Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nomads Go West: Part I

My ex-husband's family calls us "The Nomads" and I can see why. We seem to have an unquenchable wanderlust, so in some ways, this trip isn't a surprise. We began planning last spring - a cross-country trip to fetch some of Kara's things left behind in California combined with a trip to see my oldest daughter, Kat, in Costa Mesa, California. When surgery and vacation time (of lack thereof) intervened, we put off the trip until winter break at the college and then it just grew from there. One of the few perks of working in higher education is winter break which meant that we only needed to take 9 vacation days to get 23 days off. This proved to be enough time to cross the country twice from Jacksonville to Costa Mesa and back...approximately 6800 miles in total.

The South

We left Jacksonville promptly at 6:17 a.m. - only 17 minutes later than I wanted - on Friday, December 13th. After a stop at Dunkin' Donuts for those of us who need sugar and caffeine to get started in the morning, we had an easy drive through downtown Jacksonville to the start of I-10. We breezed through and hit up the Waffle House in Tallahassee by 10 a.m. What do vegans eat at Waffle House? Why tea and hash browns that are smothered (sautéed onions), diced (grilled tomatoes), peppered (jalapeño peppers), and capped (button mushrooms), of course! Then back on the road to our first stop in New Orleans, LA.

Neither David, Kara nor I had ever been to NOLA and it seemed a perfect stop for the end of the first day. I had reserved a room at the La Quinta in Slidell which is about 30 minutes north of NO. I was a little hesitant about staying at the LQ, but they have a liberal pet policy (pets stay free) and, as they say, the price is right, so I decided we would try it. I shouldn't have worried! The room, although a little small, was bright, clean, and very nice. I'm not a stickler about having the latest decor (I don't even think I would know if it wasn't), but this seemed nice.

Since it was a long drive (528 miles), we cooked in our room that night. To help keep expenses down, I packed our rice cooker and our small crockpot plus 2 bags of groceries (mostly rice, canned beans, lentils, and diced tomatoes) so that we didn't always have to eat out. I also have an awesome tin of tiny spice containers that my friend, Sandra gave me one year, so we didn't have to eat bland food :) That first night we made black beans and rice in the rice cooker. We also steamed some bagged broccoli, cauliflower and carrots in the room microwave. Who says you can't cook in a hotel room?

Black beans and rice with steamed vegetables made in our hotel room

The next day, Saturday, we spent in NO or rather in the French Quarter. We found parking near the French Market and worked our way westward. We didn't really have a plan (big mistake!), but we found some beignet and fresh coffee after wandering around a bit. After walking some more, we saw a river boat tour that really interested me, but it took a while and a lot of walking to decide we wanted to do it for sure. Before the tour, we used our America the Beautiful pass to visit the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

French Quarter Market entrance
Yummy beignet and coffee

As the day went on, it started to get kind of dreary and drizzly, so we finally decided that we would get on the river boat and what a dandy river boat it was! The Natchez  is the only steam paddle wheel boat in NO. We started our vacation with a drink - mine was too many kinds of rum mmmmmmm....

Look closely...this guy is playing holiday music on a calliope

Rum drinks to warm this rainy Saturday afternoon

Believe it or not, David was drinking coffee :)
Dixieland band
DC with gray hair. Oh what we have to look forward to!

After the boat ride, we were cold and damp, so we hunted down some warm "Lucy-Anna" cooking to warm us up. In the French Market we found a place that advertised "Vegans eat here", so we did. I had a wonderful veggie jambalya with lots of squash, mushrooms, and tomatoes and just enough heat. Kara had a veg po' boy that she still claims was her best meal of the trip - next to In-N-Out that is.

Kara's vegan Po' Boy
Vegan Jambalaya
The next day, we headed out at a slower pace with only 350 miles to cover that day. Since we had some time, we stopped by the Big Branch Marsh NWR in Lacombe in search of a last chance Red-cockaded Woodpecker which we eventually found. This brought my year bird list to 257 - just 7 species short of my 2007 year list record of 264 species.

Red-cocaded Woodpecker (female)
Belted Kingfisher
Eastern Bluebird

We got into Houston around 4:30 p.m. and made plans with Kara's dad for dinner at Fadi's Mediterranean Grill. I wasn't too pleased about turning around and driving back into the city after we drove all the way through Houston, but I'm really glad we went because, although the way you get your food is kind of crazy here, it was really good. I especially enjoyed the cabbage salad and the red beet salad - both of which were raw and tasty. No problem eating vegan here!

On Monday David and I got up early and headed about 40 miles west to the Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR hoping to see the endangered Attwater's Lesser Prairie Chicken of which there are only about 200 left, but with such small numbers and it not being breeding season, the chances were extremely slim.  A very helpful ranger gave us a map and some back country directions to try to see them, but even after braving dirt farm-to-market roads, we didn't see them. We did find our first Snow Geese of the year and a beautiful Caracara.

Looking for Attwater Prairie Chicken west of Houston
Our first Snow Goose flock of the year 
Not sure what this is. Any suggestions?
Eastern Meadowlark
A whole gang of turtles vying for the sun
Northern Bobwhites crossing the road.
Crested Caracara
Ring-necked Ducks
Northern Shrike
American Bittern trying to hide itself while crossing the road. He walked slow and low to the ground
American Pipit

Our plan for the rest of the day was to head as far west as we could in Texas before we stopped for the night. We didn't actually head out until around 3:30 p.m. and we got into San Antonio during rush hour. I thought (and I will take full responsibility here) it would be best if we took the upper loop around San Antonio and stopped for dinner somewhere along there instead of going downtown. So I had Kara and David look up "vegetarian Mexican" on Yelp and we headed on the northward 410 loop. Sounds like a plan, right? Well, it couldn't have been worse! There was major construction compounded by pre-Christmas shoppers at a major mall on top of rush hour traffic. It took us over an hour to travel 15 miles, however once we got to Guijillo's Short Cut to Mexico we were pleasantly rewarded. I had Calabaza con mole verde (zucchini with green mole sauce) which was wonderful! The sauce was a thick and pungent, like a green sauce made from tomatillos only thicker. It worked wonderfully with the corn tortillas. Finally some real Mexican food!

From Guijillo's, it was just a short hop back onto I-10 and westward until we dropped. And we dropped in a little place named, Junction, Texas. Uh-huh! As we got closer we stopped to call ahead for a room and there being no La Quintas in sight, we settled on a Days Inn with a $20 pet fee :(

As we opened the door to the room, there was an immediate, overwhelming odor of fresh paint. UGH! I can still smell it now! On first glance, the place was just stark and bare, but then, our eyes adjusting to what was in front of us, we saw the floor lamp on the dresser - no bulb or shade, just the lamp. It was sitting on newspaper and had been painted white with a brush (we could see the brush marks). In fact, ALL the metal in the room had been painted in the same fashion and was still sticky which is why the room smelled so strongly of paint. David immediately went back to the office and asked for a new room. He was told that all the rooms were being remodeled and, oh by the way, the paint might still be wet, so please don't touch or move anything. In hindsight, we should have left right then and there or at least asked for a steep discount on the room, but we were so tired and we had already dragged all our things up to the room, so we just settled in as best we could for a fitful night's sleep. We left Junction, Texas in our dust at 6 a.m. the next day, but not before trying to get some coffee, but even the milk was spoiled in this place! This night was the lowest point of the trip. It could only get better...and it did!

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