Sunday, November 23, 2014

Louisiana Hospitality

One of the goals of this trip, and in fact, the eastern-most destination planned on our route, was a visit to the city of New Orleans. We approached with trepidation, not just because Lilypad doesn’t do well in the narrow streets of historic cities, but because “NOLA” has a reputation for unsafe neighborhoods and downtown streets. So we were back and forth about even going there for quite a while, but in the end we really wanted to see it. Braving one of the steepest bridges of the trip to make our descent into the city, we landed at a small gated campground on the public bus line.
Our bus, stuck in parade traffic
The next morning we hopped on the bus. The forty minute ride into downtown took about two hours, but we do think the journey is in fact the destination, and this bus ride was very interesting. First we got stopped by a parade and sat for forty minutes as marching bands, horse drawn carriages, cute twirling kids in matching outfits, and a contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” went by. Evidently parades are so much a part of the lifestyle here that most of the people on the bus didn’t watch it and no one had any idea what it was about. We watched part of it and talked with the woman sitting next to us, who told us what it was like to be in the water and then in the Super dome during Katrina. Then we transferred to a street car, which broke down enroute and we waited a long time for the next one. We found it interesting that when we were on the bus, our white faces were a noticeable minority, but the group in the broken-down street car was almost entirely white tourists.

French Quarter: note "not haunted" apartment for rent
We walked the length of Bourbon Street which we found way too full of inebriated people of all ages, and we were astounded by the number of smokers. We wanted music, but downtown music in New Orleans doesn’t seem to happen without alcohol and tobacco, or before dark, and we had been warned off the public transportation at night. So in our two days in the city, we walked several streets of the French Quarter, shopped the independent venders at the French Market, ate shrimp and grits, took a bus tour, and visited a sculpture park and two very interesting cemeteries. We also spent a few hours in the small but powerful exhibit about Hurricane Katrina in the Presbytere, adjacent to the cathedral on Jackson Square. The personal stories in the exhibit, as well as from our friend on the bus, were very moving. Our campground hostess picked us up downtown both days at 5pm, so we did not experience that famous New Orleans night life. But we did see a bit of the city.

We headed west, up the levee river road of the Mississippi River, marveling at the huge refineries alternating with sugar cane fields and rice fields. We learned a lot about rice culture at the 100-year-old Konriko Rice mill in New Iberia. In Louisiana , the rice fields also produce another lucrative crop: crawfish, thus making both crops sustainable and organic. Also near New Iberia we took the factory tour at the Tabasco plantation, an iconic Louisiana product produced by the same family for over 140 years. 

Pennye fixes the concertina
Our next stop was Scott, just outside of Lafayette, where the fun really began, all because Janna’s concertina had a few sticky keys.  We made our way to the Martin Accordion factory in the area where Junior Martin, founder of the shop and his daughter Pennye Huval were there to welcome us. Pennye quickly pulled the concertina apart and put things right for a charge of only $10.Then she invited us to return the next day to hear them present Cajun music culture to a Road Scholar group. So we happily trundled off to the beautiful municipal campground in nearby Lafayette with its adjacent nature center and trails. When we returned the next afternoon, we were not disappointed.  Three generations of Martins: Pennye, Papa and grandson Joel Martin gave a two-hour talk and musical performance explaining the roots of Cajun music, and illustrating the differences between Cajun, Zydeco, and other regional music styles.
Oh NO, Janna wants a new instrument
We loved the music, Joel singing and playing the accordion, Papa on the steel guitar, and Pennye on  acoustic and bass guitars and triangle. Then we followed her brother on a tour of the accordion factory where the family produces beautiful high-quality Cajun accordions (also known as melodians and not to be confused with piano accordions.)  After that the family insisted we stay overnight in the factory driveway, and Pennye took us out to dinner at a local restaurant where a Cajun band was performing.  The next morning we got to jam a bit with Pennye on the accordion, Papa on the the guitar, Liz on her fiddle, and Janna (believe it or not) on the concertina. What fun.

Still seeking all things Cajun we visited the Cajun Music Hall of Fame in nearby Eunice and saw Junior Martin’s picture on the wall and felt privileged to have had a close encounter with this significant person in Cajun music history. Then, in search of a local eatery where Liz could hear some fiddle, we found D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant. This “field of dreams” place is way out on a crawfish and rice farm, in the middle of nowhere, but everyone knew where to come. The owner generously allowed us to park overnight and gifted us some bread pudding for dessert and a box of fresh-cooked beignets for breakfast. The band was great and Liz got to watch the fiddler all evening and engage him in fiddler conversations during the breaks. The accordionist was sporting a Martin accordion and told us that Junior was his great uncle.

We left Louisiana via this All American Road
If there is any way to sum up our Louisiana experience it is in the hospitality shown us by just about everyone we met. Not since Nova Scotia have we felt so welcome and embraced. Hey wait, there’s a reason for that! Followers of our travels will remember we were very much taken with the story of the early pacifist Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia who negotiated with Native Americans to share the land for five generations, and then were evicted because of the their refusal to take up arms for the British, who by then had acquired the land in wars against the French. A significant number of those folks found their way to French speaking Acadiana, where their descendants, now known as Cajuns, are still graciously and generously sharing their culture with all who come along.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Arkansas Travelers

Folks jam in the streets of Mountain View

Although we have been in Arkansas for a while now, we discovered there was a lot more to see and do in this very interesting state. After our exploration of northeastern Arkansas, we headed into the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains to attend the semi-annual Bluegrass Festival in Mountain View. There we squeezed into the last available campsite at the Ozark RV Park, adjacent to the cultural phenomenon  known as the Ozark Folkcenter State Park. This amazing destination exposes locals and visitors alike to the music, crafts and skills that are living traditions here, and also hosts world class musicians in a 1,000 seat auditorium.

Local music icon JC Bonds even invited Liz to play
We went for the music of course and were not disappointed. Walking around the craft village we met a nine year old fiddler named Mary Parker and three other girls who were playing traditional tunes in the courtyard on the guitar, mandolin and banjo. Later at an evening concert we watched Mary and her friends in a stunning performance that included singing and clogging. These young folks  are proficient musicians, trained from an early age by the public school-based Music Roots program. Skilled musicians provide youth with classes in traditional folk instruments  (those  four plus  the autoharp and  dulcimer.) Donated instruments are provided for the students to use as long as they are in the Music Roots program, and are often gifted to them when they get older.  We were also very impressed with an adult group from Minnesota called Monroe Crossing and were delighted when Mary Parker, her little brother, and the rest of her group got on the stage to clog along with Orange Blossom Special. (See video on the Monroe Crossing FaceBook page). We spent several hours listening to these and other great bluegrass bands. If you love traditional acoustic music, you’ll love Mountain View Arkansas.

Chihuly Christmas Tree from Clinton Whitehouse
We then headed to Little Rock and stayed at a very convenient, inexpensive  and  tidy municipal RV park on the north side of the Arkansas River. We rode our bikes on the paved riverside trail and the next day took the tourist trolley across the river into Little Rock’s historic downtown. This area was revitalized when the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International reclaimed a highly contaminated industrial site at the east end of downtown and spent many millions to restore wetlands and build state of the art facilities. The Clinton Library was overwhelming in its content (over 80 million pages and lots of stuff!), but we enjoyed seeing the faces and remembering the events of the years of the Clintons in the White House. Liz then toured the LEED-certified headquarters of Heifer International  while Janna enjoyed their gift shop and the late afternoon sunshine.

Left Wing Books
Right Wing Books
 We also made some other discoveries: The Flying Fish Restaurant: catfish, shrimp, gumbo, inexpensive, casual and delicious; and  River Market Books and Gifts, a used bookstore run by the Friends of Central Arkansas Libraries (FOCAL) in an historic  building downtown. This remarkable destination has three floors of carefully arranged fiction, literature, children’s books, biography, music, history and more. The political science section even has “left wing” and “right wing” shelves. Fortunately they were closing and we were kicked out after only an hour; it would have been so easy to buy more than we could afford or carry home.

NPS Visitors Center overlooks the historic scene
Little Rock Central High School still operates as a school
Before leaving Little Rock we also visited the National Park Service Visitors Center at Little Rock High School. It was remarkable to sit watching the videos of the courageous kids integrating the school in 1957 while we looked out the window to the still-operational high school across the street where a very different student body now populates the halls. Again, we felt the energy of being “where history happened” and appreciated the moment of reflection.

As we wrap up our reporting from the great state of Arkansas we have a confession to make: we did indeed go see the Purse Museum in Little Rock (too small and too pricey) and the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, site of the first store owned by Sam Walton and now a very poorly curated museum. But we also went to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville  a huge museum founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, that houses original art from many American artists and has assets totaling more than $500 million.  The building is beautiful , the grounds around it are lovely and the art inside is spectacular. There is no entrance fee or parking fee. So it seems a little of that Walton money has gone for the benefit of the public. Just a little of that Walton money.
And now we are headed to New Orleans.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Finding Personalities in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas

Crossing the border into Kansas from Colorado made our roster of states complete.  We went to 32 states on our 2003 motorhome trip and more than that in Lilypad, but Kansas was the 48th state to wheel into, and the 50th to visit together. Was the 50th state remarkable? It seems so only in the jokes that everyone makes about the place. When we got there, we found ourselves also making jokes. Granted, we might have had a more engaging time if we had ventured to the northeastern area of the state where Lawrence and Kansas City boast universities and organic food but instead we headed for the green area on the map, the Cimarron National Grassland, the only recreational federal land in the state. There we boondocked in a day-use area, listened to the warble of a coyote in the night, and, on our early morning walk, avoided piles of range-cow manure and tried not to let the oil wells spoil the view of the grassland.Kansas is crisscrossed with long, straight roads that bespeak its agrarian homestead history. Travelling along the flat land, we were dismayed to see that nearly every green crop field has at least one cricket shaped machine pumping for oil. These were interspersed with disquieting feedlots that, we later learned, supply 5,000 head of cattle a day to the National Beef packing house in Liberal, Kansas, which supplies meat to the US Armed Forces.  Liberal is also one of two Kansas towns with museums to Dorothy and her friends. The museum is total kitsch, and the only one of us who appreciated it in the slightest was the one who grew up enjoying Lee Baves’ annual Pig War Saga in Friday Harbor . For a further description of “Dorothy’s House” see:

Then we headed down the road to Medicine Lodge where we found a free municipal campground, complete with electrical hookups and water, something never before seen in our relentless search for inexpensive camping spots, so we were quite impressed. (We surmised that that they don’t get a lot of tourists here in Medicine Lodge.) But this town was the home of Carrie Nation and we went to see her house, now a small museum. She began her infamous bar-smashing career from there and was well supported by enthusiastic female supporters who established fund-raisers to bail her out of jail. The museum features her organ, the handbag she used to conceal bricks and iron bars, a copy of the divorce papers where her husband spelled out her various nefarious activities, and of course, the famous hatchet. 

We took the first opportunity to cross the border into Oklahoma and enjoyed a beautiful state park on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. From there we dropped down to Tulsa which was green, lively, surprisingly cosmopolitan, and home to the newly opened Woody Guthrie Center. This remarkably engaging high-tech museum is a repository of his works and an excellent presentation of his life story. It succeeds in keeping his legacy contemporary and provides relevance to the generations that never knew him. We spent a couple of hours watching video, listening to songs, and reading about the many adventures he had crisscrossing America during the 30’s and 40’s. We do appreciate Woody Guthrie.

Then we headed further east to visit the memorial of another Oklahoma native son, Will Rogers. This imposing piece of Depression Era architecture was funded by the state and people of Oklahoma and is stuffed with memorabilia, videos, and statuary donated by the Rogers family. It was refreshing to see an American hero who so completely embraced his Native American roots, especially in print and public appearances during the 20’s and 30’s. It’s interesting to contrast the contemporary lives of Guthrie and Rogers, and the very different ways they found to express their own creativities. 

Then on to Arkansas, landing in Eureka Springs, a town that embodies an unusual assortment of neighbors. Dubbed “America’s Little Switzerland” and built with stone masonry during the 1880’s, the town lines a steep hill along a limestone gully. The healing properties of the springs were the magnet that brought entrepreneurs, charlatans, and weary campaigners to create a little mountain utopia. Carrie Nation also came here after burning her bridges in Kansas and it continues to be a refuge for all sorts of people. Many of the numerous galleries, shops and eateries are owned and operated by either retired bikers or gay people. Rainbow flags and leather shops were prevalent on the streets, as well as many accommodations promising ghostly encounters. But Eureka Springs also hosts a passion play in a huge outdoor theater that brings hundreds of thousands of Christians from all over North America to witness the last few days of Jesus’ life. We got the idea from this juxtaposition of these radically different lifestyles, as well as from the surly campground proprietor and the retired police chief that drove the bus to town, that this is a tolerant, live-and-let-live kind of place….just what we like.
We are not yet done with Arkansas. Stay tuned.