This trip was inspired by the second season of the television show “Feasting on Asphalt”. We are following the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River from Venice, Louisiana to the headwaters in Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota. When possible we will stop at locations featured in the show, however time has found many of them closed.
I did not sleep well that night. Every time something brushed against my skin, I imagined I was being overrun by an army of bloodsucking ticks. At one point during the night I had to step outside the tent to…errrr…check the perimeter (the downside of having a bladder the size of a walnut). With this being a primitive site, I normally would have gone far from the area but with no clear trail away from camp and very little in the way of cover from my neighbours, I went as far from my tent as I dared. Which wasn’t very far. And as soon as I got back inside, I checked myself all over.
When I opened my eyes, I saw more ticks climbing across the top of my tent in the growing light. I decided that we would stay inside as long as possible and began packing up as much as I could. I was getting dressed when I thought I felt something, and this is going to sound weird, down the back of my pants. I literally froze as my mind started racing. This is as close to a transcript as I can safely write because there was a lot of colourful language running through my head: Oh no. Lower back…nope…butt…oh maaaaaaaan…OK OK don’t panic. OK phone you can use your phone and figure out where it’s at and then…wait how am I going to remove it? Am I going to have to use a mirror in the shower room?!?! Aww come ON. It was as I was trying to figure out how to contort myself to remove a tick from my backside that I realized it was a leaf. Somehow a leaf always ends up down the back of my pants. I checked the dogs over and sure enough they had beasties: Jack two, Piper three, and surprisingly Leo had none. I decided to wait until we were at the shower shed to take the ticks off since there was a paved parking area which meant less chance of more hopping on.
I don’t think I have ever broken camp so fast. I was spurred on by the ticks that I kept brushing off the fabric of the tent, and me, to get everything away and it seemed we were set to go in no time. I felt bad about not taking the dogs for a walk so we went down the road, staying as far out of the grass as we could and walked around the closed off campground. I wanted to see what it was like and it was quite nice indeed. It would have been a good place to stay although I doubt it would have changed the tick situation. I drove to the shower building and went over the dogs really well. They are on a flea/tick prevention program but these little vampiric spiders were not going to be attached for longer than necessary. Once everyone was bug-free I had a bit of a quandary: do I leave or do I go to the park office and pay for my spot? I was tempted to just leave but then that little voice in my head that knows right from wrong and that park fees support the park and keep up the maintenance and even though I could have been bled dry it’s still the right thing to do. So I went to pay for my spot. As I was talking to the ranger, I was asked what was the biggest difference between Mississippi and Ontario. I mentioned there were a lot of ticks. ‘Oh yeah,” chuckled the ranger. “We have a lot of them”. Understatement of the year.
I munched on the last donut (still can’t believe I ate five donuts the day before) as we headed out of Natchez State Park. I saw a sign for the Natchez Trace Parkway which is an historic scenic route, and turned to follow it. If you’re in the area, take it. Drive the Trace because it is just so darned pretty.
When I saw a sign for the Emerald Mound, I decided to stop and check it out. It’s not flashy in any way as it is just mounds of dirt that were created to support temples and ceremonial structures of the Mississippians (see below). It turns out that Emerald Mound is the second largest mound in the United States after Monks Mound in Cahokia, Illinois. There is one main mound and then two smaller ones on top of the main mound. I hadn’t realized that there was entire mound trail that runs up the Mississippi River. If you’re not a lover of history I could see why it would not be high on a list of things to see. But stand at the top of this mound and look around. This was created by hand. There was no machinery involved. The amount of effort and manpower needed to make the mound is astounding and there was this connection to the past that I hadn’t expected. It’s like that moment when you go to a museum and you realize that all of these things you’re looking at were once prized possessions, were once people with hopes and dreams and fears. There was a strange feeling to this place and I wanted to both linger and leave. We did stay for a little while before we made our way back to the road. I wanted to give the dogs a good walk but they also seemed to sense that there was something to this place and were a bit more subdued than I would have expected them to be. I even dropped their leashes when no one else was around (shhhhhhhh don’t tell) but they just trotted along beside me.
And then after a short drive down the road, we were at the Old Country Store in Lorman, Mississippi, a restaurant that had been featured on “Feasting on Asphalt” and supposedly had the best fried chicken in the world. The building looked a little rough outside and not much better inside but hey, I was there for the food. There’s a seating area inside and I was met by a woman at the front. I explained to her that I had dogs with me and asked if I could make a plate and sit outside. She hesitated and told me I’d have to speak with Mr. D. She walked me to the area where the food was and there sitting at the cash register was Mr. D, also known as Arthur Davis. I recognized him immediately and waited patiently while he finished joking around with the people in line ahead of me. And then I stepped up to the desk.
You know how they say you should never meet your heroes? I would say that you should never meet anyone from TV. I told him that I was from Ontario and heard he had the best fried chicken and I wanted to try it but I had my dogs and was hoping I could eat outside. “You can’t bring dogs in the restaurant.” Ummmmm yeah. Kinda figured that. Then he asked if I wanted the buffet or a plate. This was breakfast and lunch for me so naturally I went for buffet. He nodded his head and told me that I could eat outside.
I was a little put off by the change from laughing and joking to not but oh well. Maybe it was me. Maybe not. I stopped caring once my gaze fell upon a golden pile of chicken at the hot table and I loaded my plate. I went heavy with the veggies to kind of make up for the fact that I had eaten very little of them the day before and then went outside balancing my plate and a large cup of swee’tea. I got the dogs out of the car and tied their leashes to the railing at the side of the stairs then I perched on one step and used another as a table. I bit into that first piece of chicken and it was as though I had never eaten chicken before. It was crispy and not overly seasoned, the meat was moist and flavourful. Needless to say, the chicken was the first thing to disappear from the plate. I heard a noise and looked to see Mr. D come out the front door. This is amazing I called out. “I know” was the response. I guess when you have people coming from everywhere to say the same thing, it gets a bit old. He stood out there for a while and I suddenly wondered if he thought that I was feeding someone else or feeding the dogs. At first I felt a bit insulted but then I realized that is a very valid concern. I didn’t let it bother me when I went for my second plate. I drove this far for chicken and dammit I was going to eat chicken. And vegetables because I have to.
As I was working on the second plate, some of the staff came outside, again to check on me. I guess they didn’t figure that someone like me could put away as much food as I did. Well joke’s on you guys because I can. I waddled my way inside to pay and I again found myself in front of Mr. D. You know when you have that really awkward and strained conversation? The kind where you think “we should just stop this because it’s that awkward”? That was the conversation we had when he told me that he had gone on a long road trip into Canada. I mean, we were on the same wavelength about driving because you can see everything but it was just so strained. Here’s my verdict on the Old Country Store: if you’re anywhere near there, you HAVE to go. Don’t go for the decor or ambiance. Go for the food. It is so worth it. Oh and in case you’re wondering, yes the dogs had tiny samples of the chicken. Those teensy bits that cling to the joint that you just can’t bite off. The pieces that would normally have been left on the bone and tossed so I don’t feel bad about it. They were a little peeved that all they got were those bits but they’re lucky I didn’t suck the bones dry.
Oh were my guts aching when we left so when I saw a sign for another mound site at Winterville Mounds, I took the opportunity to get out and walk the dogs around. While the mounds were smaller, there were quite a few of them and the woman at the visitor centre explained the history of the site pretty much as soon as I walked in the door. I could only visit about half of the site because some of it had been damaged by flooding but it was still a nice place to stop. If I had been looking for a place to picnic (which I most certainly was NOT), this would have been a great place. Not only are the lands around the mounds well-mowed and flat but there is a lovely little pond with lots of trees for shade and plenty of benches in the area. With my tummy in slightly better shape, we headed back out.
As we headed into Rosedale, the first thing that struck me were some gravestones right next to the road. And I do mean right next to the road. No fence at all just some areas mowed out of the tall grass. Then we found Joe’s Hot Tamale Place – White Front Cafe, another “Feasting on Asphalt” location. I had never had hot tamales before and I was looking forward to changing that. I bounded inside and laid my eyes upon the menu. Ohhhhhhhh boooooooy. Bundles of three, half a dozen, a dozen….my mind spun. I asked Miss Barbara Pope what I should get since I wasn’t sure how filling they were. She had appeared on “Feasting on Asphalt” but I didn’t say anything about how I recognized her because that just seemed kind of weird and groupie-like. What I hadn’t realized was how soft-spoken she was and I felt like a bull in a china shop especially when she stepped behind the counter. I was looking at the menu and when I turned back to her, her head was almost at my waist. I did a bit of a double take and even looked behind the counter to see that, yes the floor was a step down. I felt like a lumbering monster as I ordered my dozen hot tamales. Hey if she said that she can eat a dozen how could I do any less? And since this was later in the day it was shaping up to be my dinner.
I paid for my tamales and drove back towards a sign that we had seen for a park. I thought it would nice to sit in some shade, enjoy my tamales, maybe go for a short walk and enjoy some of the sunshine. I crested the levee and as I started to drive towards the gate I was so lost in my thoughts that it took me a second to understand what I was looking at. A gate. Across the driveway. And water behind it. Ohhhhhhhh the road was flooded. Hmmmmmm time for a Plan B. I reversed back up the levee and pulled off to the side of the road that ran along the top. I brought the dogs out of the car and after offering them water, I sat in the grass with my container of hot tamales and set to eating them. So what is a hot tamale? It’s a mix of highly seasoned cornmeal and pork that is wrapped in corn husk and boiled in a flavourful broth. You can eat them by either unwrapping the husk to reveal an almost sausage-like roll or push up on the bottom and slurp them out the top. I made an absolute mess eating with my hands but it was just so gosh-darned fun. Then I switched to a knife and fork. I got plenty of stares from the people that drove by but I’m used to it by now. The tamales were really tasty and I enjoyed them. I wanted to share with the dogs, and they wanted me to share with them too, but I had a feeling they would just be too spicy for little tummies.
I groaned my way back into the car and set out back down the road. Unlike Louisiana, the Great River Road is really well marked in Mississippi and we had no trouble navigating into Arkansas at Helena-West Helena. We stopped at the Welcome Centre to get our bearings, and some photos of course. There was a good-sized strip of grass next to the Welcome Centre and I let the dogs have a play there. After Leo had his obligatory roll, he started to play tug of war. With Jack’s leash. While it was attached to Jack. I sat on the grass and watched them pull each other around as Piper snuggled up to me. As the boys were getting their sillies out, I started looking for a hotel for the night since the forecast was calling for rain. Actually the forecast was for “quarter-sized hail and damaging winds”. I think I’ll pass on camping out in that. I saw that there was a hotel just down the road and started driving…it should be right here…nope map says I passed it…OK U-turn…noooooooo…hmmmmm…back around……..no hotel…but there is a sleep centre. Well that’s just great. I’m looking for a sleep centre too. Just one where you pay some money to sleep for the night. With nothing else nearby, we kept heading upriver.
Now I have a feeling that when they were mapping out the Great River Road, someone said, “Hey do you think they’ll follow all the signs?” because at one point we turned off the paved roads and were soon crunching along a dirt road at the top of the levee. At first I wondered if we had missed a turn but no, there was a sign up ahead. As we approached the sign, I saw a little beagle-looking dog out on the road by himself. Me being me, I stopped to see if he had a collar and he ran away. I shrugged it off and brought the dogs out for photos next to the sign. For some reason I looked back and saw the beagle with two other, much bigger, dogs making their way towards us. I’m not sure what their intention was but if the beagle ran away before and now he was coming to us…well I didn’t want to stick around to see why they were up to.
As if that wasn’t weird enough, the road finally turned off the levee and met with another road. I stopped to make the turn then realized I had seen something out of the corner of my eye and backed the car up. No my eyes had not deceived me: I had seen two pig heads on spikes. Well there’s something you don’t see every day.
The road then led us through a tangle of forests and swamps. In some places the road had been so flooded that I had to back up and detour around it. There weren’t too many places to get out and hike and with the failing daylight, I wasn’t too inclined to be out in places I was unfamiliar with. I was sure that we had left the alligators behind but I wasn’t so sure about snakes so discretion won this round. It’s too bad because it was a stunning section of forest. However when I got out to snap some pictures, I was promptly eaten alive by mosquitoes. Snakes, mosquitoes, and ticks…oh my.
Eventually, we got to the Red Roof Inn in West Memphis and it was not too long after that the rain and damaging winds began so I was glad that we had a solid roof over our heads. Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit hungry when I went to sleep.