May 20, 2021 – Our Visit to Northern New Mexico was Ruined

The road to Chaco Cultural National Historical Park is a long one. We learned the road is not maintained to ward off looters and vandals.
On a well maintained paved road is a lookout where you can view Frijoles Canyon, location of the Bandelier National Monument and a large number of ancient cliff dwellings.
Among all the ruins we visited, Mesa Verde enjoys the highest status of National Park. It’s obvious from their Visitor Center, much grander than the modest buildings of Chaco Cultural, Aztec NM and Bandelier NM.

Up until the construction of steel girder skyscrapers in Chicago during the 1880s, the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America were constructed in stone in America’s southwest by the Ancient Pueblos (formally known as the Anasazi). The ruins of these buildings can be seen at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park. While parked in Northern New Mexico for a couple weeks, we had time to explore Chaco Canyon ruins as well as those of Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec National Monument and Bandelier National Monument.

An impressive sculpture and an artist’s rendition of a Mesa Verde cliff dweller.

Within the four corners region of the country, these Ancient Pueblo ruins offer a glimpse into a collapsed civilization steeped in mystery. They do not, however indicate a single culture and one single collapse, but instead a whole series of them, all before Columbus set foot on the New World in 1492. Still, the Ancient Puebloans did not completely vanish – remaining are modern descendants – Zuni and Hopi for example. But wrapped in theories and conjectures intertwined with archeological evidence is the question that is foremost on people’s minds when visiting Chaco or Mesa Verde and that is “Why would anyone build such an advanced city in that wasteland or on the side of a cliff, and why having gone through so much trouble to build it, abandon it?”

Archeology has uncovered much of Chaco Canyon pueblos, but it was an archeological blunder in 1942 that caused an avalanche of boulders to tumble off the cliff onto much of the ruins. It was too costly to attempt to recover what was lost, so a trail was built over the rocks for visitors to walk around the ruins.

This got me thinking about Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel” which I read way too long ago to remember much of anything substantial. But what I do remember is that embedded deeply in Diamond’s book are very convincing answers to the $1,000,000 question, “Why did some civilizations collapse while others did not?” To that end, how would Diamond address the mysteries behind the Ancient Pueblo ruins of the Southwest?

It is difficult to imagine a large city where thousands once lived in this now barren land.

No longer having the book I read years ago, I searched online and was able to access Chapter 4 of Diamond’s book, which is devoted to the Ancient Pueblos. So, to answer the question as to why these Pueblo cities were abandoned, here is my condensed answer from Diamond’s lengthy explanation – lack of resources and all the nasty things that come with that. Consider, for example the Puebloans in Chaco Canyon. Remember, they are the ones that built the largest city in North America before Chicago’s skyscrapers.

How did Ancient Pueblos get over the mesas? They built steps, that’s how!

Around 500 AD, people began building underground pithouses in the canyon. Over time, construction increased into multi-story and multi-room buildings, and large cirular kivas. This meant that Chaco was experiencing a population growth (thought to be in the thousands at any given time), which meant they had sustainable water and food. Evidence also indicates there was trading going on with maintained roads connecting various Pueblos to the larger Chaco Pueblo. Chaco Pueblo may very well have been a city surrounded by smaller communities, much like a modern-day civilization.

(Enjoy this slideshow of Chaco Cultural National Historical Park)

This went on for hundreds of years, but over time, Chaco Pueblo became more dependent upon imports because they simply no longer had adequate resources. As we all know too well, population growth increases demand, which puts stress on the environment. Eventually, the environmental impact from water management parallel with reoccurring droughts as well as deforestation (pinyon and juniper) created significant environmental problems. With that comes a host of problems, starvation, social unrest, and violence. However long it took to get so bad, it appears that the evacuation of Chaco was planned and happened very quickly as few items were left behind.

(Enjoy this slideshow of views from the road to Mesa Verde National Park).

But here is the other thing that came to my mind during our visit to the ancient ruins. While the Ancient Pueblos were cutting stones to perfection using rudimentary tools (not metal) and appeared to have no written language, Eurasia was experiencing the High and Late Middle Ages that led up to the Renaissance period, including the invention of the printing press. Why such a difference? Again, I turn to Jared Diamond’s book. He explains it this way -significant food surpluses appeared earlier in Eurasia than in America. Eventually, farming became so successful in Eurasia that communities grew more crops than they needed. Since it was not necessary for everyone to farm – specialized trades popped up everywhere. People could indulge in intellectual, scientific, or artistic pursuits. Communities grew bigger and cities arose – the source of civilization. As people became more specialized, communities reaped the rewards of intellectual and technical advances.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Mesa Verde National Park)

And trade was big across Eurasia and eventually expanded across the seas. Diamond indicates that Eurasia’s east-west orientation gave it a less varied climate across its land mass, thus allowing domesticated crops and animals to migrate more easily. East-west Trade routes including the Silk Road were great in number. That’s not to say Eurasia didn’t have its own set of issues, i.e., warring tribes, feudalism, violence, slavery, religious persecution, and not the least of which was the Justinianic and bubonic plagues. Nevertheless, the region of the world thrived.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Bandelier National Monument & please note the pictographs, not petroglyphs in some of the images. In one image, you will see a preserved pictograph, maintained behind plexiglass. Pictographs are painted on the walls, whereas petroglyphs are carved.)

While so many advances were happening across Eurasia from 500 to 1500 AD, the Ancient Puebloans were essentially stuck in a vacuum of sorts. Given the harsh and unforgiving environment they were in, there were far fewer people, and that alone might explain the disparities across the globe. Trade, exchange of ideas, innovation, and specialization outside of self-sustained farming come with increased populations over the land. While some of the Ancient Puebloans enjoyed a robust population for hundreds of years, it was all they had. Simply put, how many people are going to venture over badlands, mesas and canyons and provide a physical connection between communities?

That’s it, that’s my two cents worth. I hope my armchair analyses of ancient southwestern pueblo history did not ruin your day!

One last thing. While admiring the ancient architecture of the Ancient Pueblo, we also took the time to admire the impressive Rio Grande Gorge Bridge while parked near Taos. Spanning 1280 feet, it’s construction began in 1963 and ended in 1965. Depending on the source, it’s height is 650′, one of the highest in the U.S. Enjoy the slideshow of the bridge and the view from it. And think about those Ancient Pueblos that were unable to cross it.

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 to Mexico 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 is 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 them 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 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.

Apr 20, 2021 – The Best City in Louisiana

In one day, we crossed 3 state borders pulling the RV on I-10 for a total of 470 miles. It didn’t help that the I-10 and I-12 sections in Louisiana are among the worst roads encountered. But compared to Louisiana’s backroads, the interstate feels smooth. This is Baton Rouge around 3:30 pm.

No matter where Vivian and I travel, no matter how horrible the road conditions or bleak the communities we encounter, we somehow always discover a bright shiny penny. In southern Louisiana, not far south of Lafayette, we found that shiny penny in the form of a story from Avery Island.

Avery Island is privately owned and is where the Tabasco factory is located. In addition to the factory tours (which are closed for Covid), you can take a tour around Jungle Gardens, basically the entire estate of the McIlhenny family. The live oaks are quite beautiful.
As part of the Jungle Gardens is the Buddha, which Edward McIlhenny received as a gift in 1936.
From a plaque – “This buddha was built for the Shonfa Temple located northeast of Peking, by the order of Emperor Hui-Tsung 1101-1125. It’s builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New Your to be sold.” The statue was purchased by two friends of McIlhenny and sent it to him.

The story begins with Edward Avery McIlhenny who was born on Avery Island in 1872. Edward was the son of Edmund McIlhenny who began Tabasco brand products and became the heir to the business. One day, Edmund heard a story about an Indian king who kept birds in large flying cages. As the king grew old the cages were left abandoned and fell apart. Yet, the freed birds continued to raise their young year after year at the same spot they themselves were raised.

The McIlhenny home on Avery Island. The island is actually a salt dome thought to be as deep as Mt Everest is high. Nevertheless, it was a perfect location for making Tabasco sauce.

This story inspired McIlhenny to build his own flying cages. This was in 1895 and by that time, five million birds were being slaughtered each year to fuel a fashion. That fashion, feathers and sometimes entire taxidermied birds in women’s hats began in the 1870s. Among the most popular of feathers were those of the white snowy egrets and great white egrets, particularly the more extravagant plumage that is grown during mating season.

Heir to the Tabasco company, Edward McIlhenny was a good businessman who expanded the company internationally. The factory is the only one in existence, producing over $700,000 worth of product each day.

During the fashion craze, plume hunting was extraordinarily lucrative as an ounce of feathers became worth more than an ounce of gold. Being quite conscience of the Florida Everglades, both Vivian and I understand that plume hunting was a severe and dark stain on its history and is included among many of the stories that come out of the Everglades. It is no surprise to us that Louisiana, being ecologically similar to Florida, has its own dark history when it comes to the decimation of bird populations.

So many ways to burn your tongue!

Here is where the shiny penny comes in. McIlhenny, being a conservationist was despondent about the declining bird populations and wanted to save the Snowy Egret. So, using a wet area on Avery Island known as Willow Pond, he built a dam and increased the pond’s size to 35 acres. He then built large flying cages of poultry netting suspended over the water. He did so because he knew birds preferred nesting over water where the alligators could discourage other predators from stealing eggs or chicks. He found eight snowy egrets and began to hand-raise them. The birds thrived and seemed content. In the fall, he set them free to migrate south. In the spring, as he had hoped, 6 of the 8 returned, paired off and hatched several more chicks. This pattern continued and 16 years later in 1911, McIlhenny estimated about 100,000 birds occupied the rookery.

The road to Bird City.

And that is how ‘Bird City’ came to be and what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as “the most noteworthy reserve in the country”. From southern Florida, we have the tragic story of Guy Bradley, the warden hired to protect rookeries in the Everglades and was consequently murdered in 1907 by plume hunters. While Guy Bradley was put out there to protect birds in the middle of the Everglades swamp, a wealthy heir of the Tabasco Company was rebuilding the bird population in a most unconventional way and doing it from his own backyard. And in 2021, we stood overlooking the pond watching hundreds of adult egrets tend to their nests, many with 2 or 3 chicks soon to fledge and take to the sky. They too will one day come back to the ‘flying cages’ and continue the cycle. All because of one man.

A overlook gives you a panoramic view of Bird City
Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson

Avery Island was a pleasant diversion but what we really wanted to do was immerse ourselves in the deep south’s melting pot. In this regard, we got ourselves a couple of history lessons, first from Vermilionville Historic Village in Lafayette and then the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia.

One of the many historical homes on display at Vermilionville Historic Village.
Joseph Broussard was a leader of the Acadians and eventually led them to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in 1765. The Broussard family integrated into the slave-owning upper classes of the colony.

Louisiana’s history is a complicated and long one woven in and out of periods of French, Spanish and U.S. rule. And as far as a melting pot goes, it is a spicey one. First, there are the natives of several tribes including the Avoyel (one of which we met on our tour) and Chitimacha. Then you have the immigrants from France, Spain, and Germany, the Anglo-Americans and the free and enslaved Africans. And then you have the native Americans that were pushed out of the east and moved into or through the area. Mixed in with all that were the French-speaking Catholics from Acadia, having been expelled from Canada in 1755 by the British, later to be known as the Cajuns. And then there were the refugees from the French Revolution, Creoles from the Mississippi River Valley and the Spaniards from the Canary Islands and the Island of Majorca. And don’t forget the immigrant refugees from Saint Domingue coming in after the Haitian Revolution in 1809.

At the Hilliard Museum on the UL campus of Lafayette, we learned about the art and history of handwoven Acadian brown cotton fabric.
In 1910, Louisiana banned the French language from its schools.

Despite all the melting pot ingredients, Louisiana was a slave state and indeed, in 1810-20, almost half the population in Louisiana were enslaved people of color. Which brings me to the stark reality that Louisiana is the second poorest state in the country. And what does that have to do with its 1820 demographics? I’m not sure, but as we drove over the worst roads ever encountered in one state (and yes, we have been to Indiana), or passed one dilapidated or abandoned building after another, we couldn’t help but think there is a connection there somehow. Evidence of poverty is relentless throughout the areas we explored.

Downtown New Iberia, where the historic Evangeline theatre is now the Bayou Teche Museum. You’ll see the name ‘Evangeline’ a lot down here, it is the title of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem. The poem tells a story of a young Acadian woman during the Grand Derangement, which was the expulsion of French Acadians from Canada by the British.

Both Vivian and I really wanted to take in southern Louisiana’s culture, but it left us feeling underwhelmed. And a bit perplexed, especially upon meeting many Louisianians who are among the friendliest and politest we’ve met throughout our travels, and after receiving valuable history lessons from tour guides who present it with an enthusiastic personal touch.

Our Louisiana history lesson continues however, as we travel a little further north. And with that, I will leave you the following question, “How do you pronounce Natchitoches?”

Here is southern Louisiana’s favorite dish, boiled crawfish. We learned that crawfish are farmed in rice fields where they burrow in the mud; hence the nickname ‘mud bug’. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?
Southern Louisiana’s favorite pork dish is boudin, basically seasoned pork sausage with rice. We stood in line at Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin’ so Vivian could sample more Louisiana cuisine. Not one to eat pork, I settled on a crawfish ball, a deep fried ball of crawfish meat, spices and rice.

Apr 11, 2021 – Gorgeous George

Clear skies over Chokoloskee Island, the morning we left to begin our 2021 travels.

Eleven months earlier to the day, both Vivian and I sat down with our ipads and a smart phone running an atomic clock app. After studying a satellite image of St George Island State Park campground, viewing each site at street-level, and taking measurements of selected sites on Google Earth, we chose 3 or 4 sites we thought adequately sized for the RV. At about 7:30 am, we each got on ReserveAmerica website and homed in on the state park’s campground and chose an available campsite from among our picks. This went on for about seven days and on each day at exactly 7:59:55, we both hit the book now button on our chosen site and each time we failed. Finally, on the morning of May 11, 2020, we succeeded in securing a campsite for five nights beginning April 11, 2021. From that point on, we commenced to build our travel itinerary for 2021.

It stalled us, but eventually the storm passed and we continued north.

Now that you know how insanely difficult it is to get a Florida state park reservation, it will make sense why we were not going to let a little ol’ storm get in our way. It tried and it almost succeeded. This time of year, it isn’t easy getting out of Florida, especially when the starting point is as far south as you can get on the tip. A grueling 8-hour drive from Chokoloskee to a rural campground near small town Chiefland was our initiation into our 2021 travels. Seems everyone came to Florida over spring break and everyone decided to leave on April 10. Heavy traffic, long crawls through road construction areas and consistent rain made us think twice about leaving our paradise island in southern Florida.

The suspicious looking chicken had nothing to do with the fallen branch. It was simply taking advantage of a short break from the impending storm that would keep us in place all morning.
At last, we arrived at about 5:30 pm with clear skies prevailing.

But we did it. After all, we had hard-earned reservations at St. George Island, one of Florida’s best state parks, and we were not about to give that up. After spending the first night and the entire next morning at Breezy Acres RV Campground listening to the rain pelt our rig, we finally got ourselves back out on the road at 2:30 pm for the 3-hr drive to the park.

The drive into the campground passes a small coastal lake.
Across the street from the campground, a short walk to the Gulf waters where creatures lurk.

What is so special about St. George Island? Other than requiring an atomic clock and two people to get a reservation, it is one of Florida’s most pristine and beautiful sand dune beaches. Gorgeous St. George Island is in the middle of the forgotten coast and the modest drive on highway 98 through the coastal towns of Panacea and Carabelle makes you realize this really is the forgotten coast. Compared to most of Florida’s development-saturated coastline, this area is low key and offers a sizeable dose of wilderness.

Vivian trying her hand at fly fishing along the shoreline.
While Vivian fished, I photographed the sand dunes.

Despite the nearby charming little towns and inviting wilderness areas such as Tate’s Hell Forest, we had no compelling reason to leave the state park until it was time to hitch up and leave. With four full days and one additional morning to do what we like to do most -fish and photograph, we concentrated all our efforts within a small region – a narrow band of a sand dune island. And we had friends to share that with as they too put fishing and photography high on their list of things to do and they too made their reservations 11 months in advance.

Fishing lines along the coast, attempting to capture the running pompano. That’s our friends Van and Jane with their beach fishing set up.
On one side of the island is the Gulf, but the other is an inland bay, where low tide reveals oyster bars as seen here at sunset.

Two hundred miles of coastline comprise the Forgotten Coast and much of it contains Florida’s last remaining stretch of unspoiled, pristine Gulf Coast beaches. A small section that is St George Island belongs to this coastal section of Florida’s panhandle. Later, toward the end of our travels this year, I will describe the quaint and charming communities and some of the forested wilderness areas of the Forgotten Coast because our 2021 travels will end here just as it began. That is, as my mother would say, “God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise”. But for now, let me tell you about the sand that makes up pretty much the entire St George Island State Park.

Evidence of Hurricane Michael of 2018 is seen in the park which is trying to rebuild some of its boardwalks.
To everything, tern, tern, tern…

Dunes are created by wind-blown sand. And amazingly as the sand piles grow, deep-rooted plants colonize on them. As organic materials accumulate, more plants grow thereby strengthening the dune which becomes known as a scrub zone. These robust dunes, like the mangrove islands of the southern Gulf Coast serve as a natural barrier from high tides and storm surges and help protect the inland areas from erosion. And when not pockmarked from the footprints of humans, these dunes have a wild and graceful wind-swept beauty to them. Evidence of the effects of wind is seen everywhere – trees uniformly bent and smooth sweeps of sand mounds formed at its will. Nature dictated by weather and the birds reacting in a similar way. As we breezed into the campground on the heels of a storm, warblers and other songbirds had already landed on the island to rest and replenish their bodies for a day in the beachy pine forests before continuing their northerly migration.

Although I did see several birds including a fledged eaglet, nesting osprey and great horned owl, my only bird photographs other than shorebirds are the birds that frequented our campsite, like this male cardinal.

And then there are the pompano, which played a significant role during our short stay. Pompano have a narrow preference for water temperatures (68 to 75 degrees) and like birds are highly migratory along Florida’s coastline. Come spring, they migrate north and then west along Florida’s Gulf Coast. For fisherman, the most likely place to catch them is in the surf, where there is lots of water movement. And this is where you will see fishermen lined up along the beach with at least 2 lines in the water each. Lucky for me, I was among three fishermen, and we had fresh pompano for dinner – not once, but twice, and again for lunch.

Jane catches another pompano!
We ate well.

And there was some early morning quality time for photography. Enamored with the form of the sand dunes, I used what little time I had with sweet light to capture them. When it came time to leave, if not for the two days of rain, Vivian and I would have had to drag our tired bodies out of there.

Another attempt at capturing the expressive wind-worn beach sand dune.

As it were, the rain and overcast sky were relentless during our last full day on the island and the morning we left. Consequently, precious time was given to us for cleaning, which equated to sand removal from the interior. No matter how skilled you are at sand management, it still manages to work its way into everything.

The first couple days on the island were under totally clear skies, as seen here before sunrise from our home. Despite traveling to beautiful places throughout the country, it is still our home and every time we enter it we try to keep the great outdoors (i.e., sand, mud, bugs) from getting inside.

As I write this blog one day after leaving St. George, we remain in a holding pattern in Florida’s panhandle, this time about 100 miles north of St. George. The gray overcast skies and intermittent rain continue to dampen our spirits as we wait for our second shot appointment. Once fully vaccinated, the skies will open up and the sun will shine (tongue and cheek, folks). And we will once again leave Florida behind to explore the United States. I cannot wait to photograph more sand dunes, this time in New Mexico. But before we get there, we have Cajun culture to immerse ourselves in and the world’s largest cypress forest to explore. Stayed tuned.

Rain storms continued on the day we left the island and crossed the Bryant Patton Bridge to the mainland. From there, we traveled a short distance north near Tallahassee.

Oct 5, 2020 – Her Florida

After several months of traveling, we are welcomed back to Florida.

We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion.” Marjory Kinnan Rawlings

After several months of traveling, crossing the state line into Florida conjures mixed feelings. We could easily turn around and continue traveling, but we also get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we come back to Florida. It is our home and despite all the baggage that Florida carries with it, we love it and always look forward to coming back to it. It is for this reason and the fact that our home base is way down on the southern end of the state that we take advantage of the great distance between the state line and Chokoloskee to explore Florida.

And no matter where we are in Florida, we experience everything we dislike about the state and everything we love about it. While getting our annual Forever Warranty service done in DeFuniak Springs, we decided to check out the little town of Seaside.

A walking path or an actual road? Hard to tell in Seaside.

Seaside is an unincorporated planned community on Florida’s Gulf coast designed by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, architects that have influenced the green urban design industry. Their vision was to create a community that would “cut through the smog of America’s car dependency”. The result was Seaside that is laid out with a grid so that stores and community buildings were only a few minutes away from any home on foot. Never been to Seaside? If you watched Jim Carrey’s movie “the Truman Show”, you most certainly have seen it as it was the backdrop for Truman’s Rockwellian hometown, aptly named Seahaven Island.

Just a block or two off highway 30A, one can easily drive through the neigborhoods of Seaside. This leaves you feeling secluded and you would not think about all the traffic and crowds along 30A.

So while I can appreciate the green architects vision, driving around a Florida coastal town with a full ton truck does nothing to cut through the smog of America’s car dependency. Seems everyone visiting Seaside and perhaps living in Seaside leave a vehicle parked somewhere, which is why we could not find a place to park (or at least one accommodating to our smog-creating diesel engine truck). Besides, you could not spit without hitting a tourist or community dweller, so we drove slowly around the Trumanesque town, enjoying the neighborhoods filled with a range of building designs from Victorian to Postmodern, often hidden by a thick growth of native plants in the front yard.

The boardwalk in Deer Lake State Park stands above a beautiful dune ecosystem. The boardwalk keeps people from walking all over the dunes.

Along highway 30A, the crowds and traffic were relentless, that is until we came onto a little oasis in the middle of a sea of development, and that is Deer Lake State Park. Deer Lake is one of the rare coastal dune lakes which, in the United States, are found only along the Gulf Coast. From 30A, a small gravel road takes you to a deadend parking area where $3 gets you a parking pass. From there, a short walk on a boardwalk takes you into (actually over) the dunes before ending at the waterfront beach. Except for the surrounding development, it is pristine and and wild, and without human footprints. The dune ecosystem is one of 11 natural communities in this 1920-acre state park and the boardwalk provides a full view of it.

The dunes overlook the Gulf of Mexico.

After a few days, we left the panhandle to settle in for a week at Wilderness RV Resort, right up against the Ocala National Forest and on the Ocklawaha River. This gave us an opportunity to paddle a wild Florida river as well as visit the little town of Micanopy and the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Never heard of either of these places? Welcome to old Florida!

I had the best turkey reuben at the Old Florida Cafe in Micanopy.
And after lunch, we visited the Micanopy cemetery.

Kirkpatrick (once the Rodman) Dam was built along the Ocklawaha River to facilitate navigation along the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The Florida Barge Canal was to go through the Ocklawaha River and construction was stopped in 1971. Thankfully, there are over 70 miles of natural river with a significant part of it running through undeveloped Ocala National Forest giving you a scenic view of Old Florida. This is the part of Florida that we love.

The Kirkpatrick Dam is a leftover from the Cross Florida Barge Canal project. You can read more about the canal in one of our first blogs from 2018 when we began to travel with the RV and passed through another area of Florida also affected by the canal project.
We spent a day paddling the Ocklawaha River.

Speaking of Old Florida, long before I moved to Florida, I knew about a book popularized by a movie, titled “The Yearling”. In the spirit of “Old Yeller” I honestly could not gather the nerve to see the movie. Nor have I read the Pulitzer Prize winning 1939 novel by Marjory Kinnan Rawlings. But having recently seen the movie titled “Cross Creek” which stars Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings in the biographical drama romance film, Vivian and I took a keen interest in visiting the Marjory Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park located in Cross Creek.

At the entrance of the Marjory Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park is a wooden sign with a Rawlings quote befitting of Old Florida.
Rawlings home is on display at the park, and is pretty much the way she left it when she passed away in 1953.
Unfortunately, the house tour was closed and we were unable to go inside.
But the park volunteer spent some time with us telling us about Rawling’s life on her orange grove. In the bowl are small fruit called roselle, a type of hibiscus First time I ever heard of it, but apparently, Rawlings grew it on her land.

Rawlings once wrote, “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.” There Rawlings lived on a 72-acre orange grove between Orange and Lochloosa Lakes. Her stories that fictionalized many of her Florida cracker neighbors immerse the reader into the remote wilderness and those that lived in the area. Rawlings spent long periods of solitude at Cross Creek and wrote that she could feel “vibrations” from the land. Her Old Florida land is now her historic state park.

A 1940s Oldsmobile, similar to the one Rawlings owned, sits in the farmhouse’s car port.
I believe the boat is the original one used by Rawlings, whereas the motor is a replica of the one she used on her boat.

After our short time in Rawling’s Old Florida, we headed south and eventually crossed the bridge to nowhere – our home. Fall did not feel much different from spring when we left five months earlier, yet there was just a hint of winter in the air as hurricane season finally passed and we settled in for the long haul. As our northern friends and family braced for a long cold winter, we got our canoes out and enjoyed the Everglades for the next four months. As Rawlings once wrote, “Here in Florida the seasons move in and out like nuns in soft clothing, making no rustle in their passing”. Indeed, as I write this, we are well into spring barely feeling a change in the air.

Still hurricane season when we arrived at the bridge to nowhere, rains clouds hover over Chokoloskee Island.

Yet, the calendar says it is time to go. Our 2021 travel adventure begins – now.

As Rawlings has said, “Here is Home”.

Sep 19, 2020 – Waterfalls, Canyons & Lakes

Burgess Falls, Tennessee. The water falls about 136 ft into a limestone gorge.

For family, our travels always include Indianapolis; so once again like many times before, we drove from Indiana to Florida’s panhandle by way of Tennessee and Alabama. This time, we took our time heading south and meandered off the beaten path so to speak. With no cities in our way, the next few weeks were nothing but waterfalls, canyons and lakes, oh my!

One of our favorite campgrounds is Defeated Creek on the Cumberland River, about 50 miles east of Nashville.
The campground is maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers as with many campgrounds we enjoy staying in.
The fog in the Appalachians and over the creek was a beautiful sight to see each morning from our campsite.
And not to mention the herd of whitetail deer that wandered in open fields within the campground.

In Tennessee, we camped on reservoirs and while Vivian fished from our campgrounds, I drove to Burgess Falls State Park one morning. Before 7 am, I waited in the truck outside the closed park gate until someone came to open it. Finally, a ranger opened the gate, and other than him, I was the only person in the park. I walked the short distance down to the water from the parking lot. Since traveling, waterfalls have eluded me, and most of them have presented themselves as nothing more than a trickle. But not today.

Along the path that follows the water trail is the remains of a foot bridge that once gave people a full view of the Middle Falls.

At last, my tripod stood on rugged rocks being swept by gravity-driven water. Today, I had exuberant water and I was alone in my own private Tennessee paradise (at least for a short time before other visitors showed up).

About a 1/2 mile up river from Burgess Falls was a beautiful area of the river from which I could photograph safely.

Further south, we spent a couple weeks in Alabama. We have become very familiar with Alabama as it is conveniently located next to Florida and quite difficult to avoid on our travels north or west. And each time we come here, it surprises us – this time with its deep canyons, grand overlooks and yes, waterfalls. The southern Appalachian Mountains come into northeast Alabama with canyon rims, bluffs and sandstone cliffs, and gorges carved by the Little River.

The Little River cutting through the landscape.
One of the lookouts within DeSoto State Park which is located atop Lookout Mountain. We enjoyed several hikes within this mountainous state park.
There are so many hiking trails in northeast Alabama. Check out the state parks such as Bucks Pocket and DeSoto, as well as across the Georgia state line to Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Little River Canyon (a National Preserve since 1992) is one of the deepest canyon systems east of Mississippi River and the deepest in Alabama. While staying at a campground in Fort Payne for one week, we had time to explore the area. Lots of hikes, photography atop a waterfall, and lunch at a quirky mountain town called Mentone.

With only a small water fall, I was able to walk over the rocks above Little River Falls with my tripod and camera.
A day after spending the morning photographing from the top, an afternoon storm brought the falls back to life.
Another view of Little River Falls before the storm. While I photographed, a person walked across the rocks and sat down near the water falls. In this photo, the person is sitting out-of-view behind the horizontal rocks in front of the water falls.

Heading further south, we come out of the mountains and the rolling terrain becomes less rugged and more gentle. We were getting closer to the gulf coast and Florida, and temperatures were increasing. On our way down, we stopped at Wind Creek State Park, one of the largest state parks in the United States and where people can access Lake Martin.

During a morning walk along the edge of Lake Martin.
From a narrow peninsula that juts out into the water about 1/4 mile, I photographed Lake Martin early Sunday morning. No one else was out there.
You’ll never forget which state you are in when camping in an Alabama state park. On an early Monday morning, this sight is uninspiring compared to the ostentatious red decor that filled the campground over the weekend.

Following Wind Creek, We headed south and stayed near the town of Eufaula with its southern hospitality and historic plantation homes. We were in the deep south, the antithesis of the badlands where we spent much of our travels this summer.  Which makes it even more ironic that while staying in southern Alabama, I was able to explore a canyon. A very strange and quirky canyon.

While camped at White Oak Campground, another Army Corp, Vivian got a little fishing in from her inflatable kayak.

Eufaula is on the Walter F George Reservoir, a large vertical expanse of water that is split down the middle by the Alabama-Georgia state line. As the early morning sun rose, I drove across a bridge from Eufaula on highway 82 into Georgia and headed north about 16 miles to Providence Canyon State Park. The drive there took me through rolling hills of forests and farmlands, nothing special for these parts.

Satellite imagery of Providence Canyon gives you an idea of its peculiar terrain.

As I got closer to the park, I had thoughts of our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota a couple months earlier where we drove through the flattest country for hundreds of miles before all of a sudden, like being tele-transported to another planet, we were surrounded by extremely tall and very strange rock formations. Likewise, once inside Providence Canyon, you feel you are in another world, certainly not southern Georgia.

It isn’t until you get inside the canyon that you realize how strange and quite surreal this place feels.

But yet, there it is. But this time, unlike the badlands we visited this summer, Providence Canyon or ‘Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon’ is manmade, which makes it even more peculiar. Apparently, Georgia recognizes its Natural Wonders and considers this one to be one of its seven. The canyon was created by erosion after years of poor agricultural practices during the 1800s (I suppose that’s natural considering man is part of nature).

Constant erosion from water is quite evident in the canyon that is comprised of mostly sandy clay.
You’ll find several of these crevices barely wide enough for one person to walk into along the canyon walls.
It is difficult to believe that canyon walls several stories high are made of this.

The erosion created several gullies as deep as 150 feet and you can climb down and wander around many of them. As you walk the gullies, you are surrounded by very tall and colorful canyons comprised of pink, orange, red and purple hues. The clay and sand soil appears fragile, like a sandcastle on the beach. The rare plumleaf azalea grows here as well. All this makes Providence Canyon a strange and beautiful thing, thanks to farming gone bad.

The colorful canyon wall reminds me of tapestry.

Out 2020 travels included many places that are not only far removed from our southern Florida ecosystem, but so broadly varied from each other. Although we traveled far and wide to see some of these strange lands, it is remarkable that so many of them border right up to Florida. The United States is diverse in many ways and to explore it by RV is a wonderful thing. And yet, as we leave Alabama and cross the Florida line, I begin to think of how I could spend a lifetime simply exploring this state. Well over 500 miles lay ahead of us before we settled down for in Chokoloskee for our winter hibernation. So, we spent a little time near the Ocala National Forest to do some exploring. Stayed tuned for our final 2020-travels blog coming soon.

Another foggy scene from the Defeated Creek campground.
Outdoor seating or takeout only from the Wildflower Cafe in the colorful mountain town called Mentone, in Alabama.
A nice view of an Army Corp Campground called Long Branch, on the Caney Fork in Tennessee. Spacious campsites spread out wide and on a weekday, we had the place practically to ourselves. Water levels on the fork vary widely from water release from the Center Hill dam located several hundred feet upstream.