What’s in this Drink, Exactly?

A couple of years ago I visited New Orleans on a work-related trip, and I became enamored with the architecture, history, and general vibe of the old French Quarter. I have always wanted to return, and since the city was only a few hours drive from Pensacola we made it our next destination. There were a few campground options around the New Orleans area, but many of them had the word “Bayou” in their name and I figured that was synonymous with “mosquito habitat,” so we opted for an RV travel park just outside the city limits. This was our first time staying at a place like this, but it was relatively affordable, very close to the French Quarter, had hot showers, and was operated by a very nice woman who was happy to let Zephyr roam around.

We ditched the teardrop at the RV park and drove into the French Quarter, where we walked around admiring the buildings, live music, and ample outdoor bars. We each grabbed a drink to go and walked around the streets with our “adult beverages,” a novelty that we are always compelled to enjoy whenever possible.  We stopped for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant called Amelie, and had a delicious meal of chicken breast for Andrew and Creole shrimp for yours truly. As darkness descended over New Orleans, the noise and energy began to elevate, and our silly dog started to have his usual “I hate cities” panic attack. In his defense, the children of the area were out and about in costumes doing their trick-or-treating, and so things were probably a little strange from a dog’s perspective. I imagine that the neighborhood kids have to trick-or-treat a week early every year in order to avoid the chaos and hedonism that must accompany such a holiday in the French Quarter!

Before Zephyr could be too much of a buzz kill we walked him back to the truck and put him to bed while we went back for some more fun. We indulged in some disgustingly sweet (aka amazingly delicious) frozen, brightly colored cocktails as we walked down Bourbon Street ogling the go-go dancers in the windows and the bartenders trying to entice people through their doors. Andrew slurped on something purple containing bourbon (so we were told), while I stuck to the more “traditional” pina colada.  We stopped in several shops before finding the perfect Halloween masks, despite not having a clear idea of where we would even be on October 31st. We figured even if we are alone in the woods we can don our disguises and dance by the firelight under the full moon and have a good time!

The next morning we grabbed breakfast at a small locals-only type restaurant where I had some delicious praline bacon with eggs, while Andrew devoured fried green tomatoes, grits, poached eggs, and TWO biscuits. That boy sure does enjoy his Southern food! The restaurant was in a neighborhood that was clearly affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, and it was a sober reminder of how much people in this area have suffered. It’s hard to get a feel for the tragedy of it all when you are a tourist enjoying the relatively unscathed French Quarter. I was grateful for the visual dichotomy, as it provided me with a more complete understanding of New Orleans.  It is too easy to be an ignorant visitor and only see the neon lights and entertainment value of any given city. After walking the dog we said our goodbyes to New Orleans, confident that we will return again someday with more time for exploration.

Our next destination was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, but before we could get there we had to drive up the Mississippi River and into the state of Mississippi itself. We stopped at a fun health-foods store that had the largest selection of bulk candy I have ever seen (really healthy right?). As we checked out I was honestly embarrassed by the amount of candy passing through the scanner! After we grabbed our bags I asked the cashier if I could put the cart away for her, and she offered me a job on the spot! I politely declined, but it is still good to know that politeness and a little initiative can still get you a job in this economy!

We spent our next night in a National Forest that had free campsites complete with free firewood. Finding these spots is always like winning the lottery, and usually comes after a long day of driving and uncertainty about where to sleep. We were grateful for the site, and even more grateful for the nice gentleman who warned us that it is coon hunting season, so if we hear dogs barking all night that’s why! After a quick dinner we enjoyed a campfire and were then lulled to sleep by the sounds of baying dogs off in the distance. It brought back profound memories of my favorite childhood book Where the Red Fern Grows, and I wished desperately I had brought a copy of it with us so I could read it aloud to my lovely husband as he drifted off to sleep beside me.

Floundering in Florida: Part 2

Our next destination in Florida was Everglades National Park. I had a vision of the Everglades in my mind as being this insanely muggy, swampy, mucky, buggy area where alligators waddle across the streets as commonly as squirrels. Happily the real Everglades were much more pleasant than I expected, although I am sad that we did not see any gators or Florida panthers. Since we visited during the “wet” season, there is more space for the wildlife to disperse and spotting them becomes more difficult. In the dry season there is less water and so the wildlife becomes more concentrated around the small swamps that persist.

The northern edge of the park was very temperate and comfortable, but we decided to drive to the town of Flamingo down at the southern end of the park to check it out. As soon as I stepped out of the truck I was engulfed in mosquitos, and so I begged Andrew to take me back to the first campground at the top of the park. We had a bit of a spat over this, but I was already so covered in itchy bumps that I couldn’t imagine tolerating even one more bite. At this rate I figured I had a higher chance than most of contracting some horrible insect-borne virus, and so I won the argument and back we went to drier land. The campground was under open skies and wasn’t terribly impressive, but as evening rolled in we watched a thunderstorm pass over the southern part of the park, and we were both grateful to be there.

The next morning we did a nature walk around a swamp and spotted tons of Great White Herons or Great Egrets (see photo below) and Anhinga, which are large graceful water birds that thrive in this particular area. The weather was beautiful, and we headed out of the park and north along the Gulf coast appreciative of the cool breeze that followed us. We stopped for the night at a campground called Hog Island, despite the absence of both hogs and a surrounding body of water. It was nice enough for us, and I was able to schmooze the camp hosts into letting us stay there even though dogs are not generally permitted. They were very sweet and accommodating, and we had a quiet night among throngs of deer hunters who were there to take advantage of the last days of “black powder season” in Florida.

We awoke the next morning fully rested after being able to sleep in the teardrop again thanks to the cooler weather. Our next stop was Tallahassee, where we spent a couple hours doing laundry and, in Andrew’s case, enjoying a much-needed haircut and shave. We walked around a small man-made pond and watched various turtles sunbathing amid strange looking ducks. That night we stopped in a random national forest, which was the most unusual “forest” I have ever seen. The pine trees were sparse, skinny, and only had branches at their very tops while the ground was covered in small spikey palms. It was a creepy place, and we spent as little time there as possible. On our way out the next morning we saw bear crossing signs, and I was grateful I wasn’t aware of this native inhabitant the night before!

As we drove along the Gulf coast we spotted a nice rest area at a beach where we cooked breakfast and exercised the dog. This rest area even had free Wi-Fi and electricity, for which I was most grateful. The parking lots of McDonald’s restaurants (my usual Wi-Fi hotspots) are quite dull, and being able to watch my boys play in the waves while I typed away was a treat.  After a few more hours of driving we arrived at the Gulf Islands National Seashore outside Pensacola, where we camped for two nights. The beachside campground is on a barrier island, with the Gulf on one side and a bay on the other.

The beaches along this part of Florida are much nicer than those in the southern part of the state, with the softest, whitest sand I have ever seen. The first day we spent a little bit of time at the beach, and were the only ones swimming although there were many sunbathing retirees. Apparently the surf was a bit rough for most, but for we San Diegans it was a lot of fun. We made friends with our neighbors Bob and Martie, who had been married for 60 years. Bob saw Andrew cooking and declared that for the first 30 years of their marriage Martie cooked, for the second 30 he cooked, and for the rest of their years they’re going to eat out. That seems like a good deal, especially since it means I have another 29 ½ years before I have to worry about it.

We soon gained a couple more neighbors, and I could tell right away these girls were going to be fun. They explored the surrounding swampland with beers in hand as I watched bemused from the comfort of my hammock. Eventually they came over and introduced themselves as Aimee and Sarah, a couple from Pensacola who came out to the campground for the fishing. Before long it was declared that shots of liquor were in order. One shot turned into several (as so often happens), and before you know it we were swimming in the Gulf by the light of the waxing moon. It was a memorable night, and I am so glad for the camaraderie we shared with these freewheeling spirits.

The next morning we took one more dip in the Gulf before heading out of the state. With my itching slowly starting to subside, and with new memories of these warm waters and the warm people we met along the way, I can confidently say that Florida and I have come to an understanding. Florida is who she is because of the extremes that she embodies, and visitors would do well to dispel any expectations before they arrive. Finally, I have four pieces of advice to you, dear reader, should you decide to explore this varied state: 1) Buy 100% DEET. I don’t care how natural and hippie-dippie you are. I know it’s toxic. You still need it or you will be miserable. 2) Go in January. Seriously. 3) Don’t bring your dog. 4) Consider staying in a hotel. Otherwise make sure you have a tent with very fine mesh and pray for a cool breeze.

Floundering in Florida: Part 1

Oh Florida. Florida Florida Florida. We spent close to a week exploring your beaches, islands, state parks, national parks, and campgrounds. You never failed to be beautiful, and yet you are full of extremes that made life for Micha a tad difficult. You were extremely hot and humid, which made sleeping in a little metal box without even so much as a fan a tiresome affair. You harbor extreme amounts of hungry blood sucking insects, many of which found their way to my seemingly delicious California flesh. You are home to a large variety of extremely large members of the animal kingdom including alligators, manatees, Florida panthers, and the biggest spiders I have ever seen. This, in a nutshell, is how I feel about Florida, but I know you all want some details so let me start from the beginning.

We left Savannah and headed straight down into Florida, stopping at a state park on the beach about halfway down the Atlantic coast. The campground was really crowded, and we parked our little teardrop on a slice of property about eight feet wide in between two behemoth RVs. It was about dinnertime when we arrived, and there was not a soul to be seen outside. I scoffed to myself about how locking yourself up in an RV isn’t real camping, we are real nature lovers, blah blah blah. Silly naïve little Micha. Those people weren’t inside watching their televisions because they don’t enjoy nature, they were inside protecting themselves from the Earth’s cruelest creature: the “noseeum.” This tiny little fly is small enough to fit through the screens of the teardrop, and has the bite (and appetite) of a thousand mosquitoes. We spent the evening applying and reapplying our weak bug spray and trying to prevent bites by crawling under the covers, which only succeeded in turning the teardrop into an uncomfortable sauna.

At two o’clock in the morning I announced I’d had enough, and we packed up and headed to the nearby Mega Box Store to stock up on better bug spray. We figured since we were already up we might as well drive down to the Keys and beat any traffic we would have encountered during the day. We arrived at the campground on Key Largo early the next morning and spent the first part of the day napping in a hammock and cooking some breakfast at a picnic table near the beach.

The Florida Keys in October are hot, sticky, and humid. We found a local radio station that specialized in rumba, and we tried to embrace the weather and environment and get into the groove of this tropical paradise. Unfortunately I never really accomplished this goal, although being able to take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico helped alleviate some of the discomfort. Another added bonus to this trip was meeting John and Brenda, a very sweet older couple from Alabama. As they were sitting outside the bathroom waiting for their laundry to dry they struck up a conversation with me, and they are some of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of randomly meeting.

John and Brenda travel in one of the biggest RVs I have ever seen, but they are very down to earth and low-key, and drive a little red Smart Car around when they take day trips. They have three cocker spaniels that live the life of luxury in the RV; poor Zephyr was a little envious as he was just about dead on his feet from the humidity. John showed us a photo album with pictures of his house, family, and toys including two refurbished fire trucks. If Andrew and I ever spend some time in Alabama we are going to look them up and take a spin in one of those trucks. John and Brenda, you have been forewarned!

Our last day in the Keys was spent ambling around Key West, doing the tourist circuit. It was the start of Fantasy Fest, and though we didn’t see anything scandalous there was a street fair with good food and cheap drinks. We enjoyed all the people watching and sight seeing, and then went to the aquarium for a tour since dogs are allowed in the open-air building.

At the end of the day we attempted to check out the daily sunset party that occurs, complete with vendors and buskers and tourists galore.  After nearly pulling me through the crowd on my butt in an attempt to escape, it became clear that Zephyr had taken all he could handle with the heat and noise. We left before the sun had set and walked back to the truck, stopping only to take the obligatory photo at the “Southernmost Point” marker. That night I discovered that a combination of alcohol and Benadryl was enough to quell my itching and knock me out, and the next day we hit the road after grabbing some delicious Cuban food on our way out of the Keys.