MOUND TO VICKSBURG
Since yesterday was our first sub-90 degree day, I suppose I didn’t hydrate quite as much as usual. The barometric pressure shift likely also contributed to my first impenetrable migraine that started overnight and held fast into the morning and daylight hours. This time Tom let me stay in bed a little longer, bringing me coffee and gatorade to help the situation. Eventually I made it up and dressed, but I had already made the executive decision that Tom would have to bear the entire load to Vicksburg, Mississippi today—thankfully just under 10 miles total.
Our new favorite animals, black labs Miller and Storm, as well as Bob the orange tabby cat gave us a nice farewell… and oh yeah, the Yerger family were there too! We all got together for a picture, Ed through in some sausages for our cooler, and Tom headed out on bike toward the foot of the Vicksburg Bridge, Old Vicksburg Bridge. I arrived before him in the van and while waiting for Herman Smith from the bridge commission in Vicksburg to meet me, another truck drove up from the Louisiana side. Apparently in my haze, I had left behind my good running shoes, and Ed kindly brought them out to me. Herman walked from the edge of the bridge to meet us and we had our introductions, explaining a bit about the project and that Tom instead of me would be joining him to cross the bridge today.
Ed took off back to Mound, and not moments later Tom rode up, toweled off, and began the “tour” across the Old Vicksburg Bridge. They only open this bridge for pedestrian traffic on special occasions and organized events, or if you fill out a long form so I hear… But in order for us to fulfill our mission of traversing every mile, foot, and inch at the human scale, Herman offered to “tour” Tom across, at walking speed. When you get a bridge engineer together with the Superintendent of the Bridge Commission, such a tour can take a lot longer than the walking route estimated by Google Maps. The two of them traversed the long crossing—over the vast wooded floodplain on the Louisiana side, to the wide main channel of the Mississippi, to the high bluffs of Vicksburg. Conversation began with the history of this historic crossing. It was built in 1930 and carries both railroad and highway traffic in a side-by-side arrangement. It’s closed now (since 1998) and traffic is routed to the newer I-20 bridge just downstream. Today, this passage along the Mississippi River is one of the most difficult to navigate for towboat operators. This was confirmed by the sunken barge that Herman pointed out, waiting to be retrieved when river conditions improve. Herman and his commission are working to get the bridge opened to pedestrian and bicycle use—a process that is complicated by the active Kansas City Southern railroad line. In the meantime, the bridge is opened for the 31st Annual Over the River Run each year – an event we’d like to attend on a future trip along the river…
I had driven to the Mississippi side over the interstate bridge, pulling in at the welcome center, waiting for two figures to appear in the distance beyond the gates. Once they arrived, I heard some applause from behind me—turns out we had a welcoming party assembled, including Terri from the newspaper, Laura Beth and Ashley from Visit Vicksburg, Linda who we’d be spending time with later in the day, and several others… We did a quick interview with Terri Frazier for the Vicksburg post, but then I had to hurry up into town to do another interview—this time for radio—with Emily Tillman of V105.5 Vicksburg. While Emily and I talked into the microphones, recording a segment to later air on 490AM/107.7FM/newstalk1490.net, Tom had to cover the distance. He was running uphill into downtown Vicksburg, looking for the yellow house on the left. Just as we closed out, he found us! Perfect timing.
After saying our goodbyes to Emily, Tom and I drove further into town to meet up with Linda Fondren, owner of female-focused gym Shape Up Sisters. When Linda returned home to Vicksburg in 1996, she saw that things were still the same in terms of poverty, infrastructure, and health. She decided to become a community health advocate and established Shape Up Sisters in 2006. This mission was in part inspired by the death of her sister, succumbing to cancer at the age of 54 “with regrets,” Linda said. She wished she had lived her life more for herself—as Linda explained, women are often so busy taking care of other people, they sometimes let their own health go by the wayside. With Shape Up Sisters, Linda is working to create a social environment around exercise. While she gave us a tour of the facility, she demonstrated a 32 minute circuit workout and learned about other programs they offer like bringing in doctors and dietitians to talk. She emphasized the importance of understanding why you’re working out. She said that understanding this is important and makes the exercise more effective. Every Saturday at Shape Up Sisters is a free day for anyone in the community, as well. Linda doesn’t stop her advocacy at the doors to her gym, though, she has expanded her “Shape Up” programming to the whole city of Vicksburg, issuing a weight loss challenge to all local residents of 17,000lbs in a year. They came up short at 15,000lbs, but she thought it was still a success. “Walking is cheap, life is priceless” is the slogan on her Shape Up Vicksburg t-shirt, which she says can get you free admission into several 5K run/walk events in town.
We left the gym to head back downtown for a 1pm meeting with the mayor. It seems the appointment was never written in his book, though, so we missed him this time through! Maybe next time… This gave us a bit of time for a brief driving tour of downtown, spotting our next stop—The Attic Gallery above Highway 61 Coffeehouse on Washington Street. A group of men were engaged in heavy construction to the front of the building and directed us around to a back entrance up the hill. We grabbed a couple coffees downstairs, meeting a couple guys playing chess rather seriously, then we headed upstairs to meet Lesley Silver, owner of the gallery. We found Lesley upstairs visiting with an old friend who apparently hadn’t made it by the gallery in some months. We looked around at the many paintings, jewelry, ceramic items, and other various decorative objects in the shop until Lesley was free to visit. First she showed us around the gallery then upstairs to she and her husband Daniel’s living area which doubles as a show room. Lesley is not from Vicksburg originally, but moved here with her first husband and ended up staying. She’s previously lived in New York and Birmingham, but would definitely call Vicksburg home now. Lesley started the gallery in 1971 across the street from its current location, and she bought the building where it is now in 1997. She shared with us how difficult it was to get a loan to buy the building because she was a single woman at the time with no credit history. Lesley cares about art, and her artists—she says she pays artists more than some.
I almost bought a painting from Lesley’s gallery… but no room in the van. A phone call to Vicksburg and a UPS shipment to Minnesota may be in our future, though!
Anyhow, we redirected from art to history and science and took a quick look at the Army Corps of Engineers River Museum. Most of our time was spent on the boat exhibition, climbing up narrow staircases, exploring engine room to pilot’s house. Not far from the museum was our meeting location with Layne Logue, part of the Vicksburg Outpost for Quapaw Canoe Company. Layne said to meet at the park bench along the Yazoo diversion channel between the old Depot and where the sea wall murals begin. We found him just near there and all wandered over to sit along the levee and chat. Layne was wearing a hat that said “it’s all good,” and his truck was mounted with racks ready for long voyager canoes. The Mississippi River means adventure to Layne, which he relates to the old Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn tales on the river. While he serves as a guide now for Quapaw Canoe Company – Vicksburg Outpost, his day job is with the Mississippi Department of Transportation as a Civil Engineer. This job thankfully gives him a lot of comp time to take off and go on excursions up and down the river with Quapaw. Oftentimes they are taking tourists from Britain or France, but Quapaw also focuses on taking at-risk kids out on the water to experience the river for the first time. Layne was born in New Orleans and lived there until he was three, but he calls Vicksburg his home. He always loved the water, and spent a lot of time waterskiing and boating growing up—kayaking is relatively new for him though. The river isn’t dirty, he says—everything is thriving—the wildlife and plants.
Layne found kayaking about 8 years ago, and soon after discovered John Ruskey, the man who founded Quapaw. The river is ever changing, says Layne, and he and John’s goals are aligned in terms of introducing people to the river. If you do that, he says, they’ll want to protect the river. His first encounter with John happened on the Mississippi when John was making a trip down toward Vicksburg in a Lewis and Clark voyageur canoe, so Layne decided to paddle out to meet them as they came in—the welcoming committee! At this point, Layne’s kayaked 310 miles of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Caruthersville. He’s done 210 miles from Vicksburg to Baton Rouge—it took 9 days. He’s also been a River Angel since 2014, providing aid to other people who are paddling down the river. He talked about a love/hate relationship with towboats and barge operations. Layne says that the greatest salute is the captain coming out to wave his hat at a paddler. Considering Layne’s many miles up and down the river, he’s very well connected and gave us several names of people we should try to meet as well. I don’t think we’ll ever paddle out to greet him on the Mississippi (knowing my paddling skills), but we’ll surely meet him again as this trail will be reinscribed many times through our research and conversations.
After leaving Layne, we headed over to The Duff Green Mansion, our lodging for the night thanks to Visit Vicksburg. As soon as we dropped our bags in the Pemberton suite, we stepped back out to the van to work on my flat tire. Miraculously, the new tube went on and tire fitted round in record time—either we’re getting good at this or it was just luck of the draw! We decided to head down to the Cottonwood Public House in anticipation of our dinner with Patrick Smith of Yazoo River Towing, Inc. and get about an hour’s work done on the laptops before Patrick’s arrival.
Just around 6pm, Patrick and his wife Kristi join us, and we all settle in with a few beers and getting to know each other conversation. We are talking so much that the waitress has to return several times to get an order in, but eventually we settle on a couple of pizzas. Over the course of the evening, Patrick shared about his personal story growing up in a family river towing business, learning to dive at a young age—even losing an older brother to diving in the river. Patrick also became a pilot at the young age of 17. However, he wasn’t set on staying in Vicksburg and leading the tow boat life. Simultaneous to serving as deck hand, diver, and pilot in these early years, Patrick was working the Blues Club and Juke Joint circuit, wielding his talents as a pianist. His first gig was at age 14 he thinks, but he had to sit outside on the porch between sets since he was under age. As soon as he got his driver’s license he was wheeling around the Delta to gigs up in Greenville and Clarksdale as well as back in Vicksburg. Eventually he went much further on the road, touring all over the country with a band for years, also getting into hosting an adventure TV show.
However, after his brother passed away, his father soon also became ill. Patrick came home to help with the family business when Jinx died, and saw that in the end, just months later, his father really died of a broken heart, he said. At that point, he felt it his responsibility to step up and in to his father’s shoes. There was a typed out list, many pages long, front and back, of business contacts with phone numbers—this was all Patrick knew of how his father ran the business really. So Patrick took the time to call each and every person on that list and promise business to keep running as it had always done. Many of those conversations extended to hours, he said. These relationships are what has kept his family’s company afloat in a large way, especially during a time when many family-owned towing companies have not been able to compete. He’s still playing music, but his touring days are over. Kristi feels Patrick is the new voice of the river and needs to advocate all the way to Washington for the industry and their concerns. From just our few hours with Patrick and Kristi, we could see they are a stronghold for Vicksburg and the towing industry today, and we look forward to seeing what’s next for them.
We all said our goodbyes, and Tom and I headed back to Duff Green to close out the night. A very full day in Vicksburg had us wiped out and ready for sleep. More to come tomorrow….