Dodging storms from Memphis to Huntsville to Gaffney

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When we planned this route last year, we thought most of the bad storms occurred in the Spring months.  But it turns out that Fall can be equally nasty – as we found out firsthand.  Well, now we know! Continue reading

A glimpse of the City of Lakes – Minneapolis, MN

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Minnesota Bridges over Mississippi River

With Betsy’s family reunion out of the way, we trekked up north to the land of 10,000 lakes and a billion+ mosquitoes, Minnesota.  Our home base for this stop was at River Terrace Park in Monticello (Steve’s review here).  We planned to spend only one day in Minneapolis, and our friends Joe and Judy, who lived and worked here for many years, gave us a list of things we might want to do.  Armed with the list and a forecast of rain, we headed out with our umbrella to see what we could accomplish in the “City of Lakes” – which happens to be the meaning of the word Minneapolis.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis skyline as we crested a hill into the area

We chose to visit the Basilica of Saint Mary as our first stop.  From the pamphlets we learned that this was the first church in the United States to be designated a basilica on February 1, 1926.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  Its significance is ascribed to several attributes: excellent architecture and engineering design; an expression of Baroque influence in church architecture; an example of the history of religious movements in Minnesota; and its place as the first basilica in the United States.

Next we crossed over 16 lanes of freeway traffic on the Irene Hixon Whitney Pedestrian Bridge, pausing for a few minutes to watch the world go by in a hurry.

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge

All of those frantic working folks…

The far end of the bridge dropped us into the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we viewed various pieces of modern art showcased there.  But we really came to get a “photo op” of the renowned Spoonbridge and Cherry, the piece that has become somewhat synonymous as an iconic symbol for Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Spoon bridge and Cherry

After strolling around the garden and gawking at some art that we usually don’t “get”, we drove downtown to see for ourselves how Minneapolis is built to handle the incredible cold and snow in winter.  We wondered how these folks move around and go about their business during the bitterly cold weather.

The city is known for its “skyways”, where many of the buildings in the downtown core are connected by heated, enclosed walkways two floors above the street.  We discovered that they are able to navigate between their work and other businesses and restaurants in several different buildings very comfortably using these cool skyways.  Steve was so impressed that he’s thinking of building one between Betsy and the car this winter!

Downtown Minneapolis

We could get lost in these skyways 🙂

Since we love guided boat excursions, we hopped aboard the Minnesota Queen at noon and glided along the Mississippi River on a 1.5 hour tour.  We cruised under several bridges connecting Minneapolis and St Paul, and passed through Lower St. Antony Falls lock and dam, viewing the city’s skyline.

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Bridges a-plenty, for all travel purposes

The St Anthony Falls is the first of 29 locks and dams allowing for navigation from St Louis to Minneapolis.  One interesting fact that we heard from the narrative is that it took an act of congress to recently close the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in an effort to keep invasive carp from climbing further up the Mississippi River.

Lower St Anthony Lock and Dam

Getting a lift up-river through the Lower St. Anthony lock and dam

The narrator also pointed out that the Stone Arch Bridge is the only bridge of its kind over the Mississippi River, constructed in 1883.  It’s made of native granite and limestone, measuring 2,100 ft. long by 28 ft. wide.  The bridge consists of 23 arches spanning the river below St. Anthony Falls.

Minneapolis Skyline

Minneapolis Skyline and the Stone Arch Bridge

St. Anthony Falls was visible between the arches as we approached.  It’s the only natural major waterfall on the Upper Mississippi River, and it was covered with a concrete overflow spillway (also called an “apron”) after it partially collapsed in 1869.

Stone Arch Bridge

Designated a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark

After our scenic river tour, we decided to check out the biggest mall in the USA, the Mall of America.  We had seen an episode on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series that described it’s construction, and although we were here during summer vacation for the kids, this was our only chance to check it out.

Mall of America

It was amazing looking out at the multitude of rides at the Nickelodeon Universe in the middle of the mall.

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Nickelodeon Universe – an amusement park within a mall!

And yes, we came out with shopping bags – containing new walking shoes for both of us!

To break in those new shoes, we wore them to Wright County Park (Yes John and Pam, you have a park named after you!), and walked 5.1 miles as we meandered along the Mighty Mississippi.  We learned that about 700 Trumpeter Swans visit the warm open waters in this area of the river.  Swan viewing opportunities peak between mid-November and March, and I would love to see them if it didn’t involve coming here in the middle of winter.  But I was still happy to see a Great Blue Heron along the river in its classic hunting pose:

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Mississippi River

Steve chatting with a local

On our way home we discovered this snake on the street.  Steve and I disagreed about whether it was alive or dead, but we agreed that we weren’t going to touch it to find out. My subsequent research revealed it was a Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) which turns blue when it dies.  So Steve won this bet 😦

Rough Green Snake

A green snake that turns blue when dead or severely injured – Rough Green Snake

After our short stay in Monticello we moved on to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca.

 

Next up:  Exploring the headwaters of the Mississippi – Lake Itasca, MN



 

A Plantation, a Preserve and lots of seafood – NOLA

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American Bullfrog

At the River Walk in New Orleans were 22 plaques describing interesting facts about the mighty Mississippi River.  One thing we learned is that this mud-laden water has flowed over 2,350 miles and takes about 66 days to get from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.  Our crossing of the Mississippi River was a unique trip, according to one of the plaques.  Because Louisiana is the only state divided by the river, and New Orleans the only city that straddles it, this is the only place you can cross the river without crossing a city or state line.  Oh yeah, we felt unique after leaving New Orleans.

Mississippi River

On other days our excursions around the area took us to a Plantation and a Preserve.

Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are nine majestic historic plantation known collectively as the New Orleans Plantation Country.  The roots of these lavish estates began in 1718 with the founding of New Orleans.  Most plantations produced sugar, which provided their owners with the kind of vast wealth it took to build these huge estates.  To keep their place in history, the homes have been authentically restored to their original style.

We chose to tour the “Grande Dame of the Great River Road,” the Oak Alley Plantation, which is a protected National Historic Landmark.  It is named after its distinguishing feature, an alley or canopied path created by a double row of massive live oaks about a quarter mile long.  They were planted in the early 18th century, long before the present house was built.  The alley runs between the house and the Mississippi River.

Alley of Oaks

Mint Julep seems to be the favorite drink in this area, and they had a little bar set up at the house.  It was still early in the morning, but we didn’t want to seem out of place.  So, with a Mint Julep in hand we strolled the grounds after the guided tour and admired the majestic oak trees close-up.

On another day we took a trip to the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Barataria Preserve, which is 14 miles south of the state park where we stayed.  The preserve’s 23,000 acres include bayous, swamps, marshes, forests, alligators, nutrias, and over 300 species of birds – lots of them.  After a brief stop at the visitor center, we meandered down the boardwalk trails (Visitor Center Trail and Palmetto Trail) and dirt trails (Bayou Coquille Trail) which wind through the preserve.  Here is the trail map, or you can enjoy a self-guided tour or explore with a cell phone tour.

The swamp critters we encountered are quite fascinating.

American Bullfrog

American Bullfrog

 

Ibis

Ibis

American Alligator

American Alligator – Steve finally sees his first ‘gator!

The rest of our days at Bayou Segnette State Park were spent cooking seafood, for just outside the park is a bustling Seafood Market.  And we got busy, cooking and eating, and on other days we simply enjoyed the frequent visits of the Northern Cardinals, seven of them at one time!

After this stop, we need to double up our exercise!

Our upcoming stops – tell us about any “must do” tours, excursions,
restaurants, etc. you’ve enjoyed at these places:

Gulf Shores, AL

Pensacola, FL

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Is that train moving? – Tough arrival in New Orleans

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“Is that train moving?” Steve asked repeatedly.  After peering behind us I replied that it was moving – toward us!  That blaring horn was telling us to get out of its way.  “Let’s get out of here!” Steve yelled in exasperation, while I nervously signaled oncoming car traffic to stop.  They were not slowing down nor giving us enough space to enter the road with 60′ of RV/car.  But we had to get out of the way or risk getting crushed by the train, which would have definitely put a damper on our weekend.  With a tiny bit of clearance we turned left and Steve stepped on it.   Whew!  Holy smoke that was close.

So, you might ask, how the heck did we end up here?

It all began 25 miles west of New Orleans.  As we were merging onto I-10 East we noticed cars pulling over and backing down the onramp – not good.  Crazy drivers!  Then we saw the backup that we could not avoid and proceeded to sit there for 2 hours waiting for a fiery crash ahead to be cleared from the road.  We may be retired and not in a hurry, but when you are in this situation you get agitated and antsy.  But there was more excitement ahead!

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When the jam cleared and we were approaching the Huey P Long Bridge, traffic was again heavy and cars were weaving in and out in front of us.  Some drivers here are really baaad!  Understand that we are now heading into Friday afternoon traffic due to the huge delay we had just experienced.  There was major construction underway on the bridge, and the two available lanes were literally not wide enough for Betsy and a truck to travel side by side.  So Steve drove right down the middle – let them honk, we want to live!

More traffic

If you plan to come into this area from the west very soon, we suggest you call your destination and get directions over the phone until maps are updated.  We thought we were prepared by having printed and GPS instructions.  However, the construction here is so recent and hugely changed, there are no current directions that we can find.  At the foot of the bridge we didn’t know whether to go straight or make a turn.  So we turned and soon noticed that phenomenon where the trees start closing in and the streets begin to get narrow.  Oh, we’re getting busy now!  If we had been driving a car this would have been easy, but with our size the stress sets in.  It turns out we would have gotten lost if we had gone straight ahead, too.

As we saw the river up ahead and the oncoming traffic we made a best-guess turn.  Ok, this looks better, we’ll follow the road under the bridge and get right back on track.  I grab my laptop and open Google Maps to find out where we are now (GM doesn’t know about the new roads, either).  We start re-plotting our course and settle down a bit.  What else can go wrong?  Then there’s the TRAIN…

Steve pulled up to an angled busy intersection with a RR crossing, with a train sitting a ways back at our right rear – almost impossible to see from inside the RV.  We stayed behind the crossing line as long as possible, but had to cross it to turn left onto a road.  Steve pulled up to the intersection when he saw a break, but a speeding motorcycle killed our opportunity.  Steve kept asking, “Is that train moving,” and for a while it wasn’t.  Then it was.  Right at us.  But the cross traffic was relentless, and of course nobody wants to stop for the train, even though the conductor was laying on his horn now.  I was signaling through the window for people to stop, but they either didn’t see or ignored me.  Finally, the traffic stopped and we “jumped” through that intersection as quickly as possible.  Sorry I didn’t get pictures, we were a little busy at the moment.  Would the train have stopped for us?  Probably, he was barely moving.  But I don’t want to ruin the suspense of the story!

Welcome to New Orleans!

After wiping off the sweat, we arrived safely at Bayou-Segnette State Park.  To calm our nerves following what was easily the worst driving day of our adventure, we explored our new digs.  We chose this State park after seeing a good rating from Nina of Wheeling It.  It is just a thirty-minute drive or a free ferry ride across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

Bayou Segnette State Park

At the park, all sites are long and paved, and have either a wood deck or cement patio with table and fire pit.  Sites are widely spaced with lush grass.  This is the second state park in Louisiana we’ve been to where laundry is FREE and wifi is available (but a bit slow).

As we explored further around the park, we noticed miles of levees, floodwalls, floodgates and water control structures.  They have been busy here indeed since Katrina showed up in 2005, and the construction continues throughout the area.

Flood Gate

Steve examining the flood gate.  That’s about 2′ of concrete with a bank vault-looking door!

Flood wall

Miles of flood wall

Levee

On top of a levee, with the flood wall behind.

We will be hanging out here for about a week to see the sights and food of New Orleans.  More to come!

Our upcoming stops – tell us about any “must do” tours, excursions,
restaurants, etc. you’ve enjoyed at these places:

Biloxi, MS

Gulf Shores, AL

Pensacola, FL

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