Friday, March 27, 2009
We went to parties, parades and more parades. Paul and Shannon live right on Napolean Avenue, one of the major parade routes, which has a fifty-foot wide grass-covered neutral ground (median) where everyone sets up tables of food, chairs, ladders and blankets to watch the floats and marching bands and yell for beads. There are other 'throws' from the floats such as stuffed animals, metal and wooden doubloons, etc. but for a lot of people its all about the beads. Some of the beads are good quality bling with great colors. I'm embarrassed to admit that my initial nonchalance quickly degenerated into jumping and yelling with outstretched hands, which over five days resulted in eighty pounds of beads that I dragged back to Santa Cruz for god knows what. No kidding, let me know if you want some!
The highlight of Mardi Gras for both Gail and I was donning our homemade costumes and marching with hundreds of people in the Saint Anne's Parade from the R Bar (for Royal Street) through the French Quarter. The mood was definitely high spirited and friendly as people in costume gathered in the street in front of the bar, laughing, drinking. and taking pictures of each other. The costumes were nearly all handmade, original and for the most part quite well done, some very elaborate and of award-winning caliber. After about two hours a critical mass was achieved and we set off down the street behind the band, which was surprisingly good and blasting away ferociously. Gail and I moved up in front of the band and danced, leading the parade for several blocks down Royal Street with scads of people on the sidewalks and second-story balconies shouting, throwing beads and having more fun than is generally allowed. It was a total gas!
We saw plenty of outrageous outfits, but virtually none of the outrageous behavior we'd heard about. Reportedly that's more of a tourist thing and we were mostly hanging out with locals and major celebrants. But they don't call it Fat Tuesday for nothing - though we weren't drinking ourselves, we felt amply debauched after five days of non-stop Mardi Gras activity, for as the saying goes, "You don't go to Mardi Gras, it comes to you!" Meaning, if you're anywhere nearby, it's sound, energy and vibration are inescapably intermixed with your very own molecules. We recommend it, as an easy lesson in surrender to a higher good!
Thursday, March 26, 2009
We drove considerably past dark, reaching the tiny town of Balmorhea Springs,
Texas in the pitch of night, having turned off too soon onto the far end of a loop road, piloting only with headlights and starlight. The only motel in town was still open as was the only restaurant, the Oso Flojo, recommended by our Santa Cruz friends Susie and Stan, who are transmogrified Texans. We checked in to the motel and walked right over to the Oso Flojo for our first Texas meal. I'm a chili relleno afficionado, and thought theirs were darn good, though they were deliciously eclipsed by the dish I was served the very next night in Austin! Upon our return to Santa Cruz, Stan was horrified that we hadn't actually swam in the 72 to 76 degree constant temperature natural spring waters. On reflection, so were we. Instead however, we threw ourselves headlong across the Texas flatland, scrambling to make the hill country of Austin and a great downtown hotel room just before dark. We had two more days before the start of Mardi Gras, and needed to put a couple of 500-plus mile days together back to back.
That night in Austin, I had the best chili rellenos ever at the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill. The poblano chilies tasted like they were mesquite singed, then delicately fried (there's about a 20 second window between perfection and overdone) and served immediately. The almost crispy chilies held their own against a cornmeal batter and a great mix of italian and mexican cheeses. I began conjuring up ways to justify further research. After dinner we were too pooped to go on the River Walk, and settled for a view of it from our 16th story picture window. We really liked Austin - just scratching the surface it reminded us of Santa Cruz (with a grown-up downtown). We deadheaded east in the morning, connecting up with I-10 west of Houston and made some serious time through East Texas into Louisiana. You could feel the gain in humidity on your skin as we passed the first bayou just before Lake Charles. Here the highway floats on pylons high above endless ranks of barren cypress trees that jut up out of the black water like regiments of stick soldiers caught in a flood.
From Baton Rouge on into New Orleans we cruised in rush hour traffic that somehow kept moving until it spit us out onto crowded streets a half mile north of the French Quarter right in the middle of our first Mardi Gras float parade. Traffic here was totally stalled out, so we called Paul who jumped in his car and came over to run interference. As a longtime New Orleanian, Paul not only knew the back streets, but had the saavy to work the cops who were everywhere flashing their red and blue roof racks. We whipped in behind him and hung on hard as he jammed along, every so often hopping out of his car in the middle of the street and shouting something to the cops who backed up to let us through. It was amazing to wend our way over to their neighborhood through this utter pandemonium. Throughout the five days of Mardi Gras, we were continually struck by the good-naturedness of everyone, whether cops, marchers, throngs of onlookers. We thought the whole event was a full embodiment of joyful community-wide celebration.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
(Because we didn't get the camera out again until New Orleans, the Mardi Gras pictures start here...)
We arrived in my former hometown of Tucson for a glorious sunset and a fabulous broiled salmon, at the adobe home of my college roommate Bob and his wife Marilyn. I was six when my family moved to Tucson in 1951, a quiet desert college town of 45,000 - now sprawling out to encompass more than a million people. Bob and I were fraternity brothers at the U. of A. and also hadn't connected for nearly 40 years when he tracked me down last year and we all spent a night on the town in San Francisco. This time we laughed a lot again and had a great visit, sleeping the night in their guest house.
I spent some time commiserating with Bob, who is also a builder, about the flat-line health of our careers. I had known Bob from our college years as, along with always being the smoothest dancer on the floor, the guy who could do anything with a ball. Pool shark and crack billiard player, scratch golfer, and fastest pitcher on the fast-pitch softball team, Bob had become a golf pro before turning to real estate and development. The next morning Marilyn departed early and we left Bob smiling at the old Mexican gate of his hacienda, feeling much richer for having spent even a short time with our friends. As we took off east on I-10, leaving the last of our planned stops, we were willing to take pot luck for the rest of the trip.
We drove past the Dragoon Mountains' stronghold of Cochise and passed from the Arizona-Sonora Desert into the basin and range country of southern New Mexico and on into the Great Texas Plain. Here Interstate 10 runs southeast from the recently notorious twin border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, just a quick sprint from the shanties of Mexico and on for seventy miles before turning east again. This stretch of highway closely parallels the border and is a major crossing area for cartel traffickers, running drugs to the north and guns to the south. The area is heavily patrolled by state and federal law enforcement which conducts surprise roadblocks and checkpoints staffed with drug-sniffing dogs. Twice we had to inch along through a cordon of uniforms and dogs which had their noses plastered to the side of our truck. If you happen to be traveling with medical marijuana on board, which is not recognized as such by the State of Texas, it might be advisable to chuck it before reaching this area, as any explanations you may have are likely to be made from behind bars.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
We left early the first day, having mostly packed up the night before, escaping south from the 8th straight day of rain in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We've gotten up to 80 inches of rain between November and March, so it's a great time to be heading out of town. For example, I've occasionally had to completely build two-story home additions under massive tents during the wet winter months here. Our first stop was eight hours south in San Diego, and the tips I got from online travel forums had us veering east through Bakersfield to 395 and I-15 South, completely bypassing Los Angeles, with nary a single traffic jam. In fact the only traffic jams I hit on the whole trip were near the Mardi Gras parade routes in New Orleans, and coming back into Santa Cruz on Highway 1 North in the last 15 of 5000 miles!
Gail and I stayed the night in San Diego with a favorite aunt and cousin, Naomi and Karen, who fixed us a wonderful meal that was two days in the making. Naomi has a photographic memory for long ago events and told us stories late into the night. I was estranged from Naomi and Karen for the better part of 50 years due to dysfunctional family dynamics and a cover-up in which my parents invented new identities for themselves, but that's another story! I started connecting with them again five years ago and this visit was too short but a pure joy.
The next morning we started east on I-10 for Tucson, in seventy miles passing Buckman Springs Road, the hilly, boulder-strewn turn off that corkscrews down to Campo on the Mexican border, where I spent boyhood summer vacations for several years. This was where my great grandfather, Rufus Jesse Clark, who graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1888 and became one of the first circuit-riding preachers in southern California, homesteaded 160 acres and raised 10 children. As a boy I used to read to him as he rocked on the front porch, blind for his last years, passing at the age of 93 after translating the Bible into a phonetic language so it could be read by people who were illiterate, a common fact of life for many in those days.
We really wanted to participate in the Mardi Gras festivities as fully as possible, so we first put together some costumes, then packed my pickup truck with food and supplies, and took off on February 15, 2009. Pickup truck?...I was thinking I could scout along the way and maybe bring back old iron and wood salvage pieces to make into furniture and sell. We also planned to minimize travel expenses by bringing our own breakfast and lunch stuff, and taking advantage of relatively low gas prices (round trip gas cost was roughly half the price for us both to fly.)
We'd been to New Orleans several times to visit my daughter Shannon, her husband Paul, and our granddaughter Scarlett, now two and a half. But we'd always flown and never timed a trip with Mardi Gras so we were both still 'carnival virgins' according to the locals. We like road trips and saw this as an adventure, a possible business opportunity, an overdue family visit, and a rare chance to visit friends and relatives. I had no time pressure to return, but Gail's massage practice was (and still is) doing well, and she'd have to fly home after Mardi Gras, leaving me to solo the return trip.
I'd be heading back from New Orleans to the north and them west to connect up with I-40. I'm a longtime fan of desert roads and old Route 66 in particular, having hitched it twice back in the 70's, and driven the western part a few times. I couldn't wait to break out the Eagles and cruise the backroad hardtop. Route 66 has morphed over the years and been largely replaced by Interstate 40 west of Oklahoma City out to Barstow, but some old portions off the interstate are still accessible.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Last November when I realized my homebuilding business was headed south along with the economy, one of the first things I did was make plans for a different kind of 'heading south' - a three-week road trip to Mardi Gras with my partner Gail.
I had mixed feelings about the timing of taking a trip just as my income was beginning to spiral down. On one hand I felt like putting the brakes on any extra spending, but I also felt like I wanted to make an act of faith, to somehow affirm that better days were ahead. I didn't want to be ruled by my fear and have it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I admit I also just wanted to have some fun, especially after having the financial wind knocked from my sails, and feeling the beginnings of a latent despair. I wanted the kind of attitude adjustment I always get from going dancing. Gail and I are dancers, and any Friday night we've felt the magic of music and what it can do for a funky week.
Gail suggested we also take advantage of being away for a while to have the bare sheet rock in our house painted while we were gone. Something about maybe nine years was long enough to wait for paint (the cobbler's own shoes full of holes?), and if we ended up not working but hanging out at home a lot, at least we'd enjoy it more. So, with a destination in mind, and an agenda of sorts, we set about to make it happen. Somehow the decision to go left me feeling more focused, and also more open to change, maybe even a reinvention of my situation. In short, it felt like we'd made the right choice.