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To a European visitor, no part of the US feels more foreign than the South. This is not a matter of landscape or geography but of attitude. The South feels different because, for reasons both quantifiable and intangible, it is different, and because those who live there are happy to see those differences – their differences – preserved. Few phrases carry such cultural resonance in the US, good and bad, as ‘proud Southerner’.

The borders of the South remain widely debated. Historians define it using the Mason-Dixon Line, an arcane geopolitical construct that came to signify the divide between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s. Pop culture mavens suggest that the South starts where, by default, your ice tea is served sweet. A few definitions exclude most or all of Texas; others stretch as far north-east as Delaware and Maryland. Whatever your methodology, you know the South when you’re in it. And when you’re in Mississippi, you know you’re in the South.

 


 

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Historically, Mississippi is the South of unpopular infamy: of inequality, of poverty, of insidious racism. It’s much more, of course, but this is the shorthand that the state has struggled to overcome since Lincoln. The internet’s unerasable memory doesn’t help. Endeavouring to learn more about the Mississippi cities through which we’d planned to journey, many of them former railroad towns that had already fallen on hard times long before the trains stopped running, we uncovered a litany of grim stories from the living-memory past.

To take but one example, Meridian in 2015 is an agreeable small town, blessed with a friendly population working hard to restore its elegant downtown streets to their former glories. Just over half a century ago, though, it found national fame as the home town of James Chaney, a 21-year-old African American civil rights activist who was murdered by an unholy cabal of police officers, sheriff’s officials and Ku Klux Klansmen in the nearby town of Philadelphia. The national outcry over the 1964 murders of Chaney and two other activists, events that inspired the movie ‘Mississippi Burning‘, led directly to the passing of the Civil Rights Act later that year.

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Such events cast a long shadow, but even without knowledge of them, Mississippi is a troubled place. No state in the union has a greater percentage of its residents living in poverty. Life expectancy is lower than anywhere else in the country (and a mix of incompetence and political grandstanding means that Mississippi’s wretched healthcare record is unlikely soon to improve). Racial discrimination remains a problem. Indeed, the state’s poor performance in everything from per-capita income to the literacy of its residents has given rise in other downtrodden regions to a much-uttered phrase: ‘Thank God for Mississippi‘, as in ‘We may rank near the bottom, but…’.

 


 

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But.

Writers with more talent, more time and a much firmer grasp of American culture have struggled to pin down the South: what it was, what it is and what it means. As outsiders, we’ve breathed in its intoxicating best. As white Europeans, we’ll never experience its noxious, notorious worst. It is a confounding place, much richer and more complex than its associated clichés suggest. But those clichés still resonate.

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There are the churches, of course, which in some sparsely populated parts of Mississippi appear at the roadside more often than houses. It was a bright Sunday morning as we picked our way north from Meridian on back roads, and the gravel parking lots at each of the plain country churches we passed were packed. Most churches here are Baptist; and the majority, we understand, are essentially monoracial. The South is more integrated than its popular image suggests, but Sundays remain a day of virtual segregation. (Pressed to explain the differences between white and black Baptist churches, one Southerner simply offered that the services at black churches go on longer and left it at that.)

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There are the guns. We grew used to being asked what we were carrying, and Will’s stock response – a D-lock and our wits – failed to satisfy many inquisitors. We were in the minority: 55% of adults in Mississippi own a gun. Judging by the excitement building around an upcoming gun show as we passed through the town of Laurel, that figure is unlikely soon to drop. Gun ownership rights are sacred here, protected by two senators who receive A or A+ ratings from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA). Mississippi has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the US. It also ranks second in the number of gun homicides per capita.

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And then there is the South’s greatest asset: its fabled hospitality. Observing our one failsafe, unbreakable rule of worldwide travel – don’t talk with strangers about politics or religion, at least not until they talk about them to you – we couldn’t have felt more warmly welcomed. Everybody wanted to say hello. Strangers took us in. Two days in succession, we found our lunch had been bought for us by a customer at a neighbouring table, somebody who just wanted to say hello to a couple of wayfaring strangers and perhaps help us out a little. (Above, that’s Gayle, who picked up our check in tiny Poplarville.) Such small kindnesses overwhelmed us.

As ever, our opinion is skewed by circumstance. We are travellers, white travellers on bicycles at that, with little connection to the day-to-day realities of life in a struggling state. Mississippi has shame in its past, problems in its present and profound challenges in its future. But, as with so many places we’ve visited on this trip, from Brazil to Colombia to Mexico, the news reports don’t tell the whole story. There are good people everywhere, and we’re glad to have met them.

 


 

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Perhaps the greatest surprise during our week cycling through Mississippi was the drivers, who behaved impeccably around us. We only found out later that in 2010, the state passed what locals call the three-foot law, which means drivers must leave a three-foot gap when overtaking cyclists. More than 20 states now have such a law; and in Mississippi, it seems to have had a positive effect. (Texas, where we met with both resistance and abuse from some drivers, has no three-foot law; it was vetoed in 2010 by then-Governor and likely 2016 Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry. As one well-travelled Floridian motorist remarked to us over coffee at a Mississippi campground, ‘If you’re riding a bike in Texas, they think you’re a terrorist. Or a communist.’)

The cycling hasn’t been spectacular – we knew it wouldn’t be, especially given the late arrival here of spring’s blossoms and greenery – but it’s been perfectly pleasant and sometimes beautiful, with enough hills to keep us honest and enough big cities to give us a focus. It’s also had the virtue of being mostly free from traffic. Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky are not heavily populated states; if you don’t mind a few climbs, you can find your way through them on near-empty back roads, two-lane blacktop on which birdsong outweighs engine noise.

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We cut north through Mississippi on or near Route 11, dodging downpours, until we connected at Mathiston with the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Trace, as we quickly learned to call it, was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal (you can see a few photos from its construction at this link), but the trail it both replaced and honoured dates back centuries: linking Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, connecting three major rivers as it does so, the Trace was created by Native Americans, who used it as a trading route long before the incursion of European and American pioneers in the 18th century. Work on a paved replacement to the original and by-then badly degraded dirt trail started in 1938, though it took until 2005 for the completion of an unbroken line between the two cities.

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The two-lane, tree-lined Trace is a masterpiece of the surveyor’s art, a near-ceaseless succession of sinuous curves and gentle gradients. It’s also one of only – we think – four roads to have been absorbed into the US National Park system and subjected to its rigorous rules. What this means is that businesses and commercial traffic – trucks, buses and suchlike – are outlawed along the road’s 444-mile extent (we were on it for about 240 miles, give or take). The only buildings are huts, camping shelters, restrooms and, near Tupelo, the visitors’ centre. Towns sit just off the road, mostly invisible to the travelling cyclist, and exits are rare; once you’re on the Trace, it could be 15 miles before you can come off it. After a while, the artificiality of the environment starts to seem both normal and positively alien; after four days in this beautiful monotony, the Nashville suburbs into which the road delivered us were something of a shock.

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From Nashville, a city we enjoyed much more than on our only previous visit, it was more of the same, or similar, as we edged through Tennessee and into Kentucky: winding, near-deserted country lanes; handsome if sometimes rather beleaguered towns; warm welcomes and canyon-wide cultural differences.

From the bourbon country around chocolate-boxy Bardstown, it was a day’s ride to Louisville, a humming college town and a rare liberal outpost in a deeply conservative state. The city sits on the banks of the Ohio River, with the state of Indiana just across the water. As such, Louisville can be seen to represent the South’s last gasp. But that, of course, depends on where you draw the line.

from Gettysburg, PA, USA