Saturday, January 31, 2015

Southern Swing, Part Two - Louisiana

When you hit the road as newbie fulltimers going places you've never been, especially in a motorhome with a tow car, it is common to want to stay on the big Interstate highways and overnight in the large RV parks with full hookups. There is a feeling of safety in such a plan, not to mention it is very convenient.

Even though we spent the majority of our first few months on the road traveling off the major highways, we still find ourselves getting sucked into traveling in "convenient mode".  We actually have to make the effort to get ourselves off the beaten highway and on the road less traveled and it is still kind of daunting to us.

What if we get ourselves on a road with a low bridge? What if we make a wrong turn and can't get back to where we need to be? What if? What if? What if?

Our swing through Louisiana presented us with a few of those unwanted challenges, but in the end, we persevered.

Tickfaw State Park

Tickfaw is a fantastic state park, but getting there is dicey. It is somewhat off the beaten path, and if you haven't done your research (we didn't) getting there requires some faith, particularly if you are using your non-RV GPS, as we were. It's located a few miles off Interstates 55 & 12, but that few miles will leave you wondering what the heck you've gotten yourself into. The requisite roadside trash is abundant, as are the low-hanging branches and skinny roads with no shoulders. We thought we heard dueling banjos at one point, but we kept going anyway. Suddenly, there it is, the entrance to Tickfaw State Park. And it's worth the trip.

Tickfaw is a small but very popular park in the swamps of Northern Louisiana, close to the town of Springfield. It only has 36 or so RV sites, but plenty more large rental cabins. When we arrived only the camphost was in the park, but by the weekend, the place was jammed with families. It seemed every rig had some kind of elaborate outdoor cooking set up and the smells were amazing.

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After a few days alone, families began to arrive        We added Louisiana to our map, Yay!

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Our secluded spot at Tickfaw                                   Lots of very cool walks around the swamps

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This is why we like being here in the winter :)              It was a little brisk when we first arrived

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These magnificent swamps were basically within a few steps of our campsite!

There is a fantastic nature center and lots of boardwalks that wind through the swamps. Of course at this time of the year, there are no bugs or alligators to worry about, and I have to be honest and tell you we would never, ever be here during the hot months of summer when those things are abundant. Our timing was perfect. The weather was sunny and we enjoyed our daily walks through the swampy goodness.

Bayou Signette State Park (New Orleans)

Our trip to Bayou Signette State Park, our home for a week as we explored New Orleans, should have taken us about an hour, but it ended up taking us about five hours. And we weren't even traveling off the beaten path! We got ourselves into a hell of a jam just trying to get on I-55 not far from Tickfaw! The sign with an arrow pointing to "New Orleans" is positioned on the road directly before the turn onto the service road that parallels I-55. The actual entrance to the Interstate was about 20 yards further down the road. We did not know that, and we found ourselves cruising down the service road. Okay, no problem, we'll just get on at the next entrance. Only, there wasn't one. Without warning, the service road dead-ended, and there was no turnaround. Whaaaat???

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This is the end, my only friend, the end.

Worse, we had come to a stop at a wonky angle, which meant unhooking Toadie Hopper was nearly impossible. This happened on a Sunday, right when the Seattle Seahawks were battling the Green Bay Packers for the championship. We had left in plenty of time to get to our next stop and get set up for the game. The best laid plans . . . oh, WOE is me!!

Steven got out the hammer and went to work trying to separate Toadie from Scoopy while I walked back up the road to scout a place to turn around. After much banging, cursing and gnashing of teeth, he finally got Toadie unhooked. I reversed Scoopy back down the narrow service road until I got her turned around, then off we went on our intended route. Even at this point we could have made it to watch the second half of the game, but no, it was not meant to be.

Somehow, we, and our GPS, got totally confused as we approached Bayou Signette State Park. Because of this, we'd head one way only to decide we needed to be going the opposite direction. We were in a town, in a major shopping area, and I wheeled into a parking lot and did a seriously scary turnaround. Whew. Then, a few miles down the road, we determined I had been going the right direction in the first place. Tempers flared. More cursing and gnashing of teeth. Another scary U-turn.

As all this was going on, Zoe and Tara were texting the game scores and highlights. It was difficult to concentrate on making serious U-turns when the Seahawks were blowing their chance to return to the Super Bowl. I was a mess!

We finally got checked in, only to realize we were right next to the restrooms and playground. Ugh. Steven made a call to the office and we were given a list of available sites. Off we went on foot to check them out. We picked one we liked and moved. Once we were in place, Steven made a mad dash to hook up our Direct TV so that we could watch the end of the game. At this point, the girls were lamenting a certain loss by our beloved Seahawks, and I wasn't all that interested in watching the game. And then a freakin' miracle occurred and texts from Tara started flowing!! O.M.G. I was sitting outside on our deck screaming, and Tara finally hooked us up with a visual of the game via Facetime. We watched the final, glorious minutes of that jaw-dropping Seahawks comeback on my cell phone. Steven had the TV ready to go for the overtime win. Wow!

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Toadie flew her Seahawks flags all the way from Tickfaw.

We had a fabulous time in New Orleans, and as luck would have it, my dear friend Dana was in town on business. As we always do when our paths cross, we met for dinner and enjoyed a great meal and each other’s company.  This is the second time we have met up since we started fulltiming, the first being during our stay in Usery Mountain State Park in Mesa, AZ. Who knows when we will meet up again, but it's a given that it will happen, as Dana travels constantly in her job. We look forward to the next time!

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New Orleans has fabulous cemeteries!                     These codes are a grim reminder of Hurricane Katrina

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Beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.             Got Beignets?

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Lots of color on the buildings of Downtown New Orleans and plenty of cool shopping!

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Let’s have some HAB at the BAH :)                           Big personalities in the Big Easy

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We saw plenty of wildlife in and around Bayou Segnette State Park

Breaux Bridge and the fabulous Poche's Fish -n- Camp

One of the first things we noticed about Breaux Bridge is that there is very little roadside trash which was a relief to our eyeballs. So, YAY! for civic pride in Breaux Bridge!

Poche's Fish -n- Camp is a popular stop for RVers, and it's easy to see why. Right outside our windows we were surrounded by water. It was so nice and relaxing. We got in tons of walking and exploring. In addition to taking time to relax and recover from our busy days in the city, we also took a day trip to Avery Island, home of Tabasco Hot Sauce. I did not partake of a single sample, as I am allergic to all things peppery. Still, we had a great time there and even managed to get a Gator Selfie. Now that was scary! He doesn't look all that big in the photo, but I guarantee you that if he had made a move, one of us would be limping.

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We loved our campsite at Poche’s Fish-n-Camp. Water was all around us

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We were perfectly positioned for all the action and didn’t have to step outside Scoopy to see these sights!

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A great day at the factory and the beautiful trail.      Who can resist a selfie with a huge bottle of hot sauce?

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Before                                                                      After (The Chouters were never seen again)

We also took a tour with Cajun County Swamp Tours, which, if you find yourself in this area, is an absolute must! Our guide, Shaun was great. He was extremely knowledgeable, opinionated and had plenty of corny jokes up his sleeve.  I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that we both enjoyed Louisiana way more than we thought we would. I mentioned to Steven that the weather was so perfect, it was like a Seattle summer. Simply glorious!

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The swamp tour got us up close and personal with all sorts of slimy things

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It was a good day for wildlife spotting and a treat for us to see this very cool looking owl!

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Shaun, our guide for the day, kept us entertained and educated

Up next, Southern Swing, Part III - Texas. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Southern Swing, Part One

After eight weeks and two days at Live Oak Ranch, we headed out for a seven-week swing through the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana before coming back to Texas. We were definitely traveling in the "off" season, so we kept our fingers crossed and an eye on the weather in hopes that we didn't get rained out or snowed in somewhere along our route.

We got off to a great start, as our first travel day was sunny and warm. We drove north of Fort Worth into Denton, then east to McKinney. We chose this route for a few reasons. One, it kept us off the major Metroplex highways, two, it took us through Denton, home to my alma mater, the University of North Texas, and three, perhaps most importantly, McKinney has a newly-opened Trader Joe's where we made a stop for much needed provisions. The last time we were at TJ's was in Santa Fe, and we needed a fix!

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Taking our half out of the middle of 5 spaces…       We got so much crap stuff at TJ’s, we needed help!

From McKinney we continued on to Mount Pleasant, TX where we planned to overnight at the local Walmart - a first for us, and we were kind of excited about it. Rather than arriving and then asking permission, we called ahead. They said it was fine, and gave us directions to the location we should park. How awesome is that? We didn't put our slides out, but we did fire up the generator long enough to heat our dinner in the microwave. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset, then after dark, when things calmed down, we headed in to do a little shopping. I surprised myself that I wasn't nervous, but I felt perfectly safe and we both slept well.

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Sitting pretty in Wally World’s parking lot               Coming back from our late night shopping at Walmart

Little Rock, AR

The following morning, we headed out early to make our way to Maumelle Park just north of Little Rock, our first stop on our southern swing. Maumelle Park is a Corp of Engineers park right on the Arkansas River. We were surprised at how many people were there, and felt lucky to snag the last of the 50 amp sites on the river. I love being so close to the water that it feels like we're boating.

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Our campsite in Maumelle Park, right by the river

We didn't have a lot planned in Little Rock other than to settle in for New Year's Eve. At this time of year there is no farmer's market to visit, no festivals or concerts to see. There is, however, The William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and that was at the top of our "must see" list. We also took a day trip to Hot Springs, and I must say, we absolutely lucked out in the weather department. The only day we didn't have sun was New Year's Day, when it rained. We stayed home all day, but enjoyed a visit from Eric Walker, Scoopy's first visitor in 2015. Steven and Eric connected several years ago on a camera/filmmaking forum, and professionally, Eric is the IT manager for Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. We spent an enjoyable afternoon yakking about photography, filmmaking and fulltiming. 

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Fun history of the baths at Hot Springs Visitor Ctr.       Linda does an analysis of the spring water 

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Lunch at Fat Jack’s in Hot Springs. We got to contribute to the wall graffiti :)

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Selfie opportunity at the Oval Office and lots to read at the Clinton Presidential Library

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The exterior of the library was beautiful and a welcome contrast to all the trash we were seeing in Arkansas

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Sunrise from our front window in Maumelle Park

West Memphis, AR/Memphis, TN

Everyone has their own criteria of what it takes to add a specific state to their travel map. For us, we decided that we'd earn the state if we spent at least one night there. So even though we headed to Memphis for some BBQ and Blues, we stayed at the popular Tom Sawyer's RV Park on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River in West Memphis. We will have to come back to Tennessee and stay a while so we can add it to our map.

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Let’s just say this sign has a lot of character.           Our somewhat desolate campsite at Tom Sawyer

Now, when I say "popular" RV park, I mean seasonally popular. Since we stayed here in the dead of winter, we were often the only ones. It was a great place for barge-watching, which is one of the reasons we came here and stayed for a week. We had some pretty nice weather, but we also experienced some freezing temps as well. We came well-prepared with our propane tank full.

We had some great sightseeing days in Memphis, which included a visit to the Cotton Museum, a tour of the Gibson guitar factory, a tour of Sun Studio, a visit to Beale Street for some BBQ, and happy hour at the Peabody Hotel just as the ducks were retiring for the evening. Since we're not rabid fans of Graceland (a little too commercial for us), it was not on our list of places to visit. We did happen to drive by it, however, on our way to Aldi's. This was our first time to shop at Aldi's and we were way more excited about going to this grocery store than we were about seeing Graceland. Aldi's is owned by the same family (different company) that owns Trader Joe's. And while they are nothing alike, each has something to offer. Best of all, like TJs, Aldi's has it's own brand equivalent of Two Buck Chuck. Unfortunately, we didn't get to try it because the Aldi's we went to didn't sell alcohol. So now we have a new mission in our travels. :)

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The Gibson Factory gave us a great insight into the making of a classic guitar

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We learned a lot at the Cotton Museum                        Ducks at the Peabody Hotel!

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One of the highlights of our visit to Memphis was taking a tour at Sun Studio

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BBQ on Beale Street!                              Of course, THE highlight of Memphis was Aldi  :)

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We walked along the Memphis waterfront and enjoyed the night lights

Vicksburg, MS

We had a beautiful drive though the Mississippi Delta to Vicksburg, MS, where we stayed three nights at the Ameristar Casino RV park. The big draw here was the Vicksburg National Military Park. From Wiki:

The park includes 1,325 historic monuments and markers, 20 miles (32 km) of historic trenches and earthworks, a 16-mile (26 km) tour road, a 12.5-mile (20.1 km) walking trail, two antebellum homes, 144 emplaced cannons, restored gunboat USS Cairo (sunk on December 12, 1862, on the Yazoo River, recovered successfully in 1964), and the Grant's Canal site, where the Union army attempted to build a canal to let their ships bypass Confederate artillery fire.

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Seriously, that's a lot of stuff to see. When you first start on the 16-mile road tour, which is primarily the Union side of the battlefield, you tend to take your time, obey the very slow speed limit, stop and get out of the car and pay attention to the inscriptions on each monument.

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Monuments and buildings, so much to see for 16 miles!

But, you can only do this for so long before your eyes glaze over.  Before you know it, your speed picks up, you start to skip a few monuments and generally pick up the pace. By the time you get to the Confederate side of the park, you're like a freakin’ NASCAR driver, speed limit be damned, monuments flying by the car windows.

That's not to say this isn't a somber place to visit, it is. Thousands of soldiers from both sides lost their lives here. 17,000 are buried here. It's just a lot to take in on one afternoon ride.

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In the gift shop, we made this selfie and sent it to Tara for her birthday.

We also visited the Windsor Ruins in Port Gibson and drove a small section of the Natchez Trace. The Trace was a welcomed sight for sore eyes not only because it is free of commercial traffic, roadside businesses and attractions, but also because it was free of litter. From the moment we entered Arkansas, roadside garbage became a thing, a huge assault-to-the-senses kind of thing. Sadly, it was a theme that was quite prevalent throughout our southern swing. 

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The GPS led us up this skinny road in Vicksburg      Supporting the Hawks wherever we go!

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Pristine and beautiful Natchez Trace        The Windsor Ruins were a little creepy but cool

Coming up in Part II, Louisiana!