Culture / Travel

An Artist’s Road Trip Along the Mississippi — Blues, Elvis and a True Funhouse Come Into Sharp Focus

Taking the Slow Route

BY Ariane Roesch // 11.08.19
photography Ariane Roesch and Zak Miano

Ariane Roesch is a Texas-based artist and author. She and husband Zak Miano (Roesch’s road trip partner) co-own OnAim Conservation, which conserves and restores public and private sculpture. Roesch’s first book, How to Build: A House, A Life, A Future, was published this fall.

Following the Mississippi

I’m a fan of slow travel. I like piling into a car stuffed with your things, crossing the country at an average of 80 miles-per-hour. There are no lines, no security checkpoints, no schedule that you have to stick to — no rush really. Just sit back and relax into the daydream of the changing landscape.

I recently headed to St. Louis from Houston with my husband Zak Miano for his grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration/family reunion. We already planned to stop and see Graceland, Elvis’ estate in Memphis and make the obligatory visit to the City Museum in St. Louis.

Our trip was split into two days, 15 hours of total drive time, crossing five states. One of the many benefits of slow travel is the ability to make stops and also accept invites for an unexpected layover during a long journey. A friend had heard of our plans and offered us a place to stay in Clarksdale, Mississippi – approximately nine hours from Houston and only a 90 minute drive away from Memphis, Tennessee.

We crossed the mighty Mississippi River on I-20, heading into Vicksburg from Louisiana. We turned off north on Highway 61, following alongside the river, immersed in the expansive alluvial Mississippi delta.

The Mississippi along with its many tributaries had enabled the westward expansion of America. Creating a thoroughfare for goods and having rich soil along its banks, it was the way to pioneer new land, new opportunities and communities to fulfill the promise of America.

Animal Fever

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In a way, our three stops along the river embody these feelings in their own unique way.

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Main Street, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Part One: In Search of the Blues

Once a thriving agricultural town with a population of around 21,000 people, Clarksdale nowadays is a small town with just under 17,000 inhabitants. Though agriculture is still the top industry in Mississippi, tourism is a close second and has become the saving grace for towns like Clarksdale.

The draw is its rich blues history with prominent figures like Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker being from there. As it was once a thriving town – the golden buckle on the cotton belt – it became the hub for musicians to perform and many more have passed through or lived there, like Muddy Waters.

One can learn more about the rich music history by visiting the Delta Blues Museum or strolling through the quaint downtown following the Mississippi Blues Trail markers that have been placed throughout. The community has embraced their history and seeing the interest not just from visitors but also other musicians now hosts 21 festivals throughout the year, with the Juke Joint Festival happening every spring and being one of the bigger draws “half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta.”

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A Mississippi mural in Clarksdale sings the blues.

Visitors who are not able to make a pilgrimage across the country by car, or for international travelers, can fly into Memphis which is a 90 minute drive away. To accommodate its growing number of visitors, Clarksdale has several boutique hotels to choose from, most of which are owner built and operated. There is the Shack Up Inn, Delta Digs, Hooker Hotel and the Five & Dime Lofts to name a few.

Various restaurants (Levon’s and Stone Pony were our go-to recommendations) and breakfast places (Yazoo Pass and Our Grandma’s Pancake House) have sprung up with a tasty variety of libations (including Avocado Toast for those who need their fix).

Along with the strong music background, it was a pleasant surprise to also see that the visual arts have taken a more prominent role. The Clarksdale Revitalization Inc. was formed for the beautification of downtown and has initiated several projects like working with a local artist to create bike racks, garbage cans, and transforming (and cleaning up) the alleys into impromptu art spaces.

Meghan Maike, who we met through our friend who set us on our path to Clarksdale in the first place, started a cross-cultural mural project that brings in artists from Bogota, Colombia, to collaborate with local artists on murals situated within the downtown. Stop by her shop Willow Botanical & Goods to learn more or just say hi.

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Foodie culture in Mississippi.

Meghan, who is Australian and Canadian, is also part of a growing community of people relocating to Mississippi from elsewhere. Within Clarksdale, there are people from Germany, Slovakia, Los Angeles, Seattle and New Jersey to name a few.

It seems there is a contraction happening along the mighty Mississippi River – not just economically (which seems to dominate the headlines) but in a social sense. People are seeking out more of a sense of community which is something small towns like Clarksdale can provide.

Its rich history mixed with the lush yet surreal flora and fauna of the Mississippi delta continue to make it fertile soil for charting new opportunities.

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On the way to Elvis.

Part Two: Graceland

If you continue on Highway 61 North from Clarksdale, you exit on E Raines Rd just south of Memphis, then turn left onto Elvis Presley Blvd to get to Graceland. Elvis purchased Graceland – a charming and stately colonial revival-style mansion – in 1957. It was named after the previous owners’ mother in law who was named Grace. Elvis liked the connection and kept the name.

Touring Graceland starts by standing in line. You wait with loads of people ready to squeeze on to a bus that takes you across the street into the actual estate. Everyone gets equipped with iPads and headphones to take you on your own “private” audio tour.

It makes sense to guide people through the two-hour experience digitally, keep everyone moving at a set pace while avoiding probing questions that might go off topic. But it also creates a silent shuffling of feet winding through the tight spaces of the house.

Occasionally you can hear someone making a sound through your headphones, but mostly people are quiet, looking at the stuff, listening, not really engaging with each other, just trying to stay out of each other’s way when taking pictures.

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The King holds court in Graceland.

Elvis, who had grown up in a shot-gun shack that his father built in Tupelo, has become the symbol for the American Dream. And Graceland, though humble compared to its more lavish modern estates that you see on MTV cribs, displays the riches that America promises.

But even in its Disneyland like visitor experience, it is still tasteful. The three old built-in TVs in the TV room don’t seem excessive or obnoxious like being surrounded by flat screen TVs in a sports bar. But maybe because the renovated interiors are pulling on our nostalgic heartstrings?

Each room’s uniqueness and attention to detail dispels any aversion and instead highlights the variety of objects, fabrics, and availability of custom-designed anything to fulfill your vision and have yourself reflected back to you within that vision.

There are too many details to mention here, too many rooms to really discuss, but one can definitely say that the King (or his designer) sure had a handle on how to use mirrors. Almost every room has a mirrored surface – I’m guessing to visually expand the small spaces but I can’t help but think they also served his ego.

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Talk about a mod pod.

The staircase leading down to the basement (where all the fun happened) is tiled completely in mirrors. These spaces of transit – hallways, staircases – end up being taken serious as transition spaces, visually preparing you for what’s next. The TV room with its bold yellow and blue color palette also has mirrored ceilings, complete with a mirrored bar.

Not just the furniture, accessories, or walls are taken into account during the design, but it’s the ceilings – often a forgotten element – that make the biggest statement. The game room with the pool table sports gathered fabric on the walls and ceiling, with the furniture upholstered with the same pattern. It apparently took the crew three days to install.

The famous jungle room – pictured on the cover of his last recorded album “Way Down” – has green shag carpet not just on the floor but also covering the ceiling. As he used the jungle room more frequently as his recording studio towards the end of his life, these aesthetic choice also had a practical purpose to help with acoustics.

Things get a bit more relaxed as the tour leaves the main house and files into the adjacent buildings and weaves through the gardens. I was unaware that Elvis kept horses on his property, or that he had his own personal shooting range and racquetball court.

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The King’s office in Graceland.

The rank-and-file of making it through the main house dispels and everyone relaxes into the beauty of the estate. The audio tour gets forgotten, people lolligag and discuss as they enjoy the view of the horse pasture. The tour ends in the meditation garden, which is also the site of where Elvis and his family are buried.

People file in line one more time to pay their respects to the King of rock ‘n roll – to what he accomplished and what his image means for all of us – before getting back on the bus and returning to the visitor center.

Unexpectedly, you don’t exit through the gift shop. Unless you tour the planes, you don’t even encounter the stand-alone building filled with merchandise. But then again, this is Elvis – his gift shop is America.

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A museum like no other.

Part Three: The City Museum

To get to St. Louis from Memphis, cut over west on I-40 then take Highway 55 north. It is roughly a four-and-a-half hour drive, following the winding Mississippi river on the right. St. Louis is primarily a goods and manufacturing city, with a diverse array of companies like Boeing Defense, Panera, and Anheuser-Busch calling it their home.

It is also a big tourist hub – the most notable landmark being the tallest man-made arch called Gateway Arch – with a significant art scene. There is the Saint Louis Art Museum located within Forest Park, the Laumeier Sculpture Park, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation to name a few – all have year-round free admission.

Located downtown in the former 10-story tall International Shoe Company warehouse, just blocks away from the banks of the river, is a hidden gem called the City Museum. It was founded by sculptor Bob Cassilly and aims to repurpose city detritus into various interactive exhibitions (or “zones”) that are part fun-house, part playground, always in flux, always educational with a definite risk-factor.

Cassilly employed a crew of 20 artisans to bring his vision to life, though as far as one can tell there wasn’t really a Master Plan. In a fly-by-night, renegade, scrap-happy style found pieces made their way into the Gesamtkunstwerk that it is today. The creation process was as much about exploration as the final result and the way the Museum is meant to be experienced.

The outdoor area, called MonstroCity, is a “sculpture of flotsam and repurposed technology includes climbers, airplanes, castles, bridges, ball pits, and fire engines” all connected by tunnels made from repurposed steel round stock to crawl through – of course you are 20+ feet in the air.

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In St. Louis, the former International Shoe Company warehouse has been reborn as America’s most fantastical museum.

The Museum is almost too much to take in and describe as a whole but with each turn you come across sculptural moments that are beautiful in their own right. It seems to be geared towards children – you can find nooks and crannies all over only big enough to fit a child (parents beware, you might have a hard time following your youngins on their quest). But the museums purpose of exploring spaces and testing your limits really reaches across all age groups.

There is no didactic, no name plates, no set way of experiencing an installation. It is really up to you what you make of it – will you slide down the old shoe slides? Will you test your love for heights as you climb through the elevated tunnels? Or will you take a stroll through the various levels, enjoying the detail and craftsmanship of the individual sculptures?

With its experiential mission, it calls to mind a comparison to the more recent phenomenon of Meow Wolf. But despite all the hype of the tech-oriented, murder mystery installation in Santa Fe, the manual simplicity of the City Museum taps into something more inate in all of us: exploring our physical and psychological boundaries – nothing more, nothing less.

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