kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Summer 2020 Road Trip -- Exploring a Swath of the National Park System

It's the Summer of COVID-19. The summer of road tips. Because who is crazy enough to get on a plane in the middle of a pandemic? So somewhat spontaneously (we had a week or so to plan), Bob and I packed up our car and headed northeast. We had two weeks in June to see as much as we possible could. Tent camping the whole way. What better way to social distance!

As a family, we love the National Park System, and there's so much in this beautiful country we haven't yet seen. Because of the virus, campgrounds and amenities were basically closed within the National Parks, so we were relegated to state and private campgrounds for accommodations. While it wasn't always easy to reserve campsites, we made a gazillion phone calls and made it work.

Our first stop was the lovely Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia but near Chattanooga, TN. We had a private walk-in site and felt like we had the whole woods to ourselves. (See photo above.) It rained that night but not before we got our tent set up and dinner finished. And s'mores. So we were fine.

The next day, we briefly explored Chattanooga. It's rather touristy in the ways they capitalize on the surrounding natural beauty, but we went to Rock City anyway.

Man-made waterfall

Garden Gnomes are cute.

When we tired of the cheesiness, we headed for Cherokee, NC at the southern base of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We stayed at a private campground called River Valley, geared primarily to RV campers, but there were a few tent sites and we had a nice time there. Very clean, mostly nice campers.

First stop, Mingo Falls. And we couldn't wait to see what came next.

The Park offered one stunning vista after another. We couldn't get enough of it.

Bucket list, even though the hike was short.

Lunch break in a picnic area

After two days exploring this national treasure, we hopped on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove (and drove and drove), twisting and turning, oohing and aahing at every overlook. The Parkway is part of the National Park Service.

We timed the trip right to see plenty of wildflowers. Mountain laurel was the most prevalent, but we also saw flaming orange azaleas and the stunning rhododendron (below).

That night, we stayed at Stone Mountain State Park near Roaring Gap, NC. We arrived late in the evening and left early the next morning. So I can't say much about it, other than a symphony of cicadas serenaded us all night long.

The next day, we needed to complete our drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and make our way to the northern end of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Long day of driving. But more natural beauty. This popular stop along the way, Mabry Mill, is the most photographed spot along the BRP.

Trickling streams are everywhere in the mountains.

We stayed two nights at Shenandoah River State Park in Virginia and spent one whole day exploring Shenandoah.

The hills are smaller on this end, more vistas of farmland.

My hometown, Connellsville, Pennsylvania was the northern terminus of our road trip. After a few wonderful days of visiting family, we headed back south. First stop was New River Gorge, West Virginia, a National River and of course, part of the Park System. Despite overcast skies and terribly hard rain during our second night there, we loved this area!

The Gorge is best known for this impressive bridge -- the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third highest in the United States.

We hiked a lot, in the valleys and along the ridges. It was all breathtaking. I love being in the woods; lush green and cool, water rushing everywhere.

Me in my happy place.

Hiking Endless Wall Trail

Next stop, another pleasant, quiet state park -- Foster Falls, TN.

It was a week of waterfalls!

He makes the best campfires.

To navigate through the northwest corner of Alabama and much of Mississippi, on the advice of several friends, we opted to traverse the Natchez Trace, another National Parkway. We had heard this road was a pretty drive, but did not realize until we got there that it's a road like the BRP. What a pleasant way to travel! Quiet easy driving, no trucks, no traffic. And scenic. Apparently, I was done taking photos by this point, as I have none of Natchez Trace. Or maybe after the peaks of the Appalachians, comparatively flat Mississippi doesn't thrill quite the same way. But if you're ever headed that way, we highly recommend the Trace.

The last night of our road trip was a huge disappointment. Mississippi was shut down due to the virus more than any other state we were in, and even their state parks were closed. Our only option seemed to be a Yogi Bear Campground. (In hindsight, a hotel would have been more peaceful and less expensive.) Now, I understand Bob and I are not their target demographic, but Yogi Bear was a nightmare. Crowded, noisy, not well-maintained, and zero social distancing. That is all I can say about that.

But we didn't allow that one night to detract from an otherwise fantastic vacation!

Monday, November 4, 2019

Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches, and a Cruise on the Cane River

The great thing about getting (a little) older is that you get to do things with older folks. Fun things! The Sage Series, through McNeese State University's Leisure Learning program and geared to the senior set, is an example. Each semester, they offer a handful of interesting lectures, usually on some aspect of Louisiana culture or history. And there's a bus tour to some fascinating destination. This semester, it was Melrose Plantation and Natchitoches.

I always get excited to explore places I've never been before; and while I had been to Natchitoches numerous occasions from 2010 to 2013 while our son attended high school there (see posts here, here, and here) I had never been to nearby Melrose Plantation. It is definitely worth a visit!

The Big House

The history of Melrose is intriguing. It was built by Louis Metoyer, the son of freed slave Marie Thérèse Coincoin (pronounced quA-quA) and her partner Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, beginning in 1810 with the construction of some of the outbuildings on the property. Construction of the Big House began in 1832.

After a 34-year ownership by the Hertzog family, the plantation was purchased by the Henry family, where John Henry and his young wife Cammie made their home in 1899.

This plantation is very much in the boondocks, and I suppose Cammie longed for companionship. She was known for inviting artists and writers to her home for extended visits, sometimes years at a time. Melrose became a center for creativity. Cammie herself was a gifted quilter and weaver. While strolling the grounds, I imagined what it might have been like to spend time there for a writer's retreat.

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Cammie Henry

Melrose's greatest claim to fame may be that it was home to renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter. From the age of 12, Clementine worked on the plantation, first as a field hand and later a housekeeper and cook. Exposed to the talents of visiting artists, Clementine discovered discarded paints left by the artists and began painting. She painted what she knew -- namely plantation and rural Louisiana life in the mid-20th century. Her paintings tell the stories of her life experiences and the people in her world. She claimed to have known the names of every person portrayed in her extensive collection of paintings, occasionally inserting herself into the scenes. She painted on anything she could find -- cardboard, wood, clothe, and canvas, when she could get it. Her large murals in the "African House" on the property are especially fascinating. 

Related image
(from Gilley's Gallery)

Today, Hunter is recognized internationally as one of the most famous African American folk artists in the United States. She died in 1988, at age 101, after completing thousands of works of art. Her work is viewed by over 15,000 visitors annually at Melrose Plantation.

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After Melrose, the busload of us ate lunch at the quaint Cane River Commissary.

Natchitoches is known for meat pies. And most all of Louisiana is known for gumbo!

Once in Natchitoches, there was an hour or so to explore the Front St. shops and then we enjoyed a pleasant river boat cruise on the Cane River Queen. Some may not know, the Cane River is technically the 35-mile Cane River Lake, an oxbow cut off from the Red River in the mid-1800s by the removal of a 100-mile long logjam north of Natchitoches.

So, funny story . . . on the drive back to Lake Charles, we made a pit stop at a Love's gas station. As we filed through the door, we heard over the loud speaker, "Attention, Code Orange, Code Orange!" Curious what a Code Orange is, we asked an employee in the ladies' room. She said it signals the arrival of a tour bus! Ha, ha. All hands on deck!

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Asheville, N.C. -- Hip Meets Hippy

Of the three cities we visited on our vacation this summer, Asheville was my favorite. We arrived on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, stopping first at the visitors' center, where we discovered there is WAY more to see and do in Asheville than we had time for. But just being there was a dream come true for me -- a place that had been on my to-visit list for a couple decades or more.

Asheville has a laid back, easy-going, retro, casual hippy kinda vibe. In fact, on more than one occasion, we saw folks smoking pot in public, quite openly with no reason to hide it, despite the fact that, from what I read online, that's not exactly legal. The town feels very diverse, open and welcoming. The shops and restaurants express that sense of diversity, so much so that it's really hard to decide where to dine -- there are so many fascinating choices -- especially when we only had two days in the area.

Asheville thrives in a quirky awesome way. A college town full of coffee shops, ethnic eateries, street performers, candy and ice cream shops, vintage clothing stores, bookstores, CBD oil and head shops galore. Bob and I loved the Asheville Pinball Museum, where for a reasonable fee, you can play pinball all day. We didn't have time to play all day, so we briefly walked around basking in vintage arcade nostalgia. And I was thrilled to stumble across a Ten Thousand Villages shop (I'm a Ten Thousand Villages distributor through my church, First Presbyterian Church Lake Charles.) I was told this Asheville store is the largest brick and mortar Ten Thousand Villages in the country.

We stayed in a delightful inn called A Bed of Roses Bed and Breakfast.

Hosts Bill and Emily McIntosh ensure their guests have a wonderful stay, and their breakfasts are amazing. Marmalade-stuffed french toast, anyone?

Once settled in our room, we began exploring, with dinner the ultimate goal. Asheville is known for its many breweries (many is an understatement; there are literally dozens, if not a hundred in the region), and we found Wicked Weed Brewery. We shared a large flight and a soft pretzel. In this photo, you see what's left of the mustard, apple butter, and cheese dips.

Besides the vibe and diversity, another reason I love Asheville is because it is in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway hugs the town's eastern and southern borders. And as much as I wanted to further explore Asheville proper, I couldn't wait to get into the woods -- my happy place. No where else is my soul at such a degree of peace than surrounded by trees in a vast green forest. We hiked and drove several miles along this 469-mile national treasure.

The rhododendron . . .

and mountain laurel were in bloom -- two woodland plants that I love from my home state, Pennsylvania, and do not grow in the south (that I'm aware of) and I miss them.

As we descended back into Asheville, we spotted this black bear foraging roadside. Pretty exciting for me, as it was the first time I'd ever seen a bear in the wild.

We were told by more than one local that Asheville has become gentrified over the past several years. Which is another way of saying it is not as reasonably priced -- be it housing, dining, or shopping -- as it once was. But I'd go back in a heartbeat. And indeed, I plan to. There are so many places I have yet to explore, ie River Arts District and Montreat. And, more breweries.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Charleston, S.C. -- Historic Meets Hip

Continuing on our summer vacation, we drove from Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC. This second city on our tri-town trip surprised me. I expected lots of history, old buildings, statues in tribute to old war heroes, much like Savannah. What I didn't expect was the progressive nature of the city. While holding on to their historic legacy, they also have a firm grasp on urban revitalization, restoration, and re-purposing. The stellar Visitors Center resides in an old train station. There's free bus transportation, numerous bike share companies, sunscreen dispensers and in-ground doggy do-do receptacles in city parks, and an obvious commitment to recycling. There's a hip vibe, with trendy rooftop bars and coffee shops, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and breweries housed in once-abandoned buildings.

Because we only had a couple days in each city, we basically stayed in Charleston's historic Downtown Peninsula. The riverfront is a popular shady place to play and pass the time. Nearby is the delightful seafood restaurant, Fleet Landing, located in what was once a navy supply depot. Crab is a popular menu item in these parts. We had She Crab Bisque and Crab Cakes.

Little has changed in the post office, except maybe the Wanted posters and the price of a stamp. Such attention to detail! It's an excellent example of historic preservation. And the Postal Museum is aptly located within the post office.

As we strolled through the old city blocks, we happened upon an enchanting section of Church St. Ambling along, we caught glimpses of backyard gardens and southern charm through decorative wrought iron gates.

One of our favorite things to do in Charleston was to discover the "secret" alleyways between buildings and spontaneously duck in and explore, just to see where they lead. We found such unexpected beauty and whimsy. In other cities, these hidden spaces might be relegated to parking or garbage cans. But in Charleston, residents landscape them with lush shade-loving plants and quirky curiosities.

Charleston is known for its history, but it is also an artsy town. Quite coincidentally, we were there during their annual arts festival, Piccolo Spoleto, a two-week long multi-faceted arts extravaganza with hundreds of performances of music, dance, theater, and visual arts. (Which could explain why we had such a hard time finding accommodations!) We browsed a fine arts exhibit in a city park and boarded the Carolina Queen for a blues concert/sunset cruise.

And it's science-oriented -- there's the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History (the first natural history museum in the country, I read) and the South Carolina Aquarium. We didn't have time for either of these.

But we did check out the City Market. Handmade baskets such as these, made in the Gula tradition, surely define the Charleston craft culture. Basket weavers hawk their wares throughout the city, especially in the City Market. These works of art are exquisite, unique, and the artists are engaging.

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Photo from this website.

Other memorable sights . . . historic cemeteries and colorful architecture.