The Southern Highpoint Tour of 2012
Britton Hill, Florida, 345 ft.
April 29th, 2012
The Great Southern Tour Redux
Last year Martha and I joined the High Pointers Club – a group whose members set as a goal visiting the high points of all 50 states. High pointing includes climbing a lot of great mountains, but also a lot of small hills scattered across states not normally noted for such things. Hitting the high points of all 50 states requires a fair amount of training and experience as a mountaineer (and some luck on Denali), but ultimately the quest needs to be about more than just climbing. This is really getting out and getting to see America from other than a fly-over perspective. We started this quest last year, and started this trip with the count at 22, with the prospect for 5 more during the second and final edition of the Great Southern Tour – and no threat from avalanches to worry about.
The objectives this year are simple – the highpoints of FL, LA, AR, MS, and MO. Kickoff for this year’s tour is Britton Hill, located 40 miles outside Panama City Beach Florida. Martha found us a bed at the Choctaw Lodge on the Choctawhatchee River in the town of Ponce de Leon about halfway there. We had no idea what this place was all about, but it got great reviews on Trip Adviser, and we decided to give it a shot.
We stopped for dinner at the Bruce Cafe in the eponymous town. We are both devotees of American Diners, and this one gets 3.5 stars – a very good rating – good food, great prices, and terrific ambience. It was full of local people having dinner, and closed at 7:00 – time that decent folk were at home and in bed.
The Bruce Café
Down 4 miles of bad road to the banks of the Choctawhatchee River we landed at the Choctaw Lodge, owned and operated by the delightful couple, Ron and Kathryn Hardy. This area drains a huge part of the State of Alabama, and one inch of rain in Alabama produces one foot of flood in Ponce de Leon. As a consequence the area floods prodigiously, and all of the houses are built on stilts or up on the bluffs further up the river. The guest house that we had was more like a weekend home – which Ron and Kathryn used it for before moving from Panama City Beach full-time and building their new home next door.
Our bungalow at Choctaw Lodge
The Hardy’s are self-described river rats, and live with a menagerie that includes two labs – Grace and Annie – a blood hound and the neighbor’s pet pig, Boris. Ron is a fellow hunter, harvesting much of their meat locally, and an accomplished naturalist with a tremendous knowledge of the flora and fauna of the river. Before his “retirement” he owned and operated the largest dive operation in the US, out of Panama City Beach. After a restful night’s sleep, we headed out on the river with Ron, Annie and Grace for an hour’s tour beginning at 7:00 am.
The tour was equal parts naturalist and local color. We saw 9-10 snowy egrets, a few heron and had a chance to head through the canals into a couple of the natural lakes that make up part of the drainage system. This area is part of thousands of acres of wildlife conservation preserve, and it showed in the wildlife – I’m a huge fan.
Of the local characters, the most compelling is Johnny Savage, a local boy who made good and went on to get a DDS, LLD, and served as a state legislator. He is now 77, can still do 20 chin-ups and has a vibrant dental practice overlooking the river. It has no waiting room, to facilitate conversation between Johnny, and waiting patients and, presumably, the patient himself, as circumstances permit. Johnny, together with Ron and several other guys play poker in a tree house three days a week – presumably so that inadvertent floods will not interrupt the game.
Annie and Grace on the River Tour
A snowy egret
Sun up on the Choctawhatchee River
After a delightful breakfast of eggs benedict – one of two treats I never get at home – we bade goodbye to Ron and Kathryn to let them prepare for their departure to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. They guide tours to Africa for photo safaris, and this will be their 20th trip. Ron and Kathryn were terrific hosts, with a wonderful home. This is a 5 star + experience and makes a trip to the lowest high point in the US – Britton Hill Florida – a worthwhile undertaking.
Big sign, no elevation – Britton Hill Florida
Proud success at the summit
Leaving Britton Hill, we headed East on I 10 and made our way cross country to Vicksburg to tour the battleground and spend the night at another B&B, Ahern’s Belle of the Bends. We vastly enjoyed the drive across Mississippi, having some great fried oysters along the way, and enjoyed the company of the Spirit riders Bike Club, with whom we traveled for almost 45 miles on routes 98 and 49. These guys were serious about their bikes and had done this before – it was a tightly choreographed performance and a lot of fun to watch.
Traveling up close & personal with The Spirit Riders
Vicksburg was home to one of the two great battles the concluded around the 4th of July in 1863 – the other being Gettysburg. The battle was a 45 + day siege campaign waged by Generals US Grant and WT Sherman against Confederate forces led by General John Pemberton. Like all of the siege campaigns waged by Grant, this was relentless, overwhelming and merciless. The tour of the battlefield was awe inspiring and the state monuments were exceptional. It is amazing to think of the amount of state treasure represented by these colossal monuments – particularly when compared to the virtual total lack of corresponding efforts today – even at the national level.
Union gun emplacements with the Michigan Memorial in the background
The Illinois Memorial – remembering the 36,000 who served from that State
Vicksburg battlefield at Sunset
We did a one hour tour at sunset – a particularly poignant time of day for such an undertaking. Most impactful was the tour of the Union Cemetery – the Confederate dead were all buried in the city cemeteries. The Cemetery is absolutely beautiful – on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. The Federal Act providing for National Cemeteries was passed late in the War, and the dead, who had been buried pretty much where they had fallen, were moved to the new National Cemetery at Vicksburg; with tall stones for the identified dead, and short stones for those known only to God. The short stones outnumbered the tall ones by at least 4:1.
Adios from Vicksburg