Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Southwest Turista in Louisiana and Mississippi

I am continuing to avoid I-10 as I travel east to visit my sister in Sarasota, one of these days.  She points out that I am only nine hours away, and I tell her it might be more like nine days.  I am at the beach.  

If you read my previous post, you know I had a few difficulties getting through Texas.  I didn't mention then that it was also really cold, and that I was worried about a whiny sound that Brownie makes.  But enough whining.  The fact is, things have been better ever since I got to the Gulf Coast.  In one day, I was able to go from wearing long janes under jeans to wearing shorts.  The humid air (sometimes 98 percent!) made breathing easier, and my recovery from a virus leaped ahead.  I stopped coughing so much and I had a little more energy.  The humidity also makes my arthritis and peripheral neuropathy way worse, but I'm making sure I eat lots of chile or chili or whatever every day, and that helps.

So...after it turned out that the Bolivar Peninsula was uninviting, I drove east, some of it on I-10, to L'Auberge Casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana.  I have fond memories of L'Auberge from my first trip there in 2011.  It was a bright spot in a sea of difficulties.  Things have changed at L'Auberge since then. The beautiful RV park and fun outdoor lazy river pool are gone, a new Golden Nugget Casino in their place.  I didn't mind, though.  I've learned so much since my first RV trip across the country.  Now I'm perfectly comfortable staying at a casino parking lot, with no power or water hookups.  I have solar and I drive a lot, so my house batteries stay charged, and I have a nice little 100W plug-in inverter that allows me to blog and watch movies.  

Anyhow, I was so glad to be in a nice warm spot, I stayed two nights.  I enjoyed good food and I spent enough in the casino to constitute my rent.  

Boudin King

I stayed on I-10 for a little ways after leaving Lake Charles.  On the recommendation of my friend Chantel, I stopped for lunch at Boudin King in Jennings, Louisiana.  Oh.  My.  God.  It is well worth taking a few minutes to drive through this town.  I ate a fabulous meal (1/2 lb spicy boudin and a bowl of red beans and rice, which also had some great sausage in it) and had enough left over for another smaller meal later on that day.  The people were very nice, too.  The owner gave me a couple of samples before I chose the spiciest variety. 

You can also go to the Gator Chateau in Jennings, where they will offer you the chance to hold a baby alligator.  I touched it, but I did not hold it.  Steve accuses me of doing anything for a photo op, but there are limits.  

Tabasco tour, museum, store and cafe

My next goal was to do some sightseeing off of I-10, in smaller towns.  I headed down US Highway 90 for New Iberia and spent a quiet night parked near the garden supplies at Walmart.   The next day, I drove a few miles to Avery Island, the home of McIlhenny Co., which has been making its Tabasco pepper sauce since shortly after the Civil War.  I never realized until I took the factory tour that Tabasco was invented in order to enliven poor Southern diets after the War, nor did I know that the sauce is made of only three very high-quality ingredients, two of which come from Avery Island--the tabasco peppers and local salt.  The vinegar was imported from France originally--I'm not sure if it still is.  Anyway, I had a great time there, and I highly recommend a stop if you are at all interested in good food and how it's made.  They still have their own cooperage, and there is a rich culture amongst the workers whose families have worked for the company for five generations.  The gift shop had samples of many sauces, jellies, and even peppery ice cream!  I also enjoyed a late lunch at the company cafe, where I tried all of the sauces again on top of a gloriously messy pulled pork sandwich served in a bowl so you don't miss anything.  

 Sunset over the artificial lake at Cypress Bayou Casino

My plan (oh, Lord, when will I ever learn?) was to drive on a few more hours after the factory tour, but it was very windy.  I stopped at just about the next town, Charenton, at a little casino called Cypress Bayou.  It was one of those casinos that does not operate 24 hours a day and doesn't have a lot of restaurants or anything else to do, so I just relaxed and watched a movie.  I've been renting Redbox movies along the road.  There is always somewhere to return them, if not on time, maybe by the second day.  Still lots cheaper than the movie theater.

 Laura Plantation--hurricanes, fire, nothing can take down this possibly haunted place

The next day, Thursday, Day 10 of this journey, I had in mind to go visit a real plantation.  I had seen the plantation homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson when I was about 10 or so, but that's a long time ago, and they told a rather sanitized version of how things were for "the servants."  I figured I could hear something more historically accurate these days, so I headed to Edgard, where there were once 600 plantations along the banks of the Mississippi River, each one of them a separate community, or as we would call it today, a blood-sucking corporation built on the backs of poor African Americans.  Whitney Plantation is a recently opened museum devoted to telling history through the eyes of the slaves, and I really wanted to go there, but they were pretty booked up.  So I followed another of Chantel's excellent suggestions and went to the Laura Plantation just down the road.  Laura was the name of a third-generation plantation owner who wrote a memoir about her childhood there.   

Creole Nativity scene at the Laura Plantation

These plantations are not like the ones I saw in Virginia when I was a kid.  The Laura Plantation was small, with very little separation between the house and the slave cabins.  It was a little hard to follow the docent's story because she was more interested in her own performance than facts, but I did get a little sense of what life might have been like.  

Afterwards, I bought a big praline in the gift shop, and my sugar high got me all the way to Pass Christian, Mississippi, the home of the world's greatest Walmart.  Well, the best one I've seen, and I've been to China.  It's on the beach!  Well, right across the highway from the beach.  Don't walk through the field, it's copperhead season.  But you can walk down the Walmart driveway and across the road and you are right in the sugary white sand.  

 At Palace Casino, my door leads to the beach

I could have stayed there at that Walmart for days on end.  I was tempted, but I've been watching the weather reports, and it looked like rain was on its way.  I figured, if it rains, I'd rather be someplace like Biloxi where there is beach plus other things to do inside.  So, here I am.  I have once again found the best free campsite possible, in a parking lot next to the Palace Casino parking garage.  I have been here since yesterday afternoon, and mostly it is used by locals who come down here to gaze at the beach or fish or catch crawfish.  Everybody loves Sonja when they see her in the RV doorway--I can't let her out because I've seen feral cats here, and apparently she doesn't like the beach, anyway.  

 Sunrise this morning at the Palace Casino parking lot

Palace Casino not only unofficially offers this free place to camp...they also have the most highly-rated casino buffet in town, so I had lunch there yesterday and ate my fill of Coastal and Southern food.  Yes, shrimp boil, boiled shrimp (not the same thing, duh), Creole shrimp, fried shrimp--oh, do I sound like Bubba Gump yet?  It was all delicious, every bite.  On top of that, Palace is the only 100 percent non-smoking casino in Biloxi. 

 This little Biloxi back bay peninsula is just outside my door

So, what's next?  I don't know.  Ever since I got through Texas, I've been able to slow down and take this trip one decision at a time.  I am getting to the part of the country where it's pretty essential to have campground reservations, especially since it's "the season."  I have reservations for Monday night near Pensacola, where I hope to get to spend a little time with my nephew Andy and my friend Kadi.  I couldn't get reservations at a coastal state park in Alabama, so until then, I believe I might just stay put.  I have waves 15 feet from my door, and I noticed some really appealing pastries at the casino's cafe yesterday.  

Really, why go anywhere?

Friday, February 23, 2018

Shunpiking Through Texas--El Paso to the Gulf

I was really sick when I left on this trip.  I'd been sick with a virus that started out with just a few sniffles and then turned into something that made me wonder, three times, whether I might die.  But, as you will see from this story, I sometimes freak out, and things aren't always as bad as I think.  Anyhow, my big smile was a ruse.  Look at my glassy eyes.  I still felt like crapola.

But I left, anyway.  For one thing, I'd gotten stuck staying behind my gallery for a few days when I was too sick to go anywhere else, and I was really tired of being there.  I'd holed up and slept.  Steve brought me soup and took me to soak in the hot springs.  I packed when I could.  Packing meant storing winter clothes in the studio space behind my gallery, and retrieving the shorts, sandals, tank tops, etc., that I'd stored there earlier.  

For another thing, mid-February felt like time to go.  It was almost seven years to the day since I'd become a full-time RVer, leaving Oregon for who-knows-where.  And this time, I planned to travel some portions of my 2011 trip, but spend a lot less time on I-10 and do more sight-seeing along the way. I have never purchased any of the ShunPiker's Guides, but I embrace the idea of eschewing interstate freeways and living the slow life.

As so often happens, nothing went as planned.  I left Truth or Consequences on Tuesday, February 13, intending to spend the night at Leasburg Dam State Park in Radium Springs.  I figured a short drive of an hour or so was about right for a day when I left late and felt ill.  But the campground was full!  (Why?  It is just a wide spot in the desert, and I've never understood the attraction.)  

Well, I had always been curious about Sunland Racetrack and Casino, near El Paso, so I headed there.  I was surprised to find out that they have about eight RV water and electric hookup sites, and that's the only place RVs are allowed on their lot.  So, I paid my $15 to stay on a parking lot using utilities I didn't need.  I was happy to be off the freeway, after an extra hour's drive.

 Approaching the Guadalupe Mountains on U.S. Highway 180 east of El Paso, Texas

The next morning, I used my phone's maps app to find my way through El Paso and get on U.S. Highway 180, which took me east to the Guadalupe Mountains.  It was a much more beautiful drive than I-10, with mountains and other pretty things to see all the way to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Although I enjoyed a couple of paved trails intended for mobility impaired folks like myself, I did not stay at the National Park.  I had read online that their campground had a nice tent loop, but that the RV portion was just a parking lot.  I drove through to confirm this.  It was worse than any Walmart parking lot that I have ever seen.  I can't help wondering, WHAT were they thinking?  The National Park comprises millions of acres of wilderness.  Certainly they could've used a few of 'em to make a decent campground.  

Fortunately, Texas has wonderful rest stops and picnic areas, and state law allows you to stay up to 24 hours in any of them.  I found a rest area just beyond the National Park that was a very nice place to stay overnight.  

Photos I took in Carlsbad Caverns

The next day, I was quite excited about going to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  (Highway 180 goes from Texas to New Mexico to Texas again.)  I was so sure I would have a good time.  And I was so surprised to find out...well, let me put it this way.  If I ever mention "cavern" and "self-guided tour" in one sentence again, just shoot me.  I did not like being underground by myself!  I was not entirely alone, but it was a weekday and there weren't a lot of folks down there with me.  I had intended to take the shortest route through the caverns, but I missed the shortcut and took the longest.  I sometimes went 10 or 15 minutes without seeing anyone, and I spent most of that time walking, walking, walking and crying.  It was too much for me.  I couldn't wait to get the H-E-double hockey sticks out of there!

I told a young ranger about losing my bearings and feeling confused and scared, and he said I had a genuine cavern experience.  I guess so.  Thank God I have the gimp pass and didn't have to pay for it!

So, then I left Carlsbad Caverns, and went through the towns of Carlsbad and Hobbs.  Did the Devil himself come up from the underworld and design these oilfield towns?  I was so glad I had enough energy left, even after getting stuck in a cavern for too long, to make my way back into Texas on Highway 180.  Things got prettier again, and I stayed overnight at a picnic area just over the state line.

The next day, I continued along Highway 180 as far as Anson, which is north of Abilene, and then started heading in a southeasterly diagonal through the state, mostly traveling on Texas Highway 36.  I had picked Cross Plains as a destination for the night, mostly because it worked with my phone map app for getting me around the outskirts of Abilene.  I was so surprised as I drove into Cross Plains to find that there was a free city park, Treadwell Park, on the outskirts of town.  I stayed there overnight.  It was shady and green and on a dry river.  

Treadwell Park in Cross Plains, Texas, where I nearly lost my mind, again

The next morning, I had another anxiety attack, this time over The Lost Wallet Incident.  The last time I remembered seeing my billfold was in Snyder, Texas, where I had bought gas and a cup of coffee.  They didn't have real half-and-half, so I doctored up the coffee myself inside my RV before leaving.  I remember setting down my wallet to open the door to take my coffee inside.  I could not find the wallet the next morning, and I thought it was back in Snyder, at the gas station.

I called Steve and started to make arrangements for him to wire me some money so I could give up this trip and go back home.  I was in a really sad state.  Still not really well from the virus, and still a bit shaken up from getting scared in a cavern, and now this.  

I decided to look in all of the places it couldn't possibly be, and that's when I found my billfold, under the passenger seat.  I must have placed it carelessly on top of my purse rather than in  my purse, and somehow it wound up under the seat, which must have taken a bit of doing.  But there it was.  

I called Steve and told him, "Never mind."  And I went on my way.

It was more driving diagonally through Texas on Highway 36 most of this fifth day of my trip, and I stayed at another free picnic area, this one near Milano.  This time, it rained, and rain came through my rooftop air conditioner, which needs to be cleaned out so it will send water off the sides and back.  It is probably full of years of leaves and muck.  It's one of those things I never remember until it's raining inside my RV.  I've gotta get someone up there!  Fortunately, I had bowls and towels and was able to deal with the situation.  

Seen near Comanche, Texas

The sixth day, I was so ready to be all the way down to the Gulf Coast.  So I programmed my maps app to get me through Houston, and I left early.  I was down on the Bolivar Peninsula by lunch time.  I had intended to spend the night or possibly several nights down there, on one of the free or low-cost beaches, but the entire peninsula was socked in.  So it didn't attract me like I'd thought it would.  After spending the afternoon driving the length of the peninsula and back again, I headed to Louisiana, where I will pick up the story next time.

 Gulf Coast at Crystal Beach on Bolivar Peninsula--see the fog?