Natchez: It’s Not Just for Nabobs

We headed west across Mississippi to Natchez next. We traveled Route 98 for most of the trip and rolled through softly rolling landscape which was just at the beginning stages of greening up for spring. There weren’t many towns. This was very sparsely settled country. Homes dotted the roadside and, of course, small churches.

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Leaving the highway, we took the State Park Road for about six miles to get back in the woods to the Natchez State Park. This was a smaller park and mostly dedicated to fishing. It had a very nice, large fishing lake. There were two campground loops, but one of them was out of commission because there was a problem with the water system. This was typical of this park. While it was an attractive park, it was not as well maintained as many parks we were used to.

As usual, our first day was dedicated to getting a feel for the park. We explored all over.

On the way to the park office, we came across an impressively large and thankfully dead rattlesnake stretched across the road. A cogent reminder that this country was full of life and sometimes danger. We stopped in at the ranger station to have a chat. There were nice picnic pavilions next to the lake and at the far end of the park were cabins. The remaining campground numbered 22 sites and was quite nice. Our site sat up on a hill overlooking the lake.

This country is so lush and teeming with life. Life and renewal are balanced with death and decay. Just take our rattlesnake. He was stretched out dead across the road and carrion birds were feasting on his flesh. He had lived, killed and feasted and was now food for another creature. In the humid warm air the cycle of life seemed to have sped up. Life burst forth, flourished and when quickly spent, made way for more life.  Even though it was clearly winter, we could almost see the buds beginning to leaf before our eyes. Each day the grass became greener and the azaleas were bursting into bloom.

There weren’t a lot of hiking trails at this park. We did attempt the nature trail on our second day. The trail began right at the campground but just a hundred feet into the woods, it crossed a deeply ravined creek and the bridge was down and impassable. We decided to attempt the trail from the other end and hiked along the park road to where we had seen another sign for a trail. The woods were quite thick with trees and underbrush. The trail wound through the trees and popped out for views of the lake. We got almost all the way back to the campground when we ran into the same creek and ravine. Again, the way over was no longer negotiable. We retraced our steps looking for another trail and ran into the same problem. Finally, we gave up and left the trail. We wound our way through the brush carefully remembering that impressive rattlesnake. Poor Dakota had lots of logs to jump and brush right at eye level. We finally made our way through the woods back to the park road.tick

On our way back to our site, we chatted with a woman at another site who warned us to check carefully for ticks. Bingo. We embarked on beauty parlor and I found one on Dakota. You can’t kill these things easily. I incinerated it with our flamestick. “Die you nasty little creature!” I found another one on the dinette where Jim had been sitting. He was also quickly incinerated–the tick not Jim. After lunch I headed to the showers. Much to my dismay and disgust, I found my own tick and mine was affixed. Yuck. I finished my shower and sped back to Jim for surgical removal. This third tick was promptly incinerated. These woods are alive with ticks in the summer, but going off trail allowed us to find those winter-hearty souls. I really, really hate ticks.

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Following Tick Day, we decided it was time for some civilization and tourism. Natchez has a really together tourism operation. They have a gorgeously produced 50+ page guide to the city with touring info, restaurant listings and lots of glossy photos. It is available for download and in print at their attractive and informative Visitors Center. We headed into Natchez and parked at the Visitor Center. A very friendly and helpful lady greeted us and gave us our printed edition. We stayed to watch the nicely produced 20 minute film about Natchez’ history.

Armed with a map, we gathered Dakota from the truck and walked up the road to the center of town. It was a sunny and cool day just perfect to be out and about, but Natchez was oddly deserted. It was almost noon on a Saturday, but the streets were empty. The roads were devoid of traffic. Natchez was a ghost town. Where was everyone?

As we walked, we noticed broken strings of colorful beads strewn across the sidewalks and scattered in the streets. An alarming number of Solo cups and beer bottles lay about in drunken profusion. Finally we chanced upon a sign in a shop window advertising the Mardi Gras parade and celebration. It had taken place the night before. Realization dawned, Natchez was sleeping off its Mardi Gras.

People down in these parts take this whole Mardi Gras thing very seriously. Mardi Gras is not some distant bacchanal taking place in New Orleans, it is a multi-week regional build up to days of revelry. We had noticed this preoccupation for quite some time. Local news broadcasts featured special Mardi Gras graphics. Television ads offered Mardi Gras special deals. Every town had at least one parade scheduled and gaudy parade floats sprouted in parking in lots and passed us on the roads as they were hauled into position. The local radio station even had beauty tips for celebrants to help them look their best after days of festivities: stay hydrated with water, always use sun block, be sure to remove eye make-up each night, always moisturize and sooth under eye bags with cool cloths. This Mardi Gras lifestyle is serious business—a girl needs to stay looking her best.

Natchez was picturesque and we strolled the streets taking in the historic buildings. Despite the focus on tourism, Natchez was not “touristy.” These people lived in their history and it was there for tourists, but uncorrupted by tourism. Natchez lies at the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez proper sits up on the Bluff overlooking the river. Here lived the “Nabobs of Natchez,” the wealthy plantation owners who preferred life in the city to the more remote life on their plantations.

And then there was Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Quite literally down under the bluff, life here was rough and rowdy with saloons, gamblers, longshoremen and women of ill repute.

We fetched the truck, stowed Dakota and parked it next to a barbeque spot, Pig Out Inn, “swine dining at its finest.” This was seriously good barbeque and a perfect coda to our tour of Natchez.

Just before leaving Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi over the bridge into Vidalia, Louisiana. Vidalia did not have much to recommend it. Once across the river, we turned around and, with full bellies, we headed back to our trailer and home.

The next morning we were all hitched and ready to go when the ranger stopped by on his rounds. He seemed surprised we were leaving and it turned out we actually had another day reserved. But, despite what had been a very nice stay (except for the ticks), sometimes a nomad just knows when to go. It was time to move on.

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Media notes: At the Natchez Visitor Center I picked up a book by Nevada Barr titled Deep South. Although the book is fiction, it gives a tremendous sense of the country and given that the author was actually a park ranger on the Natchez Trace, almost counts as nonfiction.

60 Minutes just broadcast a story, on chess,  Chess Instills New Dreams In Kids From Rural Mississippi County, in Franklin County which is the county next to Natchez. This story, too, gave a good sense of the rural nature of this country. It was a heartwarming story well worth watching.

White Squirrels, Pie Bald Deer and the Forgotten Coast

From Chiefland we headed further up the coast of Florida to our next stop at the Ocklockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy, FL. Despite its frolicsome name, there isn’t a IMG_5079whole lot to the town of Sopchoppy. It sports the requisite number of defunct businesses, an historic and defunct railroad depot, a pizza parlor which looked a little dubious and a supermarket which was, beyond a doubt, odorous and completely dubious.

 

This section of the Florida coast has been dubbed the Forgotten Coast. I don’t think we’ll ever forget it. We really fell in love with Ochlockonee—especially once we figured out how to say it.

The park lies south of Sopchoppy at the intersection of two rivers, the Ochlockonee and the Dead, both brackish rivers flowing out to the Gulf.

The campground at Ochlockonee is not large. There are only 30 sites. They aren’t terribly far apart, but there is quite a bit of vegetation including live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and saw palmetto so it is all very pretty. Our hookups were on the wrong side of the trailer, but this was easily overcome.

Just walking around the park is a delight. The tall, thin pines grow in plentifully rows straight to the sky in the pine flatwoods. There are nice hiking trails both through the forested fields and along the waters. We loved hiking the trails.

The park is home to two exotic inhabitants. White squirrels scamper around the campground and trails. They are not albinos, but a relative of the grey squirrel. Each time we saw one, we shouted with excitement—not a normal occurrence with a squirrel sighting. Much to our disappointment, we never did see the other park exotic. The Pie Bald Deer did not come out to play with us. The ranger at the station said she hadn’t seen one since the previous week so perhaps they were on vacation.

Our campsite next door neighbors were two guys, avid fishermen. We dubbed them affectionately “the hobos.” They eschewed creature comforts, sleeping out in the elements in blankets and sleeping bags. It was pretty chilly at night, but they seemed comfortable enough. One of them had a snore which rattled the aluminum walls of our Airstream. It made me giggle every time he started up. They headed out early each day to fish and were back after dark. On Sunday they retrieved their adolescent daughters. A tent was erected and a higher degree of civility reigned at their camp. The girls were having a super time with their dads. It was really cute.

We took a looping drive around the area just to see what we could see and to find a supermarket with a little less daunting aspect than the  Sopchoppy Grocery. Again, we saw towns where life was tough. Small houses sat next to what could only be termed shacks and abandoned, cratering cabins. Rusted out mobile homes sat derelict in overgrown yards. We did laundry in Crawfordville with some pretty desperate looking folks.

But the natural beauty of the land was spectacular. We fantasized about a small plot of land on the river where the breeze would keep the air fresh and we could hike through the pine flatwoods and maybe even get a dinghy to go fishing. We would have a wide screened in porch encircling the house and spend hours watching the sun rise and fall and the light bounce on the river water.

Our four nights passed quickly. We were really sad when it was time to leave. It is a place I think we would both be happy to go back to.