Stars Did Not Align

Editor’s note: this post should have preceded the post entitled Restoration East of the Mississippi. Apologies for the inadvertent geographical diversion. 

5217 527

Just outside Star City is Cane Creek State Park. We arrived on a sunny and warm afternoon. The drive from Lake Catherine had been short and it was just past 1 p.m., early for check in. The woman in Ranger Headquarters said she wasn’t sure our site was free yet. We drove past and it didn’t look like anyone had thought about hitching up yet.

We needed a place to wait. Jim had looked at the map and saw there were two roads, one led to a boat launch, the other to the picnic area. Both roads were shown to have loops at the end. We headed down the road to the picnic area only to discover to our dismay that here was no loop, just a dead end. Uh oh.

At the picnic area, there was a small parking lot near the bathrooms and Jim pulled in. Some folks were sitting at one of the picnic tables. We figured they were probably wondering what the heck we were doing. Choosing to flee this potentially volatile scene, I headed to the rest room and left Jim to it. When I emerged, he had managed magically and gracefully to get turned around in the small parking lot. We had to laugh. Those people at the picnic table must have thought he just happened to drive me to use the ladies room with the trailer hitched even though we had a bathroom in the trailer. It was pretty funny.

5217 603

Right on time, the previous tenants pulled out of our site and we got backed in and settled. This campground is pretty small, only 24 sites and most were unoccupied. It was wooded and shady which felt good in the warm afternoon air. The lake was just visible through the trees down a hill from our site. Given our concerns about ticks, we did not set up the mat or our chairs outside. The great outdoors held little charm for us.

The ranger had warned me right up front the ticks were bad. Having just had an upsetting tick experience, we weren’t really anxious to get on the trails. We lounged around for the afternoon and managed to get the weather before the tv began pixilating wildly. A big thunderstorm was predicted.

It was a boomer and a banger all right. The lightning and thunder were impressive and the rain prodigious. It was still spitting the next morning. We spent the morning reading the paper and cleaning the trailer. We had just enough cell signal to send emails, hot spot and even make calls.

The park rented kayaks and I walked back to the ranger station to inquire about rentals. Due to the rain, they weren’t renting any that day. I had been obsessing over the tick issue since we left Lake Catherine. I was so worried about Dakota and totally grossed out that we seemed inundated with ticks. I asked the ranger if she thought I was over-reacting. She was most commiserative and sympathetic. Rangers have to do many things in their jobs, I guess therapy should be added to the list.

Lunch was an appropriate rainy day meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Right after lunch, I headed in to Star City’s sole laundromat to do the laundry. It was actually a pretty nice laundromat. Having spent quite a bit of time in various iterations of laundromats in the last few months, this was a happy surprise. I was so content sitting there knitting, I didn’t even notice when the wash cycle ended.

Late in the afternoon the skies cleared. Dakota and I took a (hopefully) tick free walk down to the fishing pier. The air was incredibly fresh and clear. Some couples were taking pictures down at the dock in full prom regalia. They seemed very happy and excited. I would expect prom is a pretty big deal in a very small town like Star City.

Since hiking the trails was off the list, the next day we decided to drive up to Pine Bluff. For some reason Pine Bluff sounded terribly familiar to us. Jim had done some research and discovered they had a series of murals painted on the walls of buildings in the downtown area in the 90’s. The walls depicted scenes of local history.

Pine Bluff was about 40 minutes north and we drove through open country. We followed the signs for the downtown and parked the truck. It was a sunny and comfortably warm day. Jim had noted the locations for all the murals and we decided to make it a walking tour.

The murals were still there, but Pine Bluff’s downtown was deserted and the buildings were crumbling. It was beyond creepy. Store windows were boarded up. We walked the sidewalk past a couple of store front lawyers’ offices proximate to the county courthouse. Otherwise, there was nothing left.

Going out of business signs decorated the fronts of buildings which were now roofless with walls beginning to collapse inward.

Railroad tracks split the downtown. A train signaled its approach and we stood by as it rumbled past us through the desolate town.

The Historic Depot Museum was defunct. We peered through windows to see the empty lobby. The ticket desk displayed its open hours and pamphlets were littered across the counter. It was as if the people had simply disappeared one day.

North of the tracks there was still some activity. A few small and dilapidated houses stood. The convention center was flanked by a now-closed hotel. A government building stood next to the post office. We turned back towards the downtown and passed a recently erected brick structure housing the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.

We spied a deteriorating brick building. Painted on its side was the legend “Tear Me Up.” Not “Tear Me Down”, but “Tear Me Up.”What did that mean? Was it a plea for restoration? Was it a protest against the rampant neglect? A cry of anguish from a heart wrenched by loss? Another building seemed to sport the beginning of the same plea, but it remained unfinished. What happened?

5217 585

Back in the truck, we drove through some depressed residential areas and up to the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. This is a predominately black institution with just over 5,000 students. The campus included a stadium, some dorms, academic buildings and, while not architecturally outstanding, it appeared to be in good shape.

We were deeply saddened at the state of Pine Bluff. The city is 75% black with about 20% of inhabitants white. The median income in the city is $30,413 and almost 1/3 of the population lives below the poverty line. How had this been allowed to happen to these people? They had been abandoned by all appearances as their city collapsed around them. In 2013 CNNMoney reported the crime rate in Pine Bluff was second only to Detroit. Recently the city was awarded $2 million to stimulate development. Hope for the future?

We drove back to Star City. Back at the park, we walked down to see Cane Creek Lake on the park road. Standing on the dock, Dakota began ferociously scratching at his leg. I checked only to discover a large tick embedded in his flesh. We walked briskly back to the trailer to perform yet another tick check.

While we were in Arkansas, a big story on the national and local news was that state’s plan to execute inmates on death row before the expiration date on their death serum. Popular opinion in the state seemed to hold that this would bring closure to the victims of heinous crimes. Others suggested taking a life under even these circumstances was unacceptable. This was not the first time that we experienced the collision of local and national news. It always made for thought-provoking juxtaposition and this was certainly the case in this instance as the state did successfully carry out four executions, two in one evening, during our stay.

The next day we would head back to Mississippi and we were glad of it. Arkansas had been a difficult state for us. We had been beleaguered by ticks. We felt uncomfortable and often unhappy. It seemed a strange state with scenic lakes anchored by hulking power stations and cities left desolate and crumbling. It was a state where even the truckers seemed malevolent. Was it us or was this really a state where good and bad seemed to fit into the same glove?

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.

IMG_1762

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.

IMG_5333

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.

deep south book cover

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.