It’s unlikely for an interstate to make a great drives listing but there are exceptions to every rule. For over 300 miles, I-81 carries sightseers, intentional and otherwise, through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
The valley is a work bucolic art, painted across the landscape with a pigment of agrarianism and the brush of time. Farms, complete with barns and silos dot the rolling hills as the picturesque ridge lines frame in the valley in the distance.
The highway seems to have been placed with the economy of space in mind. Rather than the typical interstate, 81 is situated on just enough property. It is slid in among the homesteads without taking more land than is needed. Not one unneeded foot is designated for right of way or even a rest area
Along the road you’ll find storied Southern locales:
Bristol: “The Birthplace of Country Music” and the home of the famous NASCAR short track.
Natural Bridge: Breathtaking natural geological formation so impressive that when Thomas Jefferson saw it, he decided to buy it.
Lexington: Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson are both buried in this town. It is Home to their respective instructional charges: Washington & Lee University and The Virginia Military Institute. Even if you don’t visit the generals, this is one of the most beautiful towns in The South.
Blacksburg: Home of The Virginia Tech Hokies.
That’s just scratching the surface. There too many towns, local attractions, and stories to mention. It’s not you average interstate drive.
Summertime is always a busy time at ABG.
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Sam Burnham, Curator
I’d never watched even a single episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. I was familiar with the show and with Bourdain. His appearance on Fresh Air was one of the few Terry Gross interviews that didn’t make me want to smash my toes with a hammer. In fact, I enjoyed it. Then Alan Cornett suggested I go watch the Charleston and Mississippi episodes of the show. So I did, and I threw in Nashville one for good measure.
I think all three episodes are important and communicate facts about Southern cuisine and culture that are not well known outside the region. But Charleston and Nashville have a facade. They are cities and have the notoriety and metropolitan twinkle of a city to look better to outsiders - Yankees and whatnot.
Then there is Mississippi.
Mississippi is the butt of many jokes. It's easy to look down a haughty nose and see the negatives - many of which are portrayed in the episode. But there are also great moments in the show. And in those moments we see a Mississippi with a rich culture anchored by music, food, literature.
Some moments stick with me:
Bourdain and John T. Edge eating pig ear sandwiches and tamales with Geno Lee in his Big Apple Inn in Jackson. Lee said he had no idea what a great place he was operating until Edge pointed it out to him. "I'm not trying to build the tourism industry, I'm just making a living." That's called real.
Cruising through The Delta in Edge's impressive land yacht, he and Bourdain hit Doe's Eat Place in Greenville (The "Jim Crow variation" story of blacks using the front door while whites snuck in the back was a bit humorous), The Senator's Place in Cleveland, and Lusco's in Greenwood. The Delta is a beautiful place and it's been far to long since I've visited. And Edge's car is much better than the one in the Nashville episode.
The Buck Island segment. If you've never had anything cooked in a dutch oven over a campfire, you won't fully appreciate this one. You need to fix that immediately, if not sooner. Great food and an even business model we discussed and demonstrated.
The trip to Oxford included Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner. It also showed some great food and nightlife in the college town. They got a bit uppity in their literary talk in assuming that Oxford is an island of thought. It's like that for an outsider who doesn't understand Southern thought. We'll forgive them.
In all, I think Mississippi looked better than it usually does in mainstream media. It was still beaten on just a bit though and that was frustrating at times. But one thing still shines through, the culture is rich. That idea floats in a New York Magazine headline that Mississippi is somehow "lacking much of an entertainment industry" is a load of manure. Mississippi is lacking a modern New York city type entertainment industry. They've just decided to stick with one more to their liking...after they created yours for you. As the show reminds viewers early on, "the blues, rock and roll, R & B, and soul all came from one place, one state, Mississippi."
So basically, this episode from 2014 made me pretty happy. Like I said, it was important. Mississippi is a great place. And a lot of people need to see the great parts rather than just the rotten.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire