Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is one of those landmarks I could never remember if I had actually seen in person or if it was just so familiar from images. Today I established that I had definitely never seen it in person. It’s actually more impressive than the mental image I had of it. The surroundings, however, are pretty run down. I guess they left the old brick streets for atmosphere, and they certainly function to slow traffic down. The Mississippi River was over flood stage which meant that some of the streets were closed and so we were in a parade of tourists trying to get somewhere with one-way streets and closed streets and no feeling for where we wanted to go, which was actually rather amusing. Each car would come to an intersection, look around, and end up going the same way that the previous car had gone, bouncing slowly over the bricks, trying to figure out what we were here to see. Enough was enough, Al broke from the pack, found a spot where we could stop and get this photo of the Arch and then we were off again.
This photo gives you an idea of the "quaint" streets in the riverfront area.

Fortunately it was Sunday and the Cardinals were playing out of town or it would have been a real mess. I’d forgotten what the old industrial cities look like, with all the abandoned factories, and their earnest efforts to revive the old downtown core with tourist activities. On the way back to the RV park, we saw the face of the new St. Louis driving through a huge light industrial park with modern buildings spread out on the bottomland with lots of lawns and huge parking lots and none of the grime and dirt of the inner city.

Our RV park is in St. Charles, which is one of the more successful reinventions of an old town into a tourist area. The man at the RV park desk referred to it as Williamsburg West and he wasn’t far off. The city has done an excellent job of making an historic Main Street district that is appealing and within a block of a lot of public parking. As you can see in the photo, it’s very popular on a weekend. The main claim to fame of St. Charles is that the Lewis and Clark expedition departed from here. The town also claims to be the oldest settlement west of the Mississippi and was an early state capitol.

The big attraction for us non-shoppers, however, is the Katy Trail, a 240-mile former rail route from St. Louis to Kansas City that has been transformed into a multi-use trail and a very long, skinny state park. We had previously ridden some of the middle sections and wanted to see the eastern terminus here in St. Charles. This is one of the numerous trailheads, across the street from our RV park.

The trail goes along the edge of historic St. Charles and passes through a park with a restored train depot before entering a heavily wooded corridor filled with birdsong, wildflowers and most-welcome shade. The trail is very flat in this part of the state and as you might be able to see in the photo, the surface is fine limestone, which packs pretty well although it still offers more rolling resistance than pavement. Since we’re not out to set any speed records, riding slowly through the trees is fine with us.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Leaving Mississippi was hard but it was time. This did not mean we had to quit eating.

Our last day in Ocean Springs was spent riding our bikes along a quiet beach road in the morning, then having a last lunch at BB’s Po’Boys. This day in addition to gumbo
they had two kinds of soup that sounded great. We couldn’t make up our minds
but there was a solution: a sampler of three soups. We still couldn’t make up
our minds which was best: the gumbo had a dark rich taste, the shrimp corn
bisque was lightly flavorful and the crawfish bisque had a wonderful zing to it. Such a treat to find a small restaurant that can actually make three soups that taste completely different. Of course we had shrimp po’boys, one apiece despite our vows to go lightly. At least we didn’t have dessert.

Our next goal was Memphis TN and the Germantown Commissary which was mentioned as one of the best BBQs in the country in an article in Playboy. We got there so early they didn’t even look like they were open, but Al stuck his head in the door and the man said come on in. It was only 10:30 but I told him it was never too early to eat BBQ. The one waitress was still working on her early lunch so the two of
them chatted with us while we waited for the food. Side benefit of being early. It
is a really tiny place and it did in fact start filling up around 11. Our waitress
suggested that we split a combo plate so we could both sample ribs and the
pulled pork. A plate comes with beans, coleslaw and half a deviled egg plus a
nice white dinner roll. We ordered additional sides of Brunswick stew and pig
sticks, which I had seen mentioned in one of the reviews. Pig sticks turned out to
be thick sweet potato fries which had been dipped in a flour batter seasoned with
sugar and cinnamon, then deep fried. You get a little container of a honey-
mustard dip to eat with them. These may have been the best part of the meal.
The Brunswick stew may or may not have been authentic but it was wonderful
also. The pulled pork was good but I’m not sure how one can differentiate that
much between versions except maybe for the sauce. The ribs were probably not
as good as the ones I had in Luling, certainly not as meaty but that’s the cut.
Two kinds of sauce, both quite dark, one mild, one hot. The building is an old old
grocery, thus the name, and I somehow forgot to get a photo. Inside, it’s brick
and dark and smells like hickory smoke. The man told us that if we had come a
noon, we would probably have had to wait outside (in the heat) for a table and we
certainly wouldn’t have gotten a place in the parking lot. As it was, we had a
hard time getting out of the lot because people were stacking up. Definitely
worth a minor side trip just for the experience. The best part for Al was the fact
that this was one of the smallest lunch bills we’d run up, and the satisfaction and entertainment quotient was quite high.

Other than the one good meal, the trip from Ocean Springs to St. Charles MO was unremarkable. Now we would have to break out the bikes and get serious about some exercise.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

There must be a law in Mississippi that for every X number of people there must be a Waffle House Restaurant and X is not a very large number. Waffle Houses are almost as numerous as drugstores and every one we pass has at least a few cars in front of it no matter what the time of day. It has become a joke that we'll never starve because there will be a Waffle House in a couple of blocks.

Another local peculiarity in the south is the distribution of dollar stores. You have your Dollar General
and you have your Family Dollar. Sometimes right next to each other. Sometimes one will pop up in the middle of nowhere or in the tiniest town where you would swear there couldn’t possibly be enough business.

There is a lot of wildlife activity around our campsite, several different species of birds, some kind of
bushy-tailed squirrel that I don’t recognize, and rabbits. Anyone who has ever been to our house knows that we are familiar with desert cottontails, but these rabbits looked more like a cross between a cottontail and a jackrabbit. Here's a photo of two that seemed to hang around our campsite.

They have longer legs than cottontails and hold themselves off the ground higher,
their coat is darker, and they are definitely larger. Their ears are not long but their tail hangs down like a jackrabbit’s although it is white underneath. Thanks to Google I discovered that there is a separate species called the swamp rabbit and this is where it lives. Mystery solved.

Today we drove to Pensacola, Florida, to visit the National Naval Aviation Museum. The skies were lowering
as we drove out of town and the forecast was for thunderstorms, but neither one of us had thought to bring raincoats. Sure enough, the skies opened up while we were on the I-10 and we drove most of the way through intermittent downpours. Fortunately, when we arrived at the museum, the rain had stopped and we were able to make it inside without getting wet. Much to Al’s surprise, the museum was mobbed with parents and children. I suspect it was the first week of summer vacation for many of them and since it was raining, a nice indoor activity was called for. Interestingly enough, the museum had numerous activities for children, like allowing them to climb through several mockups of Blue Angel fighter planes and other activities which I can’t detail because we gave them wide berth. We have been to so many airplane museums over the years that the aircraft were not especially interesting, but the exhibit galleries around the edge of the museum were fascinating. For example, one featured a reconstruction of a jungle camp set up on a Pacific Island during WWII, another showed what a couple of WWII aircraft that sank in the Great Lakes looked like underwater, on and on. Lots of painstaking details in the smallest things made these most fascinating. We ate lunch in a replica of the officers club at a base in the Phillipines which delighted Al, who was especially interested in all the squadron plaques. A big hit for me was the fact that the Imax theater was showing the Hubble movie, which documents the original launch of the telescope and two of the repair missions as well as showing some of the fantastic images taken by the Hubble. The Imax audio system does a good job with the sounds of a space shuttle launch, and of course they know how to fill that big screen with overwhelming imagery. I was initially concerned about the number of kids that came into the theater with their parents but I have never seen such an attentive audience. There is hope yet if this kind of film can hold the attention of a ten-year-old boy.

One the way back from Pensacola to Ocean Springs instead of returning on the interstate, we drove right along the coast of Florida and Perdido Key,
which is apparently quite a tourist destination, with lots of high rise condominium buildings in some stretches, and lovely pastel beach homes in other areas. Here we saw several staging areas for oil spill mitigation efforts at state parks. The road crosses the Alabama state line and ends at the mouth of Mobile Bay where we took a 45-minute ferry ride from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island. Neither of us had realized just how many oil rigs were actually in Mobile Bay. Here’s an image of a laughing gull on the stern of our tiny ferry with one of the rigs in the background.

In addition to the oil rigs, there were several shrimp boats setting oil booms instead of shrimp nets. On the Dauphin Island side, the ferry has to make a u-turn to get into the slip and the captain eased it in so gently that this pelican sitting on one of the dolphins didn’t even get his feathers ruffled.

The areas on both sides of Mobile Bay have extensive wetlands and most of them seemed to have oil booms strung along to keep them clean. We saw a lot of pelicans flying just as we were listening to a segment on NPR about how in Louisiana they are cleaning oil-soaked pelicans using Dawn dish soap. So far these pelicans had been lucky.

This evening while we ate our dinner, an osprey was enjoying his dinner of a nice large fish in a tall dead tree
on the edge of the bayou. We didn’t eat particularly well today and I would have swapped him a fish for our dinner in a minute.

Reviewing my posts, I realize that I have not expressed how much we have enjoyed our stay in Mississippi. It would be nice if we had been here earlier in the season before the weather became so hot and humid, but we have found the entire state to be a delightful surprise. The little towns on the Gulf Coast are unexpectedly charming for a resort area and the people couldn't be nicer. Inland, we have been surprised by the quality of the highways and tourist facilities. So far, Mississippi has shown us the best times. Whoda thunk?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In October of 1994, Smithsonian Magazine featured an article on the Mississippi artist William Anderson which captured my fancy. I clipped the article and have been carrying that article around for almost 16 years in the off chance we would ever get to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. If not for that article, we would never have come to Ocean Springs, Mississippi and that would have been a real shame.

Of course, there was the little matter of the oil rig explosion which was going to foul the beaches from Louisiana
to Florida, but other than worrying about competing for RV space with thousands of volunteers, that wouldn’t be a problem for us since we rarely walk on the beach anyway, certainly not when it’s 95 degrees and 85% humidity. The only thing we were truly concerned about was whether we would be able to eat shrimp. As it turned out , there was no oil on the beaches, although to listen to media you’d believe otherwise, no hordes of volunteers and the shrimp boats were still going out every day, cruising up and down just offshore, hauling in those tasty Gulf shrimp.

By pure chance, we ended up in the campground at Gulf Islands National Seashore, which was only perhaps a quarter full.
The ranger said this is because they don’t take reservations and don’t have all the amenities like wifi and cable TV. They also don’t have a beach, but as I said before, that’s not a problem for us. The National Seashore administers a chain of barrier islands about ten to fourteen miles off the mainland, stretching from just west of Ocean Springs all the way to Pensacola, Florida. We’re just lucky that the National Park Service took over a former state park here in Ocean Springs for its headquarters and maintains a campground here. With our Golden Age pass, it cost us a whopping $8 per night.

Here's a photo of the campground with the big live oak tree between the camera and our motor home, which doesn't normally glow but it was a bad sun angle. Sorry about the image quality.

Besides eating shrimp, our first priority was the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in the historical downtown of Ocean Springs. Walter Anderson is an underappreciated American artist who spent his entire life here in Ocean Springs or on
one of the barrier islands communing with the nature that he captured so wonderfully in his idiosyncratic painting. He not only painted, but he worked in pottery with his brother and the Shearwater Pottery is still a thriving business. He was born in 1903 and died in 1965. The museum has a wonderful video on his life and work that does an excellent job of wordlessly connecting the forms and colors of his environment to the forms and colors of the works he painted. His masterpiece, however, has got to be “The Little Room”, which is just what it says, a little room, which was disassembled and installed in a corner of the museum. Walter had “issues”, like so many artists, and ended up living in a little shack near his family but not allowing anyone into this little room. Apparently after he died was the first time his wife went into this room in which every square inch of ceiling and walls is decorated with his recurring motifs in a manner that defies description. To me, it is one of the most moving pieces of art I’ve ever seen, one that involves the viewer deeply, and one that I suspect you could see many times and still see something new. When visiting a museum, I always say that if there are one or two pieces that really grab me, it was worth the visit. Walter Anderson’s little room is more than one or two pieces and made the trip worthwhile. If you’re interested, you can go to walterandersonmuseum.org and see images of some of his work. As always, though, the real thing is best.

Ocean Springs is at the east end of a 26-mile long stretch of white beaches that goes west past Biloxi and Gulfport
and ends at Pass Christian, near the entrance to St. Louis Bay. These communities are not large and they have seen a lot of hurricanes, including, of course, Katrina. US90 is a four-lane meander along the beach from one end to the other, a pretty low-key drive despite several widely-space high-rise casinos, past marinas and business areas, past long stretches of residential neighborhoods facing the beach. You can see the damage in the residential areas, lots where there is only a concrete slab left, an obviously newly-rebuilt house on stilts, or maybe one under construction. Even in downtown Ocean Springs, which is well back from the beach, there was a lot of flooding. The original visitor center here in the National Seashore was completely destroyed but has been rebuilt to new, environmentally sensitive specs. Everyone here has their own hurricane story, just like in Galveston, but here they are also worried that business is way down and they would like the tourists to know that it’s safe to go in the water.

There are a lot of live oak trees here, although not as many as before Katrina.

Along US90, a number of trunks
of downed trees have been carved into sculptures, called Katrina Trees. Here are a couple.

We went looking for shrimp in Ocean Springs and discovered you buy it on the street corner or on the dock.
We had read that the price of Gulf seafood had sky-rocketed immediately after the oil rig explosion, but apparently it settled down again because the product was very priced lower and was even better tasting than the shrimp we bought in Galveston.

On Saturday we took the advice of the ranger at the visitor center and drove to Pass Christian for the farmer’s market,
which was about 30 miles, but it was a nice drive along the beach. Along the way we saw signs for Ruston peaches, which I had read about, but pretty soon the signs were aimed at people coming the other direction and we hadn’t seen the stand. Dang. The market wasn’t very big, but I wish I had felt like doing real cooking because there were at least three different kinds of eggplant for sale at different booths. As it was, we bought some seriously overpriced sweet corn to see if it was really better than what we’d had the night before from the supermarket, picked up the last of the tomatoes from another stand, bought some wonderful blueberries (who knew they grew them down here?), decided to try boiled peanuts, and Al was seduced by the lady who had miniature pecan pies. On the way back, the peach man was just setting up, so we pulled in and bought a small basket’s worth. Customers were stacking up behind us, and when we went past him the next day, he was surrounded by cars so the word must have been out. Ruston peaches are small and are picked ripe, a special variety developed for Louisiana and they are pretty doggone good. We decided not to bother with boiled peanuts again or with the overpriced sweet corn, but the blueberries were just fine on our breakfast granola. The pecan pie was divine, probably the best I’ve ever eaten.

At BB’s Po’Boys in Ocean Springs we had the best shrimp po’boy yet, along with a fine oyster version and an excellent seafood gumbo. Oh yeah, they had a really good bread pudding with rum sauce too. The waitress assured me it was perfectly legal to drive after consuming the rum sauce because the alcohol was all boiled off, but I’d say the cook must have been happily inhaling deeply when making this because there was a lot of rum taste left. Not that that’s a bad thing…… We told the waitress that we were eating our way around the country and she pleaded to come with us. I don’t know why you’d want to leave this area, though.

Al got to looking at the map and realized we weren’t that far from New Orleans. We had avoided even driving
through it on the interstate with the motorhome, but we decided to drive in the car to see what we could see. If tourism is down, I’d hate to see what the place looks like when it’s booming. Of course the narrow streets in the French Quarter don’t help the congested feeling, but the ambience is lost on me. Every other store has signs out for mango margaritas, the rest are hawking strippers or t-shirts. Here's Bourbon Street.

We also drove through the upper ninth ward where there are still some houses with the big X symbols we all know from TV
showing whether anyone was still in the house, etc., during the worst of the flooding, but many of the houses on the main street had been repainted at least, although who knows what they looked like inside. Then we drove through the Garden District, which was exactly the opposite, all the nice huge homes, although still somewhat run down looking. Al had his mouth set for another shrimp po’boy but
we couldn’t find an open po’boy joint outside of the French Quarter where there was no parking available had we even wanted to go there. Happily we did stumble on Stein’s Deli in the Garden District. Afterward, I found it on all the usual foodie sites with rave reviews and we would second those reviews heartily. We had one muffaleta sandwich and one Tuscan panini. The panini was a bit small, but packed with goodness and the bread was excellent. Good thing it was small because the muffaleta was almost enough for two by itself. For those of you unfamiliar with this sandwich, it is supposed to be made with a round Sicilian bread called muffaleta which features sesame seeds and is filled with what they call olive salad in these parts, which is chopped olives with some red peppers and some kind of dressing, this heaped on top of Italian deli meat and cheese. Our muffaleta was a small loaf about 8 inches in diameter with an excellent crust and flavor. In the grocery store you’ll see something called muffaleta but it is more like an oversize hamburger bun. Stein’s bread was phenomenal, as was the business they were doing. It was a flying trip to New Orleans, but we saw what we wanted to see and we had a good meal. Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Apologies to Louisiana. East of Lafayette, there is an 18-mile long elevated highway that traverses the most beautiful swamp. I believe it’s called the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge and one of the most wonderful things about it is that trucks are limited to the right hand lane for its length and the speed limit is also reduced so there is an instant mellowing out and a person can enjoy the scenery. This stretch of highway is a tourist attraction in itself and shows the face of Louisiana that one has come to expect: bayous, trees growing out of the water, swamps with cypress knees. No wonder the state calls itself “America’s Wetland.”

Coming into Baton Rouge, we reached a major milestone—we crossed the Mississippi River.
Now we really felt like we were in the eastern part of the country. We headed north to Natchez, Mississippi. Our intention was to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway and we would begin at the southern end, just outside of Natchez. As we approached the Mississippi state line, the highway started to undulate—we were going up and down actual hills. I’m not sure if I dwelt on the fact that southern Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. All those bayous are pretty much sea level and the tallest thing you see is a bridge over the intercoastal waterway. Now we not only had hills, we had forests, with real trees, a mix of hardwoods and pines that looked to be 60 or 70 feet tall. One of the more interesting things to me was the fact that these forests included magnolia and mimosa trees in bloom. I had always considered these to be trees you bought from the nursery and not actually native to someplace.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi are the land of riding lawnmowers. It seems like everyone
has a large yard, mostly unfenced, and you really need a riding mower to keep the jungle at bay. The yards commonly have a lot of nice plantings, daylilies, iris, and zillions of crepe myrtles in colors ranging from the bright pink in the photo of the tree in Luling that was included in an earlier post to white, lighter pink and a couple of shades of purple. Crepe myrtle is used everywhere.

This was also the land of little churches. I have no idea how the congregations
can support so many churches, but there was at least one at each crossroads and maybe two, kind of like drugstores in the city. But these would be at crossroads in the middle of nowhere, nothing but a yellow highway sign announcing “Church” to warn you that your soul could be saved just up ahead. There were more kinds of Baptists than you could shake a stick at, Primitive, Free Will, Perfect Life, Bible. This is surely also the land of nitpickers when it comes to theology.

The farther north we went, the more logging trucks we saw, with long skinny logs suitable
mostly for pulp or for making OSB. The industry that built the Pacific Northwest migrated here many years ago, where you can harvest trees every 25 years instead of every 80 to 100. I remember Weyerhauser ads and billboards from long ago extolling tree farms as sustainable and now I wonder how you can possibly call a planting to harvest cycle of 80 years “sustainable.”

We stayed at Natchez State Park, a few miles out of the city on a small reservoir. Only three other campsites were occupied when we rolled in and I think the peak occupancy was about seven total rigs. Because we are senior citizens, we paid only $13 a night for the lovely campsite you see in the photo. Of course we didn’t have wifi or a pool, but there was a lot of peace and quiet and nice trees and birds.

Natchez has an enormous visitor center, just across the Mississippi River bridge from Vidalia, LA. This shot was taken from the riverfront in Vidalia showing Natchez-under-the-hill which is just a fancy name for the area where the casino is.

Natchez claims to be the oldest settlement on the Mississippi, excepting New Orleans I would assume.
It was never involved in the Civil War, so it has a number of antebellum homes which it markets unmercifully. There are two “pilgrimages” a year, when even more than the usual number of homes are open and there are parties and everyone enjoys dressing up in period costumes, etc. I have a little problem with the whole antebellum home thing, which maybe makes me a curmudgeon, but there it is. Here’s the deal: You have this gracious way of life, the beautiful homes, the lovely ladies dressed in their fancy gowns, the balls and parties, etc. etc. But this was all supported by black slave labor, every single bit of it. Nowadays they give some little nod to the fact, but mostly it’s still swept under the rug, except that I can’t forget it. Even if it didn’t cost $20 per person per home for a tour, I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate that way of life.

In its heyday, Natchez was a commercial center, the destination for goods that came down the river from
the Ohio River valley. Before the days of steamboats, a trip down the Mississippi on a boat to carry goods to market was strictly one-way. You had to walk back home. The Natchez Trace is the path that traders followed north on their six-month return journey. It had been used by Indians, explorers, trappers and started out as nothing but a small path through the woods but in the end carried so much traffic that it was a narrow roadway sunken thirty feet into the soft loess soil in places. The present-day Natchez Trace Parkway was envisioned in the thirties and construction begun then but it took another 40 years or so to complete the highway to Nashville TN. It’s a beautiful, wide two lane road with limited access and no commercial traffic, running through the forest. There are numerous historical sites along the route and a fair number of bicyclists. Our original plan had been to drive the length of it, but we found that lovely as it is, there’s not a lot to look at and one mile of beautiful forest looks a lot like the next mile.

So instead of driving the rig north, we left it parked at Natchez State Park and drove up the trace to Vicksburg
to visit the battlefield there. Its location on a bluff commanding the Mississippi River gave Vicksburg great strategic importance to both sides in the Civil War. The video and displays at the National Park Service visitor center provide a good overview of the events leading up to the siege of Vicksburg and how things played out. You then get into your car and drive around what had been a fortified city on a hill and get a real appreciation for the challenges that the Union Army faced in trying to attack up these steep slopes in the face of withering fire from the Confederate forces behind the battlements. In the end, the city fell and was pretty much destroyed. For obvious reasons, antebellum mansions aren’t a big feature in Vicksburg.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Louisianans are worse freeway mergers than Texans. I finally decided that it’s because they are too polite to accelerate and get in front of you. Instead, they come racing into the little short acceleration lanes that seem to be the style in both Texas and Louisiana, get right to the end and then say, oh, excuse me, I didn’t mean to be rude, I’ll just come to a near stop and let you go on by. It’s really hard to adjust your speed to allow these people to merge in front of you because they just don’t seem to want to. It’s not just because we have a motor home either, as I’ve seen the same behavior when it’s a car or pickup truck.

Speaking of pickup trucks, they still seem to be the vehicle of choice in this part of the world. Sales may be down other places, but not in Texas and Louisiana. Bright shiny big trucks, preferably with dual rear tires, usually with expensive wheels, leather interiors and whatever luxury package the manufacturer offers. Al wonders what is the point of having a pickup truck when no one offers an 8-foot bed any more so you can’t even bring home a sheet of plywood.

East of Lake Charles, the land on both sides of I-10 turns agricultural and it took me a while to realize that those fields of funny looking grass were really growing rice. And those large side-by-side ponds turned out to be crawfish farms. South of Lafayette, the grass looked taller and coarser and the lady at the RV park identified it as sugar cane. We came into New Iberia on a Sunday and most non-chain restaurants were closed. Wandering around town, I spotted a tiny place that advertised po’boys and gumbo among other things. A shrimp po’boy was what Al had his mouth set for and the gumbo was a nice lagniappe, as the folks here in Cajun country say, an extra. Tasty too, along with sweet iced tea.

One of the places Al and I have had on our “want to see” list for years is Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce. Sunday afternoon was way too warm to visit the adjacent Jungle Gardens so Monday morning we were at the gate when it opened at nine. The lagniappe this time was the fact that we had the place to ourselves. It’s a five mile drive through scenery that is what you think of when you think of Louisiana—bayous, oak trees dripping with moss, a couple of deer grazing in a field, alligator eyes just breaking the surface. This image of the start of the drive sets the tone.

There are gardens of camellias and azaleas set in among the native plants and it must be especially lovely in the spring. It’s part of the old McIlhenny estate, the Tabasco sauce people, and on one section of water, a refuge for egrets was established during the early 20th century when the birds were seriously endangered because of hunting for their plumes, which decorated women’s hats. This area is called Bird City and bamboo platforms have been erected in the water to provide extra nesting space for the birds. As you can see in the photo, the egrets don’t mind having close neighbors.

This is only one of several platforms which are constructed out of bamboo that grows in the gardens and are renewed annually. Some of the birds are young, about ¾ the size of the adults, but not yet ready to fly. Apparently the alligators like to hang around in the water below to deal with the babies that don’t quite make a successful first solo flight.

There were a few other people on the Tabasco plant tour, which consists of a couple of videos then viewing the bottling area through large windows. Something like 700,000 bottles of Tabasco sauce are bottled every day--of course, some of them are pretty small. We had no idea there were so many flavors of Tabasco sauce and so many other products that have included the Tabasco flavor, such as Spam, Vlasic Pickles, A-1 Sauce and others. The current management is really working on expanding Tabasco’s profile in the food world. We sampled several of the sauces, some salsas, and even jalapeno ice cream, which was rather interesting. The other flavor of ice cream featured their new hot and spicy flavor and I just did not care for it—maybe it was the heavy garlic.

We had lunch at the Tabasco Country Store, eating outside in a nicely shaded picnic area. Al had a nicely spicy crawfish etouffe and I had something called crawfish corn moque choux, which is crawfish meat with corn kernels on rice, with a more subtle flavoring.

We spent the afternoon driving around the New Iberia area, trying to find more of the bayou type scenery, which was pretty well hidden behind tall trees and sugar cane fields. Southwestern Louisiana might have good food, but it’s basically working country, either agriculture or oil rig support, as illustrated by the names of the businesses you pass on the main highway or the huge structures in the Port of New Iberia. Both the RV park here in New Iberia and the one in Sulphur are large and cater primarily to working people who come and stay for an extended period of time. At both parks, the occupancy rate was seriously down from this time last year, a symptom of the poor economy which these folks blame on our current president. You can imagine how they feel about any off-shore drilling moratorium.

Since we are heading north tomorrow, Al wanted one more regional meal, which ended up being an appetizer of crab fingers followed by a shrimp po'boy and an oyster po'boy, each of which we shared. What are crab fingers you might ask? Pricey, for one thing, but I couldn't resist. They are the non-claw legs of small crabs which have had the shell taken off the meaty portion, but the meat left attached to the second joint which is used as a handle. Then you lightly bread the meat and fry the fingers. I should have taken a photo. Quite tasty and a lot less work than digging out that meat yourself. You just pick one up by the attached shell and eat the meat. Yum.

So far, my feeling about Louisiana is that it’s a lot like a crawfish: a lot of work to tease out that little bit of sweet reward.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

We were seduced by the Louisiana tourism marketers into planning a couple of days exploring the Creole Nature Trail which is in the very southwest part of the state so our next day was scheduled to be a short drive.

It started out with a 15-minute ride on the free ferry across the gap between the northerly end of Galveston Island and the southerly tip of the Bolivar Peninsula. Immediately after Hurricane Ike, we had read that everything on the narrow peninsula had been washed away by the twenty-foot storm surge. If that was true, they have spent the last twenty months building like crazy because you’d hardly know there had been a hurricane except, once again, that everything had a fresh coat of paint.

We were doing fine until we got to Beaumont, where construction had the freeway backed up for miles and miles and miles. It looked like they were using grinders to take off the lane-marking turtles so they could define the lanes with a new method that we’d never seen before, a wide black line with a narrower white one embedded in it. Maybe it shows up at night, who knows? But you have to wonder who decided that they had to mess up a perfectly good road and traffic for this particular project that had no apparent immediate impact. Once again, I probably just don’t understand.

The area around our new temporary home, Sulphur, Louisiana, is a hub of petrochemical activity. Fortunately, it doesn’t smell too bad. It’s on the intracoastal waterway as well as the railroad, so products can be shipped conveniently all directions. The Creole Nature Trail started out by taking us past a lot of industrial facilities, which of course delighted Al no end. It also allowed us to sample some of the regional specialties, which I’m almost embarrassed to mention because they have no redeeming qualities except for total satisfaction. I’m talking deep fried chicken gizzards; Louisiana hot links; boudin, which is pronounced boo-dan and is a kind of sausage made with rice and who knows what else and which is very tasty except that you have to kind of squeeze it out of its inedible casing, so it is very messy; and, to top off everything else, boudin balls, which are made of the stuff that fills the boudin sausage, but formed into a ball which is itself encased in a spicy breading and then deep fried. See why I’m embarrassed? We ate it all, and this was before lunch! To atone, we had broccoli florets and carrot sticks for lunch, which I have no doubt absolutely cancelled the evil effects of all that other stuff.

The Creole Trail finally runs past the last of the chemical plants and into a wildlife refuge. There are canals running alongside the road that are part of the water management system for the refuge and which must be great fishing places because every wide spot in the road was crammed with cars and people lines the banks with fishing poles, crab strings and nets and hand nets. There were also john boats with fishermen running through the wider channels and the bayous. Al had boat envy.

At our first stop in the refuge, this big guy had hauled out right below a viewing platform in the parking log. The smaller one appeared to be making advances, rubbing up alongside him, apparently a shameless hussy.

We walked along a nicely paved path into the swamp where the bugs found us.
Happily, they seemed to be deterred by insect repellent, except that it didn’t occur to me to spray my back and I ended up with several huge bites right through my knit shirt. This area is primarily a wintering and migration area, so there’s not as much to see in the summer besides alligators and water birds-- the most unusual of those we saw in this area was a couple of purple gallinules. In general, however, a summer visit to the Creole Nature Trail was not terrifically exciting. The land is as flat as a tabletop, is generally too wet to support anything other than grasses, the Gulf beaches were narrow and uninviting and Al was right—the industry and the fishermen were probably the most interesting part of the drive.

For dinner, I ordered a boiled crawfish platter which you can see in the image below. That yellow thing is a piece of corn on the cob, by the way, and the pink things are boiled red potatoes. Al’s menu selection was unfortunate and shall remain undocumented except for the wonderful pickled green tomatoes.

This was supposed to be three pounds of whole crawfish, which sounds like a lot until you realize how little of each crawfish is actually edible.
I recall a humorous saying about artichokes to the effect that when you finish eating one, there is more left than you started with. It’s pretty much the same way with crawfish. First, you discover that the head is four or five times as big as the tail, and it’s only what’s inside the tail that you eat. Even though I got the hang of it shortly, it was still a lot of work for little reward, tasty though that reward may have been. It just seems silly to throw that much of the critter away, but unless they’ve figured out how to recycle crawfish heads, there’s not much else to do. We did learn that crawfish are farmed commercially in ponds, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about how much labor some poor fisherman had to go to so I could throw away an enormous bowlful of heads. This endeavor is about as messy as eating Texas barbecue. However, when you're done, your lips aren't greasy, they're burning from the salt in the crawfish boil seasoning. Undoubtedly just as bad for you as the fat in the brisket and ribs.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The forecast was for thunderstorms from Austin east to the state line for several days. Our last night at Lockhart State Park featured lightning so close that I couldn’t count past one before the thunder clapped. The power went out but the rain didn’t amount to much. The power came back on so we could run the a/c but the thunder continued to grumble all around us. It was still grumbling the next morning. Heading east on I-10 we could see black clouds to the northeast and to the southeast. It was just a matter of time before we hit the line of thunderstorms.

The rain came down in sheets, visibility reduced to scary levels and the wind was blowing the motorhome all over the highway, not a fun thing when you’re sharing the road with a lot of eighteen-wheelers. The promised rest area never materialized, or maybe we couldn’t see it with the rain, so Al pulled off at an interchange that featured a bank on one corner and a gas station on the other, both without power. He parked and we ate lunch while we waited out the storm. The parking lot flooded with six inches of water and once again the lightning and thunder were almost simultaneous, repeating over and over again. I looked at the weather on the iPhone and sure enough, there was a line of t-storms fifty miles long moving rapidly north and going right through our present location. No kidding. But as advertised, the storm blew through and we were on the road again. Which was more than could be said for the driver of a FedEx eighteen-wheeler who was being extricated from a field next to the highway where he was facing the wrong direction. That must have been some gust.

During the storm, Al had called Galveston Island State Park and was able to get reservations for three nights. We had been to Galveston in 2002 but were curious about how it had recovered from Hurricane Ike in 2008. As it turned out, you had to look closely to see the evidence of the damage, the biggest clue being that everything was freshly painted. The park facilities had been completely obliterated by the storm and there had been doubt as to whether it would ever reopen. It’s not the same as it was, but the Gulf of Mexico is still there on one side and West Bay is still there on the other side. You can still see wonderful birds like roseate spoonbills, white ibis, brown pelicans, even a magnificent frigate bird, along with more common birds like great egrets, tri-colored heron, willets, laughing gulls, various sizes of terns.

Here's our neighbor across the bayou to the north of our campsire.

This is the view from the other window of the motorhome, out across West Bay toward the mainland. If you have really good eyes you can see a blur above the upper band of water--that's the mainland. The air was pretty soupy our entire visit, typical semi-tropical maritime.

Here's Al enjoying the breeze off the Gulf of Mexico. Great beaches here and unless you are right in the city, not that many people. This is a public access boardwalk across the dunes, one of many public access points down the island.

They also have seafood in Galveston, lots of seafood. We couldn’t find the Cajun place where we had eaten on our previous visit and all the rebuilt restaurants seemed a bit glossy, so we headed for Katy’s Seafood near the fishing boats and bought two pounds of shrimp, medium, head off but raw. I had some cherry tomatoes left over from stripping my garden before we left and they were getting a little soft, so I halved them and threw them in some olive oil along with some garlic and some “Cajun seasoning.” When this was cooked down, it was just a matter of adding the shrimp (which I had peeled but left the tails on) and stirring for a few minute until they were pink. See the photo. It was actually too much for two of us to eat, so we had leftovers in an omelet for breakfast. This all cost less than one restaurant meal and we pigged out on a lot more shrimp.

The next day I bought some grouper fillet and cooked it according to Emeril’s directions.
No photo, but it was really good along with some oil-and-vinegar-dressed potato salad and some creamy cole slaw, both (motor)home-made. The fillet was big enough that I had to save half for dinner the next day when I served it on top of a salad. I’d never eaten grouper before but it’s one of those things you read about, so I had to try it. A firm-fleshed white fish with a fillet thickness of about an inch and a half at the thickest. If I were to cook it again, I’d probably use it in a fish stew.

I’ve said it before, that we move like Napoleon’s army, on our stomachs. Next stop: Cajun country.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Word about humidity

I had forgotten what humidity smells like. In the desert, if you smell the air, it smells dusty, or after a rain it smells like wet dust.
But where it’s humid, the air smells all the time, a heavy, earthy smell that hits you in the face when you exit the a/c. Sometimes the odor of humidity is overlaid with good smells, like honeysuckle or lilac. Sometimes it is permeated with stinky smells like oil or skunk. Un-air conditioned enclosed spaces smell musty, as do the sheets on my bed. The bath towels take forever to dry. I break out in a sweat as soon as I step into the sun, so I probably smell pretty "musty" myself most of the time.

Al has been fretting about the humidity for all the months that we’ve been planning the trip. Now that we’re in it, he’s decided he can stand it for a while, especially since he's noticed that his skin isn't as dry. Maybe the humidity will moisturize all my wrinkles away.

The good thing about being where it is humid is all the lovely flowering trees. The one above is in Luling, TX, just down the street from City Market. We've gotten used to the fact that everything is so green, although it was a little weird at first.

Monday, June 07, 2010

West Texas really does go on forever.

From Alpine east, the landscape didn’t get any more interesting. The main difference was that instead of using the motorhome to slaughter pretty little white butterflies with black wing edges, now we were slaughtering large black butterflies. The bright spot in the whole situation was that the reason there were so many butterflies is that there were a lot of wildflowers blooming along the roadside. Apparently Texas doesn’t believe in mowing the shoulders, which meant that the vegetation grew right up to the road and the wildflowers were enjoying the runoff from the highway. In the desert, the wildflowers bloom early in the year, beginning in February and drying up in the late spring heat. I’d forgotten that in the rest of the country, the spring bloom starts later and persists into summer. Amazing what just a little more rain can do.

People often complain about the deadly dullness of the I-10 corridor across western Arizona, but at least there are mountains to break the horizon. In west and central Texas, the hills are rolling at best and the only thing to look at is the flowers alongside the road. It stands to reason that main highways are not necessarily built through scenic areas, but at least in the olden days (when I was young), business could put up funny signs along the roadways, like Burma Shave signs or billboards advertising wacky tourist attractions. I remember on one trip with my parents through Wyoming seeing signs advertising clean restrooms for miles and miles ahead, then finally the “clean restrooms” were revealed to be a pair of tractor tires, one labeled men and one labeled women, sitting in the middle of a dusty landscape. Humor like that isn’t allowed any more but at least we have air conditioning in the vehicle. I don’t know if that’s a good trade-off or not.

Somewhere between Fort Stockton and Ozona, all of a sudden there were trees, not just junipers but honest to goodness oaks and other kinds I don’t know. I checked the map and sure enough, this was just about longitude 100 West which is the widely-accepted dividing line between where it rains and where it doesn’t rain. The trees know. Also along in there, we started seeing blankets of low growing pink flowers alongside the road and in the median.In one place the entire 50-plus-foot-wide median was completely covered with pink. This photo is the best I could get at 60 mph.

Anyone who knows us knows that we like to eat. I’ve started planning my trips with the aid of Chowhound, which is an on-line site with discussion groups about restaurants in various areas. When Al mentioned that he wanted to stay in Junction TX for the night, I recalled a Chowhound discussion of a barbecue place in Junction. The lady at the RV park (which shall remain nameless since it was shamelessly overpriced) steered us in the right direction. The specialty of Cooper’s is the “big chop”, a huge double-rib thick barbecued (i.e., smoked) pork chop that was probably the best piece of pork I’ve ever eaten. We also bought a (teeny tiny) shoulder of cabrito, which was tasty but a bit on the dry side, which is not surprising since a baby goat doesn’t normally have a lot of fat. It’s this kind of thing that makes driving across west Texas worthwhile. The photo below shows the outdoor smokers, which are a bit different from the method used by the top-rated old established places. However, you can see they are set up to smoke a whole lot of whatever. There isn’t a lot of ambience and the meat is served from a deli-type case, which further reduces the ambience. Pretty tasty though and a good segue into Texas-style 'cue.

We arrived in central Texas on Sunday, which limited our options for barbecue and the only one we even considered was Smitty’s Market in Lockhart. We ordered brisket and pork ribs (ribs available only on weekends), way too much meat but we ate it all. Fortunately we were early because a lot of other folks had the same idea. The photo below shows the smoke room, where the fire sits on the floor and the smoke is directed mostly up into the meat chamber. I say mostly because in the amount of time it takes to place your order, have it cut, and pay for it, you’re going to end up pretty smokey smelling. That's not poor focus in the picture, that's real smoke. I can’t imagine what it’s like to work in a place like that day after day. There must be no OSHA in Texas. The meat is taken directly off the fire and cut before your very eyes to your requested weight. The cutters are competitive about cutting exactly the amount called for and there’s a lot of joking going on. A great place to enjoy doing business if you can stand the smoke. Fortunately, you eat in another room, where you also get your sides and drinks. In most places, you can get a plastic knife, but the accepted method of eating is with the hands.Some people put the meat between the slices of white bread that you get with the meat order, and some just lay into the meat. I don’t think Smitty’s even has BBQ sauce and generally in any of the places, you won't get a fork to eat your sides--only spoons will be available. By the time you're done, you're hands are so greasy you can't hardly hang onto your glass bottle of Big Red and your lips won't need chapstick for a week. I'm not going to mention the effect on the arteries.

The next day we did lunch at the City Market in Luling which regularly beats out Smitty’s in the rankings but is not open on Sunday. We ordered less meat and it was so good that we were almost sorry we’d decided to exercise restraint.The brisket was definitely better than at Smitty’s and the glaze on the ribs wasn’t as sweet and was more to my liking. However, everyone has their own taste in the matter and it certainly makes for a lively discussion when Texans talk about barbecue joints.

Three days of red meat was more than our systems could take, so our next stop was planned for the beach, where we could get seafood.

Here are some more of the wildflowers that we saw along the roadsides.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The temperature forecast for Apache Junction was heading up into the triple digits and Al had finished his major maintenance projects, so it was finally time to think about heading out. We've never spent a lot of time in the motor home in the summer, but we knew that with single-pane windows and minimal insulation, the a/c was going to have a hard time keeping ahead of the heat. Oil slicks and the late departure be darned, we decided to hold to our original plan of heading east along I-10 until we couldn't stand it any longer.

So on June 1, after a chiropractor visit for Al and a haircut for Linda and an early lunch, we finally pointed the rig eastward. Our first stop was only 140 miles away at Roper Lake, near Safford, AZ. The first time we visited this state park, there was a film of ice on the lake in the morning, but this time it was about 100 degrees when we arrived. The additional 1000 feet of elevation didn't seem to affect the temperature much. There were only about three other rigs in the park, but lots of folks were swimming in the day use area. The photo below shows the view through our windshield, which is pretty hard to beat. As the sun neared the horizon, we took our chairs down to the lakeshore and watched the birds. To my surprise, I actually got a new life bird, a Clark's grebe. I wouldn't have even realized it, but I was somewhat surprised to see a large grebe here, so I hauled out the bird book to check the range and only then did I realize this bird was something different from the Western grebe I was more accustomed to seeing. And yes, it did belong in Roper Lake. So an auspicious start to the trip.

In keeping with Al's preference for not driving much over 200 miles a day, we aimed for Las Cruces, NM, for our next night. We also wanted to revisit the old town area of Mesilla which is a funky kind of place. Here's the view from our RV park in Las Cruces.

On our way out of Roper Lake, we had driven through a veritable forest of blooming yucca plants in their prime. I didn't get any photos, but on the road south of Van Horn TX there was another stand. As usual, a photo through the windshield doesn't do the scene justice, but believe me that the sight of the white yucca spires filling the landscape was impressive.

We were headed for Marfa, TX, but on the way I wanted to stop and see Prada Marfa, an installation art piece by the side of US90 near Valentine. It's a faux Prada store in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the typical west Texas landscape as you can see in the image below.

The interior of the store has actual Prada merchandise in it, some of which appear in the next image.

The unlikely juxtaposition of a global luxury brand and the emptiness of the landscape makes one think about the true value of something like Prada, which basically has no meaning in this context. Or you can make whatever you want of the installation.

We were on our way to Marfa, TX, to revisit the Chinati Foundation which is primarily devoted to minimalist art works. Donald Judd, a prominent minimalist artist, purchased an old military base in the 70's and modified several buildings to exhibit various art works, some of which are his. You can only view the exhibits on a guided tour, which is quite inexpensive. We had seen the afternoon segment in 2002 but I wanted to see the rest on this trip. We were able to sign up for both the morning and afternoon tours for the next day, Friday.

Minimalism in art is something that you either get or you don't, kind of like Prada Marfa. My dear husband is much less of an art afficionado than I am (and I'm only an amateur at the game) but he accompanies me with a minimum of grumbling. The site of the Chinati Foundation is itself quite interesting as are the various ways in which the buildings have been adapted for artistic purposes. The first exhibit was housed in two large buildings which were artillery sheds in the days of the fort but which now have huge windows to illuminate the installation. The installation consists of 100 milled aluminum boxes, each roughly 6 feet by 4 feet by 3 1/2 feet. The exterior dimensions are all the same but the interiors of the boxes are all different. This sounds pretty boring and wacky, but you have to see them to appreciate the way that the design of each box takes light and creates a unique optical effect. Al was fascinated, not only by the construction techniques (which is usually all he focuses on) but also by the effects. This image gives only a hint of the effect of one of the boxes. Note the reflections and the opening in the left edge which allows you to see through the box, at the same time appearing to be a mirror.

The other major permanent indoor installation is a series by Dan Flavin who worked in, of all things, neon lights. This installation consists of a dozen long narrow rooms, at the end of each of which is a neon light installation of differing colors. The effect of the same colors will vary depending on the installation. This photo shows one of the images that you get when entering a room, although you can walk up and look around the corner to see the actual light fixtures. Remember, we're looking at minimalist art here, where everything unnecessary is stripped away.

Marfa is a strange little town. The Chinati Foundation brings in a lot of arts-y visitors and there are a few upscale accommodations and eateries, even a few galleries, but it's generally just another west Texas railroad town. We had lunch at the Food Shark, which is a roach coach that appears for lunch under a large shade structure next to the railroad tracks. People come out of the woodwork to patronize it. The food was quite good and surprisingly sophisticated. My eggplant baguette featured fresh mozzarella, for example. You have to wonder about the juxtaposition of this sophistication and the backwater town, how this plays out in the lives of the residents. Kind of like Prada Marfa, now that I think about it.