Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

The historical signs in the photos below tell the story pretty well.  This was a major battle on the land surrounding a quiet old church, named Shiloh Meeting House, dating back to the early 1800’s.  Across a two-lane road from the church is a cemetery that is used to this day.  One must be a member of the local church (a modern building that lies across a parking lot from the historic Shiloh) to be eligible for burial in the cemetery.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

The most popular attraction at the battlefield was a combination of golden and bald eagles nesting in a large tree (crude photo below).  A mass of senior citizens was encamped on lawn chairs 200 yards from the tree, armed with formidable looking cameras and binoculars.  This was the one day on the road this year that I used my binoculars.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Original Shiloh Church, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Golden and bald eagles, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

Golden and bald eagles, Shiloh National Military Park, TN: Click to enlarge.

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Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi

Vicksburg National Military Park Cemetery. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park Cemetery. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg was one of the key battles that turned the war toward a Union victory.  Located on the Mississippi river supply corridor, holding it was strategically critical for both sides.  On July 4, 1863, following several battles and a 46-day Union siege of the city, Confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

During the fighting the Confederates achieved the world’s first sinking of an enemy vessel using electrical mines.  The Union ironclad gunboat USS Cairo struck the mines while sailing up the Mississippi River.  It immediately sank in 30-foot deep water with no sailors killed.  Thus, there was one less Union ship to pound Vicksburg with artillery.  The salvaged Cairo is on display in the park, and the gunboat is remarkably intact.  The wood is faded and splitting and the metal is rusted.

I met a professional and enthusiastic ranger at the visitor center who explained the auto tour around the battlefield.  Cannons and the like are set up within their respective Union and Confederate lines, with everything exactly where it was during the battles.  Signs document each position down to the particular soldiers, division, and type of guns used.  One drives around the battlefield stopping at the many turnouts according to preference.  Visitors are free to walk anywhere on the battlefield, and often do.  The park was crowded with families visiting in celebration of Mother’s Day.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Grant statue. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Grant statue. Click to enlarge.

Showing me the tour map, the ranger explained that I would be in the Union lines for the first half, as if this were a necessary evil.  “But after that,” he said reassuringly, “you’ll be in the Confederate lines.”  Everywhere I went in the South, pride in the Confederate heritage was alive and well.

Vicksburg historical information was provided by the National Park Service.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Illinois state memorial to serving soldiers. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Illinois state memorial to serving soldiers. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Vicksburg National Military Park. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Mississippi

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I hiked a 3-mile section of the Old Trace, the actual foot trail used by merchants in the 1700’s and 1800’s, starting at the Potkopinu Trailhead in southern Mississippi.  At this point the path is un-maintained and strewn with deadfalls and other forest debris throughout its length.  Round trip, it is one of the toughest 6-mile hikes I’ve ever completed.  The experience is really one of bushwhacking overland rather than trail hiking.

Route finding is easy because the old trace has sunk an 8- to 20-foot depression through the forest over the years in the Mississippi mud.  For those who like reassurance, the Park Service has painted hand-sized strips of orange and yellow blaze every half mile or so on the trees.  It was a hot, humid walk through a dense green canopy with one stream crossing.  Observed wildlife included a palm-sized green and brown spotted frog, several tadpoles, and a mystery animal that ran into the brush in a blur of speed.  It was most likely an armadillo, opossum, or a cross between the two.  A local told me that the two species interbreed, and some strange looking animals can be found in the area.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I never saw any other hikers during the 4+ hours that I was out there.  It took me 2 hours to reach the turnaround point at 3 miles, the northern trailhead.  The walk back to the car was somewhat faster.  I picked up several ticks on my knee and torso, the first time I have ever gotten ticks anywhere.  I respect the old Kaintucks who used to walk this trail for over 400 miles.

Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, Mississippi

Corn snake near Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, MS:  Click to enlarge.

Corn snake near Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, MS: Click to enlarge.

Continuing north on the Natchez Trace Parkway, I almost ran over a corn snake warming himself on the road.  I stopped, picked him up, and moved him onto the shoulder.  This was the only snake I saw throughout this trip to the southern states.  He tamed very quickly.

Mount Locust was established as a farm in the late 1770’s and by 1784 grew to be a larger plantation.  The house, with no more than 1600 square feet of floor space, served as an inn for the Mississippi River boatmen walking north from Natchez, MS.  These “Kaintucks” were charged $0.25 per day, meals included.  After 1825 the advent of steamboats and more efficient roads rendered the Trace obsolete for business travelers.  At that point the inn continued to operate as a resort for locals seeking rural solitude.  It was interesting to learn that such rural escapes were in demand even in 1825, when it’s hard to imagine any real cities in existence.  Paulina Chamberlain, the lady of the house from 1784 to 1849, was known as a hard charger who kept the farm and inn running through two husbands who predeceased her.  This was especially noteworthy given women’s typical roles at the time.  Known as “Grandma Polly,” she raised 11 children while operating the plantation.

A few hundred yards behind the inn, at one end of the agricultural field, there are two cemeteries.  The Mount Locust family is buried in the first, with waist-high headstones bearing easily read inscriptions.  The graves are adorned with fresh-looking Confederate flags.  One memorable headstone listed the deceased as a member of the “Jefferson Flying Artillery.”

A few feet away lay the slave cemetery, where over 40 slaves are known to be buried.  Most of the slaves’ identities, however, are uncertain.  The slaves’ graves are marked simply with fist-sized rocks bearing no inscriptions.  This was a sad place.

Historical information on the Mount Locust Inn and Plantation was provided by the National Park Service.

Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane highway that runs for 444 miles from southern Mississippi to Northern Tennessee, crossing through Alabama.  The hiking trails and historic sites along the way are managed by the National Park Service as a national park, though the Parkway is not officially listed as such.  Locals refer to the highway simply as “The Trace.”

The parkway closely follows The Old Trace, a foot and horse trail used as a primary trade route in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  Merchants would sail their goods down the Mississippi river from the north to Natchez, MS on unpowered rafts.  Since these rafts could not travel back upriver, they were sold for scrap and the boatmen walked home on the Trace.  Inns and taverns served the travelers along the way.  Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were a prominent presence during much of the Trace’s heyday.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

I entered the Trace at its southern end in Natchez shortly before sunset. The dense, towering deciduous trees were a contrast to the bayous I left behind earlier that day.  There was just enough daylight to explore Emerald Mound, a raised terrace of dirt roughly 300 feet tall with a flat rectangular mesa the size of 2-3 footballs fields on top.  A steep, fenced trail led from the parking lot to the top of the mound.  Dense, green, and neatly mowed grass covered the top and sides.  The mound was built by ancient Indians who hauled the dirt one basket at a time on their backs.  The Indians used this site for governing and religious activities according to the National Park Service.

Duly impressed, I headed for Natchez State Park to camp for the night.  I set up next to a friendly married couple from Maryland.  They were traveling to Texas to visit their son in college.  The next morning I was setting up my camp shower, shirtless.  My neighbor informed me of a developed shower a short distance up the road.  “I see, you don’t want to watch me do this,” I joked.  “No, take off the rest of your clothes,” his wife shot back.  I used the shower in the building.

Southdown Plantation, Cajun Country, Louisiana

My plan for a boat ride through the swamp was foiled by a merciless rainstorm.  I awoke to a thrilling barrage of thunder and lightning and the downpour began soon after.  I had never seen rain of this magnitude in my life, but the locals in Houma acted as if it was no big deal.  Every lawn was under water.  Streams several inches deep ran down the better drained roads, and in some sections it was deeper.

The day’s entertainment was thus an indoor tour of the Southdown Plantation manor house.  Beyond the expected opulence of the mansion were stories of people ranging from sugarcane tycoons to a prominent senator, all of whom had lived in the house. The sugarcane fields had long since disappeared with town development.  My guide, Ethel, volunteers at Southdown once every two weeks.  Luckily I came on her day.  Ethel grew up on a working plantation herself.  The childhood experiences she related put her age near 100, but she didn’t look it.  “I think I’m in pretty good shape,” she said, smiling, as she moved up and down the staircases like a champ.

When another tourist went to touch an old table, Ethel stopped her with the utmost of grace.  “We ask our visitors not to touch.  The oils can harm the furniture.”  Ethel carried herself with a rare level of enthusiasm, politeness and dignity, and presented a wealth of interesting history about the area.  During the talk on sugarcane processing, the term bagasse (raw material) was used frequently.  The spectacle of aristocratic Ethel speaking authoritatively about “bag ass” was too funny, and I could not suppress my laughter.  She would have been justified in correcting me, but she did not.  As one who is typically bored senseless by artsy activities, I felt my time was well spent here.

After the house tour Ethel and her friend invited me into their office and tried to help me find an afternoon swamp tour.  This was fruitless because of the rain, but in the process we all had a great conversation.

Choupique Crawfish, Louisiana

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

My visit to Choupique Crawfish was a highlight of my trip to the South.  It is a drive-through takeout restaurant serving boiled crawfish and shrimp with potatoes and corn on the cob. After a busy day exploring the swamps of the Cameron Prairie and Lacassine refuges, I stopped for gas.  Across the parking lot I noticed a small building signed as Choupique Crawfish.  I walked in, curious to see what it was.  A fancily dressed young woman greeted me and showed me around as if I were an old friend.  She was accompanied by a young man and another woman, the owner.  The four of us chatted like family as they explained the operation and treated me to samples.  The crawfish are collected in large numbers from the family’s rice farm and stored live in large plastic and metal water tanks until they are boiled. The owner also teaches at the local school.  Customers can buy the crawfish live or cooked, and can reserve ahead of time.  To eat the crawfish, which are served whole, one must peel away the shell and tear the meat from the tail.  No one corrected my technique, so I assumed I was doing it right.

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

The group wondered if I was fishing on the refuges, but I explained I was just hiking and watching the animals.  “I’m from Colorado and all this is very exotic to me,” I said.  When I explained that I didn’t know where to stay for the night, the young man tipped me off to Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  Before I left, the owner said “let me give you dinner,” and returned with a large box containing at least 10 pounds of crawfish with several potatoes and cobs of corn.  The young woman then handed me a box of beautiful cooked shrimp.  I camped near the surf, where I enjoyed this unexpected gourmet meal.

By the next morning I was still stuffed from eating the crawfish, and more than half of the box remained.  I offered my leftovers to a group of 6 senior citizens gathered for a picnic.  They were bewildered as to why I couldn’t handle 10 pounds of crawfish, plus the shrimp plate and sides, on my own.  “You must not be from around here,” a man said.  I confirmed that was true.  A grandmotherly woman told me that she had eaten a 10-pound box of crawfish by herself the night before, and still had plenty of room for a nice dessert.  She spoke in a tone that seemed to imply I was a sissy, a lightweight.  As one who usually out-eats my companions by a wide margin, I got a huge kick out of this group taking me to task.  The important thing was that they were happy to take the crawfish before it spoiled.