A Year

Things that were supposed to happen:

  • We’d be done with our travels at the one year point.
  • We would be settling into our new house, in a location we had painstakingly chosen, by Summer 2018.
  • Davista would be up for sale by Fall 2018.
  • We would blog nightly, astutely capturing what living on the road with a family looks and feels like.

These things have not happened.

The first three have been pushed back by various periods of time, the last we adjusted our expectations about in an effort to nudge them toward reality.  The first three for what we fervently hope are excellent reasons which will become apparent (?) as we continue to blog, the last due to a combination of poor prioritization, the fact that we’re just playing at this writing thing, and no small measure of laziness.

In lieu of a radical condensation of the past few months, I offer the map of our one-year progress.  Overnights in red, significant stops in purple.  When our blogging catches up to this point, we’ll offer a more thorough summation, I promise.

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Plan Sun / Plan Moon

To friends who have asked me what has surprised me most about this adventure, one of my answers has been the extent of planning and forethought required.  The follow-up question has at times been how truly necessary all of the planning was – could we not have pulled this off in a bit more seat-of-the-pants fashion?  Answer: probably… but we would have missed a lot, and likely ended up doing several late night Google Map searches for the nearest WalMart or Cracker Barrel so that we could button up and get a bit of sleep in their parking lot.  Not what we wanted, and the stress level (mine) involved in that sort of existence would be beneficial to nobody in my vicinity.

I’ve estimated that there’s been about a three-to-one ratio of planning to doing.  That’s a worthless statistic and impossible to measure, but the truth it’s pointing at is that we spent almost three years dreaming up this trip, in the process inhabiting a universe of possible scenarios, as well as levels of theoreticality.  As in, “wait… are we just dreaming here or are we actually going to do this?”  When we first tossed it into conversation, I would have assigned the probability of our actually trying to pull it off at about 2-3%.  By early June of 2017, which was our initial intended departure date and at which point we had already bought (!) a new motorhome and planned an entire flow of travel, I still wouldn’t have pushed that probability above 60-70% or so.  We had emphatically decided that we couldn’t do it without a sold house in Annapolis, which we most certainly didn’t have, and our kids were feeling quite attached to home, with Keeper having just been accepted into his future Junior High’s highly selective STEM program.

You can read about how that state of affairs led to our somewhat short-fused decision to Go For It back here at the beginning of our blog.  And that dream plan-make plan-tweak plan process has continued throughout our journey.  But my point is that we have had so many master plans in effect that we’ve joked multiple times that “Plan A, B, C, etc…” no longer works for us and we need multiple letters to designate our plans.

Letters are about to jettisoned altogether.

Essentially where we are is this: we’ve taken stock and realized that what we initially said we could not manage, i.e. live on the road while paying the mortgage on our empty house, we have been doing for the better part of a year.  While this isn’t dire in itself as we discovered at some point that our expenses on the road were quite manageable, we are approaching the end of our year, the point at which we had always intended to settle down in the town we had painstakingly chosen.  For good.  And well… first of all we don’t yet have a sold house.  And second of all we realized that of everything we planned into the ground, the one thing we hadn’t devoted much thought to was how exactly we transition back to life off the road, in a house which we’ve presumably bought.

We’ve realized we need a new master plan.  One semi-obvious option which we were able to rule out pretty quickly was pulling our house back off the market and returning to Maryland.   I had been concerned when we returned to Annapolis for the Winter that we would create an inertia that would be difficult to overcome.  In fact, the opposite happened.  As much as we enjoyed seeing our friends there, we were all restless.  And a bit more surprisingly, our kids didn’t take to it like we thought (feared?) they would.  That feeling has only intensified for all of us while on the road.  The kids want to move back westward, as do we.  We love our friends and family in the East, but it has become crystal clear, more so than I ever guessed it would, that the West is where we belong.

There were several other nuances of various other options which we worked though, but in the end it came down to two, and we decided that to assign them letters would be a subtle way of implying that one is more preferable, which is not the case.  Here then, without further ado, Plan Sun and Plan Moon.

Plan Sun:  We get the kids into school and we end our adventure at the one year point as originally envisioned.  We travel until mid-summer and then find a rental house in Bend (Oregon, if you haven’t been reading – it has emerged as our overwhelming favorite in the places-to-settle competition), preferably furnished.  We suck up the mortgage-plus-rent expense until the house in Maryland sells, and when it does we breathe a sigh of relief.  In the meantime, we’ve hopefully learned more about the market and neighborhoods in Bend, and are ready to buy there in a year or so, after our house in Washington has sold as well.

Plan Moon:  We keep traveling.  Life on the road has suited us, so let’s keep doing it and spend more time out West, at least until our Washington renters leave and we can get that house on the market.  We’ll get to spend more time with family, put the hurt on those newly purchased Epic Passes, and give the Maryland house more time to sell.  The down side (maybe?) is that we start another year of home/road-schooling, and this wasn’t something we had considered before.  Once we get the WA house on the market and sold, we settle in Bend in earnest.

There was a time when the mention of Plan Moon would have made my head explode.  In fact Tacco has floated severely abridged versions of it for months, and each time I cut her off immediately with stern threats of the aforementioned exploding head.  My head is intact this time though.  Though Plan Moon is so far from our original plan it feels like a free-fall to me, and is on some level terrifying, it has considerable charms.  Plus it’s impossible to deny the financial realities of paying for two houses.

We would make it work either way.  And my gut tells me it’s time to get the kids back into school and get them settled again.  Us too, to an extent.  But more travel would be pretty cool…

Interestingly (and surprisingly) enough, we broached Plan Sun and Plan Moon to the kids, and found them to be as balanced as we are in their assessments.  That’s encouraging!  It will be interesting to see how this morphs.

A Quick Word on Armadillos

Are armadillos not a Texas thing?

I had thought so, prior to this trip, and fittingly enough, we saw our first (live) armadillo shuffling through the low brush outside of Austin.  “Armadillo, kids!”  “coooooool…”

We then left Texas and saw them in Louisiana, Florida (LOTS in Florida), Georgia, both Carolinas, Kentucky, and Missouri.  90% of the armadillos we saw were smashed on the side of the road (and here I should qualify — that should read “90% of the armadillos that *I* saw,” as I was doing the driving.  I’m not twisted enough to interrupt anyone else’s activities to point out roadkill.)  Never have I seen so much roadside carnage. And armadillos are especially gruesome as such.

The only conclusion I can come to is that they either like to hang out near roads and play chicken (badly), or that there are so incredibly many of them creeping around the South that it’s purely a numbers game that you’re going to see a few dozen flattened on the highway during any given drive.  That’s a little disconcerting.

OK, carry on.

Safety Standdown in Asheville

In Naval Aviation, Safety Standdowns are periodic events that are put together to help aviators optimize safety awareness while in flight and on the deck.  The Safety Standdown is a day where all aircraft remain on the deck and the entire squadron gathers together to hear or provide safety-related discussions on a wide range of topics (e.g. having a state trooper relate the importance of wearing seatbelts (I can attest to that!), an aerospace physiologist share the latest research on the systemic impact of sleep deprivation, etc.).

While all hands were usually happy to have a breather from the flight schedule, the day served to remind everyone that aviation is inherently dangerous and one must remain ever vigilant against complacency.  Invariably when one gets complacent checklist items are skipped, corners are cut, and mishaps can easily follow.  It is important to note that these day-long events were scheduled periodically, most often at times where complacency might be higher than usual.  Typically a Safety Standdown would occur half-way through deployment where many start to think, “We’ve got this…” as they switch to autopilot and become less mindful about operations.  Another optimal time was just before redeploying home when many minds have already shifted to reuniting with family members after the long separation and may be suffering from “Get-home-itis, ” where potential safety red flags might be ignored to avoid delaying homecoming.  And, of course, a Safety Standdown is an expected evolution following any mishap, be it crunching metal or injuring personnel.

As our current travels resemble a deployment more so than not (and I’ve already touched on the value of checklists), I had already noticed that in resuming our travels this phase we were maybe a little looser in following SOP than our prior journey. For example, the grey water drain valve had been left open following tank dumping procedures, which is no big deal really as it just meant Flight got his shoes washed with some soapy water while getting hooked up at our next campsite.  We had also missed setting a cotter pin on one side of our Blue Ox tow bar contraption, which meant that by the time we arrived at our next campsite one of the two larger pins that directly connect the Subaru to the Blue Ox tow bar had not been locked in place and had wriggled half-way free in transit.  Although our tow bar has safety cables in the event of such a mechanical disconnect, I’d prefer not to see them engaged.  You’d think that two seasoned naval aviators would take these signs of complacency for what they were and immediately debrief the possible consequences of departing from checklists, but we were too wrapped up in our deployment experience to make that a priority.  Shame on us.  Instead, our Safety Standdown was triggered by a mishap.

We departed Charleston at a most civilized hour entirely delighted by our introduction to this lovely city and meandered northwest to Asheville, NC.  After a stop at Congaree National Park (I’ll get to that shortly), we arrived at the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area & Campground and registered to get our lovely spot nestled in the trees.  Even if a spot is “drive through,” we tend to disconnect the Subaru and park it out of the way so I can help Flight maneuver Davista into the ideal location (depending on layout, water and electrical hook-up locations, view, obstructing branches, etc.) within our assigned spot.  Our Carpinteria episode taught us well.

Although the details of who discovered our blunder and when are open to interpretation, the upshot is that when either Flight or I opened the door to collect the hardware box used to store the Blue Ox tow bar connection gear and set the parking brake (that became SOP when we had forgotten to do so once early in our travels on a not so level road – yikes!), it was more than a little surprisingly to find it was already engaged.  My brain slowly leapt beyond the mildly befuddled observation “Well, that’s not supposed to be like that” to meet Flight’s “Holy crap.  How long has that been on?! “ to “Shoot – We likely no longer have a functioning Toad.”  !!!  I then cycled through today’s activities to try to pinpoint how we might have managed such an oversight.

Let me back up. Before departing Charleston, we had discussed making a stop at Congaree National Park, because it was so darn close to our intended path.  It was another opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of a pocket of our country we’d not yet seen and probably wouldn’t ever if we didn’t stop now.  Although it wasn’t as last minute an addition to our itinerary as the two stops I had suggested (insisted on?) from Tampa to Savannah, the conversation that followed that extended travel day was fresh in my mind, which meant I was keen to minimize the time of our layover at Congaree.  I guess you could say I was sporting my own variety of “Get-on-the-road-to-our-next-home-itis.”

Upon our arrival at Congaree, we noted that all the spots in the oversized parking lot big enough to accommodate our crazy 51’ road show were taken up by NPS vehicles far shorter than ours.  Dang it.  To fit in the remaining longer than normal spots without blocking traffic entirely, we had to disconnect the Subaru and take up two spots with our vehicles. Fortunately, Congaree was hardly slammed on this Tuesday afternoon and taking up an additional oversized spot with our regularly sized Subaru was entirely forgivable.

This particular National Park is an interesting mix of swamp, old growth bottomland hardwood forest, and more swamp.  While the Visitor Center boasts some great information about the native population and the push to preserve Congaree’s biodiversity, I was ever aware of our time on the road ahead of us and did my best to make our stop most expeditious.

When we collected Junior Ranger books (a theme, you might note), there was not a Ranger in site. Several volunteers were at the desk, but they were not official NPS Rangers.  We learned there was a proscribed burn underway (used to cull the dead undergrowth and help the forest rejuvenate), which is an all Ranger hands on deck evolution and closed off a good portion of the main boardwalk hike through Congaree. Led by our complaining bellies, we returned to Davista to have a sandwich lunch while we sorted out what the girls needed to do and how much of the requisite hike was possible/necessary to complete their requirements before we could be away.

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Hunger assuaged, we walked a mile along the boardwalk out to a short overlook peeking over a small, not particularly clean-looking, lake where we saw several turtles frolicking.

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Along our boardwalk trek, we also saw some unique creatures, or evidence thereof.  I saw these houses (?) and had no idea what to make of them. I took this picture specifically to show the folks at the Visitor Center to ask what they were.

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The answer?  Crawfish chimneys.  Apparently crawfish build these towers and turn circles about in their mud structures to create a center hole vent to increase the oxygenation of the water in their homes.  Pretty savvy, those crawdads.  We also saw several blue-tailed skinks running about the forest.

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Running nowhere were the endless ranks of baldcypress knees, whose true purpose has yet to be identified.

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The baldcypress is a cousin to the magnificent redwood and enormous sequoia trees whose acquaintance we made last fall as we meandered through California.  Unique to these southeastern swamp dwellers, are flared out trunks serving to offer stability in the ever-changing water levels.  These buttressed stems provide the strength to resist additional stresses without a deep root system, which might actually suffocate the tree in the low-oxygen environment of a typically waterlogged swamp.  Early botanists thought the knees provided a means of additional oxygen exchange by elevating the roots above the standing water, I thought this one looked like a faerie house.

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That theory has since been disproven, so their true purpose remains one of the great mysteries of life.  Perhaps such existential rumination is what distracted me when we departed Congaree.

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After the girls were sworn in for their 20thJunior Ranger badges, we hightailed it to Davista and rapidly made ready for driving into the seasoned (meaning worn smoother by time than the newer more jagged ranges out west) mountains of North Carolina.  A quick refresher on the checklist for readers would be a good idea.

The Hitching Up the Toad checklist to date looked a little something like this:

  • Unlock Blue Ox Tow Bar from locked position (locked “up” so it doesn’t drag)
  • Reposition Blue Ox Tow Bar into Y in preparation for hook-up
  • Maneuver Toad into position (or Davista if doing so solo – says Flight ??!?!!)
  • Toad parking brake – set
  • Keys in ignition, set to detent position 1 to enable lights mimicking Davista’s
  • Grab plastic box holding connection hardware from Toad
  • Pin Blue Ox tow bar into left and right sides of Toad connection points
  • Set cotter pins left and right (to lock connection pins)
  • Connect dead-man’s switch (in case both the tow bar and the cables fail, engaging Subaru’s brakes should she run tether-free)
  • Connect safety tow cables beneath tow bars
  • Connect red electrical cable above tow bars
  • Return plastic box holding connection hardware to Toad passenger seat
  • Gear shift in neutral
  • Disengage the Subaru parking brake

All good, right?

In principle, yes, yet we neglected to identify who was responsible for executing the final steps.  I had assumed that Flight was checking the settings for the key in the ignition and verifying the parking brake was off and the engine was not in gear. Flight was under the assumption I was setting the key, disengaging the parking brake, ensuring the stick shift was out of gear and he would verify (position one, parking brake off, gear shift neutral).

And so we exemplified the saying “When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me…” or at least it will burn out your Toad’s braking system.

Somehow, in our collective oversight, we missed that last step and dragged the Subaru behind us for 180+ miles with the parking brake engaged.  Oops.  The mechanic who outfitted us with new brakes informed us the old ones had gotten white hot during our travels from Congaree.  Flight and I realized that we have gotten off rather light by only having to purchase new brakes. The Toad could easily have burst into flames, but didn’t.  If we had lost our Toad, our journey would have come to a screeching halt.  As Flight is fond of saying, although averted for now, we could certainly see disaster from here.  Fortunately, it looked much less ominous through a pint of Sierra Nevada, and we settled into our Asheville time, our wallets a little lighter, but with brakes shiny and new.

Lagniappe

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Yikes.

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.

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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?

Five Months and a Lot of Change

“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.

4 months and change

Le Vieux Carré

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.

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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?

Right?

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Right.

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.

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I had previously seen houses in flood zones so perched, but was surprised to see a high school campus on stilts.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

More on that in the next post…

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There Will Be Brisket

But not quite yet.  First we had to drive through oil country.

Oh, and I drink your milkshake!!

That was random and pointless – I just wanted to work it in somewhere in Texas.

I’m surprised at the extent to which I was, until really just a few days ago, ignorant about oil country.  Technically I grew up in it, though Southern California’s version of it is fairly unobtrusive… oil drilling platforms visible off shore from just about any beach, and these vaguely horse-like guys Derrickbobbing up and down and dotting the landscape.  I grew up calling them “derricks” but wasn’t sure that was right (it is); I only today learned that they’re also known as “sucker rod pumps.”  You’d think as a kid we’d have preferred that more, um, colorful name, but I guess that’s a downside to not having had Wikipedia to reference back then – we never knew.

My assumption regarding Texas oil country had always been that it consisted almost entirely of the vast network of offshore platforms scattered in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Galveston and east toward the mouth of the Mississippi.  Bad assumption; it’s much more than that.  There is an enormous swath of West Texas and a bit of New Mexico that is absolutely covered with oil wells, and not much else.  Tens of thousands of square miles of this.  I had seen it from the air, too, and wondered what all the little dirt roads leading to tiny circular clearings were.  It looks like this:

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But back to our drive.

We did another dawn patrol (pre-dawn really) out of Guadalupe Mountains and were on the road by probably about 4:30AM.  I had wanted to reach Texas Hill Country by early afternoon, and we lost an hour almost immediately to time zone traversal, so I was patting my own back in between sips of coffee as we rolled down the road through the middle of nowhere.  My expectation had been that we would barrel down the empty two-lane roads and be halfway to Austin before anyone stirred.

It was not that way at all.  It started quietly enough, with the occasional oil well passing by in the distance.  But as we approached one of the first intersections, which on paper looked tiny, I could see a line of traffic going both directions as far as the eye could see.  This was the road on which we needed to turn; I had not expected traffic at 5AM in a blank spot on the map.  Here’s where we were:

Oil Country

Closer inspection revealed that not only was this extremely heavy traffic, but it consisted almost entirely of trucks, from F-150s to semis. And when I say “almost entirely,” I mean that I think we were the only non-truck on the road.  As I made a right onto the road (fortunately via a 4 way stop from a road that didn’t have any traffic, or we’d have been sitting at that intersection for an hour at least!), I found myself in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max scene of blinding headlights, big rigs, noise, and blowing dust, accentuated by oil wells all around.  And not just oil wells, but the kind that have flames shooting out of the top, which cast a fluctuating orange glow through the dust.

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“Surreal” doesn’t do the scene justice.  In between squinting at the blinding lights and attempting to keep Davista in her lane on the narrow, busy road (there was a good bit of wind, too), I marveled at what I was seeing.  Where are all these people going?  Why so early?  There are no towns nearby – where do they live?  Is this a normal job, or is this “hardship duty” that you do for a year or so to earn some good money and then go back to your normal oil job?  How often are there accidents out here?  If there were one, would anyone be able to get to you?  Do people know about this place?

It was a crazy and singular experience.  I had departed expecting a quiet, contemplative, pre-dawn glide though the desert and found myself in the middle of our economy’s vigorously beating heart.  At 5 AM!  And then the sun rose, we reached Fort Stockton and I-10, and suddenly it was another normal morning on the road.

 

 

Going Underground

Flight gave a great description of our departure from Phoenix under the cover of darkness.  After I rejoined the land of the living, I took the opportunity to do some writing and gather my thoughts on our way out to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  For a large stretch of our drive, there wasn’t much scenery to keep my attention (save the cute boy I married) and I escaped into the memories of Phase One of our travels.

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We arrived at this National Park in the nick of time and pulled into the second to last first-come, first-served parking slips for us to stay for two nights.  Two other RVs pulled in shortly after we.  Although initially this campground served as a base from which we could explore Carlsbad Caverns, I’m glad we took the opportunity to learn about this particular corner of the country while the girls completed another Junior Ranger Badge program.

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A little snapshot of what I learned…  Some eleventy billion years ago, this stretch of the desert was actually in the middle of a shallow three-basin sea.  The Delaware Basin served to form Capitan Reef at its edge, the remnants of which formed the foundation of the Guadalupe Mountains.  Although you’d never know it, apparently this park is riddled with sea creature fossils and shares its creation with its neighboring National Park, Carlsbad Caverns.  Unfortunately, we did not budget any hiking time into our brief stay, but some of the trails look to be pretty spectacular.  Next time.

As soon as the GMNP Visitor Center was open the following morning, we popped over so the girls could finish the requisite booklets to earn their badges.

Their favorite activity was a scavenger hunt through the exhibits.  In addition to the expected specimens of fox, skunk, skink, and desert rat, there was also a tarantula hawk on display.  The name might call to mind a shrewd bird of prey, but you’d be wrong.

Tarantula hawk

The tarantula hawk is instead a giant wasp that hunts these sizable arachnids, delivering a sting to paralyze them, after which they lay their eggs inside the immobilized spider who is then devoured alive from the inside out by the growing larvae.  Gross is the first word that comes to mind, yet falls so short of the gruesome reality.  Now, I am no fan of arachnids, especially big hairy ones, but even this seems over the top on the fiendish scale.  The tarantula hawk is especially nasty to its prey, but, should a human be stung by one, the peer-reviewed scientific advice is to lie down and start screaming.

I’m not making this up.

(And I am very thankful that I waited to further my knowledge of this species until I was very far from its natural habitat.)

Carlsbad Caverns boasted no such ghastly beasties.  Only bats. Lots of them.  Somewhere around 400,000 colony residents, in fact, comprised of 17 different species.  These numbers can surge to nearly double that during spring and fall migration seasons.  We did learn quite a bit about White Nose Syndrome, the fungus that is decimating the global bat population that has been referenced as part of the Sixth Extinction.  !!!  We saw neither hide nor free-tail of the legendary colony, likely because 1) during the day most of the colony sleeps in a cavern closed off to the public and b) we didn’t stay to see the daily mass exodus at dusk.  This picture from the National Park Service website makes that evolution look pretty cool.

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We arrived at the topside Visitor Center in the early afternoon and, at the recommendation of the Rangers at the front desk, ate lunch before we started the hike. Although there is a little café down below at the far end of The Big Room, we were informed that there would be slim pickings as the elevators down were out of service and, as the full assortment of nourishment could not be humped down the winding cavern switchbacks, they were offering little more than bottled water and Clif bars.  After filling our bellies, we made our way to the underworld entrance, pausing for a photo of the girls somewhere only they could get into, before we began our descent.

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And here’s a view looking back up.

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The going down was fairly easy despite the hairpin switchbacks.  I thought the return to the surface would be a little trickier, but hopefully not quite so laborious as the general population of earlier visitors made it seem.  Although some of them appeared to be on the other end of the fitness spectrum from American Ninja hopefuls, I realized that, despite our descent, we did start out about 4400′ above sea level. !!!  Because I was not yet focused on puffing my way back up, my thoughts were allowed to wander and I recalled the last time I had so gone underground.  I took the kids down to Luray Caverns in Virginia on the day of the last Presidential Election, and wondered again how symbolic the timing was of that excursion to the earth’s bowls.

As we descended lower, my ambling train of thought was rerouted to take in the immediate sites.  Pictured below are a collection of “soda straws,” hollow stalactites that break really easily when you try to pull them from the ceiling.

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Kidding!  I have no first-hand knowledge of this (and our Junior Rangers would have reported me if I did), but that sure looked to be the case. Our next pause in the descent was at the Whale’s Mouth, made up of smooth drapery formations.

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And this stalagmite is just plain ugly.

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No idea why it has been showcased by illumination, but there you have it.

We next found ourselves in the Hall of Giants where three massive speleothems grew from separate stalactites and stalagmites into columns eons ago.

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If you patiently wait a few millennia, you might see a few other such columns form.

What struck me most during our visit to the netherworld was the fact that everything we were seeing had been made (only a few formations remained active) in the absence of any light at all.  During our hike more than a million light bulbs were illuminating our path around the Big Room, drawing attention to the below formations, and it was a little trippy to consider that with the flick of a switch (and the failure of numerous generators), the caverns would again be in total darkness.  Everything we’d seen on our way to, from, and in the Big Room would then sit here entirely unobserved, as it had for innumerable years, slowly growing under no one’s watchful eyes.

When we stopped briefly to get some water at the subterranean café, I told Flight that you couldn’t pay me a million, trillion dollars to work there, especially if it meant I had to take the elevator up and down every day to get there.  A little aside, a friend recently told me that only the week prior to our visit, one of the two elevators still in service came to a halt mid-transit, stranding three people inside due to a mechanical failure.  Fortunately, all three were safely recovered and lifted by harness to safety.  To that I say, “Nopety, nope, nope, nope.”  If necessary, I’d hike in and out every dang time.

I recognized that it was time to climb back out of this enormous hole in the ground when I started imagining what would happen if the aforementioned magical switch were indeed flicked to OFF and/or backup generators failed, and suddenly there were no lights at all, for I knew I would have died a frightfully slow and slowly frightful death trying desperately to feel my way out of the cavern.

While regrouping over water, Flight briefed the kids on the basic rule of our ascent:  the kid who complains the least on the hike back up wins.  Detail-oriented WoodSprite asked, “Wins what?”  “Bragging rights,” was Flight’s response and we trudged our way upwards, weighing whether borderline innocuous comments such as “Wow, are my legs tired…” constituted a whiny point against the speaker or if it was simply stated as a point of information.

At last the lighting seemed even more otherworldly to me and I belatedly realized it was because we had made it to the “twilight zone,” where the natural light coming in from the entrance casts an eerie pall for a short distance (see below), beyond which it would become pitch black without mankind’s intervention.

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Most creatures have far greater sense than to wander in beyond the twilight zone (not so we) and I joyfully celebrated our return to broad daylight.

One last stop in the Visitor Center to swear in our Junior Rangers.

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And so that I might learn about my newest least favorite profession (I’m collecting them along this journey), Bat Guano Mining.  Considering the Caverns were discovered in 1898, local entrepreneurs wasted no time in capitalizing on the caves’ seemingly endless supply of bat guano, and mined the pungently rich fertilizer by lantern light from 1902 to 1958.  Um, no.  No, thank you.  The underworld gift shop/café position suddenly seemed far more desirable.

IMG_0659Overall, our time walking on the bottom of the former Delaware Basin (and well below!) was rich with sights we’d never before seen, learning about occupations I have zero interest in pursuing, and studying up on creatures I have no desire to meet.  Our brief exploration was absolutely time well spent, yet I find myself eager to move on to the Hill Country, putting a healthy distance between potential underground grid failures, tarantula hawks, and me.

Oenophilia

For the interested, here’s a list of the wines we drank during our week in Phoenix, including the “wine dinner” wines.  There may have even been a few more, but these were the ones I managed to document.  I won’t pretend to have any special knowledge of these wines beyond the very basics, but I can avow that they were spectacular.  All of them.

Yow!

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