CHURCH HILL TO NATCHEZ
We woke up to a warm welcome into the Bates house by Suzie and Lady the dogs. George prepared breakfast and shared stories while he cooked. Linda filled in the gaps. They make a good team. We packed up the van, and Tom set out from the driveway toward Bates Road and on up Highway 553 to meet up with the Natchez Trace Parkway. As Tom cycled in the last miles of the Trace, Curtis Moroney met up with him and provided a somewhat competitive bicycling tour through Natchez, Mississippi up to the river’s edge culminating at the Bandstand. I had gone ahead, parking downtown and jetting out for a short run to get a few more miles in on this beautiful day—last leg up from Natchez Under The Hill and there I find Tom cycling in to a welcoming party made up of Jennifer Combs, Ben Hillyer, Darrell White, and Stratton Hall. Following a brief bit of visiting (i.e., having to pull Tom away from an enrapturing conversation with Darrell), Stratton led us over to our amazing accommodations at the River Edge Suites.
We couldn’t linger in this apartment-sized hotel room overlooking one of the most beautiful views we’ve seen of the Mississippi River because Jimmy Allgood (aka, “Jim Bob”) was set to meet us for an “adventure” of sorts starting with lunch at Fat Mama’s Tamales “Knock You Naked” Margaritas for lunch. Now to preface this story, one must know that breaking through a television personality’s shell might could require a couple of margaritas, but in this case, we were the ones drinking them—not Jim Bob! He started right in talking about his Redneck Adventures TV show, about the idea of “redneck right”—yes ma’am, god fearing, hold the door, etc. Jimmy believes in what he’s doing with his “redneck” persona as a way to capture and perhaps proselytize Cajun and Redneck values. According to Jimmy, it’s the redneck community of Natchez that really started and supports the Adams County Community Christian Academy (ACC). There are more cowboy boots worn to ACC, we heard, than worn to Cathedral!
Now at this point, apparently more margaritas were needed—again, for me and Tom, but this time over the bridge in Vidalia, Louisiana at a drive-up liquor store/daiquiri shack. He’s bringing us to Louisiana for a visit to the Old River, so up on top of the levee we go—a long drive and tour of this past year’s high water encroaching on the landscape and local camps. Eventually we pass to the other side, looking for alligators, talking about people coming from the “concrete jungle” to experience the outdoors through his guide service. Jimmy also brings veterans out to experience the river through a non-profit he’s started. He’s dedicated to sharing this way of life.
Stratton has been with us all this time, providing side narration to Jimmy’s tales—backstory and context. She’s also keeping us on time, because if it had been just us and Jimmy, we might never have made it out of those backwaters… But we had another appointment to meet with Kathleen Bond of the National Park Service at 3pm and couldn’t be late. Kathleen’s office is housed in a building which also houses the Natchez Welcome Center and the Visit Natchez Tourism Offices amongst other things. Right away we got into the subject of tension between the revitalizing artistic endeavors that might involve big creative murals and other things and historic preservation… Kathleen says, “it’s a delicate dance between historic preservation and wanting to preserve the goose that lays the golden egg but you don’t want to embalm it.”
As to Kathleen’s personal story, she’s lived on the east bank of the Mississippi River for 62 years. From Memphis to New Orleans, she was always on the water—her dad always had a ski boat, and they would pitch a tent and cook a steak along the river. Kathleen also got her education on the river, most literally in fact. As a high school student in Vicksburg in 1975, her social studies teacher developed a one semester elective class with the Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station focused on the culture, hydrology, economics, etc. of the river, giving students the opportunity to be out on the river in a multitude of capacities. This was an opportunity unlike others that Kathleen believes the Corps still offers to students today, 40 years later.
After a circuitous path through college and grad school, including marriage, pregnancy, and divorce, Kathleen eventually earned her PhD in history at LSU and found the National Park Service job in Natchez while looking for teaching jobs. She started as a “museum technician,” feeling entirely unqualified, but worked her way from a GS5 position to a GS13 ranking as director of the park today. She felt called to be here, with Mississippi Mud on her feet. Her park is the first national park with the word “slavery” written into its legislation—she knows it’s meaningful work she is doing here, hoping to build trust in a community that has long seeded divides.
Kathleen was amazing and we wanted to spend more time together and tour all the park sites and see them through her eyes, but alas we had to make it down to The Camp Restaurant to meet with Mike Wagner, owner and operator. Mike is from Southern California, Redlands CA. He studied Marine Biology (and surfing) in San Diego before pursuing an MS in sport management. All he really wanted to do was own a surf shop at 33 years old, but instead he went into marketing. Eventually, though, through an opportunity with his father-in-law, he had an opportunity to surf again—looking at the wake of barges saying “I could surf that”—his father-in-law had invested in Natchez long ago, and wanted to extend that investment to his son-in-law who had long ago developed a business plan for a sports bar. At a critical juncture in his life, Mike was willing to make the move from sunny California to the river town of Natchez. His restaurant the Camp is doing well, now becoming an establishment of Natchez under the Hill.
Thanks to Mike, we enjoyed a nice reception that evening for Relay being in town and several Natchezians joined us there. Good food, good drinks, good company. A great first day in Natchez.