Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mississippi's Spell

MI-SS-ISS-IPPI. Mississippi was one of the first states I learned to spell, with its sing-song double letters, but one I had yet to visit. In my quest to visit all 50 states before I turn 50, this isn't the first time Paul has been my travel companion for an unconventional vacation destination.

Sign of true love:

Me: Where would you like to go on vacation this summer?
Paul: The beach.
Me: I was thinking Mississippi.
Paul: Of course.

So, while our friends' Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of toes in the sand and relaxing by endless sunsets, we headed down for views of the Mighty Mississippi River and some Civil War history to check state #39 off the list.


We stayed in the Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn. Anchuca is a Choctaw word meaning "happy home" and we were definitely happy to take in beautiful surroundings, friendly pets, and interesting history of this antebellum home. Even the birds were happy. So happy, in fact, that they woke us up at 1:30 am chirping loudly. Paul walked outside in his pjs to greet them...or shake his fist at them...depending on your perspective. Finally morning arrived and we fueled up on a big Southern breakfast of eggs and grits. We were ready for our Mississippi adventure!



Let's be honest. Mississippi isn't usually on anyone's Top 10 list of destinations. And as you will read, the whole trip wasn't sunshine and roses. More like sunshine and magnolias. Honestly, what sticks out most are the friendly and helpful people we met along the way. Take Leo, for example. We rented bikes from Battlefield Bicycle and Leo went out of his way to make sure we had everything we needed--water for the ride, helmets, directions to get to Vicksburg Military Park the back way to avoid traffic. Beyond the bike rental, he offered us sandwiches and cookies for lunch and advice on where to eat an authentic Southern Plantation style dinner. (Walnut Hills for fried chicken and pecan praline pie, yum!) I get the sense that we could have sat in Leo's office and chatted with him all day. And maybe we would have, if we had known about the heat and the hills that awaited us. But no, we blissfully rode away, leaving Leo waving and smiling.

I could tell you everything I learned about the 47 day siege and the importance of the Battle of Vicksburg as a turning point for Union troops during the Civil War but what I really learned is that Vicksburg is hilly. In fact, our 18 mile bike ride around the park began at the aptly named Fort Hill. Those hills were tough. And hot. Paul said it helped him better appreciate those soldiers in their wool uniforms fighting in the summer sun. Our ride along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers totaled 1,555 feet in elevation. I had to dismount and walk three different times!


 
By the time we finished, we were ready to cool off at the Museum of Coca-Cola. After a long bike ride in the sun, a sensible person might have driven to the museum, but it looked like a short walk on the map. Little did I know, it was a half mile trek down a steep hill with no shade. So, as we learned about Joseph Biedenharn, the first person who bottled Coca-Cola, we had the return hike uphill to anticipate.
 
I loved the history and memorabilia, which included years worth of advertising campaigns and an authentic soda fountain on display. I did not, however see any "delicious homemade candies" as the museum promised and we were a bit underwhelmed. The museum is owned and operated by the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. Maybe they should consider partnering with a business who would like to operate a modern soda fountain and candy store.  Full disclosure: we drove our air-conditioned rental car to Rite Aid for our ice cold Cokes.
On the way back to our B&B, we stopped to look at the Riverfront Murals and found one of Joseph Biedenharn himself. We also found one of Willie Dixon, one of the Blues' greats. Mississippi's slogan is "Birthplace of America's Music" and we were looking forward to hearing some live music in Vicksburg. Vacation planning lesson: Vicksburg Music Society lists live music but shows usually occur Thursdays-Sundays. We were in Mississippi Monday-Wednesday. So, we had to be content with taking Willie's picture on the mural.
 

Day Two: We said goodbye to Vicksburg and headed deeper into the South to the city of Natchez. Here we were lucky enough to get a tour of the Melrose House with the world's greatest tour guide.
As I mentioned, we loved meeting the friendly people in Mississippi. Barney, a park ranger at Natchez National Historic Park, was one of those people. Barney's infectious personality and in-depth knowledge of history made our tour of the Melrose House one of the highlights of our whole trip. Do you know why the house was on an estate, not a plantation?  (There was no farm on the land.) Do you know why the sofa has a center divider? (It was a courting couch so there was no accidental touching.) Do you know how the owners were inspired to install indoor plumbing in the 1850's? (They saw toilets in England...and if you see flushing toilets made by Thomas Crapper & Company, they've got to be good, right?) Barney obviously had a true passion for history, both about the house and Mississippi in general. However a question about increase in output after the cotton gin was perfected was trickier. "That's math," he joked. "I was never very good with math. At Alcorn State University, you know how I passed Algebra II? I found out my professor loved fried chicken. Here's some math: one order of fried chicken and one biscuit in one greasy paper bag equals me passing Algebra." We loved the Cypress pond and the magnolia gardens but Barney was definitely the highlight of this visit!
 




 
Next, we headed into downtown Natchez to walk along the Mississippi River and enjoy some barbeque at the Pig Out Inn. You know it's going to be authentic when the cashier records your order on the side of the plate like its a Starbucks cup--only instead of code for mocha frap, its Pulled Pork Dinner.
 
 

After lunch we drove up the Natchez Trace Parkway to Jackson. The Old Trace was first used by Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians and then in the 1800's it was the main return route for Ohio Valley traders who floated down the Mississippi, then sold their flatboats as timber in Natchez and walked home. Now it is a 444 National Scenic Byway with lots of historic sites, campgrounds, and hikes along the way.
 We stopped at milepost 41.5 to walk along Sunken Trace. As the guidebook told us, "In fading sunlight within these high earthen walls, you are looking at the effects of time, hooves and feet. If you linger, you may sense the spirit of those who trod here before you."
 
We arrived in Jackson to satisfy one last bucket list item--live music. Thanks to the Jackson Free Press, I found out the New Bourbon Street Jazz Band was playing at a local bar. Due to our extremely early morning flight, I thought it would be easy to return the rental car and take the hotel shuttle to and from the airport. Unfortunately, even though the Hampton Inn Pearl is billed as an airport hotel with a shuttle, the short window of 5am to 11am didn't suit our needs. But before I had a chance to be too irritated with our Hilton property, we hopped in a cab with Isaac.
"200 Commerce Street," I told him. Isaac seemed confused.
"200 Commerce Street? That's an industrial park warehouse district. Why do you want to go there?"
"That's the address of a restaurant called Hal and Mal's," I said, unsure now. I mean, all I knew about this place was that they had a band. Was it in a sketchy part of town?
"Oh, Hal and Mal's! That's all you needed to say. Everyone knows Hal and Mal's." Isaac proceeded to take us there directly, all the while telling us about the daily specials (he likes roast beef on Thursdays) and the crowds for the live bands.  So on our last night in Mississippi we enjoyed some local brews & local blues. 

So there you have it--a successful trip to Mississippi. If you go, here's a little advice:
1)Bring earplugs for the "nocturnal" birds
2)Definitely find Leo, Barney, and Isaac...or engage in conversation with some other friendly Mississippi locals
3)Take your camera with you to the bathroom at Hal and Mal's.