Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Natchez Trace X: Kosciusko to Mathiston

A beautiful Indian woman was working behind the counter of the modern stand at the Days Inn Kosciusko. She and her husband weren’t natives of course, but from the subcontinent Columbus had been trying to find before claiming Hispaniola for his Crown. These Indians had come by way San Jose, California. They had just finished the company’s management program and were now working up the corporate ladder. I couldn’t imagine a lower rung than Kosciusko, MS, though in fairness it was dark when I arrived and I was too tired to walk the mile into the center of town.

My hostess was diplomatic when I asked her what she thought of Mississippi—she dodged the question—though she did tell me she missed living in the Bay Area. She was hoping they would receive another placement within the year. I can vouch for the couple. They ran a clean and friendly operation.

The town of Kosciusko was named after a Polish engineer who had an impressive Age of Enlightement resume. A believer in the promise of an American republic, Thaddeus Kosciusko sailed from Europe to Philadelphia and enlisted with the rebels. His talents were quickly recognized and he was promoted to Chief Engineer of the Continental Army. He designed the defensive fortifications at Philadelphia and Ticonderoga as well as the academy at West Point. Upon leaving America for Poland, he decreed the lands given to him for his invaluable services be used as capital to buy the freedom of slaves.

His work in Poland was no less impressive. He commanded an army that scored successive victories over the larger forces of the invading Russians. Poland being Poland, her Prussian and Lithuanian neighbors sold her out for their own gain. Still, Kosciusko won battles against the encroaching Czarist army and might have triumphed had the Polish King not reached an agreement behind Kosciusko’s back to capitulate and save his own skin. Never having lost a battle as head of the Polish armies, Kosciusko was forced to accept the terms negotiated by his king that reduced their nation to a minor state-let. In a last effort to mobilize the people against the invaders, he abolished serfdom and raised an insurgent army that for a time threatened to repel the Russian forces. This time he was defeated in the field and captured. He was forced to watch from a St. Petersburg prison as Russia, Austria, and Prussia swallowed up the remainder of Polish territory so that politically his homeland ceased to exist.

There is a museum dedicated to Thaddeus Kosciusko just outside of town at mile marker 162. Why someone had chosen this spot to commemorate the Polish hero, a site that was just as much in the middle of nowhere at the close of the eighteenth century as it is today, and why there was an annex with a tribute to Oprah Winfrey, the museum did not make clear.

The weathermen didn’t forecast the cold rain that fell on the stretch between Kosciusko and French Camp, or maybe they did, and figured it not worth mentioning if no one would be there to notice. I only saw two cars that morning.

Even with my legs pumping at 90 rpm the steady rain drove the cold into my bones. French Camp was the only ink on the map between Kosciusko and my destination for the night, and luckily there was a small country restaurant right off the Trace.

The couple from Tupelo at the table next to me claimed this French Camp retreat had the best BLT’s in Mississippi. The bread was homemade, baked by the students at the French Camp Academy who also served in the restaurant. I opted for a thick slice of white bread and potato soup, the perfect lunch to bring some heat back into my hands and feet. After lunch I wandered into town and stopped at the welcome center operated by the school. French Camp Academy was a second chance special education school that emphasized work and prayer. I chatted with some of the students who came from all over the southeast. They were happy to have a distraction and they asked me every question they could think of to ask. The kids were sweet, if not imaginative. They soon ran out of questions and their supervisor put them back to work before giving me suggestions for some bike rides in the area. She sent me off with a half loaf of home made bread.

I finished day four in Mathiston, a one-diner town across the Trace from Pigeon Roost named for the passenger pigeons that had once chosen it as a favorite rest stop. It is impossible to imagine the extinct birds that used to travel in flocks of millions, by some accounts billions. Their flocks stretched for tens of miles, thick enough to blot out the noonday sun when they passed overhead. After landing for the night, they would leave a wake of broken tree branches and blizzards of bird shit.

The stand at Mathiston did not compare with the previous night in Kosciusko. The cinderblock cells at the Mathiston Motor Inn were a refuge for truckers, prostitutes and, from the looks of the corroded sink and tub in the bathroom, itinerant meth chemists. I was too tired to be bothered by the grime, and the room sufficed for bike storage and sleeping. Two hundred miles down, two hundred and forty to go.

No comments: