November 08, 2022

Southern States Loop - The Highlights (Part 2 of 2)

Alan and I recently completed an 8,333 mile loop through a number of southern states in which we hadn’t yet camped.  In my previous post, I covered the “lowlights” of that trip.  Now, it’s on to the highlights!

The tour bus, rumbled down the track, its passengers mesmerized and silent.  The driver, focused intently on the road ahead, gripped the wheel tightly in the 10 and 2 position.  His concentration was evident as his foot forced the gas pedal all the way to the floor and held it there.  The speedometer hit 70, and the bus sped into one of the famous banked turns on the Talladega Superspeedway, a place where legends are born.  And that, my friends, was one of the incredibly memorable highlights of our Southern States loop.  Alan and I had a front row seat as our tour bus driver took the lower part of that turn carefully and brought the bus to a stop at the finish line.  “What a thrill!” sounds like a cliché to my ears, but “racing” around the track and actually standing on the finish line at Talladega really was an awe-inspiring experience. 

The Talladega Superspeedway Finish Line - up close and personal

Alan and I aren’t NASCAR fans, but several years ago, we had toured Daytona International Speedway and really enjoyed it.  Since we were in the Talladega neighborhood, touring this track was an opportunity we couldn’t resist.  Our tour guide, Brian, is a retired teacher who attended the first race ever held at Talladega with his dad when he was only five years old.  When Brian retired from teaching, he returned to Talladega Superspeedway as a tour guide and “race bus driver” extraordinaire.  It was a sincere pleasure and our good fortune to tour the track with Brian at the wheel.  After all, not only did he know Talladega’s history, he was part of it.  Who better to communicate the thrills and excitement of the track than the little boy who now spends several days each week sharing his knowledge with tourists and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Brian’s wife and kids had come to Talladega the week prior to our visit to take the track tour with him.  "Mrs. Brian" acknowledged then that his tour guide gig was the perfect job for him.  Truthfully, either Brian was a really good actor or he was having as much fun on the tour as the rest of us.

Group meeting at the Finish Line with Brian (at left in the floppy hat)

I know I complained a bit about the lowlights of our trip in my previous post, but there really was an abundance of wonderful experiences that outweighed them.  Keep in mind, I’m just touching on the highlights of this trip, and I’ll document it completely at some point in the future.  Our days were filled with an exquisite mix of activities and we enjoyed every single one.

Alan and I aren’t big “night lifers.”  Instead, we’re more the early to bed, early to rise sort.  So it was early one morning when we made our way up and down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.  It’s likely that its proprietors, customers and musicians were all still sleeping when Alan and I drove slowly down Beale, a street steeped in the history of the blues and lined with one music venue after another.  William Christopher Handy is known as “the Father of the Blues,” but the blues originated on southern plantations with slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves.  W. C. Handy is credited with making the blues more accessible to everyone, and we stopped at his former home on Beale Street to pay our respects.  There wasn’t a single musical note in the wind that morning, but we were soaking up the blues just the same.

Moving on into Arkansas, we delighted in the natural wonders of the appropriately nicknamed “Natural State.”  From the Buffalo National River in the north to the Crater of Diamonds State Park in the southwest, we found the great outdoors to be truly great in Arkansas.  The hand of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was evident in many of the magnificent parks we visited, the young men’s stonework having withstood the test of time.  One unusual park was like nothing we had come across in our travels.  Ozark Folk Center State Park is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the work of the artisans and musicians of the region.  I didn’t even try to resist several souvenirs from the pottery and quilt shops, and Alan and I agreed that we could have stayed all day just to listen to the musicians.

Lively music (and lively musicians!) at Ozark Folk Center State Park

While in Arkansas, we checked off yet another National Park – Hot Springs National Park (HSNP).  HSNP is a bit like Acadia National Park in that it’s not a completely separate entity somewhere on the outskirts of town or in the middle of nowhere.  HSNP is right in town, with a row of historic bathhouses on one side of the street and restaurants and businesses on the other.

The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the home of the National Park's Visitor Center.

In addition to exploring the beautifully preserved Fordyce Bathhouse, we strolled along the Grand Promenade behind the bathhouses and enjoyed lunch at The Ohio Club, the oldest bar in Arkansas.  Since the era of prohibition has passed and gambling is no longer illegal, we didn’t have to whisper the secret password at the door to get in.  We chose to eat upstairs in The Ohio Club’s former casino; our table was actually a glass-topped roulette table.  In the early 1900’s, major league baseball held spring training in the Hot Springs area, and one of the Club’s most famous customers was none other than Babe Ruth.  As for its more infamous clientele, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano were all known guests.  If only those walls could talk!

From Arkansas we moved on to Texas.  Don’t spread this around, but we cheated a bit, ducking just far enough into Texas to be able to color in that particular state on our “visited states” map.  We enjoyed our brief two-night stay at Clear Spring (an Army Corps of Engineers campground on Wright Patman Lake in eastern Texas) so much that we immediately added that campground to our “return to” list.  It was a gem!

Loved our campsite and the view of the lake that came with it!

That stop in Texas was the westernmost point of our trip.  From there, it was on to New Orleans – a definite highlight for me.  For Alan, not so much.  But it’s all his fault.  Alan prefers to drive.  I like to drive, too, but I’m also fine with riding shotgun.  He’s not, and he gets antsy pretty quickly when he does.  So, by choice, he’s usually behind the wheel throughout our travels.

Bayou Segnette State Park was our base camp for exploring New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA).  Although we had good intel on where and how to take the ferry over to the French Quarter, we ended up driving in all three days we visited the city.  With Alan’s knee bothering him a bit we thought it best to have plans in place for a quick getaway if one was “kneeded.”  (Yes, that was really bad, wasn’t it?)  The one-way streets drove him nuts and it seemed like more than a few drivers could have used some medication to calm them down.  Although Alan will usually drive anywhere without complaint, driving in NOLA annoyed him to no end.  Now he doesn’t want to go back.

Note the One Way signs.  Governor Nicholls Street runs one way out of the northwest until it hits Decatur Street.  Then it runs one way the other way.  I kid you not.

I, on the other hand, had a fabulous time!  I know you’re expecting me to say that the French Quarter was a major highlight – and it was.  I was especially delighted to go souvenir shopping for the kids in the French Market and to see all the horses, mules and carriages around Jackson Square.  But do you know what was better than touring NOLA?  Eating in NOLA!  I devoured my first muffuletta and I know that it will NOT be my last.  A muffuletta is a sandwich traditionally made on a 9” round loaf of sesame-seeded Italian bread that includes Italian meats and cheeses topped with an olive salad.  Its origin is attributed to Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant and the owner of the Central Grocery, a deli on Decatur Street in New Orleans.  Alas, at the time of our visit, Central Grocery was closed for repairs necessitated by the arrival of Hurricane Ida in 2021.  But the muffuletta below from the Dry Dock Café on Algiers Point was divine!

Mmm-mmm muffuletta!

I’ll bet you can all guess what’s even more delectable than a muffuletta - beignets, of course!  Truth be told, that’s the main reason I wanted to go to NOLA.  (I know – shallow, right?)  The good news is that I wasn’t disappointed!  According to my Moon travel guide, Café du Monde is the most famous establishment for beignets, but Café Beignet, although not quite as well known, may be even a bit better.  Well, of course, we had to try them both!  Our winner?  By mutual agreement . . . Café Beignet!  Café du Monde’s beignets were, without a doubt, scrumptious.  That being said, both Alan and I liked the slightly denser texture of Café Beignet’s beignets, and it was there that we went (again) on our third and final morning in NOLA.  Beignets for breakfast three mornings in a row may not have been the healthiest adventure we had during the trip, but we enjoyed every tasty morsel and I’m not one bit sorry.  In fact, I’m going back for more beignets.  I don’t know when or how, but I’m going back.

Café Beignet on Bourbon Street is located in the Musical Legends Park - just delightful!  

Leaving Louisiana behind, we traversed southern Mississippi and made our way to Gulf State Park in Orange Beach, Alabama.  Alan and I considered many stops throughout this trip as “one and dones.”  Like Hot Springs National Park.  We really enjoyed our day there, but neither one of us feels the need to go back.  (Unlike Bryce, Glacier and Acadia National Parks, for example, each of which continues to call our names through the years.)  Gulf State Park was a completely different story and, most definitely, one of the best highlights of the trip.

One of two bridges over the highway for pedestrians and bicyclists

The Park has nearly 30 miles of walking and biking trails, including two trails that cross the lake, the dunes and the highway for easy access to one of the most beautiful white sand beaches we’ve ever seen.  There’s wildlife galore, including sharks that were easily seen from the fishing pier thanks to the amazingly clear waters of the Gulf.  Did Gulf State Park make the “return to” list?  You bet it did.  All I have to do is figure out how to pick up some beignets along the way.

Best trailhead signs EVER!

Up to this point, we had colored in six new-to-us states on our map of visited states – West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  Our seventh would be Maryland thanks to our highly anticipated stop at Assateague Island National Seashore.  We had visited Assateague at least twice before, but this would be our first camping experience there.  Alan and I were both hoping to see the wild ponies while on the island, and I was hoping to see wild ponies right in our campsite.  As soon as we arrived, we could tell from the, uh, “evidence” that the ponies did frequent our camping area.  Sure enough, every day we were out and about, so were the ponies.  On the morning of our departure, two of them wandered through our camping area for our viewing pleasure.  As we were leaving Assateague that day, heading for the bridge that would take us to the mainland, we saw more ponies all along the way.  Not only did my wish to see the ponies at camp come true, but they seemed to be escorting us to the edge of the island.  Mother Nature’s gentle way, perhaps, of saying, “Thanks for coming.  I hope you enjoyed your stay!”

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the reasons I decided to publish Reflections Around the Campfire was to document our travels.  Occasionally, I get lost in the task of documenting and something will bring me up short – like remembering the incredible softness of that beautiful white sand on the Alabama shore.

If you read between the lines detailing the what and the when, I trust that you’ll sense an explorer’s excitement and unending enthusiasm for adventure.  This magnificent country of ours entertains me, surprises me, amazes me and educates me.  Behind each and every experience I document are the emotions, the memories, the unique and often thrilling opportunities to see, do, hear, feel or taste something new.  Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate these opportunities or that I take them for granted.  An anonymous quote I once read has stayed with me and served me well - “The goal is to die with memories, not dreams.”  Alan and I are doing our best to achieve that goal of leaving not one single dream unfulfilled. 

And so concludes my recap of the highlights and lowlights of our Southern States Loop.  Next up, I’ll get back to documenting our West Coast National Parks trip.  My last post in that series detailed our delightful, non-gambling adventures in Las Vegas.  Having survived “Sin City,” we headed west toward California with Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks all on the itinerary and brief stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco planned along the way.  I hope you’ll join us on our upcoming adventures!



  1. Mary, great work here. I added several campgrounds to my inventory of future places to camp. Thanks so much! And...beignets three days in a row?!? You're my kind of girl! Have a great rest of the week. Joe

    1. Always happy to help, Joe! I didn't mention it in either of these two posts, but another good find was the River View RV Park in Vidalia, Louisiana. We don't often stay at private RV parks, but we'd return to this one in a heartbeat. Beautifully maintained and right on the Mississippi River. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you add that one to your list. And another member of the "Beignets for Breakfast Club!" Yay!

  2. Love this! And, I love the quote: “The goal is to die with memories, not dreams.” I will add it to my book of quotes to remember. Let me know when you are ready to visit New Orleans again. As long as it's not hot and muggy weather, I'll meet you there :)

    A few years ago, we got to drive our sportscar on the Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, CA. It was a thrill! Same sportscar, different state, we drove (too fast :) ) on the Bonneville Salt Flats outside of Salt Lake City. I am an "old lady driver" but it is fun to go fast now and then... right?

    1. I don't do well with hot and muggy either. So, as long as you're good with beignets for breakfast, it's a date! As for driving, I'm afraid you may have created a monster. I don't think Alan has read this post yet. As soon as he sees your comment about driving the track near Monterey and running the salt flats, he's going to want to do that with his Camaro SS, too. He is definitely in the "it's fun to go fast" camp!

    2. Driving on the Laguna Seca Raceway was part of a pre-arranged event for our car club. Driving on the salt flats was a just show up and: "HOLY COW, we can just do that... no one will stop us?" experience.

    3. Very cool experiences - both of them! Alan is definitely a "no one will stop us?!" kind of guy. Rules may be considered merely suggestions in his world - which often produces angst in mine. Sigh.

  3. I'm slowly getting over your anemic little foray into our glorious state but, if I were you, I would be guilt-ridden by including it in your compilation of states "visited." By the way, when you come back here, remember that we check to make sure people HAVE guns. And put some mud on your New York license plates or you may need a Colt 44 on your hip. (Just kidding...a little.) Ah, New Orleans--foodie heaven. Congrats on getting the muffuletta and beignets. But there's so much more; I'm gaining weight just writing this. I'm really glad you dipped your toe into Texas; next time, you must stay longer. I will be watching and waiting.

    1. I stand by the decision to include Texas on our map of visited states because it met our criteria (as noted in my previous post). We spent not one but two nights in Texarkana, TEXAS, and enjoyed exploring the parks on our corner of Wright Patman Lake. And here I thought Texans had a reputation for being friendly! We colored in Wisconsin after spending the night in our travel trailer at Jerry's Truck & Trailer Repairs in Roberts, and nobody from Wisconsin complained about that. Just sayin' . . . Seriously, planning for our tour of the southwest is in the works, and catching up with you and Sandy will be on the itinerary. Stay tuned!

    2. As you know--it's all in fun. You're won't find friendlier folks.

    3. As my mom always said, Mike, "If we didn't love you, we wouldn't tease you!" Honestly, northeasterners have a lot to learn about being friendly from southern folks. Alan and I were amazed at the number of people who spoke to us simply out of courtesy and friendliness as we would pass in a parking lot or on the street. It made me a little more determined to spread cheer in my own neck of the woods, that's for sure.

  4. This was so much fun to read! Your experience on the Talledega Speedway in the tour bus is hilarious! I also love New Orleans and although we've visited several times, would happily return. Assateague is still on our list, and I hope we get to see the ponies. :-) I'm glad you enjoyed your foray into Texas...we've spent a lot of time traversing Texas in our cross-country travels, and we gained a tremendous appreciation for the state parks and the diversity of terrain in that enormous state! Which is a good thing, because it takes FOREVER to get across it, LOL.

    1. Laurel, since you enjoyed the Talladega story so much, I just have to share this . . . Brian told us that the tour bus was actually a former nursing home transport bus. Boy, did my imagination run wild with that! Suddenly, I had a movie plot going - a NASCAR fan on the edge of sanity hijacks a bus of nursing home patients and speeds off to the race track to fulfill a lifelong dream. Can't you just see it? "Coming soon to a theater near you, a brand new comedy starring . . ."

    2. 😂😂😂 That is a GREAT story!!

    3. We can co-author the screenplay!

  5. Mary, it all sounds pretty wonderful...except that driving! If I show Tom that picture of the sandwich - the muffuletta, you KNOW he will be interested in a visit. That site with the ponies - that I would love to see! But really, some of the rest was very intriguing as well. Maybe some day...sigh. Always look forward to your posts. Thanks.

    1. If Tom says he's going to New Orleans, call me - I'm in! Since this post was just about the highlights, there were a lot of unique and memorable adventures that weren't included. And they really ran the gamut from museums (like the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Mississippi) to fun-filled outdoor outings (like digging for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas). The variety of activities on these extended trips is one of the best things about life on the road - each day brings something new and exciting.


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!