Day 12 & 13; Deep in the heart of Dixie

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James Joyce said “There are no strangers here, just friends you haven’t met yet.”  This sentiment would pretty accurately describe my time in Natchez, MS.  A small, but historically rich town right on the Mississippi it is definitely one of the stand out destinations on my trip so far.

After driving up from New Orleans I check into the Mark Twain guest house which is directly above the Saloon.  Would I stay anywhere else?  It actually was a great location because the river was right there.  And so was the Saloon.  The legend is that Mark Twain himself stayed here…and I’m inclined to believe that.  The view of the sunset from my room was unbelievable, so I went downstairs to the river bank to take pictures and started talking to locals hearing about how the Mississippi had crested on May 20th from all the flooding and they showed me just how high the water got on the Louisiana side, and then the Mississippi side.  One of the most interesting things I learned is that the reason the Mississippi side is higher, and more hilly is that over the years wind currents blew massive amounts of dirt and soil across the river which means you have two very different topographies.

After the sunset I ended up in the Saloon and I hadn’t been in there 30 seconds before I was being engaged in conversations.  I swear these were the friendliest lot of people I’ve ever met.  The funny thing was, as the night wore on and I met more and more people explaining why I was there and where I was from, the expression and reaction was always the same.  A furrowed brow with a confused expression followed by “New York?!?!  Are you lost?!?!” Over and over again.  However the people of Natchez are very proud to be from Natchez.  A small town of 19,000 I soon noticed that nearly everyone knows nearly everyone.  Which perhaps explains why everyone I met had been divorced at least twice!  I made a few friends that night.  One being a woman named Carol Ann.  We started comparing tattoos; she had a feather, I have a feather, she has a tattoo over her heart that’s a memorial and so do I.  This comparing led us to discover that we were both Tauruses. ‘Wht daaaay?’ She asked me. ‘May 12th’ I responded. ‘Hot Daaaaammmn!’ We had the same birthday and this turned into cause for celebration.  My other new friend turned out to be the City Planner and I learned a lot about the city from him. About how back in the day Natchez was the New York City of the South. It was big oil money that made this town rich.  There were more bars and restaurants here than any other town in the Confederacy.  And for sure, the Civil War somehow made it’s way into EVERY SINGLE conversation.  They are still pissed about losing the war!  Being in this town was indeed like stepping back in time.  I did learn an interesting fact though that what I know to be the Confederate flag, or the Stars and Bars as they call it, is in fact NOT the Confederate Flag.  The actual Confederate flag has 11 stars up in the left corner (for the 11 Confederate states) and instead of 13 red and white stripes has 2 red and 1 white stripe. Sorry, can’t remember what those are for. However because the 2 flags were so similar they were accidentally killing their own men, so they resorted to using the battle flag.  And it has stuck ever since.  This was most definitely turning into a cultural lesson…in my own country.  I spent several hours at the bar talking to my new friends, until a fight almost broke out and I made my way upstairs.

The following day I had a lunch date with my friend Fred the City Planner.  I got a full tour of City Hall and even met The Mayor!  What’s next? The City Key?  I got a walking tour of downtown which most definitely was a step back in time.  Old Antebellum Homes, General Stores and a historic hotel that Bonnie and Clyde once stayed in.  It was hot hot hot though!  So I decided to take a drive to escape the heat and went to visit the Old National Cemetery.  The oldest cemetery, there are grave stones that date back to the 1600’s.  I don’t quite understand that since we weren’t officially a country until 1776, but I saw it with my own eyes.

When I came back from my drive I was really planning to go upstairs and take a quick power nap but there was always someone standing outside the Saloon who would talk to me and then invite me in for a drink, so how could I refuse.  Honestly! In the day and a half I was there I didn’t pay for a single drink or meal! I went in and met some new friends in addition to old friends from the night before.  Rounds and rounds of drinks, several games of darts and multiple conversations.  It was all good times….until as the evening progressed I started realizing that the problem with being in a small town is that everyone knows your ‘bidness’…and get’s into your ‘bidness’.  Now I understand why many will say they love the anonymity of New York.  The charm and appeal of a small town is good for 24 hours, after that it starts getting really annoying, and if I had stayed another week it would have turned in drama! Especially after I started feeling jealous undercurrents from some of the women and even more jealousy between the men, and then I ended up in a heated “debate” with one of the locals about a racist comment he made.  2 things I can’t tolerate or keep my mouth shut about; littering and racism.  After way too many rounds of G & T,  and an intense storm swept in I thought it was time to make my way upstairs and fell asleep to the sounds of the saloon below.

The next morning I packed up feeling grateful for the experience and hospitality, but even more grateful that I could get the hell out!  Til next time dear readers….

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The lucky streak ends…

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I was going to spend tonight writing about my time in Natchez Mississippi but instead now I am writing a short blog about the fact that my car got broken into in Houston and the only thing they took was my purse, which had my cell phone inside. which is almost more devastating than my wallet. Thank God I keep my passport in a separate place now that I finally have a drivers license.

I feel sick and devastated. I knew this place would be trouble when my original plans fell thru. I hate Houston!

Day 11&12; Diving into the Big Easy

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After nearly a week of catching up with friends it was time to get out of Florida.  A friend of mine says the drive between Orlando and Tallahassee is a death trap because it is so boring.  However I feel that is more the case on the endless stretch of I-10 between Tally and Pensacola.  The only thing to break up the endless monotony of road and swamp is the need to constantly watch your speed because I swear there are State Troopers every half mile. It was that way 20 years ago and the same is true today. But god it’s awful. Trying to find something ‘decent’ to eat at a gas stop was also a challenge.  PLEASE GET ME OUT OF THE PAN-HANDLE!!!

I actually made brilliant time, but that was probably because I had forgotten about the time change! LOL!  My stop in New Orleans was actually the first time I ever had to book a hotel room.  My love affair with Priceline has not been diminished.  That website has never done me wrong as far as hotels go.  The most I’ve ever paid was $60 and that was a 4-star room.  For $40 I got an really awesome room in the heart of downtown with a pool and breakfast.  I didn’t get my USA today though.  I hadn’t put a lot of planning into N.O. since I’ve been there before and felt it would just be better to take it as it came.  I did however contact a couch surfer prior to my arrival.  I’ve tried to explain couchsurfing to several people and they usually just look at me dazed and confused.  But for those of us that use it and understand it it’s a travelers best friend.  Megan was a born and bred New Orleans girl and did me a huge favor by picking me up and taking me out to The Marigny. A far less touristy area than the French Quarter but with just as much music. It may have been a Monday night but there was still a buzz about town.  We hopped between several places soaking in the music and culture and did do the ‘mandatory’ walk down Bourbon St.  This was my first visit to New Orleans that wasn’t centered around Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, so it was interesting to see the Quarter less crowded (and less inebriated too).  Even on a Monday night that block smells of puke! It was a great night, even if I didn’t come home with any beads this time…;)

Megan gave me some really great tips about places to check out the next morning, since I’d never ventured out of the quarter before.  New Orleans was soupy as soupy can be so I hopped on a Trolley Car down to the Garden District. Perhaps I should’ve just stayed on, for $1.25 it was a bargain.  Walking thru the Garden District reminded me of being in Savannah.  I can see a lot of similarities between the 2 towns.  Some of the architecture was breathtaking and Crepe Myrtles were everywhere (many shrouded in beads).  I came across LaFayette Cemetery and finally got to see what I’ve always heard about.  The cemeteries in New Orleans are unique. Because the city is built below sea level, the graves are above ground to prevent them from floating away.  It was cool to finally see this in person.

After sweating my way thru the Garden District and visiting a few galleries I just couldn’t take it anymore and headed back. While waiting for a trolley car a local man was talking with me talking about the heat and giving me the history of every storm to ever come thru the area.  For sure all this heat does cause a danger of another storm brewing.  It’s like being in a real life pressure cooker, sooner or later the steam has to break and release.

This was my first visit back to New Orleans post Katrina and it was very important for me to see first hand what has become a major part of our country’s history.  There are living reminders of it everywhere.  Just like 9/11 it’s there, and it makes it’s way into nearly every conversation.  I knew I wanted to visit the 9th Ward but didn’t know where to start. So I did what anyone these days would do…I googled it.  One of the things that came up that caught my attention was a bicycle tour of the 9th Ward with Katrina highlights.  Spending hours in the car driving, I’ve been looking for any source of exercise possible. When I called though I was told they aren’t doing the tours right now due to the heat. Well I can understand that.  However the guy on the phone was just ‘sitting in his kitchen’ and gave me a wealth of information of leads.  He highly recommended I visit the House of Dance & Feathers.  I called up Ronald to make an appointment to go by.  Ronald is one of those special people that make the world a better and more interesting place.  He has a make shift museum in his back yard that is full of Culture, bead work and information.  Ronald can tell you anything about Katrina that you want to know.  I spent over an hour sitting and talking with him and felt really fortunate to cross his path. After my time with Ronald I drove all around the lower 9th; passing houses that had been re-built, houses with ‘Do Not Demolish’ spray painted, houses that still looked like the hurricane had hit and empty lots where no one was coming back. I drove around the block where the “Brad Pitt” houses are, or as Ronald calls them ‘Architects Gone Wild’. I saw what he meant. Ronald told me that several Architectural Schools from all over the states had designed them.  When I talked to locals in the neighborhood they told me that each one had been designed by someone different. They were definitely ‘interesting’.  I tried to understand how the ‘system’ worked…or didn’t work. Why some houses were re-built, but others weren’t.  Many people aren’t coming back at all.  Many took a ‘pay-out’ from the government.  But if the residents don’t come back, how can the community rebuild and move forward.  The economic downturn and lack of jobs is a double whammy to NoLa now.  Even though I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, there is also a pride and love of New Orleans from many of the people there.  People like Ronald are making sure the world does not forget them and that the lower 9th will come together and rebuild.

As I made my way out on the highway I felt flooded with mixed emotions about what I had seen and learned, but incredibly grateful for the life I have.

Day 9 & 10: Finishing up the FL tour

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The 4 hour drive from Orlando to Tallahassee is brutal.  The only thing present to break up the awful monotony of the trip are the toll booths. And even they eventually disappear.  I’ve made the drive dozens of times and the only thing that makes it bearable is the anticipation of seeing my friends.

First pit stop was a visit to the Hennessy household.  Matt and I went to Engineering school way back in the day. We used to be study partners as well as happy hour mates.  Matt was a Tallahassee native and the running joke was that I was his Tallahassee girlfriend since his real life girlfriend went to UF.  All these years later Matt and Ann are still married and have 3 beautiful children.  And even though I’m no longer an Engineer it’s always good catching up with them.  I have to say this visit was one of the best in recent years. They’ve never looked healthier or happier, which is always a good way to see friends. It’s even nicer now that the kids are old enough that we don’t have to constantly watch them so we got to catch up over beers for several hours on their new deck.

After catching up with The Hennessy’s it was time to meet up with my old HH crew.  I first met Jim way back a hundred years ago when I had just become legal to drink.  It’s sort of funny that I decided to have my first legal drink at the Ruby Tuesday’s in the Mall, but that’s what I did at a 3:00 pm on a Thurs way back in ’93. No big surprise I made friends with the bartender and therefore returned many more times. (side note; I used to get so tipsy at the bar at RT’s that I would have to go shopping in the mall until I sobered up. The only thing more dangerous than drinking and driving is drinking and shopping.  It never failed that the next day I would have a complete panic attack over what I’d bought and have to return it the next day).  One day I was in there having my afternoon cocktail and an older gentleman a few stools down started chatting with me.  “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Norma Jean?”  Now you wouldn’t think that a line like that would lead to a 20 yr. friendship would you? But somehow it did. Jim and his lovely wife CJ have become some of my longest lasting and dearest friends all these years later, across the miles and thru multiple moves on both sides.  The funny thing about this town is that people never seem to leave.  The same bartender has been moving around with us for years as have the patrons so there were a lot of familiar faces.

The next morning, after a week of libatious reunions I decided some exercise was in order.  Lake Ella was my refuge during those crazy college years. I used to run several rounds around the lake to clear my head and reconnect so it was the perfect place to get my blood pumping on a Sunday morning. Despite all the Moscovy Duck runs I attended, those pesky, filthy birds are still in abundance there. Late morning brunch, afternoon thunderstorm, a retail visit to the Quarter Moon (the coolest store ever) and a few other pit stops, it was a full day.  The evening was finished off with a house concert over at a friend’s house of a successful Nashville musician.  It was a great way to end my FL tour.  I had a great time catching up with all my old friends and now look forward to the next chapter of the journey!

Day 7 & 8; Going back to the beginning.

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The day after I graduated college my mother helped me load up the U-haul and make the long drive down to Orlando for my first post-College job.  3 months later I decided it would be a great idea to buy a house. My enthusiasm for both the town and the job quickly waned and shortly thereafter I moved to NYC.  But 14 years later my friendships that I formed here have still survived the passage of time.  It’s pretty cool when you think about it…and when you don’t. So when everyone kept questioning ‘Why?!’ I would make such a southern detour on a cross country trip the response was simple, I have a ton of good friends here and part of a road trip is re-connecting with old friends.

The drive from Gainesville to Orlando was a pleasant and easy 2 hours but within and hour of getting here those good ol’ FL afternoon thunder showers had welcomed me back, complete with big frizzy hair and all.  I only had 2 days to spend here so I had to pack in as much quality time with as many people as possible. I still can’t get over how much downtown has changed since I lived here.  The  old nasty bus depot that often doubled as a homeless shelter (full of homeless bussed down one way from New York) and a Meth clinic.  Well now it is a state of the art Fire House with a shiny engine. There is a new O-rena center with a rooftop bar that so looks like it wants to be in NYC it’s not even funny.  The old Church Street station has been completely revamped and I do have to say I’m a fan of the new tapas restaurant, Ceviche’s, inside that has a large stage up front for Flamenco performers that took me back to my days in Spain.

There are however 2 things in Orlando that haven’t changed. Firstly, the traffic!!!  It still sucks royally!!!!! An hour and a half to go 10 miles?!?! Really?!?!  And why is it that people who live in FL don’t know how to drive in the rain??? Still???? The other thing that hasn’t changed are my friendships. I caught up with a girlfriend I haven’t seen in atleast 8 years!!! We met while we were dating twin brothers….is that grammatically correct??? I mean, she was dating one twin and i was dating the other, we weren’t actually dating twins at the same time, not that I don’t think we are capable of it. 😉 Anyhow, it was like time hadn’t passed, except we had a ton to catch up on.  I saw an old Engineering co-worker and after hearing how the economic crash has affected the field I actually think I am probably better off as an LMT!  And of course I had the big Friday night out with the ladies.  It was surreal going back downtown on a Friday night for Happy Hour. It was like a return to Mecca since that’s where our friendships all began way back when our waistlines were smaller but so was our life experience.  We were so young and stupid!  The things we did, the boys we got hung up on & the stupid things we said.  So it only seemed a completely appropriate ending to the evening as my girlfriend Steph and I were dancing that some very young bucks came over to hit on us. Yeah, we still got it! 🙂

Day 5: Meeting an old friend…for the 1st time

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As I drove down from Beaufort, SC- relieved to be leaving the state behind- I was filled with anticipation about my upcoming reunion.  How do you have a reunion with someone you’ve never met before?  I don’t know, but it’s how it felt.

My mom has been telling me for several months how dry it’s been down where she is. And as I made my way down I-95 there were several patches where the smoke was so thick from the forest fires that you could hardly see or breathe.  It’s a shame seeing as we’ve gotten more rain in the northeast than we know what to do with.

The 4 hours on the Garmin time clock seemed to click by slowly, but before I knew it 12:45 arrived.   Whitney had been a pillar of strength, a fountain of compassion & a virtual shoulder to cry on during an extremely difficult period of my life.  But as the healing started to take place in my heart and my mental health returned, as the tears started to dry and the sun shone once again, it turned out that she was actually a real friend.  So what’s it like to meet that person for the first time IRL???  Pretty f-ing cool!!!  Giddy would be the appropriate word to use.  In a matter of hours we were years into the friendship.  When she said that she couldn’t stand water without a flavor to it I started to wonder if we had been separated at birth.  It was 2 of the most awesome days ever!  We went to the springs she’s been telling me about forever. We talked, we laughed, we shared…but we didn’t cry.  There had been enough of that!  Life is short and friends are precious.  Grab them when you can…give them a hug, and not one of those ‘half’ hugs.  Give them a full bodied hug that hugs from the heart and look forward to the next time a seredipitous meeting comes along!

Until the next time my dear friend….

Day 3: The Let-down

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Seeing as the day before was such a huge success it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the next day would sort of suck.

I rented a bike to tour the island and get some excercise. $15/day was a bargain. But in the heat 2 hours was more than enough.  It took several hours for my face to return to a normal complexion.  The kit-kat I bought melted between the store and the car before I could even open it. So i had to suck it out a little at a time from a tiny hole torn in one of the corners.

Even though it was 4th of July and most people were enjoying the day off, I was sort of annoyed by the holiday as it was just a day in between locations.  I was headed to FL and had decided pre-departure that I didn’t want to drive more than 7 hours a day and it was a long 9.5 to my next destination.  So since I didn’t have any plans for the day and things had fallen thru with Deb I decided to just check out South Carolina on the way at a good half way point.  I will precede this by saying that I have in one day seen more of SC than I ever care to see again!  I must’ve driven over a dozen bridges as I thought the coast would be more interesting than I-95.  What a strange place.  The roads don’t make any sense.  The gas prices jump 10 cents from block to block.  And you could get carried away by the mosquitos, or a swarm of gnats!  I finally ended up at what sounded like an appealing camp ground but turned out to be a dumping station for red necks with nothing better to do.  This was one of those times that camping alone didn’t seem so appealing.  Drunk red necks with moonshine and guns on the 4th of July.  No thank you. I lay in my tent wondering how the night would go.  Around 1:00 AM I heard a lot of angry voices, some male some female and then a lot cars coming and going…and coming again and going again. OH Geez! Just let it be morning already.

No surprise I didn’t get much sleep and woke up feeling very achey.  I decided to pull out my yoga mat/sleeping mat to do some morning yoga to work out the kinks. I wonder what my yogi from Dharamsala would say about handling a swarm of gnats constantly in your face, mouth and ears while trying to do a reverse warrior pose???