Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Southsides.

Posted on | July 24, 2017 | No Comments

I noticed it first in Atlanta.  I mean there was hint of it, but I blamed it on the city.  The crowds, the exhaust, the towering skyscrapers.

However, when we were standing in Biloxi, facing the Gulf of Mexico, there was no denying it.

I stood there with my sweat-soaked shirt already stuck to my body at 9am and wondered,

“Where’s the ocean breeze?”

Because there wasn’t one.  Not even enough breeze to stir a single hair on your head.

It was so humid that I felt like I was breathing in water, not just looking at it.  And that didn’t change when we left Mississippi for Louisiana.

New Orleans was dirty and fancy and sweaty, all at the same time.  Which is exactly what New Orleans is famous for.

Just outside the city we hit the swamps at Barateria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park.  Where the heat and humidity becomes a living presence.  This is the side of the south so familiar to many of us from books and movies.  The images that characterize the Deep South—-the cypress and live oak and Spanish moss, the enveloping thrum of crickets and frogs and insect—-come to life.

Do not miss the nature preserve if you are in the New Orleans area.  Also, do not lose track of where you are in the swamp.  We wandered way off down the trails in search of alligators and attempting to get a photo of the nutria instead of just seeing them scurry away in our peripheral vision.  The result was that we were a couple miles from our car when an afternoon thunderstorm rolled up.  Luckily, Big and Middle got bored with our expedition an hour earlier and had returned to the car.  So a cell phone conversation ensued describing our location (um, we’re looking at some trees and some water and….um, a bunch of foliage) and Big came to rescue us by driving the minivan to an access point much closer to our location.  Remember when your teens rescued you from the swamp?  No?  Don’t worry—they’ll remind you of it endlessly.

We woke up the next morning in Baton Rouge, where my morning activities with the early risers involved a walking tour of the downtown while the sleepyheads of the family hung out in the condo.  The temperature wasn’t any more comfortable in Baton Rouge, but the city was beautiful, clean, and picturesque.  We had an amazing view from the top of the State Capitol Building of the Mississippi River flowing by the city.

In contrast to New Orleans, the downtown was fancy without the dirty (but still sweaty).  Lots of green space, public art, historic buildings, and a riverfront with stairs right down to the water’s edge so we could put our hands in the mighty Mississippi.  Who knew this about Baton Rouge??

That, people, is the magic of travel.  If you had asked me to describe Baton Rouge before this trip, I would have drawn a complete blank.  I never would have imagined a modern southern city with shiny buildings and a large university.  There are so many sides to the South!  When I shared these thought with the kids, they looked at me funny.

“Well, isn’t Baton Rouge the capital of Louisiana?”  they asked.

Oh yeah.

I knew that.

I mean, I knew that when I was in fourth grade.  I guess I forgot it somewhere along the line.

Eh.

If I wasn’t prepared for Baton Rouge, I had actually read a bit about our next stop.  I picked up a book, “The Son” by Phillip Meyer to get a glimpse of Texas.  ”The Son”  is a sweeping historical fiction that covers the state from the days of the early settlers’ battles with the Native Americans to the war with Mexico to the oil boom.

I don’t recommend it.

Not because it isn’t a good story or because it isn’t well-written.  It’s just an incredibly depressing look at human behavior.   But the book did make the stop in Beaumont to visit Spindletop Gladys City Boom town Museum more meaningful.  The discovery of the Spindletop oilfield changed the direction of development in Texas and the Lucas Gusher was the largest gusher ever seen at that time.  Now you can visit a replica village of the boomtown and a wooden oil derrick similar to those in use at the time of the Lucas gusher.  Which is worth a stop if you are attempting to drive across Texas.  Because driving across Texas takes a long, long, long. long time.  So get out and give Spindletop a look over.

As we wandered between the printing press, the barber shop, and the saloon at Spindletop I realized I could breathe again.  I mean, I was breathing in the dust and debris kicked up by a hot southern wind, but still.  It was a breeze.  A Texas breeze.  This, then, was the beginning of the Southwest.  The humidity was gone, replaced by a gusting heat similar to standing in front of a hair dryer.

But by the time we arrived later that night in San Antonio, the sun was sinking and the Riverwalk was a cool oasis.  I spent my senior year of high school living in San Antonio and I always promised myself I’d get back to visit again.  I didn’t expect it to be more than twenty years later with 4 kids in tow.  The Riverwalk was as wonderful as I remembered it.

Although I use the term “remembered” very loosely because I got us lost and we wandered around the sidewalks and bridges until Middle spotted a late night ice cream shop up on the street level.  (Thank you Mr. Ice Cream for being open until 11pm.)  Which was a great excuse to head upstairs, have ice cream, and make our way back to our hotel the normal way.  You know, using street signs and intersections and other normal ways to orient yourself.  And without the Yellow Crowned Night Heron eyeballing me for walking past him, baffled and disoriented, for the third time.

We settled for the night at the Riverwalk Plaza hotel and the kids swam in the rooftop pool under a dark swath of Texas sky.  The American flag of the Tower Life building flapped overhead.  Ah, Texas.  Ah, America.  Ah, a hotel that leaves stacks of towels by the pool so that you can smuggle 6 or 8 towels back to your room and everyone gets a dry towel after their shower.  Instead of having to use the damp towel from the person who showered before you.  Or settle for a dry washcloth.  It was a glorious night.

By the next morning I had a map and a plan and we walked along the Riverwalk to the Alamo.

The Alamo is probably the most famous tourist site in Texas and at this point, the plot of “The Son” became really relevant.  Sure, it’s a fiction book but it maybe gave a more honest depiction of all the land-grabbing going on in Texas in the 1800’s than some of the information provided at the Alamo.  Hard to say that Texans had earned the sole right to that land any more than the Mexicans or Spanish before them.   Never mind the Native American tribes—-from Comanches to Tonkawas to Lipan Apaches—-caught up in the fighting, too.  But to the victor go the spoils.  And the right to tell the final tale.  Which is the dismal conclusion of “The Son.”  And, sometimes, of life.

I told you it was a depressing book.

Kind of like the parts of Texas between San Antonio and New Mexico.  We passed through an oil heavy region that wasn’t exactly the quaint reproduction boomtown of Spindletop/Gladys City.  More like a dry wasteland dotted with oil machinery and flames flickering against the horizon.

Image result for oil rigs along I-10 thru texas

Which it’s hard to complain about when you’re on a road trip across country on cheap fossil fuels.  It’s such a complicated world, isn’t it?  Can’t throw stones when you drive gas houses.

We were pushing hard to make Whites City, New Mexico before nightfall.  We pulled up in the “city” to find a restaurant, a post office/gift shop/grocery store combo, and abandoned adobe buildings.

Luckily we didn’t come for “city” entertainment.  We didn’t need Riverwalks or late night ice cream parlors because Whites City is right at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns.

I planned a  lot of the trip around specific places I just had to see, but this part of the trip was planned around a specific event. And there were a bunch of other people there to see this event, too.  We sat tucked in an ancient alcove, the heat of the day beginning to radiate out of the rocks, surrounded by the vast Chihuahuan desert, and waited.  And waited.

We were there when the first bat fluttered out and the park ranger called for silence.  We were sitting there on the stone benches as approximately 400,000 bats left for the night, careening into the dusk.  It was this same massive evening bat flight that Jim White spotted back in 1898, leading him to the entrance of the cave and discovery of Carlsbad Caverns.  It occurs night after night, April through October, year after year after year.

What is the word for that feeling?  That feeling you get when you’ve waited for a long time to experience something.  When you’ve imagined what it would be like, yet it is so much more.  When you stand before something grand, touch the past, witness an eternal cycle.  What is that word?

Maybe there isn’t a word for it.  Maybe there’s just the sound of whirring wings and almost inaudible chirps as darkness seeps over the lip of the cave.  The sound of frogs thrumming in the swamp or the splash of your child’s cannonball into a rooftop pool.  Maybe there’s just the thick feeling of sucking sluggish Gulf air into your lungs or the sting of sand pelting your skin beside an oil rig.   Maybe there aren’t enough words for all the sides of the South.

But there is always the laundry.  So later that night I tucked my kids into the only motel in Whites City.  Walked over to the post office/gift shop/grocery store for a Diet Coke and a candy bar.  Then walked over to the laundromat at the only campground in Whites City and washed our dirty clothes while finishing up “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West.”  Because there was still more Southwest to see and we intended to see it…..

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