I've had the fortune of spending time with family throughout the southeast over the past few weeks. My sister's house and all the associated animals were a real joy to have around for my all too short stay. Seeing my nephew grow up so fast is just another reminder to have fun and be alive, inquisitive and absorbing. Working closer toward "home", I find myself approaching familiar places, roads and spaces of the southeast. Spring is delightfully approaching in blooming redbuds, daffodils and forsythia.
Dad and I visited the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw. The exhibits were well done and illustrated much of the equipment, life and movement of lines throughout the Civil War. An important piece of history lay in the museum, a Steam locomotive by the name of The General. It was involved in "The Great Locomotive Chase", a fascinating piece of early war history when a band of under-cover union soldiers boarded then stole the locomotive from Big Shanty, just outside Kennesaw. The concept of stealing a locomotive just seems so preposterous and I admire their tenacity and courage. Pursued by William Fuller and his men, The General eventually ran out of wood and water, losing steam pressure and stranding them before reaching their destination of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The men were all caught and executed. They were posthumously awarded some of the earliest Medals of Honor.
Growing closer to the Virginia area and the familiar territory will only be a rest stop and time to rebuild La Tortuga. Come June, I plan to head north toward Canada's northeastern provinces to ride the Trans-Labrador Hwy and spend a more extensive visit on the island of Newfoundland. Nova Scotia is indeed beautiful that time of year. To imagine the variety of landscapes, roads and sunsets still to behold is a comforting thought, that is travel, adventure and life.
After leaving Birmingham, I headed north toward the country and the beautiful lower reaches of the Appalachian mountains. I was introduced to Martha and Stephen by my buddy Ken from Alaska. Their home, a yurt turned into a dodecagon, is situated among a mixed forest of southern pines and deciduous trees beside a terraced pasture. Fruit and nut trees as well as two well planned garden plots on either side of the home supply abundant produce seasonally. Welcomed with open arms by the warmhearted couple, we spent much time discussing lifestyles, homes, sustainability and the noise of modernity. Their hand built home is one of a handful of unique structures on Common Ground, their 80 acre intentional community. Yurts, sustainable small structures and even a subterranean home speak to the creativity of inhabitants, architectural whimsy and an eye toward the future. Their homes are built with a passive solar design, high insulation R-Values and many have solar panels. While visiting I had the opportunity to cut some firewood for next winter, move some items to the burn pile, go for a few walks around the property and learn more about a life closer to the earth.
The cool rainy morning found me scooting around Birmingham looking for something to do. I had attempted to find the entrance to Sloss Furnaces last night but only uncovered locked gates. All gates were open this morning in preparation for a 5k Run the next day and I parked underneath the Hwy 11 overpass. The Sloss Furnace has been converted from an active pig iron furnace and industrial site into a National Historical Landmark with interpretive center and self-guided tour. The Sloss furnaces prospered in the late 19th century and early 20th century, benefiting from the choice location near the three main materials used in the process: limestone, iron ore and coal. The expansion of rail lines into and through Birmingham further facilitated the transport of resources into Sloss and the export of formed iron "pigs" to customers abroad.
Exploring the immense facility alone in the early morning hours allowed for a quiet and contemplative learning opportunity. Walking down hundred year old metal stairs sagging with the boots of burlier men, trudging through dripping and dark tunnels underneath the facility or ascending swaying rust-colored cat walks above the steam plant, I was like a kid in an adult size playground. The photographic opportunities were abundant, forcing me to often reconsider just "what" to photograph and how.
If you ever make it to Birmingham, the Sloss Furnaces offer an impressive opportunity to connect with the ghosts of industry long past. Although the heat and deafening sounds of the furnace have long since ceased, the story echoes on in the well preserved space, a reminder that they "just don't make em like they used to".
After a marvelous time spent at the Barber Vintage Museum, it was time to find a place to camp for the night. Rather than finding a nice Baptist church to camp behind, I headed toward the skyline of the city. The remaining daylight hours were spent exploring the industrial downtown area and back streets along turn of the century buildings. The city expanded in the 19th century with a focus on mining, iron and steel transported throughout the world by a fan of rail lines and ports south. The railroad tunnels through town have recently had LED lighting installed which changes through the spectrum like Willy Wonka's glass elevator. Night settled in and I continued riding around until the rain began. Finding myself in the working class and rough neighborhoods of North Birmingham, I figured the police would have more to do than worry about me camping out in the city park under a pavilion. Rain fell throughout the evening and I stayed nice and dry sleeping on a picnic table with my scooter beside me. Sure there were a series of gunshots but they were easily over a mile distant. No big deal.
Before the morning light shined through the overcast sky, I found myself charging batteries in a McDonalds while sipping on a cup of coffee attempted to log in to their molasses-slow wifi. While there, an older distinguished man with knowledgeable eyes and a warm face asked me about the stickers on my scooter. "I've never met a stranger", he said inviting me over to his group of fellow retired pipe fitters, once union workers in the iron industry and elsewhere through town. We discussed the civil rights struggles they faced, the large families cultivated through the years and community on the north side of town. "I never stop learning. I'm 72 and I learn something new every day. That is my ticket to staying young." Naturally my description and recollection fails to capture his thick Alabama accent or the look in his eyes when he tells me about great grandchildren.
With a morning to kill, I visited the Sloss Pig Iron Furnaces (blog post coming) and then began poking around town exploring the sights.
East of Birmingham lies the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, the largest collection of historic motorcycles in the world. To an enthusiast and garage-level builder, the number of machines, historically significant designs and magnificent restorations makes for an unforgettable experience. I arrived on a gray spring day and parked right out front. Once inside, I hung up my gear and set out for a stroll from the 5th floor on down. The varied exhibits each present a unique and often significant piece of motorcycling history.
Following my internal compass as well as the "Shortest Route/No Highways" on my Garmin, I soon found myself bouncing along patched and rutted country roads toward the Alabama border. The dotted line displayed on my GPS matched the two orange spray paint marks on the long needle pine so I knew "dis mus be da place". The road surface changed to sandy clay so I stopped for a quick shot. No welcome sign on this road into Alabama. One more state revisited on my travels. The temperature was steady in the mid 60's and the sky remained blue and calm for early March. The predominant industry in this area of the south is timber and milling. Many privately owned forests are stocked with quick growing slash pine or long needle pine which grow fast and straight in the moist climate. Modest old homes line the rural routes, some with full lumber trucks parked out front waiting for the mills to open Monday morning. Rusted street signs reflect the local history such as "Boll Wevil Ln" and "Turnip Way" . A truck and trailer loaded with turnips races past in a passing zone on the way to market or a wholeseller. I can only imagine what the crisco based cooking must taste like in this region where catfish is king and the greens don't get much fresher.
Arriving in Tuscaloosa, I had the sneaking suspicion that I'd been here before. Examining the downtown main street, it dawned on me that I was here 7 months ago on my westward leg of the journey. I knew this point would come when I'd recross my path to form a figure eight of this nation. My visit through was only a brief stop but the downtown cityscape as well as the tall bridge across the Black Warrior River were logged in my memory. The weather was forecast to grow warmer but bring with it scattered thunderstorms for the upcoming week. I found a nice free campsite on Blue Creek overlooking Holt Lake. Fresh water was available from a fissure in the rock and I was stocked up on soup, oatmeal and beans to make it through a few days of rain. As is usually the case when I post up somewhere for a few days, the weather turned out to be overwhelmingly pleasant. I spent my time building fires for cooking, hiking around the nearby park and watching large empty barges float up to the nearby lock.
By midweek, I was ready for a change of scenery and replenished from thetime spent back in nature. The forecast was improving and a friend of Ken's north of Birmingham invited me to visit over the weekend. Onward toward Birmingham to see what it has to show!
It took only a few hours of riding along relatively desolate Hwy 90 and onward along the Gulf (pronounced "Guf") Coast. The wind had picked up from the south over the water just enough to give a slight chill in the air. The option to turn inland presented itself at Gulfport and I headed toward the land of pines, sandy roads and some of that fine southern red clay. Pausing for a moment along the seawall, I relished the view of the pristine sand and deep blue water. Saying "Goodbye" to a body of water continues to be an emotional occasion for me be it the Atlantic, Pacific and many others along this trip.
I woke up in a swamp forest in Bridge City, LA and wound up camping in a beautifu stand of pine in the De Soto NF. Pine cones as large as my head gave a loud "Whomp!" when they fell from 80 feet or higher to the grass around my tent. The familiar hoot of an owl and the din of tree frogs led me off to a glorious set of dreams as to what may be ahead.
I'm one who can only handle cities in small doses. Camped out across the river, I wound up sleeping in my hammock for the first time in months which was a joy! The following morning I crossed the frantic Hwy 90 bridge which placed me directly in downtown New Orleans. On this trip my only real goal was to visit the French Quarter and see what that whole scene was about. It was a Saturday so I was fortunate to arrive early enough to ride some of the streets before they closed for walking-only areas. The smell of Bourbon street's freshly hosed pavement was a realization of what it must be like on most weekend nights. The architecture was unique and drew my eye skyward toward balconies and various colonial touches that are distinct to New Orleans. Art was everywhere! Vendors set up stalls near the court house and the flea market pavilion was just setting up. Every hour or so, a marriage procession would round the corner. Police on motor scooters would clear the streets of pedestrians as a three piece band played ahead of the couple dancing down the street. Folks on the street would clap and photograph the procession, involved in the lively entertainment and enraptured with their own memories or futures of holy matrimony.
The day progressed and more tourists flocked to the area. Traffic increased and I could feel the walls of the city closing in on me. With few safe places to park the scooter for any length of time, encumbered by motorcycle gear and the ultimate desire to be in the great outdoors, I plugged in some random spot along the Gulf Coast and followed the GPS to greener pastures. Leaving New Orleans, the remnants of Hurricane Katrina were still evident in crumbling buildings, boarded up businesses and boats marooned in regrown forests. The devastation of the event may be mostly swept away in the tourist parts of town, but is still a reality for many.
It had been 7 months since I last passed the mighty Mississippi River heading for Alaska. It was a jubilant moment as the great levy appeared before me.
The temperature fell 40 degrees overnight and a cold north wind blew in. Brrr! Kammie suggested we explore the Rip Van Winkle Gardens and see Lake Peigneur. Sure! I passed by the sign for it on the way in to town and didn't quite know the history. The site is built atop one of the many salt domes dotting the southern Louisiana coast. The site is home to a colorful botanical garden and the 1870 home of actor Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson was most well known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in the travelling play of Washington Irvine's American classic. The home and surrounding gardens were later purchased by the Bayless family and managed into a paradise of camellia and other various imported exotics. Since the 1990's peacocks roam wild in the trees and throughout the grounds, sometimes alerting with their unique and loud call.
Lake Peigneur was most famously the site of an oil drill gone VERY bad when the salt mine below was accidentally punctured. As a result, this once 10ft deep freshwater lake was backfilled by the canal as a giant whirlpool began in the center. The devestating gyre swallowed up the drilling rig, barges, docks and many structures in the area. One of these structures was the Bayless' 8 month old home, the chimney of which still remains standing out of the lake surface.
My friend Ara (www.theoasisofmysoul.com) passed along the advice to look up a friend in southern Louisiana when I got that direction. He connected me to Kammie and we arranged to meet when I'd be passing through. With my consistently poor habit of slacking off for a while then knocking out big miles, I was ahead of schedule. Whatever schedule that may be? Unsure exactly what to expect from the encounter, I knew it would at least be an opportunity to meet someone new and see a different side of the south I hadn't yet considered. I was welcomed with open arms and given a unique sight of the south from her viewpoint in the city of New Iberia. Situated on the Bayou Teche, the town was established by Malagueños colonists in the late 18th century and saw further developent following the "war between the states". Nearby was the notable Avery Island, home of Tabasco, Lake Peigneur, and a variety of culinary destinations to fill the time. We spent much time sharing stories of riding and roads past, the lure of adventure and the balance of comfort in solitude and a life among friends. Despite each of us pursuing different paths in life, there was no shortage of colorful conversation. One highlight of the visit was meeting her 92 year old mother, a lifelong resident of New Iberia. Her brief references to the past and the history of the town over the course of my time spent in her kitchen was quite memorable. Similarly unforgettable was the rich and savory smell, then taste of seared boneless pork ribs in a cajun roux served over white rice with a side of green beans. "Down here we have our biggest meal of the day now, so eat up!" During my few days in town, I also had the opportunity to try some local seafood eateries such as the Seafood Connection and another whose name escapes me but is something like "Good Seafood"? Maybe not. Regardless, from the spicy 1/2 dozen steamed crabs to the rich seafood gumbo or fried catfish, I was in cajun gut growing heaven! Each meal was delicious, simple and authentic to the falvors of the region.
In the nearby town of Jeanertte was the historic LeJeune Bakery dating from 1884. A small glass knobbed victorian door still serves as the side entrance. The old oven responsible for many a loaf of bread is still in operation as the yeasty and familiar scent of fresh bread fills the nostrils. The baker on duty walks back to the oven and retrieves a fresh loaf of french bread cooked that day. Like the man seen departing, a nibble on the crispy outer crust is a time honored tradition as well. Kammie informs me that in addition to the simple ingredients and distinct recipe, it is the amount of salt added that contributes to the classic french bread flavor.
Most of Louisiana exists in a flood zone or very near the high water line. As a result, most cemeteries are built with above ground tombs to keep the streets free of caskets during the many weather events in the area. The stark white marble or stucco on brick gives the graveyard a sense of purity and cleanliness while the blackness of dirt and time wears at each crack and weakness, much like the lives or many interred. Plastic flowers grace many of the graves for a splash of color and positivity. Not many friends will take you to a graveyard on the first day you meet them, but the photographer and adventurer in me finds that it is not the first this has happened in my travels! (The Peek's in AK and nearby Spirit Houses)
The quality of my stay in New Iberia lies directly in Kammie's hands for being so hospitable and willing to share what she loves most about Louisiana. The people I met on my travels and the colorful dialect spoken through the region are a wonderful representation of the past living on today.
I've knocked out some miles in the last few days and am now in Alabama. I need to sit down and put forth a solid few entries here to document the great people (hi Kammie!) , food and places I've visited. Currently in Alabama on the way to the Barber Motorsports Museum after three days of camping without service. Life is good.
The private gardens of E.A. McIlhenny offers a driving tour through the manicured and mature garden sanctuary of an incredibly wealthy family. Exotic trees, plants and flowers fill the unique swamp/woodland forest creating an enchanted space. It was a bit early for all the flowers but the camellias and azaleas were starting to blossom.
The McIlhenny family started the institution of the Tobasco Pepper Sauce here in 1868. The private Avery Island was once home to hundreds of acres of Tobasco Peppers and a small community of company owned housing and stores for workers. Today the seed crop comes from the island but most growing is done abroad to minimize crop loss. The island sits atop one of many salt domes that dot the bayou landscape. The salt extends deeper than Mt Everest is high! An active salt mine still operates here, some salt used in the barreling and aging process as an air cap over the bubbling mash. After aging for three years, the mash is strained and mixed with vinegar for a few days until ready to bottle. The factory now produces as many 700'000 bottles per day!
Somewhere in the middle of Cajun country down on Chapel Rd, I heard a roar overhead and caught sight of a yellow biplane in a banking turn. I stopped and watched the pilot rise and fall to dust the crops, passing overhead 8 times before veering back toward the airport. Just another gift from the road less travelled.
Galveston was once the largest city in Texas. It's location as a port along the Gulf of Mexico acted as a doorway for German, Czech, Russian, West Indian and Africans through the quarantine stations similar to Ellis Island. The island served as a melting pot for various cultures sharing foodways, spices, and traditions. The pinnacle of the city's growth and prominence came in the late 19th century after the establishment of railroads into the interior spurred further economic development. The diverse history of the characters in this city are as colorful as their brightly painted homes. I was immediately taken by the architecture which reminded me of Charelston, SC with it's regal Victorian homes, Georgian Revival and charming cottages built on raised stilt platforms.
In September of 1900, the most devastating natural disaster in US history occured when Galveston was decimated by a powerful Hurricane. Only 1/3 of the structures on the island were left standing, schooners lay scuttled in the streets, their masts looking like power poles in a black and white exhibit in the Rosenberg Library Exhibit. The stories of survival and loss are a timeless reflection of the human experience during any natural disaster. Eerily similar to similar tales elsewhere during Hurricane Ike or Katrina. When the storm cleared, over 6000 men, women and children perished. Teams of men were encouraged, then forced by gunpoint, to collect the bodies for mass burial at sea. Their recompense for such a grisly task was a tin cup beside an open barrel of whiskey beside the pier. As a result of this devastating event, the government of the city changed and citizens slowly rebuilt after agreeing to build a seawall (pictured below) and raise the height of the city by 15 feet or more, filling in much of the land with sand dredged from the Gulf of Mexico.Gal
While cruising through the historic district, the colorful antique artwork of the Star Drug Store caught my eye. I'm a sucker for alleyways as well and pulled in for a quick shot. The owner of an adjacent business came out to drop some trash off and struck up a conversation with me about the history of this alley. The drug store was built in 1886 and has survived in this same location through countless storms and a fire to remain one of the oldest continually operational drug stores in Texas. During the time of prohibition, illegal liquor was passed through a connecting walkway to the adjacent building then handed through a notch cut into the brick. An 80 year old inscription in the red brick reads "Night Owl Hang Out".
In August up in Hyder, AK, I met Jay Smith at the bear viewing center on Fish Creek. He was riding a GS throughout North America following an early retirement and had covered the same number of miles as me since May. We shared stories briefly and connected later on facebook. I noticed he was flying in to Houston recently so we agreed to meet for lunch at Shrimp-N-Stuff on 23d St in downtown Galveston for lunch. The popcorn shrimp poboy was delicious and it was great to share conversations and stories with Jay. Keep on enjoying life and living the dream my friend!
After lunch, the day was growing short so I headed for the Bolivar Island free ferry. The ferry attendant waved me aside and inspected my fuel can. "You cannot have an empty fuel can, it must be filled at least half way with water." In my experience on over 30 ferries in the US, Canada and Mexico, I have never heard of such a silly rule. An empty canister under 12gal is usually okay with the USCG...but clearly not this woman. I pulled over and began to pour my nalgene bottle into the container. She screamed across the pavement "You cannot do that on the ferry landing". I pushed it onward a few more feet to an apartment complex, still in view, filled it and then was waved aboard just as the ferry loaded. Phew. On the plus side, I now have a rinsed out spare fuel can!St
The afternoon was spent fighting a headwind and spitting sky blown from the Gulf of Mexico over Hwy 87. I turned inland and found myself in the small I-10 town of Winnie, TX just as the sky grew dark. I inflated my air mattress under a picnic pavilion in the City Park and settled in for a clammy and damp night of intense fog swirling through the air and peppering my face with droplets.
Louisiana here I come...
The dense fog along the Gulf this past week has been pretty thick at times, the upside being balmy conditions much warmer than areas north of here. Walking along the beach, it is easy to imagine that all that exists is that within the bubble of sightline, as though the world has faded away to be replaced by this monotone environment. Walking down along the roaring surf at night, I stare into the darkness of the sea, the familiar scent of salt in the air again, each wave briefly illuminated by the high pressure sodium streetlight.
Happy March to all my friends in the frozen north! Just a reminder that spring is right around the corner :)
I have had the wonderful opportunity to stay in a family friend's beach cottage on stilts SW of Galveston in Jamaica Beach, TX. The weather was cool, humid and windy for the last couple of days so it has been a fine refuge to organize gear, repack things and do a load of laundry. The beach is within walking distance and the tumultuous winter sea has taken a toll on the beach since I've arrived.
My friend Matt flew on down to escape the frozen tundra that has become Virginia, taking a few days away from work to escape on the beach. The weather has been cool but we've made the most of it by exploring the coastal wetlands and preserves through the marshes beyond barrier islands. I cooked up some ribs and the following day tried some of Leon's smoked brisket from Galveston. TO-DIE-FOR. With a few more things to knock out on my list for the Ruckus, I'll keep busy this afternoon and have her ready to ride tomorrow (Monday) when I'll begin working my way toward the green swamps and coastal bayous of Louisiana.
In May 2014 I quit my job to ride a Honda Ruckus over 55'000 mi and counting. Wild camping most nights and cooking most of my own meals, I keep the costs low and the landscape changing.