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The Great River Road

Do you need a break from the Delta yet? Has counting pickup trucks, propane tanks, and barbecued ribs induced a bad imitation drawl? How far would you detour for a well-stocked bookstore, or a restaurant that doesn’t immerse everything in boiling oil? Sixty-two miles east of Clarksdale on Hwy-6 is the college town of Oxford, whose cultural amenities, though common to college towns from Amherst to Berkeley, set it in a world apart from most of Mississippi. The college in question is “Ole Miss,” otherwise known as the University of Mississippi, whose pleasant yet bustling campus holds the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (662/915-5993, Mon.-Fri.), which sponsors exhibits, lectures, and screenings in a renovated antebellum astronomical observatory. The center publishes the excellent Living Blues magazine, and the adjacent J. D. Williams Library holds such treasures as over 8,000 of B. B. King’s personal LP collection as well as posters, photos, and more in the Blues Archive (Mon.-Fri. 8am-5pm, free), alongside the collected works and first editions of another great Mississippian, William Faulkner. Faulkner was a resident of Oxford for most of his life; readers of his novels will recognize in surrounding Lafayette County (pronounced “luh-FAY-it”) elements of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha. A statue of Faulkner stands in the square at the center of Oxford, and Rowan Oak (662/234-3284, Tues.-Sat. 10am-4pm, Sun. 1pm-4pm year-round, Mon. 10am-4pm summer only, $5), his house on Old Taylor Road off South Lamar Avenue, remains as he left it when he died in 1962, with the bottle of whiskey next to the old typewriter in his study almost, but not quite, empty.

Visit Faulkner’s gravesite by following the signs from the north side of Courthouse Square. Near the cemetery entrance lie other family members who didn’t affect adding the “u” to their surname, including the brother whose untimely death Faulkner mourned in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.

Oxford Practicalities

When respects have been paid to Southern musical and literary culture, and it’s time to eat, there’s a lot to choose from. The west side of central Courthouse Square is home to two good restaurants, the homespun Ajax Diner (118 Courthouse Square, 662/232-8880), with great pies and cobblers, and the eclectic “New Southern” cuisine of the plush City Grocery (152 Courthouse Square, 662/232-8080), where traditional dishes like po’boys and shrimp and grits are complemented by fine wines and a full bar. And thanks to all the Ole Miss students, you can enjoy a range of fast food, pizza places, and live music around Lamar Boulevard, south of the square.

Accommodations in Oxford include a half-dozen large chain hotels and motels, plus a good range of welcoming bed-and-breakfasts like the comfortably worn 5 Twelve (512 Van Buren Ave., 662/234-8043, $140 and up), formerly the Oliver-Britt House, a circa-1905 B&B.

The Visit Oxford Visitors Center (1013 E. Jackson Ave., 662/232-2477) will happily provide more information and a calendar of cultural events. Another good source of information is Square Books (662/236-2262), on the south side of the same square. This is one of the country’s great independent bookstores, with a full range of local and international authors, plus a nice café.

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