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Biloxi (post-Katrina)

Casinos Rebuild this City

Casinos, once shackled to moorings to maintain the illusion of tethered boats, are now liberated and jumping across U.S. 90. But Beau Rivage decided to stay on the Gulf side, reopening on Aug. 29, 2006 one year after Hurricane Katrina flooded and then flattened this 300-year-old city. Its south-side neighbor, Casino Magic, didn’t fare so well and sits vacant, looking like a gutted prop from Battlestar Galactica. The recent shakeup at Harrah’s puts a question mark on Biloxi’s casino-fueled recovery.

A Poisonous Bean Rises

As the casinos return, so does the strange flora. Where once-stately mansions stood, now weeds and exotics push up. In one vacant lot, behind a FEMA trailer, a Carmencita Castor Bean plant shows its blood-red stock and bushy pink flowers. The extremely toxic plant — the source of ricin — made the news recently as a possible culprit in the poisoning of a Russian spy. In 1978, it silenced a Bulgarian dissident, Georgy Markov, after an umbrella tipped with the lethal extract entered his thigh.

The Train Rolls On

For years, Carla Beauguez Taconi and her husband, August, led tours of this city on their cheery boat-shaped Biloxi Tour Train. Undaunted by Katrina, a new trolley rolls on, taking visitors down backs streets and along the Gulf, as a pre-Katrina soundtrack eerily describes notable landmarks erased by the storm.

They let us hop on a tour on Katrina’s anniversary. We absorbed the heartbreaking and courageous stories of those who survived, while starring dumbly at the passing expunged landscape.

The site of the former Tullis-Toledano Manor, now a churned mound specked with broken brick, splintered wood and small chunks of powdery blue insulation, captures the loss.

Between stops, Taconi honks and waves at Biloxians old and new, figuring if they don’t know her already, it’s about time they do. Contact them at biloxitourtrain.com or 866-411-8687.

The other flash in Biloxi is the so-called “Extreme Makeover Memorial,” a post-Katrina artifact collage assembled by Aaron Kramer and erected by Ty Pennington and friends.


Simpson’S Garden Town Nursery, Inc.
CA 94, Jamul, California

Some roadside attractions are forced, while others flower naturally.

Simpson’S Nursery, in the San Diego Country backcountry town of Jamul, started as a retail nursery. But over the years it has grown into a sprawling attraction that has almost as much to do with old cars as it does with fertilizer and roses.

With cars, trucks and highway signs popping up everywhere on the grounds, the nursery lives up to its slogan, “Hot Rods & Hibiscus.”

The Simpson enterprise started in 1928 in Pasadena, California, when Hal Simpson, a young man with only an eighth-grade education but plenty of ambition, borrowed $500 to start a nursery.

With only $16 left after buying nursery stock, Simpson and his wife transformed 8.5 acres at the end of Colorado Boulevard into Simpson’S House of Service, one of the largest garden centers in California. To make ends meet, Simpson drove a Sunday school bus and pumped gas at night.

World War II brought changes to the nursery business. According to the nursery’s web site, Simpson lost many of his employees to war jobs, and his Japanese-American nurserymen friends, John, Frank, Carl and Henry Yamane, to the Poston Relocation Camp in Yuma.

A four-alarm fire destroyed the business in 1959, but the nursery got back on its feet — only to be condemned in 1968 to make way for the 210 Pasadena Freeway.

Simpson took his condemnation cash and moved south to rural San Diego County, buying the 185-acre Barrett House ranch.

Today, the 25-acre oasis, run by his granddaughter Cathy and her husband Lee Smith, is a good place to pause before heading into frantic San Diego.

Aside from all the plants, there are two auto barns displaying a varied collection of antique autos, ranging from dowdy Model As to souped-up muscle cars from the 1970s. A highlight of the collection is the 1926 “Spirit of Jamul,” a jaunty Model T Speedster painted bright yellow and black.

Behind the auto barns is a string of vintage travel trailers resting in various phases of restoration.

Our favorite attraction is a small display in the back of auto barn #1. Here, lying on wooden shelves and in a glass case is the “Old Sprinkler Retirement Home.”

“Don’t send them to the landfill, they can join their old friends here for display, conversation, and reminiscing,” invites a sign.

The retirement home is populated with over 30 nozzles, moveable sprinkler heads and water guns. It reportedly began when someone left a shopping bag of old sprinklers — like so many unwanted kittens — at the nursery.

Sprinkler provenance is rare and limited to only one tag written in thick laundry pen: “To Cathy from the Coles. Bought by her father in the 1950s. R.”

Consider treating that old nozzle of yours with a little more respect. Mail him or her to: Simpson’S Garden Town Nursery, Inc. 13925 Hwy. 94, Jamul, CA 92020. (And tell ‘em that DrivetheOST sent you.)

US 90 ­ The Highway of Refugees

Early on, promoters of the Old Spanish Trail claimed that, when completed, the highway would open vast unpopulated tracts of the South and West to industrious Middlewesterners.

The populations of Houston, Las Cruces and Phoenix did explode after WW II, owing their growth more to broad population shifts and the rise of residential air conditioning than a single highway.

In 1975, a new migrant group — the Vietnamese boat people — used the Old Spanish Trail to populate a swampy crescent between New Orleans and Houston. The first and largest concentration of refugees settled along US 90 in Versailles, a suburb just east of New Orleans.

These Vietnamese, mainly rural peasants who had previously fled Northern Vietnam, found in Versailles an area similar in climate and culture to their homeland. With its French accent, nonstop humidity, swampy geography and strong Catholic church, the area attracted nearly 10,000 refugees.

Along one side of 90, ethnic Chinese opened cafes, video shops, beauty salons and jewelry stores, recreating the vibrant shophouse corridor of urban Vietnam.

Across the highway, an old motel was converted into a Buddhist center. In backyards and along drainage canals, they cultivated large gardens, growing taro, bitter cucumber and lemon grass — sometimes up to 30 crops on a single plot.

Houston, 350 miles west, presented a complementary humid climate, with cheap housing and a welcoming Catholic parish.

The Vietnamese first settled in Allen Parkway Village, a crime-ridden public housing project in the notorious Fourth Ward. Here, they coexisted with their African American neighbors until 1996, when both groups were evicted to make way for development.

Moving to Houston's Midtown, Vietnamese shopkeepers took over an ailing business district just south of I-10. "Little Saigon," with its Vietnamese-language street signs and popular restaurants, prospered, but soon development crowded at its fringes, forcing homeowners and renters to leave.

In between these urban centers, hundreds of Vietnamese fisherman — the shrimpers — set up shop in small towns hugging the Gulf.

In an instant, Hurricane Katrina disrupted their lives, and once again thousands refugees were on the move, now heading west on US 90 to seek shelter in Houston.

So much ink has been spent mythologizing Route 66 as the Dustbowl highway, while in our time, a recent Diaspora travels up and down the Old Spanish Trail.

Deer Horn Tree, Junction, Texas

Only in Texas would a woman’s professional organization erect a gigantic sculpture out of deer antlers. But given that this Hill Country community has a Whitetail density of over 45 deer per square mile, hunting factors heavily into its business. The multi-pointed profile of Mr. Big Buck makes his appearance in dozens of local advertisements, and at least nine images of deer leap out from the Kimble County Chamber of Commerce web page. This is deer country, indeed.

It is only natural then that a heap of bleached deer antlers were so arranged and became Junction’s first piece of public sculpture. The piece, referred to locally as the “tree,” is fairly simple as sculpture goes: hundreds of antlers wire-tied onto a frame of chicken wire, taking vaguely the shape of a young conifer. Seasonally, the tree is dressed up for Christmas in crimson red bows, and in between is festooned with yellow “support our troops” ribbons. Hovering in the background is the broad edifice of Kimble Processing, offering vacuum-packed meats with seven-day service during hunting season, and probably once contributing essential material to the sculpture.

Whitetail season opens this month, and on November 26 Kimble County will hold its 21st Annual Wild Game Dinner. Usually packed with hunters, the dinner includes raffle prizes celebrating the hunt: scopes, binoculars and dozens of rifles and shotguns.

September 2005

Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge

With a tacky casino at one end and a shuttered marina at the other — and in between, a missing center piece — it’s hard to imagine this humble bridge represents one of the last great spans on the Old Spanish Trail. Though the OSTA prided itself for heroically bridging the swamps and great rivers along the Gulf Coast, unfortunately few bridges have survived to tell the story. Pounding hurricanes, the creation of I-10, and the fact that most of the bridges were built with limited capacity damned them to obsolescence. Only five original big-span bridges survive along the eastern half of the OST and still carry traffic.

Now a public fishing pier, the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge opened in June 1930 with a parade of Confederate veterans and ex-servicemen marching across its concrete roadway. Dedicated as a memorial to the local men and women who served in WW I, it was the last of 32 miles of bridges built on the OST between Mobile and New Orleans. Directly connecting Ocean Springs to Biloxi, the bridge shaved off three miles from the old route skirting Biloxi’s Back Bay. If you have time, stop at the Ocean Springs side and park beyond the defunct Bridge Port Marina. Straight ahead are swooping concrete entry walls, beckoning you to walk where thousands once drove. If you really have time, bring a cooler, a comfortable chair, and a drop a line on the south side — we hear the Sheephead are biting.

Ironically two days after we posted this image, Hurricane Katrina smashed through Biloxi, destroying or severely damaging numerous OST landmarks. Among them is the old Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge, pictured here to the right as a zipper of concrete bents, with nearly all of its spans sunk in the bay. To the west, Palace Casino has slipped its moorings and is listing towards the Gulf. To the south, the newer, wider US 90 bridge shows a similar fate. On land is evidence of Katrina’s near total destruction, with former neighborhoods looking like spent confetti.

August 2005

Camp Grande, El Paso

Billing itself as the “Finest Automobile Tourist Camp in the West,” Camp Grande lived up to its claim, providing personal attention and a diverse array of accommodations for all travelers. Beginning as a free municipal camp, the City of El Paso turned over the operations to private managers in 1923. The Southwestern Tourist Camps upgraded the facility, adding cabins and a garage offering repairs and a full line of services. Camp Grande catered to all needs, offering tents to the economical tourist and private cabins and cottages for those with money. All could use the community kitchen, laundry and recreation hall. Its famous facade, a Pueblo Revival fantasy complete with soaring bell towers and shadow-making vigas, lasted through the motel period until the arrival of the interstate. Cleared to make way for warehousing, Camp Grande still remains a vivid memory with old-time El Pasoans. Click below to see a 24-second film clip of Camp Grande in its heyday.

Film clip

June 2005

Traces of the Trail

Given the passage of nearly 80 years since the Old Spanish Trail’s heyday, original signage is all but completely gone and the name of the trail is confined to a few deteriorating motels of the 1940s and ‘50s, and one very popular restaurant in Bandera, Texas. And this is true of almost any historic highway — don’t let those neo-Route 66 or Lincoln Highway signs fool you!

On our cross-country trip, we came across only one trace of original OST road signage. This veritable Shroud of Turin is confined to a single concrete post on a bridge spanning the lovely Bayou des Allemands in Des Allemands, Louisiana. The post in a vertical alignment of letters, spells out “OST". We have enhanced the image here with pink to bring out the ghost letters.

March 2005

Satsuma Orange

Along its 2,743-mile-long course, the Old Spanish Trail provides a diverse sampling of regional agriculture. Nurseries in Florida’s Panhandle, sugarcane and rice in Louisiana, chile in New Mexico, cotton in Texas and oranges in Yuma add color in contrast with the typical corn-soy-corn-soy monotony of other highways.

Many specialized crops are found only along the Trail. One of these is the Satsuma orange (Citrus reticulate var. Satsuma). Similar to the mandarin, the satsuma (Sat-SOO-muh) is a loose-skinned orange, exhibiting aromatic, evergreen leaves and fragrant flowers that bloom in early spring. The cold-hardy fruit may have originated in China but was first documented in Japan more than 700 years ago where it is now the major cultivar grown in the southern region.

The satsuma made its appearance in the United States in the 1800s, grown along the Mississippi River near New Orleans. Commercial cultivation began with the Japanese Owari Satsuma first planted in 1876 and later 1878. In the early 1900s, the Gulf States embraced the exotic citrus, planting nearly a million budded trees. Florida and Alabama in particular took to the orange. Mobile and Baldwin counties became Satsuma hotspots, with one town even naming itself after the fruit. Jackson County, Florida, known as the Satsuma Capital of the World, hosted annual Satsuma festivals in 1928 and 1929 and attracted some 35,000 people.

A hard freeze in 1935 destroyed the 3,000-acre citrus crop in the Florida Panhandle and did similar damage in Alabama and Mississippi. A series of freezes in the 1930s and the Depression brought satsuma production to an end. Today, the crop has been reintroduced commercially to Florida as new technologies allow planters to protect against freeze. Several hundred miles north of Florida’s current citrus region, Jackson County again is growing the crop, and may regain its title as Satsuma Capital of the World. Similar hopes are held out for Mobile and Baldwin counties.

While on the Trail, look for hand-painted signs announcing satsumas in western Florida and the Mobile area, or stop by the landmark Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama, to sample locally grown satsumas, tomatoes, peanuts and bakery goods.

November, 2004

Granite Gap Mine

Jackass Jill, charming proprietress of the picturesque Granite Gap mine, a ghost town mining camp in the Peloncillo Mountain Range of southwestern New Mexico on the Old Spanish Trail (NM 80).

Stop by and have a chat with Jill while her pack donkeys Shaggy, Willy & Squeaky wander amongst the reassembled ghost town shacks, chewing lazily on the pages of old romance novels. Near the mine is the original section of the highway, west of the current gap, and Jill can show you evidence from tin can tourists who once camped there.

Minerals to be found in the area include azurite, calcite, chalcopyrite, fluorite, goethite, gypsum, hematite, malachite, olivenite, pyrite, quartz, rosasite, wulfenite and dozens more. Exploration permits are available for $20 (and a signed release). Guided underground mine tours, donkey rides and packing are also offered.

See her website for more information (and a picture of some “mummified hanging beef in RUSTLERS TUNNEL”)

Granite Gap Mine, P.O. Box 372 Rodeo NM 88056

The nearby town of Portal (slightly off the OST) offers campgrounds with lush vegetation and stunning mountain scenery, a nice break from the surrounding rocky desert.

August, 2004

The Hobo of Buckeye







In Buckeye, Arizona, a quiet agricultural service center along the Old Spanish Trail, is a statue commemorating one of the oddest mascots created for a chain restaurant.

Breaking the skyline with his 25-foot-tall frame, Hobo Joe, made of fiberglass on metal armature, is the last of two such statues advertising the once expansive chain of Hobo Joe Restaurants — think Muffler Man down on his luck. The restaurant chain envisioned Joe not as a “bum,” but instead a “world traveler, philosopher, and connoisseur of good food.” According to local lore, the owner of Joe, Ramon Gillum, rescued the statue and attempted to move it to downtown Buckeye. Naturally, the town didn’t want a vagrant as a mascot, so Gillum obtained a variance to locate it where it now stands, just south of old US 80.

(Thanks to Kevin for the information on Hobo Joe's construction!)