M*I*S*S*I*S*S*I*P*P*I

Highway 98 led us north and west through Mississippi. It was a wide four lane highway with the two sets of lanes separated by a wide median. The road ran up and down gently rolling hills. Dark green pine forests lined the road kept at a respectful distance by broad strips of grass. This is very pretty country. It felt both exciting and exotic to be driving through the Mississippi countryside. We’re in Mississippi!

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Jim had booked us into the Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg. Paul B. Johnson (in case data=RfCSdfNZ0LFPrHSm0ublXdzhdrDFhtmHhN1u-gM,5H1Ys5oq8F90gr4ajL2kUkTuUsRpWJFNBs06CPgAC7fqcHZ7BZRUk04BFODScWdn1Ot-H8GNmsraaQxEcCUhF2B3TLtTtpEhXIjzA2IwL_qNQH393jegdb1uRSaqUsEVymVmEkmGoeHpByou are wondering) was the 46th Governor of the state. Our first glimpse of this park left us a bit dismayed. It looked like a moonscape wasteland of mud and tree stumps. We found out later that they draw down Geiger Lake in the wintertime to kill vegetation, but we learned that later.

It may not have been love at first sight, but we fell in love with this park and especially our campsite. We were perched at the edge of the lake and the view from our lounge area was all lake and trees, sky and clouds.

This park was originally created during World War II for the nearby soldiers at Camp Shelby. Originally Geiger Lake was Shelby Lake. During the war, this park provided recreation and relief for soldiers and their families. Camp Shelby is still active and this was another location where at night we could hear the sounds of ordinance used for training. We were told that in the summer this park explodes with activity.

We stayed five nights at Paul B. Johnson. For two northerners, it seemed funny to think of 70 degree temperatures as wintry, but it was winter and the park was pretty quiet.

In the mornings dense fog hung over the lake and we had no visibility out our lounge window. The fog would clear about ten once the sun had a chance to burn it off.  About two days into our stay a big storm was forecast and the park emptied out. We battened down the hatches and were snug in our tin can. For the rest of our stay, the park was a ghost town and we enjoyed wandering around with the park to ourselves.

The people at the park were friendly and when we walked around, we had lots of camp conversations with our neighbors from all over. There was a concentration of people from Illinois, a few from Canada, Louisiana and, of course, Mississippi. For part of our stay, our next door neighbor was a loquacious fellow from just up the road. He and his family came to stay at the park quite often. They had their favorite site. The park was their second home. He wandered over one afternoon and we had a long talk. John was from northern Mississippi originally and managed the parts department at the John Deere dealership in Hattiesburg. He told us a lot about himself. He lived in a double wide until his grandmother died and left him her home. He drove trucks for a time, but didn’t like the life. He asked about us and where we were from and it was clear he had never been up north and had no need to go. He didn’t dislike it, it just wasn’t part of his world. When Jim told him he had taught 8th grade ELA in the South Bronx, his eyebrows arched in surprise and then he exclaimed, “why, you could be my teacher!” Periodically, he would say he should go and leave us in peace and then he would settle in for another round of talk. His son, Walt, was with him. Walt didn’t say much. He would be graduating high school this year and had an opportunity to work at the dealership with his dad in the parts department. It sounded like that was the path he would take. We were sorry when they packed up to return home. They were good people and for a time our worlds intersected.

We did make an expedition to Hattiesburg. I googled the top ten things to see and do in Hattiesburg and the list ran out at about five. There is the University of Southern Mississippi and an historic district and a bunch of big box retailers. That kind of sums it up.

Our experience at this park was the first time we felt like we were having one of those picture perfect Airstream experiences. Our silver bullet gleamed in the sunlight perched at the edge of this beautiful lake and we were part of the scene. We loved walking out and looking back at the setting. A flock of ducks swam and waddled around our trailer and crows flew overhead. They kept us company and provided a soundtrack to our days. We could see and hear fish jump in the lake. At night we watched the sun disappear behind the trees and the sky filled with stars.

 

 

Navarre and the Emerald Coast

Next up we had three days of civilization planned with a stay at Emerald Beach RV Resort in Navarre, Florida. This section of the Florida Panhandle is called the Emerald CoastEmerald_Coast_Florida. In our westward push, we have traveled from the Nature Coast to the Forgotten Coast and now we have reached the Emerald Coast.

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This was a nifty rv park. The sites were pretty close together, but the people were really friendly and nice. The rv park butted up to the shore of the Gulf and some sites actually had the Gulf at their back door. That would be pretty cool. The dog park also shared some of the beach and we enjoyed watching the sun set over the water and looking across the Gulf to the barrier island.

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Navarre is sort of a bedroom community for Pensacola and the Naval Air Station. In fact the area is packed with military personnel from Eglin Air Force Base, Whiting Field Naval Air Station, Hurlbut Field and the NAS. At night we could hear the report of ordinance going off from training exercises. For the three days we spent in Navarre, our son Alex was constantly in my thoughts. Twice he was stationed at Corey Naval Air Station in Pensacola for training and being so proximate to a place he had lived, kept him front of mind. As we traveled around, I had to wonder if he had been in the same places.

Sometimes Dakota is a very funny traveling companion. Certain things just set him off and Emerald Beach hosted two of them. Next to our trailer was a Fifth Wheel with a statue of an owl out front. Dakota would go crazy when he saw that owl. He actually attacked it one day and was shocked when it turned out to have a bobble head. He was equally upset by a cement statue of a dolphin. Something like that can really tire a guy out.

There weren’t a lot of hiking opportunities in the area, but we did manage to find one the first day. We headed about a half hour north to the Blackwater Heritage State Trail in Milton, FL. This is a 9 mile long rails-to-trails trail which follows the former Florida and Alabama Railroad. The railroad hauled lumber from nearby Bagdad, Fl up to Whirley, AL and later was used to haul airplane fuel to the nearby Whiting Field.

The ranger station for the trail used to be a railroad depot. At first it looked closed and deserted, but Jim peered through the window and the ranger opened the door apologizing that it seemed closed. He was a very friendly fellow and gave us background on the trail and the area. The portion of the trail we walked starts out in Milton and is lined with a few homes and then becomes mostly woods and fields. The day was a little overcast and cool and this made our walk pleasant. The Florida sun is so strong, sometimes a little cloud cover is a relief. We met very few people on the trail.

After our walk, we headed back down Route 87 to Navarre. This highway is lined on both sides with thick pine woods. The highway used to be a two lane road, but is currently under construction to become four lanes. I guess another quiet corner of Florida is about to be subsumed with gas stations and strip malls. There sure are a heck of a lot of gas stations.

We stopped for lunch at a spot we had noticed driving up 87 earlier. Scooters looked like a good local spot boasting fresh seafood. It was a no frills affair. You placed your order as you entered, took a table and they called your number when the order was ready for pickup. It seemed quiet when we entered and ordered, but no sooner had we sat down then a flood of people arrived. The food was outstanding. Jim had a fish sandwich he said was the best he ever had and my fish tacos were delicious. I also tried fried okra for the first time which was pretty tasty as well. Somehow we made our way back there the next day and ate exactly the same thing all over again.

Day two in Navarre was reserved for a little sightseeing. We drove a big loop west through the town of Gulf Breeze which was pretty much an extension of Navarre. Strip malls lined each side of the Highway 98 offering shopping, fast food, more gas stations and an occasional apartment complex. We banked left just before the bridge to Pensacola and drove through Pensacola Beach. What a desecration! This place was so overbuilt and PB-logohideously tacky, it could be hell on earth. The houses were on top of each other and the only thing more unattractive were the monstrous high-rise condos. Garishly-signed bars and plastic-looking restaurants beckoned sunburned tourists to waddle in to over eat and over-imbibe. We had most definitely found the Redneck Riviera!

Two giant towers punctuated the end of this stretch of desolation. The contrast could not have been greater as we entered the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Pristine white sand beaches with small dunes dotted with brush stretched forward as far as the eye could see. We found a dog-friendly beach and wandered out to feel the sand in our toes and watch the waves roll in. The unparalleled beauty and quiet made Pensacola Beach that much more awful by contrast. Someone made a ton of money taking glorious natural beauty and turning it into a human cesspool. The unspoiled beaches were punctuated periodically with small parking lots. Joggers and bikers shared the road with the procession of cars and rvs. We drove for miles through this paradise.  At the far end, the national park ended and human habitation signaled a return to Navarre. The tall buildings we had seen across the gulf from the rv park signaled tomorrow’s equivalent of Pensacola Beach. It is a shame Mammon will lead yet another part of a beautiful state into ruin.