Thursday, October 15, 2009

Natchez Trace IV: Port Gibson

Back uphill and onto the Trace, I was hitting a stride when a train of bikers quickly closed on me.

“Where are you headed?”


“So are we!”

“And he’s carrying his own gear”

It was a short conversation as they flew by me. But compared to their $5,000 space-age carbon fiber frames, unencumbered by luggage or extra water, I was pumping a battleship. Five minutes later their van passed me hauling their luggage up from Natchez and lunch that would be waiting at the next rest stop. Seems like cheating somehow.

My legs felt strong until mile marker 35, a little more than 40 miles into my day. It was still early afternoon, and the only sign of the front was the steady breeze at my back. By Fred’s calculations the storm was about to cross the Mississippi.

Port Gibson was the first town of any size after Natchez along the Trace. There was a time when the third oldest town in the state was a functioning port. In the early 20th century the Army Corps of Engineers built up the levees and sealed off Bayou Pierre from the Mississippi. A victim of flood control, Port Gibson was left to wallow in its history at the crossroads of old Highway 61 and an even older Trace.

From the southern approach along the Blues Highway, it was not evident why Grant declared Port Gibson too beautiful to burn. Then I noticed the strange site that had been welcoming travelers long before Grant and his men descended on the town. A golden fist squatted atop the town’s highest church steeple with an index finger pointed skywards. This celestial warning would have been a fitting welcome for the generations of gamblers and whoremongers on the southwest frontier. Maybe it gave pause to the old Butcher himself.

The old town was only a few square blocks long, and most of the remaining antebellum homes off Church Street had been converted into bed and breakfasts. The aging daughter of the Confederacy who greeted me at the welcome center just outside of town could not remember for sure which of these houses still took guests. She said it as if she couldn’t remember which innkeepers were still living.

She gave me a couple leads. I had arrived ahead of the storm and was hoping I might yet save a few bucks over the two pricey joints with listings on the internet. Both her suggestions took me on gravel roads that wound up hills on the east side of town. I should have listened to my thighs barking to me that nothing was worth another climb today. My thighs were right. Neither turned out to be inns, nor did they look recently inhabited. I didn’t even bother knocking. These were the kind of creepy old homes that made horror film producers on tight budgets salivate. On the way back through town I checked out Port Gibson’s restaurant. A 45 year-old blonde who looked like she had fallen asleep in her tanning bed came out onto the porch as I crunched across the gravel drive.

“We’re closed,” she said.

“Ok, are you open tonight?”

“No, we’re closed.”

The woman at the visitor center had told me this restaurant was only open on Saturdays. It was Saturday.

“What is open tonight?”

“Nothing in Port Gibson,” she said. “Closest place you’ll find is up towards Vicksburg.”

I looked down at my handlebars and then back up to the porch. Vicksburg was almost 30 miles away, out of reach for a guy with a suitcase on his back tire. I waited for a second, as if she might change her mind, tell me it was ok as long I didn’t bring my Yankee friends. Nothing. She walked back into the restaurant with her UV scorched smirk.

A couple of guys were setting up a smoker outside the Westside Theater, an old Vaudeville place that looked like it would have been shuttered long ago. The guy with a single gold chain and cross and with a gut that suggested expertise in the BBQ arts noticed my interest and invited me to come in and take a look.

I took out my moleskin to make a note of the theater.

“That’s theater with an –ER,” Big D said.

With the help of some other local musicians, Big D had turned Westside into a community center and entertainment venue. He showed me some flyers for upcoming shows announcing rappers from as far off as Memphis. The lobby was decorated in gangster kitsch, with low hanging chandeliers and velvet paintings of characters from Scarface and the Godfather. A plaque with a .38 handgun mounted below a headshot of Tony Montana shared a wall with a life-size poster of the “Dogg Father” Snoop. Hanging in between the chandeliers was an airbrushed portrait of the patron sporting a Big D hat, black shades, and his signature chain.

Party tables were set up on the dance floor of the main hall. Big D explained that they were hosting a wedding party later that night. While they set up he had the NBA playoffs projected onto the big screen.

Big D wanted to show me the VIP lounge. We climbed the stairs and entered a room of faux wood paneling and thick shag carpet. The lounge was empty except for a red velvet love seat and a plush recliner. A balcony looked out onto the basketball game and the dance floor. Big D posed in his recliner, the coolest spot in “PG”. He invited me to come back for the BBQ that would be ready in a couple of hours. I thanked him and said I might.

The past half-hour summed up my two years in the Delta—awkward exchanges with scowling, suspicious white people who hid behind closed signs and locker doors, and chance encounters with black people who invited me for food I was ashamed I couldn’t eat.

I peddled over to the Bernheimer House, named after my stepfather’s ancestors who had built the place back in a time when southern towns of any size had a synagogue. Grant made his temporary headquarters at the house in the spring of 1863. They did not have a room for me. The bike tour that blew past me in the afternoon had made its temporary headquarters here this evening, so after a quick peek into the parlor and the exterior’s whimsical mishmash of old English and colonial styles, I pushed on to the last inn on my list. As I turned towards Church Street I caught another glimpse of fist whose warning now was more earthly than celestial. The finger was pointing to the retreating gaps of blue sky in the east.

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