It took all of about ten minutes to realize that Jackson was not going to be one of our typical touristy sightseeing stops. And that was fine with us! We chose to stop in Jackson because we had never been to Mississippi, but we had no plans and we weren’t totally sure what there even was to do in Jackson. Our host (let’s call him “Bob”), confirmed that there in fact wasn’t a whole lot, and he seemed more than willing to spend all kinds of time with us, teaching us about life in the rural South.
Bob lives outside of Jackson in a small, cozy cabin on a 140 acre ranch with a lake and woods and an impossibly starry sky. We could tell we were off to an interesting start when he offered us some homemade moonshine. It was too strong for Stephanie, but once the ice started to melt in it, it had a delicious black cherry flavor. He then took us outside to see his homemade still. Seriously cool! (If any law enforcement agents are reading this, then none of the last three sentences are true.)
The next day started off like any good day in the South with homemade cheesy grits. In the South, you might say, “So good, it’ll make you wanna slap yo’ mammy!” What really made the day interesting was that we set out on a squirrel hunt. That’s right – I went hunting. Can’t you just picture me – a total suburbanite/Northerner, heading out with my 20 gauge shotgun? It was one of many in Bob’s collection. If that wasn’t too much of a stretch, now picture me sitting silently under a tree without moving or talking for an hour. THAT was the hard part.
As we walked along the grounds of the ranch, he pointed out trees where the deer had rubbed their horns to mark their territory, gaps in the barbed wire fencing where coyotes had snuck in (as evidenced by the tufts of fur trapped in the barbed wire), and even a cow skeleton – picked clean and bleaching in the sun. I saved a rib because, you know – cow rib. How cool is that? It was clear that Bob really knows how to live off the land. I have a lot of respect for that, because I know I couldn’t do it.
I did get an appreciation for nature around me as I waited for a squirrel to wander into my line of sight. I could actually hear the flapping of bird wings as they flew all around. I could hear cows mooing in the distance. I even sat still as I slowly lost circulation in my leg, but to no avail. After an hour, it was clear that the squirrels were done for the morning. Bob assured me they would be back in the afternoon, and that we could bag one then. “You’re not leaving until you murder something,” he told me.
Stephanie and I passed the time by going to check out some of the local sights. We went to the swinging bridge – so named because it swings like crazy when something drives over it. It’s out of commission now, but we walked across it, looking down through large holes in the rotting boards. I could even make it swing a tiny bit by jumping on it. We also did a brief tour of downtown Jackson checking out the old and new capitol buildings and the courthouse, among other sites.
Later that afternoon, back at the house, the squirrels did indeed come out to play. Regrettably for them, one of them sat still just a little too long. A crack from Bob’s .22, and one lay at the bottom of the tree he had been perched in. What do you do with a dead squirrel? Why the same thing you do with other small game – clean it, cook it and eat it.
While Stephanie stayed safely inside, Bob took me step by step through everything I will ever need to know about skinning, cleaning and gutting a squirrel. I couldn’t get closer than about five feet to the whole process, and I think he took great delight in trying to gross me out with the details. I won’t do the same to you, but I will say that I was surprised by the relative lack of blood, as well as by how weird it is to hold a skinless-still warm squirrel. (I love saying that bit to Stephanie over and over again.)
Once cleaned, we soaked and salted it (to make it kosher of course,) and then it was cookin’ time. Finally, we were in my area of expertise. A little sage, some basil, rosemary, salt and pepper, and we had some pan fried squirrel-y goodness. Stephanie and I did eat it, and it does taste like chicken, albeit a little tougher.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Bob’s ranch also has a full-blown woodshop on site where they make custom windows and doors. It was this shop that he used to make his beautiful countertops. While we were marveling at them, he told us it was easier than we might imagine, and so out we all trooped to make a cutting board. Bob dug up some mahogany scraps which we cut to size, and under Bob’s guidance, we glued, sanded and oiled ourselves a new cutting board.
Jackson turned out to be one of our most memorable stops. We had so many experiences that we never expected and will never forget, and THAT is the whole point of this journey.