Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A sad, sad part of our trip

That's Luther in his usual place in Ian's lap, with Sidney relegated to the sidelines

Deep in the heart of Texas we are, and as we prepare to pack up and move along west, know that our hearts are breaking.
Our beloved Luther, one of the two black cats who set out with us on our odyssey, has been missing for almost a week here in San Antonio, and with time and winter starting to force our hand, we can await his return no longer.
If you had asked us on setting out if we were worried that one or both of the animals might go missing, we would have acknowledged the possibility. But having left another of our cats, Edward, while away on a six-week trip, we knew how lonely the animals get when ‘their’ people are not at hand.
We also would have suggested that Sidney, not Luther, would have been the likely choice to go AWOL — he’s done it twice before.
Instead, when we woke Thanksgiving morning in our American idyll, it was Luther who was missing.
Normally when we are camping each of the cats is leashed to the trailer with a 12-foot line. At night though, with the doors closed, we unhook them so that we and they are not constantly skipping rope as we shuffle about in our cosy space.
But on a hot Texas night, the outer door was open and the screen door, shut and latched, seeking any available breath of air for sleeping, was the only barrier. When we woke, Sidney was on the bed, marching over to demand a morning cuddle. Luther, unusually, was not there and we quickly learned why when we bolted from bed to find the screen door standing half open — how or when it happened is unclear.
And Luther, whose usual foray outside has been just onto the step of the trailer, was gone. It has been a week of slowly diminishing hope, of roaming the RV park, the neighbourhood, the adjacent golf course, businesses surrounding the park, and the nearby river valley. We left a notice with the local elementary school, seeking to enlist an army of local eyes and ears from that source. There have been no sightings, despite his bright purple collar and harness, and red, heart-shaped name tag.
Even a couple of men living under one of San Antonio’s bridges, were contacted. They did know of a stray, which they have been feeding after nursing it back to health after a leg injury, but it was not our guy.
Luther, shy, even timid, is less likely that the more social Sidney to find his way to a new home, but we can only hope that he does, or that a phone call comes alerting us to his presence — or his fate
Sadly it was only a couple of years ago that Luther’s sister, Martha, disappeared in the night after being run off by a dog running loose through our Pender Island neighborhood. There never was a sign of her.
Sidney, also a feral cat from Pender Island, was brought in to help Luther adjust to the loneliness and they soon became inseparable, sleeping coiled up together in a ball of pussycat, trading licks and bath time, and running the Feline 500 over our bed as dawn neared.
Now it is Sid’s turn to seek Luther in the usual haunts, to run from window to window in the trailer looking for his friend to return in the night, and to seek constant reassurance from us that we too are not going to disappear.
We try to comfort him, through our tears.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A river runs through it

Remember the Alamo?
Well, no actually. If you go to San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo, you’ll come away remembering the River Walk.
The meandering San Antonio river, a creek really if all is told about it, is a mere four metres wide and only a metre or so deep. While it’s called a river, its volume speaks creek, so somewhere along the line there was a choice to be made.
Should the creek be diverted into a culvert, pave over it and let downtown grow? Or should the creek be managed and expanded so that it could flow all through downtown, and offer an oasis a level below the hustle and bustle of mid-city streets?
It is a haven that runs beneath downtown San Antonio so that office workers can retreat to a shaded, pleasant area on their breaks from a busy day. Tourists can wander for hours through restaurants and a variety of shops, plus gawk at historical architecture or take in a show seated on stone benches in the outdoor amphitheatre, across the river from the stone stage. Of course, you also can be housed in historic hotels that line the waterway.
Our tour guide told us to think of Venice, only clean. The river is drained once a year to facilitate a cleanup that nets whatever has been tossed over its banks — from shopping carts to clothing is carted away, the riverbed is cleaned and the water is permitted to flow again.
Imagine yourself as Robert Hugman in June of 1929, at the height of good times for America - for another four months. You put yourself before the movers and shakers of your city to show them a plan. It’s a chance to make a river out of a creek, a chance to build charm into your city and for practical purposes, a way to control flooding — and they take it.
It wasn’t until 1938 that money was found, through the Works Progress Administration, to begin building the young architect’s vision for his hometown. It’s thanks to Hugman there are unique wrought-iron staircases lining the walkway.
And just to make sure the business community bought into the project, Hugman moved his offices on the walks completion in 1941 down to the river even though some said he would be “drowned like a rat” within the year.
He wasn’t.
Casa Rio, the restaurant that opened next to his office in 1946, is still a going concern. The walkways lining the river curve beneath trees laden at this time of year with Christmas lights, and tourists meander along, buying this and that or eating here and there. The lights first come on every year with the holiday river parade, complete with decorated parade floats that really do float, a way to kick off the Yuletide season in splendor.
To get a feel of the river, there are both tour boats and water taxis plying its waters, giving Americans in a dry part of the country a feel for Venice, Italy.
Adjacent to the walk is La Villita, a thriving arts community whose very existence is tied to the River Walk. San Antonio’s first neighbourhood originally was primitive huts to house Spanish soldiers stationed at the Mission San Antonio Valera (the Alamo). After a flood in 1819, it was rebuilt with brick, adobe and stone houses.
Late in the 19th century, immigrants from Germany and France moved into the area and the existing architectural style reflects the cultural mixture of the area’s settlers. But the first part of the 20th century was not kind, and La Villita became the city’s slum.
In 1939, as the River Walk development began taking shape, Mayor Maury Maverick fought to preserve this part of San Antonio’s history. Maverick was one of those colourful Texans, first a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives and now known as the originator of the term “gobbledygook” for obscure and euphemistic bureaucratic language.
After four years of gobbledygook, he went back to the town of his birth to become its mayor.
La Villita houses 26 shops, art galleries and restaurants in those old buildings that run the gamut from palisado to Victorian houses. Visitors can feel their eye drawn from the displayed wares to the walls surrounding them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A by-the-book tour

The free ferry — David Hahn take notes — to Galveston.

For those of you who have been in our home, it may come as little surprise that much of our peripatetic wanderings on this trip through the U.S have been inspired by books.
Our dining room and bedroom are lined with books. They are piled on end tables and coffee tables and on the desk in the room that houses our computer, until at last Vicki cries, ‘Enough,’ and there is a cull. Well, a mini-cull at least.
For a long time Ian especially has had a passion for books by William Least-Heat Moon, a writer and English professor from Missouri who writes about travel in the U.S. in at least three of his books. The wanderlust of Jack Kerouac and Jonathan Raban have left an indelible imprint of travel on his brain, and sometimes Vicki gets dragged along.
But often she shares the enthusiasm: Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil); Charleston (Gone with the Wind, Cold Mountain and other books about the antebellum South); New Orleans (countless choices); Vicksburg (Bruce Catto’s history of the Civil War); and Galveston (Isaac’s Storm).
Each has been interesting and even exciting, with a sense of a dream come true. And so it went until we hit the Texas Gulf coast.
Isaac’s Storm is about a hurricane that levelled Galveston in 1900, a story of personal and professional tragedy for a meteorologist based in the Texas island city, and how the lessons learned there helped develop the fledgling science.
The Erik Larson book is a marvellous description of people caught in events beyond their understanding and control, and we arrived in Galveston, travelling on the free ferry to the island city, looking for some of that history and spirit. We knew the city had been ravaged two years ago by Hurricane Ike, but were sure there would be signs of progress.
Instead we found a city with 20 miles of magnificent Gulf coast on one side of the main road that cleaves the island, and a strip mall of back-lit signs, fast-food joints, and cheesy bars — anything to separate you from a buck — on the other.
The historic city, a block off the strip, was boarded up and derelict to a large extent. A cruise through the heart of downtown at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon involved less traffic than Pender at ferry time, and fewer people than gather at the Driftwood on a sunny summer afternoon.
Unlike New Orleans, likewise hammered by Hurricane Katrina, there is no sense of urgency or outrage, and fewer signs of life. Even exiting the area on Friday morning there was almost no traffic on the road, and nobody around and about the houses-on-stilts, built for the potential 15-20 foot storm surge, that line the coast. The absence of people was almost surreal, even though the RV park we were staying in was jammed with snowbirds and tourists settling in for the winter.
If a book is written about Galveston and how it’s dealing with Ike, it looks as if it will have a much sadder ending than Isaac’s Storm.

All creatures great and small

Our guys are indeed still with us

Meet Bain the seagull, the one in the centre

We left the cats behind in Mississippi.
They’re in Natchez State Park, hanging around campsite 45, not too far from the washroom.
Okay, they’re feral, as were our guys at one point, but when Vicki, sitting by a not-yet roaring campfire, heard a noise by the step into the trailer, her first thought was of the bag of cat food sitting on that step. She stomped on over, making noise, to scare whatever creature was at the food until the moment Ian said, “They have skunks here y’know.”
The stomping stopped.
But that’s when she noticed the little black furry guy heading under the trailer.
“You’re sure our guys are inside, right Ian?” she queried.
Yep, they were, and excited about it, too. They were bouncing off the windows trying to see the new guy in town, particularly when they heard Ian using that tone of voice, usually reserved for them, on another beast.
After some coaxing, we met the little black fellow and his companion, a lovely grey and white beauty. We met, but only at a distance. The next morning, the park ranger informed us they’ve been hanging around that area of the park for two or three years. Ian reluctantly left them behind but still holds a mental image of us, walking back into our Pender life and saying, “Look at the Mississippi souvenirs we brought home!”
Natchez State Park, at the south end of the Natchez Trace route, also was full of deer, right next to the signs warning campers to keep out of the bush since it is indeed hunting season. And those signs were next to the big trailer with three pickups parked out front, next to a smaller trailer holding the all-terrain vehicle. What did Bambi, shooed away by Vicki, think those guys were doing there? Having a poker tournament?
Animals, besides the ones inside our trailer, have been part of this trip all along. From the bears in Marathon, Ont., to the armadillos wandering through our campsite near Lake Charles, La., they are a consideration. Cooking dinner meant never leaving the camp stove until we were carrying the completed meal inside to eat. A few minutes later, we heard the raccoon, which had been hovering on the fringes of our light while we were cooking, clatter onto the stove just in case we’d left anything behind.
But one of our most distinctive creatures has to be Bain.
There we were, about to cross from Nova Scotia over to Prince Edward Island at the ferry terminal in Pictou. We were feeling right at home, sitting in a ferry lineup waiting for the NFL (Northumberland Ferry Lines) to let us board.
Partway through the boarding process, they had stopped loading vehicles - we’re at home with that, too - so Ian rolled down the window and asked if there was a problem.
“Nope,” they said. “We’re just ahead of schedule.”
As frequent users of BC Ferries, that we weren’t used to.
Then one ferry worker pointed to a couple of seagulls standing on the pavement a few feet ahead of our truck and said, “Have you met Bain?”
Uh. No.
Who’s Bain, we asked.
“Hey Bain, cm’ere,” the ferry worker said.
And the seagull came walking over. He comes when called.
He’s been hanging around for a few years, said our ferry guy. Now all the workers expect to see him and save tasty tidbits from last night’s dinner or a fishing trip to treat Bain.
And Bain expects this kind of treatment, quickly banishing any other gull brazen enough to think he’s getting some of the attention too.
Not bad for the smallest gull on the tarmac, eh?
The ferry worker confesses Bain is named after one of the guys on a local hockey team, “you know, the small guy who really isn’t big enough but just keeps getting in there, digging away, until he gets the puck.”
That’s Bain.
These guys make Bain their pet at work and although we carry our pets with us, Ian keeps trying to make more friends. With our enforced stay In Marathon, Ont., waiting for truck parts, Ian befriended a chipmunk. Not that he was difficult to befriend. He knew his way around a campsite and he wasn’t short on pulling out the cute moves when he needed them.
It wasn’t long before he had Ian eating out of his hand, and he was eating out of Ian’s hand. We’re brought along the Costco-sized bag of roasted almonds, good for our health and all, but with the haul Buckley scored (yep, Ian named him), we’re sure he’ll be in good health all winter.
His record, Ian proudly points out, is 11 almonds. That’s 11 of those nuts stuffed into his little cheeks as he waddled, face literally dragging on the ground, off to stash them in the bushes somewhere.
Isn’t that gluttony?
It’s a good thing the cats were on their leashes or they’d have taken care of Buckley getting any more attention.
Sidney tried to take care of a flock of ducks lining the pond behind our trailer in Cherokee, N.C. Off he charged, thinking a bird is a bird is a bird. Up until then, he’d only seen them out the back window as he was safely tucked into our bed. But when he decided they were just birds, in mid-charge he realized just how big they are.
He was back in the trailer in no time flat.
In this campground, they warn about the alligators in the pond 20-feet out back.
Our cats are inside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's coonass country

At first, southwest Louisiana is a spooky place, where alligators and water moccasins patrol rural residential areas, where the windows have bars and the bars have no windows.
But that soon disappears when the people greet you with a grin and a grasp of the hand. Sure, the grin may be gap-toothed and the teeth in evidence may be stained by the ubiquitous cigarettes, or maybe a pinch of snoose jammed under a lip. But the grin is real and so is the friendly greeting behind it.
Just so long as you get a proper Cajun introduction.
The day after a Cajun jam session at Touchet’s bar near Abbeville, residents at Betty’s RV park were invited to a gumbo feast and music session at the Charon home of Dave Baudoin, a proud Cajun, and retired navy man.
Down the road the sugar cane harvest was in full swing, and in the moments before the gumbo was ready to be ravished, Ian and Jerry — from the trailer next door at Betty’s — hiked down the highway to see the operation in progress.
After a bit, they saw a harvester working in a field, and cut through a yard — no car in the driveway — to get a closer look. As they approached a water-filled ditch, there was a shout from next door and a Carhartt-clad figure marched through the brush.
“What y’all want?” said the man, hands and God knows what else jammed in his jacket pockets.
“Hi, I’m Jerry from Davenport, Iowa, and we just wanted to see that cane harvester in operation,” explained Ian’s companion, striding forward with hand outstretched.
“Why y’all wanna see that?” said the man, hands firmly still in his pockets.
“Not something we’ve seen before,” said Ian. “I’m from Canada, and we can’t grow sugar cane up there, or in Iowa either.”
The man then spit some of the juice leaking from the wad of tobacco in his mouth, squinted and — finally — grinned.
“Well, hi then. I’m Troy and folks along this road is pretty much family so we look out for each other. Folks said they seen you walking down the road and the only folks walking out here is either broke down or they’s been an accident,” he explained.
“But then walking into a yard, no call for that if you broke down or banged up so I had to find out.
“People see strangers walking around, well, they’re likely to have a gun on you and you’d never know.”
The pleasantries over, Troy then set out to tell what he could about sugar cane harvesting, including the fact that the tracked-machine used in the process came from Australia. However he couldn’t take anyone closer, he explained, because of the watery ditch.
“It don’t look like much but there’s quite a few water moccasins (poisonous snakes) in there and there’s a six-foot ’gator that patrols it pretty regular,” he said. “We pretty much leave it alone because the ’gator keeps down the other critters — coyotes and bobcats and wild dogs that run through here.”
Troy also explained some the hunting etiquette of the area.
“See that bob-wire fence over there,’ he said, waving at a side yard. “When there’s one strand like that, it means it’s OK to hunt the land. Two strands means you’d best ask permission.
“Now if you got three strands, you need permission and a family member with you, four strands means family members only and five strands mean private and family member or not, you liable to get your ass shot if somebody catch you in there.
“That’s the old way but there’s still some places back in the bayou where you’d best be able to count to five.”
Troy said the land in the area once belonged to his grandfather, who is enshrined in country music’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, in the Cajun section.
“They call it Cajun and Creole to be politically correct, but really down here we’re just a bunch of coonasses. (Wikipedia says that although many Cajuns use the word in regard to themselves, other Cajuns view the term as an ethnic slur against the Cajun people, especially when used by non-Cajuns. Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word "coonass" as a badge of ethnic pride; whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves). They can call us what they want, but we know we’re coonasses and that’s OK by us.”
Then it was time to head back for gumbo and some swamp-pop music.
We were careful to stick to the road.
The area is truly Cajun country; the evidence is everywhere, from the strong French accent that renders the Louisiana drawl even more incomprehensible to ears attuned to flat vowels of Canadian English, to the bilingual signs, the names attached to businesses and, more than anything else, to the music.
Music is everywhere, and all of it is flavoured by the Cajun influence — the squeezebox accordion, washboards, triangles and other percussion instruments, the French lyrics that surpass Ian’s high school French, 40 years back in the rear-view mirror, and except for a few words here and there, prove too much for Vicki, able to work in French while waiting tables as a university summer job.
And it seems everybody can play something and most of the musicians can play everything. Touchet’s Saturday jam was stalled for a while because many of the regular participants were working elsewhere that day.
Not to worry. A young woman was dispatched to collect her guitar-playing father’s electric bass. When it arrived, it was an unusual five-string model and the bassist-cum-guitarist was an even more unusual three-fingered performer, missing the little finger on his left hand.
The group began with the bassist, a drummer and a 15-year-old accordion phenom on the squeezebox. Then a vocalist came out of the crowd, singing initially with a cigarette in his mouth and a Bud in his hand.
After a few numbers, the drummer retired and another appeared from the crowd. The group missed not a beat.
The microphone stands are equipped with bottle holders. The original drummer made sure they stayed full, for all except the teen, Barrot Navarre, who had had enough and passed the accordion to the fellow who had first joined in playing triangle. The new accordion played proved even better than the young lad, who has only been playing for a year, rocking the house with a stormy blues number that had many of the snowbirds in the audience clapping in rhythm.
After a while the vocalist moved on to rhythm guitar, while another guitarist showed up to dazzle the crowd with virtuoso riffs and the accordionist retreated to play the drums, quite well, while the teen regained the squeezebox. And these are all guys with day jobs.
Not Navarre though. Still in school, he was at the session to gain experience playing before crowds as part of his music education, underwritten in part by a society dedicated to preserving Cajun culture and music. Not that it seems to need much preservation.
And friendly? The beer is $2.50 a pop at the bar and at about 5 p.m., bar owner ‘Red’ Touchet unveils a gumbo dinner for everyone in the building. Free.
Music to our ears.

Good time gal

For a good time, call Betty at (337) 893-7057.
That’s Betty Bernard at Betty’s RV in Abbeville, La., and when our new friend, Jerry Avis at Rainbow Plantation, impressed upon us that calling Betty was one thing we had to do before we finished our trip, well, we e-mailed her (bettybernard@cox.net). It’s the modern way.
And that set us up for four days of non-stop fun in Abbeville, La., at Betty’s RV Park.
Now, truth be told, if we’d driven with no recommendation into Betty’s park, formerly her back yard until she took early retirement 11 years ago, we probably would have circled around and pulled out of there.
She’d tried a few other things to fill some retirement time, but nothing was feeding the need for people. She made a pad for a mobile home, but that wasn’t enough. Then she hit on the RV park idea, got a few customers and they just keep coming back, along with the people they’ve told all about it.
There’s a sign at the exit that says, “You’re caught in Betty’s web,” which describes the experience to a T. That’s why you can even get a T-shirt to that effect in Betty’s office. And it’s true. After four days, we’re singing Betty’s praises far and wide.
In all honesty, it’s not the place that’s the big attraction, as in so many scenic RV parks. It’s the people — first and foremost, Betty, plus the others she has attracted to her place.
The park has everything, as long as you’re driving or pulling a fully-equipped unit. Betty does not offer a public washroom (“I have no bathroom and showers, and I never will. There’s only me here so you know who’d be cleaning it. And I’m not going to clean toilets for people!”) so that rules out any form of a tent or very small trailer.
We, in our 17-feet of luxury, have a small washroom. Thanks be for that or we couldn’t have stayed at Betty’s. Granted, you could easily overlook our Harley in the tightly-parked row of trailers there, most of them 40-or-so feet long and looking like a bus with a few slides out here and there. The smaller of her guests’ units were only two or three times Harley’s size.
There’s a small separate parking lot where you can put the vehicle you tow, or in our case, the vehicle that tows us.
We were hugely outsized, but Ian has come to take these things well.
Betty, from the moment we were signing in, was planning our weekend. She started with the news that daily happy hour begins at 4:30 p.m. in the covered area that runs alongside her house. It’s said as though it’s a command performance but she’s quick to add, “if y’all want to” to all the things she has planned. Of course we wanted to check it out. Consequently, that’s how we got to Touchet’s Bar, listening to great Cajun music before they laid out a gumbo dinner at no cost to us. And Ian wasn’t whining about paying $2.50 for a beer.
What Betty does is draw you out of your rig. When you’re hauling a small house with you, you often don’t come outside to meet your campground neighbours. So Betty sets up happy hour and runs a park where you haven’t got any more room outside than the width of your awning. When she’s full, which she will be at Thanksgiving and Mardi Gras for sure, she can cram 17 rigs onto her fully graveled property. Everyone will have their own electrical and sewer connection, plus good water, but you can also reach out and touch your neighbours.
Might as well go to happy hour. By the time the first one is over, you know these people and know they’re ready to have fun. When it’s time to move on, we know we’ll be back sometime, as we welcome a goodbye hug from everyone we met.
Betty gets you into places you never would find on your own, where you meet her friends. Touchet’s is what Ian and Vicki think of as a very American bar. On the outside, it’s one of those buildings where the windows are covered over and decorating might have been a coat of paint.
But when you walk in, there’s only a fraction of a second where the look says, “Who are you?!?” before it’s, “Did Betty send you?” It’s the same reaction all over town. “Oh, you’re at Betty’s” is said in the same tone as, “Oh, you’re alright. C’mon in.”
Any thought of a full retirement isn’t on Betty’s agenda, as she runs an RV park by herself. She looks around the table at happy hour and says, “My family wouldn’t be able to come back (if I shut down.)”
And come back they do, year after year, and not for a measly week. Some are here for months at a time. It’s their winter home.
Jerry has us carrying the message that he’ll be along soon, for his annual visit.
It’s time to fall back into Betty’s web.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The grenouille grail and grille

Anyone who has seen Vicki’s frog collection can imagine how she thought she’d unearthed the Holy Grail when she found the Frog Festival in Rayne, La.
Of course, that’s why Ian and Vicki were in a campground a mere 30 minutes away.
Rayne has been doing this for 38 years — a parade, crowning not only the Frog Queen but also Miss Tadpole, an arts and crafts show featuring everything from frog jewelry to plant stands, a midway with all the attached food vendors offering everything from cotton candy to boudin and other southern delicacies, including ironically frog’s legs, evening Cajun music and last but certainly not least, the frog-jumping contest.
But this is not merely a November weekend event. Rayne has murals whose numbers rival those of Chemainus, B.C., all containing at least one if not multiple frogs, plus at least two amphibian statues in town. The most notable of these is the tuxedo-clad frog, at least 12-feet high, with a body of burnished aluminium, deliberately not painted.
The sign beneath this fellow, who doffs his hat to travellers as they come off Interstate 10 and head into town, reads: “Sculpture of Monsieur Jacques, was created for display in August, 2006. For various reasons, the sculpture was left unpainted, or “skinless.” In this form, unity (of humanity) is represented by showing that underneath the colors of our flesh, we are all the same. Even though there are different skin colors, there is only one human flesh on Earth. “Not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for human beings, another kind of flesh for birds, and another for fish.”
1 Corinthians 15:39
Welcome to Rayne.
At the local fairgrounds, the crowd watches the competition for Frog Queen and Miss Tadpole before noon on Saturday, as a water-filled crate is parked near the stage. Tape has been laid out on the stage surface in a circle, with an X in the centre marking the starting point for jumping frogs.
All contestants for Frog Queen, including the newly crowned royalty, all sporting their finery and tiaras of varying sizes, are clutching very large frogs, holding them around the body and leaving their long pairs of legs dangling.
They’re ready.
The girls crouch around that X on the floor, holding their poised frogs to the floor, ready to jump. When the starter yells go, the first frog to make multiple leaps across the stage to cross the ringing circle of tape is the winner.
There are rules. The girls cannot touch their frogs once the race has begun, but they can encourage it to jump. The small frogs react well to the stomp of a spiky stiletto heel immediately behind them.
They leap.
There are so many contestants that heats are held in different categories: the senior royalty, the Miss Tadpole contestants, boys, teenage boys and finally the adults, both male and female.
Eventually, a winner is declared in each category.
The youngest competitors each compete individually, as it would be chaos to unleash not only a bunch of frogs but small children, all at the same time. The frog is allowed three leaps, at which point the stewards measure its effort.
The stewards also are called upon occasionally for a rapid, mad scramble to capture an escapee.
One of the Miss Tadpole crowd is unimpressed as she lowers her frog to the stage and ignores its jumping efforts as she concentrates on wiping all trace of its existence from her hands and onto her pretty dress.
Another seems bored with the whole process so drops her frog to the starting line from chest height, prompting the event announcer to ask her if she needed a parachute for that move.
Her stunned frog crawls his way along, making it impossible to measure the final length of this effort, since he never did leap three times.
It is hilarious, made all the more so when the crowd shows its competitive nature, urging one frog or another along.
But there is no cruelty to the animals.
The sign for the frog’s leg vendor can’t be seen from the stage and no one mentions it to the frog competitors.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spreading trouble over oiled waters

*This was the day we forgot to bring the camera. Our apologies.*

On a small sign in a restaurant window under the B in the BP logo for British Petroleum is printed the word Bitch, followed by Please.
People are unfailingly polite in Louisiana, with ready smiles and cheerful service, so it requires a little closer scrutiny to realize they also have a temper, one that fate has pushed to the limit.
There are smaller signs here and there, in restaurants or the front windows of seafood stores, urging you to buy Gulf seafood, saying that it is indeed fine and tasty and safe to eat, even after BP spilled oil all over these salt waters and marshes.
When we walk up to the window of a kiosk in the French Quarter of what we now know is pronounced N’Awlins, the vendor is on the phone, painstakingly explaining to a friend how to file a claim for loss of income to BP.
“I really didn’t think it would work or anythin’ but might as well file,” he says, with the ever-ready, gap-toothed smile, adding he received a cheque for $15,000 three days after filing.
He steers us to a city tour bus where our guide, Wanda, take us through the French Quarter and the above-ground cemeteries and other tourist highlights, but also spends one precious hour of a three-hour city circuit in the Lower 9th Ward, the city area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. As we drive through neighbourhoods where houses stand abandoned, holes punched through their roofs where residents sat waiting up to five days to be rescued, it’s difficult to believe it has been five years since the storm hit.
And Wanda is still mad: at the Army Corps of Engineers because the retaining walls — built in the 1930s to keep the canals from floodng — were not maintained according to original agreements; at politicians who dithered on how to help people; at FEMA for supplying trailers for the homeless — some trailers still in place — that unleashed such dangerous levels of formaldehyde that changes were made in trailer manufacturing; at the use of drywall made in China, since proven to be from compressed garbage and a health hazard, so that some of the dismal amount of new construction has had to be redone.
And it is a pathetic amount of rebuilding.
There were 180,000 residents of the Lower 9th Ward the day Katrina hit.
Today, there are 18,000 people living there, and no businesses exist in the area,
“It wasn’t Katrina, the storm, that did the damage here,” she says, a hint of steel in that southern drawl. “Katrina damaged the coast, those areas, so badly. Here, it was the walls breaching. It was the barges allowed to anchor in the canal that broke loose and punched holes in the walls.”
When she says Army Corps of Engineers, the venom is palpable.
And, she says, “If y’all are starting to blame the federal government, that’s not what we do here. We start with our mayor, who ended up in the insane asylum, and then we move on to our governor. She knew what was happening and she said she’d get back to us with decisions in a few days.”
Wanda talks of federal aid that was available — past tense. Residents could demolish what was left of their home and have it carted away. But that aid has ended so what is left standing is now the owner’s problem. In some areas there are more vacant lots than houses left standing, and Wanda points out this was a neighbourhood of houses very close together.
As you look at what’s left, you picture a family sitting on that roof, wet and hungry, and waiting, at times as long as five days.
As Canadians, at the time we wondered where the federal help was when it became painfully apparent people weren’t receiving assistance from their city or state.
As the Canadians among the 15 silent people on the bus, we wonder where the U.S. federal government is today.
But then Wanda takes a turn or two to show us the spirit of New Orleans, the spirit of individuals determined to stay. There is a house where the owner picked up a variety of musical instruments from the water, dried them out and displays them.
There is a street lined with brightly coloured houses, each a different colour but the same design, that were built specifically for musicians with the help of both musician Harry Connick Jr, and Habitat for Humanity.
There is the refurbished home of Fats Domino, with that big FD over the front door, showing where the then 77-year-old music icon waited with his family on his roof for rescue.
Around another corner are the “green” houses, built to energy-efficient standards with solar panels in evidence, that were designed and constructed under a program begun by actor Brad Pitt. Students from Iowa State University sit on curbs in the midst of ongoing construction, sketching the designs and innovative technology.
These houses are built one storey up in the air, on pylons that are sunk 30 feet into the ground, so that any future waters can swirl below without damaging the structure. Wanda points to a brand-new American flag in front of one home, which the homeowner raised when his new house was finished. It replaced the one flying the day the waters rose.
But she also points to the tombstone at the feet of the new flag, placed there to honour the homeowner’s daughter and wife, who fell into those swirling waters and drowned.
Bitch. Please.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do not go gently ...

If Jerry Avis ever ends up in a retirement home, he’ll be the guy telling the impossible travel stories, the ones that raise eyebrows and make everyone in listening distance think it must be the beginnings of dementia starting to show.
If Jerry has his way, you won’t ever see that picture.
From the day he retired, he’s been on the move — sometimes on a motorcycle in North America, sometimes on that other bike he keeps in Ireland for his European travels, sometimes as a volunteer in Africa and sometimes in his older, well-modified motorhome, the one he was camped in at Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, Ala.
He calls Nova Scotia home these days, particularly since he came limping back to Canada after a bad motorcycle accident a few years back in Europe. But the crutches are gone now and he’s off on his usual winter jaunt to warmer climes. The motorhome has its solar array and is ready for more remote camping in one desert or another, off with others who like boondocking (camping without pay) on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands. The deal is you have permission to camp for 14 days, but Jerry points out there’s really nobody who monitors that. It’s the honour system.
Jerry also is an Escapee, belonging to a group of camping enthusiasts who run some of their own parks, thereby keeping the fees low, and get discounts at others. He opts for what they call dry camping, no water, sewer or electrical hookup. That costs him $5 a night at Rainbow Plantation, and to Jerry, that’s important.
He’s quick to point out he is not a wealthy man, not at all, but he is frugal and prudent. He is well versed on how long he can be away from Canada and still maintain Medicare coverage, pointing out that a two-year absence can be managed under special circumstances. He knows Mexico produces generic versions of many prescription drugs at a much lower cost and offers to check that out for us.
He knows a bargain when he sees one, so pays his Escapee membership every year. He also counts many Escapees as friends so is happy to stop off here for a few weeks and catch up with folks.
But he is frustrated with some of his fellow retirees, saying half the people who retired when he did are sitting in front of a television, rarely moving.
At 76, he thinks he’s got more than a few good years, and miles, left in him.
“If you just retire and sit there, don’t do anything,” he says with a smile, “the next thing you know you can’t do anything. It doesn’t do you any good.”
He is frustrated with everyone playing it safe. He tells people to just get up and do it, whether it’s volunteering in a foreign land or selling the house and moving into a motorhome to hit the road. Stop thinking you don’t have enough money to pull it off, and put your energy and brains into budgeting and finding a way to hit the road.
He’s not alone. Helen, who reluctantly calls an apartment in Kitchener, Ont., sort of home, points to the motorhome she and her husband used as a full-time residence for the last 15 years.
“I still call that home,” she says. They reluctantly rented an apartment to be nearer to family, but opted not to buy a condo. That was too permanent.
When you see those big, big rigs on the road, the ones that look like buses with a smaller vehicle in tow behind them, know that for many, many people those rigs are home, the only one they have these days.
Don’t rule out the smaller trailer or motorhome. It could be someone’s retirement villa too.
And check for a small insignia stuck on the rear, the one that marks them as Escapees. They love to welcome someone new to their club.

Singin' without our supper

We knew when the first few bars of rollicking bluegrass sounded, there would be no dinner tonight.
After a confusing day of following the GPS directions to campgrounds that seemed not to exist, we rolled, travel-weary and in increasing darkness, into Rainbow Plantation in the wilds of rural Alabama — perhaps not where you want to hear banjos playing.
But at the campground desk, the hostess mentioned there was an ice cream social at the clubhouse, starting in about a half hour, with bluegrass and gospel to follow. After a quick set-up, we had to decide whether to check out the music or fry up the fresh jumbo Gulf shrimp we had picked up earlier to go with red rice and black beans for a southern feast.
Never having been to an ice-cream social, we let our curiosity get the better of us and set off for a bowl of ice cream and a brief listen before dinner.
But once the music started, we knew there would be no leaving early — and no dinner.
The musicians, collectively known as the Wayfarers, played a delightful selection of bluegrass, country and gospel tunes — without a banjo, in fact — that drew large applause from the collection of 70 or so RVers gathered on a Sunday evening.
Rainbow Plantation is one of eight or so Escapee RV parks, located mostly in the south, where travelling members get breaks on the cost of campsites, gain an instant social network, and catch up with old friends from previous visits here or at other Escapee parks.
The Wayfarers, a group of part-time musicians from nearby Daphne, are monthly regulars here during the high season, and are very well received by the crowd.
Steve Bauer, a body-shop estimator by day and a mandolin-guitar fiend by night, said the nucleus of the group has been together since about 2000 after they connected at the Eastern Shore Baptist Church.
“We all go to the same church and all played guitar and there was a woman at the church who wanted to sing, so we kind of got together and played for her and it worked out pretty well,” Bauer said.
“One of the fellows also played a banjo that we didn’t know about, and he brought a mandolin and taught me three chords — enough to play I Saw the Light — and we decided we liked it. Nobody listened to bluegrass then so we had to learn a lot about it and went to a few concerts and festivals and one or two guys taught me a few things and that’s how I learned the mandolin.”
Bauer said that at one festival there was a two-hour open mic session before the headliners performed, and the Wayfarers strutted their stuff for the crowd. The promoter liked them well enough to invite them back the next year as one of the featured groups.
“It just kind of grew from there,” Bauer said, with a shrug.
The group offers Bauer on mandolin and guitar; Kevin O’Hara, an insurance broker in real life, on guitar; and dentist Richie Parsons on dobro. All three share vocals, with Bauer featured most often. Larry Harmse, a cabinet maker and bassist, plays the strong but silent role.
“We had a banjo player too, until a couple of years ago, but without a banjo now we don’t do the true bluegrass stuff,” Bauer said. “But we do what we can do and a lot of people seem to like it.”
They must like it. In season — the winter months — the Wayfarers play two or three times a week. In the summer it slows down to a couple of times a month. The Wayfarers are also putting together a CD, which will be available soon — Bauer said hopefully — at www.wayfarersmusic.net
The group passes the hat through the RV crowd for a token payment — a $3 donation is suggested.
“We get about enough to pay for gas and strings, we don’t make any real money at it,” Bauer said. “But we really enjoy it. If I wasn’t getting paid I wouldn’t play as much, but I’d still be playing.”
And we’d never get our dinner.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Life's a beach

Having spent day after summer day on the beach at Aylard Farm in East Sooke Park with little girls 20-some years ago, Vicki thought she knew a gorgeous beach when she saw one.
Having been to Long Beach in Tofino, whose name tells its story, or the vast expanse of Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville, she thought she knew her stuff.
Having left B.C. to sink her toes in the fine, golden sand of Hubbard’s Beach in Nova Scotia, she knew she still had the touch for lovely beaches on this trip.
But none of that prepared her for Florida.
For one thing, from a distance it looks like snow. The incredibly fine sand is that white.
And it doesn’t help that Highway 98 out of Pensacola is lined with snow fencing, reminiscent of that stretch of highway at Portage La Prairie, Man., except in this case the fencing is to keep the SAND drifts from overpowering the highway.
We stayed first at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, and frolicked like a couple of kids in the sand before leaping into the breakers, letting them push us where they would. Never had Vicki heard Ian say, “Let’s go swimming.” The man who hates to swim, while sinking into that powdery white sand, couldn’t resist the pull of the breakers.
And that sand makes lovely footing as you head through the surf, trying to swim a few strokes before the next wave tosses you about.
At St. Joseph, the sand, while very fine, fit what we think of as the usual beach colour scheme.
It wasn’t until we hit the shores of Grayton Beach State Park that we were almost fooled into entertaining the thought of snow.
But only almost.
Our disappointment to see the purple warning flag, indicating hazardous marine life, was huge. Our minds immediately leapt to sharks lurking in the frothy waves but the ranger quickly squelched that notion when he said, “Jelly fish.”
But don’t sell the small, transparent creatures short. Apparently they can deliver a sting that makes a towel flicked in a vicious rat’s tail seem preferable.
We stayed out of the water, but satisfied ourselves with hours sitting on the beach, watching the tide roll in with each breaker to tickle our toes.
If felt like a real vacation.

The heir, apparently

In feudal times in Britain, estates were generally named after the feudal lord, a practice that continues with titled persons to this day in ‘The Old Country.’
Thinking that similar rules — droit de seigneur, serfs, tugging the forelock — are customs that should be revived in this country, we stopped in at Dutton, Ont., to see how lavish our reception would be.
Alas we were a trifle disappointed when all that happened was that a passerby on the highway — Chrysta — saw us trying to take a picture with the town sign in the background, and turned around to take the picture for us.
Trying to curry favour with the laird, no doubt.
There was not even the offer of a free round at Dutton Meadows Golf Club. Hrmph. However in the course of our visit, we found a local business for which Ian is particularly well suited and got a photo of him in a position of prominence.
Oh well, after all, what’s in a name?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Monochromatic history

Black and white.
Colour of every kind dominates the gardens, whether they’re a front yard in Savannah, Ga., one of those side yards in old Charleston, S.C. or on the Magnolia Plantation outside Charleston, with its 500 acres of gardens.
But it’s all black and white, all about black and white. There are so few black people taking the tourist trolley tours of old Savannah or a lazy carriage ride around the Battery in Charleston that they stand out in a crowd.
Campgrounds might as well post white-only signs. The blacks you see on the grounds are working.
The introductory video at Magnolia Plantation points out that slaves were happy to work the 500 acres of gardens rather than plant rice, the gold of this low-country part of the south. It isn’t until a much later tour of the five remaining slave cabins that visitors realize selected slaves worked the gardens while others planted miles and miles of rice on the remaining 1,500 acres.
It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the plantation reduced to 500 acres, with free blacks staying to work in the gardens. The plantation house was moved in from the city since blacks had burned the original home to the ground.
As tourists walk through those five cabins, they come to a larger one, actually two cabins pushed together, that was the family home of Johnny Leach, the former head gardener, and Isaac Leach, the current head gardener. Isaac’s son, Jackson, also works in the gardens.
The family lived there, without indoor plumbing, until 1969. Four of the 13 Leach children left to go to college.
In Charleston, our carriage driver, with his degree in history, points out one street, paved in stones that came from England as ballast in the sailing ships that docked at the end of the road. This rough cobbled lane holds the first steps of the Africans brought to the south. Almost all of the millions were unloaded here, stumbling up to the market to be sold.
It is humbling.
Our guide on the slave cabin tour points out that all the southern cooking we have been enjoying, to excess, came from the Africans brought to this land. Rice, barbecue, collard greens, grits, pecan pie, and on and on. A lunch at Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston dates back to the recipes of Jestine Matthews, a black woman who lived for 112 years, many of them cooking for Dana Berlin, the restaurant’s owner, and her family. Berlin, raised by Matthews, who passed away in 1997, opened the restaurant two years later.
It’s long-established recipes set the restaurant’s reputation. The pumpkin tart will linger in Ian’s memory while Vicki gives this restaurant the honour of serving the best pecan pie she has ever tasted.
The lineup for lunch is well along the block and so routine that the establishment has installed a large outdoor fans to keep waiting patrons more comfortable. We appreciate it on a 75-degree day and shudder to think of a few days before when we sweated through 90 degrees, with 98 per cent humidity, in Savannah. Locals tell us we should imagine 20 degrees hotter for a summer temperature.
We point out that our trailer doesn’t have air conditioning. They shudder.
And we think of the history of people working outdoors in that heat, and of those who work outdoors today.
It’s black and white.

Please sir, can I have some Moe?

Fat Buddies is closed on Sunday.
Now, that threw a very large wrench in the works. Some of our new fibreglass RV friends, Ray and Cindy, live about 20 miles from our Cherokee campground so we wanted their local knowledge on where to find proper southern barbecue.
We’ve seen the TV shows where those barbecue cooks face off, each claiming the best barbecue in the U.S. Even without the benefit of smell, we knew from the visuals that this was something to try in the south.
But it wasn’t going to be at Fat Buddies in Waynesville, N.C.
So we rolled further down the highway to Asheville, N.C., heading for McDonalds’ free WiFi. Feeling obliged, we buy something to drink every time we find ourselves at the golden arches but we’re never there for the food.
We’re looking for barbecue, so while Vicki posted to the blog, Ian wandered off to solicit McDonalds eaters for a good place for barbecue.
First table he hit, he struck out. The four southern women weren’t from Asheville. One, from Texas, pointed out in a long drawl that we would have to eat pig, not said in the most complimentary tone, in this part of the country.
“In Texas, we barbecue be-ef,” she drawled.
Next table, more success.
The four men were indeed from Asheville and Ian’s question sparked a spirited discussion on where the best barbecue could be found. Then the talk turned to Sunday, and what would be open.
In this part of the country, many businesses shut down on Sunday, with some also closing up shop on Wednesday afternoon.
But at last, it was settled. Moes Original Bar B Que, just down Lodge Street, would be the one. A couple of gestures for directions plus the words “and by then you’ll be able to smell it” sent us on our way.
There was some confusion, of course, since there are many eateries in Asheville using Moe’s name, including Moe’s Southwest Grill, right next door to McDonalds. Turns out everyone seems to have an old barbecue recipe from some dead guy named Moe.
We followed the loose directions, which included a reference to “you’ll see the chimbley.”
It really is a small hole-in-the-wall kind of place, where you walk in and place your order at the front counter. Allison, the waitress working the till when we got there, was first astounded that we’d never had barbecue, and then quite willing to help the rookies.
The idea is to order a platter, which includes one kind of meat, two side orders and a hunk of melt-in-your-mouth corn bread, plus a drink. Ian opted for pulled pork, Vicki chose chicken. Then the discussion was whether the chicken should be on the bone. Vicki bowed to Allison’s superior knowledge.
The half chicken came on the bone, with side orders of slaw and cornbread dressing as Vicki had ordered. There was enough to keep her knoshing away for an hour or so.
Ian had opted for baked beans and collard greens, a new experience, with his pulled pork. Apparently he inhaled all of this because he quickly moved on to another meal, this time pork ribs with slaw and baked beans, already a favourite.
When we first sat down, a waitress hurried over to wash down our table, we thought, because there must have been children seated there earlier. By the time Ian hit those ribs, and one skittered out of his hands and down his shirt, we knew the table always looked like that after anyone ate.
This was not clean, neat eating. The fact that our food didn’t come with napkins but each table had its own roll of paper towel should have been a hint. This was drip- down-your-chin, dribble-off-your-wrists, slurp-up-barbecue-sauce kind of food.
It was wonderful.
By this time, we had become entertainment for the staff. They watched our every move, the looks of bliss on our faces, the uhms and ahs of each new taste. They were so entertained that they sent us waddling home with complimentary banana puddings for dessert.
Maybe, when we’re willing to eat again, we’ll find out they’re really good too.