The Roads Less Traveled

It was a particularly bucolic stretches of country road, gently curved over and around rolling hills, dappled by afternoon sun through tall pine trees. Coming up was one of those diamond shaped yellow road signs, the kind that typically warn of an intersection ahead or a school bus stop. But instead, this one warned me to be on the lookout for slow moving horse-drawn carriages.

Huh?

I grew up in rural Iowa near a large Amish community, so I’m actually quite familiar with these signs. I was however, not expecting to encounter one in southern Mississippi.

A few miles beyond I turn at the sign for Roger’s Basketry where I’m greeted by a pretty young woman dressed much like the Amish near where I grew up. Her sister the basketmaker was away, she tells me, but she’s happy to show me around the shop filled with beautiful baskets and homemade preserves, and explains that her community of German Baptists has somewhat different religious roots than the Amish, but practices a very similar lifestyle-they dress similarly, don’t use electricity and travel about in horse drawn buggies.

This was one of many memorable moments to come when, during several days in May I allowed myself to savor the joys of random exploration, driving Mississippi roads I hadn’t traversed before, without a pre-existing destination. Along the way I’d ask folks to point me towards the things they found most interesting about their hometowns. And as usually happens, one such discovery leads to another.

It all started earlier that day at the welcome center in Hattiesburg, where I’d stopped in for the free wi-fi and walked out with a complimentary cup of coffee, a cookie and my first tip. I was headed north on Highway 49 to Shady Acres.

Can a divided four-lane highway be a country road? I would posit that it can, when it’s populated all along its length with farms, fruit stands and charming small towns. It was a ten-foot long giant watermelon that first made me hit the brakes along this stretch. The Watermelon Patch is mostly an oddly located shoe store these days, but it still pays homage to its fruit stand roots by offering fresh made peach cobbler in the back. A bit further down the road was Shady Acres, which lived up to its billing, boasting bins filled with fruit and vegetables, along with bedding plants out back, not to mention a bakery offering up fresh apple cakes, and hot plate lunches served in a screened porch or under outdoor tables set amidst a forest of ferns.

“Have you been to KA pottery?” someone responds as I ask again for guidance in my exploration.

I hadn’t. So it was on to Seminary, one of a string of pretty towns, sandwiched between Highway 49 and beautiful Okatoma Creek. A quick stop at the drugstore for a scoop of ice cream from the soda fountain and directions (over the tracks, five miles out of town, second turn past the faded white fence by the barn on the hill-the teenagers tore down the sign) and shortly I was pulling down a long gravel drive, up to a newly built home nestled on the side of a deep wooded ravine. A home I was soon to learn that Troy and Claudia Ka Cartee designed and built themselves. Along with the pottery studio and a soon to open gallery space.

They moved to this land owned by her family from southern California, in search of a place where Ka could fully immerse herself in her passion for pottery. Since then she has established a national following for her work, including her exceptionally popular dinnerware. She’s also a noted gourmet vegetarian chef, growing her own herbs in one the windows that overlooks the forest beyond their home, and teaching cooking classes in nearby Hattiesburg.

You can’t help but linger in such company, but lunch time has come and gone by now, so Ka calls ahead to see if the Deli Diner is still serving in Collins, the county seat and next town over. There I meet Rob and Jenn Walters, a young couple who are slowly transforming an old Sonic into their own space for fresh salads and sandwiches. As part of the transformation the walls are now covered with an eclectic mix of clocks, photographs, and original art. A spin through Collins reveals a pretty courthouse and a bustling downtown in an era when many are struggling.

Which sadly is somewhat the case at my next stop in nearby Mendenhall, which despite having perhaps Mississippi’s most beautiful courthouse, has a struggling courthouse square. But it also has one of the state’s most passionate local advocates on a mission to remedy that. Pam Jones has already taken over the old Mendenhall Grocery and Grain, and made the shelves that once held farm supplies and bins that once held seeds, into display cases for a striking collection of work by local artisans. Her friend Melinda Hart owns a deli in the back, with fare that goes way beyond the typical small town plate lunch, with offerings like turkey, gouda cheese, and Granny Smith apple slices on warmed raisin bread.

Jones has also founded a group working to repurpose another historic downtown structure into the future home of the Simpson County Museum and Art Gallery.

A few miles outside of town is beautiful D’Lo Waterpark on Strong River, at falls once considered sacred for the harp-like musical sound they make. The sound comes from trapped air bubbles in the submerged fissures and scour-pockets of the stream bed, made as the river flows over the falls. Or maybe, just perhaps there’s a less scientific explanation. In any case it is a spot beautiful enough to have served as a locale for the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

By this time I’m almost to Jackson where I’ll spend the night, but not before passing by Mississippi’s Petrified Forest and a stop for terrific fried catfish in the giant igloo that is Jerry’s Catfish house.

The next day I’m headed south again, following another lead. I had a picture from a friend to confirm its existence. But when I asked several folks I encountered on this journey about “the Grand Canyon of Mississippi” I got blank stares… until I got to Columbia. Here the question prompted a quick smile and careful directions to a spot about ten miles northwest of the city. “Red Bluff” is what the small signs pointing the way actually call it. I wondered if I’d made a wrong turn when I came to a sign that said road closed ahead. I eased on down the road anyway and soon discovered WHY the road was closed.

A few hundred yards more is a permanent barricade, because beyond, the roadway has fallen away. Standing as close as I dared to that spot, I looked over the edge. The erosion that had put an end to the usefulness of this stretch of highway had produced a gorge perhaps a hundred or more feet deep, exposing layer after layer of brilliantly hued soil in the process. The stunning view through the gorge and to the timber-lined hills beyond is the sort of thing you expect to see in Utah or New Mexico… not this part of Mississippi.

Back in Columbia, just a few blocks from yet another pretty courthouse, was my last one-of-a-kind discovery for this trip: The Southern Fried Rabbit Restaurant. Could there be anywhere else in the world where you can get barbecued rabbit on a bun to go at a drive up window? Not to mention fried rabbit, or rabbit and gravy over rice.

First Monday Weekend in Scottsboro, Alabama

Scottsboro, Alabama is the home of one of the largest trading days in the region. First Monday Weekend is held each month starting on the Saturday before the first Monday of the month. This huge event is held in downtown Scottsboro in the area around the Jackson County Courthouse Square.

First Monday in Scottsboro goes back more than 100 years. It began in 1902 as Horse Swapper’s Day. After a rather slow beginning, the event was eventually changed to Market Day to give area farmers a place to sell and trade their goods. Over the years the variety of vendors increased and so did the crowds. Today First Monday in Scottsboro is a massive trading weekend.

First Monday has had to adapt to changing times. Many vendors who had full time jobs were unable to participate only on Mondays, so the event is now held Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Sundays generally bring out the largest crowds. Labor Day Weekend is usually the biggest and best weekend with thousands of people in attendance. Many vendors are regulars who reserve their spaces from month to month. Vendors are expected to set up at least one day of the weekend.

Today no horses or other animals are swapped on First Monday. What buyers will find are handmade crafts, furniture, antiques, baskets, plants, clothing, and food vendors. The atmosphere is fun and festive, and people enjoy browsing among the booths. All kinds of treasures await those who attend First Monday.

Located in northeast Alabama, Scottsboro is situated on Lake Guntersville, the Tennessee River’s largest lake. Downtown Scottsboro has an attractive historic district, filled with a variety of shops and restaurants. Courthouse Square, containing the Jackson County Courthouse, is the centerpiece of downtown. Local highways and Interstates serving the Scottsboro area are Interstate 65 and U.S. Hwy. 72, making it easily accessible to the many local attractions and fun things to do.

Top Attractions in Scottsboro, Alabama

Scottsboro, Alabama is a pleasant town in the northeast corner of the state, a region of mountains and lakes. The town is located on beautiful Lake Guntersville, the Tennessee River’s largest lake. The downtown historic district, centered on the courthouse square, is filled with a variety of restaurants and shops to browse. After exploring what downtown has to offer, visitors may want to explore Scottsboro’s other attractions.

Goose Pond Colony, just south of town on Highway 79, is a city owned resort on Lake Guntersville. There are activities here for every member of the family. The resort offers two championship 18-hole golf courses, the Colony Course and the Plantation Course. Families love the swimming pool and beach area. The full service marina at Goose Pond Colony rents pontoon boats and fishing boats. Lake Guntersville is one of the best fishing lakes in the Southeast. The resort also has more than five miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and a playground. Visitors may want to finish their day at Goose Pond Colony with dinner at The Dock’s Restaurant, a Scottsboro favorite.

Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro is a shopper’s paradise. Bargain hunters search for treasures amid the 40,000 square feet of unclaimed baggage and freight that is brought in daily. Shoppers never know what they’ll find- jewelry, electronics, cameras, sporting goods, and designer clothing and accessories. Located at 509 West Willow Street, Unclaimed Baggage Center offers a truly unique shopping experience. Monday-Friday hours are 9am-6pm. Saturday hours are 8am-6pm. Unclaimed Baggage Center is one of Alabama’s top attractions, with one million visitors annually.

The Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage Center is located in an 1880s Greek Revival style mansion at 208 South Houston Street. The museum contains Indian artifacts from the area, Civil War memorabilia, and local genealogical records. It hosts traveling exhibits throughout the year. Behind the house is the Sagetown Pioneer Village. A number of log structures have been moved to the site for preservation. Jackson County’s first courthouse, dating to 1868, is also onsite. The Heritage Center is open Monday-Friday from 11am-4pm.

Visitors who are fortunate enough to be in Scottsboro on the weekend preceding the first Monday of each month will be able to experience First Monday Trade Day. This event has been a Scottsboro tradition since 1902. Vendors set up booths around the courthouse square downtown and offer all types of products including antiques, crafts, and furniture. Vendors sell local produce in season and ready to eat treats. The atmosphere is festive, and Sunday usually brings out the largest crowds.

Visitors to Scottsboro may enjoy these top local attractions. The city offers plenty of fun activities for visitors of all ages.