As the drive through rural Mississippi brought us closer to the Shack Up Inn, my stomach was clenched. We’d spent a few days dancing to jazz, eating crawfish, and running around the high-energy, colorful city of New Orleans. Soon, we’d be wandering into cafes and restaurants that were constantly mid-set up for surprisingly talented musicians trying to make it in Nashville. But for hours, we’d seen nothing but fields and signs of extreme poverty and I was secretly thinking we’d made a huge mistake breaking up our recent road trip from New Orleans to Nashville with a stop at a place that’s tagline read, “The Ritz We Ain’t.”
But as we pulled into the cluster of rag-tag buildings in the middle of stretching fields, I didn’t only relax, I grinned. It looked like a hipster’s Instagram paradise, and as a California Bay Area native, hipster is familiar. I pointed excitedly to a rusted metal rooster in front of a cabin. “That’s ours!” I didn’t know for absolute sure, but the “shack” we’d booked was called, “The Chicken Coop,” so it was a fairly safe assumption.
The fellas behind the check-in counter in the main building met us with warm Southern hospitality, offering us acoustic guitars to borrow, if we so pleased. We’d unfortunately missed the nights with live music, but the lobby had the look of both an bustling alleyway and a shrine to rock and roll all jumbled together. I poked through a stand of harmonicas for sale, imagining my musical talent waking from its long dormant slumber to surprise us all.
Thankfully, for everyone at the Shack Up Inn, I skipped the harmonica purchase.
Guitar in hand, we drove past old grain silos converted into rooms, up the gravel to our Chicken Coop. It was like staying at someone’s home, with a patchwork quilt on the bed, a clawfoot tub/shower I was baffled by, and mismatched cups in the cupboard. Outside, I spied fire pits between the “shacks”. I noticed the quiet. The kind of quiet you’d never find in a city. Quiet. Like hearing nothing but the wind brush through fields.
We spent a good half hour giggling as we pointed at quirky odds and ends around the place. We contemplated grabbing groceries and cooking dinner ourselves, but decided to check out Clarksdale, the closest town and the home of the crossroads where blues guitarist Robert Johnson infamously traded his soul to the devil for the gift of music.
That…may have been a mistake. Clarksdale had about one diner surrounded by closed-up shops and theaters. The famous crossroads I’d been jumping to see was sad and disappointing at a run-down intersection. It seemed like a half-ghost town trying to hold on.
But back in the Chicken Coop, my boyfriend grabbed the acoustic guitar and I grabbed the patchwork quilt, and we sat on the screened-in back porch. In the distance, someone was cooking over one of the fire pits, but it felt like it was just us and the chirping crickets. Strumming Beatles songs, we sung happily, voices carrying into fields lit by a bright moon. We whispered that maybe we could stay here a few days, cancel part of the next leg of the trip, give up Nashville and our plans for a few more nights with fresh air and music and solitude.
In the light of day, we decided it was best to keep moving on. I went into the lobby to check out and walked right into a guitar camp in the middle of a lesson. A bunch of folks who’d somehow made it to this place in the middle of blank highway and train tracks to worship in a little, rural chapel of music.
People mostly ask me about the cities we hit on our Southern road trip. New Orleans with its beignets and brassy trumpets and street art. Nashville with its buttery biscuits and dreams of music stardom and old-timey live radio shows.
But at the Shack Up Inn, despite its funky leanings, I got a taste for why Southerners sing so often about the “simple life.” The slowing down, the getting outdoors. The picking up an old guitar on a porch swing and letting go.
Brandilyn Gilbert is a middle grade and young adult writer who spends her days advising college students who are as lost as her characters. Her blog, brandilyngilbert.com, is a port for story-sharing, interviews with creative people and nerdy adventures.