Education and Preservation in Louisiana

After a great week in the city of New Orleans, it was time to head home.  Of course, a straight shot to Tulsa just wasn’t going to cut it; there’s plenty to see on the way!  The first stop of the day wasn’t far from the hotel, actually…in fact, I’d stood a few feet from it the day before and not seen it.

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The Jefferson Highway was built in the 1910s as part of the National Auto Trail system, before they were all numbered.  The “Palm to Pine Highway” stretched north-to-south from Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  A stone marker sits at the corner of Common Street and St. Charles Avenue in NOLA to mark the end of the road.  Many thanks to Susan Yates for sending me a message just before I left that alerted me to its existence!  I would’ve been heartbroken if I’d missed out.

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Another stop we made before leaving the city was Lafayette Cemetery #1.  I’ve long been fascinated by the above-ground graveyards in Bayou Country and I was pleased to have the opportunity to explore one.  Due to the high water table, it’s how most people are laid to rest down there.  It was appropriately cold and grey on the morning we walked among the somber chambers.  Some of the graves still bore damage from hurricanes past; old recessed brick betrayed the missing name plates.  Some of them were on the ground, leaning against their tombs.

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We headed west out of the city with a choice to make.  We’d looked up a few historic plantations to visit but only had time to stop at one.  We decided on the Whitney Plantation, which included a museum dedicated to the practice of slavery in America.  The museum portion was really well done; it gave me a perspective and understanding of slavery that I hadn’t fully appreciated.  You get a real sense of the commodity that slaves were before the Civil War.  You also get a good understanding at how laws and circumstances were controlled after the war to continue a system of oppression.

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We walked the grounds for a bit, which were very beautiful, but got in trouble because we weren’t in a tour group.  Although the lady at the front desk had said it was fine when we bought our tickets, I guess they don’t allow people to wander on their own.  We’d just missed a tour group departing from the main office, so we just got back on the road.

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The next place we put the car in park was at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) in Natchitoches.  I became aware of this division of the National Park Service last year when I started communicating with them about a springtime symposium they are bringing to Tulsa this year, focused on Roadside Architecture.  We’d just corresponded via email and telephone, so it was great to meet these folks in person.

Samantha and I got a tour of their office on the campus of Northwestern State University, which itself was converted from an old Women’s Gymnasium.  In addition to their many labs used to help preserve and protect historic sites, their second floor has a big gym floor with scaffolding for a roller rink around the edge of the auditorium!  It was really cool.

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The ladies at the NCPTT told us about the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile downtown, which is the oldest general store in the state.  Of course we had to go!  It still felt and looked like an old-school general store, complete with ancient cash register and skylights once used to highlight product.  We could’ve spent all day in there, poking around the various nooks and crannies, but alas…we still had some miles to turn.

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Just as the sun was setting, we made it to the rural community of Mooringsport, LA.  The Historic Caddo Lake Drawbridge there was built in 1914 using a unique vertical lift design from a company in Chicago.  The US Army used it for maneuvers in the 1940s, performing mock captures of the bridge and “bombing” it with sacks of flour.  It later fell out of use and was nearly destroyed in the 80s, but it was saved and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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Originally, I was disappointed we’d arrived there with so little light left in the sky.  I took a few half-hearted photos before I heard a rumble in the distance that captured my attention.  I looked and saw the light of a train breaking through the treeline in the distance.  I ran to take a place on the modern bridge alongside the historic crossing.  My mood improved tenfold as the train crossed the lake, just where I could capture it with the sunset.  The bridge itself is really interesting and totally unlike any other I’ve photographed.

We made it up to Texarkana before stopping for the night.  One more day of travel stood between us and our own bed.

 

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Jackson Square and Bourbon Street

After an eerily quiet night in the French Quarter last Wednesday, we went back the next day, this time to do more walking, exploring, and enjoying.  I’m glad we did — although it was still relatively quiet, it was a lot better than walking around unfamiliar streets in the dark.

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The trolley from our hotel actually had other people on it this time!  An Asian woman boarded after we did and had difficulty communicating.  When the tram operator asked for exact change for the fare, the woman simply offered her all of her money.  The tram operator matter-of-factly told the woman that she needed to know what she was doing — because people would just take all of her money.  She helped her select the proper fare ($1.25 if you’re curious) while she continued to chastise the woman.  I was filled with a mix of anxiety and understanding — I’d seen similar scenes in other countries.  And the tram operator was right.  People would straight up take all of her money and run off.

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I’d found a place for lunch called the Clover Grill.  It’s a 24/7 corner burger dive at Bourbon and Dumaine.  The walls are pink tile and sparse diner decor.  The menu extols the virtue of their half-pound burgers and chili (“It speaks for itself…sooner or later.”) The burgers, which were thicker than I expected, are grilled on a traditional flat top but covered with a hub cap!  The cook was appropriately surly.  Perhaps it was because he was in the middle of doing a deep clean on the fryer.  Even though that meant we could get no fries or onion rings, lunch was filling.

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After our meal, it was time for a walk.  Samantha and I wandered the streets of the French Quarter, admiring the architecture and perusing the shops.  Although it was a bit colder and overcast, street musicians kept everyone lively.  Sam was beside herself with excitement when we saw an original Alphonse Mucha painting in one of the windows.

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When we reached Canal Street, I was greeted by yet another face of the city.  I’d stepped from the old world into the new world, complete with chain restaurants, tall buildings, and mass transit.  There were several neon signs in sight at all times, including a breathtaking storefront for an old Walgreen’s Drug Store.  It was built in 1938 and retains the charm of that old-world design.

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We headed back down Bourbon Street; yet again, I saw another side of the city.  Instead of the art shops and local vendors of Royal Street, I was looking at bars and strip clubs.  There was a lot of neon and loud music but few patrons mid-day.  It was a striking contrast to the relative quiet I’d experienced so far.  By the time we made it back down to Preservation Hall, I felt a little schizophrenic.  Jackson Square had picked up a little but the whole area was still relatively quiet, especially compared to what I knew the area would be like in just a few days.  We stopped back in at Cafe du Monde for more beignets before it was time to head back.

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Exploring Cajun Country

Thanks to Samantha’s encouragement and patience, I awoke on Wednesday with an eagerness to (finally) explore.  I wanted to wait for her to see the French Quarter, so I started by hopping back in the car and checking out a few sights that I’d marked around the area.  The first place I went to see was over an hour away.

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I took the highway out of New Orleans and headed southwest on I-90.  I crossed a magnificent bridge across the Bayou des Allemends before seeing my first lift bridge in Houma, which carried me across the Bayou Terrebonne.  I followed that same canal for about ten miles until I stopped at the Smith Ridge Bridge.

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The little green span was a single-lane crossing over the Bayou Petit Galillou.  It’s a swing bridge, meaning it rotates in the center to allow a lane of passage for boats.  A man fished contentedly on the dock as I walked the area, snapping photos and taking it all in.  No boats needed to pass through while I was there, sadly, so I didn’t get to see it swing open.  Still, it was worth the drive!

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Instead of heading straight back to downtown NOLA, I sought out a few neon signs in the area.  In Laplace, they had a spinning mug of root beer at the Frostop Drive-In.  On the western edge of New Orleans, I snapped a few more photos along Veterans Boulevard and the surrounding area.

I saw several places that looked like they would serve a terrific lunch, but I had a specific place in mind: Bud’s Broiler.

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The local chain started in 1952, though the oldest location still operating (#2) opened four years later.  That’s where I headed.  Like the best burger dives, the menu was limited and the customers were regulars.  Burgers were charcoal broiled on an old brick grill.  I enjoyed my delicious lunch at one of a handful of two-seater tables and observed the generations of New Orleanians doing the same around me.

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A few miles away, I stopped again.  The Magnolia Bridge at Bayou St John is one of the oldest bridges in the city.  The small two-span crossing originally served streetcar traffic and was also a swing bridge. Today it carries only pedestrians and stays in one place as the waterway isn’t used by boat traffic any more.  The nearby Cabrini High School made for a nice backdrop as I admired the old bridge.

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When I returned downtown, I took a walk around the (insanely large) convention center to get a better view of the enormous cantilever bridges that span the Mississippi River.  They’re called the Crescent City Connection in honor of one of the city’s nicknames.  The first span was built in 1958 and the second one was completed in 1988.  They’re beautiful!

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When Samantha’s day at the convention finished, we finally boarded the Riverside Trolley and headed to the French Quarter.  First, we stopped at Cafe du Monde for a beignet and coffee.  Well, I had coffee, anyway.  I drink mine black but I had to at least try the Cafe Au Lait, one of their specialties.  The cafe is a tourist magnet, having been around since 1862 and open 24 hours a day.  The cafe was staffed mostly with immigrants; our waitress didn’t speak English and just pointed to the simple menu printed on the napkin dispenser.  The beignets were marvelous!

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For dinner, we walked to Pat O’Briens, a restaurant known for their Hurricane cocktails.  It was another place that was mostly peopled with out-of-towners but the food wasn’t bad.  Neither Samantha or I like seafood (which makes dining in New Orleans less of a big deal) but the blackened chicken was really flavorful.  While we enjoyed the patio ambiance, Sam told me that the first time she visited she dreamed of bringing the love of her life to that place.  It’s a dream I was so happy to make a reality. ❤

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After dinner, we went back to the hotel.  The French Quarter was nearly abandoned, both before and after dinner.  I assume it was the calm before the Mardi Gras storm, but we encountered maybe a dozen other people on the streets not counting the solitary tarot readers in the square.  It may have picked up as it got later (we headed back to the hotel at about 9:00 PM) but as it was, it was a little eerie.  We planned to return the following day during a long break in Sam’s schedule, which I was really looking forward to.

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Entering the Crescent City

We rose early on Monday the 29th and headed east to The Big Easy.  Before leaving Lafayette, though, Sam and I had breakfast at an amazing little place called Edie’s Express.  It’s not hyperbole when I say they served the best biscuits I’ve ever had in my life.  If you ever find yourself anywhere NEAR Lafayette, you gotta stop there.  It’s the business.

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We also stopped at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, a beautiful house of worship that serves as the mother church of the local Catholic Diocese.  It also has the oldest cemetery in the city, though we didn’t wander it.  It’s a gorgeous building!

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We made a brief detour in Baton Rouge so I could take a photo of a Coca-Cola sign downtown.  It’s one of only three left from this specific marketing push after World War II.  It was just renovated a few years ago and looks wonderful!

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As I-10 carried us east, the landscape began to really change.  The highway became a long bridge, elevated above the Atchafalaya swampland. Cyprus trees that lined the road looked like a forest on another planet.  Lake Pontchartrain appeared on the left and on the horizon, I could see the skyline of the approaching city.

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Since we arrived in town pretty early, we made our first stop the National World War II Museum.  The exhibits there are really well-done; there are actual aircraft hanging from the ceilings and vintage vehicles scattered throughout, along with engaging interpretive panels, galleries, and other artifacts.  At the start of the museum, you get a ‘Dog Tag’ card with an NFC chip in it.  You ‘tag’ a specific person from a computer terminal which you scan at certain intervals to follow along with their individual journey in the Allied campaigns. I selected a young man from Texas that was a forward observer in the 30th Infantry; Sam’s person was a Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia that spent time in Auschwitz.  It was an innovative way to filter the war down to an individual level.

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After spending about three hours (!) at the museum, we headed to our hotel.  The Marriott that served as our home base for four nights was right across the street from the MASSIVE convention center where Samantha would be spending her days.  Her event planning convention was one of four happening concurrently; the venue is 11 blocks long and is over 3 million square feet!  It’s also right next to the Port of New Orleans; I saw my first cruise ship as we ate lunch that first day.  It departed for the high seas, dwarfing the Creole Queen paddlewheeler in its wake.

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You’d think with my travel experience I would be itching to get out and explore.  However, I had an unexpected difficulty leaving the hotel those first two days.  It was a mixture of unfamiliarity with the city, the public transportation system, the multiple warnings I’d received from people about crime, and just general anxiety.  That Monday night we stayed near the hotel; Tuesday I spent the day working on my book.  After Samantha’s day at the conference ended, I knew she wanted to go to the French Quarter and show me places she’d been to experience them with me, but I was frozen.

It actually felt similar to the culture shock I’d had in some places while traveling internationally.  New Orleans felt SO DIFFERENT than other cities I’d been to in the US.  Even deciding on a dinner destination was almost paralyzing.  Bless my amazing wife; she was supportive and encouraging, helping me talk through my difficulties and bringing me out on the other side.  When I woke up on Wednesday, I felt much more at ease and ready to explore.

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Road to the Bayou State

When Samantha asked if I’d like to tag along with her to New Orleans, where she was to attend an event planning conference, I said sure.  I’d never been to the city before (or Louisiana as a whole, actually) and was excited for the experience.  What I didn’t expect, however, was for the city to feel like a completely different COUNTRY.  Before I got to experience New Orleans, of course, we had to get there.

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When we opted to go together, it was decided that driving would be our best option.  Not only is that better from a cost perspective, but that meant I could map out a two-day journey with various stops.  We could make it from Tulsa to New Orleans in a single day, but that would be a boring drive.  There was plenty to see along the way!  The first place I’d marked was in Antlers OK … which was a disappointment.  The historic bridge I’d wanted to see had JUST RECENTLY been torn out; in fact, the old steel from the span was still piled on the side of the road next to the new crossing.  I was heartbroken that I was too late.

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We stopped briefly in Hugo (where I showed Samantha the circus cemetery) before we entered the Lone Star State.  We checked out the little Eiffel Tower in Paris TX, built in 1993 at 65 feet tall.  When Paris, Tennessee built their own tower at 70 feet tall the citizens in Texas added a cowboy hat in ’98.  Although the faux-Eiffel in Vegas dwarfs all other US replicas, none of the others have a hat.  So there’s that.

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Heading east on Highway 82, we drove past a historic marker next to the road.  I wasn’t going to stop, but something in my brain nagged me and we turned around.  I’m thankful that we did!  The marker was at the gate of a small cemetery for William Becknell, the pioneer that blazed the Santa Fe Trail before settling in Texas.

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Our next destination took us a bit farther east into Arkansas.  An old theatre in Magnolia had been on my to-see list for quite a long time and it was one I had wanted to see with Samantha by my side.  It’s the Cameo Theater, which no longer operates as a movie house.  She uses cameos often in her hand-crafted jewelry and I knew she would really like it.  It’s a beautiful cinema and a shame that it’s closed — though at least it’s being used as an exercise studio, apparently.

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We meandered down to Lafayette, LA before calling it a night.  We didn’t go straight to the hotel, or even to dinner actually.  We headed for dessert first and another surprise for Sam:  the last operating Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe in existence.  Back in the mid-1800s, Borden’s Dairy (Eagle Brand then) built a factory in her home town of Brewster, NY for their condensed milk operation.  It closed in the 1920s after the area was flooded to provide reservoirs for NYC water supply and later burned to the ground in a fire, but Borden’s was a big part of the city’s story.  As such, she’s always felt a historic connection to the brand.

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The Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Lafayette was built in 1940.  In 2009, long-time customers bought the shop, renovated it, and kept it going.  The landmark building looks like you would hope:  neon on the outside, pressed-tin ceilings and Art Deco lights on the inside.  There was an old-fashioned counter, several booths, and a number of small kid-sized tables.  The menu board was simple and we ordered with ease.  If it’s Borden’s, it’s got to be good — and it certainly was.

After a long day on the road, it felt good to stretch out — we fell asleep at our motel quickly, knowing that the next day’s drive to New Orleans would be much shorter.  And then the real adventure would begin…

 

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Eleventh Hour Bridgehunting

Most of my free time lately has been going towards research and writing of my book on Lost Tulsa Restaurants — and I’m happy to say it’s going well!  But all that time at the Tulsa Historical Society and other archives has taken away from my time on the road.  Not to mention it’s been crazy cold around here!  However, the forecast on Sunday was partly cloudy and near 70 degrees — so I opted to spend a day on the road.

More and more historic bridges are being replaced around Oklahoma.  There were a few that I’ve had on my ‘To See’ list for a while that I knew I needed to visit soon, or else it would be too late.  I headed west on I-44, past Oklahoma City, and then went south on Highway 81.

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I diverted through a few small towns as I weaved towards the Red River:  Rush Springs, Marlow, Duncan, Comanche, Waurika.  Many great murals and most of the downtown districts had a bit of life in them, much to my surprise.  Duncan has a Rock Island Railroad Depot Museum complete with locomotive, but winter hours meant it wasn’t open when I stopped by.  Most of the diners and local stores that piqued my interest were closed on Sundays, too; I gotta remember to take these trips on Saturdays!

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My first stop was at Chisholm Trail Lookout Point outside of Addington.  An obelisk was constructed around Oklahoma’s centennial to mark the location on the historic cattle trail.  It’s the highest point in Jefferson County and offers a view that was surely welcome to the cowboys driving their herds from Texas to Kansas.

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A few minutes later, I stopped at the spot that inspired the day’s journey:  the endangered Red River Bridge on Highway 79.  It connects Oklahoma and Texas with 21 camel-back pony trusses, clocking in at just over 2,200 feet.  It’s on the National Historic Register and is the only bridge of its kind remaining on a Texas state highway.  I hope that means it gets to stay around for pedestrian access, but, that is not guaranteed.  Since the new crossing is already under construction, I was able to walk around a bit and get some good shots.

From the Texas border I drove east, once again meandering through a few small towns:  Ringling, Wilson, Lone Grove.  Ringling’s welcome sign looked like a circus tent even though the town didn’t appear to have any connection aside from name similarity.  The clouds above me were darkening; I kept waiting for it to start raining but it didn’t.

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The next bridge I visited is also at the end of its days.  The Greasy Bend Bridge over the Washita River is something of a Frankenstein; it’s three trusses long, with one being a totally different design than the other two, and the deck has had a number of band-aid repairs.  Even though a few pickup trucks crossed while I was there, I didn’t feel comfortable driving over it.  A new bridge is almost finished alongside; if I had waited a few weeks, I would’ve been too late.  I doubt this old one will be left standing.

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My next visit was to the Cumberland Cut Bridge near Fort Washita.  This one was bypassed some time back; it’s actually in great shape.  The yellow paint is still solid throughout & the street striping is still visible.  I’ve driven across way worse bridges that are still in operation.

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Clear Boggy Creek bridge in Caney, OK was a real treat.  It’s on a gravel road lined with a canopy of tree branches; I’ll bet it looks amazing in the spring and summer.  Furthermore, it’s right next to a railroad bridge.  I’ll have to come back down and sit for a while.  It looked like someone had done something similar on Saturday night; there was a smoldering campfire on the north end of the bridge on the side of the road.

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I’d driven by the Dairy Lane Bridge south of Atoka dozens of times, but had never noticed it before.  It’s a few blocks east of Highway 75 and passes over the Union Pacific Railroad track.  No trains went by during my visit, but I enjoyed exploring the old single-lane crossing.  It may have originally been built to serve a railroad itself, considering how tall it is.

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My last stop was northwest of McAlester on Tannehill Road.  The Tannehill Bridge crosses Coal Creek and has been bypassed, but it was left standing probably due to its namesake.  The bridge is dedicated to Cpl. Joe C Tannehill, a McAlester native and survivor of the Bataan Death March in World War II.  There’s an excellent marker on the south bank of Coal Creek in his honor.  The bridge is easily accessible for pedestrian use.

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Less than five minutes after I returned to the car, the threatening clouds finally delivered.  The sky had turned the dark grey/green that is normally associated with Oklahoma Springtime and the winds strengthened. Rain started suddenly and it was so dark I needed my headlights.

I scrambled down unmarked county roads, trying to find my way back to the Interstate.  I hoped aloud that the narrow lane didn’t suddenly turn to dirt, as the last thing I wanted to do is get stuck out in the middle of nowhere.  Thankfully, it remained paved, and soon I was back on the turnpike.  I was even greeted with a vibrant rainbow as the sky cleared on the way home; a match to my bright spirits after a day of exploration.

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2017 Year in Review Video

Happy New Year, friends!

I just published my annual video highlighting my favorite photos along with commentary.  It’s on YouTube and the link is below.

2017’s video clocked in at just under an hour this year; don’t feel like you have to watch it all at once.  Here’s to another year on the road!

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