Always about the river

When your town or city edges down to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, you have no choice, really: it’s always about the river. And a stroll through the downtown area, or drive, or trolley car tour (be sure to get in touch with Sally for one of these), or dinner of crawfish and catfish confirms just that: It was always about the river. The wonderful film at the Natchez Visitor’s Center opens with those words and introduces viewers, through a seasonal montage, to a wonderful city that has endured numerous ups and downs, but to this day retains a vibrant pulse and buoyancy. Natchez today is a splendid mix of Spanish, French and English cultures, but was also — in the early 1800s — one of the largest slave-trading cities in the U.S., exceeded by, possibly , only New Orleans. Ironically, William Johnson, an enslaved person of color, became a successful businessman in the early 1800s in Natchez before being murdered in circumstances that sound tragically like today. His house on State St. is run by the National Parks Service and well worth a visit. As is the Longwood House, Fort Rosalie, a great photography exhibit located within the town’s Presbyterian church, and numerous other historic landmarks. And then there is the Emerald Mound, located about 10 miles northeast of town. It was built by native Americans, between 1000-600 years ago, and is the second-largest Mississippian Period ceremonial mound in the U.S. If you are fortunate, as I was on the day I visited, when you ascend to the top, you will hear nothing, not even the chirping of birds, just the soft whistling of a gentle wind.

Let’s go…

…to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon, Willie and the boys. Country music fans will recognize the town’s name and lyrics that proved to be a huge hit for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson back in the ’70s. Luckenbach, population 3, is a tiny, dirt road enclave in the beautiful hill country of central Texas, almost equidistant from Austin and San Antonio, and just off Route 290. While those two cities are wonderful, with plenty to recommend — historic and otherwise — I especially enjoyed Fredericksburg, settled by German immigrants in 1846. Luckenbach is just a three-mile turnoff from Fredericksburg but don’t blink because you will miss it if you do. What’s to do in Fredericksburg? Hmmm…there’s the War in the Pacific Museum (they give you a three-day pass because there’s more at the museum than you can absorb in one); the LBJ state park and White House “ranch” (Johnson was born in ’08 in nearby Johnson City); Enchanted Rock state park, a great granite outcropping that allows for a sharp ascent or side loop trails for the less vertically inclined; a Texas Ranger fort (a work in progress); reenactments; and a large number of vineyards that offer wine tastings. And music — lots and lots of music; if you’re a picker, bring your geetar, fiddle or banjo (Rich — !!). There are also wonderful unique shops on Fredericksburg’s Main Street. But all that said, if you are in the area, Luckenbach — where “everybody’s somebody” — is a must.

Going bats!

If you visit the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the evening you’ll be treated to an amazing site — thousands of bats winging their way out of the cave’s natural entrance en route to the nearby Pecos and Black river valleys, where they gorge on moths and other night-flying insects. If you visit during the day, which I did, you’ll find even more amazing sights inside the caverns: decorations of stalactites, stalagmites and an incredible variety of other rock formations. There are even bacteria in the caverns that survive without light or food by dissolving rocks. They are currently being studied by researchers hopeful of discovering new, more effective ways of treating cancer. Located in southeastern New Mexico, the caverns were the scene of another award-winning (?) film in 1959 — Journey to the Center of the Earth starring…Pat Boone! Heading east from there, I crossed into Texas and settled for the night in Ozona, which happens to be the home of the Crockett County Museum even though Davey Crockett apparently never visited or had any connection to the town. The reason why a statue of the frontiersman adorns the town green is best left to a story told over a couple of beers. In the morning I visited the museum. If you go to their Facebook page — Crockett County Museum — you’ll get a glimpse of a recording star in the making!

Did someone say Santa Fe?

I wanted to visit New Mexico because of the good things I had heard about Taos. And while I liked Taos, I really liked Santa Fe. And what’s not to like: friendly people, incredible history, magnificent art in wonderful museums, great food, a wide variety of outdoor sports and, oh, did I mention friendly people?!? On a hike today in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains, I took a wrong turn (yes, I know, this has happened before), but, fortunately, a hiking couple offered me a ride back to my car, saving my feet from more wear and tear than they deserved. The kindness of strangers has been a special part of this trip. But back to Santa Fe: the capital of New Mexico, at 7,000 feet it is the highest elevation capital in the U.S., one of the oldest cities dating back to the 1500s, and probably has more world-class museums per capital than anywhere else in the U.S., if not the world. I visited the Georgia O’Keefe and New Mexico History Museums today, both outstanding. And then there are the churches. At times I felt I was in 15th century Italy — or Spain. But Taos is no slouch. Highlights for me were the Taos Museum at Fechin House, Taos Pueblo, and the Kit Carson house and museum. I particularly enjoyed the latter because I was offered the opportunity to hoist a .50 caliber Hawken rifle featured in one of my favorite movies, Jeremiah Johnson. And if all that Santa Fe and Taos have to offer isn’t enough, the landscape surrounding them and trips en route are spectacular. Most important, I met — and made — some wonderful new friends while here. Almost forgot to mention: this is Day 100 of my road trip, and I wouldn’t take back a moment. Well, maybe one or two!

Where did they go?

One of the great mysteries of the Southwest is what became of the Anasazis, a people that prospered for several hundred years and then — around 1200 or so — disappeared. The question haunts historians and archaeologists to this day. Considerable information, however, can be obtained about the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the southwest and built a remarkable culture that survives to this day. The Mesa Verde National Park, a short distance from Durango, Colorado, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Pueblo people who lived there, protecting nearly 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. The park also offers wonderful vistas of the surrounding area. I spent a short time in Durango, but could easily have stayed longer; it’s a neat town with an historic past and vibrant present. At the campsite where I was staying I met a couple traveling throughout the south and southwest on a vintage Indian motorcycle. Now residing in Virginia, they originally hailed from Massachusetts. I watched them drive away yesterday with only a medium-sized bag on the back of their bike and thought well, yes, I probably had packed a little more than I needed.

Hazy days

As I’m sure you’ve heard, fires — from California to Idaho to Arizona to Utah — have hit the West very hard this year. The smoke from those fires blows eastward, and every morning and many afternoons obscure what would otherwise be clear, beautiful vistas. But their impact is most keenly felt by those whose homes have been destroyed and those who have lost loved ones. I think often of Mike McCloskey, 22, from New Jersey, who I met in Shingletown, CA, shortly before the fires broke out and started rampaging through the area just west of Shingletown. Mike’s father was a fireman back home, but Mike wanted to gain his experience in the West fighting different kinds of fires. I hope he’s okay. The following pictures are from the past few days crossing the Colorado River; hiking through Monument Valley, which straddles both Utah and Arizona; and the Four Corners. Yesterday and today strong storms and heavy rains have ripped through parts of Colorado-New Mexico. With good fortune, other western areas may also be benefiting from this soaking.

North vs. South

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is said to be spectacular, but from those who have been to both I’m told the North Rim is equally so. Plus, the North Rim has the added bonus of being less crowded — about one-tenth the annual number of visitors who head to its southern counterpart. The North Rim is truly spectacular, as is the approach to that magnificent chasm, which I enjoyed as I drove south from Kanab, Utah, on 89A and then Route 67, passing through beautiful meadows and forests and part of a large area known as the Arizona Strip, said to be the emptiest territory (people-wise) in the lower 48. On some of your North Rim hikes you might encounter burros walking up or down the same trail, and one of those burros gained fame years ago in Marguerite Henry’s award-winning children’s novel, Brighty of the Grand Canyon. There are numerous campgrounds in and near the park and — if you plan ahead — you can also stay at a comfortable, rustic cabin right on the park’s grounds overlooking some breathtaking canyon scenery. The Grand Canyon was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979.

Get your kicks

En route to Southern California to spend time with my kids and their friends, I passed through Nevada and a slice of Arizona before stopping in Barstow, hard by the Mojave Desert. One of the reasons for my spending a night and part of the next day there is a song by Bill Morrissey, who grew up in a New Hampshire mill town and lived for a spell in California. He wrote poignantly about people on the edge with empty pockets and faded dreams, and only someone who had experienced Barstow for a while could have captured the grit and lost luster of the city that still serves as a hub for the Santa Fe rail line. Much to my pleasant surprise, Barstow also happens to be home to sections of an historic piece of Americana — Route 66, which was completed in 1937 and passed through eight states, while covering some 2,400 miles. Today, most of Route 66 has been replaced by more modern roadways and pockets of development, but you can still get a sense of why that road achieved the colorful reputation it did at the wonderfully kitschy Route 66 Museum, just a few miles from downtown Barstow. The popular Route 66 tv show, which ran from 1960-64, romanticized the road and people whose lives were touched by it. If you recall the names of its co-stars ( answer follows below), polish the chrome trim on your ’57 Chevy and head to Barstow!

Answer: George Maharis and Martin Milner.

The wild west

If some of the pictures you see from southern and south-central Utah look familiar, they probably are, at least if you’re old enough to recall some of those John Wayne westerns and a few of Clint’s when he wasn’t mixing spaghetti with six shooters. Perhaps nothing says “old west” like Utah’s amazing landscape, and it seems that almost every time you turn a corner you’re on another set. I visited Bryce and Zion national parks this week. Bryce is known for its hoodoos, while Zion gets the nod for gorgeous glens and hikes, some requiring holding onto a chain hooked into a rock wall as you traverse a narrow ledge. Both are marvelous. I’ve become particularly enchanted with a tree found here and in other parts of America’s mountain West — the bristlecone pine. These trees grow in harsh environments withstanding wind and cold and thrive despite a lack of water. One I came upon today at Bryce was rooted into the edge of a rock wall and was reported to be “about” 1,600 years old. If the rock doesn’t give way, she could easily go another 1,600.

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