1-22-2014 Sam Houston Jones State Park, LA taking a slow day

Current Location: Belle Chasse NAS LA  Current Temperature: 32 and “ice pellets”

Sam Houston SP_035After our busy short week at the NAS near Corpus Christi, wonderful visits with friends, and trying to see as much as possible, Mo and I both were ready for a bit of down time. When planning this trip, I had the sense that might be the case and I wanted a park that could be a resting place about half way between Corpus Christi and New Orleans that wasn’t far off our route.

Sight unseen, and with no friends leaving campground reviews, Sam Houston Jones State Park turned out to be a perfect choice. The distance from Anahuac NWR wasn’t long, just a short leg on our journey east toward New Orleans.  We are getting close to the day when we will board a cruise ship heading for the Caribbean….hopefully the current cold snap won’t extend all the way south to Belize and Honduras!

Sam Houston SP_008We arrived early afternoon and with reservations arranged for a site with electric and water there was no concern about space.  Once there, however, we decided that the space on the end row, number 33 was much more to our liking than site 27 I had chosen online right in the middle.  There are sites big enough for large rigs in the central area of camping loop B that have full hookups with sewer, but we didn’t need sewer for just two nights.  There is also a dump station nearby.  There are two very large, “premium” sites that have long, level concrete pads close the the rest room building. 

Sam Houston SP_007Seems as though there is some kind of dutch oven cook-off coming up, but we didn’t know that, and the minute we arrived a very loud, very verbal, very intrusive gentleman in an electric scooter came over to tell us how to hook up, where to put the motorhome, how to put down the jacks and how to hook up the water.  He just kept talking.  Mo said to me, “I do NOT want to stay here”, so I went back to the office and arranged a move.

Within minutes, we again had our privacy and silence.  Whew!  The site was perfect for us, even though the water faucet sprayed all over the place.  Mo simply put a rag over it to contain the spray, and we unhooked it at night.  Needed to do that anyway since temperatures were dropping below freezing due to the Arctic Polar Chill Thingy coming south to Louisiana. 

Sam Houston SP_016I reserved two nights so that we could have a nice afternoon and then one entire full day doing absolutely nothing.  What a perfect place to do that.  The daytime temperatures weren’t too bad even with the cold nights.  I spent most of our day off writing and processing photos while Mo sat outside in the sunshine enjoying her book. 

Sam Houston SP_029In spite of our commitment to do nothing, we couldn’t resist going for a walk around the expansive park.  Although the sounds of Moss Bluff, the small town nearby, are evident, the park itself is beautifully quiet.  There is something quite haunting about Louisiana bayou country.  The water is everywhere, the cypress, even without their leaves, are fascinating with their little knees all around.  The thought that there are poisonous snakes in the underbrush and alligators hiding on the muddy banks of the waterways makes it a tiny bit threatening, but not too much.

The park is encircled by the meandering Calcasieu River. There is a boat launch to the river, and nearby there was a large swamp/pond that was completely dry, and with all the wetness in other parts of the park, we never quite figured that out.  No alligators here, that is for sure! Sam Houston SP_023

On our way back to our campsite, we took the leaf covered Orange Trail around the perimeter of the park for an easy  1.6 mile walk.  The trail winds through the forest  and emerges  at times for views of the huge Louisiana homes that line the banks of the river across from the park.  Late afternoon sunlight filtering through the dripping Spanish moss on the barren cypress trees was reflected in the water of the swamps.

Sam Houston SP_037One of the greatest things about the park, that would make us return, were the roads and paths that were perfect for biking.  Of course, on this, our do-nothing day, we didn’t even take the bikes off the rack. The campground bathrooms were pretty darn sweet as well, with plenty of room and privacy, and lots of hot water.  For some reason on this trip, I seem to be using campground showers more than in the past.  It just seems easier sometimes and letting that hot water run forever when I am tired is a huge luxury.Sam Houston SP_030

Jeremy loved this spot, and spent a lot of time exploring close to the campsite, enjoying scratching on various trees and balancing on the cement culvert barriers.  Abby could hang around off leash and was completely protected from view by the angle of the parked motorhome and car.  We had a nice solid picnic table, and wonder of wonders a campfire ring!  Even more wonder, we could actually have a fire.Sam Houston SP_044

I don’t think I mentioned that Mo found some really good firewood in the middle of nowhere when we were boondocked at Joshua Tree.  Yup, that was a month ago.  We have carried that firewood in the Tracker the entire time, dribbling dust and bark on all our stuff, but it was worth it when Mo started up our evening campfire and we ate dinner once again outside by the warm flames.

CaptureTwo nights and a day of nothing were just what we needed before continuing east.  Thursday morning dawned gray, with some predicted rain, but the hard freeze didn’t materialize and the coldest temperatures were in the low 30’s.  I think we left the Lake Charles area just in time because today there has been freezing rain and sleet and even snow right behind us.

Atchafalaya_014The trip to New Orleans was a simple one.  I had no desire to repeat the route along US 90, that goes through Avery Island and into New Orleans along a southern path.  In 2007 we followed that route, and I used the blog to remind us that it was long and bumpy and that we never wanted to repeat it.  Instead we traveled the also bumpy I-10, but at least the speeds were more acceptable.

Both Judy and daughter Deanna had mentioned the Atchafalaya Bridge that crosses the Atchafalaya Basin, and the Atchafalaya Visitor Center as something not to be missed.  They were so right!!  In fact, we were so aghast at the wonder of that bridge that we actually missed the quick turn into the visitor center and had to continue several miles before we could exit and turn around.  This gave us the chance to cross part of that engineering challenge three times!

Atchafalaya_023The Visitor Center was in a bit of turmoil, with new septic systems being installed and new kiosks.  When I walked in the big doors on the wide southern porch, my mouth dropped open in amazement.  I don’t think I ever heard the word “Atchafalaya” before, and knew absolutely nothing about the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the nation’s largest river swamp, containing almost one million acres of America’s most significant bottomland hardwoods, swamps, bayous, and backwater lakes.  This is the heart of Cajun Country, and I learned the difference between Cajun and Creole, and watched the movie in the round theater about the ecologically rich swamp that surrounded me. The place caught my heart deeply, and yes, I do want to return. 

Atchafalaya_022No matter what, if you are on I-10, crossing this amazing bridge, stop at the visitor center.  Surprisingly, the center had extensive information about the Atchafalaya Basin, but nothing on the construction of the bridge.  Searching the internet, I found that to build the bridge, they first had to build a canal that could open the swamp to transport of vehicles and materials.  The bridge is 18.2 miles long.  The view is of vast wet swamplands, breathtaking in their beauty and wildness.

Within a few more hours, we arrived easily at Naval Air Station at Belle Chasse, on the Westbank side of the Mississippi River just a few miles south of New Orleans.  I had read about this campground when Erin and Mui stayed here when it was brand new and it is a perfect location to stay while we take a vacation from our vacation.  The campground is clean and simple, with once again, huge private bathroom showers, a great laundry, and quick access to base amenities.  The very best part of this campground, however, is the “away” policy.

The collage below is of some of the vignettes at the Atchafalaya Visitor Center01-22-2014 slow day in Louisiana

When we leave for our cruise on Saturday, we have only to pull in the slide and disconnect the hookups.  We can then leave the rig parked here for the entire length of the cruise for just $1.00 per day.  Yup.  You read that right.  A buck a day to store the motorhome.  The fur kids will be staying at a nice doggie and kitty condo back in New Orleans while we take an animal break.  And yes, I am looking forward to that, sorry to say.  Every parent needs a break from the kids now and then.

We spent this very cold, rainy day organizing for our cruise and readying the MoHo for a break from us. I probably will be offline until we return the first week of February. 

Later:  We just dropped Abby and Jeremy off at the Canine Connection in Uptown New Orleans.  Seems like a great facility, and they were all so good at meeting the animals and helping us to feel safe about leaving them there.  I am really delighted with or choice for a boarding facility. 

With a suggestion from Elijah, Kenny’s assistant here at the park, I found and downloaded a Mardi Gras Parade app to the iPhone and it seems there is a parade today on the Westbank…right on our way to the hotel where we will overnight before boarding our ship tomorrow.  So, again, see you later.


crossing Louisiana

On Saturday we left New Orleans early and continued westward through Louisiana. Following the historic Old Spanish Trail HWY 90 was the plan so that we could see more of the real area rather than the artificial world of the Interstate. The real world of Louisiana is certainly not a place I need to see again, and the rough roads made it feel like I was riding a bucking bronco most of the day. Took hours and hours to go just 150 miles and the day was supposed to be an easy 300 miler but at 3:30 in the afternoon there were still 15 0 miles to go. Not a fun thing when it’s windy and trying to find the RV park and set up in the dark. After watching many miles off trashy trailers and garbage and dumpy stuff along the old highway we bailed and got on I-10. What a relief that was! The trash gave way to open road and scattered off ramps with the general generic stuff, but at least it was clean.

A bit of a bright spot in the morning included several miles through the swamps off the gulf coast. Found out that the difference between a swamp and a marsh has to do with trees in the water versus herbaceous plants in the water. The swamps were endless, with bayous appearing occasionally. Also found out that the official definition of a “bayou” is a small waterway off a larger waterway with slow moving water. The bayous we passed were trails winding off into the swamp, but didn’t see any boats or people in them, and more often than not there was floating trash. Sad.

Stopped in an historic town called Morgan City, looked for the Visitor Center which for no explainable reason was closed even though it was listed as open. Christmas, I guess. Wandered through the town to search for historic buildings, and found a huge seawall holding the river back all along the main street, which actually had nothing off interest at all. Maybe the view of that huge blank seawall was the draw, who knows. Found an alternate bridge over the river that looked pretty scary, in bad need of a paint job and left the burg behind as we continued west.

Keeping to the HWY90 route gave the opportunity to travel to Avery Island, another bright spot in an otherwise fairly dismal day. Avery Island is the home of the Tabasco Plant, and consists of thousands of feet of old salt dome that forms a hilly landscape that stands out dramatically surrounded by Louisiana flat wet fields. Took the factory tour, watched the video, walked the lovely grounds, and checked out the Tabasco Country Store. While there a couple of guys showed up on bicycles who left San Diego about 20 days ago. Hmmm, same as us in a motor home! They were headed for Florida and it was fun visiting with them for a bit. Tabasco sweet pickles, silk scarves, tee shirts, and recipes filled the store and tasting Tabasco flavored vanilla ice cream is an experience quite unforgettable. I didn’t buy any.

Leaving Avery Island, however, takes you back into the Louisiana boring flat dirty stuff, so getting on the freeway again was a good thing. Finally crossed the state line into Texas at sunset, and it was one of the longest sunsets I have seen. The glow just lasted forever. We both laughed because the minute we crossed into Texas things started feeling better, more familiar somehow, more western, more open. Amazing that even Texas could feel good. Drove by Vidor when my sister used to live and opted out of a side trip to the gulf coast because of her vivid descriptions of smells and trash on the beach. I have seen enough good beaches that I didn’t need to waste time to find out about this one. Thanks Sal.

The campground we chose from the CampClub USA book was right along the freeway, was open, was very small, called Turtle Bayou. The proprietor was a very friendly older man full of helpful conversation and offers off assistance as we set up for the night. The space was right at the front of the park, a pull through so we could get going fast in the morning, so it wasn’t until we left the next day that I saw the really pretty bayou right there in the park.

New Orleans

This morning we woke and made a plan for “what to do in New Orleans if you have one day” from the Frommer’s internet site about the city. The plan worked fairly well and we walked to the French Quarter and began out day with Café au Lait and bignettes at the famous and historical Café Dumonde on Decatur Street. Classic New Orleans experience, with lots of street actors, street art in the square, and people sitting around drinking coffee. Then a walk along the Mississippi on the Moonwalk to the ferry that took us across the river to Old Algiers. Didn’t get off the ferry and just rode it back, but got a great view of the city from the river and some historical information about Mardi Gras displayed well in the terminal.
The fog was lingering, in fact it never lifted all day so I bought a warm fuzzy jacket that said “bourbon street” and we explored some of the shops on Royal Street and ate the traditional “Muffaletta” sandwich at a restaurant that was probably as old as the city itself. The sandwich is a treat of ham, pastrami, salami, some cheeses on a soft big round seeded roll with olive salad pickles and peppers piled high. One was plenty for two people and the internet search had already warned about this so it wasn’t a surprise. Walked through the French Quarter winding our way home and had a chance to visit the oldest above ground cemetery in the United States at St Louis Cemetery. It was fascinating, and in the fog made for way too many photo opportunities. We even found the tomb of a big family who emigrated from Malta in the late 1700’s and produced some very prominent New Orleans citizens.

We took a nice long break at home, reading and watching some tv, resting our feet, writing, and left on the little golf cart one more time to walk to the Canal Street stop for the street cars that go to the Garden District. The St Charles streetcars are historic electric trolleys, just like the ones in San Francisco without the hills of course. Interestingly, most of the passengers were local working folks and not a lot of tourists. Another noticeable thing about the part of New Orleans that we visited is the lack of Hispanic people, The news reports that the black folks aren’t coming back and the Hispanics are here now, doing the work, but most of what I saw in New Orleans were black people.

The streetcar took us to the Garden District where the houses are huge magnificent southern mansions with their very own New Orleans character. Walking through the streets reminded me so much of the novel “The Witching Hour”. Reading that story by Anne Rice was so graphic to me, in her detailed descriptions of the sights, smells and feeling of New Orleans in the steamy summer. The Anne Rice house called “Rosemont” is right there where I walked on First Street but I neglected to look up the address before our travels there. Looking at the photos later on the internet, though, showed her home to be similar to many that I saw in that neighborhood. It was the house that she wrote about in all her books about the Mayfair witches. Made me want to read the book all over again, but at the moment I am reading Gone With the Wind and thinking about Charleston and Savannah as Margaret Mitchell writes about them with a new mental picture.

Rode the car back to town and began the adventure of Bourbon Street in the early evening. What can I say, it’s Bourbon Street. The most famous on-going party in the country, I guess. I can’t imagine how it must be late at night or especially during Mardi Gras, but it was enough for me to see it as I did, in the early evening. We had a Cajun dinner at Le Bayou while watching the people walk by on the street, most of them laughing and carrying their plastic beer glasses and making a lot of racket. Stores filled with kitchy stuff, a voodoo shop, and of course the bars, bar after bar, all pouring music into the streets, and hotel rooms above the bars with people hanging over the rails made for a great image of what New Orleans is all about. Drinking, I think, and maybe eating is next. I’m glad I got to see it, and probably don’t have to do it again, but it was fun. Wandered back through the streets to the “safe” information center where we phoned the golf cart to pick us up and ferry us across the dark empty abandoned parking lot to our home. Very tired even though it wasn’t that late, but glad to be done and glad to have seen New Orleans In a Day.

Florida to New Orleans

We packed up early this morning and didn’t take much time to get ready since we took showers in the heated and lovely state park bathrooms right next to our campsite in addition to having a pull-through site eliminating hook-ups for the baby car.

The white sand was so lovely on the beach, but a bit less so stuck to everything. The sugar sand actually sticks like sugar if there is the least bit of moisture in the air, and there is ALWAYS moisture in the air!

We drove west on HWY 90 which is the Old Spanish Trail and actually traverses the southern US from coast to coast. Driving in Panama City Beach was the Florida From Hell that so many people equate with the state, Mile after mile of high rise condos between the road and the beach, with limited views of the water and kitchy stores and bars and seafood restaurants. We kept trying to find a place to go for a walk with Abby along the beach, but all the access points said no dogs. Finally we stopped along a place on the Inland Waterway and made grilled cheese sandwiches and let abby run a bit, but it was windy and really too cool to enjoy much, and the waterway water isn’t nearly as clean and beautiful as the beach water.

Finally stopped at a County Beach park along 30A near Destin for my white sand beach fix. There were huge high rises all around that were built in the Italian Villa style, pretty ritzy area, and still no dogs allowed on the beach, so Mo walked abby along the walkway while I went down to the beach. The wind was blowing hard, but warmer, and the sky was filled with long slim clouds. Suddenly as I turned to the Gulf, it was as though I had stepped into another world entirely. Everything behind me became irrelevant in the view of the pure crystal water and perfect blinding white sugar sand. In the wind I couldn’t hear anything at all behind me and as long as I was on that beach I couldn’t see any of the buildings. Just water and sand. It was a truly magical moment and illuminated for me the draw of that area that looks so awful when you are on the roads, and yet it’s filled with row after row of condos. People just go there for that beach, that water, that sky, and like me, when they are sitting there watching that water, all the development becomes irrelevant. It was a magical and eye opening moment for me.

We continued along the coast trying to get through Destin and Pensacola, with mile after mile of busy roads and 4 lane highway with traffic signals. It was starting to rain and we approached Alabama in a deepening storm. The rain started coming down in buckets with the side roads filling up with brown muddy water and the wipers struggling to keep up. Mo held on to the wheel while the rain poured and the lightening struck here and there. It continued like that all the way across Alabama, so we didn’t really see much of that state except for rain and mud and more rain.

Into Mississippi is was much the same way, but we decided to stay on HWY90 hoping that we could see a bit of the Mississippi coast. Approaching Biloxi, the rain continued, but started to lift just enough that we could see the devastation left behind by Katrina. The waterfront area across the entire state of Mississippi was gone, just completely gone. There was sand and mud at the same level as the gulf all along the highway, just flat, with construction cutting the road down to a single bumpy lane with big piles of sand that would appear unexpectedly. On the left was the gulf, and on the right was the most eerie landscape I think I have ever experienced. Mile after mile of neighborhoods, with driveways, and street signs, and huge old live oaks, still alive, but nowhere was there a house still standing. No street lights, to telephone poles, just these driveways going nowhere, and then a big casino would appear all lit up. I guess they rebuilt the casinos first.

Then, as I have seen on CNN reported by a woman who is from Biloxi, every now and then would be a huge mansion left standing, with nothing around it for miles, lonely and a faint beacon of light surrounded by darkness, and more miles of driveways and trees. I think the part that was most devastating to me was the enormity of the area destroyed, the miles and miles and miles of it, all along what was once a magnificent coastal area lined with really beautiful homes. Sometimes there would be a FEMA trailer parked next to an old foundation, and sometimes the trailers were covered with Christmas lights, trying to appear optimistic in the midst of the devastation.

Katrina hit 2.5 years ago, and looking at this landscape, I have no idea how it will ever rebuild. The only thing that may rebuild are the casinos, the money makers, but what will rebuild the history and family and neighborhoods. Seeing a followup story on Katrina, a gentleman talked of how his home had survived and that it was the worst thing that ever happened to him because he got no compensation, and couldn’t sell it, and his neighborhood and friends and community were completely gone. I remembered that story vividly as we drove for mile after mile along that coast.

Finally at Gulf Port the road left the coast and the devastation was less apparent. The rain lessened a bit as we approached New Orleans, but it was still dark and very wet and the roads were a nightmare of bumps and construction. We crossed the Twin Span bridge that had also been destroyed in the hurricane and was recently repaired, but oh my goodness, I thought the motorhome was going to jump right out of the lanes with every bump. Somehow the cement paving was buckled and twisted and still really awful to drive. Thought for a bit we might lose the baby car, but everything held together ok.

New Orleans was dark and scary at first, but we found our way to the French Quarter Motor Coach Resort after dark.

There were brick walls and cast wrought iron gates for full security at the park, which turned out to be behind the huge parking lot and empty shell of what had once been a big Winn-Dixie supermarket. The staff at the RV park offered to shuttle us to the French Quarter any time of the day or night, just a phone call would bring their little golf carts zipping down to the beautiful new information center. Just across from us, beyond the abandoned parking lot were row after row of project housing, and on the other side of us was a fenced in area of FEMA trailers. It was surreal. We could see the tall buildings of New Orleans just a few blocks away, and couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just walk the 1000 yards or so to the center ourselves, until we did in the next day in the daylight, and saw some things that helped us understand. We made use of that shuttle several times and were glad to have it.

The park itself was a strange walled in world of brick and coach lights with brick cobblestone parking areas, a lovely recreation room and complex, and many rows of truly big rigs. We were right next to the I-10 freeway as well, with all the associated sound effects and lights. The funniest thing of all is that this was the most expensive park on the route so far, at 69 per night, and they wouldn’t honor the CampClub rate for Friday night since there was a big football game in town.

In spite of the fact that it was New Orleans it had been a very long day and we were tired and just turned on the tv and computer where I again finally had good reception, and ate crackers for dinner.