Monday, December 9, 2013

Bilbo drank beer from a Go-Cup

            So you thought that lovely old Hobbit in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books was from Middle Earth, eh?
            Think again.
            Recent evidence reveals Bilbo Baggins, the star of “The Hobbit” and a minor character in “The Lord of the Rings” hailed from the Bayou State. Now, where exactly in Louisiana Bilbo lived is still unclear.
            We’re found a Bilbo Street in Lake Charles, in Louisiana’s southwest corner. Even more shocking — but perhaps appropo — is the Bilbo Baggins Pub in Bossier City, just east of Shreveport.
            When you think about it, hobbits hailing from Louisiana makes sense. Usually peace-loving people who only want to eat, drink and tell funny stories. Yeah, I can see Bilbo and Frodo strolling through the Shire with a go-cup alright. They probably even have little parades as well, throwing useless crap made in China from tiny ponies. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Breakfast with wintering Texans

            The holidays aren’t just about Santa on Galveston Island. On this Texan barrier island south of Houston, the holidays have gone to the birds.
            Every year Galveston offers a “Breakfast with the Sandhill Cranes” to observe the tall birds in their natural habitat. This year, the event happens from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14 and 15, 2013, at Moody Gardens Golf Course.
Credit: Barbara Rabek
            First, there’s a breakfast and presentation about sandhill crane behavior, then a tour of the island’s West End where the birds hang out. Keanna Leonard, education director at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, will present a mini-workshop titled “The Private Lives of Sandhill Cranes,” designed for beginners and experienced birders alike.
            “They (the island’s cranes) are absolutely stunning, standing 3 1/2-feet  to 4-feet tall with a little red cap,” said Julie Ann Brown, executive director of the Galveston Island Nature TourismCouncil.
            Sounds like they’re in the holiday spirit for sure.
            And there’s more to this avian event, Brown added.
            “After breakfast and the presentation, all participants will be invited to go on a ‘crane crawl’ to visit previously scouted crane ‘hotspots’ on the island’s West End,” she said. “We’ll have experienced birders with spotting scopes at each site on hand to answer questions. Participants can meander in any order and at their own pace to view the ‘wintering Texans.’ It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season!”
            Upcoming events include the Sea Turtle Saturday and Sea Turtle Saturday for Kids on Feb. 8, 2014, and FeatherFest 2014, an all-inclusive bird event April 10-13, 2014. For more information on any of these events, visit www.GalvestonNatureTourism.org.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Yodeling in the Georgia mountains

            Helen,Georgia, is an adorable mountain village. What’s unique is that Helen is not. The entire town is patterned after an alpine village.
            It all began in 1969 when three businessmen brainstormed on how to turn the north Georgia community into a tourist destination. They enlisted the help of artist John Kollock, who sketched visions of Helen based on Bavarian mountain villages he witnessed while in the service in Germany. The idea was adopted and Helen transformed into something right out of the Alps.
            One of the best times to visit Helen is during the holidays, especially if you’re lucky to coincide with a snowfall. Visitors can enjoy the sixth annual Christkindlmarkt, a German tradition where the center of town is filled with booths offering specialty gift items and culinary treats Nov. 29-Dec. 1 and Dec. 7-8 in the Helen Market Platz. Santa and Mrs. Claus Santa sleigh into town via horse-drawn carriage during the Annual Lighting of the Village beginning at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 in downtown Helen.
            The Festival of Trees begins Nov. 27 at Unicoi State Park and Lodge, an affordable and family-friendly state park that offers a lodge, cabins, dining area, hiking trails and plenty of outdoor activities. The festival lasts until Dec. 14.
Joe and Tina Smith
of Serenity Cellars
with Dolce Bello    
            Get a two-for-one on Dec. 7 when the Helen Christmas Parade winds through downtown Helen beginning at 2 p.m. and the Annual Christmas in the Mountains LightedParade at 7 p.m. in nearby downtown Cleveland.
            Sticking true to the German theme is Kinderfest with its activities for children Dec. 7, 14 and 21 in downtown Helen.
            For the shopper, the area offers German-styled Christmas gifts, Appalachian artwork and crafts and several wineries, such as Habersham Winery, Serenity Cellars (make sure you sample the decadent chocolate Dolce Bello) and Yonah Mountain Vineyards, home to Georgia’s only wine cave. For an elegant meal, Bernie’s Retaurant in nearby Sautee Nacoochee serves up fine dining and pairs dishes with locally produced wine.
           To help plan your trip to the Alps of Georgia, visit www.HelenGA.org.

City photos courtesy of Alpine Helen-White County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting the dead in South Louisiana: Obligation, atonement or fun?

            Diane Roberts, a professor of literature at Florida State, believes the South is obsessed with the supernatural because of our conflicted past.
            "Ghosts can be a metaphor and the South has a history of grinding poverty, slavery, war and genocide of native people," she said in a recent Associated Press article. "We are collectively very guilty and haunted by our past in this region."
            I’m a native of New Orleans, where we have a deep relationship with the dead, but I don’t see it as atoning for our sins. For centuries death existed within a short arm’s reach for South Louisiana residents, whether it was yellow fever, hurricanes or a bad sinus infection. People routinely died in great number.
            Because of the high water table, the dead were buried above ground in tombs and mausoleums. These “cities of the dead” remain throughout town, which is why we spruce them up on All Saints’ Day, the day following Halloween. Christians appointed Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor the departed Saints of the Catholic Church, plus try to convert those elusive pagans who won’t quite honoring Halloween.
            On La Toussaint, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation on Nov. 1, we would visit our deceased loved ones and decorate their tombs, perhaps giving the vaults a white wash job, weed the grounds around them or add wax flowers. As a child, it was a chance to play in the cemetery, even having a picnic on the tombs, but the day means more than that.
            “…just like Ash Wednesday, the day after Halloween, All Saints’ Day, is the time to gather and reflect upon the meaning of life and death, of mortality and immortality and how quickly we pass from one to the other,” writes David Cheramie in Acadiana Profile magazine.

            Call it an obligation or a chance to rectify our past, but visiting the dead on All Saints’ Day is a natural holiday for South Louisiana residents. But then, most days are.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ducks, beer and ghosts in cemeteries

            I was in Jeanerette, Louisiana, this past Saturday doing a gris gris bag demonstration and signing copies of my new book, “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” at the Jeanerette Museum. The latter book makes people want to share their ghost tales and I’m more than happy to oblige.
            We discussed personal ghost stories and old plantation tales of residents throwing themselves from second story windows. But wasn’t there something about the old Beau Pré house, someone asks?  Everyone nodded but the house, which was owned by the town’s founder, John W. Jeanerette, and which withstood Civil War skirmishes in the area, is no longer there. In fact, the house is long gone and a cemetery erected in its place.
            A cemetery, I inquired? This was too good.
            Indeed Jeanerette’s former plantation, which John Jeanerette purchased after success as a store and saloon owner, was titled Beau Pré, French for a lovely pasture or meadow. Later it was called Pine Grove Plantation (didn’t Americans realize that those French names were more romantic?). Part of the house was used for postal service — Jeanerette was the town’s first postmaster — so people sent letters care of Jeanerette, which is how the town got its name.
            But back to that cemetery. The Beau Pré Memorial Park Cemetery lies on the property where the old home stood, at 7605 East Old Spanish Trail in Jeanerette. The 12 acres include above and below ground burials, plus a mausoleum. Throughout the property are live oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, a small pond and — like the name suggested — lovely pasture fronting the languid Bayou Teche.
            Which is where I found my ghost.
            He wasn’t a Confederate or Yankee soldier, specters rumored to be haunting the place. Instead, he was a reptile from another era, a link to the time of dinosaurs. A nice sized alligator was sunning himself along the pond’s edge, enjoying the solitude that a cemetery could offer.
       I thought, “Only in Louisiana would one see such a sight,” but then Florida may have a few gators visiting the dead as well. And then I spotted the grave of Robert Francis Bourg, a Vietnam vet whose loved ones decorated his tomb with duck decoys, Mardi Gras beads and beer. I can’t imagine finding such an image anywhere else — with an alligator to boot! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gone but never forgotten


            














Our loved ones may be gone, but they are not forgotten. In the South, you’ll find cemeteries filled with trinkets, wind chimes, religious statues, non-religious statues, toys, fishing poles, solar lights and much more. Here’s a couple from cemeteries throughout the South.




Monday, October 14, 2013

Saints fans even in death

            We love to decorate our cemeteries in the South.
            Along the Gulf Coast, tombs are mostly above ground due to the high water table that makes it difficult to place our beloved departed into soil. Visitors will find simple crosses denoting graves or elaborate tombs that resemble small homes. In New Orleans, we call these collections of above-ground tombs “Cities of the Dead.”
            With all this grave architecture, it’s no wonder people like to enhance them a bit. And in South Louisiana around All Saints Day (Nov. 1), residents spruce up their family tombs and give them a fresh coat of whitewash as well.
            So throughout this month of October, we’ll be spotlighting some interesting tombs we’ve found over the years.
            At right is a grave found in St. Louis No. 3 in New Orleans, just outside of City Park. Not only did “Mother” get her share of Mardi Gras beads, but a nod to the Saints as well. The living ones who play football in the Superdome, that is.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Former debutante becomes ‘Mother of Texas’

             You’ve heard of the brave men who fought at the Alamo, who struggled to free American residents from Spanish rule and form the Republic of Texas. But have you heard about the indelible Jane Long?
            Women always seem to get the footnotes of history but thanks to history lovers on the Bolivar Peninsula, Jane Long’s story continues — and grows. And this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, the fifth annual Jane Long Festival will take over Fort Travis Seaside Park, just east of Galveston. 
            A former Mississippi debutante, 18-year-old Jane Long followed her husband, Dr. James Long, and 300 troops to Texas in 1818 to free the territory from Spain. They settled in Port Bolivar in 1820 on an earthen levee created by Spanish explorer Frances Xavier Mina, protecting himself and his men from the Karankawa Indians. The outpost was situated on the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula, only a boat ride from Galveston.
            At first they tried to get Galveston privateer Jean Lafitte to join the cause, with Jane dining alone with the infamous Lafitte. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans refused, not willing to cause trouble with Spain since his time on Galveston island proved quite lucrative.
            Dr. Long then set out for Mexico and left Jane alone with her daughter and a maid and a few men for protection. An adoring wife, she promised to stay put until his return.
            That winter of 1821 was so cold that some say the waters between Bolivar and Galveston froze over.  The men fled, food became scarce, the Indians hostile and the maid ill. Jane was pregnant at the time and had to deliver the child on her own. It’s believed the child was the first baby of English descent born in Texas, thus giving Jane the nickname, “The Mother of Texas.”
            Word came later that Dr. Long had died in Mexico.
Fort Travis Seaside Park
            Jane then moved to Brazoria, Texas, but continued the struggle for Texas freedom, organizing meetings of Texas revolutionaries Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Mirabeau Lamar and others. She also entertained Mexican officials and Spanish representatives at her hotel and organized a ball when Austin was freed from a Mexican jail. It was at this ball that Austin incited Americans in the Texas territory to fight for independence.
            After the fight for a Texas Republic was won, Jane moved to Richmond, Virginia, but her determination, spirit and resilience became an inspiration to Peninsula residents, especially after Hurricane Ike blew through in 2008. They began the festival four years ago at Fort Travis and have named a stretch of highway in her honor. In front of the park are historical markers and a flag designed by Jane for her husband’s troops to carry, one she called “the lone star.”
            This weekend’s festival includes live music by Brian Burns, who had a hit with "I've Been Everywhere (in Texas)" (see anonymous comment below). Come dressed in period costume and enter the costume contest. You can be Jane for a day!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Visiting the Morgue

            The ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel start off fun. After all, it’s a gorgeous Victorian hotel at the top of a mountain overlooking Eureka Springs and a member of the Historic Hotels of America so I’m imagining I will hear tales of ethereal men in top hats and ladies playing croquet.
            We began on the third floor and indeed heard tales of these Victorian visitors who have refused to check out. But as we slowly descended, the stories got creepier and creepier. Then we ended up in the morgue!
The Crescent Hotel "Morgue."
            Yeah, you heard right.
             “Our morgue is one of those historic infamies that has made us famous in the world of the paranormal and those interested in that world,” said Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications. “It wasn’t part of the original business plan of the Eureka Springs Improvement Company who built this mountaintop spa resort more than 125 years ago, it just turned out that way.”
            The hotel began in 1886 as a retreat for the upper class — but mostly for the summer months. The rest of the year, from 1908 to 1934, the building was as The Crescent College & Conservatory for Young Women. The depression caused the college and the hotel to close its doors but Norman Baker, “the man from Muscatine” reopened them in 1937, this time as a hospital to cure cancer.
            The Baker Cancer Curing Hospital promised a cure Baker couldn’t deliver — and he made a fortune in the process. The building’s basement housed a morgue for patients who perished onsite.
The 'Ghost Hunters' locker
            “It is the sad years and sad tales of the Baker Hospital that are the genesis of the Crescent Hotel’s morgue,” Ott explained. “It was in the morgue where Baker used his large walk-in cooler to store cadavers and body parts, and his autopsy table more for studying the cancers removed from patients in an effort to discover ‘what went wrong’ when a patient died hoping to stumble upon a cure. Both of these gruesome artifacts remain intact as do the stories — and some would say the patients — that surround them.”
            Baker was arrested for mail fraud in 1939 and convicted a year later. The building was resurrected as a hotel in 1997 and with it the tales of paranormal activity. Lots of them, from the Irish man who fell to his death while constructing the building to the college coed who jumped — or was pushed — from a balcony.             
            And then there are the ones in the morgue.
            Ghost tours began, concluding each night at the now famous morgue. It was in the morgue that TV’s “Ghost Hunters” saw a full-body apparition on their thermal imaging camera, something they called “the holy grail of ghost hunting.”
            “The ghost tours, which have grown exponentially over the past 16 years thanks to exposure on national television programs and in national publications, have always included the morgue,” said Jack Moyer, hotel’s general manager since 1997, “but until recently that space has had a dual purpose: maintenance area by day, eerie morgue by night. But now, maintenance has been removed and the morgue readied for thrilling new discoveries by curious ghost tour patrons.”
            Throughout October, the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa will reopen its morgue and allow visitors to view items such as a wheelchair from the Baker Hospital, medical artifacts from that era, the addition of a micro-theatre and easier access to the walk-in cooler, autopsy table and the locker made famous by “Ghost Hunters.”
            For more information regarding the morgue and other paranormal facts surrounding the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, visit americasmosthauntedhotel.com.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Return to Mayberry

             Well, Barn, do you wish you could return to those slow-moving summer days fishing at the creek with a bottle of pop and a baloney sandwich? Do I hear whistling as you make your way to the water’s edge, fishing pole over your shoulder?
            You don’t have to relegate your desire for an easier time in the old South to just watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” you can actually live them at Mayberry Days this week (Sept. 26-29, 2013) in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, “where Mayberry comes to life.”
            There’ll be local bands playing those old songs Andy and Aunt Bee loved, a parade through town, a silent auction, “The Emmett” golf tournament, championship barbecue cook-off, Colonel Tim’s Talent Time Matinee and the “Hometown Tribute to Emmett Forrest” Sunday at the Blackmon Amphitheatre, among so much more. (Forrest was a lifelong friend of Griffith and a collector of memorabilia spanning Grffith's career).
            Best of all, Gomer, there’ll be “special guests,” actors from the long-running (eight full seasons) TV show, appearing at the festival, plus Roland White, who played with The Country Boys in two episodes.
            If you can’t make it this weekend, be sure and come back to visit The Andy Griffith Museum, featuring the hundreds of items from the life and career of Andy Griffith collected by Emmett Forrest.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

It’s not weird, it’s down-right gross

            I had a run-in last night with a roach the size of Montana. I could have sworn the damn thing winked at me from my lampshade as if to say, “Try swatting me on this baby, bitch!” I sent in my best man, my brave son Taylor, who after knocking the imposter on to the floor managed to beat him into submission.
Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans offers an up-close view.
            It took four hours.            
            You know I’m kidding, but not by much. I live in South Louisiana where these suckers — called tree roaches — grow the size of dogs. OK, exaggerating again. In reality, they’re oversized, they fly and they multiply like rabbits in our humid, junglesque environment.
            And before you start judging the cleanliness of my home (Yahoo Answers will back me up!), we all have them, even those McMansion folks. I remember once walking the streets of New Orleans at night with tourists who have that romantic Tennessee Williams idea of the city in their heads. We were on Prytania, waiting to cross the street to take in a movie. Above us, flying around a streetlight, was a collection of these buggers. My tourist friends asked if they were small birds.
            In my husband’s haste pulling out of our driveway one night he knocked off our faucet and sent water everywhere. Our plumbers, who are now our best friends, raced to the rescue but the new faucet has left behind a small hole leading straight into the kitchen sink. Call it the super roach highway. It could be a pinhole and those nasty creatures would find a way in.
            So today, I will be closing the front door to the roach motel with a calking gun, then spraying everything in sight. Hopefully they won’t even check in. The only thing worst than a live roach is one dead on its back, waiting for your shoe, sending off a cracking noise that drowns out the TV.
            Now, if you’re one of those weird people who loves looking at creatures like this, the Audubon Institute in New Orleans has a fabulous Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, located in the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, that includes a Cockroach Chat, a live cam of the museum’s miniature New Orleans kitchen crawling with you know what. I've included a nice photo above of the Insectarium, because there was no way I was going to post a cockroach to my blog! I know my readers will thank me. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Jamming possums in ‘Quartz Crystal Capital’

             Every Saturday evening from May through October folks gather in the Mt. Ida town square to enjoy free performances of bluegrass, gospel and country. This small Arkansas town known for its quartz crystals also attracts visitors for the weekly Frontporch Stage concerts.
            And then there’s the possum, the town animal so to speak.
            The Frontporch created “Possums Unlimited” wih possum products to help raise money for the non-profit that runs the show.
            “Possums Unlimited is sort of our version of Ducks Unlimited seein’s how we ain’t got no ducks,” the organizers explain on their web site.
            They also elect a possum queen and hold a coronation picnic. The only requirements are you must be a Montgomery County resident and have a good sense of humor.            
            Be sure and visit on Sept. 28 for the annual Possum Picnic with music by The Acousticatz with special guests from Texas.
            Mt. Ida is located about 35 miles west of Hot Springs on U.S. 270. In addition to the FrontPorch and possums, Mount Ida offers rocks shops and places to dig for its famous crystals, plus sits near the western end of the 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita and is surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest. The natural beauty of the surrounding mountains offers plenty of opportunities to swim, fish, sail, hike, bike and camp.

            Accommodations range from in-town motels like the affordable Royal Oak Inn to the nearby Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa that rents everything from full houses to motel rooms and offers a wide variety of amenities including water sports, houseboat rentals and the Turtle Cove Spa.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Celebrating a Long history at The Roosevelt

            We parade at the drop of a hat in New Orleans. We raise our glasses and take to the streets with umbrellas at the slightest suggestions — and bring go-cups, of course because we’re lucky to have been born in a town where alcohol is allowed to travel in public. So it makes sense to celebrate a former governor, his favorite drink and the women who stormed the bar that made it famous.
            Today and Sept. 27 a favorite landmark among residents celebrates two historic events that may seem weird to others, but makes perfect sense to New Orleanians. 
            The Roosevelt New Orleans, a glamorous hotel that dates backs decades and was once the stomping ground of famed Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long, honors “The Kingfish’s” birthday today with a performance by Spud McConnell in the hotel’s famous Blue Room, which Long used to frequent. McConnell, a local acting celeb, will perform a one-man depiction of the life and times of Long.
            Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and general admission is $65; call (504) 335-3138.
            Before the show, be sure and visit the Sazerac Bar, completely restored to its former glory and sporting several outstanding Paul Ninas murals from the 1930s. Long used to enjoy the bar’s famous Slow Gin Fizz, invented by Henry Ramoz in 1888 at his New Orleans bar. The drink is work intensive so only a few bars and bartenders in town perfected the task, but the Roosevelt Hotel was one of them.
            The Ramos Gin Fizz was a personal favorite of Long. Once, when he traveled to New York City and stayed at the New Yorker hotel that claimed the drink for its own, he promptly called The Roosevelt and had them send up the best bartender to instruct those poor Yankees on how to make the renowned New Orleans drink.
            Now, even though Long believed in the common man and insisted that “Every Man a King,” that sometimes failed to include women in New Orleans. For years, only men were allowed inside the Sazerac Bar. In 1949, a group of women changed that rule with a “Stormin’ of the Sazerac.” On Sept. 27, at 1 p.m., you can join the women of New Orleans recreating this event, which also includes a Ladies Blue Room Luncheon, fashion show and contest, swing music and much more. The price is $35, non-inclusive of tax and gratuity, and can be made by calling (504) 648-5486. Costumes necessary.

            So whether you’re sipping a Ramos Gin Fizz tonight or the bar’s trademark drink the sazerac in your pin box hat and gloves next month, be sure and take a good look at those murals. The large curvy one on the end sports several famous people, including Long himself. Can you find them?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

We take football very seriously — what’s the problem?

             I’m hesitant to write this blog because I don’t see anything weird about 90,000 people gathering inside a stadium screaming and yelling and drinking for the love of football. The fact that almost an equal number of tailgaters are surrounding the stadium in RVs screaming and yelling and drinking doesn’t strike me as weird either.
            When people tell me members of my alma mater are obnoxious and yell horrible things at the opposing team, not to mention that wonderful ditty we penned for Alabama fans, I don’t understand the problem. Are they Tiger bait or not?
            By now, from the looks of the photos posted here (no Crimson on my blog, thank you very much), you’ve probably caught on where I went to school. Yes, I’m a Tiger from LSU, part of the rocking Southeastern Conference that’s a serious group of powerhouses.
            And yes, we’re a weird group of people to the rest of the nation. On any given Saturday night, the population of small cities gathers around SEC stadiums. There are cookbooks, as in plural, celebrating out tailgating ways, much of which could be served in the finest New York restaurants. And we dress. Well, I don’t wear my finest because I don’t want to worry about cleaning bourbon and coke from my good clothes. But if you’ve been to The Grove at Ole Miss, you’ll know what I’m taking about.
            This is not your average college football.
            Yes, we’re weird when it comes to football. What’s the problem?

            
P.S. Email me if you want to hear the Bama ditty.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Take last train to the Lovin' Spoonful Cafe

    You know you’re in for a treat when you head out for a good meal and the restaurant’s walls are decorated in paint-by-number sets. Particularly when the artwork is grouped by subject matter — the cat table for instance or the Jesus section.
      It’s all part of the fun at the Lovin’ Spoonful Café in Clarksville, Tenn. In addition to the retro décor, there’s a blast from the past and then some on the menu as well. Diners can choose from items such as a Frito Pie (a layer of Fritos beneath the café’s homemade chili that’s topped with melted cheddar cheese and sour cream) or the meatloaf sandwich (the family recipe served warm and topped with cheddar and mayo on French bread). There’s “Spoonful sides” too, items such as Cowboy Caviar, fruit salad and jalapeno grit cakes. I couldn’t resist the Green Goddess dressing on my salad, sending me immediately back to my grandma’s house eating dinner off a TV tray!
            The restaurant offers catering for special occasions as well.
            Be sure and check out the bathroom area. More retro furnishings that will make Baby Boomers swoon.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

If smoke comes out, there’s a new crawfish pope

           We eat just about anything in South Louisiana, including the low man on the underwater totem pole, the crawfish. These creatures live in freshwater wetlands, which is pretty much all of South Louisiana. And because they love water, such as bayous, marshes, swamps, ditches and the like — again all of South Louisiana — it’s not uncommon that you’ll find them burrowing in your backyard.
            In summer the most common species of crawfish crawls deep in the mud and stays there for most of fall and winter. When they come out of their holes in spring, it’s crawfish season, meaning Louisiana residents gobble them up. It’s amazing the species has survived.
            One of the most unusual sites you will see in South Louisiana are little mud "chimneys" poking out of the ground. Inside these chimneys there’s a crawfish or two living in his underground tunnel.
            Since Bob Thomas of the Loyola University Center for Environmental Education explains it so much better than I can, here’s his take on things:
          “Crawfish chimneys are those “smokestack”-looking things that appear in ditches, fields, and our yards each spring,” he writes. “Everywhere you see one (sometimes a crawfish will make two), there is a crawfish living in a burrow underneath. Their tunnels may extend down into the earth 3 feet or more, sometimes being a single burrow going straight down, but more often being a main tunnel with a couple of side tunnels, each with a room at the end. They are normally full of water.”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Here you go, Lafayette!

             When the Marquis de Lafayette was visiting central Georgia, he remarked that the countryside reminded him of La Grange, his French country estate. Because of his heroic status in the American Revolution, the people of LaGrange, Ga., named their town in honor of Lafayette, George Washington’s aide-de-camp.
            Today, Lafayette welcomes visitors from his fountain perch at the town’s center, a replica of the LaFayette statue located in LePuy, France. And visitors toss coins into its water as part of a long-standing tradition.
According to town legend, Lafayette told Col. Julius C. Alford that tossing coins into wells brought luck. Upon leaving for the Creek Indian War of 1836, Alford tossed a coin into one of the two LaGrange wells and said, “Here you go, Lafayette.” His men decided to do the same.
Today, the custom continues but with two coins, to double a person’s chances at luck, and within the Lafayette fountain. Luck seekers stand with their backs to the Lafayette statue and toss a coin over their shoulder and make a wish. Then they turn and face the Marquis and toss the second coin while making another wish. If they so desire, they can add a “Here you go, Lafayette” as well.
Explorations in Antiquity
LaGrange and the homage to Lafayette sits south of Atlanta on the road to Montgomery, Ala., a sweet collection of charming historic buildings, downtown murals, the historic LaGrange College and nearby West Point Lake.
The home and gardens at Hills &Dales estate is a must-see to any visit to the region, offering a tour of the home and the 176-year-old gardens. The Italian villa on the 35-acre property was built by textile magnate and philanthropist Fuller E. Callaway Sr., accenting gardens begun by Sarah Coleman Ferrell in 1841. Some of the estate’s many features include a boxwood garden shaped with a “God is Love” message, a greenhouse full of magnificent orchids and other flowers and ancient magnolias.
Hills & Dales
For something truly unique, LaGrange’s Explorations in Antiquity Center offers full-scale archaeological replicas from biblical times, allowing visitors to walk through residences, workplaces, houses of worship and even an authentic shepherd’s tent of the Judeo-Christian times of the Middle East. There are catacombs to showcase burial rituals, plus logged crucifixes from felled trees resembling what was used at the time, as opposed to the lumber versions most of us see today.  Visitors can watch docents weave on looms and shepherds create butter and attend lectures and demonstrations.

If this interactive museum with its special events and time travel experiences weren’t enough, Explorations also serves an authentic biblical meal using recipes and traditions of the First Century with a guide who explains the customs of the day as well as the meanings behind Passover and the Last Supper. Visitors will enjoy foods such as unleavened bread, olives, a salad comparable to a Greek salad and grilled chicken and lamb, among other treats. Groups are needed to request such a meal, so if you can arrange one or manage to join another do! It’s an excellent lesson in history, religion, culture and fun.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The South's just weird all over!

            We drive along the South’s intricate web of Interstates and routinely come across this weird image. No, the truck isn’t driving backwards and heading straight for us, but this truck cab being towed sure makes for a scary sight, especially if you’re heading home after a night in New Orleans.
            This weird moment made us think of a few more.
            Like the no swimming sign at the Louisiana Welcome Center, on the Bayou State side of the Sabine River outside southeast Texas. Even the hardiest of souls who ignore undertow warnings and go outside during hurricanes will probably do exactly what this sign says.
            Or how about this dinosaur someone placed in their back yard in Eureka Springs. To keep cats away? To give the dog a fright when he takes a leak in the middle of the night?
           What’s a weird thing you’ve seen in the South, or is this a gross understatement? (Yes, we realize there are many weird things in the South, which is why we wrote this blog!) But we’d still love to hear about it. Or send us a photo by email with the subject line “Weird South” to cherecoen@gmail.com.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Resting in the Blues: The three graves of Robert Johnson

             Apparently Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson did more than sell his soul at the Crossroads. He split it three ways, kinda like Voldemort’s horcruxes in Harry Potter.
            Johnson has three gravesites in Mississippi.
            Robert Johnson blazed the blues trail, leaving us with some of the genre’s most important recordings, many of which influenced later musicians and helped developed other genres such as rock ‘n’ roll.
            Legend has it that his ambition drove him to meet the devil near Mississippi’s Dockery Plantation, where the devil tuned his guitar and endowed him with great talent in exchange for his soul. Today, visitors can easily find this “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, marked by a giant sign.
            Whether this story is true, you be the judge. Robert Johnson and the “Crossroads” has spurred numerous discussions over its origins and truth.
Robert Johnson's grave at Little Zion in Greenwood.
             The indisputable reality was that Robert Johnston died way too young, at the age of 27 in 1938 outside Greenwood, Miss. Where he’s buried is another mystery.
            The three gravesites of Robert Johnson in Mississippi are:
            Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Morgan City, where an obelisk headstone exists with a photo, discography, biography and the following inscription, “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music struck a chord that continues to resonate. His blues addressed generations he would never know and made poetry of his visions and fears.” It’s believed Johnson was buried here in an unmarked grave and the market was later placed by Columbia Records.
            Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in Quito, with a small headstone that reads, “Robert Johnson, May 8, 1911-August 16, 1938, resting in the blues.” An Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones placed this headstone here upon learning of it being Johnson’s burial site.
            Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, a short walk from Tallahatchie Flats (see last week’s blog) is the most likely place. The story of his death near Greenwood seems to hold the most credence and there’s a copy of his death certificate floating around the Internet. The little cemetery next to a quaint church on the banks of the Tallahatchie River is nestled beneath trees and offers a nice headstone to the bluesman with a stone copy of his handwriting stating, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.”
            Around his grave were items placed in reverence by fans. And a few empty whiskey bottles.
     Want to follow in Robert Johnson’s footsteps and solve the mystery yourself? Greenwood tourism offers a self-guided legacy tour. For a tour of Mississippi blues legends, follow the Mississippi Blues Trail

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Shacking up in Mississippi


             There are plenty of hotels throughout America that offer luxury and intensely comfortable linens. 
Shack Up Inn
             In Mississippi, you can stay at a sharecropper’s shack.
            Just outside of Clarksdale is the Shack Up Inn with its several “shacks” moved to the property from neighboring plantations. “The ritz we ain’t” they proclaim on their web site — and that sums it up well. There’s the Electric Blue shack with two separate bedrooms and a shared kitchenette and private bath to the small eco-friendly “Tinth” shack that sleeps two. Most have porches with old couches and chairs — not to mention old relics and found architectural pieces — conducive to sitting and jamming or enjoying good company. 
Shack Up Inn
             The Cotton Gin on the property operates more like a hotel with large beds, bath, microwave, small fridge, TV and coffeemaker. There’s a massive lobby at one end, perfect for live performances, and a converted silo at the other, now used as a staircase.
            Prices range from $65-$100 in most cases with the most expensive night’s stay being the old farm tractor shed now converted into a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house with a full kitchen ($250) and the “Sky Shack” above the lobby that features a front porch with rockers overlooking the lobby stage.
Tallahatchie Flats
             Outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, is the Tallahatchie Flats, a collection of equally authentic sharecropper shacks located on the river where Billie Jo McAllister threw something overboard — was it a baby, did anyone ever find out for sure? These old-time tenant houses offer wonderful décor, from the license plate covering the hole in the floor to the old record player sporting 45s.
Tallahatchie Flats
            Nighttime is quiet out here in the country, with nothing by cotton fields for company, and a good rainstorm on the tin roof offers loads of ambience. The night we stayed here hunting season was in full swing and we came home from a dinner in Greenwood to lots of dead ducks lying on the porches. 
             If you’re going to travel the Blues Highway through the Delta of Mississippi, might as well as do it right and experience why people got the blues to begin with. Although we doubt the original tenants had maid service, little shampoos and fresh linens.
     Tallahatchie Flats is located less than a mile down the road from Robert Johnson's grave. Or one of his graves. Why does the bluesman who supposedly sold his sold to the devil at the Crossroads have three graves? Read next week's blog.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

We've been told a lie. Humpty Dumpty lives!


             Eureka Springs is a funky little town. It began with a doctor’s discovery of the medicinal springs, drawing people to the area who built the town around the side of a mountain. Throughout town you’ll find old buildings and remnants of buildings along secluded roads and trails, an underground city from when the current town was built on top of the old and lots of caves and springs. 
             And then there’s Humpty Dumpty.
            He sits on a wall — intact — in the middle of downtown Eureka Springs. Apparently he hasn’t fallen yet — or we've been lied to! Visitors looking for the fairy tale need to know where to spot him or they will easily walk by and never see him perched above. Humpty makes his home next to the Basin Spring Park, where Spring and Main streets intersect. Just pass by and look up.
            The town is also home to the world’s largest tuned wind chime, a 36-foot-tall creation hanging from a 100-year-old oak tree that’s listed on the Guinness Book of Records. It’s located in front of Celestial Windz Harmonic Bizaar at 381 Highway 23 South. Listen here to the NPR story, which includes audio of the chimes.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Maybe it’s a radio thing


            Most people who watch live performances prefer to sit as close as possible to the stage so they can see the faces of those doing the performing. At the Grand Ole Opry, the choice seats are on the stage, behind the performers. There are actually seats at the back of the Opry stage where VIPs sit, watching the action from behind.
Opry VIPs seats
             I’ve been in those seats and it’s a thrill, even if you do watch the backsides of Minnie Pearl and Chet Atkins (and yes, I’m showing my age here, was a seat warmer back in the 80s).
            Perhaps this tradition harkens back to the Grand Ole Opry radio days, when people couldn’t see the performers anyway. Radio listeners also can’t see the performers coming and going noisily on and off the stage. Even today, there's one announcer sitting at a podium, and the performers casually come and go during the commercials. Like one big happy family. 
Porter Wagner's Dressing Room with its purple couch.
             That’s what’s so interesting about watching the Opry live even today at its grand and glorious new theater. It’s still a radio show and even though there’s a live audience, it’s still operated like one.
            I visited the Grand Ole Opry recently and this time got a backstage pass as a journalist, which wasn’t as elitist as sitting on the stage, but we did get a tour of the dressing rooms. Porter Wagner’s was pretty funky, had a crazy purple sofa.
            We did get to stand at the back of the stage briefly, watching Mandy Barnett perform in front of us. It was quite the thrill.
What the Grand Ole Opry looks like from the front.