This adventure through America’s Southland began on April 12, 2006 with the camper loaded with the usual stuff, the Jeep Wrangler in tow and Mattie dog comfy on her spot. The internet, plus articles from travel magazines and current brochures gave us some ideas what we wanted to see this trip. The plan was to stop at some historical old sections of several cities, locate some civil war battlefields and of course enjoy the back roads and scenic sites along the way.
Arizona is a wonderful state that we love, but its location in the Southwest makes for long first day driving to get almost anywhere that the scenery changes. The first stop was Ft. Stockton, Texas, we had the local Walmart scoped out from our trip four years ago to Florida. Sure enough there it was with eight big rigs already settled for the night. We joined the group, took a walk, ate some dinner and called it a night. Day two was going to bring more interesting scenery and what we think of as the start of the trip.
One of my tennis buddies recommended a side trip to the Sonoran Caverns, a crystal cave, outside Sonora, Texas. The signs on the highway are sort of run down and in need of paint and the location is about 15 miles off the highway but well worth the trip. We were ortunate to have a guide that had been caving for about 40 years and he was very knowledgeable and excited to be showing us the caverns. This is a living cave with dripping water and beautiful crystal formations. The narrow paths wind tightly through the caverns. There is lighting to highlight some of special features. I loved this butterfly formation.
Crystal Butterfly, Sonoran Caverns
On to Austin to check on Michael’s apartment and take care of some things for him. We were fortunate to locate a state park only about two miles from his apartment so it worked out great, the park had big trees and apparently a water fall but we didn’t see it. We stopped to eat at Rudy’s BBQ, in fact we got some extra to take along with us. They have cream corn that is to die for and we grabbed an extra tub of that too. Just yummy.
We moved on to Padre Island, a barrier island, off the East coast of Texas. I’ve heard a lot about Padre Island but really hadn’t seen many pictures or talked to people that had been there. It was an interesting place. It is a National Seashore so with the National Park Access pass we got in free and the camping was half price, so you couldn’t beat the price and the campsite was right on a paved area on the beach. We took Mattie down to the beach and walked quite a bit. The Sargasso grass was being pulled in by the currents so
that was different from other beaches we‘ve visited. Sargasso grass is similar to the sea weed that you see on the West coast but there are piles of the red/orange grass everywhere. Anytime you have grass like that you can count on having lots of gnats and weird flies that hang around.
There were some funny blue jelly fish that looked like little balloons. If you are old enough, you might remember putting globs of sticky stuff on the end of a little straw and blowing until you had a globe that would float. If it got a tear you just pinched it back together. Very similar to these jelly fish. (I don’t think you can pinch them back together though) Back to the beach, there were other areas of the beach that you could just drive on and find a place to park and camp but it wasn’t as nice as the official campground. We talked to a guy doing some fishing and he said he was sure there were fish in that ocean but he wasn’t having much luck bringing them in. We looked around the actual island a little, it was OK, but not anything like the Florida beaches or beach towns. There is a military base nearby and Corpus Christi is the closest town. We stayed a couple of nights on the Island and decided it did not make the ‘must return to’ list.
We lucked out driving through Houston on a Sunday when it was relatively quiet so we took the regular highway instead of the toll road. We talked to a couple later on in the trip and they spent $15.00 going thru the tolls on the road around Houston. We were happy to spend our savings on BBQ!
We got into Louisiana and looked for an RV park since the only state park that was near was closed. We found a park and luckily it had a couple of spaces available. No one was in the office so we just pulled in one and decided to settle up in the morning. Two other campers pulled in behind us and the place was full. We hadn’t considered that the RV parks would be so crowded for a couple of reasons, first the state parks are closed, due to hurricane Katrina, second there are a lot of construction workers in the area and they are living in 5th wheels they pulled down from where ever to work on the hurricane repair. Some of the spots are taken up with trailers from FEMA, being occupied by displaced hurricane victims. We met an interesting guy, I guess that is the most polite way to say it, he talked to us for about an hour and managed to offend every ethnic group and country you can imagine. He was a very unpleasant person.
We moved on and stopped at the Jennings, Louisiana visitor center to look for our ‘swamp lady’. Four years ago when we were thru this area we wanted to take a swamp tour with the ‘story lady’ but her boat wasn’t running. This time we hoped to catch up with her, but unfortunately she passed away last year. We should learn to live by the rule, when you are there do it!
The docent at the visitor center told us a lot about the effects Hurricanes Katrina in August of 2005 and Rita in September of 2005 had on the area. The rice farmers are struggling from the effects of the salt water on the paddies. The surge of salt water has taken a toll on the cypress trees and the usual vegetation even in the swamps. Many of the fish in the swamps have been killed by the water and that means less birds in the swamp since they eat the fish. So the whole area has really taken a hit. We knew the state park we stayed at last time was not open but we were surprised to learn that none of the state parks were open to overnight camping. Our guess is that the State didn’t want the people displaced from the hurricane to start camping in the state parks, and probably the resources for upkeep, repair, etc have been diverted to more pressing problems.
We did stop in Jennings to visit the mercantile museum that hosts a complete general store from the early 1900’s. Apparently this store closed about 1910 and the people that closed it just boxed everything up and left it. When the heirs found it they gave it to the city for
a museum, all they had to do was unpack it and restock the shelves. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane. Everything imaginable, from bolts of fabric, buttons and thread, hats, gloves, farm implements and yard supplies to sundries (now there is an old word for you youngsters reading this) , toothpowder, hair tonic, tummy remedies, headache powder, toys for the little ones and books for the older folks. There was even a small wooden post office box with the little locked doors and open back.
In the back of the general store was an odd telephone museum with old fashion phones and pictures of the yester-year of phone service as well as some more modern equipment. In a side room was a display of Christmas scenes and a small classic motorcycle collection from the 1940’s. We enjoyed looking over everything and then moved on, taking the back roads over to Breaux Bridge to catch some authentic Cajun lunch only to find the restaurant we were heading to was closed on Monday and the French restaurant in the next block closed at 2:00 for the day. You know, timing is everything and sometimes you got it and sometimes you don’t. We were kind of bummed but moved on.
We drove thru Mississippi and saw several demolished gas stations along the highway along with ripped up billboards and light posts. At one spot very near the road was a large fishing vessel turned on its side. The destruction of a hurricane is just hard to imagine.
We stopped at the Big Lagoon State Park outside Pensacola, Fla. There were some lovely boardwalks and on the first one we crossed over a little bridge and Monty saw a water moccasin in the water. There were signs about alligators and there must have been raccoons, etc. in the area. Our campsite was surrounded by thick vegetation and Mattie was not anxious to get out of the camper. She sat and watched the door, I guess she thought they might have reallllly tall alligators here. When we got out for a walk she wanted to walk right in the middle of the roadway, taking no chances something might jump out of the dense vegetation on the sides of the road.
There was evidence of hurricane damage here also. Many of the trees in this Park were down and some just looked like they lost all their leaves. This park had a small beach that was just recently re opened but the National Seashore was just a short drive, so we left Mattie in the camper and went over there for a couple of hours. Beautiful sugar white sand beach and blue/green water. We took a drive down the coast, construction everywhere, both sides of the highway. We were in this same area four years ago and tried to get into the Flora Bama bar but it was too crowded. This time we almost missed the place, it was essentially GONE, just some decking and tents. Living in Arizona we just don’t recognize the impact of hurricanes.
Our next stop was St. George Island, a barrier island off the panhandle. We drove over there and stopped in at the new check in site for the park only to find that the campground was still closed, yes, due to hurricane damage. This was a bummer, not only because we didn’t get to enjoy the island but we had to back track to St. Josephs State Park to get a spot for the night.
After spending two days at St. Josephs we were ready to head on to St. Augustine on the East coast of Florida. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the United States. This ‘Ancient City’ was founded in 1565 and remained the capitol of the Florida Territory until 1824. Old Town is charming with some of the original walls and a lovely
Patio Restaurant in Old Town
promenade along the beach. There are still some ruins of the old port.
The road to Old Town was busy, with two huge outlet malls and all the usual retail and restaurant chains. This is not a big drawing card for us but an observation. It’s just a fact of life that no matter where you travel in America you are bound to find the same stores, malls and eateries. Generally we avoid it all.
The state park on the beach on Anastasia Island was full but we found a nice RV campground inland and it worked out fine. Lots of big trees in the RV park, we met a young man who just sold his house, was living in an RV in order to do freelance photography. His current project is pictures for Bed and Breakfasts to post on their websites. He got to talking to Monty while I did the laundry and he brought over some of his pictures. He really had some beautiful work. He had taken a picture of a lion that was magnificent. You could count the hairs on lions face. He has big plans to travel all over the country and take pictures, he didn’t lack for enthusiasm, in fact he jumped on his bike and chased us down at the dump station when we were leaving to talk about Arizona and the best time to come and take pictures here.
St. Augustine has a beautiful light station, different from just a lighthouse, because it has other buildings connected with the light house. It is one of a few lights with the spiral paint, very striking, The lighthouse was closed to visitors due to the storm threat but we toured the museum/gift shop.
The beach on Anastasia Island was very wide and they allow a place for vehicles to pull right out on the sand and park, people drive out on the beach and set up their sun shades, and unload coolers, etc. The day was threatening rain so there wasn’t much activity on the beach. We found a lovely restaurant with a patio and had lunch outdoors.
We are moving on up to Savannah, Georgia. Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia, established in 1733, and was the first capitol of Georgia. We decided on Crooked River State Park on the outskirts of Savannah. It was a lovely park with huge trees and lots of leaves on the ground, a nice walking path. There were not many people here and after we were here for a while we figured out why. As the camp host explained, the county sprays for mosquitoes, but not out this far from town. Apparently, much to his dismay, they spray golf courses, etc. first. So there were more than a few of the critters, and you had to open and close the camper door quickly.
We took a Grayline tour of Savannah and enjoyed the history and seeing the lovely old buildings. Everything in the Historic District of Savannah is laid out in squares. Each square block has a small grass park in the center with lovely flowers. Usually with a statue and benches for sitting. Many of the streets are cobblestone, and the architecture is beautiful, one of the most unique features is the iron work around the windows and balconies. The tour guide was eager to point out the distinctive dolphins and gargoyle down spouts in the front of many of the houses. Most of the streets in the Historic District are covered in a tree canopy. It is a lovely place.
Charleston, South Carolina is next on our itinerary. Charleston is the oldest and second largest city in South Carolina, (pop. 97,000) We have several things to see in Charleston so finding a camping spot in the local county park worked out great. First on the agenda was another Grayline tour. We wanted to get a feel for the city and hear the history. Charleston is a lovely city with quaint pastel homes with beautiful gardens. It was very enjoyable even though it was raining.
We wanted to see the site where the Civil War began in 1861 when Confederate artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter in the Charleston Harbor. Ft. Sumter surrendered 34 hours after the fight began and Union forces tried for nearly four years to take it back. It was a short ferry ride over to the Fort and the ranger gave a good tour.
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the home of American Classic Tea. It is located on Wadmalaw Island, the grounds include 127 acres of tea plants, a working tea factory and a charming gift shop. We enjoyed the tour and learned to recognize different teas. We sat on the joggling board on the porch and enjoyed the view. Joggling boards have been a staple on southern porches since the 19th century. The bench is made of a long board with rockers at each end. They developed the nick name ‘courting bench’ as young couples that sat on either end would slowly slide to the center due to the bowing of the wood.
We stopped at a local winery and learned about the grapes they grew, tasted the wine and brought home a bottle to share later.
We spent a day at the Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, the plantation has survived both the Revolutionary and the Civil War. The house is beautiful and the antique furniture is graceful and looks right at home in this high ceiling mansion.
The plantation is right on the Ashley River and the grounds are spectacular, paths around huge ponds with ducks, geese, and swans. So many flowering bushes and trees it was just beautiful. There is a petting zoo for the kids and of course the usual animals you might find on a farm.
Lovely Bridge on the Plantation
The park where we stayed was nice except for the tornado scare. The hosts went around and warned everyone about the threat of a tornado and we are sitting there thinking, what can go wrong here, I mean we are all in some type of trailer and everyone knows tornadoes head right for the trailer parks. We were a little concerned and decided if it looked bad we would use the concrete laundry building for safety. The storm passed and we were none the worse for wear.
Reluctantly we left the Charleston area and headed for Edisto Beach for a couple of days. The beach, where we hoped to stay, was full but the over flow area was nice and we loved cruising around the back country roads in the area. We discovered small communities with just a few houses and of course a couple of churches. Most of the churches are the small one room, wood siding, all white with beautiful steeples and two doors. So you think the doors are Men and Women?
We found a sea food shack on one back road and wandered in, curious to see what they offered. It was an interesting place selling mostly crabs. A customer there was convinced we needed to try these crabs and told us how to fix them. We bought a half a dozen and headed home with our paper bag full of rustling crabs. We toted the crabs into the camper and found our biggest pot and started boiling water. Getting the crabs out of the bag wasn’t easy, their claws were all tangled up and none of them were interested in jumping into the pot. Our biggest pot wasn’t big enough to hold more than two crabs and neither of them wanted to stay in the boiling water. I was laughing so hard, I finally just got out of the camper so Monty could battle the crabs with a spoon. I think he feared for his life if any of these things got loose. We attempted to eat these critters but they put up such a battle to stay out of the pot that we felt guilty.
Monty Fighting with Dinner
That was our one and only time cooking live anything!
Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia is our next stop. The falls live up to the billing, absolutely spectacular. This is where the movie Deliverance, with Burt Reynolds, was filmed in 1972. This is a lovely park with well cared for walkways and overlooks. We stayed here a day and moved over to Amicolola Falls State Park to check out more water falls and see the final mile of the Appalachian Trail. We took a pictures of a highway sign warning of a 25% grade. OMG we should have just brought the Jeep over here to have a look. We’ve never seen a park quite like this one, each spot was carved out of the mountain with spacious flat gravel pad and with wood railings.
Talulah Fall, Georgia
The next leg of the trip was filled with Civil War history as we went to battle grounds near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Monty has been doing some genealogy research on his family and found his great great-grandfather Alec Walker fought here for the Confederacy in the battles of Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain. We stopped in the visitor’s center at the Chickamauga National Military Park and were fortunate to speak with a ranger familiar with both battles. He was knowledgeable and eager to share. He looked up Monty’s ancestor and then pulled out maps and charts and was able to explain just what happened at Lookout Mountain and how the Confederate troops were surrounded and captured in a dense fog. Monty’s great-great-grandfather was eventually taken to the Rock Island, Illinois Union POW camp. He was later released after signing a document stating he would not take up arms against the Union again. Apparently, they did this routinely so the men could return to their farms and families. The following day we went up to Lookout Mountain, where the battle took place and saw the cannons marking the defending positions along the top of the mountain. There was another visitor center there with a huge mural depicting the battle.
At the start of this trip several weeks ago we stopped at the Sonora Caverns, a crystal cave in Texas. Now we are in Sweetwater, Tennessee at Craighead Caverns to see the Lost Sea, the largest underground lake in America. After entering the strange double door system and waiting for our guide to catch up, our group wound along dimly lit paths to the water. Our guide explained the history of the caverns and the sea along the way. Even though expected, it was still a surprise to see a large body of water with glass bottom boats lined up. The trolling motors were quiet and everyone enjoyed pointing out various fish as we putted along. This falls into the category of strange roadside attractions but we enjoyed it.
Look Out Mountain, Tennessee
Next stop on this adventure is a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. We’ve heard of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge but never expected these two towns were connected by one long traffic jam with motels, eateries and miniature golf courses for miles. Dollywood is a big attraction here and the attendees must be housed and fed and provided every kind of shopping known to man. Miniature golf appears to be a popular form of entertainment east of the Mississippi. Although Tucson has a population of 750,000 and one miniature golf course that is definitely not the ratio in the East.
Spring hasn’t settled into this National Park, many of the trees haven’t leafed out yet, but it is a beautiful drive. Our favorite part was Cades Cove, a living history settlement. It was interesting to watch the wheat being milled and the blacksmith work his magic making shoes for the horses. One of Monty’s Bluegrass buddies, has traced his family to some of the first settlers in Cades Cove. In fact, Mike took his grandson back to see the family log cabin that still stands in Cades Cove. I recently read a historical novel about people in the Cades Cove and throughly enjoyed it.
Cabin in Cades Cove
This trip to Tennessee wasn’t complete without a stop at the Jack Daniels Distillery. What a delightful tour, the Wilford Brimley look-a-like gave us a great history lesson and tour of the distillery. The setting is lovely and we enjoyed learning about ‘sippin’ whissssskey’ Unfortunately this is a dry county, so no samples. Go figure!!
Ruth and Charles are expecting us in Nashville so we better get on the road again. Nashville is a great place, so much to see and do. We applauded up and coming songwriters singing and playing their songs in hopes of being discovered at the famous Bluebird Café and peeked at the mansions of the lucky ones who have made it. We spent an afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is a ‘must see’ in Nashville. We loved it. One of the neatest thing was the wall of Gold Records. Just open the album cover and hear the hit song from the album. The Hall of Fame that had bronze plaques for many of the country stars was a treat. With hundreds of displays it was impossible to pick a favorite. From the original country sound to the modern country music favorites, the music thru the years was so much fun.
Next stop Memphis. We found a visitor center and spent some time talking with a young man who was convinced we should see Graceland. I love the King as well as any teenager growing up in the 50’s but not too sure I need to see where he lived and all the hoopla that goes with it. I saw him in Tucson at the Community Center and he was awesome and I even know people who saw him at the old rodeo grounds on South Sixth Avenue years before. He was the best and there’s never been another one like him but I didn’t need to see Graceland
Happy to say Memphis is not just Graceland. We toured the Gibson guitar factory and loved seeing how they cut the wood, glue, assemble, and test each guitar. It was a fun tour. We ate BBQ on Beale Street which is a happenin’ place. The highlight of the trip to Memphis was the Rock and Soul Museum. This was the most wonderful museum, with music from the early years of Appalachia to modern country music and of course, rock and roll. At the time, this museum was the only museum sponsored by the Smithsonian, outside of Washington DC. This was such a treat, as you enter the museum you begin an era of musical history. Put on your head phones and stop at the first kiosk, read the story board, select music from the juke box and listen to an era, way before our time. Move to the next kiosk and listen to another era. By the time we got to the 50’s music we wanted to listen to every song on the juke box! We loved this place, the history and music was great and it was presented in a way that held our interest. The pictures and history of each segment made it really special.
One more stop before heading home, Hot Springs Arkansas. We wanted to see the famed bath houses and the quaint area around this National Park . The town of Hot Springs grew up around the actual hot springs. Bathhouses were a popular destination for the healing waters in 1915. The Fordyce Bathhouse has a marble lobby and the stained glass transoms are beautiful. I think the concept of a bathhouse is a little weird but it remained busy for almost sixty years. We enjoyed the visit.
Gibson Guitar Factory in Memphis
This trip we headed home thru Oklahoma City. As our habit, if we can manage it, we drive through the big cities on a Sunday when traffic is lighter. Oklahoma City qualifies as a big city, as we cruised along the freeway without too much traffic, things were looking good. Until the pickup truck in front of us lost its utility trailer. OMG we are driving along behind him and the trailer comes loose and starts traveling on its own. This trailer was running left and right across the freeway, running into one side and then the other of the four lane freeway. We felt like we were part of a pinball machine! Everyone was slowing down watching the spectacle but the lady in front of us just put on the brakes and stopped, right there in the middle of the freeway, just stopped, no warning, just stopped. Monty stood on the brakes and we stopped about three inches from her bumper. It was a scary thing and I’m not sure who was more surprised, the driver of the truck, the cars following, or the nutty lady in front of us. The trailer finally came to rest against the concrete guardrail and the guy jumped out of the truck and tried to get things sorted out. So glad it wasn’t crowded, that could have been a disaster.
Hot Springs Bathhouse
After we’ve seen the last thing on the ‘must see’ list we just put the pedal to the metal and head west. It was another wonderful trip and we loved it. So glad we can travel this way.