There’s a disorienting moment on US 78 west as it crosses into Mississippi from northwest Alabama where the road color changes. It turns from black asphalt to something like deep blood red concrete or whatever the hell it is. It doesn’t matter what it is, because it’s deep red and the landscape around you is fundamentally different.
The shrub is lower, the trees more sparse, and the earth pure, yellow and blood red. That’s north Mississippi. The area around Council — with the way the Mississippi River flows through that part of the world, and by the quirks of state lines — forms a virtual island, bound by the Mississippi and jut out of Arkansas. This is strange territory, and it’s blood red. Mississippi is blood red. Blood red with race killings and hatred among its white people for black citizens. Blood red is the only color that can fill this state, and it’s only appropriate that I-55 south outta Memphis turns blood red once you cross the state line into Mississippi. That’s us, and it’s slick in the rain.
I wrecked the hell out of my Ford Ranger one night outside Jasper, Ala. on the way back to Oxford from ATL, but the tow truck guy managed to pull my fender off the front wheel to allow me to drive back to school and get to class the next day. That was nice, but I had to stand around in the rain for two hours outside of Jasper, Ala. waiting on this particular help. It was miserable and then I had to drive into blood red Mississippi with a broken car and a front-left wheel that might pop off at any moment. College ruled.
I transferred out of Ole Miss after two years because a Classics professor I admired took his retirement and my cross country and track coaches ran me off the team. They were old cusses who believed that whichever team ran the most miles in a given week would win the most races. We lost the most races, and my body couldn’t handle 100-mile weeks. Ole Miss cross country has improved by literal miles since those men left, and I’m thrilled for them.
Coming from metro Atlanta to a place like Ole Miss was disorienting and to a degree staggering. I’d never met people like this, which is always the case in college, sure. But, as my uncle John had warned me, Oxford was a “Disney World” kind of place. Whatever happens in Oxford stays in Oxford, and Oxford is totally isolated from everything around it. Oxford sits one hour from Memphis, but it bears no resemblance to Memphis. It’s just Oxford, with its persistent Greek culture drove that I never really sat too comfortably with. It was too overbearing and clicky that I needed to go away. I’m sorry.
I love Ole Miss’ athletics departments, and always will. They tutored me, presented me with a varsity letter, and refused to release me from my year of non-participation in NCAA sports upon my transfer to UGA. Thanks, Joe Walker. You effectively ended my collegiate running career, because I got to UGA and started shitting blood after workouts and just couldn’t run anymore.
But at least I ran for those four months at Georgia in a non-competitive capacity. At least Joe Walker held me out for that season at Athens. Joe Walker was just inducted into the Ole Miss sports hall of fame, which is somewhat laughable for someone of my generation of Ole Miss track and field because he drove that program into the ground at the end of his career. That team fucking sucked for years. And again, he purposely and personally disallowed me from participating in a full year of college athletics and then I got sick and my running died.
Traveling from Atlanta to Oxford and back is a foreign experience. Oxford is its own thing. It’s its own animal even within the state lines of Mississippi, to say nothing of and for a kid from suburban Atlanta. This is about a kid from not Mississippi going to school in Mississippi and being totally turned off by it but somehow retaining a tight love for the place. Mississippi is something that I must write about always, because every time I return my writerly vein is refilled with electricity that sets me off into 100 different directions. It’s impossible not to write about this state. Just ask Alex McDaniel.
I get the sense that Mississippians feel something like the same way. That they deeply feel rooted and glad to be from here, but at the same time, there’s some sort of apologia that might accompany their “Yes, I’m from Mississippi.” Maybe not. I’m the outsider, who stayed for two years and felt overburdened to the point that I had to leave but I’ll always come back. I love Mississippi, I hate Mississippi, and I deeply love Oxford, which I’ll always consider a third home, after Atlanta and Gainesville.
Athens can go burn into the ground, but that’s a different story.
There’s a certain foreignness, a strangeness to Ole Miss football in this moment. They’re really, actually playing well at this particular time. They’re somehow favored against Texas A&M on Saturday. Why not? Everything is upside-down. The concrete we’re driving on is blood red even though it used to be black asphalt and the bricks on the Walk of Champions are blood red and Ventress Hall shines out blood red every day of the week.
Jordan Ta’amu is the quarterback and he has Ole Miss’ offense thoroughly humming, and that feels disorienting at times. The backup QB went for 350 yards again, you say? What’s going on here?
This A&M game would be a fun win, and it would — will? — be interesting to see how these boys can get there. Because they’re all spilling red blood for this season’s cause.