Happy Spring from Natchitoches, Louisiana. I’m writing this on the 20th, so it is officially spring, and it feels like it here in the South. Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and with the longer days, it is a great time to be outside. I’ve been trying to make some headway this week, traveling to the far southwest of Louisiana and then up the west side of the state. It’s been a great week of beaches, plantations and really cool small towns. I’ve had some great Creole food and met some wonderful people. It has been another amazing week on the road in America. HERE is a link to the map from this week’s journey.
After I wrote last week’s post, I had a quiet night in New Iberia, but ventured downtown in the morning to see what I could see. I was really glad I did. The downtown area is in the midst of a comeback with many of the storefronts occupied and it had a great vibe to it. It’s a cute little area, and I hope they keep working on bringing it back. I started my day with a visit to the wonderful Bayou Teche Museum right in the heart of downtown. The museum focused on the bayou which runs through the middle of New Iberia and connects points further north to the Atchfalaya River. It was a major thoroughfare in early Louisiana and was the impetus for the settlement of the area. At this point, I’ve been in a lot of small town museums, and this one was particularly well done. There were enough artifacts to be thorough but not cluttered, and enough interactivity to keep from being boring. I really enjoyed learning more about the rural jazz of the region and the ride down the “elevator” into the salt mine made me smile. There was an excellent film on the history of the region as well. The ladies working there were wonderful and happy to talk about their town.
When I had finished there, I wandered over to Shadows-on-the-Teche, the historic plantation house of the Meeks family whose property butted right up to the bayou. Not nearly as grand as places like Houmas House or Oak Alley, it was beautiful nonetheless. Shadows-on-the-Teche is a more reserved home in a more rural area, further from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. It was fascinating to see though, and learn about the four generations of the Meeks family that lived there. Our tour guide’s mother had met the youngest of them, William Meeks Hall, while he still lived there, giving fascinating continuity to the tour. We also learned a lot about the enslaved people who had worked the plantation and the house. There were some lovely gardens surrounding the home, with azaleas in full bloom, making for a pleasant wander. This was definitely worth a visit and you should check it out if you are ever in the area.
From there I set out down Route 14 to Kaplan and then down Route 35 to stop at one of my favorite restaurants in Louisiana: Suire’s. I had visited Suire’s when my folks were in town a few weeks ago, but there was no way I could just pass on by without stopping for some of their amazing turtle sauce picante. As much as I love Cajun food, most of the menus around the region are very similar, whereas this dish is hard to find. Plus, they do it better than anyone. I ate half there on the spot and saved the other half for later.
My belly full of happiness, I made my way down into the swampland of southwest Louisiana, past Pecan Island, Grand Chenier and Creole to beautiful Rutherford Beach. The road was good, and the area was full of beautiful birds and alligators, all right there on the side of the road. There was hardly anyone on the road which always makes me happy and I really enjoyed the ride. The road took me past duck hunting camps and fishing camps and there were lots of rusty tin roofs protecting little fishing boats out on the bayous.
When I finally arrived at the beach, it made me really happy. Not that the beach itself was anything to write home about, but I loved what it was: a little, remote, boondockers camp out on the gulf. There were four other RVs there when I arrived, two vans, a Class C and a tow-behind, all nicely spaced out around the gravel lot adjacent to the beach. You can drive on the beach itself, but with the rain that had passed through and with more expected it probably wasn’t the best idea. This is just a really neat little spot that allows free overnight parking right there by the beach. There were even Port-a-Johns and an outdoor shower! I sat on the beach and drank a beer and read my book until it was too dark to see. It was cloudy so there wasn’t much of a sunset, but it was still nice to sit on the beach and read.
When it got too dark, I went into my van, ate the rest of my turtle sauce picante and watched a little TV. I’ve been enjoying Ozark recently, watching it in the gym and sometimes at night. Then I did a little bit of work and read until I fell asleep, my windows open to the sound of the waves and the wind.
I slept really well and didn’t get up until late the next morning. I made my coffee and then went for a long walk along the beach. The tide was just rolling in, and it was bringing an incredible array of shells with it. My mother, an avid sheller, would have been thrilled at the variety and volume to be found there. The way the waves were moving the shells, it made some really pretty sounds as well. When a wave came into shore and disrupted the shells, it sounded like the rattle of ice in a tall glass of iced tea. When the waves went out and drug the shells back with them, it sounded like one of those rain sticks that you turn upside down and it sounds like it’’s raining. Or maybe like a shell wind chime. It was really cool and put a smile on my face.
I bent down to pick up a few shells and have a closer look at them, and they got me thinking. I thought that if you pick up one of these shells and see a hole in it or some imperfection you might drop it back where you found it, because who wants a broken shell? But then I started thinking how beautiful they still were despite their imperfections. Shells are a lot like us: beautiful, but often broken or imperfect. That shouldn’t mean we throw it back, because it’s those imperfections which show us what that shell has been through. After all, we are the sum of our experiences, good or bad. The more a shell is broken down, the closer it is to perfect, amazing sand. I kept two of the shells that I found there, both beautifully imperfect like me!
I was sad to leave and if I had come better prepared or if the weather was a little better I may have stuck around for a day or two. Rutherford Beach made me happy. It was my first time there, but it won’t be my last! But I had places to go and work to get done, so I packed up, said goodbye to the sea, and headed on down the highway. On the way north towards Lake Charles, I stopped into the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge to enjoy the wildlife drive there. It was three miles long and well graded gravel, but I saw so many beautiful birds and gators out there. I drove about five miles per hour around the whole thing, and really enjoyed it. I’ve seen more roseate spoonbills in Louisiana this week than I saw in my entire 6 weeks in Florida.
From there I headed straight into Lake Charles. I have been through Lake Charles more times than I can count, but never really stopped there. I headed straight downtown to see the namesake lake itself, which is actually really cool. I drove around the south side of the lake and found some really pretty homes there. Downtown seems vibrant and on the upswing. Even the outskirts seem to be doing relatively well. After driving around for a while, I settled into the library to do some serious photo editing and finish up some things from Mardi Gras. I put together a long photo oriented post from the parades I saw during the season which you can check out HERE. When I finished up at the library I went for an unmemorable dinner and a few beers and then called it a night.
I spent Saturday morning working and then got ready for the big St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl in the afternoon. I was really excited for it, as I thought it would be a lot of fun. It started three miles from downtown Lake Charles, and meandered through nine pubs along the way into town. Best of all, it was a fundraiser for the SW Louisiana Firefighter Association. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well organized and from the very first bar it was chaotic and overcrowded. When you are going to have a couple of hundred people descend on your bar and spend maybe 45 minutes there, you need to be ready. None of the bars were. It became a constant race to get ahead of everyone else and beat them to the next bar to get a drink and use the bathroom before the masses showed up. I bowed out at the third bar, went back to my van and drove downtown to where it all ended. The last two bars, Panorama Music House and Zephyrs did much better, but then again people were trickling in instead of pouring in. I ended up hanging out with one guy who looked and sounded a lot like George W. Bush. He was really friendly and was there with his wife and kids, but took an interest in my journey and wanted to give me suggestions on what to see around the area. He told me legends of the pirate Jean Lafitte and his hidden treasure near Lake Charles. We had a good time talking over a few beers and when he and his family left, I wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t the best St. Patrick’s Day I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t the worst either.
Sunday I slept in a bit, meandered around downtown taking some photos, had a wonderful brunch with live jazz at Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp, and then made my way out of town. I headed west and then north on Route 27 to DeRidder, an old railroad town with some cool old buildings. They had an amazing old Gothic Jail which had been the most modern in the state when it was built, It provided electricity and indoor plumbing when most people in town did not have those amenities. The jail and the courthouse next door were really awesome. I found myself on Louisiana’s Myths and Legends Byway, part of the state’s Trails and Byways initiative. This was similar to what I had experienced in Tennessee, with signs pretty clearly pointing you along the right route and helping better navigate the backroads of the area. I really like this idea. While I know it is expensive and time consuming for a state to develop such a program, I think it really can help direct people to lesser known parts of a state that you want to show off (check out their website HERE). I followed the byway out to Sugartown, up to Pitkin and then through the woods along Route 10 past Fort Polk to Leesville. Fort Polk was where my friend and a reader of this blog, Rick, was stationed when he was in the Army. Leesville was definitely a military base town, with lots of amenities and a cute downtown area. I spent the night there, and then took some photos out at their Museum of West Louisiana. The museum was centered around their old railroad station, and they had moved some cool buildings to rest there from around the region. It was a short stop, but a good one.
Leaving Leesville, I made my way north and east to Magnolia Plantation, a part of Cane River Creole National Historic Area. I had been to this plantation before, but many years ago, and it was interesting to go back for another visit. While the “big house” itself is still privately owned, much of the rest of the plantation is in the hands of the National Park Service. Wandering around, you can visit the plantation store, the old blacksmith shop, the overseer’s house, 8 of the original 71 slave cabins and the old gin building, which still has the intact cotton gin in place. It was all fascinating, especially to learn that the last of the slave cabins was still occupied by a family working the plantation in 1969. I also liked the pigeonnier, an old French building which housed pigeons in its time. The pigeon poop was harvested for fertilizer, and the young pigeon squab were sometimes taken for food, considered a delicacy. I’ve eaten pigeon in my life, and I have to say it’s not bad.
After spending quite a bit of time at Magnolia, I made my way along the Cane River past some other fascinating old Creole buildings, plantations and churches and finally made my way up to the Oakland Plantation. This plantation was even more intact, as the original family had lived there from the plantation’s beginnings until the Park Service purchased the plantation in the 1970’s Much of the furniture was from the family, although from a mix of generations, but it was also fascinating to see. My favorite part of this plantation was the beds. The “big house” had massive canopy beds which must have been ten feet high and were really a thing of beauty. I also thought the old plantation store and many of the outbuildings were really interesting.
From Oakland, I headed the short distance north into beautiful Natchitoches (pronounced “nack-i-dish” or something like that). Natchitoches is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful small towns in the country. It rests on a small embankment overlooking the Cane River as it has since it was founded by French settlers back in 1714. The downtown area is really beautiful, with a well done mix of old and new architecture and a sleepy, small town feel. It’s a pretty place just to wander through, and my camera was happy around every corner. After meandering around downtown for the rest of Monday afternoon, I settled into Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant for dinner. This was a great choice. I ordered a portobello mushroom cap stuffed with crabmeat stuffing and topped with grilled shrimp and a lemon butter sauce. It was really delicious. I topped that off with a wonderful bread pudding and left very happy. On top of a great meal, the service was also excellent. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve been to a restaurant that seemed to be functioning well, and it showed. When the bartender stepped away for a minute, the manager stepped in to see if I needed another drink. Having worked in enough restaurants in my life, I know the difference between this kind of service and a place where everyone would rather be somewhere else. It was a pleasure dining there.
Tuesday I made another round of town, taking lots more photos. I even went inside the beautiful Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the town’s central and magnificent Catholic Church. I learned a lot about how the area was once considered a “no man’s land” between the United States and Spain after the Louisiana Purchase. Both agreed to their own border, and left this area in between un-policed, leading to lawlessness and unrest. Walking the streets of Natchitoches today, it’s hard to imagine, but it makes sense. I made my way down to the “American Cemetery” the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase territory, and then back to the river to photograph the many historic homes there. Natchitoches was also the setting for the book and the film Steel Magnolias, which helped turn it into a tourist destination. Although it’s been 30 years since the film came out, there are still traces of it around town.
After walking all morning, it was time for lunch, and there is one place you must go to when you are in Natchitoches and that is Lasyone’s. Lasyone’s has perfected the Natchitoches Meat Pie, which is essentially a beef empanada, and has been feeding them to hungry locals and tourists alike since the 1950’s. While every local restaurant has meat pies on their menus, this is the place you have to come to get the real deal. Mine was delicious and came with dirty rice, greens and a trip to their wonderful salad bar. After a lunch like that, I needed a nap, so I took one! In the afternoon, I got my taxes done and tried to catch up on some work before heading down for a few beers at Point Place Marina. I really loved this little dive bar which sits right on the Cane River a few miles from town. Beers were cheap, the music was good and I always love being right on the water. I ended up talking with an older guy named Dennis who was retired from the Department of Defense and now works as the janitor at the Basilica downtown. He was really friendly and I enjoyed talking with him about Natchitoches and Louisiana.
Today I got up and made my way straight for the wonderful public library here in downtown Natchitoches. It is extremely clean, modern and comfortable and a wonderful place to get some work done. I’m going to finish up this post and then head out to hopefully meet a few people around town and take a few more photos. It’s a beautiful day out there, the first day of spring, and I want to enjoy it outside.
I’m headed north and west tomorrow, hoping to see a few things on my way north to Shreveport. I’ll probably stay around the Ratchet City for a day or two and then head across the north of the state for a few days. By this time next week, I’ll probably have made my turn south again and be headed back down the east of the state towards Cajun Country. I have plenty of photos left to edit, and a podcast to kick into high gear. I hope spring is springing wherever you are reading this from. It is such a wonderful season and I really hope you all can get out and enjoy it. Really do stop and smell the flowers, I always do. They’ll make you feel good all over (watch for bees!). Have a great week out there wherever you are, and I’ll see you right back here next week.