Southern Road Trip Part Two: Mississippi

Monday began the “road” portion of our road trip, so we took an early cab ride to the airport to pick up our rental car.  As we were spending an exorbitant amount of money on the rest of the trip (not to mention the fact that I am a cheap bastard), I tried to be frugal with the rental expenses, reserving us a compact vehicle.  Great idea, right?  This was a huge mistake.  Our car, a Toyota Yaris, was barely bigger than a breadbox.  The trunk was so yiny that it would only fit one of our suitcases; the other one would have to lay across the back seat (it barely fit across the lengthwise across the seat).  With visions of cruising down the back roads of the south while rocking to the perfect southern soundtrack, I had created a special “Americana” playlist on my iPod.  Not only did this vehicle not have an auxiliary input, it didn’t even have tape player, just a two-knob radio (which I hadn’t seen since my brother sold his truck last year).  At this point, as I sometimes do when overcome with anxiety, I froze.  I just stood next to the car with a glazed, yet horror-struck look on my face.  Luckily, Katie is used to dealing with such situations, and she took control.  She was able to upgrade us to a larger vehicle for a little bit more money; however, there was a catch: the only vehicle they had available was the doucheiest Mustang you can imagine.  I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Mustangs or the people who drive Mustangs, it’s just that Katie and I aren’t “Mustang people” (in the same way that we aren’t “ultimate fighting people” or “neck tattoo people” – okay, maybe I am saying something about Mustangs).  Other than a Hummer, I can’t think of a less conspicuous car for two vacationers to have on their super-touristy road trip.  In the end, it worked out fine, and provided plenty of laughs along the way.

Our douchey Mustang

Once on the open road, we popped on Elton John’s Madman Across the Water and started navigating the short distance to the entrance of the Natchez Trace Parkway.  The Natchez Trace Parkway is a National Park that extends 440 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside of  Nashville.  The trail was used for hundreds of years by Native Americans, and later by early European American settlers.  I had heard that the Trace was a beautiful drive, so we planned to take it all the way from Nashville down to Tupelo in hopes of catching some fall colors.  And wow, did we see fall colors!  The entire drive was breathtaking, with walls of reds, oranges and yellows on either side of the road.  My words cannot describe the beauty that we saw this day and, unfortunately, my pictures don’t do it justice either.  It was an unforgettable drive (my playlist was pretty epic too).

Entrance to the Trace

View from the Trace

More fall colors

We cruised down the Trace for almost the entire day, making stops every few minutes to take in beautiful vistas, historical monuments and a few short wilderness hikes.

Jackson Falls

Burial site of Meriwether Lewis

We briefly pulled off the Trace to drive into Historic Franklin for lunch.  Franklin was very charming, though it was not at all what I expected from an historical town in Middle-of-Nowhere, Tennessee (it reminded me a lot of Walnut Creek).

Historic Franklin

We reached the Alabama state line around dusk, and we were treated to some lovely views of vast cotton fields at sunset.  We pulled off at the Tennessee River to watch the sun sink over the water.

Tennessee River

Alabama (or at least what we saw of it)

Once the sun was down, our drive became much less scenic, our stops ceased and we soldiered on across the Mississippi border.  After some creative navigation (we got lost), we found our hotel in Tupelo.  Like most of Mississippi, Tupelo is known for its amazing Greek food.  Okay that’s a lie, but I did have some really, really good Greek food for dinner.  Once fed, we turned in for the night.

Tuesday morning began with a jaunt over to Elvis’s birthplace (in Tupelo).  It’s a tiny old house that’s surrounded by a whole neighborhood of much newer and larger homes.  They even moved his tiny old church (where he first fell in love with gospel music) to be on the grounds for the sake of the museum. It’s pretty cool.  We took a few photos, then we headed west.

Elvis birthplace

William Faulkner is my favorite author, so our trip to Oxford was a bit of a pilgrimage for me.  It is one of those places where I always hoped to go, but assumed that I would never make it (I never really saw Mississippi as being very high on my travel bucket list).  Luckily, I have an amazing wife who allows me to plan entire vacation days around my dorkiness.

Mississippi takes an immense amount of pride in their hospitality, and we definitely received a warm welcome throughout the entire state.  However, there was no place we experienced it more than our time in Oxford.  Moments after arriving in town, Katie was taking a photo of me sitting next to a Faulkner statue in front of the Town Hall.  A very nice man approached and offered to take our picture together.  After talking with him for a few moments, he graciously offered to give us a tour of the city.  By tour I assumed that he would walk us around the town center for a minute or two, so I was surprised when he walked us to his car.  Even though we have both seen Deliverance, we put aside our west coast distrust of people and hopped in.  Pat circled the town square several times, detailing for us the history of the city.  He then drove us into the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and gave us the full tour of the campus.  Apologizing that he could not spend more time with us because he had a meeting (even though he had given us over 45 minutes of his time), he explained that he would have to cut the tour short (he wanted more time to show us Eli Manning’s house).  After he dropped us off downtown with recommendations for where to eat and what to see, he went on his way.  I decided to follow an instinct (I had a funny feeling about the familiar way in which everyone seemed to know him) and I googled his name.  Yup, he was the Mayor of Oxford. It was unreal, like something out of a movie.  I’ve met my own city’s Mayor, Kevin Johnson, a couple of times, and he seems like a very nice man.  However, I just don’t picture him giving tours to random tourists.  Mayor Pat Patterson and Oxford are pretty special.  When we told this story to other people we met around town, it didn’t surprise them at all.  They would say “Yeah, he loves to be involved.”

Us with Faulkner

Katie shared crab and crayfish chowder and a crayfish po boy sandwich for lunch, then headed to Rowan Oak, the former home of William Faulkner.  It is a spectacular old home, and I felt overwhelmed with inspiration to be walking the grounds where Faulkner penned some of the finest novels ever written.  The house, which has been turned into a small museum, was filled with interesting artifacts, but we had the most fun just wandering around the grounds.  Katie smelled pipe smoke (the entire premises are non-smoking) and swears that Faulkner’s ghost was close at hand.  I didn’t smell the smoke, but I can’t deny that the entire place had a lively energy.

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak

It was with much sadness and regret that we left Oxford, but we had a 3 ½ hour drive to Vicksburg ahead of us so, eventually, we hit the road.  Though most people would not find it ideal to do so much driving on their vacation, I absolutely loved being on the open road in an area that I had never seen before.  It allowed me to get a much better feel for the land than had I just flown into one city and stayed put.  Again, my music playlist was pretty awesome.

We reached Vicksburg as the sun was going down.  Associating Vicksburg only with its Civil War significance, I had never before thought about what the city itself would be like.  It was pretty much one big ghetto, from what we saw of it (our waitress in Oxford, who grew up in Vicksburg, warned us to absolutely not walk around downtown at night).  This made us feel incredibly awkward, driving through in our big douchey Mustang.  I tried to lighten the mood by threatening to Katie that I was going to roll down the Mustang window and say “Excuse me, gentlemen.  I hate to interrupt your dice game, but could you point me toward the Cedar Grove Mansion.”  As you can assume since I’m still alive today, I opted to not do this.

Cedar Grove Mansion from the back

Cedar Grove Mansion from the front

The Cedar Grove Mansion is one of a handful of old antebellum manors that have been converted into bed and breakfasts, nestled in a neighborhood which looks like a set from The Wire.  The building itself was beautiful, and it had a very storied past; there are still cannonballs stuck in the walls in some places.  The room (and bed) that we slept in is the very same place where General Grant slept on the night the Siege of Vicksburg came to an end.  Following our waitresses advice, we passed on an adventure into town and instead opted for a very romantic dinner in the mansion’s restaurant.  Although the place claims to be severely haunted, we had no spooks in the night.  That being said, trying to shower in the morning with their archaic bath-and-hose shower set up was slightly haunting.

Grant’s Room

Wednesday morning was our actual anniversary, and nothing says romance like Civil War battle sites.  Once again, I have an amazing wife for putting up with my shenanigans (although I’m not as bad as my father, who took my mother to a Polish salt mine last year for their 45th anniversary).  The date of this visit wasn’t the only instance of bad planning on my part, I also messed up on the timing.  I had figured that a visit to a Civil War battlefield and cemetery would be just that, a large field and cemetery where we could snap a few photos and be on our merry way.  I was very wrong.  The National Vicksburg Park is huge, taking about an hour to drive through, even if you don’t stop to look at anything (and there are plenty of things to look at).  We had just a bit over an hour before we had to be on the road (we had a long drive down to New Orleans and had to return the rental car by five).  Due to this, we were a bit rushed going through the park.  Want to know the best way to show reverence to the American soldiers who died on the very ground you are visiting, even though you’re kind of in a hurry?  Drive quickly through in your big douchey Mustang!   Yes, like stereotypical Californians, we cruised through a Civil War museum in our muscle car at a pace that must have made people think we had entered the park by accident and were searching desperately for the exit.  Oh well, we were still able to take in the sites, the history, and we had a good laugh through the whole drive.

Our douchey Mustang in the Vicksburg battlefield

After shooting a few photos in the cemetery, we waved goodbye to Vicksburg, and started our southern journey down highway 55 with New Orleans on our minds.

My wonderful wife on the morning of our anniversary

Our first view of the Mississippi River

Vicksburg Cemetery

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