A Theme from my Recent Travels: Race

As I think back on my recent trip (you can find all of the posts about it under the tag ‘The Mississippi Journey’) one of the things which stands out is how often I noticed (and while blogging, commented) upon race. I did not expect that to be one of the themes of my trip.

Maybe I was so surprised because I am white – part of white privilege is being able to ignore race in ways that non-white people in the United States cannot.

Also, in my previous travels, I have always tended to notice race when it was different from the mix of races which are different from what I am used to. For example, when I was living in Taiwan, I got used to not seeing many other white people, sometimes going weeks without seeing another white person, so when I went to Osaka and Kyoto (literally the very first two places I went after I moved out of Taiwan) I was blown away by how many white people there were, and in my subconscious, I still think of Kyoto as ‘a place full of white people’ (I probably would not have had that impression of Kyoto if I had gone there straight from the United States rather than straight from Taiwan). Indeed, I remember that when I met people visiting Taiwan, a common reaction was “where are all of the white people?” and my response was “this is Asia, why would you expect to see lots of white people here?” and then they would tell me that there are way more white people in Beijing/Shanghai/Tokyo/wherever. Since Taiwan is the first place in east Asia I ever went, I did not really understand that there are parts of east Asia which have a lot more white people until I went to some of those places myself.

Another thing which stood out during my travels was different levels of racial segregation. Granted, I was a tourist, not a researcher – not only did I not do any careful data gathering, I was focused on sightseeing, not research, and as such my observations are very limited and almost certainly not representative. That said, I saw the highest levels of racial integrations in the following places (I consider racial integration to be people of different races interacting with each other on relatively equal terms):

1. Downtown Chicago (I didn’t go anywhere outside of downtown Chicago, and based on what I’ve read about Chicago, there is a lot of racial segregation by neighborhood)
2. New Orleans (all neighborhoods I visited, though I mostly went to touristy areas, and I also understand that I probably would have seen more racial segregation if I had taken a more extensive look at the city)
3. Downtown San Antonio

Notice a pattern? I tended to see the most racial integration in downtown areas of major cities. Even in Memphis, which has some really obvious racial segregation, I observed more racial integration in downtown Memphis than in other parts of Memphis.

Actually, I take that back. The place where I saw the most racial integration, hands down, was in the sightseeing lounge of the California Zephyr. The place where I saw the second highest level of racial integration was in the sightseeing lounge of the Sunset Limited. Apparently, Amtrak has higher levels of racial integration than downtown areas of cities, probably because Amtrak passengers are racially diverse and it is harder for people on a train to avoid each other than for people in a neighborhood to avoid each other.

Where did I observe the highest level of racial segregation? Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Charles County, Missouri. I think it would be really hard to be in Vicksburg, and then be in St. Charles County the next week, and not notice race.

Vicksburg, as I mentioned, is about 60% African-American, yet based on what I saw, I would have guessed it was 90% African-American. In the neighborhood where I slept, nearly everyone was black, and most of the people who weren’t black were some other kind of POC. I walked through neighborhood after neighborhood in Vicksburg where it seemed that everyone was black. In downtown Vicksburg, I saw both black and white people, but not in the same places (I don’t count because I was an out-of-town visitor). For example, at the Rail Depot Museum, everyone was white, and at the Lower Mississippi Museum, everyone (except myself) was black, even though they are just a block away from each other. The retail area on Washington Street is very white, but blocks away, there are black-owned businesses. The only place I saw black and white people interacting with each other (excluding myself) was at the bus station – most of the people there were black, but there were a few white passengers other than myself. I did not ask anyone in Vicksburg about this since asking about racial segregation did not occur to me until I was gone, and I don’t know what would have been the best way to ask about it anyway. I would also like to note that nobody in Vicksburg, of any race, made me feel unwelcome in their neighborhood.

St. Charles County, of course, was totally white. I mostly stayed in my host’s house, so I did not get to observe as much as when I was in Vicksburg, but whenever I got out, I never saw any non-white people.

Now, lest one think that Vicksburg is so racially segregated because it is in Mississippi, I would like to note that I observed significantly more racial integration in Natchez, which is also in Mississippi. I wouldn’t call it a paradise of racial integration (notice that I did not put it in my list of most racially integrated places), but I did observe white and black people working side by side in the same business doing the same work, and in Natchez it was not obvious to me whether I was in a ‘white’ or ‘black’ neighborhood the way it was in Vicksburg, Memphis, or St. Charles County, and generally, I saw a lot more white and black people talking to each other in Natchez than in some other places.

Now, these observations are probably partially based on random chance – maybe I just happened to observe the less racially segregated aspects of Natchez, and the more racially segregated aspects of Vicksburg, and that if I did proper research, I would find that my initial impressions were inaccurate. Everything I say in this post should be understood as a record of my impressions, not an accurate depiction of any place I visited.

Anyway, did I learn anything from my observations of racial relations during my recent trip? It’s not so much that I learned something new (well, I learned a lot of details about, say, the history of the civil rights movement, but that is besides the point) as that in deepened my understanding of things I knew something about before. For example, I knew that we are a racially/ethnically diverse nation, but actually visiting different places and see a lot of the differences myself drives that lesson deeper, and some aspects of racial integration/segregation are easier to see as an out-of-town outsider than as a local.

Riding the Zephyr through the Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I took the California Zephyr, the United States’ longest passenger train route (well, if you combine the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, that is actually longer, but whatever) from its origin in Chicago to its terminus in Emeryville (which is very close to San Francisco) for a few reasons. First of all, I was travelling in winter, so I figured it was not the best time of year to take intermediate stops. Second, I had never been to the Rocky Mountains at all before, nor had I been to the Sierra Nevada in winter. Third, I wanted the experience of taking the longest possible passenger train ride in the United States (excluding the Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited combination) nonstop.

In my post on the Sunset Limited I commented on the demographics of the train passengers. The California Zephyr’s demographics are a bit different. For starters, there were a lot more white people, particularly east of Denver. West of Denver, the train passengers became more racially mixed, including Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, as well as some visitors from outside the United States. However, the most represented group of all on the train were retirees – older people who had quit worker, and had time to spend on trains. They were also well-represented on the Sunset Limited, but based on my observation, it seemed that there were more retirees on the California Zephyr than on the Sunset Limited.

After leaving Denver, we entered the ‘Tunnel District’. We passed through 42 tunnels (I did not keep count, but some of the passengers did, and they counted them out loud). The train had to make sweeping curves to get up into the mountains. During one of those sweeping curves, we passed a large herd of wild elk which were only about fifteen feet away from the train tracks. The mountains facing Denver, suffice to say, were covered in snow, with some coniferous trees as well.

Now, way back in Union Station in Chicago, I had felt some strain on my back, probably from several weeks of travelling with luggage, but I thought little of it. After all, how much strain would I put on my back while I sat on a train for a couple of days. HA HA HA HA HA HA. During my second day on the train, my back felt terrible, so much so that I ended up taking ibuprofen (it had been more than ten years since I had taken ibuprofen, or any other painkiller). My back was probably already in a delicate condition due to hauling luggage, and the sleeping position I had taken that night had tipped it over the edge. I had never had a problem before sleeping in coach – I had found decent sleeping positions – but the sleeping position I had taken that night had been a mistake. Never again.

We eventually went through the Moffat Tunnel, which is the highest altitude point of the entire Amtrak system (its elevation is 9,239 ft./2,816 m above sea level).

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

The tunnel district was lovely – and we passed right next to a ski resort (the Colorado residents told me that the ski resort had been hurting until that week because, before the recent snows, there had not been enough snow to ski). However, my favorite scenery in the Rockies was along the Colorado River. The train goes by a section which is only accessible by rail and by boat – no roads. The river flows even in winter, and it cuts a groove into the rocky mountain terrain (there’s a reason it’s called the ‘Rocky’ Mountains). Incidently, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the Colorado River. I enjoyed watching the soaring cliffs, frosted with snow, and seeing the rocks change from grey to brown to red to white.

The sun set around the time we arrived in Glenwood Springs. That meant I did not get the greatest view of Glenwood Canyon, but maybe I’ll see it another time. It sure would have been nice to take a dip in the hot springs!

After Grand Junction, I went to sleep, woke up when the train arrived at Provo, Utah, stayed awake until the train arrived in Salt Lake City at around midnight, then went back to sleep. There was snow in Utah, but not as much as Colorado.

The next morning, I woke up and found out that I was in Nevada. I really liked the Nevada scenery. The grassy valley was yellow, with a dusting of snow. Meanwhile, the hills looming over the valley on both sides were coated with white snow, with little tufts of yellow poking out.

I met some of the young people who boarded the train in Salt Lake City. Since I had planned on being on the train for more than 50 hours, the fact that the train was a few hours behind schedule did not matter much to me. However, to people who were waiting to board the train, the fact that the train was a few hours late was a big deal. I heard that the young people waiting for the train in Salt Lake City had had a little party at the train station while they were waiting for the train to show up.

My back was feeling better, but I was glad that this was my last day on the train, especially since I had already eaten all of my tastiest food. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Nevada scenery and the company.

We got to Reno at around noon, and followed the Truckee River. The Truckee River is unusual in that, unlike most rivers, it never touches any ocean or sea.

Finally, we crossed the Nevada/California border, and stopped in Truckee, the first California stop. Riding this train gave me an appreciation of just how large the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada really are, so crossing the final state border felt like a big deal to me. In Reno, we also got a national parks guide, who commented on the scenery we were passing through.

The train passed through some snow sheds – built to protect the train from snow. Only about 1 mile of train track is still covered with snow shed, but the guide said that, when the trans-continental rail line first opened, there were over twenty miles of snow shed.

As on the Sunset Limited, I got to talk to people of various different walks of life on the train. I still continue to consider this one of the highlights of train travel. In my experience, the only other mode of transportation which encourages strangers to meet and talk with each other to the same degree as the Amtrak trains are long-distance ferries (by long distance, I mean more than four hours).

We passed Donner Lake. It’s big, and it has a nice reflection of the mountains but … I was overwhelmed. Maybe I had had enough of scenery by that point. What I did really enjoy was looking a the trees. The Sierras have beautiful forest, and the trees at high elevations are not like the trees I get to see in my everyday life. They were right next to the train tracks, so I could get a close look at them.

The sun set when we got to Roseville, and by that point, I was so done with being on the train. As more passengers got off, I retreated into my book. Finally, the train got to Emeryville station. I took the bus to San Francisco, and my journey ended.

If you have read all of my travel posts this month, my comment is: wow. I am so flattered that you would be willing to read all of that. I am amazed at how many lengthy travel posts I have written this month, and I am amazed that I had time to write all that. Of course, it was easier to find time to write travel posts when I was actually travelling since it helped me unwind after a day of tourism, whereas it is harder to find time to blog when I am at home!

I might write a post with my concluding thoughts about this travel. Or maybe I won’t because I am moving on with my life. We’ll see.

Towards a Green Christmas (or, the Train Which Was Faster Than Flying)

Photo of Chicago's Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Photo of Chicago’s Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Much as I enjoyed my stay in Chicago, my main purpose for going there in the first place was to catch a train which would take me back home. At first, I had intended to try to make a tight transfer, but I realized that it would have been tricky to get from St. Louis to Chicago in time to catch the train to San Francisco, and if there had been ANY delay on the St. Louis – Chicago leg of the trip, I would mess up the transfer, so I figured it was better to spend one night in Chicago. And then I decided to spend two nights in Chicago, which allowed me to have a full and satisfying day there.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Chicago Union Station is the busiest long-distance train station in the United States. Just take a look at a map of the Amtrak system, and you’ll notice that an awful lot of train lines converge in Chicago. Most major train stations in the United States only see 2-4 long-distance trains per day, whereas when I was at Chicago Union Station, the train to San Francisco was departing just fifteen minutes after the train to San Antonio, Texas, and likewise, the train going to Seattle was departing just fifteen minutes after the San Francisco train (and the train to Los Angeles was departing shortly after the train to Seattle). This is on top of the fact that there are the local commuter trains called ‘Metra’ (they look like Caltrains, but had more snow on them), as well as the Polar Express (at the train station, whenever I saw a family with young children, there was a 90% chance that they were waiting for the Polar Express). To impose order on this chaos, Chicago Union Station requires boarding passes (unlike any other Amtrak station I have been too), and when it is time to begin boarding, an Amtrak employee will call out the name of the train (for example, “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR!”), line up the passengers, and then walk them through the maze of the station to the correct platform.

On the train, I briefly talked to a couple who was travelling from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Their train from Philadelphia arrived at Chicago Union Station just five minutes before the train to San Francisco departed. They said that the Amtrak employees arranged for a very speedy transfer which is why they got on the San Francisco-bound train on time. I cannot imagine an airline company arranging a transfer between an arriving and departing airplane within a five minute window.

Speaking of airlines, one of the advantages of train travel is that there is NO SECURITY CHECK. Amtrak employees do check whether or not you have a valid ticket, and they do NOT like unattended luggage/packages in places where luggage/packages are not supposed to be stored, and there are some forbidden items, but generally it is a way easier process than boarding an airplane.

Once on the train, I got to see a lot more of the Illinois landscape. First the train passed through suburbs of Chicago, and then it was a vast expanse of farmland coated in snow, with isolated farmhouses, stands of trees, and streams breaking up the white landscape. During this portion of the trip, I talked with a young woman who was going from Chicago back to her hometown, Burlington, Iowa.

Just about when we arrived in Iowa, the sun set. I was expecting Iowa to be more farmland just like Illinois, so I was surprised to see how industrialized it was (I learned that the train goes through the most industrialized region of Iowa – which makes sense, of course manufacturing and industry would be concentrated along the most important train route).

I stepped off the train in Omaha, Nebraska for a breather. Omaha was no colder than Chicago, but the ground was slick and slippery, so I did not walk far from the train. After Omaha, I went to sleep, and woke up in Colorado.

Colorado, like Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska, was covered in snow, but it looked different. We stopped in Fort Morgan, and then Denver. It was so cold that night that the remote-controlled switches on the tracks were failing, so whenever the train needed to use a switch, it had to stop, the conductor had to get off the train (in the middle of a blizzard), use the manual switch, get back on the train, and then the train could go ahead. Naturally, this led to the train being hours behind schedule.

Denver was also coated in snow, but in a very different way than Chicago. Chicago is liberal in its use of salt, and makes an effort to clear snow. Denver doesn’t bother with salt, or clearing snow. The Colorado residents I met on the train said that all snow in Denver melts within days, a week at most, so they don’t bother with it. They could tell just by looking at Denver that it had snowed at night, because otherwise it would have been much more melted down. One of the most remarkable sights I saw in Denver were people (homeless people, I presume) setting up tents along a riverbank covered with snow. I’ve certainly seen tent encampments of homeless people before, but never amid such snow.

When we got to Denver train station, I was told to stay on the train platform because we didn’t have time to enter the station. Then we stayed in Denver station for more than half an hour. I got to watch snow fall of the platform roofs.

A conductor told me that only 50 passengers were supposed to board the train in Denver. Instead, 130 passengers boarded in Denver. What happened? Well, a bunch of people discovered that taking the train was faster than flying.

Let me explain.

That day, every single flight at Denver International Airport was cancelled, due to to a combination of weather and the incompetence of whoever manages flights at Denver. People on the train told me that, when they tried to reschedule their flights, they were told that they would have to wait at least four days in Denver. The people going to places such as Utah and California figured out that it takes less than four days for a train to get to those places, so they got train tickets. Thus, it turns out that trains are sometimes faster than airplanes.

I will continue with my account of riding the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco Emeryville (which is just a ten minute bus ride away from San Francisco).

Ah, but what is this thing about a ‘Green Christmas’? Well, a lot of people on the train lived in places like Iowa and Colorado, and they were visiting their relatives in California. Why were they going from Iowa/Colorado/Philadelphia/wherever to California, rather than inviting their California relatives to visit them? Because they wanted a “Green Christmas” (they coined the phrase, not me). I suppose the people who wanted a White Christmas took the train going in the opposite direction.

Review: The Steppenwolf Production of The Christians

One of the top things I wanted to do during my brief stay in Chicago was see a live theatre performance. I only had time, practically speaking, to see one show, so I saw The Christians by Lucas Hnath as performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The production itself – the acting, the directing, the set, the lighting, etc. – was excellent. Which, given that Steppenwolf is considered one of the best theatre companies in the entire United States, is not a surprise. Given that the production as a whole is excellent, I do not have much to say about it, so I will discuss the play itself instead.

In the play, a pastor has grown a storefront church into a megachurch, and they have just paid down the debt they incurred to build their large gleaming building. As soon as the debt is paid, the paster comes out with a sermon which claims that a) there is no hell and that b) belief in hell creates divisions with people, therefore Christians ought to drop their belief in hell to be better able to spread the word.

The play briefly discusses the Christian theological basis for both the ‘hell exists’ and ‘hell does not exist’ hypotheses, but really, the story is about how this impacts the people rather than about the dogma. The pastor claimed that belief in hell creates gaps between people which makes communication impossible yet, ironically, by declaring his lack of belief in hell, he creates gaps between himself and his congregation.

Even though I have never been a Christian, I still felt the play spoke to me, because ultimately, it’s a play about human nature, not strictly Christianity. One of the stand-out lines was “Does absolute tolerance mean being intolerant of the intolerant?” In the context of the play, that meant whether the pastor’s ideas of accepting that everyone goes to heaven means casting out the members of the church who invoke hellfire in their preaching, but it’s a valid question in many other contexts.

Another issue in the story is that it is strongly implied that the pastor had stopped believing in hell long before he came out with this sermon, but did not dare preach about it until the debt was paid off. This leaves some members of the congregation feeling like they were manipulated in order to secure their tithes. This gets to the issue of having a religious organization which requires a lot of money – it creates economic incentives for people to preach ideas they don’t believe. Though the pastor in the play is not an atheist (he believes in God even though he does not believe in hell), it reminds me of some of the people that The Clergy Project reaches out to – religious leaders who have stopped believing in their religion yet keep on working because they need the paycheck (or they fear backlash from the congregation, etc.)

The play also makes clear that treating the members of the congregation who continue to believe in hell as ignorant or hateful people will not cause them to drop their belief in hell – quite the opposite, in fact.

After the play, I was talking with a young couple about it. For them, the play resonated with them because it showed how a change in beliefs could break personal relationships, and one of them said that he avoids discussing what he feels about religion with his parents because he is afraid that would cause damage to his relationship with them.

It is a thought-provoking play which I think is worthwhile for both Christian and non-Christian audiences. If given an opportunity, I recommend seeing it.

CAUTION! FALLING ICE! – My Stay in Chicago

Okay, I could not resist using this movie poster. I can hardly believe that this is a 2002 film - I remember when it had its first run in theaters and was really popular.

Okay, I could not resist using this movie poster. I can hardly believe that this film dates as far back as 2002 – I remember when it had its first run in theaters and was really popular.

Before I went to Chicago, EVERYONE was warning me about how cold it would be. Even when I boarded the train in St. Louis, the conductor said “It’s cold in Chicago. We should be going south, not north.” I kept getting told that ~nothing~ I have experienced would prepare me for Chicago’s coldness. And windiness. And snowiness.

The train crossed into Illinois pretty much as soon as it got out St. Louis city limits. The train made stop after stop in various Illinois towns. As a native of Chicago I eventually met in Chicago said (with her distinctly Chicago accent) “Outside of Chicago, Illinois is a rural state. I remember, when I was going to Springfield, there was a thirty mile stretch when I lost phone reception, and I thought ‘Whoa, we’re still in Illinois, we’re not far from Chicago.'” She also said in the same conversation “The people downstate say we are moochers, but Cook County [where Chicago is located] provides 70% of the tax revenue for the state of Illinois. We’re not moochers.”

Indeed, the only place the train passed through which was not rural was Springfield, the capital of Illinois. I enjoyed seeing the small Illinois towns, and watching the people all bundled up boarding the train. And a lot of people boarded the train – it was an ‘overfull’ train since there were more passengers than seats. Most of those passengers did not board in St. Louis – there were entire cars which were empty when we departed St. Louis – which shows that a lot of people in small-town Illinois use the train to get to Chicago.

When I was in Missouri, I didn’t see any snow. However, only about 40 minutes into Illinois, I started seeing frost, and about twenty minutes later, I saw landscapes coated with snow. There were a lot of fields, but there was also quite a bit of forest.

Meanwhile, I was uncomfortable, because the train was overheated – way more heated that any other Amtrak train I have ever taken.

Anyway, as we were getting to Chicago, I was bracing myself for the test – was I ready for Chicago winter weather?

Answer: the streets of Chicago – on a night which even local Chicago people said was particularly cold – were more comfortable than that overheated train.

I am happy to report that Chicago (at least near the train station) has better street lighting than New Orleans. It was pretty exciting, not just walking through a city I had never been to before, but walking through an environment I had never been in before. I have experienced snow in Kyoto, but Kyoto snow is much less intense than Chicago snow. The sidewalks of Chicago, even when they are cleared of snow, retain a thin layer of salt crystals which give them a frosty appearance.

That said, I must thank everyone who gave me dire warnings of Chicago winter weather. They persuaded me to bring clothing which made my time in Chicago more comfortable than it would have been otherwise (long underwear is very useful).

I slept in a hostel in Greektown, which is on the eastern edge of the ‘Near West Side’ and has a lot of Greek eateries. I suspect that the managers/owners of the hostel are also Greek-Americans.

The next day – which was the only full day I spent in Chicago – I spent hours walking around in downtown. I loved the look of snow blanketing the urban landscape. I noticed an abundance of signs saying ‘Caution – Falling Ice’ – hence the title of this post. Though I never rode the El, I enjoyed looking up at the tracks and hearing the trains above me.

Chicago is famous for its architecture, and yes, a lot of it is nice. However, the Sears Tower (I know it has another name now, but I still think of it as the ‘Sears Tower’) does not look like anything special at ground level – it just looks like a generic skyscraper.

The highlight of the walk was not the buildings, but Lake Michigan. It was the first time I had seen any of the Great Lakes. I liked its blue/turquoise/cyan color against the white/gray sky. I saw a great variety of ice floating on the lake waters. In some places the ice was really choppy and broken up, full of white edges, as the lake water undulated beneath it. In another place, the ice formed large sheets which were nearly translucent, making them the same color as the water, but one could see cracks in the plates of ice, like cracks in a glass window. I was impressed by a pair of ducks which were happily splashing in the lake water right next to one of the ice sheets. And the beaches – I have never seen a beach blanketed with snow before. I love the interested blobs of frozen sand which looked like cool complicated rocks – and felt as hard as rock.

In the afternoon, it began to snow anew. I felt that walking through Chicago was like walking through a Christmas card, and experience I’ve never had before. I grew up in coastal California, where it simply does not snow – in California, winter means the landscape because green with sprouting and reviving plants and new life (in other words, winter is to us what spring is to East Coast culture). As a child, the only times I ever saw snow was when my family visited the Sierra mountains – in summer. I saw snow fall from the sky for the first time in Kyoto, and that is the only other urban environment to date where I have seen snow, but, well, Kyoto does not look like a Christmas card.

I loved the weather in Chicago. I felt it was a challenge and an adventure, and the scenery was gorgeous. However, most residents of Chicago had a reaction like this when they heard I was going to San Francisco next –

Me: Next, I’m going to San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I want to go to San Francisco.
Me: It doesn’t snow in San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I know, that’s why I want to go there!

Some residents of Chicago seemed a bit … disappointed that I was not put off by the weather. However, they explained that, while the weather had novelty value for me because it was all new to me, dealing with the snow and the wind and the cold gets old when one has to put up with it all winter, year after year. I can understand that perspective.

In the evening, I … went to the theatre. There was no way I was going to stay in Chicago without seeing a theatre show (well, maybe if I were in Chicago on a Monday night I would skip the theatre). I saw The Christians performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I had seen a Steppenwolf production more than ten years ago when they toured in San Francisco, but this was obviously the first time I saw a show in their home theatre. I will post a review later, but in summary, it was excellent.

I was talking to one of the employees at Steppenwolf, and I learned that she is from Jackson, Mississippi. That’s near Vicksburg, so I told her that I had recently visited Vicksburg. I then learned that both of her parents were from Vicksburg. It’s a small world.

I was seated next to a long-term Steppenwolf subscriber, and I enjoyed talking with her before the show began.

After hearing about my travels, the Steppenwolf employees decided to give me a Steppenwolf notebook, a Steppenwolf pen, and a complementary drink at their bar after the show. I was amazed by their generosity. I enjoyed a cocktail at their bar, and was impressed without how many people went to the bar right after the show. I guess it is a Chicago tradition, or maybe just a Steppenwolf one. I really liked the cocktail, which had vodka and ginger and spices and some other things (I guess it was a variation of a Moscow Mule).

On my last morning in Chicago, I went to Hull House. That happened to be the one day of the week that it is closed, but that was okay, since I was content to just look at the building and peek through the windows. Hull House, of course, was the base for the historically important social activist Jane Addams.

In summary, I loved Chicago and its winter weather. This was the right time for me to visit.

Meet Me in St. Louis

I vaguely remember seeing the film Meet Me in St. Louis as a young child, which, of course, has the song “Meet Me in St. Louis”, as well as the more famous Trolley Song.

I took a bus from Memphis to St. Louis. The bus traveled through Arkansas between Memphis and Missouri. Arkansas … is flat, and has lots of agricultural fields. I was surprised by how many anti-abortion billboards there are in Arkansas and Missouri – for example “Abortion: A Baby Can Live without It.” I also saw a billboard for something which I am 90% sure is a pregnancy crisis center (as in, the kind where they tell pregnant people lies to manipulate them into not seeking abortions).

I remember, shortly before I began this trip, I saw a comment on the internet along the lines of this “When I visited St. Louis, I was amazing by the layers of suburbs, starting with new ones, then going to old ones, and then when I got into the city, it looked like a city in collapse.” Of course, I believe absolutely everything I read on the internet, so I was curious what it would look like to me. Did I see boarded up buildings in St. Louis (the city, not the county)? Yes. I also saw plenty of buildings which look like they have new windows. Granted, I did not get to see too much of the city, but what I did see did not look apocalyptic. On the contrary, I thought the vast number of century-old brick buildings was beautiful

A photo taken in 'The Grove' by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

A photo taken in ‘The Grove’ by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Anyway, I journeyed thousands of miles across the United States just so I could meet someone in St. Louis. Well, not quite. I could not justify going all the way to St. Louis just to visit someone, but it was the starting point for my travel itinerary, and I figured I could justify visiting her if I also did a lot of tourism along the way.

Because of the personal nature of this visit, I’m going to keep a lot of details private. However, I will say that my host actually lives in an exurb in St. Charles County. The Missouri River divides St. Charles County from St. Louis County, which itself is separate from St. Louis City. Until very recently, St. Charles County was all farmland, and there are still a lot of small farms around, however, there are also many new housing developments.

I did not get to see the blue sky (well, I did for brief periods of time, but that was it), but otherwise, this is what St. Charles County looked like to me. The Missouri River is in the background of this photo. Photo by Matt Zimmerman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

I did not get to see the blue sky (well, I did for brief periods of time, but that was it), but otherwise, this is what St. Charles County looked like to me. The Missouri River is in the background of this photo. Photo by Matt Zimmerman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Anyone who paid attention to the news in late 2014 knows that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and that this sparked massive protests in Ferguson, a town in St. Louis County. If you want to know how St. Charles County fits into the politics of police officers shooting young men in the St. Louis metropolitan area, I suggest reading “St. Louis and the Geography of Fear”.

My host, of course, picked me up at the train/bus station in downtown St. Louis. As she was driving me out of the city, she explained to me the various rings of suburbs of St. Louis going west. She says that the city is really poor, mainly because it is full of poor black people who can’t help being poor (note: I am not claiming that this is accurate, just that this is what she told me). The first ring, she says, is where a lot of teachers and nurses and people like that live. The second ring is full of rich people with old money. The third ring has a lot of churches, hospitals, and financial and/or law firms. The fourth ring has lots of malls and shopping centers near the highways, and houses a little further from the highways. She also told me about some tech companies located in the fourth ring. The fifth ring, according to her, is St. Charles County.

The house is right next to a conservation area, and the forest extends up to the back porch. Because it was winter, the trees were barren, and I could see all the way to the ridge where the next set of houses are. I even saw a deer from the window of the guest room.

My host loves living next to the forest, but says of her neighbors “they are all such gun-toting Republicans it is not even possible to talk to them” (in case anybody is wondering, my host was a Clinton supporter). She does, however, talk to at least one of her neighbors, and I met him too. I’ll call him ‘J’. J grew up in ‘South County’ i.e. the souther portion of St. Louis County. He says that St. Charles County has changed a great deal, and he likes it, because it used to just be full of ‘cow towns’ and now it has some respect. He also told me that, though he is not sure of other parts of the United States, that St. Louis society is full of ‘lines’ (note: he never defended the ‘lines’ – in fact, I suspect he wishes the ‘lines’ were not so sharp defined – he merely described them). People stick with people like themselves and in their own areas – white people stay in their place, black people stay in their place, gays and lesbians stay in their place, people of various religions stay in their place, etc. When I mentioned that the Missouri Botanical Garden offers a discount to residents of St. Louis County, but that wouldn’t include my host who lives in St. Charles County, J said ‘that’s one of those lines. The Missouri River is an important line.”

A few year’s ago, my host’s son lived in ‘The Grove’ which I gather is some gentrified neighborhood in St. Louis. J said that ‘The Grove’ is nice now, but that ten years ago, her son would not have wanted to live in ‘The Grove’.

A piece of glass artwork which decorates the lobby of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Kevin Schraer, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

A piece of glass artwork which decorates the lobby of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Kevin Schraer, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

My host generously brought me to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is supposed to be one of the best botanical gardens in the world. But it’s winter, and plants tend to die back in winter in Missouri! However, they had a special winter show of LED lights in the evening called ‘Garden Glow’. We both thought it was very well done.

The St. Louis Gateway Arch (and no, the weather was not like this when I was there - the sky was white, and all ofthe branches of the trees were bare).

The St. Louis Gateway Arch (and no, the weather was not like this when I was there – the sky was white, and all ofthe branches of the trees were bare).

On the last day, when I had to return to the train station in St. Louis, my host brought me to the St. Louis Arch. The tram was not open, but I still got to walk around it. I also visited the Old Courthouse, which is most famous for being where Dred Scott had his first two trials, which eventually brought him to the Supreme Court (for those who are not familiar with American history, the Dred Scott decision was one of the events which spurred the onset of the Civil War). I did not have enough time to go through all of the exhibits thoroughly, but I found the exhibit about slavery in St. Louis interesting. St. Louis had a large free black population, which meant that slaves in St. Louis had a lot of contact with free blacks. There was also a large influx of Irish and German immigrants, which made labor so cheap that it became cheaper to hire people and pay wages than to buy and keep a slave.

The old courthouse in St. Louis where Dred Scott began his lawsuit for freedom.

The old courthouse in St. Louis where Dred Scott began his lawsuit for freedom.

As the train left St. Louis station, it stopped for a few minutes just before the bridge over the Mississippi River. It allowed me to get a good look at the Crunden-Martin buildings, an obviously abandoned factory. I was looking at Building #5, and thinking about how it looked like I could see the structural beams through the windows, and that it looked like the roof had collapsed (though I could not see the roof itself), and how odd it was I could see the interstate highway on the other side of the building through the windows. Therefore, while I was on the train (with wifi) I had to look it up – what I found was this, this, and this.

This is what I saw from the railway bridge (except without the smoke, water, and firefighters). Photo by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

This is what I saw from the railway bridge (except without the smoke, water, and firefighters). Photo by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Because I was mainly visiting someone I knew, my experience in St. Louis / St. Charles was different from in other places I visited during this trip. Like every other stop, it had offered me another look at USA society.

Memphis: The Rise of a Famous Man, and the Murder of a Famous Man

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

On my first day in Memphis, I took the Backbeat Mojo bus tour, including the Sun Studios tour. This turned out to be a wiser decision than I originally realized since a) in a city where public transit is bad, a tour bus is certainly useful, and b) I was weary, and a bus tour certainly takes less energy than giving myself a tour of the city.

I do not know much about the history of the blues / rock-and-roll. On the one hand, that meant that some of the thing at the Sun Studio tour did not mean much to me, on the other hand, that meant it was all new information to me. They went over the history of how Sun Studios was founded, starting as the ‘Memphis Recording Service’ which allowed Blues artists who otherwise would not have access to recording equipment get their songs recorded. After a bunch of artists who got their songs recorded went on to contracts with record labels, Sam Phillips, the founder of the Memphis Recording Service, realized that he could make more money (and do more for artists) by founding his own recording label in Memphis. Thus Sun Studio was born.

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Of course, the artist they discussed the most was Elvis Presley. The very first Elvis Presley song was recorded by the Memphis Recording Service, and though Sam Phillips spent over a year refusing to offer Elvis Presley a contract, eventually, he did, and that was the beginning of Elvis Presley’s career as a professional musician.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

We got to visit the very recording studio where Elvis Presley’s first hit songs were recorded (where the photo above was taken), as well as critical hit songs from Johnny Cash and other notable musicians. We even got to speak/sing into a microphone which had been used by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Interesting, for a while, this room had stopped being a recording studio, and had one time (after the 1950s) served as a laundromat before it reopened as a recording room.

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Throughout the tour of Sun Studio, they played various songs which were important in its history. My favorite son was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats. They were from Clarksdale, one of the delta towns I passed through on the bus. On the way to Memphis to get the song recorded, some of their equipment (an amplifier?) fell off the car, and they were too poor to replace it, so when they recorded the song in Memphis, they stuffed it with newspaper. It created a weird sound they liked, so they kept it in the song.

The tour then took us around Memphis. The tour guide was a young local musician, born and raised in Memphis, who would sing songs in between the narration. Some of the more interesting stops (to me) were:

– The point at the Mississippi River where the ‘Battle of Memphis’ took place. It was the only Civil War battle in Memphis, and since it all took place in the river, it did not damage the city itself. It only lasted 90 minutes, mainly because the local Confederate naval forces were clueless and lost quickly. The guide explained that, unlike many towns and cities in the Civil War (such as Vicksburg), Memphis had an economic boom during the Civil War, and did quite well.
– Lauderdale Courts. Built in the 1930s, they were one of the first public housing projects in the United States. By far their most famous resident was … Elvis Presley. As a teenager, when his family moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, they were so poor that they qualified for public housing. Elvis Presley lived in Lauderdale Courts as a teenager.
– The Levitt Shell in Overton Park. Overton Park is called ‘the Central Park of the South’. The Levitt Shell was where the first public Elvis Presley performance took place, just after the first time one of his songs had been played on a local radio station. He was slotted to be the opening act for a famous yodeller. The guide explained “the people who came to this yodelling concert were all rednecks, not that there is anything wrong with being a redneck, I’m a redneck myself, I’m just explaining who was in the audience. They see Elvis, a white boy dressed like a black man, and they don’t know who he is or what to make of him.”

Most tourists in Memphis visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former mansion, which is now apparently an Elvis Presley theme park. I did not go because a) my time in Memphis was limited b) the tickets are really expensive ($38 was the cheapest ticket I could buy, and it was for just a minimal tour) and c) I got enough Elvis from the Sun Studios / bus tour.

Here is a question: did Elvis Presley, by taking black music, black fashion, etc., and becoming far richer from it than any black musician of his era, help black people and black culture, or hurt black people and black culture? This is not a rhetorical question – I don’t feel I know enough about rock and roll history or cultural appropriation to offer a meaningful answer. I know a lot has been written about this topic, and this is the first essay I found (though it is about racism in rock and roll in general rather than Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation specifically).

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Of course, I had to spend at least a little time on Beale Street, which is possibly the most famous street in Memphis. Back in the Jim Crow days, it was the main commercial street for ‘Black’ Memphis. It’s where the most famous African-American music clubs were, as well as the African-American businesses. It thrived from the 1890s to the 1960s, but since then it has … lost something. It’s still one of the busier streets in downtown Memphis, but as the tour guide put it, it’s about remembering the past, rather than creating the future of music or anything else. One evening, I ordered a drink at one of the establishments on Beale Street and listened to their live band. I liked the drink, but the music was pretty ‘meh’ for me.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

And then there is the Lorraine Motel. Back in the Jim Crow days, many hotels would not accept black guests, so black people set up their own hotels which catered to black guests. There were travel books just for black people, telling them where to find the black hotels in the South – I saw some of those travel books on display in the National Civil Rights Museum (I’ll introduce that soon). The Lorraine Motel was the best known black motel in downtown Memphis, and had many noted musicians among its guest (including Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin). Famous songs such as “Knock on Wood” were composed at the Lorraine Motel.

The Lorraine Motel’s most famous guest ever, of course, was Martin Luther King. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel multiple times. The last time he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, an assassin shot him, he collapsed on the balcony, and he died an hour later in a hospital.

Today, both the the Lorraine Motel and the building from which the assassin fired his shot are part of the National Civil Rights Museum. I spent four and a half hours there because it takes that much time to take in all of the exhibits. If I tried to describe everything I learned at the National Civil Rights Museum, I could easily triple the length of this blog post. Instead, I’ll just throw out a few things:

– I had heard of the Freedom Rides, but I had not really understood them until I saw the exhibit at the museum. I had taken it for granted that I could take buses from New Orleans to Memphis and receive decent treatment – African-Americans under Jim Crow could not, and when they tried to change that, their buses were bombed, and worse.
– In the mid-1960s, the Oakland police killed more African-Americans than all lynchings in the American South. This is why the Black Panther party armed themselves with guns – in order to prevent the Oakland police from killing black people – and the main reason the California government passed gun control laws was to stop the Black Panther party from doing that. I did not know that that was why California started have stricter gun control laws than other states.
– Martin Luther King had come to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers. I had been aware of this before, but I learned a lot more about the sanitation strike. For example, on rainy days, black sanitation workers only got two hours of pay, whereas white workers got a full day’s worth of pay. And that was not the least of it. No wonder the black sanitation workers of Memphis went on strike. And Martin Luther King was not even the first person to die during the strike – a child had already been killed.
– There was a map of several U.S. cities today showing how racially segregated we still are. Ironically, featured city which I knew best was Memphis. It showed a very sharp divide between black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, which was consistent with my observations. Cooper-Young is definitely a white neighborhood, and I also passed through some obviously black neighborhoods. The black neighborhoods generally had housing that was in worse shape, as far as I could see.

The National Civil Rights Museum also goes into great detail about the Martin Luther King assassination. Just going through all of it takes at least an hour. They let visitors view both Martin Luther King’s room, and the window from which the shot was fired.

So that sums up my touristy experiences in Memphis. Tourists in Memphis tend to be drawn most to Elvis Presley and/or Martin Luther King. For Elvis Presley, Memphis was the beginning, and for Martin Luther King, Memphis was the end.

Moving Through Memphis

Photo of a Victorian home in Cooper-Young. Though this house is made of wood, a lot of the houses in the neighborhood are made out of brown bricks. Photo by duluoz cats, used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Photo of a Victorian home in Cooper-Young. Though this house is made of wood, a lot of the houses in the neighborhood are made out of brown bricks. Photo by duluoz cats, used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Unfortunately, by the time the bus departed Vicksburg, it was already dark, which meant I could not see much of the Delta region (I think there was a blues musician who defined the ‘Delta’ as being everywhere between Catfish Row in Vicksburg and Beale Street in Memphis). I could see that it was flat and not as forested as the ‘Heartland’ (the region of Mississippi where Natchez and Vicksburg are located). There was also a 15 minute stop in Greenville (the hometown of Jim Henson of Muppets fame), where I got to see … the bus station.

The nicest thing I can say about transportation in Memphis is that there is little traffic, so that if one has a motor vehicle, one can move very quickly through the city.

Public transit, however, sucks. I had to deal with this as soon as I arrived in Memphis, because when I got to the Greyhound station, the last local bus had already departed. Because the last local bus departs at 10 PM (it did not help that the bus I arrived on was late, thus arriving after 10 PM). I had no choice but to hire a taxi, because the Greyhound bus station is located at the edge of town near the airport, rather than in a location where tourists (other than those on their way to the airport) would want to be. On another day, I had to take the taxi *again* because the buses had stopped running early in the evening.

The Amtrak station, sensibly, is in downtown Memphis. The Megabus stop, however, is at a *different* bus station which is even further away from downtown Memphis than the Greyhound station. Making transfers between Amtrak/Greyhound/Megabus would be tricky in Memphis.

The silver lining is that I got to talk to taxi drivers. One was a native of Memphis, and another was an immigrant from East Africa (he did not specify which country). I asked the East African driver what he liked about Memphis. “I will be honest – nothing” he said. Then he admitted that he liked the low cost of living in Memphis, but he likes nothing else about the city. He was very surprised to learn that San Francisco’s population is only a little bigger than the population of Memphis, and that San Francisco has a much smaller land area (a lot of people, I have learned from my travels, are really surprised to learn that San Francisco has less than a million residents).

I also remember, on Beale Street, seeing a large group of (white) police officers. I asked one of them for directions, and they asked what I was looking for, and I said I was looking for a bus stop. The police officer replied “Memphis buses aren’t known for being on time, or safe.” Well, when I did ride the Memphis buses, I thought they looked remarkably clean, and all of the passengers were friendly to me. I actually felt safer on the buses of Memphis than I would on many San Francisco buses. The passengers were also clearly lower-income blacks. On the one hand, I suppose a police officer who works in Memphis knows much more about crime in the area than a tourist who has never been to Tennessee before. On the other hand … I wonder whether the police officer claimed that the buses were dangerous *primarily* because nearly all of the passengers are lower-income blacks, not because of how the bus passengers actually behave (well, I suppose that when the police officer said that Memphis buses weren’t safe, he might have actually meant that the drivers are reckless rather than meaning that the passengers are dangerous, though I also did not witness the bus drivers engaging in recklessness).

One of the first things I did when I arrived at the hostel was pick up a copy of the Memphis Flyer, a weekly newspaper in Memphis. It contained this opinion piece about public transit in Memphis.

The cover of the Memphis Flyer, with the cover story "I Love You, Too, America - Memphians who feel targeted by the rhetoric of the president-elect prepare for life under Trump"

The cover of the issue of the Memphis Flyer I picked up.

I talked with one of the staff at the hostel where I’m staying at about public transit. He said that the 56 bus was really nice because it was frequent – it came every 30 minutes. In San Francisco, a bus which only comes every 30 minutes is an *infrequent* bus (the only buses in San Francisco which are scheduled to be less frequent than every 30 minutes between the hours of 6 AM and midnight are the buses which cross the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge). He was amazed that San Francisco even has buses which run 24 hours a day. He said that most guests end up using Uber because the buses are too troublesome. My stupidphone is too stupid to use Uber, but even if I could use Uber, I prefer to hire taxis because taxi companies pay drivers fairly (unlike Uber).

I’ll present two more examples of transit fail. First of all, there used to be a trolley which ran in downtown Memphis, but it hasn’t been running for at least half a year (I’m not sure of the timelines) because the trolleys kept on breaking down and the public transit agency didn’t fix them (I told the staff member at the hostel that they are probably being sold to San Francisco, and that San Francisco’s public transit agency will probably fix them and put them on San Francisco’s streets because they tend to do that with other cities’ old streetcars). Second, the bus stops … do not state which bus line stops there. I have to guess, or look it up on the internet, and even then I can’t be sure. Even in the bus stations I couldn’t find a system-wide map – the only place I saw one was the hostel. I understand that MATA (the public transit agency) is broke, but surely even a broke public transit agency can have a sign indicating which bus lines stop at a given stop.

I did not expect Memphis to have as good a public transit system as San Francisco but … San Antonio actually has a decent bus system. Is it too much to ask that Memphis have as good a public transit system as San Antonio, Texas?

Anyway, I liked the hostel. It’s inside the First Congregational Church, which outside has signs saying things like “We’ve been called radical, liberal, progressive … we just thought it was CHRISTIAN” and “Though our building is yellow, we’re going green … recycling, solar panels, farmer’s market, trees & garden” and “Faith, compassion … and bike repair.” In addition to the hostel, the church also contains a bike repair shop and a store which sells fair trade goods.

There is also a farmer’s market which is hosted in the church’s parking lot. At the farmer’s market I bought some tea from a women who blends her own teas. She in inspired by the vampire novels her friends write, so some of the tea blends she sells are named after characters and/or places from her friends’ vampire novels. I also bought vegetables from a farm which is actually just six miles north of the church. The next day, I cooked up those vegetables – it made for a pretty good meal. It was, in a sense, the mostly authentically Memphian meal I could have eaten.

The church/hostel in in a neighborhood called Cooper-Young. It is a hipster neighborhood. This was very convenient for me, as a vegan staying at the hostel, since like any self-respecting hipster neighborhood, it has a vegan restaurant, and it was within walking distance of the hostel (which is very important when public transit is so bad). Everything I ate at Imagine Cafe was delicious. Cooper-Young is full of houses built in the early 20th century, and they are both bigger and have bigger space around them than most houses in San Francisco (or New Orleans, for that matter). When walking away from the commercial streets, the avenues are lined with these towering trees which are still decked out in fall colors. Even if my camera’s battery weren’t dead, I don’t think I could have captured the effect with pictures.

There was also a set of train tracks which ran near the hostel. I could hear the horns from the dorm bed. There was also one time when I had to cross the train tracks and … there was a train which was stopped, at the crossing, for more than twenty minutes. The cars turned away, but I could not because a) I was not sure where the nearest alternative crossing was and b) it was probably too far a distance to walk anyway. I was tempted to jump the train just to get to the other side. Yet another incident of Bad Transportation in Memphis.

Next to the train track, there was this large puddle. I noticed it during my very first taxi ride from the Greyhound station because it looked odd. The next day I figured out why it looked odd – it was frozen on the top. But when I stepped on it, the ice easily cracked, and there was still liquid water in the puddle. The little kid in me thought that this was fun.

It seems that everywhere I’ve gone in this trip, the local people have been apologizing to me for the cold weather. The people in San Antonio apologized to me that I had come at such a cold time of year. The people of Natchez apologized that I had come during a cold wave. The people of Vicksburg apologized for the cold. (To be fair, the people of New Orleans did not apologize to me – they said that being in New Orleans in cold and rainy December was much better than being in New Orleans in the hot and humid summer). And in Memphis, the people, once again, kept on talking about how cold it was. I told all of them the same thing – “The place I am going to next is even colder”. And that was almost always true – the only exception was that New Orleans was not colder than San Antonio.

So, that was my ‘life’ in Memphis. In the text post, I’ll discuss the touristy stuff I did in Memphis.

The Gibraltar of the West

After Natchez, I stayed in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In order to understand anything about Vicksburg, understand this: just as Natchez has the highest elevation of any place adjacent to the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis, Vicksburg is the second-highest point. And though lower than Natchez, Vicksburg’s hills are more extensive, which means that there is more high ground than in Natchez. This explains much of Vicksburg’s history.

Vicksburg in 1860, right before the Civil War.

Vicksburg in 1860, right before the Civil War.

Today, Vicksburg has a much larger population than Natchez, and thus has a more urban feel. I stayed at a motel nestled in one of the shopping centers. While it was a convenient location in some ways, it was a couple miles from any of the ‘tourist’ attractions. My plan was to call a taxi, but the taxi company did not answer my phone calls, so I ended up walking to downtown Vicksburg. That means I did not see the National Military Park, but it meant I got to dedicate a lot of time to downtown Vicksburg. I also got to see some of the neighborhoods full of Victorian houses. They are generally humbler than the Victorian houses of Clifton Heights in Natchez, but were nice to look at nonetheless.

While I was walking to downtown, I passed through residential neighborhoods. Both the shopping area where I stayed overnight and the residential areas I passed through were nearly entirely inhabited by African-Americans (and almost all of the employees in the shops were African-American, and most of the customers were also African-American). Therefore, I was surprised when I learned that only about 60% of the population of Vicksburg is African-American (based on what I saw in Vicksburg, I would have guessed 90% of the residents are African-American). I must have completely missed the white residential neighborhoods.

One of the first things I saw was the riverfront murals, which tell the history of Vicksburg in pictures. The murals are laid out in chronological order, so one can start with Vicksburg before Europeans arrived, and go through the murals one by one through the 1990s. You can also see all of the murals online, and I highly recommend doing that (even though, alas, the murals are NOT listed in chronological order online). I like that different community groups sponsored their own murals, for example, the alumni of several schools sponsored a mural just for their school (here is an example). While I think it is best to look at all of the murals because the sum is greater than the parts, some of my favorites were these, which I am linking in chronological order (be sure to read the descriptions): “The Painful Selection of a President”, “The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History”, “World’s Longest Running Melodrama” (I would have liked to have seen Gold in the Hills but unfortunately it does not play in December), and “The Blues are the Roots, the Rest are the Fruits” (which I think is the single most beautiful mural).

Now, when I was telling people I was going to visit Vicksburg, I got two different reactions:

1) I have never heard of Vicksburg (the most common reaction)
2) Oh, you must be really into Civil War history.

Vicksburg is so strongly associated with Civil War history because one of the most important battles in the Civil War was the Siege of Vicksburg. Remember how I said one of the most important things about Vicksburg was that it was an area of high ground next to the Mississippi river? Well, that is why controlling Vicksburg was so important during the Civil War – it was nicknamed ‘the Gibraltar of the West’.

I learned in Vicksburg that, like Natchez, it was an anti-secession town. However, when the Union forces came to Vicksburg, they did not surrender because (and I encountered this quote in multiple places) “Mississippians don’t know how to surrender”. The problem with this explanation is that Natchez is also in Mississippi, and they definitely knew how to surrender. I have a theory about why Natchez surrendered right away and Vicksburg did not, but I honestly do not know why Vicksburg did not surrender right away.

This is the USS Cincinnati, a Union ship which sunk during the Siege of Vicksburg.

This is the USS Cincinnati, a Union ship which sunk during the Siege of Vicksburg.

This is an oversimplification of the Siege of Vicksburg, but this is a blog post about travel, not a book about the Civil War: in the beginning of 1863, the Union controlled New Orleans and Memphis (and Natchez), but they could not use the Mississippi River as a supply route because the Confederacy controlled Vicksburg. And because of the high ground, Vicksburg was easy to defend. The Union forces, under Ulysses S. Grant, tried to take Vicksburg four times and failed. Therefore, the Union put Vicksburg under siege by surrounding it on all sides (including both sides of the Mississippi River), cutting it off from the outside world, and constantly bombarding the city, which left it in ruins. The Confederate army and the civilians of Vicksburg had to withdraw to the hills and live in caves, and even in the caves they were not entirely safe from bombardment. Life in the caves was said to be a great equalizer – both the rich and the poor were hungry and miserable.

The entrance to a cave shelter during the Siege of Vicksburg

The entrance to a cave shelter during the Siege of Vicksburg

The only hope the Confederate army had was reinforcements from the outside, but the only reinforcements which ever showed up were Union reinforcements, who helped General Grant maintain the siege. After 47 days, Pemberton, the leader of the Confederate forces, surrendered on July 4, 1863, ending the siege. At that point, the Confederate soldiers were too malnourished to fight, or do much of anything. Thus the Mississippi River became entirely controlled by the Union, which effectively cut the Confederacy in half. Though the Civil War continued for another two years, everyone knew that the Confederacy would not be able to win without control of the Mississippi River. The 4th of July was not celebrated again in Vicksburg until 1947 when Dwight Eisenhower visited the town.

The Old Depot Museum. Photo by Peter Burka, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Old Depot Museum. Photo by Peter Burka, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Due to the lack of a motor vehicle (and not wanting to take the time to walk) I only saw a little part of the battlefield, and I did not see the USS Cairo, one of the ships involved in the Siege of Vicksburg. However, I visited the Old Depot Museum, which has a diorama of the battlefield as it existed during the siege (today the battlefield is covered with trees, but it was not covered with trees in 1863). It also had many models of navy ships, with a particular empahsis on Civil War navy ships, but also models of every ship ever called the ‘USS Vicksburg’. The first USS Vicksburg was a Union ship in the Civil War – after they took control of Vicksburg, they named a ship after it to celebrate the victory. Another USS Vicksburg was built in the 1940s and was used in World War II. I also visited (outside only) Pemberton’s headquarters, where on July 2nd, 1863, the Confederate officers had a meeting and decided to surrender.

Pemberton's headquarters (though this photo was taken in the 1850s, before the civil war). It looked pretty much the same now, though it looks more weathered today than it does in this photo.

Pemberton’s headquarters (though this photo was taken in the 1850s, before the civil war). It looked pretty much the same now, though it looks more weathered today than it does in this photo.

The most remarkable building in Vicksburg is old the Warren County Courthouse. It is now a museum. I did not go inside, but it supposedly has the largest collection of Civil War relics in the south.

The Old Warren County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Lund, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Old Warren County Courthouse. Photo by Ken Lund, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Photos do not capture the feeling of walking past it. It’s near one of the highest points of downtown, so it truly towers over everything around it (you can easily find it in the first photo in this post). It’s not a building that a sighted person can ignore. And yes, in addition to the United States flag, they also fly the Confederate flag.

This is the courthouse during the Civil War. Obviously, this photo was taken after the Siege of VIcksburg was over.

This is the courthouse during the Civil War. Obviously, this photo was taken after the Siege of VIcksburg was over.

While I was walking around downtown, I suddenly decided that I wanted to sit down and drink tea. So I walked to the first place I saw which called itself a ‘cafe’ and went inside. That place happened to be Anchucha, built in 1832, which makes it one of the oldest surviving buildings in Vicksburg. The people inside were not used to having someone walk in just to drink tea, but they were happy to accommodate me. Even though I did not pay the fee for entrance to the house, they still let me drink tea in the library. It was only when I was inside that I learned that the house once belonged to Joseph Davis, the half-brother of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis himself had spent much time in the house. I happened to meet the current owner of the house, who said that he had worked at the house as a teenager, and never imagined that he would one day be the owner.

After the Civil War, it was hard times for a while, but by the 1890s business was doing well again. Washington street, the old commercial street, is full of retail shop buildings dating to the early 20th century. The buildings basically are the same as the ones shown in this mural, though, unfortunately, there is not trolley now. Washington street also used to be part of Highway 61, the ‘Blues Highway’ which many African-Americans used to travel north out of the deep south.

Vicksburg also had the headquarters of the Mississippi River Commission, a government body which regulates the entire Mississippi River. Their mission is to keep the river navigable, protect communities from floods, and protect the environment. It is a difficult job. They own a museum, which I also visited. I learned a lot about the Mississippi River.

One of the most important historical events in this region was the 1927 flood, which has riverfront mural. Before the 1927 flood, the government’s policy was ‘levees only’ assuming they would be enough to protect people from any flood. However, as the levees got higher, so did the river level, leading to an arms race between the levees and the river. in 1927, the river won. Over 700,000 people were displaced from their homes, mostly African-Americans. Because Vicksburg is on high ground, it was protected, and it hosted a large refugee camp. There were many allegations than black people were treated unfairly in the refugee camps, so there was a government commission, led by Herbert Hoover, which investigated these claims. The commission found that most of the allegations were true, so the government stopped the racial discrimination suppressed the findings of the commission.

The museum presented many other bits of trivia about the Mississippi River and the Army Core of Engineers. For example, they compared transporting freight by truck, train, and river barge (river barges are more fuel efficient than trains, and way more fuel efficient than trucks, also, the Mississippi River can handle increases in traffic much better than railroads and highways).

This is a photo of the M/V Mississippi IV when it was still in service.

This is a photo of the M/V Mississippi IV when it was still in service.

The museum also has the M/V Mississippi IV, which from 1961-1993 was the flagship of the Mississippi River Commission. It was a cool boat to explore.

It’s just as well that I didn’t visit the battlefield, because there is more than enough to see and do just in downtown Vicksburg. Downtown Vicksburg also offers a more complete look into Vicksburg’s past and present than I think the battlefield could.

Getting a Tour of the ‘Real’ Natchez

Most tourists come to Natchez to see the antebellum mansions, look at other historic buildings, gamble at the casino (which is, of course, under the hill), and so forth. But what about the ‘real’ Natchez where most Natchez residents actually live?

Currently, a majority of Natchez residents are African-American, and their legacy is everywhere (guess who worked as servants in those grand antebellum mansions, or for that matter, whose labor allowed those people to get so rich they could build mansions in the first place) but often is not emphasized.

One of the most deadly club fires in American history happened in Natchez – the Rhythm Club fire in 1940. Over 200 people died, mostly African-American. It has been the subject of multiple blues songs, such as “Natchez Burnin'” by Howling Wolf. I was in Natchez just days after the Oakland warehouse fire, and could not help but think about it when I saw the plaque dedicated to the Rhythm Club fire.

The most famous African-American from Natchez, of course, is Richard Wright, the novelist. In fact, he is probably the most famous native of Natchez of any race.

I stepped into the museum of African-American heritage on Main Street in Natchez. One exhibit it dedicated just to the history of the cotton industry because the cotton industry shaped the African-American experience so much. There is another exhibit about African-Americans during Reconstruction. Natchez had a vibrant African-American middle class in the late 19th century, but when the 1890 Mississippi essentially took away African-Americans’ ability to vote, most of the middle class left. Another exhibit is about African-Americans in the mid-20th century (i.e. around the time of the Civil Rights movement), and another room is about African heritage and art.

The real treat, however, was not the exhibits themselves, but listening to the people who work there. I remember that a young African-American couple came in, and one of the staff (or volunteers, I am not sure) asked them where they were from, and they said that they were from McComb, Mississippi, but they had never visited downtown Natchez before. This launched a lecture about violence in the 1960s. I learned that, in the 1960s, there were three strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Mississippi – Natchez was one of them, and McComb was another. Natchez, however, also had a very active group of Deacons, an organization in Louisiana and Mississippi which had a very simple mission: protect black people from violence by white people. Their means was also simple: guns. The person at the museum explained that, because the KKK did not know which African-Americans were members of the Deacons (and thus were armed with guns), they were too scared to commit violent acts to the same degree that they did in McComb, which did not have the Deacons. Some of the worst murders during the Civil Rights movement happened near McComb. He said that the man who led the Deacons in Natchez is still alive.

In Natchez, one of the major Civil Rights actions was a three-month boycott of all downtown white-owned businesses which refused to hire African-Americans. At the time, the mayor was an Arab-American who owned two grocery stores, and the boycott targeted his business too. After three months, the businesses were hurting so much that the mayor reached an agreement with the boycott organizers to end the boycott. The KKK was so angry that the mayor negotiated with the boycott organizers that they bombed the mayor’s house and one of his businesses.

There was also a huge protest involving hundreds of people. They were all arrested, but the jail could not hold them all, so they were kept in various locations, including the civic auditorium … which ironically was a ‘whites-only’ auditorium (I think, I might be misremembering this part). Some of the protesters were sent to, IIRC, a maximum security prison because there wasn’t space to hold them in Natchez itself. According to the man at the museum, they were silent about what happened to them at the maximum security prison … until 2014. That is when the survivors finally started talking about their experiences there, and a documentary has been made about it which will soon be distributed across the nation.

On one of the walls, there is a list of demands which the African-American residents presented to the mayor and the aldermen in the 1960s (after the boycott). They included demands such as ‘Hire African-American police officers’ and ‘Enact a housing code to address the problem of slums in African-American neighborhoods’. I asked whether the mayor and aldermen actually did what the residents demanded. The man at the museum said that they fulfilled some of the demands right away, but that some of the demands were not fulfilled until African-Americans got elected to public office. He then said that the current mayor of Natchez is African-American, and is the third African-American to ever serve as mayor of the town.

To me, learning about the history of the Civil Rights movement in the terms of one town, while standing that town and talking to someone who personally knew the major local civil rights movement leaders feel very different from learning about the civil rights movement in a classroom far from the deep south (San Francisco, of course, has its own civil rights history, but it is curiously omitted from the history classes in public schools in San Francisco).


I lost the UC-E6 cord for my camera in New Orleans. That meant I could not charge my camera, so when my camera battery ran low, that was it. A resident of Natchez kindly agreed to help me find a replacement cable. We toured the extremely non-touristy Natchez – first a store called ‘Dirt Cheap’ then Walgreens then Walmart. We spent hours looking for a cable, but could not find it. Actually, we did find one cable – but it was sold with a camera at Dirt Cheap, and the clerk could not sell the cable separately.

However, the upside is that I got a look at the stores where the people of Natchez do their shopping, as opposed to the boutiques in downtown which mainly cater to tourists. I also got to meet a local resident, and learn a lot about her family and history. I’m not going to share it on the internet, but I got to see a side of Natchez I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t lost the cable.

It looks like I will not be able to replace the cable until I return to San Francisco, but that’s okay. Though I enjoy taking photos, I had been taking so many photos during this trip that it had started to feel like a chore. I find that I sometimes remember places more vividly if I do not use a camera anyway – perhaps I may more attention if I know that my memories will be my only record. And when I write posts, I can curate pictures taken by other people to illustrate them.