We remained in Florida after Charlie’s dad’s death, savoring time with family and performing the many practical tasks a death sets in motion. After a week, Charlie’s mom graciously scooted us out the door, perhaps needing some alone time to better acquaint herself with her grief, but also not wanting our plans to come to a halt. Life, as it is said, goes on.
Our original plan had been to travel west from Florida on this leg of our journey, with the hope of making it to Los Angeles before the end of May to visit our daughter Rachel. Two factors now made that impossible: the extra time we had spent in Florida, and the need to return there by May 20 for the service planned in celebration of Charlie’s dad’s life. All things considered, we would have only half the time on the road than we had expected.
While we could have pushed straight through to LA, this was not in keeping with the spirit of our Casa Blanca adventure. No, when we had hatched this plan long ago, we wanted to visit stops along the way, savoring the experience and seeing our country with all our senses. While I never seriously expected to live in the places we would visit, I wanted to feel them as if a local, not rush through like a tourist. But we ourselves had made other traveling plans for the summer, involving passports and flights, imposing upon ourselves a time limit that was never a part of the original idea. We had done that to ourselves! Charlie’s dad’s death had simply tightened our already self-imposed deadline. Now what to do?
This situation threw me off balance for a bit! I knew we had no choice in the matter, and that our family had endured a painful loss that dwarfed my petty annoyance about thwarted plans. Still, I had difficulty accepting the changed situation, and we both had difficulty deciding how to salvage our remaining road time. Good friends of ours, Jane and Richard Owens, had generously offered us the use of their second home in Venice, FL, and so we took them up on their offer for a few days, to regroup alone together in a quiet and relaxing environment. Laying by the pool, we discussed our travel plans, and decided to just go west as far as we could….maybe Arizona?… and then find a place to store Casa Blanca while we flew back to Florida for the service, followed by our summer plans. We could return to Casa Blanca in the fall to complete our journey.
As we set out again in Casa, I was pleased that I felt happy with our decision and had been able to let go of what was “supposed” to be, and embrace what would be. I reflected that this was what the journey was really all about: letting go, and adjusting our sails to the changing wind. Leaving Venice, our first day’s itinerary was easy….a stop in Indian Springs Beach to have lunch with two old friends of Charlie’s, Ray and Dennis, and then on to sleep at a camping spot in Keaton Beach, Florida.
Lunch was fun. One of the best things about our travels has been the opportunity to connect with friends, distant by time and/or geography, on their own turf. This was just lunch at an upscale pizza place, but for me it was a gift. Seeing my husband with friends he had known since high school allowed me to know him in a different way. Not to mention seeing these two peers, whose paths had crossed with mine briefly in the past, with my new eyes which have become, through life experience, much more appreciative of others and open to knowing them. I’m sure that when I was in college, these were just two more boys, but now they are seasoned people carrying their own truckload of memories and experiences, good and bad. And we are all richer for it.
Later, as we ventured west on the Florida panhandle, it began to feel like we were back in the south. In general Florida does not feel like a southern state, in spite of its geography, probably because there are so many northerners living there. But on the panhandle, the topography has a low country feeling, and I found myself unconsciously humming “Born on the Bayou.” I also started to feel nervous. While southern people are on the surface very hospitable and welcoming, I never really feel welcome in the south. I feel as if I’m wearing a sign across my chest that identifies me as a Yankee liberal. Of course, this is a projection on my part. I would have plenty of time to reflect on this over the coming days.
We had a special treat awaiting us at the campground, where we were given a waterfront site just in time for the sunset. There was a deck on the water right in front of our site, where the campers could gather. We sat on Adirondack chairs snacking on cheese and crackers with a glass of wine until the last rays of the sun disappeared below the Gulf of Mexico and our neighbors dispersed. Although we didn’t really converse with the others beyond asking a fisherman what was biting, it felt friendly and comfortable.
Sunset on the Gulf
The proprietor had directed us to the nearest (and only!) local restaurant, with the unfortunate name of Whitey’s. It was a down-home southern roadside place, where I ate my first catfish, which was very tasty, showing no evidence of whiskers.
The next morning we had one of the only negative encounters we have had in all our travels. It was a silly thing, really, but it added to my tension about being in the south. We stopped at a fast food restaurant to use the bathroom. When we were leaving, Charlie was slowly backing out of the parking space and didn’t see that someone was edging behind us. Casa Blanca is a bit more difficult to maneuver than a normal-sized car, but this was just a careless mistake that happens when one is distracted.
What followed felt like a scene from Deliverance. We really weren’t going fast enough to do any harm, but the vehicle we barely tapped was driven by a very volatile redneck. I cannot come up with a more suitable description. The battered pick-up she drove appeared to be held together by duct tape and string. The driver was 400 pounds if she was an ounce, and the two passengers, a man and another women, rivaled her in weight. At least the other two were quiet, but the driver, as they say, had a mouth on her. Charlie got out to apologize and make sure there was no damage, and she started screaming and cursing as if we had intentionally insulted her character. She may have been drinking, though it was before 8 am, but she was probably just being her sweet self. Letting out a stream of insults peppered with the foulest language, she berated Charlie up one side and down the other. I began to feel that I should show some solidarity, so I started to get out of the vehicle, only to attract her vile attention. I said to Charlie, “Honey, is something wrong,” to which her shrill response was, “What’s wrong is that your man can’t drive!” Then a lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, “Charlie, do you want me to call the police?”
“Call the police so I can tell them your man can’t drive,” she squealed, but then her tires squealed as well, as she pealed out of the parking lot. Apparently she was not relishing a visit from the cops, for reasons unknown, although we could guess.
We went on our way feeling more than a bit shaken by the sheer hatred that was pouring out of her. It is sobering to encounter someone that has so little control over their emotions. I’m sure she has a sad story of her own, but her behavior repelled compassion.
The rest of our trip was uneventful, albeit long, as we pushed our way through to New Orleans. As I write this, I realize that I haven’t mentioned our state map. At the onset of our travels, we purchased a US map which attaches to the exterior of one’s RV. As we pass through each state, we add that state onto the map. Our travels from FlorIda to New Orleans allowed us to add two states, Mississippi and Alabama, without actually spending much time in either state. It felt a bit like cheating, but we pressed onward due to our time constraints.
That being said, when we arrived in New Orleans, we stayed for four nights and loved every minute. I had never been there. We had so many recommendations from friends and family for places to eat that four days was barely enough. I was sure that I would gain weight! To my advantage, we walked so much in the city that over three days we clocked over twenty-five miles. (Thank you, Fitbit.)
Grilled Oysters at Dragos, Shrimp barbecue at Mr. B’s Bistro. Preservation Hall Jazz (the trombonist tickled my foot with his slide), a stroll through the Lafayette Cemetery #1, a ride on the St. Charles trolley. Beignets.
At the Cemetery
The French Market, where a woman who sold me a bracelet handmade from livery straps told me a delightful story about when her mother stopped to buy donuts when the she and her brother were very small. Mom left them in the car while she was in the donut shop……little brother released the parking brake and the car rolled into the shop, pinning Mama against the counter. “We never knew what to expect from my mama,” she said affectionately.
New Orleans was everything I expected, and more. I expected soul food, music pouring into the streets, and rambunctiousness. I didn’t expect the feeling that I was in a livable city to which I would want to return. (My mouth is watering as I write.) We left, reluctantly.
And headed north, to Arkansas. The road north runs elevated above the swampy lowlands, like an endless bridge, for miles and miles, adding to the sense that we had been somewhere special. Eventually, though, that ended, and we were back on the interstate, and I became grumpy. You can read about that in a previous entry: (https://averysmallnest.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/life-is-what-happens/)
Our day of driving ended at a campsite in Crater of Diamonds State Park. It was beautiful, situated near a river, The Little Missouri, to which we were lucky enough to hike at dusk. A peaceful hike serves to undo the stress of the day.
The next day found us joining the many who congregated there for the sole purpose of digging for diamonds. This is a real thing. After a study of the area determined that it wasn’t worthy of professional mining, the state made it into a park. For $8 (additional fee for rental equipment) you can spend the day digging, raking and sifting in the hope that you will be the next lucky winner. The “mine” is a large bowl-shaped rocky area. The strategic signage informs one of the significant past diamond discoveries, as well as the fact that you can also find amethysts, crystals, and other desirable gems if you are lucky.
We were not lucky. In addition to gathering a small bag of rocks which upon later inspection were worthless, we collected lots of dirt and I needed a shower more badly than I have for a very long time. The state hit pay dirt, though (pun intended)…..what a way to collect revenue!
The truth is, it was a fun day. Lots of families were there…what an ideal activity for adults and kids together. The grown-ups pursuing serendipitous wealth while the kids are just in the glorious moment, playing in the dirt. Win/win.
Our next stop was Hot Springs, Arkansas. This is a beautiful town, where we were able to “take the waters” as people have done for years. It was delightful, relaxing. In our relaxed state, we adjusted our plans yet again. We found we no longer wanted to try to make it to the southwest. It would be too rushed. Instead, we would take the remaining week to slowly make our way back to Florida.
Obviously, I no longer felt the compulsion to get through the south as quickly as I could. The exposure therapy was working. And so we meandered east in a zig-zag fashion with stops in Memphis and Nashville. More soul food, more music. We detoured to St. Louis to see the famous arch, the gateway to the west. (Sigh. The elusive west…..next time.) Eastward, Kentucky, and a visit to a bourbon distillery.
Did I tell you that a southern accent is contagious? I had quickly found myself speaking in a bit of a drawl in spite of myself. It kind of goes with the atmosphere. Perhaps I was being a chameleon, trying to disguise my northern edge. When in Rome.
We didn’t make it where we planned, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend some time in the south, a place I had chauvinistic feelings toward. It is good to immerse yourself in a location that your pre-conceived notions have prejudiced you against. Do I feel differently now? In short, I wouldn’t want to live there, but it was a nice place to visit.©