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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

The mountains beckoned. I had to get high. My daughter in Virginia lives on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The trip there usually takes me two days, but I had to get away from the low country’s heat and humidity and mosquitoes, so instead of my usual route I took US 441, which tracks further to the west. I spent the night in a national forest campground and the next day I was in the mountains. I consulted my roadmaps and my GPS for a good route to my daughter’s and could have driven there in one day, but I couldn’t resist. When the highway intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my heart soared and I turned right and drove all day.

(Disclaimer: You who are familiar with the Rocky Mountains and other lofty ranges may wonder why I find the Appalachians so spectacular. They may appear modest by comparison, but these are old mountains with ancient stories you can feel in your bones.)

This part of the Parkway snakes through the Smokey Mountains, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, than any other part of the road. Heading north, I found the afternoon sun on my right. What? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the west? That was the west! At the moment, the winding road had me going south. The speed limit is 45 mph, but a flatlander like me isn’t going to take hairpin curves at that speed. Fortunately, there are scenic overlooks every quarter mile, it seems, so I could pull off to let more mountain-savvy drivers get by.

Whenever traveling, I try to stop every hour or so to stretch my legs. I reached Waterrock Knob Visitor Center late that afternoon. A good place to stop, I thought, where I could get a new map and inquire about camping. But once I stepped out of my van, I was assaulted by a magnificent view, wildflowers, and mile-high air. On my way to the Visitor’s Center, I was waylaid by a trail. Why not? I’d been driving too long. A long walk would do me good.

 

The sign at the beginning showed options: a two mile trail and a shorter one, only a half mile. The sign didn’t mention that it was half a mile straight up.

I took the asphalt-paved path. Before I reached the first bench, I was out of breath and had to rest. I forced myself to breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the rarified air, and once my heart stopped pounding, I pressed on. The paved path gave way to stone steps which twisted up the side of the mountain. Some had been placed there by mankind, but most appeared to have been graciously set forth by the mountain itself, inviting me to a higher realm.

I made use of every bench beside the path and finally came to a round lookout area enclosed by a low stone wall just the right height for sitting. Had I reached my destination?

A group of young women came down the path. Foolishly, I asked them how far it was to the top. “Oh, it’s a ways, not really that far. It seems farther than it is. We had to stop and rest a lot.” Did I look doubtful? “But it’s really worth it. You’ll be glad you went up.”

I thanked them. They were sweating and out of breath, but they had me—I couldn’t lose face. One was a heavy girl. If she could make this climb, so could I. Struggling to my feet, I resumed my ascent.

Beauty surrounded me—mountains, trees, wildflowers, rocks. I took pictures. Some of the wildflowers were familiar, a few I could guess at, and many I couldn’t identify as they were not found in Florida. The rhododendrons were in bloom. Their southern relatives, my wild azaleas, had blossomed in March. Was the season so late at these heights?

I met two more groups coming down the trail. Each time I asked how much further to the top. The second was a trio who answered as vaguely as the girls had. “Are you just going to the top or are you making the loop?” No! Not the two mile loop! “Oh, it’s a ways, but not too far.”

The third was a fit-looking middle aged couple with backpacks and gear. “You’re just going to the top? You’re almost there. When you get to a wooden bench, take the path to the right and you’ll come to a big rock.” At least they told the truth.

I reached the bench too eager to sit down. The short path to the rock yielded its promised view of more and more mountains. Way down below, in the parking lot, was my van. Yup—a half mile straight up. But the air! I don’t know when I’ve breathed sweeter air. My lungs had blown out all of Florida’s humidity and discovered Oxygen on Steroids.

As I took pictures, the mist rolled up and thunder growled in the distance. Time to go down. I took my time. As I descended, I found more spectacular things to photograph. How did I miss them before? Once I reached the parking lot, my fatigue was gone. I felt good, ready to drive on.

 

But the mountains weren’t done with me. More overlooks, wildflowers, and the approaching sunset. I was higher than the clouds which crept among peaks and valleys below. Finally, I came to Highest Elevation on the Parkway, at 6053 feet, more than a mile high.

A silver car had kept pace with me, stopping to photograph wildflowers, pulling into or out of overlooks as I entered or left. They caught up with me here and the lady said, “We’ve been following you.”

They, too were from Florida. Although heading north on the Parkway, they were returning home from Ohio. The gentleman had never experienced the Parkway, so they’d taken a detour. Kindred spirits, we chatted. I took pictures of them with the magnificent view in the background and they returned the courtesy. “See you at the next overlook,” they said as we parted, but we didn’t connect again.

I camped at Mt. Pisgah and the next day exited the Parkway at Fancy Gap, ready to see my grandchildren, taking the exhilaration of the mile high drive with me.

(See: marieqrogers.com/2017/02/28/the-jewel-of-fancy-gap)

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With the turning of the year, I was reminded of this story, which took place around the New Year, fifty three years ago.

Dad was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. Afterwards, he couldn’t tolerate cold weather. All through childhood, I heard him threaten to move to Florida to get out of those Upstate New York winters. When I was around twelve, he and a friend actually took a trip south to scope things out. There, his car broke down, so he bought a Chrysler New Yorker and brought it home. That car was destined to return to Florida. A few years later, my parents sold the house, paid off debts, and we moved.

This car is similar to the one we took to Florida,

Our car was similar to this one.

It may sound crazy to load up the family and take off on a 1000 mile move with no solid goal (as in job or place to live), but that’s what we did. Of course, there were preparations. Dad built a utility/camping trailer with a canvas top. Clothing and dishes were packed inside and our mattresses laid on top. The canvas lid could be propped up like a lean-to roof, and with a camp stove and ice chest, we had all the comforts of home, right? No need to buy ice—Dad yanked a couple of ice sickles off the eaves of the house. They were as big around as my arm and people in Florida were astounded.

Our other belongings were left with my grandparents or loaded on the back of Dad’s truck which he stored in a friend’s garage. The plan was to return for the truck in a few weeks. (Those few weeks became a few years.)

Dad's old truck years later. It used to be green.

Dad’s old truck years later. It used to be green.

So, one cold day in late December, 1963, we set out in the Chrysler. This was long before mini-vans, and even a station wagon wouldn’t hold all of us. Have you ever traveled with a half dozen or so kids crammed together in the back seat of a car?  It was the middle of winter, so we huddled together for warmth. We didn’t fight among ourselves. We couldn’t. There was no room.

Besides, we were off on an adventure, fulfilling a dream.

In the middle of the night, somewhere in Virginia, Mom was driving and hit a deer. I woke when the car stopped. Mom was in the front seat, but Dad wasn’t. There’d been no damage to the car, but the deer didn’t fare so well. Later, as Dad told the story, another vehicle stopped but they couldn’t find the deer. Suddenly, the injured animal leaped up out of the roadside brush and one of the men whipped out a gun and shot it. Dad thought this was a good time to leave. He said, “Well, boys, you got yourselves a deer!” Then he high-tailed it back to the car, jumped in, and off we went.

With eight kids and limited funds, you don’t stay at motels. We were geared up for camping, but it was too cold, so we kept going. The Interstate Highway System hadn’t been built yet, so travel took more time than it does for most folks nowadays.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve with our first taste of Mountain Dew, which at the time was a “hillbilly” soda. I thought it was delicious. The formula has since been changed, and/or my tastes are now more refined.

When we crossed into South Carolina, two very disparate things greeted us: a palm tree and South of the Border, tourist trap extraordinaire. The palm was a sable (or cabbage) palmetto, symbol of the “Palmetto State,” also the state tree of Florida. At the time, South of the Border straddled 301 and sold artifacts from Mexico. Now days, it caters to I-95 traffic and sells cheap souvenirs.

Sabal Palm

Sabal Palm

In Savannah, I got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. A high bridge took us over the river, and off to the left was a sparkling patch of blue. In much of Georgia, the highway ran through mile after mile of pine forests. My parents commented on the lack of guardrails along the deep, water-filled ditches. If someone went off the road, they’d never be found. We rolled into Florida on January 2nd.

We stopped in the Ocala National Forest, near Salt Springs, for a few days. Dad pulled up to a little country store and asked where we could camp. The proprietor gestured to a tree on the edge of his parking lot and said people sometimes camp there, so we did. The man was very nice, but instead of a Southern drawl, he talked so fast I couldn’t understand him. He might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I wonder if he got tired of us asking, “What?”

We were now in sunny Florida, so we put on shorts and went for a walk down a sandy road through a hammock of palm, oak, and cypress. It was sunny, all right, but it was COLD. An arctic blast had followed us south and we about froze to death. After a day or so, my parents decided to go farther south.

We settled in Moore Haven, on the south side of Lake Okeechobee. You couldn’t see the lake because of the levy around it, and you could get to it only by boating down a canal. We stayed in a campground near the lake until Dad got a job and we rented a house.

In reflection, it’s amazing how much has changed in the last half-century. In some ways, though certainly not all, this was a simpler, more innocent time. Not many children today are privileged to have the remarkable experiences we did.

You can read more about Moore Haven and our other early adventures in Florida in “Hurricane Dora”: https://marieqrogers.com/tag/hurricane-dora/

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This summer I spent a few weeks in West Virginia with my granddaughter Tiffany and her family. They live near Kearneysville in the state’s eastern-most county, Jefferson County. Her husband Justin comes from a huge extended family. Both of his parents came from large families, as in ten or so kids, and their parents as well. He said none of them move away. They just stay there, generation after generation. He has so many cousins, known and unknown, that he wouldn’t date a girl from West Virginia. He played it safe, he thought, by marrying a girl from Florida.

My great-grandmother came from three counties away, Hampshire County, from the little community of Slanesville. Like Justin’s family, her forbears settled there in the 1700s and stayed, until one of the wandering Rogers, my great-grandfather John Thomas, married her and carted her off to upstate New York. I can see why they stayed. Unlike most of mountainous West Virginia, this area in the North River Valley is blessed with rolling hills and good farmland.

Slanesville, WV, looking toward the North River

Slanesville, WV. Looking toward the North River

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I like to do a little genealogical research. This can be challenging because these folks practiced subsistence farming and recycled most everything. They even recycled names. Say you have a man named John. He names his oldest son John. Half of John’s ten or so children might be boys. John, Jr. and each of his brothers name a son after their father, and in only three generations you end up with a half dozen or so men with the same name, and many of them are cousins about the same age. I’ve run into this sort of thing trying to trace my roots. I try to sort them by birthdates. Have you ever written a number or date wrong? Family historians are human, and records are not always accurate, if they even exist. Hampshire County libraries have good historical records, but I’ve been stymied by who is my ancestor and which are distant cousins. So before venturing over to Hampshire County, I went through my notes and wrote down the vital statistics of the people I was looking for.

One branch of the family tree is the Hietts. The name has variously been spelled as Hiatt, Hiet, Hyet, Hayet, and Hyatt. And the line is full of Johns. My ancestors John and Mary Hiett, Quakers, were born in England and joined William Penn in Pennsylvania around 1700. They had a large estate near Philadelphia and produced several children, among them, John Hiett, Jr. He married Margaret Stephens and they eventually ended up in Hampshire County, which at the time was part of Virginia.

Poring over my notes, I found an interesting tidbit: after they left Pennsylvania, before moving on to Hampshire County, the Hietts owned land in Frederick County, Virginia. In those days, the colonies were divided into large counties, which were later broken up into the smaller counties we know today. The part of Frederick County, Virginia where John, Jr. and Margaret lived is now Jefferson County, West Virginia! My ancestor Evan Hiett was born there in 1748. Wow

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek, West Virginia

Several miles downstream  of the Hiett holdings.

Several miles downstream of the Hiett holdings.

The Hietts lived on Opequon Creek. I’d crossed that creek a dozen times going to and from Martinsburg. They lived upstream, near the town of Middleway.  “That’s just up the road from here!” Justin said. So Tiffany and I drove up the road to Middleway. I expected, at most, a sign indicating where the historical town once stood, but I was pleased to find Middleway is still, in its own way, thriving.

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Main St. Middleway

Main St. Middleway. My ancestors settled in the neighborhood before these houses were built. 

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Opequon Creek flows from what is still Frederick County, Virginia, forms the county line between Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, and empties into the Potomac River. John, Jr. had farms on both sides of the creek. Property records still exist, so one day I may go back and locate them.

When John, Jr. and Margaret moved to Hampshire County, Evan went with them. He settled in the town of North River Mills where the restored Hiett Log House still stands. (You can see this house at http://www.historichampshire.org/nrm/building/finelli.htm).

In 1784, Evan “Hyett” was listed as the head of a family of eight “white souls,” with one dwelling and four out buildings. He married Sarah Smith and their daughter Margaret married Benjamin McDonald whose father had emigrated from Scotland. One of their descendants was Rebecca McDonald Rogers, my great-grandmother.

Evan’s brother John Hiett III stayed in present day Jefferson County. Eventually, some of the Hietts and their descendants scattered to the Carolinas, the Midwest, and who knows where else. But not all moved on. Uncle John is reportedly buried at the Hopewell Friends Cemetery in present day Frederick County, Virginia, less than ten miles from Middleway. Sons are fairly easy to trace, but daughters marry and change their names. Who knows what names my distant cousins in Jefferson County go by?

Uh, Justin, I hate to tell you—maybe you didn’t go far enough away to find a wife who’s not your cousin.

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The month of August saw me traveling and visiting grandchildren, wrestling with my new “smart” phone, and trying to figure out how to use GPS. Before I set out on my trip, I went to a Verizon store for help. I told the nice young man that the GPS insisted on sending me on the Interstate and I don’t do Interstates. “Why not?”  he said. “You get there faster.” What’s his hurry? He’s young. He has plenty of time. As for me, I’m in no hurry to get to the end of my journey, and I prefer to enjoy the drive. You miss a lot when you stick to the Interstate.

You won't find this on the Interstate.

You won’t find this on the Interstate. (Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Google Maps on my computer gives me the option of avoiding highways. Apparently the young man didn’t know how to program my smart phone this way, so he put another app on the phone that (he said) would do back roads. It didn’t.

After plotting my course using road maps and Google Maps, I headed north.

Or this

Or this. (Near Ludowici, GA)

I planned to camp in Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina. Since I got off to a late start that day, it was dark by the time I reached to Uwharrie. I thought this was a good time to put the GPS to the test, since I was far from any Interstate. I pulled over and typed in Uwharrie National Forest campground.

The lady’s voice on the GPS—whoa!–that’s too awkward. Let’s call her GyPSy. (We used to have a pony named Gypsy and she was cantankerous, too.) Anyway, Gypsy directed me down a series of back roads and deposited me in front of someone’s driveway. I didn’t think the residents of the house wanted me to camp in their yard, so I drove on, hoping the campground was nearby. I never found it. Gypsy kept telling me to make U turns, turn down such and such a road, and the like for the next hour until I figured out how to shut her up.

Consulting my map, I concluded I’d taken the wrong road to the national forest. It was raining and I didn’t want to backtrack, so I drove on. The next town had a Walmart. With the permission of a manager, I parked there for the night. The next day I stuck to the directions I’d written down before my trip and reached my granddaughter’s house with no trouble.

One thing I’ve discovered is that newer road maps are less detailed than older ones. That plus poorly labeled roads makes it hard to plot a course. Is there a conspiracy? Do “they” want us to stick to the Interstates? Are “they” trying to sell more GPS gadgets? Or is our growing dependence on GPS letting highway departments get away with sloppy work?

I spent two pleasant weeks in West Virginia. Toying with the phone during my stay, I figured out how to program Gypsy to avoid highways. Before leaving for Virginia, I drove over to Hampshire County in search of some ancestors who are buried in Slanesville. Although, I knew my way around, I thought I’d see if Gypsy could find a short cut. No–the poor dear was lost! Maybe I was too far from any Interstate. That thing on a computer that goes round and round when it’s searching for something went round and round and round until I reached Romney.

Slanesville, WV

Slanesville, WV

I consulted a map and spent the rest of the afternoon driving through picturesque West Virginia mountains. Almost Heaven. I hated to leave but was expected at my daughter’s home in Radford, Virginia that night. I stopped to eat in Covington. The day had been pleasant and sunny, but the night turned dark and rainy. Over supper, I consulted my road map for the most direct route to Radford, then I programmed Gypsy.

Computer savvy people refuse to believe that those devious machines have a mind of their own, but they do. I know what Gypsy was thinking: “So, she wants back roads? Well, I’ll give her back roads!”

And back roads I got. Roads with names like 617 and 725. Roads that weren’t on my map. Before long, I was helplessly lost and dependent on her caprice. Gypsy directed me to turn here and there, mostly in unpopulated areas, through two national forests. One road was so narrow that if I’d met an oncoming vehicle, we’d both have scraped paint off trying to squeeze by. Fortunately, I had plenty of gas and my compass told me I was gradually making my way south. I breathed with relief when I came to US 11, Lee Highway. Now I knew where I was and where I was going.

I have to give Gypsy credit—she got me there in one piece and in the time frame she’d predicted. But how’d she know about these forest roads when she was totally lost on a state road in West Virginia?

Is this Tow Mater?

Is this Tow Mater? (Near Hillsville, VA)

On my way home, she successfully navigated me through Salisbury, North Carolina, where I invariably get lost. I planned to spend the night at Santee State Park in South Carolina, so I gave her this destination. She found a short cut that wasn’t on my map, but when I got to the park, she argued with me that the campground was at a ranger’s residence. Don’t you hate a machine that thinks she’s smarter than you?  But I knew better. A sign clearly pointed to the campground.

The next morning, I expected Gypsy to find a shortcut home, but she routed me through Orangeburg, South Carolina. I didn’t mind. I never drive through that city without stopping at Edisto Memorial Gardens to smell the roses.

Edisto Memorial Gardens

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djibouti-map

Djibouti is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, sandwiched between Eritrea and Somalia, where the Red Sea flows into the Gulf of Aden. If you look at a map, the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula points right to it. The capital city is also named Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her family live there.

I visited them in 2004.  At the time, they lived in a two story house surrounded by a gated wall, a typical residence for well-to-do Djiboutians and middle-class expatriates. Next door, in a similar house, was the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Although Djibouti enjoys peace and good relations with the Western world and has not been a victim of the unrest that plagues the nations around it, I found it a little unsettling, at first, to stay next door to the Saudi Embassy. Not to worry, Lorraine and John assured me. They got along quite well with their neighbors. Indeed they did. When I wanted a sample of my name in Arabic, Lorraine sent their watchman next door and someone at the embassy wrote it on a piece of paper for me.

However, I hadn’t been there more than a few days, when one night I was jarred from sleep by explosions and lights flashing in the sky. I jumped out of bed and ran to my window, certain that we were under attack, that the wars raging throughout the Middle East had invaded peaceful little Djibouti, or the embassy next door was being bombed, but I couldn’t see anything except flashes of light. I knew it was no thunderstorm. So I ran to another window.

I’m not sure whether John’s sleep was disturbed by the explosions or by my running through the house. He accosted me on my way to a third window and said, “It’s all right! It’s all right. It’s only fireworks.” And so it was. We couldn’t get a clear view of them, only enough to know we weren’t about to die. Afterwards, we had a good laugh.

This is what it sounded like that night.

This is what it sounded like that night.

At home, I can hear the Fourth of July celebration eleven miles away in Lake Butler. My neighbors shoot off fireworks every July 4th, New Year’s Eve, or whenever they have a party. Those don’t alarm me. But we Americans can hardly wait until dark for the pyrotechnics to begin, and that night in Djibouti, not only was it well after dark, it was late enough that we were in bed asleep. There’d been no notice of a fireworks display and we never did learn what the occasion was. Someone in the city was celebrating something and fireworks was part of the entertainment. I wonder how many other people woke in alarm that night thinking the city was being bombed.

But it wasn’t. Did my expectations that this part of the world was dangerous cause my reaction? Or was my alarm reasonable? I’ll never forget the terror of the moment, yet I was safe. When I think about people who live in actual war zones, whose days and nights are disturbed, not by festive fireworks, but by actual bombs, my heart goes out to them. If the unexpected sounds of that night remain etched in my mind twelve years later, I can’t begin to imagine what effect it has on those who are exposed to violence on a continuous basis. Here in the USA, we have so much to be grateful for.

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Travels with Teddy

When my daughter Amber lived at home, she took care of my animals when I traveled. Once she said Teddy missed me so much he wouldn’t eat when I was gone. It turned out she was feeding him twice as much as I did! He ate like a cat, nibbling his food throughout the day, not gulping it down all at once like some dogs. He’d leave what he didn’t eat.

When Amber was not available, a neighbor tended my animals. One summer, I came home to find Teddy wearing a pink flea collar. No one knew where he got it. Of course, he managed to scratch it off and lose it. One day Teddy and I took a walk on the dirt road. A neighbor I didn’t know well said, “Hello, Teddy.” I stopped to inquire how he knew Teddy and learned that while I was traveling, instead of staying home to keep the varmints out of the yard, my faithful dog was nearly living at their house! That’s where he got the flea collar.

After this, I took him with me. Teddy loved to travel. If I went somewhere in my van and didn’t take him, he’d pout. On the road, he was well- behaved and even tolerated a leash once I explained that city dogs had to wear them. He accompanied me as far north as West Virginia and as far west as Arkansas. On hot days, I couldn’t leave him in the van and tour a museum or antebellum house, but we stopped at parks and walked the trails. Here are Teddy and Tristan, both dog tired after a long walk through a North Carolina swamp:

2011 pics 391

One summer we spent several days on the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at every cabin and walking every trail that wasn’t too steep for him to climb. I’d go sightseeing and Teddy’d go smell-sniffing. He delighted in new and unusual smells. Here he is checking out something that looks disgusting to a human:

Copy of 10-15 131

He seemed to understand that the van was our home away from home. If a park ranger stopped by our campsite, Teddy would bark until I told him it was ok. One year we went to Arkansas. From there my mother and I flew to Washington to visit my sister Sue. I left Teddy and my van at Mom’s house, under the care of my nephew. Teddy made himself at home and didn’t leave the farm as long as my van was there.

But things were different in the city. One summer when we visited Amber in Virginia Beach, I tied Teddy in the back yard at night and slept in the house. The next morning he was gone. I hiked all over the neighborhood but no one had seen him. We called the pound but he wasn’t there. I was afraid I’d lost him forever.

That afternoon, Amber’s father-in-law returned home and said, “Get your damn dog out of my car.” He’d found Teddy! On a whim, he’d decided to take a different route home, spotted an Animal Control truck, and Teddy being led toward it. Randy convinced the officer he knew whose dog it was, and Teddy was released without bail. Apparently, Teddy had gone as far as a house on a lake and hung out in the backyard all day. When the owners got home from work, they called the pound. After this, I slept out in the hot van with Teddy so he wouldn’t escape again.

Teddy got along with most dogs but my sister Bonnie’s dog is jealously territorial. He wouldn’t let Teddy out of my van. Brutus sees me only once or twice a year but always greets me with wagging tail, even if no one’s home. He doesn’t even object when I use their hidden key to get into the house. Some watchdog! Bonnie said he senses I belong there. But Teddy was not welcome. Brutus had to be distracted so Teddy could get out to relieve himself. Then Brutus got curious about my van and wanted to check it out, but that was Teddy’s territory. He wouldn’t let Brutus near.

As he aged, Teddy had trouble climbing into the van. He could get his front paws in, but I’d have to pick up his hind quarters and shove. Sadly, his traveling days were over. I always felt safe when he was with me, and I missed his company when he wasn’t.

Next time I’ll tell you how Teddy became known as my Million Dollar Dog.

.

 

 

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A creek runs through my property, a small creek hardly worthy of a name. My front acres are high and dry but I chose to build in the pine flatwoods on the backside of the creek. Why? Because I like it here. Where the driveway crosses the creek I installed culverts. For years, every hard storm washed out my culverts and left me with expensive driveway repairs. Finally, an old farmer suggested that instead of running the culverts straight across the driveway, they should slant with the course of the creek. Now, why didn’t I think of that? My creek and I have coexisted quite well since.

Look closely at a map of the Mississippi River and you’ll see oxbow lakes where the river once flowed. Parts of states remain on the other side of the river, isolated from the rest, where the river changed course after state lines were drawn. Where does an 800 pound Gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to! And he is capable of crushing whatever he sits on.

Grand Gulf, Mississippi was once a boom town. In my travels I picked up a flyer on Grand Gulf and this summer I paid a visit. Not far from the Natchez Trace, Grand Gulf Military State Park offers both history and camping. A small museum exhibits, among artifacts from pre-history to the Prohibition, a letter written by George Washington himself. The grounds display a collection of historical buildings that have been moved here: a church, a dog-trot cabin, and a grist mill, as well as cannons from the Civil War.

The only original house is the little Spanish House built in the 1790s. You see, officially, the town of Grand Gulf no longer exists. But its history is fascinating.

Native Americans, the Natchez and lesser know tribes, lived in the area before Europeans arrived–DeSoto, the French, the Spanish, and the French again. After the Revolutionary War, settlers from North Carolina traveled to what is now Claiborne County and, in 1828, laid out the 80 city blocks of Grand Gulf. During the hey-day of King Cotton, Grand Gulf became an important river port. Steamboats brought theater companies and shipped out cotton. With a post office, newspaper, taverns, churches, a school, a hospital, and several stores, Grand Gulf grew to be the third largest city in Mississippi. By the late 1830’s the town had over 1000 inhabitants. Then its luck changed.

Grand Gulf was named after a great whirlpool in the river. That should have been a clue to its eventual fate. Yellow fever decimated the population in 1843. Nine years later, a steamboat exploded, destroying the docks. The following year, a tornado devastated the town. Then the Gorilla shifted his weight. The Mississippi began to eat away at the town. By 1860, over 50 blocks had been washed away, obliterating the business district and whittling the population to 158 souls.

During the Civil War, this was a strategic location for the defense of the Mississippi. On each side of the town, the Confederates built forts which frustrated the Union’s attempt to gain control of the river. I won’t go into the details of the battles of Grand Gulf. You can find that information elsewhere. Suffice it to say that what little remained of the town was destroyed and it was not rebuilt after the war.

On the way to Grand Gulf, I passed a nuclear power plant and hoped this does not spell the town’s final tragedy.

As I drove to the park, on my left mud flats extended to the river. On my right rose the bluffs where the park is located. The charming Sacred Heart Catholic Church shone like a jewel halfway up the hill. This building was moved here in 1983 from Rodney, another victim of the Mississippi, a port town whose history parallels that of Grand Gulf, except that its demise occurred because the river moved away from the town.

Ft. Wade is located on the north side of the park. Behind it sits the Spanish House which miraculously survived the war. Uphill beyond the house is the old cemetery, most graves dating to the 1800s. Wisely, the townspeople buried their dead on top of the bluffs. Otherwise, the cemetery would have suffered the same fate as the town.

After touring the park and spending the night, I asked the museum staff exactly where the town had been. “Down the road about a mile, near Ft. Coburn.” The lady shook her head.  “There’s nothing left.”

Expecting just that, to my surprise I found, certainly not a bustling town of 1000, but a community that refuses to die.

An old store building still stands. Grand Gulf Business DistrictEmpty paved streets lead to an ancient, falling-down church. DSCF7557The road continues uphill past Ft. Coburn and a few modern (occupied!) houses.

But the amazing thing is, between the paved road and the river are at least a dozen mobile homes and a handful of campers. And I never saw the like—the house trailers were set on stilts! Many had screened porches. The SmithsOne sported a sign declaring, “The Smiths—Soul survivors of the flood of 2011.” The trailer of a neighbor, whose loss that year probably made him more gun-shy of the river than most, perched on two stories of metal supports.

So Grand Gulf is not inhabited solely by ghosts. It has been rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gorilla still has unfinished business with this town.

What makes people so stubbornly defy fate and the elements? Some day I will go back and ask the residents why they insist on living here. But I expect no better answer than I’d get from a homeowner who builds on the other side of the creek, when it would be less trouble to build elsewhere.

 

For more about Grand Gulf, visit:

http://www.grandgulfpark.state.ms.us/

http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ms-grandgulf.html

 

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