Plantation, an antebellum complex that went untouched by the War Between the States. Built in the 1850s, today it remains as it was before the Civil War. Here the mansion and buildings offer a window through which to look back at a unique slice of our American heritage.
Delta Cultural Center
The Feed Lot
Hemingway-Pheiffer Museum & Educational Center
Jones' BBQ Diner
King Biscuit Blues Festival
Ray's Dairy Maid
Rhoda's Famous Tamales
Rohwer Relocation Camp