A Mystery That Hits The Spot | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Mystery That Hits The Spot

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"Well, every good road trip needs a little mystery," or so I reasoned with my traveling companion, unable to avert my gaze from the giant billboard looming ahead. The sign dwarfed the surrounding pines and marred the coastline, and we stared at it with eyes transfixed, blind to the surrounding scenery.

"Yeah, I guess we should go." Her words were directed toward the billboard as much as to me, and definitely not to the trees.

It all started innocently enough, with the ancient road trip impulse to "get away." After all, we wouldn't be true Jacksonians if we didn't feel desperate to leave every once in a while, and the furthest opposite end of the country seemed a reasonable distance. Thus we settled on the Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a proboscis-shaped landmass extending out of the north Wisconsin woods. (Don't inquire as to why it's part of Michigan unless you're ready to delve into the history of the mid-19th century "Toledo Wars.") We chose this sparsely populated land of beautiful sunsets, empty shorelines and loose camping regulations as the perfect balm for 10 months of alarm clocks, business lunches and I-55 slowdowns. And so we drove North. And North. And North.

Leaving mainland Michigan behind at the five-mile Mackinac Bridge, we crossed into "The U.P." on a July afternoon and entered the small port town of St. Ignace. The road stretched away into endless pine forests.

And then the sign. Block yellow letters on a black background: "Mystery Spot—World Famous—2 Miles." The words surrounded a large red circle bearing the international symbol of mystery: a white question mark. That was enough to place our weeklong backpacking trip on indefinite hold.

Mystery Spots first appeared, coincidentally, as Americans increasingly took to the road a half century ago. They varied in the specifics, but all claimed an area where the standard laws of physics no longer held. Water ran uphill, objects rested at bizarre angles and perspectives shifted. For the '50s family in their new Buick, Mystery Spots became a popular destination offering an escape from not only the office and the suburb, but even the very laws of physics! Their heyday gone, the Mystery Spots remain for the modern road tripper, and their beckoning billboards still lure unsuspecting backpackers today.

Mystery Spot St. Ignace consisted of a small structure angled suspiciously on the side of a steep hill. In front stood a larger gift shop and ticketing area. The cashier acceded to our assurances that we were 12-or-under "in spirit," and tickets in hand, we perused the gift shop's offerings before the tour began.

Once inside, the guide commenced with a series of marvelous feats. Water flowed uphill. Chairs balanced on end. Agape tourists stood sideways. Our teenaged guide spun stories of strange magnetic forces emanating from iron deposits in the area, producing the scientific aberrations. When asked by another tour-goer the purpose of building on a hillside, she confidently replied that the tilted floor merely "magnified" the Mystery Spot's powers. We ate it up.

In the gift shop, we professed amazement to the cashier before buying Mystery Spot T-shirts, bumper stickers and keychains. It felt good, it felt silly, and with billboards so bright, we couldn't help ourselves.

On road trips, a strange Cartesian logic holds: "I billboard, therefore I am." But attention so easily won is lost just as fast, and our thoughts soon wandered back to the trees climbing up the hill behind the Mystery Spot. We returned to the car, stuffed our loot in the back, and within an hour, we were carrying our packs through the woods, where porcupines reigned and the mysteries ran deeper.

Everything Is Art, You Brats
by Emily Brandon

Mr. SteamJeans and I have recognized that we have created some nasty spoiled children. With two trips to Disney World in just one year, both the Princess and the Monkey have developed a sense of entitlement that makes for some obnoxious, synthetic kids. You know, those kind you see at the mall, faux styling like Lindsay Lohan or Justin Timberlake. They're really just children in trendy clothing with enough hair product to stiffen Bob Dole.

I was ready to send their bratty little butts to a summer camp that served goulash and required sweatshop labor. I wanted them to come back with hand-made potholders and a subservient attitude, but Mr. SJ prefers we teach them actual lessons, which was why we showed them the real happiest place on Earth: Memphis, Tenn. I've always known that Elvis could beat Mickey's ass with one hand hiding something fried behind his back, and we were ready to show our whiners the real king.

Our first major find was a Springhill Suite with a balcony overlooking Court Square Park and the Main Street Trolley, with a much cooler ride than those obnoxious resort monorails. I insisted that the children meet the closest thing to Mickey I knew as a child. Pancho grandstands the entrance of his namesake restaurant, from behind jail bars, with a haunting grin, welcoming all to his own slice of Memphian nostalgia.

While we waited for the infamous Pancho's cheese dip, Acapulco dinners and Mommy's peach margarita, the children read the writing on the walls, things like, "Everything in Memphis is art. Even the walls."

Why yes, you are correct my angelic children. Everything in Memphis is art.

Next stop was Carabella's, a small gift shop on Second Street. We found a doormat that says, "Well butter my butt and call me biscuit! Look who's here!" We also purchased some original oil paintings, as well as plastic drinking cups that read, "S.L.U.T.S: Southern Ladies Under Tremendous Stress." Everything in Memphis is art.

We also learned something new about Elvis. We heard the inside scoop from our driver and his horse, Mr. Bob. Did you know that Elvis bought the Jungle Room furniture at Jolly Royal? Well, he did, and you can, too, because it remains one of their most popular items. Also, that MGM lion who welcomes us to the movies with a roar spent his formative years at the Memphis Zoo.

Our road trip doubled as a family reunion, and we hosted a party in the Garden Tea Room at the zoo. Unlike our visits to Animal Kingdom, we were able to actually see animals without scrapping for a Fast Pass. Now some tourists did mistake our small get-together as an attraction and pressed their noses up against the glass in awe as we ate caramel cake. For less than the price of a Happy Meal in Epcot, Princess, Monkey and all the cousins met and petted a chinchilla, an African millipede, a python, a hedgehog and an iguana via the zoo's docent services.

By the end of the weekend, we managed to show those little mother fudgers that we are by-Gawd cultured, and we don't need a roller coaster to have a good time. When we stay grounded in the moment and get beyond the surface, we find that everything is art.

Trippin' In The Great Outdoors
by Reed Branson

I love pulling out of the driveway. In many ways, those first few are some of the best moments of a road trip. Life's mundane stresses are in the rear-view mirror. Nothing but potential ahead. And, nobody has to stop for the bathroom. Yet.

At this station in life, though, taking a genuine road trip is usually accidental. My Microsoft Office calendar, laptop computer, as well as the kids' sleeping aids—blanket and stuffed lamb—are likely to be involved. I wouldn't trade this time for the world, but it sure doesn't feel like a road trip.

The distinction between a vacation and a road trip settled in on me a couple of weeks ago after I bumped into Zach—a former Eagle Scout from the troop I work with—in the travel book section of Lemuria. We were each preparing for respective trips. I was letting my children pick out some books from the kid's area for our long-planned minivan adventure to the mountains of North Carolina.

He was eying books on Mexico. "My buddy and I were talking the other night about driving to Mexico,'' he said casually, grinning with all the possibilities of a recent college graduate. Now that's a road trip.

Reality settled in on me. I guess my last real "road trip" was with just after college. Five of us loaded into a Hertz Ford Fairmont, rented by someone's dad ostensibly to check out graduate schools. I think the closest we got to that was driving through the University of North Carolina campus one night.

We strapped and duct-taped a plastic Sears luggage box on top of the car, and threw in four backpacks. One of us was on crutches, which made our backpacking excursion interesting. Three of the gang had never been backpacking. An argument broke out over whether it was appropriate to waste precious pack space with one buddy's extra large can of Right Guard.

One night, while car camping in the Smoky Mountains, one of us was reading aloud, by lantern light, a Life Magazine account of a Grizzly attacks out west. Suddenly, we heard something. A Black Bear was mauling a gallon of milk we had forgotten was cooling in a stream.

Anyway, we ended up soaked and exhausted, sneaking five of us into a Holiday Inn single room, happy to crowd onto the floor. If that wasn't enough, three of the guys headed back up to the Smokys in late November only to discover they had their choice of campgrounds. The ranger just laughed as she looked around at the empty camping sites, and the boys woke up to six inches of snow. Needless to say, three New Orleans boys had little to no idea how to get a car back down the snow-slicked mountain road.

We love telling those stories.

Whether you're packing a carload of rug rats for a day trip or just heading out with a friend, there are any number of outdoors-oriented road trip possibilities from the Jackson metro area.

Start with a day hike, canoe trip or bike ride. Or throw a tent, ice chest and some charcoal in the trunk and do some car camping at a public campground. Though maligned, I find car camping is a great way to launch into other adventures—day hikes, fishing trips, mountain biking, etc. Think of it as the base camp below the summit rather than a parking place next to a picnic bench.

Use common sense. Wear a life jacket on the water. Don't mess with extreme cold or heat without some experience. Save the beer for the end of the day. And for goodness sake, don't worry about snakes. In all of these excursions, the most dangerous thing you'll do is climb into a car and drive.

Even a year later, Hurricane Katrina has closed trails, blocked sections of some rivers, filled some campgrounds with our long-suffering South Mississippi cousins in FEMA trailers. So check Web sites and/or call ahead.

Canoeing

In the summer months in Mississippi, you're going to be wet with sweat. So why not include a stream to cool off in? Outfitters will provide the boats, paddles, life jackets and all-important shuttle to area streams. Two outfitters will set you up on Jackson's own Pearl River. It really is a pretty river, despite the canalized ditch you see over your shoulder when crossing the Lakeland bridge.

Upstream, near Carthage, Miss., on Mississippi 16, Pearl River Floats (601-267-0340) offers outfitting. Downstream, near Terry, Pearl River Canoe Company (601-948-2266) offers floats. If you have your own boat, put in below the spillway and paddle to the Lakeland Bridge or at Lefleur's Bluff State Park.

A little further south, down U.S. 49, you can enjoy the closest thing to whitewater in Mississippi—the Okatoma near Seminary. Be warned: On summer weekends you're likely to share the river with 500 or so of your fellow Mississippians. It's still fun, though. Try the Okatoma Outdoor Post (http://www.okatoma.com) or Seminary Canoe Rental (http://www.seminarycanoerental.com).

On down U.S. 49, Black Creek Canoe Rentals (http://www.blackcreekcanoe.com) can put you on one of the Deep South's classic Wild and Scenic Rivers.

For another adventure, friends have recommended Quapaw Canoe Company (http://www.island63.com) in Clarksdale, Miss., for a trek down the Mississippi River. If you have access to your own boat, Buffalo Peak Outfitters here in Jackson has several good, nearby paddles outlined at http://www.buffalopeak.net

Biking

Rails-to-Trails—which converts abandoned short-line railroad right-of-ways into asphalt-paved, level, bike paths—made its debut on the Long Leaf Trace (http://www.longleaftrace.org), which runs 36 miles from Prentiss to Hattiesburg. If you've tried that and want more, head on down to Abita Springs, La., and try the Tammany Trace.

Many mountain bikers in the Jackson area get their daily workout at Little Colorado—a wooded, hilly patch in Rankin County. But drive south to the Homochitto National Forest for another experience in old-growth forest. This spot is probably more popular with Baton Rouge-area mountain bikers and hikers. I've been told Oxford has some good, though technical, mountain biking at Clear Creek Recreation Area. Check with Oxford Bike at 662-236-6507.

Hiking/Backpacking

The Natchez Trace has an ever-growing hiking trail running the woods alongside the road. There's no camping, though. Again, check out Homochitto in Southwest Mississippi for a hilly, old-growth forest backpacking experience, or the Black Creek Trail (it was still closed in April due to Katrina) for a good backpacking run.

Car Camping

Rocky Springs campground on the Natchez Trace is a good, close overnighter. Or head up north for a taste of the foothills of the Appalachians at Tishomingo State Park. Bear Creek runs through this scenic park in the northeastern corner of Mississippi, and the rock outcroppings offer climbers their only real action in Mississippi. The state (http://www.mdwfp.com) has numerous other parks with tent camping and cabins.

Neighboring states

Crossing the border may make it feel more like a real road trip. In Alabama, the Sipsi Wilderness Area in Bankhead National Forest offers a canyon backpacking experience. Or head off to Arkansas for a canoe trip or backpacking excursion on the Buffalo National River. Tennessee and North Carolina offer dozens of possibilities (just Google), from the Cumberland Plateau to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can experience some quality, whitewater rafting 40 minutes past Chattanooga on the Ocoee River.

Finally, you can put some real mileage on your dashboard. Novelist and outdoors writer Rick Bass, in his exceptional account of his time in Mississippi as an oil and gas land man, recounts driving hundreds of miles for a single night in the Rockies and then returning. There's something to be said, if you have the temperament, for striking off across the country. If you do it, take someone to share the memories and the driving.

Contact Reed Branson at [e-mail unavailable]

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