Heading to Florida (April 30 – May 5, 2023)

We left Kerrville on Sunday, April 30th and drove 245 miles to Katy, TX (a suburb northwest of Houston).  We spent the night at Katy Lake Resort. 

On Monday morning, we waited until after rush hour and then headed out on I-10 for a drive that took us through Houston.  Although there was steady traffic, it wasn’t too bad.  We drove 235 miles on I-10 to Duson, LA, where we spent two nights at Frog City RV Park.  The campground was nice and, although it was very close to the interstate, wasn’t too noisy.  The best part was that they offered the Passport America 50% discount, so each night only cost us $26.

On Thursday, we drove to Avery Island where we toured the TABASCO visitor center and factory, as well as exploring the Jungle Gardens.  Avery Island is not truly an island.  It’s actually a salt dome, squeezed up from the Earth’s interior.  From a distance, it looks like an island because of its height and encirclement by wetlands.  The Island climbs about 160’ above sea level, stretches 2.5 miles across, and covers 2,200 acres.  Its deposit of solid rock salt is thought to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high and is currently mined by Cargill, down about 2,000 feet.

We began the tour in the museum, where we learned about the history of TABASCO and the production process.  In the mid-1860s, Edmund McIllhenny began growing peppers using seeds believed to be from Mexico or Central America.  Around 1868, he created the first bottle of his now-famous TABASCO brand pepper sauce.  TABASCO has remained a family-owned business, run mostly by descendants of Edmund McIllhenny.  These descendants had a variety of interests beyond the business.  One was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt; another was an explorer of the North Pole and pioneered the introduction and commercial cultivation of bamboo in the United States. 

Three single ingredients – aged red peppers, natural vinegar, and a dash of Avery Island-mined salt – produce the spicy flavor of TABASCO red pepper sauce.  The tabasco pepper is picked at the perfect shade of red, then immediately crushed, mixed with salt, and aged in white oak barrels for up to three years.  The aged “mash” is then blended with vinegar and stirred intermittently in 1,800-gallon vats for 2 – 3 weeks, then strained to remove the pepper skins and seeds.  The finished sauce is then ready to be bottled.  Our self-guided tour took us through the real-life operations of the greenhouse, barrel aging, blending, and bottling facilities. 

After doing some product tasting in the Country Store and making some purchases, we had lunch at the 1868 Restaurant.  We then did a drive through Jungle Gardens.  Edmund McIllhenny’s son, “Ned,” grew up on the island and studied plants and animals.  Around 1895, Ned developed a semi-tropical garden on the island.  In 1935, it was opened to the public as Jungle Garden, covering about 170 acres.  We drove the circuit and stopped at all 14 points of interest.  We spotted two alligators, including one whose movements had us scurrying back to our car.  One of the stops was at a Buddha from about 1000 AD, a gift from two of Ned’s friends.  Jan discovered a wallet on the ground in the parking lot by the Buddha and was able to find the owner.  He was extremely grateful.

Ned also built an aviary on the island, known as Bird City, to help save the snowy egret, a species that had become endangered due to its feathers being prized by hat makers.  In 1895, he hand-raised 8 snowy egrets in a cage above the water.  Egrets prefer to build their nests above the water because the alligators in the water deter other predators from harming the birds.  In the fall, Ned released them to migrate south.  The following Spring, they returned to nest and raise their young.  By 1911, an estimated 100,000 egrets nested in the rookery.

On Wednesday, we drove 185 miles to Bay St. Louis, MS, where we spent two nights at Legends of the Bayou RV Park.  Phil had learned about this brand-new RV park on Facebook.  The campground was largely a gravel-filled parking lot on the edge of a bayou.  The office, restrooms and laundry were up on stilts but, fortunately we didn’t need to climb the stairs, except for the view.  The owners did provide a fishing boat, rods and bait, but we never had time to take advantage of them. 

That evening, we headed to downtown Bay St. Louis and had dinner outdoors at Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill, across the street from the bay.  We then visited Hollywood Casino briefly and left with more money than we had risked.  We wisely decided to quit while we were ahead.

On Thursday, we headed to Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Our first stop was at the visitors’ center in the historic train depot.  Upon getting handed numerous brochures, it was readily apparent that we could easily have spent more than one day in Bay St. Louis.  After walking through the Mardi Gras and Blues exhibits, we headed upstairs to the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.  A young girl gave us a guided tour through the museum.  Alice Moseley’s mother had developed Alzheimer’s when Alice was in her 60s and, to deal with the boredom while caring for her mother, Alice took up painting.  Over the next 30 years, Alice developed a reputation as a nationally acclaimed folk artist, humorist and story-teller.  We watched her on video, telling her jokes and stories, and could clearly see the appeal.  We bought a couple of prints of her artwork.

We next drove to the bay to see the largest of the “Angel Creations,” Hurricane Katrina-damaged live oak trees transformed into sculptures by chainsaw artist Dayle K. Lewis.  This tree had been used as a life raft by three Katrina survivors.

We then spent a couple of hours doing the historic walking tour through Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Using the guidebook we had obtained at the visitors’ center, we learned about the history of 24 houses and buildings that dated back to the late 1800s / early 1900s.  One of the stops was a building that had been the centerpiece for a 1966 Sidney Pollack film, This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford and Charles Bronson.

After all that walking, we were ready for lunch.  We ate at The Blind Tiger and had a table overlooking the marina.  Our final stop for the day was at the Ground Zero Hurricane Museum in the neighboring town of Waveland.  Waveland had been ground zero for Hurricane Katrina.  We watched a very sobering video containing film footage of the storm and interviews with survivors of Katrina who had ridden out the storm in Waveland.  The museum, in a former school building, has a line painted 11’ above street level showing how high the water had reached during the hurricane.  In the school’s hallways, they have a timeline showing the activities of each day, from before the storm through the aftermath.  In total, 1,833 people died in Katrina, including 25 from the little town of Wavelend.

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