Tuesday, April 29, 2008

11. Welcome to Cajun Country

You can’t visit Louisiana without learning something about the Cajun culture and history. We didn’t know much about it, but our research told us that Cajun Country is centered around the southern areas of Louisiana. Lafayette seemed to be a central location with lots of history and cultural activity, so we dropped anchor in a nice little RV park just south of Lafayette. The tourist info center provided us with an armload of maps, brochures and good ideas to keep us busy.

History is everywhere, but is told especially well at the local Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center and at nearby Vermillionville where historic buildings have been preserved and Cajun, Creole and Native American exhibits tell the story. The "palmetto hut" in the photo is an example of an early swamp hut that was insulated with a mixture of mud and Spanish moss. Very sturdy.

The history is fascinating so I’ll try to share a little of it. Around 1600, a group of French settlers moved into an area of eastern Canada, now Nova Scotia, in search of freedom from French oppression and a new land for their families. The settlement of “Acadie” (or Acadia) flourished for 100+ years. However, when the British took control in the early 1700s, they demanded that the Acadians swear allegiance to the British crown and support the ongoing wars against France. Well, being independent folks who wanted to be left alone, the Acadians chose to remain neutral and refused to support the British. So, the irate local governor put about 8,000 of them into boats, sent them out to sea and confiscated their lands. Some fled to other parts of French-speaking Canada, many returned to France, and others were scattered along the east coast of the U.S. Later, a group of exiles led by Joseph Broussard made their way as far as Louisiana where they set up their new Acadia near what is now the city of Breaux Bridge, just east of Lafayette. The Acadians, with the help of friendly local Indian, established new communities and eventually became known as Cajuns. They held onto much of their French culture and language and their music and food have continued to grow in popularity as major tourist attractions. Ron managed to find a good local music station (KBON, 101.1 FM). He loves the music, even though many of the lyrics are in French, and we’re eating lots of Cajun food.

Louisiana calls itself “America’s Wetland.” Can’t argue with that. There’s water, rivers, bayous, lakes and swamps everywhere. We wanted to find out more about the wetlands, so we took a swamp tour in Bryan Champagne’s 24 ft. aluminum crawfish skiff. Bryan was born a Cajun and raised on the banks of Bayou Teche, so he seemed to know what he was talking about. He took us in and out of the swamps, through thick vegetation, groves of cypress draped with Spanish moss and, to our surprise, no mosquitoes.

The swamp was full of birds, including herons and snowy egrets. We also came across lots of alligators. Most were sunning themselves on logs and we were able to get within a few feet of them. Some would casually slide off their logs and disappear into the water, but others stood their ground and stared us down. None were aggressive and, after a while, we began to really appreciate these big critters. They weren’t bothering anyone and were probably a little annoyed with us for trespassing in their territory. It was a great swamp tour and we all survived.

Vermillionville is a sort of Cajun cultural center, adjacent to the Jean Lafitte Center. The village is nicely laid out and includes a self-guided walking tour of early structures from small swamp huts to a typical home, school, church and other structures.
In the center of the village is an entertainment pavilion with stage and dance floor. A Cajun band was playing and, after watching for a while, we drug ourselves out onto the dance floor and went a few rounds. We later went to dinner at a place called Randol’s. They also had a live Cajun band, so we went a few more rounds on the dance floor (sorry, no photos). Those dance lessons we took last year finally paid off and we had a great time!

Monday, April 28, 2008

10. Texas Gulf Coast

Texas’ largest city stood in our path as we headed east from San Antonio. We considered going out of our way to get around Houston, but decided to just put the pedal to the metal, close our eyes and follow I-10 right through the middle. It was a nail-biting white-knuckle experience. Major freeway development was going on everywhere, highways were torn up and detours zig-zagged around miles of orange cones and rows of Jersey barriers. Obstructions narrowed the traffic lanes and we were constantly pushed and squeezed by 18-wheelers and lots of traffic trying to go faster than it should. We made it through with a sigh of relief and continued on down the highway. The posted speed limit on Interstate-10 across most of Texas is 80 mph. I'm sure we irritate many motorists as we amble along at our more fuel-efficient 55-60. No tickets yet for impeding the flow of traffic.

We stumbled upon a very nice little campground on Turtle Bayou, about 40 miles west of Beaumont. It was at the edge of a lush swamp full of birds and animal sounds. The bayou water was a nice milk chocolate brown and the bullfrogs were loud enough to keep us awake at night.

The gulf was only 40 miles away, so we drove down to the beach at High Island and did some wading, bird watching and shell collecting. Parking was allowed on the beach so, of course, Ron managed to get the Honda stuck in some dry sand. We dug a couple trenches with our ice scraper (we knew it would come in handy) and were able get ourselves out. It was a bit of a concern having the car stuck in the sand 20 feet from the surf and not knowing if the tide was going in or out.
The Anahuac Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge was nearby, so we did a walking and driving tour of a small part of the area. It’s a birder’s paradise. But, even more exciting for us, were the alligators that also reside in the refuge. We saw eight or ten gators in their natural habitat, which was one of Bonnie’s primary objectives. Pretty exciting.

We drove to the end of the Bolivar Peninsula, ate a couple excellent burgers at Crystal Beach, visited old Fort Travis and looked at Galveston across the water. A free ferry could have taken us across but we had no reason to go there and it was getting late.

The Bolivar Peninsula is a long low sand bar that’s fairly well populated but prone to periodic destruction. It has been hit by hurricanes and tidal surges over the years so now all new houses are being built on stilts, some of them so high that we wondered if they are protecting against flooding or trying to get a view over other stilt houses closer to the beach. It’s comical. The peninsula was interesting, but not a place we’d want to live.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

9. San Antonio - Fiesta

“Fiesta” in San Antonio is all about food, music and fun and it’s all over town. Market Square is the venue for Fiesta Fantasias. The market is a maze of small shops stuffed with everything from Mexican sombreros, pottery and wierd skeleton people to very fine (and expensive) art. Lots of good food was available at street booths and several stages were alive with local Tejano music and some dancing in the streets. We did a lot of walking, looking and sampling of gordidas and mini-tacos. Excellent!!!

The “Taste of New Orleans” is another popular Fiesta event. It's held outdoors in the Sunken Gardens of Brackenridge Park, a perfect setting. We took folding chairs, arrived early and got a good center spot to view the stage. Once again, food booths were everywhere, this time with lots of good Cajun delights. Ron dove into a bowl of shrimp, fish and sausage in a thick spicy sauce over “dirty rice”. Bonnie had a big crabcake with rice. We shared a shrimp-on-a-stick and couldn’t pass up the alligator-on-a-stick (hard to find in Seattle). The alligator tasted like we imagined it would, a bit tough and rubbery but with a nice flavor and plenty of Cajun spices.

Different bands took the stage and a local belly dancing group did a show as well. Ron especially liked the rough raspy jerky zydeco music that makes you want to dance right out of your chair. Since we know very little about that style, each song sounded pretty much like the one before. It would help if they'd sing the words in English instead of French. But it's a cultural thing and, since music is a universal language, nobody seemed to care. We’re looking forward to some slightly softer Cajun music in Louisiana.

The River Walk is the city's second most popular attraction (Alamo is first). This public walkway follows about three miles of the river as it winds through the center of downtown. It's lined with restaurants, pubs, shops and the best hotels. It's very nicely landscaped with plants and flowers, many very large trees and lots of birds. There are also lots of masonry walls, small bridges (that's Bonnie on the bridge), stairways and other attractive rock work. The River Walk is a comfortable relaxing "people place" away from traffic and noise. It's an excellent example of good planning and urban design.

We spent our final evening in San Antonio at the annual River Walk Parade. It’s a parade of boats/floats with lots of lights and music on the river. Thousands of tables and chairs were set up along the route in front of hotels and restaurants. We could sit in one for a fee of up to $25, but we opted to stake out a nice section of railing along Crockett Street overlooking the river. It was a great view, but standing up for hours was a little hard on us old folks. The restaurants went all out in their table decorations and mariachi bands were entertaining the patrons.

The parade and San Antonio in general were lots of fun. We’re leaving with a positive impression and hope to return some day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

8. San Antonio Missions & History

With a population of about 1.2 million, San Antonio is the second largest city in Texas (Houston is larger) and 7th largest in the U.S. But Texas has lots of room and low-density “urban sprawl” has flourished. The city spreads for miles and seems much smaller than more intense vertical cities such as Seattle, Chicago, etc. It’s easy to navigate the freeways and interconnecting loop routes. There are no mountains, lakes, coastlines or other major obstacles so streets and freeways radiate in all directions from downtown.

The Alamo was established in 1718 and its famous battle was a major event in Texas history. A small group of 189 Texans fought against Mexican General Santa Ana’s much larger army in 1836. The Alamo defenders, including Jim Bowie and Davie Crockett, were wiped out. Later, however, Sam Houston’s army defeated Santa Ana and Texas became an independent republic, and later a state.

Four other missions have been preserved as part of the San Antonio Missions Nat’l. Historical Park. We visited two of them. The following two pictures are of Mission Concepcion. The third is the famous "Rose Window" at Mission San Jose (long story).

The King William District was settled in the 1800s by prominent German merchants and was the first historic district in Texas. Many of the beautiful old homes in this neighborhood have been preserved. One of those early pioneers was Ed Steves and we had an opportunity to tour his family homestead. Mr. Steves came from Germany, sold grain to Mexico markets illegally during the Civil War, invested wisely and eventually operated a successful lumber business that still thrives in San Antonio. He died in 1890 but his wife lived another 40 years and kept the house in excellent condition, complete with mostly original furnishings. The following photos will give you an example of the types of homes in this district. Too many for this page.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

7. This must be Texas

It was a long uneventful drive from Tucson, through a small section of New Mexico, past El Paso and on to San Antonio. The terrain consisted mostly of dry desert, sand, sage and lots of rocks. Long wide valleys were interrupted by low mountain chains . . . and the scene repeated itself over and over. It made us appreciate the great distances and vastness of this part of the country. Very few Starbucks.
We spent one night about 20 mi. west of El Paso and had a terrific front window view of the quiet desert, a few birds and a jackrabbit or two (see photo). The campground hostess knew nothing about the area, but we stumbled onto a very good Mexican dinner at a local truck stop restaurant.

We spent our first Texas night in Fort Stockton, a small windy dusty town. The campground hostess said we were lucky to get the last spot because Fort Stockton is a “boom town.” Apparently, the town was nearly dead until gas prices started to rise. Now, it’s once again cost effective to pump oil from lots of old oil wells in the area. So, all the rentals, motels and campgrounds are full of oil workers, the economy is healthy and there are three columns of oil-worker jobs in the local newspaper. Go figure. I guess we can feel good that we're contributing to the booming economy of places like Fort Stockton.

About a half hour short of San Antonio, we found the nice little historical village of Comfort . . . a perfect name for a quiet laid-back town full of old buildings, history and interesting shops. We walked around the downtown and stopped for refreshments at the oldest continually active soda fountain in the whole country. It has been operating for more than 100 years in a building that was built in 1854. It was here that Ron experienced the worst hot fudge sundae he had ever consumed. Can’t have everything. Bonnie's root beer float was no prize winner either.

We settled into Stone Creek RV Park, about 20 min. north of San Antonio, for a five night stay. “Festival” began yesterday. It’s a 10-day event that brings about 3.5 million visitors to the city each spring. There’s a lot to see and do and we can’t possibly do it all, but we hope to have some interesting photos in our next blog. So, stay tuned.

Monday, April 14, 2008

6. Arizona's Wild West

Cochise County, in the SE corner of Arizona, is home to the wild west town of Tombstone, the gunfight at the OK Corral, Boot Hill and lots of fascinating history and legends. It was also the home of Indian warrior Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache tribe and its leader Cochise. He fought for 11 years to hang onto the tribal lands. He was never defeated in battle and is greatly admired around these parts.

Mining was big business in this area, especially copper mining. The hills are riddled with old mines, dried up ghost towns and old mining towns that found new reasons to survive. Mining is still done around Bisbee and Tombstone but they now rely heavily on their history to lure tourists, as well as newer arts, crafts and modern businesses.

Bisbee, the “Queen of the Copper Camps”, is very picturesque and interesting. It was built on the steep rocky hills of a narrow canyon and many of the homes rely on long steep stairways. By 1910, it was the largest, richest and rowdiest copper mining town in America and the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Local mines produced zinc, lead, silver, gold, manganese and nearly 8 billion pounds of copper. The Lavender Pit is a large open pit copper mine at the edge of Bisbee. It operated from 1951 until 1975. Lots of high quality turquoise also came from this mine.

Today, Bisbee is alive with small shops, art studios, antique stores and restaurants but small enough to walk and explore in a couple hours.

Tombstone was also a rowdy mining town, but is most famous for Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Big Nose Kate and the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which lasted only about 30 seconds.
The old buildings and boardwalks along several blocks of Allen Street of the original town are preserved. The Bird Cage Theater is the most historic and notorious of the structures. It remains largely as it was when it closed. We toured the building, peeked into the basement bordello rooms, saw the bar and card room, and studied the large assortment of memorabilia and artifacts that occupy the main floor of the theater. We were informed that this is considered the most haunted building in the U.S., although we didn’t experience any ghosts in the middle of the afternoon.

About 250 of Tombstone’s former residents are buried in the Boot Hill Graveyard, including the losers of the famous gunfight. A list of the occupants showed that very few died of “natural causes.” Most were shot or hanged, some died of unfortunate accidents, and others of illnesses of various kinds. The horse-drawn hearse that carried all but six to Boot Hill is in the museum at the Bird Cage Theater.

We decided to visit Mexico, but wanted to see a smaller town rather than a large border city. So, we drove the back roads through Texas Canyon, the one-horse “town” of Dragoon, the former mining town of Pearce and finally to the border town of Douglas. It cost just $1 to park in a municipal lot a block from the border crossing. From there, we walked into the small Mexican town of Agua Prieta. There was a lot of activity at the crossing. Apparently, a vehicle didn’t make it through the inspection and the border patrol and their dogs were swarming around, had a suspect on the ground, and a CHP helicopter was hovering overhead. We walked right on by with other tourists. Just another day at the border.
Agua Prieta wasn’t nearly as pretty as its name but the people were friendly, there were a few sidewalk food vendors and lots of interesting businesses. We walked several blocks into town and poked around in a few stores.

We purchased a few small souvenirs before returning to the U.S. We were armed with driver’s licenses, passports and other picture ID, but weren’t asked for anything. The border guard just looked at us, smiled and waved us through. I guess we’re too obviously American tourists. Maybe the Hawaiian shirt, shorts, funny Dakota farm hat and camera around the neck gave it away. It was just too easy!!!