JACKSON, Miss. — Some places naturally catch debris, like ditch culverts and dryer vents. At others the process is unplanned and insidious, as is the case with the vast, dystopian playground of Buddy Butts Park, on the border of Jackson and Clinton.
Anyone who runs or rides mountain bikes on the network of primitive trails at Butts Park knows it’s an alluring yet singularly weird place, accumulating more than its share of debris, both human and household, simply because it’s not quite abandoned but is no longer closely maintained. Like much of Jackson, it’s in limbo due to the city’s declining tax base. Not coincidentally, it’s also a bit on the lawless side.
I’ve run the trails at Butts for 15 years, and during that time it has slowly come unraveled. With its 20th century ruins, decaying infrastructure and rogue’s gallery of odd characters juxtaposed with more normal ones, you don’t have to squint to occasionally feel like you’re passing through a David Lynch or a Wes Anderson film.
Yet it’s still a fun place to go.
The approximately 200 acres that Butts encompasses was originally the site of a World War II German and Italian POW camp, and for fans of Atlas Obscura ruin porn, is today beloved for the overgrown, abandoned scale model of the entire Mississippi River watershed, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using POW labor. A lot of hidden infrastructure remains partially intact, though the operation shut down in the 1960s — I was once stunned to see a group of teenagers magically emerge from the ground in the middle of a nearby field after having explored the long, subterranean aqueducts that once fed the tiny watershed, which was used by engineers to mimic flood control hydrology. On weekends, it’s common to see the parked cars of the river model crowd near the collapsing buildings of what’s left of the installation, as volunteers attempt to beat back the vegetation and make it accessible again. More power to them, though the process looks to be slow and not very methodical.
Butts Park’s most obvious surviving success story is the Tee Time golf driving range, which is located by the front gate, like the last party supply store in an anchorless mall. Tee Time, which has found new life as a gathering spot for hordes of resident Canada geese that you just know the golfers use as targets, seems to be doing OK, but beyond it the grass is knee deep on the soccer fields, the roads are in such disrepair that people drive on the shoulders, and the former cricket field is regularly rutted up by teenagers who go mudding in their 4WDs. The distant go-kart track is oddly resolute yet empty, and the receptacles along the Frisbee golf course are now tiny trellises for honeysuckle vines. The model airplane landing strip still attracts the occasional Astrovan-driving loner as well as this one guy who looks like a rogue Navy Seal or, in my adrenaline-fueled imagination, when I run, like a sniper in training. You very rarely see cops drive through, and it shows.
Though there is plenty of potential for it, Butts is not yet a mecca for homeless people, who are often a sad indicator of parks in decline. It’s not yet a place you go if you’ve given totally up. It can, however, be unnerving precisely because the outliers who frequent it have not given up, and in fact are still very much in play. Though each of them no doubt has an interesting story to tell, my personal goal is to run through the edge of their narratives without becoming embroiled in any potential climax. This sometimes requires adjusting my running route, but then, so does the copperhead that refuses to relinquish the trail.
Sometimes I get a little uncomfortable, as when I see guys sitting in a Chrysler 300 with blacked out windows, engine idling, who manage to look both poised and menacing, which usually leads me to park elsewhere. My general rule of thumb is, if you go to the trouble to navigate the horrendous, pot-holed roads all the way to the farthest recesses of the park and you’re not hiking, running or mountain biking, you’re probably up to no good.
In addition to deer and snakes, both of which I regularly encounter (in the case of deer, sometimes so closely that I can see scars on their faces), I have run up on a great many suspicious characters: People who appeared to be engaged in drug deals, on pimp-prostitute corporate retreats, or in episodes of active hustling, both male and female. I have observed way too many men sitting alone in cars backed up to the edge of the woods, observing. There was also one young, buff guy who for a month or so roamed the trails shirtless, in work boots and ripped jeans, as if he stepped off the cover of a trashy romance novel, who sometimes sat alone in his car, which was missing its hood, blasting Led Zeppelin. Another, a Fabio-lookalike whose massive pecs were similarly on display, stopped me on a trail to ask, “What exactly is this place?” When I suggested, “A park?” I realized just how inadequate that answer was.
There was also a skinny older man with a gray ponytail and what can best be described as an Armageddon van with ill tidings scrawled on its windows in white shoe polish, who, upon seeing me approach, came running out of the woods, jumped behind the wheel and sped away. As the dust settled, I noticed a pillow and some reading material strewn about in the miniaturized ruins of what I know to be the headwaters of the Ohio River basin. I did not investigate.
I hasten to add that I’m not accusing any particular individual of having committed a crime. Such episodes just give the place a decidedly sketchy vibe.
I have come upon lone young female joggers and been tempted to stop them and say, “I’m not sure it’s safe for you to be out here by yourself.” However: Old dude warning girls of unseen danger. Who’s creepy now? I also sometimes see blissful families out for Sunday strolls, random holdout Frisbee golfers and high school cross-country track teams that, like the ultra trail runners who stage long races once a year, give Butts a reassuring air of legitimacy. But overall it’s just shaggy fields, woods, dauntingly interactive cultural dioramas and a scattering of abandoned buildings that people have lately begun to tag, though in a non-threatening, introductory way, as in, “RIP, Regina” and “Buff.”
In the olden days, about a decade ago, there were South Asian cricket players who provided a nice touch of added multiculturalism, but they eventually left after the kids in 4WDs made mincemeat of their field one too many times. Likewise, legions of soccer families once gathered en masse at the then-manicured fields with actual chalked boundaries that have long since disappeared. There is still an apparently functional restroom next to the soccer fields that I would never, ever go in.
Despite the park’s ruinous air, I give the city credit for trying. They do sometimes dump what looks like a wheelbarrow load of slag in a few potholes, and have been known to suddenly and unexpectedly mow. I have also even seen evidence of city workers poisoning fire ants, a hopeful endeavor. The place is just a lot to maintain without money. As the Jackson Clarion-Ledger has reported, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department manages 57 public parks and 27 athletic fields, among other properties, yet only seven of its 22 mowers and two out of seven tractors are operational. I live in fear that they’ll give up and close Butts down.
The trails themselves are fine, because they’re mostly just rugged paths through the woods and the lack of maintenance actually adds technical features. There are roots and fallen trees to jump, overflowing creeks to splash through and other complications that are the kinds of things that make trail running and mountain biking fun. Then again, on long runs my route may take me into the open, and with weirdos watching from backed-in cars for a half-mile or so, I do sometimes feel like a bit of a spectacle, or a target. I once saw a guy parked in an odd spot, watching me, with a duffle bag. Did it contain a model airplane or an AK? Upon my return, I was relieved to see an airborne drone, but after I disappeared into the woods, I heard gunfire. There was also a guy sitting in his car eating fast food, absently throwing the wrappers out the window.
You might logically ask: Aside from tree roots, if that’s your thing, why run in such a place? Well, because the trails take you out of the familiar world in a way no other activity can, offering a mix of solitude, physical challenge and the occasional opportunity to nod to a fellow traveler passing through a bucolic void. There’s a couple I’ve been passing for years, exchanging smiles and pleasantries as they walk what is now their second golden retriever, and I’ve gotten to know the daily routines of one particular rabbit. I have also run through spider webs so thick that it suddenly felt like I was wearing a hair net. I’ve run through a swarm of bees and upon two bucks with full racks that were feeding on blackberries and reared on their hind legs like horses when I unexpectedly appeared around a blind curve, downwind from them. I could almost have reached out and touched them before they bolted. I’ve watched fawns grow into adults over a period of years.
Due to the complexities of trail running, and the whole Butts Park thing, there’s a refreshing, energizing edge. The peripheral human dramas add another level of technicality, and interest. There is, however, always the question of what you’ll come upon next. A cottonmouth? A shattered car window? A body? You never really know.
Recently, my run took me from the woods into the open, and as I emerged I saw something new: A yellow, one-person tent set up in the grass, with no one around — no car, no evidence of camping gear or anyone, just the tent itself, and a pretty nice one, too. It occurred to me that someone could just steal that tent, which appeared to have been abandoned. Camping is prohibited at Butts, for what it’s worth, and it seems that someone — probably the Tee Time guy — actually does lock the front gate at night. So a camper would need to keep a low profile, which whoever set up this tent did not do. It was blatant. I wondered why it was situated in the hot sun, at a time when the heat index was bumping 100 degrees, but more importantly, why was it abandoned?
The next day I followed basically the same route, and found that the tent was still there, though it had collapsed. Then I noticed a hump at one end, like, the size and shape of a person in a fetal position, which of course stopped me in my tracks. I looked at it for a moment, decided I was scared of it, and ran on. I did the big sniper-spectacle loop, out in the open, thinking I’d go back a different way so as not to pass the tent again. But as I ran, I thought: You can’t just run by that thing and pretend it’s not there. It didn’t stink. Yet. So I decided I had to check it out, promising myself that if, upon closer inspection, it did appear to be a lifeless human form, I would not unzip the fly but would call JPD when I got back to my truck.
Imagine my surprise when I saw, upon my return approach, the thing begin to move. Aaaah! As I got nearer, it looked like someone lying on their back inside a sweltering yellow cocoon, maybe… reading a book? It is important to remember that the tent had collapsed; this was basically a human form, shrouded in yellow nylon, seeming to hold up a book, under the blazing sun. Also, it seemed to be a rather small person. I could only see the shape and silhouette, the tent being translucent.
It occurred to me that Butts might finally be transitioning to a conventional homeless venue, that maybe the yellow tent was all the person had gotten out of the divorce, or for whatever other reason was all they had left of their former life, and that, in fact, they had given totally up. I had a hard time coming up with another plausible explanation.
In any event, the thing was undead, which was what mattered most. I did not slow down, not wanting to be around when and if the chrysalis emerged. I adhered to the tried and true Butts Park rule: Live and let live, and run on.