Birding in the Rio Grande Valley

Down in the most southern tip of Texas, near where the Rio Grande exits out into the Gulf of Mexico, there exists a land where birds of all manner flock. The locals call the area a valley, but in truth, the land surrounding the river is a floodplain, containing many oxbow lakes or resacas formed from pinched-off meanders in earlier courses of the Rio Grande. From the rich soils, farmers grow citrus fruits, sorghum, maize, sugarcane, and cotton. In between these farmlands, government agencies preserved natural habitats for both local and transient creatures. Birds and bugs migrate over this fertile land, along two major routes: the Central Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway. As they make their way through, they take rest in refuges of wilderness set aside by both cities, state, and nation. The result is a collective paradise for the avid birdwatcher.

Male Summer Tanager

Male Summer Tanager

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

One of top birding spots in the nation, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park draws birders across to see a treasure trove tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States. Centuries of Rio Grande flooding formed layer upon layer of sediments, forming a rich and fertile alluvial plain. Large growths of Cedar Elm, Sugar Hackberry, Rio Grande Ash, Texas Ebony and Acacia trees create a valuable habitat of intact riparian woodlands along the Rio Grande.

Every Sunday & Wednesday morning for about a month, I would join the hike lead by a volunteer or park ranger to spot birds. We would leave the visitor center either by foot or tram. Stops included the Nature Center, the Resaca, the Green Jay Blind, and the Hawk Tower.

Green Jay

Green Jay

The Nature Center is where a majority of the bird action happens, thanks in part to the bird feeders. Volunteers are the ones who set out grapefruit, seed, and suet every morning. The volunteers also run the Nature Center itself and are a wealth of knowledge answering any question you have on the park and its inhabitants, avian or otherwise.

At the resaca or oxbow lake, where we viewed water birds. From the platform, we saw kingfishers, pelicans, herons, egrets, and plenty of cormorants. Sadly not many waterfowl were found, due to invasive tilapia eating all the underwater plant life.

The Green Jay Blind is possibly the best bird blind I’ve seen to date. It’s a permanent structure made of wood viewing slats at various heights that open and close. Here I was able to get intimate shots with various birds and the occasional javelina.

During May through October, the best spot for viewing raptors is the Hawk Tower. I was out of raptor season when I visited, and the only birds of prey I saw were stalking smaller birds at the Nature Center.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Quinta Mazatlan

Another place for viewing birds is a 1930’s country estate in the heart of McAllen city: Quinta Mazatlan. This a historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda is surrounded by lush tropical landscaping. First built in 1935, the estate only changed hands twice before being bought by the City of McAllen in 1998. Today Quinta Mazatlan serves as an urban sanctuary where people can learn about birds, plants, and the environment. 

Timing is everything at this location — birds can be seen regularly in the morning along with the occasional tropical migrant birds.  This is where I saw parakeets, parrots, flycatchers, thrushes and warblers within a thriving tropical garden with whimsical art installations. Inside the mansion, I also enjoyed the art gallery and the self-guided tour of the house.

Blue Bunting

Blue Bunting

South Padre Island Nature and Birding Center

South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center is a magnificent introduction to a rich birding destination. The 50 acres contains Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats from which to spot a variety of shore birds. Also included are thickets of native shrubs and trees that are compelling to migrating birds in their season.

South Padre Island is a crucial first landfall for birds making the strenuous migration across the Gulf. Many of them come from Southern Mexico and northern Central America. If you happen to be on the island after a spring storm, you will be witness to a rainbow of warblers, tanagers, orioles and thrushes taking shelter in the shrubs and trees, while shorebirds and waterfowl stick to the wetlands and waters.

When we visited, we were delighted by the museum, the watch tower and of course the boardwalk which took us among the thickets and shoreline. Birds here felt safe among the humans and didn’t shy away as in most other preserves. I just loved the look of Roseate spoonbills, ibis, and herons, while the terns, gulls, and pipers seem to rule the place.

A mess of Terns!

A mess of Terns!

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Spanish moss draped on trees and noisy chachalacas within the underbrush are easily found within this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service managed refuge. In 1943, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was established as a protection for birds due to its ideal location. Surrounded by farmland on three sides and the Rio Grande on the south, this 3 square mile area serves as a juncture for two major migratory routes. Santa Ana also happens to be the northern-most point for many species whose range extends south into Central and South America.

When we visited Santa Ana we took the tram tour, which is a nice overview of what the park has to offer. On a later day, we took a quick hike to the bird tower, hanging bridge, and bird blinds. We were told that ocelots and bobcats roam the woods in the early morning or early evening, but we were not lucky enough to spot either. This is where I saw my first set of nighthawks and buntings.

common pauraque

common pauraque

Additional Locations

Apart from the three places I got to visit, there are also six other locations that we didn’t have time to visit. 

Lesser Nighthawk Neotropic Cormorant quinta mazatlan White Ibis Ringed Kingfisher Kiskadee & Green Jay Common Nighthawk Double-crested Cormorant hooded oriole Great White Egret Audubon oriole Male northern cardinal Anhinga Cooper's Hawk Green Jay Roseate Spoonbill Great Blue Heron Painted Bunting Desert Cardinal White Pelican Black Phoebe Crested Caracara South Padre Island Birding Center American White Pelican Female northern cardinal Greater Kiskadee yellow bellied sapsucker Brown Pelican Green Kingfisher

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Wild Winds in the Smokey Mountains

And So It Begins

During our stay in the Smokey Mountains, we were caught up in a rather nasty wind storm that blew through the area with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. Trail keeps close tabs on the weather so we knew a storm of some kind was inbound the day before. We took the precaution of putting away our patio gear and battening down the trailer before tucking in for the night. It rained and thundered through the night but by morning the skies had mostly cleared up. It was then that the wind began to blow in earnest.

I could hear it blasting through the trees as I sleepily ate my breakfast. Trail was already up, alert, and looking at the weather reports, watching as the wind warnings were being escalated. From the shelter of the Airstream, it was hard to tell just how bad things were getting. It was then that we heard the first tree snap. It sounds like a series of loud firecrackers going off in quick succession; a series of pops and cracks loud enough to carry through the howling winds and the walls of our Airstream.

The force needed to snap a tree like this is nothing to take lightly. 

The Danger Zone

Our predicament was that we were sitting right in the middle of a forested. We hopped out of the trailer to assess the situation as the winds grew stronger and stronger. Outside, the trees around our trailer were gyrating wildly while leaves and small branches hurled past us. Cautiously we tried to figure out just how much danger we were in. Just then we both heard the cracking sound of a tree giving way near us. I couldn’t see which one it was so in a split second I sprinted away from the sound. In a safe spot for the moment, I spun around to see a small tree in the empty lot next to us had snapped and crashed into the site.

Clearly, this was not a safe situation. I decided our best course of action was to get in the truck and drive the short distance to the office building of the RV park. Trail wondered if we should move the trailer, but I didn’t see anywhere in the park that looked especially safer in the park than where we were at. Trying to drive on the roads in these winds would be twice as dangerous so we would just have to see to our own safety and hope for the best. From inside the park office, we could only sit and wait out the storm, hoping our trailer would come through it. A few others also gathered with us as we listened for snapping trees and worried for our property and those who chose to ride it out in their RVs.

We watched as one of the other residents scrambled to move their trailer. We learned later they could hear a big tree near their lot start to come loose at the roots. They quickly got hooked up in the raging winds and moved to a less threatened spot in the park. It turned out they made the right call because that tree did come down shortly after. While the site they were in didn’t take the full force of it, the one next to them did as the tree smashed through a picnic table and filled two empty spaces with its branches and trunk.

Smaller trees can snap, but big healthy ones can come down like this. Every tree is a potential danger in a big wind.

Aftermath

By the time the wind died down, there were downed trees throughout the park. Our Airstream was spared and only one other RV in the park suffered a hit, and fortunately, it was superficial damage. After the wind died down and the weather reports signaled the all clear we went out to inspect the aftermath. Limbs and leaves were everywhere. Both the lots to the right and left of us had a tree down in the. Behind the park property, a truly massive tree had come down on the corner of an old church. It wasn’t until we went to move our truck back to our site that we noticed one of the side mirrors had been broken by flying debris.

Everyone felt fortunate that no one had been hurt and that property damage was minimal. Since it was the off-season, there was only a handful of us in the park. Had it been full, there would have been serious damage done. It hit home that this is simply one of the increased risks you face with life in an RV. Even with good planning, if you want to travel through the country, you are subject to the relative unpredictability of the local weather. While we were fairly well prepared for the storm, when it came to snapping trees and blowing debris, we simply had to hope for good luck to see us through.

It did inspire me to put together a guide for other travelers in being prepared for storms. If you are thinking of going on the road, or already are, I suggest giving it a read.

We had trees come down in the lots on both sides of our trailer. You can follow the 3-Bs but Be Lucky is also helpful.

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What to do in a windstorm, tornado, or hurricane in an RV, trailer, or Airstream

Encountering a storm in an RV or Trailer can be a very frightening experience. This year alone, Trail and I have found ourselves in the path of a potential tornado and in a forest during a windstorm that was snapping trees all around us. Thankfully, we have emerged unharmed, and the worst our rig has suffered was a broken side mirror. I wanted to try and come up with a concise set of tips for avoiding, preparing for, and weathering storms for RV and Airstream owners. So I give you, the 3-Bs:  Be Aware, Be Prepared, Be Safe.

Be Aware

When you live or travel in an RV, the weather is something you experience more intimately than in stick and brick home. It is in your best interest to keep tabs on the weather that will be impacting your journey.

Climate Awareness

Weather is what is happening day to day in the atmosphere, the climate is the general trend based on location and season. Before you travel to a place, you should do a little research on the expected climate for the time you plan to be there. Jump on the internet and google something like “Florida Climate” and you should find what you need. Wikipedia pages for states often have good climate information. I strongly suggest that you avoid areas known for storms at times of year where storms are common there.

Weather Awareness

Someone in your party needs to make a habit of keeping track of the weather. Most importantly, you want to have as much warning as possible for storms of all kinds. If you don’t have a favorite weather source, just google “weather” and you should find many good options. There are also numerous good weather apps for your mobile devices.

Once a storm does start shaping up, you will want to keep close track of it, as well as any national and local weather alerts from the authorities. Knowing what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future lets you make smart decisions. When the weather gets bad enough that the authorities issuing advisory messages, you should do your best to follow their instructions.

Location Awareness

Know the dangers for your location. Are you in a flood plane? Are there tall trees that could fall on your RV? Is there debris around you that could become dangerous in a high wind? If a storm does threaten you, knowing the possible dangers saves you valuable time in making decisions about what to do.

You should also take note of where you can shelter in the event of a serious storm. Find out where the nearest official storm shelter is. Keep an eye out for the sturdiest public building in the immediate vicinity. Stone buildings and buildings with few or no windows are ideal. Often the bathrooms in a park are the safest place to head in a serious storm since they are accessible, sturdy, and have few windows. If there is a storm shelter near by, program its location into your GPS for quick reference.

We had trees come down in the lots on both sides of our trailer. You can follow the 3-Bs but “Be Lucky” is also very helpful.

Be Prepared

Being ready ahead of time is your best step to weathering a storm. Before the winds blow, you are in full control. Take advantage of that fact.

Prepare Supplies

Having a portable survival pack is a good idea for any RVer, not just one threatened by a storm. I like to keep mine in a backpack so it is ready to go at a moment’s notice and is easy to carry. A good kit will include first aid supplies, non-perishable food, clean water, and a light source at a minimum. You can buy one like the Ready America 2-person kit, or make your own. The big advantage of making your own is you know exactly what is in there. We keep ours in our truck, in a water proof box.

If you know a storm is incoming, I also recommend charging up all your electronic devices. That includes making sure battery powered devices have fresh batteries. The last thing you want is a drained cell phone or dying flashlight during an emergency situation. If you have multiple devices, use them one at a time to get the most life out of them.

Prepare the RV

At the first sign that a storm has a decent chance of impacting you, it is time to get the RV ready. Start by assessing if there is a safer location for your RV to be. If you are parked next to some trees and a big wind is coming, see if you can find an alternate spot that is not as threatened. If you are in a low-lying area in a flood plane, try to find some higher ground you can park on. Don’t try to get out on the road unless you know you can outrun the weather, or get to a known safe location well before the storm hits. An RV on the road during a storm not only puts the RV in great danger, it puts you in much greater danger as well. Driving an RV in strong winds is a terrible idea.

Gather up anything not nailed down and put it away. Flying objects are a danger to yourself and others. Turning off the propane is a good idea for a severe storm. Put blinds down to protect yourself from windows shattering. Close up vents and retract awnings. Make sure your trailer is firmly stabilized. Shore power can be disconnected for an electrical storm to help protect the RV systems, but it won’t pose a danger to you.

Prepare Yourselves

If a storm is coming, you want to get dressed for rough weather. Get your sturdiest shoes on ahead of time and have a coat handy. If things get crazy, you want to be ready to get moving, not struggling to get your shoes on. If you have pets, you want them ready as well. Smaller animals should be in carriers and for larger critters, have a leash at the ready. Including food for your pets in a survival kit is a good idea too.

Talk to everyone you are traveling or living with and go over what you plan to do if the storm hits and things get dangerous. You don’t want to be having debates or discussions while the wind is howling and your RV is shaking. Get a plan sorted out ahead of time and get everyone to agree. It isn’t always easy to think clearly when the wind is roaring and trees are flying past. Know what you plan to do, and under what conditions you plan to do it.

It’s a good idea to contact someone you know outside the potential storm area and let them know where you are and that you could be in some danger. Set a schedule for checking in with them, that way, if the worst should happen, someone knows where you were and can contact authorities on your behalf.

Smaller trees can snap, but big healthy ones can come down like this. Every tree is a potential danger in a big wind. This was right next to our RV Park.

Be Safe

Making good decisions during a storm is often the key to survival. You will not always have control of the situation and events may not always go according to plan. These principles should help keep you safe.

Stay Calm

Once a storm gets going, you need to try and stay calm and think clearly. Follow your plans and follow the directives of emergency authorities whenever possible. Try to act out of logic rather than fear. Take the action that has the least risks and that maximizes your personal safety and those of your loved ones. Remember you are more important than your RV. If you see others panicking, try to help them focus on what they can do to maximize their own safety. Focus on what you can control and try not to worry about what you can’t control.

A simple pattern of thought can help deal with these types of situations if you become uncertain. 1. Identify your biggest risk. 2. Consider what you can do to reduce that risk without creating a greater risk.

Seek Shelter

Physically, you want to make sure you are in the safest place available to you. If there is an actual storm shelter, that’s where you want to be. If not, you want to be in the sturdiest building available. Stay away from windows and put as many walls between you and the storm as possible. An RV is not an especially good place to be, but if it is your only shelter, then it is better than nothing. Again, stay away from the windows and in a part of your RV that has the most structure. There is also safety in numbers during a storm. You can help others and they can help you. Weathering it alone is not a good plan if there is an alternative.

Stay Informed

Keep monitoring the weather and any official sources of information about the storm. Don’t let your guard down until the authorities say that the danger has passed. Once it has, you should look around to see what kind of damage has been done. First, assess your own health and the health of those in your party. Next, check out your RV and see what may have been damaged. Identify any lingering hazards, and work a plan to remove them as best you can in the safest way possible. Also, keep others informed. If you have loved ones who know you were in harm’s way, be sure to let them know you are OK and they needn’t worry further for you. 

Lucky for us, the only damage we suffered was this broken mirror on our truck. It was hit by a flying branch during the storm.

Last Thoughts

Following my “be” theme, don’t be afraid, be ready. Life on the road has risks, but don’t let them get in the way of living life to the fullest. If you are reading this, then you are already taking the proper steps to being safe on the road whatever may come. Take what wisdom I can offer, and add to it the wisdom of others. The more you learn, the better your chances of staying safe in our wonderous, but sometimes dangerous world.

 

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Corbin Laurel Lake KOA: Corbin Kentucky

Corbin Laurel Lake KOA is typical of the KOA parks we have encountered in the southeast: pretty, well run, and a little expensive.

We Paid: $42 per night for X nights
Discounts Used: KOA Membership
Address (GPS Link): 171 East City Dam Road  Corbin, KY 40701
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/corbin/
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Pool,  Playground, Field Games, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Hiking

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Pretty grounds
  • Cute Cabins

Worst Features

  • Price

Sometimes the south feels like you are in a swimming pool just walking around. Its so humid!

The Details

We have had better luck with KOA campgrounds in the east than in the west, and that’s a good thing since there are tons of them in this part of the country. Our last 4 have been at KOA and we’ve got more booked down the road. Corbin Laurel Lake is pretty classic for the brand. It has gravel pads, slightly older hook ups, lovely trees, and smallish but adequate facilities and amenities. Like others we have visited, management seem on the ball and the place is both clean and orderly.

One nice feature about this park is it has direct access trails to the nearby Laurel Lake which is great for all kinds of recreation. I like parks that are connected to the wilderness such that you can go for a hike without having to drive anywhere. It is somewhat uncommon outside of actual state parks. I was also pleased that the internet here worked fairly well. It was not fast, but it was reliable, though partly that is no doubt to the park being fairly empty while we were here. The cable TV was especially robust with lots of channels.

Their pool isn’t quite big enough for swimming, but if you just want to cool off or float about in the water it will do the trick. Like many KOAs, they spend extra attention on the kid’s playground compared to many other parks. All in all, it is a very decent park but comes at a higher than average price. Even with our membership discount, it wasn’t cheap. So not a bargain, but a very decent place to camp.

Here we are at the park. Those national park stickers are piling up! We visited the Cumberland Gap while staying here.

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Smokey Mountain KOA

The Smokey Mountains are the most visited national park in the US. As a result of this, RV park prices are sky high here. Smokey Mountain KOA proved to be a nice choice and a better value than offerings a bit closer to the national park.

We Paid: $47 per night for 14 nights
Discounts Used:
Address (GPS Link):
Website:
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Rec Room, Pool, Jacuzzi, Playground, Field Games, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Quiet Location
  • Nice Clubhouse
  • Perfect Bathrooms

Worst Features

  • Sloped and bumpy roads

Gravel and trees are the order of the day at Smokey Mountain KOA.

The Details

To fully enjoy the Smokey Mountains we booked two weeks at Smokey Mountain KOA. According to the signs, they had only recently joined the KOA network and indeed, they had a different vibe than the usual KOA. Unlike most of the chain, they didn’t have a jumping pillow or extensive playgrounds for the kids. This park is located on a wooded hillside about 20-30 minutes from the national park.

All the lots and roads are course gravel. The lots themselves are good and level, but the roads are all uphill and have a fair number of humps in them. Talking with the proprietor, these are necessary to channel rainwater so that it doesn’t build up on the sites or wash away the road beds. This is a park where you really want to follow the suggested speed limit or risk bouncing your RV on your way in and out of the park.

We enjoyed the large and comfy clubhouse which is attached to the camp store and office. It wasn’t fancy but it felt like a big living room and campers could be found hanging out there more often than in most parks we have visited. The bathrooms were great. They had 10 private rooms with toilets and showers, all kept very clean and with modern fixtures. The laundry was small but it is in the same building as the clubhouse so there is a nice place to hang out while washing and drying. 

You get Cable and Wireless internet for free and there is a pool available seasonally. The staff were very frindly and helpful while we were here, often offering to take firewood up to our site and inquire to our comfort whenever they saw us.

While Smokey Mountain had less playground equipment than most KOA parks, what they did have was very nice.

And then this happened

We had something of a harrowing experience here. On our third day, a serious wind storm swept through. Before long, trees started snapping and toppling over in and around the campground. Hundred-year-old oaks toppled over as guests hit up to 80 miles per hour. Thankfully they had recently had tree trimmers in to take out much of the dead wood. As a result, while there were many close calls, only one trailer in the park suffered any damage, and it was fairly minor. The park staff wasted no time in getting things cleaned up and ensuring the safety of their guests.

I can’t quite give Smokey Mountain KOA 5 stars due to the price, but I do recommend it if you are in the area and don’t mind a little bit of a drive to get out to the park. The setting is nice, quiet, and the staff clearly cares about their park and their customers. 

One site over and we’d have had some serious trouble. This was one of the smaller trees that came down in and around the park.

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Sweetwater Valley KOA

Sweetwater Valley KOA is easily the nicest park in the network that we have visited. Every aspect of the park was pleasant and I found myself wishing we could linger a while longer and enjoy its hospitality.

We Paid: $42 per night for 3 nights
Discounts Used: KOA Membership
Address (GPS Link): 269 Murray’s Chapel Road  Sweetwater, TN 37874
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/sweetwater/
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Pool, Playground, Shuffleboard, Water Wars, Basketball, Jump Pillow, Dog Run, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Events Field

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Beautiful Grounds
  • Quiet Campground

Worst Features

  • Uneven terrain

This is what you want an RV park to look like. This part of the country has some fantastic forests.

The Details

We visited Sweetwater KOA in the spring and the setting for the park couldn’t have been prettier. Large oaks and maples shining in the sun gave the park an idyllic appearance. The park was immaculately maintained with lush lawns and well-maintained buildings. Everything about this place gave off an “exactly what an RV park should be” vibe. A lot of KOA parks we have visited were disappointing, but not this one.

Like many KOAs, there was a focus on things for kids to do here. They had the usual inflatable jumping platform and for the first time I popped off my shoes and tried it out. They also had a strange contraption called Water Wars, which was designed specifically for water balloon fights including a filling station. They also had many nice lawns and grassy hills for playing field games and you could rent peddle cars and other amusements.

Free Cable and Wifi also helped make the somewhat elevated price seem a reasonable ask. We had one of the deluxe pull through sites and it had plenty of room for our rig and tow vehicle. While all the sites looked level and well groomed many of them were arrayed on sloping hills which can make getting in and out of them a bit challenging. We didn’t have any problems but a truly huge rig might find it problematic.

Our previous KOA visit had some remarkably ugly bathrooms, but here, the owners had done a nice job setting them up. The men’s room had a cute “Dad’s Garage” theme going on. Curiously, the building design was exactly the same as the last park. KOA seems to offer an office plan that some parks use to set up their park. They also seem to consistently have lackluster camp stores that focus more on tourist do-dads than the essentials of food and camp equipment.

All said I give Sweetwater KOA a big thumbs up for its well-maintained facilities, numerous amenities, and almost peerless setting. The price is a bit too high to deem it a bargain, but I felt I got my money’s worth here.

The one thing I’ve found most consistent with KOA parks is that they cater well to families with children.

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Exploring New Orleans

New Orleans makes a strong impression. Its history, architecture, and culture are all unique and powerful. It is a city that was shaped by its many residents, and in turn, shapes those who live there. Neither nature, war, politics, fire, commercialism, nor the change of national allegiance has managed to overcome the spirit of the city. They all left their mark and it is a place forever changing, but it remains unique to a degree few other American cities can claim. 

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by a French trading company, then ceded to the Spanish in 1763. The French regained it in 1803 and promptly sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. The Brittish tried to take it in the war of 1812 but were repulsed. It has been savaged by many storms including Katrina in 2005 which left much of the city flooded. Throughout its history, it has been a city of trade and immigrants with wave after wave of new cultures and traditions pouring in, a process that continues to this day.

I’ve no idea who this gentleman is, but I found him watching over the french quarter and though he personified the spirit of the neighborhood.

Getting started

You could spend a lifetime exploring the city, but we spent only a single day here. Normally we take things slow, but due to the costs of coming into the city and our desire to partake of its culinary offerings, we packed our visit into a single day, starting early and ending late. To make things easy, we bought tickets for the Hop-On-Hop-Off tour bus service. These double decker buses run a circuit through key areas of the city. As the name implies, if you have a ticket you can board and depart at any of the 18 stops. Each bus has a tour guide who talks about the locations the bus passes through while you ride. Some of the stops also feature guided walking tours either included in the price or discounted with your ticket.

We arrived early in the French Quarter to ensure we could find parking. This is not a city you want to drive around in during the busy parts of the day. The streets are a maze of narrow one-way passages clogged with pedestrians and other vehicles. Navigating our big truck through the crowded streets was no easy enterprise. If you don’t want to take a tour bus around the city as we did, I recommend using the two streetcar lines in the city. One runs by the riverside, while the other is more uptown. If your ride up one and back on the other you will cover most of the key areas of the city with very little expense.

There are three main tourist districts in New Orleans. There is the French Quarter which is chock full of tourist attractions, retail shops, and historical landmarks. On the other side of town is the Garden District which is the residential counterpart to the French Quarter. It also has shops and the like but caters a bit more to the local residents of the city. Between them, you have the modern commercial district where you will find all the big hotels, casinos, and the like. While it was not a district on our tour map, I’d say the river side is its own entity featuring a mix of parks, river boat tours, and local industry along the banks of the Mississippi river.

This is the tour map from our bus service. It does a nice job showing the main city districts.

The French Quarter

Our first stop was the french quarter. It really is a unique and magical place among American cities. While it caters to tourism, it has a very nice mix of crass commercialism, authentic local artisanship, and a rich history maintained in its architecture and traditions. We started out near Jackson Square, which is a walled garden and park adjacent to two historic hotels and a large catholic cathedral. Street musicians and buskers of all sorts were plying their trade on the modest crowd of tourists wandering about. We were there just after Mardi Gras so the vibe was fairly low key as the city digested the aftermath of the massive festivities.

We wandered our way into the lovely Saint Louis cathedral where folks were gathering for late morning services and then down the maze of twisting back streets. A collection of slumbering cats drew us into a rug shop where the owners were hand looming wool rugs. We stopped to ask them about their shop, their cats and the city at large and they, in turn, were curious about our travel adventures. After petting some very aged but happy cats, we wandered back out into the streets to check out other curious establishments including a vintage soda shop and a store selling European toys.

It’s Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square. He utterly crushed a British attack on the city in the war of 1812 and became a famous hero as a result.

To the Bus!

To check out the rest of the city we found the office for our tour bus, picked up our pre-paid tickets, and jumped on. The buses are double deckers so we headed for the top front seats to get the best view as we rolled around town. Each bus includes a tour guide who talks about the landmarks and history of the city. We got to ride with three different guides in our trip. The best was a retired gentleman who did it once a week for fun and had lived in the city since he was a child. Trail and I took advantage of the slow roll to play some Pokemon Go. If you like playing, city tour buses are perhaps the ultimate way to play the game.

The bus wound its way through the french quarter and into the Business District. This is the modern part of the city and is not markedly different than other major city centers. Office towers, hotels, and the Superdome dominate the skyline, but you can find historic theaters and other older institutions along the main drag. This district is also home to the official WW II museum of the United States. You might wonder, what does New Orleans have to do with WW II. It turns out, many of the landing craft used in D-Day were manufactured here. That gave rise to a D-Day museum which eventually was expanded to encompass the whole of the war. We didn’t have time to explore it on this day, our goal was the Garden District.

Inside the St. Luis Cathedral in the french quarter of New Orleans.

The Garden District

The garden district was named for the private gardens kept by the wealthy residents of the city who made their home here. Whereas the french quarter is the retail heart of the city, the Garden District is its residential heart. While there is plenty of tourism here, it is also where the locals tend to live, dine and shop for ordinary goods. We had three missions here: take a walking tour offered by the bus company, check out the graveyard, and grab something to eat.

First up was our walking tour. We met up with our somewhat wry guide and followed him through the garden district’s most affluent areas. While the highlight of the tour was supposed to be the homes of famous stars, I was more interested in the history and architecture of the neighborhood. Happily, our guide delivered on all accounts. He did a nice job introducing how the neighborhood was formed and dug into detail about the different styles of homes and how they came to be built. We started out with narrow row houses, packed in tight, and moved to the large mansions that occupied whole blocks. Despite the multi-million dollar homes here, the streets are some of the worst I’ve seen. The soft soil and huge oak trees turn the narrow lanes and sidewalks into undulating waves of assault and cracked concrete.

This mansion is valued at near $8 million. The most expensive in the city. And here is the road running in front of it. Trent Reznor once lived here.

After the walking tour, we headed to the above ground cemetery to explore the mausoleums. Despite occupying only a single city block, this necropolis houses the remains of tens of thousands of city residents extending back hundreds of years. Bodies are interred above ground inside the stone monuments where the warm and humid air allows bacteria to dissolve even the bones. After a time, the remains are swept into a pit under the tomb and another is laid to rest above. Wandering among the stone memorials is a surreal experience. Some are crumbling and covered with moss, while others look as if they were very recently carved. Wandering lanes and byways criss-cross between them creating a maze of passages and plazas. It truly is a miniature city of the dead.

On our way to find lunch, we stopped off at a photographic gallery that caught our eye. It featured large black and white images of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Catrina. Yachts sitting in the middle of debris strewn streets, toppled tombs, and people seeking refuge on rooftops spoke to a city devastated by nature. Yet here we were, with hardly a trace remaining of the devastation so far as our un-informed eyes could see. I was moved by the resiliency and industry of Americans in the face of great challenge and the ability of the city to preserve its character no matter what comes.

Spooky and cute! This was one of my favorite tombs thanks to someone’s inspired offering.

Time to eat

Going to New Orleans without partaking of its cuisine would be a sin I could not abide. We hit up a local spot recommended by one of the tour guides. Unfortunately, we failed to get a recommendation on what to order. I went for the shrimp and artichoke pasta while Trail ordered chicken parmesan. While both were decent, neither was outstanding. On the other hand, the bean soup that Trail had ordered as an appetizer was the best of its kind I’d ever had. Judging by our neighbor’s orders, we should have gone for po’boy sandwiches and soup, the sandwiches looked awesome! Lesson learned, always ask what to order if you get a restaurant recommendation or spend some time eyeballing what comes out of the kitchen.

But we were not done yet. While we were in the French Quarter we’d drooled a bit over the beignets being served at one of the cafes. The lines were around the block so we resolved to come back later. Now was the time. We caught the last tour bus of the day back to the french quarter, completing our loop of the entire route. By the time we arrived the crowds had thinned and there was no wait at the cafe. We each ordered a plate of beignets drenched in powdered sugar along with a nice hot chocolate to dip them in. The food and the setting were a perfect pairing.

But we were not quite done with New Orleans. A little daylight remained so we made our way to the riverside to stroll in the park and watch the sun set over the Mississippi river. We found a lovely park along the river, perfect for the evening stroll. We watched paddle boats and container ships navigate the river as we walked hand in hand. Nearing a docked riverboat we heard the sounds of a live band playing 1920’s period jazz. Apparently, they were having a themed costume ball and we found ourselves wishing we could jump aboard. We contended ourselves with a dance on the docks and the thought of “next time.” As the sun dipped below the horizon and the city readied itself for the revels of the night, we made our way back to our chariot and bid the big easy adieu.

The Mississippi at dusk. You can see the more modern aspects of the city.

Trail (Anne) poses with a street named after her name saint.

A city of the dead.

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Cartersville KOA: Cartersville Georgia

Cartersville was our first stopover coming into Georgia. It tended towards being unremarkable as KOAs go, but the price is decent enough to recommend it.

We Paid: $35 per night for 2 nights
Discounts Used: KOA Membership
Address (GPS Link): 800 Cassville-White Road NW  Cartersville, GA 30121
Website: koa.com/campgrounds/cartersville
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Pool, Playground, Shuffleboard, Basketball, Dog Run, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Clean
  • Large Sites

Worst Features

  • Hilarious bathroom decor

I forgot to take pictures at this park. Be glad because those restrooms are not meant for the eyes of mankind.

Cartersville is an RV park that checks off all the basics you want from a park without standing out as being exceptional or poor. Everything about our parking spot was satisfactory. The lots are gravel, level, and reasonably sized. The hook ups all worked just fine. They have both free Cable and Wireless internet, which is a very nice change from Florida where they tend to charge extra for both. 

The most remarkable think about Cartersville KOA are the bathrooms. They are amply sized for the park and feature fairly new fixtures. The shower and toilet stalls are on the small side, but manageable. But the decor… oh my lord the decor. Someone decided to paint them in the KOA colors which means screaming yellow walls with fire engine red trim. It is both garish and ugly. Topping things off they painted all the stalls black with popcorn texturing. It’s like if Ronald McDonald ran a fly by night dance club. None of that really matters for this review, but it is far and away the most memorable aspect of this park. I suspect it is where sinful interior designers are sent for eternal torment.

The rest of the park is fine. It is located in the Georgia forests which are plush and lovely. There are quite a few trees in the park proper and there are some large laws for play or taking the dogs for a walk. Considering the price, which is good for a KOA, I’d give this park a mild recommendation as a decent but unremarkable place to camp.

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Twin Oaks RV Park: Elko, Georgia

Twin Oaks RV Park is a genuine bargain, especially if you happen to be a Passport America member. For just $20 a night, we loved this charming and whimsical park.


We Paid: $20 per night for 2 nights
Discounts Used: Passport America
Address (GPS Link): 305 GA Highway 26 East Elko, Georgia 31025 
Website: twinoaksrvpark.com
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Rec Room, Pool, Jacuzzi, Playground, Field Games, Dog Run, Free Wireless, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Whimsical decorations
  • Price

Worst Features

  • None

The Details

Twin Oaks RV Park is the sort of place where I can tell the owners and operators care about the park. The facilities are well maintained and the park is loaded with whimsical, handmade decorations. The more you walk around and keep your eyes open, the more little decorations you will discover hiding in the trees. The club house is cozy and comfy and well supplied with games and books. It isn’t fancy, but it is earnest and very pleasant. It should come as no surprise that the staff is also very friendly and accommodating. We felt right at home for our short stay.

It is a small park but it has a pretty full selection of amenities including a decent pool and covered hot tub. Someone took the time to make a number of curious field games you can play, many of which I’ve never seen before. Exactly what you are supposed to do with them is not always clear, but experimenting is part of the fun.

While we were at the park, one of the bathrooms was being renovated, but the remaining restrooms were sufficiently large to accommodate a park of this size. The showers were much larger than what you find in most parks. While the facilities were on the older side, they seemed fairly well cared for and I suspect the remodeled versions will be much improved in appearance. The pads are gravel, with concrete patios and ours was nice and level.

The regular price of $40 a night is not the best, but Twin Oaks accepts a number of discount clubs including the ever awesome Passport America. After our discount, our stay was only $20 a night, and at that price, I’d say it’s a great bargain.

Chandlers in the trees? Why not. There were all kinds of crazy folk art pieces scattered around the park.

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The Best Sink Strainer for your Airstream (or any other kitchen)

Sometimes you start using a product and think, “Why the heck don’t they all work like this?” For those of you who have not had that experience with a sink strainer, I present to you The OXO Good Grips Silicone Sink Strainer. Or as I think it should be called: The Sink Dominator Nine Thousand, SD9K for short.

RV plumbing is such that the less solid material that goes down the sink drain the better. Thus, having a good sink strainer is important. The one that comes with the airstream is pretty much your typical sink strainer and stopper. It has a serious flaw in its design. It sits down inside the drain with its exterior walls almost touching the drain walls. While most of the food that goes down the drain catches in its metal basket, a fair bit of it sticks into the cracks between the strainer and the drain wall. When you try to pull it out to clean it, that food falls into the drain, even if you are trying to be very careful.

The SD9K, on the other hand, sits on top of the drain, completely covering it. Water flows over the lip of the strainer and then through its basket. There is no way for the food to get under or around the strainer with this design. When you lift it up to empty it, all the food stays in the silicone basket. The fact it is silicone is the other big win. The metal strainer likes to hold on to the food that gets in there. You have to give it some good tapping in the garbage to try and get it out, often causing some of the food to fly about and often without complete success. The silicone basket of the SD9K can be easily inverted over the garbage and all the food falls out very nicely with minimal shaking or tapping.

To top it all off, it just looks nicer in the sink. It’s also less likely to scratch the sink, weighs less, is easier to clean, and makes less of a racket if you drop it in the sink. It only has one weakness, it is not a stopper. If you need to fill the sink, it won’t do you much good and you will have to use the old, and now much-hated old one. OXO makes a silicon strainer with a stopper feature, but the reviews cast doubt on its reliability as a stopper. 

On the left is the traditional and on the right the SD9K. The outer ring on the left is the sink, the outer ring on the right is part of the strainer.

For around $8 I think it’s a great deal, and well worth the expense. Every time I empty it out I remark at how much easier it is to work with and how much better it works. You can order one or more up on Amazon or hit up wherever you shop for kitchen gear. 

 

 

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