“Sag Wagon Service Across Southern Louisana” was originally published in the July, 2013 issue of MotorHome Magazine.
Sag Wagon Service Across Southern Louisiana: Music, Food and Plantation History in the Pelican State
It’s Payback Time
Payback can be fun. Our trip across southern Louisiana was a payback.
In 2003, my husband, Jim, and I rode our mountain bikes from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico along the Continental Divide. Unlike the hard-bodied 30-somethings who carried their gear in a bicycle trailer or panniers, we used our motorhome as a support vehicle, or sag wagon. Several friends and relatives joined us for a week or two to drive the motorhome. Jim’s sister and her husband, Linda and Tom Coulson, supported us through parts of Montana and Idaho. Their teenage daughter, Caley, biked with Jim and me.
Fast forward nine years. Caley has been seriously afflicted with the bicycle touring bug. During a break in her last semester of medical school in the spring of 2012, she and two classmates biked across the southern U.S. from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida. With one cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York City already under her belt, she really didn’t need our support. Nevertheless, we tagged along. We were so thankful for the assistance provided by her parents and countless friends during our own biking adventure that we wanted to pay it back.
Touring bicyclists often choose roads less traveled and backroads through small towns, sometimes adding considerable mileage to avoid congested highways. For us, the ideal motorhome journey includes miles of interstate highway and RV parks within sight of the exit ramps to facilitate quick arrival at our final destination. Since the bicyclists’ need for safety and adventure trumped our need for pull-thru sites and free Wi-Fi, we knew this trip would require flexibility and compromise on our part.
Caley and her friends, Jessica Miller and Tad Schoedel, turned to the Adventure Cycling Association to help plan their route. The Adventure Cycling Southern Tier maps helped us find camping sites off the beaten path that could accommodate both RVs and tents.
Rendezvous in Eastern Texas
We met the cyclists — and their voracious appetites — at the Cagle Recreation Area near Lake Conroe in eastern Texas. They’d been riding between 70 and 100 miles each day, which burns around 6,000 calories. After they ate the better part of two racks of smoked ribs, several ears of corn each, and a mountain of coleslaw, I added to my grocery list to feed these Stomachs on Wheels. We spent the next day grocery shopping and running errands before settling down in Silsbee, Texas at the Red Cloud RV Park.
Welcome to Louisiana
Shortly after we started our trek across southern Louisiana, we stopped at a Visitor Center on I-10. The friendly clerk told us about her favorite attractions on our route. She promised we could love Ville Platte, which she considered to be “the happiest place on earth next to Disneyland.”
After Jim and I set up camp at the Pine Grove RV Park in DeRidder, we rode out Highway 190 to meet the cyclists. As a mountain biker who has enjoyed single-track biking trails for over 30 years, I’ve never gotten used to sharing the road with cars. While we enjoyed riding with them, we decided to use our spare time exploring local attractions and meeting friendly people.
When we arrived in Ville Platte, we were eager to find out why it has a reputation for happiness. Since it’s the “Swamp Pop Capital of the World,” our first stop was the Swamp Pop Museum. We were greeted by Sharon Fontenot, the happy and enthusiastic Museum Coordinator. She explained that Swamp Pop, created in the 1950s and early 1960s, is a musical genre with Cajun, Creole, rock and roll, country and western, and rhythm and blues influences. The museum features stage costumes, records, photos, and a jukebox to play Swamp Pops hits like “Mathilda” by Cookie and the Cupcakes, and “See You Later, Alligator” by Bill Haley and the Comets.
We’d been told the top two reasons to visit Louisiana were the food and the music. Since we’d learned about its music, we set out in search of its famous food. At Otego’s Food Lane, we picked up boudin, a mixture of pork, onions, bell peppers, rice and spices stuffed into a sausage-like casing.
At Slap Ya Mama Cajun Foods, we browsed their charming gift shop and inquired about the unique name. When TW Walker created their signature Cajun spice blend, he proclaimed, “When you use this seasoning, the food tastes so good, you’ll receive a loving slap on the back and a kiss on the cheek for creating such a great-tasting Cajun dish.” Satisfied that no mamas were harmed during the making of this food, we bought several bottles of their Cajun Étouffée Sauce. After buying crawfish, we set up camp at Chicot State Park and cooked a Louisiana-style feast for the Stomachs on Wheels.
Chicot State Park
The next morning Jim and I explored the 6,400-acre park. Chicot State Park is picturesque, with 22 miles of trails and a 2,200-acre lake. The Louisiana State Arboretum, established in 1961 as the first state-supported arboretum in the country, lies within the park. Six miles of hiking trails wind through 300 acres of mature beech-magnolia forests and cypress-tupelo swamps. A bobcat darted away soon after we caught sight of him on the boardwalk ahead of us. Bald cypress trees, surrounded by cypress “knees” and rising out of duckweed-covered water, gave the swamp an otherworldly feel.
The next stop on our circuitous route was the town of New Roads. It sits on False River, an oxbow lake created when the Mississippi changed its course in 1722 due to flooding. The town is filled with antebellum and French colonial homes and charming shops. After admiring the architecture and browsing the shops, we checked in at Jim’s Campground and RV Park in nearby Ventress. The bicycle gang joined us in time to watch the sunset from our waterfront site on False River.
Since we were in the heart of Louisiana’s Plantation Country, we couldn’t leave without visiting an antebellum mansion. We drove to Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville. Live oaks draped with Spanish moss line the allée leading to the main house, which was built in the 1830s by Daniel and Martha Turnbull. The plantation grew to 3,455 acres during the cotton boom.
It was fascinating to see how the rich and famous lived nearly two centuries ago. A shoo-fly fan hung over the dining room table to circulate the air and keep bugs away. In those days, a slave pulled a rope attached to the shoo-fly to swing it back and forth throughout the meal. The entire house was lit with candles and one whale oil lamp. A separate kitchen behind the main house featured two fireplaces for cooking — imagine that on a hot summer day — and a nearby water pump. They had an outdoor 3-hole ladies privy (sorry, gentlemen), chamber pots for nighttime use, and a cistern on the roof to collect rainwater for a bath.
One thing that time and technology could not improve upon was the 18-acre ornamental pleasure garden. It was absolutely beautiful. Many of the plants introduced by Martha Turnbull survive today, including one of the earliest collections of camellias in the Deep South.
In Search of a Campsite
Our biggest challenge that day — trivial in comparison to cooking in a two-fireplace kitchen — was finding a place to camp for the night. Neither the TrailerLife Directory nor the Adventure Cycling maps listed anything in or near Kentwood, which is where a 70-mile day would put our bicyclists. Using his smartphone, Tad found The Garden Retreat Center mentioned RV sites. When we arrived, we met the caretaker, Todd Davis. He said the former church camp had been recently purchased by the Harvest World Outreach Ministry. They planned to reopen the RV park. Even though we beat the opening date, Todd graciously accommodated us. We enjoyed having the bucolic park to ourselves. (2022 Update: An RV park does not exist on this property.)
Bogue Chitto River
Knowing that our cross-Louisiana journey would end in just one day, we wanted to squeeze in more outdoor recreation. We took a slight detour to visit Bogue Chitto State Park 8 miles south of Franklinton. The 1,786-acre park has 81 RV sites with hookups, 11 lakes stocked with a variety of freshwater fish, a 14-mile equestrian trail, a 7-mile hiking trail and one river flowing through it.
It was the Bogue Chitto River that caught our attention, specifically Rocky Bottom Tubing and Canoeing. It seemed like a perfect afternoon to float the lazy river in a kayak. We opted for the 1-hour, 3.5-mile trip. Owner Len Bickham told us kingfishers, split-tail kites, cranes and occasionally bald eagles can be spotted along the banks of the river. Turtles entertained us by sunning themselves on logs and slipping in unison into the water as we glided by. (2022 update: Rocky Bottom Tubing is no longer in business, but Louisiana River Adventures and Bogue Chitto Tubing offer similar tours.)
After leaving behind some attractive RV sites at Bogue Chitto, we were challenged to find an RV park in Bogalusa. We saw a sign for an RV repair business. I called the number and, sure enough, the owner told us Traveler’s Rest Motel rents RV sites behind their facility.
The next morning we parted ways with the bicyclists. For the first time in a week, they had to carry their own gear. In the days that followed, we missed their laughter. We knew they missed us, too, when they texted a photo of their sad faces and their dinner: canned chili and tortillas.
One of the best ways to fall in love with a place is to visit it with loved ones. Our companions made the Cajun food, swamp pop music, and picturesque landscapes even more memorable. Louisiana will forever hold a special place in my heart.