Goodness gracious! We visit Ferriday, Louisiana, hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis. We see as much of Bayou State as possible, while still dodging a hurricane. We also come as close as we (hopefully) ever will to losing Annie into a swamp.
Tuesday, July 9th, 2019
Lake Providence, Louisiana
Ferriday day today, hooray!
I passed a town named Waterproof on the way. I’m always noting places like this in case I make my own version of the song.
Triesch in Lake Providence told me that they once ran the headline, “Waterproof Man Drowns,” but I’m not sure if that was real or not. 🙂
In my initial mapping of song places, I had chosen Faraday, Ontario, since I had naturally chosen a spelling which was the same as the notable physicist. I changed this selection sometime around the beginning of Chapter 2. Ferriday, Louisiana is absolutely the most notable place by this name in the Western Hemisphere.
I had done just some cursory research before arriving in Ferriday. One source claimed that Ferriday had the most famous people per square mile than anywhere in the US. I’m still unsure whether my arrival helped or hurt this statistic.
I drove around the whole town, especially the edges, looking for a town sign that I had seen online. It listed many of the famous Ferridayans (?) and looked really nice. I found the frame that used to hold it, but no sign.
This’ll have to do.
Ferriday numbers about 3,500 people, so there is no visitor center or anything like that. Accordingly, I just decided to drop by city hall. The people there were really nice, but I could tell that they don’t have someone ask them about iconic Ferriday experiences every day. They did tell me that I might be able to meet the mayor if I came by the next day.
Out where I parked, Annie had attracted some attention from my new friends Samantha and Jessie.
They were really enthusiastic about my trip and were full of great information. Jessie tried to be fully involved in the conversation while also listening for the phone in the insurance office where she works. 🙂 These were the first Ferriday strangers to become friends, but they would not be the last.
Next up was the Jerry Lee Lewis museum, singer of iconic songs like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Born in Ferriday in 1935, Lewis is one of the godfathers of rock and roll. His wild, piano-punishing performances are the stuff of legend.
(The most impressive part of this performance is how he manages to not knock over his mic stand.)
At this point, I was still a little confused about how I was getting in to the museum. I had been told to begin at the drive thru liquor store next door. We don’t have these at home, so it was interesting to see how these operated. You just pull right in and the attendant grabs what you need.
First up, I met Mamie who was working behind the counter. When I asked her about the museum, she walked me into the office where her sister, Marion, was working. There, I learned that these two nice ladies were nieces of Jerry Lee Lewis. Their mother Frankie Lewis Terrell, had turned her childhood home into a memorabilia museum for “Uncle Jerry.”
Marion was chin high in tax forms and I think my arrival was a welcome break. I’m still not sure whether it was a requirement or a special bonus, but she started my tour by pouring me a generous shot of vodka, toasting me with one she poured for herself. Skål!… I guess. It’s five o clock in Sweden. 🙂
She walked me into the house next door, turned on the music, then pretty much just set me loose. Those first few moments were kind of overwhelming. There was just so much stuff.
It wasn’t like a typical museum, in that there weren’t many informational plaques or storytelling, but amount of memorabilia was staggering. Perhaps for someone like Jerry Lee Lewis, who has lived such a frenetic life, this is a fitting tribute.
Each room was filled. Each wall was covered. Precious memories were even beginning to spill onto the ceiling.
For his aggressive style, Lewis was known as “The Killer.” The keys of his piano would probably agree with this moniker.
You can’t say that you’ve been Everywhere until you see The Killer’s autographed training potty.
Mamie, came in as I was perusing and I had a really nice chat with her. She got a little emotional as she told me some family stories. For all of the success of this family, there has also been an equal measure of tragedy. Jerry Lee had both a brother and son die at very young ages and has also lost multiple wives.
For the nieces, I could tell what a labor of love it was for them to maintain the operation of this special piece of family history.
It was time for some signatures so I rolled Annie into the shade of their drive thru.
Before I knew what was happening, Marion and Mamie had transformed into radical rock stars, inscribing their names to several non-approved surfaces. I suppose I should expect nothing less from the nieces of the man who liked to set his piano on fire. 🙂
I also asked if they would accept the responsibility of crossing Ferriday from my sign. This was accomplished with similar gusto.
The more we talked, the more they seemed excited about my journey. I went to leave a couple of times and they called me back, first to fill my water bottles, second to give me a free CD of Uncle Jerry’s. How fun it was to connect with these ladies!
The sign out front was a little faded, but I still thought it would serve as a good backdrop for a Ferriday image. This was a special experience, one that could only be possible in Ferriday.
I’d used up a good chunk of daylight, so I decided to find a camping spot a little earlier than normal. I rode west of town to a little riverside park with a boat ramp and some free camping spots. There are lots of places like this in Louisiana. I suppose the logic is that if you are tough enough to sleep in a tent in July, they will let you!
Wednesday, July 10th
I made my way back into Ferriday to check off one attraction I had missed: The Delta Music Museum, which had been closed the previous day. It is housed in the old post office, a neat building.
The museum broadens its focus from the Ferriday area and features musicians from the whole Delta region. That said, Ferriday still accounts for a good number of them.
If you say “the cousins” to someone from Ferriday, they will naturally think of the three people in the picture above. I’ve already written about Jerry Lee Lewis (at the piano). The other two are Mickey Gilley (left) and Jimmy Swaggart (center). They are first cousins, all from Ferriday, all born within a six month span, all talented self-taught piano players.
Gilley went more of the country music direction, scoring 17 number one hits. He also opened a successful honky tonk bar in Pasadena, Texas and now a theater in Branson, Missouri.
Swaggart started from poor beginnings, preaching the gospel across rural Louisiana. He went on to become a successful televangelist. He had a prolific recording career, totaling over 50 gospel albums. In the 80s and 90s, he had a number of scandals and was ultimately defrocked (not nearly as fun as it sounds) by the Assemblies of God church.
The lady who checked me in was helpful in so many different ways. She gave me a couple of souvenirs, a Delta Music Museum jar opener and a helpful list showing all seven wives of Jerry Lee Lewis. 🙂
It was definitely worth sticking around an extra day to see this museum.
I saw a couple more sites before deciding to roll out of town. I left with a really positive impression of Ferriday. I had numerous “I just want to shake your hand and tell you good luck,” interactions with the locals. I’m glad Ferriday found its way into my song.
Map for the coming days:
I was feeling a little “fuzzy,” for lack of a better term, this day. My focus was just off a bit. I took the wrong road out of Ferriday and ended up in Natchez, Mississippi. I dumped Annie over while making a U-turn in a hotel parking lot. I don’t think anyone saw, so it is OK. 🙂
Finally back on the correct road, I was now passing through Louisiana plantation country.
I saw my first sugar cane since Brazil.
Around 2pm, I stopped near Baton Rouge and was tasked with a tough decision. My plan was to continue to Baton Rouge and then on to New Orleans. “Louisiana,” the state is one of the places mentioned in the song. Visiting these two noteworthy cities seemed like a requirement.
However, Hurricane Barry was brewing in the gulf, threatening to hit New Orleans in less than two days. There was already flooding in NO due to all of the rain up-river, so I feared that I could end up stuck if I ventured on. Sadly, the timing just wasn’t right. I said goodbye to the Mississippi River and headed west.
Another sad part of this is that I was unable to visit Baton Rouge, home of the tallest state capitol in the US. Picture from my last visit in 2015:
(Quick side note: This is my missing Chiefs sweatshirt that may still be at the Hospedaje Centenario in Abancay, Peru… in case anyone is in the area.)
Nebraska has the second tallest capitol building, which was completed around the same time. I suppose the thinking was that Louisiana’s would eventually sink enough to put Nebraska in the top spot. Accordingly, Nebraskans are obligated to place a few stones on the Louisiana capitol at each visit to hasten the process. I’ll have to place double the standard amount the next time I’m here.
Best I could do this trip:
Though I was pretty bummed about Barry’s arrival (July hurricanes are very rare), he essentially solved a conundrum for me. I knew my picture to represent Louisiana should either be something in New Orleans or something swamp related. My goal for the rest of the day was to find a good swamp picture and get as far west as possible.
I rode through the Atchafalaya Wildlife refuge and saw some nice sights, but there were not enough cypress trees.
I returned to I-10 and kept heading west. This road is so impressive to me. It is built right on the top of a marshy swamp and goes for dozens of miles up on stilts before it is back on solid ground. A road through the Darien Gap (to connect Panama to Colombia) is often talked about as if it is an impossibility. I think we just need to have some of these Cajun engineers geaux down there for a few months and they would get it built!
There was a visitor’s center for the Atchafalaya Basin, which was a gold mine of information. I told the lady at the desk about what I was looking for and she acted like she had people asking about how to get a swamp-themed motorcycle picture every day. She was great!
At her instruction, I navigated down to Lake Martin. I knew immediately that I was in the right place.
The bald cypress trees! The Spanish moss! The random green things floating in the water! This is Louisiana!
I found a little boardwalk out over the swamp on the south end. The cypress trees there were so beautiful, with lots of exposed “knees.” I went back and forth about whether I should try to push Annie out there. There was no space to turn around so I would have to back her the whole way. Moving around 650-ish pounds this way is always tricky and I’d already dropped her once this day, but I needed the picture. No one was around, so I jumped on it.
Obviously, the video is sped up. It took about five minutes to get her in position. I had a couple of little bobbles, but I went slow and steady. In hindsight, I maybe shouldn’t have tried it, but can you argue with the results?
Getting her off of the boardwalk probably took less than a minute. Going forward is a lot easier since you can push with both hands on the handlebars.
There was a place for some boat tours and I overheard a family that had come from New Orleans that morning. They had had to wade out of their hotel in knee-high water that morning. I made the right decision.
I explored the other end of the lake, even squeezing Annie onto a walking path.
There’s actually an alligator in the left side of the frame above.
The area seemed secluded enough and I thought about putting up my tent here. A couple of local guys came by and changed my mind. They said that it is nesting season for the gators. They are normally no risk to humans, but they can be unpredictable at these times. They also told me that there are lots of poisonous snakes around. I decided to pass on my swamp-side property.
They recommended an area about twenty minutes away. I could tell a storm was coming so I rode as quickly as I (safely) could. Unfortunately, the area was a bust and I did not beat the rain. I ended up just throwing my tent up in a terrible spot, hardly hidden at all. Picture from the next morning.
I had a terrible night of sleep. This just happened to be one of the most dense mosquito areas I have been in, probably since northern British Columbia. No matter how carefully I exited the maroon cocoon, dozens got in each time. I spent so much time just hunting them down this night. Most of the time, I was too late.
The dense, humid air didn’t help matters either and what meager sleep I got came in short little spurts.
But you know what….I got my Louisiana picture this day. That will be the enduring memory. 🙂
Thursday, July 11th
I hopped back on I-10 and continued west to the Texas border, only stopping for some coffee and some gas station fried okra.
I definitely wanted to do and see more in Louisiana, but the storm really left me no choice. Though I visited a good number of places in the state, I left with an incomplete feeling. Like MacArthur said, “I shall return, but definitely not in July next time.” …or something like that.
14 to go!
Keep shakin’, everybody
Realtime update: We are in Santa Fe! I haven’t done anything here yet as I wanted to make finishing this post the top priority. I’ll probably be here for two or three nights, then head north to our family reunion in Colorado. Stories of song places Houston and Amarillo are pending, along with some very special time in San Antonio. With each place, each mile, I’m getting more excited. Does anyone else feel it? We are so close!