Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I’m actually warm enough in the van but there’s not much room to move around. I’ve been sleeping with both a sleeping bag and a comforter over me, and have not kept any heat on overnight. Tonight I think I will leave the little electric heater on low.
I went out today to pick up some food for Annette and stopped at Sears where I picked up a quilted vest and another turtleneck, both by Lands End and both on sale. The grand total was $22.00, probably the best clothing bargain I’ve managed on this trip!
Annette arrives tomorrow and we’ll be going to Taos probably on the weekend. We’ll stay in a house with some friends of hers – not in the van. This is a good thing as it’s even colder in Taos. Annette and I will spend the next ten days travelling around New Mexico. Despite the weather, New Mexico is a beautiful spot and there is much to do here. And according to the weather reports, it is supposed to warm up soon.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I’m currently in Santa Fe and will stay here until Monday. Today I met my friend Janet and her husband Bob (from Calgary) for coffee at a neat coffee/news café on Garcia Street. Then Janet and I poked in the art galleries on Canyon Rd. and walked up town to the Plaza while Bob went back to his meetings. Earlier in the day I went to the Farmer’s Market and the State Information Centre where I picked up all kinds of material for Annette and my future explorations around the state.
Santa Fe is gorgeous – narrow downtown streets, lots of one story adobe buildings. In fact, adobe is everywhere. Window and door frames are often painted turquoise or a deep blue and the effect is spectacular.
But on to Cultural Curiousities. On those long desert drives this past week, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I’ve noticed on this part of the trip so here goes:
- In the “deep south” (Florida, Louisiana, Texas) I was invariably addressed as “honey”, “dear”, “sweetie” or some other term of endearment. This seemed to be the natural greeting of female restaurant servers or sales women. Notice it was women who called me this. Incredibly, these intimate greetings seemed fairly natural when pronounced with a strong southern drawl. Men, both young and old, address me as “ma’am”.
- Every city or decent-sized town has a Martin Luther King Blvd.
- There are gun shops and even pawn shops advertise guns.
- The road kill is very different. Armadillos and wild boar.
- The ugly billboard is ubiquitous. Then there are signs that must be 200 feet high so you can see them over the tops of the palm trees.
- There seem to be more adult video stores in Florida than I’ve seen anywhere else.
- In Texas every other radio station is a religious station or a country and western station – and in parts of the desert there is no radio station at all.
- In Texas I drove past a small town called Welfare. Just down the road was a town called Comfort. Maybe you really do need a car to get from welfare to comfort.
- There are fireworks shops everywhere.
- Seat belts are called Safety Belts. I like that! The signs on the side of the road remind you to “Wear your Safety Belt – it’s the law”.
- There are crosses along the side of the road where there have been fatal accidents. What is different is that many of them have professionally done signs that say, “Drive Safely” or “Killed by a Drunk Driver”.
- It was very windy on the desert both in Texas and New Mexico…and I passed several wind farms, interspersed among the pump jacks, turning the wind into power.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Not only was the land barren, most of the day Tuesday I was the only one driving on the well-maintained, four-lane divided highway. I drove for a couple of hours and then noticed that my gas gauge was nearing one quarter. I could feel the anxiety start to build: I hadn’t seen a town or gas station for miles and miles. Finally, as the needle slipped close to the empty mark, an Exxon station appeared. I gratefully bought their overpriced gas at $2.19 a gallon. (Should have been around $1.89 or so.) I spoke to the only other travelers gassing up: a couple of 20-something Mexican men who were on their way to Mexico and complained to me about the gas price. And they’d been travelling with their fuel light on.
As I drove I was surprised that the desert wasn’t populated with pump jacks, oil rigs, oil field service equipment or pipelines poking above ground. After all the price of oil is based on west Texas crude and I’d been driving in west Texas for two days by this point and only seen the odd pump jack. And then, yesterday, just south of Pecos, I smelled it: oil, crude oil. West Texas crude. And the fields of pump jacks came into view.
Pecos turned out to be one of those windy, dusty towns you see in old western movies - one story buildings with broken windows, doors hanging open on broken hinges, faded signs advertising businesses that no longer exist. Here and there was a lived-in building or a functioning business. It was bleak and dreary and I couldn’t imagine living there.
As I crossed the state line the first town I came to was called Loving….how lovely - how loving! The desert continued along with the fields of pump jacks. I had never thought of New Mexico as an oil producing state.
I drove through Carlsbad without going to the caverns as Annette and I will go there next week. I spent last night just north or Carlsbad at a KOA campgroung.
This morning it was on to Roswell. I saved the UFO museum for the trip back with Annette but I did stop at a Sears clearance store to buy a couple of sweaters. I was delighted to find out that they were clearing out their winter stock. Temperatures in Santa Fe and Albuquerque are headed to highs in the low 50s with lows below freezing.
Tonight I got my hair cut and the woman who cut it just moved to Santa Rosa after 25 years in Albuquerque. “You do know that you can ski in both Sante Fe and Albuquerque, don’t you?” she asked. Yuk! And I thought I was going south for the winter!
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I was mesmerized by the crowds already gathered on the mall. It was early (8 am in DC) and cold but the crowds were as jubilant as they were the night Obama was elected. I decided to wait until after Obama’s speech before I started driving for the day. I went for a walk, did some laundry and returned to the van for the swearing in and speech.
While I was in the laundry room, I met a man (his wife was glued to their TV, he told me, so he was doing the laundry) who said he had voted republican all his life but voted for Obama this time. He said that he felt the US was really changing – even in the Deep South – and that the country was moving from just right of centre to just left of centre. He felt that this was the right time for this move. He headed back in time to watch the swearing in and the speech, too.
When I went to the office to let the folks know that I’d be leaving a bit late because I wanted to watch Obama’s speech, they waived the late checkout fee. They had their TV on, too.
I was a bit concerned as I watched the earlier coverage: the Obamas were late getting to the church, the president-elect looked somber and worried as he walked down the corridor to the swearing in ceremony, he stumbled on the first line of the oath of office. I wondered if he was aware of some threat that perhaps the rest of us weren’t aware of. But then he took the podium and the Obama we had seen stir the crowds during the campaign clicked in. His speech was masterfully written and masterfully delivered. It was Obama at his oratorical finest.
I’m now sitting in the middle of the west Texas desert (Ft. Stockton) at another campground. Somewhere in the drive across the desert, the last radio station faded out. Tonight, despite the fact that the campground information says you should be able to pull three TV channels from the air, my wonderful new TV can’t find anything. While I can find a few radio stations, National Public Radio (NPR) is not among them. And the rest of the stations seem to be religious or country and western. But the campground’s free WI FI is working just fine. So I plan to post this blog and curl up with a good book. There’s a turn off here that cuts up to New Mexico via Pecos. So tomorrow I’ll take that road and be in New Mexico tomorrow night.
Janet, a friend from Calgary is going to be in Santa Fe this weekend and I'll met here there for drinks or church or maybe both!
Monday, January 19, 2009
San Antonio, with a population of just over a million people, has a vibrant downtown that was bustling on the Sunday I was there. After the Alamo I walked a few blocks to La Villita, the original settlement that is now filled with little shops and restaurants. Then it was on to the Riverwalk – truly a civic masterpiece. The Riverwalk is 20 feet down from street level and lined with restaurants and shops and places to sit and people watch.
Designed by an architect in the 1920’s, the Riverwalk is a wonderful, man-made place that draws people to the heart of the city. It is ringed with hotels that have been carefully designed so that their entry level from the Riverwalk blends with stone work that lines both sides of the river. I actually took many pictures including some of the foot bridges that allow travel across the river but later discovered that I hadn’t brought the proper connection to download the pictures into my computer. I’ll try to pick one up today.
I stopped at a lovely Italian café for lunch on the river. When my order (penne with chicken, artichokes and sundried tomatoes in a creamy garlic pesto sauce) arrived, I burst out laughing at the portion size – easily enough for two or three people. The server gave me a smile and said “But Madam you are in Texas!”) I packed up as much as I ate and will have it for lunch again today. After lunch I took a narrated boat tour of the Riverwalk, a great way to learn the history of the area.
After touring the Alamo, La Villita and the Riverwalk, I retrieved my car and drove to Mission San Jose a restored historic mission that dates from 1720. It is both a national and state historic site and is still and active parish. It is an imposing stone structure that had me in awe of the people who built this sacred site by hand, stone by stone. I sat in the sanctuary for a time soaking up the centuries of prayer that had been uttered there. I added some of my own.
After a day spent mostly walking, I headed out to find a place to spend the night. Today, I will north and west on my way to New Mexico.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
· It’s windy and it’s warm (I’m loving the warm – no sleeping bag tonight)
· There are pump jacks pumping oil
· You can smell the oil, really
· There are horses in the field beside the campground
· There are cows in the field across the river
· There are cacti growing along the road
· The air is very dry and I need hand lotion again
· I’m camped under pecan trees (no leaves though, it is winter after all)
· I’m going to visit the Alamo tomorrow – Davy Crockett died there. (Does anyone else remember my brother Jim’s Davy Crockett hat?)
· People here are friendly but they sound like, well they sound like the live in Texas.
I’ve noticed that many of the RV campgrounds I’ve stayed in have a lot of permanent residents. These are mostly trades people who fire up their diesel pickup trucks at six in the morning as they get ready to leave for work! I’m not sure if these people are just following the work (certainly that could be case in the rebuilding of New Orleans) or whether they are moving into inexpensive accommodation. And there is a surprising number of families with young children.
If you’ve ever gone to an RV show you’ll know that some of these large 5th wheels, travel trailers and motor homes are as well equipped as any apartment. And living in an RV park would be inexpensive: Approximately $400 per month with electricity, water, and sewer included. A small electric heater costs you nothing to run as it runs of the RV parks power and would take care of the cool days in the south. (In fact, I bought one the other day as the heat is more even than the heat from the furnace.) There are no property taxes. By and large these permanent residents have the usual things one expects to find in a back yard: potted plants, barbeques, wooden decks and kids toys. And, while the trades people are easy to explain, I wonder if some of the families have been displaced by the mortgage crisis and the fall of the financial markets. In any event, the mix of people in these parks is an interesting one and one I hadn’t expected.
The weather is expected to warm up slightly today which will be a relief as I really didn’t bring much cold weather clothing with me! By the way, we Canadians get blamed for this cool weather. The weather presenters on TV talk about the “Alberta Clipper from Canada” or just “the Canadian cold front”. At least it reminds people that Canada exists – there’s rarely a mention of anything Canadian in the newspapers. I even had to phone home to find out who had won the election last fall as I was staying in a park without an internet connection.
Time to get on the road again. More later.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Yesterday I drove into New Orleans which is much smaller and easier to get around in than I had imagined. In fact, I heard on the news this morning that the population statistics had just been upped to 288,000 by the federal government. Prior to Katrina about 400,000 people lived here.
I took a 2.5 hour, narrated tour of the city that included some of the neighbourhoods that had been ravaged by Katrina. I have found that I can learn much on these tours. Our driver was one of the people who evacuated from the city and he shared his personal stories of what’s involved when one has to leave suddenly not knowing when they could return. His to do list included getting refills on prescriptions, gassing up the car, packing clothing and valuables, making a motel reservation in another state, making sure he had enough cash. All this was done with long lineups as the rest of the city was also doing the same things. His advice included using national drug store chains and banks as they can be accessed from another state. His house was flooded when he returned and he also told us about the trials of getting it rebuilt. It was fascinating to hear this first person account.
Our tour included the lower ninth ward, the hardest hit area. Along with all the vacant lots where there had been houses, there were many devastated but still standing homes. And there some new ones built by musicians such as Harry Connick, jr and by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation.
Our guide told us that many of the still standing but uninhabitable homes have been left as they are because the people couldn’t prove they owned them and therefore weren’t eligible for the government rebuilding funds. Louisiana still operates under the Napoleonic Code of France not British Common Law like most other states. This means, among other things, that when someone dies their “estate” must be probated and inheritance taxes paid. Of course there is a cost to this so most people in poorer neighbourhoods like the ninth ward just don’t file probate. When the parents die, one of the children just moves into the house and lives there. After a couple of generations the paper trail on the home is lost. So many of the people in the ninth ward couldn’t prove ownership and didn’t qualify for government help in rebuilding. It’s a pretty sad situation.
Perhaps the most interesting of the affected neighbourhoods was a 1960s-built neighbourhood of nice brick homes. Except for the brick and larger yards, it could have been my neighbourhood of Lakeview. Here, too, many homes were still vacant but looked like they could be fixed. In this case, though, we were told that most of these people were original owners who had move into their homes when they were new, had raised their families and paid for the homes which cost around $35,000 in the 1960s. These people where now approaching retirement age and their homes were worth about $240,000 before Katrina hit. So their government rebuilding payout was about $240,000. Many people decided just to take the money, leave the house and retire rather than rebuild. Many of these houses will eventually wind up in the city’s hands after they are sold for taxes.
While the Katrina part of the tour touched all of us, the bulk of the tour showcased the rest and best of New Orleans: the garden district, the music district, the French Quarter, the sea front. When the tour was over, I wandered around the French Quarter, poked in some of the shops, had a bite to eat, stopped in an old Cathedral for a quiet prayer. Then I headed back to the campground where I had spent the previous night.
I caught up on some email and bill paying (what did we do before the internet?). My friend Annette called from Calgary to say that she was flying into Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet me on January 28. She’ll travel with me for ten days. How fun!
I will be leaving here shortly and will spend tonight somewhere in Texas.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
From Gainsville I headed west to the coast and followed the coast line to Ochlockanee Bay where I found a lovely campground to spend the night. I camped right on the water where a warm wind blew in a rain squall sometime in the night.
Sunday I continued along the Gulf coast taking the slower, scenic route and stopping frequently. I ended up in Panama City where I discovered that there is a very upscale group of RVers who live in the equivalent of gated communities. This resort, Emerald Coast RV Resort, has signs in the registration area stating that if you are driving an older model RV, it could be visually inspected and refused entry if it didn’t meet the park’s standards! They did let me in though - for a fee of $60.00 a night, the most I’ve spent on this trip. However, I was tired and curious about what $60.00 would buy so I paid up and spent the night.
When I registered I was given a remote control device so I could open the gate to come and go. A veritable army of workers kept the grounds and building in pristine condition, the laundry room had brand new front loading washer and dryers and the community clubhouse was elegantly furnished. All the units parked there were large diesel pushers or fifth wheels and one of them had a shiny, red corvette as its tow car. I filled up with propane before I left in the morning as I am running the furnace more often in this “cool” snap. (I don’t sleep with it on.)
The weather continues to be quite chilly with temperatures hovering around zero Celsius overnight. It’s definitely long pants and closed shoe weather – gone for a time are the days of capris and sandals.
Monday I only drove only a couple of hours, I woke Monday morning with a headache and achy all over and it didn’t get better as the day wore on. So I pulled into a lovely state park around 1:30> I went to a nice walk, reorganized and cleaned the van and managed to create enough space to stow my two folding chairs in the trunk instead of inside the van.
I realize that this is going to be a slow trek west. I like to stop frequently to site see, visit an interesting shop or make a cup of tea. But what’s the point of travel if you just get on the interstate and drive from point to point? Today, I’ll continue along the Emerald Coast to Pensacola, then head for I-10 and ithrough Alabama and Missippi to Louisana. I'll be in four states in one day!
Saturday, January 10, 2009
I watched the local news on my new 10” flat panel, digital HDTV and was reminded that only a few miles away, friends and family of John Travolta and Kelly Preston had gathered at their Ocala home to celebrate the life of their son Jett who died in the Bahamas a few days prior. I had heard that the Travolta’s lived in a gated subdivision in Ocala but what I didn’t know was that this subdivision has its own airstrip and that John Travolta parks his plane right outside his house. The TV announcer said that the celebs attending the funeral weren’t seen in town as they arrived and departed right from the Travolta home. The loss of a child is always devastating and I sent them a prayer as I wondered what their Scientology end-of this-life service was like.
Yesterday morning I left the campground and headed for another Antique mall (this area seems to be full of them) and scored a treasure: I found a silver gravy boat for $6.00. No one wants silver anymore and this had been marked down several times. I was delighted to find it as I’ve wanted one for years. So it’s carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and stowed away for the trip home.
My 10” digital, HDTV is another big score: $138.00 at a post-Christmas sale at Walgreens, a large pharmacy chain. Fellow Canadian Bill Giles, one of the people I met at the Tarpon Springs campground, had one and took me to Walgreens so I could get mine. The U.S. goes totally digital in February and, unless you are hooked up to cable or satellite, an ordinary TV with an antenna will no longer work. I have donated my 13” boxy TV to a Goodwill store already. And there’s an additional bonus: I now have an additional square foot on storage space!
Last night I spent in Gainesville a college town just north of Ocala where I visited Lisa and Sameer Paranjpe and their new baby Rohan. Lisa tells me that there is a pond at the college where alligator live and that they often sun themselves on the banks during the day. I will check this out before I leave town later today.
The weather had taken a cooler turn as a “cool” front has come through. While we Canadians deal with “cold” fronts, Floridians just have “cool” fronts. Last night, though, I did wake up and dig out my sleeping bag as I was decidedly cooler in the van.
Today I will head west from Gainesville and then north towards Talahasee. The leisurely trek west has begun.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Today there are acquasizes at the pool at 1 pm. I have discovered where I can take a long walk without having to drive there. There is a grocery store just down the road. And the the lovely Greek town of Tarpon Springs just minutes away. Today the young men will be diving for crosses at noon to celebrate Epiphany.
Yesterday I drove round to check out a couple of other RV parks here and then went shopping in Tarpon Springs. I bought a few pieces of new clothing as my new eating regime is resulting is much needed weight loss. (While not yet svelte, I have had to cull the larger clothing from my wardrobe. ) I ate a delicious Greek salad on the sidewalk of a small Greek café at noon.
On Saturday, I went to "antique row" in Tarpon Springs and poked through about 15 antique stores. When I arrived home, Ray dropped by for a chat. Then Bill came by as Carol had told him I was thinking of finding a spot somewhere in the south to spend upcoming winters and I would need a larger vehicle or trailer. Carol told Bill who is a retired lawyer from Ontario – and Bill came by to go over the pros/cons/legalities of buying something in the US vs. Canada. The conclusion: keep it simple – buy in Canada and take it home after the winter.
I will say good bye to these new friends on Thursday and head to Winter Garden to get the dash air fixed yet again. Hopefully it will hold this time as I will driving on to Gainsville to visit Lisa and Sameer. (Lisa is my brother-in-law Dave Banks’ daughter. ) Then I will head to the Florida panhandle on my way west to Alabama and Louisana.
Life is good, very good.
Friday, January 2, 2009
Supper was in the van – in the parking lot – as we had lots of food in the fridge that needed to be eaten before it spoiled. Tonight we are booked for a 6:30 p.m. sitting at the Sheraton for a Christmas buffet.
We’ve been camping at Fort DeSoto Park, a magnificent county-run campground that has large private camping sites. We sit surrounded by palm trees in our own little semi-tropical world. We used my little tent for the first time. I was able to set it up myself and blowing up the air bed with the $4.95 gizmo that I bought at the Superstore in Saint John was a breeze.
Next on our agenda is Sarasota and the Ringling Brother’s circus museum and a highly recommended state camp ground. Then we’ll return to Fort DeSoto Park.
January 2, 2009 -I’m back in Tarpon Springs sitting at the picnic table as I write this blog. Who knew life with a grown up daughter could get so busy? We left our luxurious accommodation at the Sheraton on Boxing Day and headed back to DeSoto Park. The Park was full as we knew it would be but the Ranger Mike said to keep checking back as people would probably be canceling throughout the week. TD took over the job of checking in with Ranger Mike (he was cute as well as nice) and we secured a spot for each night for the rest of our trip with the exception of the one night we spent at Oscar Shearer state park near Sarasota.
TD even got up New Year’s Eve morning at 5:30 a.m. to line up at the office to make certain we got a spot. She was 8th in line! It turns out that the good natured Mike (did I mention he was also good looking:)) had made a mistake with our booking for that night and later in the day managed to secure one of the best sites in the park for us. (Did I mention how charming TD could be when dealing with Ranger Mike?) Ranger Mike’s explanation was that it was “Be nice to Canadians Day".
I can’t say enough about how wonderful Fort DeSoto Park is. Three miles from the campsite is North Beach – miles and miles of white sand heavily treed along the edges so there is lots of shade for people like me. North Beach was voted the No. 1 beach in America in 2005. We managed to get there for at least an hour on most days.
Fort DeSoto campground and North Beach are a favourite spot for Canadians although most of the Canadians spoke French. I always knew that Florida was a favourite winter vacation spot for Quebecers but the numbers become really apparent when you hear French constantly. At one point TD went to inquire about renting a kayak and, when she said she was Canadian, the person in the booth told her that she didn’t sound Canadian.
We had several Quebec neighbours at the campsite and when you asked them where they were from, they replied “Canada”. When I commented to TD that it was nice to see that they identified as Canadian first, she told me that my prejudice was showing and that most Quebecers are happy to be Canadians. The polls prove that she is right, of course, and she did live in Montreal for several years.
TD also made friends with a nice couple from Ontario who suggested that she borrow their kayak and try kayaking. Actually they were quite insistent that she not rent one and that she use one of theirs instead. So she did. And she loved it. She loved it enough to get some sore muscles!
Our trip to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota was one of the highlights of the trip. John Ringling, one of the five Ringling Brothers, donated 66 acres, including his summer home to the state of Florida when he died. He had already built – and filled – a fine art museum and built his summer home. Several buildings have been added since then including one 3800 sq. ft. building that houses a miniature circus as it would have been in the 1920s/1930s, built to scale. The man who spent a good part of his life building this wonder says there at probably 50,000 pieces in the display.
I was equally taken with the opulent yet elegant home that John Ringling built right on the waters of Sarasota Bay. He would park his yacht out front, hire a band to play on the deck and people would spill out from the living and dining rooms and dance on the large marble terrace.
Ringling entertained many of the world’s rich and powerful business leaders trying to convince them of the potential of the Sarasota area and tried to convince them to build winter homes as well. He was so convinced of the potential of the area that he invested most of his money in land in the area. Alas the boom that John had anticipated didn’t materialize in his lifetime and he died broke and alone. His wife Mabel had died several years earlier and a brief second marriage ended in divorce. When you stand on the terrace of John and Mabel’s house you can see the development that John had anticipated across the bay.
Yesterday TD left for home and I came back to Tarpon Springs to a friendly RV park that I discovered earlier in December. More about life amongst the snowbirds and full-time RVers later……