3-09-2014 Crossing Mississippi: Do you remember Hattiesburg?

4AM in Natchez State Park Mississippi  50F with fog and a high predicted of 72F

If you remember what happened in Hattiesburg, you are better than I am. 

Santa Rosa Island on the morning we are leavingWe left Fort Pickens by 7:30 in spite of the spring forward time change.  Even with a stop at the dump station, we were on the road by 8, wondering at the lack of traffic in Pensacola on the interstate.  Oh.  Yes!  It is Sunday morning AND the first day of Daylight Savings Time and everyone is still sleeping.  I don’t hate the time change, it has been going on forever and is one of those things that lends a little shift to the daily routine. Still, the first week in March does seem a bit early since winter isn’t even officially over.

I have been following the weather rather diligently for all routes north and west for the last couple of weeks, hoping for a shift from freezing rain and icy roads that have plagued the South all the way to coastal Texas.  For a time there, as Nicki and Jimmy know well, there was no way west that was free of difficulty.

Pensacola morning traffic on I-10Missouri is notorious for dramatic weather shifts, and this week is no exception.  For the next day or so, the temps will be in the 70’s, and then on Tuesday night it is dropping to a high of 40F and a low in the high 20’s with snow.  Yup, I am heading for Missouri.  I studied many possible routes, many possible plans, and finally, with the historic river city of Natchez in our back yard tonight, we decided to delay an extra day and travel north toward Missouri AFTER the snow.  With a little bit of luck, Missouri will refrain from doing its Missouri thing and not snow within hours of the 70 degree prediction.

So many ways to cross Mississippi.  I read so many blogs that talk about routes and cities and things to do along the way.  Sometimes Mo asks me, “So can you decide to go somewhere you haven’t read about on a blog?”  Her question brought me up short.  Hmmmm…have I only a sense of adventure if someone has already clued me in on what is to come?  What if Lewis and Clark had felt that way.

Mobile on a Sunday morningIn response to her question, I routed us in completely unfamiliar territory directly northwest across the state of Mississippi, traveling north on I-10 only long enough to get from Pensacola through Mobile Alabama.  So very much to see and do in Mobile Bay, (as I knew from reading blogs) but this time around we only passed through.

Our destination for the day was Natchez, and with several RV parks that I found on Passport America either completely full or very far from our route, we decided to give the Natchez WalMart a try.  A phone call confirmed parking overnight was OK, and for a time we thought we were settled into evening plans.  That was before Hattiesburg.

visitor centerSituated about half way across the state, Hattiesburg has an excellent website, with an excellent writer and web designer extolling the delights of the city and its several historic districts.  Ok then…let’s explore Hattiesburg, go for some city self guided drives and check out the architecture!  I completely neglected to consider the fact that it was Sunday, and especially here in the Bible Belt of Mississippi nothing was open, including the beautiful Visitor Center.  Unlike some centers we have visited on the weekends, there were no brochures left outside for travelers and we were on our own.

Hattiesburg_062Our entry into town was a bit sketchy, with no formal plan, we simply followed the google map directions and ended up on what is called “Old 49”.  This particular part of Hattiesburg is a bit different, a bit like the south of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.  The road was rough with big potholes, the houses were overgrown and run down and the few people walking around appeared nearly destitute.  Hmmm…beautiful Hattiesburg?  Where is it?

We finally found an empty parking lot and Mo pulled over so we could try to figure out where to go.  As we were parked, a young woman in extremely tattered clothing  (I am pretty sure it wasn’t a fashion statement), came up to the rig and banged on the window, hollering “wha yodon hay yo?!”  Ok then.  I asked her to repeat herself and she did, but I can’t even spell much less understand what she was saying.  Instead I asked where the Visitor Center was and she pointed in what turned out to be the complete opposite direction of where we actually found it.

leftover from the tornado more than a year agoOther folks in that part of town seemed less than happy about some white women from Oregon in a motorhome wandering through their neighborhoods, and as we passed the local WalMart, I had some second thoughts about camping at the WalMart in Natchez.

After wandering a bit and finding the closed Visitor Center on the “other side of the tracks”, we parked the MoHo in the nice empty parking lot, reviewed the website locations for the historic areas of town, and prepared to go searching for interesting architecture and history. 

Before leaving, however, I turned on the internet and started looking up more options for possible camping areas near Natchez.  A few misses, including no COE parks for a hundred miles, but suddenly Bingo…Natchez State Park showed up not far from our planned entry to the Natchez Trace.  A quick call and an easy reservation for a spot for the night was a bit of a relief.

trying to find the historic route with a closed visitor centerWandering back toward town with a better idea of our possible destinations, we found some of the old neighborhoods and historic homes. One gem of the community is the African American Military History Museum, located downtown.  We never did find the museum, but Mo read that it was actually closed after the tornado….tornado????

It was then that we knew why the name Hattiesburg sounded familiar.  Just over a year ago, Hattiesburg was the town we all saw on the news, devastated by a category 4 hurricane on February 10, 2013. The damage was extensive, including many buildings at the University of Southern Mississippi located on the west side of town.

leftover from the tornado more than a year agoWhat we saw, however, on the east side of town was more disturbing.  Old neighborhoods, obviously poor black neighborhoods, were devastated as well, and a year later, many are still in disrepair.  The sadness and emptiness was palpable as we wandered through the area.  Feeling a bit like stalkers, we drove a couple of the streets before trying to be respectful of the tragedy there by leaving.

A bit more driving took us past some interesting old homes in several neighborhoods, but the experience would have been greatly enhanced I am sure with help from information at the visitor center.  If you want to see Hattiesburg, don’t do it on a Sunday. 

downtown HattiesburgWe left town traveling north on Highway 49 and then northwest on Highway 84 all the way to Natchez.  I am not sure I have driven such an empty highway since we were in Alaska!  The beautifully surfaced four lane divided highway was nearly completely devoid of vehicles, much less any kind of RV’s.  Choosing the route on the map, I had expected the road to be some kind of meandering back way through small towns and slow zones, but instead it was fast and beautiful.  So much better than my original plan to travel west on I-10 all the way to Baton Rouge and then north along the Mississippi River.

1-03-09-2014 Hattiesburg Mississippi1

1-03-09-2014 Hattiesburg MississippiOur gorgeous drive was getting a bit long when we exited 84 and entered Highway 61 north.  Without a map any better than the official AAA map of Mississippi, and without the iPad fired up, we had only a general idea of where to find the Natchez State Park.  The directions were clear, but instead of waiting for the state park sign to appear, we saw Natchez Trace and ended up on the Natchez Trace Parkway. 

unbelieveable wide open non traffic day crossing MississippiMind you, this is one gorgeous road, but I was completely turned around, and driving into the sun should have been a clue.  Lucky for us, the parkway exited in a few miles back in Natchez and we only lost 45 minutes or so before retracing our route and waiting for the real exit to Natchez State Park.

The city of Natchez has a colorful history, one that we want to explore, so hopefully we can get another night here at this “interesting” state park for exploring the town today and continuing on our trek north on the Natchez Trace tomorrow.  At the moment, I have no photos of this state park, but  in spite of the hilly location in a draw, the site is on a level concrete pad and there is power and water.

There are a few nice motorhomes here, but there were also a few guys working on very old vehicles, and neither one of the campers who welcomed us to the camping area had teeth. We did sleep fairly well, until I woke at 3am at least.natchez

Another day ahead, and another new place to explore, including the infamous “Natchez Under the Hill”. Hoping for some good luck as we continue our explorations without benefit of other blog writer’s stories.

3-08-2014 Fort Pickens Day

Current Location: Natchez State Park, Mississippi 62 F this evening with partly cloudy skies

Fort Pickens-066This morning (Sunday) we are sleeping in, sort of.  Daylight Savings time kicked off at 2am and it is now 7 and just barely light out.  We thought an early departure would be in order, expecting to travel a bit over 300 miles or so northward today.  Options are plentiful, and I am leaning toward the direct route from Mobile through Hattiesburg to Natchez. 

power station installed in 1903, the generator roomI didn’t want to get on the road, however, before remembering the haunting experience of visiting the actual fort at Fort Pickens.  Just another way of realizing how much can be learned from being on the road.  I had never heard of Fort Pickens, other than bloggers posting now and then about camping here. 

Fort Pickens_019Until I visited the fort yesterday, I didn’t have a real grasp on what the Civil War meant in the state of Florida.  We have seen many references to the war in other sites in Florida.  Somehow I never realized how important Pensacola Bay was to the South, and to the Union trying to control the south by controlling its major ports.

Fort Pickens_024As I have said in the past, I don’t attempt to be either a travelogue or a history book, as there are so many fine resources for this kind of information.  However, if you are like me, being in a place triggers my imagination, and I found myself wanting to learn more and more about how this area was affected by the Civil War. 

Fort Pickens_027The National Park Service had some great books at the fort Visitor Center, and I wanted to stand and read them all, and maybe even buy them, but managed to refrain.  Instead, I found most of the information written by the park service is online, specifically, the role of Pensacola Bay  and the four major forts in the area in the Civil War is summarized here.  I was especially fascinated reading about the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, with troops losing their way in the dunes and scrub, among other human details.

At Pensacola Bay, there are four major forts and a bunch of batteries, most built long before the Civil War, fortified and rebuilt again in the early 1900’s around the time of the Spanish American War, and then rebuilt and refortified again for World War II.

Fort Pickens is a “real” fort, almost medieval in appearance, with bricks fired in the early 1800’s creating thick walls, much like those seen at our visit to the Dry Tortugas a few years ago.  There is even a moat, albeit a “dry moat”.  Fort Pickens_049

A few cannons are on display, with information about the smooth bore cannons and rifled cannons, and 300 pound cannon balls made of iron.  Geez.  Fort Pickens_029

A fascinating thought from the brochure about the Advanced Redoubt of Fort Barrancas across the bay, and also true of Fort Pickens: “This fort is a study in changes.  The construction began with slave labor but was finished by free men.  In an age of brick and stone, its walls were filled with cement.  Although it was designed to last for centuries, it was outdated before the last brick was set.”

Sounds like some of our defense stuff from the current times, I would say. Evidence of this kind of shift in defense is displayed extremely well at Fort Pickens with the “fort within a fort”.  Battery Pensacola (the dark walls in the photo) was constructed in 1898 to withstand the new heavier cannon power that the brick walls of the original fort could no longer handle.Fort Pickens_035

Funniest oops of all was the accidental explosion of one of the powder magazines that blew out a big hole in the north side of the fort and was never repaired.Fort Pickens_036

Fort Pickens_044Another bit of information that was totally surprising to me was that Geronimo was incarcerated at Fort Pickens for a time.  I had no clue, even though I knew that he was brought to Florida and never again saw his homeland.  Somehow history becomes much more real when you are standing in the actual location.  I am reminded again of moments standing at the scene of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on our trip in 2012.

We wandered around for along time, following along with the self-guided tour booklet an marveling at the fascinating story of the evolution of homeland defense for more than 100 years, all now obsolete with the advent of air power  and missiles.  Large forts no longer protect our harbors and bays, but Pensacola still houses a huge military presence.Fort Pickens_034

With Abby safely napping in the MoHo while we toured, Mo and I took the time to go to the beach together for a bit and enjoy the gorgeous white sands and beautiful waters one last time.  There was so much to do in the area, and we barely tapped the surface.  In spite of our desire to visit Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt, (a fortification before the major fortification, built to slow down the attackers before they get to the real thing) the need to slow down and rest a bit before dinner won out.Fort Pickens_079

We would have loved especially visiting the Naval Aviation Museum, the best in the country I have heard, and if we had been here a bit longer, we may have been treated to a practice performance by the Blue Angels.  Yes, so very much to do.Fort Pickens_084

Our last night in Florida was celebrated in true Pensacola style with a drive across the bridges from the island to the mainland for dinner at McGuire’s.  On a Saturday evening the place was packed, and it is first come first served, no reservations.  In spite of the giant crowds jammed at the door, in the bar, in the gift shop and everywhere we looked, within 20 minutes we were seated at a cozy table.  We even managed a seat in the bar for pre dinner drinks! 

DSC06804McGuires is an amazing place, and with the huge jammed full parking lot, somehow the interior of the restaurant is designed such that it feels like a small rather intimate pub.  I have no idea how they do that.  We had one of the best waitresses ever, who treated us as if she had all the time in the world, and saw to our every need.  Dinner was simple fish and chips, with those fabulous Rueben Egg Rolls for an appetizer.  Mo loved them as much as I did!

I lugged the camera along, but took not a single photo, either of the pub, the people, or the food.  It was just too much to try to take pictures while we were having fun and thoroughly enjoying the people watching. 

90053023Right across from us was a couple on the date from hell.  The girl was adorable, and the guy was a dork, on his phone half the time, and you could tell they didn’t know each other very well.  It was so obviously a first date and an awkward one at that.

Then we noticed a lot of guys dining together, most of them with very spiffy military haircuts, and even a group of incredibly well pressed Marines sat down next to us.  Whew….there must be a LOT of loose guys running around in this town on a Saturday night. Now, of course, I wish I had taken some photos to illustrate all this interesting humanity, but you will just have to use your imagination.

imagesIn spite of the no photos problem, I couldn’t resist stealing a few from the internet, just to give you a bit of a feel for the place.  They even have their own Irish Piping Band, and a St Paddy’s Day run, their own double decker busses and who knows what else.  I guess it is a bit like Irish Disneyland.  Fake but fun. And terrific food!

We both thought it quite fitting that we started our sojourn into Florida with dinner at McGuire’s in Destin, and ended it with dinner at McGuire’s in Pensacola.