"Ya'll try to stay dry!" So said our waitress as we stood from breakfast to head out into what was not, certainly, a dry day. The rain had been pelting down from before I woke, and it continued to fall, without let up. Fields of rice were now paddy fields, ditches and bayous were close to overflowing.
It was an unpleasant, slow drive, with wipers going as fast as they could go, but still failing to keep our vision clear. And we were travelling in the wrong direction: towards the darkest clouds, towards the flashes of lightning, towards swamp land.
This part of the country, on a day of heavy rain, does not feel like a place fit for human habitation. Everything, everywhere, is water. Water falling, water rising; the air filled with it, your body sticky with it. All else is sinking or rotting or crumbling.
When we reached our accommodation – the first on this trip to feature a pet alligator – we stayed inside.
Today was Memorial Day, and by chance we happened upon a small parade in Vicksburg, just after breakfast. It was watched by a handful of people, silent but not sombre. There were old men driving old army vehicles, a police car dragging a golden cannon on a trailer, and even half a dozen men on horseback, dressed as Union soldiers.
Later, in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, we saw that this town still has a complicated relationship with the Union. There, on tall poles, hung the state and Confederate flags, but no Stars and Stripes. Rows of headstones memorialised Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, some of them unknown. Little flags had recently been affixed to many of these graves, and to other, civilian gravestones, and they fluttered brightly in the hot wind. This flag, here, is a deeply complicated symbol.
From Oxford we made the short drive back east for our first non-literary pilgrimage of the trip, to Tupelo, and the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Being Sunday morning, it seemed the whole town was at church, and the visitor centre was closed. We strolled around the little cabin in which Elvis was born, we sat in his porch swing, then we drove on, back to the Natchez Trace.
The Trace is a slow road. Though it's almost empty of traffic, the speed limit is just 50mph, so it took longer than expected to make progress south. The road is also, after several hours driving, a little dull. For most of it, nothing can be seen beyond the trees. By early evening, we were ready to see something more than trees.
The Cedar Grove Inn in Vicksburg was that something. And what a place it is! A mid-nineteenth century mansion, complete with fountains, four-poster beds, and even cannonball holes, made during the Civil War. This is a place that embodies some of the strangeness and contradictions of the south. The high walls of the inn's garden divide it from the poor, black neighbourhood beyond, and it feels like another world. In the evening we sat outside on the porch, watching fireflies and lightning split the Mississippi darkness.
Yesterday, Jennifer and I experienced the madness that is Nashville on a Friday night. Along Broadway, almost every street-front building is a bar – with live bands playing something akin to country music – or else a purveyor of boots and shirts – selling something akin to 'Western apparel'. There are people everywhere. Neither Jennifer nor I are quite cut out for this kind of nightlife, so we chose the quietest bar we could find, and then retired to our hotel feeling old.
After queuing for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we set out for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 'scenic' drive south, that will take us most of the way to our final destination. (Scenic is perhaps not quite the right word, since the road is surrounded by trees, but it is certainly a more relaxing drive than the interstate.)
At Tupelo we left the Trace for the day and headed to Oxford, home of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. We visited Rowan Oak, first of all – the home of William Faulkner – and wandered through the hot, humid grounds. We did not pay the $5 to go inside. Somehow it seemed you could learn more in those gardens than you could by gazing at beds, tables and writing desks in the house.
My accommodation last night was undoubtedly the most interesting of the trip so far (and I mean 'interesting' in a positive sense). The Balsam Mountain Inn first opened in 1908, and though it's been renovated extensively, it still feels as though it is of another time. The building has a peeling glamour, and its porch houses more rocking chairs than I have ever seen in one place at one time before. I was reluctant to get up and leave when morning came.
My first stop of the day was Cullowhee, and the University of Western Carolina, where I was given a tour of the artefacts in their historical collection, many of them related to the local Cherokee, such as hand-woven baskets and pottery, and others to the large number of 'Ulster Scots' who immigrated to this region.
Leaving Cullowhee I made another of my map reading errors, and took a 'scenic route' west through the mountains, that did not deliver me to Nashville until evening was falling. It included a five minute stay in Georgia, so added another state to my list.
I have done more driving in the past few days than I care to think about. Fortunately Jennifer Haigh will be joining me again for the rest of the trip, so driving duties can now be shared.
A morning of wandering and writing (and laundry) was followed by an afternoon of slow, circuitous driving, high in the mountains west of Asheville.
I took what I thought was a minor detour to Rosman first of all, in order to cross (very briefly) the state line into South Carolina. Then back again. The map, however, was deceptive. The route I'd chosen proved to be perhaps the windiest road I have ever driven, up and then up and then up, to over 6,000 feet, the highest part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time though I was rewarded with wonderful views, out over the Smoky Mountains, offering a hint of what I'd missed in yesterday's fog.
The scale of the forest, of the mountains, is quite astonishing.
Since I began planning this trip I'd be looking forward to driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, high in the mountains between Virginia and North Carolina. However, I'd not counted on the weather being so unsuitable.
I set off early, in light drizzle, but by the time I made it to the parkway everything was shrouded in fog. Every few miles I would pass another viewing point, from which I could see nothing at all. I did manage to spot several deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs, squirrels, and a swimming mink. But of the mountains themselves, not a thing.
I made it halfway down the road, then decided to change route and find a shorter path to Asheville. It still took me around nine hours in total, with just a few stops to stretch my legs (and one to visit Linville Falls, during a brief pause in the rain) along the way. Here's what I might have seen, on a sunnier day.
As soon as you leave the interstate south of Charleston, you find yourself in a very different world. The road narrows and coils steeply up the mountain, trees crowding in on either side. A procession of huge trucks comes rumbling down in the opposite direction.
The houses, too, change. This part of Appalachia is coal country, and with the downturn in that industry, it is suffering. Abandoned buildings are everywhere; rundown houses and trailers, though lived in, look as though they ought not to be. The depravation here, to my eyes, is shocking.
Behind the trees, though, another kind of damage is being done. This region has one of the highest densities of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia (there are 135 in West Virginia alone). From the road, it is all but invisible, but from above, the extent of this damage is truly astonishing.
After leaving Port Royal on Sunday evening, I'd driven south towards Berea, where I stayed with another writer, Silas House (and learned that Kentucky whiskey is much better than I'd previously thought).
Silas is a novelist, and also teaches Appalachian Studies here in Berea. The town's college was founded in the 1860s as a racially-integrated, abolitionist school, just a few years before the civil war began. It remains a liberal institution even today.
This morning, Silas gave me a tour of the town and the surrounding area. He is passionate about this region and its culture, just as he is passionately opposed to the destruction of its environment and communities by mountain-top removal coal mining. In the next couple of days, I will be seeing some of the results of that destruction.
Don't meet your heroes, they say. Well, today I did just that, and it turned out alright. On Sunday afternoon I drove through Henry County, Kentucky, to Port Royal, and found the farm of Wendell Berry.
Over the past ten years or so I've read all of Berry's fiction (eight novels and scores of short stories) as well as many of his essays and poems. I've also recommended his work to everyone who would listen. Berry's is truly a wise, generous and humane voice in American literature.
After chatting for a while inside the house, he took me out for a tour of the area in his pickup. At one point he stopped and got out to rescue a turtle that was trying to cross the road. "He was going in the wrong direction", Wendell explained. Later, despite his hatred of screens, he even consented to a photograph.
Organising this visit took several handwritten letters back and forth across the Atlantic, but it was worth every drop of ink (and petrol).
(An interesting fact: Wendell keeps a llama as a "guard animal" to protect his sheep from coyotes.)
I was one of five Scottish writers chosen by Edinburgh International Book Festival to undertake extraordinary journeys across the Americas in spring and summer 2017.
I travelled through the United States for three weeks, from north to south, beginning in North Dakota, through Appalachia, and ending in Louisiana. For much of this time I was accompanied by the novelist Jennifer Haigh.
You can follow my progress on Twitter and Instagram, and keep up-to-date with all the travellers using the hashtag #Outriders.