Unique traveler makes stop in city

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; You’ve heard of walking across America &045; but walking around America?

That’s the plan of Elissa Wilson of Riverside, Calif., who started her journey in Laredo, Texas.

Through a combination of walking, hitchhiking, bus riding and riverboat sailing, she made it to Natchez this week.

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And although she doesn’t have a set timetable for the trip, she plans to travel all the way to Florida, up the East Coast and along the Canadian border, then back to California.

Inspired by the works of Jack Kerouac, Charles Kuralt and John Steinbeck &045; especially the latter’s &uot;Travels with Charley,&uot; about Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile trip around the United States &045; she embarked in April.

Her goal: To get to know her native land at ground level and write a book about her experiences. She’s already filled 300 pages of what is now called &uot;About the Journey.&uot;

&uot;I wanted to travel without the trappings of a career,&uot; said Wilson, who once was a history teacher but worked as a trainer for the Department of Public Social Services in California for 23 years before retiring. &uot;I’m a free spirit anyway.&uot;

And Wilson, as a lifelong hiker and camper, might seem a perfect candidate for an around-the-country hike. Not that there haven’t been adventures along the way.

She learned quickly, in traveling through Texas, that the diversity of America sometimes makes for communication breakdowns.

When stopped by someone asking for directions, she said, many people who speak Spanish exclusively &uot;will nod and point down the road to be polite, but you can end up somewhere without food and water,&uot; Wilson said.

And days later, in Beaumont, Texas, police banged on her hotel room door at 3:30 a.m. looking for the previous occupant, who was wanted for questioning.

There have been plenty of fun times as well, though. One of the highlights, she said, was traveling from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minn., by riverboat before retracing her steps along the river by foot.

The upriver trip included her participation in the steamboat Floozy Contest held in Natchez earlier this summer.

Attendees may remember her as the contestant whose act involved spreading a picnic blanket on the floor of the City Auditorium.

The judges, she said, gave her kudos for originality.

What’s next for this free spirit?

For the better part of this week, Wilson plans to stay in Natchez, taking in as much of the local history as she can in a few days and, of course, meeting the people.

On Saturday, she took a National Park Service tour in the heart of downtown before stopping for a bite to eat at the Main Street Marketplace.

Other than that, Wilson said, she’s just taking it as she goes.

All along the way, &uot;I’ve found that people are a lot friendlier than I ever expected,&uot; Wilson said. &uot;And what you hear about the hospitality of the South is very true.&uot;