One of the small complications in urging a teen to exercise is that he sometimes wants you to do the same. Or so I was reminded last weekend when my 14-year-old son, who can bask for hours in the sickly glow of video games, asked me to take him and his friend on a hike.
It was a perfectly wholesome idea that I hoped he would forget. My own plans involved my favorite chair, a second cup of coffee and not much else.
But there was no politically correct way for a father to argue against a healthy walk in favor of Saturday sloth. We settled on a drive to Port Hudson in Jackson, a state historic site with six miles of trail.
We chose Port Hudson for convenience, not its ties to the Civil War. Given the lengthy recent debate about Confederate monuments in New Orleans, I was ready to think of something else on an autumn Saturday besides the blue and the gray.
But no visitor to Port Hudson can — or should — forget the suffering that occurred there.
After New Orleans fell to federal troops in 1862, the battle for control of the Mississippi River intensified, and Port Hudson figured in the fray. The siege of Port Hudson ended on July 9, 1863, after 48 days of continuous fighting. Casualties numbered in the thousands, including some soldiers struck by sunstroke or disease.
It’s all neatly summarized in the brochures you get at the visitors center, which includes a small museum. Civil War relics rest under glass like the bones of old saints. There’s a tattered banjo, some flutes, a few old guns. The guns are so lovely that it’s easy to forget they were made to kill people.
We shared the trail with some high school athletes who were running it for a track meet. Teenagers, like skyscrapers, seem to grow taller with each generation, and the runners, who dwarfed me, cast long shadows across the limestone path as they passed. They were about the same age as many of the soldiers who had died there long ago.
It’s hard to know what to feel on an old battlefield, a beautiful place dedicated to the memory of so much pain. I decided not to put a name on my time there, but to be quiet for a while as I walked alone, my son and his friend walking far ahead.
The trail winds through deep ravines thick with trees — sycamores, pignut hickory, black ironwood. A few banana spiders tried to snare us in their webs, and we were told to watch for snakes, but we met no harm. Above me, I could hear a woodpecker sing his silly song as he picked apart a rotted limb, making a merriment of decline.
We finished our hike and picnicked beneath a cannon, then headed for home. On the drive back, I thought of something I’d read by Margaret Eby. “To be Southern is to grow up among the ruins,” she said. “Southernness suggests a deep, inescapable past, an inability to move forward without the weight of your ancestors.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.