We recently spent a week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan - along the shores of Lake Superior - soaking in some R&R and time with family. One day, I followed Asher around with my camera - trying to capture the Michigan experience through his eyes. Here are some of my favorite photos.
We drove south from the hotel; slowing for the countless speed-bumps - some of them giant-sized, built by villagers to slow traffic, so they could sell their wares from the ditches. Other speed bumps were included when the newly built road was constructed by the Chinese. Regardless of who built them or why they're there - anyone who has been to Kenya will remember the speed bumps. They're everywhere. It doesn't matter if it's a high-speed highway, or a slow-going city street; you'll encounter speed bumps almost as frequently as you blink.
We drove for about 15 minutes, then turned onto a narrow, dirt road that was surrounded on all sides by miles of green, rolling hills. This area is home to some of the finest quality tea in the world. The high altitude causes the air to have less oxygen content; which in turn causes the tea plants to grow slower than elsewhere in the world. Slow growth allows tea plants to infuse antioxidants and flavor into each tea leaf.
So there we were. Driving through Kenya's tea estates. My cousin, Joni, navigated the car up a hill and around a corner - in the distance we saw people in the fields. As we drove closer, Joni slowed the car, then stopped. We got out and said hello. Some of the tea pickers looked up from their work, and continued on - picking and tossing leaves over their shoulders, into a basket they carried. Others walked over and introduced themselves. We lingered, watching them work, and chatting... they told us about the picking process. Only the top-most bud and two leaves are picked. They must be the correct shade of bright green, and they must be picked gently, so as not to bruise the leaf (which is why this work must be hand done and can not be done by a machine).
"The road curves left, then there are two big bumps. Keep driving... you'll see where the people sell pineapples - turn right. The road goes uphill, and there is a green gate. Someone will open the gate for you. You can't get lost." -Abel giving directions to Wilfred & Josphine's wedding. Yes, we did get lost... eventually found our way. Directions like this were common.
"Somebody from here? They would run away!" - Calvin, a hotel employee, in response to my description of Minnesota winters & the cold weather. I explained that we wear hats, gloves, jackets & boots.
"Oh! People from Minnesota! They are primitive!" - Mike, the running coach, who has spent time in the USA. He was referring to the fact that Minnesotan's are hunters - hunting is strictly forbidden in Kenya. Kenya is the original home of safari tours, and Kenyan's have no tolerance for poachers.
"So that is the life of mzungu!" - Calvin, after hearing about the traditional Finnish sauna - and how Finns take a sauna, then jump into a hole in the frozen lake to cool off. Mzungu means white person in Swahili.
"You know? I cried." - Wilfred Bungei, describing how it felt to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
"I just look around and eat what I see. Ugali or chapati. I don't think about it. I simply eat and proceed with my day." Dovo, the chef, in response to Ulla (one of my travel companions). Dovo had asked Ulla what she would like to eat for breakfast, and she was thinking and trying to decide what she felt like eating.
"No dowry?! Oh, that is very different!" Calvin, when he learned that in America, men do not pay a dowry when they marry a woman. In Kenyan culture, although they do marry for love, it is traditional practice for men to pay a dowry in exchange for a wife. Depending on the girl and her family, the dowry varies - but from what I understand, the dowry is usually 4 to 10 cows, perhaps with sheep, and/or goats. The dowry is given to the woman's family.
Kenya. This country stole a part of my heart, and kept it. I'll show you why.
I'm not sure what initially drew me in - either my curiosity of what was behind the white, wooden door - or - my nose, following the smell of fresh chapati and chai. It was early in the day, the sun still low in the sky, shining bright through the misty morning air. African radio was playing somewhere, and the sound of street traffic was gradually getting louder... the town of Kapsabet was waking up. And there I was... Making my way into the hotel kitchen, with an empty stomach and a slightly homesick heart.
I stepped through the white door, and found Beatrice - already hard at work - scrubbing dishes by hand, bent over at the waist with the wash-bucket and a heaping mound of dirty dishes at her feet. She looked up at me with a smile, and asked if I need something.
I made my way further - up a couple of stairs and into the kitchen. There I found Dovo, the Chef, busy doing what chefs do. Chopping, stirring, cooking.
Smoke coiled up from the charcoal stove, and mixed with steam rising from the chai tea simmering in a pot... the smoke and steam combination swirled and drifted out the open windows. A three legged stool sat vacant in the corner of the kitchen. I instantly felt warmth and comfort. That stool called my name. I settled in, and Dovo and Moses (the sous chef) brought me chai and chapati.
Chai is Kenyan black tea, made with milk and water. The flavor is robust, smooth, delicious. Kenyan tea is grown at high altitude, in particular growing conditions, resulting in an antioxidant rich, ultra-premium tea. (If you know a coffee shop that would like to serve this tea, let me know). And chapati are the Kenyan version of pancakes - made with flour and water. They're very similar to a crepe.
Over the next week, I frequently visited the kitchen. I loved the hustle and bustle of it. It was a source of warmth, good conversation, and of course - food! Writing this blog post brings back lots of memories and now, instead of feeling lonesome for my family and home, I'm missing Kenya.
Our day trip to Sedona, Arizona turned into more of an adventure than we planned... it all started on a good note. We left Flagstaff and drove south to Sedona - our coffee mugs full of fresh brew and the cooler packed with snacks and lunch for a picnic. We were all set!
The drive into Sedona was beautiful - life was good. Once we arrived, we made a pit stop at the Visitor Center to map out the plan. With help from the lady at the counter, I chose a few hikes that were doable with 4 kids, and we were on our way! As we left, the visitor center lady gave me a heads up: "You'll have to do some off-road driving to get to the trail head for those hikes, but you have 4-wheel drive, so you'll be fine. Have fun!"
So. This off-roading stuff. Prior to Sedona, I thought driving the remote gravel roads in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was considered 'off-road'... but, I can tell you from my newfound experience ... I was completely mistaken. The non-paved roads in Sedona are literally littered with giant rocks and potholes at every twist and turn... there is no way around - you have to go over or through them.
After a mile or so, we both found that we actually enjoyed the change of pace. Driving uneven terrain is fun! Caution was thrown to the wind and we were off! Let the Sedona adventures begin. We've got a Jeep, baby! Let's do this.
I should mention- the off-road driving really is a thing - we saw a ton of Jeep's out there... most were rented through rental companies in town - exactly for this purpose.
Anyway, I'll skip over all the hiking and scenery and exploring of the day and tell you that we ended up with a flat tire. At 6:00 PM. On a non-paved road in the middle of nowhere. Without a spare tire.
"Drive back to the nearest paved road before this tire is completely flat!" Which meant bumping along, over rocks and boulders at top speed... the mile drive back to asphalt was quite a rough ride.
Whew. Made it.
"Let's call AAA!" Except, they can't help other than tow us to a tire shop and the tire shops are all closed. Crap. We were losing air fast. The tire is pretty pathetic looking at this point - holding only about half the air anymore. "Quick, drive to the nearest hotel."
pssssshhhhhhhhhh. The tire is ridiculously loud as it leaks air... it has no regard for our plans or my mood.
We arrive at the nearest hotel - but, they have only 1 room left, and "according to Arizona State Law number blah, blah - no more than one child is allowed in this room." The guy at the front desk has ZERO empathy for our situation... even after I gave him the full, overly dramatic 'from out of town, with little kids who are hungry and tired' details. He asks me to move the Jeep so that we aren't using his parking lot. As I walk out the door, I almost tell him: "watch out for karma, bro."
Now what? "Oh well." I teld the kids. "We'll just sleep in the Jeep and figure it out tomorrow." By the way, our kids are such troopers. They just go with the flow - not really fazed by anything. They started claiming sleeping positions in the Jeep, while I wondered if I should stay awake all night, try to sleep outside on the pavement, or try to get some shut-eye in the passenger seat.
My knight in shining armor had other plans... his brilliant idea was to drive to a gas station and use the 'free air' hose. He filled the tire with air, while we called every hotel in town. They were ALL completely booked, or refused to accommodate a family. [Insert note: Investment opportunity - build a family-friendly, clean, affordable hotel in Sedona.]
Anyway, there are a lot of details to the flat tire experience- but ultimately, a helpful family from Colorado and a local police officer negotiated with a hotel owner (on our behalf) to help us find a room for the night. The tire was fixed the next morning and we were on our way - back to home, sweet home ... the good ole Winnebago.
Would I do it all over again? Yes, absolutely.
But, the tire guys gave me a heads up. "Next time," they said "let a little air out of your tires when you drive that kind of terrain and your tires are less likely to pop."
And, writing this blog post actually reminds me that we should fix our spare tire too. So, before going back, I would definitely do that.
Sunset at South Mountain, Phoenix Arizona.
This photograph is one I'll treasure forever... for one, it's a rare family photo. And then it just completely captures the mood of so many of our adventures... The wind in Kate's hair. Asher glued to my side. Mikhail next to Nate. And Sofia, the diplomat - always somewhere between Asher and Mikhail.
Once we make it 'home' (i.e. back to living in a non-mobile building) I plan to frame this shot and hang it on the wall in a place where we see it often. I hope it will remind us of our life on the road and all those moments together as a family.
Taken by our friend, Geof (@slowjam98 on Instagram).
One of our favorite places in AZ was the mountainous town of Flagstaff. The scenery and nature in this area are beautiful! There is so much to do and explore. And to make things even better, we spent time with good friends who made our experience pretty much perfect. From yummy food & coffee, to horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking - our friends made sure Flagstaff was a place we would be sad to leave. Needless to say, we'll be back.
Wupatki National Monument
The Pueblo Indian ruins at Waputki National Monument (just north of Flagstaff) were super interesting. They date back over 900 years, making them some of the oldest man-made structures in North America. The ruins were home to ancient Native Americans who grew maize and squash and harvested rainwater in order to survive. They are located in the middle of a vast desert landscape, and built on top of huge sandstone bluffs- providing panoramic views in every direction. The National Parks Service has made some of the ruins available for exploration - which totally enriched our visit. Rather than a 'look but don't touch' policy, we were able to walk through the rooms of somebody's former home. We climbed the stairs, and ducked low to pass through the tiny door openings, roaming from room to room. The doors inside were only about 3 feet high and super narrow - I'm not sure why they were built this way. I 'spose I could research that someday. Or, if you happen to know - please do tell! Anyway... As we looked out the window from inside the ruins, Kate and I discussed what life would have been like for the Pueblo families, 900 years ago. It was a pretty special moment; we were so close to those people from all those years ago... standing in their very home, looking out the windows they, no doubt, looked out as well. It almost felt like a time warp - until Asher's ear splitting screeches and his lovely little temper tantrum brought me back to present day.
The ruins are also home to a natural blowhole. I had never heard of these before - which is no surprise, as they are very rare. A blowhole is a geological feature where air is blown through a small hole in the ground due to pressure differences between a closed underground system and the surface*. So when the air below ground is cooler than temps above ground, the blowhole blasts the cool air upward - creating a natural air conditioner! And when the air below ground is warmer than surface temps, the blowhole acts as a heater - fanning warm air upward. It is estimated that the closed underground passages at Wupatki have a volume of at least seven billion cubic feet. Wind speeds of air exiting the hole can approach 30 miles per hour*.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
The cinder cones left over from a volcanic eruption 1,000 years ago were a highlight for Mikhail, our 6 year old. He's pretty impressed with the idea of lava spewing from the earth - so when I learned that there is a dormant volcano near Flagstaff, I put it on our 'must see' list. Sunset Crater did not disappoint. Walking trails wind in and around the jagged, black volcanic rock - allowing the kids to thoroughly get a feel for the stuff. Volcanic rock is a bit like charcoal - very light, and airy - yet not at all soft like charcoal. Rumor has it that the cowboys of the American wild west avoided traveling through the volcanic rock - as it was hard on their horses' hooves and would leave the soles of their cowboy boots in shreds.
And last, but not least ... a quintessential Flagstaff scene: mountains, Ponderosa pines, and beautiful golden grasses.
I am so far behind on my blog posts! These pictures are from a month ago and we've visited umpteen places since then... all places I want to share with you. So, please overlook the lack of heart & soul in this blog post... I'm going to summarize quickly my thoughts about our drive through the Painted Desert:
I'm not a huge fan of the desert. I need water to be happy - and so while I LOVED visiting friends and family in Arizona - I could. not. wait. to get to some good ole H20. That said, I was blown away at the beauty of the Painted Desert. Yes, it is barren & rugged & drier than a bone. But these conditions create a place that feels completely foreign - exotic even. The Painted Desert is a canvas of color- reds, grays, browns - all set against the vibrant blue sky. It's a place so big and vast that you can't help but feel like a tiny ant, wandering through God's beautiful work.
I almost forgot to mention that several dinosaur fossils have been discovered in this region... It totally looks and feels like a place where dinosaurs would roam.
"I wish we were able to find dinosaur bones. This place was mostly hot and dusty. I didn't see any animals living here even though I know that snakes and coyotes probably are hiding somewhere. If I lived here, I would try and dig a hole and see if the sand wouldn't fall on top of me, and if the sand stayed up, then I would stay in the hole. I would throw rocks and stuff for fun." -Mikhail's Journal Entry
"The hills looked really man-made. At first, we thought that people made the piles of dirt - but they are actually natural, which was really surprising. The desert was like reddish, orangish, and yellowish - it kinda did look painted. It looked really different from Minnesota! I thought it was pretty to see. I think it would be hard to find food if - in the olden days - you were an Indian in this area. I'm not sure what you would hunt there. I'm not sure how you would find water." -Kate's Journal Entry
"When I climbed to the top of a hill, there were little rocks that would fall and it was slippery to climb. But at the top the sand was harder and my feet didn't sink in. There were no trees or anything like that. The ground was wrinkled. I saw a bug that was yellow, black, red and white. There was a porcupine thing that kind of looked like a face - when I looked at it closer, it was a cactus! I don't think I would like to live here because it was completely dusty, without any water, and it made my nose runny. But it would be better than living in Antarctica. I still wouldn't love to live there - but I guess I wouldn't be mad either. If I go back someday, I will get more pictures on my iPod so that I can make a painting of the colors. I saw all kinds of colors! Blue, green, black, yellow, red, and brown." -Sofia's Journal Entry
Have you ever felt like words are not adequate? That's how I feel about Antelope Canyon... each time I try to describe the canyon, I give up in frustration. It's just one of those places you have to experience to understand. Rather than say it was beautiful and stunning and amazing and blah blah blah - I'll show you a few of my favorite pictures.
We started the day by driving north from the Grand Canyon (another epic experience... but the heights & sheer drop offs are unnerving - especially with little punks). We rolled into Page, Arizona - settled in for the night and I set my alarm for 5:30 AM. I wanted to watch the sunrise over Horseshoe Bend - a unique place along the Colorado River. After Horseshoe Bend, we met up with our Navajo tour guide - who took us through Antelope Canyon.
White Sands National Monument is unlike any place I've ever been. The pristine sand is a brilliant white canvas that stretches as far as the eye can see. The entire area is surrounded by mountains which creates a scene that feels like it's from another planet. It is truly incredible.
Gypsum (white) sand dunes are extremely rare because gypsum is water-soluble. Normally, rain water would dissolve the gypsum and carry it away. This particular dune is in the Tularosa Basin, and is completely enclosed by mountains - so there is no outlet to the ocean. When the rain dissolves the gypsum, it is still trapped within the basin, so when it dries, it leaves the gypsum behind. The dunes were formed by the collapse of a dome that was made of gypsum sand. Scientists estimate the collapse occurred ten million years ago. What remains of the original dome are the San Andreas and Sacramento Mountain ranges*.
Winds constantly shift and sculpt the dunes, creating waves in the sand. The largest dunes move 30 feet per year - which keeps the maintenance department at the park busy year round. They use equipment similar to snowplows to keep the roads clear throughout the National Monument.
We spent an entire day exploring and playing in the sand. The kids went sledding down the dunes - just like if it were snow! We had a lunchtime picnic at the top of the dunes, built sand caves, and watched the sun go down behind the mountains. When we left, I think we took most of the dunes with us, in our hair and pockets!! ;)
Years ago... back in the 60's, my grandma and grandpa traveled across the US - driving a motorhome with their five kids. Living and exploring - soaking in time as a family and seeing the sights. They made their way south and eventually stopped in Mexico, where they met a Mexican family in a small village - who showed them the local swimming hole. They kicked up their heals and cooled the engine for a while. They washed their clothes and bathed in the natural pool, ate the local food and learned about the native Mexican culture... my aunt recently told me about how she would fall asleep, listening to the Mexicans singing in Spanish as they danced around the fire at night. Eventually my grandparents packed up shop, drove home and went on with life. Until the next winter when they did it again, and again, and again - as the kids got older, it was just the two of them... traveling from Minnesota to the south. Sometimes to Florida, sometimes Arizona. And everywhere in between.
So when I plan our route, I call up granny and gramps, and we chat. They were the ones who gave me a heads up on checking out the plantations in Louisiana- which turned out to be an incredible stop. They recommended driving Hwy 10 from Florida west, to Arizona. They told me about Alligator Alley, Sanibel Island, and the little outlet store near Ocala, Florida where my granny used to stop and get her goods. And every time we talk about the route, gramps mentions Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
When he first told me about the caverns, I thought meh. I'm not a huge cave person. I think we'll skip that one. But then he mentioned it again the next time we talked - and I figured we had better give it a chance.
So there we were. At Carlsbad Caverns... completely blown away. Words can not do justice to this place- but... I'll try.
The cave (or at least the portion that you tour) is 754 feet deep - equivalent to a 75 story building. We entered the mouth of the cave and walked nearly 2 miles - through giant chambers filled with stunning stalactites and stalagmites. There are small pools of water throughout the cave, which create a mist in the air and soft, dripping sounds that echo throughout the vast chambers.
It felt like walking into the heart of the earth - silent, deep, dark.
I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that this cave was only discovered a little over 100 years ago... and honestly, it would be easy to miss. The landscape above ground is made up of huge rolling hills and cliffs that go on and on. Each hill looks just like the other. The landscape doesn't let on that the ground below contains one of the world's largest, most spectacular caves. It was discovered in 1898 by Jim White - who noticed that each night, a huge slew of bats flew up into the sky from somewhere. He followed the bats and eventually found the mouth of the cave - which, as it turns out, is a summer home to one million Mexican Freetail bats.
DISCLAIMER: The following photographs are not work I'm proud of. Unfortunately, I wasn't on top of my photography game - and to top it off, the caverns are incredibly difficult to capture through photography. In fact, back in the 1930's the legendary landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. was frustrated by these caves. He was commissioned by the National Parks Service to photograph the caverns - and was so disappointed in his work, that he considered much of it a failure, and destroyed it. Adams describes the caverns well; he once said:
While staying near Austin, Texas - we found this really neat swimming hole. We had to hike a little ways - we followed a creek and at the end, were rewarded with a waterfall. We picnicked near the creek, and afterwards, the kids went swimming in the natural pool. I hadn't realized swimming was an option, so we didn't have bathing suits - but good thing kids are easy to please - they jumped in, clothes and all!
Just as the name suggests, Enchanted Rock was believed to be 'enchanted' by the Native Americans who lived in this part of Texas. Legend has it that the rock speaks - it makes a groaning sound... because of this, the Native Americans had a deep fear and respect for the place, and wouldn't go near it. They wouldn't even shoot arrows toward the rock.
Modern scientists take away the enchantment and replace it with really cool science - the Enchanted Rock is the largest pink granite monadnock in the US. The groaning sounds are due to extreme temperature changes, causing the granite to quickly expand or contract. We listened closely, but much to Mikhail's disappointment, we didn't hear any great groaning sounds.
However, the hike up Enchanted Rock was pretty awesome. We climbed to the top and surveyed the surrounding countryside. We watched as the sun dipped low in the sky, painting the clouds with brilliant pinks and purples... Kate says "it was the best sunset I've ever seen. It was so inspiring! I just wanted to write and run and do everything!"
We spent a week in a smallish German town called New Braunfels - located in the Texas hill country between Austin and San Antonia ... it's a beautiful area. Full of dramatic hills split by creeks and rivers. The rivers and creeks are filled with surprisingly clear blueish turquoise water... but that's another blog post. While staying in New Braunfels, the locals told me that the Texas Hill Country is home to the largest wildflower fields in the entire country. And here we were! Smack dab in hill country - in springtime.
So we went out exploring - we drove miles of narrow, winding country roads - admiring the blooming flowers and trees. As we approached 'home' (aka, the good ole Winnebago) I realized I hadn't taken many photos. So we pulled over near a field covered in yellow blossoms to get a closer look ...
First things first: the oak trees at Oak Alley are pretty much pure magic. I could've walked for hours and hours among these giants that grow all around the property. Their sprawling branches provide a sense of calm and peace. The plantation was incredibly beautiful. This particular species of tree is the Virginia Oak. They can live for up to 600 years - and these ones are currently 300 years old. As I sat there, looking up at the ferns growing along the thick, reaching limbs, I felt myself step back in time. Someone, 300 years ago - planted these trees. Imagine what these branches have seen! 300 years ago, our country hadn't even gained independence from the Brits... and these trees were little seedlings, growing in southern Louisiana along the banks of the mighty Mississippi. They were planted long before the present house was built. Fast forward to 150 years ago: the plantation was in full swing - slaves working in the fields and a southern family living their cush lives inside the mansion. These trees lived through the end of the Civil War period, when the plantation was no longer able to cash flow and thus went into arrears. They lived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, and lived to see the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They were standing there - in good ole Louisiana when I was born in Minnesota during the blizzard of 1983. And here they are, in 2015 - as stunning and majestic as ever. They'll live throughout my lifetime, and for a couple hundred years after I die. Imagine the stories these trees could tell.
Other than the trees, Oak Alley also consists of the mansion and rebuilt version of the former slave quarters. Of course, the mansion was beautiful and interesting to tour - but it was somewhat predictable... lovely furniture, intricate crown molding, lots of artwork covering the walls, big rooms, etc. Somewhat surprisingly the tour glosses over the history of the slaves - and the fact that the beautiful home was built by slaves. They focus a lot more on the family who originally ran the plantation - and who ultimately failed. The father died at a young age from tuberculosis. The mother was left in charge - and she spent more than the budget allowed. She eventually died and left the kids penniless.
I found the slave quarters to be much more interesting. The sad story of slavery always leads me to deep thoughts about human nature and conforming to societal norms. Rather than rewrite the story of the Oak Alley slaves, I'll share the pictures I took... and if you ever have the chance to visit one of these plantations, I highly recommend it. They're an integral part of American history.
But before the pictures, I want to quickly tell you the somber story of Zephyr, one of the 120 slaves at Oak Alley*. He was brought to Oak Alley in 1936 with his wife and sons. They were the property of the plantation owner's mother. She had referred to Zephyr as a "faithful servant" and expressed concern that he and his family not be separated after her death. Whether it was for "excellent service" or simply in memory of his mother, Jaques (the plantation owner) filed for Zephyr's freedom in an act called a manumission. Zephyr remained at Oak Alley with his enslaved family, working for the plantation as a free man. After 10 years, he saved enough money to purchase Zaire (his wife) for $350. He was 70, she was 60. Once again, they decided to live on the plantation.
There are a few reasons why Zephyr and Zaire might have chosen to stay at Oak Alley. One is that while they could leave, Jacque still owned their children. Another possibility was that having been freed so late in life, it was unlikely Zephyr could earn enough money to live independently. They lived out the remainder of their lives as 'free' yet shackled to the plantation. I left Oak Alley with Zephyr and Zaire's story lodged deep in my heart.
*Source: literature at Oak Alley
As we planned the tentative route for our 6 month motorhome adventure around the U.S, New Orleans was one of the 'hope to see' cities on the list. Mostly because last summer, we visited Lake Itasca with the kids. Lake Itasca is the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River and New Orleans is at the mouth of the river. While at Lake Itasca, we walked across the rocks that bridge the headwaters of the Mississippi, and talked about how far the water flows... It takes a drop of water roughly 90 days to travel the 2,300 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, where the river ends. The kids thought it would be so cool someday to see the river's end... and so here we were 6 months later! In New Orleans.
I had never been to New Orleans, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Of course, I'd read a lot about it in the news during Hurricane Katrina... so I was curious if we'd still see signs of the hurricane. Before stopping at a new place, I always do research to try and evaluate which cities are a 'yes' and which are a 'no'. Honestly - there are so many places to see and to go - that it's tough to narrow down. We spent almost two months in Florida, and I still felt like it wasn't enough time. Anyway- while reading blogs and online reviews on New Orleans - I found myself wondering if it would be safe for us to stop. Sadly, the city has struggled with crime for years and is known to have one of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation. Recently there have even been incidents in the French Quarter - the tourist hub of the city- and the very place we planned to spend our time. However, the bad stuff all seemed to go down after dark, when people were alone, or when alcohol was involved... none of which would involve us. I've also realized that sometimes, online research can misconstrue information. The bad stuff always gets highlighted - with 15 different news reporters sharing their version of the story - while the happy, every day stuff is completely overlooked. In the end, statistics answered the question - over 9 million tourists safely visited New Orleans in 2013.
We set out for New Orleans on a rainy Florida morning. We had reservations at a highly rated RV park - who assured me they have a gated community, on-duty security, and no issues with crime. The big bonus: they also provided a shuttle to the French Quarter so we wouldn't have to drive & pay for parking.
Miles ticked by, one after another. Time passed, and soon it was evening. I followed my GPS toward the RV park and exited the freeway - following the map. As we got deeper into New Orleans, I started to realize something was off. The GPS was taking us smack dab into the middle of the lower 9th ward- the area that was the poorest region prior to Hurricane Katrina and also was the hardest hit by the storm. All the reviews I had read online warned visitors to stay away after dark. And here we were... tooling through in our motorhome - towing the Jeep (the Jeep is significant, because it means we can not easily turn around. We can not back up while towing, and tight u-turns are out of the question).
I stopped and called the RV Park. They recommended we get out of the area and to somewhere safer as soon as possible. I'm trying to, darn it. Other than that, they weren't much help. They did tell me though, that they've had a lot of people (nearly half of their visitors) sent to the exact place we were sent by the GPS on their phones! Moral of the story - GPS can't always be trusted. Anyway, I found a place to turn around - and we set off in the right direction. We slept safe and sound at the RV park that night.
The next morning, we took the shuttle to the French Quarter. As we drove through the city I noticed signs of the hurricane are still quite evident. Our bus driver said that 80% of the city was underwater during Katrina! Unbelievable destruction. I can't imagine what it was like. Despite this, I found the city to have a unique vibe unlike any American city I've been to. Especially the region around the French Quarter. There is so much southern charm and character and this deep sense of history that makes you think 'if only these walls could talk'. I'd have to say it is easily one of my favorites- of the cities we've visited thus far. There's also this eery feel... especially as it started to get dark. It could have been the thick fog. Or the legends of haunted streets. Whatever it was, I couldn't shake it. But I loved that diversity.
Here are some pictures of our day. I wish I could tell the story of each shot, but if you're anything like me - you skim the text and look at photos.
I hope these pictures convey how much I loved being in New Orleans. If you're looking for an interesting, dynamic, unexpected experience - go! If you prefer predictable, fresh, modern... its maybe not for you.
In terms of visiting New Orleans with kids... it's not the ideal family city. I think we would have gotten more out of the experience if it were possible to leave the kids with a sitter and go for the day. We would have walked much further, sat down to people-watch longer, and would've enjoyed at least one more coffee house. That said - our kids did great and had fun as well. We did walk a lot, even with them along - so the stroller was nice to have for Asher. I also packed snacks and water. The kids particularly enjoyed the river and the street musicians. Water always entertains kids! They skipped rocks, built zen/rock towers, splashed a bit. Some of the musicians were kids the same age as ours - so that made a huge impression!
I am often asked what our kids think of this whole experience- so I'm going to start including snippets of their words on some of my blog posts. These are taken from their journals (regarding New Orleans):
Mikhail says: "Asher was scared of the stick man in the water. At New Orleans I liked how there was a whole bunch of music player people and I liked the horses driving in the road with the cars. The motorhome wouldn't fit on the roads there. It would get stuck and squished between the buildings. I saw kids playing trumpets. And some babies in strollers. I didn't see any playgrounds or monster trucks."
Sofia's words: "It was really misty and cool. We saw so much people playing instruments. There were kids playing instruments too! It was the end of the Mississippi River - that was awesome. Seeing that fog was fun- it was super thick. You could hardly see anything. The water looked pure white. You couldn't see anything out there. I liked the houses. They were much different - the doors were covered with little curtains. And a lot of them, if they had pets would be inside because they didn't have any yards. The streets had flower pots on every house. At the end, I was tired so I got to sit in the stroller!"
Kate: "There was a lot of mysterious stuff, and it had lots of history because it was ruled by the French government. But then the United States bought it, and they decided to keep it sort of French - so street signs were named after French names and the laws are French. It was normal for southern areas to have curly fences instead of straight, so the houses and decks were really fancy. Everything was squished together, all the buildings were right next to each other. There were restaurants everywhere and there was a lot of music - you could hear music everywhere we went. There were some homeless people, and when we looked in the fountain, we saw only pennies. No quarters or dimes. Maybe people took the bigger coins. The only thing I would maybe not like about New Orleans, is that you had to stay where there were people and crowds to be perfectly safe."
While near Orlando, Florida - we walked a trail that led along a river and through a swampy region. The area was home to a family of pioneers, and is preserved by the Florida Historical Society. Their home and some of the structures are still there today. As we walked, we saw wild oranges growing in the forest - a bit off the trail. Sofia first said "look mom! It's a pumpkin tree!" Upon closer inspection we found that they weren't pumpkins... but rather oranges. The kids picked a few and we had a little snack!
I'm an ocean girl, through and through. And I live in Minnesota. Go figure. At least we have 10,000 lakes.
We spent a few days in the Miami area - and visited a few of the local beaches. One of my favorites was South Beach - the water was a beautiful turquoise color, warm and clear.