Actually now that I think of it, maybe we haven’t. Images of a planet’s worth of stunning beaches leapt to mind as soon as I typed that title, and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t ever tire of them. But for this experience, this year… maybe. I had wanted to find an East Coast competitor to our experiences in Carpinteria (Santa Barbara) and Coronado (San Diego), and I’m pretty sure our beachfront site in Miramar Beach, just east of Destin, FL, fit the bill.
There don’t appear to be many places on the Gulf Coast where you can RV camp right on the beach. In fact even at this campground, a good 90% of it is shoehorned into the narrow quarter mile between the beachfront and the road; the 10 or so sites on the sand represent the entire width of the campground’s footprint, while there are probably a hundred more sites inland of where we had booked. Obviously in a situation like that you’re gonna pay for it. But I figured this was it for the year – we had so much enjoyed our month creeping down the Oregon / California coasts last October, and looking ahead, there weren’t any more sandy destinations on the agenda. So yeah, we went for it.
Only a few things to write here, as the pictures speak for themselves I think.
The weather did cooperate, in that it improved during our entire 3 day/ 2 night stay. By our departure it was absolutely perfect. Reading between the lines you might surmise that it wasn’t exactly perfect when we arrived, and you would be correct. A bit cloudy and enough wind that setting up The Clam was impossible, even when staked. It did make for some small waves though, which played into Firebolt’s new hobby – Boogie Boarding!
If you remember, she had been reticent about even getting in the ocean last go around, preferring to set herself up with a beach chair and a good book. While she’s no less voracious a reader now, she has developed a distinct adventurous streak over the past month or two that had previously not shown itself, which we love. She was the first to grab the Boogie Board and see what sort of wave trouble she could get herself into, and though it was a choppy mess, she did a bang-up job putting herself into a few waves and riding them to shore.
One thing that became clear pretty quickly is that this is Alabama’s beach. Florida owns it, yes, but the big Florida cities are down south in the main part of the state, and if you travel due south from any Alabama city, you’re going to end up somewhere on this stretch of shoreline. The vast majority of the license plates we saw backed this up. Lucky them – it’s gorgeous!
Alabama beach culture differs from California beach culture fairly significantly, in ways that I’ll leave to mostly to the imagination. But suffice it to say there were no scenes of hoodie-clad thirty and forty-somethings sitting in around a low beach table, shucking fresh oysters and sipping from multiple bottles of Sauvignon Blanc that they pulled, along with the wine glasses, from their mini-cooler. No judgment here (though I’m not at all shy about stating a preference for which scene I’d rather be a part of), it’s just different. Haven’t yet worked out why you would cut the sleeves off of your perfectly good T-shirt yet. Better farmer’s tan maybe? Better than mine at least. And lots of Bud Light. Which I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while, as I’m clearly in the minority in not wanting to waste any of my limited beer drinking on it. I get it – it’s me, not everyone else. Still though, the best I can come up with is that it’s sort of a hybrid between beer and sparkling water, in that it satisfies the carbonation itch, keeps you reasonably well-hydrated if you drink it throughout the day, and gives you the faint taste of beer and maybe a slight heady buzz if you have enough of it before you get full. And honestly, it’s probably the same price as sparkling water (or soda) would be if you shop well, so I guess the trade off is having to down all those calories vs getting to be pleasantly light-headed. Certainly better than soda, where you’d get twice the calories and no happy feeling at all… Makes more sense when I look at it that way!
Here’s something I discovered. Quick background, before I meander to my discovery — if you grow up in Southern California, at some point in your life, if not several points, you’re required to utter some variation of the following line: “I could never live far from the beach. Ever.” You’re also required to mean it.
I faithfully executed my Southern California duties several times in my late teens and early twenties. But things evolved. I wouldn’t say that moving up to Northern California changed my view entirely, as its beaches are stunning. But they also tend to be remote, chilly in comparison to their neighbors to the south, and most importantly, they’re really not The Main Thing up there. At all. And I found myself surprisingly OK with that. Fast forward to living in the San Juan Islands in Washington state for 15+ years and The Netherlands for 3 – both near beaches, which I did still enjoy on occasion, but what I gradually realized was that it was water I was interested in living near, and that lakes and rivers (and in The Netherlands’ case, canals), as long as they were clean enough to play in, could scratch that itch even more thoroughly than could the ocean. So I changed my tune. I would smile and nod knowingly when fellow Southern California folks would say the line, but then I would tell them what I had discovered about my own preferences and I’d watch them unconvincingly try to contort their face into a reciprocal knowing nod. Or they’d just say “Dude. Sorry, but you’re crazy.”
What happened this week in Florida was that I found myself entirely in my element while watching the rest of my family be somewhat less so. Each morning I would make my cup of coffee and go sit with my feet dug into the sand.
I inflated one of the kayaks and tried to get a partner in crime to join me in a long paddle up the beach. No takers, so I went solo for just about an hour. At one point I spotted a school of dolphins swimming toward me and positioned myself right in front of them in hopes that they’d want to “play” a bit. I didn’t quite get that, but I was thrilled to watch them submerge a few feet before reaching me and then swim right underneath me before resurfacing a few feet away and moving on.
I swam every morning (and usually late afternoon / evening) as well, making sure to go out far enough that I couldn’t touch the bottom so that I could get a little full-body exercise. It felt great. Better than great. Primal. Vital. I remembered that I felt the same last October after having swum in the ocean most days that month.
So I’m circling back a little (and this was my discovery) — maybe there’s something far deeper to that Southern California sentiment…
That is not to say that we’ll now be moving to the beach. There’s the price of course. But more than that, as I mentioned, I seem to be the only family member with this connection to the ocean – the rest enjoy it but get “beached out” pretty quickly.
It was an interesting discovery though, and may lead to an annual beach vacation from Bend or, why not, maybe two or three.
I’ll leave you with a few more pictures, as really our activities were few.
This is pretty much all we did, and it was glorious.
Let me take you back to the late summer of 1991. I’ve just graduated college with a BS degree and a commission as an Ensign in the Navy, and had been able to spend the early part of the summer doing not a whole lot while staying with my parents, who had recently moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, as the Aviation Training Command wasn’t yet ready for me. They’ve now informed me that they are (ready for me, that is), and I’m driving across the country for the first time in my red Jeep, having lived my entire life in California. Though going to college had been a quantum leap in freedom, this was yet another. Arguably, this leap was even bigger than the last. I’m twenty-two years old, and I look like this.
I don’t remember where I stayed along the way across the country, but I do remember approaching Pensacola and that very first time pulling off I-10, bathing in the waves of heat and humidity as well as the somewhere-between-ocean-and-swamp smell that permeated everything and struck me as sweetish and fertile. My anticipatory excitement was off the charts. Pensacola is technically Florida, but more akin to Alabama, being right at the end of the panhandle and surrounded by its neighbor to the north and west. It was a world away from California.
Here’s the geographical setup in Pensacola, as I think it provides a little insight. Note the thin barrier islands, with Perdido Key to the west, Pensacola Beach in the middle (but far from the Pensacola Naval Air Station, which sits southwest of downtown), and Navarre Beach out to the east. Whiting Field (the flight training base, where I was stationed after my initial indoctrination training was complete) is way up to the north of Milton, aka the middle of nowhere.
On my first night there, I contacted some friends from college who had come out for flight training a year prior and were still making their way through the program. We met at their place on Perdido Key and headed out to the Flora-bama, an enormous beachfront bar/liquor store complex (in P-cola vernacular: a “lounge and package”) that straddles the border between the two states. At the time they had about a half dozen sub-bars within the main bar, and were semi-famous for an annual “mullet toss,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and a huge event. Incidentally, the hairstyle is named after the fish, not vice versa. It became clear very quickly that my friends had settled in deeply over the past year, as they comfortably disappeared into the crowd, acknowledging greetings from various bartenders and fellow bar-goers. Later in the evening I was surprised to see one of my friends on stage, playing his guitar and singing some country standards. [Side note: He’s really good, and just released an album. Check it out.] The end of my first night in the South found me wandering into a decidedly slower paced room in which there was a booming sing-along in progress. It took me a second to recognize the tune, but I soon pegged it as “Dixie,” but at half speed, maybe less, for maximum emotional impact. A look around me at the tear-stained faces of my new neighbors, one arm around the person next to them and the other raising a tightly held beer in a plastic cup while they sang their hearts out, told me that the emotions ran deep. This wasn’t a jokey sing-along, they really meant it. Wow. I truly had left California behind.
Soon I linked up with some college / Naval ROTC friends and rented a house right on Pensacola Beach, which surprised me by having the whitest sand I had ever seen. I had seen “white sand beaches” before but they always disappointed me by looking just a shade or two lighter than the beige I was used to from Southern California. This beach was white. Like sugar. The house was a no-frills hunk of cinder block, but it had a second-floor balcony which overlooked the sand and water. I don’t remember how much rent I paid, but it was no more than $200/month. In fact I think it was $150.
And here it gets even better. Whoever’s job responsibility includes deciding how many Student Naval Aviators to accept into the program at any given time has a tricky task. The complexities of balancing the constantly changing “needs of the Navy” with the number of incoming students (as well as several other uncontrollable variables I’m sure) result in massive training tempo variations for individual flight students, anywhere from immediate entry into the program and two training events per day until graduation to stopping training altogether and just waiting around to start again. They were even occasionally doing what they (or maybe just we?) called “bottom blows,” where the lowest performing XX percent of students are simply cut from the program and either sent to other Navy communities or just freed from their commitment to the Navy altogether. As luck would have it, I arrived in Pensacola during a student glut, even after a fairly recent “bottom blow.” I wouldn’t be beginning flight training for quite some time.
Some unfortunate Navy Lieutenant was assigned as “Student Control Officer,” and his job was essentially to manage and find, um, “gainful” employment for this massive pool of newly commissioned Ensigns while trickling them slowly into the front end of the training program. Fortunately I only met him once or twice, but he always looked harried and more than a little annoyed. How that situation looked from my side of things, however, was a mere 3 days per week for a couple hours per day of doing things like demonstrating the obstacle course to the current crop of students or riding around base on a tricycle (I’m serious) with a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (the “whib-jit”) and taking readings to determine whether it was too hot to conduct various types of training. That was the extent of my responsibilities.
I also discovered, once I started making friends with other student-pool dwellers, that while we were enjoying the euphoria of newly found freedom, our Naval Academy graduate friends took that concept into the stratosphere owing to their previous four years’ excessive / oppressive control over their lives. They were an intriguing lot, and running around in the same circles as they did made an exciting time even more so for me. A few became dear, lifelong friends, and a few nearly beat my friends and me into a pulp when we showed up at a party we hadn’t been invited to (actually we had, but the potential pummelers didn’t know that) and didn’t quite fit in. Interestingly, there ended up being some overlap between those two groups.
So OK, let’s recap quickly before I move on. I’m just out of college, I’m living on the beach with friends in a new part of the country, I and a few hundred of my soon-to-be colleagues are about to enter a Naval Aviator training program in a city that’s all about its Naval Aviators, and I’m making a Naval Officer’s salary for working (sorry, “working”) about 10 hours per week. I did this for almost a year.
What could possibly happen?
I should add that once I finally did start the program, the student glut hadn’t dissipated, resulting in an average flight event rate of about one every week and a half. You would call to listen to the recording of the next day’s flight schedule early in the evening, and if you weren’t on it (and generally you weren’t), that was it – you were off the next day. Didn’t even have to call in each morning to verify you weren’t face down in a ditch somewhere. Now I did mention in a previous post that my living situation became less favorable once I moved off the beach and up nearer to Whiting Field in an attempt to be responsible. Bad call. Still though, that’s a lot of paid time off, and once I moved back to the beach for the last two months or so, this time a half hour to the east in Navarre, my living situation exceeded even the Pensacola Beach salad days.
As much as I really, really want to just go entirely off the rails right now and write about the stories – SO many stories – from that time frame, I actually am attempting to go somewhere that brings us back to here and now in Pensacola… Memory lane. Nostalgia central. I spent almost two years making the best kind of memories in Pensacola, and save for one evening at a friend’s house in the early 2000s, I had not been back since.
So how does a visit to city 26 years after you left it live up to that? Everyone knows you can’t go home again, and there must be a corollary that says something like “you can’t go back to Pensacola again.” I knew this. Something I hadn’t entirely known was that Tacco’s experience in Pensacola was not even remotely like mine. I thought we were seeing this visit similarly. Not so. You’d think we would’ve covered this ground at some point in our 16 years of marriage, but somehow we managed not to until just about the Alabama border, as I was babbling about some of the things I was looking forward to seeing and giddily alluding to 20 of my 200 flight school stories (again), and she offered “you know, I really don’t have many memories here.”
Sccrrraaattttccchhh… um, really?
“I mean, I appreciate that you do, but you need to understand that I got here, went straight into training, did two events per day until I finished this phase and then I left. I didn’t have any time to play.” Wow. Makes sense of course, but it was somewhat mind-blowing, both the difference in our experiences and the fact that I hadn’t really ever asked her about this.
So I guess Pensacola is my place, and I would be the sole parent pointing out the various “here’s where x happened…” sights to my almost-pretending-to-be-interested family/audience. That’s good to know.
I had split the visit into two planned segments – the first a two-night stay on Pensacola Beach and the second a longer stay (including a work trip for me) at the RV park on the Naval Air Station.
My first impression tracked somewhat with my impressions of driving through the bayou south and west of New Orleans. Namely that Pensacola has grown up. The town in which it once took maximum effort to even find an OK bottle of wine to buy (Actual quote, more or less: “son… I dunno about no Cab-yer-nay, but we got reyed, we got waaht. Rat there in them boxes. They got a spout in the bottom even…”), now sports a thriving downtown with more solid-looking restaurants than I could count, arts festivals, and Portland-style food trucks. Crossing the bridge onto the beach revealed the even more surprising sight of dozens of high-rise hotels and condos, multiple restaurant row / entertainment-type areas, and scads of beachfront mansions. When I lived there our cinder block cube was pretty much the standard, there were about a half-dozen restaurants total, and I think there was a miniature golf course with water hazards dyed an unholy red and a large Paul Bunyan. They’ve done an excellent job classing the place up!
Our RV park sat on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island, but was just a short walk to the beach, and we wasted no time setting up camp and prepping for some beach ops.
First though, lunch at Peg Leg Pete’s, a once-sleepy little place on the sand which had served as a backdrop to several of my Pensacola Beach stories and served up some memorable baked oysters of various styles to boot. True to form, it had about tripled in size as well, and appeared to be quite popular.
The oysters were every bit as tasty as I remembered, though the eccentric guy on the acoustic guitar playing “Harvest Moon” was sadly nowhere to be found. Ah well.
The beach was maybe not quite as white as I remembered, but still impressive, and the kids marveled, as I once had, at how the sand squeaked under your footsteps due to the uniformity of the grain size.
Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that technically school is still in session for our kids; fortunately Tacco does a better job of being diligent in that respect than I do, and she tempered my vision of an utterly unproductive full day playing on the beach with a suggestion that we visit Fort Pickens at the western end of our island and part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. So glad she did – I learned quite a bit there that I had never been interested enough to seek out when I lived just down the street years before.
Fort Pickens is one of three strategically positioned forts which served to defend the narrow entrance to Pensacola Harbor. From any of the three you can see the other two, but the range circles of their guns fell just shy of each other, while overlapping in the bay’s entrance, so they were able to set up an effective crossfire. I suspect TACCO will go into more detail about the various forts, but one of the tidbits of knowledge that really stuck with me was the fact that, had it not been for inclement weather, Fort Pickens and not Fort Sumter would have likely been the site of the Civil War’s first shots fired. It, too, was held by government (Union) soldiers at the time and a group of Confederate soldiers had an attack planned and ready to go from further east on the island, but weather prevented it. And then hell broke loose in South Carolina.
More beach play followed our short history lesson, and we were able to get together with some friends for dinner out on the beach right next to our RV park.
The next morning greeted us with threatening clouds and a good bit of wind, but we figured we’d be remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to do a bit more beach walking / exploring.
We actually walked up the beach to the aforementioned cinder block cube that once housed me. I’ve gotta say, it was pretty ugly. And the large expanse of sand that led to the water was now fenced off and overgrown with beach plants that protect the dunes from erosion. There was also a massive mansion between the house and the water – where’d that come from? But it was entertaining to see, even if no one wanted to hear me talk about throwing furniture off the balcony, trying to use a large inflatable island to surf, or putting holes in the neighbor’s guitar. In place of that I texted a picture of it to the old roomies and got to reminisce a bit via text message.
Another surprise – that house came up on Zillow as being worth $800K… what?!?!? I think it was worth a tenth of that at most when we were there; if only we had known.
Our campsite on the Naval Air Station was a bit more rustic, and we were met upon arrival with a classic Florida-style thunderstorm that turned the whole place into a temporary pond.
The location was good though, with a short walk to the Bayfront beach, another of the forts nearby (on the base), a historic lighthouse within walking distance, and the Museum of Naval Aviation just up the street. On top of that, it sat essentially at show center for the almost-weekly Blue Angels practices, making this the second time the kids were able to see a Blue Angels show this trip.
I missed most of the time there due to my work commitments. My only thing to note from the going-to-and-from-work experience: Pensacola is a DIFFICULT city to get to, at least as a pilot. There aren’t many flights that serve it, and there are a ton of other pilots who live there. Getting to work was tricky – getting back was almost impossible. I made it as far as Atlanta and then was bumped off of four successive flights. I was just about to give up and go find a hotel room for the night when a Hail Mary passenger no-show allowed me to slide into a seat and get back to my family.
We rounded out our Pensacola time with another beach walk and one more nostalgic night out to eat at McGuire’s, which is another of the classic P-Cola restaurants, particularly for the aviation crowd. If I recall correctly, it was known for a few things: Huge food portions; signed dollar bills stapled to just about every inch of the ceiling and walls (to which you were encouraged to add your own); confusing bathroom signage that tended to incite hilarity; and a big moose head behind the makeshift “stage” (usually hosting sloppily singing patrons rather than any actual talent) which you were supposed to kiss, but I forget exactly why. The kids were surprised to hear that for a short time I donned the McGuire’s green vest and tended bar for their catering division while in Flight School. THAT was fun.
McGuire’s itself was a little bit disappointing, but not the sad kind of disappointing. More like the confirmation I hadn’t realized I needed that this Pensacola was not the Pensacola I once lived in, that that time and place are securely bygone and have been properly celebrated, and that I could definitively close that book. It’s a much bigger restaurant now, with lots of little sub-rooms, one of which we were tucked into. I couldn’t even find the moose initially. My kids didn’t find the bathroom signage that confusing or amusing (basically each door has the opposite gender’s name with an arrow pointing to the other door)… guess that only incites hilarity after a few drinks. And the food was just ok. Big portions in themselves just don’t do it for me. Kinda the opposite actually. The sub-room in which we were seated happened to be Blue Angel themed, and I found myself sitting across from the flight suit of a classmate of mine from back in the P-Cola days. He had been not just a Blue Angel, but the Commanding Officer of the Blues, and this was a long enough time ago to have his flight suit displayed on the wall in commemoration. That officially makes me old I’m pretty sure. If nothing else, I can see “old” from here.
Yes, this was an excellent visit. I like Pensacola and always will. It’s a fun and dynamic town with an extensive history both military and otherwise, miles of gorgeous beaches, and a laid back Southern charm. I’ll always associate it with a time of my life in which I had it so incredibly good, and I even knew how good I had it while I was in it, yet still I wasn’t able to fathom just how insanely memorable it all was.
As I learned at the Jean Lafitte NHP, here’s just a little something extra to add on our last full day all together in New Orleans…
After knocking out a full day of studies, we picked Flight up at the airport in the early afternoon and headed back into The French Quarter. Since we enjoyed lunch before coming to collect him, I suggested he grab a quick bite at the airport as we were en route. From the airport we headed straight to the French Quarter. After a quick debrief precipitated by Flight throwing out a few suggestions and my replying “Oh, we did that yesterday…” we parked the car and, not sure of where to start, wandered over to check out the docked Steamboat Natchez, which was about to get underway. For a three-hour tour.
Kidding, it was only two.
And it was the perfect opportunity to relax, see the French Quarter from a distance, learn a bit about the mechanics of a steamboat, get some traditional beans and rice, hear some jazz (the girls couldn’t help but dance), and sort out what we were going to do before we departed for Pensacola, which I hadn’t quite realized (and wouldn’t for about another day) was in less than 40 hours.
I had done some research and learned that NOLA would be celebrating her 300-year anniversary, complete with a floating museum of tall-ships coming into port that evening.
Although it would have been great to get over to see the tall-ships in person, it was enough to see a couple of them at anchor from the steamboat’s shifting vantage point. Observing the city gearing up for celebration, my inner 22-year old wanted to take in NOLA in full party finery, but my mama bear instinct realized that was probably unwise.
We did manage to introduce our kids to the art of eating beignets. I have very distinct memories of several all out powdered sugar fights at Café du Monde that I may or may not have started been drawn into and thought we should go easy on the kids. The carnage wasn’t too bad.
Flight and I ordered together, as we often do, when we enjoyed an early dinner at the New Orleans Creole Cookery (= “city food” with tomatoes).
I stuck with the standard fare and got another sampling dish and Flight ordered oysters, it was the perfect taste of NOLA. As sunset is about the right time for kids to move out of the French Quarter, we repaired to Davista to pack up for relocation to the heart of the Vieux Carré following school in the morning.
As the kids were finishing up school, Flight and I walked about the campsite to check out the gator traps cabins perched above gator lairs.
All I could think imagine was having one of those enormous reptiles waddle up the plank to snack on the nicely contained morsels sleeping within. I’m good with the nice half-mile buffer to the campground, thank you.
We were slow to leave our last location having had plenty of The French Quarter for the last few days, but somehow I didn’t equate time spent at our Bayou Segnette spot as time taken away from our last hurrah in the New Orleans. In retrospect, that should have been obvious, but, much to Flight’s occasional exasperation, I never really have had a solid grasp on the passing of time.
Our new address was smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, one that was safe enough to walk to and from, in the daylight, anyway, “but you should plan to Uber at night” according to the campground host. parked right next to a cemetery. For those of you who are not familiar, the water table is pretty close to ground level, which means that any serious rain would transform traditional graves into the last scenes of Poltergeist. It was a little eerie to look out our bedroom window and see an expanse of nothing but crypts and mausoleums. I should have taken a picture, but, regretfully, didn’t think to do so.
We finally sauntered into town just shy of 3 pm and zipped right by Bourbon St for obvious reasons. Now that I had backup, I told Flight I wanted to catch the Historical Pharmacy Museum and was able to pop in almost free of children. Almost.
WoodSprite assured me she was just as keen as I to learn about making Absinthe and ghastly versions of rhinoplasty used to restore functional noses to those stricken with advanced syphilis, so she joined me on my pilgrimage to honor ancient medicine.
Fear not, those pictures were in glass cases that required at least a five-foot vantage point, so WoodSprite departed that establishment without those dreamy images to fill her head. Actually, there was quite a bit to this little museum and I would love to go back for a longer visit without the added, “Hey, Momma, how much longer?” interruptions. Next time.
We rejoined Flight and the older two in Jackson Square and we turned towards the French Market in search of trinkets and an early dinner. As Flight mentioned, the market was quite an experience for Keeper, but we departed only with two name bracelets made for the girls and, sadly, sans fedora.
Dinner, however, was surprisingly good. Flight got his boudin fix and the only other open offering was a crèperie, which fed the other four of our herd.
As they were sweeping up around us, we mobilized to show the kids more of the Vieux Carré. After getting shut out at Pat O’Brien’s on our way to the French Market (What do you mean we can’t bring our kids into a bar to get hurricanes?), we thought we’d take in some serious jazz and sauntered over to Preservation Hall only to find those in the 90-minute line straining to hear a preview of their evening’s entertainment.
Flight and I realized that probably wouldn’t do and, unsuccessfully, sought out the next slice of NOLA to share. Flight and I came to the same “What exactly are we trying to accomplish here?” moment simultaneously and steered our gaggle back to Davista, a little baffled at our belated disillusionment.
While the monkeys immersed themselves in digital worlds, Flight and I grabbed some adult beverages and slipped outside to debrief our New Orleans time in the fading sunlight. Due to our inability to communicate and hash out our respective ideal plans prior to executing Operation Big Easy, we came to the conclusion that there were plenty of things outside the French Quarter we would could should have done to truly experience living in the bayou. Recognizing the Woulda Coulda Shoulda Game is never a productive undertaking, our two take aways were this: ultimately we did a reasonable job of exposing the kids to the PG version of our NOLA memory playlist, hopefully piquing curiosity for further exploration much, MUCH later down the road and, as always, solid communication remains paramount in every successful campaign. May we keep every mindful of this debrief and practice our lessons learned.
But first, anyone for a Diesel Fuel at Flounder’s?
Approaching the Louisiana bayou meant approaching memory lane for me, as I spent my first few adult (read: out of college, on my own, and therefore memorable) years in this part of the country. Not in New Orleans per se, rather a few hours down the road in Pensacola. But road trips to New Orleans were a fairly common thing due to the pace of Navy Primary Flight Training at the time. More on that later though…
I wanted to take the off-the-beaten path route to New Orleans from Houston; here’s how that looked.
That area has always fascinated me for several reasons. One is the way in which the landscape so gradually becomes the Gulf of Mexico. Miles upon miles of swamp / bayou with what I would imagine to be essentially un-mappable shoreline due to the tides and continually shifting mud and sand. And then there’s the whole Cajun culture that’s so different from anything else in the country. I had read a few books in which people were plopped into that region through various circumstances (one was an ejection out of a fighter jet if I remember correctly), and basically found themselves in another country, almost completely cut off from anything familiar. I wasn’t sure we would be able to get a taste of that through traversing the area by road, but I was hopeful. And part of me was eager to convince the family to buy a whole mess of crawfish to boil up with some corn and maybe some andouille, to feast on that night. (Spoiler alert: nope. I’m the only crawfish fan in our clan.)
The drive ended up confounding my expectations, both for the scenery and for how not backwater it seemed. I was expecting to find an area frozen in time, and it didn’t appear that way at all. I also remember from previous drives, signs like this everywhere, advertising various things: chicken fried steaks, mudbugs, girly shows, bail bonds, gumbo by the gallon… This time I’m not sure I saw even one of them. Evidently they’ve fallen out of favor. Bad luck for whoever makes them, but probably good luck for the rest of us.
Really, it was just a pretty drive. Green and lush, cypresses, vines, lots of water, people fishing on the side of the road… One thing that stood out was how every building, from houses to schools to libraries, was built on high stilts. You’d imagine that flooding was common, but it did make me wonder exactly how common.
The one section of road that sat right next to the Gulf’s coastline was a bit underwhelming. The water was brownish, multiple oil rigs loomed just offshore, and there was no real beach that you would want to hang out on. It was our first ocean sighting since the Pacific and as such was slightly momentous, but the actual sight of it netted only a half-hearted “oh yeah, right, cool” from the kiddos, likely due to the scene I described. So I didn’t make a big deal of it. I also remembered that the prevailing current in the Gulf flows counter-clockwise along the shore, which sends the runoff from the Mississippi (along with God knows how much fertilizer and random pollutants) in this direction, creating a massive “dead zone” along and out from Louisiana’s western coastline. So the water’s being brownish and unvisited made sense.
We did cross a river on a ferry at one point, which was unexpected. Fortunately it was free in our direction and they’re used to taking big semis across, so our 50’ of RV/car was no big deal at all for them. I did not want to have to backtrack.
We stayed in a state park just west of downtown New Orleans called Bayou Segnette, and it looked the part due to our arrival after a full day of torrential rain.
I learned a few days later that the various airboat tours through the bayou that are advertised in New Orleans take place right next door on the waterways along which we walked and jogged, fortunately uninterrupted by gator sightings. I found it gorgeous, and loved the fireflies and the sound of the thousands of frogs that night. The bugs weren’t bad yet, nor was the heat/humidity, allowing us to spend maximum time outside. We had to walk on a raised wooden path over the swamp and through the woods to get to the bathroom/showers. As luck would have it, the mulberry trees were hitting peak ripeness as well, and any bathroom walk resulted in shoe soles stained dark purple.
Unfortunately I had a trip to fly, so had to abandon my family to the bayou for a few days the morning after we arrived. When we returned, though, they picked me up at the airport and we drove directly to the French Quarter.
I love the French Quarter – who doesn’t? Sure, there’s the sleaze factor and by no standard could you call it “clean,” but that’s all part of the charm, and the live music, food, and general vibe are unmatched. I’ve had many, many great days and nights there. But that leads to sort of a predicament: How do you do New Orleans with kids? It is definitely one of those places where what you do as an adult, particularly as an early-twenty-something adult, bears no resemblance to what you would do there with young ones.
Fortunately one solution presented itself almost immediately when we parked – we exited the car to find that the riverboat Natchez was departing for an hour-and-half-long cruise on the Mississippi within 15 minutes. We considered that a target of opportunity and quickly jumped aboard.
That was undeniably cool. After touring the whole boat and checking out how the huge paddlewheel works (as well as introducing the kiddos to Cajun red beans and rice – hit!), we found some chairs on the lower deck and listened to the live New Orleans jazz band playing upstairs. Woodsprite and Firebolt launched immediately into energetic dancing, with Firebolt in particular appearing to feel the music deep in her bones. It’s so satisfying to see her in her element like that.
We followed that up with a stroll through the Quarter and some Cajun food (More oysters! More jambalaya! More red beans and rice!) before heading back to Bayou Segnette.
Our accommodation plan was actually to spend our final night or two there in the French Quarter; it turns out there’s a slightly swanky RV park right at N’awlins Ground Zero, or at least just outside. Location location location indeed, with the price to match. It must be quite the place during the various festivals. I couldn’t justify staying there for more than two nights (and actually it turned into one, which was just fine), but wanted to be able to amble into the fun. That also turned out to be less important than I’d anticipated – I suppose I was conflating memories of New Orleans with present realities.
The truth is, we ran out of things to do pretty quickly in the Quarter. There’s certainly more than a little crisis of creativity involved therein, but what we realized before long at all was two-fold: many things there start up after sunset (and continue until sunrise), and the kids had no business being there after sunset. We brought them by Pat O’Briens at 4PMish, hoping that they could get a whiff of what the French Quarter can be about without having to be immersed in it, but the doorman intercepted us before we even got close, letting us know that this was 21-and-over only and there was an associated restaurant down the way that we might enjoy. Of course it’s 21-and-over, what are we, nuts? Preservation Hall next door for some live heritage jazz was another bright idea we had, but passing by it reminded us that oh yeah, you need to line up at least an hour ahead of time to get in. Plus the venue just isn’t that kid friendly.
Firebolt does complement the scenery though!
So yes, in hindsight we would have put more focus on some of the other neighborhoods – the Garden District, etc… and maybe done a bayou tour or something like that. There’s also an extraordinary World War II museum there, which we missed. Next time.
Miscommunication played a bit of a role as well, though, and led to a bit of frustration – the first real “pressure cooker” moments of this latest phase of traveling. Tacco and I haven’t quite been on the same page with respect to planning. During the first phase of travel there was no concrete “planning” page for us both to be on… we were both equally clueless. This time we know to reserve ahead religiously, most crucially over weekends and at popular destinations. Consequently we now tend to have our accommodations teed up for at least a month. She’s been much more busy than I with ongoing commitments, and I’ve had the advantage of a few work trips in which I didn’t have much to do other than plan our travels. That’s good and bad. Good in that I can handle it and have the planning/reserving done before she has to be concerned about it, less good in that if we don’t brief plans for a particular visit thoroughly, it becomes easy to have widely varying visions for what a particular stay will look like.
We didn’t brief New Orleans particularly well. The details are uninteresting (and actually a little vague), but ultimately we left a bit unsatisfied that we hadn’t “done” New Orleans as well as we could have. I came back from my work trip assuming that they had seen and done everything they wanted to in my absence, and more or less took over the agenda. I got my crawfish boudin in the French Market (which they had already visited) like I had envisioned, but in general the execution and coordination were sloppier than they could’ve been.
We did have an amusing experience in the French Market. The girls found a vendor making personalized name bracelets and we had one made for Firebolt (Woodsprite’s was already pre-made). While we were waiting for it, Keeper and I decided to check out some hats. As I’m always attempting to make him cooler than I am/was, I suggested he try on a few that I figured he could make work, including a pretty snazzy-looking black straw fedora (it looked better than it sounds). As he reached for it, the vendor, a middle-aged, slow-moving African American woman who stood about 4’9”, began to butter him up a little like only a lifetime N’Awlins denizen like her could: “naah, that, son… that looks sharp… here naah, take a look in this heah mirruh…” [slowly holds up the mirror] “Ya see? … But… wait naah just a second… if you REALLY wanna kill the ladies… whatcha need ta do…” [reaches slowly toward his hat, at which point Keeper, already rosy cheeked but quickly reddening further and trying to stifle laughter, also realizes that he looks pretty killer in the hat, but is slightly embarrassed at the attention and not sure how to deal with this] “Now son… I’m gonna need ya to relax for me heah…” [she then slowly and deliberately slides the hat forward and slightly off-kilter on his brow] “y’all take a look now…” At the same time, another guy who appeared to just be walking guy stopped and remarked “you know, he really could pull off a fedora…” Perfect. Why we didn’t buy the fedora I have no clue – if I had it to do 10 times over again, I’d buy it every single time. But ah well, Keeper does have the story, which may be just as good even without the fedora.
I’m pretty certain our kids will be back to New Orleans some day. Hopefully we planted a few seeds that will allow them to enjoy it responsibly and in moderation. Or, you know, something… (ha!)
And hopefully we’ve learned to align our expectations a little better as well. We really only have a few months left of this; it would be a shame to leave more cool cities saying “we could’ve done that better.”
“How long have you been on the road?” is actually a tricky question to answer. We started on July 30th of 2017, so by that measure we’re pushing nine months. But we took the three winter months “off” back in Maryland, so those sort of don’t count. On the other hand, we weren’t planning to stay on the road all winter to begin with (original plan had us doing a snow/ski month somewhere and maybe a month in Europe), so maybe they do count? Regardless, we’ve now been BACK on the road for just over a month, and wanted to show our progress. Anything in green is still just notional, though even more so after Atlanta, as we have reservations up to that point.
The house is still for sale, and we’re over it. Despite several price reductions and many thousands of dollars (and hours!) in improvements and work, the input we’re getting hasn’t changed much, and we’ve had no reasonable offers. For those of you who live in truly hot housing markets and who are or have been on the selling side of the equation, consider yourselves fortunate — this is stressful.
On the positive side, we do seem to have a destination now about which we’re all very excited, and we are fully assimilated to life on the road. It no longer feels like living in the Instant Pot! Most of the time at least.
New Orleans brings to mind two very distinct collections of memories. The first dates from the few times I made it over to the Big Easy from Pensacola while in training to become a naval aviator over twenty years ago. The second from my three weeks in Officer Recruiting Officer training that was held at the Navy’s Belle Chasse Department of Redundancy Department a mere 15 years ago. Most noteworthy is that both memory-gathering eras were before kids. Much of what little I knew of New Orleans was through the eyes of a much younger person unfettered by the joys of parenting, which meant I didn’t plan this visit accordingly. This sign kinda summed up my previous vision.
And somehow I didn’t know to recognize that disconnect until we pulled chocks and rolled on to Pensacola. Sigh…
New Orleans is a vibrant town whose reputation I understood to center on its laissez faire attitude. Although the city itself is a beautiful compilation of the varied influences of the many different people who have called this area home, I think it is the shifting identity of “creole” that is the basis of this attitude. I’ll get to what it is to be creole shortly, but first, a few highlights of what was in my greatest hits memory playlist to share with our kids. The French Quarter topped the list for sure, as that’s where we’d find the perfect mix of all that NOLA is known for – a little Jazz, a hurricane or two, beignets at Café du Monde, street musicians. What kid wouldn’t want to be exposed to that?
Hmm. Not unlike Las Vegas, there is a wide range of how one might experience New Orleans, all of which you can’t unsee, and so the plan evolved into how best to do so without scarring our kids unnecessarily. Looking back, we had planned our time in Texas quite well, meaning Flight and I discussed very specifically what we were cleared to do while the other was out of town, saving things we both wanted to enjoy as our flight of five for when we were all together again. Not only did we neglect to have that critical conversation before we moved Davista into the city, only steps away from the French Quarter the night before we moved on to Pensacola, but our individual ill-conceived visions for sharing the past with our kids were strikingly similar, which meant we perhaps overdid the French Quarter and didn’t see much of everything else. Shame on us.
So, let me back up our arrival and Flight’s departure for his work trip. When we departed Houston and blew by the road to Galveston, I was astonished to learn the combined Houston/Galveston metropolitan area boasts the fourth highest population in the U.S. !!! It would not be my preference to plant my flag in the line of annual hurricane wreckage, but apparently a lot of people do.
As Flight was at Davista’s controls, the flight path to New Orleans was his to choose. We mostly hugged the shoreline, and my meteorological assessment of this neck of the Gulf Coast proved spot on as we wound our way through small town after small town with all buildings of consequence on stilts.
I had previously seen houses in flood zones so perched, but was surprised to see a high school campus on stilts.
At last we arrived at the Bayou Segnette State Park. I initially had some reservations about this location, but our site proved a lovely little corner from which we could strike in any direction. A bonus was seeing whatever flora and fauna was out and about as we strolled along the raised boardwalk to get to and from the bathhouse. We saw an abundance of turtles, ripe mulberries (which Flight and I each sampled whenever passed through, much to the dismay of Keeper and Firebolt (WoodSprite actually tried one but decided they weren’t her favorite) whose anxiety was not eased as we repeated nearly verbatim our SERE training on berries), and thankfully only one snake.
Shortly after our arrival, we managed an early dinner, some chalk artwork, and rolled to the airport.
We dropped Flight off on Sunday evening and had to fend for ourselves until we collected him three days later. The following morning, after many hours of strong work devoted to dawdling school, I saw the wisdom of staying put for the afternoon to regroup before we headed to the French Quarter. I made the opportunity to review the two National Park Service sites that are only blocks away from each other and tentatively put them on the calendar to check out on different days.
Despite their proximity, there was a night and day difference between the two National Park institutions. The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is a conglomeration of six sites and headquartered on Decatur St, one of the main drags through the French Quarter. There was also a daily Ranger presentation scheduled every morning at 0930. Typically we will try to knock out academic business in the morning, sometimes modified sometimes not, before we use the afternoons to explore the local environs. Primarily based on the scheduled Ranger talk I thought we should hear, we made the whole day a field trip day and headed into New Orleans proper at a most unreasonable hour.
Most fortuitously, and likely due to the early hour, we readily found parking and made it to the Visitor Center with four minutes to spare.
After a brief introduction on the title of the collection of NPS sites falling under the Jean Lafitte NHP (“I have a hard time with this site being named for a notorious pirate…”), the Ranger gave a solid history on the development of New Orleans and all the flags that have flown above her constantly shifting boundaries. What I hadn’t realized is that in the wake of LaSalle’s exploration of the Mississippi, the travel route from what is now Quebec to La Louisiane (named for then King Louis XIV) opened up, further compounding the influence of far reaching empires. In fact, a large part of what now makes up the local Cajun population is rooted in Acadian transplants (les Acadiens became the truncated “Cajun”) who, after being forcibly removed from their homes, traveled down the river from NE Canada. WoodSprite’s greatest take away from the talk was “Don’t treat people who work for you bad or they might kill you.” Apparently, LaSalle was notoriously unpleasant to his crew and, after several failed ventures (we’re talking on the scale of sunken ships and being shipwrecked 500 miles away from the intended destination), his minions mutinied and killed him. Zoinks!
After the Ranger’s presentation, we collected the Junior Ranger books and the girls got to work. Overall, this was the most depressing NPS Visitor Center we have visited. The Junior Ranger books were sloppy copies and many of the audio exhibits for listening to variations in local dialects and juxtaposing different music styles that have their roots in New Orleans, which I certainly would have enjoyed hearing, were out of service.
Even the Ranger who administered the oath to the girls looked as though she had just come straight out of a week in the field at the Barataria Preserve. On a positive note, we still learned a ton about both the Creole and Cajun cultures.
I had always understood “Creole” to be the nebulous descriptor for anyone who called the bayou country home. Not so. The term Creole has gone through several iterations in its meaning over the years. With its roots in South America, the term originally meant “native-born,” and was used as a means of identifying the native population from European transplants. Creole then morphed to include children of mixed racial descent and/or those who have French or Spanish blood. The best description of current usage I found comes from Louisiana historian Fred B. Kniffin, in Louisiana: Its Land and People, who stated Creole “has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house, and many other things. It is therefore no precise term and should not be defined as such.” Well, that clears things up.
Despite having no more solid a grasp on what it means to be Creole, my inner foodie was excited to see there was a discussion of the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine. In the loosest terms, the former tends to refer to “city food” and the latter to “back country” eats, however those terms are becoming interchangeable in the mainstream culinary circles. Or so I read at the Visitor Center. I have since learned that one of the prime discriminators between the two may be tomatoes, as Creole cooking uses them and Cajun does not, but not even that is a strict definition. The two styles of cooking reflect the unique identities of the people who have added to them over the years. The resourceful Cajun practice of using every bit of an animal and layering seasoning throughout its creation is very different from the Creole cuisine that developed more wide-ranging flavors steeped in the aristocratic tradition of having access to more exotic ingredients. I thoroughly enjoy both styles and was delighted to sample some of each, which brings me to our next unplanned evolution.
Our Junior Rangers were sworn in at 11:30ish and the Ranger encouraged us to make our way to the New Orleans Jazz NHP to catch the free jazz concert at noon. There would be another concert down the street at 2 pm featuring a band of Rangers who were all Jazz Musicians. After contemplating what kind of a threshold our children had for National Park venues as the lunch hour was nearly upon us, I proposed this compromise: let’s go pick up the new Junior Rangers books, listen to some of the concert and then get some lunch. The kids were game so we trundled off to other NPS site, collected new activity books that were no more challenging, and sat down to hear some Jazz. Much of this light, airy Visitor Center was taken up by a small performance hall with a goal of telling the story of this very important part of New Orleans history through experiencing the music.
Now I will admit I came to this session entirely uneducated in the mechanics of jazz save knowing there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on throughout sets, which usually starts with blending the sounds of all the musicians first, working through solo opportunities for each instrument, and then coming together again in a finale of sorts. I knew nothing of jazz piano, except that my uncle loves to play Dixieland jazz and I’ve only had the opportunity to hear him once or twice.
We were fortunate to have Richard Scott (see above photo) as our high noon solo entertainer. He spoke about the birth and evolution of Jazz and infamous piano player Jelly Roll Morton’s, well, role in that changing musical discipline, all the while playing examples of what he had just discussed. He gave a fantastic description of playing “Stride” jazz, where a piano player takes on the role of three different musicians to play a melody, a base line, and the in between harmony. Because a pianist is usually limited to two hands, the base hand walks or strides between the base keys and those hammering out the harmony. I have to say it was far more impressive to hear him play and improvise knowing a little more about all that goes into such a production. You can learn more about the New Orleans Jazz NHP here.
Exhibiting uncharacteristic patience, our kids did brilliantly with this experience. I knew to cut our time short than overstay their threshold for learning and have them give in to mounting sass driven by gnawing bellies. We quietly excused ourselves and meandered down to the Royal House Oyster Bar where all the kids all tried fried alligator.
While the girls are still eager to rely on the familiar offerings of kids’ menus, Keeper is quite pleased to order from the regular offerings. He surprised all of us, especially our waiter, by ordering the blackened redfish, which was delicious. I enjoyed sampling his meal more than my Taste of New Orleans that featured jambalaya, crawfish etouffée, and gumbo.
While we were awaiting our meals, the girls finished up their NO Jazz Junior Ranger workbooks and after dining we popped back over to have their work evaluated to earn their newest badges.
We took a rather serpentine route through the French Quarter to find our car and I realized there were so many places I wanted to further investigate, but that likely wouldn’t happen on this trip. Although, really, how scary might some voodoo stuff be especially for the 8 and under crowd? Exactly.
I knew Flight wanted to introduce our kids to beignets and so avoided Café du Monde. Instead we sampled some other New Orleans goodies and passed through the French Market at a steady clip. On our way we found pralines for all my friends. Happily double-badged and sweet-tooth pacified, our girls were delighted to call our French Quarter experience good. Keeper, however, started feeling nauseous on the way back to Davista. His system was overwhelmed by the rich food combined with the sugar hit. Poor guy.
As always, I was thrilled we’d be collecting Flight the following morning. In general, and as one might expect, this journey is so much easier with my life’s partner present, but keeping track of our gaggle together through the French Quarter was especially stressful and I was relieved we’d be returning to the 2-on-3 zone defense. After a quick Instant Pot dinner (for everyone but Keeper, still woozy he abstained), I sorted out the kids’ respective school agendas for the morning and didn’t think much beyond what time we had to depart for the airport before crashing out. My last coherent thoughts were vaguely centered on wondering what we’d do tomorrow with Flight as we’d covered a lot of Vieux Carré ground already today…
Not to say I didn’t enjoy our Johnson Space Center tour in Houston, I did. It was a bit crowded, but that’s to be expected on a weekend. I learned a few things, too. I hadn’t realized that we (as in we, the USA) were fully engaged in an eventual mission to Mars. Learning about how that’s planned and being fleshed out was fascinating. It was also entertaining to watch the kids get wrapped up in Apollo 13 and have them seeking out the pictures of the various astronauts whose actor counterparts they gravitated to in the movie. I had wanted to watch The Right Stuff with Keeper in order to round out that period of our history before we moved on to other things, but it’s a three hour movie, and uninterrupted three hour chunks of time that don’t involve sleep are almost as tricky to come by on the road as they are at home.
Two more things stood out for me at NASA. Firstly, that Saturn rocket is enormous. I mean, absolutely massive. The engineering involved with not only guiding that thing into space, but keeping it from tearing itself apart under the forces involved is mind-boggling. Secondly, the Mercury-Redstone rocket is tiny! I picture the scene (from The Right Stuff) of Alan Shepherd sitting in his capsule at the top of it, first wetting his spacesuit and then telling them to “fix [their] little problems and light this candle!” and I imagined another massive rocket. It’s not. It’s not that much taller than a telephone pole. For some reason that struck me too – the idea of riding this little Mazda Miata of a rocket into space. (My dad’s quote on Miatas upon first in-person viewing: “That looks like you should have one for each foot!”)
The kids enjoyed the tour as well. No new astronaut candidates in the group, but I do think Firebolt took to the idea of working on the engineering / mission control side of things. She’s great that way – she has added at least three or four more future career paths on this trip to her already impressive list of “things she’s gonna do” (teacher, soccer player, “science person,” and president of the USA, just to name a few).
Otherwise Tacco covered Houston well, and I don’t have anything to add, other than the fact that it, too, is massive. Most reasonably large cities that aren’t geographically constrained tend to have a major interstate or two that run through the middle of them and then another that rings around the metro area. Houston has four such concentric rings.
Heading from the west side to the southeast side of the metro area, we managed to spend a solid hour and a half on one of these rings in heavy, lane-weaving traffic (not at all fun in Davista), never once seeing anything that looked like a city off in the distance to our left, as it remained too distant in the haze. I’ve determined that I prefer the 2-to-4 lane secondary roads to interstates, and if I absolutely need to drive through a city, I want to do it either with the car and RV disconnected, or in the middle of the night.
And then we arrived here.
I had done considerable research before booking here, and of the many “RV parks” in the area, this had the best reviews. Parking lot, busy highways on two sides, power lines… there ya go. At least it wasn’t hot and humid yet.
All good though, we had only planned this to be a quick stopover on the way to New Orleans, and for that it more than served its purpose.
There are gators. On walk about. In Houston. I thought gators were conscious of not crossing state lions with illegal porpoises (that’s punch line of a terrible joke I once heard, I’ll spare you…) and mindfully kept to Florida. Not so. Our accommodations in Houston boasted one benefit, and pulling the kayaks out to paddle about the non-swimming hole (aka “the lake” as in the Willow Lake RV Resort) was not it. I took a stroll around the lake and learned it was not a place to kayak or swim.
What was befuddling, was the use of the additional signage about a quarter mile down:
I though maybe posting a “Beware of Gators – Please do not feed the wildlife” sign would have been sufficient because the unwritten follow on “with yourself” immediately came to mind. But perhaps the lawyers were unwilling to allow Darwinism to potentially streamline our gene pool, lest any hypothetical survivors of any alleged gator attacks try to sue.
In preparation for our stop at the Houston Space Center, Flight watched Apollo 13 with the kids while I was in DC for my Navy Reserve work. As we rolled into the RV resort, Firebolt sidled up to the driver’s seat and offered up, “Houston, we have a problem. We are out of toilet paper.” I turned around to ask, “Seriously?” when she giggled and said, “Just kidding! I just wanted to say ‘Houston, we have a problem.’”
That kid is as witty as they come. Meanwhile, her jesting brought about immediate flashbacks to last August when liberal use of that precious resource (specifically created for rapid decomposition in marine and RV usage) had temporarily clogged our black water tank and we had to creatively flush it using a dump station hose fed through the window above Woodsprite’s bed and into the open commode to force out the lingering clumps of yet-to-deteriorate TP. Fortunately, we were able to unclog the mass of tissue collecting in the tank, which necessitated implementing the general* rule “No more than six squares per visit. Total.” (*Okay, okay, wipe until you’re clean, but please don’t us half a roll in the process as you might break our house…)
I had known our RV-specific TP supply was running low and already briefed the kids that we were on ration status until we could procure more, but didn’t think we were yet at General Quarters. I have come to learn that lack of TP is nearly as mission critical as a free-flowing black water tank. I wonder how they handle that at the International Space Station. Do they use Charmin? Never mind, I saw The Martian…
Our only full day in Houston was spent paying homage to NASA’s efforts, which was the singular benefit to staying here as it was nearby:
Although entry to the museum is free, the thing to do is the 90-minute tram tour that has three stops across the NASA Houston complex and that thing, sadly, is not free, not even for Navy Space Cadre personnel (Flight suggested it’s because I haven’t yet learned the secret handshake).
Before we jumped on the sightseeing tram, we spent some time touring the museum. We practiced our docking skills at the International Space Station.
We had a physics discussion and practiced weightlifting on different planets of varying gravitational pull.
We saw where they faked the moon landing.
Kidding! Everyone knows they used a sound stage in Area 51.
We counted our blessings that my Naval Flight Officer path was cut short before entertaining getting into any of these tiny capsules.
Okay, maybe that was only me.
When I saw the below mockup of a space station, all I could think about was how vertigo inducing space travel would be for me and how it would be about two hours sans gravity before I went cray-cray.
I’m happy to know two astronauts, am glad they are excited about what they do, and even more delighted to know my Space Cadre role relegates me to a desk (I think).
Our budding scientist was equally excited (can’t you tell?) to see the elemental breakdown of the moon’s soil composition.
Once we’d canvassed the museum, we made our way to the tram-line and waited through innumerable games of “Cowboys” before we boarded our chariot.
Our first stop was at Mission Control Center. Firebolt was pretty stoked to see Mission Control, and upon entering immediately observed, “Wait, I’ve seen this before – this was in Apollo 13!” WoodSprite was less excited about all the stairs and waiting.
After leaving Mission Control, we were taken to see the astronaut training center full of stationary mock-ups of all sorts of space gear.
Center front was this contraption, which I was pleased to see was named for the mighty hunter, Orion.
The woman who briefed us at Mission Control told us that the Orion was bound for Mars in a few decades and that would be piloted by astronauts who are now six to eight years old (that got our girls’ attention!), whereas the future Mission Commander is probably now 12. Keeper perked up at that tidbit as well. Always keen to support STEM activities, I was delighted to see that NASA was hosting a FIRST Robotics competition at the other end of the training facility.
The last stop on the tour was to see the rocket hangar.
It’s tricky to truly understand the magnitude of these beasts until one actually sees them, and especially mind-blowing to note how small the actual vessels are compared to the engines and fuel tanks that serve to propel them into space. Firebolt posed with one like the five engines that were used in stage one to get SATURN V into orbit.
Each engine fires for only 2.5 minutes before burning through all the accompanying fuel and separates from the main pod. !!!
To put it in perspective… These things are ginormous.
Through our time at NASA’s Houston Complex, I was reassured that I am not a good candidate for exploring the final frontier, as neither an astronaut nor a rocket scientist. Once we got to the car, our kids enjoyed sharing a package of Astronaut Ice Cream and I had a few moments to reflect on our brief peek behind the outer space curtain. Listening to the kids compare taste sensations while savoring their freeze-dried morsels and wonder aloud about potential culinary choices during space travel, I recognized how happy I am to instead cultivate the grass right here.
Semi-secretly, I had been very much looking forward to bringing the family to Austin.
Austin and I have a bit of a history. When I was stationed in Corpus Christi, TX for flight training, I didn’t enjoy it much. There were several reasons for this, not all of which were Corpus Christi’s fault. Primarily, my good friend and roommate there got into some completely preposterous trouble that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pages of Catch-22. That’s a hopelessly convoluted and miserable story that I won’t tell here, but the upshot was that he was confined to the base for a month of our Corpus time, after which he was unexpectedly railroaded out of the Naval Aviation training program, though he was kept around for several months doing busywork while that process worked its way through the system. It was a time of much frustration, punctuated by the helplessness of railing against a massive bureaucratic organization to which you are ultimately insignificant. With hindsight it worked out extremely well for him, but of course none of us knew that at the time.
On top of that, I didn’t like my living situation (bland apartment complex) and found Corpus itself, well… unpleasant. Coming from my house directly situated on the whitest sand beach I had ever seen with close friends who owned a jet ski and a catamaran, respectively, Corpus may have never had a fighting chance, but still I had to work hard to find the bright sides, which I never quite did. What I remember first was the brutal weather. I had acclimatized to heat and humidity in Florida, but Corpus upped that a notch by throwing in both a steady 20-knot-plus wind, and a vast and very shallow bay over which that wind blew, picking up the stink of the rotting algae and seaweed along the way. It wasn’t a refreshing wind, it was a wet, sticky, foul-smelling wind. And then there was the beach near where I lived, which I had heard was great because you could drive on it. Excellent in theory. In practice, you could drive on it because the sand was concrete-hard, and when I drove out there to check it out I was surprised to see the beachgoers laying out not on the sand, but on the hoods of their cars, contorting themselves and squinting against the wind, which was blowing up bits of the chopped up seaweed and brownish seafoam that lay everywhere. Nahhh.
To be fair, Corpus has/had some nice parts, I just didn’t make a strong enough effort to seek them out and given the situation with my friend, didn’t feel especially inclined to.
What we did instead (once he was out of his base-confinement month) was look northwest to Austin, where his newly minted fiancée was working on her Doctorate in English at the University of Texas. We escaped Corpus pretty much every weekend and crashed at her apartment. In my mind Austin was everything Corpus wasn’t – the heat was palatable and not sticky, there was an unparalleled music scene, the food was excellent, a river ran right through town, and of course there was the college and all that entailed. It felt like a laid-back oasis to me.
I had been back a few times in the 25+ years since (what?!?) on airline layovers, and had found that vibe largely intact each time, even while what I appreciated about the city morphed with my age. The foodie scene is alive and well there, the hills to the west are scattered with high quality breweries, and still there’s a feeling of everyone relaxing and doing whatever they want to do. It’s very live-and-let-live. Several cities have adopted similar mottoes, but I believe Austin was the first to use “Keep Austin Weird.” I’ve heard it said that Austin is a very non-Texan city in the middle of Texas due to the diversity and the “weirdness,” but I don’t think it’s non-Texan at all. In my mind Texas at its most ideal is all about individuality and personal freedom, and it seems to me that Austin personifies that.
And then there’s the Hill Country, which most people will say is the most beautiful region of the state. And with the possible exception of Big Bend National Park (which I haven’t seen), I have to agree. Rolling hills, green grass, spring-fed rivers, swimming holes, waterfalls over limestone formations, ranches…
It’s not that I thought my family would necessarily want to move there, as I didn’t either, but it was something I was looking forward to sharing with them, as I hoped it would be as pleasant a surprise for them as it had been for me when I first started spending time there.
Here was our drive (including the aforementioned pre-dawn, future dystopian slog through oil country). It was a long one, made somewhat more interesting by the transition from the very brown, solidly arid western half of Texas to the steadily greener east/central region of the state. Transiting the region in the Spring probably helped as well, but by the time we departed I-10 and entered the outskirts of the Hill Country it was all grass, wildflowers, and trees, many of them evergreen.
Pedernales Falls State Park was our initial destination, at which I had only managed to book one day. Though it’s still a reasonably long drive to downtown Austin from there, I had seen pictures of the waterfall after which the park is named, and it looked like the kind of place you could easily spend a few lazy days hiking, biking, and swimming.
Our campsite there was a mixed bag. It was a bit farther from the river than I had hoped, and we watched as our cell signal dropped from a solid four bars at the check-in station to a grainy one bar in the site. I wish I didn’t care about this, but I do. Between wanting to be reachable due to our home sale situation, wanting to be able to research and set up future legs of our trip, and knowing the extra stress that not having a signal puts on the kids (ok, really just Keeper), it makes a difference. On the up side, it was spacious and gorgeous, with several lanky junipers from which we were able to hang the hammocks. Though the staff informed us soon after our check-in that we would be welcome to stay a few more days due to some cancellations, I opted to stick with the original plan and move us to a private campground near Lake Travis to the north.
Though it wasn’t quite swimming hole warm outside, we took an afternoon hike down to the river to check it out. We discovered that the actual falls were significantly upstream of us and would require a car ride to reach, but the area we were able to walk down to had a somewhat sandy beach and opportunities for wading.
Keeper and I noticed the small fish darting around near our feet and decided we would see if they would participate in creating our own free spa experience – the kind where you put your feet in a pool with a bunch of tiny, hungry fish and they nibble on the dead skin. It took them a little time to warm to the idea, but they came around! Mmmm, dead foot skin.
Originally I proceeded directly from the previous paragraph into one about really good food, and upon re-reading, that struck me as a horrible idea. So I’m adding a filler paragraph here to get your mind moving toward more savory images. Clear streams, trout, salmon, campfires… sometimes I’ll even cook salmon over a campfire before making s’mores! Ok, there.
Nurturing my foodie soul was one of the aspects of our Austin visit that I was most eagerly anticipating. Unfortunately, a few weeks earlier we determined that Tacco would need to fly back to DC for a few days during this part of our journey, making activity and eatery planning a bit trickier. I had a few places I had wanted to take everyone to experience, but needed to be more choosy and deliberate. Which brings me to barbeque…
Under no definition of the word can I claim BBQ aficionado status. It is not something I would seek out normally. What I do have is a great appreciation for BBQ as a cooking style and as a uniquely American element of cuisine. I love how hyper-regional it is, and how each region finds the others’ style downright heretical. And I greatly respect the commitment involved in crafting quality BBQ. We are very much a slow food family, not a fast food family, and the idea of a food specialty that takes 8, 10, 12, 16 hours to prepare it right holds great appeal. I have two college friends from San Francisco who cash in marital/significant-other chips to do sporadic (possibly annual?) weekend long BBQ pilgrimages to various cities / regions. They research the best places and then drive around and eat nothing but BBQ for a weekend. If I remember correctly, they’ve done North Carolina, Austin, Kansas City, and Memphis to date. Though I’ve never been fortunate enough to participate, I greatly respect that kind of passion and commitment. As tasting local foods is both integral to a sense of place and part of what we’re attempting to do with this journey, I figured the least we could do in Austin was seek out some decent brisket; Texas BBQ means beef, and brisket is of course the cut of choice.
While I’m pretty sure The Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX generally won’t break into any serious BBQ fan’s top ten list, it held a soft spot in my memory as a place I had visited Back in the Day and been blown away by. It had actually been my first foray into the Hill Country, and what I remembered, though hazily, was a massive, grassy hilltop on a hot, lazy afternoon with picnic tables scattered widely around a central smokehouse. It was BYOB, and the Texans seemed to take that instruction seriously, up to and including kegs. The smell of the smoking meat was of course divine and permeated everything, and we dug in for at least a few hours of chilled-out eating, drinking, and laughing. I had the impression everyone else was doing the same.
At Pedernales Falls we were as close to the original Salt Lick as we would be during our Austin foray, so I talked the family into making the drive down to Driftwood. Keeper made a point to inform us that he’s not a fan of BBQ, but I did my best to convince him that this was more about the experience than the actual food, and if he wasn’t convinced, he at least played along, though he refused to order brisket. Fair enough.
I will say that it was very little like I remember. Whether my memories or progress and development in the intervening 25 years are to blame, it struck me as much more of a “restaurant” this time than a wide open, come grab some of our food, then spread out and do what you like kind of place. There’s even a winery right across the street. Pretty certain that wasn’t there before. Our dinner was enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. But not epic. Our choices for brisket preparation were “moist, lean, or burnt,” and I wasn’t prepared for that. We got a mixture, but heavy on the “moist,” as that sounded the most appetizing. That turned out to be backwards, at least according to my palate (and Tacco’s). The “moist” turned out to be just a bit too chewy for me, whereas the “burnt” tasted delicious. Ah well, next time.
In the morning we took Tacco to the airport, stopped for some breakfast and “local kombucha” (which turned out to be delicious) at a little store just back into the Hill Country on the way back, then broke camp and made the drive to our next campground. Though not a particularly long drive, this one turned out to be quite scenic and more than a bit sporty, given our rig length and weight. I made the potential mistake of following Google Maps’ advice on the most efficient routing, and that turned out to be small two-lane roads through the hills. The first thing I noticed was that we crossed many, many stream beds. The second was that in almost every one of these stream beds there is a flood gauge next to the road at the low point. Evidently flash floods are very much a thing in Hill Country, and they arise quickly. Though there were indeed a few apparent rain clouds scattered in the distance, I calculated the probability of their producing floodwaters as low and chalked it up to adventure. Still though, when you see something like this out your windshield, you probably hope you’re in a 4 wheel drive truck and not a 32’ motorhome towing a car.
We made it of course, and the kiddos were thrilled when we pulled into a fully stocked (read: pool, playground, wi-fi, full-strength LTE signal) campground. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was comfortable. That evening we drove down a short distance down the road to another restaurant that I hadn’t heard of, but looked to be heavy on Texan charm with a view of Lake Travis to boot. It was called Lucy’s Fried Chicken, and it far exceeded both my expectations and its name’s implied lack of ambition. Gorgeous deck, stunning views, outstanding food (I opted for a smoked trout / roasted beet / spinach salad, and the hunk of trout I got looked more like a salmon and nearly overflowed the plate)… and oh by the way, inexpensive and with a huge playground for the girls within sight of the outdoor eating area which overlooked the lake. We arrived right at sunset and were treated to the breathtaking sight of active thunderstorms marching across the sky in the north. Perfect.
Sixth Street is Austin’s main downtown artery and center for live music and associated fun. I can remember strolling its length on an afternoon in which they had closed it to vehicular traffic (again, Back in the Day), stopping for a beer at a rooftop bar, and looking down to see a band playing, only to discover that it was Big Head Todd and the Monsters. And this was not before they were popular. They just happened to be playing in the street, or so it seemed. I was hoping to introduce the family to some facsimile of this experience / vibe, but wasn’t sure if it would be possible, or even advisable given the kids’ ages. It is a college town after all. I also remember riding a mechanical bull in one of the bars. I wasn’t as keen to introduce them to that.
I opted instead to take them to Rainey Street, another food/drink centric mini-neighborhood where a restaurant I particularly like sits among the dozens of lively bars and eateries converted from old houses, as well as Portland-style food trucks. It’s called Bangers, and it specializes in upscale sausages and has some solid beer-geek cred due to its extensive and eclectic tap list, not to mention a massive outdoor eating area with industrial sized fans to attempt to cool off the clientele. Though we didn’t need the fans (it was no more than 60 degrees, probably less in the shade where we found ourselves), the kids dug it and we stopped at food truck for some mini doughnuts for dessert after walking the crowded street for a bit.
Though we drove down Sixth and across the Congress St Bridge, which is famous for the bats who live underneath it and swarm out at dusk on summer evenings, neither was able to display their uniqueness and charm especially well to the heads-in-their-screens passengers of my car. No worries, another time.
We relocated Davista one last time to McKinney Falls State Park right near the airport just south of town, and picked up Tacco that evening.
Prior to that, however, we were able to take another hike to see the falls and get a little exercise. I was struck once again by how much I enjoy hiking with the family and how it has become the backdrop for our best conversations. We need to keep that going.
Returning to foodie-ville, we opted to do another iconic BBQ experience the morning after Tacco arrived. Unlike the Salt Lick, Franklin BBQ in downtown Austin does land at or near the top of any respectable BBQ freak’s all-time-best list. It has the line outside to prove it, too. It opens at 11AM and closes when they’re out of food (generally 2-3 hours later), and people start lining up at about 7. I was told that if you’re not in line by 8-8:30, don’t count on getting any food. My previously mentioned BBQ loving friends wrote briefly and in superlatives about their visit to Franklin, and honestly, I was skeptical. I just could not imagine how one place could do brisket so noticeably better than anyone else. But they were adamant and they know their food. So we packed up our homeschooling materials, a couple blankets, and some chairs, and headed into town at 8AM to stake our claim in the line.
Before I get to the food, I’d like to address the waiting experience. It’s likely a popular view that there simply is no food worth waiting four hours for. That’s reasonable, and I get it. I’m here to tell you, though, that even had the food been so-so, there are far worse ways to spend a morning than hanging out in line at Franklin. Essentially we had the choice of doing homeschooling in the RV or doing it outside, picnic style, in line with a couple hundred people sociably killing time. We had a blast, and met all our neighbors. We made friends. Some set up game tables and played cards, others brought coolers full of beer (yes, at 9AM). It was a scene, and if I found myself with a morning to kill in Austin, I would absolutely, positively do it again.
Now the food. A whole new level, is all I can say. My friends were absolutely correct; this is by far the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. Not only was both the flavor and texture downright perfect, but it somehow managed to be impossibly tender while holding itself together. I don’t know how it does this. We tried ribs, brisket (of course), and the girls got pulled pork. While that’s probably heresy, they’re 8 and 6 and cute so they get a pass. And it was really good too. But the brisket! Our choices this time were “lean or fatty.” Remembering our Salt Lick experience I asked for lean, but the server, God bless him, said “let me just give you a few extra pieces of fatty too, just so you can try it.” Unbelievable. I mean, both types were, but the fatty one wasn’t the least bit chewy. It was as if the meat was marbled with butter. Meat flavored butter. Even Keeper liked it. And he had put up resistance to this entire evolution, with an adamant “OK Dad, have I not been clear in saying that I don’t like BBQ??” I informed him that he had in fact been crystal clear but that this was supposedly the best on the planet, and if he didn’t like this then he could legitimately, for the rest of his life, confidently proclaim his dislike for brisket. I also tried to sell him on the lore and culture aspect, but his eyes glazed over for that part. No matter though, after the meal it got the coveted Keeper thumbs up.
I was asked later whether, after waiting all that time for lunch, we had bought some brisket to go as well. We did not, and for the life of me I don’t know why we didn’t think of that, but in hindsight I’m ok with it. The experience was exactly right, and any attempt to add to it might have somehow backfired.
After this it was my turn to depart for a few days for work, so I missed another couple days of Austin, but we did manage to visit Barton Springs just before I departed. The Colorado River, or I guess I should say “a” Colorado River since this Colorado River bears no relation to the much larger one which flows from the Rockies to the Gulf of California, flows through the middle of town and is another center of activity in Austin. It’s known as Town Lake in the middle of Austin (and does resemble a narrow lake more than it does a river) and is dammed upstream of Austin, forming Lake Travis. It also has some spring-fed tributaries, of which Barton Creek, which happens to sit right in the middle of town, is one. They’ve erected a small dam of sorts that turns the spring area into a large, urban swimming hole. The water is clear and cool year round, and it’s a fantastic place to swim, particularly in the 100+ degree summers. In the 72ish degree spring it’s more shocking and eye-opening than refreshing, but we did get to do some swimming, and Keeper even stepped up to use their meter diving board a few times.
So, did I succeed? Did the family “get” Austin the way I hoped they would? Yes and no I think. No one was blown away. The kids enjoyed themselves quite a bit but there was no talk of its surpassing Bend in future living situation desirability, nor did I expect or want that. Yet I think it planted seeds in them, the type that will make them one day have a hazy memory of a great meal or a good time or a fun vibe, and they’ll want to come back. Much like I did. Tacco was a tougher nut to crack, as I just don’t think Texas is her place. And that’s fine. Yet several times she let on that she was pleasantly surprised by what she was seeing and experiencing. I haven’t grilled her on it as, well, first of all it’s not particularly important, but secondly I think it will take some distance before she’ll be able to fully articulate her views on Austin, but I suspect she was softened some by how pleasant and expectation-defying it was. Ultimately it didn’t matter to me whether anyone in my family adopted my “I really dig this place” views on Austin, but I did want them to understand why I feel that way. And in that sense I think I did succeed.
The Texas landscape subtly shifted as we drove east from Guadalupe Mountains National Park, from the open desert into the lusher Hill Country. I hadn’t really been focusing on our overnight in the Hill Country or the following stretch in Austin, because I would be gone for four days of our Texas time to return only to tag out with Flight so he could go on a trip.
After our departure from GMNP, we stayed in Pedernales Falls State Park for just one night. We explored the local Pedernales River before grabbing one of our only dinners all together at The Salt Lick. I was happy to stay dry, maybe dipping my toes in the river, while the rest of the family went all in. Almost literally.
Flight and Keeper found the perfect rock from which to experience the newly popular spa treatment of having fish eat dead skin from their feet. I was able to try this out while we were in Cabo just after New Year’s and, frankly, it weirded me out.
I did okay with the experience until the wee fish swam in between my toes and then I had to resist the urge to yank my feet out of the buffet line.
Flight and Keeper almost giggled in response to that same sensation with their feet dangling in the river. I shook off the willies as I remembered that feeling as it most certainly exceeded my comfort level. At least they weren’t paying to be weirded out…
After a relaxing afternoon spent by the river, we packed up and returned to the campsite to change out of swimsuits before grabbing our first Texas BBQ. This well-worn menu captures The Salt Lick’s uncomplicated essence.
Two things this menu doesn’t mention: they were out of bison (bummer) and you have to specify what variety of BBQ you’d prefer from burnt, lean, and moist. We ordered some of each among Keeper, Flight, and me, and I preferred the burnt offerings.
The moist was too much and the lean simply wasn’t enough. Just what quality I’m describing, I’m sure I don’t know. Nor do I speak the technical jargon, but I preferred the crispy burnt morsels the best.
The next morning, the family ran me over to the Austin airport and I flew back to DC for my Navy drill weekend. My drill weekend last fall had most certainly thrown me for a loop and I was curious to see if I would have a similar visceral reaction to being back in the house. I knew I wouldn’t be there too much longer than the hours I would be sleeping, and made the opportunity to see family and a friend or two during my few unscheduled waking hours.
Fortunately my time in Maryland wasn’t nearly as traumatic as the last go around and I think that can mostly be attributed to our collective understanding that we would not be returning to resume our lives there. I was able to collect a few wayward items forgotten in our hasty departure and return outgrown clothes, completed books, and other superfluous items.
Drill weekend passed uneventfully, although I had a general pit in my stomach while away from my family. I attribute my unease to missing three sizable appendages. I have easily become accustomed to being around my kids 24/7 and felt their absence most acutely. I know that despite sometimes longing for some alone time I will look back on our travels as a sweet spot in our growth as a family.
While I was in Maryland, I made it a point to visit with my Academy roommate and her family. Lunch with her was one of the appointments I had to cancel to depart our house earlier than anticipated as we redeployed to Davista. Their teenage son is a budding chef and I got to watch him make Phad Thai for our dinner, which was exceptional. I also popped over to visit our cousins and our Aunt who was in town visiting them.
My last day in Maryland was actually pretty exciting as I got to cross something off my bucket list when I climbed the Naval Academy Chapel Dome.
The climb mostly involved crawling though the bowels of the magnificent Chapel dome, which is really a dome within a dome and at one point I felt as though I was scaling the interior of a chimney.
Intently ignoring the odd ways I contorted myself along the trek, I was rewarded with a most spectacular view at the top.
I was thrilled to have made the climb with a dear friend from my Academy teaching days.
I popped into the Midshipman Store before leaving the Yard and ran into a friend and classmate from back in the day.
Her husband had just taken orders to teach at the Academy and their son is getting ready to graduate next month before going to nuclear power school to become a submariner. As our oldest is in 6thgrade, contemplating his college graduation is pretty mind blowing. I dashed off to one more meeting at the Acupuncture Clinic at Joint Base Andrews (they have one – how cool is that?!) before sprinting to catch my flight.
And then I was back home with my family. The unease I felt during my absence instantly melted away once I rejoined them outside the Austin airport. As Flight would need to commute to Boston the next night, we made plans to enjoy our one full day in Austin en famille.
The day started with road-schooling activities while camping outside of Franklin BBQ.
In the middle of our schooling, a kind fellow from Franklin’s came down the line asking for general orders to ensure there would be enough of the BBQ to go around. Although I do not claim to be a BBQ aficionado, Franklin’s was, hands-down, the very best I have ever eaten. It was crazy good. Perfectly tender, flavorful, every variety (moist, lean, and crispy) was scrumptious.
Happily sated stuffed, we drove to Barton Springs to while away the afternoon perched on the banks of a local swimming hole.
One of the things I enjoy most about our travels is seeing how locals take advantage of where they live to recreate. Arriving in the early afternoon, Barton Springs was populated with a wide range of bathers. The spring fed lagoon was awash with a handful of serious swimmers, identifiable by their sleek caps and goggles, mechanically churning out lap after lap in the elongated pool.
Throughout the pool there were also plenty of waders, like our family, whose intent was far less measured and simply delighted in the refreshing cold water.
Keeper even dove off the diving board a few times. That’s my son!
All said, it was a perfect Austin day, sadly without any bats. Because we had to run Flight to the airport to commute to Boston, we saved witnessing the bat exodus from the Congress St. Bridge for another night. Sorry, Flight, no bats for you.
Our first day in Texas sans Flight was actually spent in San Antonio (and you can read all about that experience here), which meant we didn’t see the bats until our last night in Austin. Everyone talks about seeing the bats, so we put that on our Austin to do list. While I was in Maryland, Flight moved campgrounds twice, the first of which I never even laid eyes on. The second was in McKinney Falls State Park, which was a quiet place tucked into the south side of Austin, very near the airport. We spent our morning schooling at the campsite and then made the pilgrimage to the Congress Street Bridge in time to see the bats take flight.
The BatCon (that’s actually a thing) website suggested viewing times between 7 and 8:15 pm. Because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, we showed just before 7 and claimed a spot on the south side of the river with our well-traveled blanket. Since I didn’t know how long the bats would take to launch or when they might begin, I was happy to let the kids pass the time playing on their respective screens while I retreated to reading a book.
As much as I prefer to feel the crisp pages of books as I read, I have to say it is very convenient, especially given our space and weight limitations, to be able to carry my current reading library on my iPhone.
The bats didn’t make their appearance until 8:13 pm. They emerged in a steady stream of spastic wings, incredibly without a single midair collision. I was reminded of a video I had seen of an enormous flock of starlings turning about in the sky. At least they could see. !!! That the 1.5 million fruit bats were able to accomplish the same close formations without the benefit of visual cuing was incredible to witness. A perfect manifestation of swarm theory and, clearly, WoodSprite thought the same.
Kidding! She did watch the bats take flight. I wasn’t able to get a good picture of their departure, but found this spectacular shot online.
Keeper and Firebolt both made the observation that it was not unlike waiting for the total eclipse to happen, maybe a little uninspiring during the anticipation of the experience, but, once manifested, well worth our time. Similarly, I wasn’t sure what to expect with our time in the Lone Star State, but found that, in retrospect, it heartily exceeded our (my?) expectations.