Theories of Time and Space
By Natasha Trethewey
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return
I’ve never been further north on U.S. Highway 49 than Jackson, Mississippi, but I have driven the stretch from Jackson to its beginning in Gulfport, Mississippi, too many times to count. North of Jackson at the junction of US 49 and U.S. Route 61, was where blues singer Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil. But it is Gulfport that I am more familiar with because it used to be a short drive down to the beach when I wanted to get away from the stresses of graduate school. I’ve walked those man-made beaches and taken the boat out to Ship Island to see Fort Massachusetts. If you are ever in Gulfport, or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for that matter, you’ll probably be there for the casinos, but you really should go out to Ship Island and take a picnic lunch, explore the fort, and lounge on the beach on the south side of the island.
The first time I went to Ship Island, I remember standing on top of Fort Massachusetts and feeling history come alive. Having the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River, the island served as a vital anchorage for ships bearing explorers, colonists, sailors, soldiers, defenders and invaders. The French, Spanish, British, Confederate and Union flags have all flown over Ship Island. French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville charted Ship Island on 10 February 1699, which he used as a base of operations in discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River. The island served as a point of immigration to French colonies in the New World.
In the War of 1812, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane anchored between Ship Island and Cat Island with a fleet of fifty British warships and 7,500 soldiers in preparations for the Battle of New Orleans and the island was used as a launching point for British forces. I remember standing on top of Fort Massachusetts and it was almost like I could see the fifty British warships as they prepared to attack New Orleans nearly 200 years before. It was one of those magical moments historians sometimes have. We are standing in a historical place and suddenly we are transported back to a significant moment. The present world disappears and the world of the past emerges before your eyes.
“Everywhere you go will be somewhere you’ve never been.” So if you ever find yourself in Jackson, Mississippi, try heading down U.S Highway 49 through Hattiesburg and past the beautiful campus of the University of Southern Mississippi down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, hop on the boat out to Ship Island and let another world take you over.