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.


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.