Delta Storms

A flash of lightning illuminated rows of tombstones on either side of the downed power lines. I screeched to a halt inches away from the snaking wires in the middle of a Mississippi patchwork blacktop that loomed like an airport tarmac through the storm. Madness. Weather stations were calling for flash floods, but I failed to heed the warnings when I made the decision to drive into the Delta—just like I failed to acknowledge my conflicting feelings of returning to the Deep South two years earlier.

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A slew of Southern disapproval flooded in on me before the journey: “When are you going to stop roaming?” my mother chirped from inside her Florida panhandle ranch home. “I love you, but I don’t understand you.” Those were her last words before I leapt over the oil spots inside her garage and escaped.

“Our single friends should settle down… and just be happy,” my best friend’s husband added his own guidance.

But I was never happy when I was assigned to a permanent residence and the tedium of a 9 to 5, husband in tow.           

Go.

That’s the only word that resonated with me. So I went.

After living in Phoenix for eight years, I thought I had come home to the South seeking the mythological significance you only get growing up among the muddy marshes and sprawling Spanish moss-covered oaks. My Phoenix friends didn’t understand my decision to return to a place they perceived as a non-evolving, racist, and homophobic vacuum.

But I couldn’t explain to them what it meant to seek something I had lost there long ago, to reside in a small town where mamas fix lunches for daddies who come home midday, where common folk nuzzle into stories of neighbors who regale themselves in boozy porch-sitting boredom. Those moments stirred inside me just as they had in my childhood haunts of Georgia, Arkansas, and Louisiana. On the outskirts of Savannah, I searched for those moments again.   

Back in the South, I fought for causes I believed in, like eradicating stigma in Savannah’s HIV community and teaching sexual education at a local Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I rented a room in a two-story house that overlooked the low country’s marshy tides. When an abandoned gay kid wandered onto my doorstep, I adopted him for the summer, filling in as his interim mother.

Back in the South, I fought for causes I believed in, like eradicating stigma in Savannah’s HIV community and teaching sexual education at a local Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

But I couldn’t get a foothold in my return to the South. My Phoenix life had been about teaching in inner city schools and performing burlesque in gay night clubs. The deep South no longer approved of me—or my marriage equality license plate. They did not consider me a real mother, so little hinged on my being settled anywhere. After two years in the South, I packed up and headed back to Phoenix.

More interested in the drive than the final destination, I navigated around all the places of my childhood. I traversed through Atlanta’s funky Little Five Points, Louisiana’s sweeping Nottoway Plantation, and the little mill town of Crossett, Arkansas. I didn’t stay anywhere long enough to resurrect my memories until I hit Razorback country.           

When I stopped in Crossett, I had an epiphany. Would I have had as much imagination if I hadn’t lived here as an only child with nothing to do but fantasize about the places that would take me away? Stuck between my childhood memories and cyberspace, I exchanged text messages with Desiato, my costume designer friend in Phoenix before getting back on the road to visit my childhood best friend, Danita.       

Once I entered the suburbs of Little Rock, I came to a firm decision. I would adopt a life of travel writing and adventure. This resolution would transform my status as a childless, single Southern dropout to a devil-may-care freedom-seeking storyteller.   

It was all I had left.    

“I’m going to the crossroads in Mississippi and I’m leaving at 9 a.m.,” I woke Danita from sleep after arriving at her home the night before.          

Her house was a full-fledged Arkansas suburban Christmas scene complete with a brittle, bulbed tree, stockings hung over a crackling fire, and three dogs that followed me up and down the hallway. Danita, content to orchestrate an endless array of domestic duties, could sense how tortured I felt stuck in her suburbia.          

“I know my life is your worst nightmare,” she said. I could tell she was trying to comfort me.

Ours was my longest running friendship. Danita understood my yearning for something more, something outside of Southern tradition, even when her idea of home negated my own. After hours of listening to her itineraries for holiday party planning and grocery shopping, I was getting antsy. Longing to be removed from the same formalities of silverware placements and the guilt-ridden glares of mounted animal heads I remembered from my childhood, I needed to get away.

I would drive through the Delta in search of where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.     

“I’m going to the crossroads today,” I repeated the next morning, giving her the opportunity to bail.           

Danita jumped up sleepy-eyed, feeding the dogs and shuttling Christmas packages into safe spaces.           

“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. “You don’t have to.”    

“I told you I would go,” she snapped. “I will drive through a tornado if I decide to do something and I’ve decided!”

I loved her most like this: oozing a slight hostility when forced from her domesticity to cater to my irresponsible whims. It was a spark of rebellion lit from our youth in a drowsy, do-nothing town that I intended to reignite. 

“Are you two really going to do this?” I heard Danita’s husband, Jasper, boom through her cell phone as we picked up coffee on our way out. “They are calling for flash floods!    

As a firefighter, Jasper was hell-bent on safety.

“We’ll be fine. I’ve watched the radar and it’s clear in Mississippi,” Danita assured him from the passenger’s seat.

“This is why I’m not married,” I whispered, sipping my latte.   

Back on the route, we bumped over the soggy Arkansas highway, but once we crossed the river and into Mississippi, the rain stopped. The cobalt, heavy sky threatened more showers, but never made good on its promise.  

The road to Clarksdale was an easy one. Even with two GPS systems spitting out the wrong directions, we arrived at 1 Blues Alley Lane and found the old train depot.

“Got a bird trapped in the museum today,” a middle-aged black man informed us as we entered.           

“It’ll be seven dollars,” said the fidgety white guy who took our cash.           

Danita and I entered and investigated the history of Sam Cooke, the photos of Bessie Smith, the life of B.B. King, and the guitar fashioned out of a piece of wood from Muddy Water’s one-room shack. Then I noticed the sign: “Three Forks.”

The words hung over the picture of a man who was holding his guitar like a lover and exhibiting a desire to escape to some back road juke joint. I could sense the wandering urge welling up in his eyes and I understood it.           

His myth wasn’t a new one. A Faustian legend mixed with a Southern morality tale: Robert Johnson, not yet able to play his guitar, stood at the crossroads. There he met the Devil, and exchanged his soul for the immortal fame of a Blues musician. But Satan soon returned to claim his rightful possession. At just twenty-seven, the King of the Delta Blues was struck dead when the hounds of hell ushered his soul home. I had taught the story to my English class in Phoenix.

But there was more behind the myth I would soon learn.

At seventeen, Robert Johnson of the Jim Crow, Depression-era Hazlehurst, Mississippi—a crippling hometown for a young African-American man in the 1930s—married his young love who soon became pregnant. But she, along with their baby, died in childbirth. Lost, Robert Johnson began a life of perpetual ramblings and playing the Blues. Disappearing for months at a time before turning up as an expert guitar player, the Devil tales began to circulate. Robert embraced the legend. And why not? If living out the life of a lonely sharecropper was what God intended, navigating the open road playing the Blues must be Devil-induced. Did the Blues legend willingly choose wickedness? I would have.

The map under his picture identified three potential crossroads: the Clarksdale Crossroads where 49 meets 61, the Rosedale Crossroads at the juncture of Highways 1 and 8—a supernatural place believed to manifest the Devil—and a third crossroads which provided no identifying landmarks, so I assumed it was fiction and ignored it.

“We have to go to Rosedale, too,” I begged Danita. “I can’t come this far and not see the real crossroads.”           

“Of course,” she placated me. 

Then something high up in the rafters stole my attention.

“There he is,” I pointed, alerting the middle-aged man.

The two of us, standing next to one of B. B. King’s earliest black-bodied Lucille guitars, stomped on the wooden floorboards as we hustled the bird from one room to another. But our winged friend got stuck in the rafters just before the passage to his final escape.

The two of us, standing next to one of B. B. King’s earliest black-bodied Lucille guitars, stomped on the wooden floorboards as we hustled the bird from one room to another.

“Fly down and into it. You have to go through the opening to get to the other side,” I insisted.

“Whew! He can stay put for all I care,” the man sputtered, “I’m tired of chasing him.”           

Done with failed bird whispering, I caught up to Danita in the museum’s gift shop.           

“Looks like the rain’s headed this way,” the fidgety ticket taker said as we reemerged into the misty, overcast midday air.           

Within ten minutes, we reached the first crossing. Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersected next to a Church’s Chicken with a bold monument of converging guitars marking the interchange.

“This can’t be it,” I said to Danita. “It’s too…well, it’s in the middle of a town.”  

“Maybe it’s down a little farther,” she said.           

We steamrolled straight ahead but discovered that the marker was indeed the only identifier of Clarksdale’s claim to fame. It was too showy to be the actual spot of devil dealings, so we mapped out our next route.

“According to the GPS, Rosedale is about forty-five miles south, and we are looking for the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8,” Danita said.           

“Got it. Let’s go.”  

We sped off. Miles of winter-weathered dead fields overtook the sides of the highway. The sky—still moody—brewed. There was no precipitation, however, and no other cars.           

“I like to imagine this is just after an apocalypse, and the zombies will be arriving any minute,” Danita said.           

Thud. Clump. My tires rolled over the ragged road. The trip felt like hours as we drove beside the dried up cotton fields. Then we spotted a flock of blackbirds huddled in a massive cluster before they blasted out as if from Gabriel’s trumpet.           

“That was weird,” my voice broke into the rhythm of the road. “You ever see birds do that before?”

“No,” Danita said and fell silent.           

We didn’t speak again until we slowed into the main street of a dilapidated town where only a handful of citizens strolled in the afternoon gloom.           

“There’s a road marker that says ‘Delta Blues Trail,’” Danita pointed out.

“Yeah, but there’s no crossroads here. Let’s drive a little more.”

We sailed down Highway 1 until it hit Highway 8. A café called the Blue Levee sat in front of the crossing.           

“Is this it?” I asked Danita. “There aren’t any markers.”        

I parked the car next to the café as Danita pulled up a website that detailed the Rosedale myth.           

“It says that a man stopped at Leo’s café to ask about the crossroads.       

Sitting there, in front of our potential destination, I listened as Danita read the entire exchange of devil dealings.          

“But where’s Leo’s? It says Blue Levee and if this is it, I would suspect there would be some kind of marker.”    

“Let’s go back up where that other sign was planted.”

I steered towards town and took a right. Inching past a Baptist Church, we hit a dead end next to one of the Delta Blues trail markers. The sign titled “Rosedale” detailed the legacy of the town’s name in the Robert Johnson song.

“I’m getting out and taking a picture,” I said to Danita.           

The minute I emerged, the sky poured down on me. But when I got back into the car, the deluge stopped. I drove towards the “Hot Tamales” mile marker. I exited the vehicle and walked down Main Street to get a photo. Again, I was showered with a wet blast.           

When I returned to my car, drenched, the rain stopped once again, and Danita had found our answer.           

“I looked up the address to Leo’s and the address to the Blue Levee. They’re the same.”

We had sought out the crossroads—two of the three–and had discovered what we came for. Other than a sporadic shower, we had avoided the storm, too. All we had to do was take Highway 1 back into Clarksdale and cross over into Arkansas.           

Clipping past rows of empty land, the rain spit and stalled, poured and pulled back. Danita’s emergency signal on her phone kept ringing, warning of a flash flood.        

“I wish I could turn this damn thing off. I’m sick of hearing it, especially when we’ve gotten nothing but drizzle.”           

“Can you—” my words were cut off when we caught sight of dozens of blackbirds mounting military formations in the sky before scattering. Another flock followed, bold against the creamy green clouds. They, too, catapulted off into the distance.

“Those birds are freaking me out,” I said.           

“I know.” Danita let go of her phone and gazed out into the open terrain.       

At 4:30 in the afternoon, the sky unloaded all its heaviness. Its water broke through the membrane of clouds and poured down on us. Our visibility minimized then disappeared. In near pitch, the rain nailed us at a sideways slant just before the winds revved up.

All was blackness.           

“I’m pulling over. I can’t see anything.”           

I carefully navigated the car onto the shoulder. Danita and I sat breathless and worried. We didn’t speak. I could feel her fear and relied on the wordless communication of my lifelong friend as guidance for my next move.        

She tuned the radio to the weather alert.

“Issuing a tornado warning for…”

A list of counties were rolled out, but we only recognized the one we sat in: Coahoma. “If you are in one of these counties, take shelter immediately. Repeat—take shelter immediately. Winds of seventy miles an hour have been reported.”           

Then the weather got worse. Lightning flashed a big bolt of crinkly electricity springing out ahead in the endless expanse. Lost to the darkness of the Delta with no road markers and no guidance, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

If I pulled back onto the road in search of safety, a tornado could pick us up. If we jumped into a ditch, we could get struck by lightning. Secretly, I hoped we’d be taken out by the storm, because if the tornado didn’t kill us, Jasper most certainly would. Not giving vent to my emotions, I glued myself to the task of moving us forward, getting somewhere.  

If I pulled back onto the road in search of safety, a tornado could pick us up. If we jumped into a ditch, we could get struck by lightning.

I pulled my car back onto the road hoping that our rolling wheels would spur us towards something recognizable. Go. I heard the familiar word echo in my head. Go. Go. Get to shelter. Get to safety. Don’t stop. Don’t stay in one spot. Go.     

Anchored back to a steady pace, the torrid rain forced us onto the shoulder again. Alone, we waited. I didn’t believe there would be a break in the storm until it happened. I nosed back onto the road and clipped along at twenty-five miles an hour, cutting through the rain. The lightning was now our guide as it illuminated just enough distance ahead.           

Then, I spotted a truck in my rearview. The metal monster picked up speed and passed us.           

“I feel better now,” Danita exhaled. “Another car on the road makes me feel less alone.”           

I felt better, too, knowing there was someone else forging a path we could follow. But up ahead I saw the truck swerve.         

Coming upon a tree branch in the road, I understood. I swerved to miss it, too. And then we came upon another branch. I crunched it under my tires, then spotted an even larger one with twigs zigzagging out in all directions before half a tree materialized in the street. But the road wasn’t our only danger. 

Something swung in the blackness—a power line hanging just above my car. And another that we narrowly missed before I spotted a third lying in the road. I ran over it without time to consider the danger. Was it still electrified? A blast of lightning struck, spotlighting a row of power poles skewed crooked like crosses in a cemetery. This time the lightning looked like it hit something when it crashed down, but we couldn’t make out what.        

“Turn off at this exit,” Danita directed. I did as I was told, no longer the bold believer of my own authority.

We cruised over more downed power lines and more tree branches before coming to a four-way stop.           

“Where should I go?” I asked in an adrenaline frenzy.           

“Go straight,” Danita commanded.        

Go.  

I rolled through the intersection and picked up speed until I was at thirty, then thirty-five, then forty, then forty-five miles an hour, anxious to outrun any impending danger. I no longer knew what to be afraid of, but I was certain trouble would find us.           

“Slow down,” Danita shouted. She had seen something I had missed.

“STOP!”        

Lightning crackled again and this time I saw it, too: a main line in the middle of the road with three fat black power veins tangled around each other, spiraling out and crossing the street. I stomped on the brakes but feared I wouldn’t be able to escape the leviathan. I tugged at the steering wheel and my tires squealed. I swerved to the left, hitting a dead stop only inches from the snaking wires that were still connected to their power source. We had sailed through the intersection and into an electric graveyard.

Was this the third crossroads?           

Motionless, we sat silent for a long time. My car in the darkness, and the two of us together encountering a space that felt outside of time.  

“Where should I go now?” I whispered when the words finally came back to me.           

“Just reverse slowly and we’ll take a right. I think I see cars up ahead now.”           

The road before us came back to life. A fire truck arrived on the scene and other vehicles scurried to take cover. No more than a mile away, we spotted a gas station and turned in.

Danita’s phone rang. Would she come clean to Jasper? 

“Hey, baby,” Danita covered, “we heard there was going to be heavy rains so we pulled into a gas station to wait it out. We’re fine.”  

Lifelong friendship can breed lies when encountering mythological events. My adrenaline still pumping, I knew Jasper would never understand what had just transpired between us and we were better off not explaining it to him. When the storm had blown over, I drove back towards Clarksdale and on to Little Rock. Danita and I both shook all the way home. Still, we were fine. Safe, at least.

Sitting on her suburban sofa that evening, my best friend pulled up a news story.           

“Two were confirmed dead in Mississippi,” she read. “One man was killed instantly when he was thrown from his trailer and flung against a tree in Coahoma County.”           

Mythology swirled in my brain the next morning as I said goodbye to Danita and got back on the road to finish my drive from Little Rock to Phoenix. I’d have to go the rest of the trip alone, relying on my sole decision making if I came across any more crucial junctures. Was I prepared?     

More tempests were developing, but this time with my adopted kid. After a family argument, he had left home again.           

“I don’t know what to do this time,” he confessed in a text message.        

Just like at the crossroads, I felt vulnerable. How could I continue to ensure his safety from so far away? Even though I didn’t believe security existed, I wanted it for him. I convinced him to make peace with his family, and he returned home.        

Bound to the road, I thought of him as I drove through the Texas landscape. Did I give him the right guidance? Would I be able to follow my own on the road?           

There would be no more crossroads in Texas, just a straight and desolate path. But I didn’t trust that wide expanse of land with its glaring sunshine that stole the trees from my childhood and funneled the Deep South into the Southwest. Stopping at a hotel in Pecos at midnight, I was anxious and up again at 6 a.m. I pulled away from my hotel thinking my 1/4 tank of gas was enough to stretch out to the next exit. But as my meter started to fall to empty, I panicked. Near hyperventilation, I dialed my iPod to Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings and sang out my fear:

Mr. Highway Man, please don't block the road

Please, please don't block the road

'Cause she's reachin' a cold one hundred

And I'm booked and I got to go

Making a deal with the Highway Man, I spotted a station cut into the side of a mountain. Relieved, I filled up and cruised until El Paso where I first spotted the sign.

“The Thing: What Is It?”

The billboards dotted the landscape from El Paso to Tucson until my curiosity got the better of me. I pulled off the road, paid $1 for a ticket, and followed yellow footprints through a series of barn-like warehouses, one opening unto the next. A menagerie of bizarre attractions spanned the sideshow museum: instruments of human torture, “Hitler’s car,” guns, and animal antlers. I took in each one before approaching the main attraction.         

There, preserved in a wooden and glass coffin, lay the mystery of the desert—a mummified mother and child. I shuddered and drew back, but I walked around the casing to take another look. Disequilibrium mounting, I bolted out of the place to stave off another panic attack. Once inside of my car, my phone alerted me to a new text message from my adopted kid.     

“How much is a ticket to Arizona? I should have gone with you.”           

I was again immersed in family drama, but I couldn’t save him this time. Images flashed through my mind: our first meeting, bailing him out of trouble, dropping him off at the airport. At eighteen years old, was he adult enough to make the right decisions?  

I calmed the kid, but not myself, and arrived in Phoenix frazzled. My friends shuffled me from one holiday party to the next. Exhausted, I began asking Desiato for leads on potential office work. I would have to come off the road and fall back into a 9 to 5 to earn a living. The weight of settled life sank in on me, along with my Cabernet.           

Tipsy and boxed into a kitchen by well-meaning, but oblivious friends, I broke down. Longing for the simplicity of being caught in a storm with only my immediate needs to consider, I felt frozen. I couldn’t breathe beside the vegetable platters and white elephant gifts.           

“I don’t want to be here,” I cried into Desiato’s shirt.   

“Where do you want to be?” he asked me, expecting a logical response.    

“Nowhere. Everywhere,” I wanted to say, but I didn’t dare.           

Robert Johnson would understand. He traveled as a vagabond in order to escape the pain of his past losses and a predictable future. Johnson wasn’t beholden to evil. He outran it in the Mississippi Delta with his music and his choice never to go down a singular path. Perhaps the Devil at the crossroads is nothing more than choice, a direction taken that excludes all other possibilities.           

After the party had died down, I found myself sitting in the security of my Arizona friend’s home, chatting. She had no interest in devil dealings or the open road, just holiday plans and family obligations. When the subject shifted to children, I excused myself. Lost, I didn’t know where I fit into the conversation and was eager to escape to a hot shower. The conflict of choosing a path of constant change versus a more sustainable, settled life beat down on me with the flowing water. Inside the stall, I looked up to see the familiar brand stamped into the shower head: Delta.           

Robert Johnson was inside me now. Restless. Rambling. Writing the Blues.

I wanted to go.

But where to next?

Only the devil may care.


Photo used with copyright permission.