When I was planning our summer, one of the things I wanted to do was take my kids to a few Mississippi places they hadn’t seen to give them more of a taste of our home state. When we scheduled our family vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama last month, I decided to tack on a few extra days at the front end for us to wander through the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
My late husband, Mike, grew up on the Gulf Coast — in Long Beach, Mississippi — and I have bittersweet memories of only a few visits we made there, and of him sharing with me some of the things he enjoyed most about it. Although the Coast is only about five hours from our home in Starkville, before this summer, I had not been back to the area since we were there together. And, that was also a few years before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
For the Mississippi leg of our vacation, we stayed in Gulf Port, but did a lot of driving and exploring from Bay St. Louis to the west, all the way across to Ocean Springs to the east before heading over to Alabama. The trip brought up a lot of emotions for me. As with many things related to their Dad, I was a little apprehensive about showing the children some of the places that hold deep memories for me. At the same time, I was also excited to show them more about the things he loved and the place he lived as a child. They were so young when he died, and sometimes I think I need to fill in more of the picture they never got to experience with Mike. Of course, with anyone visiting the Coast for the first time since Katrina, I was very curious and apprehensive again about seeing the destruction and the changes it caused — even 10 years later.
It was actually a neat and cathartic experience to return to some of the places Mike showed me in on the coast, even with some of the huge changes caused by the hurricane’s destruction. The children were most interested in the simple details rather than any of the emotions about the places, and that was about my speed too.
We visited Shelter Rock Drive. Mike grew up in a small house on that block which is adjacent to Hwy 90. Although his childhood was filled with challenges, the neighborhood was a good spot, considering his love of wildlife, fishing and so many outdoor experiences. The lot on the corner of his street and Hwy 90 stood vacant since Hurricane Camille in 1969, when the house that was originally there was destroyed. Mike told stories of climbing the live oaks that remained on the lot during his childhood. During this first time back, my biggest glimpse of the reality of Katrina’s devastation was that Shelter Rock Drive is virtually just grass plots and concrete slabs almost grown over now. Not an easy sight to see, although I knew in my head it’s what I should expect.
Aside from driving around a little, the other place we visited in Mike’s hometown was the Long Beach fishing pier. Mike and I actually fished there a few times, which you can read as mostly Mike fishing and me dropping a few casts every now and then. Mike spent a lot of his youth fishing the pier and in some of the streams like Wolf River.
The water in the Mississippi Gulf looks dirty. Mike taught me that it’s because it IS dirty. Not from lack of care, but because of the Mississippi River. The barrier islands trap water spilled into Mississippi Sound from the river and push it to shore. It makes for a “brackish” environment with its own wildlife and habitat. At least that’s my recollection of his explanation.
Mike taught me a lot of small details. And they’re all sometimes a little sketchy now…
Oleander is very pretty, but don’t ever use the stalks for a marshmallow roast because they are poisonous. The beaches on the Gulf Coast are actually man-made, and the native beaches were a lot more rocky. Deer Island almost touches the mainland in Gulf Port and he enjoyed camping there on occasion with friends. In the days before gambling was legal in Mississippi, the casino restaurant boats would sail out far enough to touch international waters in order to comply with the law. And folks on the boats tipped well. Crab cages have a trap crabs can crawl in, but not out. Crabbers drop their traps with a weight and line and come back hours later to haul in their catch. The water moccasins look just like hanging vines on Wolf Creek. “Floundering” uses this jabby thing on the end of a pole. Flounder have both their eyes on the same side of their body and if you slide your feet along the beach floor, you might stir one up. Fish from the pier really prefer live bait, but cold shrimp will do. Live bait shrimp aren’t pink. When somebody gets a hit on the pier, everybody watches him reel it in. There’s a tiny little jelly fish that washes ashore sometimes during low tide that makes the beach light up as you touch them. Pelicans fly long distances, see their prey from high up and take an amazing dive to grab it.
In our short visit to the pier, the children saw the same pelicans I did when Mike took me there. They looked across to Long Beach Harbor. They watched the daily fishermen cast out their nets with the weights on the end. I told them the same stories he told me and shared the details like I was a pro. Only, I’m not. I’m just trying to remember. The same as they are. All part of weaving together a life that only forms in our memories now.
I’m so glad we took the time to revisit Long Beach this time — the first time for the children. Like priming a pump, the first time visiting what could be a difficult place draws out the opportunity for future experiences. I’m actually excited about taking them there again, and hoping they can find some of their own special places and memories in the place their Dad called home.
Stay tuned for a few more posts to come as I share more about our visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Gulf Shores, Alabama area. We explored as many downtown areas across the coast as we could and found lots of fun places — small businesses, restored areas, museums, collections and more. Good memories!