It’s always about the food when you’re on a bike trip

Getting out on your bike is just another excuse to try new foods — like that chicken on a stick I wrote about a few days ago.

In Mississippi, my food themes definitely involved fried or seafood, sometimes in the same dish. Somehow there were no signs for ice cream or homemade pie to tempt me along the Tanglefoot and Longleaf trails — and it’s so much easier to resist those at the end of dinner rather than in the middle of the afternoon.

I did discover comeback sauce — said to be called that because you keep coming back for more. It’s essentially a spicy mayo with a reddish tint because of ketchup and hot sauce and seems to be everywhere. There are no shortage of recipe variations, like this one, or this one with fewer ingredients.

Here’s more of what I ate:

Fried pickles and boiled shrimp in Ridgeland

fried pickles

Fried (not baked) brie with delicious tomato jam in Vicksburg

fried brie

Fried crawfish balls with comeback sauce in Vicksburg

crawfish balls

Chargrilled oysters and other seafoods in Hattiesburg

grilled oyster

Stuffed shrimp with a corn-tasso-and-more side in Hattiesburg

stuffed shrimp

Mississippi-style shrimp and grits in Long Beach:

shrimp and grits

Beignets in Biloxi:


And what I didn’t eat? Waffle House. We counted seven in one day, I’d say mostly over 15 miles along the beach.

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The beginning of Margaritaville

jimmy buffett birthplace.jpgPascagoula, Mississippi, where we ended our hopscotching across Mississippi, is a town of about 22,000 people with some beautiful homes and a pleasant signposted bike route using quiet roads that takes you all around town.

It’s also where Jimmy Buffett was born. Yes, the modest house is on the bike route. Will it ever become a Buffett museum? There’s also Buffett Bridge (signed by Mr. Buffett himself) and Buffett Beach.

If that’s not your style, there are connections to President Zachary Taylor (remember him from your history books, just barely?), to William Faulkner and to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow here too.

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Let’s talk Hurricane Katrina

restaurant on stilts.jpgIt’s impossible to be on the Mississippi Gulf Coast without talking about Katrina. Locals talk about before “the storm” and after. They all have stories — about a teacher who sought refuge in a school and the water line reached 5 1/2 feet and fish were swimming in the classroom, about the military memorabilia that ended up in another person’s yard and the owner couldn’t be tracked down, about homes needing to be gutted. The immediate impact of the widespread evacuations and decisions to start over elsewhere meant that in one school of 620 students, only 120 were back when it re-opened.

Today, nearly 12 years later, the number of households and jobs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast exceed those of before Katrina.

They’re still rebuilding in some spots. You see the occasional empty lot where a home once stood, and most buildings on the beach are no longer allowed. But while I saw plenty of homes and other buildings close to the water on stilts, I was surprised by how many are not.

house not on stilts

This cute cottage is a few blocks from the beach and isn’t elevated.

I heard that it was to do with where FEMA sets the flood zone, that if you don’t need mortgage insurance you can do as you please, even that insurance rates are coming down because new homes are being built better — hurricane-proof windows, reinforced frames and such. That may keep the wind from blowing off the roof or picking up the home and throwing it down somewhere else, but let me know how works out when the next big one comes and there’s widespread flooding.

friendship oak.jpgOn the other hand, this 500-year-old oak, the “Friendship Oak”  at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast campus with its 155-foot canopy, survived Katrina but lost a piece in a more recent storm.

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Gorgeous white sand beaches and killer wind on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

wide beach shotThursday was spent along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The beaches were gorgeous — and empty. Maybe when there’s this much sun and sand, it’s just no big deal. And it was a workday. Still, wherever rowdy spring breakers go, it wasn’t here.

But the wind! We were biking west to east. That would have been great on Wednesday, when we would have flown along thanks to a tailwind. But we got a headwind. The locals say there is always wind (and that it can change direction during the day). Now maybe they were trying to make us feel good, but even they said it was stronger than normal. Fortunately we rode a few blocks inland for much of the morning, from Waveland to Long Beach. I think the wind picked up after lunch, when we took the beach path from Long Beach to the Biloxi lighthouse. I persisted. But it was slow going! And it killed my legs.

Arlen died too. Shark got him:

arlen and shark

So what’s the beach path like? Think concrete sidewalk, not planks like parts of the Jersey Shore. Sometimes the path is wide, but other times it’s no wider than a sidewalk. A recipe for constant conflict with people coming on and off the beach (or even the benches on the far side of the wide version), I thought. But a local claimed no, that it’s pretty empty.

Why the wildly inconsistent widths, even in the same town? It seems to be tied to how they chose to spend post-Katrina money.

Take the road instead? There was a section with what’s essentially an access road, and that was fine. But otherwise you’re talking two lanes in each direction and 50 mph. No thanks.

So the beach path might work when you have a tailwind, assuming it’s not so crowded that you can’t bike. Better would be to complement it with a signposted on-road option using quiet, family-friendly roads a bit inland (and maybe past some other businesses?) for when you’re going in the “wrong” direction.

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The economic impact of Mississippi’s Longleaf Trace

longleaf traceI love hearing about the economic impact of rail-trails because to me, that’s the most convincing argument for a trail. Usually the numbers come from some big study that makes some pretty broad-brush claims.

But here’s information from one bike shop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, one end of the 43-mile Longleaf Trace.

Before the Longleaf Trace opened in 2000, Moore’s Bicycle Shop was one full-time person (the owner) and a part-timer. Sales in 2000 were $225,000 in a 1,400-square-foot store. A decade later, he had 6,500 square feet of retail space, five full-timers and one part-timer and average annual sales of $565,000.

Here are some money numbers from opening to 2014: more than $900,000 in additional payroll, more than $265,000 in additional sales-tax revenue (including $47,000 to the city) and an additional $96,000 in additional property taxes.

Plus he’s gotten more competition.

And yes, James Moore is a big proponent of the trail and hosted the first meetings to create it. He tells a story of the second meeting, when opponents got wind of it and came out in large numbers. One older man finally stood up and said he buys his car, his clothes and more in Hattiesburg and was happy that the Trace would give him a chance to spend more of his money in his community.

Now having ridden the length of the Trace, I didn’t see many places to spend money in the tiny towns along much of it. The businesses that are there may be doing a bit better (I did see one general store that sells bike lights) and could benefit from some signage telling out-of-towners about food and other services, but the bigger businesses are in Hattiesburg and in Prentiss, at the other end of the trail.

The Trace extended to downtown a few months ago, which should help businesses there. A Civil Rights museum is opening later this year to help tell the story of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when out-of-staters came down to register African-Americans to vote after the Civil Rights Act passed. Hattiesburg was the epicenter for southern Mississippi. The town is also working at connecting schools and the zoo to the Trace. Several miles out of town, there are big plans to develop an area around a pond into a fun place to while away the day,

More could be done: I hope they find a back-roads route so out-of-towners can get from hotels by the interstate to the Trace without having to drive. The Trace’s own website could come into the 21st century, and it would be wonderful to see more about the history of the area, from Indians to longleaf pine to cotton to whatever has come next, along the Trace.

Finally, a random fun fact about Hattiesburg: The zoo is home to two sloths and there’s a four-month wait to get 30 minutes of cuddle time with one. Cost is $40.

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Best way to see Vicksburg battlefield is by bike

vicksburg1This morning was just a fabulous ride — all through Vicksburg National Military Park, led by a cyclist with great stories about the park and some of the soldiers. I am now convinced that the best way to experience a national park is by bike. And if you’re biking the Natchez Trace and have the opportunity to tack on some time for Vicksburg, do it.

Let me start by saying I didn’t realize the Vicksburg campaign was so complex. Yes I knew that it was the last piece in giving Union forces control of the Mississippi River. But I thought General Grant had just laid siege and waited out the Confederates. I had no idea that he tried several assaults that all failed as had an attempt to divert the Mississippi with a canal, that his military career was in danger and that he had tried a daring strategy that included running his supply-laden gunboats down the river in the middle of the night and close to the shore where that the Confederate cannon couldn’t point down enough to hit them.

And no one believed Grant could do it. Even William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t. He called Vicksburg “as strong as Gibralter.”

Vicksburg is on a bluff and the river used to run right below it (the Mississippi moved itself in 1876 and no longer does). So there were hills — great descents with curves, only to have to go right back up. But once again, they weren’t anything like the hills back home.

This is the most monumented park in the country (and probably the world) — there’s an estimated 1,500-1,600 monuments, from simple granite markers to elaborate monuments. There are even some in town, in parking lots and such.

vicksburg2a.jpgThis one from Illinois has 47 steps to mark the 47 days of the siege, has an open cupola and cost $109,000 back in 1906, or what would be $4.6 million today, and represented 25% of the state’s budget.

vicksburg3The Wisconsin one is simpler, but note the bald eagle at the top. This was the mascot of some of the troops and “Old Abe,” as he was called, was a live bird carried in a box and that the Confederates wanted captured. It survived the war.

vicksburg4Here’s another great monument — to African-American soldiers. The one on the right is looking back fearfully at the past. The one in the middle represents the present and the suffering of war. And the one on the left is looking hopefully into the future.

vicksburg5And there are the trenches and tunnels the Union soldiers dug as they moved closer and closer to Confederate lines and needed to stay hidden from Confederate marksmen. There’s also an ironclad that sunk in the river and has been brought up. Much of the iron is gone and the wood is rotting (where it hasn’t been replaced).

Our time in the park was short because we had to head for the Longleaf Trace trail some 90 minutes away by car. (I’ll report on that soon.) But thank you Michelle from Crooked Letter Cycling for a great tour!


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At Windsor Ruins, I’m seeing a grander version of Tara

windsor ruinsOur afternoon ride was shortened at the last minute — just 10 hilly miles from Port Gibson (no longer a port city because the river shifted) to Windsor Ruins, once a grand antebellum mansion with 23 rooms in rural western Mississippi and about 40 miles south of Vicksburg.

It survived the Civil War (occupied by Union troops instead) only to be burned down by a stray cigarette (either during a party or by a workman, depending on what story you believe. Or a mix? Wikipedia says a guest dropped a cigarette onto construction materials.) Now it’s one of the most photographed spots in Mississippi.

To help give the photo some scale, the base of the columns are taller than me. They were for the above-ground basement. Imagine such a thing! Not surprisingly, this was on a huge plantation, so just guess at the number of slaves. I’m thinking it easily outdid Tara.

A Yankee soldier was shot in the front doorway? Now that sounds like something Scarlett did.

Fun fact: We biked on Rodney Road (also where the house is) — going in the opposite direction of General Grant on his way to Vicksburg.

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