I will always be called by Mississippi and its beautiful land

Mississippi was calling my name the other day, beckoning me softly to pay a visit to the land that often comforts me.

I cannot explain why I, a child of the North Georgia mountains, feel so drawn toward the soil that begins on the Gulf Coast then runs proudly and strongly through the Delta. I was sipping coffee in my office, gazing out the French doors at the morning rain and admiring the beauty of the trees, hills, river and distant windmill.

Perhaps that's it: word association. When I admire nature's beauty, my thoughts ripple over to Mississippi and all the beauty I have seen there. The Natchez Trail. Oxford and Roan Oaks. Those simple country roads lined with majestic trees that lead from Interstate-55 to Yazoo City.

Those magnolias that greet you when you cross the state line. Downtown Meridian and that beautiful old Opry House that the town's folks have lovingly restored. Biloxi and Gulfport which, determinedly, have resurrected themselves from the ashes.

Where I have found beauty, I have always discovered peace. And that is what I feel when I'm in the Magnolia State.

It is a simple life I often find in Mississippi, the kind that we all crave. A life where the highways aren't overcrowded, beautiful churches are crammed together in downtown areas and neighbors are just that - neighbors.

I love the smell of the South that hangs in the Mississippi air, for I have smelled it strongly in Natchez, Vicksburg and Hattiesburg and inhaled it deeply in Olive Branch, Starkville and Tupelo. What does it smell like, you might ask. It smells like magnolias mixed with hospitality and kindness.

The stories I find in Mississippi captivate me. They talk long of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Archie Manning for literature and football are of equal importance in that state where passion rules.

In Clarksdale, I once sat with a friend on a swing outside the hardware store. As dusk fell on that summer's eve, we talked about the quiet serenity of that dusty town. A stranger walking by, stopped, dropped down on another swing and joined our conversation. He talked about award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up "just a piece up the road" but had come home to live and opened two businesses - a top-rated restaurant and the blues club, Ground Zero - to help revitalize his hometown.

That's another about Mississippians: They never forget their homeland. Faith Hill regularly goes back and launched an effort to improve literacy while Sela Ward returned to her hometown of Meridian to open an orphanage and to help restore the downtown Opry House. Sela, in fact, wrote one of my favorite books called "Homesick." In this lovely memoir, the two-time Emmy-award winning actress looks back on her Mississippi upbringing and a longing to return to that life.

On the other hand, Julia Roberts left Georgia and never looked back. Why, most folks don't even know she was raised in a small town outside of Atlanta. She's committed what Southerners consider to be the worse sin of all: She got above her raising.

It says a lot for the place itself, I think, that folks who traipse off and become famous, are determined to come back.

But here's probably the real reason I've got a hankering to go to Mississippi: I'm working on a new book and I have always found that my words are prettier and more inspired during and after a visit to Mississippi.

Come to think about it - that's plenty enough of a reason to go right now.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com.