Galveston is the source of yet another entry in my multi-volume book of “What I Didn’t Know.” Although I was vaguely familiar with the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, I wasn’t aware that this natural disaster is still ranked as the deadliest single-day event in U.S. history. A storm surge of 15 feet washed over this barrier island, knocking buildings off their foundations and destroying more than 3,600 homes. The death toll is estimated at 6,000 to 12,000 people. By way of comparison, disasters numbers 2 and 3 are the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, with an estimated death toll of 3,000 to 6,000; and September 11th, with 2,977 dead (or 2,996 if you include the 19 hijackers, who I figure don’t count since they presumably went on to their rewards from Allah).
Of particular interest to me was the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum, a “jackup” rig that operated for about 20 years in the Gulf of Mexico and was turned into three floors of exhibits on the offshore oil and gas industry. Ironically, in light of the recent movie Deepwater Horizon about the April 2010 offshore (Louisiana) oil rig explosion that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Ocean Star exhibit emphasized the importance of safety.
I also took great delight in looking at the accommodations aboard the rig so as to feel smug about the comfort and convenience of my RV. I partook of this exercise at the Space Center in Houston, too.
My Cousin Suzi, an aficionado of hard-boiled detective crime novels, styled herself as “The Dame” when she took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans to join me in The Big Easy. She posted a great film noir poster on Facebook to announce her trip. Cousin Suzi (oops, I meant “The Dame”) accompanied me along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to my destination in Central Florida. Since we spent two-plus weeks together in a tight space, we soon came to an agreement not to take and post photos on Facebook of each other in positions that involved bending over, tempting though it often was. We stuck instead to postcard perfect scenes.
Now in the spirit of the new administration, I will note that I have heard some people say they do not trust Catholics because those who adhere to this religion can sin with impunity and then be forgiven soon after by going to Confession. I must say that New Orleans, with its multitude of bars and day-time drinking, and the spectacle of Mardi Gras, did little to dissuade me of this biased and possibly blasphemous opinion. On Bourbon Street one early afternoon I partook of a Mudslide on an empty stomach and greatly regretted it later that day when I experienced a blinding headache. Welcome to New Orleans.
In addition to the usual and sinful haunts in New Orleans, we visited the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The highlight was an exhibit, “Southern Louisiana Landscapes” by Simon Gunning. Who’s he, right? Well Gunning is an artist from, of all places, Australia. He left Down Under 40+ years ago fully intending to attend art school in England, but first traveled throughout the United States. When he arrived in New Orleans, according to his website, he was “captivataed by the city’s urban landscape amongst a lush backdrop of tropical flora and cypress swamps.” He never did make it to England, settling instead in The Big Easy.
In keeping with my tendency to seek out places from movies and television series I like, I took a photo from the Museum’s rooftop with the Crescent City Connection (formerly the Greater New Orleans Bridge), in the background. The bridge is featured in a favorite and relatively unknown movie, Deja Vu.
Ask the Dame about the ‘Po Boy bread.
The RV Park we stayed in was (as always) close to a railroad. This time, however, we were behind a switching yard. Instead of waking to the sound of trains thundering through the park in the middle of the night, we were greeted in the midnight hours by trains colliding. It was a nice change. We were within walking distance of a terrific hole-in-the-wall restaurant (actually, it was more of a cafeteria in a convenience store) that served Suzi’s dream meal: an oyster po’boy sandwich. According to our tour guide and local lore, the po’ boy was created in 1929 by Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar operators and owners of the Martin Bros restaurant, during a transit strike. They served the “poor boys” on strike free sandwiches full of meat on a new type of thinner and crispy bread that easier to cut into equal slices created by a local baker at their request. Suzi can — and does — wax eloquent about the quality of the bread, which she contends is related to the humidity of Louisiana.
From New Orleans, we followed US Highways 90 and 98 east along the Gulf Coast. The route is simply beautiful, with white sand beaches and dunes on one side (to the right, or south) and lovely homes built on stilts on the other (on the left, to the north).
As a side note, in addition to wildflowers and barrier islands, another interest of mine is American architecture.
Much to our dismay and disappointment, my handy-dandy go-to reference book, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture, had nary a single entry on this distinctive Southern stilt style. We concluded that author Virginia Savage McAlester is Yankee-centric.
Mississippi and Alabama
As we headed into Biloxi, Suzi exclaimed when she saw a sign for Beauvoir. I had no idea what it was but said I was willing to turn around and go back. Fortunately, Suzi took me up on my offer. Turns out the Beauvoir Estate is the post-war home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and where he wrote his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. I had taken a tour of Jefferson’s home in Richmond, VA, and had no idea of his long history in the Mississippi, including stints as a Representative to the U.S. Congress and as a U.S. Senator. Beauvoir became a home for old Confederates and their wives and is the burial site of the unknown Confederate Soldier.
Most important of all, Suzi asked our tour guide for recommendations to local BBQs, which is how we ended up at “Slap Ya Mama,” a place reputed to be so good that you want to slap ya mama.
At the aptly named BBQ we were served by a cute and lively little waitress who’d never been out of the state and refused to go into the Gulf because she didn’t want to be in water where she couldn’t see her ankles. Her dream was to go to California and swim in the Pacific Ocean. Suzi and I looked at each other and silently agreed not to tell her that you can’t see your ankles in Santa Monica, Malibu, La Jolla or any of the other well-known Southern California beaches, either.
The beautiful beaches and homes continued as we drove through Alabama. We were rewarded with more breathtaking water views during our 10-mile crossing of Mobile Bay. Our route followed the Old Spanish Trail (OST) — whose existence I was not aware of. According to Wikipedia, the OST was an auto trail that once spanned the U.S. with 3,000 miles of roads along the southern U.S. border from ocean to ocean. It derived its name from the cities along the route, which shared a heritage of Spanish missions, forts and colonies. Also from Wikipedia: Preparations have begun for a decade-long (2019-2029) Centennial Celebration, called OST100, ending with a motorcade finale from St. Augustine to San Diego. OST100 volunteers are collecting oral histories, travel logs and news articles related to the Old Spanish Trail to conserve the roadways, businesses and historic sites of the original auto highway.
Once again, who knew? Not me.
To Be Continued