Tom and I began the morning of day 6 with a short run through Petit Jean state park. When we returned, Sam was preparing breakfast in our cabin — pancakes and spam.
This was a leisurely morning, since this was just a travel day — from Arkansas to Vicksburg, MS.
After breakfast, we packed the car and headed to Mississippi.
We arrived in Vicksburg after the National Park had closed, and we found the one movie theater in town to watch Jurassic World, then had pizza in our hotel room.
We awoke bright and early and headed to the park.
Though my experience with licensed guides has been mixed, we rented a guide for a two-hour tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park. He was really quite good and had a lot of interesting anecdotes to share. The tour lasted about two hours, which was an hour more than Tom or Sam could handle. The entrance arch was built with money left over from the “hands over the wall” reconciliation reunion event in the 1940s. Apparently four days into the seven day event, booze got the better of the attendees. They began beating on each other with canes and bashing each other with their wheel chairs. After the second battle of Vicksburg ended, everyone was sent home early, and the leftover money was used to pay for the arch.
Before embarking on our tour, however, we first watched a cannon firing demonstration. The park ranger did a very nice job of describing cannon firing and walking the spectators through the process.
I was surprised at the number of monuments at Vicksburg. There seemed to be more than at Shiloh, and the number rivaled Gettysburg — at least on a monument-to-square-mile basis.
The pride and joy of the park is the USS Cairo.
The Cairo was probably the first ship in the world sunk by an electronically detonated mine. This mine was likely a glass jar of explosives and a blasting cap. The ship went down in 12 minutes with no loss of life. It was found in the 1940s by a park ranger but wasn’t raised until the 1970s. After many years of restoration, it is on display. You can read about these early ironclad ships, but seeing one in person you really get an appreciation for the size.
The smoke and noise must have been terrible during a battle due to the close quarters.
I could have stayed a little longer, but by this time I was facing a mutiny, so we got on the road for New Orleans. We arrived in time to check into our hotel and then walk along the river and the street in front of our hotel.
Candy found a really nice — and crazy inexpensive — hotel in the French Quarter, close to the river, and near the center of all the shopping, called the French Market Inn. It appears to have been built over time by purchasing nearby buildings and combining them into a single hotel. The stairways go in all kinds of crazy directions. Rooms like this one were obviously part of an exterior wall at one time. The room was quite nice, and it was good to be within walking distance of just about everything we wanted to see.
As the hotel acquired nearby buildings to cobble into a single hotel, they created this nice interior courtyard with a small wading pool. It was a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the tourist trade outside.
So, here is a good place for a quick assessment of New Orleans: dirty and raunchy. It combines the worst of beachfront t-shirt shops, “homeless” people, pickpockets, and stench, with good food and zydeco music. All the tourist information warns visitors to travel in large groups and guard your valuables because of the gangs of thugs and pickpockets who roam the streets. While we didn’t see much of that, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. We were in the heavily patrolled tourist area, but you could easily wander a block in the wrong direction and spend your vacation dead. I’m glad we have visited in New Orleans, and I will probably return once to finish seeing the National WWII Museum, but otherwise, this city has little to interest me.
We were close to Jackson park, dedicated to Andrew Jackson, statues of Jean Lafitte, and this statue of Joan of Arc. The French heritage of New Orleans is everywhere. We wandered around, looking in stores, and sampling different types of hot sauces. We did not really sample the pubs, bars, and restaurants that featured live entertainment, but perhaps we will do that if we return.
Late our first evening, we began to get hungry, so we split a muffelata. These are enormous sandwiches filled with different meats, provolone cheese, and olive salad. Purportedly invented at the Central Market along Rue Decatur (where our hotel is located) by Sicilian immigrants, muffelatas are quite good. We had a chance to compare this one from a small street-side restaurant with the “original” from Central Market. Tom and my consensus was that we preferred the original.
A few years back, we visited the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca state park in Minnesota. On this trip we came very close to where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The next morning we braved New Orleans traffic to get to Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours outside of town.
The four of us and another couple boarded one of these airboats and headed into the bayou in search of gators and Rougarou, the famous Louisiana swamp creature.
Our guide and his family have been involved in rescuing gator eggs, growing gators in captivity, and releasing them in the wild for many years. It was obvious that these guys cared about what they were doing, beyond the tourist trade.
After releasing a mature alligator (about four feet long), they try to ensure the gators have enough food to get them through their first winter as they learn to fend for themselves in the wild.
I expected to see gators and other wildlife from a distance. I didn’t expect to get this close.
This is NOT a petting zoo. These are wild gators in search of food.
When the travel brochure said we would get a chance to handle a gator, Sam wanted to know if it would be one with its mouth held shut or a “free range” gator. This is one of the gators these guys are raising for eventual release into the wild. We all got to hold him. It is surprising how soft their belly skin is.
After our airboat tour, we returned to the hotel to clean up and then walked to the National WWII Museum. This was originally the National D-Day Museum but is in the process of a major expansion. In four hours we probably only saw 30% of the collection. This is worth returning to New Orleans to see again!
The museum was quite large and getting larger. I don’t know for sure, but it felt larger than the Smithsonian Museum of American History. There were a number of interactive displays and some artifacts I’ve never seen in a museum before.
We walked back through town, traveling along Bourbon Street as long as we could stand it. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I expected antique stores, small honky tonks with live music, and higher-end shops. Not so. While there is some of that on parallel streets, Bourbon Street was strip clubs, cheap shops with vulgar t-shirts, “homeless” people trying to get your cash, and smells that rival the trash compactor in Star Wars. All the trash is just thrown on the streets during the day and is picked up at night. This is not Disney.
Along the way, we passed picturesque scenes like this one that hint at the grandeur of old New Orleans.
We also stopped in Cafe du Monde for a beignet.
It was a good visit, and we got to see all the things I wanted to see — a swamp tour, a little of the French Quarter, and the WWII Museum. Other than wanting to spend more time in the WWII Museum, I think two nights were plenty. Tomorrow we will head to Columbus, GA, to visit Candy’s mom for two nights.