Texas. The second biggest state in the Union.
I don’t know why we only planned ten days in the great state of Texas but what we saw whetted our appetites for more.
We entered from the east, through Beaumont, where the oil and gas processing facilities dominate the horizon. We spent our first night on the roadside outside of Houston, next to an Interstate highway and a train . It was just a way station to bigger and better parts of the state.
Austin was not the city I remembered from forty years ago, though the State Capitol still looms higher than the U.S. capitol, a fact that Texans make a point of mentioning.
Our friend Tina showed us around and posed for a photo next to the Ten Commandments Monument that the Supreme Court ruled has the constitutional right to be situated on the state capitol grounds.
Downtown Austin is nothing like I remembered from my first visit. Skyscraper office buildings and apartment towers dot the skyline.
The bars on Sixth Street are crowded with music and lots of booze. So is lively Rainey Street, which by 10 pm was a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of people under-30. We left our rig parked at Tina’s house and stayed in a trendy boutique hotel right in the middle of all the action.
We found our niche, delicious food prepared in trucks around the city, this one in East Austin.
We also managed to get second row seats to a Neil Young Fest where Boz Scaggs and Nora Jones were joined by a dozen or more local Austin musicians who showed up to raise money for an independent record label. The onstage finale below will give you a rich sense of the evening. That's Nora Jones on the microphone.
Cloudy skies provided a good excuse to visit the LBJ Presidential Library where his presidency was examined in detail, highlighting the civil rights legislation and Great Society innovations including Medicaid that are overshadowed by his failure to end the Vietnam War.
The Story of Texas, as told at the Texas State History Museum, recounted the heroic stands that early pioneers took to build homesteads and then fight for independence from Mexico. The fight to seize all the land that is today Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California is a fight near and dear to Texans’ hearts.
Eighty years after the US defeated Mexico and Texas became a state, Pancho Villa grabbed international headlines as a militia leader in the Mexican Revolution. He recruited cash hungry gringos to enlist with his cause in 1915.
By the mid-1900s, Texas was secure in its economic future, fueled by the oil and gas industry, and the huge cattle ranchers who cemented the legend of the Texas cowboy.
From Austin we drove west to Dripping Springs, where Harriet, the sister of my friend Audrey from Atlanta, invited us to park on her ranch, Fiddler's Green.
It was right next to the Pedernales Falls State Park where we began to discover the magic of rural Texas.
When we left Dripping Springs we headed south to the Rio Grande where the Mexico border was a stone’s throw away. That night we stopped at an RV park next to this motel in Marathon.
I promised not to bore my faithful readers with endless tales of one location, but after spending a month in New Orleans, I have so much to tell you.
If you are thinking Sultry City of the South, music wafting from warehouses, homes and corner bars any moment of the day, you are starting to experience the city we found in the neighborhood known as Bywater. We parked our van at a friends and began our stay on the second floor of a former grocery store. On the ground floor, a lively bar and restaurant babbled into the wee hours of the morning.
Our two sons joined us for five days, a treat to spend time together while we are traveling. We spent hours and hours walking the streets, soaking in the riot of color that assaulted your senses…
the gentile streets of the Garden District where merchants and plantation owners once presided.
The intricate wrought-iron detail on porches in the French Quarter…
And the brilliant display of colors on nearly every house we passed.
Creativity is evident all around you in New Orleans, and in public protests like the Women’s March.
We caught the Krewe du Vieux parade, a raunchy, homespun procession that skewers politicians and praises debauchery. It's made up of smaller Krewes, with names like Krewe of C.R.U.D.E., Krewe of Space Age Love, Krewe of Underwear, and Seeds of Decline. The raucous affair is also the unofficial start of the Mardi Gras season.
Local musicians brought out the brass bands in the spirit of the parade.
We were lucky to discover that our friends Hanna and David, whom we visited last year at their home in Washington state, were in town and they joined us at the Krewe du Viuex with their two children, Sarah (and her husband, Philip) and Joe. I saw a lot of the family during the ensuing days – what a treat!
Our second week in town we moved to a cottage owned by the daughter of a friend, a tiny bungalow with a huge lawn out front. The neighbors were friendly, especially Rachel who, like me, is writing a novel and understands the joys and challenges of the craft.
We could walk around the Bywater and Marigney neighborhoods, on the edge of the French Quarter, and see the most amazing murals.
Or listen to a band on Frenchmen's Street.
As Mardi Gras approached, you could hear the bands practicing in the streets nearby, like these from a local high school.
At the end of our stay, we moved the rig to an RV park on a canal that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Ponchartrain. It was quiet and peaceful on the water, a reminder that the Crescent City is first of all a busy port, filled with barges carrying grains and other goods from the Midwest to distant shores.
Finally, we were ready to pull out of New Orleans. We had a final meal of crawfish etouffee and oysters, then headed west. (Sorry foodies, I did not take any photos of the amazing food in New Orleans. We ate well and as a local friend says, there is no bad food here.)
Mamou, Louisiana calls itself the Cajun Music Capital and judging from the half dozen music bars along Main Street where you can hear live Cajun music most every day, the town may hold the title. (It has plenty of competition from nearby Eunice, Lafayette and others.)
Folks get up early every Saturday morning to come to Fred’s Lounge where for the past 70 years musicians put on a rocking show starting at 9 am. By the time we arrived at 9:30, the bar was packed. Nearly everyone had a beer or mixed drink in their hands and many of the couples were dancing: the two-step or a fast waltz. (Be sure to wait for the surprise appearance at the end of this video!)
Outside Mamou’s Main Square, strips of cloth fabric are tied to the trees, a display common around the time of the Courir de Mardi Gras, when people dress up in costumes and run from house to house to beg for ingredients for a tasty gumbo.
Even the police station decorates for Mardi Gras.
In a folk life museum in nearby Eunice, the costumes are on display. The cone-shaped hats date to Medieval times and were intended to mock the nobility. The Cajuns are French, by way of Nova Scotia, and you can still hear the language here on the radio.
We left the rig in New Orleans and stayed in a restored bungalow on the Frozard Plantation in Arnaudsville that was cozy and comfortable.
If we weren’t soaking up the local music and culture, we were checking out our favorite food – crawfish, fried fish and boudin sausage. All spicy and delicious!
I leave you with a few notes from this fine fiddler at Fred's.
L’aissez les bontemps roulez! It’s not easy to kick back in the current political climate, and one shouldn’t it, but if you have a little time to spare, why not take a walk on the streets of New Orleans?
Mark and I have been here for two weeks, out of our van and in an apartment in the Bywater section. This neighborhood was settled by free people of color, working class creoles and families who took refuge in New Orleans from the violence in Haiti as well as immigrants from Europe, especially Ireland and Germany. Many of the shot gun houses and Creole cottages of the Bywater and nearby Marigney have been fixed up since Hurricane Katrina and are a sign of a new, more hipster, demographic. Others have been like this for decades. Around every corner you can expect to be hit with a cacophony of color.
Here are some of the many houses we have seen in our daily travels.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.