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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Austin to Boston: East Texas and The Bridge to NOLA

From the island in Texas to the bridge over the bayou, you’ll see a lot and learn even more.

We arrived Friday evening for a weekend in an Austin Air B&B. It was an “artist’s bungalow” in an amazing location, blocks from South Congress. We had a great weekend exploring the city and seeing the sights, which is my second favorite thing to do.

It was a 1930’s bungalow, with limited air conditioning, and a warm, humid night, so we quickly found the porch swing. Halfway through my last surviving Colorado beer (Grapefruit Yanker IPA), the sky opened up. Combined with the ceiling fan at the center of the porch, the storm created the perfect setting for talking and laughing the night away. It was awesome.

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There are definitely moments in life that deserve recognition, and this was one.

In fact, I have learned this lesson before. During the time in my life where I was happiest, I noticed a consistent pattern. I found that when I payed attention, I started to notice more happy, noteworthy moments in my life.

Intentionally taking time to recognize the event made me feel good. All I had to do was pay attention to the moments and find the beauty.

It turns out that recognizing even one of these events will make your day better, and a few of them can make your day great. Eventually, these moments began to crowd out the negative ones, and I found myself enjoying them throughout the day.

I had one of those moments in Austin on that porch swing. I took several intentional seconds to linger in the feeling of that moment, and then I stepped outside in the rain to soak it in, literally and figuratively. I don’t know how many random decisions and conversations led me to this place, but I’m genuinely happy to be here, right now.

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I need to do more of that, wherever I am.

We hit the road (“wheels down”) on Sunday and stayed overnight near Lake Conroe, north of Huston. The RV park there was very family oriented. There were kids everywhere; which is great if you have kids. So, maybe not my favorite place to stay, but definitely appealing to a very wide audience and worth a visit.

The main thing I’m going to remember about that park, however, is that there were 7 sets of washers/dryers for 360 campsites. If you do the math, someone has to be doing laundry every hour the laundry is open, seven days a week, for everyone to wash once a week. So, I sat, waiting for machines to become available for a couple of hours, in my “laundry day outfit.” Ugh.

We were wheels down around 5pm, after Danielle was done with work. Given the time, we decided to head east, through the countryside, skipping the freeway and Huston’s traffic.  That was a beautiful drive, and the countryside is completely different than the Northern Plains and central “Hill Country.”

In this part of Texas, the land is very flat, but with a much more consistent water supply than the north. The trees get much taller and the underbrush gets thicker, to the point that you’re totally surrounded. The only color variations are yellow and white lane striping, near-new black asphalt, and the ribbon of late-afternoon sky above. Everything else is a shade of green.

Trees line the highway through this entire section and run perfectly parallel to the road on both sides, for miles. They’re so hearty and dense that they act as a barrier. Don’t drive off the road because your car won’t survive, but the trees will.

I didn’t realize how big Texas was until driving across it. Interstate ten, which cuts through southern Texas all the way from Louisiana to New Mexico, is 880 miles long. The last exit before crossing into Louisiana was exit number 880. That means that on the highway, Texas is wider than California is tall. California is less than 800 miles, top to bottom, on interstate five.

Texas sign

Photo Credit: Unknown

In my opinion, Louisiana should have a sign at the border that says: “Louisiana – welcome to The Bridge State.” From the boarder, through Baton Rouge, to New Orleans is like one long bridge. There are some brief stretches on land but they’re few and far between.

The introduction to The Bridge State happens slowly at first. You pass over low-lying, short bridges that span sections of bayou. Then they make a statement…

Bridge

Photo credit: Unknown

The Calcasieu River Bridge, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, is the tallest bridge I’ve been on. Naturally, as soon as we stopped, I had to Google it. I found out that it’s considered dilapidated, dangerous, and some government agencies have even banned government vehicles on the other bridge.

I’m so happy that I didn’t know that while on top of the bridge (see, found some roses).

There was also a noteworthy point, before Baton Rouge. While on another bridge, we came to a construction zone where workers were running new wires, somewhere off the side of the bridge.

We were stacked in traffic for about 5 miles, bumper to bumper, in one lane. The moon was out, but it was overcast and periodically foggy. As we were sitting in traffic there, however, you could see more due to slow speeds and numerous headlights.

I was a little spooked by seeing that we were 20-30 feet off the water. At one point I could see a flash light illuminating one of the bridge-support pilings from below. I assume that it was someone out night fishing on bayou under the bridge.

When the moon did shine through a break in the clouds, it illuminated water as far as I could see. If it weren’t for that and the fishermen, my imagination would have told me that there was nothing below us. The bridge could have been spanning an infinite abyss for all I knew.

Driving in the dark can be creepy, especially if you have an over-active imagination. I got an eerie feeling thinking about the situation we were in. We were on a bridge, in The Bridge State, on a totally unfamiliar bridge, with an infinite abyss below.

If there was an accident, and someone went off the side of the bridge, they could end up disappearing into the abyss. Or, more realistically, the could end up upside down in the swamp with the snakes, alligators, and…night-fishermen.

I just realized that I think about car accidents a lot, which is probably a function of driving alone in the dark a lot. I wasn’t really alone of course. All of my traveling companions sleep as I drive into the wee hours of the morning. So, it’s just me and my geeky podcasts, which I’ll dive into at some point.

The last surprise came when we got off the freeway to make the final descent (surprise, from a bridge) down to dry land and the RV park. At this point, I have NO CLUE where we are, and I’m blindly following Google, who doesn’t know I’m towing a large trailer containing nearly everything we own.

We got off the freeway in an abandoned industrial neighborhood. Google says make a left, so I do. It was a really sketchy road. We had to cross a few sets of train tracks and a couple of flooded sections of road. I can just imagine that the flooded section is 50 feet deep and that we’ll sink, nose first, into the abyss.

Great, it’s The Bridge State, and there’s no bridge when I really need one.

There was a four-foot-high concrete seawall protecting the neighborhood below on the left side of the road, as we reluctantly pushed forward with Google’s reassurance. On the right were a long line of abandoned warehouses, yacht manufacturing, the signs said. It was like driving through a Law & Order set; you couldn’t have made it creepier if you tried.

But, nothing happened. Google, as always, was right, and we pulled into the RV park and met Leo, the night watchman. Leo was super friendly and talked with us for 20 minutes before letting us park. He said that he wasn’t supposed to let us in the gates because we were too late. Thankfully, Leo is a nice guy.

So, here we are, Pontchartrain Landing, in The Big Easy, and neither of us has been before. This is going to be fun.

More pics from Austin:

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