Ask Rufus: Not seeing the forest for the trees

Ask Rufus: Not seeing the forest for the trees

Rufus Ward

Last week I helped Nancy Carpenter and Visit Columbus show our town to a German travel writer who was on a tour of Mississippi. I found his comments about Columbus and what appealed to him as a tourism asset most interesting. It was the walkways, historic vistas and slices of natural history that surround downtown or are only a short drive away.

I often hear people talk about how much Columbus lacks for things to do, and it brings to mind the old saying, “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” Our guest from Germany, who writes for newspapers with a circulation of 700,000, was amazed at how many different places for walking and exploring and being immersed in history and architecture were so close by. Over parts of two days, we walked through downtown at night, through the Southside Historic District, along part of the Riverwalk and part of a trail at Plymouth Bluff.

He also toured the Tennessee Williams House and Welcome Center. Within walking distance, he enjoyed lunch and supper from two restaurants and breakfast from a coffee shop. From the perspective of a visitor, it was a delight to find so much to see and such excellent meals all in, or within walking distance, of downtown.

As we walked downtown at night, the people we encountered were friendly and the alleyways were almost mystical. Downtown at night takes on a different appearance. Coggins Alley and the alleyway of Catfish Alley both come alive with plants and flowers illuminated by strands of lights. The patterns of old brick walls and lit up display windows reflecting the streetscape give a very different and beautiful view of the city.

A 40-minute walk through the western edge of Southside was a walk through 200 years of architectural history. There you trace the history of Columbus through houses ranging from pioneer cottages to Greek Revival mansions to Italianate villas to Victorian Queen Ann and opening the 20th Century with the Chicago School of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a priceless collection of historic architecture all together within a few blocks on the edge of downtown.

At the start of the Riverwalk, you can stroll along the banks of the Tombigbee River where steamboats once would land and people escaping enslavement would quietly pass at night on the Underground Railroad. Courtesy photo

Only two blocks from downtown is the Riverwalk, which snakes through woods along the horseshoe bend of the Tombigbee on which Columbus sits. To make the complete walk and return is about five miles, but there are a couple of easy exits and a rest stop along the way. The walkway is well lit and well used at night.

It too is a walk through history. It roughly follows the path of the Underground Railroad described in the old spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Along the walkway are some picnic areas, and the Lowndes County Master Gardeners maintain a butterfly garden along the way.

An offshoot of the Riverwalk crosses under Highway 82 running beside Moore’s Creek to the soccer complex. The woods there were once the site of houses, and in the spring Jonquils come up with their yellow blooms outlining old forgotten walkways. Not far from where the walkway enters the soccer complex stands a weather-worn cypress tree that is centuries old and had watched over the founding of Columbus and the passing of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians whose home this once was.

Four miles north of downtown was the only place I had to drive to with our guest. That is the location of the Mississippi University for Women’s Plymouth Bluff Center on the Tombigbee’s west bank at the lock and dam. There you find a conference center with a museum and walking trails (with COVID-19 restrictions, call to make sure the building and museum are open). The 4 1/2 miles of walking trails there are divided into two segments. These trails will take you along the river bluff, through upland forest, along a prairie edge, through meadows and beside a cypress swamp. As a trail goes along the riverbank, there is even a sign marking an alligator overlook. Last month my grandchildren were walking on a trail there and saw an alligator in the river. They are from Virginia, and the sighting caused quite a bit of excitement. The trail was high enough above the river that there was no danger.

Along the Riverwalk you travel through an enchanting ancient forest within walking distance of downtown. Courtesy photo

The travel writer from Germany was very impressed that all this was so close to downtown and that all except for Plymouth Bluff was an easy walk from downtown and the bluff was only a short drive. He said Columbus provided a wonderful venue to experience impressive historic architecture and natural history all near an attractive downtown with good restaurants.

Columbus is more of a jewel than many people here realize. It greatly impressed a visitor from Hamburg, Germany, but I am afraid there are some people here who cannot see the forest for the trees and don’t realize how much Columbus has to offer.

Two hundred-fifty years ago another visitor from overseas passed through here. In 1771, British surveyor Bernard Romans descended the Tombigbee River and passed Plymouth Bluff. He wrote a lengthy description of the bluff, which he called “a very remarkable bluff.” He concluded by saying, “it looks as if made by art, and if placed near any town of note, I do not doubt would be much used as a walk.”

The people who use it love it, and it is there for anyone to enjoy who will take the advice of both a present-day German travel writer and a British explorer from 250 years ago.

I have had people tell me to be careful and don’t walk at night because it isn’t safe. For the last eight years, I have been walking around central downtown and on the Riverwalk at night and have never had a bad experience. I have only encountered friendly people who are also enjoying the evening. Columbus really is both a friendly and uniquely beautiful town.

Rufus Ward is a local historian.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

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