Congaree Swamp National Park, South Carolina

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

The swamp lies within 20 minutes of Columbia, and the locals seem to take full advantage.  The parking lot was packed at lunch time as were the nearby boardwalk trails.  Several enthusiastic fishermen occupied the river bank.  The temperature was significantly cooler than one might expect, probably in the 60’s.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Palmetto and Water Tupelo. Click to enlarge.

By early evening it was just me and a group of 4 young Canadians.  We camped at opposite ends of the otherwise deserted campground.  I set up well ahead of them and directed them to the water – a dingy drinking fountain running at low pressure.  Every aspect of the park was free.  While several national parks allow free admission, free camping is virtually unheard of.  I was very appreciative and so, seemingly, were the Canadians.  Outside of Kel and Julie in Big Bend they were the most courteous people I have ever shared a campground with.

After dark I headed into town and spent a couple of hours in the Starbucks wifi lounge.  The girls let me stay and work even though they were closing down the shop.  When I arrived back in camp the Canadians were already in bed.  I ran into an opossum on the way back to my tent.  I walked along side him, inches away, for 15-20 yards.  It took him some time to realize I was there, even though my headlamp was shining on him full-bore.  Eventually he took off into the woods.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

The next morning I spoke with the ranger, an articulate blond in her early 20’s.  We compared notes on opossums and water boatmen (bugs that swim in groups on the water surface).  “So you enjoyed the swamp then?” she asked with anticipation.  Of course I had.  Still, I was tired and beat up from 7 weeks of traveling.  I had surpassed my limit of endurance.  I decided to head home that morning, saving my remaining plans in Georgia and Florida for another time.  The ranger asked about my route and wished me safe travels.

The drive west through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was beautiful, featuring warm sun and brilliant green forests.  After entering Arkansas the temperatures became progressively more frigid.  The cold helped to confirm that I was, eagerly, nearly home.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; palmetto. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; switch cane and water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; vines on water tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees.  Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Bald Cypress and Water Tupelo trees. Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; Click to enlarge.

Congaree Swamp; 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.