For residents of St. John's, Chicago is easily reachable with Porter Airlines. After four hassle-free flights, you'll arrive in the Windy City feeling, well, winded. But despite being 4000 kilometres from home, you'll be dumfounded at how remarkably familiar your new surroundings will feel.
To find Chicago's best deep dish, I followed the advice of a renowned local whose wisdom I've gleaned at many junctures in my life. Unfortunately, I ended up having to settle for thin crust due to time constraints. So I'll never know if Oprah was right. But running down the tarmac at 7:59pm, I knew it was for the best that I hadn't gorged on deep dish twenty minutes prior.
I wanted to know what sleeping in a roomette on the night train to Memphis would be like. I still don't know, but I do know there's great coffee in the diner car, and delightful staff. Like the announcement playfully warning there would be “no fightin’, no fussin,’ no cussin,’”onboard, the attendants' sweet banter and uproarious laughter helped set the clock to New Orleans time. Already, you could see the magnolias swaying.
It wasn't long before the sun rose to reveal a bucolic scene. It was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. Actually, it was Kentucky we'd crossed through, not Kansas. Anyway.
Like that of virtually any city, the pace of Memphis was less hectic than rush hour in the Loop. The urban landscape appeared stunted after Chicago's soaring towers. The downtown district bore the bruises you'd expect of the longtime capital of the embattled mid-south. Memphis doesn't just sound like the Blues, it looks like it too.
As any local will tell you, there's more to Memphis than blues and dry rub ribs. And since that was literally ALL we experienced on day one, we made a point to visit the National Civil Rights Museum on day two.
From shackled ankles on slave boats in 1619, to the shattered Atlanta storefronts of the 1960s, the story of Black America's struggle is woven in unflinching detail. After exhibits on cotton and tobacco, on Thurgood Marshall and Ruby Bridges, on the Little Rock Nine and the Freedom Riders, guests are led to Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel — the very spot Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. The tour ends here — a chilling reminder that, though the visit is over, the story is not.
What troubled me the most learning about the Movement was seeing how, in the 400 years since the first slaves arrived, society had, in one way or another, always remained segregated. Slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, the Sit-ins and the Montgomery Bus Boycott are just some of the ways this segregation was challenged. And whippings, lynchings, voter suppression and white flight are just some of the forms of resistance they've each met.
But the question guests are left asking themselves, When did it all stop? The museum succeeds in chronicling each and every part of the struggle for Civil Rights, except for one: the end.
Since visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, I've become hyperaware of the many insidious forms White resistance can take. I've also considered how dangerous it is to assume segregation ended when the Colored signs came down.
I hadn't considered before how suburbanization and its resulting inner-city depravity helped usher in a new era in the Movement. After WWII, white families against integration — and there were a lot of them — could simply take their children to another school. White flight helped turn the inner-city monochromatic. I wondered if this was partly the reason White America's ferocious backlash against integration seemed to have quieted down in the post-war years. In a way, suburbanization was just as much a form of protest as holding a White Power picket sign.
Modern-day segregation was heavy on my mind during my uber ride to 406 Lucy Avenue the next day. The house is located two blocks from the EEH Crump/S 4th St district, which, I later learned, happens to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in America. The crumbling houses and eroded pavement reminded me of those museum photos from the 60s. I wondered how popular opinion on the state of Black America might shift if people dared to venture into these parts of town more often. If one were to liken today's American cities to the busses of Montgomery, Alabama in the 60s, then the ghettos are the back seats.
Myriad are the reminders of how Memphis' location in the guts of the bible belt has long made it the nerve centre of racial and religious intolerance in the South. But driving down Lucy Avenue, I was reminded that, for the millions of voices muted by the relentless forces of oppression, there were a few that soared so high Jim Crow himself couldn't contain them. Just like the weeds that sprout from the cracks in the sidewalks, I thought, some growth simply cannot be stunted.
Between learning about the struggle of Black America at the Civil Rights Museum and Memphis' many homegrown musicians, radio stations and record labels at the Rock & Soul Museum, our three days didn't leave much time to learn about the history of Memphis.
Just kidding. That is the history of Memphis.
Walk one block in the Garden District, and it's not hard to see why New Orleans is the most written about of all American cities. The regal Creole mansions, flickering gas lanterns and rattling St. Charles streetcar create an atmosphere that is equal parts seductive and spooky. It's no wonder both Tennessee Williams and Anne Rice used it as the setting for many of their works. New Orleans is as sexy as it is sinister.
When preparing for the trip, someone asked me why I was so dead-set on going back to New Orleans. It was a difficult question to answer. What makes a particular destination more alluring than the next? What makes one city memorable, and the other forgettable? I'm not sure I'll ever know. But when I think of the places that have had the most enduring effect on me — Quebec City, Prague, New Orleans — I realize it has a lot to do with how great your chances are of finding something like it nearby.
New Orleans is a tantalizing symphony of French, Spanish, Caribbean and American culture not found anywhere else in the world. That the world's very first cocktail — the Sazerac — was mixed here, is of little wonder. Combining unlikely flavours is what New Orleans does. It was this innovation that birthed jazz — a meeting of African and Caribbean music — as well as the cuisine, language and architecture that define the Big Easy.
But New Orleans' distinguishing characteristic may be that its history, is just that. The French and Spanish left their names, their recipes, their style. But their voices have been long silenced. The wrought-iron balconies remain in tact, the lampposts and pillars stand erect, and St. Louis Cathedral still keeps a watchful eye over Jackson Square. But these are no more American than Borsch soup. They're relics of a glorious city of yore left behind by the ghosts that haunt its streets. And they'd probably be pretty happy to see what we've done with the place.
For visitors to New Orleans, Montreal is easily reachable via a two-hour American Airlines flight to Charlotte, North Carolina followed by a quick seven-hour stopover and another two-hour flight to New York where you'll immediately board a shuttle bus to the C concourse to board a final flight to Montreal. Upon arriving, you'll be dumfounded at how remarkably familiar your new surroundings will feel.