To Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and Back

At the start of our nine-day road trip, we said goodbye to Texas at the oil refinery town of Port Arthur. The view of the intra-coastal waterway was stunning from the Rainbow Bridge, the tallest in Texas, which Mike said was like driving up the side of a barn. Soon, we were skirting Louisiana’s sandy beaches. Golden rod filled the roadside and hawks and egrets the blue November skies. Out at sea an offshore rig loomed.

At the Calcasieu River, I asked a fisherwoman with a wide smiley face how often the ferry ran. In her southern Louisiana drawl she explained, “There is no schedule, they go by Louisiana time.” Several formations of brown pelicans in V formation had flown over by the time the small, rusting ferry turned up. As it was getting dark when we arrived in the tiny oil refinery town of Cameron on the other side, we decided to spend the night there.

At the only accommodation in Cameron, a bright orange motel, we were greeted by three kittens, a faint smell of gasoline and the Indian owner, who told us we could get dinner in the town of Creole, just over a mile away (it turned out to be five). Though the meal in the ramshackle restaurant was uneventful, the sunset on the way was spectacular – huge criss-cross shapes of deep orange with gunpowder-grey clouds – and I enjoyed the magazine on the table that commemorated the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival and was filled with drawings of duck and deer hunts by local children and recipes like Speckled Trout in Shrimp Sauce and Cajun Black Bottoms.

Setting off the next morning, the motel owner’s father, a spry, trim man in his late seventies, noted the bicycle rack on the back of our car and told us he cycled, too, and that he practised yoga every day. How incongruous the distinguished-looking gentleman seemed in this tiny oil town that had been largely destroyed by hurricanes Rita and Ike. We then drove for miles along marshland with moorhen swimming amongst the rushes. There were rice and sugar plantations, and in the sky above pelicans and egrets and the occasional pink wings of a roseate spoonbill. Houses were built on very high stilts or manmade mounds. An above-ground cemetery contained all shapes and sizes of concrete tombs. Then just as Mike was commenting on the number of young dead raccoons on the road, a huge black pig came out of the rushes straight for our car. I gasped as Mike quickly swerved out of the pig’s way but it kept coming towards us, forcing us into the opposite lane – luckily the road was empty and we missed it by inches.

Inland later, majestic cypress trees floated surreally in a pea-grey bog; the knobbly-knee roots were taller, and spikier, than those I’d seen in Texas. And then blue mistflower and yellow sneezeweed dotted the wayside as we drove eastwards, past the town of White Castle with its sumptuous plantation mansion, Nottoway, on the banks of the Mississippi, and Donaldsville with its perfectly preserved, deserted downtown and gorgeous old department store, like a film set from the 1950s. Only a street away black families sat outside their tiny clapboard houses.

It was dusk when we arrived in the parish of Plaquemines (Creole for persimmon), a narrow peninsular through which the last 70 miles of the Mississippi runs. As we drove down it we could see, above the levee, the tops of ships floating by. After driving for a while with no sign of accommodation, a gas station employee told us he thought there was one about ten miles further south. Luckily he was right, though it was set so far back from the road and was dark due to an electricity fault that we very nearly missed it.

The next morning, we had a walk around the grounds of Woodland plantation house, which is now a B&B but was once a bootlegger haven during prohibition. A doctor exiting the house told us there was a conference on the opioid crisis taking place inside. Out the back, near a sign alerting visitors to Gators and Snakes, two alligators dozed. The rest of the peninsular was dotted with small communities, ubiquitous Dollar Stores, above-ground graves, Terry’s Oysters shop, the remains of Fort Jackson, and fishing boats in various states of disrepair. Leafless chinaberry trees were full of clusters of ochre berries and there also banana trees, date palms and a satsuma orchard where we stopped to buy a bag. Tiny Venice, the southernmost point of the peninsular, turned out to be a popular fishing spot and marina with many fishing cabins. From almost leafless trees came the cries of cormorants and pelicans. Behind them loomed the oil refineries. As Craw Gator’s Bar and Grill unfortunately was not yet open we drove back up the peninsular to where we could catch a car ferry to cross the Mississippi. On it we got chatting to a smartly dressed African American gentleman in an orange patterned tie and brown suit who turned out to be the parish’s prison chaplain. He said he crossed the river to get there every day. It was from him we learned that most of the residents of Plaquemines never returned after Katrina.

We soon crossed into the state of Mississippi and found ourselves driving along the coastal road that runs by the lovely beaches and elegant coastal towns – towns like Bay St Louis, Cape Christian and Long Beach that look over nearly white sands dotted with herons and terns and, out at sea, a string of barrier islands. Empty lots interspersed with beautiful southern homes were a reminder of the hurricanes that had swept through this area, too. The only blight on the horizon was a large casino further down the coast. In the town of Biloxi we visited Beauvoir, the final residence of Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy during the Civil War. (Mike was sure that the female guide, who was dressed in period dress, had a fake southern accent!) I had also wanted to see the Biloxi visitors’ centre, which was portrayed in my old Smithsonian guide book as an unusual Victorian cottage with ornamental woodwork, but it had been swept away by Katrina. We were told that by the lady at the new visitors’ centre. This was located opposite the beach where ‘wade ins’ by local African Americans took place in the 1960s, protesting racial segregation of the beaches.

The beaches ended as we crossed the border into Alabama. Mike had particularly wanted to show me Bellingrath Gardens which were designed in the 1930s by wealthy Walter Bellingrath, the first Coca-Cola bottler in the south, and his wife. The gardens reminded me a little of Sheffield Gardens in Sussex, except here the azaleas were 30-foot trees and the enormous camellias bore hundreds of buds. Nearby, the small town of Bayou La Batre was where Forrest Gump opened the fictional Bubba Gump Shrimp Factory. The town looked poor, as did much of the area. In contrast, the city of Mobile, once the capital of French territory, reminded me a bit of New Orleans with its exterior decorative ironwork, catholic churches, neighbourhoods full of antebellum mansions, and the jazz band that burst into sudden melody at a downtown pavement café.

We took to the interstate and drove northwards, crossing rivers and thickly forested areas as far as the eye could see, finally turning off on the road that would lead us to Monroeville, Harper Lee’s home town. This was lined alternately with pine forests and cotton fields which were being harvested and all the way tufts of cotton spotted the roadside. According to the motel owner in Monroeville, AJ’s was the best place for dinner. As we sat in the simple but convivial restaurant, Mike joked at the contrast to the elegant steakhouse in Mobile where we had dined the previous night. Here, a buffet consisted of spaghetti bolognaise, fried catfish, macaroni cheese, carrots, creamed corn, cabbage and cornbread. Prints of Tuscan landscapes hung on the walls and a photo of a rocket launch hung by the cash till. But mainly, I was struck by all the families and friends, black and white, sitting and chatting harmoniously together – so unlike the period depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The courthouse that featured so dramatically in the novel was in the centre of the town square. Opposite it, the only place open for breakfast was the Sweet Tooth Café, which only sold cakes, enormous ones freshly baked by the cash till assistant’s husband. “This is a good town,” she told me, proudly, and as we chatted she cut me a square of Georgia cake which I hadn’t heard of before. It was full of chopped pecans and vanilla, and delicious.

The courtroom (now a museum) had a gorgeous tin-pressed roof, church pews for seats and a tiny balcony which was the only place back in the old days where blacks could sit. Press cuttings and photos were of both Harper Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote, who spent his summers there. The small, busy post office opposite the courthouse had a mural on one wall of a harvest scene, dating back to the 1930s New Deal era.

More cotton fields, pine forests, clapboard houses, trailer homes and whitewashed Baptist churches of all shapes and sizes lined the route to Montgomery. Trucks drove by laden with long, skinny pine trunks that used to be made into newsprint and now were made into pulp. Long vanished towns like Snow Hill which still appeared on the map had not a brick left to show for them.
Arriving in Montgomery we had just enough time to visit the new Memorial for Peace and Justice before it closed. Built on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were once imprisoned, the outdoors sculpture consisted of 800 suspended steel blocks, each representing a county in the US where African Americans had been lynched. As Mike and I walked around, I noticed that the sky had become spotted with small pink clouds and the occasional swirl of blackbirds.

That evening the hotel café was noisy with the chatter of many African American families; most of the women wore striking African fabrics and elaborate hairstyles. Directly opposite the hotel was the elegant train station where thousands of slaves used to be trafficked. Now a visitor centre, a freight train was trundling through the next morning as Mike and I collected information. We had a peaceful stroll around the capitol, the old confederacy white house and the church where Martin Luther King used to preach. There was also a Rosa Parkes museum, and at the greyhound station another commemorated the freedom riders.

We then drove back west, through Selma, where we crossed over the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, scene of the 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery. During a brief drive around Selma’s downtown I was slightly shocked by the state of decay of this once wealthy cotton town, which had also built ships during the Civil War and boasts more historic antebellum mansions than New Orleans.

Back in Mississippi, in Jackson, we visited Eudora Welty’s home, a 1920s Tudor revival house that would not have looked out of place in Worthing. It was a contented house, barely altered from the days when the writer was still alive, with thousands of books still in their original piles and her favourite paintings on the walls. Outside, purple Mexican bush sage and tall, pink coneflowers brightened a wintry, undulating back garden sheltered by tall camellia shrubs.

Further south, the streets of the lovely town of Natchez on the Mississippi were lined with elegant antebellum houses and mansions, old banks and stores. But it was chilly, a cold front was coming in, and in the yard of one mansion precious shrubs were covered in red-and-white checked cloth. Mike and I were the only ones on the tour of a Longwood, a huge, octagonally-shaped mansion with a red onion dome and white Moorish columns and arches that stood on the edge of town. The original owners, wealthy plantation growers who lost their fortune during the Civil War, lived in the basement with their family heirlooms as it was the only part finished, the remaining five floors remaining forever a shell, containing only the odd dusty trunk. At the open windows live oaks dripped with Spanish moss.

Back over the border in Louisiana, piney bogs led all the way back to Texas. The leaves, which had been green the day we began our trip, were now orange, peach and gold.

Thoughts of Sussex, from Texas

I knew I was in England when I saw a swan gliding along a stream. And gladioli growing up against a whitewashed cottage wall. And when I saw the Hampton Waterworks, built in 1852, I thought, You don’t see architecture like that in Texas.

From my sister’s hilltop house in Lewes I saw the familiar swell of the Downs, and below me the church steeple and the higgledy-piggledy rooftops. We walked the dogs on hills full of wild thyme, and blackberries waiting to be picked.

Pots of old English roses sat on the lawn before my mother’s cosy flat in Worthing. The plane tree in the centre of it was quite glorious though my mother insisted it needed pruning. “Its bark looks like army camouflage,” I commented. She looked up out of the window and chuckled, “So it does,” then asked if I’d like another cup of tea.

Seagulls flew over the bowls club during the local championships. My mother, no longer able to play, sat contentedly on a bench, commenting on each player’s move. “They’ll have to be careful of the wind,” she said, pointing to a fluttering Union Jack.

Crabapples lay on the pavement of the avenue that led down to the beach. The trees lining both sides were already turning orange and brown.

“I don’t know what sort of colour to call it,” Mum said, as we looked out at the sea. “It’s a sort of pearly green,” I suggested, and recalled a similar conversation with my late father a couple of years earlier; after some thought, he decided on greenish-grey.

Later that week, the sky, which had been a constant blue, was to turn violet following a rainfall. Climbing up to the site of an iron age hill fort, I saw a field full of what looked like yellow sneezeweed that grew in Texas. On top of the mound a dozen wild horses grazed.

Into my shopping basket in Marks & Spencer went bakewell tarts, pikelets, egg custards, smoked mackerel, watercress and a bunch of blue and mauve stocks – all things you don’t see in San Antonio. Nor the lamb roast served at the Rose & Crown Pub on Sunday, or fish and chips from the local chippie, curries like those served in the local Indian, an English breakfast cooked by Mum.

At Midhurst we saw Tudor ruins and a restored walled garden with an orchard of different varieties of cooking apple trees. “That’s something you can’t get in Texas,” I said to Mum: “Cooking apples.”

At Horsham a row of houses dated back to 1616 – just three years, I mused, before the first slaves came to America. In the ancient church built in 1247, I lit a candle for Dad.

The next day, a red fox appeared in my mother’s garden. “I’ve only seen a grey one in our garden in Texas,” I said.

A New Adoptee

One of my earlier blogs was about my walks around the neighbourhood circuit each morning, after I had walked Mattie to school. I mentioned the conversations I would have with passers-by who were eager for a chat and how I’d hear about such disparate subjects such as a prize hen having been snatched by a hawk, how someone dealt with their ‘critter’ problems, a forthcoming operation, a wish for rain. When Mattie began walking on her own to school I did different walks then, exploring city parks, greenways and state parks. I loved these walks, but I missed seeing the neighbours, too.

They say life often turns full circle and here I am, several years later, back on the neighbourhood circuit – but with Mattie’s dog, Leia, this time. She is a cute, joyful two year-old, very pretty and very much a puppy. We think she has a bit of sausage dog in her (sausage dogs and corgis seem to be popular here), terrier, and maybe Chihuahua as she has ears that will point upwards when alerted, like a Mexican free tailed bat. As Mattie was moving to a new apartment that didn’t allow dogs, I discussed the possibility with Mike of our having Leia, and though he is not a big fan of dogs he did agree to this one. Our house is also so designed that she can be kept from the main part of it (which suits us both). Leia therefore has come to stay. She has one bed in my study where she spends the night, and where I often spend much of the day writing, and another outside on the patio from where she can watch the ‘world’ go by (and where she is currently curled up as I speak).

I have been walking Leia around the neighbourhood circuit for a couple of weeks now, just as I used to do alone several years ago. Together we explore the alleyways where the vegetation and plants are the same, but some of the older dogs that used to bark at me as I went by previously, have of course passed on and younger ones now bark at Leia instead. We have the occasional look at the creek, too, that divides our neighbourhood from the next, and whilst Leia sniffs around it I identify plants – Mexican oregano, kidneywood and zexmenia – that I was unable to do back then. And I’m back chatting to the neighbours we meet. Some I hadn’t seen in ages and some I haven’t met before. Naturally, our conversations differ greatly from those during young Mattie’s school days. Now we introduce our dogs, check how old they are, see if they want to be friends, or did I happen know about the Doberman that escaped the other day? and so forth.

Yesterday Mike and I were browsing a bookshop next to the restaurant where we’d just enjoyed a meal and I even found myself picking up a book entitled ‘How To Make Your Dog Happy.’ Needless to say, that elicited a groan from Mike.

A Tree of Life in San Antonio and Paradise in Poteet

The Tree of Life is finally up! I mean the enormous, steel-framed tree of life festooned with at least two hundred pots built by members of the community, including myself, that now stands a stone’s throw from the Espada Mission, south of the city by the river.

The assembly of the steel frame had been greatly delayed due to Hurricane Harvey which flooded parts of Houston from where the steel was to come. I’d almost forgotten about it until early April, when I was walking near the Mission and Whoa, there it was. It looked just as impressive from a distance as close up. I spotted my pot immediately as it was on the bottom rung and, unlike most of the pots, unglazed, so it stuck out. It was quite a feeling, looking up at my pot, wondering how long it would be there. ‘Until a hailstorm hits it,’ Mike joked. He and friends visiting from Berlin came to see it more recently. Sadly, we’ll not be around for the beatification ceremony as we’ll be in Mexico.

Around the same time, I was driving southwards towards the small town of Poteet, known for its strawberry festival, and it struck me that the wildflowers had not only come out earlier this year but that there was a greater profusion of them. Waysides were splattered with bluebonnets, scarlet paintbrush, yellow sneezeweed daisies, white prickly poppies, soft pink evening primrose, as well as magenta and pale-mauve ones I didn’t recognize… it was hard to keep my eyes on the road. Beyond the waysides lay modest dwellings and the odd small ranch and every inch of their yards was covered with flowers, too, with an occasional old plough and other rusting farming implements peeping out. I gazed in wonderment at one yard thick with bluebonnets in which a white horse grazed. In another, a sign in Spanish advertised goat’s milk for sale. As I drove further south, meadows on both sides of the road were completely carpeted with red, blue, yellow and white and there were huisache trees, too, showing off their dark gold blossom, and Texas redbuds (Judas trees) sprouting purplish-pink flowers. It was like paradise! Well, not quite. When I got out of the car to eat a sandwich I had to step around myriad sandy anthills to be able to reach a log on which to sit. And just outside Poteet, I saw a caracara perched on top of a dead adult deer.

On a whim, I followed a sign to a cemetery. At the end of an unpaved, dusty road I found myself before a small, makeshift graveyard on the edge of a field. The stone gravestones, some obviously hewn by hand, were festooned with artificial flowers, plastic toys, glass baubles, artificial Christmas trees in old tomato or fruit cans painted gold, plastic Santa Clauses and reindeer and tinsel. It was garishly lovely. Alongside the field stretched a meadow of paintbrush and then one of bluebonnets. Caramel and cream cows peered at me over a wire fence as I now bent to study the gravestones. Some of the inscriptions were hand-painted or hand-carved. All were in Spanish. “The creator of the cemetery” lay underneath one according to its inscription. He had been born in 1865 and originated from Parras de la Fuente, Mexico. Walking back to my car I glanced southwards and caught a glimpse of the concrete strawberry on top of Poteet’s water tower.

The Polley Plantation at Sutherland Springs

Last summer, as I was driving past the library of a small town north of San Antonio, I spotted a stand of books for sale. Amongst them was a landscape-sized catalogue of watercolour plates of San Antonio and its environs in the 1850s – rare visual representations by a female artist of antebellum Texas. The watercolours had been displayed in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth 30 years previously.

In 1852, the artist, Sarah Ann Hardinge, had travelled from Boston to San Antonio by stagecoach to redeem land left to her in a will. During her four years in Texas she painted local scenes and also wrote a memoir. Of her arrival in San Antonio she wrote, ‘after travelling all night in stage coach. I could hear the Wildcats as we crossed the dark dismal prairie and wood.’

Browsing through the lovely paintings, I was particularly struck by the one of the Polley Plantation in Sutherland Springs, Sarah’s last residence before returning to Boston, and which was described by the catalogue’s editor as ‘one of the most important surviving plantation homes in Texas’. With money short and her land proving difficult to sell, Sarah lived there for a year in exchange for teaching the Polleys’ children and running the Sunday school.

I hadn’t heard of Sutherland Springs, only 30 miles east from San Antonio, before the tragic mass shooting in its Baptist church in 2017. I checked the internet and the plantation house not only still stood but was being restored. One spring-like day in January I decided to go and see it for myself. On the way I saw fields of black-and-white cattle, ancient pumpjacks beavering away and the odd swathe of magenta penstemon, early for the time of year. It was a fascinating journey: a few miles north of Sutherland Springs, in the small town of La Vernia, I saw an original drugstore (now a very dusty museum), an old Lutheran wooden church (which initially held services only in German) and a cemetery containing the remains of Prussian and Irish pioneers (the only other visitor was a grazing longhorn). I then took to the backroads and along the way saw an old wooden school constructed by emancipated slaves, a ‘bug catcher’ (mechanical harvester) invented by Pat Higgins the ‘Grass Seed King’, and the Linne oil field, once the most extensive oilfield in the area. From here I could see the two-storey Polley mansion just a short distance away. It was set just off the narrow road and surrounded by pastures. As I drove up, it looked fully restored and very lovely, with six porch columns and made from stone that had been quarried from nearby Cibolo creek.

Getting out of my car, I first had a look at the Polley cemetery on the other side of the road. Fronted by an overhead metal sign and surrounded by low iron railings, it contained about a dozen graves. The oldest belonged to a Revolutionary War veteran and the last to a World War II veteran. It was a peaceful little place. I crossed back to the house. A group of goats grazed under a live oak on one side. On the other stood a large restored cistern. At the back was the sole surviving slave cabin – there had been several more in Sarah’s painting. She wrote in her memoir:

Instead of door bells stands a little black belle … ready to notify their master or mistress of the approach of visitors – it would seem very odd to me now to sit down at any table at the North and not see a black boy or girl behind almost every chair.’

By all accounts the Polleys, who had come to Texas from New York, were good to their slaves and generous to the community. Whilst staying at the mansion, Sarah was especially afraid of The Indian threat which reached its peak in 1856:

Great fear this year of the Comanches and Lipans – parson Mr Geelittle son killed by them while driving home…Neighbours coming in from their log homes to our two story stone house for protection – Slaves brought in & horses within enclosure. Knife, guns, spikes, stones & scalded water all in readiness, case of need…

I got back in the car and drove a mile up the road to Sutherland Springs, a village by English standards, and quite poor looking in places. The white wooden Baptist church was much smaller than I imagined. It was difficult to imagine that horrific scene inside. A much larger church was being erected to replace it.

Tiles and Tortillas at Mission San José

There are five Missions in San Antonio. The most famous is the Alamo and my favourite is Espada, but all are captivating. Looking at their bright white facades one could be forgiven for forgetting that they were originally decorated – as author William Corner wrote of one in 1890: ‘[It] must have been very gorgeous with color for it was frescoed all over with red and blue quatrefoil crosses and with large yellow and orange squares to simulate dressed stones.

‘Gorgeous with colour’ could also describe a book that I have been reading on the old tile workshops of San Antonio. The revival of decorate tile making was made possible thanks to financing under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and a Texan called Ethel Harris. Two of the tile workshops were based for more than thirty years at Mission San José. This is the most complete of all the Missions with its handsome dome, arches and intricate carved stonework, and its granary and Indian quarters and restored mill. After its extensive restoration in the 1930s it became a State Park and Ethel Harris would not only manage the tile making but also become park warden, moving into the Mission itself as supervisor. What a wonderful life that must have been.

The red clay used to make the tiles came from San Antonio and was carefully selected by Harris, who hired talented high school student Fernando Ramos to create the designs. Ramos drew scenes such as fiestas, Mexican villages, Texas ranch life and marine life of the Gulf coast. He was also a wonderful Flamenco dancer who would sometimes display his dance skills to tourists at the Mission.

Armed with my book, I recently returned to the Mission with Ethel Harris in mind. I imagined the sheep grazing on the grass and the peacocks she brought there, the workers moulding, designing and glazing the pottery pieces, visitors turning up at the granary shop, Fernando Ramos and his partner performing a dance show, the cook preparing tortillas outside… When the last tile factory closed in the 1970s, Ethel Harris eventually moved out of the Mission prefecture into a tile-filled house on the Mission grounds, designed for her by her architect son. I was at first unable to locate her house so I entered a small shop where a Franciscan monk was selling handmade glassware. I asked if he’d heard of Ethel Harris and he said he hadn’t so I opened my book to show him a picture of her house and immediately he pointed me in the right direction. Before leaving the shop I complimented the monk on his glassware, then said, ‘Did you know there was once tile making in this Mission?’ He replied, with a surprised look, ‘No I didn’t…How marvellous!’

Her house was closed to the public but by climbing over a small barrier I managed to catch a glimpse through a kitchen window of a row of tiles with her trademark maguey, or century plant, design. Not far away was a small amphitheatre that she had had constructed for the performance of traditional Mexican plays, or pastores; I assumed its onate wrought-iron gates had been made by the German metal artisan and his son whom she employed to build tables and other items in which to display the tiles. (She also employed a former cowboy who previously had branded cattle, turning his skills to branding workshop items instead.)

Surrounded by palmetto palms and with the sound of birdsong in my ears I later followed a narrow path for three-quarters of a mile to the Riverwalk. The construction of San Antonio’s Riverwalk began in the Downtown area in the 1940s and murals of the San José tiles are displayed at various locations along it. Other tile murals still exist in a sports stadium, a high school, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the patio of the Menger Hotel near the Alamo and in various private ranches. Sadly, many have been lost or destroyed over the years.

Mike and I were in an antique shop recently and my attention was caught by a single tile in a locked cabinet bearing the image of a sleeping Mexican under his sombrero and with a wrought iron mounting. Due to the tile’s thickness and beautiful glazes, I was positive it was a San José tile. I asked the shop owner how much it was but she said it was not for sale.