Tammany Trace: Louisiana’s “Hall of Fame” Trail

Earlier this month, the Tammany Trace was named one of the Hall of Fame trails by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and I thought it was about time I blogged about this wonderful bicycling spot in Louisiana.

I was just getting back into bicycling a few years ago when I came up with the idea of bicycling 55 miles for my 55th birthday. Seasoned cyclists are used to knocking that out in one morning, but I reserved a whole weekend. I had not ridden more than 10 miles at a time in 30 years.

Thirty years!!!!!!

I found the perfect route in The Tammany Trace, a rails-to-trails project on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The Tammany Trace is 27.35 miles from the western point in downtown Covington through Mandeville and Abita Springs to the end point at Highway 190 west of Slidell.

Double that and you’re close to 55 miles. (Eventually, another four miles will be paved to extend the trail into the center of Slidell.)

Louisiana may not be the most bicycle friendly state, but it has much to brag about with the well-maintained Tammany Trace, built on an abandoned Illinois Central Gulf Railroad corridor. The Rails-to-Trail Conservancy, a nationwide trails organization has named 30 Hall of Fame trails for their scenery, historic significance and other values. The asphalt trail is free of car traffic and dedicated to cyclists, walkers, in-line skaters and such.

My favorite stretch is the 12 miles between Mandeville and Covington. It passes bayous and shady pine forests, quaint towns with farmers markets, museums and cool eateries.

The popular Abita Springs Brew Pub and Restaurant is right on the trail. Abita beer and root beer is bottled a little over a mile away. I’m not into beer, but here’s an excellent article on craft breweries to explore on and near the trail.

I loved getting off the trail and exploring these three spots:

Downtown Covington: From art galleries to a hardware store that has been around since 1876, there  is a lot of see in downtown Covington. There’s a farmer’s market each Wednesday and Saturday.

Lake Ponchartrain Shore: We stayed at a guest house in what is known as Old Mandeville on the most recent trip, and that was great as it was only a few blocks away from the trail in one direction and the shore of Lake  Pontchartrain in the other. Lakefront Park on the shore is another great to place to cycle and people watch. And the homes on Lakefront Drive overlooking the park are gorgeous.

Dusk at Lakefront Park

Fountainbleau State Park: This is what Louisiana state parks are supposed to look like — live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and lovely cabins on the water.

In the Northshore you can get great New Orleans-style meals without the hassle of the city.  Some of the popular New Orleans spots such as Acme Oyster House, Mandina’s and Cafe du Monde have Northshore locations.  There also are some nice independent restaurants too. We liked Nuvolari’s, an old Italian restaurant just a couple of blocks from Lake Ponchartrain in Mandeville.

The Tammany Trace is in St. Tammany Parish, one of Louisiana’s so-called  “Florida parishes” because they were once part of western Florida.  With that history, the parish has a vibe that is a blend of Florida and Louisiana. It is Louisiana’s fastest growing and most affluent parish.

The Tammany Trace will always be a special place for me as it was there when I discovered (at age 55 then) that I could still ride a bike.

Tammany Trace bike path
The Tammany Trace bike path winds through the heart of Abita Springs.
Photo courtesy: LouisianaNorthshore.com

 

 

Roadside Watermelons in Bienville Parish

With the enticing displays of watermelons at the grocery store, you may not feel the need to drive to a produce stand or farmers market to find a juicy sweet one.

But sometimes you find yourself on a Louisiana country road in July, passing handmade signs advertising hay for sale, fresh farm eggs and, less frequently, melons.

I was on such a road, Highway 4 in Bienville Parish, the other day when I came across all of those signs, including one for Plunkett Farms Watermelons near the General Store of Castor.

It actually advertised watermelons and black Angus, but since I didn’t have the need (or room in our Camry) for the latter, I concentrated on the melons.

Plunkett Farms Watermelons near Castor, Louisiana

Highway 4 is already off of the beaten path, but you have to go even farther –another half mile or so on a dirt road–past the main house, rusted tractors and sycamore trees to get to Plunketts 20-acre watermelon patch.

There I found Ronald Plunkett and his helpers under a canopy shading them from the harsh afternoon sun. The melons weren’t piled up there, but I was invited to ride in a cart to the field to pick  the one I wanted.

Plunkett himself goes out early in the morning, hand picks the ripe ones and piles them up at the edge of the field. By the time he opens at 7 a.m., there’s often a line of truck peddlers waiting to buy them. Plunkett’s father began growing watermelons 68 years ago, and the Plunketts have sold to Brookshire’s and Walmart until the vendor rules got too onerous for him. He has another 25 acres of watermelons planted elsewhere.

We were on our way to Jonesboro that day, and I would have loved to have chatted more but I did get to ask Plunkett and his helpers how to pick the perfect watermelon–whether you’re in the field, at a farmers market or at Kroger.

“Look for a brown scar. I don’t know why but that’s how I have the best luck,” said one guy. I did a little research online where one report suggested brown scarring or webbing meant there was more pollination of the flowers that produce the fruit on the watermelon vine. More pollination = more sweetness, many reports say.

Other tips I’ve read about include:

(1) a creamy yellow “field spot”

(2) a brown rather than a green stem and

(3) uniformly shaped, whether round or oval.

I asked Plunkett for his best advice:

“If it’s shiny on the outside, it’s not ripe. It dulls as it ripens,” he said.

Whatever method you use, Plunkett said the least is the thumping.

He said:

“You’re not doing anything but making your finger sore.”

Castor is about an hour southeast of Shreveport and 18 miles west of Saline, a town known for its watermelons.  Along my drive the other day, I found some other signs. One advertised Saline Watermelons and gave a telephone number. Another house with a patch outside simply had “Melons” painted on a white sheet. Bienville Parish is a colorful slice of rural Louisiana. If you want to learn more, read here or here.

Plunkett Farms
Plunkett Farms

 

 

 

Going the Extra Mile for Peaches This Summer

Most summers we make a trek or two over to Mitcham Farms in Ruston, Louisiana for their delicious peaches.

It’s usually in mid-July when the freestone peaches are in their prime. But with this year’s mild winter and lack of chill hours for the  trees, Mitcham’s has already exhausted their supply for the season.

Ditto  other places I checked–Ed Lester in Coushatta, Frierson Orchards and several orchards in Texas.

No more peaches this year.

So I expanded my research and found Efurd Orchards  just south of Pittsburg, Texas. The bad news is that it is an hour and 45 minute-drive from my house. The good news is the Efurds expect to have plenty of peaches through early September, and the drive makes an interesting road trip through the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Efurds is a entertaining destination farm stand with a whole lot more than peaches and preserves. When we were there mid-week, the place was a abuzz with daytrippers and peach questers wandering around the vintage vehicles on the grounds, meandering around the antique artifacts in the open-air market and lining up at the homemade ice cream counter.

Click on any photo to launch photo gallery

Oh, yeah and loading up on peaches.  On that day, juicy Red Contenders were ripe; this week, Redskins are expected. Customers not only were buying pecks of peaches, but tomatoes, watermelons, peas and any fruit or vegetable that grows in East Texas.

Owner Greg Efurd and his daughter were busy at the cash register and chatting with customers. They explained that the 20 varieties of peaches they planted allowed them enough diversity to have peaches when many others don’t.

The Efurds have been growing peaches since 1972 and now have about 15,000 trees spread out on 150 acres. They also grow other produce. It’s especially busy in the spring when strawberries are getting ripe and the fall harvest season when the stand is ablaze with pumpkins and colorful mums.

There are several routes to take from Shreveport, each with its own interesting diversion. We exited Interstate 20 onto U.S. Highway 80 east of Marshall and followed state highway 154 through the woods, stopping at the Bear Creek Smokehouse company store to stock up on their local sausages and bacon. We ate hamburgers at Swanner’s, in Gilmer and bought a yellow-meated watermelon at the cute Lineberger Produce on U.S. 271 heading toward Efurds.

Lineberger was selling peaches too. Further up the road we  found  McPeak Orchards, itself a nice stop with peaches and a good bit of produce.

Click on any photo to launch photo gallery

After Efurd’s, we wandered a few miles north of Pittsburg to get a look at the gargantuan  Bo Pilgrim bust, which sits atop a gazebo at the Pilgrim’s poultry distribution center. Pilgrim is Pittsburg’s most famous resident. He once headed the nation’s largest poultry operation. Pilgrim’s is now owned by a Brazilian company but Bo Pilgrim’s presence is seen everywhere in Pittsburg,

Along the way, we passed a few more homespun garden produce  stands; some in covered sheds; others spread out on folding tables in the front yard.

Texas isn’t lacking in “trails” to entice road trips. There’s bluebonnet trails, barbecue trails, wine trails, even presidential trails (LBJ, the Bushes and JFK Museum).

But I think we’ve just added our own peach trail to that list.

Efurd’s is on U.S. Highway 271 three miles of south of Pittsburg and is currently open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. While in Pittsburg, you may want to check out some of these places below, although the vineyards and the museum are only open Thursdays and weekends and the hot link place is closed Sundays. Check the websites for specific hours of operation.

Los Pinos Vineyards: One of 19 wineries on the East Texas Piney Woods Wine Trail, this one is just 2.5 miles away from Efurd Orchards on County Road 1334.

Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum: This is actually two museums — Depot Museum with a life-size replica of the Ezekiel Airship, a local flying invention that predated the Wright Brothers’ first flight; and Farmstead Museum, with historic buildings and demonstrations by people dressed in period costumes.

Pittsburg Hot Links: The hot links is a food item peculiar to this slice of East Texas. They are typically served in a bowl  with saltines, cheese, onions and pickle slices . The Pittsburg Hot Links restaurant is in downtown Pittsburg.

Efurd Orchards

Take a Sunday Drive to Faith Farms & Arena in Elm Grove

Something is always going on at Faith Farms & Arena on Highway 527 in the southern Bossier Parish community of Elm Grove.

Every other Sunday afternoon there’s a farmers market with a neighborly feel. I went just before the Fourth of July and found fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, juicy watermelon and beef for the grill. Plus, there was plenty to take home for the freezer — purple hull peas, pintos, crowders and such.

The farm has been owned by Larry and Debbie Roberts for more than 20 years and is now managed by grandson Colton Wilkins, who has cattle and horses and typical agriculture crops of wheat, corn & hay.

But there’s so much more to this family-run operation that will keep you coming back again and again.

Colton’s mother, Candy Wilkins, the Roberts’ daughter, is the event manager and has been adding activities during the past year to meet the need for more family entertainment. Besides the biweekly farmers market, there’s:

*Farm animal petting zoo, play area and pony rides. (You also can bring your own horse ($10 fee) have a good place to ride.

*Sunday lunch and Monday/Wednesday suppers. Candy’s husband Buck is usually frying catfish for lunch on farmer’days ($10). Meals are offered for sale (eat in or to go) on Monday and Wednesday nights for an affordable $7 to $10.

*Kernel Kobb’s Corn Maze. Beginning Sept. 23 through Oct. 31, Kernal Kobb’s corn maze will bring more activity here along with haunted house — the Gentleman Death’s Shocktale Show, run by Shreveport’s longstanding Gas Light Players theatre group.

There’s a plethora of activity throughout the year–horse riding events, Valentine’s Dinner, an Easter egg hunt, Polar Express family movie night, bible studies, concerts and charity benefits.

And how about a perfect place for an rustic-themed party or wedding? Check out some of the fun event photos on the Faith Farms & Arena Facebook page.

You don’t have to drive far from Shreveport-Bossier City to experience a little country life. If you only have a few minutes, drop by and pick up some fresh produce or a meal to go. If you want to while away an afternoon arrive early, eat lunch in and air conditioned portion of the arena, let kids play or ride ponies and enjoy a  fun Sunday summer afternoon on the farm.

Next Farmer’s Market Dates: July 16 & 30 noon to 4 p.m.

Kernel Kobb’s Corn Maze: Sept. 23-Oct. 31

Faith Farms & Arena

 

 

Rolling on the River: Bossier City’s Bike/Pedestrian Trail Extension

The recent opening of the two-mile extension of the Arthur Teague Trail inspired me to hop on my bicycle and check it out.

I recommend you do too.

The trail now extends for seven miles along Bossier City’s side of the Red River, but the highlight is the newly-opened southern leg that takes you right by the Red River National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge opened in 2012, but I had never visited there until now. Red River National Wildlife Refuge is a quiet nature lover’s paradise just two minutes away from one of Shreveport-Bossier’s busiest traffic areas –the Jimmie Davis Bridge that crosses the Red River.

Once the path crosses  under the bridge, you’re greeted by hardwoods and river frontage vegetation,  which were still lush and green from summer rains when I visited in late June. Before you know it you’re at the Wildlife Refuge with trails, a pretty lake view and visitors center with interesting wildlife exhibits.

I especially liked the places that invited you to linger –benchs throughout the trails, rocking chairs on the back porch and comfy chairs inside by a window where you can  spend a few minutes watching the birds fly to and from the feeders.

If you’re more outdoorsy, there’s six miles of marked and mowed hiking trails — one leads to a children’s nature play area, another one on a levee through an old pecan orchard and another through a wild plum thicket. (Plums are mostly gone now but visitors are free to pick plums and pecans for personal use when available).

I didn’t make it through all the paths as the heat of the day was chasing me. But, it’s a place for all seasons — butterflies, dragonflies & reptiles during the summer (yes, that includes snakes and alligators), spring nesting and migrating birds during the winter. The refuge’s brochure lists 246 species of birds, from cardinals abundant year-round to rarer willets, large shorebirds seen at intervals of two to five years. In October, the refuge hosts a Fall Wildlife Celebration with hayrides, canoeing and opportunities to see wildlife up close.

Plenty of reasons to go back there.

Red River National Wildlife Refuge is open sunrise to sunset everyday. The visitor’s center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. most Saturdays; and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays occasionally. (Weekend hours depend on volunteer staffing).

There are many entry points for riding on the Arthur Teague Trail. Favorite spots are the Bossier Sheriff’s Substation/boat launch and Walker Place Park, where you can take the new bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the motorized traffic on the parkway. The trail’s northern terminus is near Diamond Jack’s Casino, and there’s good river views all along the way, although there’s little shade along the northern section. 

Walker Place Park
Walker Place Park

 

 

 

Shreveport Farmers Market Focus: Herbs

I often hit the Shreveport Farmers Market with a specific theme. Last week it was herbs. My next trip may be grass-fed beef. And the next may be zuchinni relish. (Yes, I have  come away with five different varieties without making all of the relish booths).

Since I have a vegetable garden and I’ve already picked my own berries at Shuqualak Farms, I had fun hunting for herb-related products the other day. I’m sure I missed some, but here’s three interesting vendors you may want to visit:

Sundew Herbs: Carol Jeter has been selling healthy herbs at the market for a number of years now and has added beautiful succulents to her reasonably- priced live herbs, handmade soaps and herbal products and gifts.

The herbs I have bought from her usually flourish, and she gives great tips on how to how to make that happen. She’s an early summer vendor and won’t be around later in July and August but you can follow Sundew Herbs on Facebook.

Sundew Herbs lemongrass soap
I wish I had scratched sniff. This lemongrass soap smells as refreshing as it looks.
Succulents from Sundew Herbs
Vibrant succulents from Sundew Herbs

McKissick Herb Farm: I saw the McKissicks herb and produce farm while driving along Buncombe Road the other day and caught up with Marilyn McKissick at a recent Shreveport Farmers Market. McKissick is a registered nurse who has researched the health benefits of essential oils. She sells several varieties at the farmers market along with her produce.

McKissick Herb Farm
McKissick Herb Farm

I’m new to essential oils but have been reading about lavender oil as a sleep aid. I figure it’s worth a try (and a whole lot cheaper than a new $1500 Posturepedic mattress or even a $100 My Pillow investment). And it smells wonderful!

She also had “thieves oil,” an essential oil recipe that dates back to the Middle Ages. There are many legends —  in one thieves robbed from bodies that had succumbed to the bubonic plague. The oil concoction spared them from getting the disease.

I also came away with a cleaning spray made with organic-based ingredients and essential oils of lavender, pepper mint, lemon and eucalyptus.

The McKissicks also are early summer vendors, when their produce is at its prime but will be back at the fall market that begins in October.

Red Earth Wildcrafted: You may have seen Emily Mills around town giving talks on medicinal herbs, leading plant walks or foraging around for wild food.

That’s all part of her role a a clinical herbalist. Trained by the Wildflower School for Botanical Medicine in Austin, Mills’ mission is finding ways to use native plants medicinally no matter where she lives. Now, she’s become an expert at using Southern plants, but her interest started when she and her husband lived in England and Spain.

I bought a few things, including an “aches and pains salve” handmade with red cedar, goldenrod, organic olive and sunflower oils and local beeswax.  For a long time I thought I was highly allergic to goldenrod, but, according to Mills and other information I’ve read, it’s the ragweed that blooms at the same as goldenrod that causes the allergy symptoms.

Mills plans to be at the market until later in the season, so you can catch her there. Her products also are at The Agora Borealis art market in Shreveport and sometimes available on etsy.com.

Emily Mills of Red Earth Wildcrafted
Emily Mills of Red Earth Wildcrafted
Red Earth Wildcrafted
A few Red Earth Wildcrafted products

Red Earth Wildcrafted has lots of good information on its website as well as this tasty-looking recipe for lavender mustard that Emily shared on her Facebook page.