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