Camping With The Bluesmobile
(or how to be a frugal Delta bum like me)

Camping with the BluesmobileThat's me and the Bluesmobile camped out somewhere in the Delta. I ain't saying where because sometimes I don't like company.

The Bluesmobile has been the Bluesmobile every since the day bluesman John "Bud" Horton crawled in on the passenger side and said, "Man, this thang is bluesy."

It's a 1983 Chrysler 5th Avenue. I paid $400 for it in 1992. It had about 140,000 miles on it then. The previous owner's jealous husband worked over the outside with a baseball bat and dulled his pocket knife on the Landau roof, the inside door panels, the padded dash, and the headliner. Up close, it looks like hell. To tell the truth, it doesn't look so hot from far away. For one thing, the rear springs sag badly, so the Bluesmobile always looks like it's about to jump a ditch. And, yes, the left front hubcap is missing. So are both hubcaps on the other side.

The odometer now reads exactly 328,596 miles. Other than routine maintenance such as hoses, belts, and tires, I've only replaced the ball joints, the water pump, and the alternator. And the air conditioner compressor went out, and I can't afford to have it fixed. That's all. To say that I've gotten my money's worth out of the Bluesmobile would be a vast understatement. Some of the cars they build in America are built right.

Me at camp
Here's me drinking coffee early on the cool morning of May 17, 1998. Notice the hammock strung between two trees. That's where I do my worrying.
In the five+ years I've been tent-camping around the Delta, I've met lots of folks who should have stayed at home. One morning during my May, 1998, trip as I was sipping my second cup of coffee, I observed a young man from California emerge from his nearby tent. He wore tan sandals, tan short pants, and a tan short sleeve shirt, all of which probably cost more than the Bluesmobile. Leaving his tent's fly open, he stumbled to a picnic table, and there he sat. In just a few seconds, he started swatting mosquitoes.

"Hey, buddy!" I yelled over to him. "You better zip-up your tent or it'll fill with mosquitoes. You wanna borrow some mosquito repellant?"

He mumbled something in the negative and left his tent's fly open and kept swatting.

Tha hell with him, I thought, and, mosquito-free, I sipped my coffee in peace.

My point is this: If you don't like the oily feel or the smell of mosquito repellant, don't try to tent camp in the Delta. Buy yourself a big fancy camping trailer or rent yourself a motel room or keep your ass at home.

For those who would like to tent camp in the Delta, here's some pointers based on knowledge gained at the Delta Camping School of Hard Knocks:

Camping needs
Ain't the Bluesmobile a fine-lookin' machine?
Take a close look at the items lined up across the Bluesmobile's trunk. Below, you'll find a detailed description of each item and why I use that item.

With only one exception, I purchased every item you see at Walmart.

Total cost: less than $100.

Throw in $50 for a tent and a few other odds and ends, and we're talking about around $150 to go Delta-Blues-Bum-Tent-Camping.

On the left side of the Bluesmobile's trunk, you see a camping air mattress and a hand-operated pump. A good air mattress is as comfortable as any bed in any motel. Don't try to rough it and sleep in a sleeping bag without an air mattress beneath it, not even with an inch thick foam pad beneath it. Don't buy a $5 swimming pool-float air mattress. About the time you go to sleep it will spring a leak, and I can guarantee you that there will be a stone on the cold hard ground directly beneath your butt.

The air mattress shown, a Sports Afield brand, cost about $15. It almost fits in that box on top of it. After years of camping, it has never sprung a leak.

Save your air for singin' tha blues and spend $5 or $10 for a hand operated air pump.

Let's start with the ice chest shown below. It's a Styrofoam 48 quart. It's heavy duty. The walls are 1 1/4 inches thick. I've used it for five+ years, and it just started oozing a little water. Get one or get one like it. The hell with those fancy, pretty, plastic ice chests.

Ice Chest, etc. All you want an ice chest to do is keep stuff cold. 1 1/4 inches of Styrofoam keeps stuff cold. Place it out of the sun, put 1 bag of ice in it a day, and your stuff stays cold.

At the left front of the ice chest you see a can of flying insect spray and a can of mosquito repellant. You already know why you need the repellant, but you need the flying insect spray for the mosquitoes that, somehow, get inside your tent.

The little silver-looking items at the right front of the ice chest are two stainless steel knife/fork/spoon sets attached to key chain-like metal rings. Very handy. I bought these for $1.75 each at the Cycle Path store in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On the top left of the ice chest, you see three Rubbermaid "Servin' Saver" bowls. The bottom one perfectly holds a pound of bacon and several packages of bologna and sliced cheese. The other two hold whatever, leftover chittlins or something. The bowls don't leak so you can just throw ‘em in the ice chest. I use the middle one to pack kitchen utensils and salt and pepper, etc. You'll find a little package of Grey Poupon in there, of course.

That's my coffeepot on the top right of the ice chest. Notice the wide base. If for some reason I inexplicably ran out of fuel for my propane stove, I could build a fire and stick that pot in the edge of the coals.

It might not bother you to carry a gallon of gasoline in a thin-walled metal container around in the trunk of your car, but it sure does me. That's one reason I use a propane stove and lantern. Propane bottles are thick-walled. The other reason is that the pumping mechanism on those liquid-fueled stoves and lanterns never seem to work for me.

Stove and Lantern Here you see a 2-pak of full propane bottles and my 1-burner propane stove behind them. That's the lantern case behind the stove, and that's my propane lantern on the right.

The stove and the lantern each contain only one moving part--the knob that turns the gas-control valve. That translates into the high probability that when you return to camp at 3 am your stove will cook and your lamp will light.

Speaking of returning to camp at 3 am, get and keep a spare 2-pak of full propane bottles. If you don't, I guarantee you that either the bottle on your stove or the bottle on your lantern will soon sizzle out. You will then face a 3:05 am burning question: Well, heck-dang, which do I need the most? The lantern or the stove?

The answer is in direct proportion to your degree of hunger and in inverse proportion to the fullness of the moon.

Buy a case for your lantern. It protects it well. That lantern contains the same fragile mantels I put on it way back in 1995. Guess what? A couple of minutes before I took this picture, I dropped the lantern and broke the globe. And I was cold sober.

Down in front of the lantern, that's one of those long-nozzle butane lighters used for starting charcoal fires. They're handy around camp for lighting lanterns, etc.

If you look long and hard enough through the stuff in the Bluesmobile's trunk, you'll find a box of Tide for washing clothes in a washateria somewhere, utensils for eating and cooking, a 10" cast iron skillet, a set of stainless steel camp cookware, salt and pepper, Community Medium Roast Coffee, and sugar and artificial creamer for guests who use them. No telling what else. Extra beer for sure and maybe a bottle of red Bordeaux.

Hoot owlI usually rise about 10 am and prepare breakfast at camp or perhaps make a sandwich. When I'm in my favorite park, I spend mornings and mid-days talking to woodpeckers and a great horned owl who "Whos" above my tent by night and watches me by day. That's a good time to sort notes from the day and night before and to compose e-mail messages on my little Dell notebook computer. That's a good time to sip an entire pot of coffee and be glad I'm alive and in such a wonderful place.

Tripod cooking
Venison chili dangling from a tripod over a campfire. Click here for the chili recipe. Click here to learn how to make your own portable, take-apart tripod.
Late afternoon finds me on the road and talking to blues people or juke joint people. Actually, they're the same. Late night finds me back at camp where I make a sandwich or grill something over a fire and sip a beer while I contemplate the awesome night I surely had.

You can tent-camp in some Mississippi State Parks for $7 a night. I eat two meals a day at camp and one meal per day in a low-brow restaurant somewhere. So maybe food costs me $10 per day. I usually sip Cokes while in juke joints, never go to high-priced white people blues bars, and I drink beer at camp. So maybe drinks cost me $5 per day. That's a total of $22 per day so far. If we use a figure of $10 per day for gasoline, we can get a good but high estimate of my total daily costs for tent-camping bumming-around-the-Delta: $32.00.

If you're thinking, Hey, this guy could spend less than $1,000 a month and live in his tent in the Delta, well, you're right.

Think about the following, especially if you exist in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate America and wonder why you can't live on a salary of $3,000 or $4,000 a month. A person could drive a small and fuel efficient car, drink cheap beer, eat lots of beans and sandwiches, tent-camp for free in national forests, and live on $300 or $400 a month. You'd have to move camp every two weeks due to National Forest Service rules, but, hey, what tha heck? You'd want to do some bumming around anyway, right?

Click here for a look at the week I spent camped out with some homeless folks who live in various national forests.

By now you've noticed that I've frequently mentioned Walmart. Well, that's because Walmart is the frugal Delta bum's best friend. For one thing, it's the one-stop source for almost every item you'll need, both camping and personal. For another thing, you'll find a Walmart in almost every medium-size Delta town. For another ‘nother thing, you can get money, as in cash, at Walmart.

They have some sort of satellite-based check verification system. Don't ask me how it works because I don't know and I don't care. All I know is that when I write a check at my local Walmart in Jena, Louisiana, the clerk runs the check through a reader and the data zips to a mainframe computer in Timbuktu, I guess, and the computer zips a message back to the clerk that says, This good ole redneck boy is Junior Doughty. He ain't never wrote us no hot check. He can write checks for an extra $20 in cash if he wants to.

That means I can walk in the Walmart in Greenville, Mississippi, and buy two quarts of oil for the Bluesmobile and write my Tullos, Louisiana, check for $20 over the amount of purchase.

$20 a day in cash is plenty for frugal Delta bums like me and you.

For information on Mississippi State Parks, call 1-800-WARMEST and they'll send you an up-to-date highway map and all kinds of other stuff--all for free. It takes about two weeks to arrive via snail-mail, so call early.

That highway map contains a table which lists state and national parks and recreation areas all over Mississippi and the facilities available at those areas, i.e., toilets, cabins, on river, on lake, fishing, etc., etc. I counted 87 places that allow tent camping.

Note: The map's table doesn't include county parks. There's one, Warfield Point Park, just outside of Greenville in Washington County, for example. For info on county parks, call the county's chamber of commerce or convention and visitor's bureau. You'll find their phone #s in that packet of stuff which will arrive in your snail-mail.

For information on Louisiana State Parks, call 1-800-91GUMBO and they'll also send you an up-to-date highway map and all kinds of other stuff--all for free. It also takes about two weeks to arrive via snail-mail, so call early.

The Louisiana highway map contains a table containing only a few "Public Recreation Areas." I counted only 17 places allowing tent-camping. But the back of the map divides the state into 5 regions, and it lists the addresses and phone #s--many toll-free--of all kinds of regional tourist information centers, tourist commissions, city halls, chambers of commerce, etc., etc. You can make a few free phone calls and learn all the local camping info.

Believe me: Mississippi and Louisiana want and need your tourism dollar. A woman in a Mississippi chamber of commerce once told me that if she couldn't find me any other place to pitch my tent, I could camp in her back yard.

One more thing, and I believe I'll get on my soapbox for this one. It's amazing how many e-mail messages I get from people who are afraid to drive through Mississippi and Louisiana, especially Louisiana. Folks, guess what? The image you have of southern law enforcement is way, way, way out of line.

Cops like those pictured in "The Dukes Of Hazzard" TV show and in the Bert Reynolds road-trip movies are either

  1. dead
  2. in nursing homes
  3. in jail
  4. or never existed at all.
For a true picture of rural southern cops, watch re-runs of "In The Heat Of The Night." For a true picture of urban southern cops, watch "NYPD Blue" and imagine it taking place in Jackson or New Orleans.

Mississippi law
Leland, Mississippi Policeman Elvin Wheatley. Officer Wheatley is a good example of the kind of cops you meet in the Delta—a smiling black man. A blues tourist has no better friend.

It may come as a stereotypical shock to lots of folks, but lots of the cops in Mississippi and Louisiana are black.

There's three things you need to know about driving through Mississippi and Louisiana:

  • Don't drink and drive.
  • Don't smoke dope and drive.
  • Don't exceed the speed limit.

Unless I'm badly mistaken, that's the same three things you need to know about driving through places like Nevada and New York.

Racism. I get many e-mails about this one. It isn't any different in Mississippi and Louisiana than it is in Nevada or New York. You and your cross-cultural mate will get no more than a cursory look in Mississippi or Louisiana. But in Mississippi and Louisiana, exactly like in Nevada and New York, don't take your cross-cultural mate to a redneck bar.

So quit worrying about cops and about racism, and if you want to go bumming around the Delta, either side of the river, do it. You'll have the time of your life.

For us instant gratification online frugal Delta bums here's some camping links:

The National Forest Service. This site, like our national forests, IMHO, seems devoted more to timber than to recreation. It will, however, give you names and addresses of places to snail-mail or phone for information.

Kisatchie National Forest Louisiana's 600,000 acre Kisatchie National Forest lies in huge tracts scattered mostly across central and west/central Louisiana, so it's of little use to a Delta bum. But I've camped all over it, and I can tell y'all from experience that it contains thousands of seldom-used, beautiful and free camp sites. Check it out if you're headed through Louisiana. You might decide to stay.

Delta National Forest Frugal Delta bums are in luck on the Mississippi side of the Delta. Ideally located for bumming around the southern part of the Delta, the Delta National Forest stretches most of the 40 or so miles from Vicksburg to Rolling Fork, Mississippi. In the central and northern part of the Delta, the Holly Springs National Forest lies in 2 huge tracts, one east of Clarksdale and one north of Oxford.

Louisiana Department Of Culture, Recreation & Tourism. This is a great site with links to anything you want to know about visiting Louisiana whether you plan to sleep in a $200 per night hotel room on Bourbon Street or in a $20 tent on the banks of the Mississippi River. It even has a link that damn near begs you Yankees to come down here and make a movie. Like I said earlier, Mississippi and Louisiana want and need your tourism dollar.

Louisiana Travel  Sort of like the site above but with some different stuff. This site is really the online version of the 308 page book you receive if you call 1 800 91-GUMBO. Full of all kinds of info, including private parks info.

Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Too heavy on graphics and, therefore, too slow to download, go to this site anyway for lots of info about camping and parks. You'll find maps to state parks, addresses, phone #s, and even facilities and prices.

Great Outdoor Recreation Pages Lots of the links I list here came from this site. Check out this great nationwide camping web site. You'll find all kinds of good info, including maps.

Click the Parks / Camping link on the Delta Outfitters site. You'll find that site devoted to hunting and fishing, but it also contains a good listing of Delta camping spots, complete with phone #s. Besides, if you really want to do something to help wildlife, buy a hunting license. You'll help buy and preserve habitat and help pay the salaries of game wardens and wildlife biologists.

L.L. Bean  The folks with the great outdoor catalogue now have a great website. Click the "Park Search" link near the bottom left of the main page, and you'll surf to a page where you can search for park information by state and by region. The L.L. Bean folks deserve a hearty pat on the back for this feature. The park info is complete and up to date with phone #s, addresses, facilities, and it even includes a picture or two--unlike the official state sites, which also, of course, only include info about their own parks. If you're a camping nut like me, after you find the park info you want you'll go back to the main page and spend a couple of hours wishing over camping equipment.

Here's a hint from the frugal Delta bum: When you enter the State of Mississippi via a major highway, look for the welcome center. You'll find telephones that work, clean restrooms with both paper hand towels and toilet paper--believe it or not!--free coffee, free state and town maps, a burly 24-hour security guard who'll take care of that potential rapist who's followed you for the last 50 miles, and colorful pamphlets to all the places normal tourists visit and blues bums like us wouldn't step inside if our lives depended on it. The staff will also make free reservations for you at any hotel or motel in Mississippi. The staff are also experts at giving directions. They spend the greatest part of every working day giving directions.

In my humble Delta bum opinion, IMHDBO, the travel and tourism big-wigs from every state in the union should visit a couple of Mississippi Welcome Centers and take copious notes. Start with the welcome center on Highway 82 in Greenville. It's the best of the best. Makes the best coffee, too.

A word of warning: Most Mississippi State Parks don't allow alcoholic beverages. So pour your beer in a Coke cup when nobody's looking and don't drink too much. And don't play your blues so loudly your neighbors can hear it. If you find yourself packing your tent in the middle of the night, don't say I didn't warn you.

All-the-above is why you'll find my tent pitched way down at the far end of the campground. It's a long walk in the middle of the night to the restrooms when your bladder's about to bust, I'll admit, but I'll also admit that the woods are just a few feet away.

Well, throw all your stuff in the trunk of your car and hit the blues highway. If you see the Bluesmobile in a campground somewhere, come over for a visit.

Two  BlokesEvery once in a while in a campground I'll run across some folks I'm glad didn't stay home. Let me introduce y'all to brothers Kevin and Andrew Noller. They came all the way from Australia to the Delta.

A few minutes before dark late one afternoon, I pulled into my campground and there in the next campsite sat a tent and a beat-up old Cadillac which looked almost as beat-up as the Bluesmobile. At the picnic table sat two young guys drinking Budweiser from cans. I parked the Bluesmobile and walked over to their picnic table. I figured anybody tent camping and driving a General Motors Corporation version of the Bluesmobile was my kind of people. I was right.

They were as glad to see me as I was them, and they offered me a beer, which I accepted, of course, purely in the interest of being neighborly. One of them opened what they called the Cadillac's "boot" and we call the "trunk" and extracted three cans of Bud from a 24-pak case. He handed me one. It was hot. I had just returned from a bar-b-que held beneath Delta bluesman T-Model Ford's shade tree, and my ice chest--pictured previously--contained exactly 12 16 oz cans of ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon. "Hey guys," I said in Deltonian. "Y'all like hot beer?"

"No," they replied in Australian. "Don't have an ice chest in the boot."

"Follow me," I said.

We strolled over to my picnic table, and I pulled three cold 16 oz PBRs from my ice chest and popped the tops. Sipping PBRs, which they loved, we strolled back over to their picnic table and started talking. It seems they had waved at and tried to start a conversation with the folks in the high-dollar camper trailers and motor homes congregated down at the other end of the park. Those fine high-dollar folks had rudely ignored them. "They're afraid of y'all," I said.

The 2 fine PBR-sipping Aussies found that hard to believe. "Us?"

"Yep," I confirmed. "It's the car. They think that people driving a trashy-looking car are trashy people. Hell, I'm glad. We ain't got nothing in common with those folks. I've watched ‘em for years in these parks. They'll ease their big fancy $100, 000 motor home ‘round the park looking for a campsite and they'll take one look at the Bluesmobile and another look at me and camp wayyyyy down yonder at the other end. I'll end up with half the park all to myself!"

And so we laughed about the folks at the other end of the park and about a lot of other things I can't remember now because of the PBR. We enjoyed each others' company and most of my PBR. They were fine fellows and drove a fine car, a 1976 Cadillac with faded paint, lots of dents, and rusty holes in the fenders, "mud guards," they called them.

They paid $500 for that car from a stranger in the Los Angeles airport. And they drove it across America, headed for Florida, rather Florida girls. I'll bet it made it back to the Los Angeles airport. If they couldn't find a buyer for their fine Caddie, it probably sits there today.

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