May 12, 2021 – O’Keeffe’s Faraway Place

Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.” Georgia O’Keeffe

In the summer of 1929, a 32-yr-old artist well known by that time as an influential and successful modernist painter, drove her Model T automobile cross country from New York to a “faraway place” in northern New Mexico. By invitation of friends, Georgia O’Keeffe came there for a short visit, but ended up staying for almost three months. She may not have known she was looking for a spiritual home, but she knew it when she found it.

Ghost Ranch Landscape

“You know, I never feel at home in the East like I do out here. I feel like myself and I like it.” Georgia O’Keeffe

When O’Keeffe took her cross-country trip, she was living in New York with her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Both famed artists at the time, the two often left the city to spend summers at Lake George. And it was there she wrote the following to a friend, “Here at Lake George, everything is very green. I look around and wonder what one might paint.” O’Keeffe was feeling stifled. And for good reasons that went well beyond the green monotones surrounding her.

Her husband was a great photographer that had elevated his medium to a modernistic art form. Owner of the legendary 291 Art Gallery in New York City, the influential Stieglitz exhibited and promoted avant-garde artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe. Excited by her originality, he exhibited some of her abstract charcoal drawings in 1916. Soon after, the couple fell in love, they married in 1924, and O’Keeffe came to New York to live with Stieglitz. There, both continued their work supported by mutual encouragement.

“You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower. You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.” Georgia O’Keeffe

During that time, Stieglitz created several photographic images of O’Keeffe. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe was creating some of her most significant abstract modernism paintings, mostly flowers. She was painting her joy. But then something happened that changed her direction dramatically. In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited 45 of his prints of O’Keeffe, including several intimate nudes. And he wrote about her work. Consequently, this created a persona that caused critics to depict O’Keeffe as a sensual and sexual creature. When her work of joy was finally exhibited, critiques fraught with Freudian analyses of which Stieglitz contributed described it as ‘expressions of her sexuality’. Devastated, the acclaimed painter went back to realism. But not for long.

“As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I had never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There’s something that’s in the air, it’s just different. The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.” Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, O’Keeffe met New Mexico which transformed her art and in which she felt at home. It was in the high desert where O’Keeffe redefined herself on her own terms and became an iconic mythic figure. After her first visit to New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe followed an established pattern for several years, staying on for longer periods each time. Eventually, she acquired a house at Ghost Ranch and shortly after a second one in the nearby town of Abiquiu. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, she came to live permanently and for the next 37 years, lived and worked at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin on November 15, 1887, died in Abiquiu, New Mexico on March 6, 1986.

Both Vivian and I had a fervent desire to experience O’Keeffe’s faraway place and I was thrilled to do it through the camera’s lens. Like me, Vivian admires O’Keeffe’s work immensely and to see her source of inspiration was as exciting to her as it was for me. This was the focal point of our 4-week visit to New Mexico. But especially as a landscape photographer, my admiration and intrigue for O’Keeffe rose exponentially as I prepared for our visit. I attribute this to three reasons.

First, O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by photographers, which is no stretch of the imagination given her husband was Alfred Stieglitz. Concerning her large flower paintings, O’Keeffe said, “If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

Her flower observations are strikingly similar to what a macro photographer might say – “If I photograph the flowers at 35mm or as my eyes see them, no one will see what I see because the flowers would appear too small. But if I use a macro lens, I can get within an inch of the flower and fill the frame with all its details, as I see it”.

Check out this slideshow of a couple images I shot of the Chama River overlook. In 1961, O’Keeffe stood in the same spot with a camera and took photographs.

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Second, O’Keeffe was an artist of nature, as a nature photographer might be. Her paintings are more than abstract, they are intriguing studies of simplicity with details carefully added. One of her biggest influences was Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter who mentored O’Keeffe early in her art studies. His teachings of composition and design were based on the principles of Japanese art, which in my mind, is a study in simplicity. From Dow’s teachings, O’Keeffe learned to “Fill a space in a beautiful way”. Photographers learn to do the same through the frame of a lens. As O’Keeffe injects realism into her abstracts, a photographer learns to add abstraction through simple compositions that utilize negative space, single elements, and muted or monotone colors. All from nature.

“I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Third, O’Keeffe’s profound connection to New Mexico’s landscapes resonates powerfully as I have also felt a strong connection to places; first in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert where I lived for four years, and later in the Everglades that I have called home for the past 17 years. Photographing these places requires more than simply being there, you must explore it and learn it. O’Keeffe was drawn to the mystical wonders and beauty of the high desert and spent so much time exploring it. Consequently, her abstract paintings became her vocabulary – her visual language to describe her experiences in these places. As a photographer, I feel an urge to create my own visual language when I take my camera into the Everglades – a means of describing how it feels to be in such a place.

“God told me if I painted that mountain enough, I could have it.” O’Keefe said this about the Cerro Pedernal, a flat-topped, strong-shouldered mountain that she viewed from her backyard and painted several times. When Vivian and stayed in the area for a several days, the mountain seemed to watch us where ever we were, including our campsite on Pedernal loop. Check out this slide show and see what I mean.

Vivian and I walked on O’Keeffe’s land; Ghost Ranch, the White Place, the Black Place, and observed firsthand what she painted over 80 years ago. As I stood in one place framing one image after another, I thought about O’Keeffe’s numerous paintings of the same scene. Her visual description of a place is not through just one painting, but several. I wonder if O’Keeffe were alive today at the miraculous age of 134 and without losing her central vision from macular degeneration, how many more paintings of the Black Place or the Cerro Pedernal would she have created? Afterall, God had already given her the land.

Check out the next three slideshows, photographs taken from O’Keeffe’s 1) Ghost Ranch, 2) White Place and 3) Black Place.

May 8, 2021 – Gateway to the Southwest

Downtown Santa Fe with its pueblo-style architecture and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi at the end of the street.

All told, we came to Santa Fe to see one thing – the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. My determination was mostly driven by the fact that I had visited Santa Fe twice many years ago – and both times, the museum was closed for some reason or another, blocking me from entering a museum dedicated to one of my favorite artists. Unfortunately before we arrived and in the time of Covid, the museum required advanced reservations which I failed to acquire. Once again, O’Keeffe’s inspiring canyon art eluded me. But I was fine with that and found peace from two things; first our visit to Santa Fe and its surrounding areas proved to be more interesting than one artist’s work, and second, the ghost of O’Keeffe would come back to us on our trip through New Mexico in a more awesome way.

Typical Santa Fe adobe architecture.
Lots of colors and adobe found in Santa Fe.
In Santa Fe, art galleries seem to out number people.
Viewing the ‘miraculous staircase’ inside the historic Loretto Chapel.

But for now, forget modern day Santa Fe and all its art galleries and its Pueblo-inspired adobe architecture; instead, enjoy a casual version from a casual tourist’s blog of New Mexico’s interesting history that came to light during our 3-day stay near the state’s capital. This is when we discovered the ‘Land of Enchantment’ has a rich past, more colorful than its exquisite landscape. During our stay, we had time to hike the Galisteo Preserve near town and to visit Pecos National Historical Park. And it is here where we go back in time, way back in time. (Enjoy the slideshow of some images from our hike in the beautiful Galisteo Preserve).

Once upon a time thousands of years before AD 1100, Ancestral Pueblo people hunted and gathered in the Upper Pecos Valley that is between the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the Glorieta Mesa, east of Santa Fe. Over time, people gravitated to locations with water sources and began farming and building above ground villages or pueblos. Eventually, the many pueblos that dotted the landscape consolidated into one larger settlement known as Pecos Pueblo. Containing five-story complexes, the sophisticated pueblo with its innovative architecture had grown to over 2000 people by 1400.

Remains of the Pecos Pueblo.
The Pecos Pueblo is an active archeology site.

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s, Pecos Pueblo was the largest and most powerful Pueblo in the area. Known as the Cicuye or the ‘village of 500 warriors”, the Pecos Pueblo became a successful trade center that connected the people to the Plains cultures such as the Comanche and to the Spanish explorers.

The park allows you to climb inside what was once a pueblo family’s dwelling.

From its first contact with the Pueblos, Spain began to colonize and aggressively establish Franciscan missions within the largest pueblo communities. This was Spain’s attempt to control every aspect of the Pueblo world, from economics to belief systems.

A Spanish mission church overlooks the Pecos Valley.

In 1680, an inevitable turn of events occurred – the Pecos Pueblo revolted. Rumblings of a revolt had been going on for a while. Five years prior, several Pueblo holy men were publicly flogged (or executed) for sorcery. One of the flogged men was Po’Pay, a religious leader of the OhKay Owingeh or San Juan Pueblo. Not to be messed with, Po’Pay organized and led the revolt which caused the Spanish to turn tail and run back to Mexico. Po’Pay called upon his people to eradicate Spanish language, customs, and beliefs. Today, a statue of Po’Pay stands in the capital of New Mexico.

Remains of the Mission Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula de los Pecos, built in 1619 can be seen at Pecos National Historical Park.

But, like a bad penny, the Spanish came back 12 years later, led by Don Diego de Vargas and proceeded to forcibly take over New Mexico and re-establish its missions at many of the pueblos, including Pecos Pueblo. The new group of colonists and a few displaced settlers risked their lives to make new homes and reclaim what they lost. This time however, they came back as a ‘kinder and gentler’ lot by removing forced labor and providing the Pueblos justification for remaining on friendly terms with them.

In front of the church, a traditional kiva had been built during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680

Nothing is perfect and it would be nice if we could all get along, right? Through the 1700s, the Pecos People slowly dwindled in number, largely from diseases introduced by the Comanche who came raiding on their horses from the plains and brought with them the European-introduced diseases. The site was abandoned in 1838 and the survivors moved to Jemez Pueblo.

Meanwhile, Mexico was leading a 10-yr violent revolt against Spain and in 1821, became independent. The revolutionary government made three promises to its people – independence from Spain, Catholicism would be Mexico’s only religion, and equality for all Mexicans. Territory of New Mexico was now part of Mexico.

During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, 21 friars were killed and later martyred.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe trail that connected Missouri to New Mexico was pioneered around the time of Mexico’s declared independence and until 1880 (pre-railroad), served as a significant commercial highway. Santa Fe was at the center of it all, as a part of a trade route from Mexico City as well as the United States to the east. Lots of interesting things happened along that trail, not the least of which was because it crossed through Comanche territory.

The Pueblo people built large subterranean circular structures as large as 40 ft in diameter and 10 ft deep. These are known as kivas, well-recognized structures distinct to the southwestern pueblo cultures and thought to be locations for ceremony.

Along comes 1846 at which time the American army was using the Santa Fe trail to invade New Mexico during the Mexican-American war, as well as killing off the bison to remove power from the Comanche and other Plains Indians. The war that began in 1846 and ended in 1848 did not have bipartisan support in the U.S. government. Democrats, most especially the southern types, were riled up by President Polk’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ and wanted to add slave-owning territory to the south to avoid being outnumbered by the faster growing North. Others, especially Republicans were not keen on the war. Yet it happened and ended with a treaty that gave U.S. control over Texas, established the US-Mexican border along the Rio Grande, and ceded several states including New Mexico. In return, Mexico received $15 million less than half the amount offered before the war began.

A typical view that the Pecos Pueblos would have had.

And let’s be clear on the Manifest Destiny because this was at the heart of the Mexican-American war, the westward expansion of the United States, and the American Civil War – “the idea that the people of US would inevitably settle the continent from Atlantic to Pacific ocean. The concept centered around the belief that Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the blessings of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling the destiny was important and could be accomplished by force if needed.

An artist’s depiction of the ‘Manifest Destiny’.

And speaking of accomplishing by force, New Mexico played a significant role during the civil war. If you do visit Pecos Historical National Park, you can learn about an important battle on the Glorieta Pass where the Union forces ended the Confederate’s drive to cut off the West from the Union in 1862. The Union won that battle by the way.

We never realized before that our travels through the American southwest would be, among others a continuation of our Civil War lessons. But one thing is certain – before 1848 and to its present day, New Mexico has it going on and our immersion had only just begun.

People were not the first inhabitants of New Mexico and this working archeology lab is proof of that. We visited the lab while at the Ghost Ranch (more on that later).
Meet Coelophysis, a common little dinosaur in these parts back in the day. In 2006, it received the name Effigia Okeeffeae, in honor of Georgia O’Keeffe, and literally means “O’Keeffe’s ghost”. See, I told you O’Keeffe’s ghost would come back into the picture!
The archeologist was kind enough to point to the bones of the feet of a coleophysis. See if you can make them out.
And the resident archeologist took the time to talk about excavations of ancient pueblo sites from where pottery pieces are found and reconstructed to put on display.

May 5, 2021 – Fire and Sand

Quite a change from our alligator warning signs in Florida. I am still waiting to see a sign warning visitors to “Don’t feed the rattlesnakes”.

Traveling America’s southwest makes one want to be a geologist. While researching and preparing for our 2021 travels, we found Google’s satellite imagery of the areas of Utah and New Mexico most intriguing. Our desire to explore certain areas was heightened by aerial views of abstract terrains made of colors and contrasts. These strange lands piqued our imaginations. Our introduction to these mysterious lands of the southwest began in southern New Mexico where white sand and black basalt lava meet.

An aerial view of the Tularosa Basin where two of the most extreme landscapes exist. And no, that black area is not water.

Much of the planning was done by me and not Vivian. While White Sands National Park was at the top of my list when I made reservations for a campsite in Alamogordo, I also made time between visits to White Sands to explore two other locations far removed from the dunes, at least by appearances. But first, White Sands. A satellite image gives you a good idea as to how massive the white sand dunes are and NASA’s imagery provides details of this 275 square-foot landscape anomaly, the largest gypsum dune field on Earth.

Waves of sand with the San Andres Mountains in the background.

As we continued to explore national monuments and parks, we learn what is common among many of them is preservation began with one person’s foresight. To be considered by the National Park Service as a prospective site, it required “economic worthlessness and monumentalism”. More importantly, it requires someone to lead the way with enthusiastic support for the idea. The economic worthlessness was an easy sell given that mining the gypsum sand dunes proved unsuccessful due to low market value of unprocessed gypsum sand. In the 1920’s, people began to see the value of the dunes for its uniqueness and this view was brought forth by Tom Charles of Alamogordo to the park service. His efforts paid off.

Plants in the dunes have adapted by growing very quickly before being buried by sand.
A surreal landscape, 360 degrees.

On January 18, 1933, President Herbert Hoover established White Sands as a National Monument to preserve “the white sands and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.” As you may know, national monuments can come and go depending on who resides in the White House, but national parks are created (or removed) by a majority vote by Congress. In other words, once a monument becomes a national park, it is pretty much there to stay to eternity. On December 20, 2019, White Sands was designated as a National Park in recognition of its added significance of the park for its natural and cultural resources. It receives over 600,000 visitors each year and is the most visited NPS site in New Mexico (even before becoming a national park).

A pristine dune without evidence of human footprints.

White Sands Dune Field was formed when sea levels that once covered the area dropped, leaving behind gypsum sand, a soft mineral that dissolves in water. This process began as water washed down from the newly formed San Andres and Sacramento Mountains into the Tularosa Basin forming a shallow sea. With nowhere to go, the water evaporated over time leaving behind massive quantities of gypsum crystal deposits that eventually broke down into tiny grains that formed dunes as high as 60 feet. This is what is now 145,762 acres of national park.

Evening sky over the dunes.

Given the amount of sand included in our itinerary, I knew our stay here would not be a fishing location for Vivian. And therefore, I never discussed the details of my planned itinerary except to say I wanted to spend lots of quality time photographing White Sands. Because sand is Vivian’s least favorite thing in the world, she visited White Sands one time with me only to say she saw it, and happily stayed back when I returned to the dunes a couple more times. But we had other places to visit during our short stay. So, while I photographed dunes, Vivian began researching the other locations on our itinerary. Upon looking at a Google satellite image, she noticed a large dark area just north of White Sand and got excited at the prospects of a body of water.

The park from which the Carrizozo Malpais lava flow can be accessed is called Valley of Fires and managed by BLM. The paved path winds down into the lava basin.

Unfortunately for Vivian, that body of water was not water at all, in fact it is quite the opposite. Seeing the disappointment on her face as I told her to put away her fishing gear for now, I explained that the large black area on the satellite map was something extraordinary because I knew her disappointment would be replaced by curiosity and a fascination for exploring the unknown. Only fifteen miles north of the brilliant white gypsum deposit is a 47 mile-long charcoal scar in the arid landscape of southern New Mexico. The Carrizozo Malpais, a huge lava flow resulting from the eruption of Little Black Peak, is 4-6 miles wide, 160 ft deep and covers 125 square miles. The uniform dark appearance comes from the basalt content, which tended to flow easily, thus creating an elongated lava landscape within the Tularosa Basin. Geologists believe the Carrizozo was created in a single episode lasting 20 to 30 years about 5200 years ago, making it one of the youngest lava flows in the U.S. It is also about 5000 years younger than the White Sands Dunes.

Amazing how such a black mass can be covered so densely with vegetation.

The lava flow is called Valley of Fires and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. A campground overlooks the lava flow and a well-maintained walking path winds through the lava flow. Surprisingly, the Valley of Fires is full of life. The black basalt is practically covered with plant life and is inhabited by many animals including bats, mule deer and cottontail. Bird watchers come here to see the great horned owl, burrowing owl, sparrows and the golden eagle among others.

Teddy bear cholla growing from the lava flow.
Lots of caves and mini-mountains like this one (maybe 20-ft tall) were formed by the lava flow.

White Sands National Park and Valley of Fires represent the two extremes of the Tularosa Basin. Nevertheless, the basin has been inhabited by people for thousands of years. And a short distance south of the Valley of Fires is another interesting area managed by BLM where you can see evidence of people who lived there between 900 and 1400 AD. Three Rivers Petroglyphs is an amazing display of ancient rock art, containing over 21,000 petroglyphs. It is one of the largest rock art sites in the southwest. Visitors can see many of these petroglyphs on a 1/2mile long trail along a ridge where large rocks carved with faces, animals, handprints and sunbursts can be viewed up close.

Petroglyphs are drawings carved in stone, and seem to be an ancient form of recording history.
Petroglyphs are an ancient form of blogging. “Today, I caught a bighorn sheep with three arrows and brought it home for dinner”.
I am sure there are people who study the petroglyph and create theories explaining designs like this one.

All in one day, we explored two extremes of landscapes of the Tularosa Basin and an area where three rivers came together to provide people a hospitable environment to live. All this thanks to Google Maps.

Enjoy this slideshow of more images from the three amazing locations we visited (and an additional photo from the mountain town of Riudoso) while staying in Alamogordo.

Apr 27, 2021 – Water and Dust

Caddo Lake State Park campground.

If Vivian were writing our blog, this entry would not exist. In her mind, Texas was a fleeting moment that she was all too eager to put behind her and was not worthy of a blog. But, in all fairness a state that required 814 miles of driving to get through deserves some recognition. And not only did we spend eight nights in Texas, but the fact we began our time in Texas at Caddo Lake State Park makes it more deserving. And that’s because Caddo Lake stands out in our travels as the place we drove out of our way to get to on our way out west. In short, we both were eager to visit this piece of cypress swamp heaven that so many fishermen and photographers devote their passions to.

Not a bad view when you have to spend much of your time indoors.
Driving west from Caddo Lake, we see blue skies for the first time in five days.

Storms had been following us ever since leaving Chokoloskee and when we arrived at Caddo Lake, more storms were gearing up to make our five night stay a wet one. As it were, we witnessed a piece of blue sky over a span of one minute and never once did the sun appear. Wetness and bleak gray skies prevailed during our time in this lovely cypress forest (slide show below). While the fishing and photography did not pan out as we planned, we did get to continue our history lesson of the United States.

Natural disasters and man’s desire to control nature for the sake of commerce and land grabbing come together in the Red River Valley, in which Caddo Lake is located. In the time of Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (1803), exploration was the government’s top priority. The Red River north of Natchitoches was high on the priority list as it was hoped the river would lead to Santa Fe. Upon exploring the river, a log jam at least 100 miles wide and 130 miles long was discovered. Many settlers found a good life in the Red River Valley upstream of that log jam in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. And downstream of that log jam, to be referred to as the “Great Raft”, French planters settled around Natchitoches along the Red River (see previous blog) and were doing quite well.

Downtown Jefferson, Texas.

But, the Great Raft, as natural as it was, kept the settlements north of it from growing as large as they wanted. So, the federal government ordered the Army Corp of Engineers (founded by Jefferson) to remove it. Which they did. As with any “for the greater good” project, there are losers and there are winners. Natchitoches was one of the losers as it found itself a least a mile further removed from the Red River. This does not seem like much by today’s standards, but back then, it meant land transport was necessary to get their cotton and indigo to market.

On the other hand, Jefferson, Texas faired much better by the removal. Jefferson was located on a deep water lake called the Big Cypress Bayou. With the removal of the Great Raft, the bayou became navigable turning Jefferson into one of Texas’ most important port cities. But, following in Natchitoches’ footsteps, the booming town of Jefferson became a bust. Seems the Army Corps didn’t do quite as good of a job removing the raft as expected. Reoccurring log jams and flooding continued to be problems for folks in the Red River Valley area. So, in 1873, the Army Corps began again in earnest to open the Red River. This time they weren’t fooling around – they used nitroglycerin, a fairly new explosive made less than 30 years prior. Finally opened, steamships could navigate the Red River north into Arkansas. Consequently, Jefferson found itself on the losing end as the removal of the Great Raft drained the Big Cypress Bayou and all that was left was Caddo Lake.

Jefferson had its quirks, being the Bigfoot Capital of Texas.
It’s quirkiness even included this museum, one man’s passion I believe. Too bad we couldn’t spend time there, it was closed at the time. Next time!

On our last morning at Caddo Lake, we prepared to hitch and leave in the pouring rain. Steam rising from the valley forest where we called home for the past five days reminded us that we were in low country. Our climb to higher elevations would begin immediately as we drove out of the park on a very steep incline. Soon we would drive west on I-20, past Dallas and to Abilene, 360 miles from the start.

Abilene State Park campground. We aren’t in East Texas anymore, Juniper and pinyon trees dominate.

Not much to say about Abilene except that we spend two days in a state park with the same name. The Texas Frontier splayed out around us and the landscape differed dramatically from the bayou swamps we had called home for the past couple weeks. Trees look scruffy and dry, shrubs look shrubbier and the ground hard. Texas is a land of dichotomy from swamps to desert and Abilene represented a transition zone from one to the other.

Heading west after a long drive through Texas.

Two days after leaving the steam of Caddo Lake, we saw mountains in the far distance become larger. The rain was behind us, continuing to soak east Texas and Louisiana. Yet, as we stayed over one last night in Texas, a few miles east of El Paso, it did not yet feel like we were out west. Not the west I was envisioning. Not yet were we in the Land of Enchantment, the epic beginning of our epic travels through several western states. Having inserted two more states onto our map, it was the next state we entered that would at last transport us to another land. Texas was big, but we are passed it. At least for now.

The opposite of Caddo Lake, our last campsite before leaving Texas, near El Paso.

Apr 25, 2021 – The Southern Renaissance

For our visit to Natchitoches, we stayed at the new Grand Ecore RV Park on the Red River. Sites were concrete with much space between them. And laundry was free!
Google Maps cannot keep up with the new RV parks that seem to be popping up everywhere, including here on the Red River.

As we travel across the country, most striking to us are the stories of the extraordinary persons that come out of the locations we visit. These are often stories of individuals who endured or overcame unthinkable hardships or horrible circumstances. And here in the deep south of Louisiana, there are plenty of stories to go around.

While in Natchitoches, we visited a couple plantations, including Oakwood at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. This was the home of the planters, the Prud’hommes. Spanning several generations, the family lived in the home from 1821 until 1998.
From the Prud’homme house, one can overlook the plantation, including the tiny cabin on the left. This was the home of the Helaire family who lived on the plantation for several generations as slaves and eventually sharecroppers for the Prud’hommes until 1952.
Within the homes of the Prud’hommes on the left and the Helaires on the right.

Case in point, meet Marie Therese CoinCoin (‘CoinCoin’ means second daughter), born a slave in 1742 into the household of Natchitoches’ founder, Louis Juchereau de St Denis. We were introduced to Marie’s story from our tour of Melrose Plantation located in the Cane River region within Natchitoches Parish.

Downtown Natchitoches on a Monday morning. We drove through here on Sunday and the place was crowded with tourists.

But before I introduce you to Marie Therese CoinCoin, allow me to get Natchitoches out of the way. Natchitoches is Louisiana’s oldest settlement (not to be confused by Texas’s Nacogdoches) and I’ll tell you more about this quaint historical town at the end of this blog through photos. But first, how DO you pronounce Natchitoches? From what we learned, it depends on who you speak to, – it could be ‘Nack-i-tish’, might by ‘Nag-i-dish’ or possibly ‘Nack-i-tosh’. And how quickly it rolls off the tongue also depends on who is speaking. Hearing a few Louisiana-born residents say it reminded me of my visit to Baltimore and hearing the 3-syllable word ‘Bal-ti-more’ become a 2-syllable word – ‘ball-mer’.

The Melrose Plantation house where CoinCoin’s family lived and eventually where Cammie Henry lived from 1899 to the time she died in 1948.

Back to Marie Therese CoinCoin. At the young age of 25, Marie was leased as a housekeeper to Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. By this time, Marie had given birth to five children (all slaves). The father was believed to have been a Native Indian by the name of Chatta. Young Marie began her time at Metoyer’s home and thus began an open 19-yr relationship that resulted in 10 children. At the time, a strict Spanish priest held harsh reign over the Parish and he did not like CoinCoin and Metoyer’s relationship. To appease the priest and maintain his status as a planter, Metoyer had to end the relationship and continue his life in a proper way; that is to acquire a European-born wife – which he did. Out of love or obligation or who knows why, Metoyer purchased Marie, emancipated her and their 10 children. And he gave her some land.

The St Augustine Church was established in 1829, by CoinCoin’s eldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer. It is the first church in Louisiana to be built by and for free people of color. It is also the location for the wedding scene in the film Steel Magnolias.

Marie Therese CoinCoin, a free woman with children to support became a farmer. Think about this for a moment. By now, she is over 40 yrs old and has given birth to 15 children in a time when the life expectancy was at best 36 and for women, death by pregnancy was all too common. Beating the odds, CoinCoin began a new life by raising tobacco, cattle and harvesting bear grease. Over time, her fortunes grew as she and her sons received land grants and purchased slaves including her first five children. It was likely necessary for freed slaves to acquire their own slaves to sustain and grow a farm, but it may also have been to protect them from others in the parish who would purchase them. CoinCoin herself labored alongside her slaves until her health began to fail and she eventually died in 1816. Her children and their children became the leading family of Isle Brevelle, a population of free people of color thriving as business owners.

Nicholas Augustin Metoyer or Grandpere as he was called by his grandchildren, is buried behind the church he founded.

Through poor business dealings, an heir of the Metoyer’s plantation was forced to sell it in 1848 for a pittance of what it was once worth, thus ending generations of Metoyer’s plantation ownership that began with CoinCoin. Over time and following the reconstruction era, the plantation became known as Melrose and eventually owned by Joseph and Cammie Henry. After her husband’s death in 1918, Cammie continued to maintain and renovate Melrose, and turned it into a well known retreat for artists, contributing greatly to the Southern Renaissance. And it is for this reason yet another remarkable story comes our way.

The home of Clementine Hunter as an artist.

To Melrose, a 12-yr old field hand came with her family from a nearby plantation. For decades, Clementine Hunter, born to sharecroppers in 1887, worked at Melrose, and among her many jobs was one she enjoyed most – and that was picking cotton. It is written that 5-ft tall Clementine went into labor after picking 78 lb of cotton, left to find a midwife, gave birth and within two days was back out picking again.

Clementine Hunter the artist. A forger of Hunter’s work was caught partly because Hunter’s paintings had paint smudges on the back because she never used an easel, while the forger’s paintings did not.

One day, she discovered some discarded paints left by one of the visiting artists. Clementine never had a formal education and she never learned to read or write. Yet, she became a self-taught artist. Over the years, she created thousands of work and when her husband died in the 1940s, she began making income by selling her work. Her best friend at Melrose, Francois Mignon helped supply her with art materials and widely promoted her work.

Inside Hunter’s cottage where she created much of her art.
Regarding one of her paintings, Hunter was asked why she made the chicken so large. Her answer, “so it could pull the wagon”.
Funerals were a common theme among Hunter’s paintings. She made her funeral paintings bright and colorful because to her, a funeral meant happiness or the end of misery.

Clementine Hunter became renowned for her colorful and primitive paintings that provide the viewer an insider’s look into plantation life and tells stories from the community of workers. In 1986 at the age of 99 and 2 years before her death, Hunter received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana; the same university that in the 1960s, did not allow Hunter on campus to see her own exhibit because of segregation laws at the time.

Clementine Hunter, not having learned to read or write, considered her signature to be as significant as her painting.
Also buried at St Augustine Church is Clementine Hunter and her friend Francois Mignon. Her funeral was the event of the century in Natchitoches.

Traveling has presented some of the most fascinating stories from America, each of which contribute to its authenticity. And it is these stories that will continue to shape our travel itineraries. Soon, we will visit a place where another one of America’s famed artists found inspiration in its rocks. But first, we got Texas to get through!

Below are several more photos from our short time in Natchitoches. Enjoy!

A magnolia in downtown Natchitoches, location for the filming of, you guessed it, Steel Magnolias.
The American Cemetery, oldest in the Louisiana Purchase is in Natchitoches and is the location of yet another scene from Steel Magnolias.
Steel Magnolias tour or the Christmas lights festival are two reasons that bring tourists to Natchitoches, but it is also famous for its meat pies which is basically Louisiana’s version of Michigan’s pasty or Florida’s empanada.
Sunrise at our campground, Grand Ecore.