Thursday, March 29, 2007

April Drives

To tempt you on the road for well-deserved Spring Break, here's a trio of road trips that are at their best in April.

I. A Deep South Tour
St. Louis poet T. S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, but if he'd headed south down the Mississippi River, he might have felt
differently. While much of the country is still mired in mud and frost,
April in the Deep South means spring with a vengeance--flowers in
gardens; myrtles and magnolias in bloom; and festivals of food, music,
and culture, tempting you down the highway. Depending upon how much time you can spare, this tour could take a week, a long weekend, or a lifetime. Purists will want to follow the river downstream, covering a 350-mile cruise between Memphis and New Orleans; drivers have their pick of routes, ranging from the multitude of winding country lanes that make up the Great River Road to the near-Interstate speed and pop culture legends of Highway 61.

In April, to the many longstanding attractions of Memphis (Beale Street, the world's best BBQ ribs, Elvis Presley's Graceland, and more), add baseball: From Opening Day on April 5th, the AAA Memphis Redbirds play ball in one of the nicest ballparks in the land, downtown's AutoZone Park. AutoZone Park is also host of Major League Baseball's inaugural Civil Rights Game, a March 31st celebration featuring the World Champion Cardinals.

Heading south from metropolitan Memphis, an hour's drive along US-61 takes you
past the garishly lucrative casinos of Tunica County and through the
cotton-growing heart of the Mississippi Delta: Clarksdale. Birthplace
of Muddy Waters, and sometime home to just about everyone who ever sang
the blues, from Sam Cooke to John Lee Hooker, Clarksdale
is the Delta's crossroads and most significant town, an evocative place
whose old train depot is now home to the world-class Delta Blues
Museum. On the weekend of April 14th, Clarksdale celebrates the Delta's
world-renowned soundtrack with the lively Juke Joint Festival.

At the southern end of the Delta, other sides of Deep South culture are shown off in the "Pilgrimage," the Gone With the Wind-inspired
pageants of Vicksburg and Natchez, queen cities of antebellum
Mississippi. Held every year from late March through the middle of
April, the Pilgrimage is an extended recreation of local life before
the Civil War--think gracious mansions, bountiful gardens, full-length
gowns, and ballroom galas; add a few hundred fellow tourists and you
have the Pilgrimage. Now a pleasant small town, Natchez,
was once one of the liveliest and wealthiest cities in the US, and now
boasts one of the country's most intact and extensive collections of
landmark architecture. History buffs are in for other treats: Vicksburg
was the site of a key Civil War siege, and the best route between
Vicksburg and Natchez follows the colonial-era Natchez Trace, a linear
national park through primeval forests passing prehistoric burial
mounds and numerous other multicultural relics.

Rolling on south along the river, US-61 eases from Rhett and Scarlett into the
watery world of the Louisiana bayous, where near the state line, the
culture takes on a distinctively Cajun accent. St. Francisville
is home to a piquant distillation of bayou country: garlands of Spanish
moss hanging from mighty oak trees and roads lined by gracious mansions
and tumbledown shacks. You'll find a friendly welcome and wonderful
food (great po' boys!) at the Magnolia Café, housed in an old motor
court and filling station just off old US-61.

If you want a more complete taste of the rich Cajun culture of Louisiana, take a ferry across the Mississippi from St. Francisville toward
Lafayette, where the massive, free, and fun International Festival de
Louisiane takes place the last week of April, showcasing everything from
Cajun music and folklore to crawfish eating. From here it's 100 miles
to New Orleans where you can "Let the Good Times Roll" once again at the New Orleans JazzFest, which kicks off a two-week celebration of the world’s best local and world music on April 27th.

II. Patriot's Day + Boston Marathon
In Massachusetts, share in the bravery of early Americans on Patriot's Day, a state holiday celebrated this year on Monday, April 16th. Hardy
souls re-enact the dawn battles between the British Redcoats and the
colonial-era Minutemen militias at Lexington and Concord, but you can
relive the experience in the comfort of your car by following the
"Battle Road," a monument-lined section of Route 2A. Also on Patriot's
Day, thousands of world-class athletes run the 26 miles from suburban
Hopkinton to Copley Square in the Boston Marathon.

III. Way Out West
Before the weather gets too warm, April is a nice time to follow old Route 66 across Arizona and New Mexico. Visit the beautiful and historic villages of the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, or join in the massive Gathering of Nations Pow-Wow, held in Albuquerque over the last weekend in April.


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