St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rambling in Natchez

Margo and I are spending a few weeks at a state park just out of Natchez, Mississippi. We are near the Mississippi River and have spent some time exploring the old river city of Natchez. It has ranged from 27 degrees up to 74 degrees and is a nice change from winter in Wisconsin and Minnesota!

This column starts the 5th year of stories we have put in the newspaper, mostly on local history from the Leader reader area. We are still looking to share your stories—so pass them along to us. We plan to return to MN mid February and to Wisconsin mid March.

We have been reading the electronic version of the Leader and are getting used to it. The color photos there are nice and being able to read it wherever we travel is great. My laptop computer has wireless, so we stop at a public library or in the parking lot of any motel and can connect for free and read the paper.

We have a small pop-up tent camper that we pull behind the old Buick Roadmaster. The Buick required a trip to the service shop when the autoleveling air shocks pumped up to the max and stayed there—just like the “call the doctor if it stays up more than 36 hours” advertisements with the evening news. The “doctor” found a broken wire shorting out on the frame. He charged $8.00 for the wire repairs and new fuses and $140 to find where the wire was broken. The Buick is back in a relaxed attitude again.

We have spent the last two weeks touring Civil War battle sites; old cotton plantations and mansions; the Natchez Trace—a Federal Parkway from Nashville to Natchez (like a wild river only a wild road); military and local cemeteries; museums and scenic vistas; and visiting back road towns and trying local restaurants for breakfasts of gravy, grits, country ham steak, and biscuits.

The state park is mostly filled with Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario campers. Locals think it is too cold to be camping; those from Ohio and Indiana stop on their way to the deep south, but upper Midwesterners aren’t able to handle the really warm temperatures further south without too much guilt. If we can say it frosted overnight here, then our friends and relatives back home aren’t too jealous!

We went over to Vidalia, LA for breakfast one day and stopped at a roadside stand. We bought some pecans for only $1.25 a pound. They had fresh fish, crabs, shrimp, and some garden greens as well as freshly dressed raccoons. In the grocery store you could buy a frozen full head of a pig, or any parts from hooves on up.

Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana compete for the state that is the worst off in most education categories including; school dropouts, teacher/pupil ratio, teacher salaries, standardized testing, school facilities, tax support for public schools, spending per pupil and more. The same states also compete for most crime, most poverty, most substandard housing, highest unemployment, worst salaries, highest obesity, highest deaths from tobacco, highest number of people in prison, highest teen pregnancy, infant mortality, lowest death age, poorest health care and probably the most litter along the roads. Each day we see groups of prisoners wearing bright green and white horizontally striped pants picking up garbage along the highways.

Alabama and Mississippi also surely must compete for the most churches! Every crossroads in the country has a Baptist or other fundamentalist church. Natchez likely has a church for every 25 people by the number we see. There are humble shed churches with plastic mail order steeples, massive antique ones and huge new ones. We are in the Bible Belt.

Next to us in the campgrounds is a couple from WI. We have had some interesting discussions. He blames the poor conditions here on what he calls the “Three R’s of the South”–Racism, Religion and Republicanism. He thinks the three are so intertwined down here that you can’t separate them out and they all work together to prevent change for the better.

He says “Mississippi spent the hundred years after the Civil War trying to make sure that a third of it’s population, the black people, were kept uneducated and subservient to the rest. They didn’t even let blacks into their Universities until forced to in the 1960s. The majority down here still haven’t understood that keeping some people down keeps them all down! The worst part of it all is that religious people here are still some of the most overtly racist. Did you know that the Southern Baptist Convention took until 1996 to admit that they were wrong to have supported slavery! You remember Jerry Falwell, he got his start in trying to keep blacks out of the private Christian Schools set up when blacks were allowed in the public schools”

Another neighbor says “People are poor because they are lazy and that’s all there is to it!”

I don’t know who is right, but whatever the cause, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana seem to have been left behind by the rest of the USA in just about everything except low taxes. Even a pack of cigarettes here is cheap—only 18 cents tax per pack versus a couple of bucks up north. A Michigander, who retired here to a new house, tells me her property taxes are 1/3 as much as she paid for an old smaller house in Michigan and other taxes are low here too She says that people over 65 don’t pay any taxes to support schools at all. She lives in a gated community with fences to keep away the riff-raff.

The camellias are blooming. Magnolias and live oaks are lushly green. Pansies bloom in the flower beds along with snapdragons. White and red clover provide bright green clumps in the brown Bermuda grass lawns. Paperwhites and an occasional clump of jonquils decorate the ditches. Cardinals and robins are thick in the park. We wear short sleeves on days when the Natchezans still have their winter coats on. See you in a month!