Monday, March 18, 2013

Dancing between the snowflakes!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ottawa, ON – That’s right – we’re home! And it’s great to be here. Everything was in order when we got in, so we proceeded to amend that by carting in a ton of junk from the RV and depositing it all over the front hall. We have lots of time now to sort through it and get settled again.

We can’t believe our luck in arriving when we did. Val checked the weather forecast on the TV in the hotel room this morning and said there was a snowstorm headed for Toronto from parts west, so we wasted little time getting packed up and on our way. We didn’t even stop for breakfast till we were past the city limits. (I munched on an apple to keep me going till then.)

All the traffic was headed in to the city, so we didn’t have to contend with much congestion as we set out. Clear skies graced our journey all the way home, and we made good time. Once we brought in most of the stuff that needed to come out of the RV, Val checked out the local weather and discovered that the late-winter storm is headed this way, with up to 20 cm of snow coming tonight! Whew! It’s almost as though Old Man Winter chased us all the way!

We had a fantastic trip, once again, and enjoyed sharing it with all of you who have read about it over the last eight weeks. To close off, here are a couple of little anecdotes that didn’t make it into the daily blog.

THE BLOB. After giving Val a haircut, I was putting away the clipper, scissors and other tools into the corrugated cardboard shoebox that holds them all. I noticed on the end of the box some kind of black substance that had eaten away part of the cardboard, but couldn’t figure out what the cause could be. A day or two later, Val brushed away what he thought was a crumb from his T-shirt, and a whole hunk of material came away with it! Then I found a hole in the leg of my jeans. So far, no explanation, but we’re hoping there will be no more attacks from The Blob.

THE PARKING LOT. We knew parking was expensive near the French Quarter in New Orleans. Having parked the car, we were walking to the kiosk for our tour of the city and noticed another parking lot right next to it, so we stopped at the ticket dispenser beside the lift bar, trying to find out what the fee was for this lot. A waiter at the sidewalk café next to the parking lot was watching us, and finally called out “You have to have a car to get in!”

MISTAKEN IDENTITY. When we stopped to admire the camels by the road in Kentucky, a guy in a truck was driving by and must have noticed our out-of-state plates. He leaned out the window as he passed and hollered out, with a wonderful Kentucky twang, “them ain’t no Kentucky race-horses!”.

CANADIAN, EH? – A Michigan tourist who discovered where we were from eagerly asked us if we knew how our country got its name. I said I had a feeling he was going to tell us and he said, “The prime minister had a bag with letters of the alphabet in it and pulled out a C, an N and a D. He said, ‘C, eh? N, eh? D, eh?’”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Being green

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Toronto, ON – Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here’s a shot, taken in our hotel room mirror, of Val and me with our special “Ireland” t-shirts, which I picked up a couple of days ago to help us celebrate the day. I also wore the shamrock scarf I got as a souvenir in New Orleans. Enthusiasm is my middle name!

We were planning to meet Ben, Mark and his Katie at Ben’s apartment for brunch, so there was time this morning for me to get to church. As luck would have it, St. Andrew’s was just on the other side of the 401 cloverleaf from our hotel, a mere five-minute drive. It was lovely singing the hymn “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” in honour of the Irish saint.

Toronto’s multi-ethnic character was well reflected both in the congregation at church, and in the people at Tim Hortons where we went for breakfast this morning. It was great to see so much diversity everywhere.

Ben and his cat Sage greeted us – the former very warmly and the latter disdainfully – when we got to his apartment. It was great to see him again, and to sit down and catch up on all his doings. Mark and Katie arrived a little while later, looking a bit tired. The night before was their housewarming party for their new apartment and they had about 40 guests till who knows when, so we felt especially honoured that they came at all!

As we munched on slices of pizza, we showed them a few of our travel pictures on the laptop, but mostly we just listened to their latest news and enjoyed their company. It’s great to see all of them following their dreams and working to make them happen, even when the going gets tough from time to time.

The afternoon flew. On the way back to the 401 we found a car wash, and got rid of all the dried-on gunk that the car had collected when linked to the RV through yesterday’s slush bath! It was a considerable improvement, especially as we had smeared the muddy windows with Tim Hortons paper napkins after breakfast this morning in an attempt to gain some visibility, with mediocre results!

Now back in our hotel room, we are preparing for the last leg of our long journey. We are really looking forward to being home again! One more sleep!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weather or not

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Toronto, ON – A soft blanket of white snow covered all the cars in the parking lot when we looked out our hotel room window this morning. It caused a bit of concern as we considered our trek from Windsor to Toronto on Highway 401, but the weather reports were not too dire.

After our free breakfast, we humped all our stuff out to the RV. In addition to our bags, we had to bring indoors anything that could freeze, so we had four or five shopping bags with stuff like canned food, shampoo bottles and spray cans. We kind of looked like the Beverly Hillbillies with our lumpy bags!

We were on the highway before nine, so that was a good start. It was still snowing lightly, but the surface of the road was clear for the most part. Only once did we get slimed by a tractor-trailer whizzing past, dripping plumes of grey slush that the wind deposited with a slap on our windshield!

The drive was OK, with our satellite radio playing golden oldies, and relatively few vehicles around on a Saturday morning to share the road with. We stopped for lunch at the ON Route pavilion near Woodstock, and continued past snowy farmland and a few small towns before getting into the more heavily populated areas. The snow stopped and started again several times, but the highway continued to be nice and clear.

Then we were into the multi-laned madness of the Toronto 401 corridor, with its express and collector lanes, high-rise buildings and frequent exit ramps. However, the GPS navigated us through all that, and found our hotel all right.

We discovered that, in addition to paying for our lodging for the night, we have to pay to park our vehicles and for our breakfast in the morning. The host at the front desk managed to waive the second parking fee (we separated the RV from the car and require two spots), so that was somewhat of a consolation. But we’ve been spoiled with our free waffles, eggs, sausage, muffins, toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal and other morning goodies at the two previous hotels! Welcome to Toronto!

The skies have cleared and the sun has come out, so it should be a nice day tomorrow to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and see our Toronto boys before the last leg of our journey. Fingers crossed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

R-r-roll up the r-r-rim!

Friday, March 15, 2013
Windsor, ON – “Welcome home!” was the friendly greeting from the border services officer as we pulled past the wicket and entered Canada once again. Even though there were no familiar faces or even sights to see, since we’ve never crossed into Canada at this border point, somehow it felt kind of nice to be ‘home’ again in our own country.

Mother Nature was kind again today by giving us overcast skies and zero precipitation as we pulled out of Lima and headed north. It was still cold, but that’s to be expected in this part of the world this time of year.

The first part of our trek today was through wide expanses of farmland, where rows of dry stubble from last year’s crops awaited the tilling and sowing of new seeds as the soil softens and temperatures rise. Bare trees stood in clumps around the farm buildings, and overhead were flocks of geese, migrating to their summer territories.

Before long we were into more urban landscapes as we approached Toledo, perched right on the state line with Michigan. There was evidence of the auto industry for which the city is known, with assembly plants and smokestacks. Toledo is located along shipping routes between Chicago and New York, and next to the Erie Canal, so that accounts for some of its importance, as well as the glass industry that flourishes there.

We stopped at the Michigan welcome center to pick up another map when we crossed the state line. Displays in the center showcased the state’s wine country, winter sports, ethnic communities and even a teddy bear factory that sponsored one display.

Detroit came next, with a vast array of suburbs followed by heavy industrial sections with low grey buildings and chimneys spewing white smoke into the sky. Henry Ford built the first car here, and the auto industry played a huge role in the city’s development, but the population has declined by half from 60 years ago, leaving a lot of depressed areas. The population of Detroit is 82 per cent African-American according to recent statistics.

Our little motorhome and car were dwarfed by the armies of semi-trucks zooming past on Interstate 75 toward the Ambassador Bridge that would take us into Canada. I’m sure hundreds of them must make the crossing in one direction or the other every day. After negotiating the various turns and lineups, we crossed high up over the wide Detroit River and then down into Canada. That’s where we met the friendly border crossing agent, answered a couple of questions, and then moved into the city of Windsor.

Our hotel is right along the route from the bridge that will lead us to Highway 401 tomorrow. And across the street is a Tim Hortons where we had our lunch and r-r-r-rolled up the r-r-rim to win on Val’s coffee cup. Except we didn’t win anything today! Our prize this time is being ‘home’ once again after a terrific holiday. Only a few more sleeps before we’re in Ottawa.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Country roads, city streets

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lima, OH – We’ve added another state to our total as we work toward visiting all 50 US states. At this point we have only a handful more to see; I think we’re now up to 41. And it is so interesting to see what variety there is in terms of geography, character, history, topography – you name it.

Rolling hills and fenced paddocks carpeted with the blue grass of Kentucky gave way to long stretches of urban landscape as we entered Ohio, passing through Cincinnati and then Dayton on our northward route. We were blessed with lovely clear skies and sunshine, although the temperature was quite cold.

The car was covered in frost this morning when we got up, before sunrise, to prepare for our departure. It was slightly different today because, in addition to our normal battening down of the hatches, we wanted to winterize the RV to protect the plumbing from freezing as we enter the cold north again.

We actually pushed the envelope a bit by staying in the RV as long as we did – the low last night was in the 20s Farenheit; not really camping weather! But we had our tank heaters running, the furnace blowing, and we ran the taps dry before we went to bed last night, so the icy grip of winter was kept at bay.

Four large jugs of pink RV anti-freeze went into the plumbing system as Val worked the siphon and I ran the cold and hot taps of the sinks, shower and toilet till the pink stuff flowed out. We drained the grey, black and fresh water tanks and dumped more pink down the drains to finish the job. I think Val was relieved to know the systems were protected again, now that we’re back in the land of deep freezes.

We’re now in a comfortable hotel room in Lima. The town was established in 1831 and named after Lima, Peru where quinine bark originated to treat the “swamp fever” or malaria that plagued local residents. The town was a centre for oil, locomotives, tanks and school buses over its history, and boasts a population of just under 40,000.

Even if we only perch in a hotel by the Interstate and move on the next morning, it’s fun to learn a bit about the places we glimpse on our homeward journey.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Might and mane

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Georgetown, KY – A sudden lurch of the RV woke me up this morning, and I lifted the blind to see SNOW billowing about in a gust of strong wind and blanketing the car and the ground around us! Fortunately we had taken precautions so nothing froze, and we were toasty warm all night under our down duvet.

Going outside was another matter altogether. A freezing, bitter wind whipped at us, and we put on just about every layer we had. Despite these relatively minor challenges, we headed out to visit the Kentucky Horse Park on the outskirts of Lexington. The park is some 1300 acres, with paddocks, a dressage complex, huge barns, a couple of museums, a visitor center and restaurant and more, all dedicated to the horse!

In addition to videos, displays and statues of horses, there are real animals of many breeds to look at, plus carriages, farm implements, saddlery, trophies and other associated items and activities. After a short film about the history of horses in America, we took the trolley ride around the grounds. Two enormous black draft horses pulled the open-air trolley as their great hooves clopped on the asphalt and we huddled together in the icy wind.

We stopped inside the Mounted Police barn and chatted with Lisa, the police officer in charge of the small detachment that serves the park, while she tended to Jake, a large white horse, in his stall. It turns out Lisa knows a couple of RCMP horse people we know – small world.

On we went to visit the Hall of Champions, and some of the horse world’s greats. We saw Da Hoss, Funny Cide, Cigar and Go for Gin, four thoroughbreds responsible for raking in millions of dollars in winnings at various races. A guide told us their stories as their handler brought each one out of its stall for us to admire.

By this time we were thoroughly chilled, so we headed for the restaurant to warm up with a hearty hot meal!

The International Museum of the Horse was our next stop, with three floors of wonderful displays describing horse anatomy, the history from pre-historic times, the interaction of man and horse, the uses to which horses have been put over the years, various breeds of horses (including a whole floor dedicated to the Arabian horse) and famous horses, riders and handlers.

We took a short break to go out and see the presentation on Horses of the World Up Close and Personal, where a staff member described the park’s facilities (there’s room for over a thousand horses at one time!) and events in the park, as well as some of the special breeds, such as a huge grey Shire horse that eyed us from his stall while we listened.

After completing the international museum, we went over to the American Saddlebred Museum, which focuses on American horse breeds. Some of them participate in showy events where they prance smartly with long wispy tails and an exaggerated curl to their front legs. At this museum, they had a couple of giant rocking horses people are allowed to ride; it was fun!

To finish the day we took a spin into Lexington to see the home of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The visitor season doesn’t start until tomorrow – but we saw the outside anyway.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Camels and porcupines

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Georgetown, KY – Sometimes a wrong turn can lead to unusual adventures. That about sums it up for today!

We had a short travel day, so we went in first to Corbin to visit the site of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, started by Colonel Harland Sanders. We timed it for lunch hour to fully appreciate the venue.

The Sanders Café has the large pressure cooker that the colonel used to reduce the cooking time of chicken from 30 minutes to nine – the first example of fast food. His astute business practices, including open kitchens, have been copied by many others. He also refrained from patenting his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, preferring to keep it a trade secret, because patents have an end date and secrets don’t. The security around his recipe, as described on Wikipedia, is impressive.

With our chicken lunches tucked under our belts, we aimed for Lexington and the RV park just north of town. The countryside was picturesque, with rolling hills, farms and rock cuts along the way. And, although it remained fairly overcast, there was no rain!

As we approached the turnoff for the RV park, our GPS was telling us to take exit 129, while the directions in our park directory said exit 136. As navigator, I figured the directory’s version would be the best way, so that’s what we decided to follow.

We took the turns indicated and found ourselves on a narrow, two-lane country road that meandered up, down, left and right past little farms, abandoned shacks, cow pastures and hills. Our confidence diminished by the minute, and then, with no warning, we spotted the next turn too late to slow down and make it. We had no choice but to carry on, going some distance before we could make a U-turn.

Once again on the right path, the winding road continued with no encouraging signs. Actually there was a rather nerve-wracking sign – indicating an underpass ahead, 10 feet, six inches high. Our height is 11 feet! At this point, Val pulled over in front of a house. Fortunately people were home and reassured us that there was a nice RV park along this way, and that lots of big trucks went through the underpass all the time. Val had rounded up our vehicle’s height, so we were probably OK. So on we went.

The underpass was a single lane tunnel under a railway with running water seeping across the roadbed. We inched through, nervously, and to our relief heard no scraping sounds! Whew!

After meandering a few more miles down the road, we saw, in a fenced field, three large hairy camels! I could hardly believe my eyes. We pulled on to the shoulder for a closer look, and met Jeff coming out of his property with his little girl. Jeff owns 14 camels and sells the babies for his daughters’ college fund. He used to keep zebras and wallabies, but now raises huge African porcupines along with the camels on his large property. He was very friendly, taking us up to see the porcupines in their pens, and telling us all about his menagerie!

He also reassured us we were on the right road for the RV park. When we finally got there and registered, our host told us the directions were going to be corrected in the next edition of the RV park catalogue. But think what we would have missed if we’d just followed the GPS!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Celebrity central

Monday, March 11, 2013

Corbin, KY – Today we crossed Tennessee for the second time. We did so in 2011 on our way to Arizona, from east to west, and this time from south to north. Both times we have experienced a deluge of rain of epic proportions for the entire day! (See “All Day Carwash” in the February 2011 blog.) Kind of makes you wonder!

After fewer than 20 miles in Alabama, and just before entering Tennessee, we crossed a corner of Georgia in our southwest-northeast trajectory, so today was another four-state journey. The Georgia portion was about 20 miles as well, and then we were in Tennessee, where we stopped at the visitor center. I snapped this picture of Val with one of the locals.

When we reached the outskirts of Chattanooga, I thought it might have been interesting to stop at the choo-choo site we passed as we traversed the city, but the driving rain discouraged us big time. Twists and turns in the highway, plus rough pavement and potholes, plus heavy traffic which included a lot of semi trucks that spewed out plumes of wet mist, plus sloshing rain that our wipers barely swept away when running full tilt, gave us little chance to even take in the glimpses of the famous city as we passed through.

People who aren’t well-versed in American geography might be confused to read Cleveland and Dayton on a map of Tennessee. And tongue-tied when they see Murfreesboro, and amused at Soddy-Daisy! While Nashville and Memphis are probably its most well-known cities, some people recognize Knoxville, which we passed through this time as well.

The southern end of the Appalachian mountain range was evident in the rolling hills on either side of Interstate 75 as we entered Kentucky, although they call them the Smoky Mountains at this end. Fortunately the condition of the highway improved when we left Tennessee, and the rain lightened somewhat. We picked up some more literature and maps of Kentucky at its welcome center when we crossed the state line. There is a lot to see!

Corbin’s biggest claim to fame is the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, started by Colonel Harland Sanders in 1930. He had learned to cook for his family at age 12 when his father died and his mother had to go out and work, and after a variety of jobs, he bought a service station in this town. To attract more customers, he cooked his chicken dinners and served them at his own dining table in his house attached to the gas station.

By chance, a food critic named Duncan Hines (sound familiar?) tasted the meal and included Harland’s restaurant in a list of interesting places to eat in America. The rest, as they say, is history! The governor of Kentucky bestowed the honorary rank of colonel to Harland for his many contributions to the community, and Sanders adopted the white suit and black string tie for his distinctive appearance. He even dyed his goatee white to match his white hair and complete the look.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sock it to me!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fort Payne, AL – We crossed another state today, still on a diagonal route on Interstate 59 from southwest to northeast. Once again, we had lovely weather, reaching a balmy 22 degrees at its warmest. Signs of spring are everywhere, with blossoming trees and scores of robins. At the rest stop where we had our lunch, there were fragrant hyacinths and jaunty daffodils blooming in the flowerbeds!

Alabama’s nickname is “the heart of Dixie”, and we passed through towns with well-known names, such as Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Each place we pass through has a depth of history, from the times of the aboriginal peoples through the Civil War and on into more recent times. In these parts, those times include the difficult years of racial discrimination and unrest that captured so many headlines in the 1960s.

There was no sign of those events in the peaceful towns we passed, where many tall white steeples stood out on the skyline, and where church parking lots were filled with the cars of Sunday worshippers. Not everyone was in church, however – the highway had a lot of cars and semi trucks that whizzed past us as we stuck to our steady 62 miles per hour. The condition of the roadbed was not the greatest; there were a lot of rough patches, and Val had gusts of wind to contend with as well, but he handled it beautifully as usual.

It was fun reading the names of towns we passed – trying to figure out how the locals would pronounce them. Names like Boligee, Eutaw and Attalla. We only had a couple of occasions to interact with the locals – at the filling station where we fueled up and again with the host of this RV park – but I could have listened to their lovely southern twang for ages. I suppose we sounded as odd to them as they did to us.

Fort Payne is 20 miles west of the Alabama-Georgia state line, and it originated in the 1830s with a fort for the internment of Cherokee Indians (as they are known here) during their forced migration to Oklahoma from the eastern states – a sad chapter of US history called the Trail of Tears. The town boomed for a time in the 1880s when coal and iron deposits were discovered, but they proved to be smaller than originally anticipated.

The town’s biggest claim to fame began in the early 1900s when a hosiery factory set up business here, and before long Fort Payne was producing more than half the socks made in the United States! When Chinese socks flooded the market, the town leaders began to diversify local industry to stabilize its economy. Judging from the contented look of the place and its many shopping malls, their plan appears to have worked.

The well-known country music band Alabama, from the 1960s, called Fort Payne its headquarters, and it still has a strong fan base here. We like this spot for its peaceful RV park, which we’ll call home for the next few hours before we move on.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Four eyes but cannot see

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Toomsuba, MS – When we were kids we used to ask the riddle “what has four eyes but cannot see?”, and the answer was “Mississippi”! That’s where we have spent most of today, after we cleared the outskirts of New Orleans and crossed the miles-long bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.

Once again we passed neighbourhoods that had been hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. On a nice street of modest, trim houses, there would be one with boarded-up windows, a caved-in roof, or siding still bent back from the vicious winds. Most people had repaired and rebuilt, but some have yet to fix the damage.

Shortly after we crossed the state line, we stopped at the Mississippi welcome center, where a charming lady named Temisia offered us free coffee and enthused about the many places of interest in her home state. We didn’t have the heart to tell her we were just passing through, but we saw quite a few things we’d like to come back and check out on another trip.

For example, Leland, on the west side of the state, is known as the hometown of Kermit the Frog. Creator Jim Henson was born there and there’s a museum dedicated to him and his Muppets. Vicksburg, also on the west side, is a historic town where thousands of Civil War soldiers, both Confederate and Union, are buried. Star is the hometown of country music great Faith Hill. Meridian, located just a few miles from this KOA campground, is where the “father of country music” Jimmie Rodgers came from.

As we traced a diagonal line from southwest to northeast across the state, we noticed the tropical jungles of the south disappeared, replaced by forests of tall pine trees. It was delightful seeing the forest trees starting to bloom. Some saplings were sprouting small yellow flowers, and we spotted a number of fruit trees dressed in blossoms of white or pink. On some stretches of highway we could have been driving through Ontario. Except there still wasn’t a single flake of snow!

The other thing we didn’t encounter was rain. When we checked in at the KOA, the host told us it has poured for days, so we considered ourselves lucky with this perfectly beautiful day. I was also glad, since we were assigned one of the farthest sites from the main building, that I didn’t have to lug my hamper full of laundry to the washing machines in the rain.

While I got caught up on laundry, Val prepared the barbeque for a home-cooked supper that was delicious and simple. While we’ve enjoyed tasting the exotic Louisiana cuisine for the past few days, it’s nice to return to plain food that hasn’t been deep-fried in fat!

We are surrounded by woods, and we spotted a couple of bright scarlet cardinals nearby, as well as robins looking for worms. As the sun descended to the horizon, a chorus of spring peepers somewhere nearby started up to serenade us.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Alligator tastes like chicken

Friday, March 8, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Tonight our supper came out of Styrofoam boxes from several recent restaurant visits. We’ve been trying to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible – gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys, Andouille, grits, boiled crawfish – and then there are the desserts, such as pecan pie, hot bread pudding and key lime pie! A tough job but somebody has to do it!

For the second time, our direction today was westward, away from the big city, to visit two more plantations in the area. Oak Alley is a five minute drive from the Laura Plantation that we saw yesterday, but looks completely different. It’s the plantation everyone thinks of – the grand white pillared mansion and the straight road leading up to it, flanked on either side by huge live oak trees that form a canopy overhead. You can just picture guests riding up in their carriages for a grand ball, hosted by Scarlett O’Hara’s family, although Gone with the Wind was not filmed here. Dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed on the grounds.

Val and I sampled mint juleps, served on the ground floor verandah, before going in for our tour. Val’s was the real deal, complete with bourbon, while I had mine minus the booze. Very refreshing! Our guide, dressed in a fancy hoop-skirted dress, showed us through the restored rooms, complete with period furniture, paintings and personal items that might have been used in the old days.

One of the other plantation buildings was repurposed as a restaurant, where we went for lunch. Since this was likely our last chance, we ordered alligator bites for an appetizer. The deep-fried crunchy nuggets really did resemble chicken, if slightly rubbery! Don’t think we’ll order it again, but we tried it!

After a stroll through the lovely gardens and down that oak-lined alley, we headed on to the San Francisco Plantation on the north side of the Mississippi, somewhat closer to New Orleans. The effect of this location was tempered somewhat by the presence of a lot of industrial buildings with chutes and cranes connected to ocean-going ships on the river. We couldn’t see the ships because of the high levees; these would have been much lower in earlier years.

Not only that, but once we got to the plantation grounds, we encountered a huge collection of tented concession stands all over the lawns in preparation for a big arts and crafts fair on the weekend. The ticket lady told us they were expecting thousands of people at this annual event, so we were glad we came when we did. We actually had a personal tour – probably no one else thought the building was accessible today with all the hustle and bustle outside it.

The homestead was the most opulent one we’d seen, with frescoed ceilings and beautiful draperies in the ornately decorated rooms. The structure had two towers on either side that were cisterns for rain, gathered from the roof and piped into the house. There was even refrigeration from ice imported from the north that was stored in earthenware jars buried in the ground. It was interesting to hear the family stories that were so closely linked to these remarkable homes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Plantation life

Thursday, March 7, 2013

New Orleans, LA – This morning we played the waiting game for a few hours. We had asked to extend our stay at the KOA here because there was more we wanted to see, and the management said yes, but it would mean changing sites. So we had to wait until checkout time for the party in our new spot to leave, as well as batten everything down for the move 10 sites down the way. We also took the car out to get it washed, which it sorely needed, and picked up a few groceries on the way back. So we put our time to good use!

With all that accomplished, we had a bite of lunch and then headed out for a visit to one of the plantations in the area. This one was about 40 miles west of New Orleans, and on the other side of the Mississippi River, but it was a lovely day and the drive didn’t take long.

The Laura Plantation belonged to a Creole family that raised sugar cane on the banks of the Mississippi starting in 1805. The succession of ownership of the plantation went through the women of the family, and Laura’s detailed memoirs, discovered in the national archives in France, have provided a full account of the family business, the life of the enslaved people who kept it going, and events and customs of the time.

The grounds are lovely, with ancient live oaks shading the big house, and flower and vegetable gardens adding colour beside it. The house itself is a restoration because it was partially destroyed by fire only a few years ago, but when it was done, they reverted back to its original appearance based on early watercolour paintings. Creole homes were always brightly painted and in its last iteration prior to the fire, it had been painted white, so the new old house is now yellow with red and blue trim.

Elmore, our guide, explained the architecture of the house, which followed the construction method of the Senegal slaves who built it – pillars of brick extending eight feet into the ground and the same height above ground, on which the house rested, to allow it to withstand seasonal flooding from the river. The rooms opened into one another without hallways, each with a set of French doors to the outside to allow breezes to flow through in the hot weather.

Up to 180 slaves lived on the plantation in wooden houses with only one or two rooms. Several of these houses were still standing. The slaves worked the fields from age 13 onward, while the younger ones helped in the kitchens. Elmore said one job of the youngest slaves was to ring the large bell that woke everyone in the morning; sometimes it rang at 3 am.

In the 1870s a professor of romance languages from New Orleans collected folklore stories from the slaves at the plantation, which became known as the Br’er Rabbit tales. I remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby from my childhood, and this is where they came from!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fun on the bayou

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Orleans, LA – For the first time since Georgia, I donned my winter jacket this morning when we arrived at Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. It was sunny but the brisk wind was too much for my light jacket.

School kids in a high state of excitement were scampering all over the picnic area next to the waterway. Fortunately, we were ushered on to the adults-only swamp boat, with Captain Tom at the helm. The long, shallow boat moved very slowly along the water so we could get up and move about when someone caught sight of something interesting.

Cypress trees, live oaks, palmetto shrubs and dead stumps lined the shores of the bayou, some dripping with grey wisps of Spanish moss and others overgrown with dead vines. The maple keys had emerged, bright red, on bare branches, and small white flowers were blossoming on the blackberry bushes – some of the first signs that spring was on the way, according to Capt. Tom.

Great white egrets waded in the shallows, as well as blue herons that took to flight when we got too close. Before long, we sighted our first alligator, a little guy only three feet long nestled in the bright greenery at the water’s edge where the sun could warm his body.

Tom’s lifelong contact with the flora and fauna of the swamps was evident in the multitude of facts and stories he related about our surroundings. He told us how alligators are hunted (only for a month in the fall), how best to bag one (shoot him in the eye or ear so the hide is not damaged) and how much a good hide can garner on the market (several hundred dollars for a nice spotted one). He also said not to believe everything they show on the TV program Swamp People!

A baby racoon crept out of the bushes to check us out, and snatched up, in his little claws, the marshmallows Tom tossed his way. There are also white-tailed deer and wild boars in the bush, he said, but they weren’t visible today. We did see several turtles, and a diamond-back swamp snake sunning itself on a log.

The biggest alligator we spotted was about six feet long, resting on the muddy bank and still as a statue. Tom showed us the grooves in the riverbank mud where they slide in and out of the water – an easy indicator for visitors on the lookout for wildlife.

We saw signs of human presence in the swamp as well – a rudimentary graveyard, fenced around with rotting wood and an archway with “1915” marked across the top. Tom said the remains of hurricane victims were buried there when people finally found their bodies in the devastated bush.

A tiny shack from a similar era stood on another riverbank not far from the cemetery, with a tin roof and outhouse complete with a half-moon on the door. Tom said it had been flattened by the recent Hurricane Ivan, but he and other staff members put it back together to preserve a part of swamp history. I was much happier being a visitor to this fascinating environment than a full-time resident!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A city of resilience and revelry

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Sylvester was the name of our guide and bus driver for the combination city and Hurricane Katrina tour that we took this morning. He spoke with a wonderful lilt and in terms that demonstrated a love for his city, despite her excesses and trials.

We covered a lot of territory and learned so much more about the geography, history and character of this unique community. Passing houses still heavily scarred by the two hurricanes of 2005 that lashed into the region within a month of each other, we realized the extent of the devastation caused, not so much by the vicious winds, but by an inundation of staggering proportions that followed them. Neighbourhoods were plunged under 12 feet of water that remained for three long weeks, and left homes filled with mud, mildew and mold, if they weren’t flattened completely to begin with.

Sylvester explained the far-reaching consequences of the disaster, such as the sharp downturn for business owners whose customers disappeared for months, and the reduced tax revenues that ensued. People had to decide whether to refurbish or simply walk away and start over somewhere else. Thousands did leave, but the majority remained and rebuilt.

Our tour continued with a visit to the city of the dead, one of several cemeteries built in the Spanish style – large stone boxes above ground where entire families are interred over the years. Some were topped with angels or crosses, and ancient ones mingled with newer structures along paved streets were cars can actually drive through.

More upbeat sites included a drive through the huge city park with playing fields, band shells, a storybook playground and majestic live oak trees that date back to the Civil War. We also saw the garden district where we passed scores of huge antebellum mansions, each different from the other, with columns, gingerbread trim, sweeping staircases and gracious verandahs.

Flowering shrubs and palm trees decorated the gardens and the wide boulevards down the centre of the avenue. It was jaw-dropping to see such an endless array of showpiece homes!

Back at our starting point again, we set off for some hot café au lait and beignets, a light pastry heavily dusted with powdered sugar. Our next stop was the Louisiana State Museum, with a multi-media display about Katrina on the ground floor and a homage to Mardi Gras upstairs, complete with elaborate costumes and floats, plus explanations of the origins of all the revelry that surrounds those celebrations. There is a whole vocabulary and culture we never knew about!

It was a marathon day, as we had decided to taste some of the jazz scene after dark, so we went for supper at the Gumbo Shop, a well-known French Quarter eatery, and strolled along Bourbon Street as night began to fall and the bars started filling up. After lining up for an hour to get into Preservation Hall, an ancient hole-in-the-wall jazz venue, we were treated to traditional New Orleans style music with trumpet, sax, clarinet, double bass, piano and drums that made the rafters ring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Drunken Catfish Ramblers

Monday, March 4, 2013

New Orleans, LA – This is one big city! It took us about half an hour to drive in to the French Quarter from our camp ground, and we went through suburbs, industrial sections, past skyscrapers and finally into the quaint streets of the old town, with narrow buildings crowded next to one another, decorated with wrought iron balconies where flower pots dripped ivy over the edges, and strings of beads, left over from Mardi Gras excesses, still dangled from the railings.

After checking in at the visitor centre, we found a spot to park our little car, and set off on foot toward the river’s edge, where we were told we could book a tour or two. Getting an overview of a new city is our usual pattern, but when we got to the kiosk, we found out the three-hour tour was about to leave and we needed to eat lunch first!

So, being our flexible selves, we opted for the paddlewheel cruise along the Mississippi River, leaving just a few minutes later, but where we could find a meal as well. The Natchez was painted white with red trim and featured two black smokestacks and a huge red paddlewheel at its stern. It had three deck levels with plenty of seating to view the scenery on either shore, and throughout the cruise there was a running commentary about what we were seeing.

In the dining room, we were served a classic New Orleans meal of fried catfish, shrimp creole, okra and tomatoes, red beans and rice, cole slaw, bread and, for dessert, warm bread pudding. After we helped ourselves to iced tea we looked around to see where to pay for the meal, and the server told us it was included with our cruise ticket! What a pleasant – and tasty – surprise!

Before we came here, I always thought New Orleans was perched on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, but in fact it is 100 miles from the gulf on a great curved section of the Mississippi. That curve has prompted the nickname “the Crescent City” to a place that also gets called NOLA (New Orleans LouisianA), N’Awlins and The Big Easy!

Once we got back ashore, we started off on foot toward the St. Louis Cathedral, set off by a large fenced park. On the outside of the fence were hawkers offering tours, artists who had hung brightly coloured paintings for sale on the fence, and a string of horse-drawn carriages looking for customers, but it was lovely and peaceful on the inside where there were benches to sit on and stretches of green grass. The cathedral was beautiful inside, with colourful stained glass windows and frescoes on the ceiling.

More streets of the French Quarter beckoned to us, as we made our way toward our car. We stopped twice to listen to groups of musicians who sat down in the middle of the street to blast out some lively honky-tonk tunes – with banjos and tubas and one trombonist who produced a “wah-wah” sound with the rubber cup from a toilet plunger! It was impossible not to tap a foot or wiggle a hip in time with the music! People put contributions into a guitar case where one group’s name was posted: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers. I especially liked the one with a bushy red goatee, playing the washboard.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Three days, four states

Friday to Sunday, March 1-3, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Here we are in the Big Easy! We’ve only driven in to our KOA camp ground, west of the city, so we haven’t really seen anything outside the approaches, but that will change as of tomorrow.

To backtrack a bit, on Friday we left our friends Scott and Mary Jane and drove west for 45 minutes to Navarre, where we stopped for lunch and a visit with Darrell and Sharon from Nova Scotia. Darrell was a former boss of mine and we visited them south of Tucson when we took our Arizona trip two years ago. It was great catching up on their news, but we weren’t able to stay for long, as we wanted to avoid rush hour traffic on our way to the Big Lagoon State Park, at the farthest western reaches of Florida.

“The real Florida” is what the state parks system calls places like Big Lagoon. It is surprisingly natural and rural, being so close to the city of Pensacola. Our site was entirely surrounded by bog, and, to our delight, a mockingbird serenaded us from a neighbouring tree with its amazing vocabulary of bird songs!

We had had a pretty cold night without the furnace; even our poufy duvet failed to keep us completely warm. Our hot breakfast beverages were very comforting the next morning!

The National Naval Aviation Museum was only a short drive from the park and had been recommended to us, so we spent the next morning exploring it. Scores of airplanes of many vintages were displayed on the ground and suspended overhead, and visitors could imagine what it was like to fly them in several motion-based flight simulators. There was another display that took you to a flight briefing on an aircraft carrier and then to a mock-up of a windswept flight deck where we could watch planes taking off and landing. We also watched an IMAX movie about the Blue Angels, who practice their aerobatics on the grounds here starting a week or so from now.

This morning we headed for New Orleans, following the gulf shoreline along Highway 98 and then turning north to join Interstate 10. In three hours or so of driving, we left Florida and crossed a stretch of Alabama, then Mississippi and into Louisiana. We saw quite a bit of farmland, with horses and cows, and roadside stands selling boiled peanuts, an apparently popular food in these parts!

When we drove past the shipyards of Mobile, Alabama, we caught sight of the crippled cruise ship that had been towed in a couple of weeks ago after it lost power in the Carribean for several days. Guess the cleanup was still underway.

On our way in to New Orleans, we saw what appeared to be lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina, which took place in August of 2005. After reading more about that devastating hurricane, it was understandable that some of the highways were still in rough shape in places, considering the extent of damage that occurred. Our KOA host told us our site has the only tree in our section of the campground that wasn’t blown down by the storm.