03/26/2019 - 03/28/2019
If you ask most Americans, especially those from large cities, what they know about Mississippi you would probably hear a lot of unfortunate misconceptions about poverty, lack of education, and racism. As is so often true when traveling in places that carry that kind of baggage, none of those qualities were apparent to us during our two days in the state. What we saw was a great deal of natural beauty, harmonious living, and people who were as kind and friendly as anyone else we've encountered on our travels around the world.
Natchez is a small town in the southwestern corner of Mississippi that hugs the outside of a curve of the mighty Mississippi River. As we drove into town we were welcomed by a shack offering bags of cracklins, deep fried strips of pig skin. They seemed fairly expensive at six bucks for a small bag but it was a good chance to compare the Southern version of the delicacy with the Cuban variety we're accustomed to at home in Miami. They were crunchy and tasty, and much greasier than the kind you might find in a snack food bag. We started out thinking we would eat the whole bag and then put it in the glove compartment before it was halfway empty.
Our Airbnb in Natchez was a sprawling house with a seemingly endless selection of bedrooms. In the back was a brick patio and a garden with a whimsical array of lawn furniture and pottery. A large stack of firewood and a tapestry of wisteria consummated the rustic atmosphere.
Dinner was at a cavernous family restaurant on the highway outside of town. The absence of boiled crawfish on the menu confirmed that we had left Cajun country behind us. We still had oysters on the half shell, but by now we were a little tired of sacrificing brininess for size and texture.
Aside from being an attractive Southern town, Natchez doesn't have a lot of specific attractions. We parked close to the river and found that the town was perched on a steep embankment. There were some buildings on the Louisiana side of the river across from us but nothing at all on our side. We didn't get the feeling that we were looking at the longest and most historic river in North America.
On the periphery of Natchez is the site of Longwood, a 19th century mansion whose construction was halted abruptly by the outbreak of the Civil War. Its owner died several years later and the upper floors were never completed. The mansion is notable for its unusual octagonal shape and brick-red cupola, features of the Moorish Revival architectural style that was popular at the time. We'd only planned on looking at the building from the outside, but the current operators have craftily set up an admission booth at the beginning of the road that leads to the estate. Once we'd paid the hefty admission price, we decided we might as well take the tour which proved to be exceptionally dry. The kids barely lasted ten minutes and I was glad for the excuse to take them out into the fresh air. Mei Ling was determined to get her money's worth and pressed on to the unfinished main floor upstairs.
By this point we had gone more than twenty-four hours without boiled crawfish and we were starting to miss the little mudbugs. An online search indicated they could be found across the bridge from Natchez in the tiny Louisiana town of Vidalia. We ended up at a shack on the side of the highway that had about as little atmosphere as any place I've ever eaten at. The crawfish boil was especially salty and the bugs were much smaller than they had been in Cajun country. Getting through the dozens of small, hard shells cut my fingertips repeatedly and the brine worked its way into the wounds mercilessly. That five pound portion cured me of my cravings for crawfish for the rest of the trip. Behind the shack a new shipment was being unloaded in huge plastic net sacks and the kids got a close-up look at the operation.
The Vidalia side of the river was more satisfying experience than we'd had in Natchez. The kids were able to get right to the shoreline and dip their hands in the water as I explained the critical role the Mississippi played in the growth of our country. Just downstream were the gleaming steel trusses of the twin Natchez-Vidalia bridges.
On the way out of Natchez we stopped at the Old South Winery to try some muscadine wines. Muscadines are a thick-skinned variety of grape that grow across the southeastern United States, and can be bronze or dark purple when ripe. Both varieties can be used to make sweet wine. We tasted each variety and bought a couple of bottles of the Natchez Rouge, a full-bodied specimen with medium sweetness. Sadly, both bottles had disappeared from the trunk by the end of the trip. Had we accidentally offloaded them into an Airbnb and forgotten them? Or did I somehow confabulate the memory of putting them in the trunk in the first place? We'll never get to enjoy muscadine wine from Mississippi now, as the winery isn't permitted to ship to Florida.
En route to Jackson we passed up the highway in favor of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The route closely follows the historic Natchez Trace, which was originally forged by bison traveling north in search of salt licks. Native Americans expanded and marked the trail following which it came into use by European-American traders and migrants. The Parkway was more attractive than the highway thanks to the lack of vehicles and proximity of the trees but otherwise the section we traveled on was nondescript. We passed several of the well-known stopping points on the Parkway but everyone was sleeping by this point and none of the sights seemed compelling enough to disturb the peace.
The Airbnb in Jackson was another winner with multiple bedrooms and a pleasant character. One thing about traveling in rural America is that there's no shortage of great family-size Airbnb's. Dinner was an easy choice as Jackson had its very own brand new food hall, and we never pass up a food hall. Cultivation Food Hall still looked as though it had just opened and it was sparsely patronized on a Tuesday evening. The food selection was decent with an emphasis on Southern and Creole cooking, naturally enough. One highlight was the excellent beignets, which I've loved since I was a kid. I'd been looking forward to introducing the kids to beignets on this trip and as I expected they fought over them vigorously.
Once we were back at the Airbnb a significant problem presented itself. Spenser's cough had clearly progressed to a full blown asthma exacerbation. I'd listened to his breathing earlier and hadn't detected any wheezing, but now he was wheezing and showing signs of struggling to breathe. Even worse, he wasn't his usual rambunctious self at all and was ignoring the games his older siblings were playing. He gets these attacks so infrequently that we don't lug a nebulizer and medication with us when we travel, a decision that I was greatly regretting at that moment. I took off his shirt and watched the skin between and under his ribs pull in as he breathed. It was clear that he needed breathing treatments quickly. I was either going to have to go to the pharmacy and get a nebulizer and albuterol, or we'd have to take him to an emergency room. I weighed the options and eventually decided I couldn't feel confident he was going to be safe if we tried treating him at the house. He seemed to be getting sicker and weaker every minute. Fortunately we were just a few blocks from Batson Children's Hospital at the University of Mississippi and we made the responsible decision to take him there.
The lobby of the emergency room was fairly full and I started to worry we were in for a long wait before getting triaged, but they brought us back quickly and got Spenser's vitals. I was shocked to see his oxygen saturation was dipping as low as 88% and his heart rate was over 150. We had definitely made the right decision in coming to the hospital. They got him right back to a room and began nebulizer treatments. Seeing Spenser's poor vital signs had really freaked me out and I couldn't stay in the room while Mei Ling and the respiratory therapist worked on keeping him from pulling off his mask. The combination of stress and possibly the afternoon crawfish was playing tricks on my digestion and I kept taking walks outside to get fresh air and dry the sweat on my face. It's not the first time I've seen the ER as a family member instead of a physician, but if anything being a physician makes the experience worse. I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized how sick Spenser was and wondered what could have happened if I'd gone with my original impulse to take care of him in the house.
Eventually it became clear Spenser wasn't going to turn around quickly enough to come home that night. I went back to the Airbnb and got some bedding and supplies for Mei Ling, who was going to stay in Spenser's hospital room. I still had the other two kids to deal with the next morning and I needed to get some sleep. We were really lucky we had taken Mei Ling's mother with us on the trip. The only reason we'd done it was to be able to eat at decent restaurants in New Orleans, but tonight it meant that the mishap with Spenser hadn't affected the other two kids at all. Having them both at the hospital with us along with Spenser would have been a nightmare.
In the morning I checked in with Mei Ling and she reassured me that Spenser was breathing better and getting back to his old self, but it didn't seem like he'd be getting out before the afternoon. I took Ian and Cleo and Mei Ling's Mom back to the food hall but the food didn't seem as good as it had been the previous night. My stomach had settled down but I still didn't have much of an appetite. There wasn't any reason not to go ahead with the activities I'd planned for Jackson ahead of time so I drove everyone to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. This was a small but very kid-oriented science museum with some impressive skeletons of extinct mammals and entertaining interactive exhibits. Behind the museum were a number of nature trails of different lengths. We chose the shortest which was mainly along a boardwalk in the forest.
Half an hour northwest of Jackson is the Mississippi Petrified Forest. Petrified forest is probably a bit of a stretch for this small wooded area, given that the scattered fossilized tree trunks were either lying on the ground or half-buried. It didn't particularly matter as my kids were pretty foggy on the whole concept of petrification. They were more interested in following the sequence of numbers on the trail and puttering around in the gift shop.
Around the time we were ready to leave I got a call from Mei Ling that she and Spenser were ready to be picked up. It was great to see Spenser back to his old exuberant self and have the whole family reunited again. As we drove away from the hospital, I beseeched the travel gods to keep Spenser in good health for at least the three hours it was going to take us to get to New Orleans.