Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 145-157 Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama

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February 20 – March 5, 2013

We spend a few rainy days on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain at Fountainebleu State Park, LA. At a nearby campsite are Nicole and Dirk, a German couple we had seen previously at Big Bend National Park and Goose Island State Park in Texas. They had already traveled Europe and Africa for four years and were a few months into a multi-year exploration of North America.

From there we headed to Magnolia, Mississippi. Dolores, who organizes the retreats I teach there, had invited us to stay at her home. We spent a long weekend enjoying the comfort and hospitality. Magnolia is a small town in rural southern Mississippi, among rolling hills, ponds and forests. The grass was a lush green from recent rain.

The first night we accompanied Dolores to a nearby auction, getting a dose of small town Friday night entertainment and local color. On Sunday Chris and I had a late brunch of southern comfort food at The Dinner Bell in nearby McComb. We sat family style at a round table for about twelve. The lazy susan twirled round and round repeatedly offering up at least fifteen dishes including: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, baked beans, green beans, okra, deep-fried eggplant, sausage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, grits, stuffing. A variety of pie slices sat in the center for dessert. The food was filling, as you might imagine, and a bit more fatty, salty, sweet, fried and overcooked than we normally eat. We enjoyed it, however, and didn’t need another meal that day.

The next morning we left for Dolores’s other home in New Orleans. We learned there was a tornado watch in effect and as we drove away the sky was dark and in a malevolence mood. Traveling in Tornado Alley is a bit unnerving. Just two weeks before, a Category 4 tornado had hit Hattiesburg MS just 60 miles east of Magnolia. I have never seen a tornado, but their danger seems real and familiar from repeated viewings of “The Wizard of Oz” as well as “Storm Chasers” on the Discovery Channel. Like a wild mountain lion, I would like to see one but only from a safe distance. Unfortunately, nature isn’t usually controllable that way. (If you like tornado footage go to the following link to see the recent Hattiesburg twister: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdmTpsyQinM.)

On the freeway the heavens let loose with a blinding torrent of rain, wind and lightening. We soon passed three cars that had spun off the highway. From hydroplaning? The rain stopped abruptly, but overhead was still inky and pregnant with menace. Later, on the news, we would learn that the area near Fountainebleu State park where we had been a few days before had been pummeled with golf ball sized hail, breaking windshields and pockmarking vehicles and structures. There would be more rain that day but no tornado.

Dolores’s stately renovated Victorian was on the West Bank, a place of charming and colorfully painted 19th Century architecture. I had been in New Orleans as a child and Chris had been there a few years ago with a team from Santa Cruz helping rebuild a community center after Katrina. We looked forward to exploring this vibrant, one-of-a-kind, beleaguered city together.

From Dolores’s house we could walk to the Algiers Ferry which crossed the mighty Mississippi River and docked at the French Quarter. We wandered the narrow streets admiring the old buildings and the European feel. We stopped to listen to street musicians playing jazz and watched the dancing they inspired. Street artists painted pictures and living sculptures posed for donations. We took a trolley ride to Audubon Park through the Garden District. Mardi Gras had only happened two weeks before and brilliantly colored beads, like shimmering fruit, still hung from tree boughs lining the roads.

A few Mardi Gras decorations also lingered on the many balconies in the French Quarter. My mother likes to tell the story about a near disaster when touring in 1965. Strolling one of the narrow streets, we were shocked by a sudden loud crash behind us. Turning around we saw that a second story balcony had broken off and plummeted to the sidewalk, just a few feet from us. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

One day we ate a big platter of boiled spicy crawfish. Another morning we had brunch at the famed Brennan’s Restaurant. Both a tourist destination and a namesake, my family had eaten there when we visited New Orleans in the 60’s. Our meal this year ended with Bananas Foster, their signature dessert. Each order was set aflame with great fanfare and applause.

I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the largest insect museum in the country, the Audubon Insectorium. Both pinned and living exotic insects – some huge, some beautiful, others just strange – were on display. One room is devoted to termites. I went first to the live butterfly garden to chase down the flitting creatures with my camera (not very successfully). Although closed when I arrived, the Bug Appetit cafe is open for part of the day, where insects are prepared for tasting with treats like six-legged salsa and chocolate chirp cookies.

We also took advantage of big city life and went to two movies, “The Life of Pi” and “Bless Me, Ultima”. Both films about boys learning the hard truths, as well as the magic, of life.

From New Orleans, we drove to Orange Beach, Alabama on the Gulf Coast, staying at a vacation condo owned by good friends of my sister. We arrived to yet another unusual cold-snap for the South. It was in the 30’s and very windy which, at least, provided something to talk about with every stranger encountered. Surprisingly, it was warmer that weekend in Kalispell, MT.

From the windows of the 8th floor condo we could see the white beach below, pristine and beautiful against the blue waters, without a footprint to mar its perfection. It must have recently been wiped clean by wind or waves. Over the next few days people gradually came and went, and the beach looked used again. The weather warmed a little and I joined others to trek the white expanse, lined on one side with low lapping waves and on the other with hi-rises, hotels and homes.

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.

This gallery contains 31 photos


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DAYS 141-145 Louisiana . . .

February 16 – 20, 2013

As we traveled through easternmost coastal Texas and into western Louisiana, the air became humid and the land wet. From the dry, even drought-stricken, expanses of the southwest we entered the watery, verdant and intimate surroundings of the Deep South.

On our way to Palmetto Island State Park we drove part of the Creole Nature Trail. It carves a path through the great marshes of several national wildlife refuges in Louisiana. An enormous fire raged in the distance filling the sky with billowing, drifting white and dark plumes. We speculated on its cause, even wondering if a fire had erupted at one the many oil refineries we passed near Port Arthur. As we pulled over to take photos, a police car appeared out of nowhere and parked behind us. The officer walked to our window and informed us that stopping is not allowed on this road. Oops. (It is a 2-lane road with little traffic?) He also explained that we were witnessing the annual burning of the marsh grass to keep down the mosquito population.

The campsites at Palmetto Island State Park sat among tall trees still leafless from winter. However, the understory was thick and lush with saw palmettos and looked tropical. We probably would have stayed a few days but the park was closing the following morning for road paving and other repairs.

The restrooms – called comfort stations here – were impressive. (You know you’ve been camping for a long time when you get excited about a bathroom.) The toilet and shower area was tastefully tiled, reminding me of a modest spa facility. There were screened in porches to offer relief from bugs or rain. But the most amazing feature, by far, was the two sets of new (and free!) washers and dryers for campers. Wow. Previously, few places we stayed had showers and fewer had laundries, and if they did, they were shabby and coin operated. Despite the poor economy in Louisiana, they put generous funds and attention into their park system.

The next day we visited the Vermilion River which runs through the park and looked at the cabins for rent nearby. Peeking in the window of an unoccupied cabin we saw a well-appointed living room which had a large flat screen TV over the fireplace. There was a spacious screened eating area, two bedrooms and kitchen, and it was a short walk to the river. We will discover that many of the state parks in the deep south offer attractive cabins for a reasonable rate (although not in our budget).

We continued on to Fausse Pointe State Park about 55 miles away. It was not only wet but flooded. Areas of usually dry ground were now huge pools of water and muck. There were a few higher priced waterfront campsites along the river channel but now, as Chris pointed out, almost every campsite was waterfront. We found a site that was not flooded and directly on the bayou; it had its own little wooden deck for fishing, tying up boats or quiet sitting.

Kayaking through the meandering canals of the swamps, I was reminded of the grim descriptions of lengthy travel on the Amazon River, the endless miles of waterways and tributaries that all look alike, with thick, impenetrable jungle overhanging the edge. It was like that here. I became unsettled, imagining how easy it would be to get lost in this maze of wandering watery alleyways that had few memorable landmarks.

The couple next to us had a commercially-made pop-up truck camper similar to ours. This led to immediate camaraderie and shared stories. When they first saw our camper here, they weren’t sure if it was home-made because they had recently seen one just like it in their hometown of Albuquerque, NM. It turned out they had seen OUR camper parked at Home Depot over Christmas when Chris was there. We enjoyed talking to them since we haven’t met many people like us, that is, similar in age, attitude and lifestyle. Most campers are older, more traditional retirees or younger families with children. When people ask us if we are retired, we say we are practicing for retirement.

I knew that plenty of the south was covered in swampland but I had not realized just how much. Heading east across Louisiana’s Route 10, much the freeway is built on pillars in the tree canopy passing over wetlands which extend endlessly in the eight directions. The easterly and westerly lanes are built separately creating two long parallel bridges about 75 yards apart.

Eventually, a little land and an exit appeared. We took the ramp to find a spot to make lunch. Following a sign for a wildlife refuge, we found ourselves at a boat ramp between and below the two streams of high speed traffic. We had our picnic there, in the world of gliding alligators, long-legged birds, cypress trees, dark waters and fisherman while the world of concrete, rubber and steel raced above. Each domain seemingly oblivious to the other.

Farther east, Route 10 runs on solid ground. In the town of Grosse Tete (meaning “big head” in French) we pulled into the slightly rundown Tiger Truck Stop for gas, not knowing we had chosen a unique and controversial place to refuel. Outside the main buildings was a large enclosure which I took little notice of at first, vaguely guessing it was there to keep some valuable equipment safe. Then watching a man and his two small sons stare intently into the cage, I guessed that they weren’t looking at machinery.

Getting closer I saw, to my amazement, a large male Bengal tiger slowly, silently pacing a small grassy lawn on its massive paws. The great feline walked with what seemed like regal indifference or, more likely, the numbed resignation of a captive animal. Unimaginatively named Tony (not Richard Parker), the tiger eventually reclined languidly atop a large concrete interior building. As the beast calmly gazed in the direction of the onlookers, the bilateral symmetry of the black face markings looked to me like a Rorschach test with bright yellow eyes. (Unfortunately I have no photos of the tiger but you can see Tony at the link below.)

The man and I stood in awe, commenting repeatedly on the beauty of the animal and its presence so out-of-place between the freeway and gas pumps. The striking coloration and pattern of the tiger – its vivid orange, black and white patches and stripes – strangely reminded me of the monarch butterflies that winter in Santa Cruz. One animal small, fragile, winged and of the air, the other large, powerful, furry and earthbound. But both in danger of losing their habitat as more and more of the natural world’s fecundity is compromised by irresponsible human encroachment.

I don’t think it is coincidence that the Louisiana State University’s mascot is the Bengal tiger. Later I would read about the controversy and legal battles between animal rights activists and the truck stop owners over Tony. The story even reached the New York Times several weeks after our visit.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/28/us/truck-stop-tiger-in-louisiana-stirs-legal-battle.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at brennan.carla@gmail.com.

NOTE TWO: It’s great getting your comments. And you can also “Like” or comment on photographs. So if you feel inspired to say something, please do. It encourages me and makes me feel more connected to friends, family and even strangers.