Mission Possible: The Sojourners

“Give me Your eyes for just one second

Give me Your eyes so I can see

Everything that I keep missing

Give me Your love for humanity

Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted

The ones that are far beyond my reach

Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten

Give me Your eyes so I can see.”

– Brandon Heath, Give Me Your Eyes

About forty years ago Paul and Peggie Scott had a brilliant idea. Paul was a career Navy man who had travelled the globe. He and his wife frequently observed small struggling churches that needed help. They felt a calling to do mission work but weren’t exactly sure what form that would take.  They met another couple with an RV and together their dreams began to take shape. They decided they would travel the country by RV, ministering to small churches and others along the way.  In 1978 the two couples held their first planning workshop and a year later they named their mission the National Evangelism with Sojourners. They began to bring together other mostly retired Christians who owned RVs and had a desire to continue serving others. They were aware of many small churches, Christian schools, and Bible camps that needed help, but often don’t have the necessary resources. So this new churches of Christ-affiliated mission, the Sojourners, began to unite servant-hearted, RV-based Christians with churches, schools, camps, and children’s homes that needed a helping hand. Paul and Peggy’s dream had come to fruition, a new mission work had begun, and the Sojourners have been making a difference ever since.

Worship time!
Worship time!

Fast forward to 2015 and the Sojourners mission has grown to 520+ active members all around the country. It is sponsored by the eldership at the Burleson Church of Christ in Burleson, Texas. Each year more than 120 requests come in and are vetted by the Sojourners’ leadership. There are usually enough Sojourners to fill about 90-100 of them.  Some of the projects, called sojourns, are physical in nature…building a cabin, painting a church building, fixing the plumbing or electricity at a school, remodeling classrooms, trimming weeds, landscaping, fixing what’s broken, etc. Other sojourns are more spiritually-oriented…conducting Gospel meetings, door knocking, leading parenting seminars, organizing Vacation Bible Schools, teaching, preaching, conducting family counseling, visiting the sick and shut-ins, etc. Some sojourns are a combination of meeting both physical and spiritual needs. Either way, the Sojourners are self-supporting, and even make a contribution at the conclusion of each sojourn to cover their utility expenses. Among the hundreds of places the Sojourners have made a difference is Pennsylvania’s Camp Manatawny, where I attended as a teen, and Florida Bible Camp, where Lil Jan and I counseled and taught Bible classes.

Making new friends...the McLartys
Making new friends…the McLartys

As a couple who loves to travel, but also wants to continue to serve others, the Sojourners seemed like a perfect match for us. So we joined them! (Special thanks to Rex Dutton, Todd Mikula, and Jonathan Smith for emphasizing the positive on their letters of recommendation on us!)  We are so excited to be Sojourners! They, or I suppose I should now say “we”, have a number of workshops around the country throughout the year. The biggest is in October at the Sojourners headquarters, Camp Bee, in Marshall, Texas. I’ve heard Camp Bee described as “sort of like an RV-based Bible camp for old people.” So we rolled into Camp Bee in October for two weeks of orientation, training, fellowship, mission planning, and edification. This was also the opportunity to sign-up for whatever sojourns we want to volunteer for in the coming year. As rookies on the team, we are known as “Green Dots” because on the various sojourn sign-up sheets, there are designated spots for rookies with green dots next to them. This helps ensure you don’t have a team consisting of all rookies.

More new friends...the Williams
More new friends…the Williams

Our fellow Sojourners are, in a word, awesome!   They could not have been kinder or more welcoming to us. With some exceptions, they (we) are mostly from working class backgrounds.  There are retired farmers, business men or women, teachers, policemen, engineers, chemists, hair dressers, college professors, military, electricians, secretaries and homemakers. Most are retired although some continue to work and do sojourns on their vacation time. Of the 267 or so in attendance at Camp Bee, we were the youngest. In fact, the average age is about 70, but that didn’t make a difference to them or us. They seemed excited to have some new, younger blood on the team and we were excited to join such a loving, giving group of people.

I’ve heard two descriptions of Sojourners that seem to fit. One guest speaker, who is not a Sojourner, said that in every congregation, you tend to have about 10% of the people who do most of the work. He said that among those 10%, you’ll find the Sojourners.  That was evident when it was time to clean up after a banquet or stack chairs or whatever, and everyone pitched in. Another guy privately told me, “Steve, we are past the stage of trying to achieve career goals, make rank, and impress people. You could say our testosterone levels are low. We just want to serve others, and travel while we’re at it.” After spending 23 years of my life trying (at least subconsciously) to impress some general to make rank, his words were like music to my ears. Just serve. Two thousand years ago, Jesus captured his mission, and ours, pretty succinctly: “But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27b) I think the Sojourners may be on to something.

Sojourners hold hands during EVERY SINGLE prayer...something all churches should do
Sojourners hold hands during EVERY SINGLE prayer…something all churches should do

In addition to worshipping together and hearing some motivating keynote speakers and Bible class teachers, we attended several classes on topics ranging from RV maintenance to Electricity 101. I could have used that class prior to taking possession of our RV. We also attended a Green Dot Orientation session and a Green Dot banquet, complete with a 1960s theme. By the end of that night, Lil Jan had somehow managed to volunteer us to head up next year’s Green Dot banquet.

We played lots of cards at night and learned several new variations on how to play “hand ‘n foot”. Jabs and trash talking by 70-year-old winning teams can be quite hilarious. So can the stories of exploding toilets and other “RV fails” on the road. In my spare time, I caught (and released) 14 catfish at the Camp Bee pond and went on some nice runs out in the east Texas countryside. We also went out to eat with and got to know several couples who have been Sojourners and full-time RVers for a number of years. We even ran into Cliff and Sharan David, who we worshipped with years ago back in San Antonio (had no idea they were Sojourners). It’s funny how when we first told people we were planning to unload most of our possessions and go RVing around the country, many looked at us like we had a third eyeball. Well amongst the Sojourners, that is considered a quite normal thing to do. In fact, some of them have been full-time RVing and Sojourning for more than a decade. We fit right in here.

Our "Host Mom & Dad", the Northens
Our “Host Mom & Dad”, the Northens…full-timers for 9 years!  I call him “Dad” now.
Green Dots Live Here
Green Dots Big Steve & Lil Jan Live Here

We, along with the other couple of dozen Green Dots, got first dibs to sign up for 2016 sojourns. This is a privilege you only get your first year as a Green Dot. In subsequent years, we’ll have to stand in line and “battle it out” (in a loving, Christian way, of course) to sign up for desired sojourns. 2016 will be a highly unusual year for us in that I will spend about six months of it attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Thus, our Sojourning windows of opportunity are in the winter and fall. After looking at all the opportunities out there, we settled on two workshops and three sojourns. We’ll spend most of January and February back in Florida, doing sojourns at Mount Dora Christian Home and Bible School (where we brought our former Youth Group for 7 consecutive years) and Central Florida Bible Camp. We’ll also attend the Sojourners winter workshop at that same camp. Then, after I get off the trail, we’ll head to Paragould, Arkansas in late September to do a sojourn at Paragould Children’s Home. We’ll then head back to Camp Bee in October for the annual workshop. We are thrilled to have these opportunities to serve while still fulfilling a desire to travel and live like gypsies. Lord willing, at the next Camp Bee workshop, we will be able to sign up for some 2017 sojourns in the southwest and/or northwest parts of the country.

RV Storage? You betcha!
RV Storage? You betcha!
Groovy, baby!
Groovy, baby!

As for the Sojourners, we couldn’t be happier serving alongside these wonderful Christian people. As a guy who played lots of sports growing up, I never had the honor to be on a “travel team”. I was a “good” and occasionally a “very good” athlete…but never an all-star that was selected for a travel team. So now, at age 49, I finally made my first travel team!  Lil Jan did too! We love these folks. They are great examples to us of not “throttling down” as you get older, but actually shifting into high gear and continuing to serve with abandon. We learned of one Sojourner who, at 89 years of age, was still climbing ladders, hauling bricks, and basically out-working all the “young 70 year olds” on the team. What a stud! I’m adding him to my short list of role models.

Why? So Steve doesn't fry the planet
Why? So Steve doesn’t fry the planet

If you are affiliated with a Christian school, Bible camp, children’s home or small congregation (less than 150 members) that could use a sojourn, please let me know and I’ll get you the request form. If you are potentially interested in joining the Sojourners, let me know and I’ll get you an application. You can also get these forms by contacting the Sojourner’s Camp Bee office at  office@sojourning.org or check out the web page at www.sojourning.org  for more information.

We ask that you keep this mission in your prayers, and that God will help us to plug into these sojourns and make a difference in the churches, camps, schools, and children’s homes where we’ll be serving. In some ways the various ministries we’ve been involved in throughout our lives have prepared us for this new opportunity. The mission we’re undertaking is exciting, challenging and most certainly a “mission possible”. If it’s anything like our experiences in Honduras and Costa Rica, I suspect we will be changed and blessed by these upcoming sojourns. You are never too old to take on a new challenge and a new mission. Really it’s not a new mission but an old one, going back to the challenge given to us by Jesus. Just serve. We thank God for this opportunity, and give him all the glory, honor, and praise! May he open our eyes, and your eyes, to the needs of those around us.

Big Steve

Not Just Fishers of Men
Not Just Fishers of Men
Hunter Gatherer
Fisher Gatherer
Our first sign-up as Green Dots!
Our first sign-up as Green Dots!

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Steel Magnolias

“Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”       – Truvy, from Steel Magnolias

October 9-10, 2015

On our way to Texas we decided to overnight in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Natchitoches, pronounced “nack-uh-tish”, should not be confused with Nacogdoches, a Texas town, or with Natchoswitchees, a high calorie snack food.  The town, established in 1714 near a village of Indians of the same name, is the oldest permanent settlement in the region and has Cane River Lake running through its downtown. For a number of universities, it serves as the spring break training location for their crew teams. For Civil War fans, it’s known as the town set on fire by Union solders as they retreated after failing to capture Shreveport. Music fans may know it as the site of the 1973 plane crash that claimed the life of singer Jim Croce, who was unable to save time in a bottle. For shoppers, it’s the place to visit Kaffie-Frederick, Inc., which was founded in 1863, has been featured on Duck Dynasty and Cajun Pawn, and is the oldest general store in Louisiana. For Louisiana sports fans, it offers the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Tourists may know it for its Christmas Festival lights and Bayou Pierre Alligator Park. Food fans will head to Lasoyne’s Meat Pie Restaurant, home of the famous meat pie, one of the official state foods of Louisiana. For history buffs, it offers the Cane River National Heritage Area, a 116,000-acre area that includes sites such as the Oakland Plantation, Melrose Plantation, Magnolia Plantation, and several more. Put all that together, and you get a town named one of the top six places to retire in the United States by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine.

Steel Magnolia House
Steel Magnolia House
General Store... General Nerd
General Store, est. 1863… Specific Nerd, est. 1966

What drew us to Natchitoches, however, had nothing to do with any of those things. Instead, we chose it primarily based on a popular and award-winning movie that was filmed there: Steel Magnolias. This 1989 comedy-drama is about the bond between a group of women in a small southern community, and how they cope with the death of one of their own. The film is based on a play by Richard Harling, which is based on Starling’s real life and death of his sister due to early diabetes. Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, and Shirley MacLaine star in the movie, which grossed over $135 million.

My Lil Pumpkin
My Lil Pumpkin
Nacog Riverfront Garden
Natchitoches Riverfront Garden

We did a combination driving/walking tour to several homes featured in the movie, including the Steel Magnolia. We shopped along Main Street, which lines the beautiful Cane River Lake. We had lunch at Lasoyne’s Meat Pie Restaurant and ordered, of course, their signature food, meat pie. It lived up to the hype. While there, we got a picture of a picture of Daryl Hannah visiting the restaurant during the filming of Steel Magnolias. We walked through the gardens along the riverfront where a wedding had just taken place, and enjoyed the various Halloween and Thanksgiving scenes throughout the downtown. Kaffie-Frederick General Store lived up to its billing, “You can find ANYTHING here!” We had an excellent lake-side fish and burger dinner at Cane River Bar and Grill.   Needing our free WiFi fix, we finished off the night chillin’ at McD’s, where I blogged and tried to salvage my Fantasy football team and Lil Jan watched (drum roll)… Steel Magnolias on Amazon.

Lasoyne's Meat Pie
Lasoyne’s Meat Pie
Miss Hannah Loves 'Em Too
Miss Hannah Loves ‘Em Too

That brings us back to the movie, Steel Magnolias. Why that title? It is supposed to reflect the idea that the film’s female characters can be both as delicate as the magnolia flower, yet as tough as steel. Trading in three man-cards, I did a little more research on the magnolia, and found that there’s more to its story. Magnolias are multi-faceted with the potential to become trees, shrubs, evergreens or deciduous plants. They produce magnificent flowers in different colors, which have been popular around the world for centuries. The Japanese use the magnolia tree for its medicine and also grow ornamental shrubs. The bark is believed to reinvigorate a person’s chi, the life energy that breathes through all. (In America, that’s called mojo.) In China the magnolia denudate, or “jade orchid” is associated with China’s mighty imperial past, and was often used in Chinese art. During Victorian times, the magnolia flowers symbolized dignity, nobility, poise, and pride. Elsewhere, the flower has symbolized endurance, eternity, and long life, perhaps fitting since there are magnolia fossils dating back 20 million years.

The Cast
The Cast

In the United States, and especially the South, the magnolia grandiflora blooms with foot-long, scented white flowers, and symbolizes magnificence and splendid beauty. For some, the flower means the South. In fact, its been called the Southern emblem, and both Louisiana and Mississippi have the magnolia as their state flower. Even the magnolia’s colors have significance and have served as coded messages. White means purity and perfection; pink recalls youth, innocence and joy; yellow means joy and the coming of spring; green is associated with health and luck; and purple means power, sort of an explanation point that you would use with the other flowers…like a Pokemon Energy card. So, if you want a sick person to get well in an amazing or powerful way, you might send them green and purple magnolias.

flowers 2

So it is an amazing flower. It’s strikingly beautiful, yet very tough, unlike other delicate flowers. When you add “steel” to it as a modifier, it suggests something of amazing strength and beauty…a flower tough enough to survive even with changing climactic and geological conditions. Steel Magnolias, then, becomes a rather brilliant title for a movie about strong Southern women.

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”                 – 1 Peter 5:10

We have been blessed to know and be inspired by some real-life Steel Magnolias. We’ve known some women who have faced adversity, overcome obstacles, and kept their faith. These women are as strong as steel and courageous as lions. They are beautiful inside and out. Their lives and examples are better than any Hollywood movie. So we thought we’d close by recognizing a few of our favorite Steel Magnolias.

Our first Steel Magnolia is Jaye Trovillion. Jaye lost her husband, Allan, to cancer several years ago. By all accounts, he was a loving husband, father, and friend and his death was an incredible blow. Although we moved to Florida shortly after his death and never got to meet him, we feel like we know him through the testimony of others. We can’t pretend to know the level of pain and sadness Jaye has endured. But we know this…Jaye got back on her feet. Jaye loves the Lord and held on to her faith. In the years since his death, she has taught Bible classes, inspired and served on multiple mission trips, and been an example to young and old of what it means to walk with the Lord. Wanting to help others deal with similar losses, she established and leads a grief support group. The loss of a loved one is not something you get over and put behind you. And yet, it is possible for healing to occur and to begin functioning again. For a steely few, women like Jaye, it’s even possible to continue to live lives of joy and passion, encouraging others along the way.

Jaye in Honduras
Jaye in Honduras
Jaye in Paris
Jaye in Paris

Becky Beggs is our second Steel Magnolia. Becky was diagnosed with advanced cancer a couple of years ago. The news was devastating, knocking Becky, husband Todd, the entire family and their friends off their feet. There seemed to be a lot more questions than answers. Why her? Why now? She is a faithful Christian, wife, and mother to two teenage boys. She’s in her 40s, full of life and has so much to offer to so many people. In the midst of disappointment and frustration, she too regained a foothold and began to fight back. She started an intense regime of chemotherapy and surgery. Our church prayed for her individually and collectively, and continues to do so. Even with her hair falling out and at times feeling sick all over, she returned to her Guidance Counselor position at the local Christian school whenever she was able. The Guidance Counselor title doesn’t do her justice, as she is also a life coach, mentor, friend, and Christian example to hundreds of young people…and more than a few adults. We don’t know the precise outcome of the cancer battle for Becky, or anyone else for that matter. But her steely resolve to fight cancer while keeping and professing her faith is such an encouragement to those who know her and those who are going through similar fights.

Becky & Todd
Becky & Todd
Foundation Christian Academy in Becky's Corner
Foundation Christian Academy takes the court for Becky

Our third Steel Magnolia is Hayley Waldron. We don’t know Hayley as well as the other two. We went to college with her parents, Tim and Lisa Smith, and remain friends.  We’ve gotten to know her through her friends, including our son, Kyle. We have also gotten great insight into her character and faith through her Facebook posts. Hayley’s husband, Harrison, was in a serious 4-wheeler accident a few months ago while they were in New York for a wedding. He sustained a life-threatening traumatic brain injury, and the doctors weren’t sure if he would survive. As a young, immensely talented newlywed couple, they were living for God and making a difference in the world around them. And then this happened. More questions. Why him? Why them? Why now? Why God? While I suspect Hayley has asked her fair share of questions, she hasn’t lost her faith. She hasn’t given up on Harrison or on God. Rather than withdrawing into a shell, which would be understandable, she has kept her family and friends updated on his status, and has continued to proclaim the awesomeness of God. She has inspired thousands of people across the country and around the world to go to their war rooms, drop to their knees, and pray for God’s healing of Harrison. That’s faith, folks! It’s trusting in God even when you don’t have all the answers. It is knowing, even in the darkest storm, who is piloting the ship.

Hayley and Harrison
Hayley and Harrison
Fighting the Good Fight
On the road to recovery

Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to hear Dr. Kent Brantly, an Ebola survivor, speak at Lipscomb University. Kent said that faith isn’t believing that everything will be good and pleasant for Christians in the here and now. In fact, the Bible tells us to expect difficulty, suffering, and even some persecution. Rather, Kent’s definition of faith is “believing that God is who he said he is, and will do what he said he will do.” Wow! Let that sink in for a moment. That’s a game changer. Because if God is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do (spoiler alert: He is and will), then that changes everything. It means that things end really, really well for Jaye and Allan, Becky and Todd, Hayley and Harrison, and all who put their faith in God. God has written the final chapter in their stories (and ours) and they end amazingly well, regardless of when or how our earthly stories end. Jesus once said, in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take hear; I have overcome the world.”

Thank you, Hayley and Jaye and Becky, for being Steel Magnolias, living examples of holding on to faith in even the most trying of circumstances. Please know that your lives and your faith have encouraged and strengthened many people.  If God ever decided to write a sequel to the Bible set in the 21st Century, and wanted a Job-like book on faith in times of trial, I suspect he might include the Book of Jaye, the Book of Becky, or the Book of Hayley.  Thank you for putting your faith in a Savior who loves you and has overcome this world. We count ourselves among the many who have been blessed and inspired by you.

Big Steve and Lil Jan

Note 1:  To learn more about Harrison and Hayley’s story, check out Hayley’s Facebook page or this excellent article:  http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/he-s-with-me-and-he-s-fighting

If you’d like to donate funds to help with Harrison’s medical care, you can send a check (w/ “Harrison or Hayley Waldron” in the memo line) to their home congregation which is serving as a collection and distribution point for donated funds.  The address is:

Tusculum Church of Christ
6117 Nolensville Pike
Nashville, TN 37211

Note 2:  To learn more about Becky’s journey, check out her blog at:  http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/beckybeggs

If you’d like to donate funds to help with Becky’s cancer treatment, use this link:  https://www.gofundme.com/dp7odg

 

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The Great River Road, Part 23: Venice, LA – The End

“Although we’ve come to the end of the road,

Still, I can’t let go. It’s unnatural.

You belong to me, I belong to you.”

– Boyz II Men

“In the end, every person’s life is a tough act to follow.”

– James Michael Rice

October 8, 2015 – Day 40 – Venice, Louisiana

Today, our journey would come to an end. After 40 days, 2340 miles, 10 states, and 30 river crossings, we were approaching the end of the Great River Road. We were determined to follow the road as far south as possible, although we knew we’d run out of road before we ran out of river. Unlike Minnesota, which celebrates the Mississippi headwaters with a plaque, interpretive center and lots of tourists, Louisiana doesn’t celebrate the end of the road or river. The river simply meanders unheralded through Louisiana and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

Swamp People
Swamp People
Pontoon in the Bayou
Pontoon in the Bayou
Lil Jan, Lil-er Gator
Lil Jan, Lil-er Gator

We left New Orleans, headed south through bayou country, and decided on one final excursion: the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour. Queue the banjo music. We boarded a pontoon boat with a dozen other folks, including a friendly minister and his wife from Kansas. They are shopping for an RV and considering full-time RVing some day, so we talked to them about gypsy life. As we travelled through beautiful mangrove swamp canals, our tour guide told jokes, explained the landscape, and helped us locate multiple alligators. After 7 years of living in Florida, gators aren’t quite the novelty any more, but it was still neat seeing a few big ones approach the boat. We cruised by an old hut along the bank, and our guide explained that the hut and that area of the swamp have been featured in a number of movies, including Django Unchained, Pelican Brief, Tempted, Beautiful Creatures, Hatchet 3 (a love story?), and some episodes of NCIS. In fact, Nicolas Cage, who we practically hung out with yesterday (okay, we walked by his former house), Jamie Foxx, and Ryan Seacrest have all previously done the swamp tour. Towards the end of the tour, our guide pulled out a live baby alligator and we got to pass him around and pet him. He seemed thrilled.

Movie Set
Movie Set
My Buddy Nick on Swamp Tour
My Buddy Nick on Swamp Tour
Ryan Seacrest on Swamp Tour
Ryan Seacrest on Swamp Tour
Jamie Foxx on Swamp Tour
Jamie Foxx on Swamp Tour

We left the swamp and continued south along the southernmost peninsula in Louisiana. We drove through Buras-Triumph, the town where Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, with 145 mph winds. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction still dots the landscape, with several abandoned houses and businesses. Further south, we came to our final tourist stop, Fort Jackson, a Historic National Landmark located 40 miles up river from the mouth of the Mississippi. Between 1822 and 1832, it was constructed as a coastal defense of New Orleans, and was a battle site during the American Civil War.  More specifically, Flag Officer David Farragut and his U.S. Navy fleet besieged the Confederate-controlled fort for 12 days. The siege resulted in a mutiny inside the fort against the officers and conditions, and the fort fell to the Union, as did New Orleans. Fort Jackson was then used as a Union prison and much later, after World War I, as a training station. Hurricane Katrina’s deadly storm surge flooded and badly damaged the fort in 2005, but it’s still open for tours.

Historic Fort Jackson
Historic Fort Jackson
Fort Jackson Entrance
Fort Jackson Entrance

We continued our journey southward to Venice, an unincorporated community in Plaquemines Parish. With a population of 202, it is the last community on the Mississippi accessible by automobile, and it is the southern terminus of the Great River Road. Thus, the town has earned the nickname, “The end of the world.” It’s also known as the launching point for offshore fishing. If Venice were a person, you would say she’s had a tough life, and is a survivor. She was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She got back on her feet, and has spent the past decade rebuilding, reopening, and reoccupying. That comeback took another hit in April 2010, as Venice faced an environmental disaster when oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion began washing ashore. Oily birds from the spill were treated at the historic site we had just visited, Fort Jackson.

Pilot Town, LA
Pilot Town, LA

I wondered, if Venice is the southernmost town on the Mississippi reachable by car, is there a town even further south reachable only by boat or helicopter? (Because geeks wonder about things like that.) It turns out there is, and it is named Pilottown (or Pilot Town). Originally, in 1699, French settlers established a settlement and fort known as La Balize, located about ten miles downriver from Pilot Town. La Balize meant “seamark” and the French built a 62-foot-high wooden pyramid to help guide ships on the Mississippi River. This was where river pilots came to live. After an 1860 hurricane storm surge blew down its buildings and destroyed the area, La Balize was abandoned. Mississippi River pilots then built a new settlement further up river and named it Pilot Town. Below it the river splits into multiple branches as part of the larger Mississippi River Delta. Pilot Town consists of a few buildings, including temporary housing for river pilots and a weather station, and some large oil tanks. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina struck near Pilot Town, damaged nearly every structure, and drove away its few remaining residents. Today, it serves as a temporary home for members of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association and as a base for offshore oil exploration.

Gas Station Under Water after Katrina
Gas Station Under Water after Katrina

As for Venice, the southernmost inhabited town on the Mississippi, we pulled into the last store, a combination gas station/convenience/hardware store. It was obvious it had taken a mighty punch. Its sign was still down and the floors had rusty streaks and other evidence of flooding. There was a picture near the cash register that showed the store after Katrina hit. It’s really a miracle anything was left to salvage. I asked the clerk, now in her mid-twenties, if she was around when the storm hit. She said that she was. I asked her what it was like to be a part of that history. She said they first focused on surviving, and then on getting back on their feet and rebuilding. I’d say that’s pretty good advice for towns, and people, whose lives have been dealt a heavy blow.

The End of the Road
The End of the Road

The Great River Road eventually becomes a dirt road, and then a private road for workers at an energy company. We had reached the end. We climbed a riverbank, gave each other high fives, and took a final selfie. Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Or maybe she just signed it.  Regardless, we are thankful that God has given us this great adventure…40 days to travel, be inspired by some amazing people, and see some incredible things along the Great River Road. Although this particular journey is over, there is still so much of our great nation to see, and more adventures to experience. So we did some laundry, topped off the gas tank, said a prayer, and set our sights on the great state of Texas.

Big Steve

Louisiana Swamp Gator
Louisiana Swamp Gator

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The Great River Road, Part 22: New Orleans, LA

“That’s why I love road trips, dude. It’s like doing something without actually doing anything.” – John Green

 “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”           – Tennessee Williams

October 7, 2015 – Day 39 – New Orleans, Louisiana

It was time for New Orleans to join Minneapolis, St Louis, and Memphis as large cities we would visit on our Great River Road journey. We arrived last night to our base camp, the campground at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, located in nearby Belle Chasse.

Good morning, New Orleans!
Good morning, New Orleans!
St Louis Cathedral & Jackson Square
St Louis Cathedral & Jackson Square

Our goal was simple, overly ambitious, and impossible: do “N’Ahlens” in one day. Game on. We arrived at the Big Easy by crossing the Mississippi on the Canal Street Ferry. We strolled through Woldenberg Riverfront Park and approached the Steamboat Natchez, just in time to hear a woman on the top deck blow her organ. By that, I mean a musical instrument, not that she had a medical emergency. We walked toward the French Quarter, passed by the always-bustling Jackson Square and headed directly for our first stop…Café du Monde. When in Rome, you do as the Romans. When in New Orleans, you eat beignets and drink café au lait at Café du Monde. This iconic restaurant is where Woody Harrelson hypnotized people in Now You See Me, where Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman met for lunch in Runaway Jury, and where Miley Cyrus and Jeremy Piven had a secret meeting in So Undercover. Today, it would be where Big Steve and Lil Jan would get a bag of beignets and coffee to go, find a park bench in Jackson Square on which to people watch, and feast on these powdery balls of fried doughy magic.

Cafe du Monde
Cafe du Monde

With powdered sugar all over our hands and shirts, we stuck our heads into the St Louis Cathedral and then did some shopping on Bourbon and Royal Streets. There were various musicians, bands and street performers to entertain us along the way. We tasted sample hot sauces, saw a skeleton on a toilet, and considered buying some fava beans for our cousin Hannibal. The most impressive of the stores was the upscale and extremely interesting M.S. Rau Antiques. It has been a French Quarter landmark for more than 100 years and has a 25,000-square-foot showroom overflowing with remarkable collections of fine art, exquisite jewelry and exceptional 18th and 19th-century antiques. It’s one of those high-end places where people in ties sit at desks buying, selling, and researching antiques on phones and computers. Half of the store’s items are behind protective glass. I asked the sophisticated-looking woman at the front desk, “What’s the oldest thing in this store?” Without missing a beat, the security guard standing a few feet away glanced our way, pointed at the woman, and said, “She is.” Well done, sir.

Chondrite Meteorite
Chondrite Meteorite

Actually, the oldest item is the rare Chondrite meteorite, found in Morocco, and weighing in at a whopping 66 pounds! This extraterrestrial wonder dates from the early phase of the solar system, and is believed to have originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter nearly 4.7 billion years ago. The store has rare diamonds, a Paul Revere sterling bowl, dinosaur skeletons, George Washington’s hair, a German Enigma machine, and paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh. Be sure to check out their offerings at http://www.rauantiques.com Once we realized we couldn’t afford anything in the store, didn’t really need a meteorite, and were tourists covered in powdered sugar, we gracefully exited.

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Let's get a muffuletta!
Let’s getta muffuletta!

It was lunchtime and thus time to visit another New Orleans favorite, Central Grocery. Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant, founded this small, old-fashioned grocery store with a sandwich counter in 1906. He noticed that some of his regulars struggled with juggling their usual lunch of bread, salami, cheese and olives. So he put it all together on one sandwich, and the incredible muffuletta was born. It’s kind of a cross between a Cuban sandwich, a deep-dish pizza, and a Frisbee. Because of the muffuletta, Central Grocery has been featured in the PBS special program Sandwiches That You Will Like and on NBC’s The Today Show (five best sandwiches series). The store also sells all of the ingredients to make the sandwich, as well as Italian, Greek, French, Spanish, and Creole table delicacies. For the adventurous type, they sell chocolate-covered grasshoppers and bumble bees in soy sauce. I imagine some Chinese guy had a bee land on and drown in his take-out General Tsao chicken once, inadvertently ate it and thought, “that’s really good!” Lil Jan and I attempted to split a whole muffuletta and ended up sharing 1/3 of it with a guy on a street corner. These delicious sandwiches can be ordered on-line through the store’s website. Or, if you’d like to try making your own muffuletta, check out this recipe… http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/muffulettas-recipe.html

Former Nic Cage Home
Former Nic Cage Home

With our bellies full, it was time to creep on some of the many New Orleans celebrity homes. First up was the former home of Nicolas Cage, which may explain why he wasn’t on the balcony waving to us as we went by. The place is supposedly haunted. However, the only paranormal activity we felt originated from the partially digested muffuletta in my large intestine. Better keep moving. Down the street was the home of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, with an asking price of $6.5 million. The pair spent a lot of time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city back in 2005. They’ve updated the home with Venetian-plastered walls, custom marble mantles and fireplaces, crown moldings, a grand spiral staircase, elevator, private spacious patio with pool, gourmet kitchen with top-of-the line appliances and laundry room. There’s also a separate, two-story guesthouse. We considered making an offer on the home but after pooling our resources, came up just $6.5 million short. Our view down by river is nicer anyhow.

Brangelina Home
Brangelina Home
Brad so excited to see us
Brad so excited to see us…even puts flag out

Determined to spot a celebrity, we boarded the city trolley and headed to the very upscale Garden District. Over the next hour, we strolled around taking pictures of the homes of author Anne Rice, the Archie Manning family where Peyton and Eli were raised, and the home where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filmed. Our final celebrity home was that of Miss Congeniality herself, Sandra Bullock. As we patrolled its perimeter, Lil Jan stood on her tippy toes snapping photos over the fence like a TMZ junkie. We are truly pathetic. Around to the side of her house, we noticed a few of her garbage bags set outside. I said, “If my mother or sisters were here, we would go through that garbage, and sell its contents on E-Bay.” In a moment of rare discretion, I thought better of it, and we slowly walked away with just a remnant of our dignity intact.

Anne Rice Home
Anne Rice Home
Benjamin Button Movie House
Benjamin Button Movie House
Archie Manning Homestead
Archie Manning Homestead

Next, we made our final Garden District stop, the Lafayette Cemetery Number One. The cemetery is the oldest of seven city-operated cemeteries in New Orleans, with about 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people buried in a single city block. Among them are the remains of Judge Ferguson of the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate-but-equal” case. You’ll also find the tomb of Brigadier General Harry T. Hays who led the 1st Louisiana Brigade. Many movies have been filmed in the cemetery, including Double Jeopardy and Dracula 2000. LeAnn Rimes and the New Kids on the Block have also shot music videos there. Interestingly, none of the local residents are buried there. Why? Because they’re not dead yet, silly.

Lil Jan Creeps on Miss Congeniality's Home
Lil Jan Creeps on Miss Congeniality’s Home
We Thought Better of It
We Thought Better of It

With the sun starting to set, we travelled by foot, trolley, ferry, and car to Salvo’s Seafood in Belle Chase, where we feasted on gumbo and fried fish. It turns out we were not able to do all that New Orleans offers in a day, but we did a lot. It’s not really a place we’d want to live, but it’s a great place to eat, shop, wander, get a tattoo, explore, listen to music, creep on celebrities, and be entertained. We returned to the RV exhausted and a little sad, realizing we were almost at the end of our Great River Road adventure. Tomorrow would be our 40th and final day travelling the Mississippi. It was time to head to the swamp.

Big Steve

Gumbo anyone?
Gumbo anyone?

Click on below link for sample of street musicians…

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Campground Review: Aviation Arbor RV Park, Belle Chase, LA

Aviation Arbor RV Park, Naval Air Station (NAS) Joint Reserve Base (JRB) New Orleans, Belle Chase, LA

Dates: October 6-9, 2015

Campsite: 27

Overall Score: 4.46 (out of 5)

Summary: The strength of this military campground is being close to New Orleans and having full hookups.

Recreation/Amenities: 4 – Aside from billiards and Ping-Pong, there is not much to do at the actual campground. However, its location on a military base puts a movie theater, bowling alley, gymnasium, golf course and other recreational opportunities in easy driving distance.

Hookups & Connectivity: 4.8 – electric, water, and sewer. Laundry facilities. Free Wi-Fi. Aside from Cable TV, it has everything you’d want in a campground.

Pavillion, Laundry, Bathrooms
Pavillion, Laundry, Bathrooms

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 4.7 – A high score due to its proximity to New Orleans which has a ton of things to do (see our blog on New Orleans). There’s also the Audubon Aquarium, Insectarium, IMAX, and Audubon Zoo.

Cleanliness: 4.5 – Solid. No major issues. Even the laundry facilities were nice.

Simple, but full hook-ups!
Simple, but full hook-ups!

Intangibles: 4.3

Pros – Quiet, clean, and safe. Very affordable at $20/night. There’s decent spacing between RVs. Upon arrival, we were given a welcome packet with maps and information on the local area. That’s a first. I always love being back on a military installation and hearing the National Anthem played over loud speakers each day. Merica!

Cons – The campground is not what you would consider beautiful…no lakes, mountain vistas, forests, etc. There are just rows of RVs surrounded by some trees and bushes. The campground is close to the a flight line which can get loud at times, although that wasn’t a problem for us.

Big Steve

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The Great River Road, Part 21: Darrow to Vacherie, LA

“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it…nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

 “It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I am NOT a big man.”         

– Fletch

October 6, 2015 – Day 38 – Darrow and Vacherie, Louisiana

After overnighting at a Wal-Mart south of Baton Rouge, we continued our journey southward, and decided to tour two more plantation homes. There were over 400 plantations along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the 1800s. Of the handful that remain, at least 8 are open to the public for tours. After reading on-line reviews and talking to locals, we decided to tour our top 2, the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow and the Laura Plantation in Vacherie.

Ah, the trees!
Ah, the trees!
Houmas House Interior
Houmas House Interior

The lawn and gardens at the Houmas House were drop-dead gorgeous, among the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. It’s worth the price of admission just to walk the grounds and see the 600+ year old live oak trees. We noticed several artists on the grounds sketching and painting, and ran into a professional photographer who snapped our picture on a bridge. Not surprisingly, they do lots of weddings here. Our tour guide was dressed in full Antebellum garb and spoke with a semi-authentic Southern accent that only Lil Jan could understand. I appreciated her knowledge, sense of humor, and the patience she showed with a young mother on our tour who was trying to handle an unruly, crying child. Not as patient, I wanted to stuff him in the antique chamber pot. The interior of the home was stunning. I especially liked the statue of Abraham Lincoln containing 60 pounds of silver and a gold clock owned by Marie Antoinette that was given to Napoleon’s brother as a wedding gift. I found it odd that the current owner of the house, apparently a wealthy bachelor, still lives there. He sleeps in one of the antique-filled bedrooms, and each morning picks up after himself to make the room “show ready” for tours. Only his private bathroom is off-limits. I think it would be cool if he slept in one morning and they still did tours, pointing out that the sleeping man in the antique bed is the owner…and the toddler in the chamber pot is a reminder not to be unruly.

Houmas Gardens
Houmas Gardens
Imagine the Size of the Frogs
Imagine the Size of the Frogs

Every Southern plantation has a unique story, and the Houmas House Plantation is no exception. Its first owners were the indigenous Houmas Indians who acquired the property via a land grant. In the mid 1700’s, new owners built a French Provincial house on the property.   By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the plantation was a fully operational sugar cane plantation.   General Wade Hampton, a Revolutionary War general, purchased the property in 1810 and shortly after began construction on the Mansion. Sugar production continued to increase and the plantation grew to 300,000 acres.   It continued to change hands, and would eventually become the largest producer of sugar cane in the country.   During the Civil War, Irish owner John Burnside saved the Mansion from destruction by the Union forces by declaring immunity as a subject of the British crown. Well played.   John was an interesting character. For some reason, he would pay money to any local residents who would name their sons “John.” He was also heavily into sports betting, and secretly purchased a champion thoroughbred from back east, stored it in the Mansion’s billiard room, and used it to defeat fellow businessmen in a big race. Nice. Apparently they had no Clue it was the thoroughbred, from the billiard room, with the horseshoe.

Nice Spot for a Wedding
Nice Spot for a Wedding
Pick Your Poison
Pick Your Poison

By the late 1800s, the plantation was producing a massive 20 million pounds of sugar per year. In 1927, it managed to survive the epic “great flood” that devastated so much of the river valley. However, it suffered financial losses that got even worse during the Great Depression just two years later.   The Mansion closed and fell into disrepair, but was brought back as a summer home by Dr. George Crozat in 1940. In 1963 the popular Bette Davis film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was shot on the property and Ms. Davis stayed in one of the bedrooms during filming.   Scenes from other films were also shot here, including Mandingo and Fletch Lives. TV show episodes filmed here include All My Children, Top Chef, and Wheel of Fortune. We enjoyed walking through the Houmas Mansion and around the amazing gardens.   Although purists probably don’t appreciate a not true to the period bonsai garden on the premises, we thought it was pretty cool. There are a couple of restaurant options as well, including a high end one that serves a 9-course meal. Unlike yesterday’s tour at Frogmore Plantation, there was no touring the sugar cane fields, no evidence of slave quarters, and no mention of the 750 slaves who labored there over the years. Rather, the emphasis here is on the land barons, the interior, and the gardens. We believe Houmas has earned its title, the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.

Bettie Davis Room
Bette Davis Room

We continued down the Great River Road toward Vacherie and our next stop, the Laura Plantation. This plantation is famous for its Creole-styled raised main house and several surviving outbuildings, including six slave cabins. If you want a “Gone with the Wind” experience with an impressive interior and grounds, go with the Houmas House. If you are more into history and story telling, and want to tour a slave cabin and get insights on slavery, I’d go with the Laura House. Our tour guide was superb and told captivating stories about the plantation and creole culture, heritage and history. As she spoke, the place came to life. We learned about Guillaume Duparc, the original French owner of the plantation, and how he was banished from France by his father for having shot a dear family friend’s son in a duel. He lived at the plantation for only 4 years, dying in 1808, just 3 years after the house was built. The Duparc daughter, Elisabeth, married into the Locoul family, and generations later, Laura Locoul Gore inherited the plantation after moving to New Orleans.

Laura House
Laura House

Laura’s memoirs, published in 2000, provide most of the insights and history of the plantation, and really drove its popularity as a tour stop.  In her memoirs, Laura discusses growing up on the plantation and speaking to Pa Philippe, a “weather beaten” slave, when she was 7.   “On his creased and wrinkled old face I saw the letters ‘V.D.P.’ I pointed my finger to his face and asked, “Oh Philippe, what is that mark on your forehead?” He turned and laughed in a hard, cackling, old voice saying, “Lord, child, don’t you know this is where they branded me when I used to run away?” I was horror stricken and ran into the house to my mother saying, “Oh, Mamma, they branded Philippe like they do cattle. I saw it. He told me so. Who did it, Mamma?”  (Memories of a Plantation Homes by Laura Locoul Gore, p. 39)  The incident left a lasting impression on Laura.  She inherited the plantation and ran it as a sugar business until 1891, then sold it and moved away, never to return again.

Louisiana Sugar Cane Plantations on the Mississippi
Louisiana Sugar Cane Plantations on the Mississippi
View from Laura's Back Porch
View from Laura’s Back Porch

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that the owners’ sugar fortune was built on the backs of the 300 slaves working there during peak production. She told about slave owners having children with slaves, how the value/price of a slave was determined (based on their health, skills, and experience…see poster at bottom), and various cousins marrying cousins. We learned that the house was built on a foundation of brick pyramids, due to the clay that runs a mile deep before hitting solid ground. The house is quaint and interesting to tour, but doesn’t have near the grandeur of the Houmas House. In fact, on August 9, 2004, an electrical fire destroyed 80% of the house. Restoration work was completed two years later, despite being interrupted in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

Slave Cabin
Slave Cabin

The final story on our tour was about Alcée Fortier, a family neighbor and student of folklore, who visited the plantation in the 1870s to listen to the freedmen. He compiled the stories the freedmen told their children in the Louisiana Créole French language. The stories were about a clever, trickster rabbit and stupid fool, Compare Lapin and Compair Bouki. The stories originated in Senegal and were brought to America in the 1720s by enslaved Africans. Twenty-five years later, in 1894, Fortier published the freedmen’s stories in Louisiana Folk Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation. Preservationist Norman Marmillion was captivated by the tales and created a non-profit company that attracted enough investors, including some descendants of former owners, to embark on a ten-year restoration of the plantation. The tales continue to be passed from generation to generation. You may know them as the tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox.

Oak Alley Plantation
Oak Alley Plantation

Before leaving the area and heading south to New Orleans, we decided to drive by the Oak Alley Plantation, which narrowly missed our cut of places to tour. While it has an impressive house and story like the others, it is best known for the rows of large live oaks that grace its lawn. Movies filmed at Oak Alley include Interview With a Vampire, Primary Colors, Midnight Bayou, Ghost Hunters, Night Rider, and The Long Hot Summer, along with episodes of Days of Our Lives and Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” music video. Had it been her All the Single Ladies video, I would have pulled over, put my hands up, and danced among the live oak trees.

Big Steve

Saw my buddy, John Walsh, inside Houmas House
Saw my buddy, John Walsh, inside Houmas House
Registry of Slaves, with value, 1808
Registry of Slaves, with value, 1808

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The Great River Road, Part 20: Ferriday, LA

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

– Mark Twain

“Look back, to slavery, to suffrage, to integration and one thing is clear. Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts.”            

– Anna Quindlen

 October 5, 2015 – Day 37 – Ferriday, Louisiana

I decided to surprise Lil Jan today with something that wasn’t on the original agenda. We broke camp at Natchez State Park and headed west across the Great River into Louisiana, the final state on our Great River Road adventure. Just south of Ferriday, we pulled into today’s surprise stop, the Frogmore Plantation.   I couldn’t have designed a better stop to satisfy Lil Jan’s love languages. They were all spoken here. For starters, Frogmore is a working cotton plantation with modern equipment and farming practices. That alone would be enough reason to visit. But Frogmore is also a historic cotton plantation dating back to 1815, and that is what makes it special and what truly made Lil Jan smile. In fact, it is the only one of its kind in the entire South. We highly recommend this place for your bucket list.

Frogmore Plantation
Frogmore Plantation
Pure Southern Swag
Pure Southern Swag

Stepping into the Frogmore gift shop and museum was like stepping back into time. Caught up in the moment and wanting to impress my Southern wife, I immediately sat down in a rocking chair and threw down an RC cola and Moon Pie. As the Moon Pie crumbs fell down my chest and I belched RC, Lil Jan exited the store, apparently overwhelmed by my Southern swag.

Our tour began in an adjacent building and we were surprised that Lynette Tanner, the co-owner of Frogmore, would herself lead the first leg of it. She spoke passionately about the history of Frogmore, cotton farming, slavery, sharecropping, and the Civil War. She has written and edited a book called Chained to the Land which is a collection of interviews of slaves from the state of Louisiana (of course, Lil Jan purchased one from the store). The slaves’ poignant recollections of food, housing, clothing, relationships, weddings, and funerals, as well as their treatment, echo memories of a past era, and some will bring tears to your eyes.

Walkin' in High Cotton
Walkin’ in High Cotton

After answering questions, she passed us off to another tour guide who walked us around the property. We saw original slave quarters, the kitchen, farm equipment, the commissary, an original cotton gin and steam engine, the church, and much more. A few of the buildings are original to Frogmore while Mrs. Tanner brought others here from other plantations. We also got to go out into a field and pick some cotton. This time Lil Jan got caught up in the moment and ran across the field singing Walking in High Cotton. We are such nerds. Our guide had a firm grasp on the history of the place, explaining what daily life would have been like for a slave on the plantation. There was certainly a very surreal, sobering feeling when we walked into the slave quarters and tried to wrap our minds around the harsh quality of life these residents would have endured. At one point I looked over and Lil Jan was wiping away some tears.

Overseers Cabin
Overseers Cabin
Slave Quarters
Slave Quarters

My favorite stop was the overseer’s cabin where we learned about Willie Smith, who used to live in the cabin with his family. According to an exhibit inside the cabin, “Willie Smith became the first African American farm manager on a major cotton plantation in Louisiana at the demise of sharecropping and remained so until his death in 1995. Willie represents thousands of sharecroppers across the South whose lifestyle abruptly ended with the advent of mechanization. Willie started working the Frogmore fields at age eight and only completed 3rd grade. After he married Janie Green, Willie and his family sharecropped Frogmore until the early 1960’s along with over fifty other sharecropping families. Willie, unlike many other sharecroppers, did not move to town when diesel equipment forced them out of work. He learned the mechanics of modern farm equipment and cotton gins and stayed abreast of a wave of new technology to become a well-respected farm manager and ginner by all landowners in the area. Members of Willie’s family still live in their family home on Frogmore.” Stories such as Willie’s are what make these tours so interesting. From humble beginnings, he worked hard, overcame obstacles, and made a name for himself. Well done, Willie.

Well done, Mr. Whitney!
Well done, Mr. Whitney!
Where Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins are Born
Where Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins are Born

At the final stop on the tour, we watched a movie about cotton production and the Frogmore plantation. I learned that cotton is classified based on its quality and priced accordingly. For example, cotton of average quality might be given “Grade 31—Middling”. For many years, my now deceased grandfather, when asked how he was doing, would answer, “Fair to Middling”. I never really understood what he meant, but figured it must mean that he was doing okay. Now I finally understand that he was describing his current state of being using the quality standards of cotton. I’ve decided to continue this tradition by trying to confuse my future grandchildren. When they ask how I’m doing, and it’s been an average day, I’ll simply respond, “89 octane”.

Steam Cotton Gin
Steam Cotton Gin

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We also learned about the many uses of cotton. For example, cottonseeds are used to feed cattle. The exterior fuzz on the seed, called linters, is used to make currency, banknotes, quality stationery, yarns, felt, sausage casings, medical supplies and duct tape. The linter cellulose becomes plastics, cosmetics, and nail polish. The outside of the seed, the hull, is used for cattle feed, chemicals, mulch, and insulation for drilling rigs. After the hulls and oils are removed, what remains is high protein cotton meal, which is compressed into cakes and fed to cattle, deer, crawfish, and catfish. There is also cottonseed oil which, after refining, is an edible oil that is 100% trans-fat, cholesterol, and gluten free. It is used as a cooking oil, flavored salad oil, solid shortening, and margarine. In 1914 Procter & Gamble packaged cottonseed oil in solid form and named it Crystallized Seed Cotton Oil, or CRISCO, which is used in cookies, crackers, and chips. Of course, cotton can also be used to clean earwax, make a fake Santa beard, or euthanize lab animals. So next time you see a cotton field, I hope you’ll appreciate that it is the source for a lot more than just cotton t-shirts and underwear.

The Church
The Church
Moon Pie Starting to Kick In
Moon Pie Starting to Kick In

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog and that you have a great day, or at least a middling, 89 octane one.

Big Steve

 

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The Great River Road, Part 19: Natchez, MS

“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”
– Christina Rossetti

 October 4, 2015 – Day 36 – Natchez, Mississippi

We awoke this Lord’s Day morning and headed to the 4th Street Church of Christ, a black church in downtown Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. I’m not crazy about the term “black church”. To my knowledge, Christ never used an adjective like that to describe the church, his body. In fact, he called for unity and oneness, a cause not necessarily furthered by labels such as “black church”, “white church”, “Republican church”, etc. At the same time, I realize there is a proud history of black churches in America. The label is descriptive and perhaps helpful to some, just like the label letting us know the church meets on 4th Street.

Black church

During the decades of slavery in America, African slaves formed and relied heavily on their churches. They were places where oppressed people could find refuge, feel God’s presence, and have a voice. In fact, slave owners often viewed black churches and other slave associations as a threat, and kept a close eye on their activities. Blacks were unwelcomed in most white churches. Even after slavery ended and their attendance was allowed, they were often relegated to the rear of the church and considered spectators rather than full members of the congregation. So the black church remained a place of refuge and often served as the center of black social and cultural life. During the Civil Rights era, black churches often served as power bases and centers for mobilization. As a result, they were sometimes bombed or burned by those wishing to discourage or halt their call for freedom and activism. Today, black churches remain, but they vary based on denomination, area of the country, and other factors. It’s really inaccurate and unfair to stereotype black churches as being all the same. What’s important about a black church, or any other church, is that they have Christ at their core and that they love and serve their fellow man.

4th Street Church of Christ
4th Street Church of Christ

4th Street Church of Christ

As we entered the building at the 4th Street Church of Christ, person after person came up, welcomed us, and made us feel at home. I’d say 30 or so of the approximately 200 people there made it a point to stop by and shake our hands. They asked what brought us to town, and seemed very interested and intrigued by our full-time RV lifestyle and journey down the Great River Road. The worship service was, in a word, awesome! The singing was phenomenal, the sermon was hard hitting, and we left feeling inspired and a little closer to God. It didn’t matter to us, or them, or God, that we happened to be the only two white people in attendance that morning. It was just good to be with the body of Christ in Natchez. I didn’t ask whether they considered themselves a “black church” or just a church, but we felt very welcome there. In fact, if we lived in Natchez, I suspect they would become a “black plus two white gypsies who live in a van down by the river” church. And I suspect that designation would be okay to a loving God who has enough room in the tent for all types and colors of people.

Yum!
Yum!

After services, we headed to the Pig Out Inn Barbeque in order to pig out on some barbeque. The place was a dive, but the pulled pork sandwiches were excellent. We then walked down along the river and along Main Street to work off some of those calories. Next, we drove by Stanton Hall and other historic southern plantations in Natchez. Lil Jan loves the Civil War era, and especially stories centered on southern plantations. So we decided to pay the fee and do a tour of historic Longwood.

Stanton Hall
Stanton Hall

Longwood is a historic antebellum mansion and the largest octagonal house in the United States. It was used in the HBO series True Blood for the external shots of the mansion owned by the Vampire King of Mississippi and Louisiana in fictional Jackson, Mississippi. It was also featured in the Guide to Historic Homes in America by Bob Vila for the A&E Network. It is known not for being a finished masterpiece, but rather an unfinished one. The story begins in 1859 with Dr. Haller Nutt, a very wealthy Mississippi cotton planter. Prior to the Civil War, over half of the millionaires in the entire United States lived in Natchez, and many of them built elegant mansions. Nutt married Julia Augusta Williams, who was eighteen at the time, and the two of them had eleven children. With a fortune estimated at $3 million, he owned several plantations on 43,000 acres of land and had 800 slaves. With money to spare, he hired Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect, to design a mansion home in Natchez. He then brought in a team of northern construction workers to begin work on the home. Mr. Sloan and his crew finished a portion of the ground floor of the home and then halted work and returned home in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War. Slave labor was used to complete the basement level, making it available for occupancy in 1862.

Unfinished Floors, Longwood Mansion
Unfinished Floors, Longwood Mansion
Longwood Floor Plan
Longwood Floor Plan

In 1864 Dr. Nutt died of pneumonia and work never resumed on the home. His family’s real estate and cotton production were decimated by the war. Thus, with little money, his wife Julia was left to raise several Nutts in the finished nine-room basement in the otherwise empty shell of a 32-room mansion. She was able to ornately finish the basement with furniture she already owned or received from family and friends. Longwood would eventually be abandoned and suffered from decades of neglect. Later the Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased and renovated the mansion, and today it is open for tours and available to rent for special occasions. One of the conditions of its sale was that the upper floors never be finished, perhaps as a visual reminder of the fascinating history of the place. Also known as Nutt’s Folly, the mansion is a National Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. We were so impressed with the mansion and tour that we decided to do a couple more during our remaining Great River Road journey.

Unfinished Business
Unfinished Business

Before exiting the Longwood plantation, we walked down a path through the woods to the Nutt family cemetery. Several Nutts are buried there. I blame the squirrels.

Big Steve

Where the Nutts are Buried
Where the Nutts are Buried
Two More Nutts
Two More Nutts

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Campground Review: Natchez SP, MS

Dates: October 3-5, 2015

Campsite: 26

Overall Score: 3.86 (out of 5)

Summary: We loved the spacious, wooded, quiet campsites and the close proximity to Natchez. This state park must be especially appealing to fishermen and hunters.

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Recreation/Amenities: 3.8

Freshwater fishing and a boat launch, playground, nature trail, picnic area/shelter, and disc golf. The park also has about 2.5 miles of logging roads in the hunting area where horseback riding is allowed (except during hunts). This rule is designed to keep you and your horse from getting shot. I think it’s a good rule.

Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 – electric and water, with dump station.  Laundry facilities. No sewer or Wi-Fi at site.

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 4.3

Antebellum homes, Emerald Mound, and the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians can be visited in nearby Natchez. There are also golf courses, historic Jefferson College, Homochitto National Forest, and the Natchez Trace Parkway. There are several special events, including the Great Mississippi Balloon Race in October and Christmas in Natchez in December.

IMG_1870
Fire Starter

Cleanliness: 4.3 – Solid. No major issues.

Intangibles: 4.2

Pros – The largest bass in Mississippi history, an 18.15 pound largemouth, was caught in Natchez lake in 1992. For hunters, deer and turkey hunts appear to be popular activities in the park. The $18/night + tax RV camping fee is very reasonable.

Cons – Aside from a short nature trail, there are no real hiking trails. That’s kind of a bummer for hiking nuts like us.

Big Steve

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The Great River Road, Part 18: Searcy, AR to Vicksburg, MS

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”                 – President Abraham Lincoln

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”                                                                 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis

“Searcy is the key.  Win here and you win the Civil War.”        – No One Ever

September 27-30 – Day 29-32 – Searcy, Arkansas

Still buzzing with excitement from yesterday’s big engagement, both families worshipped together at Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, and then had a delicious lunch at The Rockhouse. At the restaurant, we ran into Guy and Lisa Miller and family, friends of ours from our Virginia days. After lunch, we said goodbye to Jason, Rachel, and the Genry family as they all headed back home.

That night the Harding Lectureships began. Over the next four days, we would take advantage of excellent keynote speakers, Bible classes, and other activities centered on the theme, The Parables of Jesus. There were also several display booths with information on various ministries around the country, Christian authors selling books, and other good causes. While perusing the photos at the AMEN table (American Military Evangelizing Nations), I was surprised to find a 2007 picture of me and other military members outside our church building at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. It brought back memories of preaching with a 9 mm pistol holstered at my side, in front of an audience packing 9 mils and M-16s. Shortly after that photo was taken, a suicide bomber attacked the outer gate of our base, killing 23 people and injuring 20 others. The dead included an American soldier, PFC Daniel Zizumbo, from Chicago; an American contractor; SSG Yoon Jang-ho, a South Korean soldier; and 20 Afghan workers at the base. Some gave all. The attack was timed while then-Vice President Cheney was visiting Bagram, although he wasn’t harmed.

PFC Daniel Zizumbo...thank you! You're not forgotten.
PFC Daniel Zizumbo…thank you! You’re not forgotten.

Throughout the week, we continued to run into old friends, such as Tom Ritchie (from our Virginia days), Dennis and Diane Saucier (from our Germany days) and Ken Bissell (who brought us really cool Harding coffee mugs…thanks, Ken!). Dennis manned the previously mentioned AMEN table, and we had dinner with him and his wife one night. Of course, we also ran into a host of former youth group members, to include Luke & Jared Larsen, Jeanie Linton, Victoria & Tim DeBoef, Mary Katherine Strachan, and Brooke & Patrick Miller. It’s so exciting to see these young people happy and doing well, and to get caught up on their lives and plans for the future.

The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak
The Old Gang Gathers to Hear Kyle Speak

On our final afternoon at Harding, we got to hear Kyle give an interesting presentation entitled Recapitulation: Redemption in Last Adam, which was based on a lengthy research paper he wrote for one of his Bible classes. That night, he and Laci came by the RV to hang out with us on our final night in Searcy. We had a terrific time in Searcy, highlighted by Kyle and Laci’s engagement. Yet it was time to get back on the road and continue our Great River Road journey.

Preach the Word
Preach the Word, Son!

October 1, 2015 – Day 33 – Tunica, Mississippi

We headed east and crossed the Mississippi River into Mississippi, then headed south along the Blues Highway. If I had to describe our Mississippi experience in three words, I would choose three C’s…cotton, casinos, and cannons. Just as we saw corn as far as the eye could see north of Memphis, it was all about cotton in Mississippi and southward. As for casinos, Mississippi has the second highest number of them in the United States (behind Nevada), and yet it is the poorest state in the nation. I don’t know if those two things are related. I have heard that gambling is a tax on people who can’t do math. The cannons would come later, as we toured the Vicksburg battlefields.

Tunica Riverpark
Tunica Riverpark

Our first stop was the Tunica Riverpark, which features a museum and riverboat cruising on the Tunica Queen. We had the museum to ourselves, and enjoyed the small aquarium, movie, and interactive displays. I learned that the word Mississippi comes from the Native American word Meccaceepa (great river) which comes from Mecha (great) and Ceba (river). Write that down as it will be on the final. After visiting the museum, we continued south and eventually pulled into the Vicksburg Wal-Mart for the night.

October 2, 2015 – Days 34 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

After heading to downtown Vicksburg, our first stop was the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum where coke was first bottled. Despite my fondness for Diet Cokes, we opted not to spend the $7 to tour the two-room museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia. Instead, we headed down Main Street and decided to do the “Top 6 Things to Do” in Vicksburg (according to Trip Advisor), beginning with the Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Center. The museum was interesting, interactive, informative…and free! We learned about the history and struggles of the Mississippi River, and the role the Navy played in the Civil War. The best part was being able to tour a de-commissioned tugboat, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Mississippi IV. We boarded the diesel-powered, all-steel vessel and pretty much had all four levels to ourselves. The setting screamed “hide and go seek” so I rushed ahead, climbed two flights of stairs to an upper deck, and hid inside a locker in one of the cabin rooms. As sweat poured down my face in the non-air conditioned room, I texted Lil Jan to remind her to come and find me. She never found me. Looking back, I don’t feel like she gave it her all. As she walked near the room I was in, she might have even muttered, “This is stupid.” I think she’s gotten used to playing the game in our RV where it takes less effort.

She Should Be Looking for Me
She Should Be Looking for Me

Our next stop was The Old Courthouse Museum which…get this…is a museum housed in an old courthouse. It is packed full of Confederate arms, artillery, documents, flags, newspapers and other artifacts, including General Grant’s chair. Some of the rooms are full of Civil War era clothing, furniture, and dinnerware, most from the local area, and one room is dedicated to all things Jefferson Davis. The Court Room is beautiful and preserved just like they left it so many years ago. It was easily the most impressive Confederate museum I’ve ever visited, well worth $5/person admission for a self-guided tour.

General Grant's Chair
General Grant’s Chair

We left the museum and headed down hill towards the river and the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. What a cool idea! I think all towns should do something like this to beautify their downtowns and tell their history. The beautiful painted murals depict key events in Vicksburg’s history. I’d recommend doing them either at the beginning or end of a visit to Vicksburg, depending on whether you want a preview or review. These exceptionally well done paintings were painted on Vicksburg’s floodwall by local artists, and celebrate the city’s history, culture, and achievements. The only panel missing was the one showing my skeleton inside a tugboat locker, years after winning the 2015 “hide and go seek” contest. After walking along the murals, we finished off the day with some delicious steak and blackened grouper at Rusty’s Riverfront Grill.

Riverfront Mural
Riverfront Mural

October 3, 2015 – Days 35 – Vicksburg, Mississippi

As a history and Civil War buff, I was really looking forward to touring the Vicksburg National Military Park. Both Union and Confederate leadership realized the significance of Vicksburg. The Mississippi River was the critical highway on which men and supplies travelled, and the fort at Vicksburg controlled that traffic. President Lincoln also realized that capturing Vicksburg would effectively split the Confederacy in half. So, in terms of significance, Vicksburg ranks right up there with Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, and other key Civil War battles. In terms of military strategy and tactics, Vicksburg also gets high marks. General Grant went from trying to bypass the heavily fortified city with a canal to starving it with a prolonged siege. During the bombardment, confederate families lived in caves and ate horses and mules. Eventually, Confederate General Pemberton was forced to unconditionally surrender, splitting the Confederacy and giving the Union control of the river.

Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg National Military Park

We started at the Visitors Center with a 20-minute video providing an overview of the campaign, which provides some context for what followed. We then headed out on the 16-mile self-guided driving tour of the battlefield, with scores of monuments, statues, and signs explaining things. We appreciated how they marked Union and Confederate positions with blue and red markers, and the driving cutouts and narratives provided at key points on the battlefield. My only complaint is that they have allowed forests to grow up all around the park. While they’re beautiful, they also alter how the fields of battle would have looked to both sides back in 1863. It’s hard to imagine the perspective of advancing Union troops up a hill when that hill is now covered in trees.

U.S.S. Cairo Museum
U.S.S. Cairo Museum

Halfway along the drive is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. The Cairo was a Union gunship that was sunk during the battle, and raised from the mud about 90 years later. It was reconstructed and is now on display, along with ship artifacts gathered during the salvage operation. Nearby we got a good look at the Vicksburg National Cemetery, hallowed grounds with the remains of about 18,000 troops who gave their last full measure of devotion. The majority of the burials are “unknown” except to God, and approximately 40% are known as USCT (United States Colored Troops).

Vicksburg National Cemetery
Vicksburg National Cemetery

Having checked off all six of the top things to do in Vicksburg, it was time to hook our Fit back up to the RV mother ship and continue south along the Great River Road. That night we rolled into Natchez State Park near Natchez, Mississippi. I considered giving Lil Jan another shot at hide and go seek, but decided instead to build a nice big campfire. We also decided that tomorrow we would worship at 4th Street Church of Christ in Natchez, a 200 or so member congregation that could be described as “all black”…at least until we showed up. That’s a story for next time.

Big Steve

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