Last time I made my way to Vicksburg, Mississippi, despite getting lost. Having finally arrived, it’s time to spend few days resting…
Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012) continued
After nearly 100 miles of pedaling I was pretty beat. If my hosts had simply given me a shower and a bed I would’ve been grateful enough. But I was in for a hell of a welcome party.
Roommates Carla and Ryan were avid Couchsurfing hosts. Both worked as scientists in a large government research center located in Vicksburg. Due to this facility, the city has a huge population of researchers and intellectuals, and also tends to lean liberal. That means there was a lot of great conversation.
A second Couchsurfer had also arrived that day, but this one from Germany. She was something of a riddle: her name, Katya, is actually Russian, and when she opened her mouth to speak I thought I’d been misinformed and she was actually Scottish. Her English was flawless, but so was the Scots accent, and I gingerly asked where she was from. She’s German all the way, but had studied for years in Edinburgh.
Carla, for her part, was Puerto Rican while Ryan rounded out the group as a Southern white boy.
I was barely in the door before they handed me drinks: red wine in one hand and sips of various microbrew beers in the other. Beer is Ryan’s passion, and when he found out my dad makes mead he popped a mead of his own for me to try. It was delicious, but I sheepishly asked if I could shower before dinner.
I should say a word about Ryan and Carla’s home. Huge and immaculate, it was the perfect place to land. The house had a guest bedroom, which had been given to Katya, and a fully furnished mother-in-law apartment over the garage where they put me. The renovation on the bathroom up there wasn’t 100% complete, and they apologized for putting me out there. The truth is I loved it. It gave me a private place to write.
Behind the house was a big yard with a firepit and a spectacular view. They were on the bluff directly over the Mississippi. That’s some valuable real estate.
By the time I cleaned up Katya was well underway cooking us a giant dinner from fresh ingredients bought that day. While we hung around the kitchen chatting Carla made heavy-handed rum and cokes with plenty of limes, explaining it was the drink of Puerto Ricans everywhere. At first I politely declined, since a long day on the bicycle means even a few drinks can have a hefty effect. But soon I gave in and joined in the revelry, learning just how strong a Puerto Rican highball really is.
I couldn’t hide the fact that I was ravenously hungry, but the conversation was so good it didn’t really matter. I pitched in and helped Katya in the kitchen. Eventually we gathered around the table for one of the finest meals I’ve eaten.
One moment paints a pretty good picture of the back and forth. As Katya told us about Germany, Carla blurted out: “Well what was the deal with Hitler? What were you guys thinking!”
Ryan and I sucked in our breath. From the little I’ve heard, World War II is still a touchy subject in Deutschland, and casually blaming today’s Germans is pretty far from polite dinner topic. But Katya almost fell out of her seat laughing.
Carla laughed too. “Puerto Ricans just say whatever we’re thinking.”
After dinner we put on music and danced until the wee hours.
Days 94 – 96 (October 8 – 10) — R&R
The group of us bonded and explored Vicksburg together. I spent daytime in my little apartment catching up on client work, which was no problem since Carla and Ryan more or less worked a regular full time schedule. Katya spent her free time jogging or going out on adventures of her own.
All I knew about Vicksburg before I visited was that some Civil War battle happened there. In fact, it’s a little more impressive: perched on high bluffs at a bend in the Mississippi, the Confederate garrison had a perfect vantage to bombard any Union vessels that tried to pass. Numerous Union attempts were made, but for the most part the city’s guns locked down the river. Vicksburg finally capitulated to Union forces on July 4th, and for many years afterward the city refused to celebrate Independence Day. To hear the locals tell it, it was actually captured several days earlier and the Union commander delayed accepting the surrender so he could do it on the Fourth of July.
Nowadays, I’m told, the holiday is celebrated like anywhere else in the country, but I’ve also heard that some diehards continue to boycott it.
The National Military Park is one of Vicksburg’s biggest attractions. One day Carla dropped us off there so we could explore while she was at work. For the most part, Katya and I went in separate directions: she wanted to jog the entire trail that circles the place, while I wanted to examine old graves.
Walking the ancient cemetery is as spooky as it should be. With graves going back to at least the early 1800s, crowded tight and decaying with moss and time, it’s a vision from a European horror story. In fact, my time wandering there helped inspire a particularly macabre fantasy game I’d later design and run for some friends. Many epitaphs featured whole poems, or personal messages from family members. The fatalistic blend of heartbreak and faith in those words struck me much harder than today’s optimistic and inspirational stanzas. One woman’s grave was inscribed with the shattering words of the man she left behind. He had lost all purpose.
In the evening we wanted to show Katya some Southern barbeque so we headed to a smokehouse overlooking the river. A few of Carla and Ryan’s friends joined us, one of them quite conservative (and not afraid to lecture us about it). At this time, Greece was going through a terrible financial crisis and had just received a huge bailout package from Germany. Assuming Katya would sympathize with his outrage, the conservative turned to her:
“What do you think about all the aid your country is giving out? You’re the most successful country in the EU and now you’re saddled giving away everything you you earned.”
Katya answered with characteristic warmth.
“I don’t mind that we give it away. I grew up with everything I needed, and was sent to a good school. I didn’t earn any of that. Now it’s made me successful. I enjoyed everything I was given, so how could I say we shouldn’t give it to others? I would feel like a hypocrite. My country gives a lot of aid to other countries, and it’s not my place to say we should stop.”
This, to me, is the ultimate condemnation of conservatism: the hypocrisy of denying to others what you yourself were given, and the conceit to say you earned it alone. Placed beside someone who views their own privilege with humility, wanting only to help others, American conservatism looks a lot like a carnival barker.
On the drive home, we went past a Sonic—the old fast food chain that still offers drive-in service. “What is Sonic?” Katya asked.
Ryan tried to explain it, but the concept only made Katya more confused.
“But… you cannot eat there?”
“Sure, I think they have an inside too.”
“So it’s like a drive through?”
“No, they bring out the food so you eat it in your car, but you eat it right there.”
“But why not just eat inside?”
The vision of the 1950s as the Age of the Automobile, and America’s perennial obsession with cars, was completely absent from her historical lexicon (as is, I’m sure, much of Germany’s culture from mine). Katya begged that we pull in. We did—she got herself a chocolate shake, practically jumping up and down with excitement as she wrapped her head around the experience.
The next day, over Carla and Ryan’s lunch break, we met them at a local cafe within easy walking distance of their house. Ryan raved about the place’s craft beer selection, so I tried a pecan flavored brown ale (Southern Pecan by MS-based Lazy Magnolia Brewing). It immediately become a favorite. The place was so good we went back for their happy hour that night, which happened to be the venue for a weekly Craft Brew gathering.
It wasn’t all partying. I also needed to get new tire tubes, which involved navigating giant hills and busy highways to reach a strip mall on a sweltering sunny day. I also picked up a bottle of wine for my hosts and one for Katya’s goodbye party (she was leaving a day before me, as I recall) and made some basic repairs on the bike, to the amusement of neighbors.
The days in Vicksburg were more than just a happy time. They cemented my confidence in my ability to make friends and be good a good guest. My trip down the Mississippi had become a series of warm welcomes at major cities, much needed after hard days on the road, and it seemed I made a good impression at each of them. Once socially awkward, shy and more than a little selfish, I could see I had become easygoing, friendly and generally considerate. Carla and Ryan, like virtually every host before or since, insisted I extend my stay and seemed genuinely sad when I finally had to leave. This didn’t just reassure me about my social skills, it also served as a crucial touchstone with two later roommates I didn’t get along with. I could know, at least, that I didn’t need to squarely blame myself for a messy social situation.
If I wanted, I could move tomorrow to Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis or Dubuque and already have a circle of friends happy to see me arrive. That is a gift for which I am truly grateful.