If you’ve been following along with this blog, you know I have visited some truly stunning small towns along the way. I don’t think any of them can compare, however, to beautiful Natchitoches, Louisiana. While you probably won’t be able to pronounce the name, you can’t help but be drawn in by this beautiful old colonial town on the banks of the Cane River. Originally established as a trading post by French explorers, the town gets its name from the Natchitoches Indians who lived in the area and traded with the colonists. The town was officially established in 1714 and would pass from the French to the Spanish and finally to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Natchitoches has all of these cultures on display through its architecture and cuisine. I was especially impressed that the town has its own full time horticulturist who creates and cares for the wonderful flower displays which are placed all over the historic district. I love flowers and these really add to the charm and beauty of the town. Everyone I met during my stay was friendly and helpful and proud of their little corner of the state. Natchitoches is home to some charming B&B’s, delightful restaurants and beautiful places to walk and sit and enjoy the atmosphere. If you ever find yourself looking for an escape from the grind of the city, Natchitoches will definitely take you back a different era and a simpler pace of life. In my very humble opinion, it is the prettiest small town in the South.
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Off The Beaten Path
These photos come from the Creole plantations located along the Cane River in northeastern Louisiana. Even reading that sentence back makes me smile as it sounds as remarkably Southern as it is. The word “Creole” is a complicated one, as it has evolved over time. Technically it means something which comes from the new world but with old world roots. People born in Louisiana of Spanish and French decent were referred to as “Creoles”. The word also encompassed architecture and food born in the region but using traditional knowledge. Today, it tends to mean people of mixed heritage including those of European, African and Native American descent. Regardless, these early settlers to the region began mostly as subsistence farmers and over time grew into large plantation owners. As cotton became king in the south, many of these plantations got on board, purchasing hundreds of enslaved people to do their manual labor. The plantations grew and thrived. After the Civil War and the the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed the slaves, many stayed on as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as the plantation and cotton were the only things they had ever known. Some of these plantations remained in business into my lifetime owned and worked by generation after generation of people from the same families.
The first photos in this collection come from the Magnolia Plantation, a part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park. Once owned by the LeComte Family, this large plantation was worked by 275 enslaved people in its heyday. While the Big House is still owned by the family and is closed to visitation, the overseer’s house, plantation store, blacksmith shop, cotton gin building and slave cabins are all open to the public as part of the park. I especially enjoyed learning about the “pigeonnier”, a pigeon coup in which their droppings were used as fertilizer and baby pigeons were sometimes eaten as a delicacy. Today only 8 of the original 71 slave cabins remain, but were occupied by plantation workers until 1970. This plantation is fascinating to wander around and learn about the people who lived there…
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.
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…
I’ve always been intrigued by Grand Isle. When I lived in New Orleans a decade ago, I always wanted to make the 2 hour drive down Route 1 along Bayou Lafourche and check it out, but other things always took my attention elsewhere. I was very happy to finally make the trip. While Grand Isle itself was pleasant enough, it really was the drive that captured my attention and my lens. The fishing and shrimping boats, tugs and bait shops along the way were intensely photogenic and I really loved trying to capture them. They are emblems of hard work and a hard life along the bayous of southeast Louisiana, but also a proud people and a strong maritime tradition. The state is forever linked to the Gulf of Mexico which it borders and the seafood and oil it provides, both in massive quantities. I loved the drive down, through Golden Meadow and Leeville, Port Fourchon and finally Grand Isle. This is a ride which will live in my memory for a long time. I hope you enjoy these photos from the road to Grand Isle.
Spring seems to have sprung here in Louisiana this week with temperatures reaching the low eighties with a wonderful breeze to cool everything off. People were out mowing their lawns in the nice weather, and the smell of freshly cut grass enhanced that notion in my mind. Louisiana strawberries are coming into season, and Daylight Savings Time has extended my days a little bit, making everything feel less rushed. It has been a wonderful winter here in the South, but it is nice to see some of these indicators that the season is changing.
After Mardi Gras and months and months on the road, I took a little break for a few days. I was staying with my friend Luke and I had a lot of work to catch up on, so I just laid low on Thursday and Friday. I got back to the gym and started eating salads again. I did edit a lot of Mardi Gras photos though, with more to come, and created a few posts about my New Orleans experiences.
It’s been a pretty local but wonderful week here in Louisiana. My folks were here most of the week, so we’ve been out exploring together. It was wonderful to spend some time with them, but they sure did wear me out! While most of our time was spent in New Orleans, we did get out into Acadiana (Cajun Country) for two great nights as well.
It is always great to be back in New Orleans. I lived here for two full years from 2007-2009, trying to help the city recover from Hurricane Katrina. I taught 8th Grade math at Francis Gregory Elementary School in one of the most challenging but rewarding chapters of my life. I made some really good friends and forged a lifelong bond with the Crescent City. The culture, music, people and food get inside of you, and I always feel drawn back here.
While my folks were in town, I stayed at my friend Walker’s house. Walker is a New Orleans native, and started teaching when I did back in 2007. He’s changed schools a couple of times, but is still teaching here. Back when I lived in New Orleans, we both lived in the French Quarter, and got to hang out a lot together. He often invited me along to events I would have never known about on my own, so I am very grateful to him for helping me navigate the city during my time here. It’s always great to see him and catch up on all the New Orleans gossip and get a first-hand account of what he school system is up to. I was really busy with my folks, so we didn’t get to hang out a lot, but it was definitely good to see him.
And just like that, Florida is behind me. I had a wonderful 6 week stay in the Sunshine State and really learned a lot about it. It is a huge state, so I had to plan out my journey and make some decisions early on, and the biggest decision I made was to cut out the big cities. While I did stop in Orlando and Miami to catch up with people, I generally spent my time in smaller towns and state and national parks. This gave me an interesting look at the state and a new perspective and appreciation for all it has to offer. While I plan on writing more of my thoughts on Florida this coming week, suffice it to say I enjoyed myself. I spent the last few days in Florida in the panhandle, and then made a mad dash across Alabama and Mississippi to Louisiana. It’s almost time for Mardi Gras, and it is great to be back in New Orleans.
After we parted ways last week, I did indeed head on to Destin. I’ve always liked Destin with it’s fine white sand beaches and beautiful warm blue water. We used to escape to Destin from New Orleans when we needed an escape. It’s not the cheapest place to be, but there are some good restaurants, plenty of amenities and beautiful sunset views. I didn’t do much in Destin other than enjoy some long walks along the beach, put my toes in the water and do some writing for my podcast, but I sure enjoyed the two days I was there…
Florida is home to over 700 natural springs which combine to produce more than 8 billion gallons of freshwater every day. That means Florida produces a gallon of water for every person on Earth every single day. That’s impressive. There are more natural springs in Florida than almost anywhere else on the planet. 33 of these springs are considered First Magnitude Springs, meaning they produce at least 64 million gallons of water a day. That is simply awesome.
Visiting some of the bigger springs in Florida has been one of the absolute highlights of my visit to the state. The water is often clear and beautiful and the springs are usually surrounded by lush vegetation and an abundance of wildlife. In particular, several of these springs provide a winter home for the amazing West Indian Manatee who would otherwise freeze to death in the cold ocean waters. The constant temperatures of the springs allow the manatee to stay warm enough to make it through the winter and then head back out to sea for the summertime.
During my six weeks in Florida, I only scratched the surface of all the wonderful springs the state has to offer, but I thought I would share some of my favorites with you here…
It’s been another great week out here on the road. This week I’ve made my way to a handful of Florida’s 700 natural freshwater springs, enjoying some swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boat tours as I went. I also dipped into some real “Old Florida” towns, most notably at Cedar Key and Micanopy. This week I also visited the State Capitol in Tallahassee and enjoyed the Florida History Museum there as well. I ended off the week by dropping down to the “Forgotten Coast” and cruising along the Gulf of Mexico through hurricane ravaged towns. I’ve seen some really stunning places this week and learned a lot as I went. As I write this, I’m coming to the end of my time in Florida, and I must admit I will be sad to see it pass into my rear view mirror
My week started with a visit to Three Sister’s Spring National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River for one more look at the manatees. Once again, as has been my experience throughout Florida, this proved to be a little too expensive to provide value for money. You have to park at City Hall and pay the $15 entrance fee and then hop on a shuttle for the five minute ride to the refuge. Once there, there is a nice boardwalk around the spring itself, which is beautiful, and some great spots to view the largest population of manatee in Florida. When I was there, it was a fairly warm morning, so there were only about 20 manatee around. They were amazing to see and photograph, and there were tons of volunteers around to help answer questions, but if it had only been $7-8 it would have been better. I hope the money went to preserving the habitat and keeping the manatee healthy…
Myakka River State Park surrounds Florida’s first designated Wild and Scenic River. The river winds through a vast expanse of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pine forest, and is a welcome break from the Tampa-St. Petersburg corridor just a little over an hour north. The park showcases an amazing diversity of flora and fauna and it felt so unspoiled when I visited. I went with my friend Amber, who is a serious naturalist, and she showed me all kinds of wonderful things while we were there. We started our visit at the suspension bridge and observation tower which took us through and then above the canopy for a bird’s eye view of the park. It was amazing to look out across the park and not see a building in any direction. From there we went and hiked out to Mossy Hammock Campground along the Fox’s High Road and were surrounded by live oak draped in Spanish moss and beautiful birdsong. We emerged into the prairies for a while, where her dog could run at full speed. When we finished our hike, we spent some time by the lake, enjoying the magical reflections we saw there. In all, it was an amazing day out in the wild with good company and beautiful weather. It was a little wet on the trails, but we managed. This was a great park to visit, and I hope you enjoy my photos from Myakka River State Park.
February is upon us. Hard to believe, but it’s really here. I know I’m not the only one that thinks February is weird because it’s so short. Why don’t we take the two days from some of the months with 31 days and add them to February to balance it out a little bit? I don’t know and I’m not going to look it up. I guess I could use the same argument I make against the metric system - boring! But it is February, and that means spring is coming. It’s just about a month until Mardi Gras, and then it’s only 40 days until Easter. Before we both know it, it’ll be May and I’ll be back at home in D.C. and planning my next moves. I’m not going to lie, I am going to need a break. I’ll be going back to guiding this summer where I hope to do some planning, some real site maintenance, some catch-up, and figure out where Miles2Go goes from here. In all honesty, the loneliness is getting to me. While I have amazing friends who have been super supportive and amazing to catch up with around the country, my day to day is a little too isolating and a little too quiet. I don’t know what the answer is to that right now, but I will let you know.
It’s been a pretty good week out here in West Florida. My second Georgia podcast is finally done. This one took a while because the weather has been so great here, and my mind has been on other things, but it is up and published. You can find it at THIS link, or by searching “American Anthology” on iTunes, Stitcher or most podcasting apps. Other than that, I’ve been catching up with friends and trying to get out and enjoy this great weather in some of Florida’s beautiful parks.
I had an amazing week in the Florida Keys, exploring the parks, pubs and restaurants that make the Keys so great. I’ve been coming to the Keys since I was in high school and they’ve always held a special place in my heart. They’re America, but not. The Keys are like a little slice of the Caribbean, right over the bridge. While last week I wrote up my ultimate Keys Pub Crawl (which you can read HERE), some people have been asking for more ideas and suggestions on the Keys. So I thought I would jot down some of my favorites to help you navigate through the islands and find some really top spots along the way.
Many people are surprised to find out there aren’t many great beaches in the Keys. The islands are generally surrounded by mangroves so the sand beaches are mostly man-made. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great beaches along the strand, but you do need to know where to find them…