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Bayou Roadtrip – December 2009

In what would be our last major roadtrip together, Kim and I visited the following places on our Bayou Roadtrip in December 2009 and January 2010.

  • Big Thicket National Preserve
  • Cane River Creole National Historical Park
  • Poverty Point National Monument
  • Natchez Trace Parkway
  • Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail
  • Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Natchez National Historical Park
  • New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
  • Jean LaFitte National Historical Park and Preserve
  • New Year’s Eve in the French Quarter of New Orleans
  • Fort Bowie National Historical Site

Here’s my roundup summary of the trip.

Pasted below are the blog postings Kim and I added during the trip:

Ringing in the New Year in NOLA

by KIMMIE on JANUARY 1, 2010

Yesterday was a pretty great day overall for Scott and I.

We started the day off in the Barataria Preserve section of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. This is a must see NPS site as it provides trails that take you through a swamp/bayou. Due to recent rains only the trails that consisted of boardwalks and pavement were accessible. So after a walk through the visitor center display, we headed out on the 4-mile round trip walk (consisting of 4 trails that connect) through the wetlands. This turned out to be a wonderful walk and very easy to do as it is all flat. If you are in the area, please take the time to do the whole walk. Along the way we were in awe of the wetlands and the display of life that is so different from Arizona. There is one section that got a little boring – the Palmetto Trail – but stick it out if you go because it is so worth it in the end. The second mile of the walk is amazing as the scenery is very calming and peaceful. On this portion of the walk we saw a nutria (non-native rodent), approximately 5 foot alligator, a turtle, and an egrit. On the walk back, we saw a swamp rabbit.

Once back to the car, we headed on to the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center, another portion of the Jean Lafitte NHP in Thibodaux, LA. This unit focuses on the Acadians; the ranger was very informative on the history of how the Acadians came to be here in LA and helped provide a good segue to the exhibit. The cultural center has a very well-designed exhibit and again is worth seeing to learn more about the Acadians and their unique culture. We wrapped up the visit to this unit by walking through an exhibit of paintings from a local artist. Kim found a couple of paintings featuring “Big Mama” that she would loved to have purchased.

Once again we hit the road, heading to our hotel for the night in Luling, LA. We checked in and took a nap prior to heading into the French Quarter for NYE. You know you are getting old when you have to take a nap in order to enjoy NYE. 

Because it was NYE, and adding in the Sugar Bowl crowd, we figured we actually would not be able to find parking but we did. And it was FREE!  We walked through the French Quarter, looking for a relatively inexpensive place to have dinner and after some time walking along the streets of this unique section of the city, we decided to return to Oceana for a second time. The food is THAT good.

We once again found it hard to decide on what to order but ultimately went with trying different items than what we ate the night before. Kim ordered the blackened chicken platter and Scott went with the seafood po’boy as he had been told it was a must have if in LA. The blackened chicken was ridiculously delicious. Scott found his meal to be just on the “ok” side but was glad to be able to say he had tried it.

A little after 11pm we headed out to the streets carrying our “drinks” (aka Coke and Dr Pepper) and made our way toward the river. This was an adventure because basically at one point you just couldn’t move. And yes there was a lot of naked breasts as women tried to entice people on the balconies to throw down some beads. Despite the crowd and noise it was great to be in NOLA for NYE.

We finally made our way to the river and found a good spot to view the fireworks with 12 minutes to spare. At the stroke of midnight we all yelled Happy New Year and then the fireworks began. And NOLA puts on a great show.

After the fireworks ended we made our way to the Café Du Monde, a coffee stand that had been running continuously since 1860. This was on Kim’s must do list. The café was super crowded as everyone decided that’s where they wanted to be as well after the fireworks. We opted for the “to go” line. Kim enjoyed a café au lait and Scott a hot chocolate. We also got an order of beignets, that we saved for the next morning.

To top the night off we walked all of Bourbon St and enjoyed the crowd, which was surprisingly light considering the circumstances. We got back to the car just in time for the rain to start and drove back to the hotel.

Spending NYE in NOLA was a pretty awesome experience overall.


Driving the Natchez Trace and touring an antebellum mansion

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 30, 2009

It feels a little odd to write that today’s agenda began with driving a National Park. But even though it’s a road, the Natchez Trace Parkway is definitely worthy of inclusion in the park system. The 444-mile roadway follows the historic Natchez Trace, winding its way from Nashville to Natchez. There’s too much history to recount here, but the pathway has remained important for centuries.

We had already driven a substantial portion of the parkway during our 2008 summer roadtrip, so we knew what to expect. The pleasant drive offers plenty to stop and gaze at. We took full advantage, stopping as many times as we could during the more than five hours we spent on the parkway. The most surprising was at Emerald Mound, the second-largest temple mound in the continental United States. It was pretty amazing.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have enough time to see all that we wanted to at Natchez Trace, as we also needed to stop at Natchez National Historic Park. We made it just in time for the last guided tour of the Melrose mansion, the best preserved antebellum mansion in the South. The tour was quick but enjoyable, and we wandered the grounds for a bit afterwards. The Park has three units: an old fort that’s not open to the public, the Melrose, and the home of William Johnson, a former slave turned slave-owning barber. Yeah…weird, huh? We ran out of time and weren’t able to get to the Johnson home before it closed, though we did take some photos of the exterior and read more about the site and the man.

A little disappointed, we started the drive towards Baton Rouge, our destination for the night. It rained most of the drive – hopefully that’s all the rain we encounter on the trip, in spite of the forecast. We arrived in Baton Rouge and looked for an obvious hotel chain to steal some wifi and find a good hotel deal. It took a surprisingly long time to find a hotel; I think we were already outside the city limits when we were able to stop. Having already passed the city, we looked onward to New Orleans, found a nice but inexpensive hotel, ate some dinner, and finished the day’s drive.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll hit the Jean LaFitte National Historic Park and Preserve (there are several subunits) and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, and hopefully experience a bit of what the city of NOLA has to offer too. We’re still looking for a hotel for New Year’s Eve.


Poverty Point and Vicksburg

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 28, 2009

After a sleepless night at a crappy motel, we headed over to Poverty Point National Monument. It’s technically designated a National Monument and is counted as a unit of the National Park Service (which is why we’re here to mark it off our list), but in reality, it’s just a state historic site. Apparently, the original plan was for the state to transfer ownership and management to the NPS, but then after Congress authorized the unit, Louisiana changed its mind and retained it. We looked for – but didn’t see – a single reference to the National Parks or its National Monument status. That’s surprising, as it would obviously bring more visitors and probably some additional funds.

The visitor center was small but decent, and the park ranger was very helpful. In fact, it was a little creepy how involved she wanted to be in our visitor center experience – she’d routinely leave the front desk to wander over and start talking to us about the site while we were reading one of the displays.

We had two main options for seeing the site: a 2.6 mile walking trail or a 2 mile drive. We decided to start with the drive, then hike a bit from a visitor contact station at the midpoint. In actuality, we spent most of the time driving with frequent stops for pictures.

The site protects several earthworks – most notably six concentric semi-circle ridges (best seen from the air) and a huge bird-shaped mound. It’s one of the oldest and most significant earthworks in the Western hemisphere. Specifically, it demonstrated a major advance in the sophistication of peoples in the “New World.” Unfortunately, the site wasn’t discovered until someone saw it in an aerial photo, after decades and decades of plowing. There was even a state highway built through the site. Argh.

We drove through and took photos, even though it’s incredibly hard to see the ridges in 2009. The main mound is very impressive – I’m not sure the scale is easily understood in pictures. It was estimated to require more than 10 million 12-gallon baskets of dirt to complete. Wow. We parked and walked up one side and back down the other, then ditched our plans to walk the trail through the ridges and to a couple of the smaller mounds. It was very cold and windy, and we had already spent an hour longer there than anticipated. It was a good idea, as the ridges are barely noticeable; some of them are only a foot or two higher by this point.

After leaving Poverty Point we drove the hour or so to Vicksburg National Military Park. Vicksburg was the longest campaign of the Civil War and helped to seal the fate of the South. The Union’s grand plan for victory in the war was to cut off the foreign trade routes South, which meant controlling the coast and Mississippi River. Vicksburg was the last missing piece in that strategy.

The site itself, like the other four major Civil War battlefields, is littered with granite monuments detailing the troops movements during the battle. There were also some very special “state” monuments, including the fabulous Illinois monument which seems like it should be in Washington, DC. The only structure original to the battlefield is the Shirley House, which is currently closed for stabilization. Speaking of being closed (or open, as the case may be), we ran across an odd sign as we entered the visitor center. If you go to Vicksburg, make sure to watch the introductory film at the visitor center; it’s one of the better ones out there.

The highlight of the park, however, has to be the USS Cairo. Located and salvaged more than a hundred years after its sinking near the battlefield, the only remaining Civil War-era armored battleship is really something to see. Seriously.

Unfortunately, by this time we were quickly losing daylight and the park was getting ready to close, so we had to breeze through the last part of the driving tour before heading to Jackson. We gave Priceline a chance at redemption and Shatner came through for us with a nice and quite friendly Courtyard by Marriott for only a few bucks more than the craphole we stayed in last night. Well worth the added cash, no doubt about it.

Tomorrow we drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway to its terminus, then tour the two antebellum homes preserved at Natchez National Historic Park. We’ll stay in Baton Rouge or New Orleans.


The plantations of the Cane River Lake

by KIMMIE on DECEMBER 27, 2009

Today started like all the other days so far on the trip, as we got another late start.  This time we were only off by 2 hours. Luckily, we spent the night in Alexandria, LA at a pretty decent but sparsely occupied Baymont hotel which meant we only had an hour drive to our main focus of today which was Cane River Creole National Historic Park.  So after breakfast at the hotel, grabbing some groceries at the local Super 1 Foods and gassing up, we were on our way.

The first stop at Cane River Creole NHP was the Magnolia Plantation.  We walked the self guided trail, listening to the site descriptions via our cell phone.  See cell phones ARE important.  The National Park Service has established a way for the information about stops on self guided tours to be accessed via cell phones.  It works pretty well.  At this plantation we could go inside what used to be the overseer’s house, a former slave quarters building, blacksmith’s shop, and gin barn.   The main house is still owned and occupied by the descendants of the original owners and is not open to the public.  While here, we (mainly Kim) picked pecans.  The NPS allows up to a gallon of pecans to be picked by one party, not for resale use. Kim thought it was cool and managed to fill up a container provided by the NPS.

We made our way to the second, and possibly the more well known, unit of this park called the Oakland Plantation.  We walked around some of the grounds before Scott began feeling ill.  After checking out the store, we went back to the car where Scott tried to relax, eat something and get over the strange feeling he was having.  Due to how he felt, Scott skipped the guided tour, leaving Kim to attend by herself.  The tour was worth attending.  The house was occupied by descendants until 1998 when they vacated and the NPS took over.  From the porch, we could look down into the “bottle garden” and see the ends of the wine bottles the family used as edging in their garden beds.  It was an interesting way for the French Catholic family who built the main house to reuse all of their empty wine bottles.

Because the house was in continued use by the family, there were some obvious updates that occurred over time.  The main examples of more modern items were the updated bathroom and 60s style kitchen.  During the depression, the family moved the cook’s house further away from the main house and made it into a hunting/fishing cabin to make money to keep the land with the family.  At another time, again to make money to keep the land with the family, they opened up a little museum of farming equipment under the house.

After the tour, Scott met up with Kim, as he was feeling a little better, and we finished out the tour of the grounds.

Then Kim took over driving, heading toward Monroe, where we are staying tonight.  After driving 30 miles south instead of the east direction we were supposed to be going in (don’t ask) Kim managed to get us to Monroe by 7pm, only about an hour later then we should have arrived.  

After deciding on a fairly cheap Days Inn for tonight, we scoped out the eating scene.  Originally we were going with Subway but apparently they do not exist in Monroe anymore (Note: We saw NO fast food joints here).  After some debate, we decided on Olive Garden and shared a pasta dish along with unlimited salad.  The hope now is for an early night tonight so we can wake up early and be at Poverty Point National Monument by the 9am opening. If we can make it to Vicksburg as well, then we will be staying most likely in Jackson, MS tomorrow night.

Overall, today was decent as it was great to finally see an NPS site that had more “meat” to it.  We are looking forward to tomorrow.


Christmas driving, Riverwalk, and the Negotiator

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 26, 2009

Like last year, Christmas was a bit untraditional this year – we spent virtually all of it driving. There’s not much to report, so we’ll keep it short.

After leaving Van Horn, we continued east with only a couple of short stops on our way to San Antonio. We were there last winter but ran out of time to check out Riverwalk. Our original intention was to have Christmas dinner in the city, since we figured that there would be a selection of open restaurants to choose from. As we got closer and started to research our options, however, we had trouble finding a single place – beyond Denny’s of course – that was clearly open. So we called one of the nicer hotels near Riverwalk and asked the concierge, who verified that several restaurants were indeed open in the area.

After parking, we strolled down the walkway and scouted the place out a bit. We still didn’t notice anything open, in spite of it being crowded with people. After stopping into another hotel, we were directed to an Italian restaurant named Paesanos. We had a very nice meal and even took home some leftovers. We walked back to car and headed towards Houston, a smile on our faces and full stomachs.

Since we had spent most of the holiday driving, we decided to check out a nicer hotel for the night. We tried the Name Your Own Price feature of Priceline, landing a 4-star hotel for only $51. Or so we thought. When we arrived, we realized that we’d have to pay $16 to “self-park” our own vehicle in the garage and pay another $11 for basic wifi access (the hotel didn’t even have it available in the lobby). To add to the insult, the room would lack a refrigerator and microwave, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to eat our leftovers. Annoyed, we headed to bed early for what we hoped would result in an early start to the following day.


An inauspicious start

by SCOTT on DECEMBER 24, 2009

It’s been a long day.

Both Kim and I started the day out pretty tired – ok, very tired. Kim was at work until after 3am and each of us got less than 3 hours of sleep. When I arrived an hour later than expected, she had slept through her alarm and still had some wet laundry that needed to dry before being packed. We grabbed breakfast and ran a few errands while the laundry finished, managing to hit the road about four hours later than originally planned. Not a big deal; I can’t recall the last time we’ve left on time for a roadtrip, and we always manage to make the time up.

Kim tried to catch up on sleep while I drove east. We stopped in Lordsburg at a rest area to take a quick hour nap. Unfortunately, when I awoke, the car battery was completely dead. My dad had taped the headlights into the on position so he wouldn’t forget to turn them on at night (don’t ask…). That works ok when the key is removed and the lights automatically go out. But it works far less well when you still have the key set in the aux position like I did.

So, it’s Christmas eve and we’re stuck at a vacant rest area in New Mexico. Nice. After flagging down a few rest area patrons for jumper cables and plotting strategy, the car muscled up enough juice to get started. We hightailed it over to the local truck stop and I bought jumper cables while Kim drove around the town for 20 minutes trying to recharge the battery. I got a hold of the local auto parts place (about 80 miles away) and talked to a Toyota mechanic in San Diego (thank you Pacific Time Zone!) about our prospects for getting stuck again. We then gassed up the car and…it started. Whew!

We made it to the auto parts store, which tested the battery and gave the thumbs up. We stopped in Las Cruces for a nice steak dinner and proceeded along to Van Horn, Texas. The town’s famous for its Chuy’s restaurant, which is such a favorite of John Madden that he’s dubbed it the “All-Madden Hall of Fame.” They’ve reserved a special chair in his honor, along with what amounts to a Madden shrine.

The town is about 2 hours short of what we had hoped to accomplish today, but considering the late start and battery trouble, I’m feeling good about it. Hopefully, tomorrow’s drive will be less stressful.

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