We Will Return After These Short Messages. . .

Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and family, please don't be alarmed if we don't write for a little while. We are headed into New Orleans.

Through the fishing villages to Grand Isles State Park

When Kyle called and we told him we were 30 miles South of New Orleans, he said, "You're in the ocean?" No, we are in Grand Isle State Park. We took an absolutely lovely drive through the lowlands, passed simple, peaceful fishing villages with shrimp and fishing boats parallel parked in the estuaries. We stopped at a Cajun Pecan Sweet Shop, and picked up about one of everything on display. All fresh, real ingredients, like Grandma would make. As we waited in line, we watched local after local pick up a King Cake and keep moving on their way. The King Cake is a is a type of cake associated with the festival of Epiphany in the Christmas season in a number of countries, and in other places with Mardi Gras and Carnival. The cake has a small trinket (often a small plastic baby, sometimes said to represent Baby Jesus) inside, and the person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket has various privileges and obligations (such as buying the cake for the next celebration). We're picking ours up on the way back North.

Grand Isles is listed as one of the top ten best fishing places in the entire country. Just before we entered the the park, we stopped and picked up a few pounds (4) of fresh caught gulf shrimp from a wholesaler. We parked up at a great spot behind the levee, plugged in, and walked over the levee to see the beach. It was a strange beach. The sand looked freshly laid, packed very flat, with lots of tire tracks running up and down the beach. We didn't quite know what to make of it, until we talked to the locals on the pier. The beach was badly hit by the oil spill. You can see dozens of oil rigs highlighted in the setting sun on the ocean's horizon. But, the locals said, "Those boys are really doing a fine job of cleaning it up." Every few days they dredge the entire beach, turning over the sand, and filtering any tar balls that are still washing up. But what this does, also, is churn up all the shells and bones and fossils that were washed up and buried during the storm. We found two skulls, tons of fossilized creatures, and a full giant fish skeleton, that was intact, still lying in the position it had died.

The weather was so beautiful, for the first time, we got to open up all our doors, air out our blankets in the sunshine, and eat our meals on the picnic table. Our neighbor, Dennis, down on a fishing trip from Wisconsin built us a bonfire to sit outside and drink our martinis and enjoy the full moon. In the morning, our other neighbors, Jackie and Dean, lounging in their swimsuits, invited us over for a chat. They are organizers for the Joshua Tree Music Festival, which is high on our list of places to visit when we get out West. Good weather makes everyone friendly!

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Jumped for V-Day in Natchez

From Vicksburg, we hoped onto the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile drive through exceptional scenery and 10,000 years of North American history.  Used by American Indians, "Kaintucks", settlers, and future presidents, the Old Trace played an important role in American history. It was the only thing listed to do in Mississippi in '1,000 Places to See Before You Die'. It wasn't as scenic as we thought it would be, after driving through the forests and landscapes of Upstate New York. There were little stops along they way, historic markers and places on the National Register. We were excited to see the remnants of a once thriving 1,600 population cotton town, now a ghost town, but all it consisted of was a path through the woods with one little well and a random rusted out safe. We did stop to see the country's second largest Native American sacrificial mound. It was large.

At the end of the Trace was Natchez, which, before the civil war, was second only to New York City for the number of millionaires living there. The town is filled with huge antebellum houses hidden behind Live Oak lined drives. The most impressive of them all was Longwood. Longwood is the largest octagonal house in the United States. The mansion is known for its octagonal plan, byzantine onion-shaped dome, and the contrast between its ornately finished first floor and the unfinished upper floors.
Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect, designed the home in 1859 for cotton planter Dr. Haller Nutt. Work was halted in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War. Dr. Nutt died of pneumonia in 1864, leaving the work incomplete. Of the thirty-two rooms planned for the house, only nine rooms on the basement floor were completed.
The house was spectacular in that you could really see and feel the contrast between the finished basement level, where the family ended up living, and the unfinished framework of the upper floors. Your imagination could run free with the potential of what the house could have been, if not for the devastating economical impacts of the Civil War.

Also, Longwood was used in the HBO series True Blood for the external shots of the Jackson, Mississippi mansion of Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Chatting with the locals, we were told that Natchez is once again staging a comeback, due to the relocation of people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and the fact that you can purchase huge estate homes for ridiculously cheap.
Mary Lou's keen eye spotted some Tiffany windows in the Trinity Episcopal Church. The three dimensional effects of the angels' garments in the windows, were achieved by the glass having been folded by Louis Tiffany when molten.

In the morning, after a quick relocation drive, Mary Lou left the lights on in the RV and drained the battery. So, she got jumped on Valentine's Day. Nicole didn't.

Click here for photos of the Natchez Trace.



We started our day in Jackson at the Mississippi Museum of Art. They were still setting up for "Orient Expressed" exhibition, that we had been hoping to see, but we were able to tour the permanent collection of Pre-Columbian ceramics. The ceramics, most of them ritual vessels, were incredibly well preserved, and we were amazed with the characters and the animals and the details of the pieces created between 500 B.C. - 1500 A.D. We also toured the museum's permanent collection of "The Mississippi Story", that included some outstanding pieces like photographs by Eudora Welty, a self portrait of Artist Randy Hayes with Eudora Welty, and a George Innes landscape. But, nothing out-shined Sulton Roger's wooden, elongated, huge toothed, fire etched moustached 'Two Blues Singers'.

We stopped downtown to see the old capital building, modeled after the Capital building in Washington D.C., and a few highlights of the Mississippi Blues Heritage Trail. The massive stone Capital, and the surrounding City Offices and pillared Court House, were impressive in their authority. But traveling down Historic Farish Street told a very different story.

Once the hub of educational, political, religious, economic, cultural and entertainment activities, the area takes its name from Walter Farish, a former slave who settled the street and whose children and great grandchildren continued to live there for decades. Now, empty brick shells line the entire street, wires and pipes hanging from the ceilings. Windows replaced with plywood, and most of those broken. A Birdland shop sign lying against a brick wall. Gutted and charred small houses were now filled with stray cats. The entire neighborhood looked like it had been ravaged by tornados, bombed, burnt and then flooded. Even in it's disrepair and decay, however, there was something very beautiful about it. A kind of excited, hopeful energy that still hangs about.

MISSISSIPPI MUD - James Cavanaugh / Harry Barris
"When the sun goes down, the tide goes out,
The people gather 'round and they all begin to shout,
"Hey! Hey! Uncle Dud,
It's a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi Mud.
It's a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi Mud".

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After the Storm. . .

Although the bright shiny lights of the Biloxi casinos keep you distracted, it's impossible not to notice the lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina. Driving along the coast, we passed one bare foundation after another, the only remnants of Gulf view mansions. Huge structures, half collapsed into a mess of twisting metal and concrete, surrounded by ancient, faded yellow caution tape. The old downtown was quaint, with old wooden cafes and antique shops. The shop owners, and the women at the fresh vegetable stand, and the local handyman working on the windows all had the same response when we told them that Biloxi was a pleasant place to be. . . "Sure, it's taken a while, but things are really starting to shape up here again." Six years after the storm, it still weighs heavy over everything. The town, and the people, seemed somewhat tired from the efforts of resilience.


Casino Hopping in Biloxi, Mississippi

After a lengthy drive, we spent a peaceful night parked up at an RV park in Biloxi. While Mary Lou was inside paying for the night, Nicole saw something moving in the trash can on the back of the park attendant's golf cart. The attendant was leaf blowing under the permanently parked RVs. Nicole got out, crept up to the can and was met with a tiny puppy nose and ears popping . The owner came out and said that she was a little, friendly dachshund that he had rescued from a couple that was abusing him, and "don't we want to take her"? For the remainder of the stay, the owner drove back and forth in front of the RV with the puppy flapping her ears in the wind on his lap, looking very cute.

Anyhoo. . . We spent the day at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art. It was designed by Frank Gehry, still half finished, after suffering some major setbacks from Katrina. During the storm, a casino barge had blown up onto shore and knocked out half of their campus. So, the major collections, amazing pottery by the "The Mad Potter of Biloxi," George Ohr was sharing space with sculptor Richmond Barthe. His sculpted African figures were beautiful, but Ohr's pottery was really amazing. Many of the pieces figured a unique twist that we spent a lot of time pondering over how it was created. And the glazings, a formula that had long ago been lost, were very rich. The pieces were stunning, and were fantastically displayed in the sunlit Gehry gallery.

The whole campus was really amazing, with each building like a little pod holding a different type of collection, leaving the mind to recenter and refocus before viewing the next works. In the next building, we perused some of Andy Warhol's pieces from the Myths, Westerns and Icons series. Also, there were some impressive Jun Kaneko giant heads.

In the evening, we went casino hopping! It was freaking cold and pouring rain, but we drove from one terrible, smoke filled casino, to the second one, to have the all you can eat seafood buffet. We had a coupon, buy one get one free. It was terrible. Terrible food, terrible lighting, terrible ambience. People watching was fun, but also a little sad. Some pretty sad people in there. And probably all dying of lung cancer.

It was too blustery cold and wet to run across the street to the Hard Rock casino, so we just made our final stop the Beau Rivage. After parking the RV behind a wall to protect it from the wind, we ran down the length of the parking garage to make it inside the casino, and immediately felt, like, ah, yes. . .this was more like it. The whole energy in the casino was instantly better. Smiling, well dressed people listening to live blues music in the bar, ordering martinis and throwing the big chips on the craps table. We played some deuces wild slot poker long enough to have our share of free drinks. Mary Lou is the lucky one in the duo. She always came out on top. Nicole seems to be lucky for other people, but not really for herself.

After the poker, moved on to Ladies' Night at the casino club, The Coast. The band, led by its mohawked male lead singer, was pretty talented, and entertained us with a gambit of songs ranging from Pour Some Sugar on Me, to Fat Bottom Girl, to Poker Face . We took a big round to check out the scene and then walked to the bar to order "the best scotch that they could serve us for free." Bartender One looks at Bartender Two and asks, "Can we serve scotch?" Bartender Two looks at us two smiling girls and says, "Give 'em Dewars." We left them a good tip, because the drinks were free, and they continued to serve us extra large Dewar's in pink plastic hurricane glasses mandatory for the ladies. Met some fun people, gave out a few fake phone numbers and stumbled through the storm back to the RV.

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It took us two hours flat to drive across Alabama.

In the Navy in Pensacola

Just as we were driving into Pensacola, Aunt Marsha returned our birthday call to her, and told us that Nick was stationed at the Pensacola Naval Academy. We called him right up, but, as we figured, he wasn't yet able to receive visitors or leave the base. Still a newbie. But, we drove around the base anyway, and took lots of photos for Aunt Marsha and Uncle Dwight to see.

We are, of course, very proud of Nick. He's survived basic training in Chicago and now he's on base on the Gulf of Mexico, not such a bad deal. Nick, you have all our best wishes in your Navy career!

On sunday, we watched the Superbowl at a local sport's bar. It was full of Steeler's fans, and that's who Nicole's money was on. Damn. Rode around the forts and the dunes and pushed off to the West.

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Dead Lakes, Mr. Cheap Butts, and Panama Shitty

We drove up to Dead Lakes, FL, where the forests had flooded and the lake is eerily punctuated with grey, gnarly stumps. The photos are great: Dead Lakes

There were a few places that lived up to the redneck name, usually involving men in camo jackets, standing beside busted pick-up trucks and staring. We just wave, put her in reverse, and back away. We did buy some of the famous Tupelo honey, but not from the "Mr. Cheap Butts" convenient store. We did not have lunch at Po Folks' Seafood, Chicken and So Forth. We did however, pick up some Killer Simmering Sauce from Killer Seafood however, which is waiting for our next batch of Gulf Shrimp.

We stayed the night at an RV park in Panama City, but didn't even get out of the RV. Panama City sucks. We got out of there as quickly as possible. We drove through the beach communities North of Panama City (where they filmed the Truman Show), but Mom started feeling sad that she would never be able to afford a retirement home there.



I think I fixed the comment problem. You should all be able to leave us comments now! Sorry about that! Write away! Tell us how much you miss us a and to bring you some sunshine!


Tate's Hell and Oysters in Apalachicola.

New month, new leg of the journey - "The Redneck Riviera"! Also known as "The Emerald Coast" or "The Forgotten Coast", but we're going with the Redneck Riviera.

First stop, Apalachicola. For the oysters.

"Apalachicola Bay produces 90 % of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nationwide supply. Over 2.6 million pounds of oyster meat is harvested annually. Most of the oyster beds are harvested by hand, making the industry sustainable and non-polluting. Apalachicola Bay oysters have a reputation among chefs across the US as being some of the finest tasting oysters available. They hold their flavor after cooking and are prized for their plump, meaty texture, mellow flavor and balanced salt content. They have a refreshing seaweed aroma and a deeply cupped shell. "

They were just like they say, meaty and very mellow. Nicole had about four dozen over the two and a half days there, and while she usually likes her oysters "dirty", brinier, she had to admit that they were plump and satisfying, and with just the right amount of lemon and horseradish, pretty darn good.

We arrived late into town on the first night, and went straight to Boss Oyster. We walked in at 7:45 pm, and they told us that we would have to order quick, kitchen closes at 8:00. (What is it with early curfews here in Florida?). Nicole had her oysters, and mom had an overly stuffing filled crab cake. During the next round of drinks at Gibson Inn, we chatted with a private airplane pilot from North Carolina who told us, "Oh no, don't have the crab down here. They just don't know how to make it. Oysters, yes. Scallops, yes. Shrimp, yes. Don't order the crab." (And sure enough, Mom got suckered in to ordering Crab Au gratin the next night, and it was pure cheese, no crab.)

We met and chatted with the locals at the Gibson Inn. One of them, an environmentalist's wife, had hitched a ride back on the wagon after 30 days sober, and entertained the whole crowd. The bartender was an adorable, slightly flighty, older woman named Betsy. With a tender far off look in her eyes, Betsy told us that we should make sure to check out the Bald Eagle's nest on 11th St, between Ave B & C. (We found it on 12th St, between Ave C & D). She also told us that it was a real miracle that the oil from the BP spill didn't reach Apalachicola Bay, since 95% of creatures in the Gulf come there to reproduce. (It's actually that, 'Over 95% of all species harvested commercially and 85% of all species harvested recreationally in the open Gulf have to spend a portion of their life in estuarine waters. Blue crabs, for example, migrate as much as 300 miles to spawn in Apalachicola Bay.').

Then, Betsy told us about Tate's Hell. The story is that Tate went into the Sumatra forests, North of the Bay, with his four hunting dogs. They crossed paths with a black bear, who killed all the dogs, and sent Tate fleeing through the forest. Apparently, inside the forest, everything looks the same. After two days of wandering, he was bit by a cottonmouth viper, just above the knee. Some locals found Tate, two weeks later, just a mile from the Bay, half dead and delirious. In response to all their questions, the only thing that he could say was, "My name is Tate, and I've been through Hell". He lived, but lost his leg.

So, after a morning of driving around St George's island, we saw the sign for Tate's Hell, and drove on in. It was a dirt road, but clearly a road. We drove in, scanning for wildlife. And kept driving, and kept driving. By the time the road started to turn into a path, we decided that we should probably turn around. But, by the time that the path turned into a soft, sand path, there was absolutely no where to turn around. Mary Lou just kept saying, "Whatever happens, don't stop. Just keep moving through the sand, no matter what." Nicole's phone wasn't picking up enough signal to give us a satellite map, so we decided to press forward, instead of backing the RV up the whole way. It must come out somewhere, right? It may have, but, around the next curve was an overflow river flowing over the road/path. We backed up some time before we found the remnants of another connecting path, and spent fifteen minutes doing a 35 point turn, wheels spinning in the soft sand, before pointing back in the right direction. Mary Lou was the one outside, braving the bears and the vipers to navigate. You could tell that she was really stressed, because she didn't even take a photo of the whole experience.

We made it out, just in time for sunset. If we hadn't made it out, we would have spent the night out there in Tate's Hell, as the winter storm blowing across most of the country, sucked up the moisture from the Gulf and triggered tornado warnings across the country. Luckily, we got to watch the storm blow in over the Bay from the safety of our RV park.

Born on the Bayou - CCR
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown - Jim Croche

Wild in Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs was just freaking awesome. The photos say it all.

But a few things... If you are ever in the area, you should definitely visit, and make sure that you ask for Luke as your wilderness boat ride tour guide. He's a total trip.

Also, 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon', 1954, and the first 'Tarzan' movie, featuring Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, were filmed at Wakulla Springs.

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Found Friendship in Gainesville

In a fortunate twist of fate, a dear college friend of Nicole's happened across the correct spelling of her last name in an RIT alumni publication, and decided to look her up on Facebook. They had lost track of each other a decade ago. Bob had lived right across the hall from Nicole in the dorms, and they had helped and supported each other through the trials and tribulations of freshman year. Both had often credited each other with making it through that first year. In rare (okay, a little more often than rare) moments of stress and frustration, Nicole enjoyed the popping sound that lightbulbs made when thrown against the full length mirror on the back of her door. Bob knew what that sound meant, and after Nicole had thrown herself dejected into her bed, Bob would come over, sweep up the millions of little light bulb shards, and see if she wanted to talk. After graduation, though, life moved them in different directions, and they had no word of each other.

With the correct spelling of Sottung entered into the Friend Finder, Bob realized that, not only had he found Nicole, but that she was just about to pass a few hours away from where he had settled in Jacksonville. They met halfway, North of Gainseville at the Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday day as they smiled, hugged and descended into the 120 foot sinkhole. It didn't take long before they were caught up with the major moments and benchmarks of each other's last ten years, and realized that, even though so much time had passed, it was like no time had passed.

Had a pizza for lunch and walked all around the University of Florida campus before saying our goodbyes. Bob went East back home, and the girls headed West.


Just curious?

Is anyone even reading this blog?

Sponges and Rock n Roll in Tarpon Springs

With new brake lines filled with fresh brake fluid, we headed up the Gulf Coast to Tarpon Springs. We reached in the warm sunshine of the morning, took a spot in an rv park right near a little bridge, where the manatees can often be seen swimming under to their favorite hangout. We wasted no time in pulling our bicycles down from the roof (where Nicole ties them securely using hitch knots learned from our Smithsonian Knot Guide), packed our backpack and biked out to the sponge docks.

Real sponges are really freaking cool. We found an old Greek gentlemen, sitting on the dock, and trimming the freshly caught sponges to display and sell at the side of the road. He looked so peaceful, and content, snipping his sponges. Mary Lou asked him, "How long you been doing this?" "Since about ten o'clock this morning, mam, " he said, with a knowing smile. We asked who served his favorite greek food in town, and he told us to go to the stop sign and turn left and on the second block, we'd find Costas. The waitress asked us if we wanted a martini. "A martini? What time is it?" Mary Lou asked. The waitress said, "I think it's about 11:30 in the morning." "No. I don't think I can handle a martini this early." "How about two for one sangrias?" May Lou answers, "Sure!"

We went back to the where the old man was trimming the sponges to buy some of them. Nicole asked the spongewallah, "Well, which sponges are for which things? What do you do with them?" And the lady explained how the yellow sponges were utility sponges, for washing cars and dishes and the like. The wool sponges were finer, and used for washing the body. The silk sponges, which only grew palm sized and were found only in Tarpon Springs, were used for washing the face and removing make-up. While she was explaining, she pulled one of each sponge out of the bucket next to her chair and said, "have a feel". I can't even tell you how amazing they felt. We squeezed them and held them, and of course the coarse yellow sponge would be for utility, and the wool sponge, deliciously soft and clean, was for the body, and the vase sponge was clearly vase shaped to plant orchids or air plants in. We each got one of each, and the lady told us that, once a month, give them a nice rinsing in baking soda and water to keep them clean.

We packed our leftovers and sponges into our backpack and rode our bikes down the Pinellas Biking Path, which runs 35 miles from St. Petersburg and ends in Tarpon Springs. Then, we backtracked up the commercial route back into the historic downtown, riding slowly past the Corvette and Vintage Car Museum and showroom, a quick stop at the post office, andsaid a prayer for the recovering health of a friend's mother at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Chruch. We found the gold gilded artwork inside to be beautiful in its simplicity and craftsmanship. The silver Byzantine icons were especially lovely.

Before we had left for our bike ride, two gentlemen on the porch of a more permanent trailer in the RV resort had invited us to see a great band at Crabby Bill's, near the sponge docks. We cleaned up, got dressed and walked into the the back deck of the Crabby Bill's at about 9:00. It was Friday night, and everyone was out in their tight jeans and square heels to unwind, listen to some great music, and really dance. The band was Slickside, the main star, Billy Sandlin. Billy played guitar, but had played violin for 11 years with the Marshall Tucker band, and the band has shared the stage with Charlie Daniels and Vince Gill and such. Apparently, a lot of musicians retire in and around Tarpon Springs, and great jam sessions are rocking and frequent. The band was fantastic.

And the people were dancing! I think I saw the twist, the watusi, some mashed potato, frug, and the monkey. And all by the same guy, and his alternating wife or daughter partner. But. . . The music stopped at 10:00pm! Tarpon Springs has a noise ordinance curfew of 10:00pm. Nicole felt like she was back in Goa, where the corrupt government had imposed 10:00 curfews on fun. The crowd left, but we got hang around, like groupies, with the band. Great people, all of them characters. We asked about Billy's guitar, and learned that he crafts guitars, and is part of the noted Sandlin family of guitar makers. We met the harmonica player, Roadhouse, who was on the tail end of celebrating his 65th birthday. And the delightfully rocked n rolled lead singer, Miss Jenna. Finally, at closing time, our neighbor that had told us about the show in the morning, Ottawa Bob, invited us back to his place for some single malt. Shared a few glasses of Dalmore 12 with him, and called it a night.

We unpugged early in the morning, and headed North towards Gainesville.

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