I was on the road from New Orleans before 9 a.m. and within an hour, had exited off I-10 east and was leaving cajun country behind. I passed through a couple of miles of long bridges, wetlands and swamp tour signs before heading northeast on I-59 into Mississippi. After all excitement and noise of three days in New Orleans, I was looking forward to the next two days of near solitude on the road. Driving long distances has always felt like a meditative state. You aren’t distracted by time-suck tasks like paying bills, checking out those new workout pants on Target.com or finding out what’s happening on facebook. Many times, I drive in silence with just the road ahead.
My route was taking me through Hattiesburg and up through Meridian. Mississippi was the second state to secede and Mississippi troops fought in every major theater of the Civil War (or as my paternal grandmother used to say – the recent unpleasantness amongst the states). Most of the big battles in Mississippi were fought west of I-59 however, Meridian’s strategic position at a major railroad junction made it the home of a Confederate arsenal, military hospital, and prisoner-of-war stockade, as well as the headquarters for a number of state offices. General Sherman took note of its value to the South. After the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman’s Union forces turned eastward and reached Meridian in February 1864 Sherman’s army destroyed the railroads and burned much of the area to the ground. After completing this task, Sherman is reputed to have said, “Meridian no longer exists.”
Sherman was right about Meridian for a short time. Like Chicago, Meridian was rebuilt bigger and better after the war and entered a golden age between 1890 and 1930 when it became the largest city in Mississippi and a leading manufacturing powerhouse of the South. Meridian was also the home of James Chaney, the activist who was killed in 1964 in the Mississippi Civil Rights Murders, a hundred years after Sherman destroyed the town to help uphold the abolish slavery for black Americans. The federal courthouse held the trial for Chaney’s murderers. It was the first time a white jury convicted a white official of a civil rights murder.
John Grisham mentioned Meridian in several of his books but real connection is one of my favorite songs by Emmy Lou Harris, “Red Dirt Girl” It has this beautiful line in the song: ” the one thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got them, you keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom….across a red dirt line just a little south of Meridian.”
Across the Alabama state line and about an hour north of Birmingham, the highway started climbing. Exits were more infrequent but I had gassed up south of Meridian so even if I got lost for a hundred miles or so, I was safe. I was more concerned with the warning from the innkeeper that GPS can go haywire in these mountains. It was thoughtful of her to have called that morning before I left New Orleans and given me her cell. The B&B reservation had also strongly suggested I print the instructions to the lodge. Those instructions were sitting on the passenger seat under the Tupperware container of blueberries, bag of jalapeno Cheetos and salami bites from the NOLA trip. I do love my road food but time to unearth the map.
Of course, I left I-59 at exit 231 and promptly headed north at the wrong blinking light. After 15 minutes of seeing the mountains above me but not going any higher, I turned around and retraced my steps back to exit 231. I pulled into a dirt parking lot at boarded-up bar and memorized the road numbers on the next three turns. Good thing Lewis and Clark weren’t dependent on GPS or the US would have ended at the Mississippi
Continuing through the blinking light that had fooled me, the road started to narrow and climb and wind. When I arrived at a second blinking light in the tiny town of Mentone, I was more confident that I was heading the right way. Making the turn, the road narrowed even more and started to take more pronounced direction changes. I knew I was on the right road when I saw a sign to the left for “Brow Park”. Ulysses S. Grant called Lookout Mountain more of a bench than a mountain so the term “Brow” would fit. Its ridge stretched for 85 miles.
After five miles, the fork in the road appeared that the innkeeper’s directions had used as a landmark to confirm my route. A half a mile further down the road, there were several rustic cottages lining the brow with names like Cupid’s Cabin. Then the Mountain View Inn appeared. Because I hadn’t stopped to eat on the way from New Orleans, but dined while driving on the gourmet cheeses and meats that Rindy had purchased in the Marigny, I arrived almost two hours earlier than I told Stormie, the hostest to expect me. I parked and used the time before I officially checked in to clean out the trash from six hours on the road, including the spilled spiced jicama that had rocketed to the floorboard of the front passenger seat when I made a hurried u-turn.
The Mountain View Inn was built into the edge of Lookout Mountain with three levels of outdoor decks. Originally built as a large private residence, the Inn had four bedroom suites and two common levels and the dormer room on the attic level that I had taken. The only other guests were a couple from Long Beach, MS who were staying on the first level but were off touring Chattanooga at the moment. Stormie got me settled. For hours, I had the entire house to myself. I took pictures of the view of three states (Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee) from the bottom level, wrote about the last day in New Orleans and posted to my blog. The Long Beach couple returned and we visited for a while until they went down the stairs to settle on their level. I took over the main common level to pretend this was my mountain home and I was watching my sunset.
I’d heard about the battle of Lookout Mountain and wanted to explore more about that, however in researching the area in general, I started to read about the forced relocation of the Cherokee and other eastern tribes that resulted in the Trail of Tears. This area and especially Fort Payne, a few miles south, were epicenter for much of the tragedy. Something happened the next day that would make the Cherokee story more of the focus of my day on Lookout Mountain. But first something about the battle of Lookout Mountain. It was fought in November of 1863 and part of a one-two punch along with the Battle of Missionary Ridge the next day which allowed the forces under Union General Joe Hooker to help dislodge the Confederates under General Braxton Bragg. These two actions helped lift the siege of Union forces in Chattanooga. According to Wiki, ending the Chattanooga siege opened the gateway for the Union to drive into the deep south. Less than a year later, General Sherman would destroy beautiful Meridian.
Despite the contributing importance of the Lookout Mountain engagement, Grant later wrote in his memoirs, “The battle of Lookout Mountain was one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called the battle on Lookout Mountain. It is all poetry.”
I love the unvarnished nature of Ulysses S. Grant. Some years ago, Houston Baptist University had an exhibition in their museum juxtaposing Robert E. Lee and Grant as commanders and men. From what I remember, Lee was elegant and courtly and graduated near the top of his class at West Point. Grant was far from courtly, maybe an alcoholic and a failed farmer during his first retirement. He graduated way down in the rankings at West Point but rejoined the Army during the Civil War and gained a reputation as an aggressive commander, a trait desperately needed by the North. One of the displays at HBU museum were the uniforms worn by each leader at Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to Grant. Lee’s uniform was impeccable with appropriate medals and ornamentation. Grant’s was dusty, missing buttons and with few embellishments to designate his rank. For Lee, it was about the failed glory of the Southern cause. With Grant, it was a job to do.
Now about the Indians. After reading about the Trail of Tears, I ended up meeting a contemporary Cherokee/Creek woman the next day in Mentone. We shared a cup of coffee and she pulled out her phone showed me pictures of what she was doing to keep the traditions and the language of her people alive. She said that her husband would kid her about her drive to promote Cherokee knowledge and told me about a popular restaurant that had opened close to Mentone. The name of the restaurant bothered her and her husband told her, “Go ahead and talk to the owner. You’re not going to settle until you do.” “I told the guy that he had misspelled his restaurant name. He said, ‘How do you know anything about it?’ And I told him I knew that the name meant Butterfly in Cherokee, ” she said. “He told me he’d checked how to spell the name in the dictionary and I asked him, ‘did you check an English or Cherokee dictionary?'” I can see her problem keeping the language from being corrupted.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 sought to move Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee and Seminole (known collectively as the “Five Civilized Tribes”) from their ancestral grounds in the deep south to west of the Mississippi. White settlers were hungry for their land. The removal act gave the president power to pay for transportation costs to the West, should tribes choose to relocate. The law did not, however, allow the President to force tribes to move West without a mutually agreed-upon treaty. Getting the hang of what in the future would be called the “litigious nature of the US”, the Cherokee filed several lawsuits regarding conflicts with the state of Georgia and some of these cases reached the Supreme Court. The most influential was Worcester v. Georgia in which the court ruling prevented state laws from having any power over the Cherokee Nation. President Andrew Jackson chose not to enforce the Supreme Court mandate barring Georgia from intruding on Cherokee lands. While I am not a fan of Andrew Jackson, understandably he understood that enforcement would lead to conflict between federal troops and the Georgia militia. That could exacerbate the ongoing crisis in South Carolina and lead to a civil war. Instead, he vigorously negotiated a land exchange treaty with the Cherokee. Well-respected voices of the day rose against the Act and Jackson’s actions, including Davy Crockett, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Only a fraction of the tribe left voluntarily. More than ten thousand Native Americans died of disease, exposure and starvation before reaching their end destination. I went to Fort Payne at the base of the mountains where Willstown had originally been located. Willstown was an important Cherokee village. Fort Payne had been built on the site to intern the Cherokee prior to their forced move west. It was an appropriate place to view a starting point for the Trail of Tears. I couldn’t help but reflect on my experiences south of Tucson a few weeks ago where I visited Spanish colonial missions established and still located in the heart of Native American settlements. While sometimes cruel conquerors, often the Spanish incorporated the original inhabitants. Anglo settlers preferred to displace these people.
After all this historic turmoil, I wanted to spend a few hours just driving through some beautiful nature. I drove more than two hours on the Lookout Mountain Parkway into Georgia then made a stop at DeSoto Falls where I timidly stood on the edge (behind a stout railing) and tried once again to face my fear of heights.
Road Ramble 2016 – Asheville – read more
Road Ramble 2016 – New Orleans and Driving through Louisiana – read more
Road Ramble 2016 – Pre-trip Planning – read more