27 September 2011


Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center: If only I’d had to pee more often, maybe I wouldn’t be here. You get Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT, blood clots, usually in the legs) when you are mostly immobile with your legs cramped for long periods of time. It’s what they warn you about on long airplane flights.

Some people get it more easily than others thanks to their genes.

It can be fatal. A piece of clot can break off and careen through your bloodstream coming to rest in your lungs – a pulmonary embolism, in your heart – causing a heart attack, or in your brain – stroke.

So when you notice that your leg has swollen and turned various shades that it isn’t supposed to be, the smart thing would be to go get it checked out. You might get lucky and it might be something other than DVT. I had about a 36 hour smarts delay when I noticed that about my left leg. That’s not too bad. It’s not to say I couldn’t have simply dropped dead during that time, but plenty of people don’t do anything at all about it.

When the nurse practitioner told me that she suspected DVT and I should be checked into the hospital, I considered waiting until the next morning. After all, it was Thursday night and that’s the only night that Po Monkey’s – a place I’ve wanted to go since I first heard about it – is open. Hell, if I'd dropped dead on the dancefloor there, hopefully they’d just prop my corpse in a corner with a cigarette in my mouth and a Bud in my hand and I’d have gained some sort of immortality.

But I didn’t. I did what you are supposed to do and I’ve been in the hospital ever since trying to get the clot organized and stabilized enough that I can actually go home. If I only had stopped to pee more regularly when I was driving out here, this might not have happened. Instead, there were days when I drove straight through – six, seven, eight hours of driving non-stop. I like that sort of thing sometimes, the meditation of the highway. Damn meditation. I should have known better.

I might get out of here tomorrow, maybe Wednesday, maybe Thursday. Then the drive home is going to be quite a bit slower than is my usual style: no more than 4-5 hours in the car a day, stopping every hour to get out and walk around for a few minutes. It’ll take seven days from here to Los Angeles. I’d originally planned to do it in three.

Oh well, at least I’m not dead and there’s much to be said in favor of that. I have a couple of recommendations for y'all (I’m in the south.)

One – if you’re on a long flight or a long drive, get up or get out of your car and walk around for a bit every hour or two even if you don’t think you want to.

Two – if you are ever in Mississippi and have something go wrong with you, this Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center is a very fine place. The people are incredibly friendly and attentive and beyond merely competent. And they’ll give you bacon and eggs with grits and a biscuit for breakfast.

23 September 2011


Clarksdale, Mississippi: And hopefully not from the hospital where I died, either. But that's where I am. It's a very nice hospital, as these things go, too. (The hospital where Bessie Smith died is now a hotel here in Clarksdale - room 2, you can stay in it.)

Two days ago my left leg seemed swollen. I ignored it, as one does, and very happily went about my business of touring the Delta. Yesterday morning it seemed somewhat more swollen, but I figured I'd deal with it later. As one does.

After a day of touring I went to Cathead - a truly fantastic store for blues, folk art, books, everything relating to the Delta - and also the place to go for local information. Roger, who runs the place and who makes some excellent documentary films and has written one of the better general introductory books to the blues, suggested a local clinic if I wanted someone to look at my leg.

I did. The very attentive and concerned nurse practitioner sent me to the hospital. I checked in last night and this morning they confirmed deep vein thrombosis - a blood clot, the sort that can break apart and kill you if you don't catch it and take care of it.

I almost didn't go. Last night was the night I was going to go to Po Monkey's - the only remaining rural juke joint anywhere and a place I have wanted to go ever since I first heard about it. I considered the fact that it would probably be a better place to keel over dead than most, but then good sense got the better of me. Tonight T Model Ford is playing at the best juke joint here - Red's Lounge; tomorrow night it's Robert Balfour - two of my very favorite, old and not going to be around all that much longer blues players. But I won't be sneaking out to see them either, no doubt.

Shit. I've got a good bottle of scotch in my luggage here in the hospital room. I wonder what the doctor would think of me having a drink or two?

Anyhow, this is all by way of explanation as to why you aren't going to get much more in the way of posts from the road, at least for a while. (They want me in the hospital for about five days.) Luckily, before this came to pass I did get around some. Here's some pictures and some explanations:

Robert Johnson, the blues singer and guitar player who you know even if you don't think you do - most of his songs have been covered by rock and roll bands and lines from his songs and guitar riffs are impossible to avoid - is reputedly buried in three places. Not because they chopped him up, but because there was some controversy over which was the real spot. I visited all three. The last one of the three is the one that has the best claim to being the real burial place. But visiting all three is a good way to see the area.

After visiting the likeliest real grave, I went for lunch to Hoover's Grocery & Launderette which is in Baptist Town - part of Greenwood - just down the street from the corner where Robert Johnson often played and where he died. Sylvester Hoover runs the place and he was sorry that they don't usually do hot lunches anymore, not since the grocery burned down and they had to move both businesses into the laundry. But, well, he did have some ribs. Do I like ribs? Yes I do.

These were not just ribs. These were a whole new order of ribs, something else altogether. Inside they were dark rich red like the best country ham and they tasted kind of like that and so smoky it was almost too much but it was perfect. Outside they were somehow crisp and crunchy with the right amount of char and rub. There was sauce on the side but it was superfluous. Here's the place and here's Mr. Hoover, and there's the corner where Robert Johnson played and died:

In the course of all this grave visiting I drove around and looked at stuff and took some pictures like usual. Here they are:

21 September 2011


Mississippi, Day 1: I am, as those of you who regularly read this are well aware of by now, not a particularly – or even any, really – spiritual or mystical sort of person. Yet there are places in the world where for no reason that I can quite fully put my finger on I simply feel at home, at peace, comfortable, engaged. Mississippi – to be specific the Delta and the Hill Country – is one of them. (Indonesia is one of the others, but I’ve already blathered about that earlier this year.)

Mississippi rolled into my mind over the years. My first association, as a child, was with the name. Thanks to the river, thanks to Mark Twain I’ve always unconsciously associated the place with travel and flow and adventure.

Then, as with so many of us who grew up in the 1960s the associations turned terrible – the scene of some of the most brutal battles of the Civil Rights Movement, a place that seemed alien and scary, primitive.

But at about the same time that was happening, I discovered the blues; music born of the struggles and torment, the strength and humor and intellect of the place and time it came from. Music that muscles its way out of the blood and sweat stained soil of this place, filling the air with ghosts and history and a culture that somehow comes across as triumphant in spite of the wretchedness and misery that created it, that made it somehow possible. And a culture that has informed and transformed much of all the other culture that I’ve been deeply affected by throughout my life. The blues, or something a whole lot like them – at least their sensibility - is part of nearly every book, song, movie, artwork, etc. that has reached far inside me and made me feel deeply.

And the people I meet have been almost universally friendly, welcoming, pleased to have someone visiting their state, their town, their farm who is in return friendly and genuinely interested.

Then there’s the light. Literally. Throughout the day, but most dramatically during the long evenings, the light here is palpable. It gives dimension to what could be a flat, nearly barren landscape. It is a photographer’s dream.

So I’m going to shut up right now and post some pictures from yesterday. I won’t even tell you what they are other than that they are roughly in the order I shot them, from the Hill Country around Holly Springs (lunch at Phillip's Grocery and an interesting conversation with a man selling the Nation of Islam's newspaper) to Greenville in the Delta and my favorite steak place in the world for dinner. There will be more today.

20 September 2011


I’m leaving Memphis in about 45 minutes and headed south to the Mississippi Delta. There will undoubtedly be much to blog about from there, so I’d best try to catch you up on the past week or so in the meantime.

Norman, OK to St. Louis: It poured rain pretty much the entire way, visibility was limited and photography non-existent. At nearly every other off-ramp there was some sort of "Adult Super Store" or "Men's Spa." Apparently people driving Interstate 44 to St. Louis through the Ozarks require some extra attention. They also require catfish, and I stopped at a place called Dowd's Catfish House in Lebanon, MO. It was awfully good. The fried okra was also especially good. And also, apparently, they need to be on the look out for escaped hogs. There were a number of billboards exhorting those of us driving by to "Report Feral Hogs."

St. Louis, Bouchercon: What is there to say about a writers and readers conference? It was a lot of fun. Hanging out with old and new writer pals is the very best of water cooler time – something you don’t usually get when you work at home in front of your computer day after day. Meeting readers, both those who have heard of you and read your books and those who haven’t but who are interested, is always incredibly gratifying and humbling. Conferences like this remind me both that I really enjoy hanging out with my fellow writers and we are all incredibly privileged to have people interested in what we write and have to say.

And yes, we do drink too much. I did actually get back to my hotel room from the bar one night by about 1am – but I still couldn’t go to sleep until 3. In any event, the people whose company I enjoyed, who I shared that wonderful heady mix of silliness, seriousness and wonderment with, are almost too numerous to mention by name. So I’m not going to. You know who you are.http://www2.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

I was having far too much fun to take any pictures during the conference. I did take some walking around St. Louis though. (I had the usual fun conference walk – becoming something of a tradition – with my pal SJ Rozan. SJ used to be an architect and there is always some building or another that has caught her eye. In this case we went to see the War Memorial Building which was truly elegant, simple and very beautiful. Click on her name to go to her blog where you will sooner or later find some photos, no doubt. Actually, right click on her name and go there in another window or tab so that you can easily get back here.)

Road to Memphis: Colin Cotterill and I headed south from St. Louis, trying to take old Highway 61 – do a Google search, you’ll see how many songs there are about it, probably the second most after Route 66 – for as much of the trip as we could. It was, as you can see from the pictures, a somewhat religious experience. (It was Sunday after all.)

This is what we could only think of to call Road Kill Jesus. Look at it straight on and all you see is the cross, move to the side and the flattened out Jesus shows up. It was actually kind of cool.

Memphis: Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum (built into the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated), Beale St., Gus’s Fried Chicken (some of the world’s very best fried chicken) – fun was had, much walking was done.

Graceland was not quite as remarkably garish, tacky and overblown as we'd hoped, smaller, too. But still, it had its moments.

The National Civil Rights Museum is very well done. It's built into the shell of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Standing, essentially, in the room, looking out at the balcony where the bloodstained concrete has been patched over and across the street at window where the shot came from, is frightening and very moving.

Across the street from it, however, Jacqueline Smith has inhabited a street corner for more than 23 years to protest the museum. She used to live in the Lorraine when it was a transient hotel, before she and the other residents were kicked out to make the museum. She wants people to boycott it. She thinks the money would be far better spent helping the poor and building low income housing by way of honoring the vision of Dr. King, rather than simply memorializing him. I'm still not sure how I feel about what she has to say, but she does make a strong, rational case. Check out her website.

Gus's on Front Street is the home of my new very favorite restaurant fried chicken in the country:

And far too much beer was drunk, all over town. Luckily we had a very knowledgeable "beer goddess" in one place to steer us in the right direction.

And Beale Street is very touristy, cacophonous with dueling blues bands of varying quality and many languages and accents that aren't usually associated with the South. Luckily for everyone, they do not permit reptiles:

We had much more civilized beers at Ernestine & Hazel's down on Front Street in a gentrifying area that some people are still fearful of going to at night. Their loss. Great bar, run by a very nice guy, with a truly superb jukebox. And it used to be a brothel upstairs - though no longer:

I am now in Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta and shall blog about it later, or tomorrow. Right now it's the time of day when I ought to be out and about taking pictures.

14 September 2011


Yesterday morning I woke up in Amarillo, Texas having spent a surreal evening at the Big Texan Steak Ranch and decided to go for breakfast. I went to the Stockyard Cafe, which had been recommended to me by a local and several websites. Great huevos rancheros. When my waitress came by to see if I wanted more coffee, she asked if I was there for the auction, the cattle auction. Well, why not?

So I stuck around and went to the cattle auction. Everybody there was about as friendly as could be and happy to explain to me what was going on. Then I sat down next to a group of Amish people and chatted with them. Turns out, they were on a road trip, too. They were on their way back to their home in Indiana from California and thought they'd stop at the Stockyard Cafe for breakfast and to take in the cattle auction. We talked for a bit and it was interesting and fun - and yes, some Amish do drive cars, not only horses and buggies.

Then I headed east and stopped at Bug Ranch - the Volkswagon Beetle answer to Cadillac Ranch farther west down the road. Then I stopped at "the largest cross in the Northern Hemisphere." I had lunch in a place that would have been a burger joint if the guy who founded it hadn't decided he wanted to do something other than burgers, so he opened a steak sandwich place to stand out from the crowd.

Then I spent the evening visiting writer pals in Norman, Oklahoma.

A lot of what I drove through was hours of grain silos in the flat distance, and cattle crowded around water wheels and I loved every single moment of it.

There are undoubtedly those of you out there reading this who are thinking - so what? Who cares? All that empty space.

I feel sorry for you. This is the country you miss when you simply fly over it to get where you're going. This is the country that is interesting and human and hard working and honest and fun - the place that makes me very happy to be an American. You can find this America in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago if you try hard enough, if you get out of your neighborhood and your comfort zone, but it's very much in your face when you drive across the country.

The great thing about this country has always been the journey, not the destination - the big, wide in-between spaces and the people who inhabit them. I feel most connected to it when I'm in those places, the vast midlands that people on the coasts wonder what the hell I'm there for, or the places that "nice" people are afraid to go, where they think menace lies around each bend - which is what some of my friends seem to think about the South, where I'm headed next.

Anyhow, just wanted to get that off my chest. Now I'm in St. Louis, at Bouchercon, surrounded by mystery writers and readers and staying put until Sunday when the road trip resumes. Here's some pics from yesterday: