This post picks up in the deep south, featuring a rather remarkable “scenic” byway in Mississippi and the steamy bayou state of Louisiana. Cajun food comes to mind when one thinks of Louisiana, and we certainly broke the daily budget, happily forking over more than we should have for a taste of alligator meat. If that thought has made your mouth water, please read on.
Mississippi and the Natchez Trace Parkway
The Natchez Trace Parkway, which rolls on for 444 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi, was listed as a scenic route in my road atlas, making it a serious contender as our next likely route. It won, narrowly beating out some dull interstate highway. We did not complete The Natchez Trace Parkway in full, having only joined the route in Tupelo, Mississippi, some 280 miles from the terminus.
Tupelo was the most likely place to pick up The Natchez Trace Parkway, having come from Memphis the night before. After just about reaching the saturation point with Elvis Presley while in Memphis, we had no intention of visiting the home he was born in while we were in Tupelo… but we did. We even had the whole place to ourselves, for it was early on a Sunday morning and the on-site museum, as well as the shotgun shack he was born and raised in were closed. I was picturing the place as being a bit of a 24/7 pilgrimage site, packed with devotees at all hours somehow still in shock over his sudden death after all these years. The birthplace of the king, which is in a rather unassuming residential neighborhood, was only full of chirping birds and hazy rays from the sun. We still got to approach the house and even hop up on the porch – minus the crowds.
I would point out to anyone wishing to drive The Natchez Trace Parkway that the striking feature of this road does not rest at all on its scenic quality, at least from Tupelo to Natchez. Instead, this highway is remarkable for the fact that there are no traffic lights, stop signs or billboards along the entire stretch; the road is rather smooth the whole way, too. Also, you do not pass through any towns along the way; off and on ramps are used to leave and enter the parkway. While this made for a rather peaceful drive, it was sadly missing out on scenery, for the drive to Natchez was overwhelmingly hemmed in by trees on either side of the road.
Perhaps the scenic designation comes from the multitude of historic stops that are set along the route, offering drivers the chance to conveniently hop out and read-up on some historical information. The Natchez Trace Parkway follows an ancient path, or trace, used by the Native Americans for centuries, and over the years managed to feature in all sorts of goings-on. Still, we were disappointed to learn there was no real scenery along the Natchez Trace Parkway, for the pleasant driving conditions on the road would have made for one hell of an experience.
As I mentioned, The Natchez Trace Parkway is a worthy route based only on the peacefulness of the drive. As long as you leave your expectations of “scenic” at the door, you will appreciate the unlikely advantages of a route such as this.
The Natchez Trace Parkway ends (or begins) in the beautiful town of Natchez, Mississippi, filled with antebellum mansions and river lore. Visit the “Natchez-Under-The-Hill” area along the banks of the Mississippi River to learn more about the towns sordid past.
In the mood for something more proper? Head back up the hill and just start walking down any street; you will come across some stunning abodes that still stand testament to the money that flowed down (and up) the Mississippi River. There are plaques along the way pointing our certain homes and important buildings, along with a brief history of each place highlighted.
We popped over the bridge on the Mississippi River from Natchez to Vidalia, Louisiana, and happened across a bar-b-q joint that somehow called out to us. “The Butt Hut” did not entice us with its name, but it looked like the type of place that was doing things right. The south is known for bar-b-q and we were deep behind the lines at this point. The brisket and the pork were elegant! We both split a plate and still managed to waddle out of the place.
Louisiana: The Bayou State
Just across the Mississippi River from Natchez is the state of Louisiana, although we chose to drive about 40 miles south of Natchez and enter the bayou state of Louisiana. As if by design, Spanish moss started to appear on the trees in the pretty town of St. Francisville. That Spanish moss is so evocative of bayou country and the plantations, which seem to be everywhere in Louisiana. Spanish moss grows very well off a type of tree called the Southern Live Oak, whose branches often droop down to the ground, adding a further exotic look to the brooding moss that drips from the branches.
It seems we were fooled again by our road atlas promising another scenic ride down route 23 to the tip of the Mississippi Delta. Instead we endured over 100 miles (round-trip) of oil refineries, the purpose-built communities to serve them and, again, no real scenery to speak of at all.
For scenery, we headed to the Atchafalaya Basin National Wildlife Refuge, just east of the city of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Here, we were treated to an unspoiled area filled with plenty of sultry swamps and cypress trees, which seem to thrive very well despite the fact they are growing out of the water. The roots (or knees) of the cypress trees breach the surface of the murky water, giving the bayou yet another spooky look to go along with the hanging Spanish moss. If you visit the bayou, bring plenty of bug spray. You will thank me later.
As we drove through Louisiana we talked about all the Cajun food we wanted to try, getting perhaps a bit carried away with thoughts of snake and armadillo on the menu. Eating is a part of traveling…
Instead we opted to be a bit more realistic, becoming focused on crawfish, catfish and alligator. It seems we were visiting Louisiana out of crawfish season, for they were hard to come by. Crawfish season runs roughly from March to July, with slight variations due to environmental and regulatory factors.
We did manage to get some deep-fried crawfish tails for lunch, as well as some blackened alligator for dinner later that night. Cajun food is prepared in a way very tasty, and we believe the alligator we ate would stand up quite well prepared any way at all.
Fiona was more impressed with the countryside of Louisiana than I was, but we both agreed the punishing humidity and heat (98°f/ 36°c) was tough to handle. The whole area was lacking any real beauty in my eyes; just a land with very little feature, punctuated here and there with Spanish moss.
I feel like I did not get a sense of Mississippi either, even though we did drive through one of the state’s most “scenic” corridors. Natchez was a beautiful town to while away a few hours and we did eat some rather good food in the deep south.
Further Down The Road…
What will our next leg of our drive across America hold? What will we eat? Will we find a scenic drive worth the gas money? Keep checking out the blog to get these questions answered and to marvel at the (so far) robust pluck of the 1999 Volkswagen Eurovan we call home.