Sunday, March 9, 2014

Texas, LA and Home

25 February, San Antonio, TX.
A couple of long days ‘in the saddle’ as we near the end of our trip. We stopped off in Houston, specifically to visit the city’s art gallery. We were stung a fairly substantial entry fee ($28) but it included a special Impressionist Exhibition, so we were not too upset. As readers would realise by now, we do enjoy a good art gallery and particularly one with a good Impressionist collection. The Gallery also had, as a bonus, its own large collection of Impressionist pieces.

Houston has about 2.5 million people and most of them seem to own at least two cars and a semi! The freeway system is amazing with flyovers atop flyovers and junctions that set the head spinning as drivers jockey for lanes. We are getting quite proficient at mastering complex Interstate systems. The GPS helps of course, but it does take a fairly high degree of concentration on the signage as well. Everything happens across up to eight lanes at somewhere near 70 miles/hr, that’s about 117 kms per hour, so we have to be on our toes. There are moments of terror, mainly caused by other drivers, but, all in all, it is good fun.

We had done the Gulf Coast of Texas on a previous trip, so we decided to head west to Laredo. With images of a dusty Western town with a strong Mexican influence in mind, we headed off for a good hard day’s travel. By chance, along the way we stopped off in the small town of Goliad. We had never heard of it. What a find! The area was first settled by the Spanish in 1722. In those times missionaries worked hand in hand with soldiers in establishing a fort or Presidio, with a Mission included within the walls. On the outskirts of Goliad is the Presidio La Bahia, which played an important part in the struggle for Texan independence. Many more Texan Rebels died in the battle for La Bahia than at the better known Alamo and San Jacinto battles. A little closer to town, the beautifully restored Mission Espiritu Santo also traces its history back to the early 18th century.

In the more modern town of Goliad, built in the late 19th century, a grand court house presides over a classic town square with many intact original buildings - an increasingly difficult thing to find in modern America as the suburban shopping malls suck the life out of old city centres.
Lucky we found Goliad, or our very long drive would have been totally wasted. Laredo was a major disappointment! No dusty cow-town, just the usual chain motels, fast food outlets and gas stations. The old town square was a hangout for groups of flighty, shifty-looking Mexican men who looked balefully at us as though we were about to arrest them and frog-march them back over the border, just across the Rio Grande.

A few kilometres out of town, we came face to face with the Homeland Security’s attempts to restrict illegal immigration from Mexico. We, along with all other traffic on the Interstate, were put through a check, much the same as one would face at an international border. As non-citizens, we had to produce passports. Others had to produce ID. Cars and trucks were searched. We were lucky to score a nice chatty young officer who was more interested in our travels than searching our car.

26 February, Austin, TX.
On previous trips to the US we have had consistently great weather. Our luck just couldn’t hold. Yesterday it was mid 20s C in San Antonio. This morning it was windy and rainy, with the temperature hovering around 0C. Luckily we had been to San Antonio before, so we were not too disappointed at having to do a quick dash through town, past the Alamo and a brisk walk along the fabulous Riverwalk. As a consolation, we took ourselves off to the little town of Lockhart, the BBQ Capital of the World! For $10 a plate, we stuffed ourselves with prime lean brisket, re-fried beans, mash, sausage and coleslaw.

For the last leg of the day we hit the Texas toll road for the run into Austin. Our tolls were pre-paid so we intend to get value for our money while in Texas. The roads are beautifully engineered, with speed limits of 85 mph (132 kph). Sadly, the rain forced us to limit ourselves to 75 mph!

28 February, Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
Today we stood at the window (actually one window along!) from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John Fitzgerald Kennedy and looked down what would have been fairly close to Oswald’s line of sight on that fateful day in 1962. The Texas School Book Depository is a museum today and an audio tour takes visitors through events from Kennedy’s inauguration to the legacy of his Presidency.

Events like Kennedy’s assassination are intrinsic to America’s culture. The spot on Elm Street, near the corner of Houston Street, is a sacred site to Americans and the attention and reverence the crowds demonstrated in the museum and out in Dealey Plaza today is testament to this.
We were in primary school when Kennedy was killed and our memories of the events of that day are still vivid. It is true. You do remember where you were and what you were doing when events of this magnitude occur.

Our morning activities were far less serious. Fort Worth was once a major rail head and cattle sales centre. The old Stockyards and surrounding downtown area have been re-developed as a cowboy complex extraordinaire. While comprehensively catering to the tourist trade, it is good fun and, for anybody interested in Rodeo, it is a must. The big hit for us was the ‘cattle drive’ of Texas Longhorn Steers through the main street.  Yesterday we balanced things a little and visited the Cowgirl’s Hall of Fame.

Can we get a “Yee Ha!”?

7 March, Brisbane.
Amidst the hurly burly of ending a trip, flying home and getting the house in order, completing these blogs sometimes falls between the cracks.

In six weeks behind the wheel in the US we have racked up over 12,000 kms on our little Nissan Versa and, except for a few days of bad weather, we have enjoyed every kilometre, waffle, pancake, plate of grits and biscuit of it. As a result we are now busy shedding the several kilos that are the legacy of such a lifestyle.

We ended our roadie as we started it, back in LA, for a few days with family and the Outlet Malls! As a bonus, we scored the use of a car hired by our niece Grace and her boyfriend Jake. A jet black Dodge Charger is just the thing for cruising the LA freeways.

We normally finish these blogs with a deep and meaningful review of our trip and our views on the country, its culture and our trip highlights. As this is our fifth visit to the US, we have just about said all there is to say, except that we will be back! There is a small clutch of half a dozen states in the north central plains and along the north east coast, plus Hawaii, that we have yet to visit to tick all 50 boxes. This year, however, China, Mongolia and the Trans-Siberian Railway have sent out their siren call. It can be brutal out there, but it just has to be done!


Monday, February 24, 2014

Poverty in the Deep South

21 February, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Our plan for today was a good one. Well, it was until we tried to find a parking spot in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras. We had been given some advice by the good folk at the Louisiana Travel Information Centre just over the border from Mississippi. All went well until we hit town. The streets were jammed. The carparks were full or outrageously priced and the traffic was near gridlock. We drove up and down Decatur Street for a good look about, but the horse and carriage rides and the cyclos became a bit too much for us and it was fairly clear from the numbers of people lining the street, that if we didn't move on we would soon be part of the parade!
Plan B. We had anticipated high prices and no vacancy signs in New Orleans, so we had pre-booked accommodation at Baton Rouge, an hour further west. So we figured on a nice quiet visit to the State Capitol and a stroll around town in downtown Baton Rouge. We had seen the thousands streaming towards New Orleans on the Interstate as we headed off. Were they in for a surprise! The city was already crammed to the gills and it was only early afternoon! Surely there couldn't be a soul left in Baton Rouge. When will we ever learn? There is a never-ending supply of people in the US! Baton Rouge was also having a Mardi Gras parade and it was packed. Well you can't win 'em all!
Over the past couple of days we have travelled in four states, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and now Louisiana. From the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana we crossed rapidly through Alabama and Mississippi. Both states have very short coast lines on the Gulf of Mexico. All four areas are fairly poor by US standards. Most of Florida is rather affluent, but the panhandle is much like Mississippi and Alabama. Mississippi is the poorest US state. The median household income is just below $38,000. In Alabama it is a little higher at $42,000. In comparison, Washington DC is $58,000 and New Jersey is $70,000. The US national median is $53,000. The Australian median income is $65,000. Given these figures, it is easy to see why many inner city areas in the Deep South are extremely run-down.
 While incomes in the South are low, it should be noted that costs of living are often low as well. Food and petrol are cheaper here than in the Northern and Western states. Housing is amazingly cheap, with average house prices in the $75,000 to $100,000 range. A second-hand, relatively new car is around $5000. Nevertheless, many families are obviously struggling.
We were shocked at the state of large areas of New Orleans. Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, whole neighbourhoods are still deserted. Houses are boarded-up. Rubbish blows through the streets and trees and vines are growing through and over houses. At every intersection in these poorer parts of New Orleans, beggars have staked out every corner. We did pass some new housing developments on the outskirts of the city, but for many of the city's residents, living condition are still extremely poor. It is a sobering contrast to the mammoth houses that line almost all of the Florida coast, just a couple of hundred kilometres to the east.
The enormous chasm that exists between the rich and the poor in America is simply a national shame.
23 February, Houston, Texas.
A glum, rainy day did nothing to enhance the miserable areas of Louisiana we drove through today. As much as we can, we drive local highways rather than the Interstates, to get a better feel for the country. Normally we stop at towns along the way and have a wander around the old downtown areas, or do a few laps of the back streets to look at local communities and neighbourhoods. Not today! Even on a good day, this area of central south Louisiana would have depressed us. A grinding poverty prevails throughout the area we crossed from Baton Rouge to the Texas border. Town after town revealed closed-up businesses and shuttered homes and trailers, covered in moss. We took very few photos, not because we felt threatened, but because we just felt we would be intruding and possibly embarrassing people. Again we kept asking ourselves, “How can this be, in the richest country on earth?”
We have travelled extensively in Asia and for a short while in South Africa and Morocco. Frankly, many of Asia’s poor live much more satisfying lives than the poor folk of the South. Their misery is closer to that of the ‘township’ dwellers of South Africa than many would imagine, possibly because, like the blacks of South Africa, the poor of America, black and white, live on the fringes of an affluent society, seeing all that others have, yet condemned to watch from the sidelines while more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of the ‘Haves’.    
Our mood lightened somewhat as we crossed the Texas border. The sun came out and the vigour of the Lone Star State once again reminded us that America is many countries and we had just entered another of them.

Friday, February 21, 2014

More of Fantastic Florida

13 February, Florida City, FL.
Cruised the beaches again yesterday, this time Miami Beach and South Beach. Miami is much like the Gold Coast, but again on an enormous scale. We chanced on the annual Miami Boat Show. We were simply stunned! Millions, no hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of boats sat side by side for 2-3 kms along the narrow canal that separates Miami Beach from the city of Miami. We were dumb-founded when we found out that this was only one of three locations for the show!
South Beach was on the agenda because of its Art Deco buildings, the largest concentration in the world – 1200 or so within a few blocks. Remember ‘The Bird Cage’ with Robin Williams? The beachfront is VERY cool and a very cool place to see and be seen. Restaurants with valet parking line one side of the road and the beach side was just impossible, so we parked some blocks back and walked up to the esplanade. The beach was packed on a day when another major ice storm was hitting neighbouring states of Georgia and Mississippi. The water was positively warm!
Motels around south Florida are extremely expensive. This is their peak season so we had expected our bargain run with motels to come to end. Our response in these circumstances is to go for even lower quality motel than our usual ‘budget’ standard. Accordingly, our last few nights’ motels have been ‘a bit tired’, even by our tolerant standards.

Florida’s Everglades National Park is one of the main reasons we have come this far south. Our images of alligator-infested swamps and moss-decked trees were not too far off the reality. Plenty of alligators, birds and swamp, but just a little more like an open plain rather than a dense forest.
We joined a Ranger-led tour in the park and were a bit stunned when he led the crowd within a few metres of an alligator resting beside the walking path. Nobody else in the group seemed concerned either, but we kept our distance - just in case. We learned later on a boat cruise through the mangroves, that alligators and crocodiles in North America are not man-eaters. Only Australian and Nile crocodiles are large enough and aggressive enough to attack humans. Little wonder so many foreign visitors end up doing the crocodile roll in northern Australia!
14 February, Naples, FL.
Another day with the ‘gators today. We have always wanted to ride an airboat. Today was our chance. A beautiful day again, warm and sunny, so we hit the Safari Airboat rides on Highway 41. It is outside the National Park, which doesn’t allow such tourist ventures, but still in the Everglades. Great fun and critters everywhere. Not surprising when you realise that there are estimated to be 1.2 million alligators in Florida, approximately 1 gator to every 20 people! It is peak season in Florida at the moment so most attractions are crowded and the motels are edging up in price.
All this tourism and farming on the Everglades is at the cost of the environment. Over 100 years ago the whole of the tip of Florida was a massive swamp. Lake Okeechobee, at the centre of southern Florida, then fed water into the whole of south Florida when it overflowed. This water gradually flowed out across the broad plain and seeped down to Florida Bay, supporting a vast and complex environment. Late in the 19th century, canals were dug to drain areas of land for farming. This continued into the 20th century. Eventually, an enormous levee was built around the lake to stop the flow south and drain more land for farming.
As with many of man’s interventions on this scale, the whole thing is now an environmental disaster. The natural flows through the Everglades have been reduced to the point where wildlife is seriously threatened. The aquifer that provides water to the 16 million people who live in southern Florida is becoming increasingly saline as the fresh water flow is restricted.
It is too late to totally reverse these impacts, but some efforts are being made to re-open flows that provide water to the large Everglades National Park.
15 February, Punta Gorda, FL.
President's Day long weekend has pushed motel prices through the roof! Our usual 'budget' motels have moved from $40-$50 to over $100 and to make matters worse, Valentine’s Day fell on the Friday of the long weekend. We spent the morning exploring Naples. It is a very posh city with beautiful houses and gardens manicured to within an inch of their lives. Beautiful, but a little like Noosa on steroids.
Just up the coast is the more working class city of Fort Myers. Quite a contrast. Light industry and a much lower middle class housing standard. Best described as 'gritty' by Florida standards. The city's main attraction is the Edison Ford Estate. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were close friends and in the early 20th century, they owned adjoining holiday homes in Fort Myers.
Today, a great little museum presents the achievements of both men and gives visitors an intimate glimpse into their personal and family lives as well. Edison had an interest in producing rubber at the time he purchased his property here and he planted and cultivated a wide variety of tropical plants that he experimented with. A century on, the mature trees and gardens are magnificent, even in winter.
It is interesting to reflect on the difference between the simple but comfortable houses these two giants of American industry chose to build and the mammoth, almost obscenely ostentatious edifices that the wealthy of today's America have constructed all along the Florida sea front.
 Leaving the beaches for a while, we struck off inland to explore what is known locally as the 90 mile prairies of Florida. Although the reference is somewhat self-deprecating, it is a fair description. Once away from the coast, the landscape changes to plains that are very much like the cattle country further north in places like Wyoming and Montana. The cowboys in this part of the world are known as 'crackers' because of the sound of their whips. In the midst of this miniature prairie is the small town of Arcadia. In its hay day the city boasted an Opera House and extremely ornate Post Office (both still standing) and numerous saloons and other establishments generally associated with the 'Wild West". Apparently Arcadia saw many a gun fight, even as late as the 1910s.
Today antique shops and restaurants occupy most of the old buildings, but to the credit of the locals, the character of the main street has been faithfully maintained. If you ever visit this great little town, don't miss Wheeler’s Cafe. We stopped in for a coffee and to take in some of the local atmosphere and, even though it was after 10:00am and we had already eaten, we were tempted by the breakfast menu. One enormous half inch thick ham steak, eggs and hash browns (Paul) and a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie (half of which was also eaten by Paul) later, we were stuffed. Cost $11.50!
18 February, Brooksville, FL.
For the last couple of days, we have been enjoying the hospitality of 'in-laws' Joe and Mary. The easiest way to explain our stay is simply to say that Joe and Mary are Irish! Late nights, loud voices great food and drink and lots of laughs.
From their beautiful home in Sarasota, once we were fortified with a hearty breakfast, we ventured out to the Ringling Museum. The Ringling Brothers were the proprietors of the 'Greatest Show on Earth’ - the most famous American Circus. The golden age of the circus ended in the 1950s when the cost of mounting such spectacular events and the competition from movies and television eroded the circus share of the entertainment market. The circus was once an enormous enterprise. Fifteen hundred workers travelled with the Ringling Brothers' Circus on special trains that moved them, hundreds of animals and equipment across the country. One of the main attractions of the museum is an enormous scale model of a circus as it would be set up in the 1940s. Built by one man, Howard Tibbals, this has to be one of the largest and most detailed models we have ever seen! As is the norm in America, the presentation was just fantastic.
The circus museum wasn't all this complex offered. John Ringling and his wife Mable were great collectors of art and on his death, John left their remarkable collection to the city of Sarasota. Housed in a Venetian-inspired gallery, amidst beautiful gardens, the gallery and the waterside home that the Ringlings built are an incredible legacy that is clearly enjoyed by the good folk of Sarasota.
St. Petersburg, the Florida one, not the Russian one, is the twin city of Tampa. Now, a not too well known fact is that Tampa, Florida and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, share an almost identical climate. Today, with the mid-winter temperature hovering in the mid-20s C, it is easy to believe. We made the journey out to the peninsula city of St Petersburg, because reputedly the best Salvador Dali gallery is located here. Another good call! The collection was spectacular and the audio guides spot on in assisting us to understand the work of a man who said of himself... "the difference between me and a madman is ... I'm not mad".
19 February, Port St Joe. FL.
Cruised the Florida 'panhandle' and the Gulf Coast today. Vastly different to the affluent beaches of the east and west coast of Florida, many towns away from the coast were almost ghost towns. Closed up businesses, deserted farms and houses were common along the highway. Along the Gulf Coast though, nice beach houses, built on a scale more like those in resort areas at home, were scattered amongst the pines and native palms. The area promotes itself as the Forgotten Coast. Hopefully, it will remain so and avoid some of the intense development that has occurred along both coasts of the Florida peninsula.
Tomorrow we leave Florida and return to Alabama and Mississippi. A different world and almost a different country. In many ways we are looking forward to it. Everything is cheaper, folk are mostly a little friendlier and life moves just a tick more slowly.
20 February, Pensacola, FL.
Didn’t quite make it out of Florida as planned today, due to an unscheduled pontoon boat ride on Dead Lakes near Wewahitchka. We drove into the State Recreation Area for a quick look at the lakes, a spooky morass of Spanish moss-covered Cypress trees that, this time of the year, are just grey sticks. While we wandered about, a young guy who was loading up a boat for a tour of the lakes approached us and asked, that since he had two no-shows, would we like to come along for free. Silly question!
This wasn’t a crowded waterway, like some of the others we had toured in southern Florida. We were the only people on the lake and Matt, the young owner, was a well-informed and extremely friendly guide.  It was only a small group and we had an extremely pleasant hour or so chatting and cruising about with a handful of very nice folk from all over the US.
Lunch in the south can be a bit interesting at times.. this is a ham sandwich?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

South to Florida

6 February, Savannah, GA.
Just love Savannah! This is our third visit. The beautiful squares with their grand old houses are still the same, River St with its bars restaurants and shopping is still trendy and the weather is still great. What made this trip different was staying in the centre of town. It’s always exciting to walk out of your accommodation right into the middle of things.
There are some other travel issues that we need to clarify at this point.
Many people wonder how we are able to spend so much time travelling.
No were aren’t gallivanting millionaires spending up our children’s inheritance. Well maybe the last has some truth to it. The fact is that on most trips, once the initial airfares are covered, we live on what we live on at home, or when in Asia and the USA, much less!
So how is this miracle achieved?
Firstly we have been doing this for a long time, over 3 years ‘on the road’ in various countries including Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia and the USA over a period of nearly 40 years. It has to be said at this point that in more recent times, the most expensive of our travels have been at home in Australia.
Here in the US, the formula is simple; hire a car on a long term contract, anything more than a month brings the price down significantly, get the smallest vehicle that will take you and your luggage, buy gear to allow you to cook your own meals in motels, use motel coupon deals and stay in cheap chain motels and if possible pre-purchase currency when the exchange rates are favourable.
Everybody has different travel styles and preferences. We prefer to travel independently and for long periods of time. What works for us may not work for everybody, but to all those who are sure we have a money tree in the back yard, that’s how it’s done!
Friday 7 February, Jacksonville, Florida.
Took a leisurely cruise through southern Georgia and the very north of Florida today. Live Oak trees draped in Spanish moss met overhead on some of the side roads, giving the whole scene a touch of the southern swamps. The temperature was not as steamy as it should have been to fill out the image, but with vine-covered, deserted houses and the odd wrecked car, all that was missing was the twang of the banjos.
On the Georgia side of the state line there was very little traffic, but once we crossed into Florida things picked up substantially. We usually stop off at the State Welcome Centres when we cross borders to grab a few books of motel coupons to cash in on a few motel bargains. At the Florida centre, the number of old folk, and we mean OLD, was overwhelming! Some of these “gerries” are piloting RVs (motorhomes) the size of coach buses down the Interstate at speeds that would curl your hair! Lord knows how some of them can even climb up into the cabin.
Noticeable among older Americans, even those our age, is the number of people with serious knee and hip problems. In many cases weight has a lot to do with the problem, but we often wonder if many people just have to put up with their ailments because the cost of surgery is beyond their means.
We scored a free night on our motel rewards card tonight so we are tucked into a very nice king suite on the outskirts of Jacksonville. The room would be at least four times the size of most of the Japanese hotel rooms we have frequented.
Just for the trivia buffs: Jacksonville Florida is the largest city by area in the lower 48 states. The largest in the whole USA is..... Anchorage, Alaska.
Sunday, 9 February, Titusville, FL
Mostly miserable and rainy yesterday, so we did what most locals seem to do under such circumstances. We hit the Outlet Mall. Prices of quality clothing in the USA are normally obscenely cheap by Australian standards. Outlet prices are just jaw dropping. So we shed the bad weather blues with a major restock of clothing. We have learnt our lesson and bring an empty bag each when we come to the US.
Bright sunshine greeted us this morning. Our motel choice for the night was a giant hit, a three star winner. Cheap, co-located with an iHop (pancake café) and right beside the St Augustine Outlet Mall. What more could a girl ask for?
We had left Florida off our agenda on previous trips because we imagined it would be too much like home. In some aspects this has proven true so far, but there are enough differences to make the trip a winner.
From Jacksonville south for the 200 odd kilometres we have travelled over the past couple of days, it is very South-East Queensland/Northern NSW like in many ways. Very green, great beaches and that surfside feel generated by holiday condos, surf shops, and people in ultra-casual clothes. What is different from this perspective is the scale! Luxury beach front houses are beyond enormous and there are thousands of them. Areas of beach bungalows still exist and they are much like older areas of the Gold Coast. While the high rise blocks are not as concentrated, nor as high as those on the Gold Coast, they go on and on and on for well more than 100kms in this part of Florida. There is enormous wealth in this part of the country, in sharp contrast to states like Mississippi and Alabama.
The beaches are great, white sand and we guess reasonable surf, although it was a bit choppy today. The atmosphere is very laid back although the average age of the people on the street may have something to do with the pace of life. Florida is of course the US’s retirement mecca.
There are some significant historical and cultural differences that also make Florida interesting. The Spanish first settled here in the 16th Century and Florida was at various times also British and of course American. After centuries of conquest and counter conquest, the matter was finally settled in the same way as the US settled much of its territorial acquisitions - they bought Florida for $5 million from the Spanish in 1821. The connection with the English is also an interesting one. None other than Sir Francis Drake sacked and burned the town of St Augustine, FL. in 1586.
Our visit to Castillo de San Marcos in St Augustine emphasised the long and complex history of Florida. This enormous structure was commenced in 1672, making it one of the oldest structures in North America. Through its 335 year history, the fort was never taken by force. However, in that time it was occupied by the Spanish, the British, the Confederate and Union Armies, and the US Army during the Spanish American War, the First World War and the Second World War.
The town of St Augustine is said to be the oldest town in North America, though we believe we have heard that claim before. The old centre of the town today is a quaint mix of authentic and nouveaux colonial buildings. It all works well. The atmosphere is more than a little touristy, but the feel of the old town can still be felt if one exercises a little imagination.
Even here in the north of Florida, the Spanish influence is felt. Spanish is widely spoken on the street and restaurants and street names reflect the Spanish influence. As we move further south we expect this influence to strengthen due to the large number of Cuban immigrants.
10 February, Melbourne, FL.
No wonder there are so many out of state licence plates in the supermarket car parks here! It was 25C today and tomorrow the minimum will be 18C and the maximum 28C. If we lived in the northern states where the winter maximums are routinely well below zero, we would be down here too!
Since we were kids, space exploration has been a big thing. It seems the current generation takes it all for granted or somehow they have morphed the reality of space travel with the fiction of Star Wars and Star Trek. For us, events like the Sputnik flight in 1956 were in real life. One of us can even remember sitting in the front yard watching for early space flights by both the Russians and the Americans. The moon landing occurred when we were in High School and the first Shuttle flights while we were at university.
Imagine our excitement at seeing where it all happened! Cape Canaveral and the John F Kennedy Space Centre. JFK’s Space Centre puts on a great show! Americans really do this stuff well - heroic space music, spectacular audio visual displays and the real stars of the show, some of the original equipment, like Saturn rockets, Gemini Space Capsules and the main attraction, the Atlantis Space Shuttle. There was a lot of Ra, Ra, America, but in this field, as in many others, they deserve it!
To top off the day we even saw a couple of gators in the drainage ditches. Apparently there are more than 3500 of the critters on the Space Centre property. Not sure if the ones we saw were big ones? Northern Territory crocs would munch them up for a pre-lunch snack!
11 February, Hollywood, FL.
US 41/91, the highway that runs alongside the enormous Lake Okeechobee was shown as a scenic route on our map so, always up for a bit of different scenery, we headed inland for a day away from the never-ending beaches of Eastern Florida. What a disappointment! The lake was edged with a levee bank and so was not visible from the road. The whole area around the lake was far from isolated and definitely not scenic. RV Park after RV Park lined both sides of the road, although in the breaks between parks, a few small farms provided at least some interest.
By lunchtime we had seen enough and headed back to the beaches. Palm Beach was where we hit the coast. Oh my! More multi-million dollar mansions. It is probably a sin in the US to talk about ‘ostentatious wealth,’ but please! How can one family, or even several families need so much space? Apparently Gordon Gekko was right; ‘Greed IS Good’.
Greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale has a real LA feel to it. Crowded freeways, crazy traffic and heavily urbanized. The city is strung out for more than 200 kms along the coast. Drivers here are not as good as in most other US cities, where most are courteous and skilled. Here, many are erratic, aggressive and non-attentive. We have a theory to explain why driving is so bad here when it is generally very good elsewhere. If you can’t figure it out, think about what sorts of stereotypes fit with our description of the drivers!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

On the Civil Rights Trail

2 February, Meridian, MS.
Warm yesterday - we were in T-shirts. Amazing when we look back over the last of few days of freezing icy weather.
Continuing our Civil War theme, we headed to Vicksburg yesterday to tour the National Military Park that commemorates the siege of Vicksburg in 1862. The battlefield today is an enormous National Park with hundreds of monuments to the units and leaders from all the states involved in the battle.
Up early this morning to hit Cracker Barrel Country Kitchen again. Breakfast this time. Grits, gravy, biscuits, hash browns, eggs and bacon. Ten dollars each including bottomless coffee. Love southern food!
Back in Jackson, we hit the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Old State House Museum. We had both completely to ourselves. Not a culture loving Mississippian in sight. Mind you, it is Super Bowl Sunday, so most folk are indoors watching TV in the lead-up to the big game tonight.
Weather wise, we have had it all this week - snow, ice, extreme cold, T-shirt sunny days and today, a savage tropical storm. Who cares? We have beer, peanuts, chocolate covered pretzels and beer to watch the Super Bowl. No idea what is happening in the game, but the advertisements are hilarious.
3 February, Montgomery, AL.
Off the Interstates for most of the day today, we roamed through some very poor parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Driving through towns like Uniontown, AL and the poorer parts of Demopolis and Selma remind us yet again that the USA has a large number of people living way below the poverty line and, in this part of the country, they are predominantly African Americans. Last time we looked at the figures, more than 50 million Americans were surviving on food stamps. The downtown areas of these towns are simply depressing. Deserted buildings, vacant overgrown lots in the centre of town and next to no people about on the streets. On the outskirts of Selma we drove past a large estate of small brick homes. At first we thought the whole area was deserted, broken windows, burnt-out houses and abandoned cars our clues. But no, many of the homes were occupied and children played on the junk-littered streets. The whole scene put us in mind of the townships in South Africa. On the other extreme, some areas are just beautiful, grand southern mansions with huge yards and many smaller, yet obviously affluent homes.
We did make a stop at a real ghost town as well. Old Cahawba. The town, once the state capital, is now just a few ruined buildings and a grave yard. Is this what will become of the centres of some of the smaller towns we have visited?
Selma, Alabama will be familiar to many who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s as the site of many civil rights demonstrations. The African Americans of Selma were particularly active in the movement to gain voting rights. The 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution granted voting rights to black American males in 1868 and 1870. African American women gained the right to vote, along with white women in 1920. That was all well and good, but this is the South and Washington was then and is now a long way from Jackson MS and Selma, AL. The process of voter registration was controlled and administered by the state. In the South, this guaranteed that African Americans would find it virtually impossible to register. Literacy tests, citizenship knowledge tests, physical intimidation and administrative red tape were all applied to exclude African Americans. The Voting Rights Museum that we visited in Selma graphically displayed the struggle. The whole thing had a great impact on us, as we lived through those times, albeit at a great distance.
The battle for civil and voting rights was won of course and in 2008, African Americans no doubt contributed significantly to the election of Barack Obama, the first African American President.
5 February, Savannah, Georgia
On 1 December 1955 an African American woman climbed on a city bus in Montgomery Alabama and changed the course of American history. Her name was Rosa Parks, she was 42 years old and she was weary after a hard day at work as a tailor’s assistant in downtown Montgomery. She refused to give up her seat, in the black section of the bus, to a white person. Half a century later, before a joint sitting of Congress, President Bill Clinton referred to this moment as the turning point in the civil liberties movement in America. Rosa died in 2005.
Yesterday we visited the fantastic Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery and were treated to one of the best historical interpretations we have seen, and we have seen a few.
What Rosa sparked that day was a boycott of buses in Montgomery that eventually ended segregation on public transport in the city and gradually throughout the US.
What followed from these events were decades of struggle for civil rights, particularly in the South. Desegregation of schools, full voting rights and equal employment opportunities for African Americans were all fought for and won, following those events in Montgomery.
Later we visited the Alabama State House. While waiting outside for a school group to enter, we noticed a star embedded in the top stair. It commemorated the fact that Jefferson Davis had stood on this exact spot in 1861 and proclaimed the Confederate States. Inside we stood in the room where the debates surrounding the framing of the Confederate Constitution were held.
Our trip down to Savannah today was a fairly long haul, broken only by a visit to the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins. We hadn’t expected more than a few planes and the usual patriotic fixed displays. Wrong again! B52s, Stealth Bombers, scores of aircraft from the vast American flying arsenal and great fixed displays. We were enthralled (both of us!) for a couple of hours.
Approaching Savannah this afternoon, the sun broke through and the temperature climbed to the low 20Cs. Hopefully, our luck with the weather has changed.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Civil War towns of the Old South

30 January, Oxford. MS.
Our detour into northern Mississippi was initially brought about by the freak snow and ice storm that hit the South a couple of days back. As strange as it may seem, it has been easier to travel north rather than south in the states of Mississippi and Alabama. So here we are in a seldom visited corner of the Old South, not too far south of the Tennessee state line. Just over that border, around Shiloh, the first large scale battle of the Civil War was fought in 1862. Over 100,000 soldiers faced off at Shiloh and after two days, when it was all over, around 25,000 were dead or wounded.
After the battle, what was left of the Confederate army retreated south to Corinth which was situated at the junction of two strategic railway lines. Eventually, after savage house to house fighting, the Union forces occupied the town and Corinth’s moment in the historical limelight was over as the action moved further south towards Vicksburg.
Today little Corinth does a great job of keeping its history alive with a well-equipped Interpretive Centre and a CD-guided drive through the main battle sites and associated places of interest. Perhaps the saddest sight is the War Cemetery on the edge of the town. Five thousand Civil War troops are buried here, along with several thousand veterans of America's many other conflicts. More than three thousand of the Civil War graves are of unknown soldiers.
Our motel for tonight, in Oxford, is just off the 1837 Town Square, a classic piece of Americana -complete with a central Courthouse surrounded by trees and a park. You expect Pollyanna to come dancing out any moment. Our choice of such a central location, rather than our usual 'highway junction specials' is that it is Janita's birthday and we are going to one of the little restaurants on the square. Oxford is a University town, so there is a good chance that the restaurants will stay open past 6:00pm! And, unlike some other counties in Mississippi, Laffette County is not DRY!
After a great dinner in downtown Oxford, we have retired to our motel to enjoy a birthday champagne. Tip. Don’t buy champagne from an old Korean woman in a small town in Mississippi!  Ever seen a screw top champagne bottle?
Live and learn.
31 January, Jackson, MS.
Tick off one more Great American Highway Drive. The Natchez Trace Parkway runs from Nashville, TN, to Natchez, MS, passing through parts of Alabama. The “Trace” comes from the French verb “tracier”, meaning to follow. That is just what the early traders and explorers did, following Indian trails and the paths of the various animals, including buffalo, that migrated through this area. As early as the 1700’s, travellers tramped this path, until, by the early 1800’s it had become a well-defined track meandering the 444 miles from the banks of the Mississippi to Nashville. Throughout the early 19th century, farmers from the Ohio valley floated their livestock and cash crops down the Mississippi River to Natchez or New Orleans, where they sold their goods and their rough wooden floatboats and walked or rode back home along the “Trace”. Over the years, heavy traffic on areas of softer soil created sunken areas that have survived to this day.
The Parkway is a leisurely and scenic way to traverse some parts of Mississippi that are perhaps not the most attractive parts of the country, particularly in winter, when the winter-bare trees leave some of the ugliness of this fairly poor part of the South exposed. Wrecked cars, farm machinery and piles of rubbish around the numerous trailer parks along some roads, we happily trade for the slow pace of the tree-lined Parkway on a sunny, warmer (8C) winter’s day.
We have a bit of a bizarre connection with Jackson Mississippi. One of our favourite country songs, Uneasy Rider, by Charlie Daniels features a bar in Jackson called the Dew Drop Inn. Sadly, all our efforts to find the bar have failed! The gist of the story is that a hippy guy gets a flat outside the bar and has to deal with the ‘red neck’ locals. It’s a hoot! Google or Spotify it.