Mississippi has a problem with reputation. Most visitors to the US either completely forget about its existence, or worse, have such a bad and prejudicial view of the Magnolia State that they give it a wide berth. So let me write a few words about it.
We got to Mississippi driving south from Memphis on the Interstate 55 and our entry was, lets say, less than grand. The state boundary cuts across the far outskirts of Memphis so the only way of knowing that you have crossed it is to look for a small sign on the side of the suburban looking freeway indicating the beginning of the DeSoto County.
After this less than spectacular welcome we booked ourselves into a motel in the small town of Senatobia, 26 miles from the border. We stayed on its outskirts in yet another cluster of chain motels and fast food establishments next to the freeway exit. For example our motel (Days Inn) had a franchise of the Waffle House on site and was next to three big gas stations as well as branches of Pizza Hut, KFC, Wendy’s, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen and Subway. So far, so boring.
But the following day things got much better. For a start the I-55 happened to be way more scenic than I though it would be. Looking at the road map I was expecting a flat and straight freeway running along the fields and farms, instead we got gently undulating and quite heavily forested landscape all the way to Jackson, almost 200 miles to the south of the Tennessee border. It was definitely a really nice piece of highway and a joy to drive.
But as much as I enjoyed the scenic interstate we decided to leave it and look for some place for a break. On our road map we spotted an icon marking “petrified forest” (not far from Jackson) so we decided to explore it. The site wasn’t really signed that well and we only had a general state map but after navigating some small rural roads, (lined by an occasional bullet road roads sign here and there), we managed to find it (working with maps sometimes really helps).
Mississippi Petrified Forest is privately owned and operated and it showcases 36 million years old petrified logs. It is in fact the only petrified forest in the eastern United States. After paying a small fee we took the short circular nature trail which allows anyone to get close to the old trees. The walk was very pleasant as the trail sneaks through the ravines cut into the thick loess soil which covers the region. The petrified logs are visible in many places along the path and there are also some fine specimens in the park’s small museum. After wandering for a while we had our packed lunch (euphemism for a bagel with ham eaten from a trunk of our Camaro) and headed further south towards Jackson.
Now, Jackson wasn’t really our main target in Mississippi but it was on our way so we decided on a brief visit. It is, after all, the state capital so I was hoping to bag a visit to yet another state capitol building.
We entered the city via a bit of a convoluted route by taking some smaller roads from the petrified forest rather than the main interstate. That way we nearly got lost once or twice but finally managed to reach its downtown which was absolutely deserted. I’m not kidding or exaggerating, most of the times we were the only car stopping at the traffic lights or the intersections. It did feel really weird. I mean Jackson is obviously not a metropolis, by any stretch of imagination, but being so empty? Then we realized that it was Sunday and everything was completely and absolutely shut. Unfortunately it included the capitol building which meant we could only walk around its grounds (full of mature trees and colourful flowers) and take some pictures of its exterior, including the usual dome.
You could see that here in the south people take their Sundays really seriously. We were actually about to leave the deserted city when we realized that there is also an old capitol building which was converted to a museum and it was open on Sundays. Yes, we couldn’t believe it either.
The building, originally called the State House, was open in 1839 and it served as a state capitol until 1903 when the current capitol was opened. It was then used as a state office building and historical museum. After being damaged by hurricane Katrina it was restored and opened as a museum dedicated to the building itself and to the politics of Mississippi. It is nowhere as grand as the new capitol and its exhibits were a bit mundane (even for me who is really interested in American history) but it was good for a short stop.
On the grounds of the old capitol is also located the Mississippi War Memorial Buildings which I found architecturally much more interesting than the capitol itself. It was built in 1939 in the Art Deco style characteristic of the inter war period. The sculptures on the facade are especially fascinating and they depict soldiers and Mississippi citizens during World War I.
From Jackson we drove west towards the Mississippi River valley which was actually our main destination in the state, especially the historic towns of Vicksburg and Natchez (which deserve a separate chapter). So far the state of Mississippi proven to be quite pleasant, even if the best of it was still in front of us. More about it next.