Note: This is the first part of a series to chronicle a hike across the Mississippi Gulf Coast by four friends over several weeks.
“They be your women?” Charlie and I thought the young man standing along the side of the road twenty yards in front had said to us.
“What?” I asked.
“They be your women?” we thought we heard again, apparently referring to our wives who were following us several paces back as we walked down a country road and approached the Mississippi coastal town of Moss Point.
“Yeah, they be our women!” My friend Charlie announced with his head held high, and his chest puffed out.
I discretely elbowed Charlie in the side and whispered to him that he was going to get us killed. The four of us, Charlie, Gail, Marcia, and I, were on our first leg of a plan to walk across the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Alabama to Louisiana borders, a distance of about 80 miles. This was Gail’s idea to embark on this challenge, and the rest of us naively agreed. We would break up the hike into ten to twelve-mile sections and hike the distance over several weeks.
Earlier that day, we had started our journey in the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge near the Alabama state line. The first several miles took us down quiet roads, through hardwood wetlands, and by an alligator farm. We passed grand country homes nestled under ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. However, as we traveled west, our course brought us to East Moss Point, a community that had fallen lately on hard times, especially after the closure of the local paper mill. We started to see ramshackle homes along the road, some with large barking dogs chained to trees. The neighborhood had definitely changed for the worse. Moss Point had recently made the news for its increasing violent crime, drug problems, and a police force that had been rocked by scandal and unstable leadership.
A car slowed down behind us as we continued to walk down the street, and the driver asked what we were doing. After explaining our intention to walk across the Coast, he told us – what we were already starting to realize – this was not a safe part of town. “Ya’ll be careful,” he said before driving off.
Charlie and I approached the young man along the side of the road whom we thought had asked about our “women.” He wore a grey “hoodie” pulled up over his head and down over the waistband of his black sweatpants. Knock-off Air Jordans completed his look.
“No, not your women,” he said, responding to Charlie’s statement. “Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses?” he asked again with a confused look on his face, wondering why four middle-aged hikers with Tilley hats and North Face jackets were wandering through the hood.
“No, we’re just passing through,” I said, trying not to escalate the situation. I had seen this scene before on TV: the hooded thug pulls a gun from the small of his back and relieves the wayward hikers of their wallets, pistol whips the women, then fires off a few caps in their direction as he escapes down a side street. I fingered my two-inch folding knife in my front pocket as we talked, thinking how ridiculous it was to believe I could actually protect myself, Charlie, and our “women” from this man if he chose to mug us.
Fortunately, the young man was just curious, and we passed without incident. Our car was parked three miles ahead at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and we quickened the pace. The neighborhood started to improve as we made our way into downtown Moss Point with sore feet and bruised pride. We would have to plan the next leg of our journey more carefully.
Total distance: 9.8 miles.