From Iceland — Lost and Found in the Devil’s Country

Lost and Found in the Devil’s Country

Published March 10, 2006

“We support our troops. We support our troops. Buy American. We support our troops. Tie a yellow ribbon.”
Jesus Christ, just smile and talk about Dodge trucks,” I tell the two Icelanders I’m walking with. We then pass a giant decal showing a cartoon peeing on a Dodge insignia.
“This is like hell, right?” my friend says.
We have walked half a kilometre, and we have another few hundred metres of black asphalt before we’ll get to the entrance of the Tunica Civic Centre. Our destination: the Athletic Cheer and Dance National Championships.
Why are we here?
Mainly because we are desperate for human contact after a stunning Sunday morning of religious radio, but also because we are on Highway 61, the blues highway, and we have just seen something that made our souls cry: a gaggle of about a dozen overweight six year olds in make-up and cheerleading costumes.
Losing My Religion
Our spiritual devastation was a long time coming. The three of us who have flown to Mississippi from Iceland are the only people on the road not headed to church. We have spent the last three evenings with blues musicians who have made no attempt to hide their indulgences in women, liquor. Just as the older musicians are unabashed about drinking corn liquor and using knives in fights, there are rumours about crack cocaine and guns among the most talented of the younger generation.
When hearing the stories of manslaughter and house arrest, the outsiders among us, the white music fans who have come to see the best of Mississippi blues, often mutter the words “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” in response—when you mutter a religious name enough, with so much astonishment, you come to an understanding of the Southern phrase “losing my religion,” even when you never had any to begin with.
Our one reprieve is an accidental stop at a tourist destination. The publishers of Big City Blues, some of the white people we came across in Clarksdale, tell us that any visit to Mississippi would be incomplete without visiting the famous Shack Up Inn, a blues-themed “beer and breakfast” made up of a row of shotgun shacks and cotton bins set up with modern conveniences.
Visiting a shotgun shack at an old plantation seems, on the surface, about as disrespectful to local history as you could get. But when we pull in and are greeted by the caretaker and co-owner, Bill Talbot, a gritty and enthusiastic local who is ecstatic to see more foreign tourists, our skepticism eases. Difficult as life no doubt was in the shacks, to see them firsthand, and to be told the story of each person the shacks were collected from, is remarkable. Talbot celebrates the best of a difficult situation, and he clings vigourously to the local history and culture: each cabin is a veritable gallery of folk art and local history.
Beaming on a Sunday morning inside a shack he calls “the Cadillac” that had, until the late 1980s, housed a man named Cookie who raised three sons in the shack without water or electricity, Talbot explains his enthusiasm: “We get the best kind of people here. We get cultural tourists who care about history and music. Every day, it’s great to see who shows up, and to see the way people react.”
For one hour on this Sunday morning, we’ve seen something positive. Then, while showing us the cotton bin, Bill Talbot lets slip how many people have covered his hotel: CNN, USA Today, and a dozen or so major foreign papers. “When Robert Plant was here a few months ago, he was looking at this stairwell, and do you know what he said? He said it’s the Stairway to Nowhere.”
It is such a soul-sucking joke, that all the good of the positive tourism Mr. Talbot has done is immediately drained from our bodies. When we take him up on his offer to sample a Moon Pie, a marshmallow concoction popular in the south, we are put into that much more of a funk.
And then there is the radio. On this December in 2005, the radio is full of preachers complaining about an America that is “at war with Christianity,” as President Bush has sent a holiday card that doesn’t mention Christ. Even Wal-Mart won’t put up Christmas decorations!
One talk radio personality is filling our ears with an attack on the residents of New Orleans, whom we have just visited. According to this Christian talk show host, the people of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, whose homes were destroyed due to faulty construction of locks along the Mississippi, according to reports published while we are in America, “have never done anything but be victims, and they’ll just go on being victims and living off of the government somewhere else.”
The blues is one thing, but ignorance, hatred and intolerance all on a Sunday with just a Moon Pie and a stinging corn liquor hangover in the molars is too much.
So, of course, when we see the JonBenet Ramsey look-alike squad, we have to pull over. If we can’t feel better, at least we now know of a few thousand people who must feel worse.
We get through the parking lot, we make it into the event hall itself, our press passes evoking a “you’re not really going to write about this, are you?” from an older sister assigned to help sell tickets for the more than 4,000-people event, the Southern Regionals of the National Athletic Cheer and Dance.
We are just in time for the five-to-eight year-old competition. Four thousand people are packed into a massive auditorium to watch hundreds of five-to-eight year olds cheer in heavy make-up.
My initial questions don’t work out.
To Dana, a mother wearing a shirt that says “My Job List: Hair stylist, Make-up artist, taxi driver, bank teller. But my favorite job is #1 fan!” I ask, “Can you explain to an international audience what competitive cheer is?”
“Don’t you have ESPN?” she says, indignant, and walks off.
I catch hold of a young-looking grandmother named Meredith and ask her to fill me in.
“Oh, they’ve come a long way since cheerleading,” she tells me. “You don’t hardly know what they’re doing anymore. But you still have to be proud.”
I nod, and we watch the Elite Squad do a pyramid to contemporary rock music. My gut begins to ache as I realise the song the kids are dancing to.
“Do you realise, Meredith, that these kids are dancing to Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal?”
Meredith looks at me funny and walks away. A few minutes later, a well-belied moustachioed man from Memphis starts to eye me.
I ask a few children about how they did, but they all speak just like ESPN jocks, saying they were just in it for the experience, with one saying, “I’m just here to have fun” all while keeping a stone-cold game face. Finally, when Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire comes booming through the speakers, my photographer, who is fighting to hold back tears of laughter, announces, “This is just wrong,” and begs that we get out quickly.
“One thing you can say is that everybody in there was extremely supportive, and all the parents loved their children,” I tell my Icelandic friends, who refusing to speak and have decided we should leave the South immediately.
“I think I’ve never seen something so wrong in my entire life,” says one friend, who spent three minutes at the competition before fleeing for the car and locking himself in.
Rock Bottom at Wal-Mart
If we are to have our souls sucked dry in one day, I decide we should go all out. We drive as fast as we can down the highway, searching for the most celebrated of Southern enterprises: Wal-Mart.
I’m am driving to Wal-Mart in a search for rock bottom. Awkward as the National Cheer and Dance Competition was, we at least found acceptance, familial love and enthusiasm. We expect none of this from Wal-Mart.
Five minutes in Wal-Mart, and we aren’t anywhere near rock bottom in American culture – we’re at the single best tourist spot in the world, according to my Icelandic friends. The main cause for excitement is the sticker shock – cutting out benefits, destroying wholesalers and signing pacts with Satan make for extremely low prices. But still more appealing for any tourist to America is the following: Wal-Mart is a hell of a pick-up place.
We had actually been told this our first day in the South. While eating a po’ boy at a Mobile, Alabama shop, the cook told us, “If you ever want to pick up a lady, just drive down to Wal-Mart. You don’t even have to say anything.”
Sadly, he couldn’t have been more right. The smiles and conversations that came our way at the Oxford Wal-Mart had us stunned. Especially when my colleague was somewhat forcefully hit on by a college cheerleader who was holding hands with her boyfriend… in the gun aisle.
Not until checkout, when a borderline hysterical mother explained to me that she had to drive 40 miles to cover this shift because Wal-Mart was the only employer who would take her in since she started home schooling her hyperactive child did our collective consciences react. “You have to spend almost half your wages on gas on a day like this, but you just have to take the shift to make sure you get a better offer later,” our cashier told me, then smiled and asked if I wanted my receipt in the bag or in my hand.
Finally, we all agreed we’d hit rock bottom.
Required Reading
If you’re going to hit rock bottom, Oxford is the town to do it in. The home of Ole Miss, the town has an unofficial motto: “We may not win every game, but we ain’t never lost a party.”
As a rule, the bars present local live music on most nights for minimal cover charges. A friend we made on a night on the town confessed that a flood of New Orleans musicians were now playing around town, boosting the quality of the nightlife even further.
Oxford proves entertaining by night, and still more uplifting by day. Rowan Oaks, home to William Faulkner, is just off the centre of town, its grounds making up a popular park, all kept up by the University of Mississippi.
On the day we go to Rowan Oaks, we are the only people to enter the building, whereas a number of people are walking their dogs in the peaceful grounds, and a couple have their wedding photos taken at the gate to the house.
Touring Rowan Oaks, home to America’s single most-respected, and, to many, most difficult writer, is a humbling experience. Faulkner, who wrote as big and aggressive as any national author, seems to live haphazardly. His study features a cot and notes for a film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fable pencilled across the wall.
Ole Miss students staff the museum, and they gladly show me a New York Times article claiming the building’s importance.
Asked if they spend the day reading Faulkner, they both raise their hands apologetically. One host says he had read some Faulkner, but really just likes graphic design, the other, a graduate student in Gothic literature, claims no interest whatsoever in Faulkner, famous in many circles as the father of Southern Gothic writing.
“What is the most common attraction?” I ask.
“A lot of people really like to see the riding boots,” the Gothic literature student informs me.
Where Authors Are Rock Stars
“Have you been to Rowan Oaks yet?” I am asked politely as I settle down in the Faulkner section of Square Books in downtown Oxford. “You can just go in and see Faulkner’s riding boots. Exactly how he left them. It’s amazing.”
“I don’t really enjoy Faulkner,” I say, immediately putting an enthusiastic local at ease.
“No. It’s hard to like what you’re forced to read,” he says, before recommending no less than a dozen Mississippi writers that aren’t required but that he thoroughly enjoys.
Since Faulkner, Oxford has been the seat of Southern literature, though the welcome addition of the less literary John Grisham, and the endowments he has given to the local university, have allowed for an absolute boom of regional fiction in recent years. The quick run through of great recent writers who have lived in Oxford includes Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, Willie Morris and Beth Ann Finley.
During the school year, the largest bookstore in town, Square Books, hosts three readings a week, forming a community that, at least according to the bookstore attendant, “treats authors like rock stars.”
To indicate how book crazy Oxford has gone, the owner of Square Books, Richard Howorth, was recently elected mayor.
For the most part, the hyper-literacy of Oxford is a blessing—you can hold a decent conversation on most topics with just about anyone, as long as you hide your love for Faulkner, who apparently has been forced down the throats of the locals a little too much.
Sitting down for bagels at a crammed local diner, the Bottle Tree, a curious patron started a lengthy conversation about Björgólf-ur Thor, Iceland’s wealthy investment maverick. My travel companions were pleased, and then a little afraid, that casual knowledge stretched so far in Oxford.
Eventually, we were exposed to the dangers of reading too much. The same patron showed us a paperback from his backpack by a Mr. Bill Bryson, travel writer. Bryson, master of clichés and boring stereotypes, had written about three of his favourite Mississippi towns: Oxford, Tupelo and Columbus.
“It’s not very good,” he told us. “I feel like I’m learning less with every page. I hope you do better.”

Mentioned in this article:
The Shack Up Inn,
(Also recommended, Hel-Mart,
Rowan Oaks,
Square Books,

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