Memories of Highway 27

Angie and I have been wanting to return to the place we got married, Eufaula, Alabama, for some time and the timing was right to go on the weekend after my birthday this year. Our plan was to stay at a quaint-looking bed-and-breakfast we found on the internet in Blakely, GA and visit some places that held special significance for us.

We took I-10 E for most of the journey, passing through the Mobile tunnel for the first time in quite a while, and exiting at Chipley, location of Florida’s Falling Waters State Park (known for its highly-local-precipitation-dependent waterfall), to begin the leg of the journey that would take us north back to Alabama. In Cottonwood, Alabama, we stopped at the Alabama Welcome Center on Hwy 231, where we were greeted by a giant plastic peanut and a sign declaring that the Wiregrass Area is the “peanut capital of the world.”

From Dothan, we turned northeast on Hwy 52, crossing into Georgia over the Chattahoochee River, which forms the boundary between those two states for most of their length. About an hour’s drive later, we arrived at the Willis Country Home Bed and Breakfast on Colomokee Church Road. This beautiful residence, set on 28 acres of mixed-use property just north of Blakely, is run by Eve and Wendy Willis, a friendly and engaging couple who go out of their way to make guests feel like family. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and we spent some time getting to know our hosts in the media room before going on a snipe hunt for a local covered bridge (which we found when leaving on Sunday).

After returning from a reconnaissance trip southeast to Colquitt, we found the front of the house covered in green treefrogs. The little guys were all over the front porch area, drawn by the Willis’ sprinkler system and the outdoor lighting, which attracted numerous insects, including a large phasmatodean (walking-stick).

The next morning we returned to Colquitt, site of the Mayhaw Wildlife Management Area where I worked on a field project for Craig Guyer 15 years ago, and where Angie and I spent a lot of time together. Unfortunately, there appeared to be many more trailers located on the property since we were last there and we were unable to locate the ranger station where I spent my nights during that time. Reluctantly, as the day was growing short, we turned northwest towards Eufaula, a town we occasionally passed through on trips from Auburn to Colquitt (or vice-versa). More significantly, the seat of Barbour County is where we got married 13 years ago.

An hour’s travel took us to Eufaula, where we stopped at the courthouse aka our “wedding chapel.” Because it was a Saturday, we couldn’t go in but we took a picture outside, smiling and showing our wedding bands. Eufaula is allegedly the bass-fishing capital of the world and sits on a substantial body of fresh water known (curiously enough) as Lake Eufaula.

We turned northwest again to go to Auburn, where I formally proposed (in The Village Mall) and where Angie went to school. We weren’t able to see much of the campus because a home game was being played at the Jordan-Hare Stadium and massive crowds were present to see the Tigers-War Eagles face off against Louisiana Tech’s Bulldogs. We were amused to see that, just as at a typical LSU home game, various individuals, schools, and businesses selling parking spots close to the university. We walked through The Village and also passed The Wynnsong theater where we watched one of Angie’s favorite movies, Meet the Parents.

We returned to Blakely by the route we usually took between Colquitt and Auburn, passing through Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia on Hwy 27 and riding on its many hills. We stopped at the Chevron station in Cusseta, GA at the juncture of Hwy 27/Hwy 1 and Hwy 280. This was the site of many a late-night pitstop for hot chocolate between Colquitt and Auburn in my dad’s old Ford Ranger. From here, it was a straight shot south to Blakely.

That evening we had dinner with the Willises, who made a delightful feast and endearing company. Sunday morning we reluctantly turned the car westward to retrace our steps home.

 

Audubon Insectarium appears tailored to appeal primarily to children

The Audubon Insectarium is evidently the red-headed stepchild of the Audubon Institute family of parks. We visited the facility several weeks ago and simply getting in proved to be more challenging than I anticipated. Because the Institute made the dubious decision to locate this attraction on the premises of a federal building, there is an absurdly high level of security required to enter, including a  metal detector and an x-ray scanner for your personal belongings. We didn’t get to experience any of that at first, of course, because we had pocket knives that we customarily carry on our persons. When Angie apprised one of the guards of this fact, he told us rather pointedly that signs were posted outside the building and that we were breaking the law by standing there. So we walked the four blocks back to the car because I refused to throw my knife away outside the building. When we returned to the facility, we then got to experience the full range of amenities at the security checkpoint, including having to remove EVERYTHING from my pockets and take off my belt. The lady behind me had to remove her shoes because they apparently had some kind of metal component that offended the walk-through detector. It was all fairly humiliating for a simple trip to a zoological feature; I haven’t had that level of scrutiny in any airport I’ve ever travelled through.

After the trial that was getting into the facility, we discovered (not to my great surprise) that the “Insectarium” could probably be more properly referred to as an “Arthropodarium” (although I will concede that this does not roll off the tongue quite as smoothly). We were greeted near the entrance by some fantastic cave roaches, a species I had not seen in person previously. These are quite large organisms, getting as large as 10 centimeters (by comparison the largest roaches you are likely to encounter “in the wild” locally are American cockroaches which only grow to approximately 40 mm). Next we encountered some velvet worms and millipedes. An assortment of leaf- and stick-mimics were on display along with a colony of leafcutter ants, Formosan termites (a huge problem for wooden structures in New Orleans), and curiously, yellow-fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti), which have largely been displaced in this area (for decades) by Aedes albopictus.

There were numerous kid-oriented features. These included a “walk underground area” complete with a motion-triggered giant fake spider (fortunately I was able to steer Angie clear of this); a demonstration area with trap-jaw ants and Madagascar hissing roaches; and a “4-D” movie theater with a short, slightly-educational eight-minute animated film. The “4D” is apparently a term that refers to “interactive” features such as a misting spray to simulate pheremones and “jumping” seats to simulate the sensation of something crawling under your butt. William Castle would be proud.

There is also an “insect tasting” where visitors can try prepared edible insects but we were too late for the morning offering.

The tour finishes with a gratuitously Japanese-themed butterfly garden with tortoises, birds, and a koi pond tossed in for good measure. The butterfly garden is interesting enough but it’s fairly small and padded with lots of non-lepidopteran things and thus pales in comparison to the one found at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Unsurprisingly, the butterfly garden exits directly to the gift shop.

A casual trip through the facility will take approximately an hour. Given the extraordinary diversity represented by the Insecta alone, on the whole I found this experience to be somewhat underwhelming. The collection is not terribly large nor does it appear that much effort was made to design this facility with a sufficient scope to give kids or adults an appreciation for insects. There are no apterygotes and no real mention that they exist. There was a larger bee colony at the now-defunct Louisiana Nature Center (and there exists a larger one at the Bluebonnet Swamp BREC park in Baton Rouge). Aside from the economic damage caused by termites, the ecological benefits of ants, and the human costs of yellow fever, there is little discussion of the impact that insects have on the world and on Man. At the end of the day, this is essentially more of a “place to take the kids on the weekend” than a zoological park.

To the Northshore

The first day of autumn 2013 was appropriately and uncharacteristically (for Louisiana) rather cool. I decided I would drag Angie away from her studies on the day after my birthday (which was a very rain-drenched affair) to a park we had never before visited. We hopped into our newly-returned Corolla late Sunday morning and headed east, destination: Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

After scouting out the route to the park  from the intersection of LA-59 and U.S. 190, we started thinking about an interesting local place to grab some lunch. After tossing around a few ideas, Angie found a place called Rips on the Lake on her phone and it was only a few miles to the west, so we decided to check it out. The restaurant was indeed on the lake and it was a large, two-story building with the main dining areas upstairs and a vast patio/bar area downstairs. Angie and I sat at a wrought-iron table on the porch and watched the lake across the street.

The salads were great but the main courses were merely okay (my shrimp were a bit bland and Angie’s oysters were not her favorite). As many of you reading this may know, I’m on something of an eternal quest to find the ultimate bread pudding and Rips had an unusual contestant–a blueberry pudding with a traditional rum sauce. It was far superior to the dreadful concoction I ruined a day earlier by adding too much bread.

After a long and leisurely lunch, we drove back over to the park. The park had been devastated by Hurricane Isaac last year. We met and spoke with the ranger manning the visitors’ center, who was carving a slingshot. He explained that he was sitting outdoors because the building had been inundated by water during the storm, despite the fact that it is several miles north of the lake. The storm also washed away part of the hiking trail, a boardwalk that led over a marshy area. There were quite a few revelers at the beach, though. The park had a fairly small beach area, dominated by picnic pavilions, playground equipment, and a splash play area.

Of professional interest to me was the site of the old Fontainbleau Plantation Sugar Mill. Nothing remains of the structures beyond some crumbling brick shells of buildings. In the mid-19th century, Bernard de Marigny used the site as his summer home and also pioneered the processing of sugar cane in the area. Marigny built the town of Mandeville as a part of his real-estate investments.

We arrived home late in the afternoon, but it was a great way to cap the weekend.

Brief sojourn to Lake Fausse Pointe today

We visited Lake Fausse Pointe State Park today in St. Martinville. Despite the good amphibian weather, it was a poor herp day: only one frog and he was wily enough to evade capture. Several birds of common varieties in this neck of the woods were present: a red-winged blackbird, a cardinal, and a great blue heron, as well as sundry smaller shorebirds and raptors.

Tennessee Trip in April Part Three – Chanticleer Inn, Rock City, and Ruby Falls

101_0522That evening, we checked in at the Chanticleer Inn, which sits atop Lookout Mountain in Georgia. You actually cross the state line from Tennessee on your way up the winding mountain road to the inn. The inn is a bed-and-breakfast-style retreat run by a couple of locals who are friendly and welcoming. The room itself featured a spacious bedroom with a color TV and DVD player, a closet, and a bathroom with a small whirlpool tub. Rates are comparable to fancy hotels in the area but I greatly preferred this accommodation to the Marriott where we spent the previous night. The top of the mountain is quiet and beautiful. The inn is surrounded by homes that are modest but charming and probably cost a small fortune.

There is a Starbucks just a block down the road from the inn, so I went several times during our stay to get expensive coffee for Angie; she loved that. Across the street from the Starbucks is one of the two really touristy things we did on this trip: Rock City.

Rock City was developed into a large walk-through rock garden by landowners Frieda and Garnet Carter in the 1920s and 1930s. It officially opened to the public in 1932. Coming from Louisiana, which is mostly flat, the topography here was really lovely. It doesn’t take very long to walk the path up to the Lovers’ Leap, where the site claims you can see into seven states. There is also a large waterfall near this area.

We also visited Ruby Falls, a nearby underground waterfall located in the Lookout Mountain Caverns. While exploring another cave for possible exploitation as a tourist attraction in the 1920s, Leo Lambert accidentally discovered the cave containing the waterfall; because there were no natural openings to the outside and no artificial openings prior to that time, the cave today is host to very little in the way of flora and fauna. The tour takes groups of tourists down a vertical elevator shaft into the mountain and then on a trek for about a mile through the Ruby Falls Cave at the end of which is located the actual waterfall.

Ruby Falls

Tennessee Trip in April Part Two – Ozone Falls and the Tennessee Aquarium

After spending the night in Cumberland, we took a brief detour to the east to the Ozone Falls Natural Area.

Cumberland Mountain State Park is on the left and the Ozone Falls Natural Area is approximately where you see the town of Ozone on Hwy 70
Cumberland Mountain State Park is on the left and the Ozone Falls Natural Area is approximately where you see the town of Ozone on Hwy 70

After hiking around for about a half-hour, we gave up trying to find the trail that leads to the bottom of the falls but we did see some nice views from the top.

It was about a two-hour drive southeast from the Crossville area to Chattanooga and after a day of sightseeing we got in just as it was getting dark. Angie relaxed at the hotel and I walked a few blocks over to get some chicken wings at the downtown Buffalo Wild Wings. The next morning, we got up and visited the Tennessee Aquarium. The Aquarium spans two buildings (an Ocean and a River building) and the campus also houses an IMAX theater. The Aquarium is located downtown in Chattanooga on the Tennessee River. The Aquarium was a pleasant enough place but not really any more impressive than the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, which we had visited on many occasions. There was a butterfly garden in the River Journey building, which also somewhat paled in comparison to our recent trip to the Houston Museum (which was our first experience with such a facility). I was surprised and disappointed at the lack of focus on native Tennessee fauna (especially herpetofauna). There wasn’t even a single exhibit showcasing specifically the endemic fauna of Tennessee.

Tennessee Trip in April Part One – Cumberland Mountain State Park

This is the first part of my discussion of our trip to the Tennessee/Georgia border area this past April. We decided to take a road trip and settled on Tennessee because I had never been to that part of the country (except for a brief stop in Memphis on my way to State College, Pennsylvania about ten years ago).  We left on April 3 and travelled through Louisiana (of course), Mississippi, and Alabama before crossing into Georgia and then Tennessee. It marked the first time I’d driven through a really mountainous part of Alabama around Birmingham. 

The leg of our trip that brought us into Georgia and then Tennessee              

    The leg of our trip that brought us into Georgia and then Tennessee

In any case, we rode I-59 through those areas until we hit I-24 just south of the Tennessee border. From there, we continued northeast through Chattanooga and onto Hwy 27 toward Knoxville. Later, we turned onto Hwy 30 going northwest and eventually to US 127 north to the park and Crossville, TN. 

Cumberland Mountain State Park

Cumberland Mountain State Park

The Cumberland Mountain State Park is a beautiful area with clear water that runs in fast-flowing creeks, quiet, well-furnished cabins, and nice hiking trails through montane forests. The park features Byrd Lake, an artificial lake created by impounding Byrd Creek, a project of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.






101_0099  The Byrd Creek Bridge101_0142

                                                                                                          

The Bridge’s Historical Marker 

 

We stayed overnight in a cabin at the park. The cabin had wonderful amenities like heating/air-conditioning in the living room and bedrooms, a fireplace, a microwave, a stove, a refrigerator/freezer, lavatories, a toilet and a shower. The cabin we rented had two bedrooms in addition to a living room, bathroom, and kitchen area. They are approximately half the cost of an area hotel room. The park also features a restaurant (apparently quite popular with the locals) that serves lunch and dinner throughout the week.

The nearby town of Crossville had a nice if perhaps excessively Christian used bookstore. Stay tuned for Part Two. . . .