What would a bicycle tour of the Pine Belt region of rural Mississippi be like? We started our tour at the small town of Prentiss MS, (population 975.) Prentiss, founded in 1903, is the county seat of Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi. The largest city in the region is nearby Hattiesburg, founded in 1882. In this region fortunes were made between about 1880 and 1930 in cutting down virgin pine timber. It is significant that the the towns and cities of the Pine Belt were founded not only decades after the Civil War but also after the first Reconstruction era had mostly ended. While the area (and America!) obviously has huge racial issues the Pine Belt region does not have the tragic and complex slave plantation history of the Mississippi Delta, a hundred miles to the northwest.
There is a bike path! Prentiss MS sits at one end of the forty-four mile long Longleaf Trace, a former rail line and now paved trail with its other terminus in Hattiesburg. My friend and cycling buddy Lyman had ridden in my Ford Escape Hybrid with me from New Orleans so we could do several days of cycling, especially a three day triangular route Prentiss / Hattiesburg / Laurel, each thirty-five to to sixty miles apart.
Where to park the car and start cycling? The other end of the trail, at Hattiesburg, would be closer to the Interstate highway, but to start cycling there would mean we would have to spend the night in Prentiss MS. There were no Airbnb’s listed in Prentiss. Prentiss did have listings for two 1950’s looking motels, neither affiliated with a national chain. One of the motels had pretty good online reviews, except those saying that crowds tended to congregate in the parking lot outside of the rooms at odd hours of the early morning, partying. I am sixty-seven years old and Lyman is seventy. Even five years ago I would have thrown caution to the wind and Lyman and I would have shared a room in whatever motel Prentiss dished up. I have gone soft. I do not want to listen to strange people outside my room in the middle of the night. On a separate note, I now want my own room. We decided to drive the car to Prentiss, park there, and then start the three day ride so we would not have to spend the night in Prentiss. Here is a map of our three day ride.
Prentiss MS looked worn. I did not see much going on, really.
My evidence is totally anecdotal, but the only other place in America I have seen forlorn loose dogs walking around gas stations was rural South Carolina. I saw two such dogs on this trip, including this down-and-out mutt who looked like she had recently given birth, walking aimlessly in circles around the parking lot of a mini-mart / gas station in Prentiss. I guess I should have done something to help her.
A more put together side of Prentiss appears at the Longleaf Trace trailhead in the center of town. The trailhead had actual working restrooms, a picnic area, and a set of usable bicycle tools and air pump. As we were to see on this ride, the Longleaf Trace trail not only looks properly funded but seems to have lots of community support. All along the trail there we signs of donating local businesses and community groups.
We pulled our bicycles out of the car. I had made the big assumption that no one would bother my car if we left it here for three days. Both of us were using foldable Bike Fridays; Lyman on the Pocket Rocket model, myself on the New World Tourer model. Lyman had brought his in a suitcase when he had flown in to New Orleans the day before from Austin, TX.
Here in Prentiss MS an older woman was seated at the restroom / picnic shelter building. She made small talk with me while I adjusted my bicycle. She seemed to be just relaxing, taking in the day.
We started bicycling down the paved trail; Hattiesburg was forty-four miles distant. It was ten or eleven in the morning.
It was a lovely day with temperatures in the sixties. The trail passes almost entirely through second growth piney woods.
For years on these bicycle tours I depended on lunch from passing mini-marts and hamburger stands. I now realize bringing one’s own food, at least for lunch, is so much easier and healthier. Quality non-homogenized peanut butter along with grape jelly on Dave’s brand whole wheat bread is non-perishable, easy to carry, and delicious. An acquaintance recently suggested I use dried cherries from Trader Joe’s instead of jelly. I will have to try that.
The Longleaf Trace also has picnic tables every few miles. We stopped for lunch. Lyman criticized the Weyerhaeuser sponsorship of our picnic table. “They cut down trees!” That seemed really extreme to me, an oversimplification and I told him so.
Twenty-six miles into the ride we passed through Sumrall MS (population 1,400), the only sizable town on the trail before Hattiesburg. Sumrall seems to have soaked up some of the prosperity of the college town of Hattiesburg (population 49,000), eighteen miles further on.
We investigated whether there was appropriate place for a light second lunch. We settled on Bandits BBQ where we split an enormous beef brisket sandwich. We had one choice of side and Lyman furthered the fattening vibe by choosing macaroni and cheese. It was all seriously delicious. Huge portions like this are the norm in most of America. It’s insane the expectation that such a meal is to be for only one person.
At 2:30 PM on a weekday there was no one there but us. I had a good few minutes talking barbecue with the apparent owner. (photo by Lyman Labry)
He clearly is an accomplished cook and was a big advocate of what he described as Kansas City style barbecue, with a heavy and sweet tomato based sauce slathered mostly on beef. The approach clearly was working superbly on our sandwich. He said he travels around the country to barbecue festivals. I come from North Carolina where barbecue is almost the total opposite; chopped pork with a vinegar based sauce. While North Carolina barbecue is very good, the North Carolina barbecue scene has gotten a little staid, with its self-imposed rules about exactly how barbecue should be prepared, like a religious dogma. Here is Sumrall MS there is food creativity going on.
We still had eighteen miles to go. The last portion of the trail passes directly through the 14,000 student University of Southern Mississippi campus.
Lyman, a retired architect, went with me over to see this circa 1960 dormitory. I like its style.
The University campus sits a few miles west of downtown Hattiesburg MS. The trail ends in downtown and just a few blocks from a place called Southern Prohibition Brewing. It wasn’t until my second visit that I got the joke, that just like a 1920’s speakeasy, the brewery has no sign.
It was full of people at 5:00 PM on this Thursday afternoon. The brewery had a nice selection of house made beer. Lyman and I chose beers and took them to the outdoor patio.
Where to stay this night? There were several Airbnb’s in houses near downtown but all were taken. We had arrived by bicycle with our luggage on the bicycles. All the hotels were out on the big highway four or five miles away.
I have seen this situation with the placement of hotels in my travels across America. My brother Alex Marshall is a journalist. His most successful book is How Cities Work (University of Texas Press, 2000). One of his key arguments is that city planners frequently ignore the seemingly obvious situation that growth will occur around transportation hubs. In Hattiesburg and most of America the transportation system is freeways. Here in Hattiesburg there were THIRTY EIGHT hotels and motels listed on the Hotels.com website. Every single one of the thirty eight was within half a mile of the two Interstate 59 exits, which are both a distant four miles from downtown. There was not a single hotel downtown. Here is a screenshot of Google Maps showing hotels in Hattiesburg. The downtown area is to the center right, devoid of any hotels, near The Lucky Rabbit.
What to do? It would be a bitter pill if we had to stay out by the freeway. That morning I had googled “bed and breakfast” Hattiesburg. Something called The Bay Bed and Breakfast did pop up. I had called the number and it had only a nonsensical answering machine. I left a message and they did not call back. Eight hours later at 6:00 PM I called again after we had each consumed about two thirds of a beer. A woman’s voice:
“Hello, uh, (pause) The Bay Bed and Breakfast”
She was in her car. She was going out somewhere with her granddaughter. She said, uh yes, they did have rooms. I asked for a good price for two rooms if we promised not to be demanding. I told her she would not have to include breakfast. She did quote us a good price and said just to let ourselves in, that there was a key in the mailbox. Over the phone we connected as fellow older Southerners, exchanging polite-isms. She apparently lives nearby but not in that house. At about 6:30 PM we cycled over to the house, which is in an attractive older neighborhood adjacent to downtown.
It was an impressive house. There was an in-tune baby grand piano in the living room. She had clearly gone to a huge effort to collect “stuff”; stuff that would give the place “atmosphere.” My hunch of the woman’s business plan, if there ever was a business plan, was to have a fancy place to hold special events, like weddings. We wandered around the silent house and its mildly creepy feel. I had thought no one else was there, but an older man appeared, as if a non-threatening ghost. We spoke to him briefly and he confirmed he was a guest. He had vaguely odd mannerisms and disappeared. We would talk to him more the next day. My room had an old Mona Lisa print on the wall.
Both our second floor rooms opened onto the same sleeping porch. I had always heard of sleeping porches but I had never actually been on one. In keeping with this house’s exoticness there was an already slept-in looking bed on that porch. It did not stop Lyman from hanging out in one of the rocking chairs.
While it was a fascinating nearly empty house with an enormous bedroom for each of us, there were issues. The woman had acted like she knew but she clearly had no idea which rooms were “cleaned” and which ones were not. Had my bed been slept in? It was hard to tell. There were used towels in one of the bathrooms and she told us over the phone to just get some clean ones from the closet. We never actually saw this woman even though we had full access to her house.
Later on we bicycled back to the Southern Prohibition brewpub for some dinner. After that mid afternoon mega-calorie barbecue sandwich, it was comforting to eat something healthy feeling, along with (of course) more beer. The brewery did a pretty good job preparing Asian cold sesame noodles with grilled tofu squares. Lyman got a hummus and vegetable plate. We again sat out on their patio.
On leaving we passed an open-mic comedy night going on in the front room of the brewery. Four young men waiting to perform seemed excited to pose for my camera.
Hattiesburg has nightlife! On the short bike ride back in the dark we passed two other bars in downtown Hattiesburg each with live music playing and the door open to the street. Both featured solo guys on acoustic guitars. We did not stop. I felt mildly guilty for being someone who doesn’t like to stay up late.
Back at “our house” being nosy we wandered around the semi-dark kitchen. She had stacks and stacks of plates. She had a glass water pitcher collection. It almost seemed like hoarding.
The next morning we packed up to leave. We still never saw the proprietor but she coached us over the phone how to put my credit card through her processing machine. We again saw that other man, our fellow guest. Lyman says he resembled photos of the older Pablo Picasso. Once he started talking it was hard to get a word in edgewise. His name is Paul and he is originally from near Scranton PA. I guessed he had been staying at this Hattiesburg house for a while. He seemed to be in a comprehensive search of the entire USA for the proper place for him to live alone as a retiree. He wanted somewhere warm. We talked about prospective towns over the southern half of America.
He said over and over that he wanted somewhere with no traffic. He wanted to be able to drive to the grocery store and not have to fight traffic. Each town we suggested was met with the same rejection: “Too much traffic.” I referred a certain website to him but he said he did not like working with computers.
We checked out, leaving Paul and the B&B for the short bike ride to downtown. My breakfast of bacon and egg on an everything bagel was taken on the sidewalk in front of Southbound Bagel and Coffee. The place was crowded and made its own bagels.
Our next destination this day would be Laurel MS, thirty-five miles to the north. There would not be a bike trail and all our riding would be on regular highways. Leaving town we biked through older parts of Hattiesburg. It was close to Easter and decorations were out.
I passed a pre-WWII gas station.
The first few miles were mildly scary because of car and truck traffic but once about four miles from Hattiesburg area we found secondary roads and almost no traffic.
There was a dead snake in the road and vultures were picking at it.
I did not see as many Confederate flags and/or Trump signs and flags as I would have thought. This house mixed a torn Confederate flag with the biblical verse Ecclesiastes 3:11 “He has made everything beautiful in His time.” I have not tried to figure out what all this means.
We cycled on.
One always hears that the state of Mississippi is nearly the poorest state in America. I was pleasantly surprised sometimes seeing well funded looking public buildings, including this small town Ellisville MS library.
Also on our route and well funded looking was Jones College, a public community college. We stopped there and found an outdoor table where we could eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwich picnic lunch.
In the obviously poor and Black south side of Laurel we passed a mostly but not all white teenage youth baseball league game at a public park.
We were in Laurel!
Laurel (population 17,000) was founded about the same time as Hattiesburg, in 1882. On arriving into town we immediately cycled up to Betsy’s Ice Cream which has only soft serve but a variety of toppings. I got chocolate sauce on coffee flavored ice cream.
My enthusiasm about Laurel is mostly explained by a song. I had never been to Laurel but had been aware of it for decades because of “Going Down to Laurel” by the Mississippi born singer-songwriter Steve Forbert.
Steve Forbert is from Meridian MS, fifty-five miles further up the Interstate. He was “discovered” while busking on the sidewalks of New York City in the late seventies. For about twenty minutes some music critics were calling him the New Dylan. Forbert’s debut album Alive on Arrival came out in 1978 and “Going Down to Laurel” is the opening track. I have been singing this song with my guitar accompaniment for more than forty years.
Our two bedroom Airbnb in downtown Laurel was perfect; a full apartment with a second floor patio overlooking the street and next door to the best restaurant in town. Guitars are a little heavy and fragile to take on bicycle tours but sometimes I take a cheap ukulele strapped on the back of my bike. I have been waiting what seems all my life to play this song from a balcony in this town, Greetings from Laurel sign in the background.
Laurel was not dirty and stinking at all, at least not the two block downtown area we had found ourselves in. That modernist building on the right is a former bank. It is empty and for sale.
A little later we walked next door to the restaurant The Loft. At 6:00 PM a line of people waiting for a table had already spilled outside onto the sidewalk. A very professional young bartender helped us juggle for two seats at the bar. She is the kind of bartender who can make relaxed casual conversation, discuss the food options, all the while mixing someone else’s cocktail and taking and remembering several sets of complicated drink orders being shouted at her from still other sets of people. She said she had been working here about seven years.
The LSU / Virginia Tech women’s basketball collegiate national championship semifinal game was playing on the TV above our heads. While we were in the state of Mississippi, Louisiana is not very far away and the crowd was raucous.
Everyone here seemed to be eating huge portions of either steak or prime rib. Many of these people were huge themselves. Lyman and I both said we wanted something lighter. Our bartender said her favorite thing on the menu was the grilled fish. We both got that and it indeed was quite good and still extremely filling. The green bean casserole was delicious.
My biggest disappointment here was that neither our bartender nor any other people (some of whom were older) within talking distance had heard of the song “Going Down to Laurel” by Steve Forbert. It is a great song. Does the town not listen to it because it trash-talks Laurel? Who knows? The song is indeed mentioned on Laurel’s Wikipedia page.
We had to pack up and leave the next morning. Being a weekend morning, it was not surprising that the breakfast place down the street downtown was jammed and was having trouble keeping up with all the orders. We did get our food but could not seem to get the check. Lyman finally gave the woman a twenty dollar bill rather than wait many many more minutes while she figured out what we owed. I took a selfie.
I like looking at buildings. Downtowns in secondary cities like Laurel frequently have preserved the kind of early and mid-century modern commercial structures that do not still exist elsewhere.
This Spanish revival motel was in the dingy part of down. When was it built? 1940’s? Earlier?
While not necessarily a historic building, on the outskirts of Laurel we passed a large business called Hellfighters USA. It underscores what a big deal “motorcycle culture” must be here in Laurel and many parts of America.
Their website is fascinating. “Motorcycles! Ladies Merchandise! Jeeps! Guns!”
It would be a fifty-seven mile bike ride back to my car parked in Prentiss MS. The final ten miles would be on part of the same bike trail we had taken two days earlier. The first forty-seven miles would be again on mostly quiet country roads.
What can I say about cycling in the rural Mississippi Pine Belt? My biggest takeaway is this part of Mississippi looks so very much like many other parts of the American South. I had cycled only a few months ago in rural Southside Virginia, an area fifty or sixty miles south of Richmond VA near the North Carolina line. That region is more than eight hundred miles northeast of Jefferson Davis County Mississippi and I am surprised at how it looks and feels so similar. In both areas there are sections of piney second or third or fourth growth woods, interspersed with lower income looking houses occupying what could be called small farms, or maybe what used to be farms. It looked like people were living out here because they wanted space, or that they had just ended up here, but if they had jobs they must be commuting elsewhere to those jobs or were working from home. In Southside Virginia and also rural Pine Belt Mississippi there looked to be only limited amounts of commercial agriculture. It is only when one’s cycling trip gets within a few miles of cities, even those as small Hattiesburg and Laurel, that the landscape changes dramatically, with the large homes of exurbia poking their heads, and having a big increase in car and truck traffic.
In seeming nowhere Mississippi, likely forty miles out of Laurel, I passed this single house incongruously by itself in a field. Somebody must have done well for themselves.
Also in the middle of nowhere with no apparent houses around, on a trestle that crossed wetlands, on a highway with almost no traffic, on a day where it was sunny but barely even seventy degrees, these boys were jumping off the bridge into the river below.
On one more empty stretch of highway with no traffic and no houses, this skinny forlorn looking young man was walking down the middle of the highway, seemingly like Tom Joad in the Grapes of Wrath, or an escaped prisoner, or what, I cannot say. He did not seem friendly and we kept our space.
We merged back onto the Longleaf Trace bike trail at the small town of Bassfield MS. (population 200). At Bassfield the bike trail has a nice picnic shelter and a group of maybe thirty Black citizens were having some kind of gospel festival right there on the bike path. A woman’s performance was mostly singing to a recorded background but included at least one hymn sung a cappella. This video is only twenty seconds long.
We sat and watched for at least half an hour. The locals were welcoming. The food tent consisted only of one couple selling cakes. I wanted to buy something but was not hungry for cake right then. They had at least six or seven kinds of small cakes for sale, all the same size and six dollars each., I chose German chocolate. As we got up to leave I strapped the cake on the back of the bike. We would eat it for dessert that evening.
I would be a ten mile ride on the bike path to Prentiss MS, back to where we had parked my car two and a half days earlier.
The car was still there at the Prentiss MS trailhead. It had been a long day cycling. We loaded up the car.
In the late afternoon we drove a hundred miles northwest to Vicksburg MS. We would stay that night in Vicksburg and cycle the next day around the Civil War battlefields. Lyman likes touring battlefields,
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