Final Sprint, First Stage

September 22, 2018

We didn’t see much of Alabama on the roughly 300 miles of I-20 from Meridian to Atlanta Friday night, and since it was dark, even less of Georgia. I did feel a bit of a pang when we passed Heflin, Ala., not far from the state line, which is the exit for the start of the Pinhoti 100-mile trail run. I attempted the run last year, with Laura and Kathleen as my crew, but dropped out at the 55-mile point. It’s a great event, along the beautiful, legendary Pinhoti trail that runs through Georgia into Alabama. Thinking ahead to the Sept. 26 urology appointment, I guessed it highly unlikely I’d be entering any more 100-milers.

We had planned originally to stop somewhere between New Orleans and Greer, S.C., just north of Greenville, where Marie, Mike (Pius), and the grandkids live. It’s over 600 miles. But after three straight indoor nights, we were tapped out on unpacking the tent, air mattress, etc. More important, if we stopped we’d lose half a day getting to Greer on Saturday.

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Nature in downtown Greenville

So we gritted our teeth and drove. From broad daylight around Tuscaloosa, to dusk in Birmingham, to darkness. We drove and drove, stopping a few times to change positions. Finally: I-285. Atlanta. Then I-85, first signs for Greenville. Then: stop. The Georgia Dept. of Transportation thought it a good idea to repave one lane of both the northbound and southbound sides of I-85 just north of Atlanta, on a Friday night during the dregs of rush hour. As we inched forward, I felt even sorrier for the southbound drivers. Their headlights stretched north on two lanes for miles, behind two monster asphalt-laying vehicles.

Finally we broke free, beneath a mileage sign: Greenville, 113. I gritted my teeth and gripped the wheel and stared down the left lane. 103, 90, 72, 60 miles to go, plus the extra five to Greer.

We pulled up in front of the Pius household about midnight. Mike and Marie were up, the boys long asleep. We hugged and went to bed. Back on familiar ground, and the East Coast, or near it.

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Plaque at the Falls Park in downtown Greenville

We slept late, then played with the kids. I took Sandy to the Urgent Care for her cough. I got the oil changed in the van. That afternoon I dragged the tent out for the last time and set it up in the yard for the kids. Patrick, the nearly two-year-old, crawled inside. Noah, who’s four, wasn’t interested.

Sunday was another easy day. We went to Mass, then Mike and I watched the Redskins at Buffalo Wild Wings. Marie, Sandy, and the kids joined us as the game wound down. We walked around downtown Greenville, a picturesque mid-size city with a lovely downtown, with comfortable parks, restaurants, and fascinating history. A strong candidate for us for the future—sometime. Right now, other things to think about.

Rebel Country

September 21, 2018

MERIDIAN, Miss.: From New Orleans, heading northeast to Atlanta, you can go long or short, although the difference isn’t great. Our now-familiar I-10 meets I-85 at Mobile, Ala., and would sweep you right into the Atlanta traffic nightmare. The longer route is I-10 to just past Slidell, La., where you pick up I-59, which takes you into the heart of the Old Confederacy, near Picayune, Miss., then to I-20 just west of Meridian through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham into the Peach State. We went long. I had to get at least a glimpse of Mississippi.

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I visited the Naval Air Station at Meridian on a one-day press junket years ago, but had never really seen the state. Mississippi, to Northeasterners—me, anyway—still evokes tragic images, of the abuses of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the violent civil rights struggles that started long before the mid-1960s. Yet Mississippi’s Gulf Coast booms with economic vitality: oil and gas production and transport, tourism, the Stennis Space Center, and, at Pascagoula, construction of the Navy’s frontline surface ships.

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Immediately across the state line at the Welcome Center you get a taste of that other South, the South of the Lost Cause. While the Welcome to Mississippi sign touts the state as the “birthplace of American music,” a historical marker crows pridefully about the exploits of the 38th Mississippi Infantry, the “Hancock Rebels.” The unit served in 1864 under Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, later one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. The Welcome Center clerk unenthusiastically offered coffee, making me wonder if I had “Yankee” carved in my forehead.

The interstate, though, is just an interstate, two lanes of sparse traffic, like any we traveled in the Southwest. I wanted to visit some communities, but I-59, lined mostly with thick woods, has few exits, which are miles apart. We stopped for gas at a stop-and-go outside Hattiesburg. I wanted to continue into the nearby town, but Sandy was dead-set against it. No interest in seeing rural Mississippi. As a native of the Appalachian Mountain South—another world—she has a different take on Delta Dixie.

We pressed on, but I finally talked her into stopping in Meridian, just before we left the state. The city has a well-kept look to it, a busy main street, a Meridian Museum of Art, and the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum. We stepped inside Weidmann’s, the “oldest family restaurant in Mississippi,” an upscale place reportedly famous for its Southern comfort food, including peanut butter crocks.

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Meridian is about 40 miles from Philadelphia, notorious for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, a native of Meridian. Four Klan members were tried and convicted of the killings at the federal courthouse in Meridian; three others were acquitted. In 2005, for the first time, the state charged and convicted a Klan member in the killings. The city named part of 49th Avenue after Chaney, and honors him in an annual memorial service.  

Showing my music ignorance, I didn’t know about Mississippi’s claim to be home to American music. Meridian boasts of being the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) an itinerant blues and country singer. Meridian’s 22nd Avenue is lined with gold stars embedded in the sidewalk concrete recognizing famous Mississippians, including Rodgers, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Hartley Peavey, a Meridian native who founded Peavey Electronics, which makes musical equipment.   

I wanted to stay longer to wander Meridian and learn more of its rich history, but the afternoon was fading. We passed on a leisurely lunch at Weidmann’s, grabbed a Subway instead, and headed to Alabama.  

 

 

Catching up with Laura in the Quarter …

September 20, 2018

Leaving the Atchafalaya region, we slogged through rush-hour traffic in Baton Rouge, getting a glimpse from the Horace Wilkinson Bridge over the Big Muddy at the miles of refinery towers and gas-cracking plants that stretch south and north from the city. Then you’re back in bayou country again as the highway turns south, crossing the jungle-like wetlands that make up southern Louisiana.

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View down Ursulines St, 2 blocks from our hotel

Our goal was New Orleans’ French Quarter, where Laura, our eldest daughter lives. In addition to organizing and publishing these little stories, she is developing a program of walking tours of the city’s Central Business District, recognizing that the French Quarter is, for tourists, old news. She found us a vacancy at the charming Hotel Chateau on Chartres Street, in heart of the Quarter.

After our usual wrong turns off I-10, we got to the hotel, where she was waiting. The room was spacious and comfortable, just off a beautiful courtyard that included a pool. After squeezing the van into a semi-legal parking space, we enjoyed a relaxing dinner at Coop’s Place, a nearby bistro, scruffy and loud, but serving great New Orleans food.

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Sandy snapped this photo of Laura teaching me to upload photos to this blog from my phone

It was an evening of getting caught up, not worrying about unpacking or what time we’d be leaving town. Laura is a dynamo with an encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans history. Her tour program, described at Lolly Pop Tour Shop, offers authentic insights into the city’s background and development, rather than the canned French Quarter ghost stories and local trivia generally pitched by the city’s established tour companies. As we walked the narrow Quarter streets after dinner, she gave us a fascinating exegesis of local lore, both historical and legendary.  

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After the post-brunch swim

I got a quick swim at the hotel pool and slept like a baby, after a day of marinating in Gulf Coast humidity. In the morning Laura met us for a hike to Horn’s on Dauphine Street for a fabulous breakfast of veggies, eggs, and tangy New Orleans coffee. We talked and talked, about her work, her future, as well as ours—what we’ll be up to on our future trips, when we know what’s going on medically.

The time passed too quickly. We got some photos, hugged Laura goodbye, and set off for the homestretch for this too-fast race through the Deep South. We still were more than 600 miles from Greer, S.C., where second daughter Marie, son-in-law Mike, and our grandkids Noah and Patrick have lived since they relocated there last year from Alexandria, Va., where they were 20 minutes from our place.

Last stop.

 

Before the Big Easy: Atchafalaya

September 20, 2018

We were relieved to climb from the tollway out of Galveston back to I-10 and putter due east towards New Orleans, where our oldest daughter Laura lives. Laura is our visionary/techno-wizard, who’s using her blogging skills to post these little travelogues.

This stretch of Texas-Louisiana is among the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, with refineries and other oil and natural gas-related facilities extending from Galveston to Baton Rouge. The bridge over the San Jacinto River, if I’ve got that right, reminds you of the highest roller coaster you’ve ever taken. Sandy held her breath and closed her eyes.

The heavy truck traffic thins as you move into and through this western sliver of Louisiana, through Lake Charles and Lafayette, and the French heritage names show up: Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Butte La Rose. Suddenly you notice you’re on a bridge, or a causeway, spanning miles of bayou or bog, and you enter the Atchafalaya River Basin, a National Heritage Area devoted to preserving one of the country’s most fragile ecosystems. Atchafalaya truly is huge—it occupies parts of 14 Louisiana parishes—one-third of the state.

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Atchafalaya is a river, but — as we learned from a gent at the visitor’s center — it’s also a series of backwater lakes, bayous, and marshes, that form America’s largest swamp, some 150 miles long. It’s home to 270 bird species, 85 fish species, as well as bald eagles, egrets, alligators, raccoons,  and black bears. They inhabit a wilderness filled with upland pines, cypress, and hardwood forests. The vast area extends to the Mississippi to the east, the Natchez Trace Parkway in the north, and reaches the Gulf to the south.

Being a Yankee, even one married to a Southerner I plead guilty to not knowing much (actually, knowing nothing) about this complicated stretch of nature. Sandy, anyway, hails from southeastern Tennessee, a world very different from this one. But after all, we visited the Grand Canyon, on the extreme opposite pole of environmental wonders. So there we were at the visitor’s center, learning.  The bridge/causeway we were crossing stretches 14 miles. The brochure describes Atchafalaya as “America’s Foreign Country.”

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We sensed, as new visitors to the region must, that we were entering a very different place. The hundreds of square miles of Atchafalaya swamps seem intimidating and inhospitable, but people do live there, of complicated European, African-American, and Native American ancestry, who created the mysterious (to us) Cajun culture of carefree music and tangy, spicy cuisine. Others come to camp, hike, observe the abundant wildlife, bike. Bug spray would be important.

We left Atchafalaya knowing something about it, without the time to change our itinerary to understand its hold on visitors. But we began to appreciate the vastness of this complicated green, hot, living place on the underside of the American continent, a strange, wild place—that like many others, drives us to keep moving, keep traveling, and then stopping, when we can, to learn more about the natural mysteries that surround us.

 

Jersey Shore on the Gulf

September 19, 2018

GALVESTON, Tex.: I don’t remember what prompted me, on our slog along I-10 from San Antonio, to propose to Sandy that we make a detour south to see Galveston. I recalled reading about traffic nightmares of driving through Houston at rush hour, which is when we would arrive there. Galveston seemed like an exotic sideshow. With no knowledge of the city, we looked up “Airbnb.com” and after some indecision, found a place, described as a “cute” one-bedroom bungalow in the backyard of a large home, only three blocks from the beach for $49, plus service charge plus tax plus cleaning fee. The catch: you had to go into the main house to use the bathroom.

We couldn’t find a better deal for three blocks from the beach, so we went with it. Not bad, we thought, for a spur-of-the-moment decision, and our first-ever Airbnb rental.

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Galveston Hotel and Spa (not our Airbnb!)

From I-10 during rush hour, Galveston isn’t an easy destination. We ground our way along the traffic-choked Sam Houston Tollway, then shifted to I-45 to fight more traffic across the causeway over West Bay, which feeds into Galveston Bay. We found the bungalow, comfortable, as promised, although the bathroom, like the room itself, required a punch-in combination code.

It was nearly dark when we arrived, but we were car-cramped and hungry, so we straggled towards the beach highway, Seawall Blvd.  Galveston is flat and hot and muggy in September, even after dark. Sweating, we looked for a restaurant we found online. It was inside the humongous, old-world style Hotel Galveston and Spa, which squats astride the beach highway. Pricey and ostentatious. Wearing tee-shirts and shorts, we moved on, but saw nothing except fast-moving traffic. We asked a woman at a beach shop about restaurants. She directed us, enthusiastically, to Mario’s, which “has everything—seafood, steaks, everything. Plus it’s across the street from my house, so I go there all the time,” she smiled.

Mario’s was on 7th Avenue. We were on 21st.   We trudged on few more blocks, gasping for air, then spied a Denny’s and gave up on Mario’s.

The room was okay, except that the air-conditioner, fixed in a window above the bed, was set on high-cold blast, and could not be adjusted. I pulled on a second shirt and wool pajamas and settled in with my head beneath the quilt. Getting up at night and walking outside to use the bathroom in another building, and trying to remember a combination to unlock the door, is no fun, either.

One big plus: the house had a washer and dryer. We got up early and tossed our stuff in the washer, then set out one last time to see something of the place. At 7:00 AM it already was hot. We strolled the Gulf beach between jetties. Tiny Gulf-type waves lapped the shoreline. On the horizon, a dozen or more giant oil tankers, the lifeblood of the local economy, sat waiting to unload. 

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Unlike other beaches we’ve seen in the early morning hours, this one was deserted. No one else strolled by to wave good morning. A half-dozen blocks from our street loomed Galveston’s giant “Historic Pleasure Pier,” which houses all sorts of the typical beach amusements. We kept walking, looking for something worth the walk, but gave up a few blocks on.

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Walking back, we inspected the local housing. The streets were lined with frame homes, some under renovation, others badly in need of it, some painted in garish purples and yellows, some chipped and peeling and collapsing. The neighborhood impressed us as Jersey Shore wannabe, mixed with some mocked-up low-rent French Quarter style.  Oh well. To be fair, we didn’t see what’s said to be the beautiful end of the city. But by mid-morning we weren’t in the mood for touring. We dried our laundry, waited out rush hour, and said goodbye to Galveston.