A Travellerspoint blog

September 2011

The Most Southern Place on Earth - Mississippi

STATE 25 - MISSISSIPPI

sunny 90 °F

Mississippi is the Most Southern Place on Earth. Well, geographically it is not the most southern on the Earth, or even the most southern in the US. But according to James C. Cobb, a former president of the Southern Historical Association, due to its unique racial, cultural, and economic history, no place is more southern. Megan and I were headed down to Mississippi to rub elbows with the locals and attend a down-South wedding!

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It should come as no surprise that the Mississippi lies in the Mississippi River Valley (the Mississippi River runs along the length of Mississippi's western border). The Mississippi River has greatly influenced much of Mississippian culture, from antebellum times to current day. The state of Mississippi is relatively flat, so when the river floods, its effects can be far reaching. Megan and I decided to stretch our legs after a long ride in the car and experience the Mississippi River runoff first hand by taking a hike through the floodplain.

It was a hot, muggy morning despite being late September. My shirt was sticking to my back and it was barely 9am, good thing we were hitting the trail before it got even warmer. Megan and I checked in at the front desk and told the ranger we were going on the river trail. Upon hearing our trail choice, the ranger looked up and said, "you watch out now, I heard the mosquitoes are real bad right now." I didn't give the warning much thought. Back home in North Carolina you have to deal with mosquitoes every second of every day during the non-winter months. Mosquitoes may be a nuisance, but they aren't going to keep me from taking a hike. We said good bye to the ranger and started off on the trail.

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The trail was dominated by wooden walkways. The river runoff trail could get pretty soggy, and large portions of the trail wound through marsh land. We descended lower and lower into the valley until we reached the bottom of the valley and the marshlands extended off in every direction. There was very little direct sunlight beneath the canopy of the trees, no wind at all, and the water seemed completely stagnant.

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As I followed Megan on the trail, I noticed her shadow looked really weird. It seemed be vibrating and inconsistent. Suddenly it hit me, it wasn't Megan's shadow I was seeing, it was the thousands and thousands of mosquitoes following her! I tried to keep from panicking, but I realized that if we stopped moving, we would end up having an incredibly itchy weekend. It was just about then that Megan wanted me to stop to take the picture above. It took a lot of convincing, but I agreed to a single picture, but I was going to keep moving until the last possible second to keep the mosquitoes from landing on me. Unfortunately Megan caught my "mosquito dance" on video.

After the picture, Megan and I took off at a sprint back to the visitor's center. Once making it safely back inside, we slapped each other silly to kill the mosquitoes that were sucking us dry. My smug North Carolinian pride took a big hit as I realized that I couldn't handle the onslaught of Mississippian mosquitoes.

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The visitor's center was pretty cool. It was like a mini-zoo displaying all the types of wildlife that could be found in the Mississippi River run-offs. Terrariums filled with turtles, alligators, and snakes filled one humid room, while another had over 25 aquariums recreating the different environments of the river and forested ponds.

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I've seen plenty of turtles, bass, bluegill, catfish, and minnows before, but the museum made them seem exotic in the beautiful and realistic aquariums. As we exited the aquariums, we entered a large room filled with stuffed versions of the mammals that call Mississippi home. Megan and I posed as the different animals. I chose to mimic the boar and the bat, while Megan did her best two-headed snake impression (the snake was actually alive!).

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Megan and I left the trails and museum to grab some lunch. We headed to downtown Jackson to grab a bit to eat at the Mayflower, the restaurant from the movie The Help. The local Jackson residents we had met the night before had warned us about walking around downtown (apparently the area was full of crime and was dangerous). However, just as it was walking around downtown Montgomery, it seemed as if we had the entirety of downtown to ourselves. The security person guarding the building that we parked in front of (who watched us suspiciously as we consulted the map to get our bearings) was the ONLY person we saw while downtown. No cars, no one walking around, nothing. Even the restaurant we had planned on eating at was closed because the owner was a wedding.

Side note: Notice how weird the roads look. The were almost a pink color and seemed to be made from paved gravel instead of asphalt.

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We walked from the middle of downtown uphill to the Old Capital building and home of the war memorials. The Old Capital (the state capital building from 1839 to 1903, including when Mississippi helped form the Confederate States of America) was located in a beautiful area overlooking downtown. The following picture features the War Memorial that sits to the left of the Old Capital building.

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When Jackson was founded, the entire area was a giant swamp (not too dissimilar from the area we had hiked through that morning). I guess that's why the capital building was placed on the highest point downtown. Looking the other direction, you could see the Jackson skyline (I didn't have the best vantage point when taking the picture).

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We walked through the War Memorial. There was an area that housed the Mississippi soldiers that died in battle, as well as a number of sculptures and inscriptions honoring the soldiers. Since we were the only people there, the entire area felt very serene.

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Of course it wouldn't be a southern state capital if didn't also include a memorial to the Confederate soldiers, which was located on the other side of the Old Capital building. Standing at the heart of the memorial was a life-size statue of Jefferson Davis.

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From the site of the old capital, we walked down to the new capital building. Squirrels were everywhere and clucked loudly at us as we walked by. After taking a short rest on the benches in front of the capital, we made our way back to the car.

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That night we met up with our friends at a Mississippi restaurant, Cock of the Walk, overlooking the river. The restaurant only served two things, fried catfish or fried chicken. You could also order sides of fried onions, turnip greens, fried pickles, and cornbread. Everything is served on tin plates, and beer is served in tin pitchers. We ordered multiples of everything, it was delicious!

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The next morning Megan and I headed out to the Mississippi Ag Museum to get a feel for "the real Mississippi". The Ag Museum was actually a collection of buildings. The largest building was a museum with displays on Mississippi agriculture, but other buildings held special classes and displays. Adjacent to the museum was a collection of historic Mississippi homes and buildings that had been relocated here. We decided the check out the main museum first and work our way outside.

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Upon entering the museum, we were greeted by a very realistic looking Mississippi man.

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The man sat outside a replica of s simple house, and I guess he was supposed to represent a native of Mississippi. He was incredibly lifelike, and it wasn't until I got up close that I realized that he wasn't real. He was also pretty creepy, take a look at his eyes.

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Escaping the gaze of the Mississippi man, we entered the first display. Row and rows of different types of axes filled several walls, showcasing the various tools of the woodworkers (or the types of weapons used by the creepers represented by the man guarding the entrance).

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Reminiscent of the dinner from the night before, the museum had a display on catfish farming. Mississippi farms more catfish than anywhere else in the country. When you eat catfish, it was probably grown in Mississippi.

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The next portion of the museum focused on the cotton roots of Mississippi. At the time of the civil war, Mississippi was the 5th wealthiest state in the country due to its cotton production. Even after the war, cotton remained king. They had an old cotton gin and examples of the textiles that were produced by Mississippi.

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The best part of the museum, other than the axes and freaks, was the music that was constantly playing in the background. The upbeat, banjo-pluckin' tunes prompted Megan and I to have a hillbilly dance-off! Who do you say won?

After the dance-off, Megan and I made our way outside. After exploring the big city of Jackson, it was time to walk through Small Town Mississippi!

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The Ag Museum had actually moved buildings from historic sites around the state to create a little town. Several old houses (most of them log cabins), an old church, farm buildings, an old schoolhouse, and a trading post were just some of the buildings that made up this little town. Animals grazed in the pastures and rested in the barn. As you walked through the old homes sensors would detect as you entered each room which started an audio tour. Everything was kept was authentic as possible and was very well done.

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You could also walk into the largest (working) cotton gin in the world. It was massive! It was steam powered and even included a vacuum sucker that could pull cotton out of wagons. You had to walk up a flight of stairs to see the main compartment. As hot as it was already inside the room, I wouldn't want to be there when they fired up the cotton gin.

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Between the agriculture tour and the relaxed attitude of its residents (not to mention the delicious down-home cooking), Mississippi reminded me of life in North Carolina (although I would agree with James C. Cobb in that the Deep South is a different type of southern). Megan and I started to make our way out of the Ag Museum, but not before one last hillbilly dance in the town garden.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 11:08 Archived in USA Tagged animals museum marshes historical local_food Comments (2)

Montgomery, Alabama

STATE 24 - ALABAMA

overcast 80 °F

Grits, Hank Williams, Rosa Parks, fried chicken, and Martin Luther King Jr can all be found in my next destination. I'm heading into the Deep South to visit Montgomery, Alabama!

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As Megan and I rolled into Montgomery, it looked like it was about to rain (and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife). I hoped it wouldn't rain, because our plan was to walk through downtown to see the sights. Montgomery has played a role in some of the most significant events in our nation's history. Jefferson Davis took the oath of office here when Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the civil war. 75 years later another leader, Martin Luther King Jr., rose up to fight against unfair practices and violence against African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a ton to see, and we only had one rain jacket between the two of us.

We parked the car near the Alabama River and started to walk into town. The Montgomery Riverwalk was supposed to be a nice area to walk around, but with the rain looming overhead, Megan and I decided to head into town and start with a museum.

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Hank Williams got his start in Montgomery, and one of the largest collections of Hank Williams memorabilia can be found here. Neither Megan nor I are a huge fan, so we hadn't planned on stopping by the Hank Williams Museum while in town, but it was hard to miss when walking away from the Riverwalk.

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One of the celebrities we were here to see was Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, who after a day of work claimed she was too tired to move out of her seat when ordered to do so by the bus driver. She wasn't physically tired, but "tired of being treated like a second class citizen."

Megan and I walked to Court Square, the "Historic Heart of Montgomery". Originally serving as the junction between the two rival towns, New Philadelphia and Alabama Town, that merged together when the capital moved to Montgomery, Court Square has been the scene for many moments on the Civil Rights front. Slaves, freshly shipped up the Alabama river, were sold next to livestock in the middle of the square. In 1866, Court Square was the first place that Alabamians could witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (over 3 years after Lincoln had originally issued the order). On December 1, 1955, another historic event took place, Rosa Parks boarded a bus.

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Megan is standing at the current stop for the bus route that Rosa Parks was riding. Rosa Parks only rode the bus for a couple blocks before she was arrested. Megan and I walked along this route to the Rosa Parks Museum, located at the site where Rosa Parks exited the bus under arrest. On the side of the museum there was a picture commemorating the event. Megan thought the guy's face behind Rosa Parks was interesting (and slightly odd), as he seemed to be saying "lady, you're about to be in BIIIIG trouble!"

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We went into the museum to take a look around. A lady at the front desk claimed they weren't ready to accept the entrance fee (despite it being 20 minutes since the museum was supposed to open). She offered for Megan and me to take a look around and she would come grab us once the payment system was up and running. We wandered into the museum and entered an art gallery. To my surprise, there was nothing about the Civil Right Movement, just art exhibits. Not wanting to pay to see a tiny art gallery, I pulled Megan out the back emergency exit in the museum before the curator could track us down.

We walked back through Court Square, past the fountain, and further through downtown towards the Capital Building. Montgomery has a weird vibe to it. First of all, we were the ONLY people walking around. It was just before noon on a Friday morning, you'd expect to see someone walking around. Only a handful of cars passed us, one nearly running us over (I guess the driver wasn't used to people actually using the crosswalk). Most of the buildings downtown looked older, but then extravagant buildings with fountains, waterfalls, and pools mixed in between the older structures. Our next destination was the Civil Rights Memorial, one of the modern structures located downtown.

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It took us a while to find the entrance to the Civil Rights Memorial Center. As we circled the block trying to follow a basic map, a security guard definitely started following us, staying just far enough away that we couldn't ask for directions. On the second loop around the block, we found the entrance hidden behind a construction tarp. Upon entering, Megan and I had to pass through a metal detector and empty our pockets to be wanded by another security guard. The Memorial Center wasn't a very large place, but it was incredibly moving.

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The first room of the center had a series of plaques describing 40 different men and women (some black and some white) that had lost their lives in the Civil Right Movement. Their stories ranged from being victims of random acts of violence, from giving a black man a ride in their car, to being an active member in the NCAAP. You could look through a simulated telescope to see the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement located within 4 blocks of the Memorial Center. A set of phones played commentary on each of the people remembered.

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We left the first room to watch a 20 minute video on the Civil Rights Movement. We had studied Civil Rights in school in various US History classes and during Black History Month, but the images presented in the video had a deeper impact. Perhaps it was the fact that I was seeing these images outside the sterile and safe environment of the school and in the location where they actually took place, or perhaps it was because I had just read the tragic story of 40 people who had died. I think the real reason is I no longer view 1965 as ancient history (30 years ago seems like an eternity to a 10 year old). Both of my parents were in school when these events were taking place. My grandparents were in their 30s, certainly aware of the events that were going on. How could people in my grandparents' day think that segregation could be fair? How could the creation of laws to prevent blacks and poor people from voting be passed? These events didn't just happen in Alabama, but all across the country. In North Carolina, laws passed in 1900 prevented nearly 100% of blacks from voting. It took until 1964 for a constitutional amendment to be added to ban these types of laws.

The hallway outside the theater drove the message even further. Here were stories of additional acts of racism and unfair practices against other minorities. Some of the stories had happened since I was in college, stories like the random acts of violence against Middle Easterners after September 11th. Entering the final room, you were presented with a giant wall filled with changing names. This was the Wall of Tolerance, where people could pledge to do their part to end racial injustice. It was pretty moving to be able to take this minor stand after reading the stories presented in the rest of the museum.

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Unfortunately the memorial itself was undergoing some maintenance, so we couldn't see it completely. A round, polished marble monument, etched with the names of the 40 people, rotates as water cascades over the side. The wall in the background has a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream...".

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From the memorial we walked back to the main street running through town. On the corner was the church that Martin Luther King Jr had served as minister. They offered tours throughout the day, but the sun started to come out from behind the clouds, and we decided we wanted to see some more of the city.

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Across the street from the church, a giant memorial commemorated the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Montgomery was the initial capital of the Confederate States of America until Virginia seceded several months later.

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The grounds around the Capital Building were beautiful, especially after walking around with an overcast sky all morning. A giant map of Alabama stood out front of side, while flags of all the states were on the other.

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On the far side of the Capital Building, we walked past the First White House of the Confederacy (when the capital of the Confederacy was moved, so was the White House). With as much security as we had seen around downtown, I was surprised there wasn't a single guard in sight around the Capital Building or the White House.

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Upon leaving the Memorial Center, we had asked the guy at the front desk where we should get something to eat. He had two suggestions, either Chris' Hotdogs for a meal that had been in Montgomery for over 100 years, or go to a down-home southern kitchen. Both sounded great, so Megan suggested a hotdog appetizer before heading the the southern kitchen.

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We crammed into Chris' to sit at the bar after ordering a single hotdog. It was good, but not too much different from your standard hotdog. The restaurant itself was the real experience. You could feel the history while sitting at the counter. There were still no people in the streets, but the restaurant had a consistent line of people ordering food. Seemingly every person ended their conversation behind the register with an emphatic "Roll Tide!" (referring to the cheer of the University of Alabama).

We walked back to the waterfront to pick up the car. With the beautiful weather (but not completely able to ignore our rumbling tummies), we wandered down to the river to take in the view. It was scenic, with a walkway and a concert pavilion off to the side of the dock. A steamer was tied up, waiting to take people out for a cruise later in the evening.

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We hopped in the car and drove to the restaurant for an authentic Alabama meal. I ordered steak and gravy, with grits, corn bread, black-eyed peas, and rice. Megan ordered fried chicken, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and string beans. It was absolutely fantastic, and Alabama held up to the saying "If it ain't fried, it ain't from the South".

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Despite the rough memories of the events of the Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery was a nice city filled with Southern pride. The people were friendly, and the food was phenomenal. If was time to leave, however, and head to the neighboring Mississippi.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:09 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical local_food Comments (0)

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