Check out our new Interactive Route Map (button in menu above). After a month in the Smokies, three months chasing the sun and birds in Florida, we’re embarking on a more ambitious trip. This time we plan to cross the US, Canada via a Northerly route, picking up a headboard from our van manufacturer, Read More
The origins of this nickname for New Orleans are many and varied. We settled for it as being descriptive of the laid-back lifestyle in contrast to New York, “The Big Apple”. Founded by the French in 1718, handed to the Spanish in 1763, back to the French briefly in 1803 before becoming part of the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It became well known for the many music venues playing Jazz,, Blues, etc., and as a ‘party town’. During the period leading up to ‘Mardi Gras’ (Fat Tuesday), anything goes in the city, particularly in the famous French Quarter where the consumption of alcohol is allowed on the street. We arrived at the end of January, a week or two before the Mardi Gras celebrations were at their height and found an RV park a short walk from the edge of the French Quarter which was our base for 5 days exploring.
The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city of New Orleans and was mainly constructed during the Spanish period during the late 18th century under the city’s Spanish rule. The extent of this style of architecture is unique, characterized by narrow streets, multistory buildings with liberal use of wrought ironwork, for the omnipresent balconies as well as fences, gates, door insets and downspouts. Much of the ironwork was added after the original construction, hence some of the French motifs in keeping with its heritage and name. We had fun exploring the Quarter, particularly the street musicians, Jackson Square and the Café Du Monde where we sampled the famous beignets (square fried donut – no hole – covered in powdered sugar).
The French Quarter and Frenchman Street had more than an abundance of music choices. It seemed every third building was a bar with live music. If you wanted to hear blues, early jazz, and contemporary bands, it was all here. The night life was just hopping! Even during the day, the music was pouring out of the buildings. Cheryl played jazz flute in her late teen years, and a visit to the famous Preservation Hall to listen to an accomplished ‘Traditional’ jazz band was a must. We couldn’t believe how small it was! The hall has acoustic concerts featuring some of the finest jazz performers which showcase the musical legacy dating back to the origins of jazz. We toured Frenchman Street just outside the French Quarter after dark, where some of the best music is to be found and enjoyed a more modern type of ‘Trad’ by the excellent ‘Smoking Time Jazz Club’ (sample below).
The French Quarter is filled with strange and wonderful people, in all shapes and sizes, and dressed amazingly unique. From a unicorn horn hat, pirates, and statue actors, they’re all great. Have to keep your sense of humor in this town.
In addition to taxis and horse-drawn tours carriages, New Orleans has several electric streetcar routes which we used to visit areas outside the French Quarter. The St. Charles line still runs the (refurbished) original green streetcars. We loved the beautifully finished wooden seats and how they flipped to allow the streetcars to reverse their direction (unlike the famous San Francisco cable cars which use a turntable). We enjoyed looking around the “Creole Queen” paddle steamer and took a ferry ride across the Mississippi to the Algiers district. However, after dark, when it came to returning to our RV park after a hard day’s sightseeing, we took the advice of locals to go door to door and became avid ‘Uber’ users.
We took a city bus tour to visit some of the areas outside the French Quarter. We visited one of the many cemeteries in the city. Graves are universally built above ground level to keep them out of the swamp, above the water table. This gives the cemeteries a characteristic Louisiana look and we spent a while comparing some of the old and modern designs, many of which are quite exotic and built to house multiple generations. We toured the devastated Hurricane Katrina area, where some of the houses are still marked with the numbers and codes left over from Katrina inspections. This was to make sure every house was inspected for missing people or animals left behind during the hurricane. The plaque at the site of the 14th Street Canal breach, which was responsible for most of the flooding in the city, correctly laid the blame for the breach on a design mistake now acknowledged by the Army Corps of Engineers. We were able to drive by ‘Villa Lobos’, the Pit Bull Rescue organization, which is also one of Cheryl’s favorite TV programs on HGTV. We passed the Marsalis Center for Musicians, created by Winton but organized in honor of his father. So many of the musicians here were left homeless after Katrina and this was a concerted effort to create new housing and center where the musicians could be supported. It is now used to encourage and support young musicians. City Park had some unusual outdoor sculptures and mostly fun. Colin thought of the of the upside-down man tied by his feet as an escape artist whereas Cheryl found it evocative of lynching in the South which provoked and saddened her.
Street Musicians in the French Quarter
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French Quarter, New Orleans
We were looking forward to spending time in South-West Louisiana for a number of reasons. Firstly, we have a liking for Cajun music and were interested in listening to and finding out more about Zydeco. Secondly, we both enjoyed reading the Detective Dave Robicheaux series of books about New Iberia by James Lee Burke. We were also fascinated by the history of the melting pot of ethnic groups, how they arrived and still keep their culture (including culinary) alive. We learned a lot about the history of how the French, Spanish, and British all played parts in its evolution to modern-day Louisiana. Our first major stop in Louisiana was New Iberia on the Bayou Teche. Our stay there was a good deal longer than planned, we both managed to catch sinus infections that put us out for over two weeks. Staying in one spot seemed like a good idea. Not to fret, we’re both “in the pink” again.
The Bayou Teche Museum in downtown New Iberia gave us a good view of the history of the area and has a display of Robicheaux’s ‘Bait and Tackle Shop’; no sign of Batist, though. The artist, George Rodrigue’s early paintings consisted of images from his Louisiana and Cajun heritage. Just recently, Rodrigue allowed his paintings to be displayed and art studio to be reproduced for the museum.
Spanish Lake, West of New Iberia, is a large natural lake providing fishing and wildlife viewing. For $10 you can drive 5 miles around the lake and discover a barrier requiring a 10 point turn, 5 miles back to the entrance. I was taking an egret shot when the lady manning the entrance, stopped by me on her sunset clearout trip and said in true Cajun fashion, “You stay away from the water, you. They big snakes there.”
Rip’s rookery, a smaller lake also West of town, is a famous place for birdwatchers and many species use it as a resting place when migrating North or South. We arrived close to sunset and watched flocks of Snowy Egrets, Ibis (curved beak) and Anhingas arrive for overnight rest. The Egrets and Ibis seemed to be happy to intermingle, apart from a few territory squabbles. They were very noisy (see movie below). The Anhingas were content to occupy a space in the upper levels of the trees and watch the show. It was too cold for the Anhingas to put on the usual ‘wing drying’ display.
No-one can visit this area without sampling the local cuisine. We stopped for lunch in downtown New Iberia at Bon Creole, a great local café. The crawfish Po’ Boy sandwiches were a favorite of Colin’s. The size of the Tabasco Sauce bottle (made in New Iberia) was very impressive along with the murals. A few days later we sampled both Boudin (Cajun sausage) and boiled Crawfish at Crawfishtown USA, ‘Louisiana’s best Crawfish Restaurant’ in Breaux Bridge, East of Lafayette. Colin found the taste indistinguishable from Shrimp (and a bit harder to extract, despite a lesson from the waitress) but it was a fun experience, particularly when Cheryl went to work to help with the extraction.
Crawfish are amazing creatures, living in ditches and lakes around the area. We found evidence of them, sometimes 100s of yards from visible water. They bury themselves into the ground making ‘chimneys’ with the earth they remove, until they reach the water table. This is not very far in most of Southern Louisiana which was described by a local as ‘a big swamp with a few sandbars where people live’.
We couldn’t leave New Iberia without taking a tour of the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island where peppers are grown, sauce is made and bottled and shipped all around the world. It was well worth the time, the self-guided tour was well organized and interesting. The business was started in 1868 and is still family-owned. The characteristic bottle size was chosen because of a supply of used cologne bottles available in the first few months of production. Colin noticed the plaque recording the fact that they are the sole supplier of Tabasco Sauce to the Queen of England (not surprising as they are the only makers of the sauce).
The highlight of our visit to South West Louisiana was the local music. Zydeco music is becoming very popular for dancing, particularly in this area. It is an Afro-Creole style, derived from the French Rhythm & Blues Influence, ‘La La’ music, with Cajun lyrics. Zydeco bands have at least one accordion player and a metal ‘rubbing vest’, like a washboard, known locally as a Zydeco Tie. It is often fast-paced with strong rhythms and inspires everyone to dance. There are many Zydeco bands now around the world but this area is where it all started.
Some friends advised us to go to the ‘Café Des Amis’ in Breaux Bridge for their Saturday Zydeco Breakfast. It turned out the restaurant was closed but ‘Buck and Johnny’s’ up the street had taken over the tradition. It’s quite a sight to see and hear the enthusiastic dancers at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning! As in many places we visited in Louisiana, we soon were talking to the friendly people who explained all about the local traditions and culture and gave us pointers on other places to visit. They even attempted to teach both of us some of the dance steps.
Another local tip took us to ‘the best Zydeco spot in Louisiana, Whiskey River’, a bar and Sunday Night dance out in the country overlooking the Atchafalaya Basin, next to a Levee. By the time we found it, it was getting dark and the car park was full and overflowing into a hilly grassed area. Overly confident in our van’s ability, Colin made a run at the hill into the overflow parking. We made it almost to the top but hadn’t allowed for the soggy ground and ended up with wheels spinning and the van settling in to the mud. After a good deal of rocking back and forth and plenty of advice from locals who were either blocked in or blocked out, we managed to get the van rolling backwards down the hill out of trouble. We managed to find a spot along the road and walked back towards the music. We had fun, enjoying the music, talking to locals and taking in the mix of cultures, all dancing together having a good time. (Colin still has nightmares of hundreds of angry drunk dancers trying to get out of the parking lot at closing time).
The term ‘Cajun’ is a derivation from ‘Acadian’. Acadia is an area in the Canadian Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island) which was fought over by the British and French. The war was settled by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht but when many of the local French-speaking people refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Britain, participated in the ongoing hostilities and were concerned about religious freedom to continue practicing their Roman Catholic religion. This led to The Expulsion of the Acadians during 1755-1764. After deportation, many of them migrated to Louisiana and became the ancestors of today’s Cajun people.
North of Lafayette, is ‘Acadian Village’ the oldest reconstruction of a typical Acadian settlement. It was built with local labor and is a showcase of historic homes alongside winding bayous depicting Acadian immigrant life. It has been very beautifully and faithfully constructed and is also now a fund-raising source for LARC (Lafayette Association for Retarded Citizens), its beneficiaries living nearby in a group home. We spent a pleasant afternoon touring the village and reading about Acadian life in the 1800s.
4 Movies: Zydeco Brunch (1.09 min); Zydeco at Whiskey River (43 sec); Catfish (13 sec); Birds at Rip’s Rookery (59 sec)
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Cajun Country, Louisiana
We headed north toward Dallas, Texas to visit my niece Sami and her husband John in the small town of Grapevine. Sami and John were married this past March in a private ceremony conducted by Sami’s cousin, Rabbi K’vod Wieder. The newlyweds recently moved from La Jolla, CA because of a job opportunity for Sami. We were able to spend the last two nights of Chanukah with them and New Year’s. Sami, John, and their two giant Malamutes, Merlin and Mya seem to be making a lovely home for themselves. Anytime the temperature rises above 70, on goes the air conditioning. This is to keep the pups happy because their winter fur coats make them hot and then it’s hard for them to breathe. So the four humans survived by wearing hoodies and visiting while under thick blankets. My family loved hearing that we were going to stay a few days parked in front of Sami and John’s home, but teased me that they really knew my motives: to be with the dogs. Well, getting my fur fix was deeply satisfied by the 4 days we spent there, but the human contact was truly more important and lovely. I love you Sami and John!
Meet Merlin and Mya
If you’ve had enough of dog photos, move along and read something else on the blog, because mostly, these are pictures of Merlin and Mya. Sami is a very private person and doesn’t want her picture on the Internet so I’ve purposefully left her out of the photos. John, on the other hand, is on Facebook, Instagram, and is my ‘friend’, and posts often, as long as he doesn’t include his lovely bride. Enjoy these delightful gentle giants. Note: Some of the photos came from Sami and John, not all are mine or Colin’s.
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When people speak about Texas Big Country, it’s not an understatement. The filling station (below) and attached store blew our minds. It was just so Big! We couldn’t imagine how these stalls would be filled up, but they were.
Since the 60s, I wanted to see and understand the man who brought us so much social change but also had the Vietnam War as a legacy. The war seems to have overwhelmed all the great things LBJ did, all the changes he enacted, all the good services offered for the poor. There is no doubt he felt at a loss to solve the Vietnam problem. There are so many of us that cannot forget how deadly the war was, how inhumane, and the pall of ‘baby killers’ on people’s lips. It wasn’t the military’s fault to be sent in, but so many of my baby-boomer hippy friends pointed the rhetoric at anyone within spitting distance. It was indeed a sad time.
The bills Johnson helped pass were cornerstones for the lower and middle classes, to give them a hand up out of poverty. Johnson put through and Congress passed 1000 new bills. This is how NPR, PBS, Head Start, Equal Housing amendments, Medicare, Medicaid, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1964 Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the Product Safety Commission, and so many more significant bills were created, which became an important part of our society.
We visited San Antonio, Austin and Fredericksburg, stopping on the way at Johnson City, the birthplace and home of LBJ, the cemetery where he and Ladybird are buried, and the LBJ Ranch. So much history and from such humble beginnings.
LBJ started his career as a school teacher, in a one-room school, to Hispanic children. When he saw the poverty and lack of meals, supplies, clothing, it made an impression on him that never faded. When he became a Senator, he used his power to change Texas for the better. When he became the President, he used his gift of negotiation to the fullest. He came to power after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and served as President until 1969.
I wanted to visit the Alamo where The ‘King of the Wild Frontier’, Davy Crockett, lost his life. So much has been written about the Alamo, history of this mission turned fort and the defeat of the small group of Texan defenders by overwhelming Mexican forces lead by ‘Santa Ana’. It was very interesting to learn some of the detailed history behind the border wars, how Texas started out as a Republic and eventually became one of our States. Some of the original buildings stand, but most walls have been reconstructed from original plans. The courtyards, horse stalls, military dorms, and supply rooms were cool in the hot sun, the walls being 2 feet thick. After visiting the Alamo, we took a boat tour to see San Antonio’s famous ‘Riverwalk’ district, an extensive waterway development with many shops, restaurants and other attractions.
First priority in Austin was to visit the LBJ Library on the University of Texas Campus. There we found tapes, archives, photographs, and history written in a very easy to understand way. Lots of children visited the library on the day we toured and giggled their way through Johnson’s colorful language.
I think the story I most liked about LBJ is how he got his agenda passed through Congress. He found out what a Senator wanted for the district, and then he’d use that carrot to get what he wanted to accomplish.
In the evening, we walked the music district, visited some bars with
live music. The next day, we drove to Fredericksburg, stopping at the JBJ Ranch and homestead. This is a combined State and Federal area. The tour took us first to a small 1900’s working farm where costumed interpreters carry out day-to-day activities; the dairy, meat and vegetables are raised there. We visited the little one-room building where Johnson started his education at the age of 4. Next, was LBJ’s working Ranch with its herds of Hereford cattle and sheep in addition to a herd of Bison and one of Texas Longhorns. While in office, Johnson spent a large percentage of his time at the Ranch. He equipped the ranch with all the communications and security facilities required and held many meetings there, some with foreign Heads of State. He felt at an advantage, when offering the hospitality of the ranch, which he felt helped his negotiating position. He loved to conduct meetings under the big oak tree outside his home, but also spent time with international leaders discussing policy around his pool. The ranch had to be reorganized and remodeled to handle the FBI detail, the staff, along with the Air Force plane (dubbed “Air Force 0.5”) that ferried him from Washington, DC and back to the small airstrip next to the ranch. The Johnson cemetery is in this area along with the gravestones for Ladybird and LBJ, and his relatives.
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LBJ Country, Texas
Having explored the rest of Big Bend area, we allocated a week to Big Bend National Park. It was well worth it. We stayed in two campgrounds, Chisos Basin and, when the temperatures dropped below freezing, breaking records for the Park, we moved to a lower altitude at the Rio Grande Village campground. The Rio Grande River forms the lower boundary of the park for 118 miles separating it from Mexico. The park contains the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert and contains over 1200 species of plants, birds, mammals and reptiles. The Geology of the area is very complex and includes a period when the park was connected to the ocean so many fossils, including dinosaurs, have been found.
The drive into Chisos Basin is very dramatic through a pass between the highest peaks which reach almost 8,000 feet above sea level. The campground is located in the basin, completely surrounded by jagged-topped mountains. At the visitor center we inspected a map showing recent bear and mountains lions (none seen during our stay). I attended a geology talk by one of the Park Rangers and learned that the basin was formed, not as a caldera as he first thought, but by sediment being washed down between the mountains and having no place to exit. The sunrise and sunset hours were spectacular with the surrounding cliffs being touched by the light. The Chisos Mountain Range is the only range in the US completely enclosed in a National Park.
As the sediment in the basin built up in time, water eventually found the lowest point to exit. This narrow exit where all water exits down a 220 foot cascade to the desert below is known as the ‘Window’. It is also located where the sun sets at some times during the year. We did a short hike to watch the sun set on our first night and the following day I hiked the trail across the basin down to the Window and back. The trail through the desert scenery ended up in a river bed where water gradually appeared and eventually cascaded over the edge.
The Rio Grande cuts several canyons through the mountains and the Santa Elena Canyon is the most impressive. The cliffs rise to over 1,000 feet on both the US and Mexican sides and the canyon entrance can be seen over 10 miles away. We both took the trail up the side of the canyon which rises steeply in the beginning and then descends again to water level before the canyon sides meet the river and end the trail. Finding the beginning of the trail was a bit tricky as it involves crossing the Terlingua Creek (a tributary of the Rio Grande) and scrambling up the river bank to find the trail. We learned that the lack of any trail signs is because the creek frequently changes its course. Fortunately there were enough hikers around so that word of mouth directions were passed to us on the way up. We were able to help hikers as we came down and back across the creek. The canyon provides an echo chamber at the end of the trail which amused many of the hikers.
Having seen pictures of Balanced Rock in Big Bend brochures, I wanted to see it for myself and provide my own photographic interpretation. The Ranger at the Chisos Basin Visitor Center had assured me that the unpaved road to the trailhead was of high quality, no special vehicle required. However, the 7 mile journey down the road was a bit nerve-racking, particularly for Cheryl, as the road quality worsened the further we drove. In spite of the noise of rocks hitting the van, the rocking right to left over the huge potholes, I still wasn’t about to give up and we made it to the trailhead and waited for our dust cloud to settle. (I can’t see us on an unpaved road again until Cheryl’s memories have faded over time – and perhaps any repairs paid for). The hike was classified as moderate and indeed it was easy, leading through a valley between high peaks to the final climb up into the pass. The last quarter of a mile proved a lot more difficult, more like rock climbing than hiking, but I finally made it to the top just as the setting sun’s rays were leaving the balanced rock structure. The climb down was just as hazardous (mental note: I need a different way to carry my camera to leave both hands free) but I made it back into the valley with only a shin scrape. The ride back along the road didn’t seem quite as bad but we were both glad to reach the paved road and make it back to the campsite before dark.
Big Bend National Park contains the only unmanned border crossing from the US to Mexico. It is reached by wading, swimming, or most commonly by hiring a rowboat across the Rio Grande for the princely sum of $5 round trip. The village of Boquillas, Mexico is a mile or two from the other side of the river and can be reached on foot, by burro, or by hiring a pick-up truck and driver. It was a very cold day (record low temperatures) and very windy so we went for the rowboat/pickup option. It was a good choice as we later learned, the burros often decide to go home instead of to the village, stranding their passengers. Our driver (and guide for the visit) Chalo Diaz was very pleasant and spoke English well, answering all our questions about life in Boquillas. The nearest town is 150 miles (the first 50 unpaved) and so they are dependent on a weekly truck delivery for food and supplies.
Mexican Customs and Immigration consisted of a hand-wave from an official in his trailer and we toured the town with Chalo, visiting his home, meeting his family and seeing the school and a clinic. Chalo was very proud to show us that all the village power was Solar-generated from the small facility at the end of the village. We dined in a local restaurant/bar with Chalo, and walked into some of the cultural buildings on the main street, which was just a dirt road. The town consisted of about 12 business buildings, and had no more than 75 one-room houses. We only saw one fenced-in garden area for fresh vegetables. On our way back, Colin persuaded the rowboat owner to let him row back across the Rio Grande, which proved a bit tricky with strong wind and current, but managed to reach the other bank close to the desired arrival beach. The ‘unmanned’ crossing was a bit of a misnomer as we discovered on re-entry to the US. A Park Ranger supervised us as we stood in front of a camera and spoke to a Customs and Immigration official by phone, who quizzed us about what we were bringing back, while our passports were being scanned.
In the late afternoon, we visited Boquillas Canyon, another steep-walled canyon cut by the Rio Grande through the huge, angular Sierra Del Carmen mountains. A trail from the parking lot leads over a ridge into the canyon which is navigable on foot for about two miles.
We stayed the next two nights in the National Park’s Rio Grande campground. I took an early morning hike on the Nature and Overlook Trails and was happy to discover a pair of Blue Herons occupying a spot under the floating dock structure used for a part of the trail. The early morning view from the top looked back over to Boquillas in one direction and over the campground to the Sierra Del Carmen mountains in the other. There were several ‘unmanned stores’ on the trails in this area (see picture) with trinkets from Boquillas Village for sale. We never did find out how the money and goods were transferred across the border.
We had heard about the Hot Springs in this area of the park and wanted to take a drive to look, or even to take a dip. However this was vetoed when it became clear that this would involve driving on another unpaved road. So I hiked the alternative 6 mile trail over the ridge and along Hot Springs Canyon rim from the campground to the Hot Springs. The Springs themselves were pretty unusual, showing the contrast between the fast-flowing, muddy Rio Grande and the spring-water pool which sat right next to it. There was only time for a quick foot-dip before returning along the trail, which provided some great views of the river gorge with the Sierra Del Carmen behind.
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Big Bend National Park, Texas