We almost skipped the Gulf Coast. In an effort to really slow down, we briefly considered spending more time in Florida. Living the fulltime lifestyle in Florida is fairly easy. It’s sunny, warm, and you are rarely challenged by anything more than nature’s creepy crawlies (that, make no mistake, are out to kill you in Florida), but even they can be controlled fairly easily. However, with early-April Spring Break plans in Washington, D.C., we didn’t want to be rushed and miss out on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and Texas. Something—somewhere—had to give. In the end Florida gave—we decided to stick to the original plan to move on and move out.
Continuing our trek on the 15th of January, we departed Orlando on a slow nomadic migration around the Gulf Coast and into Texas. Although it took us over two weeks, we finally emerged on the western edge of Florida’s Panhandle. During our slow departure from Florida we discovered an unexpected surprise in Cedar Key, marveled at Manatees at Manatee Springs State Park, waited-out a tornado in Destin, and frolicked on the beach with Airstream friends in Pensacola. In the final tally, we somehow managed to spend almost nine weeks in Florida.
With New Orleans as our intermediate goal before Texas, we divided the drive from Pensacola to the Big Easy into two segments. Having never spent any time on the Gulf Coast of Alabama or Mississippi, we decided on a layover at the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Davis Bayou Campground in Mississippi.
Located in the charming southern coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Davis Bayou was a lovely and easy stop. Like Fort Pickens, Davis Bayou offered water, 50amp electrical hook-ups, and warm clean showers. Without much effort, we managed to while away two full days visiting nearby Ocean Springs, walking and biking around the campground and park, and visiting the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, MS. By February 1st we were ready to tackle New Orleans.
While we visited New Orleans well before Mardi Gras, we still managed to spend a hedonistic and fat (figuratively and literally) week exploring the French Quarter, the Garden District, the National Park sites, the Aquarium, and the World War II Museum. In between all the tourist stuff, we also managed to meet up with another new set of Insta-friends, Laura and Kevin of Chapter 3 Travels. Although they aren’t Airstreamers, they are perfectly normal and nice (I kid, I kid!). We had a lovely evening hanging out at a bar in the French Quarter sharing war Fulltime RV’ing stories and discussing future plans. We hope to cross paths with them again down the road. Also, I highly recommend their well-written, informative, and funny blog. Laura is a much more prolific and comedic Blogger than I could ever hope to be and her stories are well worth the bandwidth.
Towards the end of our New Orleans stay we were feeling a little burnt out and took Superbowl Sunday off from touristing. We tuned in the pre-game shows, fired up the grill, lit the outdoor stovetop, cracked open some drinks, and had a quiet evening in the campsite.
New Orleans is an expensive city and we originally considered staying at the French Quarter RV Park. Although that park is within walking distance to the French Quarter and enjoys awesome reviews, we couldn’t stomach the high price. Instead, we leveraged my retired military status and stayed just south of the city at the Joint Reserve Base (JRB) New Orleans RV Park. We commuted to/from the French Quarter via the Algiers Ferry, which was about a 20-min drive from the campground. The park is fairly new, the Algiers Ferry commute was easy (although getting to the ferry terminal on the Algiers side was an adventure in shitty roads and poor GPS’ing), access to groceries and laundry was simple, and the price was right. If you have access to the military campgrounds, I highly recommend JRB New Orleans Aviation Arbor RV Park for your New Orleans visit.
After a week of Cajun-themed overindulgence, it was time to catch up on the essentials of everyday life (e.g., school, laundry, groceries, etc.), as well as detox from too many muffalettas, crawfish, and beignets, and too much gumbo and alcohol. Also, it was time to continue our journey westward. So, after a second tornado warning induced a slow start (our departure from Destin was also delayed by a tornado warning), we finally escaped New Orleans’ gravitational pull and headed up river.
We wanted to visit a couple plantations and in order to take our time exploring them, we drove upriver and spent two nights at an RV park on the Mississippi. We had set our sights on definitely touring Oak Alley Plantation and Airstream Friends HapaTrails recommended visiting the Whitney Plantation. Both were relatively close to our campsite at Poche Plantation RV Park and we were able to visit both plantations in one day—Oak Alley in the morning and Whitney in the afternoon.
Oak Alley Plantation is the quintessential Louisiana Plantation. A majestic estate on the banks of the Mississippi, its 300-year old live oak trees stand guard over a beautiful landscape with a history of immense prosperity and terrible suffering. In the morning we spent a couple of hours walking the grounds and touring the stately Big House. Pretty young female re-enactors dressed in hoop skirts romanticize the plantation’s history while giving house tours and peddling mint juleps, all under the stately gaze of the oak trees. In a nutshell, Oak Alley recalls the romance of a bygone era that has come to define the grandeur and prosperity of the old south. But, it glosses over the cost. That cost of all that grandeur and prosperity was the focus of the second stop on our plantation tour.
The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in Louisiana that focuses on the human cost of the South’s past. Alongside the restored plantation buildings, are heart-breaking memorials and compelling narratives of hundreds of former slaves. The Whitney Plantation humanizes the slavery experience by leveraging records found on the estate with hundreds of first person accounts from former slaves. FDR’s Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project (FWP) recorded these first person slave accounts in the late-1930s. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 is a heart-rending testimony of more than 2,300 former slaves that provides a first hand glimpse of slave life in America. The Whitney Plantation buildings, grounds, and memorials, combined with the FWP’s slave stories, was a stark and powerful contrast to our light-hearted, Southern-charm infused Oak Alley morning.
Our Whitney Plantation guide was knowledgeable, passionate, and sincere and his talk significantly enhanced our Whitney experience. Once in a while his passion was a bit strong, but he tempered that with frequent opportunities to stroll among the buildings and memorials to read and reflect without distraction. Overall, while it was difficult to process everything we saw, everything we read, and everything we heard, it sticks out in my mind and heart as one of the most valuable stops of the Big Big Trip.
We still struggle with a way to talk with Owen about the darker chapters in our nation’s history and I suspect that we will continue to struggle with it—in fact, we probably should struggle with it. On another personal note, I had a hard time reconciling how the two plantations approached this same history from two entirely different angles. I am trying to understand how at Oak Alley we were three of among hundreds of estate admirers strolling about the house and grounds. However, during our 3+ hours at Whitney, the overall visitor population was only a handful. Granted, this was just a small snapshot, but still…Why weren’t more people visiting Whitney and hearing its story?
Oak Alley is beautiful and I can’t blame people for wanting to tour the grounds. It has a solid operation and is partnered with several tour companies in New Orleans; it is an easy and painless way to experience the grandness of Louisiana Plantations. On the other hand, Whitney is not as beautiful or smooth as Oak Alley and is still finding its footing. Also, Whitney has a lot of competition in the Plantation Tour market and requires some effort to seeß. However, that effort is paid back with a moving and rewarding experience that challenges (and hopefully educates) the visitor on a higher level. While Oak Alley is the easy way to check your Louisiana plantation box, Whitney is so much more than a check-in-the-box. If you only visit Oak Alley, you’re only getting part of the story. Visiting both Oak Alley and Whitney provided valuable depth and context to many of the things we saw as we drove through the South. It’s our history and we need to understand it because it still shades everyday life and the lens we view that life through today…whether we like it or not.
After the plantations, we had planned on spending one night on the road en-route to Texas. Our original plan was to spend that night at the Vermilionville Historic Village in Lafayette. Vermilionville allows visitors with RVs to park in their lot overnight for free. This option sounded great as we wanted to check out both the historic village and the National Parks’ co-located Acadian Cultural Center. However, in the end we finished up in Vermilionville earlier than planned and opted to spend the night on the road to set ourselves up for an easier drive the next day. So, after an awesome lunch in the historic village, a tour of the village, and a Junior Ranger swearing-in at the Acadian Cultural Center, we said goodbye to Louisiana and hello to Texas.
In hindsight, it seems funny that we almost decided to skip the Gulf Coast. On the surface, we didn’t see much added value in exploring Mississippi and Louisiana. However, our Gulf Coast swing was both unexpectedly valuable and enjoyable, and it set the stage for understanding the context of many of the things that we would see down the road.