Note: This is part two of a three part series looking back at previous Spring Break camping trips that our family has taken. Short camping trips over Spring Break has become our go-to for a short recharge before finishing the rest of the semester. After writing about our most recent trip to Bastrop State Park and Austin, I thought it would be good to look back at the other places we have camped during the week-long break. All pieces are part of a bigger writing project I have been working on for the last year.
The spring after we moved to Houston we decided to go camping for a portion of our spring break. If we went someplace close enough, we could still get away for a couple days, I could still spend time at home catching up on things around the house, and Jeff wouldn’t have to take off a full week of vacation. Initially we made reservations in Louisiana, ready to knock the state off of both our camping map and our own lists of states visited. No one in the family had ever been to Louisiana before, so it would be a first for all four of us.
But then we learned how spring rains can impact the Gulf coast region. We were a month away from the Tax Day floods that would paralyze the Houston area for a couple of days, but Louisiana had already been hit by heavy spring rains that had closed down towns and roads all over the state, and that included I10, the very interstate that we needed to take to get to the state park we had reserved. We made the tough call to cancel our reservation and then Jeff got online to find a campsite, any campsite that would still be open during the week the majority of Texas schools were out for Spring Break. We quickly learned that Spring Break camping is a popular activity in Texas, but he managed to find a single site available at Sandy Creek Park, a US Army Corp of Engineers campground near Jasper, Texas.
We didn’t let the change in location ruin our plans for our short trip. Sandy Creek Park is only a couple miles from Martin Dies, Jr. State Park, so we spent two days traveling back and forth between Sandy Creek and Martin Dies, spending most of our time exploring at the state park. Our kids attended a ranger talk on butterflies and created colorful rubbings of fish fossils during a separate art activity at the nature center. We hiked along the trails that skirt B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir, crossed bridges, and watched as both of our kids hunted for animal tracks and, inspired by the butterfly talk at the Martin Dies nature center, any interesting bugs that they found along the trails. The beautiful escape into the Pineywoods region of Texas took us out of the range of cell service, cutting us off from the stuff that often distracted us from each other and forcing Jeff and me to put away our phones, stop checking email and other work messages, and be completely present in the moment.
Despite the good time that we were having as a family and the additional activities that were still available at Martin Dies, the kids kept reminding me that for months I had been promising them a trip to a new state; I also didn’t forget that one of my reasons for traveling to Louisiana had been a trip to a new national park. So I convinced Jeff to get back into the truck for a day trip to Cane River Creole National Historic Site. Shortly after we crossed the border we finally understood why I10 had been closed. We drove past flooded rivers, homes, and roads. We were only a few miles from our destination when we realized that the road the GPS was taking us on was completely covered with water that was too high for our F150 to drive through. We turned around and found another route.
Jeff looked at me. “I sure hope you haven’t had us drive all this way for a wild goose chase. There is nothing out here.”
To be fair, I had a tiny history of taking us off of the beaten path to find obscure national parks stamps. This wouldn’t have been the first time I had miscalculated the difficulties in finding a national park or historic site off of the beaten path.
“The website said that it’s open. We’ll find it.” But if I was being honest, I really didn’t know what we were going to find when Waze announced that we had reached our destination.
What we found was an eye-opening trip back into time.
The visitor’s center is actually the original general store at the Oakland Plantation. The main house was under renovation and the ranger offered a lot of apologies to us as we walked around the porch and the inside of the house. We learned that the tree lined roads leading up to the main house didn’t just look attractive, they kept the houses cool by creating a wind tunnel of sorts that funneled breezes right through the houses on most plantations. We learned about tall ceilings and the ways wealthy plantation families lived.
But the main house wasn’t the highlight of the trip, and it’s not the memory that stuck with us.
Jeff and I were both northern raised, and our knowledge of southern history was limited to what we learned in history classes or from our own reading. And as we learned on our trip to Gettysburg and so many other places through our childhoods and adulthoods, sometimes just learning about something isn’t enough. Until I have actually been somewhere and seen the remnants of the history myself, my understanding of the event is incomplete. This was clearly the case as we walked around the plantation grounds at both Oakland and Magnolia Plantations.
At the general store we learned the history of plantations post-Reconstruction. It’s one thing to be told that former slaves turned to sharecropping on the plantations they had worked for free for their entire lives. It’s another thing entirely to realize that “freedom” didn’t mean that they were truly free to leave the plantations to pursue their own interests. It wasn’t just that former slaves with limited employment options had to promise a portion of their profits to the landowners (a business practice in and of itself that I’ve always questioned), but they had to buy all of their goods from the plantation general store and pay the prices set by the plantation owner. The economic difficulties of former slaves and the generations that followed suddenly made a lot more sense.
A few years before the trip I had read Ernest Gaines’ book A Gathering of Old Men for one of my graduate classes. I loved the book and found it to be an eye-opening look into life in some pockets of the deep South in the 1970s, over 100 years after the abolition of slavery. But I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t picture the slave cabins turned sharecropper homes. I couldn’t picture the community that remained. I couldn’t picture the life that the people stuck in the sharecropping lifestyle lived.
Suddenly I understood, and as we walked around the grounds of the Oakland and Magnolia Plantations, we tried to help our own children understand the significance of the historical footsteps they were walking in. That particular national historic site is off of the beaten path, and we never would have made a special trip just to visit there. But because we were camping in a place we hadn’t expected to be and it was close enough for a day trip, we did it. It wasn’t the first or the last time that camping would give us the opportunity to see places and do things that we normally wouldn’t do, and as we drove back to the campground for dinner and a campfire, I was thankful that we had made the decision to find another place to camp despite the need for a last minute change in plans.