Friday, February 26, 2016

Tallahassee FL

Sign outside the Old
After our stay in Louisiana we moved a couple hundred miles east to a campground in Alabama. We were incredibly lucky that we did that as severe storms, including tornadoes, went through the area two days after we left. After a few days in Alabama we moved on to Tallahassee FL to see the old and current Florida State Capitols.

Florida's Old State Capitol in front
of the new Capitol
The Old Capitol was built in 1845. Over the next 100 years there were a lot of additions and improvements to the building. Then in the 1970s the new Capitol was built and the plan was to tear down the old building. As is often the case with such things, there was a movement to save the old building. The effort was a success so it has survived and is now a museum.

New (current) State
The crazy part of that story is that they had built the new building so close to the old one, because the plan was to tear the old one down, that fire safety codes were not met. This forced them to remove all of the additions since 1902 to make the old building smaller. Of course, they also had to restore the interior to the way it was in 1902. That meant stripping out all of the improvements including tons of marble. They auctioned off all of the stripped out materials so people all over the state have little pieces of history.
Senate chamber in Old Capitol

Senate Chamber in New Capitol

Monday, February 22, 2016

New Orleans

Louisiana State Capitol
From Natchez we headed south back into Louisiana. We made a stop in Baton Rouge to visit the State Capitol. Completed in 1932, the building is 34 stories and is the tallest capitol in the United States. When you get off the elevator on the main floor you walk into the striking Memorial Hall. It has a very high ceiling with two large bronze chandeliers and seems every surface is marble. The House and Senate chambers are on either end of the hall.

Old Louisiana State Capitol

We also walked much further than expected to see the Old State Capitol. By the time we got there and took a couple of pictures of the outside we ran out of time (parking meter time) so we didn't get to go inside. This building is now a museum and nicely restored.

Jackson Square
Our RV park was near Abita Springs putting us within an hour's drive of New Orleans. We had visited about 25 years ago but had two small children along which limited our range of exploration. This time we walked several miles crisscrossing the French Quarter combining specific things we wanted to see and following a walking tour provided in the AAA tour book. Based on what we remember the French Quarter looks much nicer than it did on our last visit. We saw a lot of construction (restoration) going on while walking so it appears there certainly is a big effort afoot to make the area attractive.

Old Mint

One of our stops was the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve visitor center on Decatur. This was a very informative visitor center and we are glad we stopped in at the beginning of the day as it discussed architecture in New Orleans. Another stop was the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park visitor center. This was a huge disappointment. The brochure that we picked up was great but the visitor center itself had almost no information.

Homes in French Quarter

Ornate iron fence in French Quarter

Ornate iron work on building -
street band performing

Southwest Mississippi

Natchez National Historical Park -
Melrose home
We continued our easterly movement from Houston on a very rough I-10. This interstate gets an incredible amount of traffic and it is in really rough shape most of the time from San Antonio until east of Lake Charles where we got off. We took US 165 northeast across Louisiana, through Alexandria, to Natchez, Mississippi. Once we got off of I-10 the roads, traffic and scenery were much more enjoyable.
Mount Locust
Natchez MS has a long history dating back to 1716 when Fort Rosalie was established on the site of the present town. The town's heyday came in the 19th century when cotton growing was a leading industry and Natchez was an important river port. Fortunes were made and vast plantations with magnificent houses reflected the prosperity of the period. Many of these houses still exist and are open to the public. We drove around the old town and looked at a lot of old mansions but did not go into any of them.
Emerald Mound

The Natchez Trace Parkway (or wiki link) commemorates the most significant highway of the Old Southwest. The natural travel corridor that became the Natchez Trace dates back many centuries. As the United States expanded westward in the late 1700s and early 1800s, growing numbers of travelers tramped the rough trail into a clearly marked path. Where the ground was relatively soft the trail was worn down so there are "sunken" sections that still exist today. We drove the section from Natchez for about 67 miles until we got off and went over to Vicksburg.

Sunken section of the Trace
Old safe left at Rocky
Springs town site
This section has a lot of great stops: Emerald Mound - this ceremonial mound, built between 1200 and 1700, is the second largest in the United States; Mount Locust Inn - this is one of the oldest structures still standing in an area known for historic homes. Built around 1780, it was the home to five generations of the same family until 1944 when the National Park Service took over the property. It is maintained as it would have appeared in 1820 when it was a plantation home that provided food and shelter to people traveling the Natchez Trace. This was our favorite stop; Sunken Trace -  a section of the original trail; Rocky Springs - a town site first settled in 1790 endured many hardships but was finally abandoned in the early 1900s when boll weevils decimated the cotton crops.
We got off the parkway and went over to Vicksburg to go to the Vicksburg National Military Park. We aren't Civil War buffs by any means but the battle there (wiki link) had such a significant importance to the war it seemed like a good place to visit, while in the area, to learn the story. We didn't do the 16 mile drive round the battle points of interest but we did go in the visitor center where they have a great 20 minute film that tells the story in enough detail for us.
Actual field desk used by an
officer at Vicksburg

Old Warren County
court house
There is a picture in the visitor center of the Warren County Courthouse with a caption regarding people meeting in the building to debate secession. I asked about the building and it is still there so, of course, we had to go see it. It is now the Old Courthouse. It is in need of some work, but it is still impressive to see.

Our day trip continued over to Jackson to see the Mississippi State Capitol before heading "home" (Natchez State Park). We visited the old Capitol, built in 1839, first which has been wonderfully restored and is now a museum. The current Capitol, opened in 1903, is about 5 blocks away, a nice walk through a nice area of town. The current Capitol is a grand building with a lot of marble. Very nicely done.

Mississippi Old Capitol - 1839

Mississippi State Capitol - 1903

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Johnson Space Center - Houston TX

From our parking space
Our next stop in Texas was the Johnson Space Center in Houston. As you park and walk to the building you see a NASA classic - a Space Shuttle piggybacked on the NASA Boeing 747. You can go inside this exact replica shuttle once you enter the building.

Actual Apollo 17 Command
The Starship Gallery is a great set of displays giving the history of the U.S. space program. We enjoyed going through and both learning, and reliving, the historic events and accomplishments. I would say this is the must see of the building.

There are a number of theaters showing films on both the past and the future of the U.S. space program. We found each to be well done and informative. There is an exhibit dedicated to the International Space Station and another to Astronauts. Basically, they cover it all somewhere in the building.
Saturn rocket

We took the tram tour and, frankly, this was the one part of the day that was somewhat disappointing. We only made two stops, did not get to see Mission Control, and mostly just drove around looking at buildings and were told what was done inside. The two stops we had were the space shuttle training facility and the Rocket Park. There wasn't much to see at either of these stops but seeing the Saturn rocket was the one thing that made the tour worth the time. It was built to be used for Apollo 18 which was shelved.
Orion - NASA's new exploration

We learned about Orion, NASA's new exploration spacecraft. There are big plans for this program including putting people on Mars within 20-25 years.

Some tidbits:
The International Space Station is visible from earth, if you know when and where to look. There is a website where you put in your location and it tells you if/when/where to look to see it pass over. The site is

There is a website dedicated to Mars exploration. It discusses past, present and future Mars missions. The site is

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

San Antonio TX

We needed to split the drive from Terlingua to San Antonio into two days so we spent a couple nights
Display in visitor center at
Amistad Natl Rec Area
in Del Rio. This gave us a day to relax, do some laundry and visit the Amistad National Recreation Area. In the visitor center for the recreation area we found out how big a largemouth bass can grow given the right conditions. The lake record is 15.68 pounds. This picture shows a couple "smaller" ones.

San Jose Mission Church
After our day of rest we moved on to San Antonio. We arrived early enough in the day to start working on our list of things to see by visiting missions. We drove to the three southern most ones which weren't too far from our RV park. There is a chain of five missions along the San Antonio River which make up the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The missions were first established in the early 1700s as Spain attempted to extend its dominion northward from New Spain (now Mexico).
Espada Mission Church

Although most of the current buildings are not original, they are very old and in various states of reconstruction. One of these missions is Mission San Antonio de Valero which is commonly called the Alamo. Founded in 1718, it was the first mission on the San Antonio River. The history of these missions, especially the Alamo, is long, involved and interesting. Here are a couple good links that provide more information. SA Mission World Heritage and Old Spanish Missions

On our first full day in town we took the bus into town as far as the Alamo. After spending time there we walked for hours around town looking at historic places that we had read about. The Menger Hotel was our favorite and it happens to be right next to the Alamo. We were able to walk around in the lobby and look into the restaurant to enjoy this gem. I didn't take any pictures but the link has a photo gallery and history.
Mission Concepcion Church

From the Alamo we walked the River Walk heading west. We stopped at The Esquire Tavern, est 1933, for lunch. Continuing on, we wanted to see the Aztec Theater but couldn't get in. We checked out the La Mansion del Rio but couldn't see much. We left the river walk to continue west to the San Fernando Cathedral which was nice and the County Courthouse across the street was impressive, as well. We walked by the Spanish Governer's Palace, but didn't pay to go in, on our way to Market Square where we were curious to see what a Mexican market would be like in San Antonio. Answer, expensive. On the walk back we saw the tiny O. Henry house which was closed for the day.
San Fernando Cathedral

The next day we walked the river walk from our RV park to the last mission.

We really enjoyed all of the missions and the river walk. The visit was enjoyable (if we ignored the signs of crime) so mission accomplished.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Big Bend National Park

View from Sotol Vista Overlook
We stayed at an RV park near Terlingua, TX and drove into Big Bend National Park each day. This is a very large park at over 800,000 acres so it involves a lot of driving. The park is mostly desert but it has an entire small mountain range, the Chisos Mountains, in the middle. The elevation change in the park is significant with the southern border along the Rio Grande river being at around 2000 feet up to the Chisos peaks going as high as 7800 feet. There are hiking trails of every length and difficulty.
Santa Elena Canyon from road
We spent our first day taking our time going into all of the view points and doing short hikes on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which goes to Santa Elena Canyon. We enjoyed every aspect of the day and we were blessed with great weather too. Santa Elena Canyon was nice but we also really enjoyed the Burro Mesa Pouroff.

In Santa Elena Canyon
The next day we went to the Panther Junction and Chisos Basin visitor centers and did some more short hikes. The Lost Mine Trail was nice as it had elevation gain but was built with long gradual switchbacks. We only went up about a mile to the first significant viewpoint and the cold wind was getting worse the higher we climbed. The view at this point was certainly good enough.

Burro Mesa Pouroff
We did not drive to Rio Grande Village. We had planned a third day here to do that drive but we lost a day in El Paso due to high winds, unsafe to drive in, and our campground was full so we couldn't extend our stay for Big Bend. This drive was what we chose to sacrifice based on input we received from people.

The Window in Chisos Basin
We enjoyed our visit to Big Bend. It was very interesting to us that much of the highly touted aspects of the park are the same as what we live in and support at Sabino Canyon and Mount Lemon near Tucson. Those things being the elevation, biome, and wildlife variation from the lower elevations to the mountains. The Santa Catalinas in AZ have the same with the exception of the river.

Mule Ears Peaks from afar

View about 1 mile up Lost Mine Trail

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fort Davis National Historic Site - Fort Davis, TX

While driving from El Paso to Big Bend National Park we made a small detour to visit Fort Davis National Historic Site. A key post in the defense system of west Texas, Fort Davis played a major role in the history of the Southwest. From 1854 until 1891, troops stationed at the post protected emigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. Today Fort Davis is one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post. Many buildings have been restored to give a good feel for life when it was thriving. Additionally, most foundations still exist to give a feel for the size and number of buildings.

Fort Davis has a storied history through the Civil War, battles with Apaches, and the serving of four black infantry units. There is a museum and 14 minute video that tell the story very well. The restoration of buildings and photos of the actual fort make this a worthwhile stop.

The little town of Fort Davis is neat too. Tiny but cute.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

El Paso, TX - Chamizal National Memorial

After spending 3 months in AZ, most of which was volunteering at Sabino Canyon in Tucson, we are now pointed toward Florida for Detroit Tigers spring training in Lakeland and the Frozen Four which will be in Tampa this year. We'll see sites and visit friends along the way. Come April we'll head north before coming back west. So, we're off on another long trip.

Our first stop was El Paso. We decided to spend a day to break up the drive to Big Bend National Park and to see a few historic sites that seemed interesting. The day we had planned to see sites had winds over 30 miles an hour, rain and even snow for about an hour. It was ugly. So, I called the near by Ford dealer and got in for an oil change. Good use of crappy weather. The next day was still a wind advisory so we decided not to continue our journey and instead (since it was sunny) to see the El Paso historic sites.

First thing was to see a few missions originally established in the 1680's. They were actually
Ysleta Mission
established on consecutive days and are the two oldest continuously active parishes in the state of Texas. The original buildings have both been wiped out by the Rio Grande River as it decided to change course in the wide, relatively flat, valley. The rebuilds are still old and interesting to see.

Socorro Mission
The first mission we stopped at was Ysleta Mission. It was actually closed for restoration so we were not able to go inside or find out any detailed info other that what we could find on-line. The second was the Socorro Mission a couple of miles down the road which we were able to go into. The current structure has been restored and well maintained for good viewing. They have a fun story about their patron saint so click on the link to read some detail on the mission.

Socorro Mission
After the missions we visited the Chamizal National Memorial (the peace park). This memorial celebrates the 1963 peaceful settlement of a boundary dispute between Mexico and the United States. After more than a century of arguing about who owned the land along the ever-meandering international border formed by the Rio Grande river, the question was finally settled by the signing of the Chamizal Convention. At great cost to both countries and the local residents, the river channel between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez was relocated and fixed in place with a concrete lining.

We finished up our day trip with an attempt at doing the walking tour of the downtown historic district. Note that there were 25-35 mile an hour winds that day and sometimes the buildings were a good wind block and other times they caused an awful wind tunnel. We did most of the tour and finally gave up.

 Hotel Paso Del Norte - 1912