Monday, December 17, 2012

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Exploring the waterfalls at Clark Creek

Our latest obsession is fossil hunting. During a recent trip to Percy Quin State Park, we were initially dismayed to find the normally beautiful lake now a drained, muddy bed. We made the most of it, though, venturing out into the squishy mud, collecting a few interesting rocks along the way. Back at home, the discovery of a document by Louisiana State University opened our eyes to what we had before us--rocks filled with imprints of tiny plants and sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Now hooked, we had to find more. As it turns out, a good location for Louisiana fossil hunting is in the riverbeds of the Tunica Hills area. Unfortunately, fall is hunting season at Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, so we set our sites on neighboring Mississippi's Clark Creek Nature Area.

Our first find
A two and half hour drive from New Orleans, Clark Creek wasn't quite close enough to make it without stopping for a sanity break for our 2 and 4-year-old. Pushing through Baton Rouge, we skidded to a halt in St. Francisville on the 400th "are we there yet??" interrogation. A very knowledgeable woman at the Visitor's Center set us up with a brochure on Clark Creek as well as information on other attractions and, most importantly, food.

Looking for a quick place to pick up lunch, we ordered wraps at Cozy Corner Bistro and walked past the St. Francisville Inn to eat on the picnic tables in the adjacent park. While the kids climbed trees in the park, we glanced down at the Inn's pebble driveway and discovered the first of the day's fossils. In under ten minutes, we had found a half dozen river rocks bearing impressions of tiny ferns and marine animals. Giddy with excitement, we loaded back in the car and headed for Clark Creek.
Making friends at the Pond Store

Google routed us along Tunica Trace to the Fort Adams Pond Road, which proved to be a bumpy ride pitted with potholes. Regardless, it was a nice jaunt into the countryside, past pastures of cows and horses and even an old Pond Store, circa 1881.

Just around the corner from the Pond Store was Clark Creek Nature Preserve. We parked alongside a handful of other cars and loaded our backpack with water and snacks. The 700-acre preserve boasts 50 waterfalls, champion trees and miles of hilly, strenuous trails.

Clark Creek's Waterfall Trail
We set out on the leaf-covered Waterfall Trail, admiring the scenery and listening to the birds chirping. Long rows of stairs bypassed steep slopes that turned slippery in wet weather, and much of the trail had a surprisingly sharp drop-off on one side. At the intersection with the Primitive Trail, we veered off the main trail to walk along the stream's edge (often having to jump across to switch sides). It was here that we began taking breaks to examine rocks and had already found several interesting pieces when we heard the first waterfall.

Passing beyond a leaning tree, we found ourselves on top of the waterfall, looking down to the pool below. We backtracked through the woods and emerged again on the lower end, marveling at our first sight of a waterfall since the Smokey Mountains. The pool was warm to the touch, and the kids practiced their "mountain-climbing" by jumping across boulders.

Exploring the creek bed
Although the Waterfall Trail leads to six waterfalls, we set our goals on seeing the first two, knowing that we'd most likely be carrying kids on our way out. The second was just as stunning as the first, making us realize the trip would have been a success even without the discovery of fossils.

By the time we made it back to the car, nearly three hours had passed and the sky was darkening with the incoming front. Despite being a bit sore, we were delighted with our day's adventures through this picturesque nature preserve. Plus, we found plenty of brachiopod, crinoid and tabulate coral fossils for our coffee table's "show and tell" bowl.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Dancer at the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Pow Wow

Growing up in Alabama, a Thanksgiving family tradition was to visit the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., for their annual Pow Wow. This year, we continued the tradition by bringing our children to see the colorful costume displays, rhythmic dancing and Native American crafts.

Dancers compete at the Pow Wow
As the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama, the Poarch Creek Indians trace their roots back to the original Creek Nation found throughout Alabama and Georgia. Today, the Indians live in a mostly rural reservation, dotted with sprawling cotton and corn fields and supplemented by a towering casino.

Although we arrived before lunch, the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity. A shuttle whisked us from our cars to the front entrance, where a small ticket booth marked the entrance to the large arena. The steady beat of drums signaled the location of the dancing competitions, and we climbed the bleachers to watch the men twirl and jump in their elaborately decorated and highly feathered outfits. The women, although much more subdued, showcased simpler yet exquisite costumes and a quiet graceful footwork.

While my nieces took time to pose with a few Native Americans, we headed out in search of food. Roasted corn, buffalo burgers, Indian tacos and fry bread were just a few of the options, and, of course, we tried them all.

Jumping high
I was amazed at how long the kids had lasted before darting over to the children's area. They marveled and pointed at the bounce house maze and the bigger kids spinning and jumping in various stomach-turning machines. While their cousins braved the bungee cord jumper, demonstrating their mad flipping skills, my two settled on the pony ride--or at least looked at the ponies before deciding they were still a bit too scary.

Just then, a child walked by with a bow and arrow, and all thoughts of rides were immediately over. A double row of booths lined the outer edges of the festival, and we steadily made our way past one after another. The souvenirs and crafts were nearly overwhelming, as each booth offered beautiful displays of dreamcatchers, animal-print shirts, wooden toys and just about anything else imaginable.

Native crafts for sale
Wooden alligator and pop gun in hand, we settled down for one more round of dancing before giving in to the yawns for nap time. A stop by a final booth on our way out landed us prized, buffalo-tooth necklaces, a lasting souvenir for mom and dad.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fall at the Swamp

Fall at Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve

Although we've explored the trails at Jean Lafitte National Park's Barataria Preserve dozens of times, every trip brings new discoveries. Sunday was the perfect day to visit, with mildly cool weather accented by rust-colored cypress trees and red maples (our version of fall colors).

Palmetto Trail
With one sleeping babe and one rearing to go, we headed first for the Palmetto Trail, where quiet, long stretches of boardwalk suited everyone's needs. The dark waters were peeking through lush, wild vegetation, pooling in small ponds under the shade of giant leaves. August napped to the rhythmic beat of the stroller wheels on wooden boards, while Charles filled his bug catcher with dried leaves and sticks, preparing a habitat for whatever unsuspecting bug he was sure to find.

For the most part, the trail was ours alone to embrace, the silence only broken a handful of times by mostly visitors with foreign accents. Aside from a few "pokey caterpillars" and elusive, croaking frogs, this initial hike was serene and uneventful--a grade A for us adults, but making our 4-year-old a little antsy at the unthinkable prospect of going home with an empty bug catcher.

Reflections in Bayou Coquille

As we emerged from the giant palmettos and crossed the next parking lot, we once again entered the mysterious world of Louisiana's swamps. Bayou Coquille was unusually clear of overgrowth and looked perfect for canoeing, and as the afternoon went on, the sky above the cypress trees became a fantastic blue.

We stopped several times to examine the spiders busily spinning their webs and looked forward to seeing the alligator we heard was lurking up ahead. As we stepped aside to allow some faster tourists to pass, Charles squealed with delight at spotting a giant, black lubber grasshopper waiting for him in the path. He impressed the passersby by fearlessly plucking the grasshopper from the ground and gently placing him in the prepared habitat.
Marsh Overlook

It was enough to make this "the greatest day ever," one that only got better when we finally spotted the 10-foot alligator lurking in the Lower Kenta Canal. He was well-hidden in this hyacinth-clogged canal, which looked so little like water that the kids thought they could walk right out on it.

Our leisurely stroll ended at the expansive marsh overlook. After a few relaxing moments of taking in the views, we strapped the kids in their strollers and starting sprinting back towards the Visitor's Center. We had half an hour to cover the two miles back before the parking lot gates were closed at 5 p.m. Thankfully, the ranger was still waiting for us when we came huffing and puffing back to our car.  

Parting views from the park

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life in the Swamp

Live music at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo

More times than I can count, we've driven the I-10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette as a straight-shot, watching the Atchafalaya swamps through our windshield tour. This weekend, though, we ventured off the Grosse Tete exit for what I thought was a small swamp exhibit at the Visitor's Center. Instead, we discovered an amazing gem of a festival, with more free food and live music than we could ever imagine.

Animals on display at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo
We knew something was up when every road in the small town was lined with parked cars. The sounds of Cajun music filled the air as we walked the short distance from our car to the Iberville Swamp Life Expo. Shaded by live oaks and set alongside the peaceful Bayou Grosse Tete, the bustling event was in sharp contrast to the tranquil scenery.

A path of booths circled the property, and we began by browsing the largely functional art on display. Talented John James Clark's rare display of hand-carved cypress boats looked too pristine for actual use, and artist Charlene Hebert's oil paintings depicted life in the Atchafalaya. Naturally, the kids were drawn to animal skins and turtle shells on display, and my youngest even set up residence in an exhibitor's folding chair - determined to just sit and people watch.

A big pot of jambalaya at the Expo
And then came the food. We started off slow, with a piece of bread dipped in the wild flavor of homemade cane syrup. As we rounded the corner, I discovered the Cajun-made Bread Pudding and couldn't resist its perfect consistency. I kept telling myself, "Life is short, so eat dessert first." The next half hour was a whirlwind of Crawfish Etouffee d'Atchafalaya, Big Cajun Wild Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Big Pete's Cajun Cracklins and Bayou Land Mustard Greens and Pig Tails.

We were all walking a bit slower when my four-year-old, Charles, spotted a whole alligator being carved up before our eyes. The still-warm meat melted in our mouths, and Charles was thrilled to shovel it in while boasting to anyone who would listen that he was a "carnivore." The cooks must have been won over by him because they sent us home with a pair of alligator feet (skin still on), which my husband strategically "forgot" in a friend's freezer.

Plantation in northern Iberville Parish
After watching the crowd dance to the music for a bit, we continued on our journey, heading north toward Rosedale and Maringouin on a driving tour of historic homes. The Parish website offers a downloadable map marking the locations of several privately owned, but still exquisite plantations. We made the loop up 76 and down 77, passing fields of sugar cane and green pastures all lying on the outskirts of the Atchafalaya Basin levee.

It was a nice reprieve before jumping back on the interstate and soaring past this area's untamed wilderness. Although we researched hikes in the Atchafalaya, particularly in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, the notice of hunting season made us shy away, and the kids were still too small for a canoe trip. Determined though to introduce them to the region, we opted for the next best choice, stopping at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's cypress swamp.

Resident of the cypress swamp at ULL
Hidden behind a campus of buildings, the surprisingly large swamp presented more than we bargained for. Initially thrilled to spot a baby alligator among the abundant frogs and turtles, we became slightly nervous as a line of much larger alligators started following our movements around the lake. By the time we circled the entire area, we had seen more than a half dozen of the powerful animals. At one point, a student studying dropped his paper in the water, and I cringed as he reached over and lifted it out, half expecting a gator to get there first.

It was quite the experience, and of course, the kids were beyond excited by our day's adventures. We finished strong with boudin grilled cheese sandwiches from Johnson's Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette, before announcing that our diets started Monday.

Johnson's Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette

Monday, September 24, 2012

Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

A blacksmith stokes his fire at Harvest Days

Saturday brought with it the first day of fall, and because you wouldn't know it by the weather, we decided to celebrate by visiting the Harvest Days festival at Louisiana State University's Rural Life Museum. For its 16th year running, the outdoor museum showcased a living history of 19th century rural Louisiana, and we spent the day walking through their fascinating lifestyle.
19th century violinist

The journey through time began inside the exhibit barn, where you can find anything and everything from antique farm equipment to an old hearse to a baby walker. The normally quiet, static museum was a bustle of activity, with visitors mingling with docents, a woman carrying her pet duck puppet and wood carvers whittling away at small figures. We stopped to visit with one woman rhythmically pedaling a spinning wheel, turning balls of wool into a long, fine thread. She explained how wool is easier to spin than cotton, which requires a faster turn of the wheel because it is a slicker material.

Mule and buggy rides
As you exited the back door, the village emerged, with sleeping tents set up throughout the property and small cooking fires smoldering in the day's heat. Two mules pulled up in front of us, tugging behind them a buggy full of passengers, and 2-year-old August launched into a series of neighs. Our normally fearless children were actually timid around the animals, so we passed up the buggy tour and opted to walk instead.

"Homeowners" led us on guided tours through their 200-year-old houses, proudly pointing out the furniture and architecture of each. We watched the blacksmith stoke his fire until it was nice and hot, and the kids took turns pulling the rope on the steam engine to make the whistle blow. A harvest spread dominated the kitchen, where we encountered the delicious smells of pumpkins stuffed with baked apples and fried sweet potatoes.

Louisiana folk architecture at the museum
The boom of a cannon was a constant background noise, reminding us that a Civil War reenactment was taking place across the field. We headed in the opposite direction, though, away from the "scary" noise and over toward the corn maze. Along the way, we stopped to smell some cane syrup being boiled and took a turn at grinding corn off the stalk.

An opening in the back fence led to the labyrinth of corn, where our 4-year-old pointed the way ahead. I have to admit, we finally cheated and charged right through the corn to get to the other side. Our reward was a handful of water balloons meant to be launched at wooden targets, but instead popped on top of the kids' heads. Soaked through, they were delighted by the afternoon of fun and begged to return again.

The daunting corn maze

Monday, August 20, 2012

Charming Madisonville

The tiny town of Madisonville perched its stilted houses and businesses along the banks of the Tchefuncte River, which flows south and widens as it enters Lake Pontchartrain. Countless days of rain had prompted us to visit this historic maritime community, whose past has been interwoven with water since the earliest days of settlement around 1800.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum
We escaped the day's remaining drizzle inside the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, where a 3 p.m. arrival gave us an hour before closing to tour the exhibits. The kids were a whirlwind, as usual, absorbing every creature, boat and picture at lightning speed. My four-year-old had found three alligators, a squirrel and a bobcat before the rest of us even made it past the visitor's desk.

A dimly lit wooden walkway set the scene for a ride on an early steamboat, and upon entering the boat, we emerged into a theater showing the history of the Tchefuncte River. From model boats and lighthouses to a replica Civil War submarine and river pilot boat, every inch of the museum was chock full of interesting artifacts and details about the state's long and unique reliance on water.

Tchefuncte Lighthouse
Also under the Maritime Museum's management is the elegant, black and white Tchefuncte Lighthouse. Although accessible only by boat, a bumpy drive to the end of the road placed us in perfect viewing distance. Originally built in 1837, the lighthouse was nearly a casualty of the Civil War but was rebuilt shortly after and still flashes its light today.

From the bottommost tip of the road, we traveled north to the opposite end of town, snapping photos of the tranquil river and historic courthouse (now a museum) and branch library. The riverfront restaurants were hopping with the exiting church crowd, and we picked up some quick seafood-to-go at Morton's. 

Otis House at Fairview-Riverside State Park
Next up was Fairview-Riverside State Park, where we ate in a covered picnic pavilion while gazing at the lovely 19th century Otis House (open for tours Wednesday through Sunday). We walked the perimeter of the house toward the ponds and river behind it. The rain-soaked ground squelched beneath out feet as tiny frogs jumped ahead of our every step. Needless to say, the bug catcher was put to good use, and we had a fantastic time chasing the amphibians until a snake slithered across my path.

That was our cue to move on, and we drove past the campsites to the boardwalk swamp and river trails. Our arrival was greeted by those strangely large "Devil's Horses" (palm-sized, black grasshoppers) sitting motionless in the grass, on the trees and along the boardwalk. A game ensued of my two-year-old spotting the critters, pointing one tiny finger at them and yelling his brother's name until his older sibling made his rounds and fearlessly plopped them in the bug catcher.

As we left with our car full of critters, we stopped for a final glimpse of the setting sun casting a reddish glow on the cypress trees lining the water.

Sunset over the Tchefuncte River at Fairview-Riverside State Park

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

The name "Rip Van Winkle Gardens" stuck in my head from the first time I heard it. It's been on our to-do list for ages, and our recent visit proved the place to be as memorable as its name.

We made a weekend of the trip, not missing a chance to spend a Friday night with our friend in Baton Rouge. Of course, we made the obligatory visit to Mike the Tiger and brought our picnic dinner to the hill-top tables at the Manship School of Mass Communication. Then we tucked the kids in for the night, ready for their road-trip adventure the next morning.

Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin
Every time I cross the Baton Rouge bridge over the Mississippi River and begin heading west, I'm reminded of larger trips we've taken to the desert Southwest and beyond. Particularly the drive through Henderson Swamp and its scattered, water-logged cypress trees puts me in vacation mindset.

We didn't quite make it to Lafayette, but instead veered south through Breaux Bridge and, as on a previous trip, stopped at Lake Martin for a stroll along the Nature Conservancy's Cypress Island Preserve boardwalk. This time we were in for a double treat. Not only was the visitor's center open, but the nesting birds were out in full force. We escaped the oppressive heat inside the quaint visitor's center, where the kids poked and prodded the touchable animal shells and skins on display and we visited with the two helpful staff.

St. Martinville
Back outside, we sweated our way along the boardwalk, still managing to enjoy the scenery, before hopping in the car to drive the lake's east side. This proved to be the best viewing spot for the thousands of egrets and herons flying around the trees. Flashes of pink signaled the presence of roseate spoonbills in the area as well.

From Lake Martin, we again dined at La Petite Paris Cafe in St. Martinville, where the waitress remembered us from our last rowdy, lunchtime visit. (I thought I saw fear in her eyes when we walked through the doors!) We relived our walk down to the Evangeline Oak on the banks of the Bayou Teche, and then set off on our final stretch of road to Jefferson Island.

We traveled the back roads through miles of Louisiana countryside to reach our destination. The land rises as you approach the gardens through a line of live oak trees. Like nearby Avery Island (of the Tabasco fame), Jefferson Island is one of five coastal salt domes emerging upwards of 100 feet above sea level. In 1870, Actor Joseph Jefferson built his mansion on top of one dome and spent 36 winters in his home alongside expansive Lake Peigneur. Future owner J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., surrounded the house with acres of gardens in the 1950s, naming them in honor of the actor who was best-known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Today, the house and gardens are open to the public, and the property also offers a visitor's center/gift shop, conference center, cafe and a bed and breakfast. The location is a picturesque backdrop for weddings, but we came to explore the trees, plants and bugs that make up the fairytale gardens.

Snaking out from behind the gift shop, the path branched off into a series of options. A peacock strutted by us, while a massive cat eyed us suspiciously from atop a statue. We took the high ground, skirting a Japanese Teahouse and desperately trying to catch a dragonfly at the garden pond. A plaque underneath one live oak tree marked the spot where Pirate Jean Lafitte's treasure was found. We had to wonder whether this was true...

Joseph Jefferson Mansion
The house itself is a four-story, elegant mansion gazing down at the flowing green lawn below. Cottages behind the home beckoned as a bed and breakfast where overnight visitors could awaken to the crowing of the nearby rooster. Completing the circle, we found our way back to the visitor's center with Lake Peigneur off to our right. Water skiers bounced across the serene waters that hid a tragic history. In 1980, a drilling rig struck a salt cavern, and a hole opened in the lake that turned into a tumultous waterfall draining the water and sucking in 65 acres of the gardens. The theater shows live video taken of the event.

It was a successful adventure for us, particularly as our four-year-old left with a bug catcher of tadpoles. On the ride home, he entertained us with stories of the frogs that would soon live in our house as his younger brother snoozed loudly beside him.

Garden Statues

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chance Encounter with River Road on the Way to Thibodaux

San Francisco Plantation
We recently took to the road and set off on a decent hour (give or take) drive to Thibodaux. I came prepared with snacks, drinks and a movie for the allotted time, and the trip would have been perfect except for one small flaw. The Hale Boggs Bridge crossing the Mississippi River was closed. How we missed this crucial piece of information was beyond me, but here we were, stuck with a last minute decision to go downriver to the Huey P. Long Bridge or upriver toward the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Much to our children's chagrin, we chose the scenic River Road route upriver to Gramercy. It brought back memories of the road trips we took when we younger, fresh out of college, sans children and with lots of time to wander freely. Unfortunately, children scoff at nostalgia. But we made the most of it and discovered parts of the state we'd never seen before, and as with all memories, I'm sure to only remember the good parts of the trip!

The detour began with a sudden stop at the stunning St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. Although not open, the expansive grounds and beautiful church and school begged to be photographed--if only it wasn't raining. For years, the "Little Red Church" was a welcome sight to steamboat captains traveling the Mississippi River to New Orleans, alerting them to the end of their journey.

Bonnet Carre Spillway
Only a bit farther up the road, we encountered the first of several plantations we would see on this trip. Ormond Plantation, built around 1790, is brilliantly restored and open for tours detailing its storied past.

River Road takes a sharp right turn at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a location made famous by the floodgates opened here whenever the Mississippi River comes dangerously close to topping its levees. I'd seen it on TV and in pictures hundreds of times, but never in person. The photos don't do justice to the vast complex, and it was a startling sight to see just traveling along the road.

As River Road enters the Spillway, you descend into miles of open fields, giving the impression you've been transported to the country roads of Kansas. One man, who was throwing a stick to his dog, looked so out of place I had to check in the rearview mirror to make sure he was really there. It's gone before you can shake the eerie feeling, and the road continues on as if nothing had changed.

Scheeler's photo of Ford's auto factory
Although only separated by a levee from the Mississippi River, you would never know the swiftly flowing water was right next to you. It's largely hidden from view, yet strangely connected to the land via large tubes crossing over the road. These link to the countless refineries and factories lining much of River Road, creating a foreign, but oddly interesting, landscape.

I remember traveling River Road at night and seeing the factories ablaze with lights--tiny towns functioning independently from others around them. There was an artist by the name of Charles Sheeler hired to photograph and paint similar factories and show off their inner beauty. Through his eyes, the maze of pipes became exquisite pieces of architecture. If you squint really hard and bury the innate feeling of driving "Cancer Alley," you begin to see his perspective.

This is what I was contemplating when we came upon San Francisco Plantation, a lavishly ornate and boldly colorful mansion that inspired Francis Parkinson Keyes to write "Steamboat Gothic." The house and grounds were amazingly pristine, yet out of place sandwiched beside another factory.

Godchaux-Reserve House
We saw other plantations and extremely old homes sitting neglected and slowly melting back into the dirt and trees on the side of the road. There's no telling how many of these structures have been lost to time, and by the looks of it, many of the ones we recently saw won't be around for much longer. Some though, like the Godchaux-Reserve House--marked by the locomotive standing on its property--has been taken on by the community in an effort to preserve its structure and importance in history.

So finally arriving in Gramercy, we're treated to expansive views of the river as we crossed high above its waters. The remainder of our drive south to Thibodaux was fairly uneventful, spent munching on popcorn from the local convenience station while we drove through open fields and torrential rain. As we entered Thibodaux, the flooding stopped as if a faucet had been turned off.

Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux
We drove the town, getting the lay of the land and counting the churches along Canal Boulevard. A sign for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park directed us along Bayou Lafourche to the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. The kids sprinted through the exhibit area, showcasing the lives of the Cajuns, but then became engrossed in playing with the dozens of puppets and kid-sized palmetto hut in the kids' "Gumbo Room." Outside, a boardwalk overlooked scenic Bayou Lafourche.

Historic downtown Thibodaux is dominated by the Dansereau House Bed and Breakfast, the crown jewel of the city. The one-way streets through the city are lined with boutiques and restaurants, creating a vibrant yet intimate downtown.

We backtracked slightly out of town to eat at Boudreaux's Restaurant, which came highly recommended by the Jean Lafitte park rangers. It was a good suggestion as we found plenty of tasty food to dine on, and the wait staff were very tolerable of two, umm, "active" children.

The route home took us along picturesque Highway 1, which parallels Bayou Lafourche, past Nicholls State College to Highway 90. We chose the quicker return route as the rain clouds rose high above us, threatening to let loose at any minute.

View of Bayou Lafourche

Friday, June 1, 2012

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains

Occasionally our wanderings across Louisiana lead beyond the state's border, taking us farther out into the rest of the country. Last week, we rooted our jackets out of the far reaches of the closet and kicked off the arrival of summer heat with a trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

Balsam Mountain Inn
We'd been to this area a few times before, staying in cabins or a lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, we landed a Groupon deal at Balsam Mountain Inn and spent five fantastic days there. The first overnight guests to the three-story inn arrived via railroad in 1908 and carried their trunks up the steep hill to the front porch steps.

More than 100 years later, the original 100 rooms have been converted into 50 rooms, each with private bathrooms, but the rustic charm still remained. Rows of rocking chairs graced the first and second story porches, providing a relaxing spot to sip wine and gaze out at the mountains. The inn offered neither TVs nor telephones, but a cozy library and armoires overflowing with puzzles and board games provided hours of entertainment. The kids loved the claw-foot tub and window seats in our third-floor suite, and I looked forward to waking up every morning to a phenomenal breakfast served in their bright and cheery dining room.

Our days were filled with short hikes, picnics beside mountain streams and, of course, bug-filled adventures. Every afternoon coffee cup was recycled as a bug catcher, and by the end of the week, 4-year-old Charles had lined our window seats with tadpoles, snails and butterflies. The cricket had become his best friend and was allowed to sit on his shoulder--walking back and forth across his back, while the salamanders were lucky enough to slither away.

Abandoned church in Cataloochee Valley
We explored the far reaches of the national park, driving up and over the mountains to enter the secluded Cataloochee Valley. Once home to a thriving community of 1,200 people, they all left in a mass exodus when the U.S. government began buying up land to form the national park. Today, their homes, churches and schoolhouse stand as quiet reminders of earlier times. Like others before us, we walked through the empty rooms, imagining the children's laughter that once echoed in the halls. Our hike to one abandoned home led us across small footbridges, a splash through the river bed and down a trail frequented by wild turkeys.

Waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Another day's adventures brought us to the waterfalls of Deep Creek, where countless locals and tourists were braving the excruciatingly freezing waters to glide down the river in inner tubes. We watched in amazement, comparing our attire of long jeans and long-sleeve shirts to their bathing suits, and shaking our heads, continued on to play beside the peaceful pool at the bottom of Indian Creek Falls.

Outside Brevard, we discovered the Cradle of Forestry--the birthplace of forest conservation in America, and afterwards the kids fed the hundreds of trout growing up in the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery down the road. Just beyond Cherokee, a visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill brought a fleeting longing for simpler days, followed by a new appreciation for the conveniences we have today.

On our final evening, we stood at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched the setting sun cast a brilliant glow over the famously hazy mountains. It was a trip to remember and one we'll most likely take again to break up the long, hot days of a New Orleans' summer.

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Walter Anderson's Ocean Springs

Walter Anderson's depiction of a pelican
A short day trip from New Orleans, Ocean Springs is one of those small towns for which America is famous. Its historic downtown has quaint shops and restaurants lined up along a walkable main street, jutting off perpendicularly from a railroad line that runs straight through town.
Train Depot housing "Realizations"

We went to Ocean Springs to learn about its most famous resident--Walter Anderson. The schizophrenic turned reclusive Anderson was a brilliant artist in the mid-1900s known for his colorful and quite fanciful paintings. Our first taste of his artwork was inside the old train depot next door to the Visitor's Center. Run by Anderson's family, "Realizations" has turned his kid-friendly designs into t-shirts, purses, bookmarks, posters and more.

After buying Charles a hat with his favorite pelican on it and August a toddler tee with a frog, we scooted outside to the Saturday Fresh Market taking place in the depot's parking lot. Here, we sampled homemade goodies and browsed the produce and plants for sale before continuing down Washington Avenue.

At Al Fresco's Italian Bistro, we sat in the courtyard and watched the birds play in the fountains while eating a tasty--but quick--lunch. We had to keep moving before the boys began splashing in the fountains, so we were soon back out on the sidewalk browsing store windows on our way to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

Shearwater Pottery showroom
Dedicated to Walter Anderson's artwork, this museum houses more than 900 pieces of art, including elaborate murals depicting his life and discoveries on the Gulf Coast. We stood for an eternity gazing at the Community Center murals, pointing out the animals and scenes hidden within it. Then we marveled at how he created the "Little Room" murals without a sole seeing them until after his death.

Our next stop took us to the family business. Shearwater Pottery was started by Walter's brother Peter and is today owned by Peter's four children, three of whom carry on the tradition of crafting decorative, functional clay pieces. The workshop, annex and showroom are tucked away in the woods close to the water's edge. The drive to visit the shop is almost as scenic as the pottery itself, as you pass a boat-filled marina on an inlet off the Gulf.

Views from the Gulf Islands National Seashore trail
By this point, the kids were starting to get antsy and needed some quality "hyper" time. So we headed off to Gulf Islands National Seashore to hike the scenic, coastal forest trail. They zoomed across the pathways, stopping briefly to search for fish and turtles in the still waters beneath the fishing pier. Then they looped back around to the Visitor's Center where exhibits detailed the area's beauty and mystique.

For a small town, we were surprised at how after a day's worth of adventures, we still didn't see all the area had to offer. Future trips may take us to the Mary C. O'Keefe Cultural Center, a boat trip out to the barrier islands or further explorations of downtown.