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Category Archives: American South

Remembering Katrina

5 years ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the American Gulf Coast.

A year after the flood waters had receded, New Orleans was still a ghost town.  I walked alone through the famed Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, along what used to be a paved residential street.

Most houses had been completely washed away.  Those that still stood– in some mangled form– bore bright orange symbols spray-painted by search teams to indicate things like check date and body count.

This was my first visit to the place that had been dubbed in less harrowing times the “Big Easy.” I was anything but at ease.

In fact I still find it difficult to describe the goings on in my head and heart as I passed heaps of brick, abandoned cars, and makeshift front yard graves.  It was a combination of awe and soul-wrenching sorrow so heavy that all I could think about was leaving.

But I couldn’t.  New Orleans hadn’t been our destination, but Meadow and I ended up staying there three days longer than we had planned.   It was in our blood now.

I left the politics of Katrina to the pundits when I wrote my Dispatches from the Gulf Coast series.  Instead, I focused on my own apolitical observations during that road trip.  I haven’t been back since, so I don’t know how everything looks today.  No matter– my impressions of that region will always be colored by that first visit.

Below is a video montage I put together a few years ago of the trip.  It’s choppy and of sub-par quality (I think it was my first attempt at video editing), but I thought it a good day to re-post it.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2010 in American South, Video

 

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Introducing Stacy Grubb: Songs from a West Virginia wildflower

Singer/songwriter Stacy Gubb’s debut album, Hurricane, is filled with new bluegrass classics.

stacygrubb

Photo courtesy Stacy Grubb (www.stacygrubb.com)

Picture this:

You stop for gas during a long drive along a two-lane country highway, it doesn’t really matter which.  It could be SR-69 in north Texas– maybe highway 89 near Fairview, UT, or somewhere in Appalachia.  Somewhere you’ve never been before, or haven’t been to in a really long time.

As you fill up, you look out at the wide open scene.  A bluegrass song is playing over the station’s speaker system.  You don’t consider yourself a huge bluegrass aficionado, per se, but you appreciate good music from any genre.  You can’t believe how the song seems to match the setting perfectly.  And while it has a definite “old-timey” sound, you detect a distinctly fresh tone.  The words sung by the emotive soprano weave a story that– even though your brain is fried from watching yellow lines for hours– hijacks your attention.  By the time your tank is full, you find yourself rummaging through your glove box looking for something to write with.

“If I can jot down a few lyrics,” you think, “I can Google them in quotes later and figure out who this is.”

Let me spare you the research– you’re listening to Stacy Grubb.

Since this site isn’t solely dedicated to music, and I’m sure the five of you who read this blog no doubt have varying musical tastes, this won’t be so much a review as an introduction.

Those of you who know me know that I’m a fairly picky music listener.  I don’t take to artists easily.  But when I do, I’m all in.  Just ask my wife, who I’ve forced to endure hundreds of hours of Jack Johnson (who she doesn’t particularly care for), and U2 (who she hates with a passion).  Fortunately, she and I are in agreement on country artists like Alison Krauss and Sara Evans.

Interestingly, Stacy Grubb’s soprano blends the former’s angelic clarity with the latter’s enveloping richness.  Speaking strictly about vocal dynamic, that’s a decent comparison.

But don’t get me wrong– Miss Grubb’s sound is all her own.  I first heard Stacy a few years ago on a karaoke contest website.  Not sure how I got there, what the place was called, or even which song she was singing.  The website was clunky, and the video submission was homemade and grainy.

But the voice and vibe were unforgettable.

I figured it would be only a matter of time before she recorded an album, and I knew that when she did it would be a good one.  Which is why I was delighted when she released her debut record, Hurricane, last month.

If Stacy’s voice alone isn’t enough to hook you (it is), her knack for songwriting will be.  She penned 9 of the 12 songs on Hurricane, and her lyrics aren’t trite or formulaic or focus group tested with the singular goal of pop radio airplay.

I write newspaper columns and blog posts, not songs. But I’m not unfamiliar with the sometimes grueling, always rewarding process of translating feelings and concepts into words.  So I can appreciate– at least to some degree– the mental effort involved in writing lyrics.  When I listen to an album, I pay as much attention to the lyrics as I do the music.  Tracks like ‘Time Hasn’t Changed Anything’ and ‘I Wonder Where You Are’ are proof enough that even though she’s new to the recording industry, her writing skills are well refined.

This might have something to do with the fact that The West Virgina native is the product of a generations-long bluegrass heritage.  It’s in her blood.  She grew up singing with her father and has spent the better part of the last decade performing with his bluegrass band.  She’s been writing poems and songs as far back as she can remember.

“God gives everybody a special talent and there’s really not a day that passes that I don’t thank Him for making mine music,” Stacy told me in an email.  “I never want it to let me go.  Nearly everything is a song to me.”

Even when she’s writing about fictional people, Stacy says she feels like their story deserves to be told.  And she tells it well.  Take the track, ‘Violet Steele,’ for instance.  From a storytelling standpoint, the narrative about a murderous orphan is about as tight as it gets.

The phrase “murderous orphan” brings me to one of my favorite aspects of bluegrass.  The old stereotype of country music being about losing love and dogs dying is true when it comes to the genre’s roots in ancient Irish folk tunes.  These tunes sometimes have very dark and sometimes very morbid undertones that stem from real life during tough times.  Irish folk tunes and the modern genres that grew from them are arguably the most organic (even if completely un-sugarcoated) take on the human condition.

“It’s the old Irish tunes that really inspire me,” Stacy told me.  “Of course, some of my storylines become fodder for friends and family because they can get so ‘out there,’ but that’s what makes old murder ballads and pub songs so appealing to me.  You listen to these stories and think, ‘Oh my gosh.  Is this true?  Did this really happen to someone?  Who wrote this?  What were they thinking and feeling when they wrote this?  What made them do it?'”

It’s obvious that Stacy is inspired by Alison Krauss and Union Station.  Most tracks on Hurricane would feel right at home on AKUS’ Lonely Runs Both Ways.  In fact, Union Station’s own Ron Block plays banjo on Hurricane, lending some serious cred to this already solid record.

Hurricane’s title track is a reeling, vengeful piece about a love gone bad.  Penned by her father, Alan Johnston, it’s a surefire concert opener.  ‘Baby Dear’ is inspiring (albeit in delightfully morbid fashion).  West Virginia Wildflower, my favorite track here, tells the story of heritage and sacrifice for love.  The song is both intimate and epic, along the lines of Pam Tillis’ ‘River and Highway’– only with a happy ending.  Johnston’s ‘Once Upon a Cross’  is a song of praise and gratitude that wraps the set up nicely.

Beautiful voice and writing aside, what makes Miss Grubb so appealing is the fact that she’s a normal person– not some silver plated starlet or media-crafted superstar.  She’s a country girl, a young wife and mother with a passion for the music she makes and a healthy respect for its heritage.  Stacy Grubb is Appalachia.  She is bluegrass.

What does the future hold for her?  My guess is that someday you’ll be driving along that same two-lane country highway, singing along to her greatest hits CD.

———-

Check out Stacy Grubb at www.stacygrubb.com, her MySpace page, and her YouTube Channel, where you can watch some of her videos, as well as a “making of” documentary on the new album.

 

Weekly Run-Down: Dan Baum’s ‘Nine Lives’ and stuff I learned in SoCal

“Nine Lives”
One of my favorite writers, Dan Baum, has a new book out that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. Baum was sent to New Orleans by The New Yorker in 2005 to cover the Hurricane Katrina disaster. His extended stay there resulted in a series of fine articles and was the impetus for “Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans,” which is available today. From Baum’s website:

Hurricane Katrina is hardly the most interesting thing about New Orleans. The food, the music, and the architecture of New Orleans are fabulous, but it’s the unusual nature of the city’s people that make New Orleans unlike anyplace else in the United States. Obviously I couldn’t write a book about all the people of New Orleans, so I chose these nine. Some I met during the crisis; others I met long after. All of them spent many hours telling me their life stories, with nothing to gain but the very New Orleans pleasure in storytelling.

If I skip a few lunches, I figure I can pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble and read it this weekend. You can read about the book at www.danbaum.com. I’ll review it here as soon as I can. Mr. Baum also writes an entertaining and informative blog that I highly recommend for anybody interested in the field of journalism and writing in general.

Stuff I learned in SoCal
I have a healthy respect for winter, and I’d like to think I’m warming to the season. Still, I’m extremely grateful I’ve got family in the travel and lodging industries. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to spend last week in (mostly) sunny southern California. For the most part, the trip was the typical pilgrimage to Disneyland that most Utah families take once every few years, but we took some time to explore the area and visit the beaches. As unexciting as it may be for those of you who live in warmer climates, I still get a kick out of donning flip-flops in February. The following are a few things I learned/re-learned from my recent stays in SoCal:

  • In person, actor Mel Gibson looks like a dude you might see in the dog food aisle at Wal-Mart.
  • No matter what’s going on in the world– wars, the recession, our abrupt and disturbing race toward a socialist economy– everything’s ok when you’re on the beach.
  • Ditto for Disneyland.
  • Californians freak out about rain like Texans freak out about snow. Even if it’s just a light sprinkle. Seriously– travel to CA during one of their “storms” and turn on the local news. What a crack-up.
  • Californians really like donuts. I should have counted every strip mall store with the word “DONUTS” prominently displayed somewhere on its windows or marquee. Some of these stores, as far as I could tell, are actually named “DONUTS.” Simple and direct–  I like that.  And frankly the world could use more donuts.
 

Google Street View provides poignant Ninth Ward update

Thankfully, Hurricane Gustav weakened Sunday night, hitting southwestern Louisiana as a category 2 hurricane.  The levees held and New Orleans dodged another bullet.  Good.

I got a call from my friend Rhonda yesterday morning.  She and her family had returned to their home in Slidell the night before and were happy to discover no damage.  Her feelings about the way things were handled for Gustav?  

“Triumphant.”

After seeing the post-Katrina clip montage I posted last Sunday- specifically a clip that I cut away from after panning to a street sign for geographical reference- Tyler Slack got curious and did a little investigating with the help of Google Street View.  

In that clip I filmed a location on Forstall Street in Lower Ninth Ward.  The clip showed the stairs of a front porch, the only remains of a house just blocks away from one of the breached levees, which had been completely washed away.  On the steps to nowhere was a small stuffed panda bear.   

Tyler dropped me a note early this morning with a link to the latest Google Street View images of that same house.  According to Street View’s last pass- which looks recent- the panda bear still lies on that porch, though now a couple steps down from where it was when I filmed it.

The selected area is magnified in the square to the right

While it’s sad to see that little has changed (as far as rebuilding) at that location, I was happy to see that little panda bear.  

Rewind to that September day in 2006.  My wife had dropped me off in the Lower Nine, which was still completely deserted.  Nothing but the occasional salvage vehicle and National Guard humvees.  Aside from the almost overwhelming cicada screech (which oddly wasn’t really picked up by my camera’s mic) the entire neighborhood was completely silent.

I walked down Jourdan, Deslonde, and Tennessee (none of which were identifiable), then Forstall, where I spotted that wagon and the teddy bear.  The site epitomized the overall feeling, which was indescribable: heavy, ghostly sorrow mixed with awe of nature’s power.  As I mentioned in my first post-Katrina article, the floodwaters had receded a year prior, but it might as well have been yesterday.

I’ve often thought about that teddy bear- whose it was- how it lays there, mildewed and abandoned in the quiet.  I wonder if where that child whose teddy bear it was is now- if he or she remembers that bear.  I’ve always kinda hoped the child- now three years older- would someday return to find it. 

There was no way I could identify which house that was.  Google shows the approximated address as 2112 Forstall, but tracking down the owner would be quite a task.  I left the bear where it was.  Thankfully, so has everybody else.  If you happen to be wandering down Forstall Street in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, please do me a favor- let that panda be.

The panda bear at 2112 Forstall Street as I discovered it in September, 2006 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

 

 

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Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: Remembering Katrina, waiting for Gustav

Three years ago this weekend, the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded made landfall in southeast Louisiana and at the Louisiana/Mississippi state line.  Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge ravaged the Gulf Coast, essentially washing away many coastal communities and breaching New Orleans levees. What followed is well known.

I was there a year later, when New Orleans was still a literal ghost town. As the Big Easy remembers Katrina’s 3-year anniversary, and evacuates in the face of perhaps the biggest storm to ever hit the U.S. (Hurricane Gustav), I have put together some clips of video I took while I was there. Like the Crescent City itself, the following clips are random, stitched together, checkered with the historic, the scarred, and the downright charming.

I got a call yesterday from my friend, Rhonda Buie, in Slidell.  She was preparing to evacuate, and is certainly gone as of this writing.  I wish her and her family well.

Track Hurricane Gustav here.

Read the rest of my Gulf Coast dispatches:

Part 1- Post-Katrina New Orleans
Part 2- Palm Trees and the South
Part 3- First Night In NOLA and Slidell Cemeteries
Part 4- The Honey Island Swamp
Part 5- Waveland to Pensacola

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2008 in American South, History, Trip Reports

 

Exploring wild Florida at The Disney Wilderness Preserve

Bonneville Mariner recounts a January, 2008 visit to The Nature Conservancy’s central Florida gem, The Disney Wilderness Preserve.

“I don’t like formal gardens. I like wild nature.
It’s just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.”

-Walt Disney

When one thinks of Disney, “wild nature” isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. The man-made waterfalls and animatronic animals of Disney’s Jungle Cruise rides certainly evoke thoughts of far-off tropical locales, but the typical Disney adventure doesn’t stray far from carefully manicured walkways and piped-in theme music.

It’s not that Walt Disney sought to “sanitize” reality. He was dissuaded from using real animals in his nature-themed attractions because they would be unsafe, unmanageable, and impractical. Walt’s goal was to give his guests a sampling of places they would likely never experience in real life. He may have painted the human world in a fantastical light, but his goal with nature and wildlife attractions was reality. The very same team that designs the illusions at Walt Disney World have also created the very real The Disney Wilderness Preserve.

While I’ve climbed real mountains all my life, I can credit Mr. Disney for sparking my fascination with exotic climes. The Sunshine State’s climate ranges from humid subtropical in the north to tropical in the south. Florida’s lifeblood is a 200-mile-long system of lakes, streams, and wetlands that spans the southern length of the peninsula. The network of lakes and streams in the Orlando area are the headwaters of this system, which ebbs south through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into the Kissimmee River, which feeds Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades system.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve lies at the heart of this aquatic network and was once a cattle ranch. Disney purchased the bulk of property and donated it to The Nature Conservancy in 1991 as part of a wetlands mitigation plan. The result was a 12,000-acre subtropical wonderland- a timeless snapshot of old-school Florida, and one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen.

It was mid-morning and cloudy when I started along the 2.5 mile trail that loops through the preserve. The trail winds through a field of saw palmetto before merging onto an old sandy road. After about a mile, a smaller trail branches off into a swampy cypress forest on the shores of Lake Russell, one of the last remaining undeveloped lakes in central Florida.A school of tiny fish in the rusty shallows scattered as I approached, and small waves lapped at the sandy bank. Beyond the shoreline, strands of Spanish moss clung to bare cypress branches, whisking in gently with the breeze. I hate bugs, and bugs hate me (they bite me any chance they get and I smash them any chance I get). Yet despite our eternal feud, I’m glad they’re there, shrouded in grass, anonymously combing their wings. Their tranquil song awakens primal senses while it calms the soul. Dark clouds inched over the lake, almost mimicking twilight. I realized that like the High Uintas in Utah and the Laura Plantation in Louisiana, this was one of the most peaceful places I had ever been.

The clouds broke again as I walked back to the main trail and continued another mile through a young forest and back to the trailhead. I didn’t see much wildlife, but there was enough slithering and rustling in the brush to convince me to stay on the trail. The ground in the area is a sandy white clay that turns black when it’s saturated. It had rained the night before, and there were plenty of black mud puddles to dodge.

I never knew about the preserve prior to this trip, but I’m glad I chanced upon a mention of it somewhere in my research. I’ll definitely be returning to this place.–

Check out The Nature Conservancy’s TDWP website for more information.

Thanks to TNC’s Jill Austin for answering all my questions.

 

Kickin’ it on Cocoa Beach

I’m just back from a week in central Florida. I was there for work, so most of the daylight hours were spent indoors at a convention, but I used the time before and after meetings the best I could. I’d have to check the weather almanac, but it seems like this winter in Utah has been one of the coldest we’ve had in a while. And after months of scraping ice off my car windows and walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City in sub-zero temps, this trip to the Sunshine State was a godsend.

I flew into Orlando in the evening, and my first order of business was to find some good barbecue- something unfortunately Utah lacks completely. After checking in, I drove over to the Orange Blossom Trail and had dinner at Sonny’s Barbecue on the recommendation of my brother, who served an LDS mission there for two years. I had the pork trio- ribs, pulled pork, and sliced pork, with coleslaw and beans on the side. It doesn’t beat any of my favorite BBQ joints in Texas, but it was still extremely delicious. Once nice touch that brought joy to my soul- when they brought me my check, they gave me a 32 oz. Diet Coke to go.

It was too late to make the 46 mile drive to Cocoa Beach, so I went to Walt Disney World and walked around Downtown Disney for a few hours.

The next morning I left my hotel at 4 AM and drove to Cocoa Beach. Heavy rain had drenched the little surf town and was still falling strong when I pulled into the parking lot of the famed Ron Jon Surf Shop, which is open 24/7. The Cocoa Beach store wasn’t the first Ron Jon’s, but it is arguably the chain’s most popular location.

The rain had left most of the beach area parking lots with 3-4 inches of water.

I have a lot of Ron Jon t-shirts- all of which I bought for $3 or less at the Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City, Utah. The manufacturer that Ron Jon contracts with for their clothing also has a contract with this little store to sell their “damaged” goods. So whenever a Ron Jon t-shirt or hoodie comes out of the factory with an ink stain or a logo that’s misplaced by a few millimeters, it ends up in this little Utah store for next to nothing.

Shirts in the actual store go for about $25.

I’m not sure where surf bums get their money, but they must be buying this outrageously priced clothing or companies like Quicksilver and Hurley would be going out of business. I was a little disappointed that all I could justify there was a bumper sticker (sorry, Hurley, as much as I dig your style and the “freedom company” tagline, what fool pays $45 for a mediocre quality shirt?).

When the rain stopped and the sun rose I walked to the Cocoa Beach Pier, a rustic combination of gift shops and restaurants- all of which were still closed. The pier itself was open, so I walked out and watched the waves, which seemed higher than usual- maybe because of the storm. A group of surfers were paddling the waves just off the pier, and the morning was so quiet that I could clearly hear all of their conversations.

Further in the distance a school of dolphins was surfing and hopping waves less than 50 yards from the shore. Aside from the dolphins, the surfers, some pelicans and myself, the beach was completely empty.


After strolling the pier, I returned to the sand and walked south for about a mile and back, picking up a few of the morning’s best seashells to take home for the boys. After a few hours on the beach I drove to the Kennedy Space Center, stopping along the way at a private orange orchard to buy and chug a pint of freshly squeezed OJ. I don’t know how I’ll ever drink Minute Maid again.

 

Weekly Run-Down: Interview with Deb Goodrich

Varina Howell Davis, First Lady of
the Confederate States of America

Regular readers of this website know of my fascination with the American South. I’m a 5th generation Utahn on both sides, and before marrying my Texas belle I had never set foot in a southern state. Yet every time I visit the South, I feel like I’m coming home. The South is an essential element of Americana. It’s more than just the food, the music, and culture. It’s the underlying roots of these things- a unique blend of nature, peoples, and history- that have fused together in time’s crucible to form a rich and enduring character.

I’m not sure, as an outsider, that I can ever truly understand the South. Author/Guide/Blogger/History buff Debra Goodrich does. Deb was born in Mt. Airy, NC- Andy Griffith’s home town and the real-life model for the fictional “Mayberry”. She grew up in the nearby Blue Ridge foothills and is a southern girl to the core. She has spent much of her life researching the historic figures and events that shaped the South. I recently asked her for some insight on the South, and the following is the first half of our cyber interview:

BONNEVILLEMARINER: If you could travel back in time only once to any point in southern history, where would you go and which event would you witness?

DEB GOODRICH: I would go back to about 1850, to Ararat, Virginia, and Mount Airy, North Carolina, where I grew up. The communities–The Hollow, Doe Run, My great-grandparents and great-great grandparents would have been children, and when I read the census reports from that year it awakens so much curiosity in me about the families that would intermarry, the roads that would be built, the men who would go off to war. Jeb Stuart’s family was still in the neighborhood, and I would like to hang out at the post office and watch the families stopping to get their mail. I’d like to go to Galax and Fries and Independence, over to Indian Valley, up to Roanoke, down to Winston and Salem and Boone and Yadkinville across the state line. So there is no real event I’d choose to see, just the daily lives of my ancestors.

BM: If you could have dinner with one historical southern figure, who would it be and why?

DG: I’ve thought often about this and posed the question to several folks myself, and the answer is difficult. Since I’ve been working for so long on the life of Varina Davis, I would most enjoy sitting down with her, but at what point in her life and in what context? Varina, like most Southern society, or society of any part of the world, was conscious of class. Would she accept me as a reporter? Since she was a writer, I think so, but I’m not sure. As an author, I might be acceptable on her social level, but as just a “Common White,” as my former professor put it, Varina might not feel free to open up to me. Would I want to interview the First Lady of the Confederacy, a woman shuffling children and national diplomacy? Or would I choose to speak with the elderly Varina who had suffered the deaths of five children and her husband who could reflect on her extraordinary life? Would she be insulted, embarrassed, exposed to know I had read the private letters between her and her husband or closest friends? She possessed a tremendous heart, which grew as she grew older, but had been so wounded. A part of my desire to talk with her is simply woman to woman, not as a journalist or historian, but simply as someone who has been inspired by her courage and compassion. I would very much like to take her hand between mine and tell her how often I have thought of her and wished her peace.

BM: A southern-based travel agent once told me “When you come here, the South will get in your blood. Doesn’t matter if you go to Louisiana, Kentucky, or North Carolina. It’s all the same. It’ll be in your blood for the rest of your life.” What is it about the American South that makes it so distinct? What makes it bleed so deep into the American psyche?

DG: Many people have tried to answer this, and I understand it more deeply and believe it more strongly as I travel, but find it more difficult to put into words. Perhaps watching Paula Deen on the Food Channel explains it best. People perceive Southerners as having more fun. I hate to make it sound that trivial, but I believe at the heart of the matter, that is it. There’s all this hype about storytelling and Southern hospitality, and the pace of life’s being slower in the South, but I think what this all boils down to is “We’re having more fun!” That’s why people visit the South, move to the South, won’t leave the South. Church and Family and Society translate to getting together-for food, for music, for drink. Even for the Baptists who don’t drink in public, the ultimate goal is always a party. People are forever planning how to get together, where to get together, when to get together, and who’s going to bring the potato salad. That is the focus of Southern life. Some folks manage a job or some major accomplishments along the way, but that’s pretty much it–getting together.

Stay tuned for part II. You can check out Deb’s musings at her blog, Mason-Dixon Wild West. For information on tours, books, and talks, visit www.tomanddeb.com.

 

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: Waveland to Pensacola

Bonneville Mariner visited the Gulf Coast in September, 2006. Continuing with his
GulfCoast
series, he describes the sights and people along the coast
between New Orleans and the Florida panhandle.

THE LAST THING WE HAD TO EAT WAS POPEYE’S FRIED CHICKEN in Slidell. We had vowed to limit our meals to food we couldn’t find back home. Yes, Popeye’s is fast food, but it’s gourmet fast food in my book. In Utah we have Kentucky Fried Chicken, but KFC doesn’t hold a candle to Popeye’s juicy goodness. We bought some extra biscuits for the road, but they were rock-hard by the time Neil Benson dropped us off at our car after our swamp adventure. The next closest towns were Waveland and Bay St. Louis, and we headed eastward on the quest to fill our bellies with authentic southern cuisine. We stopped at a little place called Catfish One at the edge of Waveland. I’m not a catfish nut, but the very thought of the platter I ordered makes my mouth water to this day.

This small fish stand is run out of a trailer several yards from a crumbling foundation, presumably the former home of its owners. The owners now live in a smaller trailer that sits behind the ramshackle stand. There were no standing homes in the area that I could see, only makeshift trailer parks filled with row after row of white FEMA trailers. A year after the storm, residents were making the best of trailer life by planting little gardens and manicuring small unofficial yards. Hurricane Katrina made her final land fall at the mouth of the Pearl River near Bay St. Louis. And although the town is the highest point along the entire Gulf Coast (12 feet above sea level), much of it was swept away by a 30 foot storm tide.

The lonely highway approaching St. Louis Bay is lined with downed timber, huge piles of debris, and gutted buildings. The lack of signage or visible landmarks rendered our map useless. We stopped to ask a gas station attendant if we were close to Bay St. Louis. “You are in Bay St. Louis,” he replied.

We never made it to Pass Christian, a small historic town across St. Louis Bay. Of Pass Christian’s 8,000 homes, all but 500 were decimated by Katrina. We had hoped to drive across St. Louis Bay on the U.S. 90 bridge, and on to Biloxi, but the bridge was destroyed and had not yet been rebuilt. We had to backtrack to I-10 to head further east. We made our way back down to the coast at Gulfport, a fishing town in a lot better shape than Bay St. Louis where we bought some sand dollars and a bottled dead shark. We then continued along the coast to Biloxi where we hoped to stay the night.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

In the West we drink “pop.” Northeasterners sip “soda.” Bostonians order “tonic.” In the South they just drink Coke- Dr. Pepper Coke, Pepsi Coke, Shasta Coke, Sam’s Choice Coke, even regular Coke Coke. Thankfully there are still different cultural dialects to add spice to an increasingly homogenized nation. Food names aren’t the only differing designations for things. Geographical perception differs from region to region as well.

In the West we think we have rivers. In reality, Western rivers are more like large streams. Easterners laugh at our “rivers.” That’s ok, because we laugh at their “mountains.” Northern lakes tend to be small to moderate sized bodies of freshwater . Deep South folk probably see northern lakes as over sized puddles, while I see their lakes as small seas or large bays. In fact, I’m not quite sure how most lakes in the Deep South actually fit the definition. The least sea-like lake in the Deep South is most similar to Utah’s most sea-like lake. Lake Pontchartrain is the second largest saltwater lake in the United States, after our Great Salt Lake. But where Utah’s inland sea has no outlet, Lake Pontchartrain drains into Lake Borgne, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico- which, going by the Deep South’s geographical definitions, could arguably be called a really big lake.

You could mistake it for a lake, too. Much of the Gulf Coast is lined with a chain of barrier islands- long, linear landforms that are technically large sandbars. These islands serve as the mainland’s primary protection from storms. They also break strong waves, which is why there are no Beach Boys songs about surfing Pascagoula. The coastal waters here are calm and the beaches short.

BILOXI

Biloxi looked a lot better than it did in pictures right after the storm, but it still easily qualified as a class B/C/D hybrid ghost town (rubble and/or roofless building ruins, standing abandoned buildings , and a small resident population). There was a small carnival in the center of the city, but elsewhere people were nowhere to be seen.

Souvenir shop in Biloxi, a year after Katrina (NOAA photo)

It was getting dark, and we passed many abandoned resorts and hotels as we looked for somewhere to stay. Since the storm, many new properties have sprung up between the abandoned ones- the new and modern juxtaposed with the old and deteriorating. Handsome new buildings with empty parking lots stood waiting for somebody- anybody to stop in and spend the night. We prepared for our usual small town motel routine: I stay in the car while my wife goes in (she’s much more persuasive than I am, not to mention better looking) and drives a hard bargain. Once they’re convinced your really going to walk out of their lobbies and look elsewhere, most roadside motels will make you the offer you were looking for. This method has worked for us from coast to coast for many years.

Not in Biloxi.

The prices at these new establishments were outrageous. They all looked clean enough, but none of them were anything to write home about. I would have had no problem paying full price at a hotel recovering from Katrina. The least we could do is pump a few dollars into these local economies. But the only working hotels were the new ones, who for some reason would rather turn away customers and sit empty than settle for a slightly lower fee. I was torn between the desire to help out a struggling city and very real budget constraints. One brand new place almost convinced us to stay until they mentioned they had no bedsheets, pillows, or hot water. “Well we just barely opened. There’s still some things we don’t have.”

So how much were they be willing to knock off the price for lack of these essentials? Nothing. Suddenly the Garden Center at Wal-Mart didn’t sound half bad.

Somewhere between Biloxi and Pascagoula I reluctantly had to stop for a Red Bull. Normally I don’t drop $2.50 for a small can of something that tastes like brake fluid, but I hadn’t slept since Salt Lake and it was either that or fall asleep at the wheel. I gagged it down and we continued eastward along the quiet coast. We were hoping the motel entrepreneurs in Pascagoula would be more reasonable than their Biloxi counterparts. Thankfully they were, and we were soon sleeping soundly at the Best Western.

PENSACOLA

I’ve always dreamed of walking along an endless white sand beach dotted with palm trees, crystal clear waves lapping against it- the kind of beach you see on desktop wallpapers and in frames hanging on the walls of travel agencies. The Great Salt Lake is ok to look at, but no way am I taking off my shoes on those alkali shores, and no way would I ever dive in. The Pacific ocean is the closest to home, but the water is cold and murky, and if you go in after a rainstorm, you might just come out with a few extra bacteria in your system thanks to Mexico’s pipe-free sewer system.

That’s why I was so excited to finally reach Pensacola, the first European settlement in what would be come the U.S., and home to the whitest beaches I’ve ever seen pictures of. We would only have one day there, so we woke up early and got on the road. It was about time we checked some email and payed a few bills, so we drove to the Krystal, a hamburger chain whose claims to fame are its Krystal burgers and its free wireless Internet access.


After sitting for a while in the parking lot, I figured I better go in and at least buy something to repay the good owners for letting us jump on the net for free. I wanted a breakfast combo and I wanted to try the Krystal, a mini hamburger served in bulk quantities. Not wanting a sack full of hamburgers with my grits, I made the mistake of asking if it was possible to buy just one.

“A single Krystal?” the lady asked, causing the other cashier and the cook to glance at me in total confusion, the same way the servers at Mexican restaurants look at me when I ask for no lettuce on my combo plate.

“This guy wants a single Krystal. Do we even sell a single Krystal?”

“He wants what? Just one Krystal? Are you kidding?”

“Nobody ever asked us for a single Krystal,” the baffled cashier informed me. “I don’t even know how we’d sell you just one.”

They were either completely annoyed with me or trying not to fall on the floor laughing- I’m not sure which. They definitely thought I was some kind of idiot- a white boy in flip flops and a car with California plates trying to order a single Krystal. One customer had been sitting in a booth with her face buried in her hands. The conversation perked her up and she added in a just-woke-up voice, “You realize the Krystals are very small, don’t you sir?”

“She’s right, they are extremely small.”

“Ok, ok,” I said. “Just give me how ever many you normally give. I didn’t realize-“

“Oh now he wants a whole order.”

Finally a managerial-looking woman walked up from the back with a single Krystal all wrapped up special for me.

“Here is your single Krystal, sir,” she smirked, on the verge of laughing uncontrollably. “On the house.”

I was too flustered to remember the breakfast combo, and I can’t imagine the laugh they had at my expense when I walked out of there.

Moral of the story: If you want to liven up your trip to Mississippi, walk into a Krystal and order just one.

BEACH BUDDIES

My single Krystal down the gullet, we drove straight through Alabama and over the Florida border to Santa Rosa Island, a 40 mile barrier island off of Pensacola Bay. I spent so much time looking at that island on Google Earth that I could have driven there with my eyes closed.

My wife hates the ocean. Hates it. She’s scared to death of it. Probably from watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. She has no desire to set foot on a beach, let alone swim in the ocean. She was perfectly content to drop Coulter and I off at one end of the island and drive back to explore the city. I strapped the boy onto my back and made a beeline to the water. It was clear that the beaches had been damaged by Katrina, which washed some sand away and increased the beach’s slope. But it was nice nonetheless. The sand was a brilliant white and it crunched under my feet. The water was warm- somewhere between the temperature of a heated pool and a hot tub.

Pensacola Beach (Photo by Bonneville Mariner)

And it was crystal clear. The geography of the Gulf Coast changes significantly between southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. At the waterline, beaches in the panhandle gradually slope for about 20 yards before suddenly dropping off to depths of up to 200 feet. The drop is very visible on the surface, where a turquoise morphs abruptly into a deep blue. Since the water is so clear, you know exactly when you swim past the drop off. This is where swimming off the California Coast has it’s advantages. You have no idea how deep the water is or what creatures may be swimming beneath you. Here various sharks and rays were clearly visible from the surface, so Coulter and I stayed shallow. We strolled for miles along the beach, watching dolphins, playing in the sand and picking up shells along the way until we reached the pier, where we watched the sunset. It was then that I realized just what good buddies Coulter and I were. And while I initially had reservations about bringing him on this trip, I wouldn’t have traded this day with him for the world.

Coulter (photo by Bonneville Mariner)

 

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: The Honey Island Swamp

Bonneville Mariner visited the Gulf Coast in September, 2006. Continuing with his Gulf Coast series, the author recounts a visit to the Honey Island Swamp along the Pearl River.

“Everybody who lives out here is running from something-
either the law or the voices in their heads.”
-Captain Neil Benson, Pearl River Eco-tours

FOR ME, EXPLORATION HAS ALWAYS BEGUN AT CIVILIZATION’S END. In most places, one must retreat from the neon signs and golden arches and fully exit the concrete jungle to find wilderness. Generally, if I have even one bar of reception on my cell phone, I haven’t wandered far enough. Most populated places in America attempt to integrate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces” – finely manicured plots of lawn and picnic benches that are supposed to convey a sense of nature and openness. In the Deep South, it’s the other way around. Here, small towns carve a sense of civilization into immense, untamed wilds. Even larger suburbs seem strained to keep a creeping wilderness at bay.

Slidell is a New Orleans suburb that lies under a canopy of loblolly pine on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area saturated with rivers and bayous, where small gravel roads lead to stilted home neighborhoods deep in the marshes where you wouldn’t think neighborhoods would or could be. It’s a lowland so low (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “terra firma” doesn’t really apply. And unlike most places in the country, here one can simultaneously be deep in the wilderness and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House.

Slidell is bordered to the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from it’s headwaters in the area of the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds in central Mississippi and drains into the Rigolets and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The Pearl is home to the Honey Island Swamp, one of the most beautiful and least-altered river swamps in the United States. It takes it’s name from tales of abundant wild honey made by renegade bees that had escaped their beekeepers.

SWAMP BOUND

We had made no hotel reservations. There was nothing on the itinerary. We had no plan other than to drive lonely roads and explore forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly along Hwy 190, trying to take everything in. I soon saw that tombs weren’t the only objects stolen away by Katrina’s flood waters. A large tugboat loomed just off the highway, miles from any open water. I got out to take some pictures and was instantly attacked by swarms of what looked like over-sized flying ants. These little monsters came in mating pairs, and I was amazed that they would take the time out of their procreative rite to sink their teeth (or fangs, or pokers, or whatever) into my forearms. My only option was to run until I got close enough to snap a couple pictures, then sprint back to the car. It’s amazing how fast an out-of-shape thirty-year-old can run when being chased by hordes of two-headed devil bugs. So enjoy these pictures of the runaway tugboat- I paid dearly to get them.

A few miles and several more beached boats later, we pulled into a clamshell lot fronting a swamp museum on the banks of the Pearl. A wooden walkway led out to the bank where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and both captains had ended their tours for the day. The swamp tour business was good before Katrina, they told me. Honey Island Swamp guides are now lucky to have one full boat per day, and it would have been a waste of gas and time to take only us on an after-hours tour. As we were turning to walk back to our car, another tour boat floated by and offered to take us aboard.

Ah, the swamp. Something I’ve seen in many a movie but never experienced for myself. It was amazingly quiet for an area so rich with wildlife. The setting was right out of the boat launch scene on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland- except that particular ride scene was probably taken straight from here. Old ramshackle boathouses lined the bank across from the launch, and I half expected to pass a fisherman strumming ‘O Susanna’ on his banjo before plunging down a waterfall into the world of swashbuckling pirates. But this was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina had been here. Lines of boathouses floated abandoned along the shore. Across from the launch one medium-sized boathouse rested atop a much smaller outhouse. A smaller boathouse floated beside the first, seemingly untouched by the storm.

DEAD RIVER

“I’m going to turn on a little AC,” said Captain Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tours. “Oh good,” I thought. “I’m dying out here!” Turns out he just meant he was going to drive the boat really fast. It did feel good though. After speeding along the main waterway for a mile or so, Captain Neil stopped to turn into a narrow channel leading into a slough he called Dead River. A slough is a shallow backwater lake system that parallels the main bayou waterway. The Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these sloughs.

“Watch out for the giant cutgrass as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed to thick patches of tall, broad-leafed grass that brushed the sides of the boat as we drifted past. “That’ll cut your fingers pretty good.”

Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first set out alone in a pirogue at age 10 and owned his first motorized flat boat at 12. “I know some people out here that are pretty strange. Everybody who lives in the swamp is running from something- either the law or the voices in their heads.”

This caught my interest. I asked him later to elaborate.

“The swamp is a place to lose yourself- sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. If you are running away from life, the swamp will easily accommodate your request and take whatever past you had and hide it in its waters and beneath its canopy of trees.”

We were about a mile into Dead River’s labyrinth before I realized I hadn’t been bitten by any bugs since we left the car. Not even one mosquito, which surprised me, given we were on an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, other than our toddler’s repeated attempts to leap from the vessel, this was the most peaceful boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is an eerily beautiful place. Knobby knees of bald cypresses seem to float on the murky surface. The still, dark waters combine with the impenetrable fauna and moss-hung tupelos to cast a haunting, yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a wetland that features temporary or permanent inundation of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water.” Neil defines it as as an “underwater forest.”

CRITTERS

Neil killed the engine as the slough opened into an oxbow lake or billabong, created when a wide meander of the river is cut off. I noticed a small green tree frog perched on the handrail next to my elbow. Though the swamp is densely populated with wildlife, it takes a trained eye to actually spot most of it. Once I saw that frog, I began noticing them everywhere. The swamp is like a 3-D Where’s Waldo book. The best way spot wildlife is to think of one type of animal and scan the banks until you see it.

We don’t have a lot of critters in Utah. I sleep on forest floors and dive into lakes and rivers without a second thought. My Texas-bred wife nearly went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me wade out into the Provo River for a swim. In Utah there is a notable lack of animals that can hurt/maim/kill you compared to the Deep South. The most dangerous creature to hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake- and even he will give you fair warning before striking.

What’s unsettling to me in this bog is the wildlife you can’t see- the critters that lurk beneath the rusty surface of the water. Neil says swimming in the swamp is no more dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have alligators, snakes and the occasional bull shark in the river. Yet, like most animals in their natural ecosystem, the animals are more scared of humans than humans are scared of them.”

Well, I guess if it’s only an occasional bull shark mixed in with the alligators and snakes. I feel so reassured!

SWAMP RATS AND GATORS

Somewhat of a political anomaly, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives a pickup with an NRA bumper sticker. His love for exploration and adventure evolved into a passion for this delicate ecosystem, and he’s been guiding swamp tours for over a decade. A few days after hurricane Katrina nearly stripped life from the swamp by ripping off its canopy and flooding it with salt water, Neil ventured out to inspect the damage with reporter Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Tribune.

“This is unbelievable,” he told Montgomery. “For the life of me, I would have never guessed it. It’s gone. All of it.”

“It was my first time back in the swamp after the storm,” Neil tells me over the phone two years later on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “It was heart breaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you I was in tears.” A couple hours on a boat with Captain Neil reveals his zeal for this place.

Back in open water, we saw our first gator. Once we spotted one, we started seeing them everywhere. As we passed, alligators would swim toward the boat angling for the marshmallows Neil would toss to them. He even reached out to pet the one he calls Big Al.

In the swamp, you see a lot of things out of the corner of your eye. A frog or a snake here, an alligator or a wild boar there. Stories abound about an elusive creature affectionately called “The Thing.” Of the numerous reported sightings, no intelligible photo has ever been taken of the beast. But there are plenty of believers. The Honey Island Swamp monster is more than a myth to fisherman and swamp-dwellers. Over the years several investigators have produced plaster casts of the monster’s supposed footprints. Neil owns one of these casts. He preferred not to discuss it during the tour, “because I’d like to have some credibility.” His official position? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster and therefore, it exists. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

We did not witness this mythical creature that day. But then again maybe we were only taken to the “tourist-friendly” areas of the swamp where the beast is less likely to skulk. Looking at a satellite image of the swamp I’m amazed at how little of it we saw. Next time I’m down that way I plan to convince Neil to introduce me to the more secreted grottoes of this mysterious and wonderful place.

Neil tells me he does take people out on extended private excursions, but he requires customers to sign a “sign your life away” waiver.

“Because when you get that far out in the middle of nowhere, no one can predict what may happen.”

Sign me up, Neil!

All photos by Bonneville Mariner. Article content exclusively owned by article author Clint Thomsen (Bonneville Mariner).

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

RELATED LINKS
Pearl River Eco-Tours

A word about tours in the Honey Island Swamp- I’ve spoken with people from most of the other swamp tour companies on the West Pearl River and I’ve found Neil Benson to be the friendliest and most knowledgeable among them. The rest of the companies wanted nothing to do with me once they found out I was calling from Utah and not calling to reserve a ticket. Neil has spent a lot of time answering my dumb questions and helping this desert rat understand the humid subtropical ecosystem and its environs.

If you visit New Orleans, your trip will be incomplete without a swamp tour. When you make your plans, please give Neil a call (866-59-SWAMP).

 
 
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