Page 30 - 2013_winter.indd

This warmth seemed to permeate every-
thing, from the openness of the locals to
the unseasonably tropical weather and
lush foliage bursting along the Trace that
early March weekend. Riding the trail
felt like strolling through a botanical
garden—dogwood, sassafras, persim-
mon, American red oak, sweetbay
magnolia, hawthorn, tung, swamp
cyrilla and, of course, longleaf pine.
Though they no longer dominate the
natural landscape, the longleaf pine trees
played a significant role in the history
of southern Mississippi. Today, their
story is preserved in the name of the
famous trail that replaced the Pearl and
Leaf Rivers Railroad that first hauled the
longleaf away.
I began my Longleaf excursion where
most do, at the Hattiesburg Gateway
at the southeastern end. (Matching the
original rail corridor, this is mile marker
Plans are afoot to extend the trail
three miles farther east to the original
terminus in downtown Hattiesburg.)
Busy with casual walkers and jogging
students from the nearby University
of Southern Mississippi, this well-used
urban stretch has more walls and fences
than wildlife. But diverse flora soon
replace the city, and by mile four or five
the songbirds of Mississippi ring out as
the countryside rolls by.
At mile marker 12, the Denbury
Beaver Pond, complete with three-tiered
viewing deck and picnic tables, is a good
place to pull up and appreciate the sur-
roundings. A boardwalk will soon be
built around the sensitive wetland area
to promote bird and wildlife watching.
The ups and downs of the Longleaf
Trace are noticeable but not strenuous,
and for the next six or seven miles the
trail winds in and out of strands of for-
est, revealing broad pastures and country
homes. The trail managers have put a lot
of effort into accommodating equestrian
users (golf carts, too, are allowed on the
trail, as long as drivers follow a strict
code of conduct), and a parallel horse
track follows on one side, then the other.
Though the lush foliage is a feature
of the trail, the small towns are its stars.
The Trace approaches them like a weary
traveler and is greeted like a welcome
neighbor; somehow the trail has inher-
ited the spirit of the trains that passed
through these same settlements in a
different time.
In the town of Sumrall, ancient oak
and magnolia trees line the streets. From
the trail you can spot the Old Sumrall
Jail, a National Historic Register-listed
building that hosted America’s first all-
female jury in 1921.
Beyond the established towns, traces
of the area’s milling past are visible in
the ruins of logging camps and rusted
machinery. In Bassfield, the histori-
cal A.F. Carraway Store, a Mississippi
icon, is one of the few places away from
the trail’s end points to get groceries. I
camped a night in Bassfield beside John
Kerley’s horse stables and, walking the
streets after dark, the sharp shadows
from the lampposts and the smell of a
small town reminded me of roaming the
quiet streets of my childhood.
Camping is allowed at a primitive
clearing beside the trail, just south of
Carson. But if you’re looking to pitch
a tent, I’d recommend pushing ahead
another four miles. There, a connecting
path—Mayor Blount’s Contrail—will
take you a mile or so to Jeff Davis Lake
scheduled to reopen in summer 2013),
a great spot to fish, swim, cook and camp.
From there you are only two miles
from Prentiss, the northern end point.
This was one of my favorite sections
of the ride—tall trees creating a loom-
ing archway over the trail and the long
wooden bridge crossing Jaybird Creek.
Pedaling into Prentiss, I saw signs of a
more timeworn history: a small house
by the trail swallowed by vines, and the
remains of the Prentiss Institute, once one
of the South’s most prestigious African-
American schools. Its ruins are a compel-
ling sight on the approach to Prentiss.
In Prentiss, I followed a local recom-
mendation to Ward’s Restaurant down
the highway. One of the best things about
riding 80-plus miles in two days is you
can savor every bite of a Mississippi-style
bacon-biscuit breakfast without fretting
about the calories. Over coffee, I chatted
with a few local fellas about the Trace, the
weather of late, the details of a funeral
in Bassfield that weekend. I left an hour
later, ready to retrace my steps back to
Hattiesburg, nourished in more ways
than one.
Popular with
equestrians, the trail
features a parallel horse
track along much of its
route—and construction
is under way to extend
the equestrian sections.
Long, straight stretches of the Longleaf Trace
are popular with local cyclists; (below left) the
trailhead in Prentiss has restrooms, covered
gazebos and plenty of nice spots to sit and relax.