Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hey, It's Good To Be Back Home Again (Yes, It Is)

Sometimes, this old home feels like a long lost friend. Yes, and, hey, it's good to be back home again.

Welcome to the Smartphone Generation - Our First Apps

OK, I really should have made this change before we left home, but I put OFF the smart phone upgrade in large part due to the additional cost for bandwidth with my (or any) cell carrier. With this many miles to travel, so many places to explore, so much information to gather and so many potential weather issues, I really should have upgraded before the trip. It would have been fun to have (and likely beneficial) at Disney World, would have been less frustrating than those old, outdated Garmin maps in my "old" GPS, and would have kept us more closely connected with friends and family throughout the trek.

But we have it now, and we're use of it. First thing? The girls took photos of each other with it, recorded each other and, of course, I found a few apps to play with during these long car days. (Why not? They sure earned some fun with all the patience they've shown these long days.)

So which, you may ask, was our first app? The all important FLASHLIGHT, of course! Great for those times when you don't have a flashlight handy but need a little burst of light (or, in this case, a strobe). After all, isn't this why we carry a phone?! (Technology - ain't it grand?)

Other first-round additions to our new toy essential travel tool:

Weatherbug: all things weather related - input your location and it will give you current data, forecasts and radar imagery;

GasBuddy: a free app that depends upon users updating gas prices as they travel; as you approach your next potential gas stop, click on Gas Buddy to find the least expensive fuel in town - broken down by grades (even diesel);

Skyview Free: a guide to celestial bodies - point your phone camera lens at the objects in which you're interested and it will name the bodies and constellations and provide links to additional information about those items of interest;

OregonTrailFree: a simplified, cartoon version of a PC game the girls have enjoyed for a few years now;

Presidents vs. Aliens (NOT to be confused with the violent Aliens vs. Presidents): learn about the U.S. presidents and earn credit toward the arcade-style fight against invading green men from outer space. The more you learn, the more games you earn access to play;

Finger Paint: a simple electronic version of a relaxing pastime for the creative set;

Stickman Cliff Diving: determine the rate of spin and angle of entry for the stickman and hope he doesn't flop as he plummets from a cliff to meet the judges' demands. I never thought I'd laugh so hard at watching a stick figure do a belly flop from 40 meters above the pencil-drawn water line;

Bouncy Seed: a "lesson" in angles and physics - mindless arcade style fun;

Fruit Ninja Lite: now we're talking mindless - slash the fruit to earn points but don't slash the bombs;

PlayHome: E asked for this one when she saw it as we perused the App store. It was free, and sometime, you know, you just need to watch the baby jump on the bed;

RushHourFree: an electronic version of Rush Hour, the popular board puzzle game;

Monorail: a close-the-path puzzle challenge also available in its older, internet form here;

Cut the Rope Lite: a super fun, cute, entertaining physics puzzle game - we may have to shell for the full version of this since we keep running through the early puzzle set;

and Stack the States: answer the questions about the states to earn a puzzle piece, then stack them to meet a goal line to earn badges. Collect state badges to earn access to additional games.

Some of you are well ahead of me on the smartphone curve. What apps have you adopted? Which can't you live without now that you've welcomed them into your lives? Which should we avoid entirely?

Hueco Tanks - a treasure in the desert

Our hostess TOTALLY gets me. Today, she took us sightseeing through El Paso.

Then she and the kids took us out to what must be the coolest natural attraction anywhere within a hundred miles: Hueco Tanks State Park. What a beautiful, family-friendly place to explore!

The park, located about 30 miles east of El Paso, is named for the "huecos," or hollows in the syenite rock, a course igneous rock that's fantastic for climbing. When rain falls in most of our western deserts it percolates almost immediately through the porous soils. But here, where the rock has worn in dips and hollows, the water gathers, sometimes in relatively deep pools. Here microclimates support life that is unusual in most of the desert, and wildlife gathers to take advantage of the abundant vegetation and water.

The place had become incredibly popular with hikers as well as visitors in search of Native American artifacts and pictographs. But popularity comes with a price. In recent years, the majority of the park has been closed to the general public except by guided tours. There is also a daily access limit for the rest of the park (only 70 visitors per day). Before accessing the trails, visitors must watch an introductory video that explains the history of the region and its peoples as well as current rules and park uses. The video probably puts off some visitors, but I didn't mind the time out that gave us some insight to the area. The kids (and moms) had a great time exploring the park, and particularly following the treasure-hunt-like route on which rangers directed us up North Mountain, past a giant stone "rubber duck," a "crocodile" and into an enormous stone pedestal for fantastic views.

Welcome to El Paso

After a long day across the desert of central Texas we found refuge in the arms and home of friends made even more dear by this visit. I always enjoyed their company when they lived around the corner, but spending a couple of days relaxing and visiting at their new home and in their community further cemented the bond. Our four kids all play so nicely together, whether quietly in a corner or throwing their heads back and laughing at the top of their lungs as they dash about the house and property. And with them distracting each other, the adults actually had time to visit, catch up, carry on conversation only as (almost) uninterrupted adults can.

After our long day from Austin to El Paso (not to mention the other 10,000 miles of this trip), neither of the girls nor I was ready to venture out much during our first day in El Paso. The kids were perfectly happy to stay home and play: dress up, tag, Kickory (hide and seek in the dark), and crack pecans in the backyard as the nuts fell from the trees the kids were climbing.

Just before sunset, our hostess and I took a walk down to the Rio Grande, a shocking experience if you're expecting WATER. It seems that the river has long been dammed and is entirely managed for irrigation control. So, by this time of the year, you're unlikely to see water in the sandy riverbed. We did gaze at the New Mexico neighborhood on the other shore and wondered about a pair of private vehicles we saw meandering down the riverbed. The first desert sunset of our trip offered a beautiful return to the west as we walked back home where the girls and I enjoyed this family's nightly tradition of singing and game play between bathtime and bedtime.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Crossing Texas - a Whole Lotta Desert Fun

When folks asked us about our intended route home, none who'd traveled it had anything good to say about the stretch of I-10 that runs the width of Texas. Even Texas, known for the pride they have in their state, told us variations that summed up to this: "That is the longest, most boring stretch of nothing you'll ever drive."

I can see why folks who have never stopped or camped in the desert might say that. It is a long stretch and there aren't a lot of cities or shopping centers along the way. In fact, we swung in to Bakersfield for gas only to find that the "city" is defined by precisely one two-pump gas station. There's not a restaurant or home or store in sight. At its peak in the early 1930s, there were 1,000 souls living in this unincorporated community (aka dispersed community), eking out an existence in the oil fields. By 2000, there were 30 living in the area, according to U.S. Census data.

So we opted to cruise further west in search of lunch. (Our ice chest is cleaned out - no more bread in the pantry - forgot the peanut butter in Louisiana.) We used our new (yay smartphone!) to look up some local eateries in Fort Stockton which, on our paper map, looked like a significantly sized town. Our first three stops (two local BBQ spots and a local burrito spot) were all closed weekends, which led V to nickname this town a "Monday through Friday City." At a stoplight in town, I asked the driver of the vehicle next to us for a good lunch stop and we found our way to a BBQ spot really not worth spotlighting here.

Bellies full and gas tank topped off we headed back out into the desert.

I was really excited to see mountains again - rock mountains; piles of boulders! As we continued west, they grew more plentiful and prominent. Some just see these as obstacles in road building. I saw them as secrets to unfold. Those canyons and peaks hold fantastic natural secrets for anyone willing to slow down and take the time to see them. If I've learned nothing from traveling the Mojave Desert with my parents, I've learned THAT lesson.

But we didn't slow down any more than the strong headwinds required and we made it to El Paso before sunset.
Staying with friends (the neighbors who abandoned us - wait...these aren't the ONLY good neighbors who have moved on. Is it me?) for a couple of days of play and catching up before the long blast for home.

I suspect there will be a bit of a break in the blog upon our return home. We have a lot of cleanup to do once we get back home, plus catching up with Mr. B and friends and family back home. We're all very excited to see you all again!

Thanks for following our adventure. If you have questions, drop me a line. If you have comments, leave 'em at the end of the posts or drop me a line. With the new smartphone, I may even be able to answer e-mails in a timely manner!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stadium, Springs and Trampolines - Austin, TX

We're on our run home now, with long days of driving broken up by stops planned to visit family and friends along the way. It's no accident we're making our homeward run through the nation's southernmost deserts. Friends and family members like these are too precious to pass up.

Next stop: Austin, Texas - home of the University of Texas Longhorns - where the rock n' roll hand sign for the devil becomes the horns of a longhorn, typically displayed by proud students and alumni who couple the sign with an enthusiastic cheer, "Hook 'em!"

This is cowboy country, even if this city is known for its countless coffee houses, shopping opportunities, incredible dining opportunities and trampolines.

OK, the city isn't known for trampolines, but my cousin, always a child at heart, knew JUST the place to give the girls their first introduction to Austin. Jumpoline reminded us a lot of Sky High Sports in Sacrament, CA. But Jumpoline was a much more compact, cleaner, more visually appealing spot for the family. My cousin (pregnant with twins so unlikely to jump on a trampoline ANYTIME soon) and I enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted visit while the girls jumped and rolled and flopped themselves sweaty.

Next stop - Barton Springs. I had no idea where we were heading. Had I an inkling, I would have packed towels and swimsuits. Austin's aquifer pumps out some 27 million gallons of water every day from this city center natural freshwater spring in Zilker Park. For $3/adult ($1/child or senior), visitors can swim in the cool (68 degree) water. A concrete deck (ala swimming pool) has been built around the natural spring and there are ramps and stairs that provide swimmers with water access. A diving board juts out over the deepest part of the spring. Many of the swimmers we saw here donned swim caps and goggles and swam the spring pool like any other swimming pool. The girls particularly enjoyed trying to catch minnows in the shallow end.

Our cousins also introduced us to lots of great eats for such a short stay, not the least of which was Sushi Zushi. The Tower is not to be missed - sashimi on rice served with four types of caviar, avocados, and wasabi mayonnaise all mixed at the table. Sounded not so fab to me, but I thought I'd give it a taste. Wow...good thing I'm adventuresome or I would have missed out. (The girls, as adventuresome as they are, weren't all that interested in caviar so opted out. E gave it a taste, but left the rest to us. V is opposed to eating baby anything, except chicken eggs.)

It was really nice to catch up and cruise town with one of the most-intelligent, funniest pregnant ladies I've known. Thanks, Cuzz, for your hospitality!

N'Awlins With Kids

After last night's (Halloween's) late night fun, we had a leisurely start to the day before we packed up the families to head into New Orleans ("N'AW-lins") for the day. First a stop at the local waterway, then a walk through the French Quarter ("the CAW-duh") for some history, treats and local eats.

We drove the few blocks to the banks of the Mississippi (can we call levies banks?) and dipped our toes in, threw rocks and kept our eyes peeled for snakes. The channel was much wider here than I'd expected. (It's tough for my brain to translate Google Map scale to Real Life scale. Hence the 10,000-mile road trips.) Sure, cruise ships and barges travel up and down the river daily, but I thought the river, with all of its improvements and dredging had been entirely altered to something more akin to the Los Angeles River. Instead, we found an expansive stretch of muddy water that looked nearly as serene as a lake, but we were assured the current here is not something to fool with.

On to N'Awlins where we were first greeted by the steam horn from the Natchez (steam wheeler) as it pulled off the dock for its next tour. We all had a delicious lunch featuring local favorites at "Gumbo Pot" - Jambalaya, Gumbo, Crawfish Ettoufee and, for some of the younger set, spaghetti with meatballs, of course. E really enjoyed her Jambalaya, and Our Hostess and I enjoyed the bartender's Bloody Mary and Hurricane, respectively.

Then it was off for a walk through the French Market where we had our first pecan praline (OH! YUM!) and some "shoe sole pastry" - a large, thin, light pastry oval with cinnamon and sugar - a fun, crumbly treat to share on a walk through the Quarter.

Our Hostess did a great job of diverting the kids' attention so they entirely missed the XXX shop we passed off Bourbon Street, and we skipped Bourbon Street per the recommendation of everyone we met along our way. With kids - not so great. Grandma Lynn had advised we hit up Cafe du Monde for beignet, so, with such a late, filling lunch, we opted for a dinnertime snack of the sopapilla-like, powdered-sugar-encrusted treat and, for the grownup set, coffee at the outdoor cafe before climbing on a carriage for a sunset tour of the Quarter.

Note to Grandma Lynn and Grandpa Doug - On your next visit, you might want to check out the wild animal park of yesterday's post, of course you'll head to Cafe du Monde, and try Miss Odessa's treats in the French Market, and check out the Blacksmith's (with kids in tow, the candle-lit tavern wasn't a stop we could make, but it looked very enticing).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Halloween, Giraffes n' Zebras!

Have you ever fed a giraffe? I don't mean that one leaf of lettuce you can get for several bucks at some parks. I mean FED a giraffe while stroking its head, looking it in the eye, feeling its thick skin, petting the folds of its neck. Today, we did, and it was fantastic.

Our hosts here in Belle Chasse, Louisiana led us about 90 minutes north to Folsom, LA (home of the prison made famous by Johnny Cash) for a tour of Global Wildlife Center. It sounded like something that would be right up V's alley: ride in a vehicle and stop here and there to pet the exotic animals. Two of our hosts' three children also really enjoy this spot (the third came along for the ride in the Pinzgauer).

What a fantastically unique and fun stop! We hand fed a lot of deer, some oryx, camels, llamas, bison and more. Our driver, Brad, was knowledgeable, friendly, accommodating and informative.

Our giant lug of corn kernels spent, we returned to the house to prep for Halloween fun. V ultimately decided to wear her Hogwart's attire. She tucked her wand into its
special pocket, donned her robe and perched her owl on one hand. E was hoping to go as a dryad, but the weather wasn't conducive to the thin dress that was the base of her outfit. She didn't like the lumpiness created by wearing ANYTHING underneath it, so she went with her colonial dress. They were accompanied by: a witch, a ninja, Batman, a chef and a crazy Steelers fan. Oh, and me...I'm not sure what I was, but per our hostess's request, it involved pig tails, freckles and an apron.

When people think of New Orleans, they may think of Mardi Gras. But I'll tell you what: people down here don't save their good party habits for a single season around here. We joined some of our host family's friends for trick-or-treating in a neighborhood that KNEW how to throw a family friendly party: serious house decorations, streets closed to all vehicle traffic, plenty of kid treats at fairly traditional door-to-door tradition (they sit outside at tables here to hand out the treats), and a bbq setup ala local sheriff's office running in the middle of the street for all to enjoy - boudin sausages, chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, nachos, dips, chips, cakes, pies, brownies, ice cream, snow balls.

It didn't take the kids to make the neighborhood treat loop, grab a hot bite, test a snow ball and watch the grown people run into family and friends here. Then it was back to the house for The Big Candy Swap - six kids on the livingroom floor, their candy piled before them as they negotiated, their parents sitting behind them and coaching them for the "good" (ie. Mom's and Dad's favorites) trades.

We were all really sad that Mr. B wasn't here with us tonight. He was home alone, dressed in his newly created armor (made from years' of tossed CDs and DVDs) handing out candy to the 23 kids who tapped on our door. The worst thing about traveling is not having him with us - or not being home with him, particularly for traditional events like Halloween, or pizza night, or Mondays.

Ten more days, 2,000 more miles, and we'll all be together again. WOO HOO!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Halloween Prep

Today, we kicked around the Klanica house, watched the kids play and prepped for Halloween. Pumpkin' carvin', face paintin' and lots of gigglin'.

P.J. loves his big sister Molly
All the kids love Big Wave Dave
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We didn't know this would be the last time we'd see Molly. She was always such a great match for my girls, especially E. She was super patient with her little brothers, Ben and PJ, fun loving and adventurous. Both E and Molly rabid (beyond avid) readers at this point, and in their time together here in Louisiana and in Washington back in 2008, the girls really hit it off. Molly passed away in New Jersey in 2014 shortly before her family would move to Oklahoma.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Waveland Reawakens - Six Years After Katrina

Yesterday (Oct. 27) was a relaxing day at the beach for all of us. With no electronics or wallets or keys to worry about, V and I hit the shallow surf, body surfed, played with the sand and the waves while E read on shore and started her own sand sculpture. (I suspect that, after hearing about the local varieties of sharks, she wasn't interested in getting wet at all here, but she really wasn't willing to specify.) As we approached the water, V said, "What's that? In the wave?" She'd spotted a $20 bill and we hopped into the warm water to retrieve it. We stayed out of the deep water and had a great play time before heading to dry land.

There we sculpted a manatee, giant sea star, some baby alligators and forts before the tide came in and too, our manatee away, threatened the babies and our fort, and started a shallow pool that ran yards and yards along the beach for exploration and splashing fun. We stayed again 'til near sunset before heading back to camp for our last "in camp" meal of this trip - their favorite: walking tacos.

Today, we put on some miles toward home. We passed through Alabama at lunchtime, so we headed for Panini Pete's in Fairhope, Alabama. Our friends in Virginia loaned us Guy Fieri's "Diner's Drive-Ins and Dives," a guide to some of his favorite spots on the nation's byways. I was leery (I'm not a huge panini fan), but was rewarded with not only a fantastic lunch (the special of the day: cheeseburger cooked TO ORDER topped with a slice of grilled green tomato, light drizzle of barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese), but friendly, quick service and a busy, fun, friendly atmosphere. The girls shared a rosemary chicken panini which, after my taster bite, changed my entire attitude about panini. Then we all shared the cinamon-apple beignet pudding.

While walking through this lovely old town the girls spotted a consignment store dedicated entirely to teen and preteen clothing. (Youngnique). The sale rack out front ($1 for a girls' shirt, like new. Really?) drew us in. An hour and two VERY happy girls later we left with some nice, apparently new dresses for each girl and a nice dress coat for V. They danced, bags in their hands, out of the store and back to the van.

Then we pressed on into Mississippi for the night, and found ourselves at Buccaneer State Park. (Note to Mississippi State Parks: it's not the folks with full hookups who need the restroom facilities. You might want to add facilities to tent/no-hook-up sites for the sake of sanitation.) The park is just west of Waveland, Mississippi, the point at which Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. Still, 6 years later, the effects are clear. Along the beachfront, no original homes remain standing. Most of the properties remain for sale. Several have been rebuilt, most on stilts (shoring) varying from about 8 feet to well over 15 feet. Ruins of previous homes remain - their shoring,their stairs, their driveways, bits of picket fence, someone's dream home along the Gulf shore. In the state park where once a thriving water park stood, now a waterslide to nowhere creeped out the girls. ("That looks dangerous," V said, before I told her about the events that took place here.)

After making camp, we took a drive east along the coast to old town Bay St. Louis. Here, all that remains of the old bank is the vault, its door reopened after the storm, the lot now for sale like so many others. The town's old brick structures have been cleaned up and reoccupied. It's a quiet, walkable, entirely friendly place where neighbors greet each other around every corner. We stopped two teenage boys on the street after dark (carrying coffee cup from Mockingbird Cafe) for a dinner recommend and they pointed us to Sloppydogs Cafe where we were fed, entertained and adopted. The owner, Aaron, entertained and occupied his own boys while feeding the masses, locals and otherwise, who wandered through his door. Great place for comfort food and a good beer, root or otherwise.

On our way back to camp (and after dark) we stopped to take a walk on the Garfield Memorial Pier in Waveland. It's a beautiful new bit of construction that juts out into the Gulf. The pier offers several fishing stations that extend from each side of the pier, nice evening lighting, shade structures, benches, fish cleaning stations, fish nets and, when the volunteers are on hand, fishing opportunities for beginners. We had NO idea, so when a couple on the pier asked if we wanted to try fishing, we were surprised when they led us back to the pier-base office, picked up rigged rods, a bag of shrimp and handed it all over. V, who loves to fish, was all over the opportunity and she and I fished for a little over an hour while E read the fishing guide and her own book. I caught the first fish - perhaps a young mullet about 5" long - and the second, a 12" catfish. V was next with a 12" Black Drum and finally with a 15" catfish. We threw back all of our catches. (The catfish are, reportedly, no good to eat. The mullet was too small, and the drum, while large enough we were told, will grow to some 3 feet, so we opted to let it develop for a fisherman of the future.) A GREAT opportunity along the glad we stopped for the walk.

With a few hours to kill in the morning, we returned to Bay St. Louis to walk the town and take part in Barktoberfest, the local animal shelter's autumn awareness and entertainment event. Dogs in costume. People in costume. Animal tricks. Animals for adoption. Bounce house. Good times. Relaxing morning in fine Small Town America.

We stopped in to Sloppy Dogs again before heading west to Belle Chasse, just south of New Orleans (who KNEW there were cities south of New Orleans?!) to visit good friends, good kids, great company.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dumb Luck Wins Again - Grayton Beach, Florida

I'd rather have dumb luck than no luck at all. More often than not, the first sort (certainly coupled with recommendations from well-meaning, enthusiastic locals) leads us to a great spot like this one.

We were headed for Wakulla Springs to camp and swim again today, but when we arrived at the state park (listed in the state's guide as a campground, among other things), we found instead that the only lodging here is a 27-room lodge. At $95 to $150 per night, it wasn't really what we were going for when we headed for a state park campground. Further, we discovered the springs wasn't accessible for our type of recreation, and the boat tour to the spring would be had only at additional cost.

The girls had the option to drive 30 minutes down the road to the next closest state park (which we were assured by the friendly ranger really does have camping) or press on 150 miles or so to the camp intended for the next night. The benefit of moving on, they agreed, would be that we'd stay at the beach camp two nights and have a day out of the car. Plus, they could continue listening to "Pollyanna," (again, ala

So, to Grayton Beach we headed on the resort coast of Florida, known better for the plush condo village of Destin. What a find. Beautiful state beach park, affordable camping, full hookups (for those who need them), hot showers, flush toilets and all 1/2 mile walk (or drive) from the park's own stretch of white-sand beach. Clean, green, warm, translucent Gulf water, and sand that, when tossed in wet piles or scuffed with bare feet, "barks" like shoes on a basketball court.

We built a fort and a mermaid, watched the mermaid wash back into the sea and enjoyed leaping and running as the sun set.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Water, water EVERYWHERE - Manatee Springs

Throughout this trip I've been AMAZED by the sheer volume of water on this side of the nation. The East Coast is tangled in a web of creeks, streams, ponds, lakes, swamps, bays and springs. It's absolutely incredible.

Nowhere in our trip has this been more evident than here in Florida where we've experienced not only lakes and beaches, rivers and streams, but tropical storms bringing buckets of water nightly. Today, we were introduced to Florida's freshwater spring system.

There are, in fact, more than 600 freshwater springs in Florida. More than 30 of those EACH pump 65 to more than 150 million gallons of water every single day of the year. No winter lull. No summer dry spell.

Here at Manatee Springs, the fourth-largest output of the first magnitude springs in Florida, the water wells out of the earth with enough force to push a grown woman downstream, nudge a boat to shore, float a child indefinitely. The water gushes up clear and cool (72 degrees) year round. And this clean, clear water is just too much for 'gators, so it's safe for swimming for 50 yards or so before a rope divides the generally 'gator-free zone from the 'gator visiting zone. The water runs downstream about 300 yards to join the tannic (tea-brown) water of the Suwannee River, which rolls on another 22 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. No one swims here except the wildlife including countless fish (freshwater and saltwater), turtles and, of course, 'gators.

We had a nice walk along the boardwalk to the Suwannee River where we checked out the birds and turtles on the serene water. Then we headed to the spring for a dip.

It was a little freaky to get in water that just bubbled up out from a dark ledge which may have housed a cave or just lacked sunlight. But I waited for other swimmers to hit the water, many with snorkels, then slowly and cautiously joined in. Once I swam over the ledge and looked at the bottom the first time, the creepy factor was (nearly) erased and V joined me for a swim into the current.

We had some fantastic neighbors at this camp. Friendly. Fun loving. There was a family-n-friend reunion going on over there, and their laughs and giggles were infectious. This afternoon, as we took a snack break at camp, they returned from their morning canoe/kayak paddles. Katie and Rusty invited us to use their canoe, which still rested on shore. They armed us with paddles and life vests and sent us on our merry way. We opted to keep with the clear spring water and stay within our ability there on the spring-fed tributary, but never pulled out onto the tidal-influenced Suwannee.

By the time we returned to the spring for our last dip of the day, the ocean tide 22 miles away had already raised the spring/river/creek water level a full foot. E joined V and me for a swim, then back to camp for baked potatoes and beans. (We're trying to clean out the pantry before we return to civilization - and kitchens.) Our neighbors invited us over for hot dogs on their fire. We brought over the s'more makin's, and a lovely evening was had by all.

While we didn't get to experience an up-close-and-personal visit with a manatee, we did get to experience camp robbers, Souther style, in the form of a late-night armadillo visit. Turns out they like pineapple cores, burned baked beans, Girl Scout cookies and potato skins.

Nice, clean, quiet, dark campground (great stars!) with hot showers, flush toilets and lots of recreational opportunities - would return here in a heartbeat.

Southern Hospitality

I can't tell you how many fantastic people we've met on this dip through the south. People who are quick with a smile, greet each other politely, and who want to share the best their communities have to offer. We have been all but adopted by more strangers here that I ever imagined would have welcomed perfect strangers into their lives.

In Florida we have standing invitations to Lake Okechobee and an annual family reunion by a gushing freshwater stream. In Virginia, not only have we been hosted by friends who relocated their from the Central Coast, but we have standing invitations to stay at a lakeside cabin, take a bateaux boat ride, stop in for laundry and the rejuvenation only a guest room on a permanent foundation can provide. In Mississippi, we have a standing information to back into local driveway, plug the trailer in for recharging and refilling while relaxing in the guest room while the kids (theirs and ours) play the days away.

It's a quick and easy welcome I haven't seen many other places. And it got me thinking: why?

As we were adopted in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi I started to wonder if this willingness to offer help and rest to perfect strangers didn't have anything to do with the terrible natural disasters people down here experience too often. When a community is used to banding together to weather the storm, or recover from it, I think they learn to see each other's needs earlier that those of us who don't face these events, to offer help before they're asked, and to give everything they have - because they know their neighbor will do the same for them when the time comes.

Maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe I'm wishin'.

But something amazing is happening down here. I like it. I want to can it and bring it home so I can share this practice across the country; to share the wonderful feeling of trust and love that exists down here in the practice of welcoming friendly, inquisitive strangers with warm, safe, supportive arms.

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