Sunday, February 17, 2008

Of Indian Mounds and The Weather Channel

My original plan had been to abandon my lovely wife to her work at the fairgrounds and go out exploring. A couple of local attractions had grabbed my eye when I did a "what the heck is there to do in Jackson" search on Google before leaving. The result yielded two items I could not pass up - The Natchez Trace Parkway and Indian Mounds.

The Trace is the ancient pathway across the southeast, used for millennia by Native Americans and the subsequent waves of invaders from the Spanish to the French to the early residents of the United States seeking their fortunes in the "west." Today it's a quite beautiful road that spans the entire state of Mississippi from the northeast to the southwest, terminating at Natchez on the grand river that provides the name for the state. It's been on my list ever since I read of the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis in an inn along its route following his return to regular life from his epic exploration of the western half of the continent. I had imagined that it ran along the banks of the Mississippi and so was pleasantly surprised to discover that it didn't and that it crossed the interstate only 6 miles up the road from our hotel.

The second item, Indian Mounds have fascinated me forever. Growing up in upstate New York, they were always just over the border in Ohio, but I never had the occasion to find myself near enough to visit one. Serpent Mound was the most intriguing, a structure imitating the shape of a snake over 1300 feet long. Constructed by the people of the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian cultures, they can be found throughout the entire Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds. Most were built between 2500 BCE and 1000 CE.

I was very jazzed about seeing one and so I staked out two close enough to catch in one day with minimal driving - Boyd and Pochontas Mounds.

The National Park Service web site had information and photographs of both and it was a bit hard to tell what exactly they would be like, which served to stoke my enthusiasm even more. I couldn't wait.

But the best laid plans often come to naught. Well, at least sort of naught. Instead of dropping my lovely wife off, I did the right thing and hung out with her while she analyzed the situation that was the quarter horse show at the fairgrounds. It took most of the day, leaving time for only mound and so it was Boyd since I had to drive the Parkway to get there.

And so off we went with a couple of hours of daylight remaining. The road was beautiful, winding its way through woodlots alternating between winter forests draped in Spanish Moss and stands of tall pine. The day was gray but the lack of light did not detract a bit from the beauty of this road and the surrounds.

Ten miles or so along, the sign appeared - Boyd Site, 1/2 mile. I exited and pulled into the lot where a big sign greeted visitors with an explanation of the area. Impressive sign, but where was the mound. Well, it was 30 or so yards off in a clearing. A 10 foot pile of dirt covered in grass and leaves surrounded by trees and bushes. It didn't look much different than the pile of sand we keep around for the riding arenas. It was a mound all right, it just wasn't a 1300 foot long serpent and for that matter, if I had stumbled out of the woods, I would not have identified it as anything more than a pile of dirt. Perhaps an old pile, but just a pile nonetheless.

We walked down the path. I tried desperately to get a picture of it but it was so inconsequential that it was hard to convey the incredible sense of irony I was bathing in. Wide angle, telephoto, nothing made it more than a pile of dirt. I wandered off into the clearing at the behest of the sign that implored visitors to walk the path in order to fully grasp the grandeur of the site. My lovely wife gave a swift kick to a foot actuated panel that promised some audio interpretation. And interpretation it was - a man trying his best to sound like a PBS narrator telling the story of the mound. The volume was staggering, his tenor voice echoed through the woods as though some deity was telling us the story from the sky above. It was so loud that I was genuinely embarrassed by being associated with its implementation. The only other visitor beat a hasty retreat from the clearing, perhaps concerned that someone would blame him for turning it on. A large flock of Cedar Waxwings, flycatching from a tree above stopped their normally incessant whistling, they two shocked at the assault.

It went on and on and I just prayed for it to end. When the narrator was done with the history, he moved on to the psychology of the former inhabitants, speaking of their emotions - hope, joy, fear, gladness and sadness - and just when I thought I could bear no more, it finally ended. Peace again.

I wandered down the path until it ended, perhaps ten yards from where it began. Nothing more here than leaves and pine needles.

And so it goes, a life's worth of anticipation dashed in a moment, the most interesting thing about this location being the individual men sitting quietly in their cars in the parking circle making me wonder what the current purpose for this site really is.








The next morning we prepared to leave, waking up to a rainy gray day, consistent with the warnings of the Weather Channel about some impending severe conditions.

Now I have come a long way over the course of these last few years of travel, but the one thing I cannot stand is the uncertainly of ugly weather rolling across the airports I'm about to use. The Weather Channel started warning me the night before about a big nasty development coming out of the west and up from the south, colliding right on top of Houston Airport, my late afternoon destination. I had flown through Houston once before, at the height of thunderstorm season, and it was not a pretty sight between the delays, cancellations, rain and lightning. I didn't want to do it again. The map on the severe weather segment had all of east Texas in red (the most severest of the severe) and most of Louisiana and Mississippi in the yellow (still pretty bad from a servereness standpoint.) I started chewing the inside of my lip. Around 8AM they convened a panel of meteorologists to discuss the situation and patched in some video from their storm chaser crew on the ground in College Station, Texas to add some color to the situation. I started chewing my lip really hard.

We had breakfast and went back up to pack. By now The Weather Channel had decided that this was not going to be as bad as the killer tornadoes from Super Tuesday, but that it was still going to be a monster. The guy on the ground was shown again, standing along some east Texas farm to market road, his Weather Channel windbreaker rippling in the drizzly breeze. We packed and headed out into the rain. The update from New Mexico spoke of snow and ice and closed highways. It was obvious that we were in for it, departing, transferring and arriving.

One last spin through the fairgrounds to assess the impact of the night's rain on the conditions of the show. The red mud added a festive air to the trailer parking, but not festive enough to drag me out of the car for a walk in it. We braved the track up to gate 14 through the car-sized potholes and went out for a tour of the downtown area.

The Capitol Building was stately, and interesting contrast to the decrepit shotgun shacks a few blocks away. These brought back murky memories for me, from the time when my dad would drag me down to Florida along two lane roads through the south, this being the days before interstates. People sitting on old rotting porches, watching the Yankee Snowbirds escaping the frigid wastes of the Great Lakes.

We killed an hour at the Natural History Museum, a really nice little place with a good set of aquariums (not the Chinese restaurant kind, it was nice to visit some fish that weren't about to be eaten) and a boardwalk path through the bottomlands of the Pearl River. A Wood Thrush popped into sight and ran along a railing making a complete mockery of my story of the beauty of their song and the extreme difficulty they present in being seen.

From there it was back to the airport to prepare for our guaranteed day of travel suffering, should The Weather Channel have its way.

Jackson Airport is my kind of terminal. No one checking in, no one at security and pretty much no one doing anything, anywhere. We got through, bought a muffin and waited, our quiet time interrupted finally by a phone call from Orbitz informing via a cheerful recording that our flight was delayed by 20 minutes. And so it begins I thought.

A text message home to check on the weather there was disconcerting - contrary to the apocalyptic vision of The Weather Channel, it appeared to be nothing more than gray and windy. Hmm, could they be wrong?

The plane arrived and we took off into a now gloriously sunny blue sky. Only hours before, we'd been upgraded from yellow to red, based on the certainty of killer tornadoes. Now I was really confused and so decided to give the inside of my lip a break from all the chewing.

We floated up and up, out over the flood plains of the river, finally crossing it in a region of oxbow lakes and near what appeared to be a nuclear power plant judging from its billowing cooling tower. Long barges plied their way from south to north, delivering goods from the ports of the Gulf to the midlands.

Moving along, clouds began to gather, finally obscuring the ground. We were entering the fringes of the Weather Channel Zone of Death. The clouds were amazing, an endless vista of white puffs, punctuated by the tall, towering tops of massive thunderstorms. Once could only imagine the impact these engines were having far below at the ground level. This was what the weatherman had been warning us of, yet from up here it was so, so beautiful.

We began our descent into Houston, now about 40 minutes late making me grateful for the 2 hours of slack time I had built into our layover. The pilot made the flight attendant strap in, a good thing because it was one rocky ride down into ever darkening clouds. We finally broke through, only 500 feet above the ground and landed in sheets of heavy rain.

It took us a while to taxi in and I spent those moments wondering where the two fire trucks were heading with their lights ablaze. We finally deplaned at a special outdoors gate - the others being occupied - allowing us a few seconds to enjoy the downpour.

Across the shuttle train, into our concourse, a piece of pizza shared and wolfed and down to the gate, just as we were boarding for an on time departure. Up again through the rocky clouds and then down two hours later, another windy nighttime landing in Albuquerque. All on time, no delays, no serious weather aside from some bumpy descents and ascents, nothing worth worrying about at all.

Which brings me to The Weather Channel. Is it science or is it entertainment? How do they make their dire predictions? They were so thankfully wrong about my path home as to make me wonder if they're worth watching at all. Well, the answer to that is simple - of course they are. The make your weather real, whether it is or not and they've become such a part of my travel routine that I cannot imagine giving them up. Perhaps though, I will give up chewing the inside of my lip.






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