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.


Photo courtesy Stacy Grubb (

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, 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 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?  


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


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.