Category Archives: Travel

New Orleans, Louisiana ~ June 2–5

When traveling to New Orleans, one should really plan to be there long enough to be able to eat all the wonderful and unique foods the city has to offer.

Coffee and Beignets @ Cafe Du Monde
Coffee and Beignets @ Cafe Du Monde

We did our best in the three days we had, so will definitely have to schedule another visit for some of the culinary delights we missed.

We stayed in the French Quarter which was very much alive and filled with a mix of tourists and locals, some who seemed to wander aimlessly looking for their next drink.

View of Bourbon & Toulouse Streets from Hotel Room
View of Bourbon & Toulouse Streets from Hotel Room

First impressions were gladness to see that the city seemed to be thriving almost nine years after Katrina, plus a bit of uneasiness at what I was witnessing on Bourbon Street.

Bourbon St 2, NOLA

However, after spending time in the quarter I soon began seeing and accepting the quarter for what it is – a place with a soul of its own fed from the music, the food and the creativity of the mix of artists and individuals that call it home.  A perfect host to both those that contribute to its soul, and to the traumatized looking to self-soothe in the abundance of its sex and alcohol.  The two provide a balance — it’s a complete circle — a complete, big easy, circle.

Bourbon Street - "Relax...It's Just Sex"
Bourbon Street – “Relax…It’s Just Sex”

In between eating, we shopped in the French Market, the oldest open air market in the country; admired the southern mansions in the Garden District; danced at some jazz dives on Frenchman Street;

The Spotted Cat, Frenchman Street
The Spotted Cat, Frenchman Street

and strolled through beautiful Audubon Park.

Audubon Park
Audubon Park

We used the Trolley car to travel much of the city,

Trolley through Garden District, NOLA

taking it from the Mississippi River, up Canal Street and out to the end of St. Charles, stopping at the Camellia Grill for pie.

Camellia Grill
Camellia Grill

On one of our evening jaunts, we walked around ending up at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, later traveling back up Bourbon Street which had grown even wilder in the late hour.

Carousel Bar
Carousel Bar

The highlight of our exploring the city was the National World War II Museum.  If you enjoy U.S. history, this should be at the top of your list for a visit to New Orleans.  The museum has an extensive collection of war craft and equipment, including a German enigma machine and a parachute dummy used as a decoy in the complex Normandy invasion plan.

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Exhibits cover all aspects of the war from the Navaho code talkers, the critical role and contribution of women, to the allied troops’ discovery of the horrific concentration camps.

The film produced for the museum, Beyond All Boundaries¸ does an excellent job at presenting the timeline of events across the globe, tying the big picture together visually with details on both the European and Pacific campaigns.

German Howitzer
German Howitzer

Why the National WWII Museum is located in New Orleans instead of Washington D.C. is a fascinating story.  Andrew Higgins was a swamp boat designer and maker working in New Orleans when he approached the US military with a design especially for amphibian landings.  The famous “Higgins Boats” were built in New Orleans and credited by President Eisenhower as being responsible for the allied victory.

Higgins Boat
Higgins Boat

In the three short days we spent in New Orleans we went from my initial uneasiness, to feeling really comfortable and enjoying the city, to ultimately feeling we could live there.

New Orleans - Old & New
New Orleans – Old & New

 

 

 

 

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge – May 23-24

WICHITA MOUNTAINS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – May 23-24, 2014

The Wichita Mountains were a favored camping destination for my family when I was a young child and are located about 80 miles north of Wichita Falls, just west of Lawton, Oklahoma.

WMWR - Ascending Elk Mountain

More than half of the park’s 59,000 acres is a fenced off protected area to allow the white tailed deer, mountain elk and buffalo an environment void of human contact.  The remaining refuge, which also has wildlife roaming freely through it, consists of campsites, public hiking trails and a vast wilderness area.

WMWF - BuffaloWMWR - Wild TurkeyWMWR - Trailmate 2

Setting up camp was a bit of a wet experience, but we were able to do so quickly and managed to keep the inside of the tent dry along with our sleeping bags and mats.  Despite the rain, the campground was full.

WMWR - Near Campsite

We awoke Saturday morning to unseasonably cool weather and sunshine – it was beautiful!  We decided to start the day with a short hike to the top of Elk Mountain. The trail was marked moderate to easy being a rocky, but scenic trail.

The Elk Mountain trail head was at the west end of the park and led into a large designated wilderness area where hiking and backcountry camping are allowed by permit.

The entire “wilderness area” seemed to be visible from the peak of Elk Mountain beginning with a gradual slope of stacked pink granite boulders.

View of wilderness area from the top of Elk Mountain
View of wilderness area from the top of Elk Mountain

Trey wanted to venture out on the rocks for a better vantage point. Unsure at first, I mustered up the courage to join Trey, which required stepping over deep crevices between the large boulders that seemed be vicariously sitting on the mountain’s ledge.

WMWR - Top of Elk Mt

Elk Mountain trail was a great first choice, but unfortunately, was our only hike and adventure in the wildlife refuge. I turned my ankle about ¾ of the way down the mountain.  I heard a crack, but convinced myself that it was just a sprain so that I could make it the rest of the way down the mountain – which I did with help from Trey.

An x-ray at a Lawton hospital confirmed a small fracture of the left distal fibula. The advice of the ER physician was to see an orthopedist after Memorial Day.

WMWR - End of the Trail

At that point, we decided it was best to pack up our campsite and get a hotel for the night, and then head to Austin in the morning to seek treatment.  We were mostly disappointed that our time was cut short in Oklahoma, as we were very much looking forward to reunions with cousins and exploring Tulsa and Tahlequah.

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Interest facts about the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (from their website):

  • More than 50 mammal, 240 bird, 64 reptile and amphibian, 36 fish, and 806 plant species thrive on this important refuge
  • The buffalo herd is maintained at 650 through annual public auctions
  • The granite mountains date back 500 million years

 

First Stop: Home ~ May 22-24

One of the intentions of our travels is to reconnect with family and friends. To reestablish relationships with those in which we had lost touch during the years of raising kids, building careers and caregiving for parents. This is why the first destination of choice was our hometown of Wichita Falls, a bit of a sleepy town located just south of the Oklahoma border in north central Texas.  It is where both Trey and I developed our strong work ethic, perseverance, and sense of knowing right from wrong – not just from the great examples of our parents, but also from the community as a whole. We very much enjoyed catching up with family and friends, and we visited our favorite old haunts and drove by childhood homes.

University Park

There were several areas that had since been developed, and some that had notably deteriorated including the neighborhoods around Trey’s childhood home and his high school, Wichita Falls High School, or “old high.” The highlight was an 18-mile bicycle path that is being expanded to circle the city; but for the most part, the city was similar to the one we left in early 1988.

Bike Path Near Lake Wichita
Bike Path Near Lake Wichita Dam

Trey and I have longed joked that the rule of six degrees of separation doesn’t apply to those from Wichita Falls.  Instead, it is closer to one to two degrees of separation.  At least, that has been our experience living in Austin…just a few of many examples: An Austin city councilwoman graduated from my high school class; after years of friendship, we found that Trey and the husband of a former co-worker of mine graduated from the same high school class; and the manager of a Wichita Falls grocery store when it was directly hit by the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado was the manager of an Austin area grocery store when it was directly hit by a 1997 tornado.

Sadly, I’m afraid that these regular “small world” occurrences may be due to the fact that, like us, a lot of people born and raised in Wichita Falls end up leaving it for different opportunities.  A quick check of the census data shows that its population growth between 2000 and 2010 was less than ½ of a percent while Texas’ total population grew by more than 20%.

We also found the city facing huge challenges: A school board at odds with the community on how to best address aging secondary school buildings while better balancing enrollment at each; and foremost, a water shortage at near crisis level due to extreme drought.

You can walk across Lake Wichita from the south shore of Fairway Blvd
You can walk across Lake Wichita from the south shore of Fairway Blvd

Kudos to city leaders and staff that took initiative to address the city’s impending water crisis. We first heard of Wichita Fall’s unique solution prior to our visit on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. While not ideal, it appears city officials had no other options, so they did what they knew was right to best sustain the city through the continued drought.

As for the high schools situation, we are hopeful that the good people of Wichita Falls will continue to speak up and work with the school board and district to come up with a best solution. One that expands the opportunities for learning, growth and positive experiences for every student across the city and on an equal basis. The school district and citizens should see this as an opportunity to invest in and create a better, stronger foundation for the city’s future.  Because, using ourselves as examples, people don’t stay where there are not ample opportunities.

God speed Wichita Falls.

Nooks & Crannies – May 21

We have never been good judges of how much time and effort is needed for the tasks of packing and moving.  Despite extensive planning, this again was the case on Wednesday, May 21st — the designated day of our departure.  The only item listed on the schedule for the 21st was “Let the Adventures Begin!,” as this was the day that we were to pack our camping gear and clothes into our small SUV (a.k.a. the “Escape Mobile”), turn in the keys to our apartment, and be on the road by noon.

We knew that the goal of moving all of our remaining possessions into a 15×10 storage unit was a lofty one, but we did not realize that moving everything over the course of one day was an impossibility because we had not fully accounted for just how much we had.

The big stuff is obvious

The process of downsizing had begun in early April with the help of Craig’s List, friends, family, and a slew of non-profit organizations who were willing to take some items off our hands (thank you!).  All furniture was either gone or its destination was determined well within the set time-frame. The only clothes that remained were those we were taking with us and they were tucked out of the way in our closets.

Having the apartment essentially void of furniture gave us a greater sense of progress and accomplishment than what was actually the case.  It is not that we had completely forgotten about all the small stuff, just some of it.  Plus, we didn’t fully appreciate how it adds up. It was what I like to ironically refer to as a not seeing the trees for the forest situation.

It is the stuff in the nooks and crannies that you don’t always fully recognize, properly deal with, or you simply forget about. You know, those places where you bury things you don’t know what to do with – the things you don’t have a need for, but because of some attachment or another, you can’t simply get rid of either.  Places such as behind the closet doors, underneath the bed, under the kitchen sink, and the back of a bathroom cabinet.

Moving necessitates dealing with the nooks and crannies. It requires confronting attachments and making decisions about all the small stuff which, I think, was probably the hardest part of downsizing our life into a 15×10 storage unit.

Despite this, I’m happy to say that our adventures did begin on the 21st – just about 10 hours later than planned.

Good-bye Austin!

Sunday Slice & A BeerAustin Skyline @ DuskSouth Congress 1

Test Camping Trip ~ May 3-4, 2014

We made the necessary investments in quality camping gear in April, and had previously practiced setting up our tent in our apartment. It took us about 20 minutes, which was pretty good considering the time we spent trying to interpret the instructions.

Garner State Park 3

We have lived boarding the Texas Hill Country for a little over 26 years, yet haven’t taken the time to enjoy what it offers as much as we would have liked. With our departure from Texas looming and experience in camping lacking, it was the perfect place for a weekend trial run – convenient, beautiful and included locations that we have wanted to explore.

Our 355 mile Hill Country trek looped from Austin through San Antonio, past the notorious Snake Farm, which has since been re-branded the “Snake Farm Zoo” and seemed to be thriving, perhaps as a result of the Ray Wiley Hubbard song. From San Antonio we headed west to Uvalde County, then north to the small but quaint river city of Concan, which is the nearest city to Garner State Park.

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Leaving the park we choose the less traveled route east to Utopia, crossing the dry Sabinal River several times and through what felt like the heart of the Hill Country, with 360 views of steep valleys and rolling hills.

Garner's Cactus Flowers 4

After a brief stop at Lost Maples State Natural Area, we headed northeast meeting up with, and then following, the Guadalupe River through Hunt and Kerrville. We continued northeast to Fredericksburg, a place we had visited several times, so not stopping, but acknowledging the mast-like home of Admiral Chester Nimitz and honoring his historical significance through our thoughts and conversation as we passed.

Like the drive from Austin to San Antonio, the drive from Fredericksburg was a familiar one, but proved to be a fitting send-off gift to us from the Hill Country. Sans bluebonnets and paintbrushes, the wildflowers were very much still in bloom and provided waves of yellow, red, orange, purple and white on each side of Highway 290 through the waning rolling hills toward Austin.

Garner State Park was not as lush as we had expected, and although well aware of the drought, we were both taken back by how little water was in the Frio and surrounding creeks.

Garner State Park - Frio River 3

After setting up camp and checking out the river, we biked through the park and found it alive with people, food and fun times. We cooked our dinner over the open flame of the fire Trey built — orange honey habanero chicken breast we’d picked up at Central Market on our way out of town, and the leftover beans and jalapeno cornbread I had prepared earlier in the week – a great meal to christen our new camping cooking and dinner ware.

We were told of the traditional Saturday night dance hosted at Garner State Park’s pavilion. So, with the sun setting, we mounted our bikes, turned on our head and seat lights, and headed to the pavilion for the dance. A footpath we found leading from the road led us to the pavilion’s flagstone patio that was serving as the dance floor and Garth Brooks was crooning about Friends in Low Places.

Lost Maples State Park 5

The final big test, at least for me, were the public showers. There was no avoiding them — we were dirty, dusty and sweaty. The important lesson I learned about outdoor showers is to first do a careful 360° examination for shower companions – this should probably actually be done twice as a particular caution. If I had thought to do so, I would have avoided taking a shower with a Texas giant centipede!

Once, safely out of the shower and bathroom, I could joke as I told Trey of my experience. We both laughed and agreed that we are, after all, embarking on these travels for new adventures!

Test camping trip:  Success