If a couple is brutally murdered in the woods, and nobody is around to hear their screams, do they really make a sound at all? We spent six days at Wall Doxey State Park, about 30 minutes south of Oxford, Mississippi. Not once did we meet a park ranger or state parks employee. Nobody stopped by to check our tags, or ensure we paid upon entry. Save for a few unmarked, windowless trailers – presumably owned by the state itself – Mel and I were the only occupants in our designated campground. Wall Doxey is a heavily wooded park, with a single, 60-acre lake in the center. At night, we could hear a single goose calling from the water, the steady buzz of the bathhouse lights, could hear wind rushing through the trees long before it arrived at the trailer. What began as a refreshing solitude became an unsettling silence by the end of our stay, despite the natural beauty.
Heading east from Louisiana, we were excited about our stay in Mississippi. As much as we’d been enjoying the journey, none of our friends lived anywhere within the first leg of our trip. Between Arizona and Mississippi, we’d spent almost all of our time amongst ourselves. We’d conducted formal interviews with plenty of folks, of course, but that hardly provides the catharsis of spending time with a close friend. In Oxford, Mississippi, however, lives the inimitable Sara Wood, a top-notch oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance and the most gracious host a friend could ask for. Sara and I both earned our MFAs in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In a program filled with memoir writers, Sara was one of my few cronies in journalism. When I needed to bitch, I often bitched to Sara Wood.
So, more than two years after we had graduated, we met again in Oxford. Sara suggested the three of us grab lunch in the city’s historic square at a place called Ajax Diner, a restaurant I would highly recommend. I ordered the country fried steak with mashed potatoes, gravy and butter beans. Maybe a side of fried okra, too. The weather was dreary, hardly the best day for a pair of tourists to roam the city. But sitting before a plate of downhome soul food with my fiancé and an old friend, I couldn’t have been more content. Before long, the three of us were back to bitching, about the South, about its continual struggle with racism – in the news that week was the ongoing trial of an Ole Miss student charged with tying a noose around the neck of James Meredith, the school’s first black student – about our respective jobs, our futures, our lives. Why did we get creative writing degrees again? The conversation strayed, from heady to sobering to trivial and back again. After lunch, we walked off the calories on the South Campus Rail Trail, adjacent to the Ole Miss campus.
Sara kindly offered to let us park Elsie in her driveway, or even to stay in her spare bedroom, but the weather was shifty during our stay in Mississippi. I was hesitant to leave the trailer alone and unplugged, afraid the water lines would freeze in the unseasonably cold weather. We stayed with Elsie at Wall Doxey, the space heater running, the faucet left intentionally dripping, but the lines froze anyway. If you’ve been following our trip from the beginning, you’ll remember that we chose this route to avoid this exact scenario. We woke up two mornings in a row without water, holding our breath until late afternoon, when the sun finally broke through and thawed the lines. We could feel the water rush back into the tank, the pressure suddenly returning to the faucets. Thank god, nothing cracked.
Looking for a good interview in the Oxford area, I met up briefly with Ed Meek, the major benefactor for the Meek School of Journalism. Meek currently runs a local news site called HottyToddy.com (based off the Ole Miss fight song of the same name), but more importantly for me, had published a few small stories about an area folk artist named Joe Wrenn. Oddly enough, Mel and I split an entree later the same evening at City Grocery, and found Wrenn’s paintings on display, selling for a few hundred bucks each. The colors were vivid and dynamic, each painting an unpolished scene from African American rural life. River baptisms. Cotton picking. Hunting. Fishing. Each one told a story. Meek had pitched the work well enough, but it wasn’t until we saw Wrenn’s paintings in person that we decided to dedicate one of our days in Mississippi to finding him.
We found Wrenn at his home just outside of Charleston, MS, about an hour southeast of Oxford. He was cooking a pan of what looked like chicken legs on a wood stove, the embers burning orange underneath. The room – covered top to bottom with Joe’s work – felt about one hundred degrees, and it smelled delicious, too. Mel and I interviewed Wrenn for nearly two hours, various friends and family members wandering into and out of the house as we spoke. His wife Barbara sat through the interviews with him, often chiming in to add another detail or clarify previous events. She weaved her hair in extra long dreadlocks, and wore a zebra-striped onesie with a pair of black rubber boots. She smiled wide, and she smiled often. Both Joe and Barbara were gracious hosts, more than willing to put up with my ignorant questions about their life and work in rural Mississippi. They gave me and Mel a tour of their entire property, introducing us to their dog and goat and many horses. They told us to come back. Joe’s story deserves much more room than I can get away with in a blog post, so I’ll leave it at that. But expect to hear more about our time with Joe and Barbara.
On our last night in Oxford, we met up one last time with Sara. We grabbed dinner and drinks at Lamar Lounge, a favorite for locals and tourists alike. Taxidermied animals stared back at us blankly from the green walls. We thanked her for all the hospitality – which, in true Sara fashion, she humbly ignored – and she wished us well on the rest of our trip.
We hitched up Elsie the next morning, and just before hitting the interstate for Alabama, made the obligatory stop at Rowan Oak, the former home of William Faulkner. Neither Mel nor I are especially big Faulkner fans, but, you know, when in Oxford…The house itself was worth the stop, at least for Mel and I, who apparently have a strange fascination with old homes. To stand inside Faulkner’s office, to read the schedule he scribbled into the walls, to peer outside the same window he peered out of when writing his portion of the American literary canon—well, it was affecting somehow. In a strange way, it was comforting. Perhaps because when it comes to writing, no amount of fame or money makes producing that next line or that next book any easier. His office was simple in the way most writers' offices tend to be. A desk and boatload of books. Time to get to work.
We took a picture outside of Rowan Oak, umbrellas shielding us from a downpour.
See you next time, Mississippi.