Vicksburg, Miss.: Put it on the list


A view of the Yazoo Diversion Canal from Vicksburg National Military Park’s Fort Hill. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
April 4, 2013

Which of the following destinations does not belong on AAA Southern Traveler magazine’s list of the top 13 travel spots for 2013: Christchurch, New Zealand; the Dominican Republic; Ireland; Mexico; Madagascar; Orlando; Panama; San Francisco; South Korea; Spain; Sri Lanka; Turkey; Vicksburg, Miss.; or Las Vegas?

You choose Vicksburg? You sure? Really sure? Because, well, you’re wrong.

Vicksburg is a full-fledged member of this class; Madagascar is not. The designation, though, was a surprise, even to some residents of the warm and welcoming Southern town about 45 miles west of Jackson.

“Spain, yes,” said a local between music sets at Ameristar Casino’s blues bar. “Vicksburg . . . huh?” A colleague threw in a riff about Waffle Houses and Kangaroo gas stations.

Details: Vicksburg, Miss.

But one sweet-as-Tupelo-honey Vicksburger chirped with delight at the news, asking me to repeat the announcement to her father, who was busy cooking in the Tomato Place’s kitchen. “This is just a real honor for our little town,” she said. “What I love about Vicksburg is that it’s slow — front porch rocking chair” slow.

If AAA’s criteria included wit and charm, Vicksburg would have dominated the list. But the publication didn’t factor in colorful characters, basing its decision on the Civil War Siege of Vicksburg and its sesquicentennial. The town is holding special events throughout the year, with most activities scheduled through July 4, the day Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton waved the white flag of surrender.

The 1863 battle, a big score for Team Union, replays day after day in the hearts and minds of visitors to Vicksburg and its national military park. Here, you can imagine the gunfire exploding across the bluffs as the residents huddled in caves for safety. As a Jackson day-tripper later explained to me, Southerners hold on to the war because so much of the action occurred on their turf, the bullets grazing their homes and endangering their lives and livelihoods. Beneath the pocked cupola of the Old Court House Museum, I vowed to no longer tell my Southern friends to “get over it.”

As any veteran parkgoer knows, when a ranger says over the loudspeaker that the orientation film will start in five minutes, you promptly take a seat in the dark theater and sit quietly for the entire 18 minutes. After the brief overview at the Vicksburg National Military Park Visitor Center, you can dig a little deeper in the museum gallery.

I read about Lyston Druett Howe, a 10-year-old who fought alongside his father and brother, Orion Perseus Howe, a drummer boy and one of the youngest recipients of the Medal of Honor. Beside me, a grandfather stood with his grandkids, who were about the same age as the sibling soldiers. The elder man seemed to be silently chastising his pint-size charges: Look, boys, these kids risked their lives for their country, and you can’t even pick up your dirty socks.

Two-thirds of the battle sites rest in the park, sprinkled along a 16-mile touring road. I mulled the four strategies for exploring the route: the national park brochure and map, with numbered stops; the free cellphone tour; the CD audio tour; and a guided tour in your own vehicle. I picked Door No. 2, sacrificing my minutes for edification.

The ranger told me that it would take about an hour and a half to complete the ribbony 15-stop route. But he must have been referring to individuals who treat the park like a drive-thru window to history. I, on the other hand, was compelled to stop at nearly every monument, statue, cannon, gunboat (the USS Cairo) and road sign with small print. I also lost time chasing a grasshopper around the inside of my car. I reached the Confederate side just as the park was closing.

The Civil War presses its stamp on myriad attractions and conversations in Vicksburg. In addition to several tours of 19th-century residences, there’s the Old Court House Museum, which contains many war artifacts, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s chair, the stuffing bursting out of the seams, and the inauguration tie of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. At the Attic Gallery’s art opening of “From These Hills,” I chatted up a grandson and great-grandson of Confederate fighters, a surprising fact that I doubted until I did the math.

Eventually, though, I got over the Civil War — sorry, Southerners — and shifted my focus to unifying attractions. Such as the 31 floodwall murals along the Yazoo Diversion Canal, a compilation of Vicksburg moments, including the Miss Mississippi pageant, held here since 1958. And “Gold in the Hills,” a play that’s the Guinness World Record-holder for the longest-running melodrama (presented annually since 1936). And the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, where parents reminisced about the beverage of their youth and bonded with their children over old-fashioned ice cream floats.

“We’d all sit on the back of the truck and open the bottles with our teeth,” a mother told her three youngsters as they studied a display of vintage Coke bottles. “That’s why my teeth are so messed up.”

The museum, housed in what was once a candy store, celebrates the ingenuity of Joe Biedenharn, who spread the gospel of the carbonated drink by bottling and delivering it to surrounding areas. (Prior to his invention, only soda fountains served the cola.) The first containers were made of glass, with a stopper that made a “pop” when opened. And that concludes today’s etymology lesson.

The class on advertising and marketing lasts much longer and takes up much more exhibit space. Gewgaws bearing the iconic logo fill glass cases, the shelves thick with such objects as an ashtray, a harmonica, ping-pong paddles, a rolling pin, a knife in the shape of an 18-wheeler, Cobot the robot and polar bears. Against one wall, ads from the first half of the 20th century promote the drink as an alternative to whiskey (“Don’t have a hangover”) and a salubrious tonic (“Keeps you feeling fit”). In addition, ladies, not hussies, drink Coke — or at least they did in 1922.

The museum is on Washington Street, the main commercial drag that truckers call Highway 61 and music aficionados revere as the Blues Highway. The blues are not as prominent as the easy-listening tunes piped in through hidden speakers in downtown bushes. But keep your ear in the air, and you can hear them: Tuesday nights at LD’s Kitchen; Friday eves at Martin’s at Midtown; and weekends at Walnut Hills Restaurant and the Bottleneck Blues Bar in the Ameristar Casino.

On a Friday night in early March, I weeded through poker tables, slot machines and desultory expressions to find David Dunavent and Evol Love performing onstage as part of the Vicksburg Blues Society’s Heritage Music Series. Paintings of blues musicians, many by self-trained Mississippi artists, padded the walls, and tables circled the stage.

Dunavent, backed by three bandmates, opened his mouth and released the pain of a thousand broken hearts. He sang about losing his mojo, and consequently the girl. He yodeled like a Swiss Miss stranded on a mountaintop. Then, without warning, the ghost of John Lee Hooker seemed to knock her off her Alpine peak and take over.

Two women frilled up for an evening out occupied a table beside the stage. They hooted and hollered, springing up from their chairs like Jack-in-the-boxes and pumping their fists. They’d resisted the snare of Lady Luck but had succumbed to the devil who had tempted Robert Johnson and so many other souls.

Andrea Sachs (not the one who wears Prada) has been writing for Travel since 2000. She travels near (Ellicott City, Jersey Shore) and far (Burma, Namibia, Russia), and finds adventure no matter the mileage. She is all packed for the Moon or North Korea, whichever opens first.
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