January, 2020 – Beaumont, Texas

The trip south from Jasper to Beaumont was short and easy as most of it was along 4 lane highways.  Our next destination was Gulf Coast RV Resort which is located along I-10 just west of Beaumont.  Thankfully, our GPS had us leave the Interstate and travel along a parallel county highway since the exit for the RV park was closed as they replace the bridge over the interstate.  While more expensive then we like to spend, Gulf Coast RV Resort was a beautiful RV Resort.  It had all the amenities you could ask for including a free breakfast of hot waffles or biscuit and gravy.  This was a little much and unexpected.  We only took advantage of this once during the week preferring to eat breakfast in our RV.  TV reception was excellent, which we preferred over their cable hookups.  Phone reception was also excellent so we had great internet access.  They have free WiFi, however it was not as good as our hotspot.  It was a nice change from the COE and state parks, however, we still prefer them.

Campsite

Tuesday was cool and sunny so we headed out to find some hiking opportunities.  We had moved from the north end of the Big Thicket National Preserve to the south end, so we headed back into the Big Thicket to do another couple of hikes.  The Pitcher Plant Trail and the Sundew Trail are both about a mile in length and easy trails through a savannah and pitcher plant bogs.  While we saw a few pitcher plants on the Sundew Trail, it was the Pitcher Plant Trail that had the most remnants of pitcher plants.  In January, it can be difficult to pick out the dried up pitcher plants, however, it was obvious the trail went through a bog that would have thousands of plants during the summer.  While we could only imagine what it would be like during the summer, the mosquitoes and other bugs were at a minimum, which was great.  We had two nice, easy walks on a beautiful winter day.

Wednesday was New Years, which would have passed unnoticed, except we traveled into Buffalo Wild Wings to watch Auburn get embarrassed by Minnesota.  Once again it was obvious their season was over after they upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl.  Their offense never got going and even their defense was not up to par!  Still it was fun watching the game while eating a good lunch.

The weather on Thursday turned wet, so we headed east into Louisiana to check out the Delta Downs Racetrack and Casino just across the state line.  Delta Downs is a huge complex that includes not only a full racetrack and casino, but also a luxury hotel and many restaurants, grills, and bars.  We had a good afternoon and came out about normal for us.  By this I mean we lost about half of the money we started with.

Friday was spent doing laundry and cleaning.  On Saturday we headed into downtown Beaumont to explore the Texas Energy Museum.  We were surprised there were very few people at the museum, although I guess being so close to New Year could be the reason.  The Texas Energy Museum is a great museum and I would recommend putting it on your list of places to visit.  It is very logically organized beginning with the creation of oil during the early years of our planet.  This oil then slowly collects in pockets in the ground that can often be seen from surface features.  The museum then moves through the history of the oil boom in southeast Texas beginning with the Spindletop gusher in 1901.  You learn how oil is pumped out of the ground and how the drilling is done both on land and under the Gulf.  There are then models of refineries and detailed information about the many refining processes that leads to an amazing number of products, of which gasoline is only a small part of.  You learn how plastics are made from petroleum and other products.  It is an amazing display of information and we spent more than 2 hours in this relatively small museum.

Sunday was spent in the campground while I worked some on this blog.

December, 2019 – Jasper, Texas

Our trip back into Texas was not long, taking only about 2 hours, even though none of the trip was along interstates.  We traveled to the shore of Lake Sam Rayburn, which is the largest man made lake in Texas, to Twin Dikes Park.  This is another Corps of Engineers Campground and, like others, is very nicely laid out along the shore of a lake.  The sites are all large with paved RV pad.  In this case, many of the sites have full hookups, which is essential since we stayed for two weeks, and even had a cover over the picnic table.  This was very nice whenever the weather turned wet.  The only drawback to the campground was that the bathroom within easy walking distance, was closed for repairs.  So we had to drive to the other camping area to use the bathroom there.  Once again we had a long view over the lake and watch some truly spectacular sunsets over the next two weeks.

The main reason for camping in this area was to explore the Big Thicket National Preserve, however, we held off on this until Wednesday since Tuesday was cold and very windy.  After spending a day in the campground, we loaded up on Wednesday and drove south to the Visitor Center of the Big Thicket National Preserve.  As the name implies this National Park Service site is mostly a cooperative effort with other federal agencies (US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service), state parks, and private preserves to a very small part of the original Big Thicket region.  Due to a complex mosaic of soils and relatively flat terrain, the Big Thicket region of southeast Texas, is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.  There are at least 8 separate ecosystems ranging from dry savannas and longleaf pine stands through side slopes of mixed pine-hardwood thickets, to riparian zones along rivers and many cypress bogs.  Throughout this entire region there are miles of hiking trails and water courses that could be explored.  We found out a lot more information at the Visitor Center which has a number of nice exhibits about each of the ecosystems that make up the Big Thicket.  We opted to stay close to the Visitor Center and explored the plant communities on the Kirby Nature Trail.  This trail includes a number of interlocking loops that can be used to create hikes from 1.5 to 2.5 miles in length.  We did a number of the loops that added up to about 2 miles in length.  The trail was very easy as it meanders from a slope forest of longleaf and loblolly to a riparian zone along Village Creek.  There was also a side loop that descended into a cypress bog.  It was a nice walk on a cool, but calm and sunny, winter afternoon.

On Thursday I took care of another of the reasons for camping in the area and that was to take the truck into the Ford dealership in Jasper to get its first oil change.  While they were doing that they also took care of two recalls and checked out everything.  Friday was another cold day, so we decided to stay close and just drove into Jasper to check out the Jasper County Historical Museum on the courthouse square in the center of Jasper.  This is a small museum of only two rooms that was jam packed with historical artifacts from the county.  They obviously need to have a much larger space and, especially since they were in the process of reorganizing the exhibits, it was mostly a jumble of items.  We found a number of interesting items and learned the basic history of the county from the volunteer working at the museum.  We also ran into a local resident that is the nephew of E.V. Smith from Alabama.  Due to this he had a direct tie to Auburn and we enjoyed talking to him about his uncle and memories of Auburn.  All totaled we spent about two hours in the museum and then went to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant before heading back to the campground.

Saturday was spent doing laundry and cleaning the RV and on Sunday we got ready to travel back to Dallas for Christmas.  From Jasper we had just over a 4 hour drive back to Mark’s house in Frisco.  We got an early start to make yet another appointment with my dentist to once again adjust my new denture.  Hopefully, this will be the last adjustment.  I am hopeful since most of my problem was due to an infection that had set in due to a piece of a tooth that did not get removed.  Armed with some prescription mouthwash to deal with the infection, I am looking forward to begin finally able to eat a complete meal again.  Tuesday was Christmas Eve, and we spent the day with Mark and his family.  Christmas morning began with breakfast at the hotel where we ran into Phil and his family that had drove all the way from Birmingham on Christmas Eve.  We had a good time getting caught up before heading over to Mark for Christmas.  Unlike last year where Christmas was just us and Kal’s father, it was nice to have a house full of family including all ages from us to the very young.   After opening the presents the day became a time to visit and await a very fancy Christmas dinner.  We had not only ham, but also duck along with more side dishes then we could possibly consume, although we made a grand effort.  I ate what I could, which was unfortunately not as much as I would have like.  After dinner the kids took off to spend the evening out and we headed back to the hotel.

Thursday was spent traveling back to Jasper and Friday we just stayed and relaxed in the campground.  However, on Saturday we traveled north to Lufkin to check out the Texas Forestry Museum.  As a forester, this museum was a requirement.  However, I would recommend it to anyone who visits the area.  They do a very good job of telling the history of forest management practices, logging, and forest industry in the state.  As with the rest of the south, forestry began as a logging operation which increased in intensity as railroads transformed the transportation of logs out of the woods.  Forest industry began with small sawmills scattered throughout the region, beginning along rivers where logs were floated to the mill, to literally anywhere railroads could be used to congregate the harvest.  Today, as with the rest of the south, the main product is pulp and paper and the logging of smaller pine on logging trucks.  The museum does a very good job of telling this story including a detailed description of the pulp and paper process.  Outside they have a number of machines, including planters, skidders, harvesting machines, and even a logging train with loading crane.  This was something I had not seen outside of pictures.  There was even a short urban forestry trail where they identified all the trees along the trail.  There was even some surprises on the trail, for instance, a swamp sugar maple, that I never heard of.

Sunday was spent again in the campground before heading out on Monday for the coast.

December, 2019 – Natchitoches, Louisiana

When I started to make reservations for taking us south of Dallas, I noticed there was a National Park site in western Louisiana.  Especially since we had not spent much time in Louisiana south of I-20, it was not too surprising there was more to see in the state.  What did surprise me was the number of historical state parks in the same area around Natchitoches, Louisiana.  So we pulled the RV back out of Texas to Shreveport before heading south to Ajax County Livin’ RV Park north of Natchitoches.  The trip was easy as it was all along interstates with rest stops along the way.  We pulled into Country Livin’ early in the afternoon and had no problem getting set up on their pull through site.  All of the sites are grassy, which could be a problem after a heavy rain.  We had good TV reception and since we were less than a mile from the interstate the phone coverage was excellent.  Since we now have unlimited 4G access with my new IPad, I was able to stream both Mandalorian on our free year of Disney+ and Discovery on Jenny’s CBS Access.  We were also able to stream the Auburn basketball game using our new hotspot, so when we have good phone coverage there will be no limit to what we can stream.

After spending Tuesday doing laundry and cleaning, it was time to get out and explore the many historical locations.  Since our main reason for coming to Natchitoches was to explore the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, we headed south of Natchitoches to the location of two pre-Civil War plantations. Both Oakland and Magnolia Plantations began as land grants from the Spanish government in the late 1700s. Both families were long term Creole families, which only meant they were at least second generation colonists.  In this case they were both French, the Prud’hommes at Oakland and LeComte at Magnolia.  The cash crop at Oakland began with tobacco and indigo, but it was not until the early 1800s when they changed over to cotton that the plantation began to grow.  Magnolia was one of the first plantations in the area to grow cotton and soon increased in size and importance.  While the workforce was all enslaved people, this was a combination of those with African descent from the Caribbean Islands and Native Americans.  Rather than follow the harsh slavery laws of most of the south, they followed a more lenient set of laws deriving from the Code Noir of the Spanish.  These laws required the slaves be treated humanely and the owners had to care for them and their families.  There was also a pathway to freedom in the laws, so there were a number of skilled freemen living in the area.  Both plantations were very successful prior to the Civil War, often bringing over $1 million from the cotton crop each year.  However, the Civil War put an end to this.  Both plantations were damaged during the Red River campaign in 1864 with crops and some buildings, including the Magnolia plantation home, burned.  Following the war, most of the slaves continued to work the plantations as tenant farmers, however, the plantations never truly recovered.  The families continued to live and operate the farms into the 20th century, so when they were acquired by the National Park Service, they were both in very good condition.  They are the best preserved Creole Plantations from that time period with many outbuildings and artifacts still intact.  Both of the plantations are along the Cane River, which is one of the channels that make up the Red River.  They are close enough to each other that they can both be visited in a single day, so we spent the morning exploring Oakland before moving to Magnolia after lunch.  The plantation home and outbuildings at Oakland are in amazing condition.  Unfortunately, we had just missed the morning tour of the plantation home, but we were able to explore the grounds.  As with other plantations before the Civil War, they were mostly self-sufficient, so you see many buildings associated with skills such as blacksmithing, county store, cooking, and laundry, as well as, those associated with the farm including barns and homes for the slaves and overseer.  Most of these buildings had exhibits, along with the provided map, gave a good overview of life prior to the Civil War.  The most surprising building was the pigeonnier where they raised pigeons, a southern delicacy that denotes wealth.

The outbuildings at Magnolia were even more impressive.  Unfortunately, the plantation home was burned during the Civil War, but the family did rebuild it.  However, the new building is not part of the park.  However, there is a nice country store, overseer/hospital home, barns, and slave quarters.  The slave quarters were unusual as they were constructed of brick instead of wood. It is believed this was to display their wealth to the steamships on the Cane River.  It certainly was not for the benefits of the slaves which still lived in small structures with dirt floors and a single room.  After the Civil War, the tenant farmers were allowed to open up the wall between the duplex thus increasing their living space to two rooms.  The last family moved out in the 1960s.  Most amazing was the large barn that housed the steam operated cotton gin and baler.  They even had the largest baler still surviving that predated steam engines.  This 30 foot tall wooden structure was nothing more than a huge press that would be filled with cotton and then compressed using a huge screw operated by horses or mules.  It was something worth seeing.

Thursday was wet with the threat of more rain for most of the day so we headed north to the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City.  For a change, we both did well and just about broke even for the afternoon.  After a nice early dinner we headed back to the campgrounds for the evening.

For Friday, it was back to exploring the other historical state parks in the area.  We started with Fort St Jean Baptiste State Historic Site in Natchitoches.  Back in the early 1700s, this area was the border between the French and Spanish.  To stop Spanish encroachment from Mexico and Texas, the French constructed and garrisoned a fort on the Cane River, which at the time was the main channel of the Red River, in 1716.  As the French were all about trading and befriending the local Indians, the fort became a major trade center and the town of Natchitoches grew up along the river.  The fort continued to serve as a military outpost until 1762, when the territory was ceded to Spain following the French and Indian Wars.  While the fort never saw any direct action, it continued to support a thriving trade business along the river.  Today they have reconstructed the fort according to surviving plans for the fort.  Unfortunately, the reconstructed fort is not exactly the location of the original fort.  Due partly to the changing river course and mostly to the fact they built a bridge over the original site.  It is always interesting to actually be able to see the forts, especially to how small they were.  The palisade surrounding the fort is barely big enough to house a couple of barracks, a guardhouse, quartermaster, commandant house, church, and a couple of storage sheds.  It was obviously not intended to house the garrison on a long term basis, especially since most of the soldiers, including the commandant, lived in houses in Natchitoches.

Since it only took a bit over an hour to explore the reconstructed fort, for the afternoon we drove about 15 miles to the Spanish counterpart: Los Adeas State Historic Site.  Los Adeas was the Spanish answer to Fort St. Jean Baptiste located close to their Mission.  For the French, the primary interest was trade with the Indians, whereas, the Spanish were more into converting them to Catholicism.  Thus the many missions throughout the southwest along with presido, or forts to protect them.  Unfortunately, the site chosen for the mission and fort were very poor for agriculture.  There was a constant shortage of food and other supplies as crops routinely failed on the poor soils.  Thus there was a constant stream of trade with the French at Natchitoches even though it was illegal as all supplies were to come from Spain.  However, since Mexico City was over 800 miles away, what else could they do?  Los Adeas was important enough to the Spanish that in 1729, it became the administrative seat for the entire province for the next 44 years.  Thus, within the fort were the administrative offices and residences.  Today there is nothing left of Los Adeas, however, archeologists have discovered the original layout of the fort and most of the buildings which are marked out with timbers.  There is also a nice hiking trail that begins at the fort and winds its way through the woods to the site of the nearby mission.  It was a nice walk on a cool winter afternoon.

We spent Saturday in the campground, however, on Sunday we ventured forth again to the site of the Mansfield State Historic Site, one of the last major battles of the Civil War.  In 1863, the Union had captured Vicksburg and was in control of the entire Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two.  The Civil War in the West then moved to isolate Texas beginning with the capture of Shreveport.  General Banks brought 13,000 soldiers up the Red River by gunboat to Natchitoches where they disembarked to make the march to Shreveport.  Not expecting any engagement until they were close to Shreveport, he allowed his army to get strung out for miles along the road.  However, General Taylor selected a site 4 miles south of Mansfield, still 20 miles from Shreveport, to position his 10,500 Confederate troops across the road.  He used his cavalry to harass and slow down the Union advance on April 7, 1864 in a number of small skirmishes.  On April 8, the two armies formed up against each other.  However, General Banks was still strung out for miles and was only able to form up about 6500 soldiers by 4:00 in the afternoon when General Taylor ordered the charge.  The Confederates took terrible casualties in the initial charge, but especially since these soldiers were defending their home, they did not stop the charge and overran the Union lines.  The Union army broke and ran with the Confederates in hot pursuit for the next two miles.  Finally, most of the rest of the Union army had formed a defensive line and stopped several attempts by the Confederates before darkness fell.  Over night the Union withdrew to Pleasant Hill, where on April 9 there was another terrific battle and heavy casualties.  Once again, the Union withdrew during the night and kept moving all the way back to New Orleans.  Thus the Red River Campaign ended after two days of fierce fighting, this time with a Confederate victory.  Since the Civil War ended just a few months later, the Union never again attempted to seize Shreveport or invade Texas.  The Mansfield State Historic Site is not very large and protects only a small part of the initial battlefield south of Mansfield.  The Visitor Center has a excellent set of exhibits about the Civil War, the Mansfield and Pleasant Hill Battles, and the aftermath.  There is also a short hike around this piece of the battlefield with a brochure explaining the disposition of forces prior to the Confederate advance.  The battlefield is certainly worth visiting for anyone interested in the Civil War, especially if you are not familiar with the Red River Campaign, which we had never heard of.