Driving south from Canada was like visiting a long US history museum. Driving west began with a swamp. From Jacksonville to Houston we travelled highways and back roads that depended on bridges or levies to keep the water either in or out.
The drive from Live Oak, Florida to Pensacola is flat and along the road there are many signs promoting boiled peanuts. So we were in peanut country. But when we looked for the local peanuts, we didn’t find them. That said, every gas station had a coffee bar with stale sandwiches and boiled peanuts. The boiled peanuts were in a self-serve soup terrine and when we looked at them, they looked really disgusting. We had decided to try some but the staff said she just started warming them so they wouldn’t be as good. She also sold the smaller cans (kind of like buying canned vegetables) of them so we could heat some at home. Intrigued by this novel food fad, we bought a tin but have yet to try them. The peanuts are still in their shells and swim in a brownish water that is seasoned with spices or natural. Not sure we will like them, but we have them for that special day when nothing but boiled peanuts will do. The other abundant crops we saw were cotton and pine. The tall pine forests we saw were planted in rows and rows of straight lines. When we asked about how long it takes to grow a mature 50-60-foot pine forest like this, the answer was 15 years. What? At home, on the west coast, we rarely see trees harvested earlier than about 60 years. This seemed very renewable to us. The cotton fields we passed were silver grey with an auburn stem hue that was dry and seemed ready to harvest. As we traveled west, some were in the process of being harvested, some were close to harvest holding until the farmer had time to harvest. In some places wind blown cotton littered the street sides looking like a massive quilt had blown apart from the roof of a car or trailer. Large train-car sized bales of cotton would be lined up in the fields looking like long ghost trains waiting for approval to move. Once again, we had no idea that cotton was still a large US commodity thinking it had moved to lesser economies.
Pensacola is along the southern edge of the Florida panhandle near the Gulf of Mexico. There are two large bays with a key that keeps them gently contained. We looked at the map and decided that we would get off our beloved I-10 and travel along the scenic Santa Rosa County Key between the bay and the gulf. Mistake. This is a playground for the wealthy with box stores that line both sides of the road for about 25 miles. With the promise of great retail comes the inevitability of stop and go traffic. While it was a shorter distance it probably added 2 hours of maddeningly slow, city like driving to our day. So avoid that piece of land unless you are staying there and can go to the beach. The beach was never visible until we got to the end of the key and headed over the bridge into Pensacola. At this point there is a minute patch of land, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, that has been left natural where there are sand dunes and the promise of wildlife and maybe some elusive alligators.
Twentyfive miles later and we were at our campsite in Big Lagoon State Park. Big Lagoon is on a bayou on the north side of a big lagoon protected from the gulf by the Perdido key. The park is a giant white sand dune with some smaller lagoons and wetland area. There are boardwalks built throughout the park so that guests can walk, bike, jog, etc. through the wetlands and scrub brush without sinking in the soft sand, being covered in the sharp and spiky (very nasty) burrs that stick to everything. The possibility of coming in contact with one or more of the 45 species of snakes (six of which are venomous) is quite real and we haven’t started talking about the alligators yet. The burrs were everywhere, in the sand, along the pathways, and even stuck into our bike tires like cactus spikes and needed pliers or tweezers to remove them. (foreshadowing our desert days ahead) We set up our trailer on our level cement pad (WOW) and had a celebratory beer after dealing with the stop and go traffic of the day.
Albert got our bikes out and we proceeded to explore the trails in the 700 acre park before sunset.
Next day the cold weather arrived and we put away our summer clothes and dug out our warm stuff. Sadness as the mercury dipped a full 30 degrees. We dipped down to a snowy-white sand beach for some photos then raced back to our warm car.
We decided to visit the Pensacola Naval Airforce base and see the aviation museum. The museum is staffed with a few air force personnel but mostly depends on volunteers. These volunteers are veterans, relatives of vets and just interested souls. We happened on a number of docents near various displays and aged airplanes who were excited to tell some of the stories of each aircraft or the people who flew them. We were there the day after Veteran’s Day so the tales of restoration, war, sadness, pain and victory, and the gratitude for their service enveloped all that we experienced. A life-size replica of the Fat Man Bomb dropped on Nagasaki (not live of course), the H-3 Sea King Sikorsky that flew Nixon (a life size replica of him in it) and Ford to work, Flying Tigers, the Apollo missions, Blue Angels and a whole lot more were featured in this massive museum. I was amazed at how many of these old WW2 planes had been pulled out of lake Michigan. With further research we found out that about 150 planes went down in Lake Michigan and 10 airmen were lost while training 17,000 for deployment to WW2.
We had passed a BBQ restaurant named Brothers BBQ and decided we would go there for dinner while in the area and stopped in on our way to the naval aviation museum to see if they were open later for dinner. Yes! We went around the back and talked to their BBQ master. He was retired, bored and remembered he had learned BBQ as a kid. He was cooking up brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, chicken and jowls as a retirement job. Success. We took some great pictures. Later when we returned it was dark so we were glad we had stopped earlier. It was truly delicious and we ate too much before we even remembered to take a picture of the food, but the restaurant was not heated so we ate up and went back to our cozy abode. Next day we were heading to New Orleans.
Driving along the I-10 from Pensacola to New Orleans is not a long drive. But you start in Florida, cross Southern Alabama and Mississippi, then arrive in Louisiana in under 4 hours. And it is flat and has many wetlands and oil refineries. We started noticing that the highways were above the water and flora that thrived in these places. The landscape truly didn’t resemble anything up north. Lots of cotton, fields of sugar and forests on higher ground with the promise of pecans. We stopped at the visitor center in Mississippi. This stately manor was built by the tourism sector and had fresh coffee and Elvis. We planned to visit the crash site of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band after New Orleans, so we looked for maps and information.
We headed into New Orleans and found our campground in the French Quarter without any glitches. We don’t like getting caught in tight traffic when towing so we were happy about that. The French Quarter RV park was literally under the I-10 causeway. The campsite across from us was graced with a massive billboard advertising to that highway. But that was the only “camping” issue we could come up with. The location was walking distance to everything. We were 4 blocks from Bourbon Street, 2 blocks from a fantastic little speakeasy called Bar Tonique, and about a half hour walk or less to Frenchman’s street and all the live music that it is famous for.
The streetcars were a bit less easy to get around on since the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel that was under construction, so we walked with the full intention of taking a guided city tour while we were here. New Orleans has music everywhere and even the buskers command an audience. We quickly set up then headed down to the French Quarter. We walked and walked. Bourbon street was loud, raucous, and people walked and drank cheap beer and cocktails (literally) from penis shaped flasks. These were not our people so we saw it and moved on to other streets that promised voodoo, spicy food, happy hours with 3 for 1, or quiet dark lounges with the best crawfish or po-boys. We finished up at Frenchman Street at “The Maison” for food and music and Uber’d home much later.
Next day we went to the museums. The state museums have a deal if you buy tickets for more than one visit you get a discount. We visited “The Presbytere” and “The Jazz museum at the Old US Mint”. The Presbytère was a must see. Here was a museum that housed the rituals, celebrations and costumes of Mardi Gras and the original secret social clubs and krewes along with the stories and displays of the many hurricane devastations. The museums give a glimpse into the making of the local culture. These people of the swamp were not only survivors of mosquito born illnesses, poisonous snakes, alligators, hurricanes, poverty and the slavery legacy, but they combined their cultures of Acadian(Cajun), Caribbean, French, Spanish, English and American Indian into a celebration of pagan voodoo life under the auspices of the Catholic church. As our local resident tour said “If you weren’t French or Catholic, you were dead”. We found New Orleans to have a very European vibe. Old, new, broken, fixed, and always looking for the bright side through times of great strife. We never felt unsafe, we always felt in awe. The Jazz museum had some lonely instruments, lots of photos and posters of jazz musicians throughout the ages with a feature on local jazz legend, Louis Prima.
It was across the street and down the street a bit from the iconic 157 yr old Café du Monde and their Beignets and Chicory coffee. Feeling peckish we decided to check this off our must do/see list. The Café, while on the BTDT (been there done that) list, was a letdown as the service was AWFUL and the products, while fresh from a mix, were mediocre. Iconic places usually don’t make us swoon. Portland’s VooDoo doughnuts was the same. Meh!
Next day we booked the guided bus tour. We were entertained and saw more than just the French Quarter. The driver-guide told us of restaurants that were obscure, chefs who were James Beard winners, Emeril, and other famous culinary spots. He toured and told us of the system of “burying” the dead in the above ground cemeteries. He was a humorous foodie, history grad who grew up locally and was able to give us the stories behind the dates when New Orleans was French, Spanish, English and everything before, after and in between. We toured the levies that failed during Katrina and saw the difference in water levels between the low ground and high water. He explained the engineering and frustration with the engineers who built, rebuilt and acknowledged the design flaws in the levies. He explained that the locals were frustrated with the latest human idea, since the oldest levies didn’t fail. The $12M savings had cost $14Billion to rebuild. With untried technology. Now it is a wait and see situation. Frustrating many. We toured the park that has the mega millions of dollars’ worth of outdoor sculptures and the Art Gallery Museum in the park. He talked of the music and where to find good Dixieland jazz. He could recite famous recipes many mixologists would not be able to remember, including a Sazerac, New Orleans signature cocktail. We finished off and headed for our last night in New Orleans by walking to a discrete little bar called Bar Tonique near the RV park, ordering a Sazerac (our friends Jill and Cam’s favourite bar and drink;The the Sazerac), then proceeded to Frenchman’s street and the Blue Nile, just down the street from The Maison. The music was great. The beer was cold. The crowd danced and enjoyed. So fun. We were exhausted when we hit the pit. We really needed more time there and will be back. We barely scratched the surface.
Next day we were off to Mississippi and the crash site memorial for the Lynyrd Skynyrd band….Stay tuned, sing along….Sweet Home Alabama, y’all ….