Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bourbon Street

Bucket List -- Bourbon Street check! Granted the last time we were in New Orleans we came early before getting on a cruise and did visit Bourbon Street then. But that was the year after Hurricane Katrina and some of the bars and restaurants had not been reopened yet. This time everything was open and there were people everywhere. If it was this busy in September I can just imagine how crazy it is during Mardi Gras! If I were 20 years younger I would definitely want to experience it during Mardi Gras but now? I am ok with just seeing it when it is relatively "calm"!

We actually took the New Orleans city bus from our campground to Canal Street and then took the streetcar down to Bourbon Street. You pay $1.50 per person and can get a transfer that is good for the next 2 hours and transfers to the streetcars. While we were waiting for the bus at the bus stop two neighborhood people came and waited with us. The guy told us to be careful on Bourbon Street if someone says that they bet you they know where you got your shoes. He told us to just ignore them which is hard for me as I have even talked to the pimps on the Strip in Vegas - with Bill continuing to walk away at a very fast pace (Hey, I've got to practice my Spanish somewhere!).  Anyway, he says that if you answer them at all they will say, "You got them on your feet!" and expect you to pay the bet. It can get a little nasty if you don't pay up! Of course this guy had somewhat of a shoe fetish because when we were talking about jobs and unemployment all he kept saying was how much his shoes had cost.

Then came the bus. It was an interesting ride to say the least as the bus was standing room only because they run less buses on weekends. We were standing near the front when a very, very large African American lady decided to get into it with an African American guy who had just gotten on. She was a bit loud and riled to say the least. The guy next to me said "You're not from around here are you?" Ummm...no. He then said that if that had been two guys getting into it the best thing would have been to get off the bus right then and there. He said that you never know what will happen then and it might be knives or guns that would be pulled out. He said very clearly, "This is N'awlins baby!" Yes, it sure is.

I was thinking about adding some music to this video but I thought it would be better to present you with the real sights and sounds of Bourbon Street on a Saturday night.

Just a heads up when you are using your credit card anywhere of course, but especially somewhere such as Bourbon Street. We had the credit card numbers lifted from one of the locations that we visited where we used a credit card to purchase adult beverages. Yes, we could have avoided this by using cash but cash can be stolen and then you have no recourse. This is the 4th time since leaving home that we have had one of our credit card numbers stolen and each time the bank has voided the transactions and we were not liable for any fraudulent charges. The most you could possibly be liable for is $50 and we have never run into that scenario.  The same protections are not available when you use your debit card either so in my opinion, using a credit card is the best protection you can have in a Bourbon Street type situation. We believe it happened at a bar called Huge Ass Beers as their charges never did post to our card and we believe it was because Capital One knew that is where it happened and they void all transactions originating at that location so that the merchant employs better card security. Capital One hinted as much to me on the phone but was not able to give me all of the details due to "security reasons".

The other thing I was a bit disappointed in is that the last time we had visited Bourbon Street there were at least three or four bars that had Cajun or Zydeco bands playing live music. This visit there was only one bar that we found that had a Zydeco band. The rest were playing classic rock or hip hop. Not that I have a problem with classic rock and some hip hop, it is just that it is sad that the traditional music of a location seems to be disappearing in favor of mainstream culture and music. And of course, I luva de Zydeco! I decided that I wanted to stay at the bar that was playing Zydeco for most of the night and Bill was nice enough to stay there too -- not that he could have gotten me to leave! I even had the opportunity to go in front and play the washboard with the band! I woke up the next morning with my smile muscles hurting as I don't believe I've smiled so much in a really long time! Next time we are in the area we will probably bypass Bourbon Street and look for a smaller, local bar that has live Cajun or Zydeco bands playing. STILL on my bucket list - learning to play the Celtic and Cajun fiddle!!

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Orleans

One of our concerns with taking this Gulf Coast route in hurricane season was, well to be honest, hurricanes. Coming from the Northwoods this was a whole different thing for us and we decided that without a brick and mortar house we would be in the first wave of people fleeing inland if it came down to a storm of any sizeable strength. So wouldn't you know it that the first week we are in Lousiana so was Tropical Storm Lee. Lee changed from a tropical depression to a tropical storm in a flash. We were in Baton Rouge at the time and scheduled to head farther south to Houma which is located on some very low lying land. While debating what to do about taking the RV down there with the storm coming on, Home Depot Corporate took the decision out of our hands and called off the teams that were in the areas where Lee was supposed to make landfall. So we spent the weekend at a campground right near to the LSU stadium. All the natives were very unconcerned about the storm stating that we were going to just "get a little rain" and I guess we should have listened to them. Although it rained the entire weekend, flooding in the Baton Rouge area was minimal and we sailed through our first tropical storm with flying colors.

We then headed down to the New Orleans area as there were about 8 stores in the greater NOLA area that were getting done. We decided to stay at an RV Park on the northeast side off of I-10 for the entire week instead of moving from store to store. We had the opportunity to drive around New Orleans doing some work and it is very sad at the amount of buildings still not repaired or taken down or the people who are just getting to rebuilding their homes. Now, by law, homes in New Orleans must be raised at least 3 feet above street level. There is a $1.2 billion grant program to help homeowners pay for this but there are not enough businesses who do the building raising so many are still waiting, living in FEMA trailers or not near their homes at all. And it has been 6 years since Hurricane Katrina!


One day we were working on the west/south side of the Mississippi and the GPS took us to the Chalmette-Lower Algiers ferry instead of routing us on the Crescent City bridge. It costs $1 cash per vehicle when you are heading into Chalmette but is free when heading back to Lower Algiers. Pedestrians travel both ways free.


 In Chalmette there is a huge Exxon Mobil oil refinery which you will see in the video. The smell of petroleum was so strong that I almost could not breathe and developed a bad headache. I cannot imagine working with that smell, much less living nearby. In fact, there is a web page dedicated to lawsuits from former workers of the plant who have developed cancers. The plant used the carcinogen Benzene which "can cause leukemia, a potentially fatal cancer of the blood-forming organs. In particular, acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) may be caused by benzene." This page just mentions former workers but I cannot believe that by just living nearby and having the chemical in the air and water and being exposed to it for years is not harmful to humans also. Just one more thing that the City of New Orleans and the people living there have to deal with on a daily basis.


Also on the video you will see the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge which, at 23.8 miles, is the longest continuous bridge in the world. It connects the New Orleans suburb of Metairie with Mandeville on the lake's north shore. Like the Chalmette-Lower Algiers ferry it only charges a toll going one way. When you head north the bridge is free, when heading south into New Orleans you pay $3.


And last but not least on the video are the famous New Orleans streetcars which are the oldest continually operating streetcars in the world. One of the nicest rides to just enjoy the experience is taking the St Charles line from Canal Street to the end and watching one side of the street and then taking the ride back to see the other side of the street. You will see Tulane and Loyala Universities as well as the Audubon Zoo and many old Garden District mansions. If you look closely in the video you will see beads that are thrown in the trees during Mardi Gras parades. The best side to see the beads is on the south side of the street heading back towards Canal Street.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Gulf Coast Route

Bill received a call back in July from one of the project managers at work who offered him the first choice of three different routes for a new Home Depot project that would be staring in August and lasting all the way through the first of the year.  They all started north and wound their way south throughout the fall and early winter. The first route included Ohio, Kentucky, Tennesse and Alabama which would have been nice as we would like to see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall when all  trees change color. Another route started in West Virginia and would have taken us through Virginia, Tennesse and North Carolina. This route would  have been even more tempting for us as it would have more of the Blue Ridge Mountains and we already love the Gatlinburg TN/Cherokee NC area. But when the third route was listed and it included the Gulf Coast and all of Florida including Key West at the end of the year, we knew we had a winner! We have always wanted to go to Key West and why not when Bill is getting paid to do it?

So at the end of August we left Atlanta (finally!) and headed towards our first stop in Shreveport Louisiana. Along the way we made a stop in Vicksburg Mississippi to check out their casinos and stay at the Ameristar Casino RV Park near the Mississippi River.  We have found casino campgrounds to be some of the nicest places to stay and they normally are priced extremely reasonable as they want you to come inside and part with your money in the machines or at the tables. . You don't have to be a gambler to stay in the RV parks and you can actually wind up making a little money if you "play your cards" (pun intended) correctly. We always go in and get whatever free play and other perks they offer for signing up for their player's card. We also eat at the buffet at least once. It is hard to keep fresh fruits and vegetables in the RV due to space constraints so at least I know I'll get a good salad bar eating at a casino buffet. Most of the casinos will have a shuttle that will pick you up and take you to the casino and many, but not all, will have amenities like a pool, game room and laundry room. If they don't have the amenities in the campground itself you can usually use the hotel amenities instead. A good resource for finding both casino boondocking and campgrounds is www.casinocamper.com. You can join the website and help update it with information on parking, camping, promotions, and food prices and quality as well as pictures of the boondocking or camping areas at any casino across the country. This not only helps others but may help you out in the future when you forget what a certain casino offers because you have been in 31 states in two years and everything begins to look the same!

As Vicksburg is located right on the Mississippi River, it had record flooding during the Spring of 2011 like many other river towns and cities. The picture on the right of the levee shows the previous record of 62.2 feet which was set in 1927 when the levees were not able to hold back the Mighty Mississippi and over 1,000 people died. This year on May 19 water levels hit 57.1 feet, which is over 14 feet higher than flood stage which is a mere 43 feet.   


Along with the high water marks, the levees of the City of Vicksburg also have a set of riverfront murals painted on them and unveiled in 2002 that depict scenes from the city's past, present and future. A future whose story, in large part, is still solidy entertwined with that of The Father of Waters, .The Big Muddy, or Ol' Man River, the Mississippi.



Friday, October 7, 2011

U.S National Whitewater Center

Although most of the time in Charlotte it was too hot to do much of anything outside, we did manage to go to the U.S. National Whitewater Center one day. The center has much more than just whitewater rafting. They also have kayaking as well as land activities like a zip line, mountain biking along with many ropes and wires courses.

And the price just can't be beat! You can get an all day pass to do everything at the center for just $49, you can go with all the activities except whitewater rafting for $34 per day, or you can do just one of the activities one time for $15/$25.  If you would like to do the canopy tour, which is a steel ropes course that lasts three to four hours it will cost you $89. Parking for the day is $5 or $40 per year. The best, and I mean BEST, deal and something I would jump on if I lived in the Charlotte area, is the season pass. This will get you in to the center all year for all the activities for only $149 if you buy before December 31! I would definitely be a kayaking ace.

Granted on a busy weekend you aren't going to be able to do the zip line ten times nor do the whitewater course much more than once, but it is still a great deal if you get there when they open the courses at 10am and stay until they close at dusk. They do recommend that you make rafting reservations as that fills up first.

While we weren't able to do the white water rafting as it was an extremely hot weekend and the time slots were all full, that will be at the top of our list the next time we visit. We did do the zip line and Bill decided to try a couple of the ropes courses. I had thought about it but with my fear of heights and the fact that you have to hold on really good with your hands and my shoulders have been bothering me, I decided to pass and be the videographer instead.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bible Belt and Religious Hipocrisy

We visited Charlotte, North Carolina twice this summer - once for only a few days in July and then while Bill flew out to Vegas I stayed there for two weeks in early August. We actually stayed right over the state line in Fort Mill, South Carolina at a campground located on the grounds of the old Heritage USA theme park which was owned by the PTL Club of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker fame. Parts of the theme park are still visible in the area including the Jerusalem Amphitheater or King's Arena which you see pictured here on the right. It is located right next to the campground and has been partially demolished.

The old hotel tower is also still standing but is not currently being used. There were 165,000 people who gave $1000 a piece to the PTL Club in return for yearly 4 day vacations at the park that included a stay in the tower. Heritage USA filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to the dual blows of the PTL Club losing favor due to Jim Bakker's sex and accounting scandals as well as the fact that the park netted the PTL Club $126 million one year while enjoying tax exempt status, something the IRS promptly revoked. At the end of the legal proceedings each of the $1000 investors netted $6.54.

After visiting Georgia, North and South Carolina and other states in the Southeast I really must agree that it is very aptly named the Bible Belt. In Wisconsin religion is more of an afterthought sometimes rather than a focus.  Down here Church and religion appear in everyday life much more frequently such as laws that prohibit selling alcohol on Sunday or even **gasp!** serving it - how would the Packers EVER win without loyal fans tailgating and drinking beer? It is also an inexplicable feeling that I personally get down here. It is not easy to explain what I mean but there is just a sense that religion permeates people's lives more.  Do I believe that is a bad thing? Absolutely not! If it makes a person's life better and gives them meaning and purpose, more power to them. However, I do not believe anyone's belief system should be forced on others. There are way too many people, politcians for one,  who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. They talk about God and religion and put on a good show about being Christians but then do not want to help their fellow man. To me, this should definitely be a case of "What would Jesus Do?" and I am quite positive that He would not condone allowing children to go hungry or people to live without adequate housing and medical care. I would much rather not be aligned with any formal religion but instead live my life "paying it forward" and "doing unto others" without worrying about someone else's "rules" when they don't live by them themselves. My skepticism and cynicism about the Right Wing Fundamentalists is only reinforced by incidents such as the PTL Club/Jim Bakker scandal. These hypocrits and holier than thous try to coerce everyone else to follow God's word and then the truth comes out that they are no better but, in fact, are much worse sinners than you and I could ever be!



Thursday, September 15, 2011

Where Have We Been and Are Humans Affected By the Weather?

The answer is a most emphatic YES. At least THIS human most defnitely is. Everywhere we have been this summer has been inordinately hot, or so say the locals. It has been hot in Atlanta, hot in St. Louis, hot in North Carolina and now hot in Lousiana. I have been in pain, lacking ambition, and constantly tired all the while asking myself WHY? I had the same symptoms in the summer and extreme heat that I have lived with for practically all my life during the winter and extreme cold.

I remember wondering how in the world anyone who lives in the South could possibly have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why would anyone who lived below the Mason-Dixon Line even complain about the weather when they could go outside twelve months of the year and there would not be any ice nor snow nor below zero wind chill that blows right into that little spot on your throat just above your collar bone that your coat never seems to cover adequately and of course, who wants to wear a scarf just to run to the car? The people down here do not know about the special noise that wood makes when you step on it in below zero weather. You know that craaaackk that reverberates from your foot all down along the deck making you think it is going to split in two. The same people who almost can't believe that you can stand on a lake that is frozen two feet thick much less drive your truck on it. The same people who think it would be "fun" to have snow around all the time. The same people that feel that living with snow is like a postcard from Vail....everything white and sunny and no one has to get to work on time in the morning.

Even the most diehard snowmobilers have to admit that, come January, unless it comes to riding the trails on the weekends, it is time for the cold to GO. By the end of January the snow is dirty, which we all know is nothing like the fluffy white stuff on the postcard from Vail. The snow is piled everywhere which can be a real pain in the ass if you are trying to pass on the right (and sometimes on the left!) even if the snow plows have removed most of it. And believe it or not, trying to defrost the windshield on the car when you are already running ten minutes late for work can be quite a trying experience.

I did not realize to what extent the opposite could also be true. In the South, come September, unless you are lying 24/7 on a beach somewhere, it is time for the heat to GO. By September you forget what the breeze feels like as you have had the A/C on for going on 4 months straight. You have been bitten by fire ants at least once (ok, maybe only dumb Northerners with NO idea what a fire ant mound looks like!) and bitten by mosquitos so much that your ankles have the circumference of a young palm tree with so many scabs from itching that you look like you have the chicken pox. Your home has been invaded by small little ants who, although harmless, feel that Purina Dog Chow is  such delicacy that it requires the presence of the entire colony on a daily basis. You have also been blessed with visitors such as extremely large cockroaches that like to sit on the nectarines in the fruit basket and escape death somehow through the oven (infrequently) and maggots that like to crawl up through the toilet gasket from the sewer hookup so that you need to remember to check before taking a seat in the middle of the night (occasionally). You have lived through one tropical storm that really didn't amount to much besides a real soggy campground site and the locals looking at you like you were crazy when you expressed concern that it might be dangerous to hang out there and not flee to the hills. You have worn yoga pants and t shirts so often that they are faded out from line drying in the sun as you simply can't understand how people wear real clothes in humidity so high it feels like you are walking through a wet sponge every time you are brave enough to run from the house to the car.

So which is better? Winter in the North or summer in the South? For the sleeping aspect, which unfortunately is something that we all need like it or not, the cold is definitely easier to live with than hot. Why? You can always add more socks, more quilts, or more body heat if needed to sleep. You can't take off more clothes once you are naked and you can't pretend that there is a breeze when you are boondocking and can't run the A/C or the fan all night when not a leaf on the palm tree is moving. I won't even get into the theory that we have about parking with the breeze coming in the side windows of the rig and it then turning to blow from the front or back where there are no windows the minute we do! For the all over rest of life aspect, summer in the South wins hands down in our book. It is easier to run from a building to a vehicle and vice versa when you don't have snow or ice in your way.

I did some research to try and convince myself further that this was not all in my head as we had never, ever thought the symptoms would occur on the other end of the weather spectrum. I found the following - please excuse the grammar as I believe the writer was a non native English speaker.

     "hot and cold climate changes, often have a certain impact on people's emotions; sudden changes in     climate can also affect the body's physiological function and changes in physiological function can affect the person's mental state. When autumn, the weather mild, the mental state of people tend to be over optimistic, feeling good; when the cold rain, dry and hot weather, people's mood irritability or depression will become depressed. Spring and autumn, when temperatures 64 ~ 72 F, people not only feel comfortable, mood stability, and study and work efficiency is particularly high.....ambient temperature dropped to below 50 F, the emotion becomes a boring low; less than 39 F, it will seriously affect brain thinking....If the continuous high temperature or cold, or can not meet with it immediately, this is the case, it is not just emotional changes, and even can lead to disease. In addition to temperature changes hot and cold outside, such as rain, humidity, fog, wind and other weather, it can affect people's thinking and attention."

So there you have it....although we seem to forget at times, we are animals and ARE affected by the weather - some of us to more extent than others. I have always been very sensitive to light levels which is why we had to add skylights, a garden window and windows in the front door at the house in Pickerel with plans to add a sun porch at one time. So this summer has been a learning experience for us. This is the farthest south we have been during the summer and with Bill working for Prime it will probably not be the only year this happens. Now we know that we both very much dislike and are affected by extremes in temperature both hot and cold.  I am just more affected than Bill is.

We have definitely decided, however, that when we have a choice, we will be north or in the mountains during the summer months. Until then, here comes cooler temps, saving money by boondocking and an updated blog!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Sliding" Over to St Louis

I am very surprised to say that I actually did not mind the Hudson River Valley area of New York. It is very wooded just like home and has some great "mountains' in the Catskills, not so much like home. I can imagine trying to drive some of their twisting, turning roads during the winter....it must be quite interesting considering the fact that people from New York seem to think that the posted speed limit is merely a suggestion. I will take back everything nasty I have said about Illinois drivers! People who live along the I-95 corridor take the blue ribbon in the "Assinine Psycho Driver" category for sure.

Here are a couple of views looking east across the Hudson River from Newburgh New York towards Beacon New York. As with most of the areas near the Hudson there is a toll bridge if you are heading east. Thankfully it only cost us $5.50 with the rig and Avalanche unlike the Tappan Zee Bridge farther south which was over $25!

We spent the two weeks at Clarence Fahnestock State Park a few miles south of Fishkill. It is located in an awesome area but for obvious reasons I guess, the park's amenities are really run down. Part of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park so it is geared more to tenters than anything. There are no hook ups whatsoever and the sites are quite small. For some ungodly reason Reservations.gov let me reserve a site that we didn't even fit into although I had entered 36' at the RV size. Upon arriving they moved us to a larger site down in the hollow next to the crazy, drunk Russians. It would have been nice to stay put there as there was room to throw ball for the dogs but unfortunately the internet reception was nil so we had to move further up a hill. They then put us in their overflow site which doesn't even show up on the online reservation page. They were nice enough to let us stay the Saturday and Sunday of the 4th of July weekend although the park was full and they didn't mind the truck camper being on the site like most places do. So all in all we were able to stay for almost 2 weeks for $130 when the only other campgrounds nearby, the KOA, would have cost that or more per week per campsite. Would I go back to that park? Definitely not because of it being soooo run down. I realize that the State of New York is "broke" just like Wisconsin ;-) but the park had big ruts in the roads, campsites did not get cleaned up well when campers left and the bathrooms! The bathrooms were as bad as the bathrooms at the dumpy campground west of Atlanta that we stayed in.


Because Bill worked on Thursday night we didn't hit the road until later afternoon on Friday. He will be working next in St. Louis on a week long Family Dollar remodel. Prime had said that after New York they would be "sliding him over to St. Louis" and then probably back to Atlanta for a bit. Well, in my book a 1000 mile trip is not exactly "sliding over" anywhere! Fifty miles ok, but 1000? Nope, definitely not a slide