I am currently on the move in the US and have just started an adventure I’ve always dreamed of doing one day: backpacking along The Mississippi Blues Trail. We decided to start the trip in Chicago and travel south because of the current climate conditions. My friend and band mate Kevin is joining me on this trip, which is amazing as he’s as much of a jazz/blues fanatic as I am. As we have a very tight schedule, our days are filled with travelling, sightseeing, museums, live shows, etc. We pre-booked pretty much all the buses and accommodations to keep everything budget as well as a renting car for a specific part of the Route 61, where bus connections are simply not available (more about finances on this trip in my last update).
Chicago – Illinois:
It was clear and sunny when our KLM jumbo touched down at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It took us about 2hrs until we could finally leave the airport (US border control just always take sooo long). We took the CTA blue line to get to our hostel – The Holiday Jones Hostel Chicago (thanks to Marlene for the tip – amazing accommodation!!). The Hostel is situated in a nice area only a few stations away from downtown. Even though the weather was really good when we arrived, it was freezing and we were exhausted. We ended up walking through the neighborhood for a good hour and bought some fruits and snacks to take with us the next couple of days. By 7pm we couldn’t stay awake any more and fell into a deep eleven-hour sleep.
We left the hostel pretty early the next morning because we wanted to be the first people that day to see Chicago from the 95th floor on John Hancock Observatory. And maaaan we did it. No lines. No waiting. First elevator up. And we were in it. 🙂 The observatory was absolutely amazing. I had spent a long time deciding whether we should go to the JH Observatory or the Skydeck, which is another observatory. However, after having done some reading on Trip Advisor and some other travel forums, I decided that the JHO would be the better option for us. After the observatory, we walked downtown to see Wrigley Building and the river walk in front of the skyline, which reminded me a lot of the TV show ER as it is set in Chicago and a lot of scenes were actually shot there (while the rest of ER was shot in LA). At some point we were extremely cold and had coffee in one of the corner cafés nearby. We decided that it was simply too cold to walk to all the sights, so we bought a day pass and took the “EL” (CTA trains) to get around Chicago. We took a short trip to Chinatown as well, where they were celebrating the Chinese New Year with live percussion, fireworks and parades. While we were still in Chinatown enjoying the festive atmosphere, it started snowing. Within 2 hours there was about 20cm of snow. After a short midday break at the hostel, we set off again to see Millenium Park and the famous glass cloud. This time I was wearing 3 pairs of socks, a pair of leggings underneath my pair of jeans and 5 layers of shirts/jackets. Still it was freezing.
St Louis – Missouri:
For only $5 per person we took a bus from Chicago to St Louis, Missouri the next day. We´d spent a total of 5,5 hours on the bus when we arrived in the Gateway-City. We made our way to our accommodation, the Crown Plaza Hotel. You might be wondering why suddenly afford such a hotel when usually I am on a budget? Simple: it was an IHG deal on booking.com and there is no hostel in St Louis. This hotel was by far the best alternative in terms of price and location. We were given a room in the 27th level, with which came an amazing view over the entire bay, the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch (the “Gateway to the West”), which is St Louis’ main sight. We´d originally planned to visit the official Budweiser Brewery while staying in St Louis, but it happened to be President´s Day, a public holiday that day. So instead we did a walking tour through downtown and noticed that St Louis is not only a very small but also pretty boring city. It reminded me a lot of Buffalo, which became my unexpected lowlight on my last backpacking trip through the States. The city center is mainly full of bank towers with offices and hotels (apparently St Louis is quite an important city for business), but there are hardly any shops or cultural spots there. We spent the evening in our room drinking Budweiser and enjoying the view over the bay as there was not much else to do in a business district of a pretty unspectacular city on a public holiday.
Memphis – Tennessee:
After having coffee at Tim Horton’s (cheap & good coffee chain from Canada) in St Louis, we took a bus to Memphis. Six hours later and about 300 miles further south, we arrived in Tennessee. The first thing we had to learn was that our “Downtown-Motel” was actually not downtown at all. The bus we´d wanted to take to go there stopped running after 6pm. Apparently we were looking kind of lost standing there at the bus terminal with no way to get to the motel using public transport. You have to know, I usually do have enough money for a cab, but taking a cab somewhere really is my very last option. Most of the times it is moments like that when you´re lucky… In our case it was a very friendly trolley driver who stopped and took us with him in his empty trolley for just $1. During the ride he called his friend George, a cab driver, who then picked us up at a street corner, where the trolley driver dropped us. He drove us to our motel and gave us some first hand information on Memphis and Must Dos while visiting Tennessee.
The next day was a power-day. We got up pretty early, had some waffles and coffee at the motel and took a bus to the famous STAX Museum of American Soul Music. The museum tells the story of American soul music with a focus on Stax Records and thereby celebrates the music of Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Al Green and many more. Afterwards we made our way to Mud Island, though, unfortunately, we couldn´t get there as the monorail is closed during winter time. Mud Island is a place which was often used as a movie location, e.g. in “The Firm”, a Grisham-based movie with Tom Cruise. Eventually, we went to the most famous street in Memphis: Beale Street. Beale Street is a significant location in the history of the blues and has numerous restaurants and blues clubs with 24/7 live music. Next to Beale Street there is also the Gibson Factory, which for me was also a Must-Do. The weather was amazing and so we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon outside walking around and back to our motel, where we had a little rest of about one hour. Then we headed out again to see Beale Street by night. We were lucky and found a club with live music and a good deal on drinks. Blues & Beer. Awesome.
Route 61 – Tunica, Clarksdale, Leland, Indianola – Mississippi
On Thursday morning we picked up our rental car – a very classy SUV (yeaaah!) – at Memphis Airport and immediately started our road trip adventure along the traditional Highway 61. The so-called Blues-Highway follows the course of the Mississippi River and therefore is a major part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. The official Gateway to the Blues (-Trail) is a museum and visitor center in Tunica, which explains the basics of blues music and how it came to life. It really did get us in a blues state-of-mind – not only because of the music, but also because of the location. After a little stop in one of the casino hotels in Tunica (Kevin wanted to gamble; of course we lost everything :D), we drove to Clarksdale, where we visited the Rock & Blues Museum, a very authentic and extensive collection of blues records, instruments, posters and other vintage goodies. Additionally we visited Mississippi´s oldest music museum, the Delta Blues Museum, which is located only minutes away from the Rock & Blues Museum and the Riverside Hotel (another important blues venue). The sun was about to go down when we left Clarksdale and drove to lovely Leland, a city located at the intersection of the Highway 61 and the State Highway 10. There you can find the Highway 61 Blues Museum, which tells the story of the Delta´s many legendary blues musicians as well as the history of these two framed highways. We decided to also try and visit BB King´s Museum in Indianola, a town about 14 miles away from Leland, but it had already closed when we got there. Since the weather had been so good that day and we had stopped so many times along the way, we had to get back on the road to make up for the time spent in museums and casinos. That night we slept in a totally run-down Indian motel aside the highway. Seriously, I think I´ve never seen a shack like that… I am a backpacker. I do not need much. I do not have much expectations and I´d like to think that I can take a lot, but this is not a Third World country. This is America.
It took us almost five hours of driving until we reached our final destination the next day: New Orleans. We wanted to make use of the car and the amazing weather (25°C) as much as possible, so we drove on to the Jean Lafitte National and Historical Park and Preserve in the South of New Orleans and spent the entire afternoon there. We did a walking tour and saw some very cool plants, strange-looking white trees that instantly reminded me of “Lord of the Rings” for some reason as well as snakes and alligators right in front of us. Unfortunately, we had to return our lovely Jeep in the evening and have now gone back to traditional backpacking. The last few days have truly been adventurous, really impressive, “soulfull” and exhausting. We both can´t wait for the second part of our trip…