Our Drive to the Coast

Monday, June 14, 2010
We left Tupelo at 6:30 in the morning – we were so excited to be going to the coast! I had only been to Biloxi once (in 1962, I believe) and Marian had been once decades ago as well, so we were really looking forward to seeing the forty-mile or so stretch of Mississippi coast. We decided to go in June (something we wouldn’t ordinarily do) because we felt there was an immediate need for tourists and we're tourists, so….We allotted forty-eight hours to see all we could, not enough time to take in everything, of course, but we don’t worry about that. We don’t hurry; if we find something we like, or someplace that really interests us, we stay as long as we want. If we run out of time and don’t get to see/do everything, we go back, but more than two or three days in a row of the sort of sightseeing we do is exhausting and we don’t want to just go through it as zombies, we want to enjoy every minute. Also, it gets really, really expensive to drag out a trip. We had found a super deal online: a room at the IP Casino and Resort for $48 a night, so we felt pretty good about that…and far less guilty about going out for nice dinners. Since we saw so much on this trip, we've divided it into "the drive down" and "the coast," and we’re blogging this by the individual places we visited rather than dividing it into Day 1, 2, 3.

The drive to the coast – which, I seem to recall, took a full 17,000 hours when I was twelve – is now a mere five hours away! It’s good news/bad news though; it is possibly the dullest drive in the world.

We opted for the Highway 45 South route out of town, and found it to be an incredibly easy four-lane drive, but dull, dull, dull. There is really nothing to look at but trees (although they’re lovely) until Macon, which is some 100 miles down the road. It's not a difficult drive, and the area itself isn't particularly unattractive; it's more like nondescript. It is simply boring. There's just nothing there. Nothing.

The thing that finally caught our attention – and this is indicative of how dull the drive really is – were rolls of hay. We don’t know anything about varieties of hay (and, really, we don’t care), but some clever farmer obviously considered this variety valuable enough to cover the hay-rolls in white plastic. They are scattered all over a huge field, making it look like a giant marshmallow crop. It’s on the east side of 45, just north of Scooba, should you happen to be heading that way, and take our word for it, by the time you get that far down 45, you’ll find it as interesting as we did.

Scooba greets passers-by with a living sign beside the highway that spells out “Scooba” in small evergreens of some sort. There is a sign right next to that announcing the town as the “Birthplace of World Champion Turkey Caller Jack Lewis Dudley.” Dudley, alas, has called his last turkey, having passed away in November of 2008, but it’s nice to think that his hometown holds him in such high regard.

Scooba is also home to East Mississippi Community College, a place we had never been...or even thought about going. What a surprise – it’s beautiful! Lovely buildings, clean, well-kept campus, friendly people. The sign over the front gate declares that it dates to 1927, and, even more important to us, the school has a cafeteria. Sadly, it was closed when we drove through – a real shame for people who love cafeteria dining as much as Marian and I do. Also, in all seriousness, that cafeteria may be the nicest restaurant in town. The other restaurant is in a gas station. Honest.

While it seems impossible in this day and age, I’m afraid it’s true: Scooba is a town without restaurants. We drove through downtown Scooba, a strip of dilapidated buildings, virtually all of which are empty, so we’re quite sure we didn’t overlook any diners, restaurants, or fast food outlets there. We saw two storefronts that might possibly still be in business, but we weren’t positive, and neither was food-related anyway. Conversely, the residential areas we drove through are rather nice, full of well kept homes and more than enough churches to go around. Scooba’s not at all shabby, except for its downtown (which is in astoundingly bad shape, but could be made quite charming). The very idea of a college town with NO FAST FOOD RESTAURANTS WHATSOEVER puts me in awe of EMCC’s ability to draw students. Any students. Even one. What a recruiting staff they must have!

Now, to be fair, Scooba has only slightly more than 600 people, and covers only 2.5 square miles, and I don’t imagine a lot of fast food HQs search out such demographics. Still, it seems like someone has missed a huge opportunity there. Or perhaps they just don’t want such things. I don’t know.

In Meridian we left 45 for I-59, another fine, albeit boring, stretch of road. Meridian appears to be a pretty big town. Generally speaking, big towns don’t excite either of us, but we are planning an upcoming trip to Meridian to see their carousel, their Opera House, and quite a few other things. We’ve read that there is a religious order called German Baptists (similar to Mennonites) in that part of the state, and we noticed exits for towns named Vossburg, Paulding, and Heidelburg, so we thought we might check out those places too.

SOSO (and environs)
We left I-59 just outside Laurel for Highway 84 and then turned onto Highway 28; we’re using the term highway for 28 loosely here, but it is a nice road. Destination: Soso, one of the cutest-named towns in the state. The first thing we noticed about Soso, and indeed, the entire greater Soso area, was kudzu. We had never seen so much kudzu, and that’s saying a lot for two people raised in Mississippi. It wasn’t just taking over the trees along the sides of the road either (although most certainly, it was), it was actually creeping toward the road. Even the road shoulders were kudzu-covered, and I imagine they frequently find sprigs snaking right up onto the pavement.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t much to Soso, but we really liked the place. They have a stone community center, as you can see. It’s charming really, although there is more mortar than stone in many places.

But our favorite thing was the small trailer that houses a "seafood restaurant," or more specifically, the sign advertising it. Is that a hoot, or what?

From Soso, we drove through Gitano (invisible) and Taylorsville (cute – needs work, but cute) and on to our real goal, Hot Coffee.


Ah, how long we have wanted to visit Hot Coffee, Mississippi! We plan on seeing all of Mississippi’s Coffees – Coffeeville, Coffee, Coffee County – and any other Coffee we can find because we just love coffee. There isn’t much to Hot Coffee, as you can see from their “downtown,” (the store's closed, by the way) but we hadn’t expected a metropolis.

In fact, we had only known about one place to go, and that was McDonald’s Store. As you can see from the sign, it’s a family-friendly kind of a place. Although the term "mini mall" is stretching things a (good) bit, the store stocks just about everything, food to clothes, including school uniforms. We each picked up a (hot pink!) tee shirt there to prove we had actually been to Hot Coffee. Also, we wanted to contribute a little something to the local economy.

What's wrong with this picture?
As we were leaving McDonald's Store we noticed this warning sign on one of the entry doors. It immediately put us in mind of the famous line, "What we have here, is a failure to communicate." Surely they don't mean this.

Another sign we noted alongside the road right by the store says “Summer Feeding Program Two Meals a day” followed by info. We assumed it’s for the kids who get free lunches during the school year. What a scary, sad sign.

There’s not much you can say about Hot Coffee, but there is something we found interesting about the general area. Apparently, if you own land, you're expected to name any street (okay, road) that happens to cross that land after yourself. It makes for an amusing assortment of roads that tee into Highway 29:
Vester Pickering Road

Addie Booker Drive

Melvin Mauldin Road

Mitchell Riggins Road

Tabis Crosby Lane
and our very favorites,
Dick Owens Road
followed by
Oscar Owens Road
followed by
Robert Owens Road
Guess Grandpa Owens was quite the landowner.

Mount Olive, Mississippi, was the hometown of the late, great Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans quarterback and much beloved Nashvillian. You may
recall that he was killed by a “ladyfriend” last July, and it was a truly heartbreaking loss for Nashville. I don’t know if his lovely wife
and their sons have moved back to Mississippi or not, but I can see why they might want to go back to Mount Olive. It’s such a nice town!

The horse tied up in the carport was especially charming. Not because it was tied up in a carport, but because it was obviously used as transportation. The street where we saw this was a boulevard with many, many large, absolutely beautiful old houses. We were quite taken with Mount Olive. It has a lot of its original buildings; some need to be refurbished, but others have been well-loved.

There’s an old drugstore, Powell Drugs, that occupies one corner of their downtown and it’s just beautiful; it has its original mosaic floor and a marble soda fountain counter that couldn’t be duplicated today. And again,
such nice people.

Collins is lovely, a small, attractive town surrounded by a conflux of four-lane highways the likes of which can only mean that Collins is home to some world-class politicians – or their biggest donors. It’s a dream come true for anyone who admires boondoggles of any sort. Gerald McRaney – oh, you know, he was on “Simon and Simon” and some other shows and he’s married to Delta Burke – is from Collins, but we can’t find anyone else from there, certainly no one to explain all the fine roads juxtaposing at what is essentially a map dot. We had a good barbeque lunch there, at The Mercantile, and learned that there is such a thing as pecan oil – virgin pecan oil, at that. We’d never heard of such.

We got back on Highway 49 South in Collins (one of our many highway options in Collins) and took it down through Hattiesburg to the coast highway. The town (possibly community) of Bond is off – as in just a few yards off – Highway 49 South, just beyond the big northern block of Desoto National Forrest, yet it was surprisingly difficult to find. Still, we managed. We weren’t looking for a downtown or anything; our destination was Bond Cemetery. You see, Dizzy Dean is buried there.

Wiggins, Mississippi, being close to and somewhat bigger than Bond, tries to take credit for hosting his remains by kind of co-opting
the cemetery, but they're only fooling themselves. He's not in Wiggins. He’s in Bond. Dizzy was actually from Arkansas originally, but he retired to the area and so…here he is!

The Coast

We came into Biloxi on Highway 110 and Boom! there was our hotel, the IP. How handy is that? We dropped off our stuff and headed out to see Biloxi, starting with the lighthouse and the beach, both of which were lovely. The lighthouse wasn’t open – it’s too hot in the afternoons this time of year, but we walked down to the water and checked to be certain there wasn’t any tar around. There wasn’t. Not a bit. Then we went to the Welcome Center (which is in a really charming old house) where we picked up several brochures and bought a Biloxi tee shirt. We don’t actually wear a lot of tee shirts, but it’s a nice way to contribute to the local economy and we feel an almost moral obligation to do that in most of the places we visit in Mississippi.
The medians on Highway 90 – the highway that runs right along the beachfront for pretty much the entire coast and is an absolutely beautiful drive – used to be full of oak trees. Pre-Katrina, that is. Someone (many someones, I suppose) took the ones that Katrina killed and chain-sawed (and detailed) them into these beautiful sculptures. Some are really elaborate, others simple, but they’re all lovely and uplifting.

Beauvoir (pronounced “buhv WAH” locally), post-war home of Jefferson Davis, is in Biloxi, of course, and it’s well on its way to being totally restored. Apparently, there were seven outbuildings on the property prior to Katrina in 2005, and only two have been replaced, but the house itself is finished and lovely. It’s really a beauty of a place, we had a great tour guide, and the restoration job is first rate. Katrina tore off the porch and the roof and, actually, she tore up and carried off the huge stone entry gateway (it lies in pieces in the cemetery behind the house). But, only a foot of water got into the house, and that’s a blessing. The piano and one bed were lost, but everything else could be redone, and you can’t tell now.
This is one of the pictures that was posted at Beauvior. It shows how the house looked immediately after Katrina finished with it. Yes, that is a cloud in the upper right roof area.  The old picture doesn't show the remains of the President Casino which was moved from its Gulf location about a block east to the lot next door.

The cemetery behind Beauvoir has many graves of Confederate soldiers and their wives (from the days after Davis, when it was a rest home for Confederate soldiers), but Jefferson Davis is not there, so don’t wander around in the heat trying to hunt him down like we did. He’s in Richmond, Virginia, at the Confederate Cemetery.

There is another place of historic proportions in Biloxi, and that is the restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s. Since we were only spending $48 a night for a room, we figured we could splurge on a nice dinner, and Mary’s is a splurge. We had gumbo – absolutely the best gumbo either of us had ever tasted, simply beyond belief – and then Marian went with fried oysters and I had an escargot entrĂ©e made with shrimp rather than snails, which is the way I prefer escargot. We literally ate ourselves sick.

The posts pictured above are what remains of the President Casino. I'm sure that it had some beautiful views, and I understand that the “on the water” bit was to circumvent Mississippi’s gambling regulations, etc., but really – What were they thinking?

Biloxi’s IP Resort turned out to be a really good hotel choice – and not just because of the price. The employees were nice and our room was lovely, with comfy beds, good linens, a very nice bathroom, and completely toenail-free carpets throughout. And, like everything else on the coast, it is relatively new, or at least newly refurbished. You’ll find very, very few dry goods of any sort on the coast that pre-date 2005. Also, and this was a surprise, they gave each of us a $10 casino tab, making our room, effectively, $38 a night. Now, we realize that $10 doesn’t exactly make us “whale” material, but that’s just what Marian and I had planned to spend gambling, so isn’t that a nice coincidence? Marian managed to parlay hers into $17+, and I cashed out with a dollar to spare before I lost everything, but we spent a pleasant half hour or so.

We took a look around the Beau Rivage, which is the biggest, glitziest casino and a little better located than IP, being right on the coast highway and therefore, the water, and it was very nice. I must say, some real name entertainers come to the coast. They don’t stay long – most of the shows are one-nighters – but they do come.

Everyone whose tastes we admire told us how wonderful Ocean Springs is, so we were real excited about seeing it. While it was nice – a cute little downtown – we weren’t overly impressed. To be fair, one reason may have been the heat. It was 600 degrees that day. Just miserable. Maybe if we had been able to stroll the streets we would have felt differently, but it just wasn’t strolling weather. We did find a row of cute stores with good air conditioners and we whiled away an hour or so.

There are so many artists on the coast! We saw beautiful things, and found some great “beach themed” things for the beach houses we don’t own, and many lovely items useful for the sort of entertaining we don’t do – so we had to put most of that stuff back. We did pick up quite a few pretty things, though. Sadly, I opted not to get the glass wine cooler I had my eye on, and I’m still regretting it. (I do drink wine. I could have actually used that. I don’t know what I was thinking. It must have been the heat.)

We tried to visit the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge just outside Ocean Springs, but we were told that we wouldn’t be able to actually see any cranes and it was waaaay too hot to be out and about with no payback. Also, in her effort to encourage us to see the place, the volunteer ranger told us we should be sure to take this little hike along the water and look for their resident alligator. “It’s huge!” she exclaimed. “Almost everyone sees him,” she went on, "it's like he knows people are there, so he pops up out of the water!" Okay….

I think most Mississippians know that there are shipyards in Pascagoula, but I also think that, like us, they would be astounded to see how huge said shipyards are. Massive! Gives you faith to see that something – anything – is made in the U.S. (and in Mississippi). We didn’t really tour around Pascagoula; we didn’t see anywhere to tour, although there might be some really pretty parts somewhere. To us it just seemed like Gautier and Pascagoula were industrial areas, but again, we were just glimpsing this trip.

(Marian -- I was driving on this trip-- as per normal -- and chose a wrong lane -- also, as per normal -- and put us on a 3 lane access road to the massive shipyard at the exact time when 1500+ workers were getting off work. The traffic was so heavy leaving the shipyard area that they have traffic lights controlling their departure and, quite frankly, if it were not for those traffic lights, our U turn wouldn't have been so quick...)

It was obvious from the get-go that Gulfport got hit a lot harder than Biloxi in Katrina. As we drove down 90, the beach was gorgeous and oh so clean, and the inland side of the road was bare. Well, it wasn’t completely bare, of course, if you looked closely you could see the foundations of former homes, along with an occasional set of steps and a few really gnarly trees, but it appears that the beach, the highway, and the houses that lined 90 through Gulfport all blew away. Some houses have been rebuilt, but not many. It’s an absolutely gorgeous strip of real estate, and the beach, which is mostly new sand, is simply stunning. Nobody was on the beach. Nobody. It was clean – no oil – but there were no tourists.

Speaking of Gulfport’s beautiful beach, the Audubon Society has claimed part of the beach for a Least Tern Nesting Area. The least tern is the smallest of the terns and gulls, at about nine inches. Their nesting area is roped off, which seemed unnecessary since there are virtually no people on the beach, but it turns out that the roping off, as well as the sign that says, “Nest in peace,” might be to protect people rather than warn them. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “The least tern breeds in colonies of up to 200 birds. Nests are scraped in sand, shell or gravel, and may be sparingly lined with small shells or other debris. Eggs are commonly laid in clutches of 2 from late May through June, and are incubated by both sexes for 21 days. The young fledge in 19-20 days. The least tern is very defensive in the colony, and adults scream and dive at intruders.”

My research also indicated that the birds are endangered in the interior U.S., but not on the coast. Hmmm? I don’t know much about such things, but it would seem to me that most “ocean birds” would be endangered in the interiors of the country. Any country. Granted, there are sea gulls all over Utah and Idaho (left from the days when the Great Salt Lake was an ocean, maybe?) but this same train of thought would mean that beavers would be an endangered species in the Mojave, or lobsters in Colorado, and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. Anyway, we’re glad the Audubon Society is doing what it’s doing, because we really really love birds.

Downtown Gulfport is pretty impressive. We hadn’t expected a lot of nice old buildings, but there they were. While it must have been harmed by Katrina, it was not destroyed like the coastal area, although it’s only a few blocks inland. Neither Marian nor I knew much about the coast, but it appeared to us that Gulfport was more upscale than Biloxi.

There’s an old restaurant in Gulfport called White Cap Seafood Restaurant. It’s been around since 1928 – not in its present building/location, of course. We picked it blind, using the tried and true “the parking lot looks full to me” method, but we had a really good meal (fish and shrimp) and a fabulous mango margarita. Mmmmm.

Long Beach is unique, we decided, among the other coastal areas, in that it appears to sit below sea level, yet it’s actually fourteen feet above. Still, we saw some houses whose doors were no more than two or three inches off the ground! (People seem to be building new houses on stilts fifteen feet or more high.) Considering that the storm surge from Katrina was twenty-three feet, it seemed kind of perilous to us to have a house sitting smack dab on the ground, but these houses were old and had obviously survived Katrina. Don’t know how. We didn’t spend any time in Long Beach, so we don’t have a lot to say about it, but we were told it was pretty much wiped out by Katrina. Again, the beach is gorgeous.

We did visit the Antique Junction there and whiled away a good hour looking at art work, antiques, jewelry, etc. Nice place, wonderful owners.

There is a Wal-Mart on the coast highway (okay, it’s behind the highway a bit, but since nothing is right up on the highway at this time, it is “on the highway”). Now, perhaps I have missed something, but isn’t an ocean view kind of wasted on Wal-Mart? Seriously. We saw this time and time again on the coast. Ocean view lots – right on the water – tend to be prime real estate, yet we even saw a cemetery on Highway 90 in Biloxi! Not only did it seem a waste of a great view, but a really poor place to put anything underground. Surely they lose a few residents with every hurricane.

Pass Christian has a beautiful marina, and a fun restaurant named Shaggy’s right there on the water, but the city was obviously destroyed in Katrina. As an interesting aside, Pass Christian actually does sit below sea level.

Alllllrrriiight!!! That’s for us. We found our place and it’s Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Charming. Totally charming. Lots of old houses and buildings. Along the waterfront, there are many still-vacant lots, but many things made it through; not unscathed maybe, but they made it. We actually saw the remains of one ruined building that appeared to have been a bank – a bank with a water view. Anyway, we think it was a bank because amidst the rubble (the building itself didn’t make it) stood a giant vault. It was just standing there, all by itself.

Bay St. Louis was also the place where we saw our first oil booms. There’s a huge bridge that carries you (across St. Louis Bay) from Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis and that’s where the booms were. There was no oil though.

Anyway, we visited a few antique stores – we love antique stores! – and then we had to turn toward home via highway 603. The route took us through Kiln, a nice rural area with lovely homes, and by Purvis, the RV capital of the world, apparently.

If Ellisville sounds familiar, it is the home of a state school that provides services to citizens with mental retardation or development disabilities for many southern counties of Mississippi. It's a couple hours north of the coast, and is also home to some of the grandest murals in the state – all, apparently, done by one woman. They’re all over! The town looks like a nice place, though it still has a ways to go, but the work they have put into the place is extraordinary! It’s really one of the nicer towns we have come across. Take a look at some of their building sides….

As an aside: Neither Marian nor I were prepared to see the devastation from Katrina. Everything has been cleaned up, but we were shocked to see how much has not been rebuilt. It appears that the economy has all but killed a good bit of their recovery, and now... the oil spill. We saw no signs of the spill. None. Granted, the Mississippi coast will never have the crystal blue water and the surf of its Alabama and Florida neighbors, but it's still lovely, and these people are hurting. If you live close enough - and it's an easy but boring 5 hours from Tupelo - and you're looking for something to do some weekend, drive down and spend a little time and money with them. Spend the night, have a nice dinner...it won't take much money, but they really need all the help they can get. Marian and I plan to go back in a couple months and do some of the things we didn't have time for this trip - boat rides, a visit to the fort, etc.

Belmont, Fulton, Peppertown, Mooreville May 25, 2010

Okay, maybe we didn't give the city of Belmont a fair shake on our last visit. And, I was really thinking that we needed to revisit T & M wholesalers just for a quick outing, so... I convinced Susan that a very mini trip was necessary. Besides, the greenery along the Natchez Trace is more lush and beautiful than I have ever seen-- it almost reaches out and grabs you as you pass by (and, I'm not talking about the kudzu, although I've never seen it healthier). We are so lucky to have this National Park in our area!

Oh, Belmont, poor Belmont...we tried...we really did. Remember the Belmont Hotel that we wrote about earlier? It is an old hotel (not many of these are still standing) built in the downtown area of Belmont. Well, we drove by the old Belmont Hotel and found it still for sale but, this time, it appears that the hotel is deserted. Guess the Pop Tart breakfast didn't go over too well with the clientele. It is a shame that someone can't make a go of a bed and breakfast in this downtown area.

T & M Tool Mart is located just south of Belmont on 25. It was as well-stocked as before, but, the rows and rows of Chinese-made catalog materials didn't get our attention or mean as much to us on this trip. (In fact, the Chinese-made stuff that we see in our travel reminds me of two very hurtful things: #1 Mississippi has lost jobs and #2 China now has more millionaires than ever.) We did see some of the cutest Ole Miss serving plates and tailgating supplies on row 1, but by row 8 the scenery had changed to tools....not really exciting to us. On one end of the building, right behind a row of all types of ribbon was a room filled with paper supplies. After handling and opening hundreds of journals, diaries and photo albums, we made our selections -- we even had to go get a shopping basket when four hands would no longer hold our finds -- checked out, and headed for the Sparks Restaurant for their blue plate special lunch.

The lunch at Sparks was as homemade and as tasty as their breakfast. For $8, you get a selection of meat and two vegetables, cornbread or rolls and a dessert. All home made. All seasoned and cooked like your grandmother did. The locals seem to like the fare, too.

Next stop -- Fulton.

In my lifetime, the two lane Highway 78 trip from Tupelo through many small communities to Fulton has changed to a four lane interstate jaunt through rolling hills and pastures. Exactly what tourists and travelers want -- beautiful scenery and fast speed limits. In my mind (and certainly those passing through) the city of Fulton seems to have disappeared. Not true...not true...so not true.

While the downtown area of Fulton seems cleaner than when I last saw it, that's not what sticks in my mind about the area. Itawamba Community College looks better than I've ever seen it. It is clean, polished and so welcoming -- I can completely understand why enrollment is up. The Tenn-Tom Waterway -- a system that was completed over 25 years ago to allow more navigable waterways in mid-America -- has brought more fishing, boating and water sports to the area. The city of Fulton is completing a beautiful 3-mile lighted walkway along the waterway from the bridge to the near-by Jamie Whitten Campground and boat ramp. The walkway is scheduled to be completed before the end of summer 2010 and includes a footbridge (picture shows the footbridge) that spans Cummings Creek and will keep walkers (and bicyclers) away from the traffic.

On the road again, we decided to find Peppertown. Didn't. It was there somewhere, I suppose, but...the only thing that we saw that was memorable was a single-wide manufactured home. I can honestly say that there wasn't even one trash can anywhere inside that trailer. Not one. None. Peppertown used to be the last community before the two lane bridge across the Tombigbee River (before all of the dredging and widening turned it into the Tenn-Tom Waterway).

How about Dorsey? Well, we stumbled (figuratively speaking) into a HUGE manufacturing plant down a road that warned "No Outlet". The Toyota Boshoku America building is waiting for the economic rebound and for the opening of the mega plant outside of Tupelo. We waved at the security cameras and left.

Mooreville? WOW. Along the current Highway 178 (Old Highway 78) going toward Tupelo is the city of Mooreville. We didn't go through any "downtown" area, but, the surrounding area purports some beautiful homes and gardens. Very surprising. I've got to go back and look around more when I have time.