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Back from the C.S.A.

Wow, has it really been 17 days that this blog has been fallow? Guess so.

I took time for some intense soul searching at the Landmark Forum, which certainly gave me a kick in the poto and prompted me to think differently about my priorities.

Then it was on to our first family vacation with all four kids. We drove through Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennesee and Mississippi to see Grandma in her new home in Jackson, Miss.

Not your father's family trip. The kids were sedated with doughnuts, gameboys and DVDs.

Here are a few notes, observations and speculations gathered along our trail of tears:

Donde está mi gente?
Here in Minnesota, my hispanic bretheren are legion. And most certainly we're a formidable presence in my home turf of Chicago, as well as in St. Louis and Memphis. But it's simply a fact that once you cross from the outskirts of Memphis into Mississippi, you don't see tons of "hermanitos." But, according to my mom, who quickly tapped into the hispanic network after moving there, the ethnic makeup of ole Miss is changing pretty quickly. Canton, a town north of Jackson and home to an enormous Nissan plant, apparently has a burgeoning hispanic population. Given the quality of life around Jackson, this will probably continue. ¡Que viva!

Hernando was here

He conquered...so that we might play the nickel slots: Hernando de Soto's legacy in northern Mississippi.

In northern Mississippi, a bit south of Memphis, you run into the town of Hernando, in DeSoto County. Following a hunch, I cracked open my copy of The Florida of the Inca, which is the story of Hernando De Soto's explorations in the southeastern U.S. in the 1540s, as written by the Peruvian chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Therein I discovered that Hernando had indeed been up all over that place. In what's now Alabama and Mississippi, he battled the Chicaza (Chicasaw) Indians, who clearly didn't expect and weren't about to tolerate the Spanish Inquisition. I also see that De Soto attacked a Chicaza fort at a place called Alabamo (whose name is the origin of the state name) and eventually reached the Mississippi River, which was called Chicagua by the locals. Finally, I see that De Soto had a gentleman on his team named Elvas. Having driven by Graceland only days ago, I have to wonder...is there a connection?

Flat land = wealth

Illinois: 7 hours of corn and beans.

I'm not far enough along in Guns, Germs and Steel to recite Jared Diamond's key arguments about why some countries rule the planet and others don't, but I believe it has a bit to do with geography. And driving the length of Illinois, you quickly realize a couple things. One, it's a flat, boring state. If it weren't for Chicago's dazzling architecture and glorious corruption, Illinois would be exposed for the big yawn that it is, and we Minnesotans would be cracking jokes about the Land of Lincoln, rather than the Hawkeye State. More importantly, as you drive past endless miles of corn stalks that jut out of black glacial silt, you realize that we Americans simply got handed some of the best cards in the deck. What country has this much flat, arable and easily dominable land along with such a favorable climate? Brazil comes close. And, in fact, it recently surpassed the U.S. in soybean production. But that's a topic for another day.

Do Catholics have more fun?
After a few days in the Bible Belt, where dry counties and blue laws still predominate, we made our way to the Gulf Coast resort town of Pass Christian, an hour from New Orleans. As you move toward Louisiana, things become more noticeably French. The architecture. The cemeteries. And, thank the lawd, the food. Dishes like Gumbo and Ettoufe begin crop up on restaurant menus. For me, it was a supreme pleasure last week to take my oldest daughter Sophie to the Old Coffee Pot in Bay St. Louis for Beignets and coffee.

Typical home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Cemetery in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

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