Friday, September 18, 2009

Days 6 and 7, Leaving NOLA, driving through rural Mississippi, and home

Well, after 6 days on the road, we were ready to head home. There was so much more to do in New Orleans, but frankly, we really thought better of driving through the "Lower Ninth Ward" which is still, four years later, totally devastated, except for a house here and there. For the work that actor Brad Pitt and his wife Angelina Jolie have done, New Orleans is filled with t-shirts saying "Brad Pitt For Mayor." Should have bought one.

We left the city by way of Poydras Street. Now back in Maine, you may be familiar with the Acadian-French name, "Poitras", in fact I went to school with a guy of that name. Well, time changes everything, and no doubt the "Poydras" in New Orleans is a variation.

Near the end of Poydras and at the junction of Interstate 10 is one of the most famous buildings in New Orleans -- the Louisiana Superdome. Football fans will know this as the home stadium of the New Orleans Saints. But many more will remember it as the "refuge of last resort" during Katrina, with tens of thousands being "housed" here in terrible conditions. Back in Maine, we only saw a small portion of what was happening in New Orleans, and even less of the tragedy being played out in Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Baie-St-Louis.

We picked up I-10, and headed west toward Baton Rouge. The interstate nearly parallels Lake Pontchartrain for miles. It was this salt-water lake is 40 miles wide and 24 miles from north to south. It was this lake which was responsible for much of the flooding in New Orleans during Katrina, and at the eastern end of the lake, the 5 mile causeway of I-10 was destroyed (they're still rebuilding it, as we saw on the way into the city). Northerly winds pushed up a wall of water moving southward toward the city. The levees didn't hold. Most have said now, that flooding in New Orleans was mostly caused by human error, the inadequate and poorly-constructed levee system, and other human factors. In essence, it need not have happened.

We pulled away from Pontchartrain on the way to Baton Rouge, where we got off the interstate and took US routes all the way through the rest of Louisiana and Mississippi. A few miles north of Baton Rouge, we found the Port Hudson National Cemetery (misspelled on their own sign!) which was an important place for soldiers from Oakland during the Civil War. Vicksburg is noted as the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, and it fell to Union forces on July 4, 1863.

But further down the river, the Confederates still held Port Hudson, so Lincoln was wrong when he wrote after Vicksburg, "The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea." Port Hudson still "vexed" Union troops. A number of men from Oakland were either killed or wounded here, so this place has special meaning for me. It was Andrew Hubbard, killed here, who was the motivation for his brothers' push to build Memorial Hall, a true historical and architectural gem in Oakland.

A few miles further up US Route 61 found us back in Mississippi, approaching Natchez. Settled by the Spanish in the early 1700s, this city was once the main outlet for all "western" US trade down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and played an important part in the later cotton trade. As a center of that trade, Natchez became very wealthy, and cotton and other planters built numerous plantations, many of which are still around and host tour groups.

Our goal in Natchez was the military cemetery. Morrill Benjamin Sanborn, one of Barry's Civil War ancestors, died in Natchez in 1864, and though we were quite certain we'd not find his grave (we didn't, he's still "missing"), we looked anyway. The cemetery has two sections, one of which overlooks the Mississippi back toward Natchez. It's a beautiful place which belies all the horrors and tragedy of a civil war raging in the area.

Next up the road was Vicksburg, arguably the second most important battle of the Civil War. Vicksburg was located on a high hill (highest between the Gulf of Mexico and Memphis it seems) on a sharp bend in the Mississippi. Union forces simply couldn't get past the city, so Union general Grant developed a plan to cut a canal across a peninsula formed by the river to bypass the city, while his army landed, headed for the state capital at Jackson, took it, then marched on Vicksburg from the east. After a monumental siege, the city surrendered.

The flood wall along the original channel of the Mississippi (the main channel is now about half a mile west of the city), is painted with scenes from Vicksburg history, as has been done in Paducah and Owensboro, KY.

Some of the paintings portray:

(1) Vicksburg as home to Jefferson Davis, where he lived when he was notified that he had been selected president of the Confederate States of America; he was born in Fairlawn, KY, moved to Gulfport, MS, where we would have seen his home had we wanted to pay the admission; but in 1861, he lived near Vicksburg.

(2) the "Sultana", carrying 1500 Union soldiers, many former prisoners of war who boarded at Vicksburg; the owner of the Sultana needed to have her boilers repaired, but if he had taken time to replace them, he would have lost out on a very good contract, so he instead merely patched the boilers; her boilers exploded seven miles south of Memphis, resulting in the worst maritime disaster in US history; and

(3) US President Theodore Roosevelt, who on a hunting trip near Vicksburg, refused to shoot a young bear tied to a tree by his aides. Immediately, pictures appeared of the President caring for a small bear, and his nickname was shortly applied to the stuffed bears -- "Teddy Bears".

On the way out of Vicksburg, we photographed the court house, which figures prominently in many drawings of the battle. It's one of the most recognizable buildings in the South of the Civil War era. We also got a photo of the entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park. With a $8.00 per person admission, frankly it was a bit too much for our budget at that point.

Then it was on to explore the Mississippi Delta, which is different from the Mississippi RIVER Delta. . The MD is the area on both sides of the river from Vicksburg north to Cairo, IL, and it includes parts of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. It's flat, alluvial land (Mainers call it an "intervale"), very suitable for farming. It's where the "Cotton Belt" was in the mid-south. The Mississippi RIVER Delta is the section of the river south of New Orleans (see our trip to Venice, LA) for a description of the Mississippi River Delta.

The Mississippi Delta is one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the US (sort of like Washington County, Maine). There are few jobs, and even in farming, cotton is now raised and harvested by large corporations using machinery instead of human labor. Consequently, much of the population has left. We passed through Issaquena County, population today estimated at about 1,658. Its per-capita income is the 36th lowest of any of the over 3000 counties in the US. In 1860, 92% of the population was slave, with 115 owners owning 7,244 slaves. "King Cotton" was at his height then. The county, incidentally, is the setting of Mildred Taylor's novel, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" which I LOVED teaching with Alison.

For miles, we were surrounded by cotton and corn fields as far as the eye could see. This land is incredibly flat, and used to be flooded yearly by the Mississippi, until the levees were built. This was where Kentucky slaves were "sold down the river" to a much harder life working the cotton, sugar cane, or rice fields. The subject of our state song (My Old Kentucky Home) in fact, is slaves who were sold south, and were longing for the old Kentucky home, where their conditions (though terrible) were much better than in Mississippi or Louisiana.

We drove through miles and miles of poverty, only broken occasionally by small settlements; some fields were being burned over, but we didn't see cotton being harvested (one of our goals of the trip).

After a very interesting day nonetheless, (travel is so wonderful, it opens up new vistas and expands one's outlook), we arrived in what used to be called "Robinsonville", now called "Tunica Resorts" in Mississippi. A decade ago, this was just another poverty-stricken region of the poorest state in the US. But Mississippi passed a casino law, and now, Tunica Resorts has nine major casinos, along with attendant hotels, restaurants, roads and infrastructure, and an airport which has seen arrivals and departures rise by 400% over the past two years.

We had reservations at one of THREE hotels at Harrah's Tunica Resort. Got the room for $40 a night -- try THAT anywhere! Of course, they figure you'll leave far more than that at the gaming tables and restaurants -- which we of course DID!

We took the shuttle from the Terrace Hotel - BEAUTIFUL PLACE! -- over to the casino, where we gambled a bit -- again, on the $.01 slot machines. We're not cheap, just poor! We watched one gal on the penny machines lose $240+ in less than 5 minutes -- on PENNY machines, for goodness' sake! We put in $5.00 and if we got $5.05 back, we cashed out! It's fun whether you gamble $5 or $5,000, in fact probably more on the $5 'cause we don't feel quite as guilty gambling 1/4 of our income in minutes!

We ate a late dinner at Replay Restaurant, sandwiches and beverage at a very reasonable price. However, our waitress should have lost her job! Another customer asked for lemon for her tea; the server brought the lemon wedge IN HER HAND -- no glove, no plate, just a bare hand! And while she was handing the gal the lemon, she was rubbing her nose -- not actually PICKING it but still GROSS and disgusting, in an era when everyone is concerned about H1N1 flu! She was quite flippant (seemed humorous at first) with us, and needless to say, didn't earn my usual 20% tip -- by a long shot.

The highlight of the Tunica segment was to have been Paula Deen's Buffet. We planned on breakfast there the following morning, and we showed up at 7:30 am, hungry and ready to enjoy. The menu selection was impressively extensive, but there were some major faults. First, the fresh fruit. The pineapple had not been cored, merely chopped up. The "country ham" was obviously not authentic, but rather a generic processed ham loaf. The biscuits were moist enough to qualify as "gooey". The entire menu was only average restaurant fare, and we could have had a meal at Shoney's (a Southern tradition) for half the price which would have been as good. I have a hard time believing that Paula Deen (THE goddess of down-home, Southern cooking) would actually approve. It only rated an "average" in my review at

So, we left Tunica, headed for Memphis, Nashville, and home. We had planned to cross over into Arkansas to West Memphis, so we could buy a shot glass, refrigerator magnet, and t-shirt, but there was construction on I-40 for the morning rush hour (and Memphis has 500,000 people) causing major delays, so we decided to avoid that, and strike off across Tennessee home. Didn't take any pictures on the last day, so there's nothing to post for that. It was a good, uneventful ride home, and we're so glad we took the trip. Wonderful memories, great photos, good experiences, would do it again in a heartbeat!

Now, planning our next trips -- Paducah for the barbecue festival, and then off to eastern Kentucky exploring the backwoods of Breathitt County and canoeing in Jackson. One of these days we'll actually need to stay home! NAH! Back to Biloxi for beaches and shrimp? Florida again for oranges? Kansas City for KC Strip Steak?

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