February 20 – March 5, 2013
We spend a few rainy days on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain at Fountainebleu State Park, LA. At a nearby campsite are Nicole and Dirk, a German couple we had seen previously at Big Bend National Park and Goose Island State Park in Texas. They had already traveled Europe and Africa for four years and were a few months into a multi-year exploration of North America.
From there we headed to Magnolia, Mississippi. Dolores, who organizes the retreats I teach there, had invited us to stay at her home. We spent a long weekend enjoying the comfort and hospitality. Magnolia is a small town in rural southern Mississippi, among rolling hills, ponds and forests. The grass was a lush green from recent rain.
The first night we accompanied Dolores to a nearby auction, getting a dose of small town Friday night entertainment and local color. On Sunday Chris and I had a late brunch of southern comfort food at The Dinner Bell in nearby McComb. We sat family style at a round table for about twelve. The lazy susan twirled round and round repeatedly offering up at least fifteen dishes including: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, baked beans, green beans, okra, deep-fried eggplant, sausage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, grits, stuffing. A variety of pie slices sat in the center for dessert. The food was filling, as you might imagine, and a bit more fatty, salty, sweet, fried and overcooked than we normally eat. We enjoyed it, however, and didn’t need another meal that day.
The next morning we left for Dolores’s other home in New Orleans. We learned there was a tornado watch in effect and as we drove away the sky was dark and in a malevolence mood. Traveling in Tornado Alley is a bit unnerving. Just two weeks before, a Category 4 tornado had hit Hattiesburg MS just 60 miles east of Magnolia. I have never seen a tornado, but their danger seems real and familiar from repeated viewings of “The Wizard of Oz” as well as “Storm Chasers” on the Discovery Channel. Like a wild mountain lion, I would like to see one but only from a safe distance. Unfortunately, nature isn’t usually controllable that way. (If you like tornado footage go to the following link to see the recent Hattiesburg twister: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdmTpsyQinM.)
On the freeway the heavens let loose with a blinding torrent of rain, wind and lightening. We soon passed three cars that had spun off the highway. From hydroplaning? The rain stopped abruptly, but overhead was still inky and pregnant with menace. Later, on the news, we would learn that the area near Fountainebleu State park where we had been a few days before had been pummeled with golf ball sized hail, breaking windshields and pockmarking vehicles and structures. There would be more rain that day but no tornado.
Dolores’s stately renovated Victorian was on the West Bank, a place of charming and colorfully painted 19th Century architecture. I had been in New Orleans as a child and Chris had been there a few years ago with a team from Santa Cruz helping rebuild a community center after Katrina. We looked forward to exploring this vibrant, one-of-a-kind, beleaguered city together.
From Dolores’s house we could walk to the Algiers Ferry which crossed the mighty Mississippi River and docked at the French Quarter. We wandered the narrow streets admiring the old buildings and the European feel. We stopped to listen to street musicians playing jazz and watched the dancing they inspired. Street artists painted pictures and living sculptures posed for donations. We took a trolley ride to Audubon Park through the Garden District. Mardi Gras had only happened two weeks before and brilliantly colored beads, like shimmering fruit, still hung from tree boughs lining the roads.
A few Mardi Gras decorations also lingered on the many balconies in the French Quarter. My mother likes to tell the story about a near disaster when touring in 1965. Strolling one of the narrow streets, we were shocked by a sudden loud crash behind us. Turning around we saw that a second story balcony had broken off and plummeted to the sidewalk, just a few feet from us. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
One day we ate a big platter of boiled spicy crawfish. Another morning we had brunch at the famed Brennan’s Restaurant. Both a tourist destination and a namesake, my family had eaten there when we visited New Orleans in the 60’s. Our meal this year ended with Bananas Foster, their signature dessert. Each order was set aflame with great fanfare and applause.
I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the largest insect museum in the country, the Audubon Insectorium. Both pinned and living exotic insects – some huge, some beautiful, others just strange – were on display. One room is devoted to termites. I went first to the live butterfly garden to chase down the flitting creatures with my camera (not very successfully). Although closed when I arrived, the Bug Appetit cafe is open for part of the day, where insects are prepared for tasting with treats like six-legged salsa and chocolate chirp cookies.
We also took advantage of big city life and went to two movies, “The Life of Pi” and “Bless Me, Ultima”. Both films about boys learning the hard truths, as well as the magic, of life.
From New Orleans, we drove to Orange Beach, Alabama on the Gulf Coast, staying at a vacation condo owned by good friends of my sister. We arrived to yet another unusual cold-snap for the South. It was in the 30’s and very windy which, at least, provided something to talk about with every stranger encountered. Surprisingly, it was warmer that weekend in Kalispell, MT.
From the windows of the 8th floor condo we could see the white beach below, pristine and beautiful against the blue waters, without a footprint to mar its perfection. It must have recently been wiped clean by wind or waves. Over the next few days people gradually came and went, and the beach looked used again. The weather warmed a little and I joined others to trek the white expanse, lined on one side with low lapping waves and on the other with hi-rises, hotels and homes.
NOTE ONE: If you click on the ”WHERE WE ARE” link at the top right of this page, you will see where we are now (or within a few days of now.) I have also added some tantalizing photos of what is coming. If you have suggestions or recommendations of things to see or places to stay near where we are, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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