The second part of my quick southern trip moved west. We began in St. Augustine, Florida a couple of days earlier and now it was time to move on to family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This transformed into an exercise in county counting. My completion map of Florida counties changed dramatically for the better as we proceeded farther west along Interstate 10.
Florida Counties Visited, produced using Mob Rule
I grabbed an entire northern tier of Florida counties crossed by I-10, capturing new ones from Baker to Okaloosa. This added a dozen to my list: Baker, Columbia Suwannee, Madison, Jefferson, Leon, Gadsden, Jackson, Washington, Holmes, Walton and Okaloosa. I’d also visited one additional Florida county a couple of days earlier. I got out of bed at 5 a.m. one morning and snagged Clay County since it was only about a thirty minute round-trip. I returned to the hotel before anyone else in the family even woke up. They were never the wiser. That made the complete collection of new counties a nice Lucky 13 for the trip.
The northern tier of Florida felt unlike any of my earlier Florida experiences. It was a lot more hilly than I expected; the hills weren’t large although the terrain had a definite roll. Also pine trees dominated the landscape instead of palm trees, and of course there were no ocean views. Few people lived along the route except for those near Tallahassee and Pensacola. I put the car on cruise control and piled on the miles. It took most of a day just to get out of Florida before hitting Alabama briefly and then crossing into Mississippi.
I’ve been to Southern Mississippi many times. The challenge of writing this article would be avoiding places I’ve discussed before, or at least finding a new angle.
John C. Stennis Space Center
Stennis Space Center
Anyone traveling through Mississippi on I-10 will drive right through the buffer zone of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) John C. Stennis Space Center. NASA designated 125,000 acres (195 square miles / 500 square kilometres) around the Center as a noise abatement area to dampen the deafening sounds of rocket engine testing. Private citizens still own land there and can have access to it although they cannot build homes upon it. The base itself is considerably smaller, 13,500 acres (21 mi2 / 55 km2). That space is tightly controlled and requires access through guarded gates.
I’ve watched the security evolve over the years. Anyone could drive onto the base and visit the StenniSphere, NASA’s visitor center, without any special permission prior to September 11, 2001. Of course the world changed after 9-11. NASA moved its visitor staging area to a nearby rest stop adjacent to Interstate 10. From there, tourists caught a shuttle bus which brought them onto the base and unloaded them at the StenniSphere. I guess that wasn’t secure enough or maybe it was simply an interim measure. Now, probably within the last few months, NASA opened a new visitor center next to the rest stop. It was completely outside of the base in a public area that they’ve named the INFINITY Science Center (map). Tourists can still hop on a shuttle bus for a driving tour of the large rocket testing platforms although they don’t have quite the level of freedom to roam around as before.
I’ve never been lucky enough to visit Stennis during an engine test. Testing is a bit random and isn’t announced ahead of time for security reasons. Nonetheless, the guides said any shuttle buses driving past the platforms at the right moment will stop at a safe spot to enjoy the show. Maybe next time.
Down the road a bit in Louisiana, we stopped at the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery near Abita Springs (map). I’d never been there before so that was a new experience. They raise alligators commercially to be turned into handbags, wallets, boots, belts and other accessories. The entire industry was overseen by the State of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Alligator Program.
Since the inception of the Department’s program in 1972, over 810,000 wild alligators have been harvested, over 6.5 million alligator eggs have been collected, and over 3.5 million farm raised alligators have been sold bringing in millions of dollars of revenue to landowners, trappers and farmers.
Alligators were an endangered species in Louisiana prior to the program. The population rebounded dramatically. Each commercial rancher continues to return a certain percentage of its adult alligators to the wild as a condition of the program. Four year old alligators are large enough to avoid predation so they have a very high survival rate, leading to more eggs and more alligators. Eggs are laid only once per year and they hatch in late August-ish. Ranchers from Insta-Gator fly ultralight aircraft over the marshes and swamps to spot the nests, mark them with a flag, and return to collect eggs. They then raise hatchlings to adulthood, some destined to become handbags and some destined for freedom. I’ll offer some advise for any alligators being raised commercially: get a nick or scar on your belly because that gives you an imperfection and you’ll probably be freed. Nobody wants a handbag with a blemish.
The ranch had several alligators much older and larger than the rest. Those were used for movies, television and advertisements. It burst my bubble just a bit when I learned that many of those "reality" TV shows set in swamps and bayous use farm-raised gators. The scenes are staged.
Laurel & Hardy
Laurel and Hardy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
via Google Street View, July 2014
This one is a bit of a non sequitur. Does anyone remember back in 2013 when I featured intersecting streets that formed the names of Comedy Duos? Like, someone in
Washington , Kansas lives at the corner of Abbot & Costello? It’s not that important so don’t worry about it if you don’t.
Anyway, I spotted this road sign in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and didn’t have enough time to pull out my camera so I’ve borrowed a Google Street View image. It wasn’t quite a crossroads like in the earlier article. Laurel, in this case, was a nearby town. Hardy was one of the primary streets in Hattiesburg; it went directly past the University of Southern Mississippi. I still laughed a little when I saw the unintentional reference to Laurel & Hardy.
I thought I’d focus the final installment of the Riverboat Adventure on something a little more whimsical. Sometimes I have trouble remembering facts for a given place so I take photographs of informational signs. Usually this happens at historical sites. Sometimes signs provide greater explanation or context than what’s available on Internet pages. They serve as a great memory jog and starting point when I’m writing articles.
From there I branched out to images of signs less informational as amusing, or thought-provoking, or capturing memories of good times, and that’s what I decided to feature for the Riverboat wrap-up. Yes, this will be the end. Much of the 12MC audience will be grateful for the return of geo-oddities with the next article.
The Riverboat Series banner appeared faithfully at each race, reminding me daily why I’d undertaken this extended roadtrip along the Lower Mississippi in the first place. Places like Columbus, Kentucky; Millington, Tennessee; Lake Village, Arkansas; Greenville, Mississippi and Winnsboro, Louisiana probably wouldn’t have made it onto my list of personal travel destinations otherwise. I was grateful for a plausible excuse to travel through the region, and I treasured friendships we made with the rest of the traveling sideshow of runners and their supporters.
Once again I’ll note that I wasn’t a runner. I kind of felt like a poseur because all I did was drive from one small town to another, hang-out at the finish line (nibbling snacks intended for the runners), and visit geo-oddities along the way.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of "Hoodies must be removed before entering the Hotel Lobby." Did it mean that hoodie-wearers had to remove only the hood from one’s head or remove the hoodie entirely? And what set of events led the hotel to consider that it maybe needed to institute such a protocol? Did something specific happen, was it stereotyping, or maybe an overreaction to the tragic Trayvon Martin incident? I just couldn’t know. I found it unsettling.
I wanted gators! The logo of the Riverboat Series promised gators chasing runners! Alas, we encountered a rather unseasonable cold snap as we headed into alligator country. Typically, gators don’t bask in the sun until the temperature gets to around 80°f (27°c). We were far below that.
The sign may have said "Caution Gator Area," and much of the year it would have been accurate, however not in Leroy Percy State Park (map) on that day in Mississippi.
There weren’t any turtles the next day in Louisiana, either (map).
I’m not sure what possessed me to scratch FROST! into the roof of our rental car, other than my complete dismay at experiencing a hard frost in Louisiana in the middle of April. No gators, no turtles, and a hard frost; when would this winter end?
There certainly were farmers though. Everywhere. I can’t recall dodging more rolling farm equipment on highways on any of my prior roadtrips. It seemed to be the right time of year for that, with fields just under plow and platoons of highly-specialized, oddly-constructed contraptions of unusual shapes and designs. Some rolled on massive wheels, others sported extendable arms of multiple joints, still others included a driver’s cab fifteen feet above the ground, like Dr. Seuss himself switched to farming and drafted all of their designs. This was a farming economy and farmers were king.
The flatness and emptiness of the Mississippi Delta surprised me. We rolled north out of Vicksburg on Route 61, expecting to stop at the next town for lunch. We drove for nearly an hour before finding a suitable spot in a town too small for stoplights, Rolling Fork (map). It was a Mexican restaurant, I suppose a reflection of changing demographics in the Delta, and we were happy to encounter it too. There was also a Subway restaurant nearby (you can see a sign for it in the reflection along with my torso) although we’d done Subway a couple of times already so that was an easy choice.
I already mentioned Graceland in the previous installment so I won’t go into a lot of detail. The entrance sign fascinated me because it proclaimed "The Home of Elvis Presley®" Yes, with a registered trademark symbol. That amused me. Like, imagine someone living at some other house might decide to start calling his suburban rambler The Home of Elvis Presley, so the Presley estate felt it needed to mitigate that eventuality by registering the phrase for Graceland specifically. Certainly I would never say: Twelve Mile Circle — The Home of Elvis Presley because that would be a trademark violation, because you know, someone might actually confuse 12MC with Graceland.
I imagine the actual worry may have been the folks at the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
One of the reasons I enjoyed the various marathon series offered by Mainly Marathons — other than the fact that I didn’t have to run them — was that they provided an opportunity to see parts of the country not normally encountered by casual tourists. I’ve done this twice now, first with the Dustbowl Series and now with the Riverboat Series. I chauffeured a runner from one obscure locale to another, and in return I could tweak the path to count new counties, capture geo-oddities, and experience undiluted Americana. I called that a fair bargain.
Graceland, well Graceland, certainly wasn’t an obscure destination lacking for tourism. I would have gone out of my way to visit Graceland eventually anyway so maybe it wasn’t the best example to begin this article. However it was the complete embodiment of Americana so it had to rise to the top of my list. The Cult of Elvis always fascinated me so Graceland (map) required my careful, respectful attention.
How could I possible choose a single photograph to represent such an astonishing cultural touchstone? Every single item, from the house itself to its outlandish furnishings of the Jungle Room, to the walls of platinum records, to the customized jet airplane with gold bathroom fixtures, simply everything shouted Elvis Presley. I selected the jumpsuits although feel free to scroll back-and-forth for other images. One exhibit included an entire series of jumpsuits and it was fascinating to observe when they first appeared in the early 1970’s as very simple designs, and progressed over the years with Elvis adding ever-increasing amounts of elaborate decorative elements including capes, rhinestones, embroidery and cowboy-sized belt buckles.
Travel Tip: arrive at Graceland just as it opens for the day and purchase Platinum tickets instead of VIP, then board the shuttle for the mansion grounds as the very first activity. This costs about half the price of VIP and an early arrival practically guaranteeing "front of the line" access offered by the VIP tour.
Of course I consulted 12MC’s Complete Index map before I left on my grand adventure. Doesn’t everyone? I wanted to see if I’d written about oddities along my expected path and whether they might merit a personal visit. I noticed a reference to Low Clearance, an article posted in February 2011. The story was all about extremely low overpasses, the kind that might rip the top off of a box truck like a can opener. One such example happened to be found in Henning, Tennessee and I would be driving directly past it (map). Typically I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see an 8’0″ (2.44 m) railroad trestle underpass, however this one involved a measly 30-second detour so why not?
I tweeted the photograph later that day as a victory salute, prompting an even more impressive return tweet from @mapman85 of a better example near Greenfield, Ohio: 7’5″!
I titled this photo, "Random creature made from tires outside of Dumas, Arkansas" (street view) and that pretty much described it. This wasn’t the best of photos although not so bad considering that it was captured from a moving automobile with a mobile phone; notice the side-view mirror in the lower left corner.
I never could understand what an oversized rubber humanoid had to do with a TV Repair business although that didn’t really matter either. That was the kind of whacky non sequitur I’d come to expect in these out-of-the-way places. Some guy wanted a giant tire sculpture in his front yard, and darn it, that’s what he was going to build right there.
Do people still get TV’s repaired anymore? Maybe he had a lot of time on his hands.
Two legendary highways intersected in Clarksdale, Mississippi (map). US Highway 61 ran north-south. We drove it from Vicksburg to Memphis through the heart of the flat, empty floodplain of the Mississippi Delta. This was the storied "Blues Highway," probably second only to Route 66 for its revered place in American nostalgia and culture (e.g., Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited).
US Highway 49 — while not as well known culturally as US 61 — also ran through the Delta. It would have crossed familiar territory to classic Blues musicians such as Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf who sang about it.
The Clarksdale, Mississippi intersection of these two storied highways came to be known as the Crossroads, and sometimes the Devil’s Crossroads. Legends pointed here as the place where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical skills, as supposedly referenced in his 1936 recording of "Cross Roads Blues." Of course that assumed one believed in such things, and if so, understanding that there were multiple Delta locations all laying claim to the actual Devil’s Crossroads. Tourism, you know.
Like the Tire Man, this Giant Mailbox didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than standing by the roadside whimsically and entertain passersby. One can appreciate the sense of scale by comparing it to the flagpole and the stop sign. We stumbled upon it unexpectedly as we drove up US Highway 65 in northeastern Louisiana. Well done Ben Burnside of Franklin Plantation, Newellton, Louisiana (street view).
Rest Stop Sundial
I suppose I became sensitized to sundials when I wrote Remarkable Sundials last year. We stopped at an otherwise unremarkable wayside along Interstate 40 in Tennessee as we returned home. I spotted a sculpture with a familiar shape from the corner of my eye, walked over to investigate it, and figured it to be a sundial of a sort (satellite view). I searched for it on the Intertubes when I returned home. It was a work called "Marking Time" by Preston Farabow installed in 2007.
A press release from the Tennessee Arts Commission provided all of the particulars, and noted that it "incorporates markers representing all 95 counties of the state." A county-counting sundial? That practically defined perfection in the Twelve Mile Circle universe.
The Riverboat Adventure articles: