Leaving New Orleans, my friend Owen scans the FM dial for some road music. He stops on the final bars of a Scott Joplin tune. "What makes ragtime unique to this region," the DJ chimes in, "is its blending of cultures: European and African. On top of that add a heavy dose of John Philip Sousa." So begins our parade along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, a stretch of country where the echoes of history never bothered to fade.
After we've gone 20 minutes on Highway 90, the urban sprawl dissipates. We're on a small finger of land, water on both sides. The warm air smells of pine forest and ocean. Hand-painted signs announce live shrimp.
Our first stop in Mississippi is Bay St. Louis, a small town known for its antiques shops. Along Main Street, Victorian houses take shade beneath enormous oaks. Trapani's Eatery, an upscale diner whose walls are covered with the colorful likenesses of fish and fishermen, is just a few steps from the shore. We eat gumbo and catfish po'boys. The beach sand here is soft and buttermilk white, the water a few degrees below bath temperature.
Were it not for its name, the Summerland Magickal Shoppe might have slipped past us in the quaint pastiche of shops on Main Street. We enter hoping to interrupt a Black Mass, but are greeted by a sign that reads, rituals should be done with positive purpose only. I wonder what positive purpose Hot Foot Powder serves. Next, we drop by folk artist Alice Moseley's house on Bookter Street. Alice, 88, started painting at age 60. Her favorite piece is Until Today I Thought I Was Folks. It's dedicated to the memory of her bird dog, Joe, who discovers when he dies that he's off to "pet heaven," instead of "folks heaven."
In the next town east, Pass Christian, gorgeous antebellum mansions line the water, on Scenic Drive. They're a dazzling remnant of what the whole coast must have looked like before Hurricane Camille punished the area in 1969.
In Long Beach, we stop at the University of Southern Mississippi, home of a most remarkable tree. It seems impossible that the 150-foot-long boughs of the Friendship Oak, more than 500 years old, could have withstood Camille's fury. Local lore has it that those who step into the tree's shadow remain friends for life.
Our friendship secured, Owen and I continue to Biloxi. Beauvoir, the last residence of the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis, is now a museum in his honor. Davis wrote his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in a cottage on the grounds. Just outside Beauvoir's somber walls, a half-dozen eyesore casinos rise from the waterfront. We speed past them to Biloxi's Mardi Gras Museum, a five-room house filled with lavish carnival costumes. "Our Mardi Gras isn't nearly as sleazy as the one in New Orleans," the receptionist assures us. "It's more of a society event."
Built around 1826, the Green Oaks Bed & Breakfast is the oldest surviving house on the Mississippi coast. Our jaws drop in tandem at the sight of the nine-foot-tall full-tester beds of hand-carved mahogany. It's four o'clock and we're just in time for tea. Beneath a canopy of oaks we drink Chardonnay and eat puff pastry with mushroom stuffing while gazing out at the full-sailed schooners passing by. The appetizers say to stay for chef Jim Bremer's seven-course dinner, featuring lump blue crab, poached oysters, speckled trout fillet, roast leg of lamb. A high point of the trip.
The next morning we're all set to take the daily boat out to Ship Island, but the weather isn't cooperating. Heavy rain and rough seas. Our Green Oaks hostess Jennifer Diaz arranges a tour of the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation. Dusti, who died in 1993, was Mississippi's first Modernist painter. In her studio, hundreds of paintings piled in stacks make you feel that you've stumbled upon an overlooked archaeological site.
We push on to Ocean Springs, where it seems as if every house has a porch equipped with a rocking chair. At one intersection I actually have to slow the car so a turtle can finish crossing the road. First stop: the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Andy Warhol collected Anderson's colorful paintings and ceramics, stylized depictions of the wildlife of the Gulf Coast. The museum's displays include a mural-covered room transplanted from Anderson's house. After focaccia sandwiches at the Bayview Gourmet, we visit Shearwater Pottery, founded by Walter Anderson's brother Peter in 1928. The shop sells the family's gorgeous handmade prints, plates, and vases. At nearby Gulf Islands National Seashore, where Anderson found inspiration, we follow a boardwalk out into a swamp and spy alligators napping on the muddy banks.