Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hot Sauce

We travel about an hour to one of the best state parks I've stayed in on this particular trip – the Palmetto Island State Park. You are camped in a forest of Palmettos and there is a lot of privacy between the sites because of all of the Palmettos. Best of all, there is FREE laundry. I did four loads of wash, just because I could. I washed everything that wasn't nailed down in the RV. What a wonderful deal.

Miko in the Palmettos

Our tourist spot for the day was to head over to Avery Island which is …..drumroll please...where all things Tabasco is made. This is a privately owned family run business which has been creating this pepper sauce since right after the Civil War. The founder was a banker and after the Civil War wiped him out financially, he decided to try something new and came up with Tabasco. They now bottle about 700,000 bottles a day for shipment all over the globe.

The Tabasco ice cream was pretty darn good

All things Tabasco - this was Van Halen's bass player's guitar

There are only three ingredients in Tabasco – Tabasco peppers, salt and vinegar. There happens to be a scale that actually measures how hot a pepper is. Tabasco peppers rate at about 4000 heat units. To put that into perspective – Jalapeno rates about 2500 heat units while Habaneros rate about 350,000 Scofield heat units. Don't think I'm going anywhere near those Habaneros.   I am really not too much of a fan of super spicy food – it seems like if you get too much hot sauce on your food, you can't taste the food. Luckily for me, Tabasco has thought about people like me and have branched out from the standard red bottle we all know – you know, the one you bought decades ago and still have in the back of your cabinet? I'm speaking to you Minnesotans out there – you know who you are.

Some of the many faces of Tabasco

This was a factory tour which caused me great joy. On the day they pick the peppers, they mash them up with a little bit of salt, put them in oak barrels (used barrels supplied by Jim Beam Whiskey – they have been cleaned and de-charred), close up the barrel and put a thick layer of salt on top of the barrel. These barrels are then set aside for three years while the little peppers think about what they are about to become. When it is time, the seeds and skins get removed, more salt is added and then a high quality vinegar. Family members still taste test this for quality assurance and then the sauce gets bottled. This was fun to see – it was the best type of factory tours – bottles moving down the assembly line – getting filled, tops and labels get put on the bottles and then the bottles get boxed for shipment. This is all done by super speedy machines, not much human interaction at all.  Regretfully, I seem to have deleted all the videos I made of this machinery at work.

Barrel warehouse - casks of Tabasco mash covered with salt

Everything you would want to know about Tabasco - placemats in the restaurant

One of the Tabasco family members (actually the family name is McIlhenny) was really into gardening and created a lovely garden which he called the Jungle Garden. You could drive through it and stop along the way to view the sights. Flowers and shrubs were just starting to bloom but the highlight of the Jungle Gardens (besides the 14 foot stuffed alligator) was the Great Egret Rookery. Back in the day, the Great Egrets were becoming extinct because all the fashionable ladies wanted their feathers to decorate their hats. This man built special nesting racks over the water. He hand raised 8 little Great Egrets and from those 8, there are now thousands that return every year to nest and raise their families.

Poor guy on the right, showing off his best chops for the ladies, but alas, no takers.  He finally gave up and flew off to sulk

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Bayou, Swamps and Junior Rangers

Today is going to be an exciting day. First I'm moving to a new state park called Chicot (said Chee-co) and new places are most of the time exciting in some shape or form but even more important I am going to meet up and caravan with a couple of my favorite fellow travelers – Lou and Davey. I haven't done any traveling with them for a couple of years and it will be super to reconnect with them.

I get to Chicot, set up and wait for them to arrive. They left Minnesota and got all the way down to Louisiana in three long, long days of traveling. It took me 17 days to get here, just to put it in a bit of perspective. Of course there was the ten days when I sort of got held up at the car lot, but still, they made it in less than half of the time I did. Amazing. Needless to say, by the time they got here, they were perhaps a little bit road weary and needed to have a little down time. Can we say hard core happy hour? It was lovely. We did manage to get in a four mile hike up and down through brown woods – hardly a piece of green to be seen.

We did drive into Eunice, Louisiana. There was a factory tour that I was all excited about doing at Savoy's Music Company. They make 72 button accordions a year there and I thought it would be fascinating to see this. Of course, true to form, when I walk in, Mr. Savoy Music tells us that they only do factory tours on Saturday, not Thursdays. I was a little disappointed - I really need to work on my research, I guess. What is this – maybe the third time on this trip that this has happened to me.

But....we are resilient travelers. We move on to the next spot on my list – the Acadian Cultural Center. Not only was it a Cultural Center, but, much to my surprise, it was also part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park! Can we say Junior Ranger!! We spent most of the afternoon in the museum, watching the movie – working on our badges. In fact, they had to kick us out because they were closing. We learned a lot about the forced deportation of the Acadians from Acadie (Nova Scotia) and how they became Cajuns.

After several more Happy Hours, we moved on to Lafayette Louisiana where we stayed at the Acadiana RV Park which is a lovely little city park complete with boardwalk nature trails and an actual Nature Center.

View out my front window

We went to Vermillionville which is like a Cajun theme park. They even had a ride – a small ferry across a little creek where you had to pull yourself back and forth using a rope. Vermillionville had brought in Cajun houses dating from around the 1730s to the late 1800s. Inside each of the houses, there was an artisan who, while working on their craft, would also tell you about some of the customs of the people of the time and the history of the house. There was a quilter, a wood worker, a farmer, a basket maker and a Creole fiddle player who just happened to have been born in St. Paul. His people had moved up there and he grew up there before he migrated back south.

We also at at the restaurant there and sampled the buffet. Cajun cooking seems to be pretty heavy fare – lots of frying and heavy sauces. I loved the sausage and chicken Gumbo.

We have Gumbo, biscuits and honey, onion rings, fried shrimp tidbits, crawfish etoufee,  and seafood mac n' cheese

Since I'm down in bayou country, the only appropriate thing to do is a Swamp tour. Originally, I was thinking Air Boat, which was a possibility, but then decided on just a plain old flat bottomed boat with room for about 15 people. We putzed along through the cypress trees, all decorated with Spanish moss. Spanish moss is not Spanish and it is not a moss. Back in the olden days, when the Spaniards were coming through the area, the First Nation people thought the moss looked like the straggly beards that all the Spaniards seemed to sport. Hence the name.

We were on the lookout for alligators and boy, did we find them. There were little baby ones, there were medium sized ones and there were some that were huge, maybe 12 feet long. We also saw snakes, lots of turtles and birds. It was one of the first really nice spring days in the area and the wildlife were all out enjoying the day. Now that I've seen all these alligators, I can place a check mark in the 'been there, done that' list.

This one looks like a serious guy

This big guy just looks happy to be out in the sun

Meet Stella.  They have named her because she always builds a nest in the same area. There were baby alligators behind her.  

Pretty Swamp

Swampy Swamp

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Southern Rain

Miko and I spend our last day in Natchitoches in the Kisatchie National Forest. It looked like there were some nice trails, not to mention that there was a Scenic Vista Byways – a 17 mile super scenic drive. The trail I picked was supposed to have a waterfall which was reason enough to go, but also some scenic overlooks. It turned out to be easy rolling hills, no scenic overlooks and a tiny little waterfall. All is ok, at least we were outside and we were not knee deep in snow.

Waterfall ( I guess) - even Miko looks a little underwhelmed

It is time to move on. The problem is that it is Saturday on a holiday weekend (President's Day) and I'm planning on moving to Sam Houston Jones State Park down at Lake Charles. I checked the online reservations for the park and there are only two sites available. The whole campground is full beyond that. The other part of the equation though is that it is raining. It was supposed to rain all day and all night. It started on Friday night and I'm not talking a light little drizzle, we are talking a continual downpour. The good part about that is that maybe some of those weekend campers are going to throw in the towel and leave early. The bad part is that I will have to drive in this downpour. Oh, did I mention that there was a lot of fog and my route is down a pretty rural road which means Louisiana probably hasn't spent a lot of dollars on road maintenance. Never you mind, I'm heading down the road, hoping to score one of the last remaining campsites.

When I got to the park, I was able to snag the last site and set up in the pouring rain. We walked once around the campground and even though I was wearing my rain gear, I got a little damp. Mostly we just hung out in the RV, drinking Hot Chocolate and playing video games.

Miko gets a weird coat pattern when her fur gets wet

See the satellite dish on the left? 
The water was so deep during the downpour that it was almost up to the white part of the satellite

The main reason I had come to the Lake Charles area was to go to the Mardi Gras Museum of the Imperial Calcacieu. Being as how it is Mardi Gras season, I thought it would be especially appropriate to check something like this out. With all my advance planning, I seemed to have neglected finding out what the hours were for the museum. Turns out that the museum is closed for all of the days that I was going to be in the area. Oh well. Next time.

The next day, it did stop raining. The soil here seems to drain pretty quick so we decided to hit a trail.

The trail I picked did not have any alligator signs posted so that was good. It wandered between the Calcacieu river and a swamp ( I guess you are supposed to call a swamp a bayou). It was a little muddy and a little dreary, but not too bad. Again, it was pleasant to be outside after our forced rain out.

Nope - not going down this trail

You say Bayou, I say swamp

Some color

Thursday, February 8, 2018

So Sad Shreveport - Nifty Neat Natchitoches

Poor poor Shreveport. Maybe I was only in the most depressed areas of Shreveport but I found Shreveport Louisiana to be a very down on her luck type of city. Everything seemed to be shabby and there seemed to be a hard scrabble feel to the place. At certain times in the past, Shreveport has had it's moments, for example, there was the oil and gas boom in the eighties. All that is gone, leaving a sad little town with shabby casinos as it's main business. Of course I may be wrong and it may be it is a city full of hope – who knows, I didn't see it.

I am staying at Diamond Jack's Casino RV park, one of those Casinos that seem to be just holding on. The reason I am here is to go see the Shreveport Water Works Museum which is a rare example of an intact steam powered water works. It is no longer used, but in it's day it was a technological pioneer. There were a couple of interactive exhibits, but mostly it was a large building with a bunch of old boilers. They did tell me the steps that were taken to purify water, but I found that it was perhaps not on my list of top museums to see. I would rank it behind the Lunch Box Museum in Georgia to put a little perspective on it. Maybe it was the fact that it was a dull dreary day maybe I'm just now into boilers or something.

You could push buttons and make the water flow through the various processes of water purification

See?  Big boilers.

I am now in Nachitoches (pronounced Nack-A-dish) Louisiana, the oldest city in Louisiana. What a difference a few miles makes. Historical Nachitoches is lovely – their Front Street borders on the Cane River and it seems to be a thriving little town. The first day, I do a walking tour of the river front area, mostly I stopped into the various shops and chitchatted with the clerks. It was sort of a nasty day out, rainy, windy and chilly.

Anyplace with a waterfall, even if it is not nature's doing, is my kind of place

Buildings on Front Street, right along the Cane River

Built around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, this house was built with no nails and it is still standing

Day Two is an action packed day. Nachitoches is known for it's Meat Pies, these are empanadas stuffed with 80% beef and 20% pork. My meal came with a salad bar and when I saw their salad bar I was not filled with hope that this would be an outstanding meal. I was wrong – the Meat Pie was really good and spicy – almost made me want to come back and try the crawdad stuffed Meat Pie.

The salad bar in totality

Meat Pie, Dirty Rice, Creole Corn

Lasyone's is known for it's Meat Pies

After my huge lunch, I visited the Cane River Creole National Historical Park which are plantations on three different sites. Another Junior Ranger opportunity.

Oakland Plantation is the most complete Creole plantation in the south. It was occupied by the Prud'homme family from 1788 until the 1960's. What I found most interesting was that the Creole culture in this area was very different from the slave holdings out east. There was a set of laws called Code Noir created by the French when they settled Louisiana. One of the laws was that you could not sell off slave family members, the family remains intact – at least until the children turned 14. This gradually changed as we got closer to the civil war years and as more easterners brought their slaves into Louisiana.

The Big House at Oakland Plantation - Creole architecture

Melrose Plantation was established by a family of 'free people of color' around 1803. In the 1920s/30s, it became an artist retreat. Clementine Hunter, a primitive/folk artist, was a domestic in the big house, took up painting and became internationally known. Some of her work is in the Smithsonian.

The 'African House' where Clementine Hunter painted murals all around the 2nd story

The Big House at Melrose Plantation

The oaks here are absolutely stupendous

An example of Clementine Hunter's work

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Easing On Down The Road

I was in Hot Springs maybe 4-5 years ago when I first started traveling in the RV. Even back then, I had a quest to see all of the National Parks, Monuments, Battlefields, Historic Sites, etc. What I wasn't doing was my more current quest of Junior Rangerdom. I thought that since Hot Springs National Park was sort of on my way south, I should maybe stop and rectify this particular oversight.

I rolled into Lake Catherine State Park and secured a site way down at the end of the campground. It is a lovely site, right on the lake except for the steam plant right across the lake. It is rather pretty at night when it is all lit up, but it sort of puts a damper on the nature aspect of the place. The lake is in front of me and there are hiking trails up into the mountain behind us.

My site on the lake
And the steam plant across the lake

We've had a terrible wildlife problem here. Every morning around 7:30, a male cardinal starts attacking the RV and my car. I think he sees another cardinal in the windows and mirrors. He is incessant – bang, bang, bang. At first I felt sorry for him – I didn't want him to get hurt. Now, after he has woken me up with his racket and it goes on for most of the day and I've seen the mess he has left all over my car – I guess I have mixed feelings. Silly boy.

We spent our mornings hiking. Nice hikes, steep and rugged hikes. On one hand, it is nice that the leaves are all down – you can see quite a bit farther. On the other hand, it is sort of monochromatic.

I did find a waterfall though

I went into the National Park and asked to be a Junior Ranger. The lady looked at me and said, 'OK – but you have to do every single task in our Junior Ranger book. No exceptions.' I guess they are going to be pretty hard core about it. The booklet was one of the best Junior Ranger books I've seen so far. Lots of info and a lot of scurrying around trying to find answers in the Park. When I went to turn in the book, she started looking at it and said, 'Good thing I'm checking you out – Ranger Bob would have flunked you right off the bat'. I had done every single task except filled in my name on the front of the book. As I said, these guys were tough.

Hydrotherapy Room.  L-R: pressure guns to shoot water at you, Needle shower, Sitz bath where they did Mercury Rubs if you had Syphilis and a big tub where they would put you in the water and send electrical currents thru you. You can just see the corner of the enema table - privacy was not a big requirement back in the day

Steam box and ice box 


It wasn't all torture machines - this was a very luxurious place

I am a barefoot type of gal – I really don't like to have anything on my feet at all. This has been hard because it has been getting down into the low thirties at night and the floor of the RV is not insulated at all which means it is freezing. I finally broke down, stopped at Dollar General and got me a $6 pair of slippers. What a difference it makes in my quality of life. Of course Dollar General is not known for having the greatest selection of slippers.

And the sun sets again

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Free At Last

Meanwhile, back at my new home – the car lot – we are patiently waiting for my transmission coolant housing unit to show up. It was coming from Memphis, which was about six hours away. We found out that we needed a new one on Friday, but it did not show up until the following Wednesday. I spent two nights at the WoodSpring Suites. Sounds really classy but in reality the best thing I can say about it was that it was super clean. The second night, I was fortunate? to get the last room. They did not want to rent it to me because evidently a dog had chewed up the blinds. I decided that if they had a blanket, I could put it up over the window-what can I say - I was tired and cranky. I got up to the room and the bed needed to be made but Pedro, the front desk guy was up there quick as a flash and made up the bed and covered the window. Miko spent both nights curled up under the bed. I don't think she was into the whole living the high life in a motel.

The transmission coolant housing arrived around 11:00 am on Wednesday. I can't tell you how excited I was that I was finally going to leave the car lot and move on down the road. It took Mike, my personal mechanic a couple of hours to install the unit and he tripled checked everything to make sure that it was all good and then I was on the road. What joy!!!!

Ten miles down the road, I'm climbing a hill and I see that the engine is overheating almost to the red line again. I pulled off onto an off ramp(I'm an expert on what to do when an engine overheats now and I know what to do – pull over and call Joe). Joe sends Mike and another guy out to see what the problem is. Turns out, a hose had burst. What are the chances that all this stuff happens all at once – cracked radiator, broken housing unit and a burst hose? Mike replaces the hose and I'm again on my way.

Nasty little slit

I want to take another moment here and talk about how good Crain Buick/GMC in Springdale was to me. I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't taken me in. There was Mike, the mechanic, who really put his heart into getting me fixed up – I know he felt my pain as each new thing went wrong. And then there was Matt, the Service Manager who did everything in his power to make my 10-day stay as comfortable as possible. Lastly, Joe – the Service Adviser – the one who worked so hard to make sure I did not lose it during this whole process. If there was something that needed to be done, Joe would magically make it happen. These three guys went way above and beyond the call of duty. There are good people in the world and I am so grateful that I ran into these guys.

Now, not being of the sissy sort, I am heading into the mountains of Arkansas. There is no need to baby my engine, no need to break in these parts gently. I am going to really put these new engine parts to the test. I am heading to Lake Fort Smith State Park which is only a measly hour's drive away. Nobody had mentioned to me that I have to go over a mountain and then even worse down a mountain to get to the park. The drive up the narrow twisty road wasn't too bad, it was the drive down into the valley that got to me. I practiced my mountain driving skills but my brakes still smelled a little bit burny by the time I got to the bottom.

Miko and I really needed to spend some decompression time after our ordeal and this was the perfect spot. We didn't talk to anybody for a couple of days, there was no online presence, total solitude. We hiked – actually a rather grueling hike up and down the hills, it was a little bit rough on this winter body of mine. We saw armadillos – weird little creatures who have no idea that anybody is anywhere near them. We also saw a snowy owl and several hawks. Mostly we just sat and eased on thru the days.

Waterfall for the day - Arkansas desperately needs water, it is very dry here

This little armadillo wouldn't even bother looking up at us

Lake Fort Smith #13 - you can sorta see the lake thru the trees

A most glorious Arkansas sunset