Category Archives: worth the trip

Mammoth Cave: Watch out for that dinosaur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the day after Thanksgiving and a Tyrannosaurus Rex the color of Cheetos is threatening to pluck our Honda CRV right off the highway and throw it over the fence that surrounds Dinosaur World. This is how we know we’ve reached Cave City, a town half way between Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. We speed past the plastic brontosaurus and teradafcyls and safely make our way to Mammoth Cave which, we are informed, does not actually house live mammoths. We buy tickets anyway and descend into the dark, cool cave.

 

 

My brother moved to Louisville a few years ago after a post-Katrina stint at the Grand Canyon. He and his partner work at the best restaurant in Louisville; Chris is the kitchen manager, Ruben is the dining room manager. We started a tradition of Thanksgiving at their house (hello, professional chef) and now we make the drive up there every year. This year, after a deliciously languorous six course meal, hours spent watching The Goldbergs and RuPaul’s Drag Race and eight bottles of wine split between four people (don’t judge…okay judge), we opted for a little post-Turkey Day outdoor activity and made the hour and a half drive to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system with over 400 miles explored and counting. In its colorful history it was a salt mine, a tourist attraction with slave-guided tours, a short lived tuberculosis hospital and in the 1920s the locals incited a cave war for tourist dollars. Mammoth Cave was deemed a national park in 1941 and today there are a slew of tours ranging from a casual stroll to serious spelunking.

Since our underground escapades were spur of the moment, we were only able to book the self-guided tour, which took about 30 minutes. Interpretative rangers were stationed throughout the cave to answer questions and make sure visitors didn’t stray off the paved pathway. Aboveground, there are several miles of nature trails and a visitor center with an interactive cave museum that touches on both the natural and human history of Mammoth Cave. I wish we could have seen Frozen Niagra or the Ruins of Karnak but all of the tours were sold out.

Cave City itself is a curious place. There are lots of roadside attractions including kayaking, putt putt and other caves, however most of the amusement parks were shuttered when we went. Some looked closed for the season, others looked abandoned. Guntown Mountain is supposedly slated for a comeback, so hopefully it will be open next year; I’m particularly interested in the Haunted Hotel. Regardless, I’m looking forward to exploring this area more next Thanksgiving, with or without a hard hat.

Always going back to the swamp: Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve

 

Cajun bridal bouquet Black bayou Small Louisiana alligator Louisiana banded water snake

photo by Ryan Sparks

photo by Ryan Sparks

what does duckweed look like Palmetto

I know, I know. Another damn post about the swamp. Every few months I try to get out to Jean Lafitte to snap some new photos and fantasize about fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a park ranger. I can’t stop taking pictures of where I grew up. I even dedicated an entire zine to it (ahem, click here to buy).

Lately I’ve been working seven days a week between two  jobs, which leaves me with little free time. So when I got an unexpected day off from work recently, I called up my good friend Ryan Sparks and we high-tailed it to the West Bank. Just don’t tell maw maw and paw paw I went on “that side of the river” without visiting them. I kind of feel bad that I didn’t swing by their house. Old Cat’lic guilt dies hard, y’all.

Springtime is the perfect time of year to make the trek to Lafitte. March through May hits that sweet spot; the temperature is delightful, plus you can spot gators sprawled out on the banks without getting eaten alive by mosquitos. I’m also that weirdo that gets really, really excited to see snakes. Copperheads are my favorite, but as a former card carrying member of the Gulf Coast Herpetological Society, I appreciate all things scaly. Insects are another story. I want nothing to do with anything that has more than four legs. Banana Spiders, however, do not phase me. Go figure. If you want a reptile free experience, go in the cooler fall and winter months.

A torrential downpour let up right as we ponied up to the Bayou Coquille trailhead, which allowed us to play around with our cameras without worrying about getting our gear soaked. Be warned: I wore my shit kickers and I still almost ate it on the slippery board walk, so make sure to wear sturdy shoes. I do love the swamp after a good rain though. The duckweed turns the color of pea soup and the air shrugs off the tension of humidity. The canals were especially chocked full of vegetation on this trip, which created an illusion of carpeted clearings throughout the swamp. I wonder how many tourists try to step out and land knee deep in mud. I wonder how many of them know better.

I’m in Ireland: Part Two

Cork, Ireland wild flowersUNO Writing AbroadCharles Fort Kinsdale, Ireland

My first week of classes in Ireland is over. Everything is happening at a lightening fast pace. It’s intense, in the best way possible. I enrolled in two classes (scriptwriting and creative non-fiction workshop) and we’re packing an entire semester’s worth of material into four weeks.  I’m making new connections that will hopefully extend past my time here, and I interact with the locals as much as I can. (I’m looking at you, Monday night karaoke at Old Oak.)

While in Ireland I’ve noticed several differences from our culture in the United States. Some are subtle, some are noteworthy, and the longer I’m here the more I become attuned to. Here are some of the things I’ve picked up on so far.

  • Euros are somewhat cumbersome. There is paper money, but denominations of €2 and less are coins. I feel silly counting out a meal in coins, but it’s the norm here. Ireland is about to get rid of their one cent piece (1/100 of a euro), which, according to a wine shop owner I conversed with, really won’t affect the locals, except for charity boxes. There are boxes everywhere for people to drop change in, including bars, restaurants, shops, and grocery stores. He thought the elimination of the one cent piece might put charities at a disadvantage.
  • In general, everything is a little bit cheaper here. Some things are remarkably cheaper, whereas other items (like grapes) I find more expensive. Even the most touristy of places charge much less than what I’m accustomed to paying in the US.
  • Don’t bother buying an electrical adapter in the U.S. if you can help it. Electrical adapters are readily available for under €4 and work just as well as ones that cost $20 in the states.
  • My American Southern roots are showing. People are friendly but don’t make eye contact with each other on the street. I’m used to telling everyone hello, opening doors for people, and waving at strangers when passing by their house on my bike.  I asked someone on the street for directions and she seemed startled that I approached her.
  • It’s refreshing to see not everyone is glued to their phones here. Except for a solo diner, I haven’t noticed people sitting around at bars and restaurants on their phones. I’m digging it.
  • I love the nuance of language. Irish phrases are just more pleasant than some of the vernacular we use back home. I was chatting with a warden (resident assistant) at campus housing about the weather. “Yes, it looks like it’s about to break cloud,” she said. My American inclination was to say something far less eloquent, such as, “looks like it’s about to dump out there,” or, “It’s getting nasty out there.”

 

photos: wildflowers grow in the cracks on the stone wall that runs down the street I take to campus, group shot in front of Blarney Castle, Charles Fort in Kinsdale, Ireland

 

 

I’m in Ireland!

Jackie Lennox IrelandVictoria Mills IrelandIrelandGuinness

I just arrived in Ireland and am so. flipping. excited. I will be here for a month (!!!) in Cork with UNO’s Writing Workshop. My first thought upon landing- I can’t get over how green it is here. I mean, way to live up to your reputation, Ireland. I flew from New Orleans to New Jersey, then touched down in Shannon and hopped on a bus to Cork. The bus ride was pleasant, with lush, idyllic landscapes straight out of a fairytale. The weather is perfect, especially coming from humidity laden New Orleans. I regret not bringing more sweaters, but I can live with that #firstworldproblem.

I’ve only been here for one full day and have so much to process. The city center (what I would call downtown) is walking distance from campus. There are enough recognizable names (H&M, Subway ) for the place to feel familiar, but there are also enough differences to encourage exploration. My mission is to only eat and drink food and beverages that I can’t consume at home. So far I’ve been somewhat successful, although I did buy a bottle of Jameson for a little nightcap.

Classes start on Monday, and I’m grateful we have some time to orient ourselves before diving into coursework. The University College Cork campus is stunningly beautiful. UCC, established in 1845, is one of three Queen’s colleges, which opened its doors under the reign of Queen Victoria. Limestone buildings are draped with ivy, and the earliest structure dates back to 1810.

I will be documenting my trip here, but you can also follow me on Instagram for more pictures.

Firsts: fish & chips from Jackie Lennox Chip Shop, first night’s view at Victoria Mills Lodge, first view of Ireland from the plane,  first Guinness in Cork at Edison. All photos taken on my iPhone. 

Worth the Drive: Mississippi’s Forest Retreat

forest retreatIMG_6631

forest retreat Mississippi

homochitto national forest

 

I haven’t been to Forest Retreat, a secluded trio of cabins in Mississippi’s Homochitto National Forest, since 2013. Forest Retreat was me and Thomas’ secret spot when the urge get out of the city for a few days would arise. There is no cell phone reception, no internet (the cabins do have wifi now), and the only noise that cuts through the silence is the rustling of leaves and an occasional dog howling in the distance. We used to make the three hour drive at least twice a year with Nadia, our retired racing Greyhound, in tow. The reason I discovered Forest Retreat in the first place was an ad in Urban Dog Magazine that touted dog friendly cabins. We weren’t sure our timid city pooch would take to being out in the country, but I’m pretty sure Nadia had more fun playing in the creek and going on hikes than we did.

Sadly, Nadia passed away two summers ago due to an inoperable tumor on her spinal cord. Her ashes are sealed in a large plastic bag, tucked away in a wooden box on a bookshelf in our living room. I’ve never been able to bring myself to look at her remains, and I didn’t want to go back to Forest Retreat for the same reason that box sits unopened two years later. We only had Nadia for three years, but she was the love of my life, the first dog we owned as a couple, and just like many rescued animals, we had to earn her affection. Most retired racing greyhounds aren’t accustomed to what we think of as a “normal home life” since they grow up around the race track. The dogs can be slightly skittish at best and scared of their own shadow at worst. I worked with Nadia to overcome her fear of the dishwasher, taught her how to climb up and down stairs, and eventually she stopped being petrified of the wind. Skateboards, on the other hand, were the devil incarnate. She would hyperventilate at the slightest hint of a thunderstorm, but fireworks were inexplicably okay.

After Nadia passed we waited a few months before getting another dog. So when we got two – Izzy, another Greyhound, and Beignet, a terrier/Catahoula mix – it just didn’t feel right to rush back to our old vacation spot with our new crew. I equated it with the awkwardness of bringing a new beau to the restaurant you dined at all the time with your ex. How do you explain to your new fling why you know so much about the menu?

So when Thomas recently suggested we plan a weekend getaway to Forest Retreat, I surprised myself and said yes. We ended up going this past weekend and my only regret is that we waited so long to go. The dogs loved it, we enjoyed the break from our day to day lives, and we both had to ask ourselves “What took us so damn long to get back here?” I’d like to think that Nadia is somewhere in that big dog park in the sky, running her skinny little butt off and being as stubborn as ever. I think she would agree that it’s finally time to move on and give some other pooches their turn to run through the forest.

For more pictures from Forest Retreat check out my Tumblr: christylorio.tumblr.com

If you decide to go on your own Forest Retreat weekend, here are a few things to consider:

  • GPS will only get you so far, so make sure you print out the direction given to you upon your reservation. That said, the directions aren’t the clearest (we get turned around every time) and cell phone reception is spotty on country roads. Give yourself ample time to backtrack. Trust me, you don’t want to traverse forest service roads at night.
  • The owner recently added wifi in the cabins but there’s  no cell phone reception, unless you stand on the parking hill, cross your fingers and make a wish. You’ll want to unplug but do keep this in mind in case of an emergency.
  • You’ll need to bring all of your food with you. The nearest store is several miles away and once you start to unwind you won’t want to see an ignition switch until vacation is over. The two cabins are furnished with essentials such as bed linens, towels and kitchen gadgets. You’ll need to bring your own toiletries and if you’re going in the summer bug spray is a godsend. I like to bring a good book, a board game or two, a flashlight, appropriate shoes for wading in the creek, my camera, and my laptop for playing music and watching movies at night.
  • Bring your dog’s bed and a blanket for the sofa if you have a four legged couch potato.

Worth the Drive: Tunica Falls

Tunica Hills Campground

Clark Creek Recreational Area
Tunica Falls
Tunica Falls
Tunica Falls
I desperately need to get out of town as much as I can but unfortunately, my schedule dictates that I’m stuck in the city seven days a week. Since I had fall break this week, we threw the dogs in the car, put some extra food out for the cats, and headed to Tunica Falls (aka Tunica Hills aka Clark Creek Natural Area), a two hour drive from New Orleans. Waterfalls, slight changes in elevation (read: not flat like NOLA) and shaded trails make for a quick yet satisfying weekend getaway. I’m not sure who had more fun, us or the girls.
 
 Four dollars gives you access to Tunica Falls’ 1.78 miles of “improved” trails and 2.6 miles of primitive trails. I’d suggest doing a little of both. Be sure to pack shoes appropriate for wading through creeks. You’ll want to splash around and explore. There are six waterfalls marked on the trail but the 700 acre Clark Creek Natural area boasts 50 waterfalls total, ranging in height from 10 to 30 feet. There are bathrooms at the trailhead and a water fountain. Be sure to stop at the Pond Store, located up the road, to stock up on snacks. 
 
If you’re in need of cheap lodging, Tunica Hills Campground is nearby and provides cabins and primitive tent sites. The campground is small, which ensures you’ll be greeted by fellow campers but it’s more private than than some of the larger RV campgrounds that I’ve been to. We opted to spend the night in the A frame cabin; for $52 a night you get a queen sized bed, air conditioning, a microwave and a coffeepot. There’s also a loft to stow your stuff and enough space for the dogs. Just make sure to bring your own bath towels and toiletries; you’ll be sharing a (relatively clean) port-a-potty and outdoor shower with the other guests. 
 
For more pictures of Tunica Falls and Tunica Hills Campground check out my Tumblr: christylorio.tumblr.com. 
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Worth The Drive: Jean Lafitte National Park

The last time I made it out to Jean Lafitte National Park was in April. I grew up in the area, with the swamp butting up against our house. Armadillos frequently tunneled into our backyard and if we stood atop the levee we’d find gator eyes staring back at us. Going outside after dusk during the summer was crossing enemy lines, diving head first into a mosquito combat zone. I remember my family went to an outdoor performance of Camelot at Loyola University once, and my adolescent, humidity soaked brain couldn’t comphrend that one could sit in the city at 8:00pm and not be eaten alive by the little blood suckers. When you live next to the swamp, bugs are just a way of life. 

My mom still lives near my childhood home, and once in a while I like to stroll through Jean Lafitte when I’m on that side of the river. I know a lot of people are squeamish when it comes to reptiles and insects (minus the mosquitoes), but I look forward to these encounters. I spotted a rat snake, two alligators, a handful of banana spiders and an unending supply of katydids on my last trip. That said, I’ll jump through the ceiling if I see a cockroach in my kitchen. Hey, even this tomboy from Southern Louisiana is allowed to have her buggy fears, right?

More pictures on my Tumblr: christylorio.tumblr.com

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Worth The Drive: French Quarter

Eventually the perks that come with your zip code become as commonplace and mundane as stopping for a red light in the middle of the afternoon. It’s been my mission this summer to do a little exploring in my own backyard, traveling to places that I always find a reason to talk myself out of going to. Even though the French Quarter is just a 15 minute car ride (or a 30 minute bike ride) from my house, somehow I always make an excuse not to go. It’s too hot outside. It’s too cold outside. The parking sucks. I don’t feel like dealing with tourists. I’m trying not to spend money/drink/I don’t feel like walking. Sometimes you just have to say “screw it” and do something fun. I took a few of these photos on the Fourth of July, hence the fireworks, but I’ve been back twice since then. Might as well, right? 

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