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.

Restoration East of the Mississippi

The Arkansas we drove through after leaving Cane Creek flattened out and the sun burned down on the planted fields. We were heading south and east. This seemed to be mostly farm country with small towns parsed along the highway.

At McGehee we passed the Japanese Internment Camp Museum. Sadly, it was closed and we could not stop. It was late April and the thermostat already registered over 80 degrees in late morning. There were two internment camps in southeastern Arkansas, one in Jerome and one in Rohwer. Most of the Japanese interned in the two camps here were relocated from California. Life had to have been incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. The climate was tough, not the gentler climate they must have known in California. The camps were spartan at best. These people were held for years. The Museum opened four years ago. George Takei, who was interned at Rohwer as a small child, was on hand for the occasion. That was big news in these parts.

We flew across the graceful Greenville Bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville. Built in 2010, this was the fourth longest cable-stayed bridge in North America when it opened. It replaced an older bridge which was obsolete. There aren’t that many places to cross the Mississippi. We were back on the eastern side of this dividing line. We were back in a state which had earlier charmed us with its beauty and the grace of Natchez.

Our destination was Grenada Lake just outside of Grenada, MS. We were staying at the North Abutment Campground which proved to be nestled at the northern end of the Grenada Dam.

We didn’t quite know all of this at the time. What we did know was that Grenada was a fair-sized town in central northern Mississippi. We drove through town noting that every fast food chain one could imagine was represented. Blindly following the GPS instructions, we left town along Scenic Highway 333. The road wound through woods. We really didn’t have a clue where we were going and struggled to read the signs.

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Suddenly we broke out of the woods and the most enormous lake appeared to our right.We both exclaimed at the gorgeous blue water reflected under blue skies with fantastically puffy white clouds. We crossed the 2.6 mile length of the mighty Grenada Dam and found our campground at its northern end.

The Yazoo Headwater Project which created Grenada Lake with the construction of the eponymous dam was completed in 1954. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this was a massive project. Designed to protect approximately 1.5 milliion acres of the Yazoo River Basin from flooding, it also provided endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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Those army engineers weren’t fooling around. We drove across the enormous dam admiring the lake to our right and, far below to the left, the protected valley and the Yalobusha River flowing through it.

The North Abutment campground consisted of two separate camping areas. Unlike most parks, there was no real entrance gate and we felt our way to the site which had been designated on our reservation.

This was the flattest, longest and most perfect campsite ever constructed. We barely bothered to check our side to side and front to back levels. Of course, when we did, they were perfect. Even more perfect was the breathtaking view. Jim dubbed this the country club of campgrounds and he was right.

Early in the week, the campground was pretty empty. We relished the delightful weather, the gorgeous view and the serenity. It was deeply restorative.

We had only two nights booked at North Abutment. That left us with one day to enjoy the place. We didn’t do much at all. We relaxed at our campsite. Oddly enough, we almost never sit around relaxing. Unless the weather is bad, we tend to be out and exploring. It was a nice respite to spend some time reading and knitting and listening to music.

In the afternoon we made one brief foray into town. There were a couple trails to hike, but we didn’t have the heart for it. We talked a lot about the need to avoid ticks moving forward. To say we were obsessively haunted would not be totally overstating things. We needed to undertake a tick avoidance program (TAP). Hiking those trails didn’t seem worth it.

Grenada Lake is a big destination for fishermen. The lake when full in summer consists of 35,000 acres of water. It boasts 148 miles of shoreline. In the winter they draw down the water and it shrinks to less than a third of its summer size. At flood level the dam can hold back 64,000 acres of water and the shoreline swells to 282 miles. The whole project is immense.

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We hated to leave after our second night. We toyed with staying another day, but rain was predicted and it seemed best to move on and keep to our schedule. Hitching up was a dream on our perfect pad. The truck and trailer practically hitched themselves and we headed out to the next adventure.

Palmetto Paradise

We took big and little highways on the drive from Natchez to Palmetto Island State Park in Abbeville, LA. The country through Mississippi was green and beautiful. In fact each day the grass glowed a brighter and brighter green and the azalea blooms were popping out. Spring was coming to Mississippi.

330px-Audubon_BridgeWe crossed that mighty river into Louisiana at the Audubon Bridge.  This is a beautiful and quite new bridge. It is the only crossing point on the Mississippi between Natchez to the north and Baton Rouge to the south. Our intent was to get around a traffic issue in Baton Rouge. The outcome was the experience crossing the second largest cable stayed span in the Western Hemisphere and travel through a very rural part of Louisiana. Once over the bridge, we followed rural highways which twisted and turned through small towns and along small rivers.

IMG_1810It was almost five o’clock when we arrived at Palmetto Island State Park. The park was pretty and we were happy to see copious stands of saw palmetto for which, I expect, the park was named.

When we got to our site, there was a red truck parked in it. The site next to ours was packed with pick up trucks and a big guy came walking over to us. When I say a big guy I mean big. Very Big. This guy knew his way around jambalaya, pork rinds and beer. He made Larry the Cable Guy look svelte. VBG said they would be moving the truck and immediately began dispensing guidance to Jim about how best to park. Jim told him thanks for the advice but he didn’t need it as his wife was Boss and Chief Parking Officer. (Jim will say anything to get a “helpful” adviser off his back). As we inspected our site, loud music, loud voices and the overpowering smell of something cooking drifted over to us. VBG’s wife appeared, cigarette in hand, along two hyper-yippy kind of nasty looking dogs. Did I mention the two sites were really close together with little vegetation in between? This was not an auspicious arrival.

By now Jim was looking a bit volcanic and muttering darkly. He climbed into the truck to maneuver into our site and VBG, uncomprehending and undeterred, proceeded to direct Jim’s every move with hand signals and shouts. This was not going well.

Suddenly, Jim gunned the motor and, if it is possible to do so with 48 feet of truck and trailer, patched out of the site with gravel spraying and flew off down the road. Standing next to VBG after this abrupt departure, I smiled. VBG said, “Guess he got pissed.” I agreed it seemed like that might indeed be the case. Feeling a bit exposed and with nothing else to do, I started walking. I figured if I headed to the ranger station, I would find my spouse, truck, trailer and dog eventually.

I was all the way back to the main road when the distinctive sound of a Cummins diesel engine roared up behind me. A definitely chagrined and sheepish Jim asked how furious, outraged, indignant or mad I was. Mad? I wasn’t mad. Indignant? I thought it was kind of funny.

We headed back to the ranger station to see if there was another site we could have. The station was closed but tacked to the door was a list of empty sites. We chose a site as far from our first site as possible. In a few brief moments we were unhitched. It was a lovely evening and we sat sipping a beer as the sun set. There was no sound of a radio. No yipping dogs. No loud voices. The breeze rustled through the trees and palmetto. Jim turned to me and said, “I guess I’ll be reading about this in the blog…no more than I deserve.”

When Jim had booked this park, he was told he could only book for two days because they were going to be working on the water system. There were three days blocked off on the online reservation system so no one could book sites. When we arrived on Sunday the park was pretty full, but soon it began to empty as people headed to their next destination and, since no one new could book, there were no new arrivals.

We really loved this park. It was extremely pretty. The campground was u-shaped with 96 sites strung like beads on a broken necklace. The sites were nicely distanced and well demarcated with lush vegetation. This effect was amplified greatly as the park emptied out. The comfort station was very clean and nicely appointed. There was ample hot water and you can’t overstate how important that is. I’ll go almost anywhere and do almost anything if I can have a long, hot shower. There was a laundry at the comfort station with the best lending library for books and  dvd’s we had ever seen.

The weather turned pretty hot and steamy on our third day. The Vermilion River runs through the park and canoes were available for rent. We took a paddle up the river.

The scenery was lush and teeming with all kinds of life. Spanish moss hung from the limbs of live oak and festooned the river. Moss climbed the banks of the river and the trunks of the trees. Fish jumped in the river and I had my eye out for gators. We did actually have a baby gator swim right in front of our bow. It was very atmospheric. It was also somewhat perilous. It had been decades since I was in a canoe. I’m more of a kayak person really. The canoe felt so tippy and Jim and I were not exactly synchronized in our paddling. We hit the bank periodically (snakes!) and spun in circles (gators!). I was greatly relieved when we returned to our putting in place dry and unscathed. I think Dakota prefers kayaks, too. He can see out better. Dakota reaches a zen state in a kayak sitting with his eyes closed in the sun, listening to the water.

We learned Mardi Gras had been thoroughly celebrated at the park the weekend before we arrived. Apparently, Palmetto has a bit of a reputation as a party park. Vestiges of the celebration remained. We gathered abandoned bling from vacated sites and decorated for our own Mardi Gras.

Palmetto Island is just outside the town of  Abbeville. The drive to town took about twenty minutes. It was a fascinating drive with much to see. On the way to town we passed large fields of standing water with what looked like lobster traps poking up out of the water. This gave us much to speculate about. Were those rice fields? What were the little orange traps? Well, those were indeed rice fields. The twist to this story is that the farmer wasn’t raising rice as a crop, he was raising the rice to feed his real crop—the much beloved crawfish. Crawfish actually can make a farmer some money and rice can’t. Louisiana raises 90% of all crawfish in the country and I bet they eat at least 90% of their crop themselves.   They surely do love crawfish boil.

Another puzzler on our way to and from town we a airfield with a fleet of helicopters standing at attention in a row. Next to the airfield was a parking lot jammed with every color and variety of pickup truck imaginable. After some investigation, it turned out that among the charter businesses operating out of the airport were several servicing the oilfields. We postulated that the many trucks belonged to the workers pulling their shifts out on the rigs.

Abbeville was a more prosperous town than many. Our guess is this was partly due to the presence of oil field workers in the town. It would make sense they would live near transportation to the fields. In town there were some historic old buildings, what appeared to be two local theater groups. Local businesses, lawyers and health services rounded out what was on offer to local inhabitants. There were also a good handful of restaurants.

The plan was to have a big night out in Abbeville. We had eaten out only a handful of times during our entire trip and never for dinner so this was pretty heady stuff. The ranger at Palmetto had a hand out of restaurants and we checked them out. The winner was Shucks. It billed itself as having the best oysters and seafood and looked like a hopping establishment.  It may have been the day after Mardi Gras, but the place was packed. We had delicious oysters and seafood gumbo. It was great fun rubbing elbows with the locals and seeing a bit of Abbeville at night. We drove home through the lush night air and enjoyed one last night at Palmetto Island.

Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.