03-10-2014 Natchez Jewel Part 1

Current Location:  Rising Star Campground COE  south of Pine Bluff, AR 65 degrees F and partly cloudy at 8PM

Natchez_053It is just a little before 6AM on Tuesday morning and still dark outside.  The night chorus by the lake in this lovely park is still going strong.  As I fell asleep last night I recognized crickets and frogs and didn’t have a clue what other night creatures were making the peeps and hoots and whistles that lulled me to sleep.  I stepped outside a few moments ago to try to figure it out again.  Impossible.  One would have to be a Mississippi native, with long nights to listen and decipher the music.

there are at least a dozen kinds of leaves on this forest floor

Natchez_062Natchez State Park was a jewel in disguise, at least to us.  Entering the park, there is a sign directing toward Campground A, and another toward Campground B and the main office.  When we came in night before last, we went to our assigned campsite in A, following a very old, very poor, rough narrow road into the campground.  As I mentioned, it was tight and a bit crowded.  Interesting was the word.

Natchez_064We made the decision at that time to spend another day exploring Natchez, and yesterday before going to town, we stopped in at the camp office to request an extension.  Lo and behold, we found another route into campground A and the beautiful campground B.  Seems as though the water pump was broken, and there was no water in B, hence all the assignments to A. These newly found roads were excellent, smoothly paved and well signed.

State park facilities?Driving through B, we hoped for the chance to camp there, in front of the small lake and in the large spacious sites that were nestled into the leafless but lovely hardwood forest.  Not a problem, checkout time was 2PM, and we had our choice of spaces, picking number 36, on the outside loop by the lake.

It is amazing to me how different our impression of this state park would have been if we had only seen A, or if we had entered the previous night and been in B.  This is a lovely park, and as most RV’rs know, expensive doesn’t always mean level.  Here each campsite is graced with a perfectly level cement RV pad and a cement pad underneath the large picnic table.  There is electric and water when it is working, and just $13.00 per night for seniors.  Some sites might be a bit short for a big rig, but there were also plenty of big rigs in some of the longer spaces.  When I say plenty, I mean three.  Campground B wasn’t even 1/3 full last night. Even with the ten miles or so trip back to Natchez, it is a perfect place for home while exploring. 

amazing oaks at Jefferson CollegeNatchez was a surprise.  With three hundred years of history and a strategic location along the Mississippi River, the people are deservedly proud of their city.  It is really just a nice sized town, with a population of a little more than 15,000 people. I don’t think I can remember seeing so much culture in such a small space anywhere we have visited.

Our first planned stop was the Visitor Center, but we were sidetracked by the Jefferson College, located at what was once the town of Washington, and the Territorial Capital from 1802 until 1827. I picked up a brochure listing the trees and plants on the beautiful nature trails around the restored buildings and we took Abby for a walk.  Knowing our agenda for the day was a big one, we thought better of wandering the beautiful grounds for as long as they deserved.

Jefferson CollegeThe Visitor Center near the Mississippi River is impressive.  In addition to information about the city of Natchez, the visitor center for the National Historic Park and the Natchez Trace is in the same building. For $1.50 each we watched a great 25 minute movie about the history of Natchez. We knew from reading the night before that we were in Natchez during what is called “Pilgrimage”, a long standing tradition sponsored by the two local garden clubs since the early 1930’s.

downtown NatchezNatchez was once the hub of cotton production in this part of the south, and during it’s heyday before the Civil War, more then 3/4 of the millionaires in the entire United States lived right here in Natchez.  There are more than 500 Antebellum homes in this small town that are on the National Historic Register.  Some of these residences are simple modest bungalows and cottages, but are far outnumbered by the huge palatial mansions that were built by the cotton growers.

Natchez_045The people are proud of their Antebellum heritage, and the annual spring and fall Pilgrimages reflect that pride, as does the performance at the City Auditorium of the Historic Natchez Tableaux.  There are other theater performances during Pilgrimage, which this year began on March 8 and extends a little over a month into April.  Our day just happened to coincide with the 4x weekly performance of the Tableaux, so our first plan was to purchase tickets at the visitor center for $15. each.

There are 12 mansions on the Pilgrimage tours, with visits to 3 mansions for $30. and a complicated schedule for which three houses will be on each tour.  With a bit of ambivalence about the romantic interpretation of Antebellum life in Natchez, we thought that visiting the free National Historic Park was more to our liking.

walking to William Johnson House in the National Historic ParkThe National Historic Park encompasses three sites, including the undeveloped Fort Rosalie overlooking the river and not open to the public, the Melrose mansion and the William Johnson House.  The William Johnson House is right downtown and we parked right in front of it for our visit.

The story of William Johnson is fascinating.  Born a slave to a black mother and her owner, he was emancipated by his father/owner at the age of eleven. Trained as a young boy as a barber, William eventually owned three barbershops in the city.  Even though once a slave, as a free person, he was not prohibited from owning slaves and by reaching financial success, William was able to purchase slaves and profit from their labor. 

William Johnson's diariesWhat set William apart, however, was his sixteen years of hand written diaries that include some of the most detailed accounts of daily life in Natchez at that time.  Little in his diaries reflects any personal feelings about family , slavery, or race.  Visiting his residence was interesting, but the park displays about life for a free person of color at the time were more fascinating. Another interesting fact learned at the William Johnson visitor center was that during the early 1800;s, the town was peopled by about 3,000 whites, 1,600 black slaves, and 200 free blacks who were mostly mixed race.  Currently the town is peopled nearly 60 percent blacks, less than 40 percent whites, and tiny tidbits of Hispanic, Indian, and Asian people.

Natchez_049We then drove out to Melrose, only to discover that visiting the interior of the mansion was by tour only and we were past tour time.  We were able to walk the grounds and visit the slave quarters of what were called “town slaves”, supposedly a life much better than field slaves were allotted.  All these great houses were built with slave labor and the wealth accumulated by cotton growers with huge plantations and slave labor down on the Mississippi flood plain.  They chose to build their big houses up on the flood free cliffs above the River in Natchez. 

Natchez_056Natchez_055We ended that part of the day with a visit to the Forks in the Road, nothing more than a bare grassy spot with a haunting plaque commemorating the location of the second largest slave trading spot in the South. Slaves were brought from all over the south to this location to be sold for labor at the huge cotton plantations. The juxtaposition of the wealth and romance of the Antebellum South and the slave trade that supported it is hard to fathom. We visited Charleston, another place full of Civil War history and that same conflict of our American story, but somehow Natchez seemed to personify all that was at the heart of what the South once was.

Next: Natchez Jewel, part 2

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.