Friday, November 30, 2007

All the lovely lights... a holiday dream on Cane River Lake

Natchitoches, Louisiana is, for many travelers, a waystop between Shreveport and Alexandria on Interstate 49. For others, it's the setting of a favorite movie, Steel Magnolias.

But during the month of December, it becomes something else on Saturday nights. It becomes a lighted wonderland on Cane River Lake. And it's pure magic.

It started small, some 80 years ago. Back in 1927, employees at the city's utiity department wanted to give residents a gift. It had to be something memorable.

They came up with an eight foot tall lighted white star -- and placed it downtown for everyone to see.

There are a whole lot more lights now!

I happened to be on-hand on November 17th, the unofficial start to Christmas in Natchitoches. The evening was a bit drizzly, but hundreds of people had already started finding their place to park when the group I was traveling with came in.

We visited the Natchitoches Art Guild, where an artist reception was underway. The Art Guild is a neat project. It's a gallery where the art is on sale -- and the proceeds go right to the artist. On one of the display walls, artists had contributed Christmas ornaments; unique little pieces that don't cost a lot and add something completely unique to your tree. There were paintings and ceramics on display, and even a kiosk of greeting cards designed by artists. A resident artist was on-hand to answer questions about her work.

We had dinner at Antoon's before the festivities began. Antoon's is known for a lot of things -- and good food is definately on the menu. My traveling companion (my husband, this time) and I both went for the same sort of menu. The helpful staff brought out platters of assorted hor d'oeuvres, including the ever popular fried green tomatoes and fried mushrooms. The tomatoes were perfectly fried -- a little cornmeal in the batter, crispy on the outside and firm and tart within. They went well with the ranch dressing. They came on a big plate
with fried crawfish tails, fresh fried catfish, and something complete unique to the area -- Natchitoches meat pies, full of andouille sausage and shrimp and lots of spices.

The fried mushrooms were full of flavor, with a batter that didn't include the cornmeal. They were a quick munch as the plate was passed along the table.

And then the main attraction arrived -- big plates of linguini topped with a healthy-sized crab cake. Of course, that wasn't quite enough, so the big crab cake was topped with an even bigger pile of what was called sauce but actually was a creamy stew of crawfish tails, shrimp, trinity (celery, onion, and bell pepper) and spices -- like a very thick seafood gumbo. Every bite had a story -- the sweetness of crab, the meatyness of the crab cake, the firmness of the shrimp, the slap of spices at the end. The pasta was the perfect accompaniment -- a peaceful sidecar for spicy goodness.

After dinner, we moseyed outside to the riverbank for the grand presentation. The lights weree about to come on, and we were all excited.

But they don't start with just a flick of a switch. That flick is accompanied by one of the best firework displays I have ever seen. This year's musical celebration of light is accompanied by the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller, with a flourish at the end by the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

When the music begins and the first scent of explosive powder fills the air, the lights all come on along the river and through downtown. There's a ceiling overhead from a veritable spiderweb of lights, criss-crossed in symetrical wonder with hanging bits of Fleur de Lis
and stars. The riverbank boasts representations of the area's history, along with the prerequisite sights of the seasons.

We had been expecting 5-10 minutes of fireworks and music, but half an hour later we were still catching our breath as each round of 'works grew grander and grander.

And in-between the music and the blasts, an audience that stretched several city blocks fluctuated between the silence of awe and the happy applause and cries of joy. It was indeed a sight to behold.

But this isn't a singular occasion. From the November 17th ceremony through New Year's Eve, the lights stay on. And the firework show is repeated every Saturday night.

This Saturday, on the first of December, the town will expand from being a riverside burg to a major metropolis. Some 100,000 people are expected to come into town for the Christmas Festival. The day will be filled with all manner of family entertainment, and the night will be filled with lights. Folks who have been to the festival in the past have told me that there are times when you are literally man-to-man-to-man, standing shoulder to shoulder in the majesty of the light show. But every one of them says it's something they wouldn't miss for the world.

And it continues on through the month of December. There's always a Candlelight Tour of Homes the second and third week of the month, and of course festivities throughout.

Interested in going? Better check out the details first. You can find more information about the Festival of Lights at the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitor's Bureau website or call them at (800) 259-1714.

And it's part of a bigger neat event -- the Holiday Trail of Lights. Six towns -- Jefferson, Marshall, and Kilgore, Texas and Shreveport-Bossier City, along with Natchitoches, participate. Check out all the info at the website.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Things you may have wondered.

Most websites have a Frequently Asked Question section. Me? Well, I haven't really been around to have been asked frequently about anything. But there are some things you may have wondered.

Why "Tie Dye Travels?"
To those who know me, that may be patently obvious. To those who don't, the explanation. I've always had a streak of wanderlust, and I have no problem with jumping in the car and driving a couple of hours, just to satisfy my curiosity. Add in my wardrobe (an eclectic blend between bohemian and tie-dye), and there you go.

Where do you get your ideas?
Mostly from word-of-mouth and my own dusty memory. I love to share stories, and I love to listen to them, too. Invariably, when someone finds out what I'm doing, they have a suggestion right off the bat. I don't follow up on every suggestion (there's a certain place that begins with an "H" that I'm trying to avoid) but I do give them a listen.

Why don't you tell people you're coming for a review?
I worked as a television news producer for approximately 11 years of my adult life. I found that, if I mentioned what I did for a living, that people usually changed their tune and did things differently from normal. That's not my gig. I want to share with people the way things are without the "oh, you're here to write a review!" attitude.

On top of that, the review biz can be a bit polarizing as well. Being identified as a media member can sometimes lead one to a rapid exit... not everyone is willing to share their secrets. The only secrets I'm really willing to reveal to the general public is that secret dish that you don't see advertised in the paper.

Just who are you, anyway?
I'm Arkansas Tech University alumnus and a member of the 1991 Parkview Magnet High School class (and yes, I did know Kevin Brockmeier back in the day, and no I'm not surprised he's a novelist now, and yes it'd be cool to talk to him, and no I don't know his phone number). I have a score of letters on my resume -- letters like KXRJ, KABF, KARN, and KAIT. I spent eight years producing Today's THV This Morning before my leap of faith into the writers' world in September 2007. I have a fantastic husband, Paul, who's been extremely supportive through my decision to leave television on what is unarguably a shaky career move. I also have a Great Dane in his ancient years (11) who's great at interrupting my online storytelling (he likes to come up and lay his head on my keyboard).

What are you hoping to accomplish here?
Well, a lot of things. On the selfish side, it'd be super if someone who reads this blog decided to hire me as a writer for their publication. I love to write -- and, what a coincidence, it happens to be what I do for a living. But more than that -- I'm hoping to share my love of Arkansas, the South, and the road with others. That, and I love to tell stories about the places I've been.

Can I reprint your articles?
Well, yes -- sorta. This is, after all, what I do for a living. Tie Dye Travels appears in the Little Rock Free Press as a monthly column. It's also the basis for the Tie Dye Travels podcast. However, the columns are not exclusive. Tie Dye Travels is available for syndication to your newspaper or magazine on a monthly or weekly basis. Please contact me direct at for more information.

For individuals who want to share my articles with someone, send them a link. You can do that by clicking on that little envelope with the arrow on it on the bottom of each post.

Can I link to your website?
Absolutely. I highly encourage it.

Can I advertise on your website?
Let's talk. Oh, gotta tell you -- I still consider myself a journalist. I don't do reviews for money for restaurants. I don't let ads influence what I write. But I'll be happy to post an ad link to your website in the right hand column for a small fee.

Are you the yoga diva?
Nope... that's the other Kat Robinson, out of Doniphan, MO. You might check out her Active Kat Yoga website... I am envious of her mad yoga skillz....

Are you that guitar chick?
No, I'm not The Great Kat, either, though I admire her ability to shred. Nor am I the Kat Robinson that's the high school track star, or the model from FRM, or the 18 year old from Essex, or the Student Body President, or the psychic advisor, or the attorney, or the woman with my name associated with EMW Film and Talent.

However, I am the former radio show host and voice-over artist, former TV news producer and more. I currently write for several Central Arkansas publications, including Today's Man magazine and the Little Rock Free Press. I've also written recently for Little Rock Family and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Chances are, if you do an extensive search for my name, you're going to come up with a lot of Today's THV entries as well. After all, I did work there for eight years!

Do you write for hire?
Well, yah. Drop me a line and we can negotiate.

Do you shoot your own photographs?
Most of them. There are some that I acquire from attractions and Convention and Visitors Bureaus in rare cases (such as when a museum doesn't allow photographs of exhibits, or the Christmas light pictures from Natchitoches that my camera refused to pick up) but I try to take all of my own whenever possible. I figure I'm giving you a glimpse into what I see -- the pictures just make sense.

Oh, and I am now shooting on a Nikon Coolpix 50, a very wonderful Christmas gift from my mom. I still utilize my Fuji FinePix for some outdoor shots.

Can I write you?
Well, sure. I try to answer all of my email that doesn't come from investors in Zimbabwe... though if I am traveling it may take a few days for me to get back to you. And... to head this off at the pass... "42," "African or European," and "because he's his own dad."

How do I keep up with what you're doing?
Because so many people have been asking me where I'm being published and what's going on as I try out this new career, I have a MySpace page. I try to keep it updated with random pictures that may or may not have appeared on this blog, plus the publications and websites where you'll find my work.

Can I have your autograph?
We'll talk. That will likely involve an SASE.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

History, interrupted in Calico Rock.

The approach northbound into Calico Rock on Highway 5 is one of the prettiest sights you'll see, especially when
the leaves are just starting to turn. The highway parallels a cliff face on the White River for nearly a mile before swinging due north and crossing into town on a high bridge.

There's a rail crossing right as you come off the bridge -- and then Calico Rock's commercial district sprays out in front of you, a canyon of progress impossible to ignore.

But if you take a right when you pass over that crossing, or even at the next block, you can travel a whole 75 years or more back into the past.

No time hole here. Calico Rock isn't keeping this secret. It has a very unique standing. It's the only place in America
where you can find a real ghost town, inside of a living town. Anywhere.

The town was named for that cliff face -- it was all sorts of different colors, so it was named Calico Rock, just like a calico cat. Back in the 19th century this was another port on the White River with its own ferry.

And what a port. Fellows would come down from the hills or up from the Delta or in on a riverboat and have a time for themselves in Peppersauce Alley. The street grew a musty reputation for all the drunken brawls and debauchery over the years.

Just across Calico Creek, businesses flourished. A blacksmith shoed horses just over the bridge, and the city jail was across Walnut Street. A saw and grist mill and a cotton gin brought business to the area. Then the railroad came to town in 1903, and another burst of life came in.

As the years passed, businesses came and went. There was the grocery store and a barber shop and a theater. Competing car dealerships went up, with the Chevy dealership over on Rand Hill and the Ford place over on Rowden. Manufacturing was a big deal in the early years of the 20th century, and lumber came in big. There was a planing plant over off east Walnut, and the Hayes Brothers had a flooring place half a block away. And business was good.

But somehow, this little section of town was forgotten. Main Street stayed busy, but the town grew up to the west and north, and eventually a six or eight block area of town died off.

In many towns, developers would have loved a chance to seize onto the cheap, abandoned property -- level everything and start over again. But that's not the case in Calico Rock.

A group of citizens who called themselves CORE (for Calico Rock Organization for Revitalization Efforts) got together and decided this part of town needed saving. After all, how many ghost towns are in walking distance of where you're at?

It's not an easy project, but it is unique. Unlike many preserved areas, where homes and businesses are restored to their original glory -- Calico Rock is simply preserving what's there. That means don't expect to see windows reset in the frames at the funeral home, or weed-eating around the dead forklifts at the old flooring plant. This is how it is, and this is how it will stay.

My traveling companion and I went up on a moderately warm November afternoon to find out more about the ghost town. Outside of a few mentions here and there on the web, there's not much information. Sometimes you're just better off experiencing a place with your feet.

And that's what we did.

In broad daylight, the only ghosts you have to contend with are the ones in your own head. And the only visitors we had to contend with were the few teenagers who swiped past in their cars, using the bridge and Walnut Street as a shortcut to wherever more important place they were headed.

We started at the intersection of Caldwell and Walnut, figuring why not start in the middle. While he took off towards the bridge, I wandered up to the old funeral parlor, which seemed to be mostly intact. A large gathering of vines had congregated along the top corner of the old building, but I could peer
underneath and see straight in what had been the window on the front door. Age seems to have disturbed the interior contents, but there appeared to be a good number of original contents inside, including what appeared to be a table saw of some sort. Considering this was a funeral home, I didn't want to think too much of that.

The old ice house and electrical plant was just north of this building, and the facing on the building appeared to be intact.

On the northwest corner of Caldwell and Walnut, there's a big boarded-up two story building. At one point this was the Knowles Grocery Store, and also a dealership for International Harvester. The building appears to be in good repair, but it too stands silent here.

Next door, there's not much left of the old Ozark Theater but the foundation. Then there's the old barber shop, which appears to have been converted into a home. Someone apparently lives here today, as evidenced by the uncracked window panes, curtains, and fresh American flag. A dog barked insistantly in the distance as we passed.

The old pool hall and hotel is nothing more than an empty shell today. Saplings grow inside, the only signs of life in what was once a large crashing space for workers and travelers.
Some of the old windows and doorways have been bricked over, but the other openings reveal little of what was once inside.

The lot for the old Chevy dealership is grown up with weeds. Not much left to gaze at, except the still used intersection with Rand Hill Road.

But just down from that is the old City Jail - a unique site, for sure. This cell was built to last - and provided all the amenities a prisoner could ask for at that time. After all this time, I was surprised to see the heavy steel
bar door still hanging on its rusty hinges, the unbroken stone interior, the narrow window that allowed light and air into the cell, and the primitive urinal fashioned into the wall. You can still clearly read the sign that states "$5 Fine for Talking to Prisoners" next to the door, outlined with the only grafitti I noticed on the building. The city has done a good job of keeping vandals out, and the little building is well preserved.

We crossed the single lane bridge across Calico Creek on our way to Peppersauce Alley. The bridge bounces noticeably when cars or even people pass over, but it's a strong steel deck over a narrow crossing.
Looking south, we could see the old wooden rail trestle about a block away.

The buildings that line the west side of Peppersauce Alley also face Main Street. Being on a hillside, there are three floors on this side,
and you can see where additions and renovations have been made over the years. The old stone structures are still in good shape, but allowances have been made for replacing windows and doorways and adding insulation. If you squint your eyes, you can see how the buildings must have looked a century ago.

I wonder what it sounded like, when gangs of riverboatmen stumbled out of doorfronts on loud nights, rumbling and rowdy and looking for a good time. What songs were they singing? Did they head back to the boats or further into town to find a good place to flop?

The old line leading to the abandoned trestle is still there... bypassed at the switch but still snaking out to the old bridge quietly on its own. We walked up to the old line and took a few pictures.

Though the bridge deck seems to have taken its share of weather abuse, the strong oiled timbers below are still performing their duties, a row of angled sentinels holding up a long silent railbed on its way to the also silent planing plant. I considered crossing it on foot, but a couple of loose ties convinced me that, though the fall wouldn't be far, a breakthrough wouldn't be the smartest idea for the day.

Back along Walnut Street on the other side of the bridge, there's an old propane store, and then another of the former grocery stores. I don't know when Batesville Wholesale Grocery was in business, but I wonder if it competed with Knowles Grocery at all, or if Knowles had started selling farm equipment
by then. The dog food advertisement on the window appears to be freshly painted, or at least well preserved.

Across from the old theater, there's a smaller building that the map tells me used to be Suzy Johnson's Cafe. Perhaps this was where the guys at the flooring plant went for lunch, grabbing a sandwich and a soda before returning to the machine shops.

The folks at the Chamber of Commerce told me the ghost town had been used during Halloween for tours and a night-time haunted history romp. But the old plant on the south side of Walnut Street just seemed quiet, in the way open spaces seem to hum with summer's heat. Yet there was a chill in the air from the November wind.

Inside the yard of the old flooring plant, a forklift sat, just like it must have when it was parked for the last time. The tires had rotted, but the old vehicle stood like a guard for the rest of the empty yard.

To the right, an empty warehouse echoed with the "chit chit" of nesting birds. The wide-open doors revealed an expanse of concrete slab and dusty warped boards and old pallets. An abandoned trailer could be seen through the corresponding doors on the other side.

To the left, old steel and wood buildings hadn't fared as well as the concrete block warehouse. Prudence told me I shouldn't venture too close to peer at the old tin roofed structure. Beyond it I could see the roofs of other warehouses on the old site.

Another doorway to the right draped in vines revealed an old machine shop. The ground was squishy underfoot, and I wondered if the vines bloomed in the spring. They'd make a neat photo-op.

Inside, much of the old heavy machinery remains, coated in dust and rust. Pipes hang down from the ceiling, absent their connections from long ago. Old motor assemblies hunker down on the sides of the old cast iron and steel beheamoths, their purpose lost to time.

Outside, the old belt line that hauled scraps to the incinerator still loom overhead. In places, the metal has come loose, dangling like pears to be picked from the line. Everything outside is coated in the protective shield of years of rust.

The old incinerator tower is beginning to buckle after all these years, but its coppery clad base still retains its conical shape.
On top, if you can get to the right angle, you can still see the steel mesh dome cage that topped the structure. It reminded me of a giant salt shaker.

Back further, there's what must have once been a workshop, with a big smokestack next door. But it is covered in overgrowth and hard to get to. The smokestack stands taller than the incinerator tower and still looks sturdy.

Knowing that we had a three hour trip home, we went ahead and headed back to the car. We studied the remnants of what had been another location for the Chevy dealership, and marveled at the old stone. Whether there had been another building material in play or someone had harvested the stone, we didn't know.

Around the corner, at Walnut and Rowden, there's an old intact house. The home was built around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and needs a paint job, but it isn't a far stretch to think about how it would look with a little work.

We decided to head back up to Peppersauce Alley and see if we could see the river. There we found an unusual crossing under the tracks. I guess that makes sense -- since the main line is right on the edge of the top of the bank. There's enough space for one car to pass at a time under the trestle, but you have
to honk to alert anyone who's crossing.

On the other side, we drove down a ramp to the landing. Dozens of trucks were parked along the way -- probably people out fishing along the White River. We parked under the bridge and stepped out.

Above, along the entire length of the bridge, are what appear to be swallows' nests. The mud homes dot the underside of the concrete beast from one end to the other.

The river is wide and slow here. Calico Rock's Main Street was built so far above this point, because flooding was a fact of life. But the construction of the dam on the river's North Fork leveled out the water.

Here you can appreciate the beauty of the riverbend -- rolling hills in one direction, rocky bluffs in the other. Rocky shoals lay on the surface on the north side of the bend. In the distance you can spot the roofs of bluff-top homes.

At the mouth of Calico Creek, deadwood has created a skeleton of trees bleached by the sun. A trickle of a stream eases out from under the rail bridge and the distant trestle.

With the receeding sun reflecting across the water and through the leaves, you could lose yourself in thoughts of peaceful nature.

It was here that something occurred to me. All along our trip up Highway 65 and Highway 9 up to Highway 5, the leaves had all changed over. But in Calico Rock, the barest shades of yellow and orange were just starting to emerge. Somehow, autumn was late arriving here.

Calico Rock's ghost town isn't preserved behind some wall or gate or locked fence. It's still holding out within the boundaries of a thriving little north Arkansas town, holding its breath, holding its place in history, slowly trying not to fade away.

If you have the chance, sneak your way up to Calico Rock for photography and reflection among the ruins of a town gone by. And take the chance to explore the living portion of Calico Rock as well. Duck into the doorways of some of the local shops, or give yourself a treat and retreat to the cool splendor of the park that lies north of Highway 56 and east of Highway 5.

If you need more information, contact the Calico Rock Chamber of Commerce at (870) 297-3772.