Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Highway 61 Re-re-visited

It's been a long time since I updated this blog. Our travels were seriously curtailed while we focused on repairing and restoring our home after the water damage caused by a frozen pipe nearly two years ago. While there are some minor jobs to do, that work is mostly finished and we are content to leave any unfinished details so that we may return again to the southwest and avoid the darkest days of the upcoming winter.

Since our son and daughter in law no longer live near Louisville, where we previously brought the Mary Joan to avoid exposure to the harshness of the salt and snow of New England's winter and from where we would launch our southern travels, I decided that taking her further south would be a good idea. I chose Houston as our jumping off place. Flights are frequent and inexpensive and there are secure places to store the camper as well as the usual hotel chains close to the airport where I can stay after storing the camper and truck.

I gave myself ten days to complete the nearly 1,900 miles. My plan was to put in two long days to get well below the Mason Dixon line leaving another week to take slowly cover the rest of the way and enjoy the fall weather and scenery as I went. On the first evening I got a little way south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a distance of 413 miles. While the state parks were still open, I decided to park alongside the big tractor trailers at a rest stop saving the time to get to and from a park.
 The next day, following Sarah's suggestion, I headed for Skyline Drive in Virginia. This road would then connect me with the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had returned north along the Parkway in the spring two years ago and the idea of seeing it in the fall was appealing. I had a good night's sleep despite the noise from the road and awakened at 4:30 AM and was on the road by 5:30 AM.
All the views were great

I reached Skyline drive just before dawn and was rewarded with a most beautiful sunrise.  Choosing this route, however meant that slowed down more than I expected. The steeply curving mountain roads demanded a maximum speed of 40 mph. That, combined with stopping to take in the numerous stunning vistas allowed me to travel just better than 30 miles each hour. I reached Rocky Knob Campground south of Roanoke at 4:30 in the afternoon, another 400 miles toward my destination. Despite the fact that the driving required a lot of diligence to safely negotiate the challenging road, the frequent stops and the stimulation of the scenery made the day much shorter than a similar number of hours behind the wheel would have been on an interstate highway.

Looking east toward the piedmont, sunrise on Skyline Drive

Unfortunately, when I talked with Sarah after I arrived at the camp site, I learned that my mother had been admitted to the hospital that day. From what I could gather from the limited information Sarah could give me, it seemed prudent for me to get home as soon as possible. One option was to get to a large city close to my current location, make arrangements to store the trailer and fly back home. But, the next day being Sunday, it would have been impossible to find a place to store the truck and trailer. I would have to wait until Monday. I calculated that I could get to Houston by Monday and since I already had a place picked out to leave the vehicles, that pressing on made the most sense. I knew, I could make good time on the interstate system. I don't like driving 65 mph pulling a four ton camper, but it is not an impossible task. I spent twelve hours on the road, stopping every three hours for a break and made it to Roosevelt State Park just east of Jackson, Mississippi, a total of 700 miles. There I got the good news that the doctors didn't find any life threatening problem or condition requiring invasive procedures. Relieved, Sarah and I decided I could continue with my original itinerary.
Two lane parkway for hundreds of miles

With Houston now less than 500 miles away, I could slow down and enjoy the remainder of the trip. Roosevelt State Park is only about 50 miles east of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful two lane road that roughly follows an ancient path between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. We had traversed most of it two years ago, but had not been on this section. With the tunes of Louisiana native, Lucinda Williams on the stereo, I enjoyed the magnificent southern scenery. The drive from Roosevelt State Park to Natchez took only three hours and I stopped at Natchez State Park, a mere 15 miles outside of the city of Natchez.

For the most part, Natchez escaped serious damage during the civil war. It was occupied and held by the Union Army early on in the war. As a result, Natchez boasts the greatest amount of surviving antebellum architecture of any southern city that was contested in that horrible war.

My first stop in the city was the Visitor's Center. At the visitor's center there is a compact 'museum'. There are exhibits and a mural that represents a timeline of Natchez history.It was here that I learned how one man from my dad's home town, Westborough, Massachusetts, unwittingly quadrupled the demand for slave labor in the deep south. Prior to 1795 the growing of cotton as a cash crop was not profitable. Too much labor was required to separate the fiber from the seed. But, with the invention of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney, suddenly changed that. So much land quickly became cultivated for cotton that demand for slaves to plant and harvest the crop skyrocketed. Immense profit was suddenly generated from cotton. Massive plantations were created, importation of slaves from more northern states occurred and an intense market for buying and selling human beings was set up in Natchez. Strolling the streets and seeing the magnificent edifices built here caused me to reflect on how much profit was made on the backs of these suffering people. Many of the cotton growers had large plantations in the country and built beautiful homes in the city. The enslaved workers never saw the opulence their labor afforded their keepers. Nor did they ever see any white people other than their over keepers.

Yet, at the same time some enslaved people were afforded relief by those that enslaved them. It was common for slave owners to have relationships with women they owned. Some of these men appeared to have tender feelings for them and the offspring created by such relations. These men often manumitted them. In Natchez and New Orleans, there were thousands of freed black people living alongside white citizens, albeit with severely restricted liberties.  William Johnson was just such a man. Along, with his mother, he had been manumitted by his owner/father. He learned the trade of barbering and became a successful free black man living in Natchez. But, the most astounding fact is that he himself became a slave owner. In the short time I had in Natchez, I couldn't delve into his story more deeply, but it is something I surely will do.

I left the center with a self guided walking tour map and spent the afternoon following my paper 'guide'. At many places along the walking tours are informative signs that tell the story of Natchez, its people, economy, slavery and its importance as a shipping port on the Mississippi.

Choktaw, a cotton planter's mansion

The Kyle house. Home of a freed woman of color, Nancy Kyle, who bore the daughter of Christopher Kyle, a wealthy Natchez merchant.
The Blue Cat Club where Jerry Lee Lewis first performed at age 13 in 1938
The home of freed black man, William Johnson who was also a slave owner

Another short drive, two hours, brought me to the capital city,Baton Rouge. I traveled on  scenic Highway 61, made famous by Bob Dylan who dedicated an entire album to this road, Highway 61 Revisited. So, it was only appropriate to play his music as I enjoyed the drive. I checked into a seedy RV park that I chose for its location convenient to the downtown area. My plan was to explore the city's museums and catch some live music. Alas, there is not a single art museum in this state's capital and not a club I could find has live music on a Tuesday night. That is the reason that I have time to, finally, update this blog. Next, I am off for another short morning's drive to Rayne, Louisiana.

Stay tuned