My Window Faces the South

WallendaFinally, after enjoying my days of music, exploration, good food and hanging with Jim and Karen, I finally tacked the Red Ranger to starboard and sailed down through northern Georgia. I had been heading east for so long that it seemed odd to driving west (well, southwest). Looking for a nice place to enjoy a fresh apple fritter, I found quiet little Lake Lanier. Just me, a couple of birds, and one jumping fish. A few miles on down the road, I stopped to see where, in 1970, The Great Wallenda tightrope walked across the yawning Tallulah Gorge. TA-DA!

Jumping back on an interstate, I continued southwest, willingly bypassing bustling Atlanta and The New South. Essentially, I missed seeing most of Georgia and the entire state of Alabama as I spent the day on various generic interstates. I regretted not having the time to linger in this part of the Deep South with its Civil War and Civil Rights legacy. I would’ve liked to stop in Meridian, Mississippi, a place where I visited my brother over thirty years ago. But I was driving hard and it was late in the evening when I finally reached Mobile on the Gulf Coast.

The next morning, I cruised through downtown Mobile, passing some great old mansions and magnolia trees along the way. A few Navy ships were docked in the harbor. I wanted to go aboard but couldn't find a place to park so chucked the idea and blew out of town. Funny how much the lack of parking can impact one’s life these days.

Gardens of BellinggrathNot far out of Mobile, I took one of those detours that one can indulge in when travelling alone. Turning dead south on Highway 193, I drove headlong straight for the Gulf. On the way I passed a billboard pointing to the Gardens of Bellingrath. The name rang a bell…then it hit me: in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch charms his flinty next door neighbor by comparing her garden to the Gardens of Bellingrath. I guess my years of teaching freshman English weren’t for naught.

Engulfed for miles by thick groves of salt cedars, the road finally opened up onto the immensity of the Gulf of Mexico. Though I had a vague notion of driving all the way out to Dauphin Island and the site of historic Fort Gaines, I could now see just how far out that island was. I pulled over, my tires crunching not across gravel, but crushed oyster shells. Out on the tidal flats, I could see a couple of good ol’ boys picking up oysters. I looked around. Shells were everywhere. I chucked a souvenir shell behind the seat and u-turned back toward the mainland.

Roadside sites: Bobbie Cheese Trading Post…a tabernacle tent…the burned hulk of a brand new pickup truck sitting sideways on the shoulder…a Catholic Church: Our Lady of Prompt Succor…

Gulf shorelineAvoiding Interstate 10 (not to worry, I’d get plenty of time on this road later on), I stayed on Mississippi Highway 90 with its many stoplights and shopping malls. But at least it stuck close to the Gulf coast. At Ocean Springs, I turned off to the Gulf Island National Seashore Visitor Center – that’s a mouthful to say – and parked under a canopy of banyon trees. The air was deliciously warm and comfortable. I later found out that the day’s high temperature, 80 degrees, was close to a record. Record or not, it was the warmest day of my trip and the first time in months that I felt truly warm! Must be gettin’ old…

Man with netThe nicely done visitor center was empty save for a couple of bored park rangers and an older, retired gent from nearby Ocean Springs, who apparently liked to hang out in the center. He urged me to watch the two films they had to offer. So we sat in an otherwise empty theater and learned of the history and animal life of the area. Interesting. I was glad he suggested it. Any gaps in the films he filled in with his fine southern accent. It was my first real taste of southern hospitality. At the fishing pier, I watched a man shrimping with a throw net. Also interesting.

I continued west through Biloxi (a name that makes me chuckle from memories of a Jonathan Winters’ comedy record I used to listen to as a kid), then Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis. Great names right out of Tennessee Williams. But my destination was not New Orleans or A Streetcar Named Desire, rather it was a town some hour and a half southwest of The Big Easy: Thibodaux.

Next: The deep deep South...

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