Day 10: Friends and Exploration

I hooked up with my college buddy Cole Warner, an editor at the Times-Picayune, for breakfast. He and his family are doing much better than when I left them in February 2006. Their house was a few blocks from a levee break and they’d moved what was left over to Baton Rouge.

Cole looked much better… they’d moved back into the house in December and things were getting back to normal, as much as they can in New Orleans.

I spent the rest of the day in the Warehouse District and waterfront, visiting the National World War II Museumand other spots in the area.

I highly recommend the museum, as it takes visitors from the beginnings of the conflict in the early 1930s through a bit of the post-War period. It also, pretty equally, covers both the Pacific and European theaters.

For lunch, I wandered over to the Riverwalk Marketplace. When I left in 2006, there were two cruise ships anchored behind it, and very few shops were open. The two cruise ships were filled with police, firefighters, municipal workers and their families, refugees in their own town.

The mall is about three-quarters open… probably what it was before the storm. The rest of the Riverwalk (the site of the 1984 World’s Fair) seemed to be restored.

Day 9: Looking for the Gulf

Back in late 2005 and 2006, I spent a couple of months in New Orleans helping, I hope, on the cleanup from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there, I never got down to the tip of Louisiana, through Plaquemains Parrish. I spent the day cruising down Highway 23 to the southernmost point of Louisiana.

As sad as it is, this area looks like the hurricanes hit just a few months ago. Lots of trailers, damaged buildings and not a lot of people. A few places have recovered, mainly those that service the shipping and oil industries that use this as a jumping off point.

The couple of schools along the way looked rebuilt, but the hospital in Pt. Sulfur, along with a couple of community centers, are damaged and closed. Two fire stations looked open, with their rigs parked in the engine bays, but the buildings around them were heavily damaged.

A friend later told me that this area had pretty much been depopulated.

Then there it was, past the little town of Venice, the road ended at a sign that said “Southernmost Point of Louisiana.” Can’t see the gulf from there because it’s not the end; the shipping channel continues for a few more miles. It’s just as far as I could drive.

On the way back, I took the ferry across the Mississippi River at Point a la Hache, then heading back into New Orleans.

Day 8: New Orleans

It was a bit strange heading over I-10 into New Orleans. A couple of years back, I took this route a few times while working on the cleanup from Hurricane Katrina. Still a lot of traffic here, even in the middle of the day.

Oh, and by the way, before heading over to New Orleans, I got lost one more time in Baton Rouge. The nearest laundromat to my hotel was near LSU; I found it OK, but missed the turn to go back the same way. With the roads in that town going all whichaway, I wandered around a half hour before finding the freeway. And as you might know from my web site, I like driving around and discovering new things. After a half-hour, I did stop and ask for directions; ended up I was about a half-mile from I-10.

Back to the road into New Orleans. If you haven’t been there since the storm — or never been there — a bit of the layout of the town. East of the Causeway (the highway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain) is the City of New Orleans and where the damage started. So, once you get through the swampy area south of the lake and pass I-310 and the airport, it pretty much looks like it always has: ugly suburban sprawl.

West of the Causeway, back in late 2005 and early 2006 when I was helping on the cleanup, damage was visible from I-10.

On my return visit, some of the mess was still visible, but there has been a tremendous amount of cleanup. There’s still a long way to go… you can’t flood much of a major city for a month and shut off the power for weeks and expect everything to be cleaned up in a few weeks. But, there has been progress.

Next: Heading South

Day 7: Finishing the Trace and Mississippi River Ferry

Another gentle, beautiful day cruising on the Natchez Trace. The southern portion of the Trace goes through the bayou country of Mississippi. The gentle hills that the Trace runs through up north have given way to a flatter, though still enjoyable, drive. The folks who designed the road created a route that has gentle curves, perfect for setting the car on autopilot at 50 mph (the speed limit) and just sitting back and enjoying the drive.

From Jackson, I headed south for the final 100 miles. There are still many spots to stop and get out to stretch and view the actual trace. Many trees still bare at the beginning of March, but no snow here.

The Trace was well worth the trip and the three days I took to cover the 450 miles gave me time to enjoy the ride and soak up the history. I recommend it.

For more information on the Trace, go to the official National Park web page.

Ending up in Natchez, I drove around the small town a bit, stopped in the Visitor Center on high ground above where the riverboat casino is docked on the Mississippi, but chose to continue on. I headed south on US 61 toward Baton Rouge, LA.

One detour… the ferry across the Mississippi River at St. Francisville, LA.

Louisiana still runs many car ferries around the state, most across the Mississippi River. Because it was a Sunday afternoon, there was a line of cars filled with families out for a weekend drive and the wait was about 30 minutes, but well worth it. I arrived just as the ferry was taking off for its run to the other side of the bank.

The “Big Muddy” Mississippi is pretty brown at this stage but very impressive. The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes and it’s free, so take it if you can. There were a few barges up river, hauling coal or sand or something… I could only see mounds of something as cargo; the barges were a half-mile or so upstream.

From here, I wound around through Point Coupee (any relation to “Al Coupee and the Sports of the Day… hya, folks” … a reference for you native San Diegans 50 or older), New Roads, Louisiana State Highway 1, US 190 and into Baton Rouge.

By the way, I’ve been to Baton Rouge several times and I always get lost. It’s one of those cities that seems to have had its streets diagramed by a Pickup Sticks game… dump a bunch of sticks on a map of the area, then draw the streets as they come up. Just part of its charm.

I treated myself to a steak dinner at Sullivans, an upscale steak chain. By the way… if you’re the hostess at Sullivan’s and reading this, just let me know when you want me to come back and do a photo session. And the meal was pretty good, too.

Next: On to New Orleans.

Day 6: Snowy Trace

A great day on the Trace. My car was a snowdrift (white snow on a white car) but was quickly cleared. I did call the Visitor Center to see if the road was clear… it was. After checking out the beautiful snow scene around my hotel, I scraped off the car and headed out.

The Trace was beautiful with the dusting of snow. Like a Christmas tree lot full of flocked trees. Especially beautiful areas were around Tockshish, which was the midpoint on the original Trace between Natchez and Nashville.

I pulled off on US 82 and headed to Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, for lunch. Where I stopped, a the Bulldog Deli, which boasted that it was a “New York Style Deli” but didn’t have rye bread… gives you an idea of the rest of the experience. Did stop in my second Piggly Wiggly.

Back on the road, the bare oaks were mostly replaced by pines… I’ll have to check but I think these are Bob Villa’s favorite trees, Southern Yellow Pines.

Another disappointment — the visitor center and museum at Kosciusko was closed, even though I was there well before the posted 4 p.m. closing time. Maybe the volunteer didn’t make it because of the weather.

Stop for the night: Jackson, Miss. Back tomorrow for the last 100 or so miles to Natchez.

Day 5: Rain, snow and the Trace

After an overnight in Columbia, Tenn., and heavy rain all night, the weather broke and I decided to head south on the Trace. It was an overcast day, but just as enjoyable.

South from Columbia, the Trace continues to meander over the rolling hills of southern Tennessee. The history continues to be amazing, with frequent spots where visitors can see the actual trail, markers for historic sites in a few Indian mounds, ancient burial spots.

The trees in the adjacent forests are mostly bare… even more than usual. I stopped at a visitor center off the trace, in a very small town (I’ll get back to you on the name), and she said the trees were even more bare than usual this year. It seems that while the leaves die off in the fall, lots of them don’t usually fall off. So, my winter view through the trees is unusual, according to her. And we’ll have more from her later… wish I’d written down her name.

There was a little rain here and there, but not enough to mess things up. The wind did kick up whitecaps on the Tennessee River, which at Colberts Crossing is a half-mile wide. It seems one Mr. Colbert ran a ferry across here two centuries ago.

By the time I got into Tupolo, the snow was getting a bit heavier and I found a hotel for the night. That was around 4. By the time I went to dinner the snow was coming down harder and as I write this, about 8 p.m., the snow is starting to stick a little.

Folks say they don’t get much snow… in fact they don’t get any snow here. The ground is warm, though, and it doesn’t look like it will stick.

Still, I’ll call the Trace visitors center in the morning to see if the road is open and how it is before leaving. The lady at the other visitors center (again, I’ll get back to you on the name) told me the story of how she and her husband were slammed by a skidding van once on the Trace during a snowstorm. The van slid into them on the icy road. They were OK, but because cell phone service is iffy and the only patrols are the park rangers or other drivers, they had to wait for hours for help.

If I have to stay in Tupolo for two nights, well, it could be worse. Stay tuned.