Elephant Walk

Jim is the airfield manager at Pope Airfield.  So I got VIP seating for this one.

‘An elephant walk is a USAF term for the taxiing of military aircraft right before takeoff, when they are in close formation. ..The term elephant walk dates to World War II when large fleets of allied bombers would conduct attacks in missions containing 1,000 aircraft. Those who observed this said that the taxiing of these large numbers of aircraft to takeoff in single file in nose-to-tail formations said that they looked like elephants walking to the next watering hole.’

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WORLD TRAVELER – PART III

DAY SIX

The Bayou, the Quarter and the Valet

Most of the highway into New Orleans is really just a long bridge over old-fashioned swampland.  Once in a while you cross dry land and occasionally you cross an actual river.  The river is where I saw the first alligator.  Later I saw 4 more…one was on top of the other.  Could be he was just trying to reach something up high, could be he was just trying to keep his friend warm, could be there was some gator sex happening out there in broad day light.  But I’m a born and raised Tennessee girl and gator hating is in my DNA so I chose to believe I witnessed a bonafide gatorcide.  That top gator was doing his best to kill the bottom gator.

Traffic in Louisiana is BAD!  Like we’d just been in southern California and had a broad base of comparison and still thought it was bad.  But traffic in New Orleans is basically just a noisy parking lot.  You can holler out the window at your neighbors, ask their name, get to know their life story and make plans to meet for drinks next week and you’ve still only moved six inches.  But they were nice.  Every time Jim asked me to switch lanes and I flipped my signal on…people made a hole.

We actually think this might be partially related to another phenomenon we noticed…people are afraid of people who drive buses.  Maybe they’re just afraid of the bus…maybe they saw YMCA on the bus and thought we were hauling kids around…I don’t know but we never had a problem getting over.

We did have a problem parking.  When you make a hotel reservation in New Orleans you’re also supposed to make a parking reservation.  Not that it would have mattered because we weren’t driving cars…we were driving 20 foot long buses!  So we paid $200 to the valet and he let us park them on the curb…right in front of the hotel.  Blocking traffic.  We would quickly discover that everything has a price in New Orleans, and if the price is right you can have anything you want.

New Orleans was MY end of the trip.  The Grand Canyon had been for him but I’d spent 3 weeks researching the French Quarter and had another 10 pages attached to my itinerary with history and addresses.  We were gonna do it all and see it all.

We showered and dressed and hit the road…we were staying on Camp Street which turns into Chartres Street which runs parallel to Bourbon Street…but it’s one street over.  Got that?

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We should talk about perception vs. reality for a bit.  I’ve always been mildly interested in New Orleans.  I never really sought out information about it before this trip but I also didn’t pass it by if it presented itself.  Plus, I’d just done three weeks of research so I thought I had a pretty firm handle on the Crescent City.  I thought there was a richness to the culture…in the accents, in the history, in the pride.

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The reality is we met one person with a faint Cajun accent…and I may have imagined it.  I was indulging in cocktails.  Which brings me to my second point…New Orleans smells bad.  Bourbon Street is the worst but the entire French Quarter smells of old beer, pee, and garbage.  Sometimes if the wind blows just right you can ignore it, but mostly it just stinks.  And while Bourbon Street does have a few nice restaurants and boutiques, it’s mostly sleazy.

The Quarter is laid out as a grid with the skyscrapers (the hotels) at the north side and the river at the south.  It’s fairly easy to navigate once you learn that and we noticed that as you cascade away from Bourbon Street the shops get nicer and the bars get fewer.  Around dusk each night the police put up barricades stopping traffic from traveling north and south.  At the same time the nicer places all close up shop and go home for the night.  And as the sun sets the French Quarter shreds all signs of respectability and becomes a writhing frat party with naked girls dangling from windows and drunk people urinating in the street.  Fun!

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We kinda stumbled onto Pat O’Bryan’s.  We just looked up and there it was.  It’s one of the most iconic eateries in New Orleans and famous for having invented the hurricane…which is NOT named after the hurricanes that pummel the coast…but for the hurricane lamps that were used for lighting back in the day. The lamp also did not get its name from the storms.  Go figure.

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We ate in the alley.  Yah.  They have a large alley and it’s set up with a bar and bistro tables.  It’s actually pretty nice; we were close to the bar and had a view of two water fountains.  But…the food is wonderful!  I kind of had low expectations…it’s know for inventing a cocktail…how good can the food be?  But it’s delicious.  I had brisket with potatoes and I loved it.  Jim had the trio…jambalaya, red beans and rice, and gumbo.  He loved it…I didn’t.  It was dry.  The 2 foot tall hurricane I chugged made it better.

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After dinner we wandered a bit just taking in the sights.  A Creepy tall man invited us into a club to see ‘free titties” but…I actually brought mine with us…told you I don’t pack light.  Then we stumbled onto Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo!

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Portrait of Marie Laveau, New Orleans voodoo queen

I had done my research on Marie and was excited to see the shop.  If you’ve ever experienced the inevitable let down associated with walking into one of the surf shops in Myrtle Beach….you know how it was.  Mass produced chotsky’s.  It looks like they’re printing books, post cards and magnets right there in the shop; low quality graphics in black and white.  The voodoo dolls look like they make them with discount fabric from Walmart.  And the staff was two skinny college guys eating fast food and ignoring everyone.  I expected a plump Cajun woman with a colorful cloth wrapped around her head and sparkling eyes hiding a deceitful nature.

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Working for our beer money

DAY SEVEN

The voodoo Queen and celebrities

The next day was better.  After a good night’s sleep and some breakfast we headed to Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop to meet up with our tour guide, Pam.  We did a tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 but the first hour we just wandered the town as she gave us a history lesson.  I was pretty much in heaven.  I can’t remember even half of what she told us but in a nutshell…the French founded the city, the Spanish took over, then the Americans came.

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The people of New Orleans hated the Americans so much they created a neutral ground to hold meetings…literally a grassy knoll between the French Quarter and the American area on the opposite side of Canal Street.  To this day, what we call a median, they call neutral ground.  And if you get caught in rain and it starts to flood, the news will advise you to pull onto the neutral ground and wait for the pumps to pump out the water.  And…if you call work and say ‘I’m gonna be late I’m stuck on neutral ground’ not only is it an acceptable excuse for being late but they seriously don’t expect to see you for at least an hour and a half!

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The cemetery is next door to a visitor’s center with a LARGE digital map of the city.  Pam spent some time showing us the pumping stations and what actually happened during Hurricane Katrina.  It’s pretty scary, especially since it can happen again if a hurricane pushes up from the Gulf.

The cemeteries in New Orleans are infamous.  Officially, there are roughly 7,000 people buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1…unofficially they suspect more than 70,000 are buried there.  All of the Quarter is basically just a sinking swamp.  They didn’t know this in the early 18th century when they were burying the thousands of people who died from yellow fever.  So they buried them IN the ground.  They’d pop up and float away or get reburied every time it rained.  When the Spanish took over they brought their above ground burial system.

Finding bodies in your backyard is so common…they’ve developed a procedure for it; first you call the NOPD to determine if the body is old or new.  Assuming it’s old, they have to do DNA testing to determine the nationality.  If it’s Spanish, French, or plain old American, you have two choices; if you dig it up you have to pay to have it re interred.  Or you can just leave it there.

Pam told us about a body that tuned up recently when a local man was having a hole dug in his backyard for a pool.  Ultimately, he left the body there.  I think knowing a body was under my pool would be disconcerting.  BUT…the older bodies in NO aren’t just your average hard-working settlers.  Once the people of France learned they couldn’t grow anything on the swamp land and that yellow fever ran rampant, they refused to immigrate.  So, in desperate need of settlers, they emptied prisons and insane asylums and shipped the occupants to the Crescent City.  When these new ‘settlers’ demanded wives, they emptied the women’s prisons and sent them over.  Which means the average Nawlin’s ghost is a criminal, a crazy person, or some combination of the two.  I would not want those ghosts tethered to my pool!

The cemeteries attract all kinds of crazy and the Save Our Cemeteries organization lobbied successfully to close them to tourists.  In order to enter you have to be a tagged member of a paid walking tour and the tour guides are personally responsible for making sure they leave with the exact same number of people as they entered with.  Unfortunately it means you’re also limited in what you can see.  They don’t have time to show you every single tomb and they can’t let you wander off on your own.  It also means it’s difficult to photograph anything without also photographing the 45 tourists meandering about.

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Despite all of that we still had a really good time.  She showed us the tomb that people mistakenly believed to be Marie Laveau’s for decades.  It’s covered in XXX’s.  Apparently the working theory is that you make a wish and mark it to Marie with three X’s.  When the wish comes true you come back and circle those X’s.  None of the X’s are circled!  BUT…that might be because the tomb they’re marking is NOT Marie Laveau’s.

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When she was buried the tombs weren’t marked so no one really knows which is hers.  The Catholic Church supposedly dug through existing church records and determined that a much newer and cleaner looking tomb was hers.  There’s some understandable disbelief.  But the Church produced an impressive placard and had it attached to the tomb anyway.

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The new and improved Marie Laveau tomb receives a fair amount of attention from fanatics.  In December of 2013 someone painted the entire tomb pink with standard house paint, so the Archdiocese paid someone to clean it.  That someone had no idea the tombs are built with a special kind of brick and mortar, and then covered with another layer of mortar.  This concoction is essential because of the high humidity and allows the tombs to ‘breathe’’.  He attacked the tomb with a pressure washer and almost destroyed it.  A fundraising campaign was started and raised $7000 of the $10,000 needed to repair it.  Some industrious reporter reached out to the most famous of Marie Laveau’s descendants… Desiree Rogers…famous for the White House party crashing incident…and she immediately offered to pay the difference.

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After the tour we shopped.  My first priority was finding VooDoo Makeup.  Cait is fanatical about her makeup…it has to be cruelty free and she only likes very specific brands.  Voodoo Makeup is one of the few places I’ve heard of where you can have custom colors mixed…I had a laundry list of products to buy for her.  But…turns out the New Orleans location closed down months ago.  The shop is still there and it looks like they just closed up for lunch, but we asked around and no one could remember seeing them open since before Christmas.  Major bummer!

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But we did find a few other boutiques with perfect gifts for the kids…and souvenirs for us.  Trashy Diva is an awesome retro shop where Jim picked out a pair of sunglasses for me.  I’ve been obsessed with sunglasses lately!  And Fleurty Girl has great New Orleans themed souvenirs that aren’t tacky.    And…Lost and Found is a mix of vintage pieces and cute boutique items.  I found a gorgeous baby doll dress for Candice and adorable tortoiseshell sunglasses with little cat ears for Cait.

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Jim’s pick for me

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For Cait

We had dinner at Deuce McAallister’s restaurant on Royal.  They had a Cinco Cinco special on margaritas…so I had TWO!  In my defense, they were delicious!  I had short ribs and Jim had a steak and everything was so good!  It’s seriously hard to find a bad meal down there.

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Then we wandered.  We walked Jackson Square and browsed through the art work, then we hired a horse carriage for an evening tour of the city.  Our driver was…weird.  I thought he might be on drugs at first and worried that we’d end up at the bottom of the Mississippi in some kind of freak horse-drawn carriage incident.  But it turns out…he just speaks slowly.  He was really funny and knew all kinds of gossip about the French Quarter.  For instance…he pointed out every single house owned by a celebrity.  Did you know Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie live across the street from the house Matthew McConhaughey rented?  Or that the two actors stood on their balconies talking and Matthew tossed beers across the street to Brad?  Now you know.

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Jackson Square & St. Lewis Cathedral

He also pointed out the Delphine LaLaurie house…the most haunted and notorious house in New Orleans.  The story of Delphine laLaurie featured prominently in season 3 of American Horror Story: Coven.  Delphine had a nasty habit of torturing her slaves and killed several.  In 1834 her 70-year-old cook, who was chained to the stove, set the house on fire in a desperate attempt to escape the torture.  Neighbors observed Delphine running in and out of the house trying to ‘rescue’ her valuables.

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When the fire marshal arrived the cook told amazing stories of torture and death.  They searched the house and found slaves chained and caged throughout the house.  Many have been tortured, some had their mouths sewn shut and were missing appendages.  Ignoring the Code Noir Delphine had used them for her own twisted medical experiments and to satisfy her sadistic nature.

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Delphine LaLaurie and her family

When the neighbors learned of the disturbing events taking place, a mob descended on the home.  But the Lalaurie’s escaped before the mob was able to enter the home.  No one knows for certain where they went…the trail just disappears that night.

 

DAYS EIGHT & NINE

Momma I’m coming home

We left Friday morning and headed to Atlanta.  It was a ‘quick’ 6 hour drive which we desperately needed.  I’d visit New Orleans again…but I’d definitely wear better shoes.  By Thursday night our feet were so bruised from walking the broken and uneven cobblestone sidewalks that we literally limped back to the hotel.  Plus the long hours in the bus are kind of cathartic.  Your mind gets to wander, you get to reflect on what you’ve done and seen…and you get to day dream.

I decided somewhere near Biloxi that I could be a Sherpa.  A Sherpa for European tourists wanting to explore the vast wilderness of America…

Tourist 1 – Is so windy, I need moisturizer

Me – Whoa Eidelveiss…this is Chicago…Chi-town!  You don’t need moisturizer, you need a gun.  Gimme the La Mer and see if anyone has a spare

Me – Ok, we’re going to leave the hotel and travel east to McDonalds.  Remember the bob and weave technique I taught you…practice it…it may save your life.

Tourist 2 – hehe…is like we do Congo!

Me – Yah…Lederhosen how bout you go stand in the front of the line.

Me – There is a 90% chance that 30% of you will NOT survive this outing.  When we get back there will be a short break while I do a head count and make sure everyone paid in advance, then we may venture out to explore something we call the ‘subway’.

Tourist 3 – are our chances really that bad?

Me – they’re better with Lederhosen in the front…but just the same I wouldn’t make dinner reservations.

Tourist 1 – Look!  Baby gun fits in Fendi baguette

Me – That’s great Edelweiss.  You go to the front of the line too…that’s right…next to Lederhosen.

I should point out that I’ve never actually been to Chicago.  I probably couldn’t find a hotel, much less navigate my way to McDonalds.  And apparently I’m a mean Sherpa…

We stopped for the night around 6, found a store to restock supplies and then went to Pizza Hut.  I was going to take a mini vacation from my vacation and indulge in the indoor swimming pool…but we got back to the hotel so late it was closing.

The next morning we hit the road bright and early.  We got home around 5.  But there was no rest for the weary.  We had no food in the house.  None!  So I went to the store while Jim washed the buses and prepped them for the big handover.  Then…we slept!

Perspective –

At the beginning of our adventure I thought of first class plane seats and deluxe suites as luxuries.  By the end of the trip I was looking forward to being able to pee whenever I wanted!  It’s amazing how something so simple can be so gratifying.  And being able to walk across the house for food…instead of having to hunt it like some kind of modern day caveman…pure bliss!

We’ve been home 8 days and we still feel like fish out of water.  When I get into my car I reach to the wrong spot for my seat belt and still try to shift gears by the steering wheel.  I keep forgetting I have a counter-top full of cosmetics and toiletries and find myself using the same few items I took with us.  But going out is the worst…Hope Mills feels alien to me.  I barely left the house the first 5 days we were back.  Now I drive the same streets I’ve been driving for six years and it just feels…unfamiliar?  Like it’s changed somehow.  And I’m constantly surprised that I don’t recognize anyone in the cars passing me or in the stores.  And it’s not like I knew everyone here before…so it shouldn’t surprise me.  But it does.

The first few days we were back Jim kept smiling and saying ‘I can’t believe we did that!’  We left our comfort zone and we had a true adventure…no kids, no dogs, no agenda.

Just the two of us…

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WORLD TRAVELERS – PART II

DAY THREE

That’s a really big hole…and other misconceptions

We spent the night in Kingman Arizona and we arrived at the hotel well after dark.  We didn’t have a reservation and there was a Rod Run and a biker rally in town so all they had left was suites…yes please!  So…it was a huge surprise to wake up and see that we were surrounded by gorgeous mountains.  That was actually a theme through most of the trip.

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I’d printed a 26 page itinerary so I KNEW we had a 2 hour drive to the Grand Canyon.  That estimated time Google maps gives you…is just that…an estimation.  Always add at least two hours.  Even if you’re going across town…add two hours!  That way you can stop and shop and if your husband asks why you’re late you can roll your eyes and say “Google…pfft!’ and he’ll think it’s their fault.

We turned off of I40 around 1 and stopped at the one and only gas station/tourist trap around 130.  Candice and I have this running joke about souvenirs…we were at a rest stop near Wichita Falls Texas one time and they had ‘genuine’ plastic deer hide dream catchers hand painted with the Mona Lisa, and resin rattlesnakes.  I’m always telling her I’ll get her a resin snake as a souvenir when I travel…and this place had them!  Yah…genuine plastic rattlesnakes in all kinds of poses and holding all kinds of useful stuff like clocks and cups and forks!

I didn’t actually buy one but I did take a picture of it and tried to text it to her.  It was around this time that we discovered we had no cell phone service.  We also discovered entering the canyon cost $30 per vehicle.  So we ditched my bus and I rode up with Jim…frantically trying to call Candice the whole way.  When we got to the gate the older woman working it panicked…she assumed we were part of a tour group that hadn’t bothered to let them know they were coming.  She was so happy when she found out it was just two tiny people driving that big ass empty bus that she let us in for free!

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Jim had never seen the Grand Canyon but I had so I was really anxious to see his reaction.  If you’ve never been there you should know…it’s essentially a hole in the ground with trees and shrubs lining the rim so you can stand 20 feet away and not know it’s there.

He was impressed.

Jim – It’s so much bigger than I expected it to be

Me – Yah…I heard they took that into consideration when they named it

Jim – Funny

Me – seriously!  These Indians initially found it.  They were just out riding one day and boom!  They almost fell in.

Indian 1 – wow…that’s a really big canyon!

Indian 2 says – We could make some serious money off this thing.

Indian 3 – what’s money?

Indian 1 – what should we call it?

Indian 2 – let’s call it the ‘Big Canyon!’

Indian 1 – I don’t think that really conveys just how big it is

Indian 3 – what about the Majestic Canyon!’

Indian 1 –  it’s too pretentious.  People hate that.

Indian 2 – how about…the ‘Grand Canyon?’

Indian 1 – …right there The Grand Canyon!  I like it

Indian 3 – The Majestic Canyon is pretentious but the Grand Canyon is perfect????

Indian 2 – Don’t be bitter man.

Indian 3 – Whatever dude.  I’m gonna get a falafel and work on my ideas for the gift shop.

And that…is how the Grand Canyon got its name.

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We walked the rim for about an hour and loved every second.  It was kind of overcast when we started walking but the clouds burned off and it got sunny and you could see all of the striations in the rock and all of the amazing colors.  We also saw a cave in the rock about halfway down the opposite side and a crazy Japanese tourist wearing way too little clothing.  She scaled a fence, walked out onto a rock and posed for photos for like half an hour!

I could hear panting and wheezing behind me so I turned and asked this older man if he was ok.  He was kind of heavy and sweating so I assumed he was having a heart attack and my first thought was…not one damn cell phone up here works…how are we gonna call 911.  But…it turns out he was just having a panic attack watching her prance around the edge all care free like she couldn’t fall down a billion feet to her death.

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The park is full of elk…I don’t remember there being elk in 87.  And these are tame-ish elk.  They’re so accustomed to there being billions of people walking around that they don’t really mind.  We passed two between the rim and the parking lot then saw dozens of them grazing on leaves as we drove out.

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We passed through a picnic area on our way back to the buses and this little guy was perched on a banister. he had major attitude, especially when I started taking his photo.

I’ve been to a lot of touristy areas.  Usually every inch of land is considered prime real estate right up to whatever big thing people have come to see.  So it’s kind of surprising that the 60 miles between I40 and the park is a barren wasteland.  (Yah…another one).  There’s desert and scrub brush everywhere and every 10-15 minutes you’ll see an RV or mobile home anchored to the sand with a small fence and 5-6 sheep or cows or something.  About 15 miles North of I40 there’s a rundown building on the left that use to be a business but it’s been abandoned.  30 minutes from the interstate is the gas station we stopped at with a motel and a diner that’s closed til summer.  And that’s it…nothing but land and trees for nearly 60 miles.  They must have one hell of a zoning board and some seriously intense zoning ordinances to keep the commercial developers out of there.

When we stopped to get my bus I went in to ask about food…the diner was obviously closed and we hadn’t eaten since the ‘Free Continental Breakfast” at 8am.   The cashier told us there was a town, Williams, on the other side of I40 with ‘all of the fast food chains’.  He assured me we could find a hamburger there.  There are NO burgers in Williams!  None.  In fact…Williams is two streets…each of them a one-way street…and no place to eat.  So we headed to Flagstaff…where we found an ice storm.

I always assume Arizona and New Mexico are hot.  It’s the desert!  But it turns out…they’re not always hot.  Sometimes, they have ice and snow in May!  Just as we’re getting into Flagstaff and rush hour traffic an ice storm hits us.  So we find the first place we can and pull off to eat…steak!  Our poor bellies were so accustomed to gummy savers and soda with the occasional fast food thrown in they didn’t know how to react to vegetables and substance.  We used dinner to regroup and set a new destination…Gallup!

We were supposed to go to the Painted Desert, the petrified Forrest and end the day in Albuquerque.  I learned to spell ‘Albuquerque’ just so I could add it to the itinerary…but we didn’t make it that far.  It was dark, we were tired, and we were at least 3 hours behind schedule so Gallup sounded like a good place to stop.  It actually sounded like a podunk little run down country town with more horses than humans but I was too tired to argue with Jim.

DAY FOUR

Milagro – New Mexican for ‘use to be two gas stations…now only one’

I don’t have a lot to say about day three.  Our plan was to get to Oklahoma City as quickly as possible but we knew we were still three hours off track and it was going to be a long day of driving.  And it was!

Our hotel was in a complex with some tourist shops and a gas station.  We stopped for gas before we left and there was a Native American wandering the parking lot asking for money.  I went in to pay and the cashier was telling both of the Native American women in line in front of me that she couldn’t sell them alcohol because she could tell they were drunk.  It wasn’t even 9am!   And we saw these signs all over New Mexico…no where else…just New Mexico.

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That was one of the worst moments of the trip.  I always assume that a lot of stereotypes are based on a few select instances that get blown out of proportion.  I didn’t want to believe the cliché of Indians being alcoholics.  But the cashier, who was also Indian, said she deals with it all day every day.  It’s an incredibly sad legacy for a culture that was so rich and so proud.

I have to say…the views on day three were the best.

We drove through 500 miles of flatland and I wanted to stop every quarter-mile and take photos.  I’ve spent the last 30 years on the east coast so I’d completely forgotten what it was like to look out and see the land stretch so far off into the distance that it meets the sky.  As we drove east the steep cliffs dwindled away and suddenly you could see forever.  Exactly 160 miles west of Oklahoma City you start to see a spattering of trees.  Within 20 minutes of that you’re surrounded on all sides by a perfectly green wall…and it stays that way until you hit the Atlantic Ocean.  I love the east coast…but I could spend eternity staring at the views in Arizona and New Mexico.

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About every 50 miles or so there were remnants of an old tourist attraction or souvenir shack.  They were all old and deserted.  There’s amazingly very little business on that stretch of I40.  Each time we stopped I’d tell Jim to start looking for a bathroom in about 40 minutes because I know it could take another 40 minutes for him to find an exit with existing businesses.

We had walkie talkies to communicate on the road and we had code names for each other.  But you should know…you put a walkie-talkie in the hand of an otherwise sane person…and they lose their mind.  I had two distinct personalities; Saucy Flossy…which is who the bus is named after…was a trash talking country girl…

Jim:  What’s up Buttercup?

Me:  I gotta pee honeybee!

…and Audacious Lizzie Funk was ghettolicious.

Jim:  You need a pee break?

Me:  why you gotta be up in my koolaid when you don’t even know what flavor it be????

If I was tired/bored/rushed my alter egos would just kind of swirl together into one confusing blend of countrrfied ghettoness and you never knew what was gonna come out.

Around mid-day we stopped in Milagro New Mexico.  There was an abandoned Exxon on the south side of the highway and a no-name station on the north side.  I had to pee (it’s a well documented fact that I have a bladder roughly half the size of a goldfish bladder) so I went in expecting it to be pretty awesome.  It had survived when Exxon hadn’t and it was the only place to stop for about 80 miles!  They had 4 bags of funyons, 9 sodas and a box of Epsom salt.  That was it.

 

DAY FIVE

Hipsters, corruption and moth man…but definitely not Sasquatch

We woke up in Moore Oklahoma.  This is significant for several reasons:  we use to live there.  In fact we lived there for four years before we moved to NC.  Which means we knew our way around…and I knew where the boutiques were that I wanted to shop.  It also meant we knew where the Laundromat was and I needed clean knickers.  And most importantly…we were less than a mile from both…Taco Mayo and Freddy’s.  Freddy’s has the creamiest dreamiest ice cream on the whole planet!

We left my bus at the motel and headed out in search of shopping utopia.  Both boutiques were on Pennsylvania Ave. so I held on for dear life as Jim attempted to whip the Beast around the 240 like it was a Porsche.  (Kinda glad I had my own bus for 9 days!)

But…both stores were gone!  Yah, they closed up and never looked back.  I immediately started sending emergency shopping texts to my girls and got some scattered suggestions…I think they moved…Look by Hobby Lobby…you liked THAT store?  So we went back to Moore and noshed on Taco Mayo. (Jim was in such a hurry to reach OKC he had neglected to feed me dinner the night before)

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Haeley Love June 2010

Then we did two quick loads of laundry while I reminisced about the photo shoot I’d done there with Haeley SIX years earlier.  In fact…everywhere I looked in Moore was a happy memory.  I spent four years building up a photography business and had done photo shoots everywhere or the girls and I had done something fun everywhere I looked.

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But it was also sad.  In May of 2013…3 years after we left…an F5 tornado ripped through Moore destroying everything it touched.  Friends sent photos for weeks after showing us the destruction.  The path of the tornado took it one street over from our old house and destroyed 90% of the neighborhood.  So we were totally shocked to discover there were no visible signs of the disaster.

Which sounds great…except it made me think of Hope Mills.  I spent 18 months toiling in local politics trying to affect some kind of positive change and finally walked away…disgusted and questioning everything I believed in.  I realized how much we’d taken Moore for granted while we lived there…it’s not only a beautiful community it’s also a strong community with an equally strong local government who stepped in and worked tirelessly to rebuild.  Within hours of the tornado they had established social media accounts to disperse information and deployed extra security to keep looters from pilfering from the damaged homes.

But more importantly…less than three years after this took place…you can’t even tell.  The only visible sign is the local hospital.  The exterior is complete but while the interior is finished they operate out of portable buildings in the parking lot.  That’s it!  The debris is gone, the homes rebuilt, the sun was shining and the whole thing was a beacon flashing in my face with one singular message…Hope Mills could not have survived this.  Much less flourished!

If an F5 had destroyed part of this town 3 years ago…we’d still be sifting debris while the elected officials argued over who had stolen the relief funds and whether or not they should say something to that person.  God forbid they appear ugly and accusatory…it’s not the southern way.

We got to Idabel around 7 to meet with Jim’s Aunt Melody and Uncle Russ.  Melody and Russ come with a lot of ‘est’.  They’re the nicest people you could ever meet, with the cutest dog you could ever try to steal (I tried but they wouldn’t leave me alone with them long enough to squeeze them into my bag) they make the best BBQ sauce in the world and live in the smallest town ever.

Idabel isn’t really the smallest town, but it is small.  The first time I visited them in 1998 they didn’t have ATM’s in town.  Now they do…they’ve come a long way.  They took us to Jake’s for dinner and I will admit I was biased.  I assumed Jake’s would be a tiny little run down diner with a limited menu and too much grease in the food.

I will never judge a town by its size again.  Jake’s was phenomenal!  It’s down a side street next to an outdoor amphitheater and it’s cool!  It’s like downtown Las Angeles cool.  The décor is a mix of industrial and antiques from the local area, the staff is super friendly (they have to be everyone knows everyone…or knows their momma) and the food is amazing!  We rarely have a meal so good we remember it and talk about it for years to come…in fact that’s only happened once before.  But Jake’s was that good!

And the conversation was good.  Melody & Russ are just the kind of people you feel at ease with.  They’re funny and affectionate and there’s no guile.  They’re totally genuine and warm and if it weren’t for their frustratingly close watch on those dogs…I would declare them perfect. We really do love spending time with them and wished they lived closer…but I suspect Melody would never move an inch farther away from her grandson…and that’s ok.  He can have her…for now.  Thank you Melody & Russ and Erik for a lovely evening!

Oklahoma was supposed to be a reboot for the trip…an opportunity to relax a bit and get back on schedule.  We succeeded with the relaxation part…too much.  We were two hours behind schedule when we left Idabel and headed to Shreveport.  Which is why I’m gonna cut Jim some slack and claim he was suffering from a full belly and exhaustion when the walkie-talkie squawked and he said he was pretty sure Sasquatch had just thrown a bat from a tree into his grill.

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I partially blame the Discovery Channel for what happened that night.  He’s watched a billion documentaries on Big Foot and he knows that section of Oklahoma is a hotbed of activity and sightings.  However…that doesn’t explain why he thinks Mothman flew over his bus.  We were on a small winding road in the dark at 10pm.  No houses, no lights, just creepy darkness and trees and wind.  I’m pretty sure he saw an owl…I didn’t see it.  I was trying to get a signal on my cell so I could check in with the girls.  But just to be safe I’ve banned him from watching the Discovery Channel anymore.

It took over 2 hours to get to Shreveport that night, but it was one of the funnest nights we had driving.  We crossed into Arkansas fairly quickly, and I learned that ALL of Arkansas smells like chicken poop.  I could barely pick up any radio stations and when I could there was nothing good to listen to.  But at one point we were doing 70 mph down a dark twisty road with the smell of chicken poop drifting in the windows and the sound of Oh Sheila ricocheting off the walls of the empty bus and I thought…we’re having fun!  We could be at home watching reruns and wishing we lived a life full of adventure…but instead we’re off having an adventure.

(Next up…More fun in the Crescent City)

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WORLD TRAVELERS – Part I

Jim –When you and your parents drove from California to Tennessee, how long did it take?

Me – Four days, but we made a lot of stops.  Why?

And that’s how it began.

But you need some background info…

Local YMCA’s don’t necessarily own everything they own.  For instance, the Twenty Nine Palms YMCA did NOT own the 15-passenger van they had in their possession.  They discovered this when they decided they didn’t use it enough to justify the expense of maintaining it and wanted to sell it.  The same thing happened with the San Diego YMCA.  The national office technically owned both vans and knew the Fort Bragg branch needed them.  So a grand plan was hatched to transport both vehicles from Southern California to North Carolina.

But after dozens of phone calls they discovered it would cost somewhere near $23,000 to have them carried that far.  That’s when we got the call from Lisa.  She was looking for two people to fly to San Diego and drive them cross country…and coincidentally…we are two people!

There was a LOT of prep work…at their end.  Luckily all I had to do was plan the route and figure out where we wanted to stop each night.  Oh…and pack!

I rarely fly.  I HATE flying.  I always drive because A) cars so rarely fall out of the sky and 2) there’s no luggage restrictions.  I’m not a light packer.  Last May I shot a wedding in Tennessee.  I was gone five days and took five suitcases, two duffle bags and an overnight case.  I took NINE pair of shoes and I wore them all during those 5 days!  So packing 9 days of necessities into one suitcase was torture!

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DAY ONE

Gladiators & Lightening

We flew out of Fayetteville on a Friday.  I’m not sure if it’s a post 9/11 issue or I’d just been really lucky with all of my flights prior to this…but planes don’t take off on time anymore.  Like…ever.  We didn’t even board on time…and we had priority seating!

When you don’t fly a lot, your body isn’t use to it.  I hadn’t flown since 1999.  And that was just 4 quick one hour flights.  I actually like the take off…but once the plane levels out it just all feels wrong.  It’s like when you’ve had hiccups for 20 minutes and they abruptly stop…your body craves that next hiccup.  Well…once the plane climbs up to the cruising altitude…my body craves the plummet.  Maybe it’s from years of riding roller coasters.  Maybe I’m just weird.  But it literally feels wrong when the plane levels out, but doesn’t immediately swoop back down.  I’m going to write a suggestion to the airlines that they leave a little Valium and a bottle of water on each seat.

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We had a 3 hour layover in Charlotte so we had lunch at 1897 Market…they’re on the Top Ten List of Airport eateries and the food was delicious!  Then we had a 3 hour flight to DFW…with first class seats!  We had leg room, headphones, and warm towels to clean our hands before they served…lunch!  Yah we totally ate twice.

It ended far too soon and we landed in DFW…where everything came to a crashing halt.

I won’t bore you with details…just picture a thunder-storm, a closed airport, one cancelled flight, 5 flight delays, some missing luggage, one episode of Scandal, three catholic priests, and a seriously messed up car rental and you pretty much know what the next 11 hours were like.

By the time we checked into the resort and crawled into bed we’d been up for more than 21 hours and traveling for 18 hours.  And the front desk woke us up at 3am to let us know our luggage had arrived and they were bringing it up!

DAY TWO

The road to Nirvana is paved with…windmills?

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We woke up Saturday morning to a gorgeous view of the bay and dozens of little ducks meandering around and Bougainvillea climbing all over the balconies of the resort.  But we also woke up starving because we hadn’t eaten since the second lunch in Charlotte the day before…we were on a mission to find food!

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This is how we learned people in California don’t eat anything but tofu and sushi.  They also run or bike everywhere.  We spent 40 minutes kinda looking for food and kinda looking for La Jolla.  We found La Jolla ( where Jim got his first glimpse of the pacific Ocean ) before we found food, but by that point we were so hungry we were like feral cats clawing at anything that looked edible.  One of us mentioned hamburgers…maybe him…maybe me…maybe I hallucinated it.  Either way it was decided we would look for a Burger King because A) they have food and 2) there’s one on every single street corner in America.  Except of course…in California!

45 minutes later our GPS directed us to a mall of some kind.  It claimed there was a Burger King in the food court but we never saw one.  We ended up eating subs from Charlie’s.

The original plan was to spend 3 days in California before heading east.  But the night before we left the coordinator found out California has some weird rule and we needed a class C license to drive a passenger van.  After another flurry of phone calls it was agreed that we’d meet the staff from the Twenty Nine Palms office at the border of California and Arizona for the official hand off.  But that we’d do it Saturday at 1!  So we had to cram some real fast sight-seeing into the drive to Twenty Nine Palms.

I’ve been to Palm Springs but neither of us had been to Twenty Nine Palms.  It sounds exotic and glamorous…the kind of place movie stars frequent…the kind of place with cabana boys and waving palms trees.

Not so much.

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Picture the post-apocalyptic wasteland from any of the Mad Max movies and you’re on track.  The highway into Twenty Nine Palms is laden with windmills.  I remembered them from my trip to Palm Springs in 87.  The town itself is barren with very old one-story buildings…most of them vacant and abandoned.  There were a few gas stations, a fast food place, some Native American references.  I’d never seen anything so desolate and dreary before…

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Twenty Nine Palms is home to a marine base…it’s nestled down in a valley.  You have to circle most of the base then drive across a good portion of the Mohave Desert to get to the gate.  But we managed to get there without running into a rattle snake, a road runner or Wylie Coyote.

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We found their YMCA office…and realized there had been some major miscommunication.  We were NOT driving cute little lady like vans across the whole wide country…we were driving buses!  Big white buses.  The kind with wide-set back ends, double doors that open when you pull that massive lever, and really bad sound systems.

There were a few jokes about ducking out, buying plane tickets home and forgetting the whole thing.  And it’s truly a testament to how much I hate flying that I chose to stay and drive that big ol’ bus instead of flying home.  But we did stay…and now I’m glad we did.

We needed provisions for the ride so while Dawn…our new friend and coordinator made some phone calls and mapped a new route…Jim and I went to the commissary.  I know not all of you are military people so you have no idea how big a commissary is supposed to be so I’ll just tell you…BIG.  They’re usually the size of a Target.  Not a super center Target…just a basic Target.  So it was a little bit of a shock when we walked in and this commissary was just about the same size as my house.  But it was conveniently located across the street from the YMCA…why?  Because everything is across the street from the YMCA.  Twenty Nine Palms is one of the largest military bases in the world and covers more than 931 miles of land.  But the actual cantonment is super small.  Super small!!!!

We go back to Dawn and the buses and discover there was a bit more miscommunication.  We thought we were simply going to hand Dawn the keys to the rental and she’d hand us the van keys…but the actual border is more than 150 miles away.  So Jim, Dawn and I loaded everything onto one bus while Butch (a very nice retired marine) drove the second bus.  And a third guy who I never met drove an SUV behind us so he could drive them back to Twenty Nine Palms after we did the hand off in Needles.

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Mesa – Mesa is the American English term for tableland, an elevated area of land with a flat top and sides that are usually steep cliffs

Once you leave the base and head into the desert on historic Route 66 the scenery changes a little.  It’s still desert, but it’s gorgeous!  Flat desert sands surround the road on each side and end at the base of giant red rock mountains that rise up forming a border.  Joshua trees are scattered around with a few tumbleweeds.

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Then there’s the volcano.  Yah…an actual volcano rises up out of the desert on the North side of the road.

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Between the base and the border there’s ONE place to stop…Roy’s Café.  Roy’s is famous.  It’s been used in movies, music videos and written about in books.  There’s also a lot of trains and railroads crossing the desert.

While we drove I quizzed Dawn on the area. They have dust storms that last 15 minutes to 3 days!  If you have doggy doors, road runners will sneak in and steal dog food or rifle through your trash.  They have a LOT of snakes and scorpions there…large scorpions.  And they don’t have a Walmart!  In fact there are very few places to shop once you leave the base.  But the extreme climate and the isolation kind of forces everyone to be closer.  They’ve formed a much stronger community bond and work together to do everything from raising kids to helping spouses of disabled vets.  And while it is barren and dry…it’s also really beautiful.  She said at night it’s so dark you can see every star for miles around and they have beautiful sunsets.  I don’t know if I’d ever feel at home living there, but I’d definitely go back and enjoy taking photos for a few weeks.

We hit Needles around dusk and with very little pomp and circumstance Jim and I took possession of two outdated and over sized buses…which we named Saucy Flossy and the Beast.  (The local YMCA has decided to keep the names)

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(The next installment will be posted soon)

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