San Diego and Venice Beach

I picked Ashwin up from the San Diego airport Friday evening. The first thing I noticed was how many bags he was carrying. How was this all going to fit in the car? Unfortunately we are back to only having one dog crate set up in the car, while one dog sits on my lap. The hotel room felt like a resort after all my cheap rooms, and the dogs really enjoyed walking around the grounds and sniffing the koi pond.

We spent the weekend driving along historic Route 1 (sometimes called 101, or Pacific Coast Highway), leaving our San Diego hotel after a quick lunch with a friend of my Grandparents.  I would not recommend starting this drive from San Diego. It really was not a fun or beautiful drive until after we passed through Los Angeles. We drove through several towns, not really seeing much of the coast. Ashwin stopped at a fruit stand and bought a box of mangos– the car is so stuffed at this point that we cannot see out the back window. We debated stopping at a beach, but decided that we should focus on getting to our stop for the night before it got too late.

Ashwin had a friend from college who lived right on the Venice Beach boardwalk, so we spent the night in an empty room (the new roommates were moving in the next day). Venice Beach reminded me a lot of the vampire movie Lost Boys, with high school kids skateboarding and hanging out on benches. There was even an outdoor muscle gym. Meeko liked the tennis courts the best, though I don’t think the players appreciated her barking every time they hit the ball. And of course, no boardwalk beach town is complete without a variety of homeless men. One of them had his own table set up as “The Wine-o,” where he would sing songs to you on request, tell jokes, or whatever you wanted him to do for his booze money. I had to applaud his entrepreneurial spirit.

The dogs had a lot of fun walking through the boardwalk in the evening, and in the morning when they woke me up. We all slept on one of our sleeping bags, including Meeko! In the morning, we walked out to the ocean, but not 5 minutes of standing by the water we were cornered by a lifeguard in an orange SUV telling us “no dogs.” The only signs I saw said no vehicles on the beach!

We drove through Laguna Beach, Malibu, and many other beach towns. It was neat to see all of these notorious places, but I was surprised how generally dirty Southern California was, especially LA!

Location: Venice Beach, California

Go West!

On Wednesday, June 27th 2012, Snickers, Meeko, and I officially made it to the state of California!

I spent the morning packing up the car and trying to figure out what I should do with myself for the next few days. Ashwin booked a hotel for us in San Diego on Friday night, where we would start our journey driving along the coast of California. So, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning were totally up to me. I decided to go to Palm Springs, California where my Grandparents on my Mom’s side lived until they passed away. I have many happy memories from my visits there, from swimming in their condo’s pool all day to hiking at Joshua Tree National Park with my sister. Knowing that the next two weeks were going to involve more living out of hotels and suitcases and frequent moves, I wanted to find a place where the dogs and I could just relax. I booked a two night stay in Palms Springs, not bothering to check the weather.

It turns out that Tuscon, Arizona is very hot in the summer. I’m talking 100+ degrees. The Southwest is in the middle of an intense heat wave, and Palm Springs is not exception. I met my cousin and her boyfriend for lunch near University of Arizona’s campus. My cousin is completing a PhD there, studying deep space. I’m not sure exactly what her degree title will be, so rather than be wrong, I will just leave it at that! At our family get togethers, it’s always clear that none of us even come close to understanding the work she does– it’s very impressive!

We figured we could eat outside on a patio in the shade, so my dogs could come along. I really underestimated how Snickers would feel about the heat again. Even with plenty of water, it was clear she was uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the waitress informed us that dogs were not allowed on the actual patio, but we could tie them up to the gate surrounding the patio, and then sit next to them. Poor Snickers spent the whole lunch trying to squeeze herself through the bars to get closer to me. Meeko seemed okay eating ice cubes and greeting passersby. My sandwich and half salad were perfect, and it was fun getting to catch up with my cousin.

We walked back to campus to sit in some shade by the student union to chat a bit more before I headed out. They both recommended that I take I-8 rather than I-10 as passing through Phoenix would slow me down. There was only a 20 mile difference, and some of I-8 ran along the Mexican border. “It’s a much prettier drive,” they assured me, “and maybe you’ll get to stop for a border check!” I took their advice and found myself driving through huge cacti forests, sand dunes and two border stops. These are random checkpoints where all highway traffic stops and you get questioned one car at a time about where you are coming from, where you are going, and if you are a U.S. citizen. My cousin told me that the questions tended to be light if you looked American. As in, if you didn’t look Hispanic.

The first border check asked if the car I was driving was mine. I almost said yes– I’ve spent so much time in Ethel she’s really starting to feel like mine! “Um, no, it’s my boyfriend’s.” Then they asked if I had any plants or animals. I reflected briefly on my time with my lucky bamboo plant, then pointed out the two crates in the backseat. “I’ve got two dogs with me in the back.” I was waived through. The second border check was a bit more intense, and the van in front of my got put in neutral and pushed over to the side for more inspection. But still, I was waived on through fairly quickly.

When we were finally greeted by the “Welcome to California” sign, I was ecstatic. We’d made it! After almost a month of traveling, we were finally here. I started thinking about all of the things I hope to accomplish this year. New ways to make money, all kinds of writing endeavors, going through another application season, and really just finding myself and what I am meant to do with my life. I am so excited for this year, and cannot wait to get settled in our new place in San Francisco.

Getting to Palm Springs took longer than I thought due to all the border stops, and by 9pm I knew I needed to get some dinner. I stopped at a travel center for their Subway only to find the place crawling with flies. I wasn’t taking any chances, so I left that store. In the same plaza, there was a drive through Starbucks. There is something about drive throughs that I really dislike– it’s weird ordering things when you can’t see them, and the whole yelling to the speaker is weird. In this age of technology, why have we not been able to improve on drive throughs?

I ordered a small hot chocolate and an oatmeal, or “Perfect Oatmeal” as Starbucks calls them. I’ve had both things from Starbucks before and have never had any problems. Both items tasted fine when I ate them. Well, by the time I got to the hotel, I knew something was wrong. I was up until 3am waiting out food poisoning. My best guess is either the water for the oatmeal was contaminated, or the person preparing everything just had dirty hands. Pretty scary considering they shouldn’t really have been touching anything!

My current location is at a Panera Bread in Palm Springs because the “free WIFI” at my hotel does not reach my room. I’m still not 100%, but I think a nice hot soup will do me some good, despite it being 102 degrees out and climbing. The dogs and I probably won’t do much today unless it cools off this evening. But they are having a great time snuggling on the bed with me watching National Geographic in the air conditioning. Lunch time!

Location: Palm Springs, California

The Hunt for Turquoise

I woke up on Monday with a mission– tired the dogs out and find some awesome turquoise jewelry.

We drove to the Petroglyph National Monument early in the morning so it wouldn’t be as hot. I went to the entrance of one section of the park where, according to their website, a large number of petroglyphs were. (Petroglyphs are an ancient form of writing using pictures to represent ideas. These particular ones were drawn by Pueblo Native Americans.) The rangers explained the whole map, took $1 for their entrance fee, and then they saw the dogs in the back seat. Apparently no dogs were allowed in that section of the park. We backtracked to Rinconda Canyon instead, which did not cost us a dollar.

I was all prepared for hiking with my backpack full of water for the dogs and myself, both cameras, and park maps. What I was not prepared for was what a wimp Snickers would be! Not 20 minutes into the hike she was complaining about how hot her feet were. She shows this by trying to lift all four of her paws up at the same time. The result is looking like she is walking on stilts. Meeko, fur coat and all, was having a great time. She was checking out the rocks with me and greeting other hikers with a big Sheltie smile. We turned back 30 minutes into the trail because Snickers refused to walk anymore. I carried her in my arms as we headed back to the parking lot. Snickers found a shaded bench area and laid down on her side on the ground. I poured some water on the ground so it would run underneath her– she seemed to enjoy that. I know they both got plenty of water to drink before, during, and after the hike, so it made me sad that Snickers really couldn’t handle a more strenuous hike.

After dropping the dogs off in our air conditioned room, I headed out to the Turquoise Trail scenic byway. I grabbed a quick lunch of quiche at Lindy’s Roadside Attraction and then I was ready to shop! I drove about halfway through the route when I realized all of the galleries I had pulled up to were closed. My phone had been out of service for the majority of this rural route, but I finally got to a town big enough where it worked again. It turned out all galleries were closed on Mondays due to being open all weekend. This left me with no choice– I turned around and headed back to the hotel. I was mad that I’d wasted all this gas for nothing, and at myself after I realized that had I gone shopping for Turquoise on Sunday, none of this would have happened.

We had to check out of our hotel Tuesday morning, so the only way to fit everything in was to leave the hotel by 9am and take the dogs turquoise shopping with me before heading to Arizona!

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sunday in Albuquerque

After a much needed good night’s sleep, I spent Sunday afternoon at the Indian Pueblo  Cultural Center. The building and grounds were well designed, and seemed fairly new. I stopped in at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, a restaurant attached directly to the museum. Sundays offered a brunch menu until 4pm, with a variety of standard breakfast items (like french toast) as well as Native inspired dishes. French toast is a favourite of mine, but I went outside of my comfort zone and picked all Native dishes for my “Build your own Breakfast”. Well, except for the scrambled eggs.

I had some blue corn porridge, which tasted similar to Cream of Wheat, but more jiggly. I couldn’t finish it, but it was pretty good once I mixed in some brown sugar and raisins. Frybread seemed to be a pretty traditional food, it turned out to be a thin, crispy fried bread. Not doughy like your typical carnival fried dough though. The chorizo was some crumbly spicy pork thing, that I didn’t care for. It’s always a little weird to be sitting in a restaurant by yourself, especially as a girl. I tend to get some odd stares, and even surprise when I answer waiters, “No, it’s just me”.

After my brunch, I headed out to the courtyard to watch a Native dance group perform. All of the members were related– the grandmother, the father, his children and even a grandchild! They performed dances and songs from a variety of tribes, not just their own. What I really enjoyed was the history and personal stories the patriarch told in between songs. He also spoke about how traditions have been changed to reflect social changes, for example, more prayer songs have been created to incorporate women. The words for a song for warriors have been changed so that it honors both men and women serving in the military. During their performances of a  song for warriors and a memorial song for loved ones that are no longer with us, I found myself getting chills and tears in my eyes. A few songs later, he recounted a chat he’d had with a man who had watched one of their performances. This man had a reaction just like I did to some of the songs. “I don’t know the words your saying,” the man had said, “but I feel them”. The patriarch explained that many of the songs we heard were like listening to gospel hymns in a church. “So welcome to my church” he concluded.

I thanked them for their performance at the end, and the whole family shook hands with me. They asked where I was from– I guess I can’t pass for a local in New Mexico! I explained about my trip and that I was traveling by myself. The patriarch nodded in approval, “I wish you luck on your journey”.

The rest of the museum was intriguing and I thought all of the hands on exhibits were a great touch for kids. There was a station to try weaving in the Southwest tradition, which uses a unique standing loom. Another station provided clay to make pottery. Many of the artifacts were similar to the Hopi exhibit back in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but it was interesting to see the craft work split into the specific pueblos within the different New Mexico tribes.

I finished off the day with some delicious Pho from 2000 Millennium Vietnamese restaurant, where the waitress was kind enough to bring my takeout order outside to me because I was sitting out there with Meeko. The University of New Mexico turned out to be right down the street from my hotel. The campus was very pretty, and the center of it is right on historic Route 66! I loved all the quirky stores and restaurants near by. In some ways it reminded me of some streets in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, I could definitely see myself going to school here and living in the midtown area.

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Another day, another time zone

It took us two days to get from Corpus Christi to Albuquerque. 7 hours one day, 7 hours the next.

After a late start on Friday, we arrived in Fort Stockton, Texas at 1 AM. The choice of hotels in Northwest Texas was slim, but my $80 hotel turned out to be an outside entrance room no better than any “cheap” place I’d been in before. The dogs were tired, but bored and stir crazy. Meeko got into a bark-fest as soon as we settled into the room. The drive itself was incredibly boring, and the speed limit was always fluctuating as we passed through various small towns. I would not recommend it to anyone!

When I signed the receipt for the room, I noticed it said there would be a $100 charge for unregistered pets. I couldn’t remember what their pet policy was or if I was supposed to pay them something else so I just didn’t mention the doggies. At 9 in the morning, when I realized the housekeeping lady was coming, I still wasn’t sure if I needed to be careful with the dogs. As I was leaning out of my doorway checking to see if I could take the dogs out to go potty, the lady caught my eye and saw Meeko’s furry face poking out of the door. The look on her face was all I needed. Within 30 minutes I snuck the dogs out, packed up the car, and at an off-brand bowl of fruit loops cereal. Really, they couldn’t spring for the real thing at an $80 a night hotel.

3 hours later we hit the New Mexico border, welcoming us to the Land of Enchantment. “Are you feeling enchanted back there?” I asked the doggies. Meeko jingled her collar in response. Another sign informed us that we were now in Mountain time. Only a 1 hour difference from California now! The landscape was definitely Southwest. Everywhere there was sand, oil rigs, and scraggly cactus plants. It was so remote that for a while my phone could not connect to any data plan, so no GPS. Luckily it still let me make calls, so my sister confirmed which highways I needed to stay on.

We drove through several towns, many which seemed abandoned. Pueblos where the wooden skeleton was completely exposed, or motel signs that were rusted to the point of being illegible. The dogs were bored and hot, so we stopped at a state park with the word “lake” in it’s name. When I got the entrance I confirmed, “So, there is an actual lake in here?” We walked around for about an hour, Meeko swam and Snickers crashed a family’s camping picnic looking for treats. I had to walk underneath their tent to get her! So embarrassing. Meanwhile Meeko was off playing in the water by herself.

The town of Roswell was interesting, but pretty clear that the whole Alien thing is a tourist trap. I’d like to meet the Mayor who proposed that to boost their economy. “You guys. What if Aliens landed here. No, no, I know they didn’t, but we could say they did! And then we’d put all these corny alien statues and flying saucer models up along the highway. Maybe even an Aliens history museum?? People would totally stop you guys, just trust me.”As much as I love Scifi, I was so exhausted all I could think about was getting to our next hotel and going to sleep for a long, long time.

As we got closer to Albuquerque the landscape began to change. Some sand was red, and the 2 lane highway had turns and hills. In the distance, I could see some of the Rocky Mountains. Then I started noticing the clouds. They were all around me in a wide circle, seeming to float just above the horizon. These were not wispy two dimensional clouds– these were large and in charge clouds, so thick that the bottom of them looked flat and darker grey. It was only once I got to the outskirts of Albuquerque that I finally caught up to those clouds and found myself looking straight up at them.

Though we made the 7 hour drive in 8 hours (not bad considering the doggies), I still managed to run into more frustrations. My phone gps works most of the time in the city of Albuquerque, but in finding my Super 8 hotel in midtown, it was pointing me to the middle of an intersection. Naturally I assumed the hotel must be one of the corners of said intersection. I spent 15 minutes driving down every direction of that intersection. Finally I gave up and called the Super 8. Turns out it was several blocks from that intersection, and up on a hill. Nice going google maps.

By the time I unpacked and got the dogs settled, it was 8:30pm Mountain time and I had not eaten dinner yet. Determined to have a decent dinner, I was delighted to find a Panera nearby. Or so I thought. 1. It was not a Panera but some weird Southwest offshoot called Paradise Bakery 2. My phone gps took me to a Macy’s, which may be in the same mall complex as this bakery 3. By the time I realized both things it was 9:05pm and the place closed at 9pm as did every other nearby restaurant except for Applebees. Not surprisingly it was not very good.

I’m not sure if I am just having a string of bad luck, or if the stress of my housing situation is leaching into the rest of my life. As of right now, I (meaning my boyfriend and I) have still not been able to tie down a lease for a dog friendly apartment in San Francisco and will likely be homeless when I arrive there. He is still actively going to open houses and emailing landlords both in the city and out, but at this point it’s looking more and more likely that I will be continuing to live out of a hotel (and my suitcase) during July.

Meanwhile, I am in Albuquerque for 3 nights, so I will do my best to explore and have fun! I really wish my Super 8 room had a fridge, but the dogs are enjoying all of the ice cube treats.

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

More from the National Seashore

Yesterday I drove my sister to the airport to visit my Mom. I am staying at my sister’s place in Corpus Christi for a few more days. Snickers was very sad to see her real Mommy leave, but they got plenty of snuggling in while she was here!

So far we have been to the same part of the National Seashore beach twice. I thought this Tuesday morning would be a perfect time to take the dogs back for another adventure. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed were the waves. They were huge! A line of wooden posts blocking cars from driving down one side of the beach were mostly underwater, where as the last time we visited, they were all visible.

There were two cars parked far down the beach fishing, so we headed past the wooden poles to enjoy the beach all by ourselves. I’d noticed some large blue jellyfish looking creatures washed up all over the beach before. After some quick research I discovered they were technically not jellyfish, but Portuguese Man of War. Even days after washing up on shore and dying, they were still toxic and could produce a sting if touched. We had a close call with Meeko inspecting one that appeared to be alive due to the wind inflating it and making it move. Luckily she did not decide to eat the “cool looking squishy blue thing.” She did finally get to chase some seagulls though! I pointed out a huge V of pelicans in the air, but Meeko didn’t catch on.

We played on the beach for about an hour. A helicopter flew overhead which startled Meeko a bit. Also startling Meeko was this evening when I turned on the garbage disposal. I forgot she hadn’t heard one before! Her reaction was to wake up from a nap, run over to where I was standing in the kitchen and wait for a treat.

Right now I am trying to figure out my route for the rest of my trip, and when I should arrive in San Diego to drive up the coast of California. I’ve been on the road for so long, sometimes I forget that I’m actually moving to San Francisco!

Location: Corpus Christi, Texas (Turns out, this is Selena’s hometown!)

A Porpoise in Corpus

We arrive at my sister’s apartment late Tuesday night after an epic 10 hour drive of Subway, smoothies and roadside stops for the doggies.

My sister had several things planned for all of us to do while we were visiting. One of the things Corpus Christi is known for are it’s beaches, often as a Spring Break hotspot. Lucky for us, it’s June, and most people work during the day. One afternoon we packed up the car and headed for the beaches of Padres Island National Seashore. I was very curious to see how Ms. Meeko would do with the ocean.

Most Shelties do not have a natural love of swimming, and though I’d done my best to make Meeko comfortable with getting baths and having her feet wet back in Pittsburgh, she had not truly gone swimming in a large body of water. Entering the park, we turned down the first beach access road. There were sand dunes along the side of the road, and the wind was whipping up swirls of sand along the tops. Parking was directly on the beach, and on a Thursday afternoon there were only four other cars there.

As soon as I got out of the car, a bit of sand got past my sunglasses and went into my eye. Unfortunately I did not have any eye drops or (fresh)water to rinse it out. I tried not to scratch at it, determined to still have a good time. We headed out towards the waves and walked along the shore. My sister held Snickers leash while I got Meeko. Snickers was a little intimidated by the waves, though she wanted to go swim. I started gently leading Meeko towards the waves. At first she jumped back at the first wave spreading over the sand. Then I made her stop and wait for the wave to move across her feet. Her face seemed to say, “Oh! That wasn’t that bad!”

I waded into the ocean with Meeko still on her leash, getting her belly wet. She didn’t seem as scared, but I couldn’t tell if she was truly enjoying the water. After my sister and I walked far enough that there weren’t any other people around, we let the dogs off their leashes. Snickers took off sprinting with Meeko right behind her. They ran far down the beach chasing each other, but they both came back when I called them. Still playing, Snickers leaped into the waves and Meeko followed her! They snaked up and down the beach jumping through the water, getting their faces smacked by the huge waves. Meeko decided she liked hopping over the waves, and from a distance she looked like a little furry porpoise, arching out of the water and back into a wave.

Click here for a video of the doggies playing in the water!

I’m having a lot of fun in Corpus Christi, and will be staying here for a few more days before I start heading North. In other news, I got word from a short fiction contest that I entered about 6 months ago. I didn’t win, but they have chosen to publish me anyways! The magazine is called Paper Darts. More details soon!

Location: Corpus Christi, TX

Alligators and Beignets

We got up early Tuesday morning with a packed day ahead of us–the doggies were coming downtown with me!

Our first stop was the beautiful dog park in the New Orleans city park. At least it looked beautiful from outside of the gate, as I was informed that the dog park was always closed on Tuesday mornings for maintenance. We made do with the big open field across from it. Snickers and Meeko were full out sprinting in huge figure eights chasing each other. After several nights in a hotel, they were very excited to release all of that energy! We met a nice man with two dogs, one of whom was a large rescue with a sad story of neglect and being forced to live outside for a year. Meeting this dog, you would never know– it was so friendly and loved playing with Meeko. When I pet it’s head, it leaned into my leg like it just couldn’t get enough attention. After chatting for a bit, the man and his doggies left, so my doggies resumed their playing. Snickers went for several dips in the questionably clean pond and chased a Great Blue Heron!

Piling back into the car, the smell of wet dog in the air, we headed to Jackson Square, a large open marketplace with food and tourist-y items. I ate some cheap tasty crab cakes and the dogs were pet by every passing friendly stranger. They both really enjoyed meeting all these new people, especially families with little kids. Snickers loves to give sneak attack kisses when kids bend down to pet her! I realized that most of the other tourists were assuming that I was a local because of the dogs. One group even asked me if I thought it was going to rain that day!

By 1pm we were back at the hotel, and I changed outfits to prepare for my Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour. The dogs were very happy to be back in the air-conditioning for their nap. I drove an hour Northeast into the Bayou which included several highway sections directly above the swamps. $25 poorer and a red band around my wrist, I was ready to see some alligators! After waiting about 45 minutes, watching the blue group, the green group, and the yellow group leave, the red group was escorted through the parking lot and onto a wooden walkway towards our boat.

There were about 20 people on the boat with me, and I found myself seated between a family and an Asian girl about my age, also traveling by herself. Our guide wasted no time in getting us to some alligators inside of the protected wetlands. I got the sense that all of the guides knew where certain gators liked to hang out. He stuck a hot dog long-ways on a stick and held it in the water. “Come and get it Cindy!” Cindy was an 8 foot lady gator who preferred hot dogs over marshmallows, another popular gator treat. We met several other smaller gators, many turtles and 2 herons.

At one point, we went into the inner swamp through a small natural opening between the trees. The guide stopped the boat and pulled a baby alligator out. “Alright this guy is about 1 year old, he’s got about 80 teeth– hey quit trying to bite me!– so we’ll just pass him around so everyone can hold him”. Our whole group got really quiet, trying to figure out if he was joking or if we were really about to hold a baby alligator. The guide passed it to the first person on his left with some final advice “Just keep his mouth pointed away from you!”

And just like that I had a baby alligator in my hands. His belly was very smooth, almost like rubber. He was a little squirmy at first, but eventually he settled down. The girl next to me kindly took some pictures of my and the gator. She was too scared to hold him, so I passed him along to the next person.

I got back to the hotel around 6pm, ate dinner and then packed up the car. We were headed to Corpus Christi with the goal of making the 10 hour drive in one day. Wish us luck!

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

A Tourist in the 9th Ward

Monday morning I woke up ready to embrace my role as a tourist in New Orleans. I took the dogs for a quick walk through the neighborhood behind my hotel. We may have run into a homeless man with needle marks in his arm, but he just smiled hello and walked past us.

I’d narrowed down which tours looked the best out of the hotel’s selection. Monday afternoon I was on a 3 hour City Tour of New Orleans. Between the heat and the humidity, it was a relief to be on a bus tour! My hotel was too far away for the tour company to pick me up, so I agreed to be picked up from a different La Quinta downtown. I drove down through the business district, parked, and then convinced a restaurant to make me a grilled chicken sandwich to-go in 10 minutes.

Touring by yourself can feel awkward at times. Most people are in a group, or at least with their significant other. When I sat down on the bus, other people would glance at my empty seat considering whether to take it, but then assuming that I must be waiting for someone. So I got to enjoy my front window seat all by myself!

I’ve been on some pretty awful bus tours in my life, but this tour and guide were awesome. You could tell that he was proud of his city, enjoyed talking about the history of it, but at the same time wasn’t afraid to joke around.

The first thing he pointed out were the decorative mini-cable cars around the city. Many cities have a similar concept, in Buffalo, NY there are Buffalo statues; in Pittsburgh there are different dinosaurs around the city. It’s a way to give local artists a showcase and create revenue as different businesses or charities sponsor each statue. The weird thing about New Orleans cable cars is that they look more like miniature coffins. With all the voodoo lore, I thought this would be quite fitting as well.

I loved driving through the Garden District, where many of New Orleans million dollar homes were. Almost all of the homes in that area have extensive ironwork, from fences to patios to elaborate railings. No house wants to look exactly like their neighbor, and our guide was quick to point out what detail one home would change so that it could look inspired by (but not quite the same). It wasn’t just the clearly wealthy homes that I loved though–even the smaller homes or apartments gave me this feeling of legend and mystery. Huge Live Oak trees towered over the streets and over the homes, and dark ivy was everywhere. It was all very eerie, but in a beautiful way. Our guide pointed out on of the more over-the-top mansions that used to belong to Nicholas Cage, before he got into that financial trouble and had to sell off several of his homes.

We stopped at New Orleans cemetery 3 and did a small walking tour through some of the graves. The city cemeteries are tourist destinations by themselves, and many companies offer tours specifically for them (some of them at night! Scaryy). I learned about family graves, where there is essentially a top layer of the most recent family members and then a “dead space” where the crushed up bones of the not so recent members are kept. Did they really have to name it “dead space?” For some of the family graves, you could tell that different generations had added onto the site, perhaps a new marble roof or granite trim. Any graves not kept up by a family are left alone until they crack enough where someone could reach inside the tomb. Then the city steps in and tries to track down any relatives to the family. If after 10 years no one responds, they knock down the grave and move any bones to the back of the cemetery. A new family may then buy the site and begin building. I also learned that Jazz Funerals cost a lot of money and have to be planned way in advance of one’s own death.

A quick bathroom break at the beautiful and large New Orleans City Gardens gave me an idea for how I could incorporate the doggies on some of my touring for the following day. While completing my payment for the tour, the guide told me that there was an actual dog park within the gardens!

Throughout the tour, our guide had been throwing in comments about Hurricane Katrina, pointing out damage on buildings or explaining what had happened to their economy. I really appreciated that he did not turn his explanations into a political commentary, nor did he share his opinion on things like why it took so long for help to arrive. By sticking to the facts and really focusing on what the people of New Orleans experienced (and how that depended on which part of the city they were in) I walked away feeling like I finally understood what took place in 2005.

The first thing to know is that the flooding had nothing to do with the levees. Most of New Orleans is below sea level (another thing I did not know), and the city protects itself from storms and changing water levels through a series of canals, lakes and levees. The storm brought in so much water that in several places, the thick canal walls broke, sending huge waves of water into the city. As water kept pouring in, it kept flowing out of the canals and sending it to the same parts of the city. There were several intersections where our guide would point out the left side having several feet of water, while the right side was fine. Some streets I could see with my own eyes that it was at a downward or upward slope. Interestingly, it is widely known there that the Garden District is above sea level, and is generally free from flooding.

Another element to the damage caused by Katrina is that before the flooding began, all communication had been cut off. Cell phone and radio towers were damaged or knocked over already, so when the real problems began, there was no way to effectively get information out or warn the people. Eventually our tour made it’s way to the 9th Ward area, where the most severe damage occurred. One of the most chilling things I learned on the tour was the manner in which many of the bodies were found. When they saw the water rising, many families went up into their attics to get to higher ground. When the National Guard arrived to help search for bodies, they found entire families in their attics, trapped as the flood waters rose above their roofs with no way to get out.

As we drove through the 9th Ward, I could not even begin to imagine what these families had been through–both those who came back to New Orleans and those who were unable to afford to come back, unable to rebuild, or simply unable to afford the now skyrocketing insurance prices. Our guide said it took over a year before schools and hospitals were up and running, and their business district was simply closed.
A significant part of the New Orleans population has not returned, but looking around the business district and that main tourist areas, you might not even realize that such a disaster had happened. In other areas, it is very clear that there is still much to rebuild.

After the tour, I was overwhelmed with trying to absorb everything I had learned. I am really intrigued by New Orleans– the history, the landscape, and how a city that is below sea level can keep afloat in this economy no matter how many times it has to rebuild. If I were to get into any of the 3 graduate schools I’ll be applying to in Louisiana, I would be thrilled to live there!

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

A Berry good day

My goal for Sunday was to get to Louisiana as quickly as possible so that we would have time to settle into our hotel and rest up for some New Orleans explorin’.

I relaxed with the doggies and packed up the car. We left at 10:55, 5 minutes remaining on our La Quinta hotel. What was the rush? After all, I’d paid my $80, I was going to get my money’s worth!

1 hour in, I was ready for some lunch– I didn’t want to get caught up like last time and end up not eating until 5pm. We stopped in Madison, Mississippi which turned out to be a very nice, seemingly wealthy town. I found a large shopping area with boutiques, restaurants and a Krogers. After my dollar hot dog and a cold mini-Mountain Dew from my cooler bag, I still wanted something else. On the same strip as the Kroger was a frozen yogurt place called Berry Berry Good Yogurt. Snickers was whining to come out, but yogurt sounded really good right then.

As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by a friendly girl who looked about high school aged. She explained how the self serve worked and pointed out the different toppings. Everything looked nice and clean, and there were at least 8 flavors. I’m not sure why I thought of it, but I found myself asking the girl if I could bring my dogs in. I explained that I was on a cross country trip and I hated to leave them in the car for too long but I would love to sit inside and enjoy my yogurt. The girl smiled and said “Sure!”

We ended up staying for about 30 minutes. I ate a delicious cup of white chocolate, chocolate and mango with various candy pieces while the girl, her younger sister (maybe?), and her co-worker hung out with the doggies. Originally, I tied Meeko and Snickers’ leashes to some chairs way at the front of the store. I didn’t want the dogs to get in anyone’s way or be sniffing around the store. As I was picking out my flavors, I noticed all three girls petting the dogs. I smiled, glad that they were getting some attention and out of the car. By the time I got to the toppings, the girls were walking them around the front of the store and trying to get them to “sit.”

So, they played while I ate my yogurt and chatted with the girls. They asked me about my trip, where I’d come from and where I was headed. When I explained that I was a writer, the co-worker girl immediately piped up “Oh if you ever write a book, I’d buy it for sure!” I laughed and said that I hoped to have a book deal someday, but for now I had my blog. When I asked how they liked living in Mississippi, the same girl said something I’ll never forget. “Well, there’s not too much to go do, but I just play outside, like all the time.” This quote really sums up the feeling I got from Mississippi. I wish I’d had more time to explore it or take a scenic route South, but I’m pressed for time to get to my sister while I can.

Eventually, the youngest girl asked if dogs ate any fruit, eying the yogurt toppings bar. “Well I don’t know if they should eat pineapple. How about nuts? Are there any peanuts over there?” Well once Meeko was in food mode they must have gone through 3 little sampler cups doing tricks.

Driving into Louisiana, I saw a landscape that was unlike anything I have ever seen. The swamp lands and the low water was just how I imagined it would look, but to see it right in front of me was incredible. I didn’t go downtown Sunday, and our hotel is out by the New Orleans airport. For now, I’m figuring out which tours I want to go on and where I can take the dogs too. Moral of the story– it never hurts to ask!

Location: Kenner, Louisiana