A FEW MILES FARTHER SOUTH, PAST THE LAST OF THE BILLBOARDS beckoning all of humanity to Tunica, the Delta flatscape becomes visible for the first time. It is a place where nothing seems ever to have been new. Elsewhere, the Technicolor farms of fantasy—the New England of the bed-and-breakfast circuit, the Pennsylvania of the Amish buggies, the manufactured quaintness of the shabby-chic farm stands of eastern Long Island—all of it has been fetishized to postcard images and glossy brochures. Not here. I failed to find a single postcard of a Delta scene anywhere. Perhaps there's a conscious effort to avoid sentimentality—or maybe it's just the landscape. Rail yards and Indian mounds and trees blasted by the weather; flooded fields and iron bridges; cemeteries shrouded in Spanish moss, filled with headstones of poured concrete, sunken and tipped. The grave markers are lettered with the end of a twig, just names: Taft Cloud, Charlie Cheese, Jagger Post, Pricelea Noble, Alvin Sweetwyne. But the names— say them aloud—feel like whole sentences, sketches of people with stories to tell. The lopsided barns along Highway 61 look abandoned though they are not. At their padlocked entrances stand lone and hopeful dogs. Angry religious messages glower from hand-printed signs. Old-time gas pumps, their guts exposed, take on almost human shapes.
The Delta is what the entire Deep South might have been 50 years ago, or 100: the vast, flat distance that separates one place from another, and the mobile-home parks and field-worker tenements in between. Tired cotton fields, general stores. The cars here are as decayed as the graves and the barns. The result is a kind of jerry-built homage to the automobile. Old Buicks are checkerboarded with unpainted doors from even older cars of various models.
Along the river, in plantation territory, Sid Law awaits my arrival at the general store in Chatham, south of Tunica, in sight of the levee. Law wears camouflage and a waxed handlebar mustache and stands six foot four. A third-generation plantation owner, he carries two guns, one big and in the open and one small and pocketed, and he is not the only one to do so, which he makes clear inside of a minute. Law's elderly mother still lives in the family's antebellum mansion. He and his wife have moved into the sort of single-level ranch that could be found in Iowa or Maine, the family's grandiosity replaced by a proud and stubborn middleness. Law leads me to the tractor port. On either side of us are the New Hope and Everhope plantations. They are still working farms, though at a shabbier level that belies their names. "To live in the Delta you have to be unusual," he says. "You have to learn to be the master of all you see." He heaves bricks up in the air and shoots them into pieces. Then he starts flipping quarters, and blows them out of the sky. He breathes hard, his shoulders covered in red brick dust.
History plays a distorted, fun-house function in the Delta. While Mississippi's modern towns seem born into decay, slave-era mansions in Natchez—some nearly 200 years old—are frozen in their pre—Civil War lavishness. Elderly white women in hoopskirts take tour groups around the gargantuan houses, praising the furniture and the carpeting, telling tales of the bravery of the ladies of the house during the Union Army's bombardment. Downriver, pre-casino Vicksburg was known for the sprawling military cemetery and national park commemorating the Civil War, all of it spread on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Countless rows of numbered headstones follow the undulating contours of the land.
Vicksburg almost perished in a 47-day siege by General Grant's army, and some of the older residents stoke the city's 140-year-old grudge against Natchez, which, to save its homes and its women, couldn't surrender fast enough. (Two-thirds of America's millionaires in the mid 1800's lived in Natchez's fortresses along the Mississippi, and all of them were cotton sheikhs.) Today's Vicksburg and Natchez are struggling, windblown, and quiet. Their largest industry, after the casinos, is not cotton but nostalgia. "They're living in the past," says Ron Nassar, 54, who works for the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife. "My generation isn't nearly as enamored of history; you don't see this obsession with the past at all. And you don't see it in the Delta's smaller towns," he adds, where the business of daily life makes reflection a luxury.