Sunday, February 23, 2014

Natchez Trace

It's 1800. You have just sold your boat and load of produce that you floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez. You have a pocket full of money and need to return to your home in Ohio. You find a three foot wide path leading out of Natchez to the northeast and begin walking (see picture). After 60 miles you come to the Choctaw Boundary. Behind you is Natchez territory and civilization. Ahead of you is Indian territory and wilderness. There are no inns or way stations, no food supplies. There are, however, bandits, Indians, wild animals and loneliness. You are on the Natchez Trace, an ancient pathway that was in use before Europeans set foot in this country. It runs for 444 miles between Natchez and Nashville and in its day was fairly dangerous but the main road between those cities. Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, was shot on the trace in1809 and is buried next to it about 60 miles south of Nashville. There is a monument there. You can still walk the trace if you want, although sections are now missing, but the best way is to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway. This is a well kept two lane road that runs parallel to the trace and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park System. It runs for the same 444 miles at 50 mph and has no billboards, no houses or other buildings and, as in olden times, no services but is a very scenic road.
Eventually way stations, called stands, were established along the trace to serve travelers. Some of these grew into small towns, most of which are now defunct, and a few grew into larger cities. As you drive the Parkway there are turnoffs to sections of the trace or some of the old town sites. One of these was Rocky Springs, a small town established near a spring that served as a watering hole on the trace. The town is now gone except for an old church, a cemetery, a couple of cisterns, and oddly enough, two old safes without doors (see picture). The cistern in the foreground still contains water which you can see through the grate.
If you are driving the Parkway and have the time you might want to see this. A few miles north of the trace, but not really related to its history, is the Mississippi Petrified Forest, the only known petrified forest east of the Mississippi river. It is just outside the town of Flora, MS. Studies indicate the trees were from an area farther north and floated to this area by an ancient river into a log jam configuration that was then covered with mud and eventually petrified. This happened 36 million years ago and they were just uncovered in recent times by erosion. There are probably many more trees not seen yet as a well was being dug in 1962 and hit a petrified log at 75 feet down! Most of the logs are quite large (see pictures) and include species of Sequoia, Maple, Fir, and Spurge plus some extinct varieties. At the end of the trail is a very comprehensive fossil museum.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vicksburg, MS

Vicksburg, the historic river city that sits on the Yazoo river. Wait! You thought it sat on the Mississippi river? It did until 1876 when the river changed course and the Yazoo was diverted into the old channel to provide a waterway for the city. Otherwise the city would have been left high and dry and this was the era when most transportation was by steamboat. The picture shows the Vicksburg waterfront and the water is only several hundred yards wide. The Mississippi this far south is well over a mile wide. The confluence is now several miles south of the downtown riverfront.
The Yazoo river also provided another surprise in 1964 when researchers discovered the remains of the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad gun boat that had been sunk by mines of the Confederates. It sank in 12 minutes and, as a result, all of the armament, personal items, military items, equipment, etc. ended up in the mud on the river bottom where it was protected. When retrieved 102 years later most items were still in very good shape and provided a window on what life was like during the war. Many of the items are shown in a museum next to the restored boat on display as shown in the picture. Incidentally, the barge that raised the USS Cairo was also called the Cairo.
Of course, the thing that Vicksburg is most known for is the Civil War battle. Vicksburg was a supply point for the Confederates on both sides of the Mississippi. If the Union could win it would split the South and cut off supplies to their army. It was considered the key to winning the war or losing. As a result, the town became a fortress. Numerous forts and bulwarks were built along an eight mile line in a U shape around the city with the ends at the river. These were maned with around 30,000 troops. When General Grant and the Union army first tried to assault the line they were defeated so Grant decided to lay siege to the city with his 70,000 men. The Union line was set up parallel to the Confederate line but outward about shooting distance. This became as little as 50 to 100 feet in some cases or up to more than 1000 feet. Both sides had cannon firing at each other in addition to rifle fire all along the eight mile front. Untold numbers of shells were fired during the 47 day siege and there were over 19,000 casualties. Eventually the Confederates ran out of supplies and had to surrender the town. This broke the back or the Confederacy, so to speak, and some historians think this action was more significant than Gettysburg for the Union. Ironically, the occupation  forces of the city for the rest of the war were mostly freed slaves that were recruited by the U.S. Army. The picture shows a Union cannon looking across the battlefield at a monument that marks a Confederate stronghold.
The tour road today follows the Union line for about eight miles and then loops around and follows the Confederate line for another eight miles. Along this road are over 1300 monuments to various units, persons, military actions, locations, etc. The largest is the Illinois monument shown in the picture.
One other unique thing that Vicksburg is known for is that it is the first place that Coca Cola was bottled for sale in 1894. Before that it had always been a fountain drink. This happened at the Biedenharn Candy Co. which is still in existence and is a museum as shown in the picture. All in all a very interesting town.

Monday, February 17, 2014

R.W. Norton Art Gallery

We planned on staying one more day in Shreveport, before leaving on Monday for Mississippi.  According to our tour books, the city has four museums as well as a science discovery center.  I think that the city of 200,000 plus people does very well with tourist attractions.  It can certainly be very proud of the Norton Art Gallery which we chose to visit yesterday.  In our travels we have seen a wide variety of art galleries, usually most of them are not that large.  The Norton art gallery has 400 American and European paintings by more than 100 artists.  Sculptures, decorative arts, and rare books are also displayed.
Speaking of the latter, the art museum has a beautiful library, in the foreground of the picture above you may notice the onyx pillars supporting the book shelves.  In this room we viewed one of the volumes of James Audubon's The Birds of America.  The art museum has a total of five volumes of the book in the double elephant format, 391/2 inches by 291/2 inches, the same size on which he created his original paintings.  The Gallery's copy was purchased in 1939 from Queen's College, Oxford. 
Pictured above is a bell from the foundry of Paul Revere.  Between 1792 to 1828 the foundry produced 959 bells of which 300 are still extant.  The bell pictured above once hung in a Baptist Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The art gallery has in its main building a section called "Vision of America".  Many portraits of soldiers and statesman can be seen here.  What we found wonderful about this art museum is the information which is posted by each painting; not only regarding the artist and his work, but also fascinating details regarding the person portrayed in the painting.  In this area there is also a section on the old west, here I saw many paintings by my favorite cowboy painters, F.Remington and C. Russell. 
The art museum has one of the largest collections Steuben glass animals in North America.  Also in this room are whimsical sculptures, some of which are inspired by children's stories.  In the foreground of the picture above is "Crocodile Dandy", behind it is Red Riding Hood and the wolf, and on the right, the pig with a web above him from the book Charlotte's Web. 
In the museum I found most interesting this rare 1916 war propaganda poster which predates WWI by H.R. Hopps. The poster (said to have been the inspiration for King Kong) portrays Kaiser Wilhelm as the ape and he is clutching "Columbia" the feminine form of America.  After a three hours in this museum I felt like I was getting information over-load and convinced John that we needed to take advantage of the warm sunny  weather. The rest of our afternoon was spent at the Red River Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge, there our exciting find was an armadillo who scurried rapidly away from us and into a thicket.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Shreveport, Louisiana

Yesterday, Saturday, we left the piney woods of Texas and moved over the state border into Louisiana.  After parking our rig north of Shreveport, we drove into the downtown area of the city.
Shreveport lies on the Red River.  In the background of the picture above is the Horseshoe Casino.  There are two casinos in Shreveport and five located in Bossier, the city across the river from Shreveport.  Those casinos pretty much dominate the cities skyline.  From the waterfront John and I stopped at the visitor's center, where we were reminded that Mardi Gras celebrations will be starting soon.
At the Visitor's Center we learned about the town's beginning and how it got its name.  In 1833 Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, American inventor and steamboat captain, was commissioned by the U.S. Government to open the Red River to steamboat navigation.  At that time it was no easy task as the river had an 165 mile long log jam which had been forming since the 1400s.  It took Shreve and his partners five years to accomplish the task.  That piece of Shreveport history can be seen in the giant mural which John and I discovered on one of the downtown's buildings.  It is call "Once in a Millennium Moon" created by Meg Saligman in 2000.
Fortunately there was an interpretive sign near the building which explains the mural.  The artist perfected the picture on a paint by number grid.  Paint parties were held all over town, over 2,000 townspeople worked on painting the mural which was applied to sheets of plastic cloth "floated in acrylic" much like wallpaper.  More than 40% of the mural was done by the community.  Nineteen local people from the ages of 3 months to 80 years can be found in the mural.  They represent diversity in race, age, gender and religion and neighborhood.  Cycles of life can also be found in the painting:  birth is represented by a christening cap, puberty by the torah, a veil and garter for marriage, and a veteran's dog tag for death.  Forty heirloom objects, which have meaning to a person, or family can also be found in the mural.  Examples of them are a clown doll, ceramic cup, fork and a cast iron skillet. Near the bottom of the painting is a cornucopia of northwestern Louisiana produce including strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and dewberries.  It is certainly a mega mural with a magnificent message of joy and hope!  In another area of downtown John and I found another impressive mural, pictured below.  We will certainly remember Shreveport for its murals.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

President L. B. Johnson's Presidential Library

There are plenty of things to do in Austin for the tourist, and some of them we have done in the past during our visits to the capital city.  Monday was a cool, cloudy day, John and I both thought that it was a type of day to be inside, probably touring museums.  According to the tour books the presidential library of Lyndon B. Johnson has been given an excellent rating, so that is where we headed for the day.
As of 2013 there are 13 presidential libraries, from H. Hoover to George W. Bush.  President Johnson’s library has been the only one to be located on a university campus, the University of Texas, Austin. 
 The library was dedicated in 1971, two years before the president’s death.  As President Johnson noted during his address at the dedication:  “ So it is all here, the story of our times with the bark off.  This library will show the facts, the joys and triumphs as well as the sorrows and failures.”   Within the library are 40 million pages of documents as well as photographs, videos and audio recordings.  Below is a picture which I took looking up at the 5th floor, one of five floors of the archives.
President Johnson had a Dictaphone belt recorder installed in his office and recorded 643 hours of telephone conversations, some of which have been made available for the public.  That feature of the library is what I enjoyed most during my visit there.  I saw the brusque and bullish side of Johnson in his conversation with the Chairman of the House and Education and Labor, to whom he gave a dressing down for delaying legislative action on the Elementary and Secondary School Bill.  I heard a compassionate and personal side of Johnson in his conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy as well as with his wife Lady Bird..  Another phone conversation which I found fascinating was the one President Johnson had with Katherine Graham, The Washington Post journalist.  He expressed to her his frustration with congressmen who always seem to be out of town on one holiday or another.  He was anxious to get bills passed and no one was ever around!  He strongly suggested to Graham that she do interviews with them (in a kind manner) and find out what they were doing with their time when they were out of town.  Other interesting conversations were those Johnson had with Martin Luther King,  and John Steinbeck before the latter left on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam.  There was certainly a lot of United State history in the years from 1963 to 1969, and it was a time I remember well.  Pictured below is a replica of  the oval office as it looked during the years Johnson was in office. 
 Furniture belonging to our 36th President was his rocking chair and desk which he used as a senator, vice-president and president.  The oval office during the late 1960s certainly saw lots of action , during his time as president Johnson signed many important bills- in regards to civil rights, poverty, education, clean water, public broadcasting, our national parks, head start, Medicare- to name but a few.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Our Travels from Arizona to Texas

As you may notice from the title of this posting we have certainly put on the miles this past week!  This is the first time that I have tried to chronicle our travels with pictures, and they are not the greatest because I took them from the windows of our rig.  Pictured below is the area of Cochise's Stronghold, in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona.  The granite mountains, according to legend,  was where the Chiricahua Apaches hid out when they were being pursued by the US Calvary.
We certainly saw a good deal of beautiful mountain scenery from Arizona to Texas, and it was my major focus when taking pictures.  John commented that the biggest thing he would miss now that we were heading east was the mountains.  I would have to agree with him on that, and maybe that was why I only took pictures of mountains, and other large rock formations on this trip.  Anything elevated looked good to me considering we will be back in the flatland of the Midwest in a few weeks!  It was on a very cool overcast and hazy morning that I photographed the mountains of Las Cruces as we were driving into that city.  The city sits at the foot of the Organ Mountains.
Our plan when we started the rv lifestyle was to follow the sun and stay warm.  That did not happen this past week when a cold front dipped into the southwest.  For several nights the temperature was below freezing and it was necessary to run our furnace.   At one campground in New Mexico I saw, in a cactus garden, a birdbath holding frozen water.  Friday evening, at a campground outside of Junction City, Texas the owner of an rv park where we stayed told us that he was forced to buy Levis that day because all he had ever worn was shorts!  So what we have experienced this past week has certainly not been normal- and I am sure many parts of the nation would say the same thing.  We are now in the hill country of Texas, outside Austin.   Today, Sunday, the sun is out and our temperature is in the mid seventies.  Hopefully we can stay warm for awhile.  As you may notice in the picture below we are now seeing land dotted with green trees instead of prickly pear and saguaro cactus.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Salton Sea

     In my last posting I wrote that it would be my last posting from California, and I was wrong.  John and I changed our travel plans and decided to stay in the state one more night.  We did move our rig, as planned, from Vista on Saturday.  However, our first night’s stop was in El Centro, California,  not Yuma, Arizona.  We had decided that we wanted to see the Salton Sea, which is about 30 miles from the Mexican border.
     On Sunday we worshiped at the First United Methodist Church of El Centro.  It was the only church which did not have services at 9AM, that is too early for John.  It turned out to be a good choice, Rev.Dr. Ron P. Griffin gave a wonderful sermon on Micah 6:1-8.  An interesting side note here is that we learned that John Glenn was a member at this church and his wife an organist during the time he was stationed at the local naval base.  That must have been years ago!
     On Monday we drove to the Salton Sea.  We initially went a bit east of the lake so we could check out the dunes wilderness area at the base of the Chocolate Mountains.
     The above picture was taken at a lookout area above the dunes.  Highway 78, in the center of the picture, is the major road running through the area.

      There are several interesting facts about the Salton Sea.  First of all, it is below sea level.  On are way to Salton Sea we passed a sugar factory which had a mark on one of its towers where sea level is located, and I was impressed by how far below it we were.  Centuries ago the Salton Sea was a fresh water lake, called Lake Cahuilla by the Native Americans of the same name who once lived by its shores.  In wet times the Colorado River would fill in the sink basin, other times it would bypass the sink causing the lake to shrink or disappear.  The sea was also originally the northern part of the Gulf of California, so through the years it had a mixture of salt and fresh water.  Currently the salinity of the sea is rising as rivers bring in dissolved salts and water evaporates.  The sea also lacks any outlet. 
       Pictured above, along with the sea gulls, are black necked stilts.  The Salton Sea supports significant segments of many migratory birds populations which eat fish.  Unfortunately the sea's rising salinity threatens the 400 bird species which arrive here yearly along the Pacific Migratory Pathway.  On our walk through this state park, along the shore, we also noticed many herons and egrets perched high in the trees.  One solitary green heron sat on the wharf.  He allowed me to get fairly close to him for a picture.  Our path along the shore was lined with many tamarisk trees, also called salt cedar trees.  They are in bloom now with beautiful pinkish-purple flowers.  Our day trip took us completely around the sea, it was interesting to note how different the scenery was on each side of the sea.  The western side is agricultural with palm (think dates) and citrus orchards.  I also saw trucks filled with carrots on the road.  The south eastern shore of the sea is all desert, with no appreciable development of any kind.