No Trace at Trace!

The park map of Trace State Park shows a large lake with three “fingers.” The two isthmi between the  three fingers feature on one the fishing piers and on the other two campgrounds. We were elated when we made our reservation to get a prime spot in the Eagle Ridge Campground looking out over the lake.

Our drive from Grenada was quite lovely. Northern Mississippi is green rolling country. We headed north towards Oxford and then east. I had desperately wanted to visit Square Books, a renowned independent bookseller in Oxford, but Google Earth made it pretty clear that a 48 foot trailer and truck was going to find no haven anywhere near town center. Ah, well, we’ll save that for another day…

Trace State Park sits just west of Tupelo. I was excited to see this city with the beguiling name and we planned to do both sightseeing and hiking. We pulled up to the ranger station at the park gate and got checked in. No mention was made of anything out of the ordinary at the park. I did ask after ticks and the ranger said they were pretty bad.

 

We pulled the trailer along the park roads, found our site which was right across from the comfort station/laundry and backed in. It wasn’t until we were backed in to the site that we noticed one tiny detail which deviated from expectations. The lake had disappeared! There was no lake. Instead there was a vast expanse of brown mud extending in all directions. How do you lose a lake?

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We were completely nonplussed. Rather than a glorious vista, we faced a mud horizon. We sniffed the air which was redolent of a smell redolent of cow manure. I kind of like the earthiness of a sometime whiff of cow manure, but three days of it seemed a bit much.5217 643

The earth around our site was barren and grass-less. The thought of sitting out on the scrabbly dirt staring off over the muddy lake-less expanse was less than attractive. On the positive side, the bath house did look quite nice and the laundry was spotless.

We weren’t too happy as we unhitched. There was cell signal and I hot spotted to go online and see if there were other places to stay. Jim went on-line to find out what happened to the lake.

It seemed that the lake’s dam had been slated for repairs. The contractor had been moving slowly when an inspection revealed an imminent danger of collapse. The lake was immediately drained to avoid flooding downstream. This had all happened six days before. It sure seems like they might have mentioned to those planning a stay that the lake had disappeared. They didn’t even mention it when we checked in. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

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It was quite warm and late in the afternoon. We decided to drive in to Tupelo and poke around. Jim needed to visit a hardware store and we both thought it was time for some barbecue. A trip to the grocery store and a re-stock on our boxed wine was also on the docket. It was forecast to storm that night. We would batten down the hatches, stock up the larder and decide our plans the next day.

Amazingly, after some excellent barbecue and a successful foray into town, life looked rosier. Bishop’s Barbecue had multiple locations and one was right on the way back to the park. It was very good barbecue. I had fried green tomatoes and pulled pork. They looked a little surprised when I asked for a container to take half of it home. From the looks of it, most of their customers belonged to the clean plate club. Meow.

The predicted storm was just a normal boomer and banger. The next morning was sunny and clear. It would get hot later, but a morning hike would be an excellent undertaking. Jim had done some research and found a very nice sounding Rails-to-Trails just west of us.

Rails-to-Trails are pretty dependable hiking locations. The former railroad beds run straight and true, are often elevated and paved. We had walked one when we were in Navarre and could find no hiking trails. This would fit neatly into our tick avoidance program (TAP) and give us some good outdoor exercise.

The Tanglefoot Trail runs just under 44 miles from Houston north to New Albany. We decided to pick up the trail at Pontotoc. The trail was gorgeously maintained. Where we parked there was a lovely rest stop/picnic area. It was so new we half expected to see a hammer still lying around.

We hiked along the trail enjoying the fresh air and sun and feeling quite confident that we were tick free. It felt good to stretch our legs and glimpse bits of Pontotoc as we walked along. It looked like a nice town and we could see the community park with ball fields from the trail.

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Pontotoc means “Land of Hanging Grapes” in the Chickasaw language. After our walk, we drove around Pontotoc. It was a suburb of Tupelo and had nice houses, a modest town square and some small businesses. At this point we had abandoned any thought of changing campgrounds. We spent the end of the day doing laundry at the campground and we drove around the park roads to see other parts of the park. The funny cow manure smell had disappeared after the rain.

One thing about Mississippi that we loved was the ubiquity of public television. Whether it was Natchez, Grenada or the outskirts of Tupelo, PBS came in loud and clear. The same was true for radio broadcasts. We were able to indulge our love of PBS NewsHour and the local radio broadcasts in the morning. For some reason I would not have expected this of Mississippi, but we thought much better of the state for its commitment to this media.

On our final day at Trace State Park, we returned to the Tanglefoot Trail and Pontotoc and hiked in the opposite direction. The weather during this second hike was humid and heavy. The sky was a little overcast and the trail cut through a more urban area. We were glad we had headed south the first day through a less urban part of the trail. It was still a good walk, but not quite as good this second outing.

In the afternoon, we headed in to Tupelo. We had an extremely tasty lunch at the Neon Pig. This butcher cum restaurant and bar was a fun spot. I am not a fan of pictures of food, but I will break my usual practice and share a visual glimpse of the tremendously tasty pork belly sandwich I split with Jim.

We worked off that tasty lunch wandering the streets of Tupelo’s historic district. The old courthouse stood squarely next to its more modern iteration. Many of the historic homes were now law offices. It must be a pretty nice life practicing law in a small city like Tupelo. A short walk from the office to the courthouse, a comfortable living and enough urban sophistication to make life interesting with the great outdoors is a stone’s throw away. Not a bad life.

Our early discomfiture with the disappearing lake had likewise disappeared. We enjoyed seeing both Tupelo and Pontotoc and would be happy to return anytime. With any luck the lake would also have returned and that idyllic campsite with a lake view would be part of the package.

A Pretty Dry and Dusty Town Full of History

I would not want to malign anyone’s hometown, but there didn’t seem to be a lot to Fort Stockton. It seems today and yesterday to be mostly a stopping off point. Today Interstate 10 runs through it so it is an east/west artery. The town is clustered on both sides of the interstate. Otherwise, Fort Stockton is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  The land is flat. It is hot and dry and dusty. For the most part the town seems unremarkable except for the history which had been respectfully and passionately preserved by its inhabitants.

Fort Stockton was a garrison during much of the mid to late 1800’s. It had originally grown up around Commanche Springs which was the major source of water in the area and what drew those who chose to settle nearby. The fort had boom and bust times. During the Civil War the fort was all but abandoned and then later reclaimed and re-settled. Ultimately, the fort was de-commissioned in the late 1880’s.

Only a little of the original fort survives, but local forces are working to restore it and to create a museum on the site. We wandered around the fort buildings which have been restored to date and it was possible to get a sense of life on this outpost.

The soldier’s barracks and officer’s quarters were not open to the public, but the jail had been restored and was open to visitors. Our footsteps made satisfying clopping sounds as we walked the boards of the porch. The limestone walls were cool to our touch and impenetrable. Manacles hung from the walls and the lone solitary cell looked dark and frightening. Even Dakota seemed to peer into the building with cautious interest.

Out on the parade grounds stood a lone wagon. Despite its exposure to the elements, it was a famous wagon having appeared in two films with the Duke.

There was also the local episcopal church and next to it an old one room schoolhouse. Living near the fort and the soldiers was probably a fairly safe place to be in more troubled times. Citizens had probably as much reason to fear local outlaws as any stray wandering tribes.

Being stationed at this fort out in the middle of nowhere had to be a fairly tough life. Riding patrol in the heat and storms of west Texas didn’t leave a lot of room for creature comforts.

Over in another part of town we found the “historic district.” A clutch of buildings formed what must have been the center of town long ago. The courthouse stood on a small rise. The building we see today is a newer courthouse, the former one burned down about a hundred years ago.

Kitty corner to the courthouse was the Grey Mule Saloon. Run by a notorious man who moved his family to Fort Stockton in the wake of a murder, he established a ranch and later was elected Sheriff proving how thin the line between lawless and lawman was back then. Today the saloon is a tasting room.

Along with his deputy, the Sheriff intimidated and terrorized the town until both ended up murdered. His deputy was a fellow by the name of Barney Riggs. Riggs was the second husband of Annie Riggs, a mother of ten. In the wake of her second husband’s murder, she seemed to have thrown in the towel on matrimony and at the turn of the 1900’s bought a hotel situated across the street from the Grey Mule Saloon and the courthouse.

This former hotel is now the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum. The hotel sits up high in town and has wide porches front and back. Once guests at the hotel would relax on those porches catching the breezes to counter the west Texas heat. Visitors to the hotel would also enjoy the cool waters of Commanche Springs.

Entering the hotel through the front door there is a reception area. To the right of the reception area is the front parlor complete with piano. Today the parlor features a simply produced but compelling video on the history of Fort Stockton and Commanche Springs.

A guest would continue through the reception area to reach the dining room where guests would take their meals. The dining room has two doorways, one leads to the kitchen and a door to the right leads to an inner courtyard.

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Mrs. Riggs was known for her cooking. Looking at the kitchen today with its period pieces, it is hard to imagine the ceaseless hard work which must have gone into preparing three meals a day for her guests. In the height of the summer heat it must have been very uncomfortable to toil over the woodstove. As soon as one meal was prepared and served, it would be time to get started on the next. Biscuits and bread would be left to rise as pies were prepared and a roast cooked in the oven. I was tired just contemplating the toil and thought how much Annie Riggs would have loved to order out for pizza or chinese. That didn’t happen back then.

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The interior courtyard reached from the right of the dining room was the access point for the guest rooms. The guest rooms today feature exhibits of local historical items: collections of arrowheads, a safe, old typewriter and desk and pictures of local personages. The rooms are cool and dark and must have been a welcome respite from the hot sun and wind.

The courtyard today features a collection of old branding irons hung from the walls. Above each iron the mark has been burned into the wooden beam. It is an attractive and fascinating display. An old carriage sits in a corner of the courtyard.

Fort Stockton itself seems to suffer boom and bust cycles. Sheep and cattle ranching took hold in the early 1900’s. Those occupations were followed by the addition of oil and agriculture. Today the economy is focused on the chief west Texas occupations of oil and ranching. The vital life force that was Commanche Springs, which had been the reason the area was originally settled, is no more. In the 1950’s, despite local opposition, use of the springs for irrigation managed to dry the aquifer forever leaving only the dust, heat and west Texas wind as its legacy.

We enjoyed poking around the town, but we were ready to head west on Interstate 10 and our next adventure.

 

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