And then you get to Clarksdale…..
Clarksdale, Mississippi. 9th October
We arrived at yet another nondescript exit ramp yesterday, thick with Mississippi river mud (the eponymous pie is a perfect replica in all but flavour) to find an excited Alex. He was unusually ebullient as we hauled the boat from the water and loaded it onto the trailer. “You wait till you see this town” was his cry and we thought he had taken leave of his senses after nearly three months on the road. But how right he was.
For those of you who do not know Clarksdale or are not dyed in the wool blues fans, there is probably no reason to have heard of this town. There are so many places around here that scream jazz, blues, rock and roll, blue grass and country. Memphis, Nashville to name but two that drag fans from all over the world. But Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues, a mecca for aficionados. It was here, as legend has it, that the young Robert Johnson went to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the blues. This town today is an absolute gem of a place, with wonderful cafes and some great little hotels. We are staying in loft apartments that would shame Manhattan. Then there are the blues bars. Visit Red’s Lounge. Why? Because it is as authentic a blues dive bar as exists. Or go just a little upmarket and visit Ground Zero, owned by Morgan Freeman, eat fried green tomatoes with gitback sauce, drink ice cold beer and listen to the best delta blues on the planet. Seriously, whatever else this blog encourages (or discourages!), consider visiting Clarksdale and relax here. It is a haven and I am most definitely coming back.
The quality of the accommodation, hospitality and food is just as well, as the trying days continue. Charlie Green, one of the charming treasures of my time at Cambridge, has been with us and he and I rowed both yesterday and today. Simon Hotchin, another Cambridge and Robinson college stalwart, a former hurdler so tall he barely had to break stride, joined yesterday and rowed with Paddy today. Yesterday was, on current form, almost an easy day – 28 miles with only a gentle headwind. Today was 50 miles, with more south wind blowing and what seemed to be a convention for barges. At one point, we had three of these monsters passing each other at the same time, two going one way and a third going the other. This still left room for the two modest but beautiful skiffs, but the turbulence was enormous. One boat took on a fair bit of water, which needed constant pumping to remove.
Given the heat (32 degrees centigrade) and 90% humidity, we were thirsty in a way that is difficult to describe. We rowed for seven and a half hours, stopping for a few minutes every half hour. After a while in this heat, we were glugging at our water bottles, filling our stomachs, but almost immediately upon resuming rowing, we were thirsty again. When we finished, there was not a spare drop in either boat. A high tariff day indeed.
And guess what? As we climbed, exhausted, out of the boat, Simon and Charlie came over to me and thanked me. Thanked me??? It is at times like that it is utterly clear why this is such a special band of brothers and sisters that embrace this madness and make it their own. To say I was humbled is insufficient. It was all I could do not to cry.
A very early night tonight, as two more long days for me and Simon coming. Charlie departs tomorrow morning after, I hope, one or two cold beers and a Jim Beam at Ground Zero. How I wish I could join him, but I need every ounce of strength I can muster.
PS – When you see Charlie, ask him to tell you his joke about the recently widowed ranch owner…..