CAUTION! Twists and Turns Ahead for The Rooted Gypsy

Feliz año nuevo! 新年快樂 Gelukkig nieuwjaar! Bonne année! Ευτυχισμένο το νέο έτος! And, of course, Happy New Year from all of us here at The Rooted Gypsy!

Wherever you rang in the New Year I sincerely hope it was incredible and is only the beginning of a wonderful year! It’s impossible to close the chapter of another year without some reflection and, hopefully, a little optimism for the future.

The Rollercoaster formerly known as 2019

Looking back, 2019 was a rollercoaster ride full of steep climbs, stomach-clenching drops, and unforeseen sharp turns. If you follow along on my Facebook and Instagram to you witnessed first hand many of these twists and turns including my mom’s cancer diagnosis and treatments to the launching of my family’s boutique winery.

One of the “Smugglers” enjoying Movie Night at Free State Cellars

We mined for gems in San Diego, Mardi Gras’ed like a native in NOLA, and dove headfirst into the wilderness of Montana. Lori brought us along while she swam with manatees and Kendra took us underground in Paris.

But the most unexpected twist of 2019 came just as mom defeated her cancer. In case you missed it on social media, Mr. Gypsy and I discovered we are going to be parents!

The Rooted Gypsy is expanding…literally

So what does this mean for The Rooted Gypsy?

Well, I’m assuming one can’t have a child without having to make a few changes, or so I’m told. But we fully intend to keep exploring as much as possible, offspring in tow.

We just might be a bit disorganized at first and slow to get our travel articles out on the first of every month as we have over the past few years. We beg your forgiveness as we transition into the chaos known as parenthood. Happy thoughts and prayers are always welcome!

Will The Rooted Gypsy still be a travel blog?

Absolutely! We don’t plan on morphing it into a parenting blog by any means but that’s not to say there won’t be the occasional ‘best things to do with a kid while in XYZ” article every now and then. We still intend to cover travel from every angle, but there may be a new little model in some of the travel shots.

My Rooted Gypsy will start their modeling career early like their mother… who is obviously a natural

Will you still welcome new and returning writers?

OF COURSE! Honestly, I look forward to working with new and returning writers more now than ever!!! I’m always looking for fellow Rooted Gypsies. Want to become a travel writer? Shoot me an email or direct message and let’s make it happen!

Now that we got that all clear, CHEERS TO THE NEW YEAR! What are your hopes and aspirations for 2020? What twists and turns are heading your way?


Missoula's Art Scene: More than Just Mountains

Surrounded by jaw-dropping mountains and trout-filled streams its easy to assume that nothing in Missoula can top that. With it’s rugged Wild West history and unforgiving terrain, one may think that such a place lacks culture and sophistication. And one couldn’t be more wrong. From gorgeous Native artworks to thought-provoking modern exhibits, Missoula’s art scene has never been more dynamic.

Missoula Art Museum

Now housed in what was once Missoula’s first Carnegie library, Missoula Art Museum (or MAM) beautifully melds original brickwork from 1903 with contemporary additions of glass and steel. With a mission to showcase as many indigenous artists and regional talents as possible, MAM’s eight exhibition galleries display an eclectic and diverse collection.

Such as the fun and colorful Trophy Room exhibit by Ken Little. Fashioned out of mix-matched leather clothing products and other discarded pieces, Little’s collection of taxidermied “beasts” brings vibrancy to an otherwise somber art form. This exhibit remains on display until December 28th.

Montana Museum of Art and Culture

Over 11,000 historic works of fine art comprise the permanent collection of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. Within this collection reside pieces by Donatello, Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali, as well as several ancient native and Asian textiles. While small, the museum’s goal remains to not only be a resource for the college but for Montana and beyond.

Pondering the “Ratljóst”, the Icelandic word meaning “sufficient light to find one’s way”, while admiring UM Professor Matthew Hamon’s award-winning photography.

On exhibit now through December 14th, visitors can enjoy the chronological works of Montana modernist Jack Franjevic. A professor of art at the College of Great Falls, he devoted himself to teaching and a lifetime of learning. This lack of self-promotion led to the name Franjevic being virtually unknown beyond Great Falls.

In his 30 years as an art teacher, he mastered a wide range of styles found in 20th-century modernism. Browsing through his three dozen paintings from his family’s private collection, look for Franjevic’s interpretations of realism, abstract distortion in perspective, impressionism, cubism, German expressionism, and pop art.

Like many of his paintings, this painting titled Circus, 1947 hung on the wall in his child’s bedroom instead of in an exhibition.

Never exhibited his works, most of his pieces found their way into the homes of family and friends. This exhibit consists of pieces on loan from Franjevic’s family, making this the largest collection of Franjevic pieces to ever be mounted.

The Residence Inn

One of the last places you might expect to find an elegant blend of fine art and history is a chain hotel. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in downtown Missoula. Where once the old Missoula Mercantile stood now sits the swanky five-story Residence Inn by Marriott.

The bustling sounds of commerce, such as the ding of cash registers, play overhead as you enter into the Mews. Once the historic Mercantile’s pharmacy, the marketplace known as the Mews now consists of a collection of restaurants and boutiques encompassing the lobby of the Residence Inn. Which only seems fitting considering the building’s origins.

An original art installation consisting of books based in Montana or written by Montana authors oversees one of many setting areas in the Mews and hotel lobby.

The Mercantile’s construction began in 1877 and was THE PLACE to shop in Missoula. Deep into the 1920s, one could find everything from groceries and home goods to horse-drawn wagons and plows. In 1959, it changed to Allied Department Stores and then the Bon Marche in 1978. The building changed hands again in 2003 to become Bon-Macy’s only to finally become Macy’s a few years later before closing in 2010. For seven years the building lay empty and abandoned before Marriot decided to take a chance on it.

Due to foundation deterioration and asbestos, nearly 80 percent of the original building needed demolition. Thanks to Home Resource of Missoula, a vast majority of the building endured through salvaging and recycling.

In an effort to salvage as much of the original building as possible, designers incorporated original material wherever they could. Bricks from the original Mercantile set the scene in the hotel lobby.

Near and dear to the heart of Missoulians, Marriott and the town came together to preserve this historic landmark. Thanks to the creative efforts of many, historic photographs from the archives of the University of Missoula, artifacts found within the old Mercantile, antique catalogs pages, gigantic safe doors and salvaged parts forming the ancient elevator shafts adorn the walkways, meeting places, and rooms.

From authentic indigenous artifacts to contemporary political satire, Missoula’s art scene remains as vast and varied as the mountainous terrain enveloping the lively college town.


Diving Head First into Missoula’s Backyard Like a Pro

Few things get my heart racing more than the prospect of diving headfirst into a destination known for its outdoor adventures and unequaled natural beauty. What really moves me and speaks to my soul is immersing myself in the natural world. And Missoula exudes natural splendors and adventures in spades! With everything from gold and gem mining to river surfing to snowshoeing in the winter, where does one begin to plan their explorations?

With the experts of course! With only a few days to take on Missoula and all its glory, I needed help to narrow my focus, ensuring I made the most of my time in Missoula’s backyard.

Montana River Guides

Launching our raft into the Clark River near Alberton Gorge

Under the guidance of Montana River Guides, we slipped our bright yellow raft in the frigid emerald water of the Clark Fork River beneath the looming shadow of the Cyr Bridge. Our expert guide and whitewater rescuer, Leon, used the first few calm minutes of our float to brief us on the river and upcoming rapids.

Ranging between Class II to Class IV and with names like Boat Eater, Roller Coaster, and Tumbleweed we needed all the prepping available. Within minutes the soft roar of The Shelf and Potter’s Plunge reverberated off the steep cliffs of Alberton’s Gorge.

The rapids carving their way through “The Gorge”, just 30 minutes west of Missoula, reign supreme as Montana’s premium whitewater run. And since 1995 Montana River Guides have not only been guiding on these waters but also teaching swift water rescue courses. That means no one knows these waters better or more intimately.

Catching our breath between rapids

In between rapids, rafters float serenely through sheer cliffs carved by glaciers while watching for eagles, osprey, river otters, beaver and other wildlife inhabiting the river and surrounding forest. After several hours of floating and running legendary rapids like Cliffside and Fang, we stepped out of the crystalline waters completely soaked but also completely stoked.

While we opted for the adrenaline-filled half-day whitewater rafting trip, Montana River Guides offers several more options. Ranging from relaxing to heart-pounding, other options include standup paddleboarding, scenic floats, kayaking, and riverboarding.

Grizzly Hackle Fly

A staggering selection of flys at Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop

When you visit one of the prime trout fishing destinations in the world, you want one of the best outfitters and guiding services in the nation. You want the pros at Grizzly Hackle Fly Shop.

Not only do they offer quality rods, reels, flys, and waders but they offer unparalleled knowledge along with unsurpassed customer service. Whether you are a complete novice or a seasoned professional, they provide assistance, instruction, and encouragement every step of the way.

Having never seen a fly rod in my life much less touched one, my stint as a fly fisher could have easily turned into a mess of tangled lines and soggy clothes. Fortunately, Sam, my guide and consummate pep-talker, had my back.

Sam and Adina, my fishing partner for the day, showing off her Mountain Whitefish caught on the Clark Fork River

We slipped into the placid stretch of the Clark Fork winding its way through the middle of Missoula. In no time flat, Sam had us casting our stonefly nymphs and mending the lines effortlessly. While he paddled and steered, we bounced between banks in search of troat while the midday sun glinted off the rippling surface of the river.

After only a couple hours on the water, we had managed to land several trout and kindle my everlasting love of flyfishing.

Dunrovin Ranch

Trail riding at Durovin Ranch

To truly experience the rugged wildness of Montana, one must set out into the wilderness like the natives and pioneers. On horseback. And just like in the days of the Wild West, horses were more than just mounts. They were vital partners and family.

And the herd over at Dunrovin Ranch, just 8 miles outside of Missoula, remains precisely that. Each of the horses, ponies, and donkeys provide an essential service both to each other and guests visiting the ranch. Luckily, guests get plenty of opportunities to meet the herd through numerous activities such as River and Ranch rides, half-day and full-day rides, Historical rides, riding lessons and corral lessons.

We opted for the Dunrovin’s most popular River and Ranch Ride. In the safety of the corral, we introduced ourselves to our mounts while covering the basics of horsemanship. After mounting Razz, my handsome partner for the day, we left the dust of the corral behind and headed out into swaying grasses of the fields. Surefooted and steady, our horses sashayed along the trail toward the Bitterroot River.

Trail Riding along the Bitterroot River

River Riders would ford the river and follow the trail as it continues onto adjacent public lands and follows the river upstream into the shelter of the forest, and across again into open meadows. Before heading back toward the ranch the ride rounds off with a short up-hill trek for views of the Heavenly Twins, the Bitterroot, Ch-paa-qn Peak, the Rattlesnake Wilderness and a small part of the Lewis and Clark Trail.

We Ranch Riders meander alongside the Bitterroot River and through a beautiful wetland meadow dotted with willow bushes and apple trees. After a couple of hours in the saddle, we sauntered back into the corral in time from a picnic lunch and fresh-picked apples.

Trail Riding with Dunrovin Ranch

From scaling mountains to leisurely tubing the Clark Fork in summer, there’s still so much left to experience! Fortunately, the dedicated and enthusiastic local guides ensure visitors like me can always come back and explore Missoula’s backyard like a pro!


Lost Ponies and How Carousel for Missoula Sparked a Renaissance

From medieval training device to a Gilded Age delight, the history of the carousel dazzles the imagination. These whirling masterpieces of art will forever hold a nostalgic place in our hearts. But maybe none so much as the Carousel for Missoula.

In the heart of Caras Park, t into the banks of Clark Fork River, stands of love, a testament to true artistry, and Montana’s largest public art piece. With the help of a community and over 100,000 hours of volunteer hours, local cabinet maker, Chuck Kaparich, sparked a carousel renaissance that would spread across the nation.

Why A Carousel?

But, like many things, that wasn’t the initial plan when Kaparich began his endeavor. Initially, on the hunt for an antique carousel horse for his wife, his search lead him to Fred Fried, historian, carousel conservationist and author of A Pictorial History of the Carousel. Through Fried, Kaparich discovered that America once boasted over 5,000 hand-carved carousels. Today there are less than 160 due to their selling off of the ponies, parts, and scrap metal. Fried informed Kaparick that, in not so many words, that if he really cared about art or carousels, to carve his own damn horse. Or better yet, a carousel.

Each horse consists of 7 different pieces held together by wood glue and pegs. Up to 8 different people work together to bring each horse to fruition.

And that’s just what Kaparich did. After receiving carving tools for his birthday, Kaparich turned piles of basswood, wood glue, and wooden pegs into four prancing ponies. These four carvingsIn the would become the foundation of A Carousel for Missoula. In a speech to Missoula’s City Council Kaparich promised, “If you will give it a home, and promise no one will ever take it apart, I will build a carousel for Missoula.

But he knew he needed help if he was going to finish the carousel in his lifetime. So he offered carving classes to see if anyone might be interested in learning and contributing. Fifteen minutes after registration opened, the waiting list was 40 students deep.

John Thompson, Carousel artist, with adopting families and businesses to design all but six of the carousel’s ponies

Multiple carving classes, over 100,000 volunteer hours, and almost 5 years later A Carousel for Missoula opened to the public on May 27, to an overwhelming outpouring of support.

Guests stood in line for hours to be the first to ride Montana’s largest public art installation. The carousel consisted of 38 one-of-a-kind parading ponies and two racing chariots, complete with wheelchair capabilities. Overlooking the twirling display of master craftsmanship stands 14 grinning gargoyles and a towering 9-foot dragon named Lucky Red Ringer, daring the most skilled riders to reach out and grab a ring from his mouth. The rider who collects the brass ring wins a free ride.

Meet The Mounts

Ask anyone in Missoula and they will gladly tell you their favorite pony. And each pony has a name and story.

The most vibrant and eclectic pony of All, Larry Pirnie’s Paint remains a crowd favorite

Impossible to miss and always a crowd favorite, Paint certainly shines the brightest. Adopted and painted by world-renown Missoula Artist Larry Pirnie, Paint sports Pirnie’s signature style of vibrant hues splashed across a leaping stallion.

The ever valiant Sir Franklin was one of four Penny ponies designed by the schoolchildren of Missoula

There’s the bucking Merriwether, armored Sir Franklin, black and white , and the spunky circus Moonlight. These four steady steeds were born from the imaginations of Missoula’s schoolchildren after raising over one million pennies in their Pennies for Ponies campaign.

A fitting choose for any Montana Native, Montana Appaloosa proudly sports Henry Bugbee’s hand print

Among the Penny Ponies, you can find Henry Bugbee’s Montana Appaloosa. Being the first Native American professor at the University of Montana, Henry’s family and friends chose to celebrate him by adopting a horse in his honor. Look for the galloping appaloosa with Henry’s red hand marking the rump.

Midnight Rose traveled all the way from Calgary to be a part of A Carousel for Missoula

Then there’s Midnight Rose, a gorgeous prancing ebony pony adorned with gilded roses. She was gifted to the Carousel from Calgary’s Midnight Rose Carvers in memory of a fallen friend. Inspired by the Calgary Carvers, Missoula keeps a group of carvers called the Pony Keepers on hand. The Keepers craft gift horses – or huskies, sea turtles, and even slugs – to any cities building a carousel for nonprofit.

The lead horse in the carousel, Columbia Belle, proudly dons two antique jewels from America’s first “galloping” carousel

And you can’t miss Columbia Belle, the carousel’s most dazzling horse of all. With golden hooves, rainbow sashes, and the American flag tucked under her saddle, Columbia Belle holds the lead horse position. But that’s not all she holds.

Embedded within her bridle shines two antique jewels, one a crimson ruby and the other a brilliant sapphire. These 100-year-old gems once belonged to America’s first carousel to have ponies that “galloped” and were gifted to A Carousel for Missoula by Mr. Fred Fried himself.

Carousel Historian and Conservationist, Fred Fried, depicted on one of the inside panels of the carousel

Carousel Conservation Leads to Renaissance

Sleipnir, a Norwegian Fjord, and Soro, a traditional Stein and Goldstein carousel horse, demonstrate the wide array of styles making up the Carousel for Missoula’s herd

Little did Fried know that his fateful conversation with Chuck Kaprich would spark a carousel revival. A Carousel for Missoula was the first hand-carved carousel built in America in over 60 years. Since it’s opening it hassparked the creation of over 15 new carousels from coast to coast.

Thanks to Fried’s conservation efforts and the support of Missoula’s residents, the simple, sentimental joy of carousels will continue for generations.


Monumental Day Trips Minutes from Billings Montana

The first time I ever stepped foot in Montana was purely accidental. After driving through Yellowstone National Park, mostly in light sleet and snows, we arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs, a few miles south of the Wyoming-Montana line. Dying to stretch our legs, we set out exploring the steaming travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs just as another light snow began to fall.

Eventually, the cleared and the temperatures soared. Maybe we could fit in a quick hike before sunset? A short there-and-back again trek above the springs. We’d be out half an hour, one hour max. That’s all.

The terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

One wrong turn, a jaunt around a beaver pond, and 3 hours later we stood overlooking a vast valley into a town we didn’t recognize with music coming from a bar we couldn’t see. If you squinted just right you could see a giant stone structure straddling the road. Definitely not Mammoth.

Gardiner. We were looking down at Gardiner, Montana.

Overlooking North Entrance Road…in Montana

Which meant we still needed to hike several miles back the way we came. With little daylight left and the constant reminder of how every park ranger praised the raging success of the reintroduction of wolves into the park, we double-timed it back south.

Out of breath and barely able to see, we burst from the towering trees into Mammoth Hot Springs, startling a small herd of elk bedding down for the night by the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

Montana: Take Two

Upon arriving in Billings, known as Montana’s Trailhead, I vowed less time scrambling and more time basking in Billing’s rich history, natural beauty, and National Monuments. With only a few days to explore, efficiency and expertise were paramount. Luckily, Austin Adventures, one of the world’s premier luxury boutique guide services, calls Billings home.

Billings alone boasts 45 miles of trail, hundreds of acres of parks, plus 5 separate mountain ranges just a short drive away a few days are just not enough to tackle it alone.

Not to mention all the National Monuments, National Parks, and State Parks just outside Billings’ front door! To glean the most out of my few days in Big Sky Country, I’d need help from the pros.

And Austin Adventures didn’t disappoint. With their unique knowledge and exceptional service, they delivered Montana history and culture on a silver platter.

Pompeys Pillar

Twenty-eight miles east of Billings lies the only spot along the Lewis and Clark trail that bares any physical evidence of their expedition. Neither the first nor the last, Captain William Clark was drawn to 150-foot tall sandstone rock overlooking the Yellowstone River.

Marked with centuries worth of petroglyphs and carvings, Clark too, scratched his name into the side of the stone.

Thank goodness for well maintained boardwalks otherwise this decent would have ended differently

Today, a sturdy 1,000-foot long boardwalk makes for an easy ascent to Captain Clark’s signature and onto the top of Pompeys Pillar. Gazing out over the Yellowstone you can see why Clark, and the natives before him, were drawn to this significant vantage point.

Tracing the different routes of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition

Delve deep into the area’s historical and natural virtues by visiting the vast 5,700 square foot Interpretive Center. Follow along the stone and cement Yellowstone “riverwalk” that meanders from the parking lot, through the indoor center, and ends at the base of the butte.

Along the walk, read excerpts from Clark’s journals, watch a short film titled “About the Expedition, and even try on buckskins like the ones worn by Clark.

Chief Plenty Coups Memorial State Park

Through his unwavering dedication to education, understanding, and peace, Alek-Chea-Ahoosh, or Chief Plenty Coups, changed the course of history for the Crow Indians.

Because of his foresight and vision, he saved thousands of both Natives and whites, earning him the highest honor and respect of both his people and the United States government.

Thirty-five miles from Billings located on the Crow Indian Reservation, visitors have the opportunity to pay their respects to this wise leader and cultural ambassador. Stroll down a peaceful hiking trail that leads to the burial site of Chief Plenty Coups.

Here, one can stand in the quiet presence of the last Chief of the Crow, who was so highly regarded that following his death the tribe voted not to name a new chief.

Before his death, Chief Plenty Coups donated 189 acres of his land for the creation of a park that people of all races and creeds could enjoy in peace.

Finally, in 1965, the land became a Montana State Park. In 1970, his homestead became registered as a U.S. National Historic Place and in 1999 became a National Historic Landmark.

Chief Plenty Coups humble homestead

Visitors of the park can walk through the chief’s original log house tucked beneath massive cottonwood trees, sit by a sacred spring, and get up close with the Chief’s teepee while admiring Montana’s magnificent wildlife.

While perusing the park, don’t skip the great museum full of original and replica Native American wardrobes, weapons, and tools. This museum remains the only museum dedicated to Apsáalooke, or Crow, culture in the United States.

Though he had a “modern” log home, he often preferred his teepee
Little Bighorn National Monument

Thanks to Hollywood and history books the first and usually only thing that comes to mind at the mention of Little Bighorn is Custer’s Last Stand. However, when one visits the Little Bighorn National Monument, about 60 miles outside of Billings, you realize how much more there is to discover.

One of the biggest surprises is National Cemetery. Here, under the neverending sky of Big Sky Country, approximately 5,000 U.S. soldiers and their family members lay at rest. Like Arlington Cemetary in Washington, D.C., these soldiers served in both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

Custer National Cemetery

In addition to the scattering of white headstones representing fallen calvary and red headstones marking fallen Indians, you’ll find a monument honoring the horses lost in the battle as well as self-guided drive with audible narration. There are even regular Ranger talks that dive deeper into understanding the deadly conflict.

It is common to find offerings placed on the markers of the fallen.

Refreshingly, the National Parks Service does a stellar job of taking the focus off of Custer. The NPS reminds us that the monument commemorates all involved, not just the 7th Calvary.

We remember the 2,000 Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors who preferred death in battle to losing their ancestral ways.

Time to Celebrate

There’s only one way to celebrate a successful exploration and that’s to raise a glass of your favorite adult beverage. And what are the odds that the “Best Winery in Montana” resides right here in Billings?!?! And cattleman-turned-winemaker, Clint Peck, goes to great lengths to earn such a title.

Clint Peck explaining the various wines found on his tasting menu

Several times during harvest, Clint will make the 14-hour one-way drive to Washington’s famous Yakima Valley. While there he personally meets with the various small family grape growers.

He then hauls the fresh grapes back to Yellowstone Cellars and Winery in Billings where he crushes, ferments, and ages his wines right there on site.

Welcome to the Cellar

From his cellar, Clint Peck continuously produces award-winning artisan wines. Like his dark and moody cabernet sauvignon with bold black fruit and tobacco flavors.

Another favorite is his off-dry blanc. With crisp tropical flavors, mild acidity, and creamy mouthfeel, this wine pairs beautifully with fresh trout topped with lemon and garlic butter.

Our Austin Adventures guide personally serving wine straight from the barrel. Talk about service!

No wrong turns, lost or wasted daylight this time around. I skipped days worth of research, planning, and exploring and went straight to enjoying a carefully curated and personalized itinerary.

And luckily, Austin Adventures can be from everywhere from Montana to Montenegro. Now to figure out where I want to tackle next!


The Pelican State Goes to War Exhibit Lands in Lake Charles

Look, I’m not usually one to tell you how to live your life. You do you. But I, in good conscience, must urge you to take advantage of something great while it lasts! Especially when a world-class exhibit, curated by one of the top ten museums in the world, arrives right here in Lake Charles’ Historic City Hall! The Pelican State Goes To War is currently on view, but not for long.

By now it should be obvious that I adore a great exhibition. From monstrous insects to colored cowboys to the world’s largest Mardi Gras museum to world-famous tycoon’s private art collections. I was even lucky enough to visit an exclusive exhibit featuring over 50 Van Gogh‘s masterpieces!

So when I found out that one of the most incredible museums EVER – New Orleans’ National World War II Museum – not only curated a special traveling exhibit but that it was currently featured at our local Arts & Cultural Center, I had to see it. And it keeps getting better. Featured on the second floor is National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Landscapes. And to top it all off, both exhibits are free!

The Pelican State Goes To War

The Pelican State Goes To War spotlights the immense role Louisiana played in securing America’s victory in WWII. From the production of the game-changing Higgins boats to hosting the largest military training maneuvers in American history, Louisiana more than answered the call for the President’s “Arsenal of Democracy.”

The Pelican State Goes To War on Exhibition now at Lake Charles Historic City Hall.

After signing the Lake Charles Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural guestbook, start your visit on the third floor. There, recorded voices of veterans reverberate throughout the room, recounting their first-hand knowledge of the war efforts. To the right, a collection of interviews allow you to explore daily life during wartime through those who lived it. Meet the women who filled crucial roles as nurses, riveters, and welders. Hear from those responsible for producing over 2,000 fighter planes a month, such as Rose Marie Elfer. Listen to how these incredible women helped assemble ships weighing over 10,000 tons in only 67 days.

For the first time in history, African Americans, women, and disabled received equal work and pay.

Continue on and see how the war wasn’t only fought across oceans but also at Louisiana’s front door. Learn how German U-boats brought the battle to the Gulf of Mexico where 56 military and commercial ships were attacked and destroyed.

Further on, discover that nearly 280,000 Louisianans enlisted in military service of which six became of Honor Recipients. Men like Leroy Johnson, who in order to save his patrol from Japanese attack, died after shielding two grenades with his own body. This act of self-sacrifice earned him not only the Metal of Honor but also the distinguished honor of having a New Orleans army based named after him.

Louisiana was home to the largest “war games” in American history. Those who participated in the training, over 400,000 men, received Manuevers Badges.

Before heading down to the second floor, learn about the local POW camps. Due to the war draft and industrial jobs, farmers lost much of their laborers. In order to counteract such a shortage, roughly 20,000 Italian and German POWs filled this void. They subsequently bolstering Louisiana agriculture and allowed farmers to produce thousands of tons of rice, sugar, sweet potatoes, and cotton. Following the war, once these men returned home, they collected back wages from their time spent as laborers.

A glimpse of the 280,000 Louisianans that served.

National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Landscapes

Next, head down to the second floor and spend some time walking through National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Landscapes. Begin in the Summer gallery and enjoy Shane Katyn’s haunting image of foggy islands in British Colombia, Micheal Milford’s brilliant sunflower fields of Denton, Montana, and moody black and white shots of California taken by Ansel Adams himself.

In the Autumn Gallery Orsolya Haarberg takes you into shrouded forests of Romania. Renown landscape photographer, George Steinmetz gives a birds-eye view of wind ravaged deserts of China, and Alessandra Meniconzi captures the Alpine peak of the Matterhorn at sunrise.

Winter’s Gallery showcases Stephen Alvarez’s shot of the fiery lava flows of Hawai’i, Babak Tafreshi’s image of dancing aurora borealis over Tromsø, Norway, and verdant rows of rapeseed fields found in Yunnan Providence, China another landscape captured by Steinmetz.

Lastly, The Spring Gallery allows guests a glimpse of Spencer Black’s firefly trails illuminating the forest floor of North Carolina. Among other iconic Nat Geo images you’ll find Duncan George’s moss-enshrouded forest captured in England’s Dartmoor National Park. This exhibit ends September 28th.

Local War Stories

Personal Memorabilia of Major J. W. Stine

Once back on the ground floor, browse a small gallery displaying a vast collection of war relics featuring locals of the Lake Charles area. Natives and new comers alike will certainly find familiar families, businesses, and neighborhoods among the honored. This exhibit leaves October 19th.

Lake Charles’ Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center is located at 1001 Ryan Street. For more information call (337) 491-9147 or email at


A Young Girl’s Escape to Paris: 7 Days in the City of Lights

Wide-eyed, I took my first steps onto European soil after the seven-hour flight touched down in the ancient city of Paris at the ripe young age of 18.

What girl, young or seasoned, doesn’t dream of standing before the iconic Eiffel Tower while nibbling on buttery croissants along the Champs-Élysées?

Just as I imagined, the scent of freshly baked bread filled the air while Parisians, men and women alike, flawlessly flaunt their boldly colorful scarfs paired stylishly with neutral-toned garbs. The City of Lights is, in a word, magical. 

The neat rows of buildings from the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower enshrouded in the city’s haze.

Rather than let the jet-lag set in, we raced on our adrenaline to hit all the essential city highlights. My best traveling advice – do not succumb to the urge to nap as soon as you drop off your luggage; force yourself to assimilate to the local time and hit the pavement running!

Seeing the Essentials

This timeworn city bustles with new flavors and archaic architecture at every turn, promising adventure while hopping between the must-see landmarks and learning how to navigate the spidery network of the Metro. 

Surviving the French Revolution, two World Wars, and a raging fire, the Notre Dame Cathedral continues to show its resiliency.

The top of the L’Arc de Triomphe provides an illustrious first impression of the sprawling city. Granted, all 278 steps to the top make it a struggle, but the sweeping views are worth it. As the wind cooled our faces, we took in the hazy cityscape beyond. Below, cars blasted their horns as tiny Vespas weaved dangerously between them. Tiny dogs yapped on the arms of trés chic women, who appeared to have stepped straight off the runway. Paris at its best.

People say the finest views of Paris are from the Eiffel Tour, but I disagree. The quintessential views occur from the top of Notre Dame. Hopefully, this magnificent structure continues a quick restoration to its former glory, so others can experience the toll of its grand bells as light pours through the exquisite stained-glass windows. Regardless, the centuries-old gargoyles continue their vigilant watch over the city.

The centuries-old gargoyle continues his watch from the tower of Notre Dame.

Finding the Obscure

To fully embrace Paris, be open to the nuances of the city and her people. One night, we followed chalk-scribbled signs on the sidewalk and stumbled upon an artist’s gallery opening. Around midnight, we found ourselves thrown in the mix of local artists, speaking rapid French mixed with some broken English. I imagined them discussing the philosophy of art and the attributes of one media over another, but they were probably drunkenly rambling over which cheese paired best with which wine.  

Paris Artist, Monkeyfinger, took my hand and let me draw straight onto his gallery wall.

Common when traveling, the most memorable places typically come recommended by locals. Yes, it’s essential to visit the Louvre. It’s essential to gaze before the Mona Lisa amongst massive crowds elbowing their way for a perfect selfie. However, the Salvador Dali Museum, hidden in the artist haven of Montmartre held far fewer artifacts (and tourists), allowing total immersion into Dali’s pieces.

Many native artists creating original and affordable pieces of Parisian art occupy Montmarte. While there don’t miss a chance to bring home an authentic piece of Paris. If the trek up to Montmartre doesn’t appeal to you, take the cheap lift nearby. 

Rows and rows of bones are hidden beneath the city with many tunnels inaccessible to tourists.

After days of crisscrossing the city, we descended upon the infamous Catacombs, where nearly six million skeletons adorn the crypt’s narrow walls and hidden corridors. Even waiting in line is exciting, as each step brings you closer to the impending sojourn into an underground world. Plunging downward into the Catacombs, the lights grow weak; the air tasting stale.

Advancing into the Catacombs, it seems as if the skeletons vacated, leaving the living to question their whereabouts. Suddenly, a room opens upon a mass of grinning skulls ready to greet visitors that dared venture thus far. One can’t help but reflect on death and the impermanence of living while wandering amid towers of bones five stories below the streets of Paris.

For those wishing for a Parisian vacation filled with luxury fashion and macarons, perhaps you should skip the Catacombs. Yet, those yearning for an extraordinary experience overflowing with macabre history, the Catacombs provide just that.

On the hour every hour once dark, the Eiffel Tower illuminates the city with its light show.

After a week of exploring the nooks and crannies of Paris, we finally mastered the ever-confusing Metro. To celebrate, we splurged on dinner in the Eiffel Tour’s famed restaurant. What better way to spend our last night in Paris.

The restaurant radiated with intimacy and refinement while every hour the Tower showered our company in a glow of twinkling lights. The food might not have been memorable, but the time spent dining above the city remains forever etched into my mind.

A week was not nearly enough time to see and experience such a city as Paris, but the beauty of traveling is that nothing prevents me from boarding a plane, risking jetlag, and starting the adventure all over again.  


Crushing it with Free State Cellars, Southeast Texas Newest Winery

Blue and red bars of light fall from the antique stained glass windows, painting the butcher block serving counter. Softly, the steady thunk – thunk- thunk of chopping drifts in from the small kitchen behind the bar, keeping time with the soft jazz playing overhead. The intimate tasting room and open patio of Free State Cellars with tasteful contemporary lines blended with Old World pieces, creating a refined yet casual atmosphere.

But it hasn’t always been so. What would one day be know as Free State Cellars got its humble start as Texas’ 14th winery under the name of Piney Woods Country Winery. In 1984, Albert Flies, one of Texas’ pioneers in viticulture and oenology, planted his first muscadine grapes behind his Orange, Texas home.

Over the years his micro-vineyard grew to roughly six acres while steadily producing an award-winning variety of muscadine, fruit, and chocolate wines. But more interested in wine production than in aesthetics, his tasting room and cellar remained utilitarian opposed to appealing. Sadly, after his passing, both the vineyard and winery fell into disrepair. But luckily for the small town of Orange, the narrative doesn’t end there.

Free State Cellars Vineyard before countless hours of restoration

The Cinderella story of Free State Cellars owes its success to one family with a vision and the massive support of friends, family, and the citizens of Orange backing them. Enter Orange, Texas natives, the Swope family.

After purchasing the deteriorated estate in 2017, the family quickly began the laborious act of reviving and rebranding. Unfortunately Mother Nature dealt plenty of set backs. After hurricanes, historical flooding, fallen trees, and a rare snow storm, over 200 vines needed to be replaced, as well as the original structure.

Luckily North America’s only native grape, the muscadine, thrives along the hot, humid banks of Adam’s Bayou. In August of 2018, Free State Cellars harvested their first successful bounty of muscadine. They hope to have their Heirloom Wines bottled and ready to serve by the end of July.

But muscadine wine isn’t the only wine coming from Free State’s cellars. Oenophiles can still find old world favorites grown right here in the Lone Star State.

Like their buttery, full-bodied Viognier with aromas of honeysuckle and flavors of crisp pear and ripe peach. And their light and delicate Riesling that bursts with bright green apple. And for those who love red blends, the Rio Dulce, a ruby cabernet/ blend, sits firmly at the top of the bestseller list. With a fragrance of lush dark fruits and lingering ripe cherry notes, this easy drinker remains the crowd favorite.

This little winery has big dreams and Southeast Texas can’t wait. Keep an eye on their Facebook, Instagram, and sign up for their newsletter to be the first to know about new wine reveals, special events, and the latest happenings as the winery continues to grow! Visit them at 4702 Tejas Parkway Orange, Texas.


Digging for Tourmaline in SoCal’s Oceanview Mine

Legend says that an evil spirit, enraged at his own ugliness, vowed to destroy all which was beautiful. One day while sitting in the mouth of a cave, the spirit gazed up to the sky and saw a rainbow. Filled with spite, he grasped the rainbow, shattered it, and buried the colorful shards deep within the cave. And in doing so, gave the gem tourmaline to mankind.

With legends and folklore as colorful as the gem itself, it comes as no surprise that tourmaline remains one of the top five most desirable gems of the modern world. Coveted by the Rajas of India, the Czars of Russia, and the Emperors of China, few jewels rival the brilliance and chromatic array of tourmaline. And few places on earth produce such jaw-dropping specimens as Southern California’s Pala Gem Mining District.

At the turn of the 20th century, Tz’u Hsi, China’s last Dowager Empress, loved San Diego’s pink tourmaline so much that she directly funded the mining operations there, leading to the rise of the Pala Gem Mining District and The San Diego Tourmaline Mining Company. 

Today, of those 72 mines pocking the mountains of San Diego’s Pala Gem Mining District, the Oceanview Mine remains one of the last operating underground mines. Thanks to the dedicated men and women of the Oceanview Mines, mineralogists and gem enthusiasts, such as myself, can dig alongside the miners in search of the next big payload.

Located an hour north of downtown San Diego, Jeff Swanger, CEO and owner of Oceanview Mines, LLC, opens his gates to welcome the public three days a week. “We produce about 50 tons a week to be sifted. Many think we go through it first but this is false. There’s no way we could go through it and continue mining! When we open a pocket with a blast, we recover what’s stuck to the mine wall but most gets blasted into muck or rubble to be found by our guests. You would be amazed what’s been found by our guests over the years!” Best of all, guests keep every single gem they find, no matter the size or value.

But before diving bucket-first into a gravel pile, what exactly do we as guests need to look for? I headed to Oceanview Mine to find out. After a dusty, bumpy drive an undulating mountain road and through a massive citrus orchard, I arrived in a gravel lot overlooking the yucca covered valley below. As the sun steadily crept towards its zenith, Janie Amsler, one of Oceanview’s knowledgable rockhounds, gathered us all there to dig that day around to demonstrate how to identify the gems and minerals regularly unearthed at Oceanview.

Holding up a large sparkling crystal, she explained how the mine continually turns out pockets of verdant green and violet tourmaline, but peachy morganite, brilliant aquamarine, lavender-hued lepidolite, and lilac kunzite also make appearances within the gravel pile. Within Chief Mountain, the Oceanview Mine produces colors and matrixes found nowhere else in the world.

Now that we knew what to look for, Janie then established the proper etiquette of gathering gravel and working efficiently and respectfully with fellow diggers. With the buckets and shovels provided, guests needed to quickly fill their buckets from the gravel pile without lingering or “pile digging” and return to their station in order to make room for others. At our screening stations, we dumped the buckets into the wooden 1/2” mesh tray stacked directly on top of another 1/4” mesh tray in order to dry sift the contents.

To preserve the equipment, the gravel gets sifted by hand instead of sliding, banging, or shaking the trays. This dry sifting technique reveals large chunks of granite and clay, making them easy to remove. The now-sifted tray undergoes a rinse in the water bath, revealing any crystals hidden amongst the large rocks. The same process is repeated for the 1/4” tray before returning to the gravel pile for another bucket of gem-rich debris.

Between sifting, sluicing, and searching, Jeff and his team take each guest on a personal jeep tour of Chief Mountain. Diggers see first-hand the mining operations and historic tunnels crisscrossing Chief Mountain as well as the Pala Chief Mine and Tourmaline Queen Mine.

In the darkness of one of the tunnels, illuminated only by headlamps, I asked why anyone would want to be a miner. While prying a chunk from the tunnel wall with a small pick, miner Jason Evans eloquently stated, “Personally, I find it absolutely fascinating to be able to unearth something that has been hidden away for millions of years. It is truly breathtaking to be able to physically pull a crystal from within the earth and bring that crystal into the light for the first time in its history.”

Running his fingers inside the decades-old scars left behind by ancient pickaxes, my guide and drilling-blasting expert, Steve Carter, expounded on the advancements made in modern mining and blasting. As we bounced our way back towards the dig site, he said, “The great thing about my job is I get paid to make one heck of a mess,” with the slightest ghost of a smile. 

While speaking with Jeff about the rise and fall of Pala Gem Mining District, he credits his team for allowing Oceanview to stay active when so many others failed. “We have been open so long on sheer will. And tourism allows us just to be able to do what we love. We have found so many historic finds and I feel blessed to have such a hard-working crew who works well together and makes it happen!” 

After hours of chipping away at the gravel pile the dig finally winds down. Guests and miners pour over the days find and congratulate each other on the day’s find. Covered in a fine layer of monochromatic dust with bags of brightly colored stones, the day ends as most days do, I imagine. With sore backs and scraped knuckles but genuine enthusiasm and eagerness all the same. For more information or to schedule a dig, please visit their website at


One for the Bucket List: Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River, Florida

The end of November brings a chill to the air in the colorful coastal town of Crystal River, Florida, and with it the arrival of manatees. Tucked in along Kings Bay off the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River prevails as an ecotourist’s dream. Home to the largest manatee migration in the world, the allure of these gentle giants compelled our team to visit this sanctuary on Florida’s Nature Coast.

Photo Courtesy of Instagram: Three Sisters Springs

Composed of over 70 natural springs, keeping Kings Bay at a cozy, constant 72 degrees, Crystal River boasts the ideal climate for manatees fleeing the dropping temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico. With nearly 500 manatees migrating to Crystal River each winter, it has become the most significant natural winter refuge for manatees in the world.

Photo Courtesy of

Of the numerous springs in Kings Bay, Three Sisters Spring remains, by far, the most beautiful and sought after by both locals and traveling adventurists. And so, became the prime target of adventure.

Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs

Launching into Hunter Springs with Hunter Springs Kayak

Under the guidance, of Hunter Spring Kayaks, we launched kayaks from Hunter Springs Park. A short walk from picking up our gear, we stepped off the smooth white sandbar and into the calm, chilly waters. Although the waters of Central Florida can be frigid this time of year, the brisk paddle through the bay quickly jumpstarts both your excitement and heart rate as you guide towards Three Sisters Springs. This 30-minute paddle through Kings Bay allows plenty of time to appreciate some of the smaller springs before entering the mouth of Three Sisters.

Our excellent guides at Hunter Spring Kayaks gladly photographed our excursion, leaving us to carelessly explore.

After docking our kayaks, we slipped into the cold, turquoise spring. The waters gradually shift from verdant emerald green, overhung with spindly trees adorned with Spanish moss, to placid Caribbean blues surrounded by sprays of palmettos and palms. Drifting along in silence, disturbed only by a brisk breeze, we anxiously anticipated ing a manatee.

Fortunately, our visit to Three Sisters coincided with a cold front moving into the gulf, drastically increasing the manatee population inhabiting the cove. Several inquisitive, algea-covered manatees welcomed us to the spring while many others swam in during our exploration.

Slow moving and docile by nature, manatees appreciate a calm and passive presence. Approach with calmness and passive observation for your best chance at an up-close manatee encounter.

A swim in Three Sisters Springs transports you to a time of untampered beauty and serenity. One can’t help but marvel at some of natures most charming creatures.

Manatee Season

Despite their rotund physiques and topping out at over 1,000 pounds, manatees only have 5% body fat. This leanness, in part, plays a role in why these mammals can’t tolerate water temperatures below 68 degrees. Their need for warmer waters them to migrate from the gulf into the Crystal River area each year.

Manatee season ranges from late November to end of March, but if you can’t travel during this season don’t cross this off your bucket list just yet! Approximately fifty manatees live in Kings Bay year-round, which means you can snag a swim with them of the year! But if you want to see the migration of over 500 manatees to the area, be sure to pick your travel days during prime migration.

Local Attitude

Crystal River is the only place in the United States where it is legal to swim with manatees in the wild, and the locals know what a good thing they have. When you visit Crystal River there is an admirable tone of conservation and preservation of this natural gift.

The state of Florida and local water authorities have put great effort into policies that will keep this haven in place for centuries to come. You will find you can’t visit and delve into its natural splendor without picking up that tone; it leaves you better than when you arrived.