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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-syllabus word ‘Bal-ti-more’ become a 2-syllabus word – ‘ball-mer’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet, the calendar says it is time to go. Our 2021 travel adventure begins – now.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Thank you Hurricane Laura for changing our travel itinerary. Because of you, we spent a day in Nashville before getting back on track. We love visiting cities but held back during COVID. Finally, armed with masks, we could not pass up a day of visiting one of the most interesting cities in the country. There are a lot of things that strike me about Nashville, not the least of which is the music. And no doubt, the music or really, the history of the music took precedence while visiting the Music City. But buried among the nostalgia of the Grand Old Opry and the many entertainers associated with it, were three stories of three women that stood out for me – three women who, in some way changed the face of Nashville and even the entire country.
After a filling breakfast from Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken, we walked the uncluttered downtown streets and found ourselves standing in front of the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 and while it was designed as a house of worship, it was often leased out for nonreligious entertainment events to stay afloat. In 1904, along came an enterprising widow and mother who was working as a stenographer, had recently finished business school and relocated to the fast-growing city of Nashville. To make ends meet, Lula C. Naff began helping a colleague book speaking engagements, concerts, etc. at the newly named Ryman Auditorium. Ahead of her time in 1914, Naff made event booking her fulltime job and in 1920, she became the Ryman’s official manager.
To avoid initial prejudices as a female executive in a male-dominated industry, Lula C. Naff used the name L.C. Naff professionally. Naff gained a reputation for battling local censorship groups who threatened to ban many performances deemed too risqué. She had the ability to book shows with world-renowned entertainers including W.C, Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Doris Day. The Ryman was Nashville’s largest indoor gathering place and Naff managed to keep it in the forefront of the city’s awareness. Not only did Naff stand up against censorship, but she also snubbed Jim Crow and provided a diverse range of entertainment that sometimes was enjoyed by integrated audiences in a period of “Whites Only”.
In 1943, Naff saw a good thing and arranged for the Grand Ole Opry to begin broadcasting from the Ryman on June 5, 1943. And there, it originated every week for almost 31 years thereafter with every show sold out. Lula Naff was named Manager Emeritus upon her retirement in 1955 and passed away at the age of 90 five years later. Given the nickname, “The Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium became a National Historic Landmark in 2001 for its influential role in country music.
Enjoy this slideshow of downtown Nashville, taken during our guided walking tour that included Printers Alley and the Woolworths, site of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.
During the same year that Naff passed away, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess purchased a bar called Mom’s. The old honky tonk shared an alley way with the Ryman Auditorium and was notorious for the Ryman entertainers who snuck away for a drink before, during and/or after a show.
One day, Bess hired a painter to give the 3-story bar a fresh look. Later, she came back and was surprised to see the building painted orchid purple. Instead of demanding the bar be repainted more appropriately, Bess instead renamed it to ‘Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge’ which to this day is orchid purple.
Many a songwriter including Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams played at Tootsie’s to get their work in front of other performers. And many luckless writers and pickers were graced by Tootsie’s generosity in the form of $5 or $10 bills slipped into a pocket. Apparently, Tootsie had a cigar box behind the counter full of IOUs from hungry artists. Opry performers got together at the end of each year to pay Tootsie. In 1978 after Tootsie’s passing, she was buried in an orchid gown and placed in an orchid-colored casket. On November 8, 2009, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess (herself a singer and comedian) was inducted in the Music City’s Walk of Fame.
Enjoy this slideshow from our walk down Broadway’s music district.
But of all the influential women of Tennessee, there was one the stood out more than all the others. This fact came to light as we stood in front of the Hermitage Hotel, built in Beaux-arts style in 1910. The hotel is yet another National Historic Landmark, designated so about one week before our visit. This time, not for its influence on country music, but rather on the right of women to vote. In 1920, as one of Nashville’s leading hotels and a block away from the capitol, the Hermitage became the focal point for the nation.
By the summer of 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment and Tennessee became the Suffragists last, best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election. Tennessee’s governor called a special session of the General Assembly on August 9 to consider the issue. Pro- and anti-suffrage activists (the Suffs and the Antis) descended upon Nashville with intent to influence the legislature. For six weeks, the Hermitage Hotel was filled beyond capacity with Suffs, Antis and journalists. All eyes were on Nashville.
The resolution passed easily in Tennessee’s State Senate, while both sides lobbied desperately for the House of Representatives votes. It became known as the ‘War of the Roses’, where legislators favoring the ratification wore yellow (handed out by the Suffs) and those opposed wore red (handed out by the Antis). The intense lobbying worked on both sides because twice, the Tennessee House members voted 48 to 48 to table the motion to concur with the Senate action ratification decision.
On August 18, 1920, a call for a third vote on the original motion was made, assuming it would again be defeated by the same tie vote. The House’s youngest legislator at the age of 24 was Harry T. Burn from a little town called Niota. Burn came into the votes with a red rose on his lapel and voted ‘Nay’ twice to table the motion prior to the third vote. Originally, Burns supported the suffragists but was pressured by his party leaders and constituents telling him his district was overwhelmingly against woman suffrage. Burns began the voting process siding with them.
A third roll call commenced and five votes later, landed on Harry T. Burn. Tucked away in Harry’s suit jacket pocket under the red rose was a letter delivered that morning from Pheobe ‘Febb’ Burn, his mother. Among a few stories from her farm, Febb wrote the following,
“Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.
With lots of love, Mama”
Knowing very well what he had to do, Burns said ‘Aye’ and pulled off his red rose. The suffrage vote had passed the Tennessee House 49-47 and Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment which became law ensuring the right to vote could not be denied based on sex.
In the case of Harry T. Burn, the significance of a mother’s influence on her son cannot be overstated. Since 1848, women had organized and fought for suffrage at the national level. It was an extremely difficult battle fought by thousands of women who literally put their lives on the line by enduring violence and incarceration. So it is amazing to think that the amendment’s passage came down to one mother’s gentle but forthright nudge toward her son that made all the difference in the world.
Thank you Lula Naff, Tootie Bess and Febb Burn.
One last note, we also visited the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum for a walk down nostalgia lane. Here are a few photos from that visit.
Sometimes intentions are just that. Vivian and I had every intention of spending quality time in Arkansas this year, mostly because we didn’t get to do it as planned last year. Last year, Vivian broke her ankle while fly fishing the White River on the first day of our month-long Arkansas adventure. Consequently, reservations got cancelled as we hobbled out of Arkansas feeling defeated.
It is now 2020, Vivian has fully recovered and we’re back in Arkansas to slay our demons. To ensure we didn’t miss anything, I booked four Arkansas campgrounds giving us almost one month to explore its backwoods country. And it all began in the tiny town of Gilbert on the beautiful Buffalo National River.
Next on our whirlwind tour of Arkansas was Lake Dardenelle State Park where we secured a coveted full hookup site on the water. The campground was quite generous with its real estate as we enjoyed a full view of the water from the RV. From the RV we could walk halfway down to the water to our own patio large enough for a couple of chairs and table.
Our next stop was Lake Oauchita (pronounced WAH-shi-tah) where we had six days at Denby Point, an Army Corp campground.
As always, we keep a wary eye on the weather. When we arrived at Denby Point, forewarnings of tropical disturbances was vaguely on our radar screen; that is until Laura came along. No doubt, being hundreds of miles from a coastline makes one cavalier toward tropical storms, but not this time. Tropical storm Laura was heading toward Arkansas and Denby Point was in the middle of it.
So we left. For the second time, I cancelled reservations at Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas’s newest. It was not meant to be. Instead, we left the southern mountains and drove north to Illinois, barely out of Laura’s cone of certainty. Laura approached the Louisiana coastline as a category 4 hurricane on August 27 and became the tenth-strongest U.S. hurricane landfall by windspeed. Louisiana was devastated – Texas and Arkansas were struck hard. Laura entered Arkansas as a tropical storm and generated eight tornadoes, the largest tornado outbreak recorded in the state during the month of August. Widespread flash flood warnings were issued throughout the state, along with 57 mph wind gusts.
Nimble with our 33-ft fifth wheel in tow, we were safe in Benton, Illinois. Never heard of the little town before, but dang if it didn’t turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip. Not because George Harrison visited it (the first U.S. visit by a Beatle) or because it was the site of the last public hanging in Illinois, or where John Malkovich grew up. No, instead, Benton, Illinois will always be in our memory because, through happenstance, we got to spend quality time with good friends and fellow fulltime RV’ers who were camped nearby.
While we were running north away from a hurricane, our friends Lorraine & Spencer were making a beeline across the country from Oregon to South Carolina attempting to get there in time for a wedding. As luck would have it, our paths intersected in Benton, Illinois. Didn’t seem like it, but it had been two years since we saw them last in Indiana. So with our friends, we toured Benton and had a blast.
Were we disappointed that our Arkansas plans were once again foiled? Absolutely not! But to Arkansas, our nemesis, I say “We’ll be back!”
Our interest in American history continually evolves with our travels. Learning the unique history of a place enriches our travel experiences, gives us a deeper understanding, and shapes our itineraries. It opens our eyes to the lives of so many people of the past whose actions, intellect, drive, bravery, love or hatred still reverberates through time. So with that, we heeded our friends (fulltime RV travelers) Lorraine and Spencer’s advice and visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City.
We didn’t realize coming into the museum how much it would contribute to our Civil War history lessons. The museum is full of preserved artifacts that were saved from the sunken ship that was loaded with immigrants as well as goods being delivered to the western territories, including Kansas. It is an extraordinary time capsule of a most fascinating period in U.S. history. Many patents were being created and with so many people immigrating to western territories, a large supply of new-fangled products for home building and farming, guns, clothing, housewares, food and medicines were being shipped along with them.
What makes this even more fascinating is that everything contained on the Arabia was well preserved within the mud (devoid of oxygen and light) of the Missouri River for over a century. Check out this slide show to see some of the remarkable displays, including the preservation lab.
It was the museum and then later, a visit to Lawrence, Kansas that enlightened us to the civil war that had been going on years before THE Civil War began. And this pre-civil war conflict began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1855. Indeed, it was these words from Senator Atchison of Missouri who wrote in September 1855 to his southern friends, “the Kansas contest is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institution if we fail…the stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one… in a word, the prosperity or the ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle”.
It is clear from this letter that the institution of slavery was under attack and Kansas played a big role in determining whether slavery would survive or not. A few months earlier, Horace Greeley (editor of the New Your Tribune) wrote a celebrated editorial predicting the great battle between Freedom and Slavery was at hand and that the little cloud hovering over a handful of people in the far West foreshadowed the coming storm.
So how did Kansas get drawn into the fight? The short of it is, organization of western territories was in demand and this required railroads. Since 1820, the country was divided by the 36th parallel – above it, free states; below it, slave states. Realizing the importance of a transcontinental railway for taking hold of the western territories, southern slaveholders wanted it to run below the 36th parallel and this included Kansas.
A violent conflict exploded between slave-state Missouri and the Kansas territory which was increasingly populated with abolitionists transported from New England. Much of the violence occurred in and around Lawrence, Kansas. Both sides shipped immigrants and armaments to the region. This is where the Arabia Steamboat comes into the story as it was a common means of transporting immigrants and guns to Kansas. Among supplies and goods shipped to western territories were the Sharps Rifle that were later known as “Beecher Bibles”. These rifled designed and patented in 1848 were known for their long-range accuracy and became icons of the American West. A leading abolitionist and part of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, Henry Ward Beecher believed the Sharps Rifle was a “truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.” His sister, by the way was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
After years of violent conflict, Kansas was admitted as a free state on January 29, 1861, and this was only because enough southern Senators had departed during the secession crisis that led to the Civil War. Our lessons into the tragic events leading up to the Civil War culminated at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas. The college town ambience made us feel at home, and from its museum, we came to appreciate its contributions to civil rights activism, including a recent Black Lives Matter protest.
We spent two full days in the area of Kansas City, Lawrence while camped in Topeka. The stark yet refreshing contrast from our western Kansas experience did not go unnoticed while visiting a vibrant city market and an eclectic college town. But that’s not what we came for. No, we wanted to go to Wamego. Why Wamego? To see the Wizard, of course! And with that, we leave the great plains and head south.
Most people I suspect, drive through Kansas and Nebraska only because they cannot avoid them if they want to get to their next destination. And I also suspect that most people keep to the interstates of which there is one in each state that bisects it completely from border to border. With that, I will guess that most people who have traveled through Nebraska or Kansas have never seen Toadstool Geologic, Carhenge, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Monument Rocks or Little Jerusalem Badlands. Too bad, because these are jewels adorning the vast flat topography of the great plains.
One of them is man-made inspired by stone formations, while the others are strange and abrupt geological landmarks formed by the power of weather-driven deposition and erosion. The alternating layers of hard and soft rocks interrupt the flat lands with dramatic vertical appearances that fan out at their base. When viewed from a distance they appear as aberrations and viewed aerially, look like injuries to an otherwise smooth landscape. When you see these rock formations, you get the sense they did not look like that millions of years ago. Indeed, what remains standing are testimonies to the durability of hard rock as the surrounding softer rock eroded away over time. Often, odd shapes have formed from large clumps of sturdy sandstone that appear balanced delicately atop narrow vertical outcroppings – such are the toadstools or hoodoos. They have won the test of time and their ongoing erosion is undetectable to the human eye.
Escaping far and wide from the vertical rocks are deep crevices or arroyos that appear like spindly tree branches extending across the landscape, only to be seen from above. This severe landscape is often referred to as badlands and indeed, the progress of westbound pioneers was impeded by them. Emigrants typically traveled along the Platte River Valley as part of the Oregon Trail. When they arrived at Scotts Bluff, the travelers were forced to move out of the valley to find a pass that would allow them to continue westward. Other formations such as Chimney Rock served as familiar landmarks for travelers.
Otherworldly is a term used often to describe these rock formations. I cannot help but think of many Star Trek episodes where the landing party finds themselves among strange geologic formations on a desert-planet. No need to travel to another galaxy, simply get off the interstate and explore Nebraska and Kansas. One does not have to boldly go where no others have been because these points of interest are not difficult to get to; you simply need the desire to see them. And Vivian and I had that desire; at least I did, with camera in hand.