Postcards from New Orleans

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Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans

In between lots of tea and one more Urgent Care stop (and Henna’s cold is just now really starting to clear up), we had ourselves a good time in the Big Easy. To us the city is equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Europe, and the American South. It is also rickety trolley cars well past their prime, Spanish moss hanging from the Cyprus trees, and hipsters congregating in the Lower Garden. It will not take a Voodoo spell to bring us back here.

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We were lucky to have met photographer David G. Spielman whose photos in the immediate aftermath of Katrina chronicle a very desperate time in New Orleans

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Located just outside the French Quarter in one of the oldest African American communities is Louis Armstrong Park (formerly Congo Park). Into the mid 19th Century slaves met her every Sunday to trade goods, stories, and express themselves in music and dance.

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The Memphis Blues

We saw quite a lot of Memphis in just a little bit of time. Barbque? Check (and in case you are wondering, Corey had a grill portabella sandwich smothered in sauce). Graceland? Sun Studio? Two more checks. We also saw a few ducks hanging out in a hotel lobby, strolled down Beale Street (refreshingly not family friendly, but we are a family so it was a short time for us there), and took the monorail over the Mississippi to Mud Island. If Mud Island sounds terrifying, like the last place on earth where dinosaurs still roam, it is not. It is actually a cool blend of museum and interactive outdoor sculpture i.e. a miniaturized Mississippi that you can walk from Cairo, Il to New Orleans. Even in miniature form it takes about fifteen minutes to do.

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Graceland's finished basement

But Graceland is what most people think of when they think of Memphis and it is Graceland we went to first. We honestly had no idea what to expect. Two big surprises for me. 1) The house actually felt pretty normal. Not even that big. It is like 13,000 square feet and has over 20 rooms, but inside it felt more Brady Bunch than Rock and Roll diva. 2) I really liked Graceland. Actually wish we spent more time there. Yes, it is an extremely sanitized look at the King of Rock. But man, when is the last time you walked through a hall of hundreds of mounted gold and platinum records. And the jumpsuits! Man, Elvis had style.

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Courtesy of Elvis Presley’s Graceland

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As cool as Graceland is (and it is pretty cool), Sun Studio is even cooler. This is where Elvis first recorded. It is also the studio that first signed Johnny Cash, Howling Wolf, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. U2 also recorded some of Rattle and Hum. A small, homey place, you get to do things like hold the microphone that Elvis and others used to change America and the world forever. Tickets are only $12 an adult and children under 12 are free. Very Hennacornoelidays recommended.

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I also wrote up a few articles for Splash. If you are interest in reading them, here is the Graceland article (with a few more cool photos) as well as an article about Sun Studio. We also recommend staying at this Airbnb located in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood which is, by the way, what Brooklyn would look like if it relocated to Memphis.

Where We Circle Southern Illinois Like a Turkey Vulture

There are few places less uncovered by Hennacornoelidays than Southern Illinois. The actual boundaries of Little Egypt (as this area is sometimes known) are a little vague. Generally speaking though, it is defined by the Mississippi and Ohio which come together at Cairo to form Illinois’ most southern point. The top lid is less clear but probably lies no further north than Effingham (a good four hours south of Chicago). You may still be in Illinois, but just try to get a Chicago newspaper or find a Cubs fan. Both are near impossible to do and any conversation reinforces the fact that most of this area rests further south than Richmond, Virginia.

So why do we keep coming back? It is part nostalgia. Corey and I honeymooned here almost fourteen years ago in the same cabin where I typed up these thoughts. Henna sat up for the first time here and in this cabin we have also searched for Easter eggs, listened to owls hoot at night, cowered by a television to track powerful storms headed our way, and walked the trail immediately outside a little bit further into the woods each visit.

But the area has a strong pull on us as well with each visit a mix of the old and the new. Very few things here are carefully marked and most visits involve a lot of time spent looking at a map. We are also happy to say that even GPS finds the area a bit dense and listening to it might cause the traveler to wander in circles. Return enough times and one begins to see each visit exists in fact as a circle with each trip overlapping the last.  For this adventure we circled the familiar while stopping at the new.

Pamona Winery

Those wine varietals you are accustomed to drink do not fare well in the Midwest. For that reason many of the Southern Illinois vineyards use hybrids resulting in wine that sort of resembles what you can buy a lot cheaper at your local grocery store. A few of the special vineyards, however, focus more on grapes that actually thrive in the thin southern soil. Pamona does it one step better by offering up a variety of apple wines. They are delicious with their Jonathon surprisingly tart and dry. Pamona also ages one in oak with the flavors reminding us a lot of Sake. The winery excels also in conversation and most visits include one with the owner, Jefferson Park native and self-described hippie George Majak who moved to the area in the late 1970s and had to initially learn to do without electricity. Things are more developed now, but the essential character of his place is a rugged retreat perfect for a picnic lunch or glass of Southern’s finest.

 

Little Grand Canyon

This was not the first time we hiked into the canyon, but it was the first time we successfully navigated the entire three mile trail. It involved a lot of wet rock scrambles with the trail often resembling a slowly moving waterfall. We also were fortunate to encounter a few hikers along the way many of whom had gotten lost somewhere along the trail. We heeded their advice and for that reason spent more time admiring the pock marked canyon walls and less time arguing over which way to go.

If you attempt this trail search out the terrain for white diamonds marking the trail and know that a few key junctions do not have said diamonds to guide you in the right direction. Also bring water and maybe hike your socks high and/or wear pants to help defend against the bugs.

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Longbranch Café & Bakery
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We cannot believe it has taken us almost fifteen years to discover this vegetarian diner that is located in Carbondale across the street from the train station. The only thing better than the friendly people working there is the yummy food they serve. Henna recommends the Puerto Rican Black Beans and Rice. Corey and I both loved their home made hummus, delicious grilled cheese sandwich, and their made from scratch tomato basil soup. If you do not have time for lunch, grab something to go at their bakery.

Plaza Records
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Our 3 new favorite words are “dollar record bin.” There were so many quality records to choose from I had to talk Corey out of renting a U-Haul trailer. The store also promotes local talent, has a small listening station, and can be found in Carbondale.

Southern Illinois Tales: Cave-In-Rock

In the spirit of Passover and our own sense of irony, we journeyed back to Egypt this Spring Break. That is, we hung out in Illinois’ “Little Egypt” where the Mississippi flows past Thebes on its way to Cairo. We of course have a few stories to tell and would like to begin at Cave-In-Rock, Il.

A little spelunking at Cave-In-Rock

A little spelunking at Cave-In-Rock

Cave-In-Rock is known for their cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River (which later meets up with the Mississippi at Cairo). Cave-In-Rock is just a tad west of the River to River trail’s beginning at Battery Rock (the River to River trail is a roughly 160 mile journey that wanders over some of the most beautiful land in the country). Lewis and Clark made some notes about the cave in their journey west and it has since been used by river pirates, Confederate soldiers, vagabonds, a movie or two, and at least one church. Today it is an easily accessible wonder with a good amount of spray painted graffiti on the cavernous walls. Like most attractions in Southern Illinois there were no rangers and few signs offering information related to the attraction. Just the cave, a few rusty playgrounds, a diner not yet opened for business, and a few apartment style rooms which offer great views of the river and enough room to spread out (Hennacornoeliday recommended).

Cave-In-Rock State Park

Cave-In-Rock State Park

View from lodge

View from lodge

Cave-In-Rock is also a town that offers a car ferry service to Kentucky and one mighty good fish place called Dutton’s Café. Dutton’s Café’ was the type of place where a regular came by and went into the kitchen to talk to Mrs. Dutton while she breaded his fish. The food was awesome and included two hush puppies with every order (Henna groaned when I joked they were made with 100% puppy meat). We pestered Mrs. Dutton with questions until eventually she broke down and told us all we wanted to know about her town. Turns out she and her family are big Cub fans and on the wall next to framed articles about the town and its citizens was a picture of Ron Santo with two of her grand children. We also learned about the official state mineral fluorite which used to be mined around those parts in great quantities (until they “figured out it was cheaper just to import it.”) Later we met her very fit 96 year old father in law (who returned from a day fishing with some of the most mismatched and colorful duds I have ever seen), and another elderly (but not that elder) gentleman who retired from mining some time ago and is now, along with thousands of his mining brothers, looking to the courts to protect his pension. He was friendly and was quick to note that he did not say anything when he learned we were from Chicago. He also offered to take us out fishing if we ever found our way back to Cave-In. I have a pretty good idea where I might be able to find him if we decide to take him up on his offer. Noel

Special thanks to Liz who let my try out a lens which made the cave pictures possible

Great Midwestern River Cities: Dubuque, Iowa

If this blog entry is ever adapted as a movie I see the town of Galena cast by somebody pretty and popular.  Maybe it would be Scarlett Johansson as the cheerleader and girlfriend to the star quarterback.  And Galena’s sister city, Dubuque, IA?  That role would have to go to the gritty and talented Lucinda Williams who would play the quarterback’s best friend with the secret crush.  The audience would cheer on Lucinda, but in real life (not reel life), the quarterback stays with the cheerleader. 

So it goes with Galena, a town of a few thousand resident and a few more thousand tourists.  And I can see why; 85% of the city is considered a National Historic Landmark.  It also was the former home of President Grant and at one time was a crucial stop on the Mississippi River between the two Midwestern saints (Louis and Paul). 

Dubuque has over 50,000 residents and a lot of seniors frequenting the casino.  They also have a world-class Mississippi River Museum that spans two buildings.  One building, our favorite, was low-key and showed off various fish and amphibians native to the river.  The other building felt a little ecologically preachy to be interesting (although for us it was preaching to the choir).  Dubuque does have National Historic Landmarks and accessible history, but unlike Galena you have to work a bit to get to it.  The downtown area was full of interesting sculptures, pristine, and completely devoid of people after 9. 

So, Spielberg, Tarantino, M Knight Shyamalan, what do you think? Give me a call and we can talk numbers.

River Towns of the Midwest: Cape Girardeau, MO

Crossing over the Mississippi into Cape Girardeau we smiled at the big sign greeting us; “Cape Girardeau, hometown of the big mouth idiot Rush Limbaugh.”  Actually I just made that up.  There was no sign that I could see, but the visitor’s guide did indicate that one could take a self-guided trip past the hospital he was born in as well as other markers to that dopey bigot.

For the same reason why I wanted to fall in love with Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, MO, I wanted to find serious fault with Cape Girardeau.  Ironically, it was Hannibal that felt worn out and offered to us only the most narrow of glimpses into its past.  Cape Girardeau, in contrast, had a friendly and comfortable feel.  Like many river towns, it was built on steep bluffs and seemed to rise up over itself with an elevated courthouse standing guard over the city.  The historic waterfront possessed a good number of 19th century buildings and just enough bars to remind everyone that Cape Girardeau is the home of Southeastern Missouri State University.  And lest you forget that Cape Girardeau is a river town, the waterfront is protected by a sturdy floodwall that tells, through colorful murals, of the interplay between river and town over the last three hundred years.