Down on the Delta

The Delta and its river represent the main artery to the heart of the South. But to truly understand this land, you have to explore its soul.

Photography by Sara Blancett

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It’s a place where rows of cotton shimmer in the noonday heat. Fields of rice grow greener than that of any Emerald City. Red-winged blackbirds flit off of fence posts to cling to tall weeds. Old barns are so rustic and colorful that you want to stop your car and take a portrait of your traveling companion simply standing by them. Wild deer, ducks, turkeys and bears are always close at hand—all you have to do is look for their signs.

The Delta is a world apart—a world of simplicity, and rarely of opulence. People here live close to the soil, that black, fertile alluvial dirt that’s nurtured the blues and yielded recipes for barbecue and tamales. Rarely does anyone put on airs around here. What would be the point? Instead, the Delta is a place where you begin to think deeply and clearly about life as you roll down off the hills into this region where the horizon stretches in 360 degrees of foreverness.

It’s also a world of contrasts, where casinos seem to pop up along the river like mushrooms after the rain, glittering structures where dreams are made and dashed again and again by one-armed bandits, cigarette smoke and full parking lots that mean more tax dollars. The Delta is also a place where folks still go down to Moon Lake with their preacherman to wash their sins away in the river’s backwaters.

Even after journeying down its straight roads, slowing for its small towns, and wiping the dust of a summer day from your brow, at its core—its heart—the Delta is the River. Old Man River. The Mighty Mississippi. The Big Muddy. An untamable flow so strong and wild that it leaves C-shaped oxbow lakes stranded in its wake. A river so well-used that bridges must soar high overhead just so we can drive between Arkansas and Mississippi without waiting for a barge to push on by. A river so old that its fecund soils long ago washed into these fields to create this distinctive region.

Finally, the Delta and its flowing heart sit quietly, waiting. Waiting for the pilgrimage that we all make sooner or later. Waiting to divulge its secrets on a steamy summer’s night or at the rooster’s crow of a promising sunrise. Come along. Here are a few places to mark as must-sees—but know you’ll discover more along the way.

Where To Stay

Sure, you can find clean and hospitable chain hotels and motels throughout the Delta. But by staying there, you’ll miss opportunities to immerse yourself in your surroundings.

Plenty of Delta-style lodging opportunities exist in the region, though the Arkansas side of Delta has fewer options. The Delta Resort (deltaconference.com) continues to postpone its opening, now saying it’ll be late summer before its doors are open. Until then, stay near the water in a cabin at Lake Chicot State Park in Lake Village (arkansasstateparks.com/lakechicot; (870) 265-5480). Either perched by the lake or with woodsy views, these park cabins sleep up to six with full kitchens, living rooms with fireplaces, and simple amenities (rates $93-$113).

For folks on a blues quest, choose one of the sharecroppers’ cottages amid cotton fields in Mississippi. These shacks have as much character as the storied land on which they sit. Each is different, and at night they tend to attract music, beer drinking and infectious laughter. In Clarksdale, the Shack-Up Inn at Hopson Plantation (shackupinn.com; (662) 624-8329), just three miles from The Crossroads (yes, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar), bills itself succinctly: “The Ritz we ain’t.” These authentic accommodations have 21st century updates, 1940s-style indoor bathrooms and air conditioning (rates $70-$95 with 2-night weekend minimums). The plantation is also the site of several blues workshops, from harmonica jams to guitar and bass camps.

Down the road a spell just outside of Greenwood, you’ll find six similarly apportioned tenant houses called Tallahatchie Flats (tallahatchieflats.com; (662) 453-1854). With both front and back porches, you can sit and listen to the lonesome train whistle blow and the deafening silence that follows on an inky black Delta night (rates from $85).

If you’re after luxury and modern comfort, try The Alluvian Hotel and Spa (thealluvian.com; (662) 453-2114) in downtown Greenwood. It keeps the style of the Delta in mind, but serves like you’re a royal visitor. Greenwood, the set for the movie “The Help,” is a prosperous spot, home to Viking Stoves and its attendant cooking school (across the street from the hotel). The hotel’s sumptuous accommodations come with a hearty Southern breakfast served on the top-floor dining room with a view of the town (rates from $195).

What To Do

Set out through Pine Bluff where an overview of the Delta’s ecology is on display at the Delta Rivers Nature Center (deltarivers.com; (870) 543-0011). The story of how the Delta’s rivers change the landscape of wetlands, swamps, and their adaptable denizens is told in interactive exhibits. Then, head down to McGehee to the new Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum (mcgeheechamber.com; (870) 222-9168) inside the old train depot to learn the story of 16,000 Japanese-American citizens from California who were interned in Arkansas from 1941-1945. Afterwards, drop by the eerily quiet Rohwer Relocation Center to walk the grounds of the camp. A newly added walking tour guides visitors along the southern boundary, past the existing Japanese-American cemetery. Actor George Takei, who was interned here in 1942, narrates an accompanying audio tour.

Drive into Stuttgart, and you’re likely to see crop dusters zooming up and down along summer’s fields near the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World.” The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie (grandprairiemuseum.org; (870) 673-7001) highlights the lives of the pioneers who first made a life here. The town is also home to Mack’s Prairie Wings, the premier waterfowl hunting store in the world (mackspw.com; (877) 622-5779).

Before crossing the river, stop awhile in Helena. You’ll discover Fort Curtis, a reproduction of a Union Civil War fort, as well as the Delta Cultural Center (deltaculturalcenter.com; (870) 338-4350), which tells the tale of the oldest settlements in Arkansas and the soul-stirring music that created King Biscuit Time, the nation’s longest-running blues radio show and its eponymous festival.

As you cross into the backwaters of Mississippi from Helena, look for the placid Moon Lake, surrounded by cypress trees. Parishioners in white robes and their preachers still use it for baptisms. Then head south to Clarksdale and beyond to follow the Blues Trail. The Delta Blues Museum and the Rock and Blues Museum explain how the sounds rose up out of the cotton fields and into clubs from here to Chicago and then beyond to start the British invasion of rock and roll (deltabluesmuseum.org; (662) 627-6820 and Blues2Rock.com; (901) 605-8662). Do your shopping at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (cathead.biz; (662) 624-5992) where you can pick up books, paintings and recordings.

Adventuring visitors may want to book a trip with Quapaw Canoe Company (island63.com/clarksdale.com; (662) 627-4070). They lead half- and multi-day journeys onto the Mississippi and its backwaters out of Clarksdale and Helena. Down in Indianola, explore the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center (bbkingmuseum.org; 662-887-9539), which tells Riley B. King’s own story alongside the history of the blues.

Where To Eat

Barbecue, tamales, and soul food are staples throughout Arkansas’ and Mississippi’s Delta—not haute cuisine. But if you look hard enough you can find the best of all of those.

“Sold Out” are the most painful words at Jones Bar-B-Q (219 W. Louisiana St.; (870) 295-5410) in teeny Marianna. The shack in James and Betty Jones’ yard is the only James Beard Award-winning restaurant in our state (and one of the oldest African-American owned businesses in the U.S.). Arrive early in the morning for the barbecue, because once it’s gone, they close for the day. And don’t expect side dishes—just good chopped pork shoulder, finely smoked. If you can’t make it to Marianna, be sure to zip by Hoot’s BBQ (200B Highway 65; (870) 222-1234) in McGehee. They dish up tender pulled-pork sandwiches as well as beef brisket, and you choose either a vinegar-tomato or a mustard sauce. Leave some room for treats from the on-site bakery.

Another longtime maven of Delta cooking, Rhoda Adams hand forms tamales in her Lake Village cottage along with her husband of 60-plus years at Rhoda’s Famous Tamales (714 St. Marys St.; (870) 265-3108). Affordable and arguably the best tamales in the Delta, the fare will have you planning your return to pick up a few dozen to keep in the freezer back home.

For a heaping helping of soul food, drop by Granny Dee’s (426 Cherry St.; (870) 338-8862) in Helena. She sets out a piping hot breakfast buffet most mornings, and then by midday, she’s dishing up plate lunches (think meat loaf, pork chops, fried okra and boiled cabbage) and the best burger in town.

Over on the Mississippi side of the Delta, follow the pilgrims heading to Morgan Freeman’s juke joint Ground Zero (groundzerobluesclub.com; (662) 621-9009) in Clarksdale. Bands take the stage at night, but at lunch and dinner, folks file in for fried catfish, tamales, burgers and some hefty sandwiches.

Every so often, you’ll want a white tablecloth and napkin to calm the appetite. Head over to Giardina’s in The Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood (thealluvian.com; (662) 455-4227). Known for private-booth dining, slip into your own space and settle into some fresh Gulf seafood. Their baked oysters with Benton bacon make a memorable light dinner with broiled shrimp on the side.

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