We left New Orleans after the beignet binge at Café du Monde and headed for a quick two day jaunt through Mississippi. As it turns out, we perhaps should have stayed longer. Some of the friendliest people we have yet encountered were found here, and the heavily wooded, rolling hills of the Oxford area were scenic. Our drive up I-55 was the fastest way out of New Orleans and we decided to bypass the swampland in favor of a direct shot to Jackson. The only item of note about this segment of the trip is that, apparently, I-55 is one of the most expensive pieces of highway ever engineered and implemented (other than Boston's Big Dig). Because they couldn't lay concrete down on the boggy ground of northern Louisiana, they instead built 30 miles of 6 lane causeway over the bayou. You are 30 feet above marsh and water for an incredible distance and keep waiting to touch ground, but it just goes and goes. Not a reason in and of itself for traveling on I-55 in these parts, but it was interesting and we are happy our tax dollars are helping all of the bayou folks find a quick way to the New Orleans casinos
. We arrived in Jackson, MS late in the afternoon and stayed at the Millsap-Buie House, a bright bed and breakfast with a view of the state capitol building. The only thing Chris will remember is a daunting three story climb to our room here with the contents of the Suburban on his back. So far his vertebra are only compressed and not herniated. We saw little of this city as it was largely state government oriented and had chosen it basically because it was a springboard to the Natchez Trace, which we would embark upon the next day.
May 29 (Day 29) Jackson, MS-Natchez Trace Parkway-Oxford, MS
We left Jackson early for a 150 mile segment along the Natchez Trace (Trail), a scenic and historical parkway running from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN. The Trace follows an old Indian trail later used by Mississippi River runners called "Kaintucks". These enterprising fellows would, in the Antebellum days, ferry goods down the Mississippi to Natchez, then sell their rafts for scrap rather than fight the strong current back up-river. They then began the lonely hike back up the Trace to their homes, where they would start the trade loop all over again. There are numerous historical sites along this trail, and as it is a parkway, speed limits are set at 50 mph, entry and exit are very limited and no commercial traffic (trucks) is permitted. This set the stage for a leisurely cruise back in time, the first real "Sunday drive" of our trip. Our first stop on the trace was at the Mississippi Arts Collective, which showcased local artists work. We then started up the Trace in earnest, the narrow ribbon of pavement turned on gentle arcs through the Mississippi countryside, alternating stands of southern pine and old growth hardwood rolled by. The parkway was immaculately manicured and the Park Service seemed to be mowing the natural grasslands every few miles (groundskeepers here surely have guaranteed life employment same as the painting crew of the Golden Gate Bridge)
. Miles would go by with no traffic in either direction, nary a crack or pothole to be found in 150 miles-in other words, driving nirvana. We drove by impossibly dense carpets of black-eyed susans in wide open fields, then just as quickly the canopy of hardwoods would close over us and we would be in a sun-dappled tunnel of green. We hiked in a Bald Cypress Swamp with the girls in packs, the majestic cypress seemingly drowning under the still waters of the swamp, an unbroken expanse of green algae looking flat and smooth like pool table felt around the roots (see the pics...) We saw box turtles sunning themselves on a log, sharing some space with a baby alligator maybe 2 to 3 feet in length. No, we did not see its mother...the cypress swamp was definitely a highlight of the Trace. We even stopped for a picnic with the girls, which they enjoyed, stretching their legs, scratching in the forest with sticks and just laying back in the sunshine on the picnic blanket. We exited the trace in Tupelo and bypassed Elvis' birthplace in favor of dinner in Oxford. Oxford is well known as both the home of University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and also William (Sound and the Fury, The Reivers) Faulkner. It is a great town with wonderful resources, great book stores and restaurants and an EXCEEDINGLY friendly populus. We stayed at the Oliver-Britt House, a B&B right in close to the town square. We are finding B&Bs are the way to go in the south, with large suites, high ceilings, and beautiful post-civil war period architecture
. We walked the square, window shopped, chatted with students and townsfolk alike and had dinner in a restaurant called "208 Lamar" that reminded us of our favorite Mill Valley restaurant, the Avenue Grill (now closed). We reloaded on books for the girls at a wonderful book store, since our car and bedtime reading had exhausted our inventory. We strolled back to our "home", watching kids play in front yards and chatting again with folks in the yard as if we had been neighbors for years. There are advantages to small town living away from big cities. Oxford, MS is our winner for southeast small town, with a Fredricksburg, TX feel to it.
May 30 (Day 30) Oxford, MS-Memphis, TN
The girls are becoming quite adept at falling asleep in a new bed almost every night, and life on the road seems to be agreeing with them. They are becoming hotel/B&B critics in their own right; Jocelyn usually looking for fold-out bed quality, running room and "brightness" and scents (ambiance, I guess); Isabelle looks for bathtub space, availability of note pads and pencils and number of closets, drawers and crawl spaces to hide Kirsten's cosmetics or Chris' electronics or car keys. Whenever we are in an elevator, Jocelyn asks if we are going to get stuck (because of an elevator which paused for five seconds in San Antonio). Anyway, the girls are usually sleeping until 7 AM or so, and then we roll out to breakfast at the Bottletree Bakery (famous and mentioned in Oprah magazine, Kirsten tells me)
. The baked goods were tasty (blueberry muffins and molasses-baked bagels) and we were fuelled for our visit to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's residence from 1930 to his death in 1962. Now I haven't read Faulkner since high school but we just felt we should go (maybe to inspire us to read some Faulkner in the future). We found the gates to Rowan Oak chained shut. Undaunted, we parked the car outside the property and walked in (the signs said "No trespassing at night"). A sign on the door of this beautiful, white mansion said "closed for renovation, please feel free to walk the grounds", which we did, the girls playing amid the spreading Oaks, pines and most impressively, magnolias in bloom with creamy white flowers the size of salad bowls. No tours of the house, but we could see the attraction to Rowan Oak for the author. We made the 90 minute drive to Memphis without much to note. We had lunch at the world-renowned (Peter Goldmacher recommended) Rendezvous for a plate full of "dry" ribs (the way they prepare them here). The dimly-lighted restaurant was decorated in old-Memphis memorabilla and the wisecracking waiters seemed to have worked there for decades, at least We had never seen Isabelle eat so much in her life, she was on a mission (as were we). We continue to eat our way through the South (excellent regional recommendations by "Food Finds" on the Food Channel), and at some point we will get back on track (we promise, Tina!).