midwest usa

a road trip through the heart and soul

The Midwestern USA is heavy with history. The music, the remnants of the plantations, the museums: it all seems to breathe a history of racial inequality. Some of that is gone now, fortunately. The museums erected on the sites of old plantations are a gravestone to the out-in-the-open racism of the times of slavery.

But when you travel through the vast area, it’s clear that not all misfortune has left this place. Growing up in the rural Midwest, you still don’t have the same chances as you would if you’d been raised in, say California.

If hardship and strife are the fertilizer for music, it seems no surprise that so much of the music we listen to today has its roots in places like Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis.

Our journey began amidst the skyscrapers of Chicago, but our sights were set further south, towards the soulful rhythms of Memphis.

After a quick pit in the breathtaking beauty of Garden of the Gods, we found ourselves in Memphis, where the spirit of Elvis Presley beckoned us to Graceland. And venturing into the legendary Sun Studios, where the echoes of rock ‘n’ roll history lingered in the air. 

To understand this part of the United States more, we decided to visit the Museum of Civil Rights, housed inside the Lorraine Motel. The site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated in 1968. We were moved by the resilience and determination of those who fought for freedom and equality. It may be a place of tragedy, but it is also a place of reflection, remembrance and hope for a better future.

Continuing our journey southward along the iconic Blues Highway, we made stops at Clarksdale and the solemn grounds of Vicksburg National Military Park, before delving into the rich history of Francisville and its surrounding plantation homes. As we explored the grandeur of these estates, the stark contrast between the lavish lifestyle of the white plantation owners and the harsh realities endured by enslaved African Americans sent chills down our spines.

Arriving in the lively streets of New Orleans, we were engulfed in a whirlwind of jazz melodies, the aroma of Cajun cuisine, and the mystique of its storied past. As we wandered through the French Quarter we couldn’t help but feel transported to another continent. Is this the States too?

During my travels, I make it a habit to carry a book that resonates with the places we’re journeying through. On this trip, I chose Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun,” set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. It was a surreal experience to immerse myself in the story while simultaneously traversing the same streets as its characters, adding an extra layer of depth to my exploration of this unique city.

Before journeying back up north, we paid a visit to the sun-kissed shores of the Redneck Riviera allowing the memories of our adventures so far to settle. When it was time to hit the road to Chicago again, we ventured into the industrial allure of Birmingham, where the echoes of its past reverberated through brick facades and historic landmarks like Sloss Furnaces. We also took a delicous detour to Pepper’s Place, where we explored the vibrant Farmer’s Market, where the best Alabama growers and artisans from come together.

Nashville welcomed us with open arms, its musical heritage palpable in every note that filled the air. From the iconic Grand Ole Opry to the charm of vintage stores, the city captivated us with its vibrant energy and we seized the opportunity to explore the Tennessee State Fair, soaking in the atmosphere of local traditions and festivities.

Before bidding farewell to our Midwest odyssey, we explored Louisville, Kentucky and took in the grandeur of the Kentucky Derby stadium. Opting for a scenic route back to Chicago, we avoided the highways in favor of smaller roads, allowing us to experience the rhythm of farming life. Then, we returned full circle to where we took off.

Reflecting on our road trip over some slices of Chicago-style pizza in Wicker Park, we couldn’t help but contemplate the Midwest’s complex history. Our journey through the heartland had been an unforgettable odyssey, weaving together the threads of history, music, and the indomitable spirit of the human experience.

September 2014