By Charlie Mitchell
Every state, no doubt, has iconic places. Mississippi certainly does.
Not all are as photogenic as, say, The Square in Oxford or The Grove at Ole Miss. What all have in common is that people who find themselves at such places sense something unique. Objectively, the places are nothing more than dots on the planet. In terms of longitude and latitude, there’s nothing distinctive about them. Still, we all know them.
One is just north of the I-59 interchange with U.S. 49 in Hattiesburg. There’s a cluster of gas stations there – Shell, Stuckey’s, Dandy Dan’s – and nothing else of much interest. Once it was a place noted for price wars and cheap fuel, but those days are gone. Today it’s just a crossroads, but one that stands out in people’s minds. Up the highway there’s that place with all the used fire trucks, ambulances and aerial apparatus. That’s an icon, too.
Of course, there’s the real crossroads, too. Way up in the Delta at Clarksdale, U.S. 49 crosses U.S. 61 – the Blues Highway – at a weird angle.
Weirdness, by legend, took place there or at some nearby, unidentified crossroads, when Robert Johnson – an icon of music – sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar greatness.
Natchez Under-The-Hill is an iconic place. It’s seen bad days and good and now is most frequently visited because it’s the berthing place for a casino boat. The history there is real, palpable. The temperature even drops during the descent from the bluff down to the edge of the Mississippi River because Big Muddy always cools the surrounding air.
In terms of roads, there’s probably no more iconic location than Malfunction Junction at Mississippi State University. Now obliterated by the forces of progress, the design of roads leading in and out of the west side of one of America’s greatest engineering schools was best known for being poorly engineered. Starkville and MSU regulars had, of course, figured out keys to navigating the maze, but because universities always have lots of visitors, the snarls there were second-to-none.
Moving south all the way to Jackson, there’s Waterworks Curve on Interstate 55. Anyone who has ever navigated this half-mile of highway remembers it.
And further South, there’s the spot where U.S. 49 forms a T with U.S. 90 in Gulfport. Anyone who grew up in this state and ever went on a vacation or to a meeting on the Gulf Coast remembers arriving at that intersection with joy, especially if the ride had started in Greenville or Cleveland or Tupelo. At long last, there it was: The Beach. Marineland, an early incarnation of Sea World with dolphins and seals (but without killer whales), was almost straight ahead. Turn left toward Biloxi and there were the boats that made – and still make – daily runs to Ship Island.
The main entrance to the fairgrounds in Neshoba County is another Mississippi icon, as is the pavilion where stump speaking has been an art form for many generations.
Icons that seem to appear suddenly are no less iconic. One is in Claiborne County. Mississippi 552 west of Lorman is a typical rural highway with trees, pastures and frame houses. Not a lot of signs other than those with directions to churches. No billboards. Then, bang – there’s Alcorn State University.
Similarly, travel north from Tunica on U.S. 61 toward Memphis and farm fields extend to the horizon left and right. Row after row of cotton, soybeans or corn and then, bang – there’s a 31-story hotel with gleaming gold-mirrored windows. It’s at Gold Strike, one of the county’s nine casinos.
On Mississippi 28 between Georgetown and Pinola there’s an icon of a different type. For about a mile of the roadway, near the bridge over the Strong River, there’s a canopy over the road formed by towering trees.
Although it’s new, Trustmark Park is an icon. So is the gate to the famed Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. A lot of people take pictures of their children at Trustmark Park. If their children go to Parchman, the state takes a couple of photos – one straight on and one in profile.
The Biloxi lighthouse is an icon. And the state Capitol is an icon, especially impressive when viewed from a safe distance while passing on I-20 or I-55.(An iconic aspect of how Mississippians talk is that it’s still called the “new capitol” although it has been used for 107 years.)
The census, now under way, will offer an official number of citizens of this state. The total will top 3 million, and if each of us compiled a state icon list it’s likely no two would be exactly alike.
Compile your own Top 10. Share with your friends. It won’t change the world. Just something to do.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.