A Week in the Dirty South

Thanks to Hurricane Isaac, I am the beneficiary of an all expenses paid trip to the Dirty South, which is a term of endearment, believe it or not, to the people who live here. It sounds a little insulting to me, but who am I to judge. My adventure began in Baton Rouge, a city known for, among other things, being the state capital of Louisiana.

The very strange and very tall capitol building of Louisiana.

The Art Deco capitol was constructed in the early 1930’s during the administration of Governor Huey P. Long. Somewhere, far out on a limb of my family tree, the governor and I are related. My great-grandmother was a Long. I like the thought that I have a famous relative, even though I am stretching the concept of family relations so much there is a real danger it could snap.  On September 8, 1935, a respected Baton Rouge doctor shot Mr. Long in the halls of the capitol that he built. Those are the historically accepted facts, anyway. There is great disagreement, as you might expect, from the doctor’s heirs, who believe the fatal bullets came from the guns of Long’s overzealous bodyguards. Whatever the truth, two days later cousin Huey was singing with the angels.

This is the hallway where then U.S. Senator Huey Long was shot in 1935. There are still some bullet marks in the floor and walls. Nobody knows how many shots were fired in total, but sixty-two struck the assassin.

A large statue of the “Kingfish” stands over his grave-site on the lawn in front of the capitol building.

Baton Rouge is a river town. The Mississippi flows through the city center on it’s way to the Gulf of Mexico, a swirling soup of mean, muddy water. This is no river for pleasure seekers. The Mississippi is all business at Baton Rouge; heavy, industrial business done by ocean-going freighters and tugboats pushing twenty barges at a time.

The Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge, La.

On the other hand, the river can also be seductively gorgeous.

The Dirty South may have its share of shortcomings, but they can grow some very impressive trees. Southern live oaks abound, and many are hundreds of years old.

Southern live oaks, like these in a Baton Rouge neighborhood, thrive in the sandy soils of the Deep South.

I left Baton Rouge on September 8 and drove to McComb, Mississippi. On the way, I pulled in to a truck stop in Kentwood, Louisiana. (hometown of Brittney Spears) There was a mural with a Mardi Gras theme painted on the wall outside, and part of it advertised the seafood and other delicacies that were for sale inside. I didn’t give it much thought, because it was a truck stop, after all. How good could it be? But when I walked through the door, I was enveloped by some of the most delicious aromas I have ever smelled. I could not resist buying a cup of gumbo, even though I had to step way out of my box to do it. I could identify all but two of the ingredients. It was incredible, and so far, I am none the worse for it.

Truck stop gumbo in a Styrofoam cup. No frills, lots of taste.

About five miles south of McComb is the town of Magnolia. I try to avoid the word “charming” when describing anything, because I think it casts suspicion on my masculinity, but I cannot think of a better way to describe Magnolia. The town was established before the Civil War, and the public buildings and houses and the churches are so well preserved that it’s hard to tell much time has gone by since then. I was so taken with the place I could imagine living there. I saw myself sitting on my porch in a rocking chair, sipping a cold drink, while above my head ceiling fans spun the air into a magnolia scented breeze. And I would wave and shout greetings at my neighbors, who strolled down the street in the dusk of a warm summer evening. Mark Twain wrote fiction about places like Magnolia, Mississippi. After I left there, I wasn’t completely certain what I had seen was real. Willoughby. Next stop Willoughby. 

An Episcopal Church in Magnolia, MS. Circa 1875.

Just outside of Magnolia is a cemetery with a section dedicated to veterans of the Confederate Army. Most of the men buried here died in 1862-63 from battle wounds that never healed or from disease. The Stars and Bars flutters in the wind above them.

The flag of the Confederacy flies in the Civil War veterans section of a cemetery outside of Magnolia, MS.

On Sunday I left McComb and drove south to Gulfport, Mississippi.

Shrimp boats at rest in Pass Christian, Mississippi. This is the best photograph I have ever taken that doesn’t have my grandson in it.

The Gulf of Mexico at Gulfport and Biloxi has no surf to speak of. It is much like being at the shore of a large lake. The sand on the beach is fine and white, ashtray sand I call it, but after a hurricane the sand is usually buried under rotting sea grass that has been tossed up on the shore, and that is the case now. Most of the beaches are closed until they can be cleaned up.

The Gulf of Mexico at Biloxi, Mississippi.

Before 2005 there was mile upon mile of beautiful old homes like this one along Beach Boulevard between Gulfport and Biloxi. The 22 ft. storm surge that came ashore with Hurricane Katrina washed most of them away. Today there is mile upon mile of empty lots with driveways that lead to nothing.

One of the few houses left on Beach Boulevard between Gulfport and Biloxi.

After more than a week in the Land of Cotton, I finally saw some.

Mississippi cotton.

On Wednesday my adventure in the Dirty South came to an end. Being the displaced Southerner that I am, I need a dose of this every now and then. It’s good for my soul. I miss it, but at the same time, I’m glad I escaped, otherwise I would have lived my whole life in a bubble, never knowing life has so much more to offer than college football. Living in a different place among different people gave me the chance to evolve, but at my core I can’t deny I am still a product of the culture of the Dirty South. And for that, I have no regrets.


About Truman

I find myself on the downside of my sixtieth year, older but not old, wiser but not wise, and still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
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