You might say I'm a wee-bit Type-A. I want everything organized. I feel a jolt of glee every time I check a color-coded box - and it is always color-coded. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. It should also come as no surprise that I've got some travel-themed lists. For example:
- Visit every UNESCO World Heritage site in the US
- Drive every US Scenic Byway
- Explore every National Park
and, of course, see every state in the country.
That being said, these aren't lists I'm actively completing, in the vein of "See all 50 States by the time I'm 50." They're just mentally-itemized wishes.
(Except now I want to see all 50 States by the time I'm 50.)
Despite that unwritten goal, when I came across Ridgeland, Mississippi, at the Chicago Travel & Adventure Show I wasn't thinking "Yes! I can check off another state!" I just walked up and started talking to one of the friendliest people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Before I knew it, we were making plans for me to visit this charming community in a state I've never visited before.
Even though I hadn't been to Mississippi and didn't know a whole lot about it, I still had some ideas, fostered mainly from my knowledge of American history and the stereotype of Southern Hospitality. Let me tell you: that charm is REAL. It's a delightful embrace, but there is so much more to Ridgeland than some kind words and gracious hosts. There's shopping, art, great food, natural beauty, history, complexity, and an active community that is really, really into cycling.
Take a ride with me, and I'll introduce you to this charming town.
Visit Ridgeland hosted my visit, and I felt so welcome I've still got a touch of Southern drawl. Y'all know these opinions are mine and if you think otherwise, well, bless your heart.
My journey began with a delayed flight from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I realize this is redundant. It's the fourth busiest airport in the world and the view from my window seat was of constant activity. It was cloudy, cold, gray. Blah. Once we took off, it was a quick two hours above the clouds. As we descended to Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, I viewed something I hadn't seen in quite some time...
Green! Below me was glorious, beautiful, uplifting green. The grass was a bright emerald and there were leaves on the trees. The earth was yellow, a mustard color. So different from the black soil of home. As we landed, instead of a sea of terminals and baggage carts, the runway was bordered by a mowed lawn leading to a forest wall.
Inhaling the sunshine, I picked up my rental car and made my way to Renaissance at Colony Park, an upscale, open-air shopping center anchored by a clock tower. I picked up the information I'd need for the weekend at the offices of Visit Ridgeland, got the lay of the land, and walked around the corner for lunch at Local 463 Urban Kitchen. Although clouds crowded in, I sat outside near their outdoor grill. BECAUSE I COULD.
Lunch was The House "Chef," a unique salad that combined wood-grilled chicken breast with Hereford beef tenderloin over mixed greens and yellow squash, zucchini, sweet peppers, red onion, and so much Alabama goat cheese I felt like I'd crossed the border into another state. (But I didn't, so no ticking that checkbox. Yet.)
It was huge. I ate the whole thing. And my appetite had absolutely nothing to do with the Old Fashioned made with cherry-infused Knob Creek, cherry liqueur, and a Big Cube. Nope. Not a bit.
After checking in at TownePlace Suites at The Township at Colony Park, my home base for the weekend, I headed right back out towards Barnett Reservoir. The Mississippi Craft Center was on the way. Home to the Craftsmen's Guild of Mississippi, it immediately reminded me of the Folk Art Center in Asheville, North Carolina, which is the home of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. I was familiar with that because my dad had previously exhibited. I quickly learned that, while they're not connected, the Asheville center was, in fact, inspiration for Ridgeland's.
Inside, the center showcases works from some of its 359 professional artisans. Selection of the artists is juried to maintain high quality. About eighty percent of the members live in Mississippi and the rest are in sixteen other states. The reason they're not all from the Magnolia State is because sometimes artists move. The woman behind the counter told me they couldn't very well kick an artist out just because he or she decided to relocate.
The works are a collection of 3-D art and range "from traditional folk items like quilts, baskets, and wood-carved spoons to more contemporary works, such as metal sculpture, fused glass, and handcrafted jewelry." There's an immense amount of talent and creativity, and a surprising level of whimsy.
There are also deeper meanings; the bottle trees outside the center are more than adornment. For centuries, there was a belief among Central Africans, which may have originated with the Arabians (genii in a bottle, anyone?), that spirits could be contained within glass bottles - they could get in, but couldn't get out. Placing these traps on trees near their homes protected the residents from malevolent specters. When Africans were forcefully brought to America, the tradition came with them and continued during and after the years of slavery. Now, you can see them throughout the south.
This was to be one of many examples of Ridgeland's and Mississippi's complexities. There's the traditional notion of Southern Hospitality, but there are also acknowledgements of the state's painful past.
One of the main reasons I was in Ridgeland was the OBO Tandem Rally. Couples meet annually in Ridgeland for this four-day celebration of riding One Behind the Other - OBO. These are serious riders. The routes range from 25 miles to 65 miles, and the cyclists ride three days in a row.
I expected a younger crowd, but when I arrived at Pelican Cove Grill for the Tandem “Toddies and Tastes” Social, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my husband and I would have fit right in. Except for the whole being "fit" part, but we're working on that...
Cyclists traveled from all over, including Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Alberta, Canada. Since I was there by myself, I found an open spot and ended up discussing the finer points of craft beer and fried pickles with a lovely couple from, of all places, Naperville, Illinois. (Trust me to travel hundreds of miles to find people who live in the same area as I do.) They gave me a glimpse of the tandem cycling life, sharing stories of their adventures. They travel for rallies like Ridgeland's, but they've also ridden solo (duo?) in Idaho and Montana and other remote destinations.
As we talked, Mayor Gene McGee took the mic and addressed the crowd. "Mayor," as everyone calls him, is quite the legend. He's held the town's highest office since 1989. The complex at Colony Park was his idea, and everyone I met credited him with the area's livability and affluence. The environment is one of his passions, and Ridgeland's been named a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation since 2008 and is the #1 recycler in Mississippi. His town is also a Bronze level bicycle-friendly community.
Mayor McGee is the driving force behind Ridgeland's cycling status. This guy is a bike nut, to say the least. He's up at 4:30am daily and out on the trails, riding 7,000 miles every year. Essentially, he rides from Maine to California and back with a few hundred miles to spare. Every. Year. His philosophy is that you grow older, but you don't have to be old. "A lot of people make themselves old," I heard him say a couple of times over the weekend. And he is certainly not old, although he did ask that if someone finds him in a ditch the next morning, to please pause his Garmin.
By the time I left Pelican Cove Grill it was raining, and it soon became a torrential downpour. When I arrived at Seafood R'evolution I sat in my car while the sky dumped buckets. I finally gave up waiting for Mother Nature to calm down and dashed into the restaurant, shaking water from my ill-chosen fleece.
I suppose I could have gone back to the hotel and ordered a pizza or something, but Seafood R'evolution is a partnership between Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramanto. Despite years of living in and covering Chicago, I had never eaten in one of Tramanto's restaurants. Dining at this specific restaurant was even more important when I learned that the two chefs worked together to feed evacuees and rescuers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and both their New Orleans and Ridgeland restaurants were a result of the friendship that grew during those efforts.
When I sat down at the bar, I was greeted by a chatty drag queen with the best eyebrows I've ever seen who told me I absolutely had to get the crab beignets and the Gulf shrimp and grits.
Before we go any further - yes. My bartender, in Mississippi, was a drag queen. This is not what I expected. This was my stereotypes slapping me in the face and yelling at me to take out my own garbage. My assumption, before this wonderful revelation, was that LGBQT would be hidden, yet here was one glorious, garrulous, G Q and maybe T who was out and proud in the heart of the South.
His personality was sparkling and his recommendations were perfect.
I ate all the beignets, half the grits, and drank the suggested Pinot Noir pairing. The rain continued. My new friends from Naperville popped in for dessert, and we waited out the flood warnings. Eventually the rain slowed and I made it back to the hotel and collapsed for the night, astounded by my first day and anticipating the next.
The trouble with staying in a really comfortable hotel bed is that you don't want to get up, especially when it's cold and drizzly. But, I did, and as soon as I got to the kick-off for that day's tandem rally I was immediately ashamed of my reticence. Here I was bundled up in my now-dry fleece and wishing for an umbrella, and they were going to ride their bikes for 45 miles, led by Mayor McGee, and they were happy about it! Those intrepid cyclists warmed my cold, wet heart and after they pedaled off, I drove towards Jackson and a day of awe.
Ridgeland is a suburb of the state's capital, so my destinations were only about fifteen minutes away. The first stop was the Mississippi Museum of Art in downtown Jackson. It's a free complex that includes an art garden as well as the museum building itself. My visit coincided with an exhibit that illustrated what I'd begun to understand about this state.
Picturing Mississippi: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise "commemorates and celebrates the 200th anniversary of statehood for Mississippi, admitted to the Union on December 10, 1817, as the 20th state." The short explanation is that the exhibit displays the history of Mississippi through art, but that doesn't begin to describe its impact. Seeing the evolution, devolution, and resurrection of the state through the eyes and skill of artists increases understanding beyond just looking at paintings on a wall. From artifacts from the original inhabitants, to the natural beauty depicted by Europeans, through the devastation of the civil war, to the struggle of reconstructionism followed by the battles of the civil rights movement, Mississippi's Plenty, Pain, and Promise are hung front and center.
As I wandered the galleries, it struck me that these were first person accounts of each time period, the original photojournalism. There were pieces on loan from seventy-one museums, private collections, and galleries around the country including the National Gallery of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and each piece was a representation of Mississippi at that moment in time. They even had one of Audubon's earliest oils, a landscape of Natchez, that he painted during his itinerant years. It's an idyllic scene that, while skillful, is contrasted with the expertise he exhibited in later works.
What was even more striking than the art itself were the stories they told as they progressed through time. There was no shirking or sugar-coating slavery or the sharecropping that followed. This part of Mississippi's past was presented without filter. I was in awe, but this was nowhere near what I'd feel later that day.
I entered the introductory theater at the Museum of Mississippi History after a brief wait in the entrance. I could have waited much longer, because one wall was lined with interactive screens depicting artifacts that could be found inside the museum. One touch, and the screen in the middle of each pane changed to show information about that object. It's a brilliant introduction of the exhibits found beyond the theater's doors.
When it was time to enter, the other museum-goers and I sat around the "fire." In the center of the darkened room was a topsy, lopsided column of televisions with burning "embers" around the base. The film began, and Morgan Freeman's voice told the story of Mississippi.
Like the exhibit at the museum of art, this was no white-washed, literally or figuratively, recounting of the state's past. It's entitled "One Mississippi — Many Stories," and Freeman, a Mississippi native, took us through them in a 9-minute glimpse into what makes this state so complex. It began with the Paleo-Indian times 13,000 years before, to the Mound Builders (I saw some of their work later in my journey), the arrival of the Europeans, removal of the original inhabitants to remote lands, secession, Civil War, Reconstruction, to today, the video was a teaser for what was inside.
The museum goes beyond your typical glass-housed artifacts. Visitors step back several millennia and are led forward to the present day through a series of life-size dioramas and engaging exhibits. It's masterfully done, and you can tell that the designers put a considerable amount of effort into creating a learning experience that will stay with visitors long after they leave. These are not easy stories, but they need to be told, and the Museum of Mississippi History does an exquisite job.
Perhaps the hardest story, and one that is still unfolding, is that of slavery and the fight for civil rights. It's so intertwined with Mississippi's past and present that an entire museum dedicated to this difficult subject was opened simultaneously with the history museum.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is located in the same building and is made up of "eight interactive galleries that show the systematic oppression of black Mississippians and their fight for equality that transformed the state and nation."
The entrance is a timeline, offering an introduction to the slave trade that fueled the South's economy. There are panels with the names of slave ships and accounts documenting the number of captives who boarded - and the number who arrived. It's horrifying to read how easily deaths were dismissed.
"The Neride also came with two hundred and thirty-eight Africans... remainder of three hundred and fifty who sailed from Angola."
In the next gallery, a row of columns lists lynchings in Mississippi, including dates, names, and alleged crimes. People were searching the names for those they recognized, and I overheard a tour guide say that one of the museum's employees found a relative's name. A female visitor found her uncle's name.
This is difficult and extraordinarily painful, and some people turn around and leave. It's too hard to see this much evil. But, the tour guide also said, look at the end of the hall. In the center of the museum is a circular gallery filled with light. The gallery, called This Little Light of Mine, is "to show you it does get better," he said. "There is light at the end of the tunnel."
The subsequent galleries move through the struggles, and successes, of the Civil Rights Movement. A side-by-side schoolroom illustrates how separate-but-equal was not. Signs dictating the rights of blacks vs. white are hung in an alcove. Story after story, headline after headline, it's a deluge of the life-and-death battles that took place over decades, and it's not over yet.
This is an important museum. It is a vital museum. It is a painful, and painfully necessary museum.
Every single American needs to visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Multiple people in Ridgeland had urged me to visit these museums. They wanted me to see that Mississippi, the Mississippi that they love and call home, is aware of its past, dedicated to remembering it, and learning from it. I returned to Ridgeland with a newfound appreciation. What I thought was going to be a simple weekend of "Art, Wine, and Wheels," had become an educational and eye-opening experience.
I skipped lunch in my thirst for understanding, so I stopped in for a quick pie at Soulshine Pizza Factory. The Ridgeland location is one of three, and even though it was mid-afternoon, the place was packed. Friends were lined up at the bar and went back and forth with neighbors seated at the tables. I'm pretty sure I was the only person who wasn't local, and that is always a good sign.
As was The Mississippian, a chicken-bacon-barbecue-smoked mozzarella pizza just for me:
After a quick trip to TownePlace Suites to get gussied up for the evening and store the rest of my pizza in the refrigerator, I ventured back to Renaissance at Colony Park for the Santé South Wine Festival. It was still raining now and then, so the fest was moved inside, and I queued up with the VIPs.
I learned two more things about Mississippians at this fest:
- They are politely impatient. "Well, I'm not happy about this line, but I suppose we'll get in soon enough." "Is that Bob at the front? He better save some for us!" While they most certainly didn't like waiting in line, they were quite jovial about it.
- They are BRAVE. I’ve never seen so much white at a wine tasting - and I'm not talking about pinot gris. White dresses, white blouses, white shirts, white couches. Yes, they even had white couches! Here I was dressed in black from head-to-toe and they're all basically daring the red wine to drip.
As was the food and the drink. Local restaurants brought their best bites and distributors and wineries from around the country offered tastes of bottled heaven. A Dixieland trio provided entertainment as we dined on porkbelly tacos, shrimp ceviche, and lollipop lamb chops and sipped on Lucien Albrecht Brut, Talley Chardonnay, and A to Z's Essence Pinot Noir.
The brave souls in white must have rubbed off on me, because I made it through the night without spilling a drop.
Sunday dawned bright and blue, and after a breakfast awards ceremony for the Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival, I took a quick peek at the Natchez Trace Parkway before meeting Captain Jason on his boat, Sweet Olive.
Surprisingly, considering the Barnett Reservoir has 105 miles of shoreline and over two million people visit it every year, there had been no recreational tour boats on its waters until Captain Jason launched Sweet Olive Tour Boat in October, 2017. "If you don't have a boat, there's really not a lot to do," he said. So, he fixed that.
It was rather windy when we chatted. He explained that because Mississippi is so flat, and the reservoir so shallow, when winds come up from the gulf they create some powerful chop and we weren't able to go out. The Sweet Olive is not exactly aerodynamic and there's a danger of being bullied by gusts. Captain Jason should know; he's a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed 100-Ton rated Master Captain.
If you're there on a calmer day (and most of them during the summer would be), he offers public tours as well as private charters. He's got plans for wine tastings, microbrewery tastings, and working with nursing and retirement homes to bring their residents out for a cruise. He gave me a taste of the trivia and history he shares as well.
I have only one regret from my trip to Ridgeland, and that was that I couldn't experience a Captain Jason's tours (and hang out with his unofficial mascot, Gordon) for myself.
(Make that two regrets: that I couldn't stay longer.)
I spent many weekends of my childhood in a van with crates of paintings stacked behind me. I'd cleaned the glass protecting many of those paintings, and had helped put together several of the frames. My dad, you see, was an artist, and a few times a year he'd take us all with him when he went to art fairs.
As a child, it was great fun and introduced me to a life few of my friends would experience. As an artist, it can be... challenging. You have to pick and choose which fairs will be the most rewarding; you have to enter and hope you'll be accepted; if you are chosen to exhibit, there's a fee. Once you're there, you set up your booth, display your work, and pray for art fans with a budget and weather with a sunny outlook.
After the rain on Saturday, awakening to sunshine on Sunday was a relief. My dad may not truck his talent across the country any more, but I will always empathize with the talented artists who do.
The exhibitors at Ridgeland Fine Arts Festival were most certainly talented. This juried fair draws artists from as far away as Connecticut and Colorado. 2018 was the 10th year for the fest, and a few artists had been exhibiting since the beginning. Strolling the brick-lined streets, I was impressed by the quality of the works. Each artist was unique, and frequent fair-goers know that variation is often hard to find.
With live music from two stages and blue skies overhead, art fans browsed and bought. Those pieces will have significance to their new owners, because the people who brought them home made a connection with the artists who created them.
Dinner that night would be at the restaurant that had served pork belly tacos at the Santé South Wine Fest. While I was drooling at the thought, I had one more stop to make.
When you find out there's a UNESCO World Heritage Site less than two hours from your current location, you go, right? At least, I did.
Bonus: it was in another state. Boom! Louisiana - check.
It was already after 3 in the afternoon when I left Ridgeland. I drove a portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway, resisting the pull of the historical markers that lined the route. I was headed towards Poverty Point National Monument, and since they closed at 5pm I didn't have a moment to spare. One of the more recent sites to receive a UNESCO designation, it was added in 2014 because of the 3,400 year old earthworks. When I reached the park, I had just enough time to use the ladies room, pay my $4 fee, drive to Mound A, and climb to the top.
Looking out from my 72' perch, the sheer magnitude was humbling. 3,400 years ago, give or take a few centuries, people carried 390,000 tons - TONS - of dirt in baskets to build a mound that's still standing. Archeologists believe the mound was built in as quickly as 90 days. It's almost taken me that long to write this article! (Not really, but 90 days, to build a mound of that size by hand? Phenomenal.) If the trees hadn't been in the way, I could have seen six concentric arcs that formed an earthen amphitheater.
After a few minutes, a Ranger drove up, walked to the base of the mound, and waited patiently for me to descend. As he walked with me back to our cars he talked about how remarkable it was that these mounds were built by a hunter-gatherer society. I mentioned Cahokia in Illinois and he scoffed. "That was much, much later! They didn't build theirs for another 2,000 years!" His pride exemplified one of the reasons National Parks are a National Treasure.
He followed me until I made my way back to reality. I had been there all of fifteen minutes and, by the time I got back to Ridgeland, had driven a total of 3 hours and 40 minutes.
It was worth it.
When I got back to the hotel I had just enough time to walk the block to Sombra Mexican Kitchen and meet Kelly Mott, Director of Communications + Digital Marketing for the Ridgeland Tourism Commission. We talked some about my experience that weekend, especially how it was little of what I had expected. I thought it would be a light-hearted romp, and it ended up being so much more.
Kelly'd gone to school with an exhibitor at the art fair and he and another artist joined us. We sipped on margaritas, dined on tamales, laughed and talked and forged friendships.
Much of my weekend in Ridgeland had been solo, but there were moments like that dinner when I had the opportunity to interact with others. Zack with the impressive eyebrows on Friday, my wine-sipping companions from the night before, my dinner friends at Sombra - all were warm and inviting, and I felt embraced by their hospitality.
I packed up the next morning, excited to return home to see my husband, but also sad to be leaving. There's so much I didn't get a chance to experience. I made one last stop at M7 Coffee House in downtown Ridgeland. The "M" is for Moorehead and the "7" is for Mr. and Mrs. and their five children. It's a charming place with a gnome garden on its large patio. It's also close enough to the airport that my white chocolate and lavender latte was still warm by the time I returned the rental car.
Visiting a new place is more than just checking a destination off a list, and Ridgeland, Mississippi, reminded me of one of the most important reasons to travel. Stepping into a place, exploring its past, and meeting its present expand understanding. You realize that people and places can't be pigeonholed. Every time I've left home, I've found friends and created new memories that I'll cherish. Most importantly, I become a better person, because travel makes me confront the stereotypes I hold and let them go.
Thank you, Ridgeland, for sharing so much more than Southern Hospitality.
Click here to learn more about Ridgeland, Mississippi, and plan your own trip.