New Orleans, for the very first time

Gators, history, and great food

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I think of myself as a relatively well traveled person, but there have been some gaping holes in my map. The places that have bothered me the most are the really close (to Denver) places that most of my friends and family have visited on a long weekend. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and New Orleans were the ones that made me itch the most.

Until February, I had never been to Las Vegas. I’ll let that sink in. I’m 37 and had never been to Las Vegas. The social stigma was unbearable; I might as well have been the 40-year-old virgin, or the kid raised by lions. I didn’t belong to THE club.

But, after having spent nearly a month there and knowing my younger self, it’s probably a good thing that I hadn’t been to Vegas. I would have moved there and gone nuts. I definitely would have ended up living in a van, down by the river (which is pretty much where we ended up anyway, ironically).

Now, we’ve been to Las Vegas 3 times. We lived outside Phoenix for a few months, with the Snowbirds over the winter (we were affectionately known as the “Snow-chickens”). We’ve also spent a month in Mexico, which I didn’t even know was on my bucket list.

That left us with New Orleans. Neither Danielle or I had been here, until now.

We stayed at Pontchartrain Landing, 10 minutes northeast of downtown, in an industrial-waterfront area in the northwest corner of the Gentilly neighborhood. It is a great place to stay, and one of the most accommodating, friendly places we’ve parked the house. People make all the difference. You don’t even have to have an RV to stay there, as they rent water-front villas and have shuttle service to the French Quarter.

I’ll admit that I’m an urban enthusiast. I want to visit all of the big cities and dig in, meet the people, smell the air, burn some shoe leather, and walk the neighborhoods. I want to contribute to the bustle of the city, help clog traffic, and feel the scale of the environment. This is my comfort zone.


On a side note, I used to love map books. These large, ring-bound books break a city down into a grid, all contained in one book. Remember them?

They were introduced to me at a young age, and I credit my Dad (for dropping one into my lap, and making me learn it) for my keen sense of direction.

I’m nostalgic for a time when you found your way around a new city by tracing your steps across a grid. It was challenging and fun. But, obviously Google maps has taken over that role. Now the tool is easy, and awesome, but we’re loosing a time-honored skill in the process, an important skill.

Here’s to analog map reading, and development of the internal compass. May they rest in peace.


New Orleans is an amazing city and didn’t disappoint me. There is a common theme I’ve noticed among big cities. They all lie in very strategic, scenic locations. New Orleans is a great example of that theme.

The whole region is below sea level, definitely an engineering marvel. This is a fact that I was aware of, but couldn’t grasp the magnitude of that engineering until I saw it for my self. Lake Pontchartrain, to the north of the city, protects the city from the flood waters of the numerous local rivers that are trying to drain into the ocean.

The Mississippi river cuts right through the center of the city, and it is something to behold. Ships tower above the streets, and levees are 59 feet high in places. Which is totally creepy and fascinating at the same time.

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Holy ship!

That’s the top of a massive industrial ship at the end of the street. Just, you know, at the end of the block. In the Bywater neighborhood, apparently that’s normal. We stopped at J&J’s Sports Lounge for beer at the neighborhood bar before the ship came sailing any closer down the street.

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J & J’s Sports Lounge

Here’s how low the Gentilly neighborhood is below the seawall, for perspective.

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As I understand it, the damage done by Hurricane Katrina is mostly due to the rerouting of the rivers in the area. As the rivers have been controlled and diverted, the wetlands that have traditionally protected the city have been disappearing. If efforts had been made to protect the wetlands, Katrina likely wouldn’t have caused as much damage.

My personal experience with Katrina was completely shaped by the news coverage. People waiving desperately for help from the roof of their home. Helicopters and boats making rounds to help evacuate the trapped families. Warnings came too late, damage was far beyond what anyone anticipated, and help couldn’t come fast enough.

We wanted to see what it looks like now, nearly 12 years later, in person. So, we drove around the the Lower 9th Ward. This was the hardest hit area, with the entire neighborhood submerged.

Here are the pictures we took from the lower 9th ward, June 2017:

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The neighborhood is rebuilding, and like many other cities, you can see gentrification spreading. There are nearly as many solar panels as there are empty lots, and more Tibetan-Prayer Flags than solar panels. Despite the rebuilding, the majority of lots are empty and appear abandoned, in various stages of neglect.

Properties are maintained in a totally random fashion. Between the inhabited homes are the remains of surviving houses, relatively untouched since they were submerged. There’s still the eerie spray paint on the front of some buildings from the initial search and rescue efforts. These homes are holding out for paint, solar panels, and prayer flags; they’re waiting for their resurrection.

As a city, New Orleans, is completely surrounded, just waiting for an invasion by one of the rivers or the ocean. Tom, our swamp tour guide, explained that people from the region consider this home, and they’ve always dealt with big storms. “We don’ care. We leave for a couple days, then we come back and rebuild. It’s just how life is here.”

Here’s Tom, feeding his gators…

Gator Tom
Tom names each gator and has watched them grow up.

We visited the Garden District, which is one of the most beautiful urban neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. We could walk the dogs around that area every day, for months, without getting tired of the scenery. It was one of my favorite parts of the city. Magazine Street reminds me of several familiar neighborhoods, stretched into one long street.

Of course, we had to visit the French Quarter. It’s amazing how large that neighborhood is. In my mind, I pictured it as a strip of quaint buildings stretching up Bourbon Street for a few blocks. Boy, I was wrong. It’s about 70 square blocks. Flip-flops were a mistake.

Unfortunately, my phone died during our tour of the French Quarter, so I don’t have may pictures…

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We ate at a couple of notable places, but Acme Oyster House, was our favorite spot in the French Quarter. This was recommended by my brother, who has been to NOLA several times. Plus, I’ve learned over the years that when Jonathan says “just do it,” you do it. He never disappoints.

They have a laid-back family atmosphere and the salty smell of ocean wafting from the back. You don’t go to Acme for a quick bite. You go to talk to get some high quality seafood, amazing hospitality, and a great selection of local beer.

Of the other places that we ate, our favorite was Cajun Seafood. You’re not likely to find this in the guide books or hotel flyers. This ended up being a favorite local spot with a line out the door.

Everyone is standing in line for their selection of fresh-boiled seafood. Craw fish, shrimp, and crab legs, with all of the “fixins,” are available at a counter that reminds me of a Subway restaurant. Danielle ate a mixture of boiled fare, and I ordered a medium catfish po-boy. I was shocked by the 18″ sandwich that was tossed across the counter at me, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

The place is a mad house and has no cohesive identity. It’s part quick-serve seafood restaurant, sub-shop, part convenience store, liquor store, and raw seafood market. It was something to behold. If you want craw fish and grape soda, you can. If you want a po-boy and bottle of whiskey, you can. It’s not hard to see why the line goes out the door.

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Sadly, you can never see everything in one trip while traveling. You really have to come back, or live there, to see all the nooks and crannies that a city is hiding. So, we fully intend on coming back for a month or more to fully explore the area.

But, on this trip, I think we got what we were looking for: great food with local flavor, tourist traps that were new to us,  beautiful architecture, nature, several history lessons, and unexpected, hidden gems,. For a week long stay, I’d say that’s successful.

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Denver, CO to Columbus, TX

Paranoia, night driving, and luck lead us to a WET Texas experience

The superstitious part of me thinks, maybe irrationally, that you can make things happen by saying them out loud. For example, telling someone not to forget something inevitably causes them lock their keys in the car or drop their driver’s license in the shredder, and that is your fault.

So, when the Costco employee approached the truck window and said that my tires are looking cracked, I said thanks and proceeded to scowl at him as he walked away. How could he? No explanation, no recommendation, just a death sentence.

Nothing ended up happening to the tires, but I was biting my nails all night, thanks Sean. I’m pretty sure I’m harboring an irrational fear. Saying it out loud probably won’t make it go away, either. Funny how that works.

Driving south out of Colorado is beautiful, especially in the spring. The grassy air feels perfect, the mountains are still snow-capped, and everything in between is fuzzy and green. When you leave Colorado and enter New Mexico, there’s a drastic change in landscape, however. Mountains in Colorado, dry desert in New Mexico and prairie in Texas. It’s almost as if the people drawing the maps did so based on the terrain.

It took us over 11 hours and more than 500 miles to get from Denver to Lubbock, TX. We have been traveling at night because Danielle works a day job, so driving has been dark and quiet. I’m okay with this arrangement, as I’ve always been a bit of a night owl (maybe full night owl).

There’s a weird phenomena that happens at night across the Northern Texas Plains. The center-pivot-irrigation equipment all have blinking lights, and when you’re driving at night, the blinking patterns can make it seem as if it was one light is moving with you. 70 miles per hour and there’s a floating, flashing light that can maintain the same speed. Then, immediately out the other side, the same thing.

I calmed myself and tried to justify the experience. Conspiracy theories dominated my reasoning. It was creepy sitting alone with the blinking lights and my imagination. But, after googling it, I could see that it was okay to take aluminium-foil hat off.

Blinking lights, damn, all worked up over nothing. My imagination never fails to entertain.

Travel happens at a different pace in the middle of the night. My copilot and Stella are sleeping. Shamus is quiet but not always sleeping – cue elbow licking. Nobody knows what Carne does, because she travels in the trailer. I can only conclude that she’s also sleeping because she whines for food, early, with the birds, reliably (shotgun emoji).

There’s a definite correlation between the number of miles away from Denver and the variation in terrain. The farther away your are, the less the variation. It gets FLAT in Northern Texas. So do the animals.

Biting my nails about our trailer tires, I’m also wide awake looking for animals through the darkness. Driving through the Colorado mountains in late fall is great training for this real-life onslaught. I thought I had seen it all, and I was wrong. There must have been 5-6 animals per mile near the highway, just the living ones.

It was a totally-moonless night and there were several vehicles stopped after just hitting an animal. I narrowly missed a hand full of critters and a few deer without waking the passengers, nothing short of a miracle.

There’s steady parade of headlights coming the other way. Which could be explained by the popular conspiracy theory in Denver that everyone is invading, looking to steal their awesome, micro-brewed secret sauce. But, could also be explained by people fleeing the war zone behind them.

Lubbock was nice, what little we saw of it. We parked for a few hours for work and were on our way.

 

The second leg of the trip took us from Lubbock to Austin, over 9 hours. We pulled into Austin for the night around 2am. We were quickly and rudely reminded of the staggering power of humidity. The air was so thick with water that it was foggy, but not fog.

Are you supposed to be able to see the air? Conventional, Colorado logic says: no.

We weren’t plugged into a power supply, so there was no air conditioning. It was hard to get to sleep that night, and we slept with the door open, in a random Walmart parking lot, which is a first. It was like sleeping in a hot tub, in front of a Walmart.

The next day was Saturday and no less humid. We always gravitate towards the local college campus because that’s where we feel at home, so we strolled around the campus at UT Austin.

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We had an easy 2-hour drive to our new home (for 10 days). We are parked outside Columbus, TX, right off the Colorado river, about halfway between San Antonio and Huston. We have a large stand of trees shading the camper and are completely surrounded by wildlife. See the picture at the top.

It looks like a Disney movie outside the window, armadillos and everything. It’s growing on me, despite the humidity. This weekend: Austin, Huston, and Monday in NOLA.

Trace

When you live in a camper, there are some situations that cannot be predicted. Like someone walking up to your bedroom door and knocking.

We were staying at Pleasant Harbor RV Resort, off Lake Pleasant, outside Phoenix, AZ. It was early on an overcast winter-weekday morning and I was leaning into the fridge, contemplating breakfast. I was in my underwear, still foggy-eyed, with bed-head.

Then, a bomb went off. BANG. BANG. BANG. Judging by the force of impact, there clearly was a police SWAT unit surrounding the house. I froze in place, waiting for them to breach the door and handcuff us all. However, I was the only one who froze.

Shamus jumped up and started screaming at the SWAT team, and Stella used her sixty pounds to jump up onto the bed, right on top of Danielle, so she could look out the window at the SWAT team.

Now everyone is barking or yelling and I’m standing in my freshly soiled underwear, so I needed to act quickly to diffuse the situation. I opened the window next to the door to see who it was, and, after recognizing a friendly face, I said that I would have to get back to them due to my lack of clothing and murderous dogs.

The experience was like having someone sneak into your house and bang on your bedroom door as you sleep. I’ve learned that it’s just part of the lifestyle. Ever since then, I always make noise outside of someone’s camper as I approach, call their name, and only use knocking as a last resort.

After telling this story, I feel like I should show you what the camper looks like. I’ve posted pictures of the outside and the floor plan. Essentially, it’s a studio apartment on wheels. Here’s the specifics:

2016 Primetime Tracer 244AIR – 1 slide out that contains the “dining room,” it has an outdoor kitchen and grill, full kitchen inside, and a 3/4 bath. We replaced the 12 volt battery with dual 6 volt batteries, as we were killing the battery in a matter of days. We added a bike rack, a second TV in the bedroom, and some other minor modifications that we’ll get into in the future.

We named the camper Trace, because we lack imagination and the word is printed right on the side of the camper. So, we’re not at risk of forgetting it’s name, which is a real concern.

That’s Trace. We’ll post pictures of the interior in the future.

We are here, but why?

This is how we started living a location-independent lifestyle.

If you’re looking to burn down the painful rut that’s become your life, try selling everything and moving into a two-hundred square-foot camper. Adventure and chaos are guaranteed.

Danielle, my better half, and I were sick of the self-inflicted routine that had become our life. Working the standard American 50 hour work week and commuting 10 hours a week (each) was eroding our spirits. We were spending every weekend trying to unwind so hard that we were exhausted on Monday. We were considering matching “FML” neck-tattoos.

We discussed the plan for the better part of a year. We knew that we wanted to travel but, with 2 dogs and a cat, we’re zookeepers, so moving to another continent was (reluctantly) ruled out. Ultimately, we decided to buy a camper and take the zoo on the road. Mexico and Central America would be the ultimate destination.

Right now, I’m sitting at our dining-room table in Ensenada, Mexico, looking above the laptop to the the left of Danielle’s head, and I can see the setting sun, palm trees, and the Pacific Ocean. We’re a million miles from Denver, in some self-inflicted sunshine, and I know that we made the right decisions.

It hasn’t been all palm trees and sunsets, but we’re better off and have no regrets about the road we’ve traveled.

As we move forward, we’ll use this forum to share some stories that we’ve accumulated over the last 6 months of travel. We’ll tell you how we prepared and executed our plan, and try to provide you with some tips and tricks that have made life easier on the road.

I welcome you to reach out with any questions.