Late in March RoadRUNNER sent me south to the Sabine River Delta around Lake Charles, Louisiana, and on into East Texas to explore four National Forests and the Gulf Coast. That sounded like a top-notch trip. But from studying the map, it appeared the trip might include too many entrance-ramp cloverleaves and horizons stretched with oil derricks. Happily, those assumptions proved grievously wrong in travels through a landscape filled with great blue rivers, lakes, green pastures, valleys, rolling hills, and lonely white beaches.
Lake Charles, LA.
The blue water of Lake Charles is arrayed under I-10 as I cruise into town on a Gold Wing 1800 in the late afternoon, and as intended, the colorful, glaring design of the Harrah's Casino attracts my attention. I resolve to cash in on a hard day's work by visiting the craps tables after checking out the town and finding a room for the night.
Lake Charles is the only freshwater lake with a white-sand beach in the Gulf Coast area. The I-10 service road feeds traffic along the lake's public banks to the casinos that are Lake Charles's main tourist draw. Pirate Jean Lafitte reportedly made this area his hideaway in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and the rumor persists that he hid a hoard of treasure around the banks of the lake.
Stowing bags in the hotel, I was set to become Lake Charles's next big winner. Casinos have always captivated me, and I had a great time rolling the dice at Harrah's. But Lady Luck didn't show with the big money (she hardly ever does), and I wound up contributing a few bills to the local gambling industry.
Day One - Lake Charles to Nacogdoches, TX (255 miles)
Out of Lake Charles on I-10, only spending a few miles on the super slab before heading north on LA 27, it doesn't take long for the countryside to change from the relative hustle of Lake Charles to the slow ways of life on the bayou. Marking the approach to DeQuincy, the map shows LA 389 cutting west toward the Sabine River along the border with Texas. I can't find the road, but only a few miles further north on LA 27 is the small town of Sniegler, and LA 110 west, which puts me on US 90. LA 110 through Merryville turns out to be a squirrelly route with some great country curves. The Sabine River valley terrain in this area is quite hilly, and nice sweepers abound. Soon, I've found LA 111, which carries me further north along the border and up to the Toledo Bend Reservoir. A right onto Rec. 255 right after crossing the dam puts me on TX 87, the easternmost north/south thoroughfare in the Lone Star State. Confusing? Believe me, it is. And my Rand McNally was definitely not up to the test. Many of these roads weren't listed, don't exist anymore, or failed to earn any printer's ink on the Rand McNally map. AAA and Diamond Cartography make much better maps of the area.
Even with the map frustrations, I'm happy to be leaning through sweeping turns with almost no traffic. Crossing the dam at Toledo Bend gives a bird's-eye perspective of the churning white-water release far below to one side, and gorgeous views of the reservoir to the other - an enormous blue lake banked by rolling hills and minimal development.
At this point, I've entered the Sabine National Forest. Land acquisition for the forest began in 1935, and the area has been protected since then. Almost 161,000 acres with the entire eastern boundary flanked by the banks of the reservoir, the national forest offers numerous camping, boating, and fishing opportunities. From what I saw, very few people seem to take advantage of this large natural area. TX 87 bisects the forest through Hemphill and Milam, presenting the chance to zip through the piney woods up to TX FM (Farm Road) 353 just before Patroon, where it converges with TX 21 leading into Nacogdoches.
Roads transverse the whole area around Toledo Bend Reservoir and the Sabine National Forest, and there are many miles of lonely pavement with hilly views of the river or the reservoir. Pushing the liberal 70 mph speed limit on the Gold Wing all day in such a remote area with so many roads to choose from was such fun I eventually abandoned the map. Sometimes, figuring directions by gut instinct is the best way to navigate. Instead of predetermining the exact paths that take me somewhere, I simply conclude I need to head generally in one of the four directions, and ride whichever of the roads going that way. Getting lost is never a bad thing when you're enjoying the ride.
Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas, has had nine different flags flown over it. A site of several failed rebellion attempts as well as territory claimed by the French, Spanish, and Mexican nations, Nacogdoches unfurled the Confederate Stars and Bars, the Lone Star flag of the Republic of Texas, and finally, Old Glory. The town retains its historical character with red brick streets and the original façades of buildings flanking the central portion of downtown. My fortunate arrival happens during the Azalea Trail, an annual event held from March through the first week of April that celebrates the town's most colorful bloomer. Three town trails unroll past old, private homes with compulsively manicured azalea gardens, and through the eight-acre Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden, planted with over 500 named varieties.